Spiritual gifts

2 08 2012

Throughout the history of Christian interpretation of the charismata there seems to have been a tendency to translate and label divine ministry expressions as “spiritual gifts.” This despite the fact that there is nothing inherent in the words pneumatika or charismata themselves that necessarily conveys the idea of a “gift.” We do not translate energematon (I Cor. 12:6) as “energy-gifts,” so why do we translate pneumatikon (I Cor. 12:1) and charismaton (I Cor. 12:4) as “spiritual gifts”? These words are more adequately translated as “spiritual-expressions” or “grace-expressions” which are, indeed, “given” (I Cor. 12:7,8; Rom. 12:6) by the grace of God.

Additional words in the English translations also contribute to the misconception of separated “spiritual gifts.” To refer to the “distributing” of gifts as a translation of diaireo in I Cor. 12:11 (as in NASB), seems to convey the idea of commodity distribution. And reference to God’s “allotting” (Rom. 12:3, NASB) something to individual Christians, as if a certain “lot” of merchandise or equipment was distributed, likewise directs thinking towards the misnomer of “spiritual gifts.”

The disadvantage and danger of employing the terminology and phraseology of “spiritual gifts” is that such a designation tends to imply a detached disjunction from Christ, the separation of the “gifts” from the divine Giver. This is why “spiritual gifts” have often been viewed as detached “spiritual equipment” to undertake independent “spiritual ministry” that is not at all the expression of Jesus Christ energized by the Spirit of God within His Body.

There is a natural tendency among men to want to objectify everything as independent entities or abilities. In so doing, they want to “get a handle on it, figure it out, identify it, organize it, mobilize it, and use it for utilitarian purposes of productivity.” Is this not what we have observed throughout Christian history, as the charismata have been objectified as separated “spiritual gifts,” distinct entities or commodities regarded as specialized tools, equipment or “power-toys” which belong to specific individuals as possessions, or even as prizes or trophies of spirituality and success? As is so typical of religion in general, the ontologically dynamic concept of Christic-function has been perverted into a dualistically detached category.

When the so-called “spiritual gifts” are thus detached, disjoined and divorced from their singular divine source in Jesus Christ, from the very Being of Christ Himself, they are regarded as distinct abilities, endowments, enduements and empowerments allegedly given to individual Christians apart from Christ. They become “something more” added to the foundational indwelling of the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9). Such additions always imply the insufficiency of Christ, and lead to the false criteria of “spirituality” whereby one Christian can claim to be more “spiritual” than another, when, in fact, the only basis of being “spiritual” is the presence of the Spirit of Christ within the spirit of a receptive Christian (cf. I Cor. 2:15). The detachment of the charismata from Christ Himself becomes the basis of dysfunctional egoism, spiritual pride, comparison, competition, and self-exaltation, disallowing their intended purpose to facilitate the functional unity of the Body wherein we are “in Him together,” Christ functioning in each in order to serve one another in love.

In an age when the secular job market is suffering from the selfish individualizing tendency of specialization that refuses to function outside of one’s prescribed “job description,” and people refuse to function in certain manners because “my contract does not include that in my job description,” the Church must not fall prey to the same selfish tendency with adamant insistence on specific functions of specialization. Christians must be willing to be flexible and available to express any function of Christ’s ministry that is needed at any given time in any given context. Our “neighbor” is any person who has a need, and Christ wants us to be free to be the conduit or vessel of His ministry to anyone in need both within and without the Body of Christ.

Contemporary inventories and tests designed by ecclesiastical leaders to facilitate the identification of one’s so-called “spiritual gift” in order to employ it for the utilitarian benefit of a church organization, are inappropriate and misleading. Karl Barth writes,

“the particularities in question…do not arise accidentally or capriciously, nor are they discovered and established by individuals for reasons of practical convenience. On the contrary, they are works of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit. As charismata, they are forms of the one charis addressed to the community as such and operative in it. The very unity of the ministry of the community demands and creates its multiplicity.”

This also reveals the absurdity of attempting to quantify the ministry of Christ by enumerating a particular quantity of so-called “spiritual gifts.” The action of God cannot be thus quantified and limited. The particular expressions that Paul mentions in I Cor. 12 and Rom. 12 should not be interpreted as assigned categories of activities nor as complete catalogue listings. They are merely suggestive and illustrative of the unquantifiable expressions of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, by His Spirit.


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