1 Cor. 12:27-31 – The Church Is Not Egalitarian

Translation and Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS 09 Aug 2009


The military has unique ways of looking at people’s problems. Even though the problems may be identical, the way the problem is described is relative, by rank. For instance, if the problem is:

THE COLONEL - Possess a different way of thinking
THE CAPTAIN - Has problems with some concepts
THE SERGEANT - Is a slow learner
THE CORPORAL - Has the I.Q. of a garden slug

THE COLONEL - Has his own way of doing things
THE CAPTAIN - Has initiative
THE SERGEANT - Often follows his own course
THE CORPORAL - Is a discipline problem and never follows orders

THE COLONEL - A slight reprimand may be necessary if this happens again
THE CAPTAIN - Requires disciplinary action
THE SERGEANT - Should be punished
THE CORPORAL - Thrown in a hole and buried alive

                Source (http://miljokes.com/index.php?d=14&m=02&y=08)


People with higher rank can tend to get away with things that those with lower rank can’t get away with. It is not uncommon for people in authority to abuse their authority. Does that mean that all authority should be abolished?


In our culture today, there is a strong current that says, “Question authority”:

·         Don’t let your husband be an authority in your home;

·         don’t give your pastor the benefit of the doubt;

·         trust nothing that your boss says;

·         and never admit that a law enforcement officer is right.

·         You are just as equal as anybody else, so don’t let them bully you!


I)       Equal care does not mean egalitarianism.

A)    In v. 25, the ideal was expressed “that the members might care the same for each other”
Does this mean that everybody should be equal or even be treated equally? No.

1.      We already saw in v.24 that some parts should be given more covering than others.

2.      This means that I had a healthy son and a son with Down’s syndrome, I should be equally concerned for both, but the fact of the matter is, a son with Down’s is going to need more time and resources to raise than a healthy son will.

3.      It works the other way too, I should have equal respect for people and not be a “respecter of persons,” but there are certain extra levels of honor that the Bible teaches us to show toward an older man or toward a political leader.

B)    Egalitarianism is a problem:

1.      There’s a line in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado, “If everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody!”

2.      Can you imagine the chaos in the Army if you were to abolish rank? Suddenly no private would have to obey a command from an officer, and all officers would be on an equal footing no matter how little experience they had. There would be no coordination of effort; everybody would be doing his own thing. I would not want to live next door to Ft. Riley any more!

3.      Egalitarianism in a marriage creates confusion. Who has the final say in a decision? Whoever is loudest and most assertive?

4.      The rationale that since some people abuse their authority, there should be no authority is based on a part-to-whole logical fallacy. Just because some authorities abuse their privilege of rank doesn’t mean that there aren’t good authorities out there as well, who don’t abuse their rank.

5.      As George Orwell so memorably pointed out in his book, Animal Farm, whenever authority is pulled down and the new leaders proclaim that everybody is equal, it seems that those new leaders somehow end up “more equal”. Egalitarianism doesn’t work.

C)    By urging mutual honor and care, God does not abolish rank and order in the church, either.

1.      At the beginning of v.28, we see that “God has appointed” a hierarchy of some sort in the church.

2.      Actually, since this verb “appointed” is in the Greek Middle voice, I think it should be given a more reflexive meaning, so my translation is “set up for Himself”

3.      In other words, rank is not the result of ambitious church leaders grabbing for more power; it is a reality set in place by God Himself! It might be abused by some men, but that doesn’t negate the fact that God ordained this order.

D)    We see the church offices ranked in v.28:

1.      1st apostles,

2.      2nd prophets,

3.      3rd teachers,

4.      4th miracles,

5.      and tying for 5th: gifts of healings, helps, administration, and kinds of tongues

E)     This parallels the list in Eph 4:11-12, which keeps the same order and adds evangelists and pastors between the prophets and teachers and doesn’t mention the gifts beyond the third tier.

F)     This list raises some questions. “What are all these offices?” and “What does it mean that some are ranked above others?”

1.      What are these offices?

(a)    APOSTLE

(i)     From two Greek root words “apo/from” + “stellw/send” so anyone sent away on an errand or commissioned for a task.

(ii)   In Scripture, apostles begin with founders of the church who wrote scripture

·         Jesus (called an “Apostle” in Heb 3:1) because He was commissioned by God to save us.

·         The 12 disciples were called “disciples” in the Gospel accounts up until the point where Jesus gave them their first commission to ministry (Mt. 10, Lk. 6, Mk. 6). After that point they are called “apostles.”

·         In Acts 1, the apostles replaced Judas Iscariot as the 12th apostle. What was the criteria of the person that they were looking for to be included as the 12th Apostle? He had to have accompanied the original 12 “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and came out among us”

·         Paul did not meet that criteria, but in 2 Tim. 1:11 he wrote, “I was appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher.” Paul was personally commissioned by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and he spent the rest of his life preaching the Gospel to Gentiles and getting churches started in Asia Minor and Europe.

(iii) Includes successive generations of pioneering church planters and Bible translators.

·         Barnabus is called an apostle along with Paul in Acts 14:14. He had been sent out by the Holy Spirit and the church in Antioch to start churches with Paul.

·         The wording of (Rom. 16:7) might also indicate that Andronicus and Junias were apostles, since it says they were “famous among the apostles.”

·         In his book The Fulfilling of Scripture, published 8 years after the Westminster Assembly Divine, Samuel Rutherford, died, Robert Fleming quoted Rutherford as calling his contemporary John Welsh “that heavenly prophetical and apostolic man of God.” So there is one founder of Presbyterianism who didn’t believe the apostolic office had ceased.

(b)   In a similar way, the PROPHETS

(i)     Also comes from two Greek root words: “pro/before/forth” + “phainw/show” Thus the basic meaning is to “show forth” the words of God to men.

(ii)   Includes those of the class who wrote scripture (Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah) as well as those who were not entrusted with writing scripture (Silas, Niger, Lucius, Philipp’s 4 daughters - Acts 13:1, 15:32, 21:9)

(iii) Where the Bible is readily available, prophets tend to be, as Calvin put it, gifted at “interpreting” the Bible and “applying” the Bible to people’s lives, rather than coming up with new words from God. (More on this in chapter 14)

(c)    We’ve looked at MIRACLES and gifts of HEALINGS earlier in this chapter. Like Apostleship and Prophecy, I believe that these may have a wider range of use than the impressively-miraculous events, and can include those who pray behind-the-scenes to effect change in this world and those involved in all kinds of healing roles both supernatural and naturally-oriented.


(i)     this is a unique word only found here in the N.T.

(ii)   and is made up of two Greek root words “anti/behind” and “lampsomai/receive” Thus to receive and protect those who are weak and needy.

(iii) Most scholars think this refers to the office of deacon.

(iv) See 3 uses of verbal form in Luke 1:54; Acts 20:35; 1Ti. 6:2


(i)     This is another unique Greek word found nowhere else in the N.T. – Kybernaseis

(ii)   Used to denote a ship’s pilot in other Greek literature.

(iii) Most scholars think this refers to the leadership or ruling office of elder.

(iv) This compartmentalization of administrative church leaders from teachers in the church is one of the reasons why in the Presbyterian church we recognize two types of elders: Teaching Elders (pastor/teachers) and Ruling Elders (which comprise the Session).

(f)    And finally, LINGUISTS who speak and interpret various languages.

(i)     The root of our English word “language” is a Latin word which means “tongue.” “Tongue” and “language” is interchangeable.

(ii)   I believe that this gift also has a range from impressive supernatural displays to the more regular mode of proficiency in foreign languages.

(iii) I would fit Al Wilkinson (the new missionary from Grace Baptist church down the road) into this category because he is moving into a full-time role of programming computer software that helps Wycliffe Bible translators.

(iv) I intend to get further into the issue of tongues in chapter 14, so just be patient.

2.      If we have some idea of the different offices, what does it mean to have them RANKED in numeral order?

(a)    I suggest that this is not a hierarchy of formal authority so much as a gradation of influence on other people based upon the way the different offices work.

(b)   The first few apostles who started the first churches in the First Century stamped their personalities and spiritual DNA on every church in the world that came after them. Their influence has the widest range. Because of their foundational nature, the apostles are first in rank.

(c)    Eph 2:19-20 “So then you are no more strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone”

(d)   So which is it? Are you “fellow-citizens” or just a bunch of inferiors who stand on the shoulders of the apostles and prophets? Both are true. We are fellow-citizens of heaven – all who trust and obey Jesus will be there, but some went first, according to God’s design, and laid the foundations of the church for us.

(e)    To a lesser degree, any church planter today also plays a very influential role in the new churches they start. Both chronologically and in terms of influence, they come first.

(f)    Next in influence comes those prophets and teachers who pastor the church through dealing with sin in people’s lives and building them up with teaching from the Bible. It’s normal for people to appreciate pastors and teachers because of their influence in our lives.

(g)   Thus, according to my understanding of this passage, church planting and Bible teaching form the top ranks in the Biblical order of the church.

(h)   1 Tim 5:17 “elders who teach and rule well” are “worthy of double honor.” The context of I Tim 5 is church finances. It is Biblical to pay salary to those church planters, evangelists, pastors, and elders in local churches, that’s part of the “double honor.”

(i)     Miracles and healings come after teaching because throughout history miracles have only served to confirm the word preached by the apostles and prophets and teachers, never to replace it. But the impressive miracles have a lot of impact, and the behind-the-scenes prayers for God to change people also have a lot of impact. So does the love shown by caring healers whether or not the healing is done supernaturally.

(j)     Helping, Administration, Linguists form the third tier of offices in the church. Often the Helping and Administrative roles are so behind-the-scenes that people don’t notice their importance as much. The roles of Deacon and Ruling Elder are hard-working, non-glamorous roles that require a lot of careful, consistent wisdom. Paul puts linguistics at the bottom of the list, perhaps because the Corinthians were using it to show off, and this gift needed to be downplayed.


II)    Rank does not equal a more meaningful role

A)    Joke about the patient in the mental ward talking to his counselor:
“Good morning, and what is your name?”
“I’m Napoleon Bonaparte!”
“Well, that’s interesting. Who gave you that name?”
“God did.”
The other roommate pipes up at this point and says, “No I did not!”
Trying to be something other than who we were created to be does not help things.

B)    As we’ve already seen in v.28, “God appointed for Himself” the offices in the church. You will not find more meaning and satisfaction in life by seeking what God has not appointed for you.

C)    The grammatical structure of vs. 29-30 make it clear that not everybody has all these gifts.

1.      No one person can possibly fill every office. Just as the church isn’t all chiefs and no Indians, it is also not a single Big Kahuna man over a bunch of minions.

2.      That is why, in our denomination, we separate the leadership of the church into different offices: Deacons, Ruling Elders, Teaching Elders, and Evangelists, rather than having one guy who runs the church.

3.      Another application of this principle is to combat the problem where some offshoots of the church insist that one or another of these gifts is the conclusive proof that you are a Christian. Some say that you don’t have the Holy Spirit if you can’t speak in tongues. That kind of false teaching is negated here, every member of the body of Christ has the Holy Spirit, but “Not all speak in tongues.”


III) How to respect rank

A)    If the decision is not ours but God's,
if we should not envy other's gifts,
and if not everyone gets the same gift,
how can we "desire the greater gifts"? (v. 31a)

B)    Once again, this needs to be broken down into two questions. “What are the greater gifts?” and “How can we desire them?”

1.      What are the “greater gifts?”

(a)    This same command shows up again twice in 14:1 & 39  “Pursue love; yet desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy… 39 Therefore, my brothers, be zealous to prophesy...”

(b)   The word “greater” also shows up in 14:5 in relation to prophecy: “Now I wish you all might speak with tongues, but moreso that you might prophesy: and greater is he who prophecies than he who speaks with tongues, unless he interprets in order that that the church may receive edification.”

(c)    This is a quote from Moses in Num. 11:29 “would that all Jehovah's people were prophets”

(d)   So the context of 1 Cor. indicates that prophesy is one of the greater gifts, because it is speech that edifies the church.

(e)    But the word gifts is plural. What is the other gift? I suggest that it is love.

(i)     14:1 that I just quoted mentioned love right up there with prophecy.

(ii)   The comparative form of “great” has been used to describe prophecy as a “greater” gift, but the suplerlative form of “great” shows up in 13:3 Love is the “greatest!”

(f)    Clark notes that the way 12:31 is worded in Greek, the “way of love” is not technically “more excellent” than the offices (i.e. not a substitute for them) but rather the way in which to exercise them (i.e. the way par excellence). “More excellent” is not a comparative.

2.      How can we “desire” the “greater gifts” of prophecy and love?

(a)    The word translated “desire” is the Greek word zaylou from which we get the word “zealous.”

(b)   I think it would be less confusing to translate this passage in 12:31 as “be zealous for the greater gifts” i.e. “Value [them] highly” (Calvin), “Hold [them] in high esteem” (Beza). This removes the concept of “coveting” what God has not given us.

(c)    We “Promote edification” by having a high appreciation for the gift of prophecy. (Calvin)

C)    What does a high appreciation of the church planting and teaching gifts look like?

1.      When I was in seminary, I had a personal struggle with this issue. Because I had grown up as a pastor’s kid and had attended Christian schools all my life, I had a fair amount of knowledge about the Bible and Christianity when I went to seminary. During my first year, I kept thinking to myself, “Why am I here? I am not learning much new!” My proud heart began to be tempted to despise the great teachers I sat under because they weren’t telling me much that I didn’t already know. As I struggled with this bad attitude, I realized that I was wrong to value my pride and that I needed to value my calling as a teacher and learn from these professors how to teach these things. This transformed my attitude from despising them to truly seeking to learn from them how to become a teacher of the Bible myself. Honoring the calling of a teacher, even though I was not one at the time, helped me to be a better student.

2.      Are there ways that you can show higher value on the “greater gifts?”

(a)    Are you willing to sacrifice to support missionaries to start new churches?

(b)   Are you willing to encourage others in more prominent roles in the church?

(c)    Are you willing to start a Bible study in your home or office so that the teaching of God’s word can go forward?

(d)   Are you willing to help this church, with all its weaknesses and warts?

(e)    Are you willing to take on a role that is low on glamour and influence but is necessary to the body of the church?

(f)    Are you willing to prioritize love over status?

D)    Although we should value every member for the sake of unity, we should also value the things that bring nurture to the body, just as we are healthier when we value fresh fruits and vegetables over Ice cream, but a good dinner on a hot summer day just isn’t complete without a little ice cream for dessert!


24b. Now, God has mixed together the body, having given extraordinary honor to the one that lacked,

            25. in order that there might not be a division in the body,

            but rather that the members might care the same for each other.

26. Now, if one member suffers, all the members suffer together,

            or if one member is glorified, all the members rejoice together.

27. Now y’all are the body of Christ, and members of a part,

            28. which God also set up for Himself in the church:

                        first apostles,

                        second prophets,

                        third teachers,

                        then miracles,

                        then gifts of healings,             helps, administration, [and] kinds of languages.

29. Not all are apostles; not all are prophets; not all are teachers; not all are miracle-workers;

30. not all have gifts of healings; not all make utterance in languages; not all interpret.

31. Yet continue to be zealous about the greater gifts,

            and I am still showing to you the way par excellence: