Problems with Spiritual Gifts


Years ago I used to lead some seminars on Spiritual Gifts, and Spiritual Gift Assessments. They have value… I think. But maybe it is time to rethink their value. I recall people 10 years ago saying that for centuries Christians had ignored the important role that Spiritual Gifts have in the Bible… but that now things have changed. Even back then when I was leading these trainings, I was wondering about that statement. Spiritual Gifts really aren’t particularly emphasized in the Bible;  and even when they are talked about, there are more questions than answers. If one removed all places where spiritual gifts are explicitly referenced, the Bible would not look much different.

  • First, a lot of the information provided in the training for Spiritual Gifts was simply made up. These programs would give answers to questions such as: How many spiritual gifts there are? How many gifts each Christian has? Does every Christian have at least one spiritual gift? When do we get our spiritual gift or gifts? Can we lose spiritual gifts? Can we make God give us the gifts we want? The problem is that for the most part, the answers were manufactured by the writers of the training… there is little to no guidance given in the Bible to these answers. But I think the lack of information actually tells us something. We probably should focus more on where God is leading us, recognizing that God will gift us in doing what needs to be done. In other words, we should not try to discover our spiritual gifts to figure out what we should do. Rather, we should discover where God is leading us and understand that He will empower us to do what He wants us to do.
  • Second, the spiritual gift assessments often assume that the individual is the one best suited to determine God’s giftings. Not surprising. These assessments tend to be written in the United States, where individualism is the focus. But often the individual is the least suited to recognize God’s giftings. I have had people come up to me and say that God has given them a certain gifting. A common one is discernment— Someone would tell me that they have the gift of discernment. I would smile and nod… but I am thinking to myself… “Oh no you don’t!!” Often the church as a whole is more competent to identify spiritual gifts. The better assessments don’t just ask the individual to fill out the form, but also ask members in the church to fill it out for the individual as well. Still, if one has a higher score for “Helps” than one does for “Wisdom,” that is pretty minimal evidence that one has a spiritual gift. 
  • Third, often spiritual gift assessments are used backwards… to suggest what each of us SHOULD NOT be doing. “Oh… I can’t go visit my neighbors, I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” “I can’t serve food, I don’t have the gift of helps.” “I can’t lead a small group… I have no gift of teaching.” Such arguments are often self-serving… and God often uses people, at least for a short time, to do things that they lack skills, gifts, or passion for (talk to Jonah about that one). God is often glorified most in our succeeding in weakness.
  • Fourth, spiritual gifts when spoken of in the Bible have a lot of warnings built into them. The gift to speak in other languages is talked about a lot by Paul, but much of his talk minimizes the gift, or provides distinct cautions. There is a lot of warning regarding prophecy as well. Having a spiritual gift in no way implies that one will use it wisely. Solomon, gifted with wisdom, still made some decisions that were clearly foolish in the long-term. Just like the Bible never suggests that a person should be taken as a pastor of a church by identifying a “divine calling,” it also never suggests that prophecy is true if it comes someone with a gift of prophecy. For prophecy, the test is God’s canon. The Bible even makes it clear that miracles (seemingly undeniable proof of divine empowerment) are no proof that the person is a follower of Christ.

My suggestions are two-fold.

A.  Look at the big picture. I like SHAPES:   Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Ability (natural and learned), Personality, Experiences, and Sphere of Influence. A broader self-understanding is likely to say more about what one should do than simply one small aspect.

B.  Understand that as part of a community of faith, the needs, and evaluations of the (spiritually mature) church are often better at evaluating one than a self-evaluation. Recall that it was an outsider, Barnabas, who recognized the potential in Paul to serve in Antioch, and it was the church leadership of Antioch, led by the Spirit that identified Paul and Barnabas to serve as apostles. The Damascus Call of Paul may have been important to him… but in serving the church, the confirmation of the Twelve, along with the church of Antioch were critical.

So how does this apply to a potential missionary?

  • Mission agencies don’t simply look for that (ever elusive and theologically doubtful) thing called a missionary calling. Nor do they look for the “gift of apostleship.” They seek to look at the big picture— a more holistic evaluation.
  • It is probably best to see the call or gift for missions in terms of identifications by the church, rather than some personal experience. Even if one has a clear personal experience, if the heart, ability, and gifting cannot be recognized by the church, there is some problem. (Yes… the problem might be the church… but it is still a problem to address.)
  • Take a big picture view of one’s Christian path. Don’t just look at where you are right now, but where have you been and where do you see God leading. Calling is not a place or an occupation. It is a path… and that path goes back years in the past and continues years into the future.
  • Take a big view of missions. Some agencies only want people with “a heart of evangelism” or perhaps “focus on churchplanting.” That is fine— it is their right. But Christian ministry is diverse. Broaden your view of ministry to God’s, don’t narrow your view to that of a particular church, denomination, or agency.




The Liar’s Club

Long ago when I was young (this was before cable TV and Internet) our house had one TV that received its signals from an antenna located on the highest point of our house. We got two stations very strong. One was an NBC affiliate out of Erie, PA. The other was a UHF PBS retransmitter in Jamestown, NY of a station out of Buffalo, NY. We got two other Buffalo stations (CBS and ABC) that were also relatively reliable. The other stations were more unreliable depending on atmospheric conditions. Of the unreliable stations, the best was a strong station (Global) out of Toronto, Canada. They had interesting shows on there at times and when the weather was good the signal could be quite strong.

Not tied to the TV show… but a nice image anyway

A show that I really liked back then was one called “Liar’s Club.” It was a game show. The game was simple, if a bit strange. There would be contestants, a host, and a group of “liars.” The four liars were apparently people of some regional fame (a bit like the celebrities on Hollywood Squares). The host would bring out an object (typically an invention) and show it to the contestants and then it would be brought to the four liars. The first liar would say something like this.

“This is a dehusker for coconuts. You know a lot of people here in Canada buy coconuts in the grocery story and they think that this is how they look in the coconut trees. But no. Coconuts grow high up in very tall coconut palms. When they are ripe, or when they are harvested they drop 20 or 30 or 40 feet and hit the ground. If they were like the way they are found in the store they would crack open losing the coconut water, killing the seedling, and causing the coconut meat to spoil. Coconuts have a thick fibrous hull that protects the seed. In places like the Philippines, people are trained to use machetes to carefully remove that hull so that the coconut meat and juice can be harvested. But back in 1903, a Dutchman living in Aruba came up with this device to remove coconut husks cleanly, efficiently and safely. You see the barrel here with the internal ridges and holes, several coconuts are put in there. Then the dehusker is turned on and as it spins it pulls the husk away from the shell. The shredded husks fall through the holes and are gathered for later use. Very quickly, the coconut is ready to be used or shipped to supermarkets here in Canada to be purchased and enjoyed. What you have here is a coconut dehusker.”

Then the second liar starts his story.

“Now you might believe this, but I have actually operated one of these. I had an uncle who was a vermiculturist. A vermiculturist is, and I know this sounds strange but I swear it is true, a worm farmer. In this case, my uncle was an earthworm farmer. I know a lot of people don’t know that such a thing exists… worm farming… but my uncle was and is one. He made and still makes a good living at it. Earthworm farming can be done for bait purposes, worms for sale to fisherman. They can be sold to home gardeners for composting. My uncle didn’t sell the worms but the castings of the worms, for compost. Composting materials are put into this barrel here with earthworms. The ridges inside and the holes through it are for mixing and aerating as the barrel is turned daily . Eventually holes can be used to separate out the compost castings from the worms and uncomposted materials. Its a simple device but it and a handful of worms has made my uncle a wealthy man.

Two more people would give their stories equally plausible or implausible. Then the contestants must determine which person is telling the truth as the other three tell lies.

So what you ask?

Suppose the object being described is… YOU. Suppose different people are describing what you are created to be for.

  • Suppose one says that you are made to love God and love people
  • Suppose another says that you are made to expand the work of your church/denomination
  • Suppose another says that you are made to serve God and His Kingdom
  • Suppose another says that you are made to fulfill your gifting
  • Suppose another says that you are made to do what your mission board tells you to.
  • Suppose another says that you are made to save people
  • Suppose another says that you are made to plant churches
  • Suppose another says that you are made to hasten the return of Christ 
  • Suppose another says that you are made to be led by the Spirit
  • Suppose another says that your are made to obey God’s commands.

All of these (or at least many of these) sound fairly plausible. Can you spot the lies?

The Lure of Novelty and The Tarsus Calls

It is common to focus on the Damascus Call of Paul. Perhaps this is because it makes a more interesting story because of its strongly supernatural nature, because of its personal nature, and because of its more radical result. But there were a lot of other calls with regards to Paul.

English: St. Paul. From the Acts of the Apostl...
English: St. Paul. From the Acts of the Apostles printed in , Georgia, in 1709 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1.  The Macedonian Call. Acts 16:6-10. This also appears to be a supernatural calling since it is described as a vision. However, the change is less radical. Paul here simply changes from going to the Hellenized world of Asia Minor (his own home territory) to Macedonia and Achaia.

2.  The Antiochan Call #1.  Acts 13:1-3. This also appears to be supernatural in nature although the exact transmission is not made clear. However, it was not personally given. The calling was given to the church and the church sent out Barnabbas and Paul. 

3.  The Call to Tarsus.  Acts 9:29-30.  There is no mention of the supernatural in this one and the text describes Paul in a passive role. The church of Jerusalem discovers a plot against Paul, the church takes him down to Caesarea, and the church sends him to Tarsus.

4.  The Call from Tarsus.  Acts 11:22-26. Again no mention of the supernatural except that Barnabbas (the mentor of Paul) was sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Barnabbas is sent by the church of Jerusalem to go to Antioch to check on things and, presumably, to serve there as one “sent out” by the church of Jerusalem. There, Barnabbas decides to enlist the help of his former disciple. He goes to Tarsus and calls him to join him in Antioch.

We see here different forms of calling. We see calling through big supernatural show. We see calling through a minor supernatural occurrence. We see calling through the activity of the church (whether or not with a supernatural show). We see calling through the activity of an individual.

With this variety, why do we focus on the Damascus call? Some might argue that the Damascus calling was the call to missions while the subsequent were simply changes of direction. I am not so sure about that. I would describe the Damascus call as the call to follow Christ… and that is the call that all of us as Christians are given (whether with a lot of exciting sights and sounds or not). The other calls were more specific details on what falling Christ would mean to him personally.  As such, these other calls are, arguably, every bit as worthy of being described as missionary calls as the Damascus call.

Some thoughts:

  • If all of us are called to follow Christ, we should focus less on some sort of specific “Missionary Call,” and focus on gaining insight into what following Christ means individually.
  • Focus less attention and hope on a big Damascus or “Burning Bush” experience. God’s call for you may be as mundane as someone knocking on your door (as Barnabbas did in Tarsus).
  • Focusing on the novel callings in the Bible can lead us to thinking that we should not serve. Moses had an exciting supernatural calling… but Aaron did not. Regardless they both followed God’s leading to lead the people of Israel. Paul had an exciting and miraculous call to follow Christ. Peter simply had a prophet he was hosting say, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
  • It has been said that those who don’t have a strong sense of being supernaturally called to ministry are more likely to fall out of ministry later. That may be true… but do we create this situation? I recall Garry Friesen  (in “Decision-making and the Will of God”) describe his ordination board. He admitted that he did not feel a unique, personal, supernatural call to ministry… in fact, he felt that such a calling is non-normative… if not theologically incorrect. The board was very uncomfortable with granting ordination and at least one informed him that he would most likely drift away from ministry because he lacked that comfort of calling. So do those who do not recognize a personal calling fall away because of the lack of that confirmation or because churches and church leaders create a theology of failure. And do some who “feel called” stay in ministry when they clearly should make a major course correction in their lives because they’ve been told that changing course is rejecting God?
  • A little skepticism is always useful. Does one “feel called” due to God’s leading or because of other problems (family pressure, escape, etc.). Should a church “accept the calling” of an individual who seems to lack critical qualities to serve God in a missional capacity? One should not completely accept the supernatural and should not completely reject the mundane.