When the early church was in a mess, Paul’s radical teaching helped convict leaders of their sin. His words are as relevant today as they’ve ever been, says Lucy Peppiatt


In the last few years, so much abuse and manipulation has been exposed in the Church. For victims, I imagine there is a sense of relief in this, alongside the pain and trauma that may be stirred up by each fresh allegation. Others may have been left reeling by revelation after revelation, with many unanswered questions. 

Sadly, leadership problems in the Church are nothing new. In fact, an entire book of the New Testament is largely devoted to correcting the behaviour of leaders who were arrogant, immoral, bullying and divisive. 

I’ve recently been looking again at that book – it’s a letter written by the apostle Paul to the dysfunctional church in Corinth. Paul doesn’t answer everything for us, but his letter contains brilliant advice and is profoundly helpful in sketching out some principles that can help us to be both open to what God wants to do among us, and loving and protective of others. 

Maturity is not demonstrated by who is more gifted but by who loves best

The leaders in Corinth held a disturbing belief. They thought they had a hotline to God and were the only ones who were truly filled with the Spirit. This made them contemptuous of Paul’s authority. Paul thought there wasn’t much good in anything they were doing; in fact he tells them: “it sounds as if more harm than good is done when you meet together” (1 Corinthians 11:17). I’m not sure it gets worse than that! 

What never ceases to surprise me, however, is Paul’s encouragement to them, to “eagerly desire” spiritual gifts, especially the “greater gifts” (by which he means prophecy and teaching) that help the people to know more of God (1 Corinthians 12:31, 14:1). I think many people have an instinctive fear that if a church has spiralled out of control, the more supernatural spiritual gifts might just make everything worse, but Paul doesn’t teach this. 

How to use spiritual gifts

Paul says the Corinthians were already gifted, “enriched in every way – with all kinds of speech and…knowledge” (1:5), but they were using their gifts in damaging ways. This can happen with any gifted person and with any gift. Incredibly, Paul doesn’t bench them but tells them how to redeem the use of their gifts. 

First, he roots the use of spiritual gifts in the lordship of Jesus Christ: “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit”(12:3). This is not only referring to a statement of belief, but a conviction that is lived out in the way we behave towards others. If Jesus is our Lord, then those around us should be able to tell by the way we treat others. In chapter 11, he scolds the Corinthians for their treatment of women, the poor and slaves – those who were less powerful than them. In chapter 12, he teaches them the following:

Spiritual gifts are for everyone.

They exist for the common good, not to prove how spiritual a person is.

The old hierarchies (Jew vs Gentile, slave vs free, men vs women) have been eradicated by their new status in Christ and they are all now “one body” (v12-13). 

In this body, there is no head but Jesus; they are all just members who need one another.

The old hierarchies have been inverted so that the weak are indispensable, the less honourable are treated with greater honour and the unpresentable are protected.

Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts targets the Corinthians’ arrogance and self-centredness and aims to teach them how to be humble and Christlike in their behaviour. After seeking to instil in the Corinthian leaders a humbler approach to spiritual gifts, Paul then turns to show them a more “excellent way” (v31).

This is the way that surpasses excellence, the vastly superior way! Love is the greatest gift of the Spirit. If the Corinthians carry on leading without learning to love like Jesus, their meetings will be like a harsh, discordant, clanging sound – in God’s ears, in the believers’ ears and in the ears of the world. And they themselves will have gained nothing. Maturity is not demonstrated by who is more gifted but by who loves best. 

Moreover, love is not an option, but an imperative. It’s a gift taught by the Holy Spirit and is recognisable by its actions. In what has become the letter’s most famous chapter (13), Paul teaches that love is patient and kind. It does not envy or boast. It isn’t proud. It doesn’t dishonour others. It isn’t self-seeking or easily angered. It “keeps no record of wrongs” (v5). “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (v6-7).

Love is not set over or against the other spiritual gifts. It doesn’t replace them. It simply lays the right foundation for opening ourselves up to the power and presence of God in our midst. Without love, we cannot be trusted. But with love (and humility), God can use our meetings to bless the outsider. 

Paul then goes on to speak to the Corinthains about tongues and prophecy, but his main concern is not who has what gift – he’d like them all to speak in tongues (14:5) – but how they are creating a welcoming space for the unbeliever that introduces them to the living God. 

The Corinthians were oblivious to the idea that their super-spiritual practices were alienating people from God’s presence, and Paul corrects them with a lesson that is important for us today, too. Teach people about God’s love and demonstrate it at the same time. Speak intelligible words (14:19) in a language that people will understand. Then “they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (v25).