Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bible and Spiritual Gifts Tests

Paul's writings have three well-known passages in which he lists a number of spiritual gifts.

1 Corinthians 12:4-8 (NRSV):
"To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses."

Romans 12:4-8:
"As in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness."

Ephesians 4:11-13:
"The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ."

These lists have made their way into spiritual gifts tests, where a person answers some questions, and then the test tells you which of the gifts above might be yours. A fundamental premise of the tests is the idea of 1 Corinthians 12:4--"to each" is given a manifestation of the Spirit. The idea is thus that everyone has at least one of these gifts, and the test is designed to tell you which one.

The popularity of these tests shows that Christians have found them beneficial or at least pleasurable. No doubt part of their popularity lies in the same fascination we might have with personality tests in general, the delight we experience to know and hear about ourselves. And how much more meaningful to hear about ourselves from God than from a psychologist! Like Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, spiritual gift tests feed a sense that God has given us a clear cut destiny, purpose, and meaning in this world.

There is a great deal that is positive about this spiritual gift phenomenon. For example, we all do have a place in the body of Christ, as 1 Corinthians 12 clearly indicates. Some of us may seem to be "weaker" parts (12:22) or be thought "less honorable" (12:23), but God gives extra honor to these "inferior" members to make up for it (12:24). God loves us all equally, even though some gifts are more central and prominent than others.

At the same time, we might keep a number of considerations in mind as we think about spiritual gifts and spiritual gift tests. For one, the three lists are not the same. For example, Paul only mentions the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians, as he addresses a church where tongues stands at the heart of disorderly worship (1 Cor. 14). Exhortation and compassion are only in Romans. In short, none of these lists are absolute lists.

Spiritual gift tests thus do several questionable things with these lists. Primarily, they do not recognize the contextual and situational nature of these lists. For example, we have no reason to think, either in 1 Corinthians or Romans, that Paul thought he was providing an exhaustive or timeless list of spiritual gifts. Further, we have no clear basis on which to treat each gift as fully distinguishable from the others. Is healing completely distinguishable from performing miracles? How much does pastoring, teaching, or ministering overlap?

So it would seem that spiritual gift tests sometimes mistake the scope of these passages. It treats the lists as exhaustive, when we have no reason to think Paul intended them that way. Another thing to keep in mind is that Paul was addressing ancient audiences, not modern ones. We would fairly quickly recognize that those who live in the United States will tend to think of themselves as individuals differently than a person from China, Africa, or Afghanistan. How much more, then, would those who lived two thousand years ago!

We are so familiar with the words of Scripture that it is difficult for us to hear their foreignness. Our parents and traditions have naturalized them, reshaped their meaning to fit with who we are and our conceptions of the world. We feel like we are reading about people who were just like us, not realizing that a person from Africa or a two-thirds world country is much more likely to hear the original connotations of the biblical books than we are.

It may very well be, therefore, that we should use knowledge of our own time and culture to create gift lists for our own context. Are there really apostles today? Certainly there are not any who fit either the definition of Acts 1:21-22 or Paul's own implicit sense in 1 Corinthians 9:1. We may very well have prophets among us today, but none who are foundational to the church in the manner of Ephesians 2:20.

So the lists of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians are probably much more general and impressionistic than timeless or exhaustive. They are a snapshot of some of the spiritual gifts that were in play in the first century. But it is probably a bit skewed to make them into a fixed list of distinct gifts that you can test yourself for. The apostle Paul would likely find our tests not a little peculiar, and our tendency to universalize and absolutize these lists are symptomatic of our more general lack of awareness of the distance between us and the original meaning of these texts.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

We all like to categoize, as this helps us to think clearly, at times. But, those that do so, must also understand that categorizing someone is also limiting the ability to "see beyond" that categorization. There is a human being beyond that categorization!

This is one reason why I recoil whenever I hear "Leadership". When one ascertains themselves as a leader, then half the battle can be lost, because one's opinion of themselves becomes a barrier to seeing others, other than a 'category" that is to be "maintained" or controlled "for the greater good"...

Christians are more prone to this type of thinking I believe because God sanctions it in these passages!

Brian Small said...

I agree these lists are not exhaustive. When I was still in the pastorate I did use one book that identified 32 gifts including, for example, the gift of craftsmenship from the book of Exodus. The author, though, was clear that even this list was not exhaustive.

Andy said...

I dont like to think of Spiritual Gifts in such a specific way. First, I think it's hard to discern something spiritual from a multiple choice quiz. That's not spiritual at all. Second, I don't really see spiritual gifts as a one shot deal. I think that's the great thing about the Holy Spirit. He is a living being, that is constantly with us. I see spiritual gifts on a much more situation gifting. If I am in a place where I need to teach, if I am following the SPirit's leading then I think that the HS may give me the gift of teaching. I think that's why Paul says things like "desire these greater gifts." He wouldn't tell people to desire them if they were stuck with a "crummy" one. That would be coveting. It must mean that they can achieve some or all of these gifts. I think what Paul is actually calling the people to is to pray to be put in situations where these gifts are beneficial or even needed.

Just my thoughts...

Ken Schenck said...

That's a point I forgot to put in Andy, thanks. Can a person's gifts change over time?