Monday, December 5, 2011

"That's Not My Gift"

Thirty-plus years ago, when I first gained an interest in the subject of spiritual gifts, only Pentecostal/charismatic Christians really believed in them. Most evangelical Christians were cessationists, believing that spiritual gifts were only for the early church. Today, things are very different. It seems that cessationism has largely ceased and most evangelicals acknowledge at least most of the spiritual gifts today.

While I rejoice that this is the case, I find that there is little good teaching about the gifts. What has been positive is the encouragement that Christians receive to find their place in the body of Christ, ie., what God has called us each to do. Many are indeed finding their place and are not discouraged that they do not have the same gifts that others have. They have their distinct callings and ministries. All are needed in the body of Christ.

Along with this, however, there seems to be some confusion. Gifts are often treated all the same way, as if they all belonged to the same category. I hear certain catchphrases that have enough truth in them to be plausible but without placing different kinds of spiritual gifts into their appropriate categories.

There are four lists of spiritual gifts in three books of the New Testament: Romans, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. What we have done is take everything in these lists (and added some of our own) and mix them up all together. Then we treat them all the same. When I have told people that God wants us all to speak in tongues, I hear things like this, "You have the gift of tongues and I have the gift of showing mercy - God has given us all different gifts".

This is a confusion of categories. The gift of showing mercy is in Romans and the gift of speaking in tongues is in 1 Corinthians. The list in Romans has only ministry gifts. The first list in 1 Corinthians is talking about "manifestations of the Holy Spirit". These are not ministries, but supernatural manifestations that are given at the moment by the Spirit.

Let's take the gifts of healing as an example of a supernatural manifestation. The Spirit can anoint anyone with this gift as it is needed. Jesus, in John 5, healed the man by the Pool of Bethesda and left a bunch of other sick people without healing. Why? The gifts of healing, as evidenced in Jesus' own ministry, only operate as the Spirit wills, it is not a permanent gift. Otherwise, a person with this gift would go to the hospitals and empty them.

In contrast, a person with a ministry of mercy could go to any hospital and bring love and care to all who were there. Why? Because they have a ministry gift that can be used at any time. Similarly, I have a teaching gift and I can use whenever I please. If I decide to teach on Monday or Wednesday, I can do that. But I could not decide that I would go heal a bunch of people on Monday or Wednesday. So I hope that you can see that different kinds of gifts cannot be treated in the same way. We are instructed to 'rightly divide the word of truth'. (2 Timothy 2:15)

Let's look a little deeper. When I tell others that God wants them to speak in tongues, they might raise another objection from the latter part of 1 Corinthians 12.

"All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they?" (1 Cor. 12:29-30)

Now this may seem to put the nail in the coffin of my idea, doesn't it? Not quite. We must examine the context to find what Paul was actually saying. Now I agree that not all are apostles, prophets, etc., but what are apostles and prophets? Are they supernatural manifestations or ministry gifts? They are ministry gifts. Paul is saying that not all have the ministry of an apostle, or a prophet or of tongues and interpretation.

Yet in 1 Cor. 14:31, Paul writes regarding the prophecy as a supernatural manifestation and not a ministry: "You can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted". But did not Paul already say that not all are prophets? Yes, but he was talking about ministries, not manifestations of the Spirit. All may have this manifestation of the Spirit, but not all have the ministry gift that goes by the same name. Likewise, all may speak in tongues though they do not have a ministry of tongues and interpretation.

You might say now that I have proven that all can prophesy, but not that all can have the gift of tongues. Okay, I do not have a plain statement like I have regarding prophecy.

But what is prophecy? Prophecy is a message directly from God, inspired by the Spirit in a language known to the speaker. What is tongues? It is a message directly from God, inspired by the Spirit, in a language unknown to the speaker. It's essentially the same thing. Tongues is the gift of prophecy in its varied form.

Also, we can look at the Day of Pentecost. (They do not call us Pentecostal for nothing!) "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance." (Acts 2:4) Notice that they all were filled with the Spirit and all spoke with tongues. That was the whole church at that time.

Did Paul think that only a few can speak in tongues? He writes, "I would to God that you all spoke with tongues." (1 Cor. 14:5) I do not think that Paul was simply expressing his own desire here. The opinion was inspired by the Spirit. I believe it is God's desire as well. And it is mine.

{Next time: why should we want to speak in tongues.}

No comments:

Post a Comment