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:
-- 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.
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.
Specific spiritual gifts are also the subject of other verses in the New Testament letters. For instance, in
1 Peter 4:11:
prophecy as from an oracle-giver (Gk logia theou),
service (Gk diakonei), from a vigor or force of being (Gk ischus) powered by God.
In Ephesians 4, the subject is what is imparted for the tasks of people in the church, such as apostles, as well as prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Each one is bestowed with supernatural gifts to do the task, for the purposes of:
equipping (Gk katartismon < artios = fully prepared or outfitted), building up (a form of Gk oikodome), and becoming more mature (a form of Gk teleios = brought to completion or wholeness).
If that's so, then God's spiritual gifts don't leave you, nor those around you, unchanged. They cause people to learn and grow.
Not everything Scripture describes as gifts from the Spirit are found in lists:
1 Corinthians 7:7 -- celibacy (without being ruled by
These belong in the overall context of gifts, but are not "spiritual gifts" in Paul's sense of the term. Paul's view of the charismata is that they are given to cause something to happen. (For example, giving grace and bringing about peace are spiritual gifts in the same sense as Paul's; living in a peaceful or graceful state are not, even though they are also given by God.) These are brought up here because they are given by the Divine Giver, and that means they're tied into not only the spiritual gifts, but all that exists and especially all that lives, for each and all of them are a unique divine gift.
In Isaiah 11:1-5, it speaks of what is given to the One whom God will send to accomplish the divine purposes, upon whom the Spirit of the LORD rests - the spirit of wisdom (Heb chokmah; see also James 1:5),
understanding (a form of Heb biynah),
counsel (a form of Heb 'etsah (strategy, plan)),
strength (Heb gebūrah = mastery or ability to make things happen),
knowledge (a form of Heb da'ath), and
the fear (Heb. yir'ah = awe) of the LORD.
According to the next two verses, God also endows:
a special force or effectiveness of words/communication (v.4b), and
a gift for being just to the oppressed in an unjust world (v.4a).
Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled that prophecy, and had the special gifts spoken of in Isaiah. Jesus said that His followers would be granted power to do deeds even greater than His powerful miracles. Paul drew on Isaiah in describing a practical angle for it. The special effectiveness or force is what Paul sees as the mark of a spiritual gift. When Paul spoke of how the warrior of God is dressed (Ephesians 6; 1 Thessalonians 5:8), and again, when he said that we walk by faith and not sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), he drew from this passage of Isaiah.
Other Spiritual Gifts
Scripture by no means exhaustively lists the many blessings the Spirit gives. That's not what any of these passages are there for. Instead, the Bible shows how inexhaustible the Spirit is in creating and giving them.
When people speak of specific spiritual gifts, they often think of some additional gifts which are not usually mentioned when the subject is raised. It's not that Christian do not want these things, or think that they are evil, it's just that neither Paul nor Peter wrote about them when writing about gifts. Some of these count as works of wonder, others are 'overall context' gifts. Some have 'gift'-ness and 'fruit'-ness - that is, what's poured in by God (gift) gets poured out by you (fruit). You may have experienced special moments of these in your own life. The Spirit uses them to grow you and to grow people together. These include:
There are, of course, more of them than I can think of, or list, or even hope to write about. (Some of these I give their own specific page; follow the links.) At Advent/Christmas, a most admired gift is to be a gifted giver of Christmas gifts -- someone who often comes up with the right gift to cause someone to be thankful and feel loved. That is a characteristic of God, too.
How Important Are Spiritual Gifts?
Starting in the 1960s and continuing to this day, a movement within the established churches appeared, which put special emphasis on the Holy Spirit's work among Christians and the gifts of the Spirit (the charismata) - even naming the movement after them. Quite frankly, the evidence of a living, active Spirit had almost vanished from most churches, and the rare mention of the Spirit was usually an excuse for embracing the personal and social values of the society at large -- a spirit of what's happening now. The charismatics changed that. Because of them, the Holy Spirit was once again in the house, and given the proper honors. People started to discover what specific gifts the Spirit gave them, and began to put them to use. And people all over the world found for themselves new life.
The way things work among humans is this: whenever we do something good, the devil works to undermine it from behind. Increasingly, the spiritual gifts, such as certain manifestations or signs of the Spirit's presence, but also gifted leadership and teaching, became issues to divide the church, a way for one side or another to show how much better their believers were than the other side's, a way to gain control without earning it. And an ever-larger part of the talk was taken up by the spectacular and the unbelievable, with all the fraud, bad theology, and weirdities that come as part of spectacles. The attention started to veer away from God and toward ourselves and our experiences, in a way not unlike that of ancient Corinth, the Self City of yore.
The good is still out there, even among the bad. The Spirit continues to work through giving people these abilities and blessings. This is still the best of news for the poor, the sick, the bitter, the oppressed, and the lonely. (Even as some supposed Christians talk brashly of guaranteed prosperity from God's divine ATM, or of winning dominion over the world. Their god may be Mammon, or Mars, but not Jesus.) There are millions of Christians all over the world who still faithfully serve, still worship in reverence and intimacy, still tell the truth of Jesus Christ, still insist on right over wrong, and still use what the Spirit gives them for the sake of others. And a rather large proportion of them got there through the charismatic movement. There's cause to hope that such movements can become wiser, and the good can come to the fore once more.
There Is No Ranking
Because specific gifts are given to each person who believes, they're not proof that someone is more 'spiritual' than others, or that someone is 'saved' (whatever might be meant by such talk). There may be an openness to a particular gift, but there may not be not an openness to the Giver, nor to those who may be built up by its use. One must trust the Holy Spirit to give what's needed. Each specific spiritual gift has its own ways to be used. It may create specialized responsibilities (as for, say, a prophet or a priest), but usually the responsibility is for the godly exercise of the gift. For each of us, the top ranking gifts on the list are the ones the Spirit gave to you.
What God bestows on us doesn't make us superheroes. They're given to us as we are, or perhaps as God is leading them to become. The gifts are given to each person individually, but they are given because that person is a part of a people. The gifts are given for that people, the Church Universal, the Body, the followers of Christ, because they are part of a redeemed new creation -- the Kingdom of God. Gifts will be given as needed until God's Realm is fully in place, at which time partial and 'sort-of' things such as the Spirit's gifts will no longer be needed because we'll have the full, real thing. back to top