October 22, 2017

Some Thoughts on Spiritual Gifts

If you haven’t read them recently, the relevant passages on Spiritual gifts are 1 Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12, and 1 Peter 4.

Most of us who are old enough recall when we first heard teaching on the subject of “spiritual gifts,” or charismata. For me, it was in the Charismatic movement’s first wave, which involved me both with Catholic charismatics and with charismatics in the mainline churches. That teaching almost entirely dealt with the gift of tongues and other “supernatural” gifts of the Spirit.

Later on, many of us encountered evangelical teaching on spiritual gifts in teaching that seemed heavily influenced by various kinds of secular personality theory, especially the identification of various personality characteristics as they pertained to work, relationships and self-understanding. The Biblical material on spiritual gifts took a back seat to questions of fulfillment and happiness. I’ve known many Christians who were on a permanent quest to be accurately defined in terms of spiritual gifts/personality type/vocational preference and style.

More recently, “spiritual gift” seminars and inventories have become a standard part of the megachurch’s appropriation of Biblical material for its own programmatic needs. Spiritual gift inventories were not so much about finding who had the gift of “helping” as getting adequate cameramen for the 11 a.m. service.

I’ve always thought that despite the exegetical mysteries we’ll probably always face with these passages and this topic, the practical application of spiritual gifts was not really in question. But because of the connection with controversial topics many don’t want to explore and because spiritual gift inventories are assumed to be the best application, little new is ever said about spiritual gifts.

A recent sermon by my pastor/friend Fr. Peter Mathews boiled the essentials of these passages down to these four points, all with application.

1) The Holy Spirit gives charismata.
2) The Holy Spirit gives diverse charismata.
3) The Holy Spirit gives diverse charismata to diverse people.
4) The Holy Spirit gives diverse charismata to diverse people for the common good.

After hearing that message, I found myself thinking about the one thing I find missing in most evangelical teaching on spiritual gifts. I’d insert it as point “3.5”

3.5) The Holy Spirit gives diverse charismata to diverse people in diverse situations.

Much of the teaching on spiritual gifts that has morphed into “inventories” and such seems to be about my own possession of a gift so tied to my own identity that no matter what situation I am in, that gift is my one offering to the community.

So if my gift is teaching, then I am gifted for teaching in every situation. And I’m justified to say “I would like to help, but that’s not my gift/calling/ministry.”

Instead, I’d like to suggest that the Holy Spirit manifests a diversity of gifts in diverse people in diverse situations, and what may be my spiritual gift in situation “A” may no be at all what I am gifted to do in situation “B.”

The applicable prayer here is not just “What can I do?” but “Father, how can I be a gift from you to this situation?”

We actively seek out the manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s diverse empowerment, but we have a spiritual sensitivity that if toilets need to be cleaned more than Leviticus needs to be taught, then I am gifted, called and empowered to do that very thing.

I believe that the economic downturn and the situations we all may face as families, neighborhoods, churches and ministries may provide a much needed opportunity for us to rethink “charismata,” and be much more open to what God would have us do and be in a new situation.

The current economic downturn provides many opportunities for kinds of “giftedness” that aren’t that valuable or appreciated when times are good. How many of us think about offering rides to others, or sharing a meal, or creating a food pantry when times a good? How many of us see our gifts in terms of program rather than in terms of what the Spirit is doing and yearning to do in very unusual situations?

I’d welcome your thoughts on spiritual gifts, and particularly on having a more flexible and less deterministic view of how they function in the church, the Kingdom and the world.

Comments

  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Yeah, Pat. They’re called “Spiritual Gift Fanboys”, with all the drooling fanboy traits of self-indulgence, stupidity, and superiority complexes.

    When I first encountered Charismatics, there were all these Spiritual Gifts they claimed: Speaking in Tongues, Speaking in Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, and Tongues.

    I held out for Wisdom — the command-and-control over all the others. Didn’t make me very welcome around Charismatics, but I’d rather have the gift of knowing what to do (and what NOT to do) in an encounter/situation than spend hours scat-singing in something Semitic.

    Oh, and “gift of discernment” depends on how you define “discernment”. If it means being able to immediately size up the truth of a given situation cold, I’m for it. If it means obsessively looking for Satan and his Whoopee Cushion under every bed (“DEMON! DEMON! DEMON!”), No Way.

  2. Patrick Lynch says:

    “Yeah, Pat. They’re called “Spiritual Gift Fanboys”, with all the drooling fanboy traits of self-indulgence, stupidity, and superiority complexes.”

    It never fails to disappoint me that religion doesn’t actually make better people of us. How come us Christians are such tools all the time?

  3. Chuck: Yeah, reading my statement again makes it look like I’m being a snarky critic of some Christians… I was trying to indicate the opposites of faith (unbelief), wisdom (stupidity), and discernment (gullibility). The purpose of these gifts is to counter these practices. I don’t mean to imply we’re to drive away such people. Came out wrong in my attempt to be brief.

    Headless: When I first encountered charismatics, I agree—the tongues thing was way overdone. Still is. He who speaks in tongues edifies himself, (1Co 14:4) so there are a lot of charismatics and pentecostals who do little else. But that’s true of most Christians. It’s human nature to follow Jesus in order to better ourselves, not to love God and our neighbors.

    “Fanboys” is the perfect term for such folks. Usually you can recognize them by their self-justifying legalism or the overabundance of Jesus junk they purchase; but when they’re charismatics, you recognize them by the tongues.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    It never fails to disappoint me that religion doesn’t actually make better people of us. How come us Christians are such tools all the time? — Pat Lynch

    Because “People are people, and the world is full of tricks and twistiness yet undreamed of.”
    — One of The Whole Earth Catalogs

    “Fanboys” is the perfect term for such folks. Usually you can recognize them by their self-justifying legalism or the overabundance of Jesus junk they purchase; but when they’re charismatics, you recognize them by the tongues. — K.W.Leslie

    And when they’re Catholics, you can recognize them by their Marian obsessions. And Mary junk along with the Jesus junk. Makes me wish St Mary WOULD appear to some of her fanboys and slap some sense into them.

  5. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    3.5 is the big deal for me. I have come to believe that too often we incline to the view that spiritual gifts, once given, are with us for life. I think a careful examination of how the Spirit comes upon people in Scripture would reveal that there are a lot of acts of the Spirit that are one-shot events that aren’t replicated. At the risk of pointing to the most exceptional case first, the conception of Christ. No one else in the history of the universe had Mary’s experience. King Saul had the Spirit come upon him in an unusual way and performed physical feats he never displayed later.

    Setting aside the inevitable debate some would have about whether King Saul was really elect or not my main point is that we can see the Spirit works on an occasional basis in ways that benefit the people of God in particular ways through particular people. A person may have a gift for discerning spirits at one time and not another yet most teaching on the spiritual gifts presupposes a persistency that I don’t see Scripture being all that clear about. It seems popular to go with a few sections in epistles rather than also consult the narrative books. Perhaps our understanding of the gifts would be more balanced if we didn’t zero in on a few sections of Paul and looked at the wider biblical context in which the work of the Spirit is described?

    I, too, have noticed most discussion of spiritual gifts finally amounts to a personality inventory/test seminar.

  6. im,

    I realize I’m late to the party here, but have you read Ken Berding’s, What Are Spiritual Gifts? by chance? It’s great stuff that sort of brings us back to the basic question, which is sadly quite rarely addressed. Most of us assume that a spiritual gift is a supernaturally given latent ability, almost like a spiritual super-power (no condescension meant by that phrase, and let’s be honest: that’s basically what we’re saying!).

    At Christians in Context we did a series on spiritual gifts where we basically unpacked Berding’s book. The series includes an interview with Dr. Berding (which is the best place to start), a <a href=”http://www.christiansincontext.org/2009/01/review-of-ken-berdings-what-are.html”review of his book and a follow-up post to tie up some of the loose ends.

    Honestly, after interacting personally with Dr. Berding for some time (he is a Bib. Studies prof. at Biola, where I went for my undergrad degree) and reading his book, I’m pretty convinced that his case is dang near bullet proof and is a great corrective for the church. I’d be curious for what you’d think.

    Thanks for the stimulating post, even if you don’t bother reading our discussion!

    Andrew