Community Bible Church Teaching on Spiritual Gifts
Where are spiritual gifts discussed in Scripture?
The primary passages are Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12, and 1 Peter 4.
What are spiritual gifts?
Spiritual gifts are an empowering and enabling by the Holy Spirit given to the church for the building up of the body of Christ. Spiritual gifts may build on natural talents and dispositions, but are first and foremost exercised in the power of the Spirit. For example, a person may have a natural talent for teaching as well as the spiritual gift of teaching. If this person does not actively depend on the Spirit, the teaching may have some impact because of the teacher's natural abilities, but it will not show people Christ with the same force as when the spiritual gift is being exercised. Teaching according to one's natural abilities can lead to pride and a sense of being important in the church; teaching according to one's spiritual gift leads to a sense of privilege, to acknowledging that whatever one has accomplished it is only by the power of Lord working through you, and all the glory belongs to God.
Who receives spiritual gifts?
Every Christian receives at least one spiritual gift (Eph 4:7). Note carefully that the work of the church is done by all, as all members of the body do their part, so that everyone individually and the church as a whole might be built up into Christlikeness. The role of the leadership of the church is to equip everyone (by their teaching, example, and prayer) so that each member of the body may contribute to building up others.
What is the purpose of spiritual gifts?
Spiritual gifts are given for the building up of others in the body. While we as parts of the body benefit individually when we use our gifts properly, our motivation in using our gifts is for the good of others. Note that 1 Corinthians 13 (in the middle of the longest passage that discusses spiritual gifts) is saying that even the greatest imaginable exhibition of a spiritual gift is worthless if it is not done out of a self-giving love for others. Furthermore, since love is the first-mentioned fruit of the Spirit, gifts by themselves, in the absence of the fruit of the Spirit, are worthless (1 Cor 13:1-3).
What are some examples of spiritual gifts?
Lists of spiritual gifts are given several times in the New Testament. Listed gifts include the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in different kinds of tongues/languages, the interpretation of tongues/languages, apostles, evangelists, pastor/teachers, service, exhortation, ruling, administration, having mercy, hospitality, and helps. Given that each list is different, the author in each case is providing a set of examples, not a comprehensive list. Consequently, we cannot conclude that all the lists together are comprehensive.
What is the difference between the fruit of the Spirit and spiritual gifts?
The fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, are the signs of spiritual maturity that develop in us as we become more and more Christlike. As the body of Christ is being built up we will see the fruit of the Spirit more and more evident in the body. This is the evidence that we are Christians (John 15, Matthew 7:16-20). Thus, the spiritual gifts are the "means" the fruit of the Spirit is the "end result." Spiritual gifts are intended to lead to the expression and nurturing of the fruit of the Spirit in the body.
Is exercising a spiritual gift a sign of maturity?
No; displaying the fruit of the Spirit is the sign of spiritual maturity. Note that the qualifications for elders given in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 say nothing about giftedness; rather, they are concerned with the spiritual character of the man in question. The Corinthian church exhibited many gifts, but Paul considered them to be worldly Christians (1 Cor 3:1-3.)
Is there any gift which is given to all Christians?
No, by implication from 1 Cor 12:29-30. This is a central theme of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Evidently, there were divisions in Corinth not only concerning which leader to follow (1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 3) but also concerning gifts, with some in the church thinking they did not need others because they were gifted in different ways. Again and again Paul makes clear that, although they were given different gifts, the gifts were given by one Spirit in order that all of them might be built up into love and unity. The diversity of gifts, which should be a source of strength, had become a problem in the city as some persons looked down on others who did not share their gift.
These are the basic teachings of Scripture on spiritual gifts; they are vitally important if we are to be the church God intends, growing together into Christlikeness by the power of the Spirit working among us. However, many discussions of spiritual gifts today focus on disputable issues: whether the "sign gifts" of speaking in tongues, physical healing, and new revelation are given to the church in our day, and if so, how. We will present our understanding of Scripture on these issues below. We need to recognize, however, that these are disputable matters on which sincere Christians can and do disagree. As we discuss issues on which there may be disagreement, we should maintain our focus on the basic principles discussed above, and conduct our discussion with a view as to how to best build up the body. In some cases, this will mean agreeing to disagree on some of these issues.
Before proceeding to the issue of the sign gifts, we first clarify some terms and make some more general points:
What is a disputable issue?
A disputable issue is an area of Christian teaching on which true believers disagree. It is thus not an issue central to salvation, such as the identity of Jesus as both fully God and fully man, and the fact of his death on the cross. Paul deals at length with such a disputable issue in Romans 14: whether or not it was right for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Here he makes clear, first, that there was a right answer: Christians could indeed eat such meat. We have that freedom. But rather than selfishly act out that freedom, our central concern needs to be for our brother in Christ who may not understand that freedom.
Are disputable issues unimportant?
No. True believers may disagree on very important issues. We believe that the Bible clearly teaches, for example, that we eat symbols of Christ's body and blood when participating in communion; that baptism is an outward symbol of the grace that God has already given us; and that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Yet some true believers disagree with us on these important issues. On other important issues -- such as the proper form of church governance -- Scripture gives hints but no clear teaching. On an issue such as this we must take a stand, as the church in the end must decide on some form of governance, while acknowledging that other parts of the body of Christ have come to different conclusions with some biblical support. Still other issues -- such as the timing and nature of the millennium -- are not at all clear in Scripture and, while interesting and useful for study, are of less central importance. But if we are saved by the blood of Jesus, we are united in one body, despite our different understandings and interpretations of these issues, and will eventually rejoice together in the presence of our Lord.
How do we resolve disputable issues?
The Bible is our authority, profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. In the Bible, God has provided us with all the knowledge we need to establish a relationship with him and to live a life that glorifies him (2 Timothy 3:14-17, 2 Peter 1). We need no extra revelation to be saved, to be sanctified, or to grow in Christlikeness. This is sometimes referred to as the "sufficiency of Scripture." A.W. Tozer put it this way: "I am a Bible Christian and if an archangel with a wingspread as broad as a constellation shining like the sun were to come and offer me some new truth, I'd ask him for a reference. If he could not show me where it is found in the Bible, I would bow him out and say, I'm awfully sorry, you don't bring any references with you." Rather than extra revelation, what we need is the enlightenment of the Spirit into the revelation already given, so that that word might be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, and so that the living and active word of God might dwell in us richly, until we, conformed to the image of Christ, shine like stars in the darkness around us.
What is the role of experience in coming to a knowledge of the truth?
This is related to the sufficiency of Scripture. We are called to be children of God, called into relationship with him, and we then experience him in many different ways in our lives. Problems arise, however, when we build teaching on the basis of experience rather than, or in addition to, building teaching on Scripture. Satan is the master deceiver, who may poses as an angel of light to mislead us. Scripture is our rock, our foundation, our precious heritage of revealed truth from God, in which God tells us who he is, who we are, and how we might enter into a relationship with him. While we can and should praise God for the experiences he places in our paths, we must try our best not to develop doctrine or interpret Scripture based on our experiences. Rather, Scripture should serve as the tool for judging our experiences, for distinguishing between those that are indeed from God and those that are not.
What is the role of emotion in the Christian's life?
Jonathan Edwards answered this question superbly over 240 years ago; we have given a brief excerpt from his masterful work, Religious Affections, in an appendix. The truths of the gospel are so profound and wonderful, that they must of necessity touch us in our emotions. If they do not, we have not truly understood them. Yet the presence of great emotion is no sure sign of a movement of God; emotions can be aroused by many other means. One distinguishing fact about the Christian faith is that we are instructed to use our minds to comprehend God's revelation - whether we're dealing with the physical world around us, with the written revelation he has given us, or the spiritual revelation he imparts within us (Matt 10:16, 2 Tim 2:15). As we do so, his Spirit allows us to comprehend things that are beyond ordinary human understanding (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Cor 2:11-14, Ephesians 1:17-18) and we should be touched deeply, emotionally, as a result: Eph. 3:16-19.
How can we interpret the narrative examples of the Scriptures for the life of the church today?
The Gospels and the Book of Acts are inspired, inerrant, authoritative accounts of the life of Christ and of the early church. They accurately describe what happened during this period extending to approximately 30 years after the death of Jesus. To what extent are these experiences normative for today? Should we expect to operate in the same manner as the early church?
Because these accounts are historical rather than prescriptive, we cannot say with certainty that our church should follow the practices of the church in this time period. To take a simple example, Acts 2:44-45 says that the post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem held all goods in common; people would sell their property and divide the proceeds among all of the church. Should we follow this practice? How should we decide? We must examine other teaching in the New Testament, particularly in the epistles, to see if this practice is in evidence in other early churches, and to see if the Scriptures give any clear teaching on the matter. In this case, the epistles do not hold up this practice as a standard; Paul's instructions to the rich in 1 Timothy 6 include the exhortation to be generous and willing to share, but he does not instruct them to sell all they have and divide it up among the believers. Therefore, we cannot apply this model as normative for our church today.
On the other hand, consider the selection of the first deacons in Acts 6. The apostles were distracted from their main area of ministry by the need to cater for the physical needs of the widows. So they, together with the church, chose men full of the Spirit to meet this need. The epistles elaborate on the criteria for selecting deacons, but clearly imply that such an office is needed. So, in this case, we can learn from the practice of the Jerusalem church and draw lessons for our own church life from Acts 6.
We believe the general rule to use when approaching such passages should be to ask ourselves what teaching is found in the rest of Scripture on this matter. We may find narrative examples helpful in illuminating our understanding of principles clearly discussed and supported in other portions of Scripture. However, where there is no further support for a particular practice or experience, we should be careful about developing doctrines based on individual narrative incidents. That is to say, an experience given by God to one individual does not necessarily become the norm for other believers.
How does one discover one's spiritual gifts?
No formula is given in Scripture, so we cannot give any standard set of procedures to use to identify one's gift. But commonly the Lord will place a burden on a Christian's heart for a particular area of service. As one acts on this burden, how do others respond? Do they, in fact, see the Lord at work through these actions? If they do, this may be evidence that a spiritual gift has been given in this area. Frequently, we need to step out in faith and perform acts of service in order to discover our spiritual gifts.
Does the Spirit give new revelation today?
The Bible refers to Scripture as "God-breathed," when men carried along by the Spirit spoke the words of God. This foundation of our faith from the apostles and prophets has been laid, and need not be laid again. No new, comparable revelation is given today. The Scriptures, however, clearly teach that the Spirit continues to work in the Church. If so, how does the Spirit provide guidance and direction to the Church today, and how is this related to the revelation of the Scriptures?
Does God speak to Christians today?
Yes. All Christians have the Holy Spirit in them, and God speaks through His Spirit to enlighten us, to give us insight into the Scripture, and to guide us in our walk with Him. Most often He speaks through changing our desires, adjusting our circumstances, enlightening our understanding of Scriptures, bringing Scriptures to mind at key moments, giving us the right words to say when speaking, or having another Christian speak words we need to hear. He also speaks through our consciences when we dedicate ourselves through obedience to purity and holiness (1 Timothy 1:19). But God in his sovereignty may choose to speak verbally to us.
At the same time, we must be very careful to test the words, interpretations of circumstances, and advice that we receive. Satan desires to deceive us, and he has deceived many Christians into thinking that God is speaking when he is not. We are more prone to such mistakes when we are not walking in obedience, and thus become insensitive to Him.
James Dobson tells of a time when he was 15 and, after a lengthy period in prayer, he felt certain God was telling him that someone very close to him would die within a year. He spent the next twelve months in fear . . . but nothing happened. Others feel completely certain about God's calling to a particular ministry, job, or marriage when the evidence of their life and their gifts is that God has nothing of the sort in mind. The certainty of our feelings is no guarantee. Any statement or advice which is contrary to Scripture is obviously in error; other "revelations" should be shared with mature Christians and tested seriously before being acted upon.
Does God dictate prophecies or "words of knowledge" to Christians today?
Many Christians believe that God speaks regularly today through particular individuals, giving His words that either add to, elaborate on, or give us insight into applying Scripture to our specific circumstances. Many other Christians point to Rev 22:18-19 to argue that the Bible contains all of God's revelation and that this type of prophetic utterance ended with the completion of the books of the New Testament.
As stated above, we know that the Scripture is sufficient for our needs, and that we can grow to maturity, to Christlikeness, through studying it under the guidance of the Spirit. Yet as we have already stated, we believe God in his sovereignty may choose to speak verbally to an individual. Thus, we do not believe that the passage from Revelation explicitly rules out God speaking to a particular individual in special cases.
On the other hand, one must be extremely careful before claiming to speak for God. Deuteronomy 18:20 declares "The prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in my name which I have not commanded him to speak . . . shall die." Once more we must point out that Satan is a master deceiver and our feelings are not at all trustworthy. We may feel certain that God has told us something, and yet be deceived. The claim to be speaking God's words is the claim to be infallible, the claim that your words are on a par with Scripture.
Consequently, we believe that we would do well to qualify such statements when spoken. Rather than saying, "This is what God is saying to you: . . ." we might say, "While praying for you, I had a strong sense that God was saying..." Such statements should also be examined for consistency with the Scriptures and discussed with other mature Christians before action is taken on them.
In the early church, there was even reluctance to certify some of the epistles (Hebrews, for example) as the word of God if they were not written under an apostle's direction. Today we need to be at least as careful in judging the claims of those who declare that they are speaking God's words. Also, consider God's "friend" Abraham: We have evidence of God speaking to him only 9 or 10 times in the 175 years of his life, at a time when he did not have access to Godís written revelation.
The continuous presence of special revelation from God is not necessary in order for us to be conformed to His likeness or to be His ambassadors to the world. Should God choose to speak verbally to us, we can rejoice in it, but such words are not essential for our growth or outreach as Christians.
What about the gift of tongues? Did the gift of tongues end in the 1st century?
Some interpret Revelation 22 and 1 Corinthians 13:8 to mean this. We believe neither is definitive; 1 Corinthians 13 may refer to a yet future time when tongues shall cease. We therefore do not believe that the Bible explicitly rules out the giving of tongues today.
Do phenomena similar to speaking in tongues occur in non-Christian religions?
Yes. See William Samarin's book Tongues of Men and Angels (published by Macmillan) for evidence that similar speech occurs in modern days in several religions, including Mormons and African animists. This is not proof that the phenomena we see in charismatic circles is not from God; Satan has many ways to deceive people. But the manifestation of similar vocalizations -- so similar that Christians who believe in its practice, when listening to a tape, believed that an African pagan was speaking in tongues -- does emphasize the importance of being careful, and not simply accepting all experiences that seem positive as a gift of God.
What is the biblical gift of tongues, and is it being practiced in the church today?
Tongues are discussed four places in the book of Acts and in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In the only explicit description of the phenomenon (Acts 2, particularly verse 11), those moved by the Spirit were praising God, declaring his wonders, in known human languages which they had never learned. This served as a sign to unbelievers who were present. Many were receptive to Peterís subsequent preaching. Others, however, made fun of the Spiritís work, saying the speakers were drunk.
The 1 Corinthians passage also gives some indication of the nature of the gift. Consistent with Acts 2, Paul says the person speaking is addressing God (14:2), and praising and thanking him (14:16, 17). He points out that tongues have a two-fold purpose; they are a sign for unbelievers (14:22) and, like all spiritual gifts, they are intended to be used for the edification of the body (14:12 among others). The Corinthians were evidently having disorderly services where many people were speaking in tongues and prophesying; Paul emphasizes that the service must be orderly; that no edification takes place unless people understand what is being said; that 2 or at most 3 people should speak in tongues in one service; and that the practice should not be forbidden. Also, Paul is discussing the manifestation of this gift in a small group; in 14:26, he expects everyone present will participate in some way, hardly possible in a large group.
Other than Acts 2, the passages do not address whether anything other than a known human language is being spoken. Note that the Greek word for "tongue" is also the normal word for "language," so the gift could be called the "gift of languages." Many charismatics point to three verses (Romans 8:26, 1 Corinthians 13:1 and 14:15) to argue that when someone has the gift of tongues they may be speaking an angelic language. Others argue that the words that are spoken, while not necessarily an angelic language, are a spiritual language not spoken or understood by humans. We will consider each of these verses.
The section in Romans 8 begins at verse 18, where Paul refers to the sense of frustration we experience as we long for God's glory to be revealed in us. The word "groan" appears three times in the section: Verse 22 says that the whole creation groans because of this; in verse 23, we are said to groan within ourselves, and in verse 26, Paul states that when we are at a loss to know even how to pray, the Spirit will intercede with God for us "with groanings too deep for words." This last phrase is the one used to justify speech which is not understandable. The passage does not refer to spiritual gifts, and this does not seem to be the gift of tongues spoken of in Acts and Corinthians; note that the content is not praise or declaration of Godís mighty works. Given that the first two uses of the word "groan" are non-vocal, the third may be non-vocal also (although the Greek word generally implies some vocalization). While there are some ambiguities about the passage, it does not by itself provide solid footing for the practice of speaking in tongues in a non-human language, or the use of a private, spiritual prayer language.
In 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul refers to speaking in the tongues or languages of angels. There are those who see this as implying that some people who speak in tongues are actually speaking a heavenly language. We believe this verse is more likely to be spoken in hyperbole, since the following verses are -- few would argue that verse 2 actually implies that moving mountains was a regular practice in the early church, or that anyone has all faith or all knowledge.
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul is addressing the misuse of the gift of tongues in the Corinthian church. In verses 13-19 he is making the point that the gift cannot serve the purpose of edification unless people know what the person is saying. Within this context, Paul writes in verses 14-15, "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome, then? I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also." Paul is saying that when the gift of tongues is manifested, one may not know what one is saying. It is much to be preferred even for oneself to know the meaning, so that one can pray both with the spirit (in the tongue) and with the mind. While some use this passage to justify the practice of using a spiritual prayer language, we believe the context implies that Paul is referring to gatherings of the church where speaking in tongues occurs, and the necessity of interpretation in that case.
What is our interpretation of this gift in light of these passage?
The gift of tongues was manifested in the early church; there is no clear teaching from Scripture to indicate that this gift is no longer given. We believe the scriptural evidence suggests that this gift is an ability to praise God in a human language, unknown to the speaker. When used in the gatherings of the church it is to be accompanied by interpretation. In light of the restrictions placed on its use in 1 Cor 14, its practice would be more appropriate in small gatherings where there can be more accountability among those present. As is the case for all spiritual gifts, the exercise of such a gift is not to be construed as evidence of a fuller working of the Spirit in the life of an individual, but as a means provided by the Spirit to build up the church as a whole.
Should we practice this gift? In meetings of Community Bible Church, we would welcome a person praising God in an unlearned, known foreign language, during an appropriate time devoted to praise in a small group, when he knows prior to speaking that an interpreter is present (1 Cor 14:28). In no case should more than three persons so speak, and they should not do so simultaneously (1 Cor 14:27). This, we believe, would be a manifestation of the biblical gift of tongues.
On a private level, the practice of a special form of prayer or praise for individual use should be carefully weighed in light of the limited evidence for this in the Scriptures. Those who do not engage in such a practice should be equally careful to avoid judgmental attitudes towards a fellow believer who practices this form of worship in private while faithfully serving the Lord (Romans 14).
What about the gift of healing?
Surely God heals, and exercises his sovereign will in so doing. Surely God is the source of all good gifts, including health as well as material blessings. God clearly provided healing through the touch and prayers of individuals in the early church. He also provided for healing through the practice of the united prayer of the elders as they anointed the sick We have no reason to doubt that He does so now as well; in fact we have ample evidence of this in our own lives.
A prominent teaching, however, goes much further, claiming that if we only have faith, we will become healthy and rich. The biblical viewpoint is in stark contrast to this claim. Paul had a thorn in the flesh; Timothy was sick; Epaphroditus was sick; and the Scriptures never imply that the cause was their lack of faith. Likewise, Jesus was poor; Paul was poor; James in his epistle addresses the poor, but in no case are the poor told to have faith and then they will become rich in material things.
We live in a fallen world, and as Paul states in Romans 8: "We groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." We may rejoice when the Lord provides physical and emotional healing within the body, but the lack of healing is not to be seen as evidence of a lack of faith.
Furthermore, God transforms our suffering. He uses suffering in our lives to mold us and make us into his image. He does not call us to an easy life. Those Christians who are blessed with health and wealth have other challenges, including the temptations and trials that may accompany these gifts, that make their lives difficult. We can bless God and praise him in the midst of our trials because we know he will use these challenges to develop perseverance in us, which will lead to our completion and perfection in Him (James 1).
What, then, is the bottom line?
Every one of us has a ministry which is important for the edification of the body. Each of us needs to be exercising his or her spiritual gifts out of love for the purpose of edification so that we can all grow together in Christlikeness. This is the most important conclusion from the New Testament's teaching on spiritual gifts.
On the disputable issues, we are sure that all will not agree with our understanding of the biblical texts. We encourage you to be like the faithful Bereans, and "search the Scriptures, to see if these things are true." We are willing to discuss the relevant biblical passages in more detail individually should you have further questions after reading this document.
We as elders are entrusted with the responsibility for seeing that teaching and practice within the meetings of our fellowship follow biblical guidelines. Teaching and practice on these issues at meetings of groups connected with Community Bible Church, therefore, should be in accord with this document.
Thank you for bearing with us to the end! We have spent considerable time in the last several months discussing, reading about, and praying about these issues. We look forward to seeing each one of us serving others in the fellowship as we exercise our gifts through the power of the Spirit so that we all might grow into our head, Christ, and be filled with all his fullness.
APPENDIX: Two brief excerpts from Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections
Although to true religion there must indeed be something else besides affection; yet true religion consists so much in the affections, that there can be no true religion without them. He who has no religious affection, is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart. As there is no true religion where there is nothing else but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affection. . . . If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart. The reason why men are not affected by such infinitely great, important, glorious, and wonderful things, as they often hear and read of, in the word of God, is undoubtedly because they are blind; if they were not so, it would be impossible, and utterly inconsistent with human nature, that their hearts should be otherwise than strongly impressed, and greatly moved by such things
Christ nowhere says, Ye shall know the tree by its leaves or flowers, or ye shall know men by their talk, or ye shall know them by the good story they tell of their experiences, or ye shall know them by the manner and air of their speaking, and emphasis and pathos of expression, or by their speaking feelingly, or by making a very great show by abundance of talk, or by many tears and affectionate expressions, or by the affections ye feel in your hearts towards them; but by their fruits shall ye know them; the tree is known by its fruit; every tree is known by its own fruit. And as this is the evidence that Christ has directed us mainly to look at in others, in judging of them, so it is the evidence that Christ has mainly directed us to give to others, whereby they may judge of us: Matt. 5:16, "Let your light so shine before men, that others seeing your good works, may glorify your Father which is in heaven." Here Christ directs us to manifest our godliness to others. Godliness is as it were a light that shines in the soul. Christ directs that this light not only shine within, but that it should shine out before men, that they may see it. But which way shall this be? It is by our good works.