Benny Hinn, the television evangelist-healer, draws enormous crowds to his campaigns around the world. He claims he has received the spiritual “gifts” of healing and evangelism.
Yet a 2007 television news magazine report suggested he lived a lavish lifestyle, put his family on the payroll, and could not verify the healings reputedly done in his crusades and on television. The source of this information was people who used to work for him, including a former chauffeur and accountant.
In recent years we have seen a remarkable upsurge in Pentecostal religions and the “spiritual gifts” movement. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion around this issue, which can be clarified only by reexamining the primary biblical passages that speak to the issue.
Questions Screaming for Answers
Let us admit that the biblical teachings about spiritual gifts can be confusing. The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:28 that God has “appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues” (NRSV).* Clearly, he is referring to some of the spiritual gifts present in the early church. At every period of church history the “deeds of power [and] gifts of healing” have been seen as dramatic gifts from God, which cannot help deeply attracting eyewitnesses to them. But what about the other spiritual gifts — of teaching, preaching, or speaking in tongues? In our time pastors proclaim that all Christians have spiritual gifts to be used in the proclamation of the gospel, including administration, hospitality, and nurturing. We are urged to “discover” our spiritual gifts and then use them. When we do, church growth will result. Here is where confusion infiltrates a crucial teaching with questions that scream to be asked:
“Is there a difference between administration as a skill developed through education and experience, and administration as a spiritual gift?”
“Is there a difference between pastoring or teaching as skills one acquires, and these same qualities as gifts of the Spirit?”
“What is the difference between being a hospitality celebrity, like Martha Stewart, and having hospitality as a spiritual gift?”
“Why does a Christian who feels called to help others possess the gift of service, while a dedicated Christian social worker in the community does not exercise a spiritual gift?”
The apostle Paul implicitly answers such questions in his remarkable discourse on spiritual gifts in the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the church at Corinth. These new Christians, fresh out of pagan worship (they were not converted Jews or “God-fearers” — Gentiles converted to Judaism before they became Christians), were used to frenzy and ecstasy in their religious experience. Their culture tended to equate spirituality with emotional intensity. As a result, few if any ever asked the question in relation to Christian worship: “Even if intense, how do we know our ecstasy is an authentic experience of the divine?”
Deeply embedded in their experience, the new believers could not help ranking their brothers and sisters in proportion to the sensationalism of the gifts they manifested. If you performed miracles, uttered prophecies, or spoke in tongues, you were obviously superior to those who, in their own quiet ways, loved one another and gave themselves unselfishly to Christ. Week after week, Paul seems to suggest, the spiritual gifts that elevated people into prominence turned some of them into self-righteous, unfeeling snobs. Those with less sensational roles became jealous and felt spiritually inferior. They could not understand why God had given them “lesser” gifts than He had given to others.
Talents and Gifts — What’s the Difference?
Paul tackles this problem by asking a fundamental question: Why is the Spirit given to the church? His answer is straightforward: Certainly not for the exaltation of one member over another, but for the good of the whole. Spiritual gifts are to foster unity, not bickering; love, not jealousy. When the result of a “gift” is the fracturing of the church, it cannot be a gift of the Spirit!
Paul’s counsel helps us distinguish not only between true and false gifts, but between “talents” or capabilities and “gifts” of the Spirit. A talent is morally neutral: it may produce good or evil. The talent to inspire people through oratory may be used by a Hitler for warmongering, or by a Roosevelt to defend freedom against fascism. Spiritual gifts are different. They are not morally neutral. They must always be used for good and never for evil. True spiritual gifts unify the church; they never result in separation between believers.
To illustrate his thesis, Paul describes the church with the metaphor of the body. He seems to be saying, “Doesn’t the foot understand that when it attacks another member of the body of Christ, it attacks itself?” There is no independent existence in the church. We are literally “knit together” in Christ. What affects one, affects all. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 13, NRSV).
In another place Paul uses the image of putting on Christ as one would put on a robe or a uniform. When we see firefighters or police officers, for example, the uniform minimizes differences of color, ethnicity, or gender, and highlights the fact that these people are united in a common mission. That uniform means they are dedicated to taking care of us as well as one another. In Christ our differences are as nothing compared to what we have in common — the Lordship of Jesus.
A talent is mine and has a life of its own. It leads to rivalry (we compete through our talents for careers, schools, and even romantic interests). We receive our talents at birth and enhance them through education and practice.
A gift does not belong to me but to the church. It has no life apart from the church. It leads not to rivalry, but to mutual support. It is received at baptism, not at birth, and it is nurtured not through education or practice so much as daily spiritual discipleship. A spiritual gift may manifest itself through a talent, but it is not the same as a talent.
Key Text: 1 Corinthians 12
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Talents in the ministry of the church would refer to one’s personal and professional qualifications, such as good judgment, intelligence, pleasant preaching voice, educational preparation, etc. The spiritual gift of ministry would refer to how one dedicated those talents to the building up of the body of Christ rather than oneself.
A talented singer’s performance focuses on the audience’s response to their singing; a spiritually gifted singer (talented to be sure) is primarily conscious of how God might use their gift to build up the church. While a talent well utilized is a pleasure to experience, a spiritual gift faithfully exercised is a blessing to one’s experience. Martha Stewart may know how to set a table and make people feel comfortable; a church member with the gift of hospitality makes his guests feel accepted by Christ Himself. A talented person informs and performs; a spiritually gifted person is used by the Spirit to transform.
The Gifts to Hunger For
Even though Paul is diplomatic with his new members, not wanting to unnecessarily discourage or offend them, the point is obvious: the least desirable gifts are those that create friction and disunity, such as speaking in tongues. The “best” gifts — such as faith, hope, and love — unify! And unlike tongues, prophesying, and healing, faith, hope, and love are the most widely distributed spiritual gifts. All members have them, and for that reason alone they are the most important.
You cannot be jealous of a member whose love embraces you; you cannot envy a member whose faith and hope inspires your faith and hope! It is the externally obvious gifts that create problems. So as Paul moves into 1 Corinthians 13, he nails home his thesis: Without love, all the other gifts are virtually worthless.
Faith, hope, and love cannot fracture the church. Furthermore, because every believer is given these desirable gifts, they cannot produce envy. You cannot be jealous over love or pout over hope when all believers possess them! All this counsel is a preface to Paul’s magnificent discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13.
If you belong to Christ, you are gifted with love. Spiritually centered people impress others with their sincerity and devotion to the cause of God, not because of the “wonders” they allegedly manifest.
When a congregation’s best soprano sings a difficult and impressive aria from the Elijah just before the pastor’s sermon, they need to remember that they are worshipping God through singing. Their aria is a gift to God and through God to the congregation. It is not primarily for the congregation that they sing. Their offering to God is designed to facilitate the work of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to transform the congregation through the worship experience. Regardless of how we view spiritual gifts, Paul reminds us that the “best gifts” (faith, hope, and love) seldom get applause. Let us earnestly covet the best gift of all, without which all our other gifts are like “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” — noisy and attention-getting, but without lasting significance. Let us seek to build up the church and bear witness to the power of the gospel.
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
James Londis is a retired evangelist, pastor, professor, college president, and Ethics and Corporate Integrity officer. This article was first printed in the Adventist Review, March 12, 2009 and is republished here with permission from the author.
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