While this is a long essay, there was still no way as I was writing it to include every detail. Please give me your feedback, especially constructive criticism. What I have to say about spiritual gifts is not what you may typically hear in many circles. I’m convinced that this way of understanding spiritual gifts is truer to what the texts actually say about them. I’m also convinced that this understanding is vastly more beneficial for our vision of who God is and who we are as his community than some of the more common views. However, I’m of course limited in my understanding of God and in my ability to interpret the biblical text. So I invite your help. Thanks for reading!
“Spiritual gifts” are widely regarded as those particular abilities that are given by God’s Spirit to individuals when they become believers. Since these gifts are listed for us in the New Testament, our responsibility–as the discussion regularly goes–is to discover for ourselves which one(s) we have so that we can then engage in the appropriate activities to put our gifts to use. So-called “spiritual gifts assessment” tests have become a popular way for Christians to try to make this discovery.
There are significant problems with this view, and foremost among them is that it’s not at all found in the New Testament.
But, there is talk in the New Testament about the Spirit working among God’s people in such a way that it means this: We should be able to assess how God is at work in each individual part of the community through the gifts that each person has been given.
So, what is this biblical way of “assessing spiritual gifts” all about?
DO NOT BE IGNORANT ABOUT SPIRITUAL THINGS
The New Testament passages that routinely feature in discussions about what we call “spiritual gifts” are all written by Paul, and the most significant one by far is found in the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church.
Since New Testament epistles are, in a major sense, arguments in which the author is making a case for something, we have to ask, as we would in any argument that we’re trying to understand, Why did Paul bring that up?
One of Paul’s chief concerns in this letter is unity among the followers of Jesus at Corinth. The immediately surrounding parts of the letter are, after all, about what is happening during their corporate worship when they share in the ceremonial meal that Jesus inaugurated. It appears that when they gather, some members are being disrespected, excluded, and basically devalued.
Paul considers it important in light of this problem that the Corinthians not remain ignorant about spiritual things (v. 1). Since, as he writes, no one can even make the basic Christian confession and submit to Jesus’s lordship apart from the one Holy Spirit that is at work among them (v. 3), if anything is happening among the Corinthian believers it is because the Spirit of the one God to whom they all belong is working through them.
So how can they know that they are indeed already unified because of the living, moving, active presence of the one God, referred to here as the “Spirit”? What can Paul show them so that their first question becomes about how they are they living into that which most powerfully and completely unifies them already?
As part of his solution, Paul tells them that yes, they are all quite different from each other, and indeed, when they gather, there are varieties of “gifts,” “services,” and “workings” that are observed. These three terms are basically used synonymously, with Paul also describing them as “manifestations of the Spirit for the common good” (vv. 4-7).
For example, he says, one person over here speaks wisdom, another over there speaks about knowledge, another over here speaks about faith, another over there heals, another works miracles, another prophesies, another discerns, another speaks in other languages, another interprets. And all of this “by the one Spirit,” as Paul emphasizes repeatedly.
Paul doesn’t let the Corinthians forget that which we so often lose track of. We are prone to read the biblical story (and even look at the stories of our own lives) and forget who the main character is. This is about God. We want to begin and end our conversations about what the Gospel is with our own sinfulness and our own salvation, while the Gospel is the message of good news about Jesus as Lord of the world, not a message about our problem and the solution to the problem (though what the Gospel means for us certainly does include that). In much the same way, we want to make a discussion about how God gifts the community through his Spirit into a discussion about what spiritual abilities we can now claim for ourselves. All when in fact the conversation is actually about the one God who has always meant to make a people (1 Samuel 12:22), and how God is doing just that among actual communities.
Notice too, that Paul assumes that these gifts/services/workings (i.e., manifestations of the Spirit at work for the good of all of them as a community) are verifiable on their part. They can already see these things taking place among them, even if they are only glimmers of what could be.
THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME
The point is certainly not, then, that these ways in which the Spirit is at work through them, like speaking in other languages or healing, should be happening, but, since the church members haven’t gone off by themselves and taken their spiritual gifts assessment tests, they don’t know what they should be up to.
Rather the point is who this Spirit as the only source of these gifts actually is, and what this then means for the Corinthians’ life together as a community. Their communal life should reflect who this God is and what God is up to in the world. For them as for us, this calls for unity.
As with any theology, any statement that we make about God, how the Spirit is at work among our community is not something we can access through pondering it by ourselves but by engaging in the pursuit of a faithful life lived in service to neighbor, and to our God who empowers us on this journey and equips us for our tasks.
With the way that many parts of the church in our own time deal with the idea of “spiritual gifts” with assessment tests and other ways of discovering your spiritual gift(s), way too much stock is placed in our own understanding of ourselves and we miss what is actually the most important lesson that Paul is teaching the Corinthians: Open your eyes to see how God is at work through others–the same Spirit equipping them for their role in the community is the same Spirit who is active in you, even as we all play our own particular parts.
AND THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME KNOWING WHAT MY SPIRITUAL GIFTS ARE
In light of all of this, Paul’s point is also not that the Corinthians are supposed to figure out what their gifts are so that they can serve God through engaging in the appropriate activities. It’s rather that, in their working together to become unified as the body of Christ, they realize that God is at work in such a way that it reveals how every single member plays a special, crucial, undeniably valuable role. So, no more disrespecting, excluding, and devaluing each other. It has no basis–not with the God we serve who is at work in all sorts of ways, but especially in our service to each other as a community. (As a side note, it makes perfect sense in Paul’s argument that the very next chapter is about what love actually is.)
After all, this is about the Holy Spirit, the divine pneuma, which is a word chosen by the New Testament authors not because it refers to something static (such as a gift lying dormant until we happen to discover it), but because it is the word for wind, which is an invisible force that is always on the move. After all, Paul in his own language doesn’t actually refer to his topic here as “spiritual gifts”–he talks about them as manifestations of the Spirit, or simply as gifts (the word here actually means something like “expressions of grace”), services, and workings. God is revealed in God’s moving activity among people–what in the world has led us to believe that we can best detect God at work by sitting down to answer some questions about ourselves as individuals and examining the test results?
Paul doesn’t make this argument about the Spirit’s gifts/services/workings so that I can gaze inwardly and determine what gifts I have so that I can then make decisions for my own life based on that knowledge. This is not about what I should try to see in myself, but about what I must see in the person who may have been relegated to the corner but–as hard as it may be to believe–is my sibling in the Holy Spirit community.
THE UNBIBLICAL WAY OF ASSESSING SPIRITUAL GIFTS
Since it is has become so common to hear how important it is to know what your spiritual gifts are, but this is not actually the biblical message, where did the idea come from? I haven’t done the research on tracking the origin of this view, but I can go ahead and make a few clarifications that would help us begin to see what is the biblical vision.
A regular feature of teaching about spiritual gifts is that Christians receive them at the moment they become believers, but Paul says nothing of the sort. Aside from the fact that the New Testament as a whole isn’t as concerned about this point in our lives as much as we are, it appears that this teaching is based in the assumption that these gifts are permanent. If they’re permanent, they must be given at some other point than simply when need arises, so conversion tends to be the go-to timeframe. But nowhere does Paul say that you’ll always have a particular gift, or that you’re not gifted by the Spirit in all sorts of different ways all the time or at different times. As Gordon Fee points out, the plural used in Paul’s Greek words for gifts/services/workings “probably means that these gifts are not permanent, but each occurrence is a gift in its own right” (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God 166).
Likewise, another problem is that we take the different gifts/services/workings/manifestations of the Spirit that Paul lists and make them the total inventory of possibilities for how the Spirit gifts people. But in reading Paul, it’s necessary to realize that when Paul provides lists, he is never exhaustive. Just because Paul lists ways that we sin (as he is prone to do), doesn’t mean he’s covered all the ways that we could possibly be sinful. And just as he provides lists of virtues or the ways that the Spirit of God empowers us, doesn’t mean he has exhausted all of the possibilities there, either.
In his lists, Paul is actually giving examples in order to paint a picture of what it means to be in rebellion against God, or to live faithfully, or to be gifted by the Spirit. With how difficult it would be to assign a proper name to all of the ways that we could possibly sin, how much more so would it be difficult or rather impossible to name most of the ways that the Spirit gifts and empowers us, much less to even be aware of them.
Again, Paul never says that you will know what your spiritual gift(s) are, nor that it is incumbent upon you to discover your spiritual gift(s). The Spirit is at work among faithful people surrendered to God, thankfully in ways that are not restricted to our limited understanding.
When you truly hear the biblical text by taking into proper account the context of Paul’s argument and the real nature of his concerns, Pauline exegete Gordon Fee’s words about what he describes as “[o]ne of the fads among evangelicals in the final decades of the twentieth century … of finding your spiritual gift” ring all the more true when he admits, “I could not imagine Paul understanding what was going on at all!” (163)
THE BIBLICAL WAY OF ASSESSING SPIRITUAL GIFTS
Since Paul is not concerned with individual members of the community knowing what spiritual gifts they have, as he hasn’t said anything to indicate that it’s their responsibility to find them or that it’s even possible to always know what they are, it is crucial to take into account that which he has emphasized is his concern. Paul writes about these spiritual gifts/services/workings and manifestations of the Spirit for the sake of unity and the functioning together of a body “for the common good” (cf. vv. 12-31). It is much more beneficial for the Corinthians and for us to know that each of us is gifted and plays important parts in the body of Christ than it is for individuals to be able to claim a particular ability.
Paul may be more concerned with the action of prophecy within a community than he is with a particular person being a prophet, much less he or she being able to determine that she or he is a prophet. So it’s not primarily a matter of personal discovery or even personal ownership, either. We want to talk about “my” spiritual gifts, when Paul would be asking about our gifts as a community. If someone has the gift of prophecy, the first thing this means is that the community has a prophetic voice.
One other passage in Paul in particular shows how this is primarily a matter of the community, that what really counts as a “spiritual gift” isn’t necessarily something that enables someone to perform a particular role or function, it doesn’t have to be something someone always has, and it doesn’t always have to come what we would think of as “straight” from the Spirit. In Romans 1:11-12, Paul writes, “I long to see you that I may impart to you (plural) a gift of the spirit to strengthen you (plural), “that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours (plural) and mine.”
What we see here in Romans is not that particular individuals in the community have been gifted by the Spirit as they became believers individually, and now they have to find out what they are so they can take appropriate action. Instead, we see here in Romans that the spiritual gift would come as they experience as a community shared time with Paul. Also, the gift that Paul anticipates imparting is that there would be mutual encouragement and strengthening of those believers in that time in that place and in those circumstances. It’s not something you would find on a spiritual gifts assessment test, and to try to do so would miss the point entirely.
So if you want to know what your spiritual gifts are, it’s the case with discovering anything else theological, such as the more basic question of God’s existence, or even God’s relevance—join the community and do this thing, take this journey with us, and trust that you are equipped and empowered by God’s Spirit as we all are. Maybe someone else will see particular gifts/services/workings in you, but more importantly, perhaps you will see the ways that the Spirit is at work in someone else. And most importantly, maybe you’ll have the assurance that it is happening even if you don’t know it, or you won’t know what to call it even if you do.
Footnote: There is no distinction made in the Bible between what we think of as “spiritual” and “natural” gifts. Someone may be what we would call “naturally” good at developing plans and may also be what we might want to call “spiritually” capable of healing. Aside from the fact that this is grounded in our arbitrary distinguishing between what is miraculous or not, in whatever way the Spirit’s activity is manifested for the common good of the community, that it is a gift. Everything is a gift. And anything through which God works is spiritual in nature, and that’s the most important thing that could be said about it.
Thanks so much for this! Something about it has always bugged me and I could never put my finger on it. And I suspect this notion of spiritual gifts and testing for them, might have arisen about the same time somebody came up with just such a test to sell to churches. I was in a mega church several years ago where the entire membership was encouraged to take this test. ka-ching.
You’re welcome! I had the same experience. The way the church so often talks about this has long bothered me, and I knew we had to be misunderstanding these texts, but I didn’t know how bad we were misunderstanding them until I looked more deeply in the texts. I was forced to look into greater detail in this when my pastor (at a megachurch no less) insisted that we keep a link to a spiritual gifts test on our missions webpages. I did my best to argue against it and I summarized my points in this blog post. It didn’t work, but oh well.