Sunday, January 08, 2023

Between Boredom and Bedlam

The pendulum swings. Even Christians are not inclined to be creatures of moderation, it seems.

At one end of the arc, believers sit docilely in pews being entertained. Assuming the pastor is not merely a well-packaged platform presence of minimal substance and that he genuinely possesses a spiritual teaching gift, he is the only one who gets to exercise it. At best, the performance holds our interest. At worst, we find ourselves constantly checking the time.

At the other extreme it’s a bit chaotic and unpredictable: men and women “share”, digress, pontificate, tell stories and interrupt each other to such an extent that impartial observers would be hard pressed to distinguish between spiritual gifts, natural impulses and mere gleeful enthusiasm at the opportunity to actually DO something in the church for once.

Few churches find the sweet spot between hierarchy and anarchy, between boredom and bedlam.

The Basis for Spiritual Gifts

When the Lord Jesus returned to heaven, we read that “he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men”.

If we had only the gift list in Ephesians 4 to think about, we might incline to the near end of the pendulum’s arc: the scenario in which we kick back and soak up the marvelous gifts bestowed on the church — apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers — perhaps never grasping that it was and is their job to equip the saints for the work of ministry. We were not intended to be idle.

The Lord never meant for the bulk of his people to live their corporate Christian lives as spectators. There are, in fact, plenty of other spiritual gifts mentioned in scripture beyond the familiar public gifts listed in Ephesians 4 — gifts every bit as important though not so visible. We all have gifts, and their purpose is the common good of the body of Christ.

Variety, Variety, Variety

Perhaps there are not quite as many gifts as this charismatic group alleges (they’re at 25 and counting, including celibacy and “willingness to face martyrdom”), but there are certainly more than the three available gifts left in the Ephesians 4 list. (I say three because most Christians concede there are no apostles today in the New Testament sense, and that prophecy of the specific sort seen regularly in Acts ceased with the completion of the word of God, though the body of Christ continues to be “built up” as we give attention to the written words of apostles and prophets. My point is that whatever my gift may be today, I am very probably neither an apostle nor a prophet.)

As we peruse Corinthians, Romans and 1 Peter, the list of possible gifts expands considerably, even if we recognize that some (the sign gifts, including tongues, healing, interpretation of tongues, word of knowledge, miracles, prophecy, etc.) were gifts given only during a specific period in church history for very specific purposes.

Two Errors

This is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of the spiritual gifts. Whole books have been written on the subject. My point is merely this: it is clear that the Lord Jesus never intended his church to be a place where only a few men and women exercised their Spirit-given abilities while the rest watched enviously or at best cheered them on from the sidelines.

The error at the one end of the pendulum swing is in believing that he did (or wishing it that way for our own convenience and ease).

The error at the other end is in believing that every gift of the Spirit is intended to be exercised audibly during meetings of the church.

Hierarchy or Anarchy

Christians are leaving the institutional church in droves, and with good reason. More than a few of these opt to meet in smaller, more intimate gatherings, often in homes rather than church buildings. But from everything I have read to date, it seems as if the energy required to break free of non-biblical hierarchies to really give practical meaning to the term “priesthood of all believers” often drives Christians to the opposite error: anarchy.

We should want to be free of clericalism, of course. But we should never crave freedom from the teaching and principles found in the New Testament, even when they fail to resonate with the spirit of the age. If Peter’s teaching on the priesthood of all believers is authoritative, then so is Paul’s teaching on the silence of women, headcoverings and orderly gathering. On what spiritual basis do we follow the teachings that appeal to us while assigning those that don’t catch our fancy to the cultural wastebin?

Every Christian ought to be exercising his or her gift, but not every Christian is called to do so in the meetings of the church. Just because the gifts have been given for the building up of the body of Christ, it does not logically follow they must all be exercised willy-nilly in the few hours of the week during which the whole church is able to assemble. Helping, administration, teaching, encouragement, service, giving, shepherd care and mercy are all gifts effectively exercised one-on-one or in less public settings.

Boredom or bedlam? Ideally, neither.

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