Enter your e-mail address to receive my newsletter and series update notices. For more info and a sample newsletter, click here.

Note: If you get an error message when you try to subscribe, let me know. I will not use your e-mail for any other purpose. You can unsubscribe at any time using the button below.
        Subscribe         Unsubscribe


The High Calling

Laity Lodge

Featured Book

Website for
Linda Roberts

St. Mark
Presbyterian Church,
Boerne, TX

Resources for Leaders



Visitors so far:

Guest Bloggers

Irvine Presbyterian Church

Spiritual Gifts; The Body of Christ; Spiritual Gifts in the Church

Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2008 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ: Introduction

Part 1 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

I just recently finished an extended series on the church as the body of Christ. Building on that foundation, I want now to consider the function of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ. Little is more important for the health and growth of the body of Christ than the power of the Holy Spirit manifested in what we call spiritual gifts. Through such bits of grace, the Spirit builds the body of Christ. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that the Holy Spirit is a bodybuilder.

During my freshman year of college I took a job washing dishes in one of the Harvard dorms on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings. After spending a couple of hours in a hot, steamy dish room, I was pretty hot and steamy myself, so I took advantage of my condition and worked out in the weight room of the Indoor Athletic Building. I wasn’t planning to bulk up or anything like that. I just wanted to remain in reasonably decent shape.

Every time I went to the weight room, there was Mike. He was a honors English major at Harvard. Now if this description conjures up in your mind an image of a skinny person with glasses whose head is buried in a book of obscure poetry, you'd be partly right, but only about the poetry. Mike did love his poetry! But he was, besides a fan of English literature, a committed body builder. He looked more like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator than Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter!

Mike approached weight lifting from a completely different perspective than I did. In thirty minutes, I'd quickly work each muscle group and be ready to hit the showers. Mike, on the other hand, would focus the whole time on one particular muscle. I found it fascinating to ask him: "So, what are you doing tonight?" He'd point to a place on his body and say, "I'm working on my left anterior deltoid. It's a little bit smaller than the right one and I need to be more balanced." Then, by using free weights to exercise this particular muscle, Mike would continue to mold his body as if working with clay. This molding, however, took not a few minutes of artistic manipulation, but years of strenuous exertion. Mike's goal was to have a perfectly shaped body, a paragon of physical strength. All of his effort paid off in the end when Mike won the title of Mr. Collegiate America. (Photo: No, not a picture of Mike. Not a picture of me either.)

The Holy Spirit is a bodybuilder rather like Mike. With even more dedication than he demonstrated, the Spirit of God seeks to build up the church as the body of Christ. Like a committed bodybuilder, the Spirit invests years–indeed, millennia–of effort to help the church grow to perfection. Of course ultimate perfection won’t come this side of the eschaton. But, in the meanwhile, the Spirit molds the church, using members of the church–people like you and me–in the process.

In order to help us build and shape the church, the Spirit gives us gifts of power. These gifts are described in detail in 1 Corinthians 12-14. To this passage and its context we’ll turn in my next post in this series.

The Abuse of Spiritual Experiences in Corinth . . . and Today

Part 2 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last post I introduced the bodybuilding work of the Spirit. The church, as the body of Christ, is shaped and enlarged by the work of the Spirit through ordinary members of the body.

This bodybuilding work of the Spirit is explained in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Paul did not write about the gifts of the Spirit simply to provide basic instruction for the new believers in Corinth, however. He wrote because the Corinthian Christians there were at odds over their diverse experiences and interpretations of the Spirit's power. Like all Christians, those in Corinth had received the indwelling presence of the Spirit when they first trusted Christ for salvation. By the Spirit, they had been generously blessed with lots of spiritual manifestations, or at least some of the Corinthians had been so blessed (1 Cor 1:4-7).

In particular, certain people in the congregation were speaking in tongues (unknown languages). This may not have been a problem, except for the way the tongues-speakers were behaving. Not only did they interrupt the Christian gatherings with their unintelligible speech, but also they boasted of their spiritual prowess, claiming to speak in the language of heaven itself (1 Cor 13:1; 14:6-19). They even criticized other brothers and sisters who did not adopt their highfalutin practices, denigrating their spiritual maturity and questioning their value to the church (1 Cor 12:14-17). Those who thought of themselves as super-spiritual used their supernatural manifestations for their own selfish gain, to the detriment of the Christian community.

From Paul's point of view, these folk got it all wrong–or almost all wrong. Speaking in tongues was not wrong, per se, as Paul would explain in 1 Corinthians 14. In fact, he claimed to speak in tongues more than any of the Corinthians (1 Cor 14:18). But their understanding of the purpose and significance of this experience was completely off base. Its effect in the community was precisely opposite from what the Holy Spirit intended. So as he wrote 1 Corinthians, Paul added a substantial discussion of spiritual empowerment to his letter, the chapters we identify as 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Ironically, we have seen what might be called an outbreak of “Corinthianism” in the last fifty years. Positively, millions of Christians began to discover the power of the Spirit through spiritual gifts. Negative, this often caused division in the church, sometimes because the “spiritual” folk focused too much attention on speaking in tongues, just like the Corinthians had done 1900 years earlier.

Let me supply a bit of history that places our conversation of spiritual gifts in context.

Awareness of the Holy Spirit has grown among Christians during the last several decades, in part because of the prominence of Pentecostal and so-called "charismatic" expressions of Christianity. Pentecostalism takes its name from the Jewish festival of Pentecost, during which the Holy Spirit was first poured out upon the earliest followers of Jesus (Acts 2).

Beginning early in the twentieth century, certain Christians experienced a powerful outpouring of the Spirit not unlike that of the first believers. They fashioned a theology of the Christian life in which a Pentecost-like experience or "second blessing" of the Holy Spirit was essential for all believers. Pentecostalism was characterized by emotional exuberance in worship and the exercise of spiritual gifts not generally practiced among Christians, especially speaking in tongues (or unknown languages). Because of its perceived peculiarity and disconnection from mainline denominations, Pentecostalism remained on the fringes of Christendom. (Photo: 312 Azusa St., Los Angeles, California. A Pentecostal revival started at the Azusa Street Mission in 1906, under the leadership of William J. Seymour.)

In the 1960's, however, Pentecostal reality began to impact these denominations. Both clergy and lay people in mainline churches had life-transforming experiences of the Holy Spirit and began to worship in the more expressive style of the Pentecostals. Yet they remained actively involved in their own churches as part of a "charismatic" renewal movement. The word "charismatic" means "gifted" and focuses upon certain "gifts" that can accompany the presence of the Holy Spirit. ("Charismatic" is an unfortunate word choice, as we'll see later, because all true Christians are gifted by the Holy Spirit whether they identify themselves as "charismatic" or not.)

Sadly, the charismatic presence in churches often led to conflict, partly for theological reasons, partly because of divergent worship preferences, and mostly because Christians both for and against the charismatics failed to exercise patience, humility, and Christ-like love. The charismatics, whose experience of the Holy Spirit was often associated with speaking in tongues, generally made this particular gift the most important of all. Sometimes they even tried to pressure other Christians into speaking in tongues, a strategy that was neither loving nor productive nor consistent with a biblical theology of the Spirit. Christians who didn’t speak in tongues felt rightly denigrated, and responded not only with theological critique, but often by rejecting both the charismatics and the spiritual experiences they were having.

In the last couple of decades, however, unity among "charismatic" and "non-charismatic" Christians has been substantially restored. Many who have had dramatic encounters with the Holy Spirit have revised their theology to reflect biblical teaching rather than their experiences, thus minimizing theological objections to their understanding of the Spirit. Moreover, formerly fervent opponents of "charismania" have realized that their own theological commitments were sometimes built upon their limited experience of the Spirit, rather than biblical teaching about the Spirit's presence and power. Some differences of theology and experience of the Spirit still remain, but these are less divisive than they were since many Christians have rightly emphasized their true unity in Christ.

In my view, the most important corrective to the “Corinthianism” of the last fifty years and the negative response it spawned has come from a careful study of the biblical teaching on spiritual gifts, especially as it’s found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. So, to this text we will return in my next post in this series.

The Ministry of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12-14

Part 3 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

So far in this series on Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ, I’ve explained that the Holy Spirit is like a bodybuilder who seeks to build up the body of Christ. The Spirit does this, in part, by empowering members of the body with what we call spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 we find substantial teaching about these gifts.

When we seek to understand the bodybuilding ministry of the Spirit by studying these chapters, we confront a couple of knotty problems. First of all, Paul's discussion was not intended as a systematic theology of the Spirit's ministry, but rather as a specific response to a troublesome situation in Corinth. Many essential points about the Spirit were not mentioned by Paul because they were not immediately relevant to the problem at hand. Plus, some of what Paul said is very difficult for us to interpret because we don't know exactly what behavior he was addressing (for example, the passage about women in 14:34-35). As we attempt to derive instruction on the Spirit for ourselves from 1 Corinthians, we must keep in mind the original purpose and focus of Paul's counsel. (Photo: A picture of the remains of ancient Corinth.)

Second, because Paul's discussion of spiritual empowerment is situational and not systematic, those who attempt to construct more general teaching on spiritual gifts do not agree on many of the details. Wise, well-educated, Christ-centered, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled Christians have come up with different interpretations of 1 Corinthians 12-14. There is no widespread consensus on many of the particulars in this passage and its application to the church today.

Nevertheless, I do believe that we can derive a solid understanding of spiritual gifts from 1 Corinthians 12-14. In my interpretation of these chapters, I will try to be faithful to the text of Scripture. As I explain this passage, I will also note some of the differences of opinion among Christians so that you can weigh my interpretation carefully in light of other options. You will find that the rest of this blog series will stick closely to the content and order of the biblical text.

Though scholars and pastors differ on some of the details concerning spiritual gifts, most are agreed on the main points, and these are what really matter for our purposes here. Putting secondary concerns aside, this passage teaches that the Holy Spirit empowers all members of the church for the purpose of building up the church, the body of Christ. Your assignment as an individual Christian, therefore, is to contribute to this bodybuilding process through faithfully exercising the gifts that the Spirit gives you.

What are Spiritual Gifts?

What are spiritual gifts? Paul includes "gifts" among the empowerments provided by the Holy Spirit:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of serving, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of energizing, but the same God who energizes everything in everyone. The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the common good (1 Cor 12:4-7, my translation).

Among that which God provides, Paul includes "gifts" from the Spirit, that which we call "spiritual gifts."

The Greek word translated as "gift" is, literally, charisma. It does not carry our connotation of "charisma," however, as when we say, “That political candidate has lots of charisma.” Rather, charisma refers to something that has been freely given. A charisma is not the Christmas present you have to give because it's expected of you, but something you give freely and joyously because you want to. In fact the Greek word charisma comes from the Greek word charis, or "grace." A charisma, therefore, is a little bit of grace. When we become Christians, we receive a giant, once-never-to-be-repeated gift of grace in our salvation (Eph 2:8). Yet that does not exhaust God's giving to us. Throughout the rest of our lives as believers, the Spirit keeps on giving still more grace, tidbits of grace, instances of charisma – what we call "spiritual gifts."

Unfortunately for our purposes, Paul never gives a definition of these bits of grace. In 1 Corinthians 12 he does provide a list of examples, and from this list we can more-or-less figure out a definition of spiritual gifts. To this list I’ll turn in my next post in this series.

Defining “Spiritual Gifts”

Part 4 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last post I asked the question: What are spiritual gifts? I explained that Paul does not define the phrase “spiritual gifts” in his writings. In fact, the phrase “spiritual gift” (charisma pneumatikon) does not actually appear in the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Instead of providing a definition, Paul offers a list of representative gifts from the Spirit. From this list and the surrounding discussion we can formulate a reasonable definition of “spiritual gift.”

Paul’s list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 is representative only, since it doesn't include all possible gifts. Paul mentions those gifts that fit his particular argument right here; elsewhere he mentions others (see Rom 12:6-11 or 1 Cor 12:28, for example). The list doesn't give us a definition of "spiritual gift," but merely some illustrations. Nevertheless, this list helps us to discover Paul's notion of spiritual gifts:

To one person a word of wisdom is given through the Spirit; to another a word of knowledge is given according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another workings of powers; to another a prophecy; to another discernments of spirits; to another kinds of tongues; to another an interpretation of tongues (1 Cor 12:8-10, my translation).

This translation is awkward because I have tried to represent Paul's own words very literally. Many common misunderstandings of his teaching depend up inaccurate English translations of the Greek which mislead the reader.

Spiritual gifts include: a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, faith, workings of power, a prophecy, discernments of spirits, kinds of tongues, an interpretation of tongues. Notice the variation in Paul's language. "A word of wisdom," singular, can be a gift. Or gifts can be spoken of in the plural, "workings of powers." If we put aside our preconceptions about spiritual gifts, what is Paul describing here? He seems to be talking about spiritual empowerments provided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives extra bits of grace, some of which are spoken (messages of knowledge and wisdom, prophecy, kinds of tongues, an interpretation of tongues), others of which are experienced without words (faith, workings of powers). All are given for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).

There is plenty of debate among commentators over the precise nature of these gifts. I don't think we'll ever know for sure this side of heaven exactly what Paul means. But I do think examples from elsewhere in Scripture can help us figure out his basic sense. In Acts 14, for example, we encounter the following incident from Paul's life:

While they were at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas came upon a man with crippled feet. He had been that way from birth, so he had never walked. He was listening as Paul preached, and Paul noticed him and realized he had faith to be healed. So Paul called to him in a loud voice, "Stand up!" And the man jumped to his feet and started walking (Acts 14:8-10).

Two spiritual gifts function here. First, Paul realized that the crippled man had the faith to be healed, apparently without discovering this by ordinary means (asking questions of the man, for example). Paul knew it because the Spirit revealed it to him directly, giving him what might be called a "word of knowledge." Second, the lame man was enabled to walk as the Spirit gave him a gift of healing through Paul. (Photo: The so-called Spring of St. Paul at Lystra, in modern Turkey. Photo from

As the story of Acts continues, Paul was journeying back to Jerusalem. Along the way he stopped in the city of Tyre where he stayed with some Christians for a week. Some of these "told Paul through the Spirit not to go on to Jerusalem" (Acts 21:4, my translation). Here we have another example of a spiritual gift. The Spirit gave a particular piece of information and counsel to Paul through some other believers. He would have called this a "word of wisdom" (or perhaps a "prophecy").

In both of these stories, spiritual gifts are momentary empowerments provided by the Spirit to promote the work of God. This seems to me to be the best way to talk about spiritual gifts. When the Spirit reveals information, or heals one who is sick, or provides counsel, the revelation, healing, and advice are bits of grace or spiritual gifts.

I didn't always think of spiritual gifts from this perspective. As a youth I was taught that the gifts are not situational bursts of power for ministry but indwelling abilities given by the Spirit at the moment of conversion. "When you accepted Christ," I was told, "the Spirit gave you a spiritual gift. Your job is to discover it and to use it." But this way of thinking always confused me. I wondered why Paul never actually told us to discover our gift and use it, if this was the key to ministering in spiritual gifts. I couldn't see how the "one gift for one person" view was consistent with Paul's teaching that "there are varieties of energizing, but the same God, who energizes everything in everyone" (1 Cor 12:6, MDR). This verse doesn't assign one gift for one person, but seems to imply that one person can experience all of the gifts (so also 1 Cor 14:26).

Moreover, it seemed very difficult to distinguish spiritual gifts from natural talents and abilities. I was told by my youth leaders that I "had the gift of teaching," but I knew that my ability to teach also reflected my natural endowments, education, and family culture. (There are many teachers in my family.) When I raised this point of confusion with my leaders, I was told that a spiritual gift is "a talent offered to God for ministry." But I couldn't find that description anywhere in Scripture. It seemed to turn spiritual gifts upside down, as something we offer to God, rather than as something the Spirit gives us.

In my next post I’ll say more about what I believe spiritual gifts are, and what they are not.

Spiritual Gifts as “Momentary Empowerments” for Ministry

Part 5 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last post in this series I sought to define spiritual gifts as they are explained in 1 Corinthians 12-14. I suggested the following definition:

Spiritual gifts are momentary empowerments provided by the Spirit to promote the work of God.

The notion of momentary empowerments differs from the most common understanding of spiritual gifts. According to this perspective, a spiritual gift is something you have if you are a Christian. If, for example, you are good at teaching the Bible in a church group, it is often said that you “have” the gift of teaching. I find it more accurate to say that you are often given gifts of teaching which, combined with your natural abilities surrendered to the Lord and your careful study of Scripture, enable you to be an effective Bible teacher. I don’t think a spiritual gift is something you have so much as something you use in a given situation when it is needed.

The whole idea of "having" or "possessing" spiritual gifts, language Paul rarely uses, by the way, seems to have peculiar implications (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 7:7; 1 Cor 12:30). For example, when I was a teenager, my youth leader claimed to "have" the gift of teaching. Usually the empowerment of the Spirit was evident in his teaching. But, every now and then, like most teachers, he would have a bad day. His explanations were hard to follow. His illustrations were duds. What happened to his gift? Did it disappear? Did he fail to use it? Did it conk out just when he needed it? If spiritual gifts that we have can fail to work when they are needed, how can we rely upon them?

Years ago, when I was struggling to understand spiritual gifts, I was helped by two outstanding Christian teachers. Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, my pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church when I was a teenager, taught that the Spirit gives gifts to new Christians, but that the process doesn't end there. Yes, we should discover and use our gifts, Dr. Ogilvie advised, but we should also be open to yet more gifting by the Spirit. This fit 1 Corinthians 12-14 better than the "one gift for one person" model. Dr. Ogilvie still talked about “having” spiritual gifts, but his use of the verb “to have” was much more fluid than the traditional model allowed. (Photo: Lloyd Ogilvie at my installation as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church)

When I was in my twenties, I heard John Wimber, pastor of the Anaheim Vineyard, teach a lesson on spiritual gifts. He began by speaking of the gifts as momentary empowerments for ministry. I’m not sure if he used this exact phrase, but that was the gist of his teaching. All of a sudden everything clicked for me. Even without hearing the rest of Pastor Wimber's message, I knew that he had supplied the key that unlocked Paul's original meaning.

Let me to summarize this meaning in a nutshell. Spiritual gifts are situational, momentary empowerments given by the Spirit in specific situations of need. Gifts are not badges of honor or demonstrations of spiritual maturity. They are not resident abilities or added talents. They are bursts of divine power given when the Spirit decides that one who ministers needs some extra help. If you are praying for someone to be healed, for example, you need a gift of healing from the Spirit. If the Spirit happens to give that gift through you, it doesn't mean that you now "have the gift of healing." That might be the only time in your life when a gift of healing flows through you (although if you continue to pray regularly for the sick, it's likely that you will be the conduit for gifts of healing again).

Certain spiritual gifts are closely correlated with natural abilities and talents. Gifts of teaching or knowledge, for example, help those with the ability to teach to be even more effective in their work of teaching. But gifts of teaching are also given to those who have little natural ability when they are called upon to explain something about God. Many people experience this gift without realizing that it is a spiritual gift of teaching. I think of parents in my church in Irvine, for example, whose children asked them really tough theological questions. The parents' initial response was usually something like: "Oh my goodness! Where did that come from? I have no idea at all!" But in many cases parents reported to me that "all of a sudden" they had great answers to tricky questions. Where did these answers come from? They were gifts of teaching, given by the Spirit to help parents minister to their children.

In my seminary classes I have taught this situational or need-based understanding of spiritual gifts. Some of my students, especially those who have embraced the "possession and use" view of gifts, have been troubled. One raised this objection: "You're telling me that I don't 'have' the gift of preaching. Yet I'm going to stand up this Sunday and preach. If I don't 'have' the gift of preaching, then I have no business pretending to preach God's word. I shouldn't even try." What encouragement can I give to a man who feels like I have just pulled the spiritual rug out from under his ministry?

First of all, I believe that what the Spirit has done in the past is a good indication of what he will do in the future. If a person has been regularly empowered in the past with gifts relevant for preaching (knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, teaching), this tells us something about how the Spirit will continue to work through that person.

Second, if God has called a person to the ministry of preaching, then God will also supply the spiritual power needed for that ministry. That's one of the main reasons God has given the gift of the Spirit, to empower us for that to which he has assigned us.

Third, and most important of all, those of us who dare to preach may not "have" the gift of preaching, but we have something far better: the gift of the Holy Spirit. Within us resides the Giver of all gifts, the source of unlimited spiritual power. When I step up to preach, I am not relying on my gift, but on the third person of the Trinity, on God the Holy Spirit. What could be better and more inspiring than this? What would you rather have if you’re a preacher? A gift of preaching or the very Spirit of God? I’ll take the Spirit. More importantly, I think this is what Scripture teaches about the nature of spiritual gifts.

Of course, when I preach I also utilize my own natural abilities, my talents, and my educational background. Although these are not spiritual gifts in the narrow sense, they are gifts from God in a broader sense. As Paul reminds the Corinthians: "What do you have that God hasn't given you?" (1 Cor 4:7). You and I need to use everything God has given us, every talent, every opportunity, every relationship, every dollar – everything for God's purposes. We are to be faithful stewards or managers of all that God has entrusted to us, including creation itself! Spiritual gifts come along when we need some additional help to do that which God places before us.

When and How Do We Receive Spiritual Gifts?

Part 6 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

You may be wondering why I am spending so much time in this series on clarifying the nature of spiritual gifts. I am doing so because I believe that a correct understanding will lead us into greater empowerment for ministry and will strengthen the overall ministry of the church. The "discover and use your gift" model of spiritual gifts has been extremely helpful for people who are getting started in ministry. It has given them a focus for their efforts within the church and has, therefore, contributed to the upbuilding of the body of Christ. One way to find out the ministry to which God has called you is by looking at how the Spirit has empowered you in the past, a process some would call "discovering your gift." (I think Paul would call it "discovering how God has gifted you in the past.")

Although there are benefits to the "discover and use your gift" model, it only takes you so far in ministry. If, for example, you believe that you do not "have the gift of teaching," when it's time for folks to serve as Sunday School teachers, you can simply say: "That's not my gift. I have the gift of administration (1 Cor 12:28)." But this response might be limiting God’s work in and through you. It may just be that God is calling you to teach Sunday School in spite of your lack of previous experience and gifting. If you don't say "yes" to God's call, you'll never the gifts of teaching God had intended to give through you. Your experience will be limited and the church will be deprived of your contribution to its growth. If, on the other hand, you trust God by stepping out into this new area of ministry, God will then empower you with new gifts of teaching. You will be blessed, children will be discipled, the church will be edified, and God will be glorified. But none of this will happen if you don’t step out in faith, trusting that the Spirit of God who lives within you will give you the power you need to do God’s work.

This example of Sunday School teaching helps to illustrate when and how spiritual gifts are given. After listing out some representative gifts in 1 Cor 12:8-10, Paul says, "The one and the same Spirit energizes all of these gifts, distributing to each one as he [the Spirit] wishes" (1 Cor 12:11, my translation). We can't make spiritual gifts happen. It's not our responsibility to do so. Rather, gifts come according to the will of the Spirit.

When does the Spirit chose to provide these added bits of grace? When they are needed for ministry. Gifts that help a person teach Sunday School come as that person is teaching (or, perhaps, preparing to teaching). Remember the story from Acts 14. Paul didn't receive gifts of knowledge and healing prior to his encounter with the lame man. Rather, when the Spirit chose to heal that man as Paul was ministering, Paul was given a bit of knowledge about the man's readiness to be healed and the power to restore the man's legs.

There are two obvious prerequisites for receiving spiritual gifts. First, you must be a Christian and therefore one in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. Second, you must be doing the work of Christ, or, at any rate, be readily available for that work. You won't receive spiritual gifts by locking yourself in the closet and praying for them until they show up, though it is certainly appropriate to ask God for the gifts you need. You won't receive spiritual gifts if you live as a Christian couch potato, watching the action but never getting involved. You will receive extra bits of grace for ministry only when you step out in faith to minister. (Photo: Not apt to receive spiritual gifts.)

Of course this can be a little scary. In order to be a conduit for the Spirit's power, you have to be in a situation where it is needed. This means that you are out on a limb, spiritually speaking, and forced to depend on the Spirit. There is always a sense of risk and adventure in the ministry of the Spirit. But when we take on the risk, the Spirit proves to be both faithful and powerful.

My friend Robert is an avid baseball fan. Even though he lives in Southern California, Robert has found a way to attend almost all of the World Series games in recent history. It doesn't matter who is playing or where. Robert tries to get there. One year the series was close, with the American and National league teams battling evenly to the seventh game. Robert didn't have tickets for this final game, which was being played on the east coast. But would lack of a ticket and distance from the game stop him? Not Robert! He started making phone calls to friends he knew who were connected to the home team for the last game. Before too long he found someone named Jerry in the team organization who was willing to let Robert use one of his reserved "family" tickets. Robert didn't know Jerry personally, but they had mutual friends. Jerry promised through one of these friends that the precious ticket would be waiting for Robert at the "will call" window of the stadium.

Thrilled with his good luck, Robert quickly bought a plane ticket, boarded at Los Angeles International Airport, and began his trip to baseball heaven. But while flying somewhere over the Midwest, Robert began to reflect upon what he had done. Here he was, having spent a wad of money to fly across the country, going to a game for which he had no ticket. He had nothing in writing to prove to the folks at "will-call" that he deserved a ticket. He didn't even know Jerry's phone number. Moreover, Robert mused, he was going to use one of Jerry's "family" tickets, even though Jerry and Robert were obviously from different ethnic backgrounds. They didn't even look like distant relatives. "I feel like a fool," Robert concluded. "What am I doing? What a giant waste of time and money!"

When he arrived at the city where the game was to be played, Robert almost turned around to fly home. But he decided to risk still further disappointment and embarrassment at the stadium. He arrived there just a few moments before the game began. Anticipating the worst, he approached the "will call" window.

"My name is Robert Wilson," he said, "and I have a ticket waiting for me."

"OK, Mr. Wilson, let me check," said the man behind the window.

The wait seemed endless to Robert. After what felt like hours but was really only a couple of minutes, the man returned. "Mr. Robert Wilson, do you have some identification?"

"Sure," Robert volunteered, "showing his driver's license."

"Here's your ticket, sir. Enjoy the game!"

As you can well imagine, Robert did enjoy the game.

If you are going to enjoy ministering in spiritual gifts, you need to step out in faith, trusting that the gifts you need for ministry will be provided when you actually need them. When you show up at the Holy Spirit's "will-call" window, the Spirit will always give you what is best. Remember whom it is that we trust: not some unfamiliar friend of a friend, but the very Spirit of God with whom we have daily fellowship.

One of the most common contexts for the receiving of spiritual gifts is personal evangelism. I have heard scores of Christians relate a very similar story. They walk out on a limb by beginning to share their faith with a friend. As they are doing so, they need to refer to a specific Bible passage, but they can't remember the passage. At this moment they approach God's "will call" window by praying silently: "Lord, help me!" Then, all of a sudden, as if by magic, they know both the words of the passage and sometimes even the reference. It isn't magic, to be sure, but a gift of the Spirit, an added bit of grace to increase the effectiveness of their faith sharing.

All Gifts Matter to the Body of Christ

Part 7 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

After beginning his correction of Corinthian abuses by outlining the nature of spiritual gifts, Paul proceeds to an extensive discussion of the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-27). Because I have written about this in my recent series, The Church as the Body of Christ, I’ll make only a couple of summary observations here.

At the moment of conversion, every believer receives the Holy Spirit and is simultaneously immersed by the Spirit in the church, the body of Christ. Each Christian is necessarily and permanently connected to the fellowship of other Christians. Yet that does not mean every individual is just the same as every other. For, even as the human body is made up of different parts, so it is with the body of Christ. Diversity among members is essential to the body's very nature and existence. But the diverse parts are also unified, composing one body together. Therefore, every individual part of the body is necessary to the whole. No part can exclude itself, or be excluded by others. In fact, the apparently less important members of the body are actually those which receive greater honor. (Photo: El Greco, "The Pentecost," 1596-1600

It's easy to see how this metaphor addressed the problems in Corinth. The “super-spiritual” folk who boasted of their superiority because they spoke in tongues were wrong to dismiss others as unimportant to the church. And the others, who bought the false line of their own worthlessness, were wrong to denigrate their value to the body. All believers are essential to the church, no matter what spiritual gifts they have manifested in the past.

As it turns out, most churches in today’s world, whether overtly or implicitly, value some spiritual gifts while devaluing others. Some congregations prize teaching and service, whereas others emphasize healing and prophecy. Some churches go so far as to forbid the exercise of certain gifts by their members, especially the gift of tongues. While other churches make tongues the most important of gifts. The Apostle Paul, on the contrary, goes out of his way to give value to all members of the body of Christ and to all expressions of the Spirit's power. Thus, we should always resist the temptation to limit, intentionally or not, the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Paul concludes his discussion of the church as the body of Christ by relating the metaphor specifically to spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:27-31). This is a notoriously confusing passage, partly because Paul's language use is so varied. I will translate it very literally to preserve the sense:

And those things which God placed in the gathering are: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then powers, then gifts of healings, instances of helping, instances of leadership, kinds of tongues. All aren't apostles, are they? All aren't prophets, are they? All aren't teachers, are they? All aren't powers, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak in tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But eagerly desire the greater gifts. Yet I will show you the way according to excellence (1 Cor 12:28-31; my translation).

Paul is mixing types here, blending a discussion of people who serve in the church (apostles, prophets, teachers) with spiritual gifts, all of which God provides for the gathered assembly.

What is Paul trying to say in this passage? First, everybody in the church doesn't minister in exactly the same way. Some have different roles. Some have different gifts. This difference is part and parcel of the Spirit's plan. Although some roles appear to be rather fixed, spiritual gifts are given more flexibly. In one gathering of believers a person might minister in a gift of healing. The next time that same person might speak in tongues. It's unlikely that all will be given the same gifts in the same meeting. We should be open to lots of variation in gifting, even as we recognize that certain people have abiding ministry roles, and will, therefore, be gifted regularly in ways that fit their roles. Those who are called by God to be prophets will, for example, ordinarily be given gifts of prophecy.

Second, while acknowledging that a diversity of gifts and roles exists within the church, Paul urges us to desire "the greater gifts" in particular (1 Cor 12:31). This verse comes as a surprise, because the series of questions that precede it would appear to suggest the opposite conclusion: "Since not everyone does everything, be satisfied with your role and your gifts." But, curiously enough, Paul encourages us to be zealous for the greater gifts, gifts we may have not yet utilized in ministry. Operating in these gifts does not make us greater than others in the body to the body. The gifts are greater, not the users. So, what are the greater gifts and how are we to strive for them? Paul will answer these questions, but not right away. In the midst of his discussion of gives he interrupts himself with an extended meditation on "the way according to excellence," the way of love.

Paul's praise of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is extraordinary important to his overall discussion of spiritual gifts even though it interrupts the flow of his argument. For the sake of clarity and emphasis, I will skip to chapter 14 in my next post in this series and return to chapter 13 later.

Practical Instruction on the Use of Spiritual Gifts, Part 1

Part 8 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

Desiring Spiritual Gifts

1 Corinthians 14 provides practical instruction on the use of spiritual gifts. Even though a substantial portion of the chapter deals with the specific problem of inappropriate tongue-speaking among the Corinthians, much in Paul's discussion informs our use of spiritual gifts today.

"Pursue love," Paul begins, "and keep on eagerly desiring spiritual manifestations, especially that you might prophesy" (1 Cor 14:1, my literal translation). By mentioning love, Paul connects his advice on spiritual gifts to the previous reflection on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Above all else, we should actively seek to love each other. Then, with this motivation, we should eagerly desire or strive for spiritual manifestations (gifts, energizings, etc.).

Paul's advice might seem surprising at first. Isn’t the problem in the Corinthian church related to their zeal for spiritual experiences? Isn't it risky for Paul to urge them to keep striving for such things? Yes, it is risky. But Paul is not willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. Christians should not settle for whatever gifts they have received in the past, but should be zealous for more gifts, just so long as they are motivated by love.

When I was a teenager, some Christians I knew imitated the Corinthians' unbridled zeal for spiritual manifestations, especially speaking in tongues. My youth leaders reacted against this excess with what seemed at the time to be wise counsel. "Don't worry about spiritual gifts," they said. "Seek the Giver, not the gifts." That sounded so solid, so balanced. What could be better than seeking the Holy Spirit, the Giver, rather than the gifts? Unfortunately, the "not the gifts" part of their advice directly contradicts biblical teaching. Paul says that we should keep on eagerly desiring spiritual gifts. We should seek them in addition to seeking God. It's not an either-or situation. It would have been much better for my youth leaders to say, “As you seek first the Giver, seek also the gifts.”

The connection between love and seeking spiritual gifts can be easily illustrated. Suppose, for example, that you are praying for somebody who has cancer. The more you love that person, the more you will want the Spirit to give a gift of healing to that person. Or consider the example of a Sunday School teacher. If you have a class of first graders and your job is to teach them the Bible lesson, the more you love those children, the more you will seek a gift of teaching so you can explain the assigned biblical passage clearly and in a way that first graders can understand. So, the more we love others, the more we will seek the gifts that build them up. (Photo: Sunday School class from the First Presbyterian Church of Anaheim, California. Surely that teacher could use a spiritual gift or two!)

Focus on Building Up the Body of Christ

Paul tells us to strive for spiritual gifts, "especially that you might prophesy" (1 Cor 14:1). He explains the benefits of prophesying over speaking in tongues by pointing to the issue of intelligibility. Messages in tongues cannot be understood by those present in the gathering. Prophesies can be understood (1 Cor 14:2). Tongues-speaking, therefore, cannot help anyone other than the individual speaker, unless the message is interpreted (1 Cor 14:5). One who prophesies, however, is able to build up the body, to offer encouragement and comfort to those gathered (1 Cor 14:3-4).

When Paul speaks of prophesying, he is not referring primarily to foretelling the future. Prophecy within the Christian community happens when an individual delivers God's word to the gathering. The prophecy could be words actually revealed by the Spirit, or a genuine revelation phrased in words chosen by the one who prophesies. The prophecy may refer to future events, but more often it addresses practical or theological matter in the assembly. Paul teaches that prophesy can build up, encourage, comfort, bring conviction of sin, and teach (1 Cor 14:3-4, 24-25, 31). If this sounds to you a whole lot like what we call preaching, then you’re getting the point. Most prophesying in church today happens when preachers, guided by Scripture and empowered by the Spirit, speak God’s word with pointed power.

New Testament prophets differ from Old Testament prophets in several ways. Most importantly, Christian prophets do not speak the word of the Lord with absolute authority, as the Hebrew prophets did. The church must welcome prophecies, therefore, but test them to see if they are really from God (1 Thess 5:19-22). Only the good prophecies should be embraced as genuinely from God, but even these should not be accorded the same authority as Old Testament prophecies. The content of our prophesying, even when it is judged to be from God, always stands under the ultimate authority of the Bible.

Paul urges the Corinthians to seek to prophesy, rather than to speak in tongues, because prophecy, being intelligible, leads to the building up of the church. This, Paul says, is the main purpose for spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit gives bits of grace to members of the church so that they might edify each other and, therefore, the body of Christ. When we focus our attention on strengthening the church, spiritual gifts will follow.

The practical implications are obvious. If you wish to minister in spiritual gifts, don't focus on the gifts, but on the ministry God has placed before you. Invest in building up Christ's body wherever you are. If you feel the need for spiritual gifts, be sure to ask the Lord in prayer. As you serve, as you pray, as you step out in faith, the Spirit will empower for his ministry.

Practical Instruction on the Use of Spiritual Gifts, Part 2

Part 9 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

So far we have seen that if we want to receive spiritual gifts, we should focus, not on the gifts or on our experiences, but on loving others and building up the body of Christ. Spiritual gifts come in the context of ministry done for the sake of love and edification.

Do Your Part

In the middle portion of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul attends to the problem of tongue-speaking in greater detail. He does not prohibit the practice. In fact, he claims to speak in tongues more than any of the Corinthians (1 Cor 14:18). "But," he says, "in a church meeting I would much rather speak five understandable words that will help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language" (1 Cor 14:19). Why? Because Paul recognizes that the gifts are given for the good of the body, not the one who exercises the gifts. Understandable words will help the church grow. Unintelligible words won’t.

From verse 26 to the end of the chapter, Paul provides final instructions for how the Corinthians should use spiritual gifts in their gatherings. He does not want to squelch their enthusiasm for the Spirit, but rather to transform that enthusiasm for the benefit of the church. Verse 26 lays out his fundamental advice:

So then, what is it all about, my brothers and sisters? Whenever you gather together, each one of you has a psalm, each one has a teaching, each one has a revelation, each one has a tongue, each one has an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up (1 Cor 14:26, my translation).

If you compare my literal translation with most English versions, you’ll notice what seems to be a missing word. The NIV, for example, reads:

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church (1 Cor 14:26, NIV, emphasis added)

The NIV adds the word “or” when it doesn’t appear in the original Greek of 1 Cor 14:26. The NRSV and the ESV agree with the NIV. Only the King James Version maintains a literal rendering:

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, everyone of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying (1 Cor 14:26, KJV).

The addition of “or” to this verse quite dramatically changes its meaning, and thereby limits the work of the Spirit through spiritual gifts. This verse reveals, not that each person has one and only one gift to share with the body. Rather, the point is that each person can, in principle, minister in each and every gift. Given what Paul has said previously, this does not mean that every person should minister in every gift at every church gathering. But the potential is there for each person to function in each gift, as the Spirit wills.

It's hard for us to apply Paul's advice, given our presuppositions about and experiences of church gatherings. Most of our worship services include more than a hundred people, and many include thousands. If every person were to participate, even offering only one gift in a given worship service, that service would take hours, or perhaps days. We must remember that Paul envisions a different church setting, a house church that might have comprised as few as a dozen people and probably didn't get much larger than fifty. It was actually possible for each person to contribute as gifted by the Spirit. (Photo: A worship service at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California)

For most of us, following Paul's advice won't lead to much public ministry in worship services. The sizes and traditions of contemporary churches won't facilitate this option in most cases. Therefore, if you are to contribute the gifts the Spirit intends to give through you, you must be a part of a smaller fellowship group. Bible studies, prayer groups, ministry teams, growth groups, Sunday school classes – all of these can provide a place for you to contribute as the Spirit empowers you.

Practical Instruction on the Use of Spiritual Gifts, Part 3

Part 10 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

According to biblical teaching on spiritual gifts, each and every Christian should expect to be gifted by the Spirit for ministry. This should be true every time the church gathers together. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, the large size of many churches inhibits the ministry of the Spirit. If you have even a couple of hundred people in your Sunday worship service, odds are that you aren’t going to make time for each person to exercise one or more spiritual gifts. Therefore, as I said in my last post, most of us will exercise spiritual gifts in other contexts, in small groups, classes, or when we’re out in the world.

Yet it’s not just the size of today’s churches that gets in the way of the work of the Spirit. We are also saddled by assumptions about ministry that keep “ordinary” Christians from ministering in the power of the Spirit. I’m thinking of clericalism and professionalism.

The Problem of Clericalism

Clericalism is the idea that certain people, the clergy, are specially gifted and empowered to do ministry. Those we call priests or pastors or reverends or ministers or fathers or preachers are the real ministers who are gifted by the Spirit. The rest of the people–just the lay people–are the receivers of ministry, but not the ministers. Clericalism reigned in the established church for centuries, though it was less prominent in independent or free churches. Even Protestants, who rejected the Roman Catholic version of priestly clericalism, developed their own brand before too long.

In the last century fifty years, however, the church has begun to rediscover the ministry of all of God’s people. We have seen in Scripture the truth that all of God’s people are called into and gifted for ministry. Though churches might still have ordained clergy, their role isn’t to do all the ministry, but to encourage and empower the laity to do the ministry. As most of you know, I’m now the Senior Director of Laity Lodge, a ministry devoted to helping lay people discover who they are as ministers of Christ, both in the church and in the world. (Photo: Laity Lodge on the Frio River in the Hill Country of Texas, an autumn photo. We do a lot outside of the retreat center, including our website, The High Calling of our Daily Work –

Nevertheless, clericalism continues to haunt the church, keeping non-ordained Christians from living their lives as ministers of Christ. It is fueled, in part, but the emotional needs of the clergy, who like to be in control of ministries and who often have a strong emotional need to be needed as “the minister.” Clericalism also draws strength from the fact that many lay people would just as soon not be involved in ministry. They’re too busy, or sometimes even too lazy, to be bothered with the call of Christ to serve him. It’s so much easier to assign ministry to a member of the clergy and pay that person to do the ministry.

The Problem of Professionalism

In my experience, as clericalism loses its choking grip on the church, it is being replaced by a similar syndrome: professionalism. In this perspective, the church isn’t divided up into the divinely-called clerics and the non-called laity. Rather, the division falls between the professionals and the non-professionals. Professional ministers are trained, educated, experienced, and paid. They do the ministry, not because they have cornered the market on calling and gifting, but because they are the resident experts.

This reflects my own experience as a Christian "professional." I am a seminary-educated, trained, ordained Presbyterian “minister.” When I was in parish ministry, many people deferred to me because I was “the pro.” In some ways I was happy to play this role. I liked being “the minister.” I enjoyed being appreciated. And I was happy to be the recipient of people’s deference.

But, a church's professionalism can inhibit believers from getting involved in ministry, and therefore from exercising spiritual gifts. If churches pay the "experts" to do ministry, and if these professionals do it with flair, how can we expect "normal" Christians to get involved?

Many faithful churchgoing folk remind me of myself during my first few games of little league. I wasn't an especially talented player, so I quickly found myself warming the bench. Soon I just didn't expect to play and my expectations usually were fulfilled. One night I took my usual spot on the bench. Before too long, the darkness of the dugout and the lateness of the hour lured me to sleep. Toward the end of the game as I was snoozing away, I heard my name being called as if in a dream: "Mark! Mark!" As I began to stir, I realized that I wasn't dreaming. The coach was calling me. I was being put into the game as a pinch-hitter. It would b my first official appearance in little league! But sleepiness didn't help my batting much. Three quick strikes later, I returned to my spot in the dugout, mortified with shame and swearing that I would again never be unprepared to play.

If you are not expecting to get into the game, you will probably not be ready when the Holy Spirit calls you up to bat. So let me give you advance warning. God has not put you on his team so that you can warm the bench and watch the pros play. He has called you into the game. He will empower you to play with effectiveness. But first you have to get off the bench. You need to commit yourself to a ministry or to a fellowship in which you will be free to minister. As you become more accustomed to functioning in spiritual gifts, you will realize that the Holy Spirit wants to use you, not just in official church gatherings, but in all times and all places.

Practical Instruction on the Use of Spiritual Gifts, Part 4

Part 11 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

So far we’ve been learning from 1 Corinthians 14 how to use spiritual gifts in ministry. All of us need to focus on loving and on building up the body of Christ. Each one of us needs to be open to the Spirit, ready to be empowered to do the ministry of Christ, whether we’re in a church gathering or out in the world.

I expect that some of my readers will be unsettled by this discussion of spiritual gifts. When I speak of many people exercising their gifts in the regular gathering of believers, you might envision some sort of free-for-all, an off-putting ecstatic display. Historically, in fact, Christians who have been open to the Spirit have sometimes distinguished themselves as “holy rollers,” whose gatherings have been distressingly chaotic.

But this is not consistent with Paul’s vision in 1 Corinthians 14. He wraps up his counsel to the Corinthians as follows:

So, brothers and sisters, keep on eagerly desiring to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But let all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:39-40, my translation)

For reasons already given, Paul again urges the Corinthians to strive to prophesy. Delivering God's word to a congregation dynamically strengthens it.

From a human point of view, it must have been tempting for Paul to forbid speaking in tongues. This prohibition would have quickly solved the problems in Corinth. But the apostle knew that the sovereign Spirit gives all gifts according to his will, and that forbidding the use of any gift would be tantamount to quenching the Spirit. The same is true for us. As a fairly traditional Presbyterian, I am not particularly comfortable with the thought of certain spiritual gifts being exercised in my church. Moreover, I am well aware of theological arguments – many developed by my Presbyterian ancestors in the last two centuries – that would equip me to claim that we should never exercise certain gifts, like speaking in tongues. But the more I study Paul's teaching about spiritual gifts, the less I am willing to use my personal hesitations and theological constructions to limit the freedom of the Holy Spirit. If Scripture says "do not forbid speaking in tongues," that's good enough for me. (Photo: Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield of Princeton University was a leading advocate of the view that miracles, including spiritual gifts, don't happen anymore.)

Given Paul's blunt advice, "do not forbid speaking in tongues," it seems curious to me that some Christians today do this very thing. Through rather convoluted arguments, they try to show that speaking in tongues was a gift only for the earliest Christians. Those of us beyond the first century, they argue, should not expect to speak in tongues because the time for the exercise of this gift has passed. Over the years I have studied these arguments extensively. Generally they depend upon a passage from 1 Corinthians 13 that reads:

Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will cease. If there are tongues, they will stop. If there is knowledge, it will cease. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the “in part” will cease (1 Cor 13:8-10, my translation)

Clearly, the time will come when certain gifts, like speaking in tongues, will cease. But when is that time? According to Paul, it is the time when the "in part" dimension of human existence comes to an end. He makes it clear exactly when this will happen in verse 12: "Now we see through a mirror in a riddle, then we will see face to face. Now we know in part, then we will know fully even as we have been fully known" (1 Cor 13:12, my translation). When will we see God face to face? When will we know him even as we have been fully known by him? When we stand in his presence. When Christ returns, and the "perfect" age begins. Then we will share direct, intimate fellowship with God forever. There will be no need for prophecy or tongues. Even our knowledge, impartial as it is, will pass away.

But, until that time, we need all the help we can get from the Spirit. We need every single bit of grace the Spirit offers. All spiritual gifts can function today if the Spirit chooses to use them. I want to be open to all the gifts God would give, even those I'm not especially interested in experiencing. And I want my church to be open as well. I'll trust God with the outcome.

If the "do not forbid speaking in tongues" part of 1 Corinthians 14 makes Presbyterians uncomfortable, the closing phrase gives us exuberant joy: "Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Cor 14:40). Oh, how we love this verse! I’ve heard this verse quoted in Presbyterian gatherings more than any other verse of Scripture, by far. Unfortunately, we rarely read it in context. "All things" in this passage means "all spiritual gifts." The phrase does not refer to committee meetings, but to manifestations of the Spirit's power. Paul says: "Let prophesying happen. Let healing happen. Let teaching happen. Let speaking in tongues happen. Let all these things and more be done, but decently and in order."

Next week I’ll have more to say about these verses and their implications.

Practical Instruction on the Use of Spiritual Gifts, Part 5

Part 12 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

Yesterday I began commenting on the closing verses of 1 Corinthians 14:

So, brothers and sisters, keep on eagerly desiring to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But let all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:39-40, my translation)

This verse teaches us to allow the exercise of all spiritual gifts. It does not, however, endorse a chaotic, unedifying display of such gifts. Thus, Paul corrects a misunderstanding of spiritual experience that was common among the Corinthians, and is sometimes found today. Following the lead of their culture, some of the Corinthian believers thought that genuine spirituality always took the form of ecstasy, spontaneity, and even pandemonium. Paul shows, on the contrary, that the power of the Spirit is not something that leads to uncontrolled excess. Rather, the gifting of the Spirit is something that we can and should express in a calm, ordered, and sane way. Just because the Holy Spirit is empowering you, that's no justification for interrupting a meeting or disrespecting appropriate leadership. You must express that which the Spirit gives you in a way that helps those gathered, or you should just keep quiet (1 Cor 14:26-33).

I know some Christians who believe that the work of the Holy Spirit must always be unplanned and spontaneous. "Lord, do something in our worship service today that we have not planned," they pray. Now, I'd never want to limit the Spirit's ministry, and I'd be willing to let God interrupt my carefully wrought plans for a worship service. But, rather than pray only for the Spirit's interruption of the planned service, I pray, first of all, for his leading in the midst of my planning. I prayed this way when I was pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, and I continue to pray this way when I plan worship for Laity Lodge. My hope is that what I plan for worship already reflects the guidance of the Spirit, and doesn't need unplanned surprises in order to fulfill God's intentions. Genuine spirituality and the power of the Spirit are fully consistent with orderly, decent, well-planned gatherings. If our planning is so rigid that it quenches the Spirit, then let the Spirit explode our plans. But may God help our planning and our order to reflect his will so that his church may be edified!

I realize that most of my readers are not planning worship services, so let me relate Paul's counsel to your situation. You may feel nervous about certain spiritual gifts because you associate them with disorder and inappropriateness. The year before I arrived at Harvard, a Christian undergraduate walked into the Faculty Club in the middle of a busy lunch hour. In a loud voice, he began speaking in tongues. Nobody could understand him, of course, but they listened in stilted silence. After a couple of minutes the student stopped and walked out. When I heard about this event during my freshman year, it certainly didn't encourage me to be open to unfamiliar spiritual experiences! In retrospect, I think it's pretty safe to say that the Holy Spirit did not lead that young man to interrupt the Faculty Club with an unintelligible message in tongues. The event was not edifying for anyone and it was quite disorderly. Without a doubt the Spirit will sometimes lead us to do daring and scary things, but they will not violate the biblical principle of "decently and in order." Though you can't be sure what the Spirit wants to do with you in the future, you can be confident that you will not be led into silly displays of immature spirituality. (Photo: Harvard Faculty Club)

Scripture urges you to be open to everything the Spirit would do in and through you. Eagerly desire those gifts that most obviously build up the body of Christ, and don't forbid the exercise of any particular gift. Find ways to express your gifts that respect the ethos of your Christian community. Some churches make time in public worship for individual members to exercise spiritual gifts. Most do not. If your church does not, join a smaller fellowship group or ministry team where you can let the Spirit work through you to for the sake of others.

Moreover, remember that the Spirit is with you to empower you for ministry, not just in the gathering of the saints, but also as you’re in the world. Whether you’re at work or a school, whether you’re coaching soccer or visiting a friend in the hospital, you are a minister of Jesus Christ. He will use you for his purposes if you are available. And he will empower you through his Spirit to do his ministry with supernatural power.

But our focus should never be upon our spiritual gifts or our experiences. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post in this series.

Spiritual Gifts and the Priority of Love

Part 13 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

If you want to grow in your experience of spiritual gifts, Paul urges you to eagerly seek those gifts that build up the body of Christ. But, you'll recall, that's not all he says: "Pursue love," he begins, and then "keep on eagerly desiring spiritual manifestations" (1 Cor 14:1, my translation). The Greek verb translated here as "pursue" connotes an aggressive search. It can also mean "hunt" or "chase after." In other words, we must fix our sights upon love as a hunter upon a target, making every effort to love. With this motivation behind us, we should strive for spiritual gifts. If you seek to love people actively, spiritual gifts will follow. If you love the body of Christ, bits of grace will flow through you to build that body.

When I was at Irvine Presbyterian Church, we regularly prayed for those who were sick. Sometimes we saw amazing healings. Usually our experiences were less dramatic. But, no matter what the outcome, our job was to pray. God's job was to do with our prayers as he saw fit. We prayed for each other, not only because it was our job as Christians, but also because we loved each other.

For example, I remember a time when a group of us came together between Sunday morning worship services to pray for a young woman named Amy. She was about to undergo serious surgery and we gathered to pray for her healing. As many people offered their intercessions, it was obvious to me that we were motivated by a deep love for Amy and her family. We poured out our hearts to God, eager for a spiritual gift of healing to be given. We weren't concerned about getting some kind of spiritual buzz or demonstrating our miraculous powers. We simply wanted Amy to be healed and her family to be touched with God's peace. We pursued love, and because we loved, we eagerly desired a spiritual gift.

Amy was not healed dramatically. What happened during our time of prayer wouldn't have made good television. Amy's surgery went well, better than expected. We'll never know what the Holy Spirit did in her body as we prayed, or in the hours thereafter. But we do know that because we prayed in love, Amy felt loved, both by those who prayed for her and by the Lord. God's work was done through that time of prayer and it was a blessed work. I don't know whether the Spirit gave a gift of healing or not, but I do know that he ministered with power and we were privileged to be a part of it.

For many years of my Christian life I didn't pray for people to be physically healed, or, at least I didn't lay hands on them and pray as if God would actually do something. I was very good at praying for "the doctor's hands" and for medicine to work wonders. I still am good at praying for these things. I believe God uses all means at his disposal to heal, including medical science. But I never used to pray for people to be healed because I believed that I didn't "have the gift of healing." I had heard about people who went to healing crusades led by Kathryn Kuhlman, who seemed by all accounts to "have the gift." A friend of mine had been dramatically healed of a chronic back condition as he attended one of her meetings. I knew I wasn't gifted like Kathryn Kuhlman, so I didn't pray for miraculous healings.

In the 1980s my theology of spiritual gifts underwent the shift I mentioned above. I realized that, as a Christian filled with the Spirit, I could minister in all of the gifts, at least in principle. At that time I joined the staff of my home church, Hollywood Presbyterian. I watched as the pastors and elders, few of whom would claim to have "a healing ministry" in the Kathryn Kuhlman sense, faithfully laid hands on the sick and prayed for their healing.

One of my closest friends was an Associate Pastor named Scott. He was a fireball for healing, praying for people every day. You might suppose that Scott was simply naive, a young pastor who got a bit too excited about the biblical promises of healing. But this supposition couldn't be further from the truth. Even though he was only in his late twenties, Scott was a cancer survivor. He had suffered greatly. He knew the pain of praying for healing and hearing God's "no." He knew that God works through doctors, surgeries, and medicines. Yet because Scott trusted the Bible, and because he loved people, he couldn't help but pray for their healing. He pursued love and eagerly desired the spiritual gifts. As I hung out with Scott, I was drawn along to pray for that which had always seemed far beyond the range of my giftedness. It was exciting. It was scary. Sometimes it was joyous. Sometimes it was heart-wrenching. But always it was stepping out in faith to do pursue love.

One day a woman named Maria came to Hollywood Pres seeking financial assistance. She was a single mother who was the sole support for her family. But Maria had begun to struggle with a mysterious physical condition that covered her legs with debilitating, painful sores. She was so poor that she couldn't get appropriate medical assistance. A doctor in a clinic had told Maria that an operation might help her, but she couldn't begin to afford it. Her physical condition deteriorated to the point where she lost her job. She came to the church to get financial help for her family and perhaps some money for pain-killers. The church was able to provide her with some financial assistance, but her problems seemed overwhelming, so far beyond what we could handle. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood)

Before Maria left, I asked if I could pray for her. My wife Linda was nearby, so the two of us sat with Maria, laid hands on her, and began to pray. As we interceded for Maria, we both felt powerful love for her, great compassion for her suffering. We prayed for her finances, for her family, and especially for her legs to be healed. After we finished praying, Maria said she felt deeply moved. She knew that God loved her in a way she had never known before. Linda and I were glad, but a bit disappointed that God didn't do something to heal Maria's legs. That was the last I ever saw of Maria.

Three months later I received a phone call at church. "This is Maria," the voice said, "I am calling to thank you."

"Maria? Maria?" I repeated, trying to place the voice. "I am so sorry, but I don't remember who you are."

"Oh," she said, "I'm the one with those terrible leg sores. Don't you remember that you and your wife prayed for me?"

"Of course I do. I'm sorry I forgot your name."

"I'm back at work now," Maria continued, "and I wanted to thank you."

"You are certainly welcome," I said, "but we didn't do much at all. We gave you some money for your medicine, but that's about it. I wished we could have done more."

"Oh, you did to more. Don't you remember? You prayed for me, to be healed. Remember? I'm calling because your prayer worked. Very soon after I left your church my legs began to get better. They kept on getting better. In a few days I could return to work. Now I'm just fine. God healed my legs completely. I want to thank you for praying for me."

To this day I marvel over that whole experience. What a joy to be used by God in such a special way! That time of prayer for Maria serves as a paradigm for my ongoing ministry in the Spirit. My job as a Christian, not just as a pastor, is to love people. If they are suffering, that love translates easily into prayer. If they are sick, I seek a gift of healing. The results are usually not as dramatic as Maria's, but that's not my responsibility. You and I can't guarantee what the Spirit will do when we step out to minister, but if we love, if we make ourselves available, and if we pray, God's work will be done. People will be healed, saved, and loved. The body of Christ will be built up. And you and I will have the joy of being used by God in his marvelous work of grace.

Questions and Answers on Spiritual Gifts

Part 14 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

1. "I'm pretty new to this 'spiritual gifts' stuff. How can I begin to experience spiritual gifts?"

If you've been a Christian for a while, even a short while, and if you've done any kind of ministry, you've probably already experienced spiritual gifts. You may not have known exactly what was happening, but you knew the Spirit of God was empowering you to do God's work.

If you want to continue to experience God's power in the form of spiritual gifts, do the following:

First, be open to everything the Lord wants to do in you and through you. Don't limit God's work by your past experiences or your fears.

Second, get plugged in to a group where you can grow in your ministry: a small group, Bible study, ministry team, etc.

Third, ask the Lord to guide you into ministry, and then step out in faith. Remember that gifts come as you need them for God's service.

Fourth, as you serve the Lord, ask for whatever spiritual gifts you need. The Spirit will often give what you forget to ask, but asking in prayer is always advisable.

2. "I have lots of familiarity with spiritual gifts, but I've always thought about them with the 'discover and use your gift' model. I'm excited about the possibility of being gifted in new ways, but I don't know exactly what to do with my older ways of thinking. How should I proceed?"

Perhaps the most important thing I should say here is that, in the end, precise definitions don't matter. If they did, surely the Lord would have been clearer in the biblical teaching on spiritual gifts. If you are open to God, if you pursue love and, in that context, eagerly desire spiritual gifts, if you seek to build up the body of Christ, these things matter most of all.

As I noted above, what you "discovered" in the past was not "your spiritual gift" so much as how the Spirit had gifted you in the past. This pattern might very well point to how God is calling you into ministry. If, for example, you have been regularly given gifts of teaching, it's reasonable to assume that you may be called to be a teacher. What you discovered before might indeed still indicate the primary focus for your ministry.

But notice I said "primary focus." No matter what you have discovered previously, don't let this limit what God might do through you in the future. If you are primarily a teacher, the Lord might still put you in places where other spiritual gifts are needed. I know several missionaries, for example, who have gone to Third World countries primarily to teach God's word. As they come to love the people they teach, they also recognize their physical suffering from various diseases. Love leads these missionaries to pray for the sick, to seek spiritual gifts of healing. (Photo: A couple leaders from Irvine Presbyterian Church helping to build a fellowship hall for a small church in Mexico. I don’t know if there’s a spiritual gift of hammering, but in the context of such service God empowers people to minister to others.)

Some churches use diagnostic tests to help members "discover" their gifts so as to use them in ministry. This can be a helpful exercise, just so long as it is not used to put a cap on what the Spirit would do in anyone's life or ministry. No matter what God has done in us previously, we should always "pursue love and keep on eagerly desiring" spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:1).