A friend and I got into an online conversation about spiritual gifts, the “Network” came up, I read through it and checked its chart on myself, and it didn’t change my mind. Before I tell you what I think, one more background point: I came of age as a Christian in the hey-day of spiritual gifts. This stuff came into the church through Ray Stedman and his book called Body Life. I read the book a few times, I listened to Stedman lecture through that book, and got to teach/preach on the spiritual gifts when I was in college. So, I’ve paid attention to this stuff since 1975. The basic approach of the spiritual gift view is to discover which of the eighteen gifts in the NT is the one God assigned to you.
I was once a convert to this way of thinking, but within a few years of watching it develop and reading the NT and listening to church history I came to a different conclusion. I think we’ve grossly overdone it, and I think we’ve hardened the categories, and I think we force people into one of our eighteen cubby holes.
What is your church’s approach to the spiritual gifts? Are they central or peripheral in its teaching? Has there been any theoretical discussion of the gifts?
No one in the history of the church has this approach until the 1960s (in California, southern California of all places! — that’s a joke, folks). If any theologian or pastor approached church life through this spiritual gift approach, I’ve not heard of it. [I could be wrong.] But doesn’t this matter?
Instead of this approach, we will do ourselves some real good if:
1. We see the gifts not as a hard-and-fast list of the eighteen and only eighteen gifts but instead as the sorts of things — but not the only sorts of things — the Spirit does in our midst.2. There is, in fact, no list of eighteen in the NT. There are, in fact, several lists, none of them identical. They are found in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4. This lack of uniformity among the apostles (and Paul himself doesn’t have the same lists) has led me to see them not as a complete list but as symptoms or effects of the Spirit in our midst. To be sure, the Spirit will prompt a certain kind of similarity because humans are similar, needs are similar, and churches are similar. All churches need teaching, so God raises teachers. But, still, I want to ask why the apostles, who could have known such things, didn’t all have the same list, but instead gave different lists. Does this perhaps suggest they didn’t see them as hard categories but instead as manifestations of the Spirit?
3. Many folks have been helped immeasurably by these listings of the gifts. Many people have found their “gift” by reading Body Life or by using the Network tool. Asking folks what “gift” they have is a good question. But there’s a better one, so I think: “What is God’s Spirit enabling you to do?”
4. Which leads me to this point: We need to be sensitive to the Spirit, we need to help others be sensitive to the Spirit, and we need to create space for the Spirit’s work among us — however that appears. Instead of forcing what we are enabled to do — let’s say write, or lead worship, or sing, or dance, or listen, or whatever — into one of the eighteen gifts, we need to encourage people to do what God’s Spirit is enabling and empowering them to do.
5. Another point: I’m nervous about someone saying that they “have” a gift, as if they possess the thing the way they posses a book or a car or a home. Instead, the Spirit enables and empowers us so we might better say we’ve been “had” by a gift when God chooses to do something through us.