Category Archives: spiritual gifts

Grace and gifts

As I studied a bit the terms charisma/charismata, I noticed another word that is sometimes used similarly in the New Testament: charis. We typically translate charis as grace, yet there are some instances in the New Testament when it seems to be a ministry.

Like Romans 15:15-16

But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Or, in the passages we read in this study, Ephesians 4:7, which precedes a discussion of different roles in the body of Christ:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

There’s even a hint of this meaning in Romans 12:6

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith;

Doesn’t add a lot to this study, but I find it interesting.

Why I’d rather lead people to seek ministries than abilities

What does it matter if the Greek word charisma refers to a ministry instead of a gift? I see several things:

  • Too many people spend excessive time and worry trying to discover their spiritual gift. They seek a mysterious hidden talent or miraculous awakening of this special gift. It seems to me if we help people see that they are part of a body and will be expected to find a way to serve within that body, it takes some of the mystique out of the process. For many, the end result will be the same, but the way of getting to that result will be less stressful and more understandable.
  • To my way of thinking, understanding that charismata are ministries helps us see that they are always for building up the body and never merely for personal edification. That’s stated clearly in the New Testament, but seems all the more obvious when we realize that we’re looking for an activity or a ministry and not just some mysterious ability.
  • Our schools have a “Gifted and Talented Program.” It focuses on kids with a natural ability for learning. When we speak of spiritual gifts, we’re often talking about the same thing: a talent. We say things like “He’s a gifted song leader.” Where it gets complicated is when we begin to attribute those gifts to something the Christian received post conversion. If he’s a gifted song leader and that gift is seen as coming from the Holy Spirit, then we are sinning against the Holy Spirit if we don’t let that person lead singing. Sometimes a talented singer is not a good worship leader. Or sometimes there are other issues in the person’s life that get in the way. When we recognize that talent is not a Spirit-given charisma, we can look at things more objectively.

Those are some basic thoughts. What do you see?

Higher gifts, greater ministries

Getting back to our discussion of gifts and ministries, I want to look at the end of 1 Corinthians 12. Starting in verse 27 we read:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.” (1 Corinthians 12:27–31)

The word “gifts” in verses 28, 30, and 31 is “charismata,” the word we’ve been looking at. In this chapter, Paul uses the phrase “gifts of healing” three times. I’m guessing that’s to make clear that he wasn’t talking about someone being healed but rather the gift/ministry of healing others. Someone better versed than I in Greek might shed some light here.

Verse 31 then stands apart, with a charge to seek the “higher gifts.” He would seem to be referring to this list, with apostles*, prophets, and teachers heading the list. Can you see how these would refer more to ministries than special abilities? That makes sense to me. Even looking at the list, “gifts” like helping and administrating seem to describe roles more than abilities.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that charisma/charismata in the New Testament refers to a ministry that God has given us to perform rather than special abilities for performing those ministries. That said, there’s a lot of truth in the old saying: “God doesn’t call the equipped. He equips the called.”

*Paul generally uses the term “apostle” in a broad sense, referring to those sent out to establish new churches; when he’s talking about the original apostles, he usually says “the twelve.” You can see this clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 where both terms are used

Spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12

We’re looking at a hypothesis set forth by people who understand New Testament Greek much better than I do. (“I know a little Greek… he runs a deli downtown!”) The hypothesis is that most of the discussion about spiritual gifts in the New Testament is not about special abilities but about specific ministries that Christians are called to.

In the last post, we looked at passages in Romans, Ephesians, and 1 Peter, noticing that this hypothesis fits those passages very well. Today we’ll look at 1 Corinthians 12, which introduces a section about miraculous gifts. This is a good text to really put this hypothesis to the test.

1 Corinthians 12 begins by saying:

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.” (1 Corinthians 12:1)

Well, it kind begins that way. The problem in this verse is that the word “gifts” isn’t in the original text. Apparently in Greek, as in Spanish and numerous other languages, it’s quite common to use an adjective as a noun. We do that at times in English, talking about “the land of the free and the brave,” where we never specify what free and brave are referring to.

So Paul is talking about “the spirituals.” It’s very possible that he means spiritual gifts, though he could mean something else. For the sake of our discussion, the important thing to note is that this is not the word charisma. It’s pneumatikon, which comes from the word Spirit (pneuma).

We find charisma in verse 4.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;” (1 Corinthians 12:4)

When we read this verse in conjunction with verses 5 and 6, we find an interesting parallelism:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” (1 Corinthians 12:4–6)

This structure should seem familiar to those who know a bit about poetry in the Bible, particularly the use of parallels. In this case, God the Spirit, God the Son, and God the Father are seen as giving three things: gifts, services, activities. If we see gifts (charisma) as special abilities, then we play the old Sesame Street game: “One of these things is not like the others.” But if we interpret charisma as ministries that God graciously gives to his children, then we see that Paul is saying the same thing in three ways. Spirit-given ministries, Lord-given services, and God-given activities all describe the same thing!

I’m largely convinced at this point, though I’m open to hearing different positions. Barring any mind-changing discussion, I want to look at the implications of this shift in interpretation of the word charisma, including having to relook at some things I wrote in Church Inside Out!

So come, persuade me with your powerful reasoning and show me why I shouldn’t accept what is a new concept to me.

Ministry as a gift from God

As we look at the texts I’ve mentioned that deal with Christian ministry and spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-7; Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Peter 4:10-11; and 1 Corinthians 12), I think we need to see how our preconceived notions about the meaning of “gift” affect our reading of the passage. Taking the hypothesis that the gift being discussed is the gift of a ministry (not the ability to do that ministry), note how the passages actually make more sense. Let’s replace “gift” with “ministry” in these texts to see what I’m talking about.

Romans 12:3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different ministries, according to the grace given us. If a man’s ministry is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

Ephesians 4 doesn’t actually use the word “gift”! Paul does use the word “grace,” a term he used in Romans 15:15-16 to describe his ministry to the Gentiles.

1 Peter 4:10 Each one should use whatever ministry he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? In my next post, we’ll look at 1 Corinthians 12.

Any thoughts?