Spiritual Persons, Gifts, and Churches
George M. Flattery’s commentary offers a clear survey of the relevant interpretive issues and is thus a welcome contribution to Pentecostal literature on Paul’s letter
First Corinthians 12–14 presents the apostle Paul’s most detailed description of and instructions about pneumatikōn, typically translated “spiritual gifts.” The contemporary Pentecostal movement has turned to this passage repeatedly both to defend the use of prophecy, tongues, and interpretation in its worship services against cessationist critics, as well as to order that use in those worship services against charismatic excesses. George M. Flattery’s commentary offers a clear survey of the relevant interpretive issues and is thus a welcome contribution to Pentecostal literature on Paul’s letter.
Three features stood out to me.
First, though Paul mentions Christ’s lordship explicitly only in 1 Corinthians 12:3, 5, Flattery reminds us of the Christ-centeredness of Paul’s practice and theology. “All matters spiritual, for the believing saints, center in Christ,” he writes. He goes on to point out the joint work of the Lord and the Spirit in the life of the believer: “By God’s design, Jesus is central to the story of salvation. Moreover, the presence and work of the Spirit in salvation is essential to our faith. We cannot be saved except by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit lifts up and exalts Jesus as our Savior. The Holy Spirit indwells people who believe in Christ, and they are, in a basic sense, spiritual people.”
For Christians, the spiritual life is the work of the entire Trinity
Pentecostals often refer to themselves as “Spirit-filled Christians,” and we are often caricatured by cessationist critics as being more interested in the Spirit than in Jesus. Flattery’s statements are a useful reminder that to be Spirit-filled is to be Jesus-centered, and to be Jesus-centered is to seek the presence of His Holy Spirit in our lives in ever greater measure. Indeed, for Christians, the spiritual life is the work of the entire Trinity (1 Corinthians 12:4–6).
Second, Flattery repeatedly draws out the logical progression of Paul’s argument over the course of these three chapters. Chapter 13, one of the Bible’s most famous passages, is often read at weddings as guidance for the bride and groom about how they should conduct their marriage—with love. What Paul wrote about love is, of course, universally applicable, but he himself wrote chapter 13 to explain how love supplies the motivation for the expression of the spiritual gifts. The diverse gifts (chapter 12), should be motivated by love (chapter 13), so that they are expressed in an orderly fashion in worship services for the edification of others (chapter 14).
The logic of Paul’s argument is always helpful to remember. We sometimes feel a tension between charisma and order. For many in our society—those described as “spiritual but not religious”—those two things are antithetical. Charisma is individual, organic, and spontaneous. Order is corporate, artificial, and belabored. Following Paul, Flattery reminds us that spirituality is both charismatic and orderly.
Spiritual churches consist of spiritual people who live and act in spiritual ways. Paul is especially concerned about the services in the church. He is concerned about the impact of what happens on the outsiders who visit the church. And, for the sake of the edification of the body, he is concerned that there be an orderly approach. He insists that speech be intelligible. Any utterance in tongues should be interpreted. Paul sees no conflict between order and the powerful presence and work of the Spirit. The Spirit must be allowed to work.
Rather than pitting the individual against body, the gift against the institution, the Spirit against order, Paul brings them together through love.
Third, though Pentecostals are often known as doers rather than thinkers, Flattery reminds us that Pentecostals should be thinkers too. His commentary on 1 Corinthians 12–14 carefully sifts through the various interpretive issues that Paul’s Greek presents readers. Flattery’s treatment of opposing points of view is fair and irenic. He declares on which side of an interpretive dispute he lands, but where possible, he shows how different interpretive options nonetheless arrive at the same destination by alternate routes. His treatment of Paul and Paul’s interpreters is patient, workmanlike and kind. In this sense, Flattery’s personal example is a model for the Pentecostal scholar, pastor and believer.