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10 Thoughts on Spiritual Gifts

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Over the past 100 years, there has been increased attention on the topic of spiritual gifts in the American church. Some of this attention comes from the rise of Pentecostal churches and what was known as the charismatic movement – discussing various gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing. Other churches often discuss spiritual gifts in the context of the idea of “every member ministry.” In other words, it is not just the pastor, but other Christians as well, who are gifted to minister to others. Because there is both controversy and confusion on this topic, I sought to go back to Scripture recently to study the topic in depth to see what is taught in Scripture and to correct any misconceptions or false ideas.  Here are 10 observations about spiritual gifts that emerged from my study.

1. The lists given seem to be illustrative and not exhaustive of gifts given.
Some have noted that there are 4 major passages (Ephesians 4:11-16, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Cor 12:8-31, and 1 Peter 4:10-11) that describe 20 spiritual gifts: Administration (1 Cor 12:28); Apostleship (1 Cor 12:28, 29; Eph 4:11); Discernment (1 Cor 12:10); Encouragement (Rom 12:8); Evangelism (Ephesians 4:11); Faith (1 Cor 12:9); Giving (Rom 12:8; Healing (1 Cor 12:9, 28, 30); Helping (1 Cor 12:29); Interpretation (of tongues) (1 Cor 12:10, 30); Knowledge (1 Cor 12:8); Leadership (Rom 12:8); Mercy (Rom 12:8); Miracles (1 Cor 12:10, 28); Prophecy (1 Cor 12:10; 12:28, 29; Rom 12:6; Eph 4:11); Service/Hospitality (Roman 12:7); Shepherding (Eph 4:11); Teaching (1 Cor 12:28, 29; Rom 12:8; maybe Eph 4:11); Tongues (1 Cor 12:10, 29, 30); and Wisdom (1 Cor 12:8). No single passage contains reference to all these gifts, and the list in each passage is different. In light of those factors, it seems that there is no all inclusive list and thus God did not intend to give us a complete list. 

2. The Spirit gives gifts to all Christians (1 Corinthians 12:7), but there is not one specific gift that is given to all Christians (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).
We read in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that “each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” a few verses prior to that talk about the gifts given by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:4). The Greek word for this idea of “gift” is charisma (from which we get the word “charismatic”). All Christians have a gift (charisma), and this gift is to be used to help others. This is regardless of one’s maturity in the faith. We might grow in understanding and use our gifts, but we should not view having gifts as a mark of greater maturity or as something that only develops long after following Jesus. The questions Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 have an implied answer of “no,” showing that no single gift is given to every Christian. His questions found here are helpful in recognizing that the promise of Joel 2:29-30 was not that all would prophesy, but rather that the Spirit would come upon all and that a sign of this would be that many would prophesy as seen at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21.

3. The passage abouts gifts focuses less on what exactly each gift is, and more about the need to recognize a variety of them and use the gift(s) each has been given.
When you read through the list of gifts, we are not given a ton of details about what they look like, and some could be seen as having overlap. For example, the gifts of knowledge and wisdom seem very similar; however, knowledge might be information and wisdom might be insight for living. Paul talks about miracles and healings – but aren’t healing miracles? The focus of the passages discussing these gifts was less to talk about each of them so people could pick them out and instead to show the various ways God gifts people in hopes of drawing the church into unity and service in love and truth.

4. These gifts are not necessarily different than natural abilities, as they are spoken of as abilities empowered by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11). 
Some have tried to explain that there are abilities and spiritual gifts and that the difference is that these gifts are received when one becomes a Christian. However, examination of the passage does not reveal that this distinction is made in Scripture. Everything we have, including talents, we have received from God (1 Cor 4:7). The issue is not when or how you received a gift or ability, but whether you are using it for the common good and in the power of the Spirit (For more on this issue, see this post from 2019).

5. Gifts may manifest in different levels or ways (Romans 12:6).
We are told to use the gift in proportion to what we have received, implying that the same gift might have different levels or manifestations. Therefore, we should recognize not only the diversity of gifts given, but even the diverse expressions of each gift. This may also indicate that through the years, we will grow and develop in our ability to use the gifts we have received.

6. No Christian has all of the gifts – but the church has all the gifts it needs (1 Corinthians 1:7), with every gift (not just “spectacular” ones) needed (1 Corinthians 12:14-27).
A common theme in the various passages discussing spiritual gifts is that gifts are like part of a body – each with its own purpose and needed to function correctly (see Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). No Christian is omni-competent or has all the gifts, as we all need each other. In fact, the idea of gifts is meant to show that we need each other; we should not just focus on some gifts as more important, but see that each gift has a purpose and a place of service.

7. Nothing indicates gifts are permanent, given all at the same time, or never change. 
I have read in various books on this subject that gifts are given when a person becomes a Christian, however, I did not see a text that teaches that nor do I think that it is necessarily implied by other passages. In fact, if the idea is that a particular church has the gifts it needs and the gifts are about serving in the body, then as churches grow and develop, I could see areas of giftedness (or at least the expression of one’s gifts) changing and shifting over time.

8. God chooses how to distribute these gifts (1 Corinthians 12:11, 18) but we are also told to seek them (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1).
There is a sense in which we do not choose which gifts we receive, as they are distributed by God’s plan and design. That said, Paul does tell the Corinthians to seek the greater gifts. Such seeking, though, should not be for our own benefit or prominence, but rather out of a desire to love and serve others; we need to seek to bless others, not have people think more highly of us.

9. Gifts should not be a place of pride or pity (Romans 12:3; 1 Cor 12:20-26; 1 Cor 12:14-19), but of service and interdependency (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:14-31, esp. 25-27).
A key focus in both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 is that we should not think too highly of particular gifts but rather, we need to be humble and serve each other. In fact, it appears that part of the problem in Corinth that Paul seems to correct is an overemphasis on particular gifts (tongues and prophecy) that was relegating others gifts (and thus Christians) as feeling less important. Even today, much of the conversation about gifts centers on what these gifts were and if they continue, and the connections between what we see in the New Testament and see manifested in various settings today. This can take away from the main purpose of Paul’s teaching – to remind us to serve others with our gifts.

10. We are never told to discover our gifts but rather to use them and serve others.
Paul never said to find your gift – maybe the idea is that Christians already knew what gifts they had received. Paul’s focus was more on how to think about these gifts (not with pride or pity) and how to use them to help others. Many faithful Christians have served God without potentially ever being able to articulate their gift – they just saw the need and served others. Let us use our gifts to serve each other rather than to seek self-realization.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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