The DEGREES or Are Some Gifts More Important?
Having seen that all gifts are needed and essential because they all are designed to edify, let us turn to a related question which affects our attitude and life in the church. The question is this: are some gifts more important than others?
Again the answer is both simple and obvious. Extending the apostle's metaphor of the church as a body, while all parts of the body are important, some are particularly essential, just as the heart, for example, is more important than a hand. The Corinthians recognized that some gifts were greater: "But you are earnestly desiring the best gifts" (I Corinthians 12:31; note that since gifts are sovereignly given this statement may be better understood not as a command (imperative) but as a statement of fact (indicative mood) -- a mere observation of what the Corinthians were in fact doing). Their problem, however, was that they had the gifts in the wrong order! The flashier gifts were considered better than the teaching gifts, which problem Paul corrects at length in chapter 14.
The Primacy of Apostles and Prophets
What gifts, then, are greater in importance? Paul spells out several gifts in I Corinthians 12:28. "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues." As already observed (chapter 2), the apostle's use of "first...secondarily...third" must imply order of importance, since no other order would make sense in the verse. It should be obvious enough that apostleship is listed first simply because it is from the apostles that we receive Christian teaching. They, along with the prophets, rated second in this verse, are foundational to the church. In Ephesians 2:20, Paul says that the church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets." This is also seen in Matthew 16:18-19 where Peter, as representative of the apostles, is said to be the rock on which Christ builds His church and the one with the keys of the kingdom. The apostolic witness to the Person and work of Christ is the foundation of our faith, Jesus Christ, of course, being the chief cornerstone. Because of this, apostleship and prophecy are greater in importance than the other gifts which follow in the list.
The Superiority of Prophecy and Teaching
Teachers, those who clearly present the truths of the Christian faith which the apostles have given, are likewise more important than other gifts which are mentioned later in the list of I Corinthians 12:28, as should again be obvious. To work a miracle, for example, is wonderful, but it does not meet the basic and eternal needs of man as does teaching.
Paul continues in this vein in I Corinthians 14. The entire burden of his argument in this chapter is to show that the gift of tongues, however valuable it may be, is vastly inferior to the gifts of prophecy (verse 1) and teaching (verse 19), because while tongues may demonstrate vividly the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, it is not so useful in the clarifying of spiritual truth which alone reaches and meets man's basic and greatest need.
"If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth" (verses 23-25).
The Honor of Eldership
Likewise in I Timothy 5:17 Paul commands that the elders, especially the teaching elders, be esteemed worthy of "double honor." This unquestionably refers to the elders' financial support (according to verse 18) but must also imply the attitude of "honor" as we normally understand it. This is clear from his words in I Corinthians 9:1-14 where, in effect, he states the reason why they are to be esteemed so highly: "If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?" (verse 11). Ministry of the things of God is worth much more than the material things of this life. Again his point is clear: some gifts carry with them an honor not true of others.
This is further born out in passages such as I Thessalonians 5:12-13 and Hebrews 13:7 which command believers to hold elders in high esteem and regard them with great love.
So there is a gradation of gifts, more honor is attached to some than to others. The next question, then, is this: which gifts are the more honorable, and why? The most honorable gifts are those whose focus is on the ministry of the Word of God, such as teachers and pastors/elders as well as apostles and prophets. Again, this does not at all imply that some are unimportant; Paul is careful to make this clear in I Corinthians 12:15ff. All gifts are essential, but those whose focus is the public ministry of the Word of God are especially important simply because without them the church would collapse. There would be no structure, no form, no doctrinal framework apart from these gifts.
Is your attitude reflective of this? Do you show special, "double" honor to those who bring to you the Word of God? Are the teaching and preaching of the Word of God more valuable to you than material things? And does it show? This is not theoretical; this is Divine truth to be lived by all of us who belong to Him.