I recently wrote about Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 (and Romans 12 and Ephesians 4).
It seems to me that there are three possible approaches to the “gifts” texts of Paul’s letters.
- New Testament gifts were “supernatural” (for lack of a better word) empowerments as the language suggests, and the Holy Spirit still bestows those supernatural gifts today. The church should help Christians discover which of the specified supernatural gifts they have been given for the good of the church.
- New Testament gifts were “supernatural” (for lack of a better word) empowerments as the language suggests, but many of these specific gifts are either less prevalent or have ceased in their New Testament form today. The church should help people explore how the Holy Spirit might use them for the good of the church without reference to specific lists of New Testament gifts.
- New Testament gifts were more akin to talents and abilities than they were to miraculous empowerments. The church should help Christians discover which of the specified gifts (talents, really) they have been given (or born with) for the good of the church.
It may not surprise you that I lean toward option 2.
Option 1 doesn’t match my experience, although Christians whom I love and respect believe it.
Option 3 doesn’t seem to take the New Testament’s claims about the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit in the early church seriously. When Paul says “working of miracles” in 1 Corinthians 12:10, I don’t think that he’s talking about “living in the miraculous reality of God’s creation.” I think that he’s talking about miracles.
There are any number of books and web sites to which you can turn to “discover” your spiritual gifts (i.e., natural gifts, abilities and interests). The church does need the natural gifts and abilities of its members, and certainly God is the ultimate source of all of them. It is inappropriate, however, to read these human abilities back into the New Testament’s lists of spiritual gifts as if they were talking about identical experiences.
It’s also a mistake to associate the gifts of the Spirit solely with natural abilities apart from the body of Christ. When Paul speaks of gifts, he’s specifically talking about those things that allow the church to be the church. For example, you may be good at picking up new languages – you may have a “gift” for it – but by itself that’s not what Paul is talking about when he discusses spiritual gifts.
There is a need, however, for language ability in the church’s evangelistic and compassionate mission in the world. If you use your ability in the service of Christ and his church, then that is completely in line with what Paul is talking about. An ability is not a spiritual gift unless it is used in the service of Christ.
Sometimes passion and hard work substitute for natural ability. Going back to our language example, not all missionaries may have a “knack” for language. Some may only “get it” after working very hard. Their passion, drive and desire sees them through. Is their drive not as much a “gift of the spirit” as any native ability?
And while many spiritual gifts are natural or acquired abilities baptized into the service of Christ, sometimes people are just able to do things that can’t be explained by biology, nurture, training or experience. The spirit blows where it wills. Sometimes, even now, God empowers the church for its work with means that transcend our understanding or abilities.
It really doesn’t matter how one obtains one’s gift – by nature, human effort or supernatural endowment. What matters is that the body of Christ is equipped for its life in the world, and every Christian is a part of that.