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Spiritual Gifts: A Definition

It’s virtually impossible to distinguish between something a believer in Jesus is good at and a spiritual gift. At first this is frustrating, but doesn’t it make sense? If God is one—and we are one with Him through accepting Jesus and His Spirit—why would He not use our “talents” as “gifts”? When you frame the situation as God being the source of all, this pragmatic approach becomes holistic, and the search for gifts in our communities suddenly becomes simple.

Gifts don’t always entail the shockingly miraculous, although that’s certainly part of the picture. The talent you may take for granted is every bit as essential to your church community as the miracle working power of someone else. There is a hierarchy of church offices, for the sake of order, but this doesn’t make anyone more valuable to God’s work than someone else. The apostle is not greater than the prophet, and the prophet is not greater than the administrator. Those with the gift of tongues are no better than the interpreters of them; and the interpreters of tongues are not more valuable than the “shepherds,” or those with the gift of “helps.” Paul makes this point in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:4–7 ESV).

There is diversity among the gifts, but they all come from God’s Holy Spirit. And by nature of their source being the same, none are better than others. And the kicker: all are required, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 4 and throughout 1 Corinthians 11–13. All are not just needed—they’re necessary.

But what does Paul mean by “gift”? His usage of the word elsewhere tells us. He says to Timothy: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14 ESV). Timothy’s gift was identified by the elders (people in church offices) via the office of prophecy. They did so by acting in a faithful way: laying their hands on him to pray. Note that it’s not as if this just came out of nowhere: they were seeking God’s guidance. This means that a definition of spiritual gifts must include the idea that God is sought, and that He answers through the use of other spiritual offices. This very well could mean direct revelation.

Paul later tells Timothy in another letter: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6 ESV). This further suggests that spiritual gifts often come upon people through prayer, and consequently a type of spiritual anointing. It also suggests that a definition of spiritual gifts must include an acknowledgment that they come from God and that they must continually be rekindled, like a fire needs to be.

Peter also uses the term, when he says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10 ESV). Peter tells us that all believers receive spiritual gifts, and that they must be used for helping others; also, they are given so that we can use them for God’s various purposes, being His different ways of demonstrating His grace through us.

For a definition of spiritual gifts, I offer: “Abilities given by God through the Holy Spirit to all believers in Jesus—for the purpose of serving others so that the Church may grow.” And I would add: “They are to be discerned by the individual and other believers holding church offices through prayer, and are often anointed upon someone by another believer via the power of the Holy Spirit; that person is usually someone with the office of prophecy. Spiritual gifts are to be regularly renewed and strengthened, as well as stewarded wisely, according to the various ways God would have someone to utilize them. Their purpose is to be used for the common good—unity and love—of the church and all people: to manifest the salvation, restoration and renewal that Jesus alone brings through His sacrificial death and continued work through the Holy Spirit. For this reason, all spiritual gifts and offices are needed and required in gatherings of believers in Jesus.”

What do you think of this definition of spiritual gifts? Would you add anything to it or take anything away?

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Want to read the entire series? Here is a round-up:

Comments

John,

We've gone down this road before, but frankly, I think your definition is almost completely wrong.

I don't think spiritual gifts are fundamentally "abilities" at all. First, of all, in 1 Cor. 12:4-7, note the parallel of "gifts" with "service" and "activities". Services and activities are concrete things done, not abilities to do things, and the three quite clearly run together in that passage.

Second, note also that in 1 Pet. 4:10, the words "use it" are not actually in the Greek text. Rather, English translators there are relying on the "spiritual gifts as spiritual abilities" theology that precedes them and adding those words to make the text seem more comprehensible. But it actually skews the meaning pretty badly. The KJV is a helpful translation to look at here because obviously it's so old that people weren't thinking that way about spiritual gifts then (by the way, nobody in the history of the church thought that way about spiritual gifts until the 60's in America). The KJV reads: "As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God." The emphasis, again, is on actually ministering, not "using an ability".

This also makes more sense for why there was "laying on of hands" for Timothy. That action symbolizes a commissioning for ministry. So that makes perfect sense then if Timothy has a ministry given to him in a formally-commissioned, elder-led way through the laying on of hands.

I suggest then that a spiritual gift is actually a ministry itself, not the ability to do that ministry. God gives ministries and ministers to the church. They are concrete expressions of His grace to the church, not spiritual superpowers that we reach into to minister. The Spirit does work to empower us in ministry, but we don't look inside ourselves to find out what we should do. Instead, we look to the needs of the church. We seek edification, not internal abilities, and trust that as we are faithful to seek the good of others in all possible ways, God's Spirit will empower us along the way.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: do yourself a favor and read Kenneth Berding's What Are Spiritual Gifts? Rethinking the Conventional View. The exegesis is way more detailed, and I think it's darn near bulletproof.

Also, I mean no disrespect. Just offering my opinion. You're the one who asked :)

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

By the way, one more quick thing: it's interesting to me that in your attempt to define spiritual gifts, you never actually defend that they are "abilities". You just assume that. I think that's what happens with nearly everyone with spiritual gifts now. Even for you, who has thought a lot about this, you don't defend that point in your definition.

Anyway, just wanted to mention that also.

Andrew, some great discussion points here.

Anyone else want to chime in?

Here are some further thoughts:

Is it possible that it's both: gifts (God-given abilities) that are for the purpose of empowering the work of the Church? That God provides for the needs in our communities by giving us the abilities to meet them? That's what I'm arguing for.

Also, check out my previous posts on this topic for an understanding of why I use "abilities." In summary, gifts are used for specific purposes (church offices). They are both very practical activities and services, and unexpected help in dire circumstances or needed times of guidance; those gifts, like grace, come directly from God. They're for the purpose of helping the Church. But what's more important than how they're understood is that God's work in our communities, in and through us, is embraced. That's what I'm really concerned about.

As a fact checking note: It's apparent throughout the NT that specific people have specific callings (e.g., apostle) and gifts (e.g., we see the same people repetitively perform miracles in Acts). Also, the church fathers follow this same framework: emphasizing different kinds of leaders for their specific kinds of skills (gifts) and callings (offices). (Since I'm not aiming to offer a historical overview of spiritual gifts throughout history, I'm not going to provide the research from the church fathers here, but some searches through the church fathers using Bible software demonstrates this point.)

We also see this today: different people have different skills. I think that's providential. The gifts are meant to be used for God's glory. This set up requires us to depend on one another and promotes unity. My argument is that many of these "skills" or "services" are gifts, or even church offices, and we just don't recognize them as such. I'm also arguing that the other gifts--that we don't see much of anymore--need to be embraced openly in our communities, so that our communities can have what they need and what God desires for them.

I would love to hear someone else's thoughts on all this. Anyone want to chime in on Andrew's alternative to my view, or the view I have presented? What do you think about the definition I'm suggesting?

--John

John,

I wonder if I'm making the distinction I'm getting at clear enough. I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit sits idly by, refusing to empower our attempts at ministry. What I'm saying is that from an exegetical standpoint, the ministry itself is what the Bible calls a "gift/spiritual gift", that the Spirit will in turn empower.

Again, look at 1 Cor. 12:4-7, and look at what "gifts" is in parallel with. They are functions and services, which are expressly not abilities. Those are practical, concrete things, not internal abilities.

If you're wondering why I keep hammering on this, or if that distinction seems like quibbling, here is why I am doing so: if a spiritual gift is an internal ability, a "spiritual superpower", as it were, then what I absolutely need to do is to do everything I can to discover that ability that is inside of me. I should take the spiritual gifts tests, try out different ministries, and ask people to tell me what they see (or, at least I think that's what I should do, but since the Bible never tells us how to discover our spiritual gifts, I really don't know).

The effect of this can be really paralyzing. I teach a theology class at Biola University, and when I was going over my view of this in class, I started by asking my students how many of them felt that they really didn't know what their spiritual gifts were and that they needed to discover them vs. how many had a clear handle on theirs (and by the way, there were more options than just those two). The majority of that group was in the "I don't know and I wish I did" category.

And the problem is, that can actually be really paralyzing for ministry. The thing is, I'm with you: I want people to embrace God's work in our communities. Badly, in fact. I want people to feel empowered for ministry. I want them to see God use them in powerful ways. And I think that a theology of spiritual gifts that says, "Discover your internal spiritual superpowers, then minister out of those" will often (normally?) keep people from doing ministry, not help them to do it.

And I think the reason why is that we've misunderstood what a spiritual gift is. Brother, I cannot commend to you enough Ken Berding's book. If you're still writing your book on spiritual gifts (and again, that's another reason I keep beating this drum on your blog- you have thrown yourself into the discussion), then you need to read that book and work through the exegesis. Obviously there isn't space in the comments to hash out everything like we'd like.

I'd also ask, briefly, about an important issue you brought up: are someone's talents the same as spiritual gifts, in your view? So Lee Strobel was apparently an excellent public speaker before he came to Christ. He is still one now. Is that a spiritual gift, since he apparently had it before he had the Holy Spirit? I agree that it was a providentially designed skill, but is that the same as what the Bible is talking about when it talks about spiritual gifts?

Anyway, I'd also love to hear some other thoughts on this. Oh, and you said you defended your "ability" reading in another post. Mind pointing me to which one that is? Thanks.

And again, I should say, I mean no disrespect personally whatsoever, and understand and appreciate that your goal is to help communities embrace ministry. I love that goal and want to be a part of it.

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Andrew,

Great to hear from you. I would love to hear others chime in on this discussion as well. Indeed, we want the same things: for people to embrace God's calling and to enhance the work of the Kingdom.

I think we understand how people identify spiritual gifts differently, but have the same motive: a desire to see the needs in our churches fulfilled and those hurting served.

Also, I too am opposed to spiritual gift testing: http://www.conversantlife.com/theology/spiritual-gifts-or-curses

In the post we're commenting on now, I discuss how people learn about their spiritual gifts (which you call "ministries," correct?). I root it in prayer, which I think is the underlying problem behind most issues in our churches today. That's how we should learn about spiritual gifts: "There is this need in our community, who should answer it?" Well, if we prayed about God's specific callings on people's lives already and aimed to discover them, we will already know the answer. We can then confirm that through further prayer, discernment, and the utilization of other gifts, like prophecy and wisdom. So I don't think the problem is one the church has created, based on a poor reading of the text, but one we have failed to answer correctly.

I offer one further distinction, which that there is both "gifts" and "offices." (You could call the second "ministries" if you would like.) Check out this post for that distinction, see: http://www.conversantlife.com/theology/we-dont-compare-ourselves-to-elij... ; and: http://www.conversantlife.com/theology/the-myth-of-the-apolitical-church

And don't worry, I'll read the book. ;-) I've read parts of it already and will be working through the rest.

The abilities part of my definition has been a running theme throughout this series, but this recent post picks up on some it, and offers a pretty good summary for why I read the parallels in 1 Cor 12:4-7 the way I do: http://www.conversantlife.com/the-church/onward-towards-a-better-way

(There's a round-up at the end of each post in the series, so you can always revisit the old ones to see my progression of thought.)

I won't be able to answer the rest of your questions here, but I'll try to pick up on them during the rest of the series.

Thanks for engaging in the discussion. Anyone else want to chime in?

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Paul later tells Timothy in another letter: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6 ESV). acupuncture endometriosis

Peter also uses the term, when he says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10 ESV). dr charles lee beverly hills

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