Spiritual Gifts 3 – Church Issues

I’m a fisherman…well I used to be, and am again.  I grew up fishing in fresh & salt water in Southern California.  My absolute favorite was angling for trout in the isolated mountain lakes & streams of the High Sierra Mountains.  Crystal clear hues of indigo & aquamarine & teal, imbued with entire ecosystems that supported the most beautiful fish I could imagine…and roast over a campfire for dinner.  Anyway, I got away from it in college when life started getting frantically busy; and my wife & kids had no interest whatsoever so I dropped it.  So after a 25-year hiatus, I’m dipping my toes back in the water!  Everyone knows that one of the fisherman’s greatest assets is a can of worms.  The problem is, you have to be really careful when you open that thing up because the little guys like to wiggle out and get free…getting everywhere and creating other problems.  Have you ever heard of that phrase?  Metaphorically speaking, to open a “can of worms” is to examine or attempt to solve some problem, only to inadvertently complicate it and create even more trouble. Literally speaking, opening a can of worms, as most fishermen can attest, can also mean more trouble than you bargained for” (compliments of mentalfloss).

Ok, now I’m going to stop talking about Worms and start talking about Spiritual Gifts.  In Part 1, I addressed the elephant in the room and offered a culturally-contrasting bullet-pointed list of what spiritual gifts ARE NOT.  In Part 2, I went back to the beginning of God’s interaction with people, and showed how the narrative of the Bible exposes His progressive plan to offer access of His Spirit to all people through Jesus.  I originally thought I’d go into straight into the gifts themselves in part 2, but after stewing & praying on it, decided that more groundwork was important so that new information doesn’t sit on top of a shallow foundation.  Today in Part 3, I’m exploring some of the reasons why there’s so much confusion about the gifts in general, and beginning to paint a new picture for what the Spirit of Jesus intends for us as His Body.

The subject of Spiritual Gifts in American Christian culture is so filled with misunderstanding & controversy that most churches tend to gravitate to one extreme or the other.  Negative stereotypes come to mind that malign the character & integrity of churches trying their best to interpret and experience the scriptures as they see them.  There are churches that seem wild and out-of-control with unfettered expressions of the gifts in public meetings, as well as stolid & stoic liturgies that leave no room for anything unanticipated.  Both are seeking what’s right and have a kernel of truth, but are hopelessly stuck on the extremes unless willing to cast-aside extremism and learn from the other.  Since I come from a mostly stoic background with regard to the gifts, along with the majority of American Jesus people, I’ll speak from that vantage point.

Most leaders would rather just leave the lid on the Spiritual Gifts.  Not the “normal” ones like leadership & service & mercy, but the “weird” ones like prophecy & tongues & healing.  They’re too confusing, too polarizing, too potentially fragmenting…so we just ignore them and hope our flocks won’t ask too many questions.  This often creates an unhealthy tension between Leadership and Laypeople, as one side can find itself quelling free-thinking and the other side can get caught-up in self-expressive defiance.   How many churches have split because of disagreements between free expression of the gifts and unwillingness to accommodate them?  As per usual, there is great error and sin on both extremes of this equation…and our common enemy rejoices at the demise manufactured by our angst against each other.  What we need is a balanced approach to the gifts, which requires the most precious of commodities that is in short supply these days: LOVE…but not the type we’re accustomed to.

The Apostle Paul wrote much to the Corinthian church about Spiritual Gifts in the letter we know today as 1 Corinthians.  The people of that church, with regard to the gifts, were apparently preoccupied with self-expression and were missing the whole point.  It seems that a culture had developed in the church that prized “speaking in tongues” above the other gifts, possibly as sort of a litmus test of proof that one only had God’s presence if he/she spoke in tongues (sound familiar?).  He went to great lengths to demonstrate that tongues is only one of many gifts, and one of the least important at that, because its primary function is to encourage the individual instead of the Body.  Chapters 12 and 14 are a treatise about the proper view & functioning of the gifts; and chapter 13 – the famous “love chapter” used in so many weddings – is like a pearl of wisdom that shows the “most excellent way” to obtain them.  The word LOVE used in these writings is the Greek word AGAPE, which is a self-sacrificing, benevolent love.  We Americans are really obsessed with our rights; and although the message of self-sacrificing love highlights our culture’s greatest heroes, the push & pull ethos of our day speaks the narcissistic message of “me first” which is in direct opposition to the way of Jesus and His Body.  And, unfortunately, we bring this into all of our relationships with us….including church.  We can have victory over this in the same way as how we’re saved in Christ to begin with…by laying down whatever control we imagine we have over our lives & preferences to the will of God through Jesus.  He’s the Head of His Church, and He’s pulling the strings.  What if all of us behaved as if we believed the message of these scriptures:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:1-4)

“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts…” (1 Cor.14:1)

The disunity that has resulted from confusion about the gifts, and the unhealthy denominationalism that it has bred, is a blight on the Body of Christ in our day.  I say let’s do away with it and come together!  Not meaning that all of us will agree about every doctrine & expression….of course not!  But we can “keep the main thing the main thing”, and “agree to disagree” about secondary and tertiary issues.  This must begin with the leaders.  The Church and her people won’t rise above the faith-ceiling of its leaders, and those of us in a leadership role must constantly challenge ourselves and others to stay on-target with the timeless purposes and methods of the Spirit, rather than getting pulled-in by the gravity that would have us focus the power in a myopic direction.  Great repentance is needed by many of us in leadership of Christ’s Church.  Here are my thoughts…

  1. “Church” is not an event, building, or legal institution; although that’s what we call them in our culture.  Church, as described in scripture, is on the one hand a group of people who are committed to following Jesus together, and on the other hand a conglomeration of all followers of Jesus in the world who together form His ONE CHURCH.  Never once in scripture does the word Church refer to anything other than people; and although we see it referred to as the Body of Christ, and even preach & teach about that Body, we desperately need to rediscover what that means.
  2. Leaders are not meant control or guide the church, but to encourage, equip, and empower them to follow Jesus as His continued agents in their world.  Tragically, ministry has become viewed as a profession; and leadership roles as elected offices.  Biblically, all of us are ministers; and leaders are the ones who are supposed to fan the flame and send the church out to the world.  
  3. Many church governing structures have adopted the models of the world rather than the models of God shown in the New Testament.  Think about it: The Senior Pastor is the CEO; the Board of Elders is the Board of Directors; the Staff is, um, the Staff; the Church Building is the Factory or Store; and the Congregation is the Consumers.  If you’re rolling your eyes or doubting for a second that these corollaries exist, you obviously have never worked on a church staff with a robust budget that’s controlled by the charitable giving of your people!  I’ve sat in dozens of meetings where the “problem” we were brainstorming was that the church budget was in the red, and the pressing question was “how do we get more people to our church?”  The reversal of form & function, and ”putting the cart before the horse,” are both phrases that come to mind and wave red flags in the faces of church staff every single day.
  4. Leaders must be willing to admit when we’re wrong, and be eager to change.  Leader, how are the strategies & structures & assets of your ministry helping or hampering the functioning of the Body of Christ?  How can you love your flock and help them grow into the fullness of God’s desire for them, even to surpass you? As a former church pastor, and a 20+ year veteran of vocational ministry, I admit that I still have much to learn about this.  I think that a large part of the problem in American church is that many of the traditions we’ve come to accept as indispensable facets of our faith are in fact manmade forms that can actually thwart the very purposes of God. Trustworthy accounts of the good news about Jesus Christ, and the movements of the Early Church, are forever preserved for us in the New Testament; but if we’re really honest with ourselves, there’s often quite a difference between what we read about and what see among us.  Most of us tend to perpetuate the customs & methods we learn as we grow up.  We need to remember that, Biblically and historically, adherence to tradition usually accompanies spiritual atrophy.  Change is good!
  5. Laypeople must stop depending on the staffs of local churches to get their spiritual fill-ups, and church services/programs as the central locations for expressing themselves spiritually.  Layperson, how is your relationship to your church and it’s people helping or hampering your ability to grow in intimacy & identity with Christ?  How can you attach yourselves to others to exhibit Jesus’ presence in the world in ways you cannot do by yourself?  Are you depending on others to do your part, or do you take ownership for your own spiritual maturity?  Are you willing to express your love for Jesus everywhere or just at the church building? I am not against “big church” – the Sunday morning service that’s preplanned, rehearsed, and often repeated 2 or 3 times back to back.  But this isn’t the same thing as what we read about in the New Testament, where they all met in much smaller, relational groups several times a week and lived-out their faith in daily life.  Laypeople would do well to avoid the thought-trap that all of their “spiritual needs” should be met by showing up to church meetings once or twice a week.  We all need to constantly challenge ourselves to develop daily disciplines and rhythms & relationships that equip & propel us to victoriously walk with Jesus wherever we find ourselves…7 days a week.  THAT IS BEING THE CHURCH!

“Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:11-16) 

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)


Spiritual Gifts 2 – Biblical Context

So, after my initial post about spiritual gifts the other day, I now find myself in a more difficult place.  I spent a lot of time expanding upon what they ARE NOT….with little bits & pieces of what THEY ARE and a promise to go into more detail about that.  It’s always easier to complain than it is to offer constructive solutions; and as a friend told me just this morning after reading it, it’s a very big subject to tackle.  Which is why I’m going to take it in bite sized pieces.  I think it would be helpful to start with the big picture, and work forward from there…both figuratively and literally.  Literally working forward because it all starts way back in the beginning. 
In the beginning, God was with Adam & Eve in the garden.  I’m not going to spend time speculating about exactly what that looked like, but we can just say that they were in each other’s presence constantly and knew each other very well…closer than the closest relationship in your life.  After sin & separation, everything changed and God was relatively distant.  Throughout Biblical history, we see His interactions with people contained in relationships with a very limited number of people – both men & women – into whom He placed “His Spirit.”  These relationships changed the trajectory of these peoples’ lives, and they served as God’s representatives on earth.  With the exception of these special few, no one else had access to God.  Their lot was to connect with the spokesmen, who served as intermediaries.
  • Abraham was the man of faith who listened to God and led his clan to obey commands they never heard for themselves.
  • Moses was God’s executor of salvation for the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, then His mouthpiece for the Law.
  • (I could go on & on, but for simplicity) The Judges like Samson & Deborah, the Prophets like Elijah & Isaiah, the Kings & Priests, etc.

The point is that God’s Spirit wasn’t available to people in general; He was distant, known by just a few.  This all changed dramatically with Jesus!  Do you remember what happened at the moment Jesus died on the cross? 

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:50-54)
Yeah, so I’m not going to get into rocks splitting in two, an earthquake, and people rising from the dead, but did you notice the curtain in the temple being torn in two?  That’s very significant. There hasn’t been a temple in Jerusalem since it was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans; but at the time of Jesus, the Temple was the central location of God’s presence on earth.  Multitudes of priests & assistants carried out all kinds of holy activities there, but only one person was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies on one day of the year.  That special room was surrounded by a thick curtain, and in it was the Ark of the Covenant (think Raiders of the Lost Ark).  The Chief Priest would go into that room on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) with the blood of the sacrifice to make atonement for all the sins of all the people.  So, we see that an intermediary was required between God and His people.  So when Jesus succeeded with His “once and for all” atonement on behalf of all mankind, the Hand of God tears the curtain from top to bottom and shortly thereafter a new age of the Holy Spirit begins…

”In the past God spoke to our (the Jews) ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Hebrews 1:1-3)

“This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:3-4)

In my former book…” [the Gospel of Luke] “… I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:1-5)

“’God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear…Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:32-33, 38-39)
The Holy Spirit was now available to all people everywhere!  If that doesn’t put goose-bumps all over you, I don’t know what will!  This is bigger than winning the lottery or inheriting a Caribbean island!  This is EVERYTHING!  God is now accessible to all people…which is why we often talk about having a “personal relationship with God.”  Scripture teaches that He knows us inside & out, knows our thoughts before we think them, sees our future and guides us toward our destiny, and dwells inside of each follower of Jesus with comfort and POWER!  This revolutionizes how we interact with Him, both individually and corporately.  We no longer need priests and holy buildings and rituals to cleanse us and make us holy…Jesus took care of that already, and as His people we have His Spirit literally living in us and animating us to be part of His ongoing work in the world!  If this looks different than the brand of Christianity you’re familiar with – if this sounds really foreign to you – then you may be more influenced by manmade religious traditions & myths than the true Church launched by Jesus and His early followers.
Here’s a working definition for SPIRITUAL GIFTS that I’ll be working on for the next few weeks.
Spiritual Gifts are the multi-faceted expression of the power of God working in and through all followers of Jesus everywhere…
…to maintain intimacy with Him and know His will
…to understand their identity as part of His continued presence in the world…
…to recognize His initiatives and be committed to carrying-out their portion of it…
…all in the context of committed relationships
More next week….. 

Spiritual Gifts 1 – What They Are NOT

I really like fantasy & science fiction.  Most of my favorite movies appeal to my fascination with that which is magical, supernatural, otherworldly.  My 2 favorite movie series of all time are the sagas of Star Wars and the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings.  I can totally nerd-out on that stuff…try me!  I also like stories about crazy, fantastic abilities that come to normal human beings, like the X-men and Agents of Shield (though I try to filter out the cheese-factor!).  It’s super interesting to me how popular these kinds of themes are in our post-Christian, mostly-atheistic society.  There will always be a few wack-jobs who believe whatever Hollywood throws at them, but 99.9% of the population knows that “fantasy” is just that…fantastical, make-believe, allegorical.  The interesting part is how these ideas get interwoven into the fabric of peoples’ subconscious belief systems about life, relationships, & reality. Whole religions have been built out of these imaginations (i.e. Scientology).  Alternate explanations plague the religious landscape of our so-called enlightened culture with myriad flavors & options.  There’s a huge fascination with these types of themes right now…as if people are hungry for it. 
Now, I’m not getting ready to say that I believe in fairies or dragons or x-ray vision, don’t worry.  However, I do think that the hunger within many people for MORE than what we see on the surface of our mundane existence belies a very real truth that we all instinctively hunger for…because it was breathed into us by our Creator.  What am I eluding to?  That each one of us, as a created masterpiece, was designed with a unique personal profile and latent spiritual abilities that were designed to connect us with others toward purposes that are way bigger than us.  Yes, we really are super heroes in a grand storyline; but the defining narratives for these supernatural abilities are not found in Hollywood’s movies or self-actualization books or visits with mediums …they’re found in the ancient scriptures and fueled by the Spirit of Almighty God. 
”There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
First, let me start with what Spiritual Gifts ARE NOT:

  • Yours – Spiritual gifts do not originate from you, and are not “for” you.  They are meant to be used for the benefit of others.  This was one of the primary errors of the Corinthian Christians to whom the Apostle Paul wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians.  Read through chapters 12, 13, and 14, and you’ll see what I mean.  They were focusing on the gifts themselves, rather than the giver or each other….which is the whole point.  God’s purpose isn’t to give you gifts. His purpose is to love you and to love others through you by the activity of His Spirit; filling you up to overflowing so you bleed out His presence into those around you in ways that are alien to your earthly nature… yet make you more alive than you’ve ever been!
  • The same as your natural talents.  Physical agility is not a spiritual gift, nor is musical ability, nor is working with children; yet I’ve heard all of these referred to as spiritual gifts.  We need to be careful to let the Bible say what it says and not make it say what it doesn’t. For example, the athlete who uses his physical agility for God’s glory may be exercising FAITH, which is a spiritual gift, but his physical ability is a natural talent…..the musician who dedicates her craft to lead others in worshipping the Lord in a church gathering may be exercising EXHORTATION…the guy who teaches the 4th grade boys Sunday School class may be exercising TEACHING. Distinctions are important so that we remain focused on the God stuff and separate it from the human stuff…lest we make God in our own image or make a mockery of His supernatural character.
  • Determined by a man-made test – When I was in college, I took my first “spiritual gifts inventory” test.  It wasn’t online, because there was no such thing as online yet…it was on paper then, but now there are lots of different tests available on the web that claim to tell you what your spiritual gifts are.  To me, honestly, this is absolute hogwash.  The basis for these tests is personality theory; which is totally legitimate and helpful, but 1) it’s not a clear corollary to spiritual gifts, 2) my evaluation of myself is probably the least trustworthy source for how I operate in community with others.  Spiritual gifts are expressions of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in Jesus’ people and enables them to do what they could never do without Him.  Often, scripture gives us glimpses of spiritual gifts activity that is totally outside the control of the recipients.  Also, gifts are ALWAYS spoken of in scripture in terms of community with other members of the Body of Christ.  If anyone is going to tell you what your gifts are, it’s going to be the Body of believer who know & love you….not some super smart strangers who made a test for you to take!
  • Meant to service your church’s programmatic needs – Often, an emphasis on spiritual gifts by local churches coincides with a push for more volunteers…like holes that need to be filled in the children’s classes, parking lot, or in the band.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, and honestly when you’re part of a local church of any size & shape, you need to be contributing toward the needs of the congregation & programs that you’re benefitting from in some way.  Like if you live in a house with other people, you have be willing to take your turn emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the toilet or whatever your job is…cuz if you’re not you’re being a jerk.  But that’s not “spiritual gifts”…. that’s just simple Responsibility 101.  Spiritual gifts go on top of that.
  • At your beck & call – In Jesus’ famous conversation with Nicodemus (see John 3), He said “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  The Greek word translated as “wind” and “spirit” come from the same root.  In other words, the Spirit cannot be contained or bridled.  Your Spiritual Gift is a function of God’s desire at work in your circumstances to accomplish His will, rather than God’s power for you to wield in controlling your circumstances according to your desire.  Try to say that 5-times fast!
  • Automatic – We get mixed-up about this, partly because we’re saved by God’s grace rather than our own effort…so we can tend to believe that everything about our relationship with God is free.  However, the gifts don’t work like that; they must be cultivated by faith (Romans 12:6), continued practice (1 Timothy 4:7 & Hebrews 5:14) and connection with the Body (Romans 12:4-6).  Spiritual gifts are like muscles; they need to be fed & worked & trained in order to perform in ways that produce results.

Ok, that’s enough for now.  Part 2 will focus on what Spiritual Gifts ARE!
Ephesians 4:11-12
1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28-30

Romans 12:3-8