Uniform 05.10.2015: Unity in Love


1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Our new unit is titled, “One in the Bond of Love.” In perhaps his most widely known piece of writing (which we’ll study on May 31), Paul tells us that love is the strongest bond—greater than faith and hope. He gives us a description of love that seems impossible to attain, though it is definitely something worth striving for. How do human beings, with all our differences and suspicions, truly become one in the bond of love?

Americans live within a system of government that allows disagreement, protests, and doubts. When we view part of our system as unjust, we are free to speak up about it without fear of being jailed or even killed for doing so. At least, that is the kind of freedom set forth in documents like the Constitution. Such freedom is the very nature of a democracy.

And yet anyone who has kept up with the news, and particularly anyone who lives near the Baltimore area right now, recognizes that speaking out comes with consequences. Peaceful protests are one thing; violent activities out of anger are another. One shows strength and may lead to change, while the other shows fear and may lead to more pain.

The death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray is only the most recent in a growing list of the deaths of black men, seemingly at the hands of police. Communities have erupted in both violent and peaceful protests. Are these cases instances of police brutality against African American men? Is each incident independent of the others, or is a pattern emerging? How should police interact with the public, regardless of race? How should communities respond to the deaths of these men? What can be done to change the environments that lead to reckless behavior?

Our lesson text focuses on the gifts of the Spirit. Paul spends several verses talking about our differences. There are various gifts, services, and activities. Some people are good at faith, some at healing, some at speaking, and so on. We are different. Our families are different, our goals are different, our circumstances are different, our skin is different, our struggles are different. We are different.

Our differences have immense power to separate us. They can make us fearful of each other. They can drive us to keep away from those who are not like us. They can lead us to look down on others as if they are less human. They can tear us apart.

But, Paul insists, the same Lord, God, and Spirit is over us all. We each receive the Spirit “for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). Because of this, our differences have another immense power. If we can learn to view each other as one in the bond of love, then our differences can help us come together and take positive action against the world’s injustices. They can help us find strength in another person that we can’t find in ourselves. They can show us the incredible tapestry that God has created. With God’s help, we can unite our different gifts to serve the common good.

I don’t live in or near Baltimore. But I see people who are different from me every single day. In my place on this earth, I have the opportunity to find beauty in the differences and work hard to serve the common good. I can remember that we all have the same Lord, the same God, the same Spirit. And that God is able to unite us, even in our differences.

Source: Bill Chappell, “Freddie Gray’s Death a Homicide…,” the two-way, NPR News, 1 May 2015, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/05/01/403496063/freddie-gray-update-new-speculation-on-his-death-and-peaceful-protests (accessed 1 May 2015).


1. Do you think it is possible for us to talk about these recent cases involving the police and African American men? How can we discuss the issue of race in a constructive way?
2. Do you think race matters to God? If so, how?
3. What are your spiritual gifts? How do you use them in service to God and to other people? How can we use our differences to make the world a better place?
4. What is “the common good”? Do you think everyone can agree on that, or would opinions vary? What might God see as “the common good”?
5. What other issues in our world today are a result of our differences? How can Christians be more united as we seek God’s guidance in times of pain, uncertainty, and unrest?

Reference Shelf

Paul’s introduction of the matter in v. 1 follows a common formula for broaching a new topic: “I do not want you to be ignorant.” What he does not want them to be ignorant of are “spiritual things” (pneumatikøn). The word pneumatikøn could be a masculine substantive adjective (“spiritual person”), but in light of his use of pneumatika in 14:1 (which is clearly neuter), the reference is undoubtedly to “spiritual matters,” not persons. His statement following this introduction continues to puzzle interpreters. Very literally, v. 2 reads, “You know that when Gentiles you were to dumb idols as ever you were led being led away.” The syntax of the statement is confusing. Also unexpected is his implication that the persons to whom he is writing, who are predominately Gentiles, are in some sense no longer such. “When you were Gentiles” implies that they should no longer regard themselves as Gentiles. The opposite of Gentiles would be Jews, or at least Israel. This correlates with Paul’s reference in 10:1 to the Israelites as the “ancestors” of his Gentile readers. It also reinforces their identity as persons who have become a part of the community of God (Israel) and who have become separated from their pagan (Gentile) past.

His description of that past is brief and enigmatic. I interpret the force of his statement to mean, “When you were Gentiles, however it was that you were led to dumb idols, you were being led astray.” It is tempting to see a contrast between his reference to “silent idols” and his discussion of “speaking” in church that follows, but the term “dumb idols” is simply his use of a typical Jewish criticism of idolatry. It is also tempting to find in his reference to their “being led to idols in some way” and to “being led astray” a criticism of those fantastic features of paganism that had intrigued them. The connection of this implied criticism to what follows would conceivably be that they are still being overly influenced by the sensational element in religion. Once they were drawn by the dramatic processions, mysterious rituals, and oracular utterances of pagan cult, and now they are impressed by extraordinary manifestations of divine power in the church. If Paul intended to make that connection, he did so rather vaguely. His point, instead, seems to be that, whatever drew them to idolatry, they were on the wrong track.

Now they are on the right track, but they still have much to learn. So Paul informs them in v. 3 of something that is elementary but also fundamental for their new faith: “No one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is cursed,’ and no one is able to say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ unless [one does so] by the Holy Spirit.” The last part of this statement is clear enough, but the first part is not. How could anyone in the church possibly utter such words? Despite several attempts by scholars to envision a setting in which a Christian might pronounce that Jesus is cursed, the possibility that Paul was referring to such an actual occurrence is extremely remote. If that is what he intended, then we might expect Paul to have attacked the practice forcefully. It is the impossibility of such a thing happening that Paul stresses. The Spirit of God would never lead one to do such a thing, but the Holy Spirit (and only the Holy Spirit) would and does lead persons to confess “Jesus is Lord.” By whatever means the Corinthians may have previously been drawn to idols, it is only by the Holy Spirit’s work that they have entered into the community of faith and confessed the lordship of Jesus.

This Spirit that began their lives as believers works within the church in a variety of ways. There are many different gifts, services, and workings in the church, but the same Spirit of God inspires them all (vv. 4-6). Paul’s emphasis is twofold: (1) There is a diversity of ways the Spirit works, but (2) there is only one and the same Spirit behind the diversity. Each person receives something individually from the Spirit, but the purpose of these individual endowments or abilities is for the common good (v. 7). Paul will reiterate the emphasis on the common good later. Paul next lists, but not exhaustively, some of the different ways the Spirit works. At the top of the list in v. 8, Paul puts “word of wisdom” (logos sophias) and “word of knowledge” (logos gnøseøs). Since Paul is not focused on the possession of wisdom and knowledge but on their communication, we should translate logos in each instance as “speech” rather than “word.” In his opening thanksgiving prayer, Paul noted in 1:5 that “in every way you were enriched in all speech (logos) and all knowledge (gnøsis).” In much of chapters 1–4, Paul contrasted the wisdom of the world with God’s wisdom expressed in the cross of Christ. In 4:10, he sarcastically described the Corinthians as “wise.” At the top of his list, then, Paul places the two very attributes that the Corinthians have indicated they value most highly. The wisdom and knowledge that he lists here, however, are not of the same stripe as what they cherish. They are the wisdom and knowledge given by the Spirit. As he has indicated before, there are legitimate forms of both, but neither is cast in the mold of worldly attainment. As gifts of the Spirit, they do not give one a basis for personal boasting or glorying.


Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009) 357-59.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters (ages 10 and 8), and watching television shows on Netflix. Her goal for 2015 is to tackle the bass clef on the piano.


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