Why Spiritual Gifts Aren’t Really A Thing

Why Spiritual Gifts Aren’t Really A Thing June 10, 2019
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The Problem with Spiritual Gifts

I’m not sure spiritual gifts are a thing. I realize that this statement requires an explanation. The Apostle Paul appears to speak about them in 1 Corinthians. Churches often teach classes on them. And many Christians have taken tests to identify them. It’s how many of us first learned that we might be good teachers, preachers, or worship leaders.

I don’t dispute that God has empowered each member of the church to serve the common good. Rather, I dispute the notion that such empowerment is best captured by language of “spiritual” gifting. What is worse, the common use of the term “spiritual gifts” often leads churches directly into the error that Paul corrects in 1 Corinthians.

Outside of 1 Corinthians 12-14

Paul’s discussion of gifts in 1 Corinthians involves a contest of words and frameworks. This contest is not unique to the topic of gifts. Earlier in the letter, Paul contests notions that “all things are permissible” and that “it is good that a husband does not have sex with his wife.”

Thus, some of the terms Paul uses in chapters 12-14 are the Corinthians’ language, while others represent his own. Distinguishing between them is vital.

To do so, we will examine how key terms function where the topic of gifts is not being debated, both elsewhere in 1 Corinthians and outside of it. This sheds valuable light on Paul’s discussion in chapters 12-14.

“Spiritual” (Pneumatikos in Greek)

Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the term “spiritual” to refer to a number of things:

  • a form of wisdom (2:13-15)
  • the opposite of infantile fleshly thinking (3:1)
  • the gospel seed he has sown among them (9:11)
  • how one regards food and drink (10:3-4)
  • the resurrection body (15:44)
  • the sort of man Christ was (15:46)

Outside of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the term “spiritual” as follows:

  • a word of encouragement he plans to share with the church in Rome (Rom 1:11-12)
  • something that contrasts with what is natural (Rom 7:14, 15:27)
  • a form of Christian maturity (Gal 6:1)
  • heavenly blessings (Eph 1:3)
  • a kind of song (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16)
  • forces of evil (Eph 6:12)
  • and a way of understanding (Col 1:9)

Thus, except for 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul never uses the word pneumatikos when describing abilities given by the Holy Spirit to believers.

Graces/Gifts (various forms of Charisma or Dorea in Greek)

Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul uses these terms as follows:

  • that which God has gifted the church so that it lacks in nothing (1:4-7). This passage anticipates the discussion about God-given abilities in chapters 12-14. Both the NIV and NRSV confuse matters by translating this term as “spiritual gift,” even though the term “spiritual” is not present.
  • the unique way God gifts the church, which requires the Spirit to understand (2:12)
  • the grace God gave him to establish churches (3:10)
  • the gift of celibacy that enables him to serve the church in a unique way (7:7)
  • his apostolic ministry (15:9-10)

Outside of 1 Corinthians, Paul uses these terms in similar ways:

  • diverse abilities God gives the church body to carry out its ministry (Rom 12:6)
  • a variety of gifts God gives to empower the church for ministry (Eph 4:7-8)
  • a capacity for ministry given to Timothy through the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14)

Paul is not alone in this. Peter also uses a term for gift (charisma) to describe God-given abilities for ministry in the church (1 Pet 4:10). So three observations are critical at this point:

  1. Outside of 1 Corinthians 12-14, divinely-given abilities for ministry are referred to as gifts or graces.
  2. The most common words for gift in the New Testament are never linked with the word “spiritual” outside of 1 Corinthians (nor in it, as we will see).
  3. All throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul corrects his original audience because they have a faulty understanding of spirituality. They associate it with worldly notions, and this has stunted their spiritual growth.

“Spiritual Gifts” in 1 Corinthians 12-14

Having surveyed “spiritual” and “gift” language beyond 1 Corinthians 12-14, we can better appreciate Paul’s verbal contest with the Corinthians over God’s gifts.

Before chapters 12-14, Paul uses gift language to describe how God equips church members for ministry. He then transitions to a lengthy section on this topic in 12:1-2, saying, “and now concerning pneumatikos [spiritual-things].” Unfortunately, the NRSV and KJV confuse matters by translating this single word as “spiritual gifts.” Yet no term for gift is present. The NIV makes a similar mistake by saying “gifts of the Spirit.”

Chapters 12-14 stand in the middle of a section where Paul responds to specific topics the church wrote to him about. This broad section begins in 7:1, saying, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” Paul continues in verse 7, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” As we read on, we learn that this statement about sexual abstinence was a Corinthian position that Paul had to challenge.

Likewise, Paul challenges the Corinthian notion of spiritual things. He opens chapter 12 with “and now concerning pneumatikos.” This appears to be their preferred term for identifying special abilities that special people in the church have. In other words, the Corinthians probably believed that only “spiritual people” can do “spiritual things.”

In 12:2, Paul makes clear that this notion is a hangover from their pre-Christian past. He says, “You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.” This anticipates his discussion of tongues. In ancient pagan religions, spiritual people spoke on behalf of their gods, since these gods were but mute idols. So the Corinthians were familiar with a kind of tongue-speaking common in pagan worship, and they were bringing it into the church.

Paul then sets out to debunk the notion that only elite people in the church have received the Spirit and may speak on God’s behalf.

He begins this corrective in 12:4-6 by clarifying that God gives a variety of gifts/graces (charisma) to every member through the same Spirit. So no one is especially spiritual by virtue of having a special ability. He then concludes this chapter by encouraging the church to strive for the greater charisma—the gifts that edify others (v. 31).

Thus, Paul has been consistent throughout the letter in referring to Spirit-given abilities as gifts/graces (charisma). Though he refers to the Corinthian term for spiritual abilities in 14:1, he does so only to subvert it. There he encourages Christians to pursue love and strive for spiritual things (pneumatikos). But then he highlights prophecy—not tongues—as the desired virtue. Prophecy builds others up in a way that unintelligible tongues do not.

Conclusion

So what does the Bible teach about “spiritual gifts”?

  • This phrase never refers to abilities that God gives church members to build up the body of Christ. Instead, Paul and Peter’s preferred term for such abilities is charisma. We might translate this term into English as charisms, graces, or gifts.
  • The confused Corinthians are the ones who identified certain Christian abilities as “spiritual.” Paul critiques this notion of spiritual elitism. He emphasizes that all abilities are given by God’s Spirit to serve the body of Christ.

It is thus highly ironic that modern translations replace both the Corinthian term (pneumatikos) and Paul’s term (charisma) with a new phrase of their own making: “spiritual gift.”

So it should not surprise us that many Christians today perpetuate the Corinthian error of exalting some members or gifts above others on the basis that some are more “spiritual.”

Christians today would do well to follow Paul’s lead. We should move away from “spiritual” language and toward “gift/grace” language. Such language better captures how God has blessed each member by his Spirit to serve the body of Christ.

[This post follows up on our discussion of spiritual gifts on the After Class Podcast]
About John Nugent
John C. Nugent is the author of "Endangered Gospel," professor of theology, and co-host of the After Class Podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Excellent study on this topic, John. I have to admit, I hadn’t seen this before. I’ve had a connected concern for how we discuss and teach about gifts in the church today.

    I think we assume that first we must discover our gifts—usually through some sort of gifts assessment tool, which you can buy in a variety of places (how convenient), and then God calls you according to those gifts and gives you an assignment to serve. Throughout Scripture, I see the very opposite. Moses, of course, is the prime example. God told Moses to appear before Pharaoh. Moses argued and protested over and over, and finally pleaded, “O Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me. I’m clumsy with words” (Exodus 4:10). In other words, “God, that’s not my gift.”

    I love God’s response: “Who makes mouths? Who makes people so they can speak or not speak, hear or not hear, see or not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and do as I have told you. I will help you speak well, and I will tell you what to say” (vv. 11, 12). In other words, “Go and obey. I’ll provide the gifts to do what I’ve called you to do!”

    Another example is the 12 apostles. God called them and Jesus equipped them despite their lack of “giftedness.” He provided the gifts/grace as they needed it. That seems to me to be more aligned with how God works in people’s lives throughout Scripture.

    I’ve read and studied all the “gifts” passages in the New Testament and I see several threads weaved through all of them:

    1. God calls us; gifts are meaningless outside of his calling on our lives (Ephesians 4:1; Romans 12:1-2).
    2. God gives us gifts/graces so that we can serve others (1 Peter 4:10; Ephesians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 12:7).
    3. Gifts are always discussed within the context of unity, humility, and partnership within Christ’s body (Romans 12:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-27; Ephesians 4:2-6, 16; 1 Peter 4:8).
    4. The environment where gifts operate is in Christian community. The context of every gifts passage is how Christ’s body works together in community.
    5. The purpose of these gifts is to build up Christ’s body, the church, so that he will receive all the glory (Ephesians 4:12; 1 Peter 4:11).

    As far as I know, “spiritual gifts” tests are a recent invention. For thousands of years, Christ followers have discovered their gifts in community as God called people to serve. Gifts are discovered, understood, and then used — all in authentic community where we encourage one another, speak the truth in love, spur one another on to love and good deeds, teach and admonish one another, accept one another, carry each others’ burdens, pray for each other, and live in harmony with one another.

    Perhaps the church today has needed these “spiritual gifts” tests because we’re missing out on that kind of healthy, life-changing, biblical community. What do you think?

  • Robert Conner

    Jabbering under the influence of spirits was common in the ancient Greco-Roman world; the priestess of Apollo being only one of many examples.

  • RHowe

    Can you explain more how the ‘gift/grace language” would sound in “We should move away from “spiritual” language and toward “gift/grace” language.”? I ge the spiritual language but not quite clear on the other or how they differ.

  • Rod Bristol

    As a fellow follower I would offer this. As articulated by James, every good gift is from God. When we put certain gifts into a “spiritual” or “religious” category, we diminish their value. Jesus calls us to live in the world as salt and light, using our gifts to bless everyone as an expression of God’s grace, expressing God’s Kingdom. Jesus gave us abundant life, not religion.

  • I would say that though his Spirit God has given each member of the body gifts or graces or charisms with which to edify the body. I would avoid saying that God has given each member spiritual gifts to edify the body. But if one want to emphasize that these gifts come from the same Spirit, one might say “Spirit-gifts,” which doesn’t carry all the same baggage as “spiritual gifts.” Does that help?

  • Faith L Sochay

    In 1 Corinthians 12, the Greek is, “now concerning the spiritual.” It is actually the gifts part he takes out at least immediately. In 12:7, the Greek reads “now to each is given a manifestation of the spirit”. Again, the gift part is presumed.

    I feel like Paul is trying to redefine what “spiritual” means rather than take it out altogether. Because of their background they have experience with spiritual things and he redefines it for them.

    He starts this concept in 1 Corinthians 2 when he differentiates spiritual wisdom from human wisdom. After reading the book, I found this theme a few times.

    I think the point of the gifts section is that possessing the spirit of God looks like edification of others. When he speaks of seeking the greater gifts, he means the ones that edify others more as opposed to whatever they thought greater was.

    I took a lot of good things from this post. My big picture approach would probably be different than yours but the practical applications would be the same. Thanks for sharing.

    “Why Spiritual isn’t what you think it is” is a prevailing thesis of 1 Corinthians and the gifts part ties into that.