Spiritual gifts. Oh boy. Here we go, down the rabbit hole into strange behaviors that people blame God for—which are not spiritual gifts at all but just people acting strange.
So, let us look at 1 Corinthians 12 and try to actually understand what Paul is talking about here, because otherwise we’re going to get deep in the weeds and have a very difficult time getting back. One portion of the context to keep in mind is that both letters to the Corinthians are clearly written to a church with a much higher level of dysfunction than is healthy. Ephesus had troubles and so did Rome, Thessalonica had its difficulties and Colossae its heresy, but Corinth seems to have had the most wrong at the same time. (Except maybe the churches of Galatia, but “better off than the foolish, bewitched Galatians” isn’t exactly high praise.)
Given that background, the summary of 1 Corinthians needs to be read as corrective prescription rather than a positive how-to manual. Each gift that is mentioned is brought up in a list, highlighting that it is one of many rather than exalting any particular gift.
The primary illustration of the chapter is the comparison of the church as a whole to a body—and the holders of spiritual gifts are likened to body parts. That’s an important thing to take note of: the gifts are not compared to parts of the body. The people who have spiritual gifts are part of the body.
You are part of the body of Christ. Not your spiritual gift—and you are not your giftedness.
To understand the rest of the chapter, cast a hard glance at the first 6 verses. 1 Corinthians 12:1-6 unlocks the concepts that follow. Here’s how:
1. Paul is concerned that the church not be ignorant of how God works in their lives—he contrasts this with how they behaved as pagans. An understanding of how God works will help keep the Corinthians from being led astray.
2. It is apparent that the oddities of behavior from paganism were bleeding over into the church, where there was not even clarity that the Spirit of God would never curse Jesus and that the Holy Spirit will always support that Jesus is Lord!! Whatever manifestation of alleged “spiritual gifts” the Corinthians were having, apparently some were cursing the Lord and claiming to be spiritual for it.
3. The emphasis is placed on the unity of the church behind one Lord, Jesus Christ. The differences are in people, not in the Lord Himself. And whatever is different about us, we are to be unified in following Christ.
1. Ignorance is not a virtue. Especially ignorance that does not discern between truth and falsehood. Learn the difference between Christianity and false religion.
2. Copying the behavior of the pagan world into the church is not a shortcut to anywhere worth going.
3. Whatever you think makes you special in the Kingdom of God, remember that it’s His Kingdom. Any gifts, talents, abilities that you have are from Him in the first place, so perhaps a word is in order about who has the right to tell you what to do with “your” gifts. The use of anything that is allegedly spiritual in a manner that disrupts the right unity of the church (note, right unity—unity based on the truth of Scripture, not false unity based on lies) is counter to the work of the one Lord of the church. If someone comes away from encountering your gift and your use of it and does not respond with “Jesus is Lord!” then you’re doing it wrong. End of story.
We have varieties of gifts in the church, true—but there is one Lord, and so one purpose for all of the gifts: the glory of God.
We can’t get away from spiritual gifts without a couple of nerd terms. These are “cessationism” and “continuationism.” “Cessationism,” which is sometimes called “sufficientism,” views spiritual gifts in the Scripture as falling into differing categories and that some of those categories have ceased, or stopped. These gifts were used by God to affirm the truth of the words of the Apostles (big A Apostles, eyewitnesses to the Gospel…) Now that the complete, sufficient Scriptures are available, these gifts are unnecessary and therefore not given.
“Continuationism” views all of the gifts as continuing through to today. This view holds that every spiritual gift seen in the New Testament should be seen in the church today just as it was then.
There are believers who take the text of Scripture seriously who fall on both sides of this discussion, and I have friends on both sides. The primary difficulty, to my view, is the purpose of some of the gifts—if their only purpose was to provide support to the “Word of the Lord” then they by necessity must have ceased—no one speaks today with that authority. The authority of an unmistakable “Word from God” is reserved to the inerrant Scripture, the Word of God.
And I find that the text of Scripture is complete and done—John speaks well in summary in Revelation 22 about adding to or taking away. However, if there were other purposes for those gifts, then those purposes may not be complete, and therefore the gifts would remain. It comes back to discerning God’s purposes.
The other thing that must be spoken of is “tongues.” This is a case of translators letting us down—if you look at the one place in Scripture where “tongues” are described in practice, Acts 2, then you see that “tongues” are other earthly languages. Therefore, “tongues” should be read as “languages” and understood as the supernatural gifting of the ability to speak in another language.