Traditional interpretation: The Corinthians are prioritising the value of people who speak in tongues over the value of people with other gifts. They should learn that there is a valuable diversity of people in the one body.
But: This assumes that there was a phenomenon known by the Corinthians as “gifts,” with some people proudly possessing the gift of tongues and others conspicuously lacking this gift. But Paul never gives a clear indication in chapter 12 that this is the case. It seems rather that “gift” is his terminology (in place of “spiritual”); and that the Corinthians are unaware that there is a diversity of gifts.
Fee’s interpretation: The Corinthians have two problems: (a) they are unanimously valuing the gift of tongues over other gifts, and should learn that there is a valuable diversity of gifts in the one body; (b) the “haves” in the congregation are empowered over the “have nots” in the congregation.
But: It is very hard to find evidence that Paul moves between these two issues. Paul rather seems to use one central image (the body) to pursue one central issue: the need for differently-gifted people to be united.
Another way forward: The Corinthians are prioritising the spiritual value of people with oratorical prowess (as in chapters 1-4) over those with less “spiritual” qualities. They should learn that although God orders the body under the guidance of those who exercise (certain types of) speech, this should not result in a hierarchy of honour, in which exalted speech is associated with exalted spirituality.
Notice that when the “gifts” are first listed, Paul begins with the two types of speech with which the Corinthians are already obsessed: “wise speech” and “knowledgeable speech”:
Paul affirms that God does indeed make use of a sort of wise speech (as he had affirmed in 2:6), but he places this “manifestation of the Spirit” in a context in which many very different gifts necessarily co-exist. As in chapters 1-2, those who are “weak,” “dishonoured,” and “non-noble” should not be regarded as disposable, but rather as the surprising focus of divinely granted honour (12:18-26).
In the subsequent two lists of the chapter, Paul takes things a step further: he re-words the top items of the list, so that they are now expressed in terms of Paul’s own model of leadership, with apostles at the head:
|ἐνεργήματα δυνάμεων||χαρίσματα ἰαμάτων||χαρίσματα ἰαμάτων|
|γλωσσῶν||γένη γλωσσῶν||γλώσσαις λαλοῦσιν|
The Corinthians need to learn that, while God has indeed arranged the body in such a way that those who speak with wisdom & knowledge have a special role, this should not lead to the conclusion that it is only people with speech gifts that are important – or even that every speech gift is equally important (so tongues comes last). Although not everyone in the church has been gifted with wise speech (perhaps most notably, certain local leaders such as Stephanas – but I speculate), this is no reason to dishonour such people. Truly Spiritual speech is that which honours Christ as Lord (12:3) and lovingly builds up the body (12:7).