“There are a variety of ministries, but the same Lord”

1 Cor 12:5 (NAS)

I acknowledged a calling to ministry my junior year in high school.  To that point, my sole aspiration had been to play piano.  Indeed, I continued my piano studies on into my first year in college when the demands of pursuing two degrees, a BM in piano performance and a BA in religion, proved more than I could handle in only seven twenty-four hour days per week.  Looking back on those days, I recognize that my sense of calling was amorphous, but my cultural backgrounds established rather restrictive parameters on my thinking:  God called preachers to be pastors, evangelists, or missionaries.  Full stop.  Further, ministry involved sacrifice and human weakness.  Since I was no Scripture scholar and I was terrified of public speaking, I would clearly have to depend, not on my talent, but on God for strength and guidance.  It would not be me, but Christ who lives in me (cf. Gal 2:20).

With the understanding I have today, I may have seen my calling in relation to the piano I so loved then (and still do).  Who knows?  As it happened, over the course of my undergraduate, seminary, and doctoral studies, I was able to discern, often with the help of others, that, in fact, I have abilities in languages, interest in theology and philosophy, and a teacher’s nature.  I came to recognize that, in the Body of Christ, my role is that of teacher and interpreter of the scriptural witness to God’s relationship with God’s people.

Paul worked with an entire church, the church in Corinth, that, like the young me, had difficulty recognizing that “there are varieties of ministries” (διακονιῶν, diakoniōn; 1 Cor 12:5).  In a lengthy discussion of these varieties of ministries and functions that together enable the work of the church (12:6-10), Paul identifies the capacities for wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, “mighty acts” (ἐνεργήματα δυνάμεων, energēmata dunameōn; v 10), prophecy, distinguishing spirits, tongues, and interpretation.  Later in the same chapter (vv 28-30), he adds that some are called to be apostles or to be teachers, to offer help (ἀντιλήμψεις, antilēmpseis; v 28), or to exercise leadership (κυβερνήσεις, kubernēseis; v 28).  Prophets/prophecy, mighty acts, healing, and tongues appear in both lists in 1 Corinthians 12.  A similar discussion in Romans 12:1-8 suggests that Paul does not mean the list in 1 Corinthians 12 as an exhaustive catalog of the gifts and callings that God distributes throughout the church.  In Romans, in addition to the gifts/functions of prophecy, teaching, and leadership listed in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul also lists ministry (generally?; διακονίαν, diakonian, v 7), comforting/exhorting (παρακαλῶν, parakalōn; cf. the “Comforter/Paraclete” in John 14), giving/sharing, and almsgiving (ἐλεῶν, eleōn; v 8).

Not only do these lists exhibit variety and flexibility – one wonders what else Paul might have listed had he been interested in comprehensiveness – but, most notably, they do not catalog what contemporary Christians would typically expect in a list of “ministries” (v 5).  The broader context underscores the impression that Paul intends to emphasize for the Corinthian church the wide range of skills and gifts that God call individuals to employ in ministry/service (διακονία, diakonia) in the church and for the kingdom of God.

The church in Corinth faced a number of internal challenges:  partisanship (Paul/Apollos/Cephas/Christ; 1 Cor 1:12), licentiousness (1 Cor 5:1), and the rise within the church of a group that considered itself superior in spiritual giftedness, especially as manifest by tongue speaking.  The two lists of gifts/functions in 1 Corinthians 12 (both of which include tongues at or near the end of the lists) bracket a more fundamental concept for Paul, the notion that the church comprises the Body of Christ in the world (cf. Rom 12).  By analogy, Paul suggests that his lists only begin to catalog the important ministries/services/functions that constitute a healthy Body of Christ.  Heart, lungs, ears, eyes, hands, and feet all play important roles in a healthy body.

Two millennia have passed since Paul corresponded with the Corinthians and the Romans, yet, in many ways, the church still fails properly to “discern the Body [of Christ]” (1 Cor 11:29).  The church has not fully discerned that the concept of the priesthood of all believers does not relate primarily to individual freedom, but to the notion that every member of the body has an important ministerial function to fulfill.  The claim that many churches make in their Sunday bulletins, namely, that “all its members are its ministers,” is more than a platitude.  While, as Paul asserts elsewhere, God does appoint “some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,” the object of these particular forms of ministry is “the equipping of the saints to the work of ministry, the strengthening of the Body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12, my trans.).  These “outfitters” cannot and do not do the whole work of the church; they are not paid surrogates for an entire church of ministers.

Indeed, as a Protestant suspicious of the distinction between clergy and laity, I long to see churches: that place priority on helping their members to identify each his or her ministry vocation; that equip each member to do his or her work; that “ordain” them, if you will, each to the ‘variety of ministry’; and that nurture all in their work as conscious ministers of the Gospel.  To do anything less, it seems to me, is for the church to be a voluntary association of individuals, not the organic, vital Body of Christ.

The church continues to fail to discern that the purpose of the Body of Christ far exceeds the need to care for itself.  Certainly, the health of the Body requires attention.  Nonetheless, just as “God as in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self” (2 Cor 5:19, my trans.), so also, as the Body of Christ, the church has been given “the ministry (διακονία, diakonia) of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18, my trans.).  In other words, the “varieties of ministries” in the Body of Christ should be exercised within the church, to be sure, but more importantly, in the world.  The church should certainly be the community that nurtures individual Christians as they grow in faith, experience acceptance and affirmation, as well as challenge and correction, and find identity.  Nevertheless, the church exists in the world as the Body of Christ, the salt of the earth, a light on a hill.  It cannot settle for being Christ’s disciples, it must “make disciples.”