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Date Posted:16/04/2008 12:00 PMCopy HTML

[this lightly revised essay first appeared at, circa 2003]

An Overview of Spiritual Gifts

The subject of 'spiritual gifts' is sure to cause discussion within a range of Christian settings. The reason for this is simple: many Christians hold a very dogmatic view concerning the topic! I personally believe that many cherished opinions aren't as informed by a solid grasp of Scripture as they are by rigid, denominational biases: as the old Scottish proverb states, "many things in the Bible I see, most of them put there by you and by me".

The aim of this short essay is to consider, biblically and holistically, the subject of spiritual gifts. The purpose of this essay is principally educational and not polemical. Consequently, I hope that all who take the time to read this essay will consider my reasoning, theologically, and will critique my conclusions against Scripture.


In simple terms there are four major sections in the New Testament that describe specific 'gifts' given by God to the Church. In canonical order these are: Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12-14 (by far the most extended treatment on the subject); Ephesians 4:7-13; and 1 Peter 4:10 and 11. Excepting for the last example, all were written by the apostle Paul. This should force us to take time to consider Paul's theological perspective, but whether we do or don't, it's important to recognise that the individual accounts of spiritual manifestations that occur within the book of Acts, shouldn't be allowed to colour or shape our thinking on the closely related subject of spiritual gifts. This is due to the different contexts that underpin the different writings. What Luke chose to record, and his reasons for doing so, was completely different to the contexts that led to Paul and Peter to commit their teachings to writing. Appreciating the issue of context will prevent us from misrepresenting the Bible by 'proof-texting' its passages.

The specific Greek terms used within the New Testament to describe the various spiritual endowments vary from the rather mundane words for 'gift' (dorea and doma in Ephesians 4:7 and 8 respectively), to a cognate form of the Greek word for 'grace' (charismata in Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:4, 9, 28, 30 and 31; and 1 Peter 4:10), to a noun fashioned from the adjective 'spiritual' (pneumatika in 1 Corinthians 12:1; 14:1, and 37). Regardless of the specific term used, the underlying thought remains the same. Each word attempts to describe characteristic and divinely imparted, supernatural endowments given by God for the service of his people - the Church.

Over the centuries, considerable ink has been spilled in an attempt to distinguish between the so-called 'spiritual' gifts, and what many would probably consider to be 'natural' abilities. Scripture provides examples of manifestations that seem completely supernatural. On the other hand, some abilities apparently build upon a lifetime's worth of learning, preparation and experience. Paul's unique gift of apostleship is an example. Ultimately, however, Scripture clearly presents that the Spirit of God has the complete freedom to apportion his gifts in whatever way he chooses. Given that God remains the source, all gifts are equally spiritual in their origin and impartation.
One trait that's clear within the four New Testament 'gift' lists, is that they overlap at points, and vary at others. Therefore it's likely that none of the lists was ever intended to be exhaustive. The inference is that each list was probably intended to be suggestive of the diversity of ways in which God equips his people for their individual and corporate spiritual service. So any attempt to delimit the gifts into pre-prepared 'groups' is probably artificial, and might miss the mark behind the fashioning of the lists in the first place. However, being human many Christians do attempt to distinguish between gifts that require differing measures of the 'miraculous' (examples include the gifts of tongues and interpretation, miracles, prophecy, and healings) from others that seem less 'spectacular' (perhaps serving, helps and administration).

Overarching Principles

In considering the significance of spiritual gifts, we have to reflect on the principles that underlie the way God chooses to distribute them. Given the length of the discussion devoted to gifts in the letter, it's probably wise to review 1 Corinthians chapter 12 in some detail.

Paul drafted his 'first' letter to the believers at Corinth in a very structured, literarily complex fashion. He made wide use of the various forms of rhetoric that were common to the educated writing of his day. Being aware of this feature better enables us to identify that in listing nine specific manifestations, Paul introduced nine key principles that would establish their authenticity and proper use. These are:

1. The most basic criterion for distinguishing the truly Spirit-gifted person from the imitation, is the confession that Jesus is Lord (see vv. 1-3).

2. That each and every spiritual gift has its origin in the personal will of the Triune God (see vv. 4-6).

3. That every Christian, regardless of individual circumstances, has at least one spiritual gift (see v. 7a). No Christian needs to wait for a post-conversion 'experience' in order to be fully empowered for Christian service. This fact marks a clear distinction between the circumstances of the original Twelve, who had a very unique commission, from everyone that followed them. The apostles alone received the specific command to 'wait' (see Luke 24:49).

4. That all spiritual gifts are intended for the common edification of the church, and not for personal exaltation or display (see v. 7b).

5. In common with God's very nature, there's diversity within unity (see vv. 8-10). The result of this is that there's no basis for certain believers to expect that every other Christian will share the same gift or gifts.

6. All the gifts are given as the Holy Spirit determines, and not the believer. It's perfectly biblical to suggest that a Christian can pray for specific gifts (see 12:31a; 14:1 and 12), but there's no guarantee that God must comply with the believer's wish. Christians are given the gift or gifts that God chooses, according to his wisdom and purposes, and not our own.

7. All the gifts are necessary for the maturing of believers, therefore none may be disregarded as if they were nonessential (see vv. 14-26). The logical conclusion is that all the gifts are operative in the wider Christian Church today. However, Scripture doesn't make the mandate that every local church must give evidence of an exhaustive range of gifts being present. Given that it's God who grants gifts as he alone determines, we can rest in the assurance that every congregation has the gifts it requires to grow believers to spiritual maturity. Therefore no congregation should be 'unbalanced' in their practice or understanding of spiritual gifts.

8. There appears to be something of a hierarchy of gifts (see vv. 27-28), but the sequence seems to be more related to chronology than priority.

9. Perhaps most significant of all, no gift is available to all Christians (see vv. 29-30). For this reason, no specific gift may be made into a measure for salvation, sanctification, or spiritual status.
Facts, fantasies and theories

In the following chapter, chapter 13, Paul attempts to temper enthusiasm for the gift of tongues, by stressing that without love, all the spiritual gifts are completely worthless. Verses 1-3 graphically illustrate this point, by listing four representative examples: tongues, prophecy, faith, and giving. This suggests that verses 8 and 9 offer similar examples. Stress is laid on the point that could well have been illustrated with any of the gifts: compared with love all gifts are temporary. It might be helpful to consider what was once a fairly common misconception, by appealing to some significant features of Greek grammar. The verbs 'cease,' 'stilled,' and 'pass away' appear in the passage in synonymous parallelism. This rhetorical feature serves to indicate stylistic variation, nothing more. Consequently, there's absolutely no lexical or grammatical justification for suggesting that 'tongues will cease by themselves,' simply because the verb appears in the middle voice. In thirteen of the other fourteen uses of pauo in the New Testament (which are either middle or passive), the context for each is such that the grammatical force of the middle voice is never clearly demonstrated. 'Tongues', just as with prophecies and knowledge, will cease only 'when perfection comes' (see 13:10 in the NIV). Similarly, some Christians in the past have suggested that the 'perfect' that's described above indicated the close of an age that corresponded to the completion of the Bible canon, or to the death of the last of the original Apostles. This view can be completely disregarded and dismissed as anachronistic rather than exegetical. Not a single New Testament text supports this theory. In fact, the telos word group (from which teleion, or 'perfection,' derives) consistently refers in the New Testament to the end of the current age when Christ returns. The most relevant passage to consider concerning this discussion is the one which makes it perfectly clear that spiritual gifts are given to the Church until the appearing of Jesus: First Corinthians 1:7.

Paul's next discussion of spiritual gifts appears at the beginning of the parenetic section of Romans (chapters 12 to 16), the epistle that probably contains his most systematic presentation of Christian truth. We learn that, to Paul, a Christian's most essential obligation lies in his or her absolute dedication of both body and mind to God (see 12:1, 2). Next, that all believers are obligated to faithfully exercise their specific spiritual gifts (vv. 3-8). The most crucial consideration in them doing so is an accurate and honest self-estimation (vv. 3-5). Finally, following the sequence given in 1 Corinthians 12-13, Paul addresses himself to the priority of love above all else (12:9-13:10).

The discussion found in Ephesians 4 is slightly different again. It's here that Paul focuses more on gifted persons than he does on the gifts themselves. However, the broader theological issues remain much the same. We find that the gifts derive from Christ, who distributes them to all believers as he alone chooses (see v. 7). He does this in consequence of his incarnation and exaltation (vv. 8-10). In the passage, the specific examples that are provided focus solely on gifts for leadership within the church (see v. 11), but the principal responsibility of Spirit-empowered leaders is towards the training, equipping and releasing of all Christians for ministry within the Body (see vv. 12-13a). Only once this has been achieved, can any church consider itself to be spiritually mature (see v. 13b).
A Review of Specific Gifts

Without doubt, the two most controversial and problematic gifts within the Corinthian church were tongues and prophesy. The same gifts seem to demonstrate the greatest attention (and are just as problematic) within certain churches today.

First, it's debatable whether or not the form of prophecy that we read about in the New Testament was exactly the same as in the Old Testament. It appears that the replacement to the Old Testament prophets weren't the New Testament prophets, but the Twelve Apostles. These men alone were held to be capable of making infallible pronouncements, and of having the direct authority to write Scripture. According to Peter's interpretation of Joel's supernatural insight (see Acts 2:28-32), 'prophecy', in some respect, would be characteristic of the entire period from the Ascension of Jesus Christ, to the Consummation of the Ages - known biblically as the 'last days'.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul instructs the wayward believers to give preference to prophecy over tongues, because prophecy, being immediately intelligible, is profitable (see vv. 1-19). Similarly, he directs that those members of the church recognised as 'prophets', along with the remainder of believers, were to assess the content of the prophetic messages delivered (see v. 29).

Given that the purpose of prophecy is to 'forth tell' as well as 'foretell' God's will or purposes, contemporary examples of prophecy might include sermons that God powerfully applies to the church, or to a Christian's heart; to more instantaneous and spontaneous revelations of God's will. Prophecy, being a partnership between the wills and minds of God and men, will necessarily involve the mixing of genuinely divine words, and fallible human interpretations of them.

As a spiritual gift that's given only to those whom God chooses, the discerning of spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10) can't be the same as the responsibility of evaluating prophecy that's required of all believers in a church. Instead, it refers to a special capacity to distinguish the source of an allegedly inspired statement, differentiating between true and false messengers of God.

The nature of the gift of tongues and the interpretation of tongues must be determined by Paul's teaching, given that he is the only biblical author to address the subject. The assumption that the three instances of the manifestation of languages, which Luke recorded in his 'Acts' (2:1-13; 10:46; 19:6) described the same ability as the gift of tongues given to the Church should be questioned [see Acts 2:38]. Given that the spiritual gift of tongues is individual rather than corporately expressed, and that it requires a subsequent interpretation, automatically distinguishes it from the experience of Pentecost. Important to our understanding is that the Greek word glossa can refer to virtually any kind of vocal expression, whether linguistically structured or otherwise. The gift of tongues, as Paul teaches, refers to divinely given speech which is unintelligible to both speaker and hearers, but which must be 'interpreted' by either the speaker (which infers that 'tongues' and 'interpretation' are imparted jointly by God's Spirit) or by another person sharing the gift. If an interpreter isn't present, then the tongues-speakers are commanded to remain silent (14:27-28). Importantly, the passage provides absolutely no Scriptural warrant for corporate tongues-speaking during prayer meetings or other supposedly 'closed' sessions. If the gift of tongues is exercised in public, then according to Paul it must be interpreted.

The gifts of healings and miracles are two of the overtly 'supernatural' manifestations. The fact that both are double plural nouns (see 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28) suggests that Paul may have intended different kinds of miraculous gifts, or that the gifts themselves shouldn't be viewed as permanent possessions. If this last theory is the case, then the Spirit gives the two gifts specifically, as the need arises. 'Healings' involves the restoring of physical health, whilst 'miracles' embraces a much wider variety of supernatural phenomena. Importantly, a spiritual gift of healing should be differentiated from a miraculous healing that God works in direct answer to prayer (see James 5:13-18), and from the normal work of doctors.

Faith is an attribute - a 'fruit' - that's required of all believers (see 1 Corinthians 12:9). The spiritual gift, however, is distinguished from the fruit, in that it involves a supernaturally distinctive ability to trust God to work in unusual ways or during particularly difficult situations. In this way, the gift of faith has considerable power for uplifting the entire community of believers during adversity.

Messages of wisdom and messages of knowledge display themselves in supernaturally wise and knowledgeable speech (1 Corinthians 12:8). Wisdom in Scripture consistently refers to applied knowledge or practical insight, which is fundamentally moral in its character. Knowledge, on the other hand, refers particularly to the acquisition and impartation of spiritual truths. The messages of wisdom and knowledge refer to spiritually discerned communications that are given by God to certain people within the church, to address specific needs or circumstances.

The gifts of service, giving, mercy, and helps once again magnify character traits that all believers should demonstrate. The 'serving' mentioned in Romans 12:7 derives from the same Greek root as does the term 'deacon', and might involve the kind of practical aid that was rendered in Acts 6:1-6. 'Giving' can also be translated as 'contributing to the needs of others' (Romans 12:8a), and probably focuses on material assistance directed towards the poor or dispossessed. 'Showing mercy' (v. 8b) highlights other forms of compassionate care that is possibly directed to the needy, the sick, and the elderly. 'Those able to help others' (1 Corinthians 12:28) is likely the 'Corinthian' equivalent to the above listed 'Roman' gifts.

In his writings Luke generally applies the title 'apostle' in a fairly narrow and technical sense, to identify the Twelve plus Paul (see Acts 1:21-22). Paul himself, however, employs the term more generally, and also as a specific spiritual gift given to the church (see 1 Corinthians 12:29 and Ephesians 4:11). In the general Christian context the term 'apostle' corresponds to the modern term 'missionary'. Evangelists, on the other hand, are those who preach the gospel to the unsaved with powerful results.

Teachers are men and women whose primary task is the communicating of Christian truth within the context of a community of believers. Importantly, teaching can often overlap with prophecy (see Acts 13:1), given that both explain God's Word to others. Principally, however, teaching focuses more towards content than immediate revelation.

The expression poimen (Ephesians 4:11) describes a shepherd. The spiritual gift of 'shepherding' doesn't correspond to the role and functions of the modern 'pastor', is limited specifically to the practice of pastoral care.
Kybernesis (see 1 Corinthians 12:28), is generally translated as 'administration' into English, although it is also rendered as 'oversight' in certain contexts. This gift, therefore, encompasses the functions of governing in the context of church leadership.

The Greek verb proistemi (Romans 12:8) can refer both to the exercising of leadership, and to the provision of practical aid. Therefore, it's likely to be the 'Roman' equivalent to all the gifts of leadership that are outlined in Ephesians chapter four. The cognate noun prostatis refers specifically to one who serves as a patron, and probably describes the Christian who uses his or her financial resources to support needy people within the church as well as outside it.
Summary and conclusion

It's clear from Scripture that none of the gifts have ceased, given that they are without doubt the most fundamental way in which ministry occurs within the Christian Age (see Acts 2:17-21 and 1 Corinthians 1:7). Although some of the gifts appear to be more prominent during the past century, there's no guarantee that all the cases of these are, in fact, genuine. The unified teaching of Scripture is that each and every gift is to be tested and evaluated in order to determine it's specific source. This is necessary given that Satan can counterfeit all the spiritual gifts, as they don't require a sanctified character to be used effectively. The spiritual graces (the fruit of the Spirit), however, can't be.

The gift of tongues continues to be given an unhealthy degree of attention in Revivalist circles. But according to Paul it remains, nonetheless, the 'least of all gifts.' Although Paul didn't forbid its use, he clearly tempered the harmful enthusiasm for the gift of tongues by some at Corinth, by boldly declaring that the better gifts were the ones that should have been sought.

In closing, each spiritual gift has its place within the Community of Faith, and each serves a role in the teaching and training of God's people. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that spiritual gifts aren't given to men and women to foster pride or promote separation from others. The gifts are intended to instill the humility that comes from service, whilst at the same time promoting unity within the church. If neither results, then the 'gifts' being exercised must be viewed as suspect.
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