1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most well-known passages of scripture. Because it is often read at weddings, it is even well known to non-Christians. Because it is often read on its own, I think many of us think of 1 Corinthians 13 as a stand-alone unit within the Bible. However, in its context, it actually forms an integral part of Paul’s teaching on charisms.
Paul Kariuki Njiru’s book, Charisms and the Holy Spirit’s Activity in the Body of Christ (Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2002), does a good job of outlining the Paul’s rhetorical structure throughout 1 Corinthians 12 to 14. He summarizes the overall structure this way:
A Spiritual gifts in general (1 Cor. 12)
B Love as the most excellent way (1 Cor. 13)
A’ Spiritual gifts in particular: prophecy versus tongues (1 Cor. 14)
A more detailed breakdown of the various concentric rhetorical structures within chapters 12-14 is found on page 68. The bottom line is that the famous “love chapter” is not a stand alone tribute to love in general, nor is it a later interpolation by an unknown editor (as some have suggested), but it is the focal point and climax of Paul’s discussion of charisms.
Paul’s method of writing is very rhetorical, and, by the use of concentric figures, he achieves the effect of emphasizing the importance of love as a regulatory principle in the use of spiritual gifts in the Church. For the Apostle it is love that must govern the use of all charisms (49).
I think this exegesis is clear enough. It also raises an interesting question: is Paul presenting love as the pre-eminent of all divine gifts, or is he specifically contrasting transitory gifts with the eternal love of God?
Njiru suggests that Paul is presenting love as “the gift par excellence” (60). However, the broader consensus seems to be that Paul is intent on making a contrast here between the charismata of chapter 12 and 14 and love. This comes out particularly in 13:8 -
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
Ecclesially, if we think of particular communions or traditions within the church as having ecclesial charisms, we can see how 1 Corinthians 12-14 could stand as a rebuke for our divisions. A particular group within the church which separates from others on the basis of a particular gift or set of gifts is, to take up Paul’s image, like the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you!” (12:21).