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The Higher Gifts: An Owner's Manual

All who come to Christ are gifted in some way or another. We have desires to use these gifts: both as a way to propel people toward Christ and as a means for moving those who already know him. Or at least we should.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he asks that we “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31). Just prior to this statement, Paul mentions these “higher gifts": apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, tongues, and interpreting.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:27–31 ESV).

Not everyone possesses the gifts that Paul describes, but everyone should “desire” them. We don’t usually think of “gifts” in this way, because gifts by nature cannot be earned. Indeed, spiritual gifts cannot be earned, just like salvation cannot be earned, but they can be prayed for and honed.

By Paul detailing how to use and not use the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12, he is suggesting that gifts, although given freely, still require instructions. We need an owner’s manual. The Bible is that.

This single idea has the potential to change the entire way we approach spirituality. It seems that in our churches we usually approach spiritual gifts with the mindset of identifying them; we rarely teach people how to use them. And perhaps this is the reason why we’re afraid of spiritual gifts. I mean that: we are afraid. I’m sure you can confirm my view by just thinking back upon the last time someone told you that they have the gift of prophecy or have been called to the office of apostle. I bet it wasn’t recent. But if we’re living according to Paul’s view, it should be.

There’s a solution to bringing spiritual gifts back into our communities: training. It was the very fabric of the early church. The text being written by Paul and others, as well the Old Testament books, were one half of the training program. They were also the check and balance system. The other half was mentorship.

If we pray to God, read the Bible, and ask for counsel from of our church leaders (or fellow leaders), we will discover our gifts. Once we learn about our gifts, we need to be mentored. If spiritual gifts are embraced through mentorship in our communities, we have ample opportunity to stop their misuse and abuse. It eliminates the problems that we’re worried about. It gives us an opportunity, as a community, to decide if someone is using their gift(s) biblically, and if not, to correct them. This sets us up to do what Paul has requested: earnestly seek the higher gifts. (The Greek verb Paul uses can be translated as “seek” or “desire.”)

Elijah taught Elisha how to be a prophet. Paul taught Timothy how to be an apostle. And Paul taught the community at Corinth how to use their spiritual gifts.

Who will you learn from? Who will you teach? Share with us your ideas for incorporating back into your community spiritual gifts and mentorship around those gifts.

 

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

Comments

John,

I seem to remember you saying at some point in this series that you were writing a book about spiritual gifts. Please, I beg you: don't do it without reading Kenneth Berding's, What Are Spiritual Gifts? Rethinking the Conventional View.

Berding's book is not about continuationism v. cessationism or anything like that. It is about the simpler, but almost always unaddressed question of what a spiritual gift actually is. His conclusion is that it is not an internal, latent ability to do ministry, but the ministry itself. That ministry, whether short term (e.g. speaking a tongue) or long term (e.g. being a prophet) is empowered by God's Spirit, but the empowering itself is not the gift.

If the distinction seems irrelevant now, read the book. It's not. If the exegesis seems indefensible now, read the book. It's not. To be honest, I would challenge anyone to refute the exegesis in Berding's book. I'm no theological reactionary and I'm not prone to saying thing this strong about theological positions usually, but this book's arguments are bulletproof.

One of the most obvious implications of Berding's view, by the way, is that if spiritual gifts are not internal and latent, then you don't "discover" your gifts. Instead, you minister where God calls you and where there is need and trust that God will empower you along the way. Isn't it strange, by the way, that if we do have gifts that are internal, latent abilities given by the Spirit, that the Bible never tells us how to discover them?

OK, I'm going on too long now. But if you want an intro to Berding's book without committing to reading it yet, check out the review of the book, interview with Dr. Berding, and further interaction I posted on my old blog.

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Andrew,

Thanks for the book recommendation and comment. I always appreciate a good read and fresh ideas. And yes, I am writing a book on spiritual gifts.

Gifts certainly appear when necessary (we see this in Acts 2 and other times in Acts). However, Paul's phrase "God has appointed in the church" followed by his listing of spiritual offices and "then gifts" suggests that he views them as specific callings that can be discovered. It seems as though Berding's "ministries" and the term I use, "offices," are in some ways synonymous (though not entirely). See some of my early posts on the subject for my explanation of spiritual offices--my full list of previous posts is above. Here's the major difference between Berding's view and my own: I think gifts and offices (or ministries) are actually separate things:
- To hold a spiritual office (prophet, apostle, etc.), you have to have spiritual gifts.
- But spiritual gifts do not always equate with spiritual offices.

Berding and I agree that spiritual gifts can be temporary (again the Acts 2 example). The apostles didn't continue to speak in other languages to our knowledge; they just did in that moment. But the other kind of tongues--the angelic type--is a gift that continues (see Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 12).

I would consider both a spiritual office and a spiritual gift, a "gift" of the Spirit. Both happen when God choses to empower someone and both can be discovered. We don't always know what God has given us, because we aren't always looking. This can be said of all of spirituality. All of spirituality requires self-examination, which really means looking for Christ--asking Him to make us more like Him.

Another distinction between Berding's view and mine: I consider spiritual gifts special abilities. They are ways that specific believers are empowered. This holds true for both spiritual offices and gifts. Paul's rhetorical questions (Are all apostles? Are all prophets?, etc.) suggests this. No one holds all the spiritual offices or all the spiritual gifts, which makes them specific to certain people, and thus at times, unique. Paul also suggests that we earnestly desire the "higher gifts"--suggesting that God has to grant them, making them a special office, accompanied by what that office involves (certain gifts). See my posts on apostles or prophets for examples of this.

I hope that makes my position clearer. Thanks again for the comment and recommendation.

--John

John,

Thanks for the measured, gracious response. I come off pleading on this issue in many ways because I get afraid that we are so entrenched in the conventional view of spiritual gifts that Berding isn't usually given a fair shake. Which is a shame, since the conventional view doesn't appear in the history of the church until the 1970's in America, so I tend to think we need to meet it with a bit more suspicion.

Anyway, like I said, you are gracious in your disagreement. Though I immediately wonder: have you read Berding's book? I'd be slow to say what you agree with and disagree with at least for now from my short representation of his position.

Let me respond to your points in turn:

1. You write: "However, Paul's phrase 'God has appointed in the church' followed by his listing of spiritual offices and 'then gifts' suggests that he views them as specific callings that can be discovered."

Why do you think the terms "appointed" and "gifts" suggest callings that can be discovered?

2. You mention the gifts/offices distinction. Since you're writing the book, you know full well that you're not the first to think of it in these terms. My question, especially in response to the first of your two points on that (i.e. "to have spiritual offices you must have spiritual gifts") is this: where do you see that claim made in the text? It seems to me that the text actually equates the "gift" with the "office" in the major passages.

Take Eph. 4, where what God gives to the church are "evangelists" (et. al.), not "abilities to evangelize". The gift is the person in that passage. Take also Rom. 12:7-8, where the people are described in their function (i.e. "the one who teaches" or "the one who exhorts"), not in their ability to function (which would be something more like, "if you have the ability to teach" or "if you have the ability to exhort"). The emphasis falls totally on function, not on ability.

This is not to say that God appoints ministers/ministries then refuses to empower people according to the need. He certainly does empower us. But the conventional view of gifts says, "Look for what you are empowered for, then serve out of that." Following Berding, I'd suggest that the Bible says, "Look for the needs of the body of Christ, then seek to meet those needs and you'll be empowered along the way." It is instructive that the central goal of 1 Cor. 12-14 is edifying love: it's entirely focused on the needs of others, not the abilities we possess.

Sometimes God does give even clearer direction though. He does this for Paul with his ministry to the Gentiles. Look closely at Eph. 3:7: Paul says his ministry to the Gentiles is a "gift" of "grace" that is "given" by God (cf. v.2). Verse 8 is the most apparent: "To me, though I am the very least of all saints, this grace was given: to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ." What is the gift of grace given to Paul there? Quite clearly it is his ministry to the Gentiles! It is not his ability to do that ministry, but the ministry itself.

Then look back to Eph. 4: "grace" was "given" to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's "gift" (v. 7- note that it's the exact same set of terms). And what are those gifts of graces? They are the apostles, evangelists, and so on. Again, they are not the abilities to be evangelists. They are the people themselves. The emphasis falls totally on the functions. The ability to do them is assumed.

Let me say this in one sentence: one of the biggest problems for the conventional view of spiritual gifts is that the Bible simply never says that you need certain "gifts" (read: abilities) to fulfill certain offices. It just doesn't. The only possible exception is with the "ability to teach" requirement of an elder, but that seems to be different than what we're talking about here. It certainly is not called a "spiritual gift". If anything, I'd say the spiritual gift there is the ministry of eldership, not the "ability to teach".

3. By now you get the idea, but let me ask one more question. You wrote: "Another distinction between Berding's view and mine: I consider spiritual gifts special abilities. They are ways that specific believers are empowered....Paul's rhetorical questions (Are all apostles? Are all prophets?, etc.) suggests this."

Why do you think Paul's rhetorical question suggest that? I don't know why they necessarily do. For example, if I said to you, "Are all American political leaders mayors? Are they all presidents? Are they all senators?", then obviously the answer would be "no". But that says nothing about any abilities/empowering for those functional positions. It only says that not everyone is doing the same work of service.

I'll stop now, and I'll also gladly admit that this is a hobby horse. It seems to me that it is no surprise that the conventional view of spiritual gifts arose in America, where there is such a huge "find your talents and live out your passions" mentality all over our culture. That's part of why it's a hobby horse: so much of the emphasis in the biblical texts is on service, love, and function for the sake of the body of Christ. So much of the emphasis in the contemporary literature is on self-discovery. I desperately want to see that changed.

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Andrew,

Thanks for the further feedback. I've read portions of Berding's books--still working through much of the secondary literature.

I've addressed most of your questions in previous blog posts--take a look. As for the other passages, I'll be addressing those in later posts.

I agree that Paul's focus in 1 Corinthians is loving others. I don't think that point is discredited by suggesting that people should try and discover their gifts.

Only one further note: Certainly everyone is not called to the ministry of apostle or prophet; Paul makes that point. Therefore, those who are called to those ministries must discover that they are so. They must earnestly seek God, asking Him to show them their gifts and callings. That point is valid, no matter how we parse the syntax or gloss the words. The Christian life involves helping others and examining yourself. You can't have one without the other, because inevitably they affect each other.

Whether we discover gifts through looking at what a ministry needs, or discover gifts through examining ourselves, ultimately the result is the same (and good): enhancing the work of Christ in the world.
--John

John,

Again, thanks for your gracious response.

I'll keep this quite brief: in my reading of the secondary literature, I find that almost all spiritual gifts books tell you what the gifts are, but then fail to defend the thesis. They'll say something like, "A spiritual gift is a God-given ability for specific, unique ministry that every Christians has." Then they'll go into their discussion of what each gift is in the list passages. But they never defend their definitions biblically.

This is my biggest thought then: I think you'd do well to hunker down and explain, from the text of Scripture, why you think a gift is an ability and not the ministry itself. It's quite hard to do that in Rom. 12:7-8 ("the one who teaches", for example, and not "the ability to teach" is the gift). It's just as hard to do it in 1 Cor. 12 (think of the parallel in vv. 4-6: gifts, services, activities- the emphasis is totally on function, not ability). And in Eph. 4, God gives prophets, et. al., not the ability to prophesy.

I don't know if I've ever seen a spiritual gifts book that does that besides Berding's.

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

I think it's a great idea for all of us to take a look at the context of what Paul says about spiritual gifts. I would love to know what others in the Conversant Life community think of the passages where Paul addresses spiritual gifts/callings/offices.

Here are two major passages for starters:

http://biblia.com/bible/esv/Ro12.3-8

http://biblia.com/bible/esv/1Co12.1-11

--John

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The Infinite God is everywhere, are you looking? I am dedicated to finding God in all aspects of life – the Bible, the news, and the arts. Because I find that the most fulfilling journey of all is searching for heaven here on earth.