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The Sunday Sermon – 1 Corinthians 12:28-31


Church Unity & The Ministry

1 Corinthians 12:28-31

Read also Ephesians 4:7-11

And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. 29Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? 30Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret? 31But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

In chapter 12 we have seen that the worship at Corinth was a disgrace.  It was chaos, due to the desire among the Corinthians to outdo each other in the exercise of the gifts and abilities that God had given to them.  Paul’s thesis in this chapter is that the underlying cause is division in the church, where there should be unity, under the headship of Christ.  He sets out to correct this deficiency, by teaching that The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to every Christian!  No one is left out!  We are not all given the same gift, but we are given the gift that God wants us to have, so we can serve the church as God has determined.

Paul also argues that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is also common to every Christian!  It promotes unity in the church, because every believer has experienced it, when they are saved!  At that time they are initiated by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, and made to be completely satisfied, as they are given the Holy Spirit to drink!

So you can see that modern Charismatic belief, and ancient Corinthian beliefs are very similar, in that they are actually the very antithesis of Paul’s teaching in this chapter!  They are the cause of institutional division in the church, rather than the unity that Paul seeks, as charismatic Corinthian Christians become divided over those who have, and those who have not the gifts and baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Now, Paul proposes yet another factor for unity in the church, which again will help to bring order in the church which will in turn be reflected in the church’s worship.  Among the Body of Christ, God has ordained a ministry!

The Decree to Ministry!

And God hath set some in the church.  Paul repeats this teaching in Ephesians. 4:7   But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. In Ephesians. 4:11 he writes, And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.

Martin Lloyd Jones, preaching on Ephesians 4:7[i] makes three points about what the call of God is NOT!

  • The man is not the call!  You can imagine the situation.  A man decides that he is going to be a preacher!  He gets a book of sermons from the bookshop and he selects one, and off he goes looking for preaching engagements!  You can well imagine the results.  I attended a Gospel Mission a few years ago.  One of those who were taking part in this mission was a man who had been very deeply blessed of the Lord in Gospel work.  He had been a great open air worker, and he had been moved of the Lord to organise Gospel Campaigns, and the Lord had blessed his efforts in the Gospel through souls being saved.  After one such campaign, he was brought to various meeting to speak about how he was led into this form of service, and at one such meeting, someone said to him, “Brother, you should be a preacher!”  This thoughtless remark was to be the fellow’s means of embarrassment and shame.  He stood at that mission and he preached a sermon that was quite obviously not his own.  He stumbled across words he evidently didn’t know the meaning of, he used illustrations from magazines he had never read!  As the meeting progressed he became more embarrassed and more incoherent, and the people listening to him became more restless.  He came out of the pulpit that night, vowing that he would never do anything of that nature again.  You see, it is God who calls preachers!  A man does not call himself!
  • The church (alone) is not the call! Churches have resorted to all kinds of methods to attract pastors and workers.  Today, the advertisement pages of Christian magazines and papers contain many advertisements, placed by churches seeking pastors, youth leaders, and so on.  Lloyd Jones reminds of the correct procedure for appointing pastors and workers in the Lord’s church.  He quotes the words of Jesus in Matthew 9:37-38  Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.   Lloyd Jones says,  “We do not thrust forth labourers, He does!  All we do is to pray to Him to send them forth!  In our carnal zeal and enthusiasm we often deem it to be our business to call people to tasks I the church, and we do so in different ways.  We have no right to suggest to another what his function in the church might be, or what he ought to do!”  How many people in the ministry are there just because they have been called by men, and they have never received a call from the Lord!  Perhaps that is why so many missionaries stay for just one term of service and never return after their first furlough, why so many pastors refuse to leave the comfort of their friends and neighbours and want to keep one foot in their old profession.  You see it is not just a church, or a body of men that calls a minister or a missionary, it is the Head of the church, who sets in His church, those whom He has called!
  • The need is not the call!  Lloyd Jones makes clear that if the need for a minister was the call to ministry, then every one of us should be responding to that need, and hence every one of us is called of the Lord, which patently we are not!  He further argues, that we see a need here and a need there and we wonder how we could fill that need.  But the Lord sees beyond that need!  He sees the fuller picture!  The Lord is the only one who, as the Head of His church, can administer the call!

I need to add one more point of my own:-

  • The preparation is not the call!  Just because a man has been through a certain college, or gained theological qualifications, or a university degree, that is not the call of God to ministry!  There is great debate in our denomination at present about the necessary qualifications of ministers.  It is true that ministers MUST be adequately trained!  How else would they be able to cope with the rigorous and onerous duties of the ministry?  How else would they cope with preaching an expository sermon, three times a week?  And that training must continue throughout the life of the minister!  But training and qualifications are not a substitute for the Spiritual Call of the Lord on the life of an individual!  Romans 10:14-15. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?

How many times in the past have churches and missionary societies made the mistake of believing that a certain man was right for a certain post, purely on the basis of his persuasion, or his impeccable qualifications, or because of a pragmatic need arising in the church or organisation itself.  The Lord is the Head of His church, and it is He who ‘sets in the church’ those whom He has called to any given task.

The Degrees of Ministry

first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues  Now this is a very interesting point indeed.  Paul seems here to imply a kind of ranking, in the order of ministries that the Lord has set within the church.  ‘Firstly’ there were apostles, and ‘secondly’ there were prophets etc.  There were, in the early church, ‘degrees’ of ministry!  Again the amplified helps us.  It reads,  “First apostles (special messengers) second prophets, (inspired teachers and expounders) third teachers, then wonder-workers, then those with ability to heal the sick, helpers, administrators, and finally speakers in other tongues.”

Now, some people have argued that this is the very basis of the Episcopal system of church government; in other words, that this ‘ranking’ of offices within the church equates to the hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons.  (The word priest in the NT context never refers to an office in the church!  We are ALL priests!  1 Peter 2:5     Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:9    But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.  I once read a book by an Anglican minister who argued that the word priest is simply a corruption of the word ‘presbyter’ – ‘presb.’  There is absolutely nothing in theology or in church history to substantiate this argument!)  Over a period of time there developed all sorts of other unscriptural offices.  – Archbishops, canons, deans, vicars, rectors etc.

But all of this is based on a much more dangerous doctrine, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession.  This is the view of ministry held by the Church of Rome.  Rome believes that her ministry devolves directly from the apostles.  That Peter had a certain authority as an apostle, and that authority was automatically passed down from Peter to each of the popes of Rome in an unbroken succession to this very day.  This alleged unbroken succession is the very basis of the doctrine of papal infallibility.  But it is nowhere taught in Scripture!  The pope cannot be the head of the church, nor can an Anglican archbishop, for only Christ is the head of His church!  Col. 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.   And this whole passage is, as we have seen, placed within the parenthesis of the Headship of Christ over His Church.

So what is Paul speaking about when he talks about ‘degrees of ministry, and why do we not believe in ‘holy orders’ in Reformed Churches today?’

Paul here is referring to AUTHORITY and unity!  Paul speaks thus also in Ephesians. 4:11-12 The purpose of the ministry at Corinth, and indeed at Ephesus, was to bring the saints to Christian maturity, and to edify the boy, and to thus unite the church, the body of Christ, as one body!  Paul was arguing that to accomplish that purpose there was a divine difference in the function and authority of various ministries within the church!

  1. a.      The apostle.   Under Christ, next comes the apostle.  A man who had met the risen Lord, who were immediate messengers of Christ, and who spoke and ruled in the church by plenary inspiration.  Obviously, these apostles carried great authority in the church, but they are no more!  There are no more apostles today, for these (and the prophets) were ‘foundational’ offices in the church, as we have already seen in an earlier study.  Ephesians. 2:20 
  2. The prophet.  They ranked second in authority, under Christ.  These were men who spoke for God as ‘occasional organs of the spirit,’ to quote Charles Hodge.[ii]  But we do not have prophets in the church today, (nor apostles) because the inspired Word of God is now complete!
  3. The teacher.  This man was not inspired, as were the apostles and prophets, but who had been given the gift of teaching.
  4. Miracles, healing.  We dealt with this in an earlier study.
  5. Helpers in the church, administrators, (governors) Perhaps here we see the elders and the deacons in the church, people who have the ministry of helping others spiritually and the practical administration of the church.
  6. Tongues.  The very least of all these gifts, is the gift of diversities of languages.

Now, you can see that in that early church setting, there were a number of offices, with corresponding gifts, which were ranked in the order of the importance of the gifts that were being exercised.  It was important, for order in worship, and for unity in the Corinthian church, that these gifts were accorded the importance that they deserved.  The man who was the linguist in the church, should not exercise his gift ahead of an apostle!  So this is not a hierarchy, or an episcopacy, it is simply a recognition that some giftings are more important to the edifying of the body than others.  Today, when there are no apostles or prophets, exercising a multi-church regional ministry in the Lord’s church, for the reasons we have already seen, the authority they once wielded is no more!  There are no more archbishops, or cardinals or popes allowed in Christ’s church, for the apostolic ministry became redundant with the completion of Scripture.

The Diversity of Ministry

Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?  The obvious answer to Paul’s question is NO!  All are not apostles, prophets etc!  So why be envious of another, and why be discontented with the gift God has given to you, and why be proud and arrogant about the gift God has given?  God gives these gifts as He chooses, in accordance with His Sovereignty.  All are necessary, and each of us depends upon the other!  But we are to covet the best gifts!

The Desire of Ministry

But covet earnestly the best gifts.  The Corinthians sought the gifts that were the most attractive.  They sought the gifts that would bring them the most praise that would raise their own profile in the church, would make them be seen by other men.  But Paul says that we are not to covet those gifts, but rather those that are the most useful to the church!  1 Cor. 14:1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.   Seek the better gifts!  And THE BEST GIFT OF ALL IS LOVE!

[i]               Lloyd Jones, D.M.               Christian Unity                                                     Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1980 Pg 171

[ii]               Hodge, Charles,                    1st Corinthians, Geneva Commentary,             Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1959 Pg 247

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