Thursday, February 6, 2014

Essay 4—Men and Women in Worship—(4) The Way of Love

Outline: 024-E4.4-The Way of Love
Passage: 1 Corinthians 12:31-14:1a
Discussion Audio (1h29m)

It’s not “love vs. gifts” but “love and gifts”

In many ways this section is what Paul has been leading up to in this letter. Although chapter 13 is frequently read as a standalone passage, and the overall rhetoric of the letter doesn’t seem to require it, examination of its details show that Paul tailored the topic and language to specifically direct attention to the problems in the Corinthian church. Gordon Fee writes,

Unfortunately, however, the love affair with this love chapter has also allowed it to be read regularly apart from its context, which does not make it less true but causes one to miss too much. Even worse is that reading of it in context which sees it as set over against "spiritual gifts." Paul would wince.[1]

One way in which this chapter has been misread (in conjunction with misreading chapter 12 on spiritual gifts, particularly 12:28 as a hierarchy of gifts) is that chapter 13 is describing something (i.e., love) better than spiritual gifts. This reading pits love against the spiritual gifts. It devalues spiritual gifts as something that is nice to have but really not necessary, because love is the most important thing for a Christian to pursue and have.

This is a terrible misreading and misinterpretation. Fee writes,

Thus it is not "love versus gifts" that Paul has in mind, but "love as the only context for gifts"; for without the former, the latter have no usefulness at all—but then neither does much of anything else in the Christian life…[2]

Love is not an idea for Paul, not even a "motivating factor" for behavior.  It is behavior. To love is to act; anything short of action is not love at all. Second, love is not set over against the gifts, precisely because it belongs in a different category altogether. For Paul it is not "gifts to be sure, but better yet love"; rather, love is the way in which the gifts are to function. To desire earnestly expressions of the Spirit that will build up the community is how love acts in this context.[3]

As I was preparing for the discussion on this passage, what really resonated were two sentences I read from Fee (above): “Love is not an idea for Paul, not even a ‘motivating factor’ for behavior.  It is behavior.” So often I’ve heard and have been taught that “Christian action must be motivated by love” or something similar to that. What I read from Fee turned this understanding upside down. For a Christian, “I do this because I love you” is a non-starter. It’s not a valid reason. Love simply acts. It doesn’t ponder motivations. If a Christian has to motivate herself or himself “because of love” then it isn’t love. This idea is genuinely convicting and something that is difficult, not only to live out, but even to accept.

There are many interesting things in this passage in regards to language, imagery, and historical-cultural context that the outline lists in more detail.

The main point Paul is attempting to make is that, for the Christian, there are permanent things and there are temporary things. Love belongs to the former and spiritual gifts belong to the latter. Love will continue throughout eternity whereas spiritual gifts will cease once God is revealed in his fullness at the completion of the Eschaton. What this implies is the purpose of spiritual gifts.

The Corinthian Christians seemed to think that manifestations of spiritual gifts were an end to themselves. They were the sign – in particular, manifestation of tongues – of having achieved spiritual maturity (completeness, perfection). Paul turns around their thinking: the presence of spiritual gifts is a sign that completeness has not yet arrived. Their very purpose is to reveal a partial picture of God in order to build up the church, for the common good of the community. In their pursuit of spiritual gifts, they had forgotten love and the church had become divided.

The solution to their problems (and ours): love. Not love as reciprocating goodness or positive feelings toward another, but love as actively participating in doing what it takes (which sometimes means refraining from taking hurtful actions that human nature might desire toward others) to seek the common good, to build up the church community. Spiritual gifts are valuable and necessary, but they are merely part of the “toolset” to be used in exercising love.

One must not mistake this emphasis with a devaluation of the gifts themselves. The fact is that we are still in the present; and therefore in chap. 14 Paul will go on not only to correct an imbalance with regard to the gifts, but to urge their proper use. Pursue love (14:1), he says, because that alone is forever (13:8, 13); but that also means that in the present you should eagerly desire manifestations of the Spirit that build up the community (14:1–5).[4]

[1] New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, “3. The More Excellent Way (13:1-13)”

[2] NICNT, 1 Cor. 12:31

[3] NICNT, “3. The More Excellent Way (13:1-13)”

[4] NICNT, “c. The permanence of love (13:8-13)”

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