By Mark S. Krause
Emily and Michael’s Story
Newlyweds Emily and Michael have decided to begin their life together by choosing a “neutral” church to attend. Michael, raised Catholic, has had little interest in church since his confirmation 15 years ago, but he is committed to church involvement with his new wife. Emily’s family moved frequently when she was growing up, exposing her to a wide variety of Evangelical-flavored churches, small and large. Finding a new church seems easy to her, but she has never had a church where she felt grounded and committed.
The couple agreed to attend a recently opened “site” church in a strip mall near their apartment, a place where some friends are involved. City Community Church features preaching streamed live from its downtown main campus each Sunday.
After a few weeks, Michael and Emily are intrigued by pastor Rick’s newly announced teaching series, “God Has a Gift for You.” Pastor Rick explains this will be biblical teaching on “spiritual gifts.” Emily has heard this sort of terminology before, but it is new and a little frightening for Michael, something outside his church experiences.
In Rick’s sermons, the couple learns the Bible promises a spiritual gift for every Christian. Both wonder what their spiritual gift might be. They are encouraged to use the church’s online “Spiritual Gift Inventory” as a resource to reveal this mysterious blessing in their lives.
The answers to their questionnaires are interpreted by a staff member who notes Michael has a gift for “service.” Michael is directed to serve by working with the church’s understaffed parking crew. Emily’s gift is identified as “hospitality,” and she is integrated into the weekend team that runs the espresso bar in the lobby of the church. This allows them to make some new friends, so both happily agree to these tasks.
After a few months, however, Emily and Michael begin to tire of these assignments. They understand the church’s need for volunteers, but wonder what is “spiritual” about wearing an orange vest or steaming milk for lattes. To them, it seems there should be more to spiritual gifts than these physical chores.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TEACH about spiritual gifts? Do I have one? If so, how do I know what it is? Like our fictional couple, Emily and Michael, we may be confused about these things.
The book of Acts contains stories about miraculous works of the Holy Spirit and does delve into various spiritual giftings for individuals beyond the universal “gift of the Holy Spirit” for believers. Strictly speaking, however, teaching about spiritual gifts is found almost exclusively in Paul’s writings.1
The presence of God’s Spirit in the life of a believer is important, but this is not what churches are talking about when they do presentations of spiritual gifts. For our purposes, we may define spiritual gifts as “abilities and motivational attitudes given to each Christian by God for the service of the church.”
Spiritual Gifts in the Language of the New Testament
How does this work? Before we explore that question, let’s do a quick study of the Bible terms involved. The Greek word for “spiritual” is pneumatikos (πνευματικός). This is an adjective form of the word for “spirit,” and by itself means “spiritual thing.” As an adjective, Paul uses it most frequently in the New Testament, with more than half of its occurrences (15 out of 28) in 1 Corinthians. It is important, therefore, to understand what Paul means by “spiritual” in this book.
In chapter 10, Paul addresses misunderstandings in the Corinthian church surrounding the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In so doing, he uses several examples from the history of Israel as analogies. Notice what he says in verses 3 and 4: “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (emphasis mine).
We tend to think of “spiritual” as “nonphysical,” but that is not the meaning here. The people ate physical food (manna) and they drank physical water pouring out of a physical rock. The difference between the food, water, and rocks of Egypt (their former home) and that described by Paul was that these were “spiritually” provided by the Lord. In our terms, then, it would be better to translate “spiritual” as “supernatural.”
The “gifts” half of our terminology comes from the Greek word charisma (χάρισμα), often found in a plural form, charismata. The English version of this word, charisma, denotes a person with an attractive or magnetic personality. It is the origin of our word charm. But this is not the meaning in Greek. For Paul, charisma means something that is given, a gift or endowment.
Two parts, then: “spiritual/supernatural” and “gifts/endowments.” Despite much writing and teaching in this area, however, the only place in the New Testament where these two words come together is Romans 1:11, where Paul expresses his hope to a church he has never visited that he will have a future opportunity to give them a “spiritual gift” that will strengthen them. What exactly Paul has in mind we do not know, but it seems more like spiritual encouragement than a dramatic supernatural endowment. We must look elsewhere to find what Paul meant by supernatural spiritual gifts.
A key verse in understanding Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts and their importance is 1 Corinthians 12:1: “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed” (emphasis mine).
Interestingly, there is no word in the original text here for “gifts”; that has been supplied by the translators. There is simply a form of the word pneumatikos, spiritual or supernatural things. The translators’ intent is correct, but we might understand this more fully in context as “supernatural gifts coming to us through God’s Holy Spirit.” This verse leads to Paul’s most extensive discussion about spiritual gifts within the church.
In the rest of this chapter, Paul refers to “gifts” (charismata) five times. We learn there are different kinds of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4), but that all of these come from the same source, the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:9). Paul also clearly teaches that the value of spiritual gifts lies in their common benefit for the church as a whole, not the individual believer (1 Corinthians 12:7).
At the end of this chapter, Paul gives three important clarifications concerning spiritual gifts. First, he identifies certain persons within the church who have an enduring spiritual status given to them: apostles, prophets, and teachers (1 Corinthians 12:28a).
Second, he lists manifestations of supernatural things that occur within the church and for its benefit: miracles, gifts of healings, helping, guidance, and tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28b). This is an important distinction, person versus things. He does not list “healer” as a spiritual gift, but supernatural healings themselves.
Third, he points to “greater” gifts, meaning more valuable and important things for the church (1 Corinthians 12:31). This leads to Paul’s famous love chapter (1 Corinthians 13) that emphasizes the temporary and less important nature of things like prophecies and speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 13:8). For Paul, the most helpful things for the church are “faith, hope, and love,” and love is the greatest gift of all (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Spiritual Gifts for Today’s Believers
What does this mean for the church today? The scope of this article does not allow for exhaustive analysis of all the pertinent passages in Paul’s letters, so let me offer four general points to help us understand spiritual gifts in the 21st-century church.
Because Paul uses “spiritual” in the sense of “supernatural,” we can conclude a spiritual gift is more than a genetically determined ability. One might be a good basketball player because of unusual height, but this is not a spiritual endowment, for, as one coach said, you can’t teach tall. You are born with it. If, however, a person who is a basketball novice begins to make three-point baskets unfailingly with no practice, that would be a supernatural gift. One might be musically “gifted,” but that is not necessarily a spiritual gift, especially considering the many musical geniuses in history who were ungodly pagans.
Miraculous spiritual gifts are controlled by God, not an individual. If Paul’s emphasis is upon “gifts of healing” rather than “the gift of healing,” we are on shaky ground to think there will be anyone in the church today capable of performing miraculous healings on command like a wizard.
We should have no doubt God can and does heal people in today’s church and uses individuals to accomplish his purposes. Perhaps, though, we should be more skeptical of those who claim a gifted, supernatural ability to heal anyone who has enough faith, thus putting the blame for failure to heal on the person with inadequate faith.
Spiritual gifts are therefore granted to church members according to God’s plan and the church’s need. They are not for personal gain or recognition. They may be subtle and even private in their granting and their exercise. They may be enduring or temporary, even one-time. Supernatural does not equal spectacular in most spiritual gift instances.
Finally, it is incongruent that a spiritual gift and its accompanying tasks would be forced upon a believer, and therefore used grudgingly. God’s gifts to us should come with passion and joy. If your gift is serving, you should love to serve. If you gift is hospitality, you should love to show hospitality to others. If your gift is teaching, you should be passionate about teaching. If the greatest gift is love, this love for others should be expressed in the exercising of spiritual gifts with pleasure and delight.
It is the suppression of our gift that will lead to frustration, not its use. Like our natural abilities, using our spiritual gifts over time should increase their effectiveness and our spiritual satisfaction.
The Rest of Emily and Michael’s Story
Our friends did not let their dissatisfaction with their assigned tasks cause them to quit the church. Instead, they met with Rick, the pastor, to learn more about spiritual gifts.
Rick asked them to pray and ask God to give them a passion for serving the body of Christ. When they met again, Michael revealed he had a strong desire to bolster the church’s outreach to the men of the neighborhood.
Rick knew the men’s ministry that met on Saturday was struggling because of lack of volunteers to facilitate the gatherings. Michael gave himself to helping wholeheartedly in this ministry and was surprised to find that several men with a Catholic background began to look to him for spiritual support and leadership.
Emily struggled more than Michael to find direction. She admitted to Rick that she loved children and missed the brothers and sisters of her closely knit family. She wanted to work with the church’s kids, but did not have any passion to teach.
In a short time, though, Emily became known as the church’s “snack lady,” for she took joy in preparing wholesome snacks for children on Sunday. Eventually, Emily’s passion blossomed into an afterschool meal program for neighborhood children whose parents worked in the evening.
She may not have been teaching from a book, but her life was an example of hospitality and love to many.
1The one exception to this is in 1 Peter 4:10.
Mark Krause is academic dean of the Nebraska Christian College campus of Hope International University. NCC is located in Papillion. Earlier this year, NCC merged with HIU, Fullerton, California.