Rethinking the Spiritual Gifts

God gives each person a spiritual gift, choosing from four different lists Paul wrote. We identify that gift by taking a written test. Then we do something in the church that goes along with whatever the test says God specially enabled us to do.

That’s the American evangelical view of spiritual gifts. I’ve taken many such tests, and have largely bought into this whole view of spiritual gifts. It fits the way we Americans think–testing, quantifying, scientifically validating, etc. And yet, certain elements have nagged me:

  • Why do the results of these tests sound so much like natural or learned abilities?
  • Why do the results change over time, just like the results of personality tests? As I mature, change, learn new things, develop new abilities–why would that change a gift God has given me?
  • Why do the tests disagree on which “gifts” should be included?
  • The descriptions of the gifts always seem to be written from the perspective of Western Christian churches. But as I learned long ago, if a concept from an American church doesn’t also fit a church in Calcutta or the African jungle, then it’s not the Gospel–it’s just an American cultural interpretation.
  • Why didn’t the Apostle Paul include a Spiritual Gifts Test for the Corinthians to use?

I’m reading  a book by Biola University prof Kenneth Berding called, “What are Spiritual Gifts? : Rethinking the Conventional View.” He dismantles the view that the tests propagate, arguing that the gifts should more properly be viewed as ministry assignments or functions. They are not things for which we’ve necessarily received some special enablement; in fact, God often calls us to do things out of weakness, not strength. It makes SO much sense to me. And I’m only partway into the book.

Berding says Paul loved using lists, and he identifies 100 of them (a list being four or more items grouped together). He says Paul’s lists follow a purpose or theme, which he usually clearly identified. Each “spiritual gifts” list had a different theme.

  • Romans 12:6-8: functions of members in the church body (serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, showing mercy, prophecy).
  • Ephesians 4:11-12: persons whose job is to equip the saints for ministry (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers). 
  • 1 Corinthians 12:8-10: supernatural manifestations of the spirit (tongues, healing, prophecy–9 total).
  • 1 Corinthians 12:28-30: ministry assignments in the church (teachers, administrations, tongues, helps–9 total).

We shouldn’t lump all the items in these lists as “spiritual gifts.” That’s not what Paul intended.

The next four chapters deal with each individual list in its specific context. I’m really eating this up. It invalidates the Spiritual Gifts Test Industry, but it sure makes sense. So far. 

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2 Comments to Rethinking the Spiritual Gifts

  1. Adam Will

    Sometimes I think we try to make Spiritual gifts into a process rather than a move or work of God. But I wanted to speak to your point about them changing. About three months before I became a pastor, I took one in Bible College. I scored very high on pastoral care gifts, but very low in administation gifts. Now, in leading the congregation towards change, I have had to become an administrator and leader. I took a different test a year ago and found that after teaching, administration was my highest score. I really think that God changede me to make me a leader/ admin. for the local church becasue Eden has really lacked that in previous years.

    Another note: The spiritual gifts test our church uses is not really a “test” as much as an inventory. I really like that the company disclaims that the inventory does not determine your spiritual gifts but rather your strengths. Like you said, God uses the weak things. God used me to lead and administer the church when that has usually been my weakest point. The inventory also stresses, as do I, the importance of discovering your gifts through a local church.

    Great post.

  2. The past emphasis on spiritual gifts was somewhat effective in mobilizing a wide range of people to get involved in the local church. Rather than staff doing all the ministry in a church, volunteers were encouraged and trained to get involved in meaningful ways. The gift test/inventory was nice simple tool to help people quickly identify a “strength/gift” and get plugged in accordingly.

    For some churches, these tools may still be helpful. But as the church begins to think more organically and missionally about ministry, I think the emphasis on the inventory of spiritual gifts will fade. The essential point of spiritual gifts, according to my understanding, is that it is a gift of the Spirt of God…the point being that whatever situation you are in, God by his Spirit will help you do whatever he needs you to do.

    Everybody has a strength, and in wisdom they play to that strength throughout every area of life, at home, at church, at work, etc. But life is complicated enough and God’s work demanding enough that our weaknessess will emerge pretty quickly, and often our strengths to excess are our weaknessess, and we’ll have to rely on God’s Spirit to help us be “effective”.

    Rather than making Spiritual Gifts something about Sunday morning ministry, gifts of the Spirit are what we need to make through every day, to be used by God to further his good and healing work in the world.

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