Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

Love is not a gift of the Spirit to be held up against the manifestations of the Spirit identified in 1 Corinthians 12-14. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard ministers quote 1 Corinthians 12:31 and claim that love is a more excellent gift than miracles, tongues, prophecy, etc. This misunderstanding has been, in my experience, from ministers who are opposed to the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit that are the subject of 1 Corinthians 12-14. I surmise that this is due to an emotional reaction to the hot topic of the manifestations of the Spirit because it doesn’t wash exegetically.

As referred to as the “more excellent way,” love is not a gift of the Spirit but a way to live with these gifts. Love is the way to exercise the gifts of the Spirit, not an alternate gift that is better than speaking in tongues, prophecy, miracles, or healings, etc.

The context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 is a very gifted church, possibly the most gifted of the early churches. At least it is the church that got the most attention for its giftedness. Or rather, the misuse of their many manifestations of the Spirit. If it weren’t for their problems, we would know very little about these manifestations of the Spirit or how the Spirit’s life is to be conducted in the way of love.

We can be thankful for the many problems that the early churches had. Some had problems with legalism, some with fleshly sins, some with false apostles, and false teachings. Without all of these problems, there would have been no need for the several letters we have that make up the New Testament. The letters were almost all written to correct problems like these.

Paul was not pitting love against gifts. He was instructing us on how to implement the gifts in love. I Corinthians is probably the most used passage during weddings when the marital couple is exhorted to live their lives with love at the center to survive the many challenges that life will throw at them over the balance of their lives. And that is a good application of the principles of love contained in the chapter. But to understand it correctly, we need to remind ourselves of the context, which is the manifestations of the Spirit.

When Paul winds up his short treatise on love, he writes, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” (1 Corinthians 14:1) This sentence seems to sum up his whole point. He elevates the way of love while exhorting the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” He did not denigrate the gifts of the Spirit but rather elevated how to manifest these gifts. Make sure the gifts are wrapped in love.

Going on to Paul’s practical instruction in chapter 14, we find Paul laying down some specific rules about how to function with the two more contentious gifts, tongues and prophecy. I find that these rules are often ignored in many churches that advocate the manifestations of the Spirit. Paul says that it is fine to speak in tongues in a public meeting as long as there is someone to interpret and as long as there are no more than two or three messages delivered in this fashion. Paul presses on the point that everything is to be done to build up the church. Speaking in a foreign language without an interpreter will not build up the church. In fact, he says, some people will think you are nuts.

Many Charismatic and Pentecostal churches violate this instruction from Paul. In many of these churches, it is common practice for the entire congregation to worship in singing, with many of them singing in tongues or praying in tongues in unison. Paul commends these practices of praying and singing in tongues, but only privately. This is a violation of Paul’s instruction to make sure everyone can understand what you are saying so they can be built up. The way of love is the point. Using one’s gift to speak in tongues when others cannot understand is not an expression of love for the other. It is a bit selfish since Paul says that one who prays in tongues builds himself up. That is fine, but when we are with other believers, the focus is on building up the others, not oneself.

Love is not a gift, love is a way.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    unite my heart to fear your name.

Psalm 86:11