Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How Shall We Then Live (Given a Redefined Understanding of the Spiritual Gifts)?

By Jeff Bruce

N.B. you might want to read this, this and this before reading this post (if you haven't already).

Assuming Andrew's take on the spiritual gifts is correct (and I think it is), what are we to do? How does a redefined view of the gifts work its way into the nooks and crannies of church praxis? Some implications/applications stemming from said view are readily apparent. E.g., this understanding of the gifts reveals that the use inventories/tests/quizzes/boardgames/et al. to discern one's latent spiritual powers is at best unhelpful, and potentially misleading. However, there's a tad more to glean from this new perspective. Here are three applications I think to be significant.

(1) Focus on Getting People to Serve; Don't Focus on Getting People to Discover What They're Good at.
Pastors have a monumental task. God calls them to equip the saints so that each and every last member of the church ministers. This is how the body of Christ grows to maturity (Eph 4:11-16). Further, since the church is a living organism, each member is either contributing to the life or death of the entire body. I remember sitting in a class on ecclesiology with the sagacious Dr. Saucy. He asked us, "how would your body be affected if, say, %20 of it failed to function properly? Now, how many churches out there are functioning at a far lower level?" That's a sobering thought. The body dies when people aren't ministering, and a redefined understanding of the gifts helps us remember this. God has granted each and every person a function (Rom 12:4). The conventional view can erect barriers to ministry, since it fosters the need to find some elusive gift before ministry can begin. The New Testament imperative is not, "please perform a lengthy assessment of your abilities to determine which ones are/are not spiritual so that you can serve." Rather, the repeated injunction is, "serve!"

(2) Focus on Needs in the Church; Ministry is More than Doing What You Like.
I have ministered in a number of areas in which I did not feel particularly "gifted." For instance, I was a Junior High director for two years. I didn't feel uniquely gifted for youth ministry then, and I don't feel that way now. However, God did profound refining work in my life through the experience. I don't tell the story to toot my own horn. It took a rebuke from God (through some good mentors) for me to accept the position. My point is that a redefined view of the gifts instructs us to look outward; to look for opportunities to serve. The conventional view instructs us to look inward, and it can lead to endless contemplation of one's gift-mix. If needs in the church are to be met, members must do things they don't feel peculiarly inclined to do, which leads me to my third point...

(3) Focus on Serving in Weakness, Not Just Strength.
Serving in weakness is a rather conspicuous theme in the New Testament (cf. the book of 2 Corinthians). As Ken Berding points out in his book, this fact is difficult to account for under the conventional view of spiritual gifts. Conversely, if one adopts the redefined view, serving in weakness is eminently understandable. God calls us to do all sorts of things that we feel remarkably incapable of carrying out. Yet, we trust that if our Lord gives us a ministry, He will empower us by his Spirit to do it. If I consistently play to my strengths in ministry, I severely curtail what God wants to do through me. However, if I have a redefined view of the gifts, my chances of suffering from such ministry myopia diminish, and I am more useful to Jesus.


Scott said...

Jeff -

This is a beautiful and challenging article. I love all three points, and the first one especially rings with me. I believe the best way to see the giftings of God in our midst is by the body of Christ serving, and then serving some more. People can get so focused on finding their gift before serving, but we are called to serve, and when do so, we will begin to see the Gift-giver in our midst, even realizing ministries God has given to us (though this last statement might seem too connected to the conventional way).

Here is a question I have, as we try and move away from a rigid conventional view that says find the strengths in you. I know that my main gifting/ministry is teaching. I walk in it regularly. While I would stray away from saying, 'I'm good at it,' I do know it's my 'strongest gift', and I sense I have a strength here because I am used in it regularly and see people edified through the gift. Or, I know friends who are very strongly gifted in prophecy, and they sense the heart of God regularly, communicating that with the body of Christ (corporately or privately with others). They are regularly used in the prophetic.

It seems, at least by experience, that these could be seen as 'strengths'. These people are being used regularly in these giftings/functions. So, while I understand serving in weakness, as the Scripture points to (and I believe Watchman Nee encouraged us in The Normal Christian Life), what are your thoughts about these giftings where one does seem to be 'strong' rather than weak? How does this experience of being 'strong' in something fit into your heart in this article?

Thanks guys.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jeff. And Andrew, you've been posting some great stuff on this topic recently. You're both really clear thinkers and writers.

A couple quick responses to Scott. It looks to me like you simply need to hunker down at some point and wrestle with the texts themselves rather than trying to fit these "new" thoughts into an old framework. There comes a point in any study when individual biblical observations begin to work together into a flow that forces one to reconsider whether an old paradigm is adequate to the compounding exegetical observations that weigh against the old paradigm. That's why I finally gave in. I could see dozens of reasons for affirming the spiritual ministries approach, but only a couple of weak reasons for going the way of searching for special abilities.

A note on the weakness theme... God always wants us to serve in deep dependence upon him, and often even moves us to serve in areas of strength (or talents...or whatever you want to call them, as long as you understand them to be an aspect of common grace and not what Paul is listing in his "spiritual gifts" passages). But occasionally God wants us to serve in areas where we know that we are too weak to really serve well. Or sometimes others around us sense that we are weak in a particular area of ministry. Did you know that Paul was looked down upon for his lack of teaching ability (1 Cor 2:1-4; 2 Cor 10:10; 11:6) by at least some in Corinth, even though Paul himself understood that one of his ministries was that of a teacher (1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11)? And if you're worried about someone claiming a teaching ministry who really can't teach...well, we can always remind someone that one of the ways God leads his people is through wise counselors--who will hopefully redirect the one claiming God wants him to teach when he can't teach(!)

I'm really glad to see discussions about how this works out on the ground in the local church. I had a great discussion early this morning with the staff of Yorba Linda Friends church on this particular topic.

Scott said...

Ken -

Thanks for the comment. The thing is that the articles on this blog, coming out of a discussion around your book, has helped reinforce in me that giftings are about ministries to serve the body of Christ. But I am not convinced that we have to 'throw the baby out with the bath water' in regards to seeing the gifts as actually possessed by the people God. Since we have the Gift-giver in us, dwelling in us, and since He is the One who gifts us, is it not ok to conclude we have the gifts within us. 'Latent abilities' is a weird phrase, I agree. But, if the Gift-giver dwells within us, why can the Spirit-indwelt believer not believe that God actually gives gifts to His people which they possess to function in and serve the body of Christ with?

No doubt no one Scripture says, 'And these gifts dwell within you.' But Scripture does not have to say D for D to be true. Scripture can say A, B and C and, thus, we can conclude that D is true. We have to be careful of making unhelpful leaps in our theology, as that can be easy to fit our pet theology. But I believe I can faithfully conclude that we actually possess these gifts within to walk out these ministries, since the great Gift-giver has taken up residence within us. We function in these ministries because He has actually gifted us to function in them.

Again, know that I believe your (all of your) emphasis on functioning in gifts, while staying away from spiritual gift surveys, is very beautiful and helpful. Getting on with serving is what is best in knowing how God is gifting us, even in weakness. But, at this point, I am not convinced we have to say we don't actually possess these gifts since He indwells us.

Anonymous said...


I'm afraid your post doesn't contain a single positive biblical argument. Your "A" "B" "C" comment suggests that you think there is a biblical basis for your thoughts. But there are no "As" "Bs" and "Cs" for what you are trying to hold onto. As it stands, all you are left with is a non-sequitur inference from a truth that no Christian will deny, that God through his Spirit indwells us.

Would someone out there please produce a list of positive biblically-rooted arguments that the conventional view of spiritual gifts as special abilities is correct? I actually don't think it can be done. But if some people are going to continue to assume its validity, someone needs to try to draw up a list of such arguments soon.

Jeffrey Bruce said...

Hey Scott,
Ken said everything far better than I can. We appreciate the probing questions and the encouragement.

Scott said...

Hi Ken -

This is definitely challenging. As I've said, I am so very encouraged and blessed to see your emphasis on the function and ministries of the gifts. You are spot on in such a needed teaching of Scripture. However, and you knew that was coming, I am not convinced we have to abandon a view that says the people of God do possess the giftings.

I've said that if the Gift-giver Himself indwells the believer, the Spirit actually being a gift Himself (though dorea is used and not charisma), then why can we not see that he would also give to us, meaning we receive, specific giftings? You keep seeing this argument as silly and insufficient. But I'm sorry to say that it should not be blown off so easily. In the end, you and I might come to conclude that this argument does not give precedence for seeing the gifts as actually possessed by God's people. But I do believe it is something to consider. I know who actually dwells in me and what He has actually apportioned and given unto me. Now I walk in those gifts He has assigned and given, functioning in them. But He indwells me, I have received Him as a gift, His salvation I have received. Why cannot I also receive His charisma gifts, having them dwell within me as He does Himself? The Gift is there in me, why not His gifts along with Him?

Still, I do really love your emphasis on gifts being functions. I am just not convinced we have to say we don't actually possess these. Paul did function as an apostle, but he did so because he was an apostle. Philip did function as an evangelist, but he did so because he was an evangelist. Of course, you would say, 'Yes, they were the ministries themselves,' to which I would agree. But a gift is a ministry and a ministry is a gift. If Paul was an apostle, then he was gifted as apostle. Paul was an apostle. The Scripture says he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, etc, etc. They were actually these gifts. Just as they could argue I am born again because I have received redemption and salvation, so Paul could say I am an apostle because I have received this ministry and gift.

Rom 12:3 says - 'or by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.'

The word for 'assigned' (Gr. merizo) refers to being apportioned, allotted, divided. God gives, assigns, divides amongst his people a measure of faith. This is in the context of the Rom 12 gifts. Thus, God apportions or assigns a teaching gift, but some have a greater measure than others. It isn't to say he with a greater measure is better, for the one with a lesser apportioned measure in teaching might have a greater measure in prophecy. But the thing is that God actually apportioned unto His body differing measures. I possess a measure of teaching, and I must stay in faith with that measure. You have another measure, maybe greater than my measure of teaching, and you must stay faithful to that measure. We will still be called to function in weakness and uncomfortability, but we still have apportioned unto us gifts. God puts us in places to stretch the apportioned measure and grow in it. And this is reiterated in vs6 - 'Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.' Let us use them in accordance with the actual charisma we have.

Also, though I do believe the gift passages are emphasizing the function in the gifts, they still use the gifts in a 'noun' form. If prophecy ('noun'), then do it in proportion to, or with the measure of the faith given. If service ('noun'), then get on with serving in that apportioned grace. Etc, etc.

In all, Ken, I again reiterate how I think you have done an amazing service to the body of Christ in emphasizing the function of these gifts. But, I am still not convinced we have to throw out the baby with the bath water and dis-conclude that God actually gives these gifts to His people, in whatever proportion He might.

I know you feel I have not founded my understanding very well, and I am fine with that. But I am at least trying to found my understanding in the word. I don't come from a background that teaches 'special superpower abilities' about the gifts. I don't come from a background that hands out gift surveys to figure out the 2 or 3 gifts you might have. I come from a group of people looking to equip God's people to serve the body of Christ and function in the giftings of God. But I don't think we have to unequivocally say that we cannot see these gifts as apportioned to us and possessing them.

Scott said...

Ken -

I am sure you would be pleased to know that I did purchase a copy of your book from Amazon today. So I do hope to dive into it more in the coming weeks so I can understand your thesis and heart more and more.

Thanks again for the 'gift' of your interaction. ;)

Scott said...

Ken, or Andrew, or whomever -

I have a question that came to me today. Is the fruit of the Spirit resident within a believer?

Anonymous said...


I'm so glad you are going to read the book. I think it will help you a lot as you think this through.

And I rejoice that you fellowship and minister in a community that is committed to equiping the saints for the work of the ministry.

As to your question about whether the fruit of the Spirit is "resident"... Residency is a metaphor that I don't believe is applied to the Spirit's fruits anywhere in the Bible. So, since it is an analogy being used from the outside (that is, not of Paul's creation), it is only useful to the degree that it represents something that is already clearly taught by Paul somewhere else. And I'm unsure how helpful this metaphor would be.

BTW, I don't actually do a lot of blogging, so if I this becomes my last response you'll have to forgive me!

Blessings on you. May God use you among his people as you serve in the ministry-roles he has given you as an aspect of his grace.

Scott said...

Hi Ken-

Thanks again for the interaction. I presumed you would say the fruit of the Spirit aren't 'resident'. And I am not dogmatic here, and I have only started to consider a few Scriptures, but some passages that I have so far looked at talk about things like love, joy, peace, etc, being IN us.

As you can see, I think this might tie in with our discussion of giftings. If the Spirit is resident within us, if His 'fruit' is resident within us (more to be studied), then is it possible to conclude His giftings are resident so that we can function in those things?

Again, I presume your answer is 'no', though you might not ever get to answer. :) Maybe Andrew or another can give some thoughts.