God creates. Hence man, created in divine image, is also creative. And the Spirit of God who “was moving over the face of the waters” at the dawn of creation is the same Spirit who, according to Scripture, operates in the Church, giving to each Christian “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).

Great confusion exists today regarding the important biblical doctrine of the gifts of the Spirit. The institutional church often shows a crippling misunderstanding of this concept. And too often specific Christian traditions implicitly, if not explicitly, deny the possibility of real creativity.

When I speak of misunderstanding spiritual gifts, I speak from experience. I had read the passages on the gifts of the Spirit in First Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians many times, always with a half-conscious puzzlement. Paul emphasized spiritual gifts, but there seemed to be no application of this teaching to the contemporary church. Then slowly it dawned on me: the contemporary church in its institutional form makes little room for spontaneous spiritual gifts. Worse yet, often it does not need spiritual gifts to function. When the local church is structured after an institutional rather than a charismatic model, spiritual gifts are replaced by aptitude, education, and technique.

Severall common misunderstandings of spiritual gifts need to be shown for what they are, unbiblical tendencies that restrict the working of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. I suggest five that need to be explored.

1. The tendency to deny or discredit spiritual gifts. In its most extreme form, this tendency says that the gifts of the Spirit were given as miraculous signs at the birth of the Church but have no legitimacy today. Gifts of healing, prophecy, and tongues, especially, are no longer to be considered valid. In a milder form this tendency admits in theory the validity of spiritual gifts but in practice is suspicious of them and tends to discredit them.

An example of such thinking is found in John R. W. Stott’s little book One People. Stott arrives at the unwarranted conclusion that some New Testament gifts “certainly do not exist in the Church today, notably apostles and prophets.… Probably some others like ‘workers of miracles’ have also ceased” (Inter-Varsity, 1968, p. 27).

Such a position arbitrarily limits the operation of the Holy Spirit and the applicability of the New Testament to our day. There is no more warrant, for instance, to apply chapters twelve and fourteen of First Corinthians exclusively to the early Church than there is so to limit the thirteenth chapter. Gifts and love go together.

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To deny spiritual gifts is to misunderstand their nature. Those who fear spiritual gifts (and often the problem is, in reality, one of fear) usually think of them as highly individualistic, irrational, and eccentric manifestations that disturb the unity of the Body of Christ. But this caricature is not at all what the Bible means by the gifts of the Spirit.

We cannot depreciate spiritual gifts without devaluating the biblical understanding of the Church and the Spirit-filled life. The charismata are not something merely tacked on; neither are they temporally or culturally bound. They are cross-culturally relevant, and their presence in the Church makes the Church cross-culturally relevant. Both in Romans 12 and in Ephesians 4, Paul relates the unity of the Spirit’s ministry in the Church to the diversity of gifts. The appeal to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” and “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” is followed by the appeal, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us, let us use them” (Rom. 12:1–6). Both injunctions are for today.

We simply have no authority to declare specific gifts invalid. It may be difficult to accept the full range of biblical teaching on the subject, but this is necessary to avoid impoverishing the Church. And it is essential for a truly biblical doctrine of the Church and its ministry.

2. The tendency to over-individualize spiritual gifts. Western Christianity in general has tended to over-individualize the Gospel to the detriment of its more communal and collective aspects, and contemporary conceptions of spiritual gifts have suffered from this tendency. Spiritual gifts are too often thought of as strictly a matter of one’s “private” relationship to God, without regard for the Christian community. In contrast, Paul repeatedly emphasizes that the Spirit’s gifts are for the edification of the Church, and that they lose their significance if this emphasis is lost. The general principle is, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The individual gift is balanced by community responsibility and interaction. Paul prefaces his comments on gifts in Romans 12 with the assertion, “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). This is the biblical balance, and spiritual gifts can rightly be understood only in this context.

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The biblical conception is that the community of believers acts as the controlling context for the exercise of gifts, thus discouraging individualistic aberrations. And gifts must operate in this way. The Church is, to use Gordon Cosby’s phrase, “a gift-evoking, gift-bearing community.” When the Church really functions in this way, the various gifts not only reinforce one another but also act as check and balance to prevent extremes. Here the New Testament analogy of the body is helpful. The hand or foot is prevented from some extreme or uncontrolled action by its connection to the body, with its various organs and systems. Functioning as part of the body, the hand is helpful and nearly indispensable, but cut off from the body it becomes grotesque and useless. So it is with spiritual gifts.

It is at this point, incidentally, that small Bible-study groups find their usefulness. The small Spirit-directed group builds community and provides the context for both awakening spiritual gifts and disciplining their use. As a consequence of many such cells, the whole larger community of the Church is edified.

Spiritual gifts are not given merely for personal enjoyment, nor even primarily for the individual’s own spiritual growth. Rather, they are given “for the common good,” “that the church may be edified” (1 Cor. 14:5).

3. The tendency to confuse spiritual gifts and native abilities. The error here lies in the tendency to go to one extreme or the other: to make spiritual gifts and native abilities either synonymous or else antithetical.

Each person is born with latent potentialities that should be developed and used to the glory of God. This is stewardship. But when the New Testament speaks of spiritual gifts, it goes beyond this. Paul says the Holy Spirit “apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). There is an immediacy here that speaks of a direct relationship between man and God through conversion and life in the Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit result from the operation of the Spirit in the life of the believer, and so are something more than merely the wise and faithful use of native abilities. They must be understood as, literally, gifts of the Spirit.

But how and when does the Spirit operate? The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of creation that “was moving over the face of the waters,” the same Spirit who said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). God is sovereign and omniscient, and we must not suppose that he begins to operate in a person’s life only after conversion. There really is no such thing as a “native” ability—“What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). It is not too much to say that God in his foreknowledge has given to each person at birth those talents that he later wills to awaken and ignite. A spiritual gift is a God-given ability that has caught fire.

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A native capacity does not really become a spiritual gift until it is given over to the Spirit. The principle of crucifixion and resurrection, of dying and rising, applies here. Natural abilities remain in the plane of human effort until given to God in self-sacrifice.

In his perceptive discussion of spiritual gifts in Full Circle, David R. Mains writes:

In those areas where I have natural abilities, such as a facility for public speaking, the difference between their being talents or gifts of the Holy Spirit is found in my attitude. If I recognize the talent as from God, and in prayer and continual dedication commit it to Him to be used in ministry in a special way, it becomes a gift of the Holy Spirit with supernatural expression. The proof of this is seen in the gradual way God increases this gift for His service [Word, 1971, p. 62].

So talents and gifts are neither synonymous nor antithetical. Both, after all, are bestowed by God. It is no accident that converted salesmen often make good evangelists. God is not capricious. Although we must not limit the sovereign working of the Spirit, yet we may normally expect some correspondence between a person’s “native” abilities and personality traits—latent or developed—and the spiritual gifts God will bring forth in him. The Spirit intends to transform us into what we were meant to become, not into Xerox copies of someone else.

4. The tendency to exaggerate some gifts and depreciate others. This is one of the most serious and most common errors regarding spiritual gifts: the tendency to think only certain gifts are legitimate gifts. How serious this aberration has become is seen in the fact that any discussion of spiritual gifts today usually becomes sidetracked on the question of tongues. The tendency to think only of the more spectacular gifts—such as tongues, healing, or prophecy—as spiritual gifts is wrong. All gifts are important, all are necessary, and all are given by God for the common good.

An examination of the relevant biblical passages suggests that the various lists of gifts mentioned are intended to be representative, not exhaustive. The multiform operation of the Holy Spirit may awaken a vast variety of gifts; gifts may be as varied as is human personality. The New Testament lists the specific leadership gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28). But such designations as utterance of knowledge, helps, service, and acts of mercy may be understood as general categories that take in a wide spectrum of specific gifts. Any ability ignited and used by the Holy Spirit—whether in music, art, writing, intercessory prayer, homemaking, hospitality, listening, or whatever—is a legitimate spiritual gift. If God has given the gift, then it is good and is intended to be used. The biblical teaching is plain: “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: … in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:10, 11).

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The problem, too often, is the failure to affirm the full range of gifts—the failure to appreciate “God’s varied grace.” All gifts are important, and none is an anomaly when exercised rightly in the context of community. It is as wrong to overemphasize preaching and teaching and deny tongues and healing as it is, on the contrary, so to emphasize the more spectacular gifts that the less showy ones are forgotten. The Holy Spirit acts so “that there may be no discord in the body” only when all gifts are affirmed and operate cooperatively. To quote David Mains again:

Every true member of the local church has a minimum of one gift, and most people have many. Since no one has every gift, and everyone has at least one, there exists an interdependence among the members of the church. Scripture teaches (1 Cor. 12:22–25) that the less spectacular gifts are more necessary than the showy ones. In other words, the church can go a long time without a miracle, but let it try to exist without acts of mercy or contributions!… How disabled the body of Christ has become because our primary purpose for church attendance has been to hear one man exercise his gifts, rather than to prepare all the people to develop their gifts for ministry, not only within the church but also to society [Full Circle, p. 63].

The function of the local church should be to expect, identify, and awaken the varied gifts that sleep within the community of believers. When all gifts are affirmed under the leadership of the Holy Spirit and in the context of mutual love, each gift is important and no gift becomes an aberration.

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5. The tendency to divorce spiritual gifts from the cross. This tendency arises from the failure to incarnate the tension between the cross and the charismata, between Passover and Pentecost. It is the tendency, on the one hand, to emphasize gifts in such a way that the cross is lost sight of and the community is fractured by self-centeredness. Or, on the other hand, it is the opposite: to deny any emphasis on gifts because of this tendency toward self-centeredness and self-aggrandizement.

What is the biblical position? How can the fact of each person’s discovering and exercising his gifts be reconciled with Christ’s fundamental words, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34)?

There is a danger here, for spiritual gifts are often misunderstood. The New Testament teaching concerning spiritual gifts is not a call for each Christian simply to “do his own thing” and forget the welfare of the group and the need of the world. Ministry is not determined exclusively by personal desire but by the cross.

And yet, biblically, there is no contradiction between gift-affirmation and self-denial. In fact, the two go together. The biblical principle, again, is that of death and resurrection. As one is crucified with Christ and dies to his own will, the Holy Spirit resurrects within him his significant gift. So the spiritual gift, rightly exercised, is not self-centeredness; it is self-giving.

But we must go further and say that the Christian discovers the true meaning of crucifixion as he really begins to exercise his gift. Faithful ministry of the gift of the Spirit will lead him into depths of self-giving he never dreamed possible—and God planned it this way. This is the way we are created, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Here we find the meaning of the life and death of Jesus Christ, God’s Son and the perfect man. We may suppose that Jesus possessed, at least potentially, all the gifts of the Spirit, and he publically exercised many of them—apostle, evangelist, healer, prophet, teacher, helper, comforter, friend. The faithful exercise of his ministry led him not to the throne but to the cross. But it led beyond, as well—to resurrection.

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Here we find the meaning of the gifts of the Spirit.

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Elizabeth O’Connor has written helpfully along this line in Eighth Day of Creation. “When one really becomes practical about gifts, they spell out responsibility and sacrifice,” she says.

The identifying of gifts brings to the fore … the issue of commitment. Somehow if I name my gift and it is confirmed, I cannot “hang loose” in the same way. I would rather be committed to God in the abstract than be committed to him at the point of my gifts.…

If I develop one gift, it means that other gifts will not be used. Doors will close on a million lovely possibilities. I will become a painter or a doctor only if denial becomes a part of my picture of reality. Commitment at the point of my gifts means that I must give up being a straddler. Somewhere in the deeps of me I know this. Life will not be the smorgasbord I have made it, sampling and tasting here and there. My commitment will give me an identity [Word, 1971, p. 42].

Spiritual gifts come to their full biblical legitimacy and meaning only in the rhythm of incarnation-crucifixion-resurrection.

The urgent need today is that spiritual gifts be seen and understood in the context of ecclesiology, as in the New Testament. A biblical understanding of spiritual gifts is absolutely essential for a biblical understanding of the Church. For our understanding at this point will determine whether our ecclesiology is based on a charismatic or an institutional model.

When spiritual gifts are misunderstood—through being over-individualized, denied, divorced from community, or otherwise distorted—it is the Church that suffers. The Church truly becomes the Church only when the biblical meaning of spiritual gifts is recovered. A church whose life and ministry is not built upon the exercise of spiritual gifts is, biblically, a contradiction in terms.

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