Spiritual Gifts, In Context
Whenever there is talk of spiritual gifts, there are several things to keep in mind:
- the overall context of 'spiritual' gifts is that all that exists is a gift from God, but some are called out by Scripture for our special attention.
- they are given to be used.
- anyone who receives a spiritual gift is responsible for how the gift is used.
- they are to be used in a way which builds up the believing community as a whole and the members in it, and the wider community it is inside of, as an expression of God's love.
- when done in this manner, the Spirit will grow a Christ-like content of character in action.
Paul's Spiritual Gifts Lists
Those who look back on the early Church as 'the good old days' forget how those days were. The Mediterranean of the apostle Paul's day was a brewing stew of cultures and beliefs all having to live with each other amidst poverty, disease, and Roman rule. There were official cultural norms, but these were often ignored or even deliberately breached. It could get ugly, perverted, and violent. And no matter how bad it got, there was always some set of beliefs or cultural norms out there which could (and would) be used for excusing or even endorsing it. No place was more of a stew pot than Corinth. Corinth was the leading Roman colony in Greece, where retired soldiers, bureaucrats, and functionaries would go to live. Goods were carted over the isthmus to ships on the other side, avoiding the treacherous way around Greek Achaia by sea. On top of all cities was almighty Rome, in the prime of its power and glory, beyond anything that came before it.
Paul's specific spiritual gifts lists were written to aid local fellowships which were growing, usually slowly. These fellowships were also growing in another, more rapid way: they were experiencing the pains of developing the new Christian identity. They were no longer just a Jewish spinoff; they were becoming a new people. (Remember that there was no New Testament yet to guide them - they learned by living it.) Paul saw what the Spirit was giving them to make this happen, and worked to boost it whenever he could. He was not trying to be definitive by saying, "I'll count here the specific gifts which the Spirit gives you, and there are no others." In fact, the main premise of his case argues that there are many more than he can possibly list. But saying that still misses the point: Paul was writing about other matters, and in the context of doing that he also writes about what the Spirit has bestowed upon them.
Follow the links below to find gift definitions and more about how each is used.
Paul found out how the Corinthian Christians were finding all sorts of excuses to split themselves into factions. So he wrote out clear instructions to show that the Spirit's gifts are granted to build them into a community, not to give them more cause to fight. There are lots of theories about the exact nature of Corinth's struggles, and there are no other sources for understanding it. We have only the apostle Paul in a Bob Newhart scene, where we're let in on only one end of a frank conversation.
Paul is at his caring, honest, but intense, best in his first letter to the Corinthians, notably when he writes about the specific spiritual gifts in chapter 12. He speaks of the differences and diversities among the followers in Corinth, but with each phrase he hammers home the most important point: all the special, powerful gifts the Corinthians have been endowed with came from the same Spirit for the same purpose. He rattles off a list of spiritual gifts he already knows they've been given:
- words of wisdom (Gk logos sofias);
- words of knowledge (Gk logos gnoseos);
- faith (Gk pistis);
- healing (Gk iamaton);
- miracle-working (Gk energmata dunameon);
- prophecy (Gk profeteia);
- distinguishing of spirits (Gk diakriseis pneumaton);
- interpretation (Gk hermeneia) of tongues.
-- each one punctuated with "by that same Spirit". In this list at verse 4, Paul is not talking about offices or jobs (he does that a bit later), he is talking about specific gifts of the Spirit and how they are to be used. He gives examples that show that they are granted to the church community through people in that community. He follows this by declaring how this makes each member radically valuable to the whole believing community. After that, he speaks of the heart of all of it: love.
The Spiritual Gifts List in Romans 12
The apostle Paul also discusses the subject of gifts in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 12, he is talking about the attitude of the believer in Christ, someone who is given to God. He then starts to speak against an attitude of being better than anyone else. Each member has a value to the Body of Christ (the believing community), best shown when God sends specific spiritual gifts to each, as is fitting for each one's faith. Once again, he lists some of the spiritual gifts specifically, probably because these were part of the matters at hand.
- prophecy (Gk profeteian),
- service (as a ministry, Gk diakonia),
- teaching (Gk didaskōn),
- exhortation (or being an advocate, Gk paraklesis),
- giving (a form of Gk metadidomi),
- leadership (or superintendency; Gk proistamenos),
- the showing of mercy (Gk eleōn).
Paul once again is not really writing directly about the Spirit's gifts, but about the attitude taken when using them as part of the believing community. Though he lists specific spiritual gifts, the intent is more like what he had when writing about the spiritual fruit. Paul is writing about the active character that marks a Christian; the gifts are there for putting that character into action. He's tying office and gift together, but not by any requirements of hierarchy or structure. Rather, God gives to meet the needs of the church-as-community, and the church has the task to discern it and recognize them.
Paul holds the gifts of the Spirit to be so important that when he teaches the fellowships about other matters, he can't help but teach about them. Their role is so central to a healthy fellowship that they affect everything else.back to top