Sunday School Notes: Romans 12:6-7
3 For, by means of the grace given to me, I say to all those being among you, do not think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think sensibly, as God has apportioned a measure of faith to each. 4 For just as we have many parts in one body, and the many parts do not have the same function, 5 in the same way we, the many, are one body in Christ, and each one parts of one another, 6 and having a diversity of gifts according to grace given to us–if prophecy, according to the right proportion of the faith, 7 if service, in the service, if one is a teacher, in the teaching.
While our focus this week was on verses 6 and 7, I have provided verses 3-5 for the sake of context. My translation of 6 and 7 is very literal, and as a result may seem a little confusing. Hopefully, the study notes will help clarify Paul’s meaning here.
As we noted before, Paul’s overarching point seems to be unity, and the need for the church in Rome to put away pride and see one another as equals. When he speaks about different types of gifts, Paul includes himself as one of them, indicating that his apostolic calling doesn’t make him any more special in the eyes of God than anyone else. God is the one who gives gifts of faith, and all that we have is from His hand. There is nothing for us to boast about. Even in terms of the functions we all perform, like the various parts of the body, while we all have different roles to play in the church, and some may appear to be more glamorous than others, each person’s gift is important for the functioning of the body.
Paul addresses a similar situation in 1 Corinthians 12-14, where he likewise mentions a diversity of gifts operational in the church, but all of equal value and importance for the function of the whole. While the specific situation of each church was different, Paul’s ultimate message to the Romans appears to be the same as that to the Corinthians: unity.
Notice also that Paul doesn’t differentiate between Jew and Gentile. The distribution of faith and gifts knows no ethnic distinction. God is not a respecter of persons, and He gifts according to His will and purpose.
“… having a diversity of gifts according to the grace given to us.” There is a play-on-words in the Greek: the word for “gifts” is charismata, and the word for “grace” is charis. It’s appropriate that these words are closely connected since the whole idea of a gift is something that is given without thought of deserving or payback. You can’t earn a gift–it comes to you by virtue of the giver’s grace. Notice also again the use of “us” and not “you.” Paul recognizes that his gifts were as much given to him by the grace of God as anyone else’s.
It’s interesting to note that Paul had not visited the church in Rome, but he assumed these gifts were operational. Given the practical nature of many of the gifts he will mention, that might be a reasonable assumption. However, the first gift he mentions is “prophecy.” If we understand this to mean speaking the mind of God, which could either be in the sense of a prosecuting attorney (as when Elijah addressed the prophets of Baal, or when Peter addressed Ananias and Sapphira), or in the sense of giving revelation from God–either about what He is doing, or is about to do–then this would be along the lines of the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14.
Is that what he means by prophecy? While there may be debate about whether the gift of prophecy is still active in the church today, there is no question that prior to the completion of the New Testament, God was still raising up prophets within the church. The passage on prophecy in 1 Corninthians 14 doesn’t instruct the church on how to obtain this gift, but how to manage its use. Again, the assumption is that people were speaking on behalf of God in the midst of the gathered church, and Paul doesn’t seem to think that an odd thing. It’s also well to bear in mind that the Puritans considered preaching to be “prophecy.” The Puritan writer William Perkins wrote a book called THE ART OF PROPHESYING, which is about preaching. When the preacher reads from Scripture, and accurately interprets Scripture and applies its meaning to his congregation, he is speaking the mind of God to his church. If we define “prophecy” as speaking the mind of God, then that would include preaching.
“… according to the right proportion of faith.” The Greek phrase Paul uses here is analogia tês pisteôs. You might have read or heard the term “the analogy of faith,” and I believe this is where it comes from. But what does it mean? We think of an “analogy” as a comparison used to make a point or illustrate a principle. However, in the ancient world, the term analogia was a mathematical term used to refer to a correct proportion, or a right relationship between things. For example, the first century Jewish historian Josephus (who wrote in Greek, which makes his work helpful to us) used the term when he said that the porticoes on the Jerusalem temple were in “right proportion” to the whole temple. So the term here refers to the “right proportion of faith”–if one’s gifting is prophecy, one must use it according to the correct proportion of faith. I’m still not sure that really helps us understand what Paul means. Certainly, God has given faith for the prophet to be able to deliver prophecy–but why speak of the “correct proportion” of faith (or “our faith,” as some translations say)?
It might be helpful to note that Paul uses the definite article with “faith”–something he didn’t do in verse 3. It’s possible Paul means “right proportion of the faith”–i.e., the gospel. In which case, this is a reminder to the prophet to make sure his proclamations are in accordance with the truth of the gospel. This makes the best sense to me, especially since Paul only uses this phrase with the gift of prophecy. Of the gifts mentioned, it seems particularly relevant to add “according to the right proportion of the faith” to prophecy, since this gift is open to abuse by the unscrupulous (as we see in our own day).
“If service, in the service…” We seem to be missing a verb in the Greek, which leads many translations to supply words to make this read better in English (e.g., ESV: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them:… if serving, in our serving…”). I think what Paul is intending to say is that the person serving shouldn’t be ashamed that his gift is only serving, and it isn’t, say, prophecy. In other words, “If [your gift is] service, [use it] in (or for) service [and don't think that's a lowly thing].”
It’s interesting that Paul calls out “service” as a special gift of grace. Aren’t all Christians supposed to serve? Indeed, Paul frequently uses this word to denote Christian ministry (e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:5; Colossians 1:7, etc.). It would seem, therefore, that Paul has in mind something more specific than the general call to serve as a part of Christian life. This is a special call that some in the church have, and others don’t. The word for “service” is diakonia, from which we get the term “deacon.” As we saw in Acts 6, the job of the deacon is to take care of the practical, mundane affairs of the church, so the elders can take care of the preaching ministry. Given that the diaconate was established in Acts 6, I think Paul has in mind those called to serve as deacons.
If that’s correct, then the fact that he follows “prophecy” with “serving” underscores his point. “Prophecy” might be seen as a “spiritual” gift, and “serving”–or being a deacon–as “unspiritual.” Paul’s point is that both the prophet and the deacon are gifted by God, and should exercise their gifts according to the grace given to them. In this sense, they are both as spiritual as each other, and both as important.
The next gift mentioned in verse 7 is that of “teaching.” We noted that there is a shift here from speaking of the gift to speaking of the one gifted. In other words, Paul talked about “prophecy” and “service,” but now speaks of “the one teaching.” Is this significant? And given our discussion of “prophecy” above, what is the difference between the prophet and the teacher? Wouldn’t the teacher also need to teach “according to the correct proportion of the faith”?
We ran out of time, so these questions will have to wait until next time.