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…
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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)