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Spiritual Gifts

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Spiritual Gifts. Phrase regularly used to translate two Greek words, charismata and pneumatika (the plural forms of charisma and pneumatikon). Both words are almost exclusively Pauline within the biblical writings; elsewhere in the NT they appear only in and 4:10. Other writers, of course, mention phenomena that fall within Paul’s definition of “spiritual gifts,” but for specific teaching on the subject one must depend on Paul first and foremost.
Biblical Lists of Spiritual Gifts
Romans 12:6–8 NKJV
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, ruling, showing mercy
ministry
teaching
exhortation
giving
ruling
showing mercy
1 Corinthians 12:8–10 NKJV
for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
prophecy, word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, discerning of spirits, tongues, interpretation
word of wisdom
word of knowledge
faith
healing
miracles
discerning of spirits
tongues
interpretation
1 Corinthians 12:28 NKJV
And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.
prophets, teachers, governments, gifts of healing, miracles, tongues, apostles, helps
teachers
governments
gifts of healing
miracles
tongues
apostles
helps
1 Corinthians 12:29–30 NKJV
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
prophets, teachers, healing, miracles, tongues, interpretation, apostles
teachers
healing
miracles
tongues
interpretation
apostles
Ephesians 4:11 NKJV
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,
prophets, pastor-teachers, apostles, evangelists
1 Peter 4:11 NKJV
If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
ministry, speaking
Both words are derived from more familiar words, charis (grace) and pneuma (spirit). Both have similar senses—charisma meaning “expression or manifestation or embodiment of grace,” pneumatikon meaning “expression or manifestation or embodiment of Spirit.” Their range of application, however, is somewhat different.
prophets
prophets
ministry
teachers
pastor-teachers
ruling
word of knowledge
healing
healing
miracles
tongues
tongues
interpretation
apostles
apostles
evangelists
speaking
Both words are derived from more familiar words, charis (grace) and pneuma (spirit). Both have similar senses—charisma meaning “expression or manifestation or embodiment of grace,” pneumatikon meaning “expression or manifestation or embodiment of Spirit.” Their range of application, however, is somewhat different.
Charisma denotes God’s saving action in Christ () and the gift of eternal life (6:23). More generally, in it probably refers to the series of gracious acts on behalf of Israel whereby God made Israel’s calling and election sure. In it probably refers to a particular action of God that brought Paul deliverance from deadly peril. Otherwise the reference seems to be to divine grace as mediated through individuals, with Paul presumably thinking of the sort of utterances and deeds that he illustrates in and 1 Corinthians, 12:8–10 (so in ; ; ; , , , , ; similarly ). There is some dispute over . It is unlikely, however, that Paul regards marriage as a “spiritual gift”; possibly he thinks of the celibate state as a “spiritual gift”; but more probably he thinks of the “spiritual gift” as that enabling “not to touch a woman” (v 1), to refrain from sexual relationships for a season for the purpose of prayer (v 5) or for some act of ministry.
Pneumatikon has a wider range of usage. It is more properly an adjective and so describes various things (and people) as “spiritual,” as manifesting the Spirit, or serving as the instrument of the Spirit—thus some particular word or act (), the Law (7:14), the manna, water from the rock, and the rock itself in the wilderness wanderings of Israel (, ), the resurrection body (15:44, 46), unspecified blessings “in the heavenly places” (), particular insights into the divine will (), and songs in worship (; ). As a plural noun it can be used of individuals (“the spiritual ones” , ; ; ) or of things (“the spirituals,” “spiritual gifts,” ; ; ; ; , even “spiritual powers in heaven,” ).
From this brief survey a more precise definition of “spiritual gifts” can be made. Whatever thing, event, or individual serves as an instrument of the Spirit, or manifests the Spirit, or embodies the Spirit is a spiritual gift (pneumatikon). Whatever event, word, or action is a concrete expression of grace or serves as a means of grace is a spiritual gift (charisma). Pneumatikon is the more general word, charisma more specific. Moreover, charisma is probably Paul’s own word (; ; ; ) in preference to the more ambiguous pneumatikon, which seems to have been popular with those causing difficulty for Paul in Corinth (; ; ). Consequently, attention will focus in what follows on charisma. Not forgetting those passages where Paul uses this word in broader terms for the direct act of God (, ; ; ; ), concentration will be on the passages where Paul speaks in more precise terms of particular manifestations of grace mediated through one individual to others, “spiritual gifts” in this the narrower sense of charisma.
The lists of charismata (; ; ; ) are the obvious starting point, because they provide the clearest indications of what Paul would include within the range of spiritual gifts. For the sake of clarity in analysis they are most simply divided into four groups—revelation, miracles, leadership, and service.
Gifts of Revelation
Knowledge and Wisdom. The first two gifts mentioned in . are “utterance of wisdom” and “utterance of knowledge.” Paul mentions wisdom and knowledge first presumably because the Corinthians made so much of them, as is clear from 1:17–2:13; 8; 13:2, 8. Paul clearly thinks they have the wrong idea of wisdom, understanding it as rhetorical skill or eloquence (1:17, 19, 20; 2:1, 4, 5), or as a this-worldly sophistication (1:20, 22; 2:5, 6, 13; 3:19). The wisdom by which believers should live is the wisdom of God, the wisdom expressed in God’s plan to achieve salvation through Christ, that is, through the crucifixion of Christ and the proclamation of the crucified Christ (1:20–25, 30; 2:6–8). In other words, Christian wisdom is rooted in the recognition that God’s saving purposes center on the crucified Messiah and stem from the experience of that saving power (2:4, 5). Lest his readers think of divine wisdom as something that they possess and can use at will, Paul narrows his description of the spiritual gift to “utterance of wisdom” (12:8). That is to say, the gift is not wisdom itself but the utterance that mediates the recognition and experience of God’s saving purpose to others (2:4–7, 13).
Similarly, the Corinthians laid claim to “knowledge,” presumably understood as an insight into the relation between themselves and the spiritual realm that enabled them to disregard idols as irrelevant to their spiritual health (8:1–6; cf. 13:2). Paul seems to accept this insight of “knowledge” (8:5), but he warns his readers that the true index of spiritual health is not “knowledge” but concern for one’s brother in the faith (vv 7–13)—“ ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (v 1). Elsewhere “knowledge” for Paul seems to overlap largely in meaning with “wisdom,” as knowledge or experiential awareness of God’s grace in Christ (2:12; ; ; ; ; ). As with wisdom so with knowledge; Paul seems to take care to specify the spiritual gift as “utterance of knowledge” (). Once given the knowledge, one can of course claim to “have it” (8:1, 10), but the charisma as such for Paul is the utterance that first brings that insight into God’s purpose and the cosmos to the hearer.
Insofar as these two gifts are distinct and insofar as their meaning is determined by the contexts of ; and 8, “utterance of wisdom” may be more an evangelistic gift and “utterance of knowledge” more a teaching gift. Much of the preaching and teaching of Jesus and the earliest apostles could be described as charismata in these terms.
Prophecy. Paul clearly understands prophecy not merely as bold speech making critical comment on current issues but as inspired speech—like prophecy of old, as words given to the speaker to speak by divine compulsion (cf. ; ; ). Though it comes sixth in the list of , prophecy is (next to apostleship, ) clearly the most important gift for Paul (; ; , ; cf. ; ; ). This was presumably for several reasons.
First, it was the mark of the outpouring of the Spirit in the “last days” (; ). The widespread experience of prophecy among the earliest Christians was therefore proof that the climax to God’s salvation history was already in train. Unlike glossolalia, prophecy spoke to mind as well as spirit (). In other words, it addressed the whole man, expressing the wholeness of God’s saving power, thus preventing the believer from setting rational and spiritual against each other. Thus, consequently it built up the church more than any other gift, ministering both encouragement and consolation (vv 3, 31), bringing new revelation (vv 6, 26, 30)—of guidance for life or of God’s plan of salvation confirming the believers in their faith and converting the unbelievers (vv 22–25).
Discernment of Spirits. Not properly a gift of inspired utterance, it nevertheless has to be included here, since Paul sometimes associates it with prophecy (; ; , ). Claims of inspired speaking were no proof that the words were from God (). Those who have also received the Spirit have the responsibility of evaluating the utterance as to its source and significance (2:12, 13; 14:29; also ); they must test the charisma and hold only to that which is good, rejecting what is bad (). In other words, this gift is not independent of prophecy; it serves as a check on it. To put it the other way round, prophecy is not independent of discernment of spirits. Prophecy is a community gift, and the gift of prophecy is only complete when the community has tested and approved the message of God in it.
Glossolalia and Interpretation of Tongues. Like prophecy and discernment of spirits these last two members of the list hang together, the latter providing a check on the former lest it be abused in the ecstasy of inspiration. That glossolalia (speaking in tongues) was experienced in ecstasy at Corinth seems clear from the picture of uncritical enthusiasm and confusion that emerges from Paul’s rebukes (12:2, 3; 14:12, 23, 27–28, 33, 40). Similarly, ecstasy is implied in Acts (2:4, 6, 13; 10:44–46; 19:6).
Ruins at Corinth, the city where the church had to be corrected by Paul regarding spiritual gifts.
Paul values glossolalia, not as ecstatic speech, but as a quieter, less abandoned gift (), particularly in his own private worship (v 18). He seems to think of glossolalia rather as language: the word “tongue” certainly implies this, and “interpretation of tongues” could equally well be rendered “translation of languages.” However, the language is not that of men (as in ); it is rather the language of angels (), whereby the believer speaks to God (14:2). Paul values it as such, as enabling a different level of communication with God (“praying with the Spirit”—vv 4–7; cf. , ). In the assembly, however, he would prefer that the gift was restrained and only manifested if a subsequent utterance in the vernacular (interpretation of tongues) enabled the worshiping assembly to share in the individual glossolalist’s blessing (, , ).
Other forms of inspired utterance mentioned by Paul include preaching (; ; ; cf. ; ; ; ), teaching (; , ; ), exhortation (); “the Paraclete” could be called “the Exhorter” (, ; ; ), singing (, ; , ; ), and prayer (, , , ; , ; ; ; cf. ).
Gifts of Healing and Power. In Paul describes all spiritual gifts as “actions of divine energy.” This power aspect of charismata is, however, most clearly seen in healings and miracles.
Faith. The third gift mentioned in is faith. As is generally recognized Paul would not be referring here to justifying faith, which is the mark of all believers (by definition), but must have in mind more concentrated experiences of faith, particularly surges of confidence wherein the believer is enabled to trust God in a particular situation or for a particular event (faith “to remove mountains”—13:2). Hence it is a charisma given only to some (12:9). Hence too its association with healings and miracles in this list. It was a gift widely experienced in and through the ministry of Jesus and of the earliest churches (e.g., ; ; ; ; ; ).
Healings. Fourth in the list of is “gifts of healings” (v 9; also vv 28, 30). The plural form implies that Paul does not have in mind some general power on which the healer could draw to deal with all sorts of diseases; rather, the charisma is the actual healing itself, with a different charisma for each different healing. In this way Paul once again underlines how necessary it is for the would-be healer to rely on God’s gracious power to be bestowed afresh through him in each instance. Such healings were, of course, a feature of Jesus’ ministry and of the early mission.
Miracles. Fifth comes “workings of power, miracles” (, , ). Note again the plural form. Paul gives first-hand testimony that such miracles were a feature of his own ministry (; ; ; cf. ). What he has in mind is presumably distinct from healings. Perhaps he thinks of exorcisms, though demon possession does not feature prominently in his thought (cf. , ; ). Or we may think of the wider range of miracles recorded in the Gospels and Acts, including “nature” miracles and miracles of judgment (e.g., ; , ; ; , ).
Gifts of Leadership
Apostleship. Apostles receive first mention in the lists of spiritual gifts (; ). Since these gifts are bestowed by the risen Christ through the Spirit, it is probable that at the beginning of the apostolic age these men who had been appointed by Jesus and trained by him were now regarded as possessing a second investiture to mark the new and permanent phase of their work for which the earlier phase had been a preparation. They became the foundation of the church in a sense secondary only to that of Christ himself ().
The duties of the apostles were preaching, teaching, and administration. Their preaching rested on their association with Christ and the instruction received from him, and it included their witness to his resurrection (). Their converts passed immediately under their instruction (), which presumably consisted largely of their recollection of the teaching of Jesus, augmented by revelations of the Spirit (). In the area of administration their functions were varied. Broadly speaking, they were responsible for the life and welfare of the Christian community. Undoubtedly they took the lead in worship as the death of Christ was memorialized in the Lord’s Supper. They administered the common fund to which believers contributed for the help of needy brethren (), until this task became burdensome and was shifted to men specially chosen for this responsibility (). Discipline was in their hands (). As the church grew and spread abroad, the apostles devoted more and more attention to the oversight of these scattered groups of believers (; ). At times the gift of the Holy Spirit was mediated through them (). The supernatural powers which they had exercised when the Lord was among them, such as the exorcism of demons and the healing of the sick, continued to be tokens of their divine authority (; ). They took the lead in the determination of vexing problems which faced the church, associating the elders with themselves as an expression of democratic procedure (; cf. 6:3).
Teaching. Clearly related to, but carefully distinguished from, the gift of prophecy is the gift of teaching (; ). The prophet was a preacher of the word; the teacher explained what the prophet proclaimed, reduced it to statements of doctrine, and applied it to the situation in which the church lived and witnessed. The teacher would offer systematic instruction () to the local churches. In Paul adds the idea of pastor to that of teacher, because no one is able to communicate effectively (teach) without loving those who are being instructed (pastor). Likewise, to be an effective pastor, one must also be a teacher.
Governments or Administration (; cf. ). The early church’s organization was still fluid. Official offices had not been established, nor were duly appointed officials yet ruling the churches. It was necessary, therefore, that certain members should receive and exercise the gift of ruling or governing the local assembly of believers. This gift would take the form of sound advice and wise judgment in directing church affairs. Gradually, of course, this gift of guiding and ruling in church affairs would come to be identified so closely with certain individuals that they would begin to assume responsibilities of a quasipermanent nature. They would become recognized officials in the church, fulfilling well-defined duties in the administration of the Christian community. At the beginning, however, it was acknowledged that some Christians had received the gift of ruling and had liberty to exercise it. In addition to administration, practical matters in the conduct of public worship would require wisdom and foresight, and here again those who had recognizably received the gift of ruling would be expected to legislate.
Exhortation (). The possessor of the gift of exhortation would fulfill a ministry closely allied with that of the Christian prophet and teacher. The difference between them would be found in the more personal approach of the former. If his exhortations were to succeed, they would have to be given in the persuasive power of love, understanding, and sympathy. His aim would be to win Christians to a higher way of life and to a deeper self-dedication to Christ. The Spirit, therefore, who bestowed the gift of exhortation would with the gift communicate spiritual persuasiveness and winsomeness.
Evangelism. Another gift to the church is the ability to do evangelism. Timothy is called an evangelist in , as is Philip, one of the seven, in . The task of preaching the gospel, although theoretically everyone’s responsibility, is entrusted specifically to certain individuals by the Holy Spirit. They are to exercise their ministry in the full realization that the power comes from God, making faddish and manipulative techniques not only unnecessary but wrong. When such are present, it is a clear indication that the Spirit is absent. Converts from the evangelist’s ministry are to be funneled into the church, where they are to be built up by those exercising the other gifts.
Gifts of Service. Just as Paul calls all spiritual gifts “actions of divine energy” (), so he calls them all “acts of service” (v 5). A word or deed is only to be regarded as a spiritual gift when it both manifests divine grace and serves others. Paul sometimes speaks of such acts of ministry without specifying what he has in mind (; ; cf. ); but the lists do mention four service gifts.
Gifts of Service. The Gift of Helpers (). What spiritual gift was signified by “helper” may be gathered from , where Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders to labor “to help the weak” and constantly to remember the Lord’s own words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Paul supports this exhortation from his own example. The early church seems to have had a special concern for the needy among her members, and those who helped the indigent were considered to have been endowed by the Spirit for this ministry. It is not impossible that the office of elder originated in the gift of government or rule. By the same token, the office or duty of deacon may have originated in this gift of helpers. The deacon was one who ministered to the needy ().
Service (Gr., diakonia). Service is called a gift in . This term is used in a number of ways in the NT, from a generalized idea of ministry (, where Paul’s preaching is called a ministry of reconciliation) to a specific office or task (). It is difficult to know exactly how Paul means it here. It is perhaps a generalized gift of power to anyone exercising a specific function in the church.
Contributing. Paul speaks of contributing as a gift (). All are to give to the needs of the church, its ministry, and the poor, but a special gift enables some to make joyous sacrifice in this area. Paul adds that this gift should be exercised “without grudging” or “in liberality.”
Acts of Mercy (). Merciful acts are to be performed with cheerfulness under the guidance of the Spirit. It might be wondered why such a noble act would require charismatic endowment, but the circumstances of the time explain it. To render aid was dangerous. Such identification with other Christians in need branded one as a Christian as well, opening up the possibility of persecution.
Such gifts would of course be manifested regularly by particular individuals. Just as he who manifested the gift of prophecy regularly came to be recognized as a prophet (; ; ; ; ; cf. , ; , ; ; ), and as he who manifested the gift of teaching regularly came to be recognized as a teacher (; ; ; cf. ; ), so those who regularly manifested particular gifts of service would probably be recognized as deacons (“servers”—; ; ; ; ; ; Tm 3:8, 12; 4:6). Similarly “overseer” (bishop) was probably a name first given to one who regularly manifested gifts of counsel and leadership (; Tm 3:2; ).
Characteristics of Charismata. For Paul (the one who gave Christianity the concept of charisma), a spiritual gift is essentially an act of God’s Spirit, a concrete manifestation in word or deed of God’s grace through an individual for the benefit of others.
In its basic sense a spiritual gift is a specific act of God, and this remains true even when it is mediated through any individual. This means that no one can hope to manifest such a gift except in conscious openness to and dependence on God. By extension Paul can speak of individuals “having, possessing” certain spiritual gifts (; ; ), but this is presumably just shorthand for their being so open to God’s grace that that grace regularly or constantly manifests itself through them in particular ways. Such language no more means that the charisma is an ability at the individual’s command than does the similar talk of “having the Spirit” (, ). It is true, however, that in and this basic sense is beginning to be left behind.
A spiritual gift is any event, word, or action that embodies and expresses God’s grace. In this sense sacraments can be “means of grace” (though they are never called this in the NT), as are many other utterances and actions as well. In recognizing this, one can recognize too that the lists of gifts (e.g., ; ) are neither definitive nor exhaustive, simply typical manifestations of the Spirit (or those with which readers were most familiar or on which they needed some advice). The degree of overlap between these various lists shows that Paul was not concerned to specify a precisely defined catalogue; he simply selected a number of activities and utterances through which he saw the grace of God manifesting itself in his churches.
It is important to grasp that Paul saw all Christians as charismatics. Whoever “has” the Spirit, that is, is open to and being led by the Spirit (, ), will inevitably manifest the grace of God in some way and should also be open to the Spirit’s power coming to expression in particular words and deeds within the community of the Spirit. For Paul, the church is the body of Christ. The functions of that body’s members are exemplified by the spiritual gifts (12:4–6; ). Unless the individual is functioning charismatically, he is not functioning as a member of the body. The Spirit’s gifts are the living movements of Christ’s body. As the body is many different members functioning as one body, so the unity of the church grows out of the diverse functions (gifts) of its members. It follows that a spiritual gift is given primarily with the community in view. It is given “for the common good” (). That is why a selfish, loveless clutching after charismata is wrong and futile (13:1–3). A spiritual gift is never one’s to use as one wants for one’s own benefit (except perhaps glossolalia, but that is why Paul gives it lower value). It is given to one only in the sense that God chooses to act through one for others. More precisely, it is given only through one to the community, and one benefits only as the community benefits. The spiritual health and edification of the individual is inextricably bound up with the health and well-being of the whole body (12:14–26; ).
From Paul to the Present. There is no clear indication that Paul expected the cessation of spiritual gifts prior to the return of Christ, though some see as teaching that certain gifts were only for the early church; but “the complete, the perfect” to which he refers there seems to refer to the consummation at Christ’s return. Indeed, on the definition of charisma as any word or act that manifests and mediates grace to another one may say that spiritual gifts have never been absent.
But on a narrower understanding of spiritual gifts, which focuses attention on the more striking manifestations of prophecy, glossolalia, and healing, it is true that they seem to have disappeared from the mainstream of the church’s life by the middle of the 3rd century. The late ending to Mark (16:17), Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all testify to the continuing experience of such gifts before then, but in the 4th century Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo seem to think of them as belonging to the past. This was in large part due to the increasing institutionalization of the church, in the course of which chrismation (anointing with oil) progressively replaced charismata as the sign of the Spirit; the body of Christ came to be conceived as a hierarchical structure, and the phrase “gifts of the Spirit” was referred more frequently to . Over the centuries there were successive claims that one or more of the more striking gifts had been restored—most notably by the early Montanists (second century), Joachim of Fiore (1132?–1202), many of the Anabaptists, and the early Quakers—but such claimants were usually either pushed to the fringes of Christianity or persecuted outright. Orthodoxy’s fear of enthusiastic excess and abuse of ecclesiastical authority were too often justified in the event.
More recently events have taken a different turn. Renewed interest in spiritual gifts, particularly healing and glossolalia, at the end of the 19th century heralded the emergence of Pentecostalism in the 20th century. With the acceptance of Pentecostalism as a third or fourth main stream of Christianity (beside Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism), and charismatic renewal within the older denominations, the charismatic dimension of Christian life and worship has steadily gained recognition, not least among Catholics. It remains to be seen whether the dynamism of charismatic order and worship can be held together with the conservatism of institution and tradition in fruitful interaction.
Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Spiritual Gifts. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, pp. 1992–1998). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
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