The Spirit’s Gifts

‘All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.’ – 1 Cor. 12:11

Don’t look a gift-Spirit in the mouth.

As mentioned in the last post, the argument negating the existence of any gifts so named in the Scripture, biblically speaking, seems a rather arduous and unnecessary case to make. Nevertheless, one question then is: what counts as a “gift”? And in that I think we may find something well worth discussing.

Part of the reason, I feel, for the continuing division over the existence of gifts in the first place is an overemphasis on a few gifts over all the others. And this kind of undue emphasis does not just create impropriety among churches and believers, but imbalance. On a micro-level, an overemphasis on more “exciting” gifts tends to enable a dependence on “higher” experiences, so that not only are more higher ones manufactured, but much lower ones are just as common. Yet a de-emphasis on some gifts over others leads, as we mentioned on Monday, to a lax attitude towards the value of what we simply don’t like to see in Scripture, or what we feel is uncomfortable to us, perhaps at the expense of others — even though there is, at least more often than not, a rational explanation for what exists in the text. And yet also on a macro-level, we see an imbalance in church identity. In a voice I humorously think would sound much like Tom Wright’s: a church community existing with the gifts is proper, a church community existing because of the gifts is not. Gifts are given ‘individually,’ not to groups who exist to emphasize or highlight some of them at the expense of others. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, to use a trite expression. Once the gifts are not exercised, if the identity of the church ceases, we have a grave identity crisis that may even threaten the authenticity of those gifts. Biblically, though, the identity of the Church resides solely in the particular person of Christ, and not in any particular practice of gifts.

The key of finding root in a vine rather than the fruit is also important when considering the biblical assertion that God gave gifts to the Church, and that he apportions them “just as the Spirit chooses.” There are more than the gifts that cause so much controversy in the Church: roles for people (Eph. 4:11) are gifts as much as any particular sign (1 Cor. 12:1-11). In other words, God is in the business of giving abilities, and not identities. There is only one supra-Identity, if you like, and that is Christ himself. As quickly as we acknowledge the existence of gifts, we must be likewise quick to acknowledge that gifts are not identity, and that gifts can come and go as God sees fit. In other words, I believe the effective position to guard against the misuse and misunderstanding of gifts is not that they do not exist. Rather, the effective position is that gifts are not intended to be, nor ever have been, a form of identity or worth.

Once that position is truly understood, I believe we can expect to see a lot of positive results. First, it is to be expected that more true ecumenical unity in the Spirit flows, since there is naturally less cause for division (of both the micro and macro kinds, mentioned before). Second, gifts traditionally argued about become more readily acceptable across denominational lines. Third, gifts are more readily sought and practised responsibility, resulting in more actual, lasting, internal Spirit work, instead of temporary, superficial experiences sought merely to be maintained for its (or our) own sake.  Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, members of the Church, on either side of this false dichotomy, find an ever-increasing meaning and peace by resting in who their saviour is, and not what he gives them–not how much he accepts them by what they know, but how much he accepts them regardless of what they have.