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Monday, July 04, 2016

The Gifts Yesterday and Today

Why are the spiritual gifts we observe in the book of Acts so much more impressive and obviously supernatural than the gifts we observe today? Why do some of the gifts on Paul’s ‘gift lists’ in Corinthians and Romans appear to be missing or underutilized in our churches?

If you’ve been reading the last two days (here and here), I’ve done my best to rule out A.W. Tozer’s chief culprits: unspirituality and bad teaching. These are certainly problems we may observe in many gatherings of Christians and of which we always need to be careful. I do not believe, however, that they are primarily responsible for the apparent dearth of gift in modern Christendom.

The Modern Oracles

Even those who believe the gift of prophecy is still being given today are not convinced that what they are speaking is the same sort of infallible, unbreakable, incontrovertible Word found in the mouths of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles.

Modern “prophets” frankly admit they pale in comparison to their Old and New Testament counterparts. Nathan Busenitz lists numerous examples here, including Cindy Jacobs and Chuck Pierce at a prophecy conference in 2000, who acknowledged, “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. There’s no excuse but we need to do better”.

In Israel, failure to “do better” the first time out could get you killed.

The sort of “prophecy” that merely interprets existing scripture or makes new quasi-scriptural copycat pronouncements is either redundant or outright false. It is not worthy of the name. Likewise, the pseudo-Christian cults that set their modern “apostles” alongside Peter or Paul are not mixing apples with oranges so much as they are confusing eternal truth-tellers with transparent confidence schemers.

Examining the Divine Purpose

Even Tozer finds himself calling for gifts that bear little resemblance to the originals. He calls for leaders with “special gifts of discernment”, when the original gift was the ability to distinguish between spirits. The two things are not equivalent. He calls for men with “prophetic insight”, but would surely have balked at mere moderns presuming to forecast a worldwide famine like Agabus. Even when Tozer appeals to the need for the “gift of knowledge” instead of mere scholarship, I find it difficult to see why it might be that direct and immediate knowledge from God should be expected in the present day or considered preferable to genuinely Spirit-guided, Bible-based scholarship.

Tozer insisted there was no biblical authority behind the teaching that some of the gifts were no longer being given. But I believe he failed to give due consideration to the original, biblical purpose of the gifts that we no longer observe, and the fact that these gifts no longer serve that divine purpose. If we take Tozer’s view that all gifts are intended for the entire Church Age, we have no explanation for an absence we observe equally in churches large and small, committed and frivolous.

Romans vs. Corinthians

Finally, I promised to mention my thoughts on why so many of the gifts on the Corinthian list appear to be absent from our gatherings, while all but one of the gifts on the Roman list are present. In this particular case, we can discard the possibility of greater revelation having made certain gifts redundant: to the best of our knowledge, 1 Corinthians and Romans were only written approximately two years apart, so it is unlikely one group of believers had written revelation that was significantly more complete than the other.

The difference is Paul’s audience. Though a big chunk of Romans is concerned with the status of the Jewish nation before God, the book unmistakably addresses Gentiles. It begins with Paul acknowledging his obligation in the gospel to Greeks and barbarians, and therefore to those in Rome. It continues by addressing man’s natural state in a fallen world outside the scope of the Law of Moses and goes on to address man both inside and outside the Jewish law. I would not do justice to Romans to try to synopsize it here, but it should be evident Paul is primarily concerned that the Gentiles understand their current responsibility and blessing while not despising their fellow Jewish believers who have nationally and temporarily been set aside. Romans is a Gentile book: Luke tells us that Claudius had ordered the Jews to leave Rome not long before the letter to the Romans was written.

Corinth, on the other hand, was home to large numbers of Jews, as has been noted in the Jewish Encyclopaedia. The book of Acts tells us Paul stayed with Jews, reasoned in the synagogues on the Sabbath, and Jews were converted. The Corinthian church was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles but, more importantly, the city of Corinth was chock full of violently opposed, unbelieving Jews. Rome was not. If the sign gifts were primarily given as a final message of judgment to unbelieving Jews, and only secondarily and temporarily accommodated to church use, we should not be surprised to find the sign gifts on display in Corinth like nowhere else except perhaps Jerusalem. We would also anticipate that Paul’s Corinthian gift list might be full of temporary sign gifts, while his Roman list might be full of permanent gifts primarily intended for long-term church use and devoid of the sign gifts that in Rome would have served no useful purpose.

Not so remarkably, this is precisely what we observe.

One More Reason

In addition to the three suggestions I offered yesterday, there is one further factor that may be responsible for the apparent dearth of spiritual gift in the gatherings of believers today:

  The structure of modern evangelical churches inhibits the use of gift.  Even the obsolescence of the sign gifts and the redundancy of the revelationary gifts cannot explain all the gift that seems to go missing in the modern church. The mechanistic, professionalized structure of the modern evangelical order of service, I suspect, is the second most common reason for “missing gift” in the churches today, even if all the other factors play their part.

Tozer, for all his merits, was a pastor; one who is said to have disdained all traditional pastoral duties except preaching and prayer. Once could hardly expect him to easily or comfortably identify the swollen and distorted evangelical clerisy in which he participated his entire life as a major cause of the suppression of the expression of spiritual gifts in the very churches he pastored.

Of all the gifts, teaching remains the most visible in our churches (though often seminary training is mistaken for spiritual gift). But if service, exhortation, sharing, leadership, acts of mercy, faith, helping and administration seem to be in short supply in your local congregation, it may be for one of three reasons:
  • We imagine the church meeting is the only place gift can be exercised;
  • We are so bedazzled by professionalism that we cannot conceive that we have a vital part to play in ministering to the Body of Christ — we are looking around for someone else to do the job we were made to do; or maybe
  • We are waiting for someone to dignify us with an “official” role rather than simply looking for an opportunity to serve.
But whether you accept one of my explanations for the underutilization of spiritual gift in your local church, or whether you have a better suggestion to put forward, A.W. Tozer was right about one thing: something is definitely missing in our churches.

If our witness and worship lacks the Holy Spirit’s power, perhaps one problem is that too many of us are failing to make use of the abilities he has given us.

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