Saturday, July 02, 2016

Missing in Action

How many gifts of the Holy Spirit are listed in the New Testament? I suppose it depends on the criteria you use.

Whatever your standards for inclusion on the gift list, and whatever your final gift count, you will surely notice that several factors complicate our application of these familiar passages of scripture to the church today:
  1. In many instances the exact nature of the gift and how we might expect it to show itself are not precisely spelled out for us;
  2. We no longer have apostles in the sense the word is used of the Twelve;

  3. We have no prophets at all in the sense the word is most commonly employed in scripture; and
  4. The examples of modern tongues, interpretation of tongues, miracles, healing, etc. to which we are pointed as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work within the Body of Christ today are demonstrably off-register counterfeits of the first century originals.
Some gifts seem to have gone missing in action from our church gatherings while others, if they appear at all, seem either horribly malformed or else enervated of their early church potency. I am far from the first to make note of this.

Tozer Weighs In

There have been various attempts to rationalize these obvious absences and deficiencies. A.W. Tozer breaks down evangelical response to the gift issue this way:
“In their attitude toward the gifts of the Spirit, Christians over the last few years have tended to divide themselves into three groups:

First, there are those who magnify the gifts of the Spirit until they can see little else.

Second, there are those who deny that the gifts of the Spirit are intended for the Church in this period of her history.

Third, there are those who appear to be thoroughly bored with the whole thing and do not care to discuss it.”
As a broad analysis, this will do.

The Bewildered Masses

Charisma Magazine is a good example of Tozer’s first category of evangelicals, the ‘gift magnifiers’. Their gift list totals 25 (and they suggest there are even more), but only by including some rather dubious entries like “willingness to face martyrdom” and “celibacy” that no other commentators seriously consider. (When you’re fumbling around in the gospel of Luke on the question of spiritual gifts, it should be evident you’re off to a rocky start.)

Tozer’s third category of believers (those bored with the whole thing) is, I fear, increasingly common. In many churches with full time “pastors”, “reverends” or other clergy, the idea of the run-of-the-mill Christian in the pew exercising his or her spiritual gift is rarely entertained. In the event someone brings it up, it is quickly pointed out that the congregation is already paying someone to do that job.

As to his second category (the ‘gift deniers’), if it were anyone other than Tozer making the point, I’d abruptly call straw man. Never in my life have I encountered an evangelical who claims that NONE of the Holy Spirit’s gifts are intended for the Church in this period of her history. But let’s take Tozer’s integrity as a given and assume rejecting the idea of spiritual gifts altogether was more common among American evangelicals back in the decade after WWII when AWT condemned it from the platform.

This still leaves us with a problem, doesn’t it? We have gift lists from which some gifts are either mysteriously missing in our churches today or else massively diluted as to their power and sphere of application. Something must surely account for this.

To argue the point further requires we get more specific.

Listing the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

For the most practical and least subjective view of the gifts (the one most useful to the average Christian wondering what his or her gift(s) may be), let’s try limiting our spiritual gift list to the four NT passages that unambiguously address the topic (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4). Next, let’s eliminate the latter two passages: Ephesians 4 because, as most commentators agree, it lists gifts to the Church at large rather than gifts to individuals; and 1 Peter 4 because he simply divides the gifts into two broad categories (speaking and service) without listing them individually.

We are left with the following:
  1. Utterance of wisdom (1 Corinthians 12:8)
  2. Utterance of knowledge (1 Corinthians 12:8)
  3. Faith (1 Corinthians 12:9)
  4. Gifts of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9)
  5. Working of miracles (1 Corinthians 12:10,28)
  6. Prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:10,28; Romans 12:6)
  7. Distinguishing between spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10)
  8. Tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10,28)
  9. Interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10)
  10. Apostleship (1 Corinthians 12:28)
  11. Helping (1 Corinthians 12:28)
  12. Administrating (1 Corinthians 12:28)
  13. Teaching (1 Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:7)
  14. Service (Romans 12:7)
  15. Exhorting (Romans 12:8)
  16. Contributing (Romans 12:8)
  17. Leadership (Romans 12:8)
  18. Acts of mercy (Romans 12:8)
I’m using black to indicate those gifts that most would agree can be seen in operation among the people of God today, and a highlight to indicate those gifts about which: (i) there is some question as to how the gift might manifest; (ii) the gift is notably absent from our gatherings (if we use traditional definitions); or (iii) evidence of the gift, if present at all, is a pallid vestige of what we see in the New Testament.

With the gifts color-coded and (to the best of our historical knowledge) in the order Paul wrote them rather than the order in which they are printed in our New Testaments, we can hardly fail to notice that the bulk of the gifts mentioned to the Corinthians are in the absent category while this is true of only one gift mentioned to the Romans (prophecy). That may be instructive, and I’ll comment further on it in my final post on the subject.

My analysis breaks the gifts down as half here, half absent. In a few cases, there may be a legitimate argument as to which of the gifts fall into which category (faith and distinguishing between spirits are iffy for me, depending on what we think they refer to), but there should be no argument among attentive believers that at least some of the Holy Spirit’s gifts have either gone missing or are massively underutilized.

So where did those gifts go? You tell me.

Barring that, I’ll make a few suggestions tomorrow.

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