Monday 4 April 2011

The danger of spiritualising gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)

[Spiritual Gifts – Part 1]

Charismatic controversy

Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.
1 Corinthians 12:1

There has scarcely been a topic more controversial and more confusing amongst Christians these past 50 years than that of spiritual gifts. And yet, Chapter 12 verse 1 has the apostle Paul clearly stating that he does not want Christians to be in the dark about spiritual matters. At the very least, this verse implies we should be willing to engage in conversation, or better still, be diligent in understanding clearly what the scriptures teach about the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian Church.

At the forefront of the debate on spiritual gifts is the movement commonly known as the Charismatic Church. Its name comes from the Greek word, charismata, literally grace gifts; but from the context of its use in 1 Corinthians, is usually translated in our English bibles as spiritual gifts. Wikipedia – though not the most reliable, nor accurate of sources for theological definitions – nevertheless succinctly defines Charismatic Christianity as a “doctrine that maintains modern-day believers experience miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts.” We will soon encounter these charismata in verses 9 and 10 of our study.

On the other end of the spectrum are Cessationists, who as the term implies, believe that the age of tongues, prophecy and miracles have ceased.

It must be said that both these definitions are somewhat caricatures. The charismatic movement stretches across Protestant and Catholic lines, adopts varied levels of practice in public worship and different churches draw different conclusions for the same texts that teach on spiritual gifts (including the one we are looking at here). Similarly, Cessationism may or may not imply the practical restriction of such gifts, and churches may come to adopt such a position on scriptural or purely empirical (based on observation) grounds.

Still, it is tempting to hear in verse 1, the apostle Paul berating the conservative Christian for their ignorance on spiritual matters, thus taking the side of the Charismatic Church. Agnoein is where we get the word, agnostic. His readers are uninformed, perhaps even, misinformed on this important issue to do with spiritual gifts.

Yet any casual reader of Chapters 12 to 14 will immediately see a problem with that view. The Corinthians were not stuffy, conservative believers bereft of spiritual experiences. Theirs was a gifted church. If ever there was a charismatic church to be found in the New Testament, it was this one. Right from the beginning, Paul writes:

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.
1 Corinthians 1:7

Paul’s opening remarks are therefore all the more striking. These Christians are not “noobs” when it came to spiritual gifts. And Paul says to them – to these Charismatic Christians, or you could even call them the CCCC, the Corinthian Charismatic Christian Church, as it were – Paul says, “I do not want you to be ignorant.”

Saying this to the Corinthians would be like saying to the Chinese Church, “You guys are ignorant about soy sauce!” And you would instantly reply, “But I’ve been eating soy sauce for years! Every meal I have has soy sauce in it. Every Chinese home has a big bottle of soy sauce – dark soy sauce, light sauce, sweet soy sauce, Kikkoman – I even have special soy sauce for chicken and a different one just for fish. What do you mean I’m ignorant about soy sauce? I’ve drunk more soy sauce that you’ve drunk milk!”

Yet, what Paul does not mean by ignorance, is absence. For the Corinthians, the problem is not that they don’t have evidences of these spiritual gifts. The problem is they don’t have insight. They do not know what it means to have spiritual gifts. So, it may shock you to know that Paul is speaking to gifted charismatic Christians, saying, “I don’t want you to be ignorant.”

But shocking still are the following verses.

Confusing confessions

2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:2-3

Here Paul contrasts their deeper ignorance before they became Christians, when they were “led astray” to worship idols. It doesn’t mean they fully knew what they were doing. Back home in Malaysia and Singapore, temple worshippers frequent shrines and practice ancestral worship, simply out of habit. It is tradition, we might say. It is what we Chinese do, we say; this is what we have always done for years. We visit Chinese temples; we have Chinese altars in our homes. Like the Corinthians, we were “influenced and led astray”.

Paul is essentially saying to the Corinthians is: In the same way, this is exactly how you are now using your spiritual gifts – unthinkingly, unconsciously and as we shall see, unlovingly – using these gifts given by God without regard to their true purpose in the church.

These really are hard words coming from the apostle Paul.

But what shall we make of verse 3? How do these pronouncements (“Jesus be cursed” and “Jesus is Lord”) helpfully tell us anything about spiritual gifts? Moreover, how could such a test ever be reliably administered? Absolutely no-one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit?

The issue begins to clear up when we see how Paul is not narrowly dealing with spiritual gifts. The word used in verse 1 is not charisma, commonly translated spiritual gifts, but pneumatikon, a word that can broadly cover spiritual issues, spiritual matters, or even spiritual people. The question that Paul is answering in these opening verses is therefore: Who has the Spirit of God? Who is the truly spiritual?

The answer has absolutely nothing to do with spiritual gifts. In essence, this is the root of their ignorance. The Corinthians have equated the presence of spiritual gifts – in particular, the gift of tongues – with the presence of the Holy Spirit, hence making tongues the criteria for assessing an individual’s authentic spirituality.

But Verse 3 is there to outline the character – not the criterion – of the truly spiritual Christian. The truly spiritual Christian is the man or woman who confesses Jesus as Lord. The point is not that, simply making this statement turns you into a Christian – though this is true in and of itself as Romans 10:9 clearly states (“That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”)

But Paul’s more foundational point is that the Holy Spirit is the very enabling source of the confession, “Jesus is Lord”. It is God’s Spirit reforming ours that makes it even possible for us to turn to Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour.

To put it simply, the spiritual person is the Christian. The Holy Spirit was responsible for the Christian turning to Christ in the first place.

Different distributions

Only after establishing the prior presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of any authentic confessing believer, does Paul move on to the manifestations of the Spirit in the life of the church.

4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
1 Corinthians 12:4-5

If all Paul wanted to say was that the Spirit gave different gifts (only here does the word charismata occurs for the first time in the chapter), there would be no need for verses 5 and 6. In fact, verse 7 (the manifestation of the Spirit) flows nicely from the argument of verse 4 (There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit).

Paul is therefore, not content, simply moving on to talk about charismata/gifts, but develops the definition of these gifts to include service (verse 5) and working (verse 6). Embedded in these verses, is the clear Trinitarian formula identifying the same Spirit, the same Lord and the same God as the single source and sustainers of these gifts.

Spiritual gifts are therefore not simply things or abilities. They encompass acts of service (verse 6) translating diakonion, which is a broad term that includes ministry in church (where we get the word for “deacons”) but also lowly table service (such as clearing dishes). “Service” ties in nicely with “the same Lord”, the focus of our service. We serve Christ; we glorify Christ through our service and through our gifts.

Spiritual gifts are also a work of God, literally, energised by God. I think of the Energizer bunny adverts. Without the energizing batteries, the pink toy bunny is lifeless and motionless, quite simply useless. God provides the work; God energizes the work, working all of them in all men. It expresses constant dependency on God who works all things for our good and his glory.

Finally, there are different kinds of these gifts/service/works, though the word diaireseis may imply more than mere differences or varieties (ESV) but distributions. The same God distributes the gifts of the Spirit across the body of Christ, such that they come together in service of God, but also as we will see in verse 7, in service of one another.

The common good

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:7

Paul summarises the distribution of spirituals gift/service/working as the “manifestation of the Spirit”; they display the Spirit in the individual (“each one”), but also in the corporate communion of believers. Verse 7 is the central purpose for spiritual gifts in the church. They are given “for the common good”.

What Paul is saying, therefore, is that God blesses us with spiritual gifts not simply for our personal encouragement and enjoyment. This is not wrong or sinful; yet this alone cannot be the purpose for our gifts. Rather, they are given us for the benefit of others in the church. They are given us for the common good.

Verses 8 to 11 therefore flow from this truth.

8 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.

11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Corinthians 12:8-11

We come now to a list: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, spiritual discernment, tongues and interpretation. If you look down to verse 28, Paul provides a second list of spiritual gifts. Comparing the two, some gifts are similar but others differ.

Altogether there are five such listings in the New Testament – two here in 1 Corinthians 12; the rest can be found in Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4. Pulling them together, we can make a few useful observations.

Firstly, none of these lists are meant to be complete. You are not meant to look through the twenty-plus items in these lists in search for your personal spiritual gift. Many aunties from the Chinese Church will be disappointed to know that cooking isn’t listed amongst these gifts. Neither is music, taekwondo nor web design. More seriously, though Paul explicitly identifies marriage and singleness as two charisma given by God in 1 Corinthians 7:7, these are not found here either.

Secondly, we cannot reliably assign rank and importance to each gift based on their order of appearance. Simply comparing the two lists here in Chapter 12, healing and miracles swap places; prophecy is 6th in the first list but comes in 2nd (though personified as “prophets”) in the next. Still, there is purpose to the order, as we shall see near the end of the chapter.

The question is: Why does Paul include these gifts here, and not others? Picking up previously from verse 7, these spiritual gifts are specifically chosen as examples of the “manifestation of the Spirit”. Some commentators therefore conclude that these are spectacular displays of the Spirit’s working in the life of the church. The manifestation of the Spirit is seen through supernatural displays of power. I think it would be even better to say that Paul chose these gifts that manifest the Spirit’s supernatural power through the gospel. Let’s look at each gift individual to see how this is so.

Gospel gifts

Wisdom and knowledge are recurring themes in the 1 Corinthians, especially when paired with the word “logos” or message. The Corinthians were enamoured with the eloquence and wisdom of their local philosophers and debaters, yet were somewhat embarrassed by the foolishness and weakness of the cross. Paul responds with the gospel – the announcement of Christ crucified, proclaiming the word of the cross as the source of true wisdom from God and salvation for man. The Corinthians prided themselves in their knowledge about God causing them to stumble weaker Christians in their faith. Paul exposes their empty knowledge that puffs up, advocating instead love, which builds up.

Hence Paul is not speaking of wisdom and the message as intrinsic personal qualities. Rather the message of wisdom and the message of knowledge are given by the Spirit through the message of the gospel.

Faith is appropriately listed next, as the proper response to the gospel. It means to trust wholly and completely in God. Paul mentions faith in the next chapter (“faith to remove mountains”) which have led some commentators to differentiate this from confessional saving faith, instead pointing to faith that produces miracles. However there Paul paints a negative picture of such great faith in the absence of love – “I am nothing”.

Jesus says something similar in Matthew 21:21, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done.” It must be said, the point there is not the amount of faith that results in the miracle, but the absolute and resolute faith in God alone – Jesus qualifies, “and (you) do not doubt”. The faith that results in miracles is first and foremost, single-minded trust in God, and I wonder if Jesus was there using hyperbole to rebuke the disciples for not having such simple undivided faith.

The gifts of healing is interestingly, in the plural – both words, “gifts” and “healings”. This may not mean that one receives the ability to heal others. It may simply refer to someone receiving healing (hence the plural – “healings” given to those who need healing.) This gift is repeated in the second list of verse 28, where unlike prophecy (there, rendered “prophets”), it isn’t personified. That is, there is little warrant in this verse to justify the position of supernatural healer within the church. The gift of healing is given. The gift of being a healer is not (as much as the charisma of marriage does not refer to the art of match-making).

Miraculous powers – literally, “works of power” – is the same phrase found in Chapter 2, used to authenticate the Paul’s preaching ministry. There it is closely tied to the evidence of the Spirit working through Paul’s message of the gospel.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
1 Corinthians 2:4-5

But what is the demonstration of the Spirit’s power there? Many will use this text to justify the use of signs and miracles, especially to accompany the preaching of the gospel; saying miracles authenticate the power of the gospel.

Yet Paul himself clarifies the true power of the gospel as the message of the cross in Chapter 1.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:18

It is the power of God to save! The demonstration of the Spirit’s power, therefore is “your faith (that does) not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power” ie. the cross!

As tempting as it is to define miracles here as supernatural signs outside the preaching of the gospel, there is just so much evidence within 1 Corinthians itself that points to the supernatural work of the gospel. The Spirit changes hearts, engenders faith, and saves men and women through the cross. That is the power of God!

Prophecy is significant as Paul writes more extensively of this together with tongues, later in Chapter 14. Prophets in the Old Testament spoke on behalf of God. They were entrusted with his message and their job was to speak God’s words faithfully to his people. They were a select few, and often their job made them less than popular, especially when prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah were tasked with delivering messages of condemnation for Israel’s sinfulness and rebellion.

When we come to the New Testament, Hebrews 1 draws a sharp contrast between the past age of the prophets and last days of the Son. Jesus is the final and complete revelation of God. God speaks to us today by his Son (literally, in his Son).

1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
Hebrews 1:1-2

In short, everything that God has to say, he has said (past tense) through Jesus. Now, how does this square with prophecy described here as a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians 12?

Some see here the fulfilment of Joel 2, reflected in the events of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2.

17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
Acts 2:17-18

The day of Pentecost was marked by the supernatural giving of the Holy Spirit enabling the believers to speak in “other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. Peter therefore explains the phenomenon quoting the promises given through the prophet Joel that God would pour out his Spirit on all people, causing men and women to prophesy. In other words, Peter explains the tongues phenomenon by equating it with the gift of prophecy. In short, at Pentecost: Holy Spirit = tongues = prophecy.

What has happened here is 1 Corinthians 12 is that Paul has actually separated tongues from prophecy as two distinct gifts of the Spirit. The significance being, the tongues spoken by the Corinthians were different from those spoken by the first recipients of the Spirit. In Acts 2, men from various neighbouring countries, heard them praising God in their own languages. Conversely, the tongues spoken in the Corinthian church resulted in chaos and confusion.

Paul includes prophecy in this list, therefore, in anticipation of Chapter 14 when he will address the problem of tongues. We have here the beginnings of Paul’s argument in deconstructing the Corinthian’s misunderstanding of linking the presence of tongues as an essential criterion for the workings of the Spirit.

As for the nature of prophecy in relation to revelation, and what it looks like in practice in the church, I will come back to this when we study Chapter 14 in more detail. For now, we only note the distinctiveness of the gift of prophecy from tongues, yet its availability to all believers made possible through the giving of the Spirit.

Distinguishing between spirits often raises the question – What are these spirits? This text if frequently coupled with 1 John 4 (“Test the spirits to whether they are from God”) to explain supernatural battles with demons. This gift becomes a kind of inner sixth-sense, like Spider-man.

Keeping within the context of 1 Corinthians, Paul freely and repeatedly refers to his own inner “spirit” with which he prays (1 Corinthians 14:14, 15). He also speaks of the spirits of the Corinthians, as well as the spirits of prophets, always speaking of real people. And when you look at 1 John 4 in context, John is warning believers of false teachers, actual people leading believers astray. He calls them “spirits”.

The gift is not so much about spiritual beings, as it is about discerning spiritual teaching. Its use in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 John 4 refer to the ability to judge people’s words, motivations and doctrine specifically with regards to what they say to and about God.

Finally, we are left with tongues and the interpretation of tongues. In both lists found here in Chapter 12, tongues appear last. Charismatic scholars are quick to point out that this does not mean in any way that they are least in importance. II agree. The reason they appear last is because tongues are at the root of the problem in Corinth.

“Different kinds of tongues” literally says “various tongues”. But what are these tongues?

Some see this to mean human languages. We have briefly looked at Acts 2 when the disciples “began to speak in other tongues” (Acts 2:2). From the perspective of the crowds however, what they heard were their own “native language” (literally, dialects) – “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” leading them to exclaim, “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Glosso can refer to the physical tongue, but here in Acts 2, it means language, and is equated at one point with even dialects. The phenomenon is termed xenoglossia – the ability to communicate in a foreign language.

What most Charismatics see here is called glossolalia (literally speaking in tongues; laleo means “to speak” and occurs later in the second list in verse 28). This is an ecstatic utterance by the believer as an expression of worship, prayer and communion with God. Paul refers to “tongues of angels” in 13:1, leading some to believe this gift enables the speaker to communicate in a heavenly language.

Which is it here – glossolalia or xenoglossia? I’m not going to tell you. I will leave that issue for when we come to Chapter 14.

Partly because I’m still thinking about itJ But mainly because it would distract from the main point Paul is making here in Chapter 12. We can neither promote tongues as an essential gift, nor deny tongues as an authentic spiritual gift – whichever your take on this verse is. Still, we will come back to this matter in due course.

Many gifts, one Spirit

The bigger issue is this: Paul wants us to see that there are different gifts; not one. He does not want us to focus on the gifts, but on the Spirit.

All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
1 Corinthians 12:11

When it comes to spiritual gifts, the Corinthians were obsessed with one question: Who has got it? That was the danger two-thousand years ago, it is the same problem we face today; Not that there are gifts, but that the gifts that make us special. We think that giftedness makes us spiritual.

The danger with that is: taken too far, some may mistake their giftedness for their salvation.

Paul is concerned to answer one important question: Who has the Spirit? The answer is simply: The one who confesses Jesus as Lord. That is the only reliable evidence of the Spirit. All who name Christ as their Lord have the Holy Spirit. This is the one key truth Paul does not want any believer to be ignorant about.

But additionally, in dealing with spiritual gifts, Paul gives us two important safeguards. Firstly, gifts are given us for the common good. They are not there simply for our personal enjoyment, ego or status in the church. They are given us to serve others in the body of Christ.

But secondly, the Spirit manifests different gifts. Each one has a gift. But each one receives a different gift. We see this in more detail in the next study where Paul moves on from the gifts of the Spirit, to speak about the members in the body.

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