By Cheri Lynn Cowell
If a billboard that read “School of Love” were erected on your church’s lawn, what changes would need to be made to fulfill this mission? Does the community surrounding your church identify it as the place where one learns how to really love?
First Corinthians 13 is known as the love chapter and is heard by more non-Christians than any other part of the Bible, except maybe John 3:16 or the twenty-third Psalm. We’ve used it in weddings, songs, and poems. You may have a wall hanging or trinket containing a quote from it. The love chapter has become a feel-good, almost romantic piece of literature, but that was far from Paul’s intent. In order to uncouple the romanticized view of chapter 13 from what the apostle Paul was actually teaching, we must look at the context.
Looking at 12 to Understand 13
First, we must look to find where Paul began this message. It is unfortunate the chapter break has been placed where it is, because Paul sets up the meaning of chapter 13 in the final verse of chapter 12 (NIV, 1984). “But eagerly desire the greater gifts,” Paul instructs us. “And now I will show you the most excellent way.” Bible students know the word but, that begins this sentence, is an indication that the material following is predicated on the material that came before. Most biblical scholars identify chapters 12 and 13 as Paul’s message on unity and diversity of gifts in the body.
Chapter 12 contains Paul’s famous illustration of the church as the body of Christ, with no part being more or less important than another. But this sweet illustration is connected to a problem Paul confronted. He began by directly addressing a concern still evident in the church today—that of making the gifts of the Spirit an idol. Paul says that when we think gifts such as hospitality and listening are less important than preaching and teaching, we are making an idol of preaching and teaching. Likewise, when we think a gift like speaking in tongues is the only true indication of the Spirit, we’ve made that gift an idol.
After making this bold point in a way only Paul can, he systematically tore down the argument. He pointed to our unity as one body under the head of Christ, and then to our diversity of gifts given for a common good. Next he emphasized the interdependence of the gifts within the church, noting how we are to give deference to the “weaker” and those “less honorable.”
All of this builds to the transitional sentence in 12:31 where Paul essentially said, “It isn’t about your gift (because all are equal as I’ve proven); it’s about the way you use it. There is a more excellent or higher way than the way you’ve been using your gifts.”
The Focus Is Love
This background helps us see the connection Paul made in the beginning when comparing speaking in tongues to love. Without love as the foundation, tongues are as lovely as a noisy gong or clanging symbol used in worship. Likewise, special gifts of prophecy, fathoming mysteries, and knowledge are nothing apart from the gift of love. Even having faith that moves mountains is meaningless without love in one’s heart. Finally, Paul said that giving away everything one has to aid the poor without love for the poor, and being martyred or submitting to torture for one’s faith, without love as the basis for those actions, renders them worthless.
The Greatest Gift
Why do we esteem those with special gifts and argue over who has the right gift when it is clear from chapter 12 that all gifts are equal? In considering the message from the beginning of chapter 13, have you ever thought about why we have spiritual gifts surveys and inventories in our churches when love is the supreme gift we all share? Could concentrating on spiritual gifts take our focus away from the greatest gift?
The word love, used here by Paul, is the same Greek word, agape, used to define God as love in 1 John 4:8. It is also used in John 15:10 to describe the deep, abiding affection of God and Christ for each other: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain [abide] in his love” (NIV). This is the kind of love Jesus demands of all who follow after him. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35, New King James Version). We don’t speak in tongues, or preach, or prophesy because God spoke in tongues, preached, or prophesied. We love because God loves.
The Supremacy of Love
If love is the more excellent way, is there another less excellent but still acceptable way? In a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, 18th-century preacher John Wesley noted,
I believe the Holy Spirit at that time sets before him [the follower] ‘the more excellent way,’ and incites him to walk therein, to choose the narrowest path in the narrow way, to aspire after the heights and depths of holiness—after the entire image of God. But if he does not accept this offer, he insensibly declines into the lower order of Christians. He still goes on in what may be called a good way, serving God in his degree, and finds mercy in the close of life, through the blood of the covenant. I would be far from quenching the smoking flax—from discouraging those that serve God in a low degree. But I could not wish them to stop here: I would encourage them to come up higher, without thundering hell and damnation in their ears, without condemning the way wherein they were, telling them it is the way that leads to destruction, I will endeavor to point out to them what is in every respect ‘a more excellent way.’
Wesley, like Paul, encouraged Christians to choose the way of love. When we read chapter 13 in light of chapter 12, we see that Paul wants us to know that love is the more excellent way for Christians to use their spiritual gifts. Rather than being a measure of our spiritual depth, our gifts become a canvas on which we display our love. If we speak boldly against moral, ethical, political, economic, and religious disenfranchisement (a form of prophesy), then we are displaying love. If our faith moves mountains because love has moved our hearts to act, then our faith shows our love in action. If we give away all we have because in giving we can put hands and feet to our love, and if we willingly suffer because of our love for God and others, then our gifts become an opportunity to demonstrate our love. Perhaps if more of us choose this higher, more excellent way as Wesley and Paul advocated, our churches will become known as the place where love is learned and displayed—a school of love.
Cheri Lynn Cowell is a freelance writer in Oviedo, Florida.
It’s easy to feel jealous when you look at the wide variety of talented people in your church.
The English poet John Dryden called jealousy “the jaundice of the soul.” Usually an indication of a bigger problem, jealousy colors the way we see the world.
Try these steps when you’re facing jealousy.
• Be honest with yourself. Denying your jealousy won’t help.
• Pray for an appreciation of others and their talents.
• Make an effort to compliment and thank others for using their gifts—even when you don’t want to. Strive to be genuine.
• Figure out what’s behind your jealousy. Do you feel unappreciated, unfulfilled, or like you’re not having an impact? Finding a deeper issue within yourself will tone down your frustration with others and help you find a solution.
• Identify ways you enjoy or are good at serving and do them, thanking God for the opportunity to use what’s unique about you.