Redefining Spiritual Gifts II

When you look at the various charismatic lists there are often similarities but there are also differences. There are things that are present in one list but are absent in another or even replaced by something else. Is this a confusion of categories? We often struggle in our charismatic schemes to categorise these different things. Again Paul is not trying to set up hard distinctions but trying to describe Spirit-driven, service oriented, Church life. He use these different descriptions because the Spirit acts in many diverse ways. There is no set formula to the operation of the Spirit.

Ephesians 4:11 provides an excellent point where we can study what I mean. It is often taught in the CM that they are separate, closed of “offices.” I contend that the image of ministerial offices Paul envisioned resembled a Google or a Facebook more than a JP Morgan Chase. Instead of private offices or sectioned cubicles, characteristic of older models of the work place, reinforcing the demarcation between boss and subordinate, we have Silicon Valley like model. In the offices of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg the CEO, sits among other workers in a sprawling mess of energy and creativity. Workers at all levels in the hierarchy are able to easily interact as a team to achieve the company goals. When we go with the older workplace model in ministry certain kinds of problems occur.

For instance, the prophet is expected to excel in all things supernatural. He is however excused from in-depth, coherent exposition of scripture because he is not a “teacher.” Pastors have to be patient but evangelists are allowed to be hot-headed and brash because they preach repentance. Since when were prophets not expected to be able teachers or evangelists not expected to be longsuffering? How can you preach repentance if you cannot bear with the failings of those trapped in sin? How can you truly be God’s mouth piece if you can only repeat what he said but not explain what he means? This creates artificial power hierarchies disrupting unity and edification, the original goals of these gifts. With the older model, prophets for example, hold a monopoly over certain things and refuse to pull their weight in other areas because it is not their job. Some begin to think they are better than others because they have certain endowments others don’t have and expect privileges because of them. They stop seeing themselves as servants and receive all sorts of grandiose titles in honour of their vain selves. We need to quickly get rid of this way of doing things.

Now the text itself did not say he gave some to be only apostles, prophets or teachers. These people are given diverse gifts so together they can fill up what they lack individually in there service to the Church. Like the Facebook workspace we see and interact with one another because we belong on the same team and share the same goals, even though we achieve them using our diverse Spirit-given skillsets.

There is considerable overlap between these gifts like a large Venn diagram with many intersecting sets. The point is if they were not intimately related, they could not have been brought together as a single list. However, each circle does have its distinctive non-intersecting parts. There are fixed points which we must recognise and not tamper with. They often act as prophetic signs (Hebrews 2:4; 1 Corinthians 14:22.) There are unique callings but being a specialist means you have to be a generalist first. We acknowledge the special ways in which God uses certain people but we certainly do not isolate them from the fray.

Missions, divine inspiration, preaching, shepherding and teaching, are all activities that mutually coexist and sustain one another in holistic ministry to the Church. I just modified the Ephesians 4:11 to show a different aspect of service. This is what I believe Paul was doing with each different list, representing the multifaceted nature of ministry. In the 1st century C.E. he was not giving neat 21st century job descriptions so Human Resources can neatly assign personnel into departments and sort out salaries. Ask anyone who is in the trenches faithfully serving God’s people and they will tell you it is a menagerie of things. If anything human interactions are complex and not clinically detached.

Many have posited the differences between the charismatic lists in Paul reflects different periods of growth in the Church. Though I think it is hard to prove from the texts themselves they make a valid point.

The Church has diverse needs and it was certainly not born equipped with all the answers. By the time Paul was penning his epistles the Church was about two decades old. Quite a few things had already been established. He did not pause to give detailed explanations of each spiritual gift since they already knew what he meant. In Acts we see a vignette of the early Church’s history. It is an organic community adapting to new situations, responding to challenges and gaining its own identity and footing in the world. First we see the apostles and the early disciples form a loose eldership. Deacons are chosen as a response to social issues. As the Church is forced out of Jerusalem due to persecution, evangelists emerge in Samaria to spread the word as the core leadership remain behind. Later we see a prophetic and teaching group emerge in Syrian Antioch as the Church spreads into Gentile territory. That sense of growth and evolution continued to pervade the rest of the epistles in the New Testament. Combined with the understanding that the intent was never to give exhaustive descriptions it allows for new avenues for spiritual gifts and ministry in general.

In Modern Rabbis I made the observation that teachers in the early Church resembled teachers in their own time. There were vital differences in how they taught and obviously in the content of their teaching, but their respective communities recognised them as teachers along with others. I argued that teachers in the Church need to be at a level that both those in and outside the Christian community can recognise. If the Spirit gives as he wills, then he specially equips us for our unique contemporary settings as much as he did for the nascent Church.

I am not saying that we get rid of what we see in the scriptures. Some assume that apostles or prophets are no longer needed. Others think since we are seeing a “re-emergence” of apostles and prophets then we are back to what God originally intended. A naïve cessationist or a primitivist view does not supply the answers. We need to take the middle ground and recognize somethings we cannot apply now because they were culturally conditioned. Just because something is culturally conditioned does not mean there are no lessons to be learned. There are core ideas and definite principles we need to uphold today if we are to maintain our identity and mission as a Church continuous with Pentecost. We need to adapt to adequately serve the contemporary Church and a modern world which is changing at a pace that has never been seen before.

We can look to the world of sports and find an analogy. I have recently become an avid fan of basketball (mainly due to the exploits of a certain Chef in the Bay Area.) During this season there was a lot of debate between whether the new school Golden State Warriors are better than the old guard or not. I feel this argument is futile because the game in each era was unique which necessitated different ways of playing as the sport evolved. These debates are fruitless since they posit hypothetical situations which are impossible to test. In football (the one you play mainly with your feet) I find a parallel evolution. I have followed football all my life (to be a member of my family it is mandatory) so I am a witness to the changing periods in the beautiful game. To say we need to be exactly like the first century Church or expect Paul, Peter or even Jesus, to act exactly the same in our own day is an exercise in childish fantasy. There are going to be key similarities and major points of continuity but how the Spirit endows the Church today has to be different from what he did yesterday.

Paul said that the activity of the Spirit was diverse. He certainly was not going to try a comprehensive inventory of spiritual gifts, much less in short and costly letters. The New Testament has given us the outline of spiritual gifts but we are free to colour beyond the lines. Our definition of “Charismatic” cannot be static or monolithic. It is must freely embrace the extraordinary and the quiet, welcoming all kinds of Spirit-gifted people in ministry as we see in the scriptures. In fact the moment being charismatic or “prophetic” becomes an exclusive club then we have completely missed the plot.

God not only acts through us but also works with us by the spirit. No matter the gift God has given you, whether it draws crowds or not, our hearts need to be dedicated to the service. We need to think of ways our Spirit-given endowments can help the Church, perhaps in ways we had not previously imagined. For example in Church history, the relatively recent emergence of formal theology and Biblical studies which are now indispensable, did not fit the needs of the early Church. A more antiquated example is the evolution of the prophetic ministry in the Old Testament from Abraham to Moses, Samuel, Elijah and then Isaiah.

God has always been doing new things and not simply for the sake of the times but to move the times towards his purposes. We too, as the first exhibit of God’s new creation, need to have the courage to think in new ways, to be and do new things. It might be a gentle breeze or a violent tempest but we need to go wherever he leads.

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