At the core of the Corinthian difficulties was the conviction on the part of some that they were “spiritual persons” in an elitist sense. Spirituals or “spiritual persons” translates the Greek word pneumatikos, which is from the root pneuma meaning “spirit.” This word occurs only twenty-four times in all the Pauline letters, and fifteen of them are found in 1 Corinthians. On five distinct occasions pneumatikos refers to spiritual persons (2:13–15; 3:1; 12:1; and 14:37). Frequently we can detect a polemic overtone to Paul’s use of the word. For example, in 3:1 Paul states that he cannot refer to them as “spiritual men” because they are bickering and fighting like children. They wanted to claim advanced spiritual status, but their childish behavior indicated otherwise.
Paul begins the discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 by responding to a question posed by the Corinthians in their letter to him. Their question must have implied that they thought spiritual gifts provided proof of superior spiritual attainment. I have reconstructed the question as follows: “Doesn’t the possession of spiritual gifts prove that we are spiritual persons?” After three chapters of corrective teaching, Paul concludes with a stern warning: “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or a spiritual (pneumatikos), let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (14:37). Certain showy gifts are at the heart of the claim of some to be spiritual persons. They believe these gifts provide verifiable proof. Paul argues that the proof of spirituality will be their recognition of and conformity to his apostolic teaching.
It is unlikely that the spirituals were an identified group of people who actually organized themselves to oppose Paul’s leadership and teaching. It doesn’t appear that the people involved had a clearly defined theological understanding of gifts. Their zeal for gifts may have emerged from their fascination over the supernatural elements of Christian conversion and their desire for religious ecstasy. As new believers they were like excited children in a candy store.
Their zeal for gifts may have emerged from their fascination over the supernatural elements of Christian conversion and their desire for religious ecstasy. As new believers they were like excited children in a candy store.
Paul uses the word zealous (14:12) to describe the youthful and often immature enthusiasm for gifts and seeks to redirect their zeal for gifts toward edification. “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.” Their misguided zeal had led them to jealous bickering over religious leaders (chap. 3). When we read 2 Corinthians, we notice that the zealous boasting in various leaders was related to the presumed possession of powerful gifts and claimed visionary experiences of these leaders. Their spiritual zeal was primarily focused on gifts (1 Cor. 12:31; 14:1, 12, 39). They believed gifts provided the visible sign that they were spiritual.
Paul faced a dilemma. He did not want to quench the spiritual enthusiasm of these new believers, but he did want to direct it toward more mature purposes. My dad, who was a country preacher, used to say that he wasn’t sure whether it was easier to warm up a spiritual corpse or cool down a zealot. Paul faced both problems. While some were zealous for ecstatic experiences, the next powerful teacher, and their own rights to express their gifts, others had responded with a calculated coolness toward spiritual matters.
Ken Hemphill, You Are Gifted (Nashville, TN: B&H Educational, 2009).
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