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Spiritual Gifts

April 7, 2014
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Some years ago a church I went to made the decision to pay money to administer a spiritual gifts test to the entire congregation. I wasn’t particularly happy with this decision. In part this was because the test was rather obviously a slightly re-packaged personality test. However, there were a number of other issues with the test, all of which stemmed from unexamined assumptions about spiritual gifts.

One of the first assumptions people make about spiritual gifts is that there is a definitive list. 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Romans 12:6-8 give more sizable lists of gifts while Ephesians 4:11 lists several roles in the church as gifts that Jesus gave to the church. Prophesy and teaching appear on all three lists while all the other gifts appear on only one list. Ephesians 4 might lead one to suspect that there is a gift of apostleship and a gift of evangelism. 1 Corinthians 12 adds messages of wisdom, messages of knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues while Romans 12 adds serving, encouraging, giving, leading, and showing mercy.

This presents an immediate problem. There are seventeen gifts between the three lists with a total gift-overlap of only two gifts. This immediately suggests that each list is a small subset of a much larger total. (Specifically, if we treated the list in 1 Corinthians and Romans as two samples of a larger whole and estimated from there then we would estimate that there are approximately thirty-one and a half gifts. However, treating the 1 Corinthians and Romans lists as two independent, random samples of a larger whole is fairly ridiculous.) More problematic than the fact that we don’t just see the same gifts list twice is the fact that the three lists all seem to have different themes. The Ephesians list departs most strongly from the others as it lists roles for people (apostles, prophets, etc.) as gifts while the others list abilities. However, the 1 Corinthians list and the Romans list also strongly depart from one another. With the exception of teaching and faith, the 1 Corinthians list appears to be a list of supernatural powers – prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, and discerning types of spirits. Meanwhile, the Romans list follows the opposite pattern. With the exception of prophecy it appears to be a list of ordinary abilities used for the edification of the church – serving, giving, leading, and so on.

This poses an interesting problem. If we had a clear rationale for gifts then we could probably better accept that we didn’t know their number. For instance, if one only read 1 Corinthians one might be able to accept that the Holy Spirit moves in a variety of powerful ways but that spiritual gifts are any form of powerful movement of the Spirit. Instead we are left with little guidance even there. Is there a gift of accounting? Some churches clearly need it! But is that even the sort of thing that could exist?

Before circling back around to this point I wish to address another concern. Are these spiritual gifts or gifts of the Spirit? Both are plausible readings of the Greek “gifts of the spirit” which lacks capitalization that might distinguish a spirit from the Spirit (although there’s a gift to help out with that). The basic issue is that “X of Y” relationships can mean a number of different things. Compare the following: “house of David” (ownership/founding of the house) to “house of stone” (material elements of the house) to “house of wickedness” (attribute associated with the house). “Spiritual gifts” makes these gifts sound like they are gifts in one’s spirit while “gifts of the Spirit” sounds like we are identifying the gifts by the gift-giver, the Holy Spirit.

Oddly enough, the Old Testament might be of use here. In the Old Testament spirits frequently come upon people and grant them new abilities – spirits of wisdom, spirits of knowledge, or even spirits that bring insanity. My proposal is that when Paul speaks of gifts of the spirit he means gifts brought on or empowered by the presence of the Spirit in/alongside your own spirit. It may actually be unhelpfully modern to attempt to separate the Spirit from the spirit in this case although it is probably worse to make the split and forget the role of the Holy Spirit.

However, this circles us back to the argument about empowerment versus granting. Very few would argue that prophesy is an ability that you have as a non-Christian that is enhanced by the Spirit. However, it’s obvious that some of the other abilities are pre-existing and put to work for Christ. I would again like to suggest that there might be another way to see this. The linchpin of this idea is the fact that both major gifts lists include at least one jarring element – Romans lists a supernatural gifts and 1 Corinthians lists some “ordinary” abilities. If each list simply operated under entirely different rules I would propose that only an accident of wording places them in the same category and that in reality Paul is talking about two different things. However, with crossover on the lists it’s worth asking whether Paul thinks that these lists really combine two different sorts of gifts. Does Paul actually think that teaching and prophecy are different in origin?

One answer to this is the rather simplistic claim that giving, teaching, mercy, and so on exist in two forms, an ordinary form that many people have and a special additional form that is a gift of the Spirit that is occasionally granted to non-charitable individuals through God’s grace. While this is a little odd it also points to a closer synthesis. If some greedy person became Christian and over the course of three or four years gradually became generous would this be evidence of the Spirit’s work? Of course. Would it be evidence of a gift of generosity being given to that person? I think we’d have to say “yes” unless we hold some very rigid ideas about the gifts (more rigid than Paul, it appears, since Paul doesn’t bother to give us so much as a definitive list). So if a generous person became a Christian and focused their generosity in a particular way based on their newfound faith, would that be the work of the Spirit and evidence of a gift of generosity being given? The difficulty in drawing a sharp line here suggests to me that there isn’t one. Instead, the Spirit works in people in a number of different ways and we can call any of these gifts since they are things we are given.

There’s another layer to this. It’s possible that Paul doesn’t come close enough to our Post-Enlightenment natural/supernatural division in our way of thinking for some of these questions to even make sense. For instance, we tend to see distinguishing spirits on a list next to prophecy, healing, and miraculous powers and assume that this involves detecting supernatural entities. It’s possible given the usage of the word “spirit” in Paul’s world that this is actually closer to a gift of insight into people, what we might now call a counseling ability. It’s also possible (and more likely than the last option) that Paul would draw no distinction between these two meanings of distinguishing spirits.

The last question that interests me when I look at all of this is why this is a topic of such interest. One reason seems to be that it tells people they are special. Find your gift and now we can give you clear, personalized guidance and assign you a valuable role. Another reason is that it sometimes lets people get off the hook for being bad at gifts that aren’t supposed to be theirs. Are you grumpy and unpleasant? Claim teaching as your gift (no, please don’t) and leave hospitality to those other people! Finally, it makes things simple. Here’s your gift, now you know what God wants you do to.

Reality seems more complicated. If Paul really means to say something like, “The Spirit helps us do all sorts of things, expected and unexpected, for the church,” then we’re stuck looking for God’s actions in our lives however they come to us. And while that’s a lot more complicated than finding our place on a list I think it is a lot better. After all, almost nothing else we do is this simple. It would be hard to take the gifts of the Spirit seriously if they were not as varied and flexible as the challenges the world we live in presents.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    April 7, 2014 8:22 am

    I remember the church I went to in high school gave out one of these. I don’t remember what I got, but I wasn’t expecting anything too interesting or earth-shattering since “good at technical stuff but not a people person” isn’t considered a spiritual gift.

    As you point out, I guess I did expect it to reinforce “specialness” for people who were predisposed to believe they had a special role to play. (In the same way, I’ve never met anyone who strongly believed in psychic powers who didn’t also believe they were psychic.)

    In hindsight, it’s also clear that this is based on a misunderstanding of personality tests as definitive ends in themselves rather than a helpful-but-incomplete tools.

    • Eric permalink
      April 7, 2014 9:48 pm

      I think sometimes church leaders also find these convenient for a reason I didn’t really mention: it tells them where to put people. If you have to spend a lot of time telling people like you say you were “Maybe you should help run the AV equipment” you might want a test that tells them to volunteer to do that while making them feel like this is an honor.

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