The Misconception of “Spiritual Gifts” Part 1: “Grace-Effects” Rather Than “Spiritual Gifts.”
Last week in “The Spiritual Gifts Are For All Christians,” we shared the scriptural basis for all Christians to heal the sick, speak in tongues, prophesy, and do mighty works. I read through the Bible many times as a teenager and I soon saw how Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14 seemed to contradict what Jesus taught.
As God’s power began manifesting in my life in increasing diversity, I continued to struggle with this question. I was learning by experience that if you start to walk in one manifestation of God’s power, it leads to more. I soon had experienced every “spiritual gift” that Paul talked about operating through my life. So why did it seem like Paul taught that people will get only certain “spiritual gifts” but not others, as if God were passing out cards and you don’t know what cards you will get?
What I found as I studied the passage has blown me away! It’s going to take three posts to provide a decent explanation of what Paul was saying and how his writing has been misunderstood. Let’s get started…
Paul’s Teaching on “Spiritual Gifts”
1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 27-31 (NIV) Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines….
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
This passage certainly sounds like we could say “Maybe healing, prophesy, or tongues isn’t my thing.” How do we reconcile that with what Jesus taught?
The passage in Corinthians is in itself a bit confusing. At times it almost even seems to contradict itself. It has so often been interpreted as limiting how many “spiritual gifts” we can exercise. But in the end, Paul uses strong language saying “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” This makes it sound a lot more like a menu of what’s available than a passage suggesting that some things just aren’t available to you.
Chapter 12 asks “do all prophesy,” and it sounds like he’s saying not everybody prophesies, but chapter 14 (vs. 31) says “you can all prophesy one by one.” It asks if all are apostles, but Jesus sends all of us. It asks if all are teachers, but Paul commands all Christians to teach and admonish each other. (Ephesians 5:19). It asks if all work miracles, have gifts of healing, or speak in tongues, but as we already saw in the last post, Jesus taught that doing mighty works, healing the sick, and speaking in tongues are for all who believe.
Do you see why I mused over these verses for so long?
As I pondered Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 12, an interesting thought came up which would really put the passage in a different light.
What if the phrase “spiritual gift” was not referring to a “special power” given to a specific Christian to do something special, but each individual manifestation was a “spiritual gift”?
What if we’d always thought of the person ministering as the recipient of the “spiritual gift,” but it was really primarily a “gift” for the person being healed, receiving a word of knowledge, or otherwise being blessed?
In that case, each healing would be a “spiritual gift.” Each prophecy would be a “spiritual gift.” Each individual work of power would be a “spiritual gift.”
Wanting to understand 1 Corinthians 12 better, I began to search things out. I looked at the passage in Greek, looked at cross-references, and read articles written by other people. What I found from several sources confirmed my suspicions about how we’d misinterpreted what the English translations call “spiritual gifts.”
Garth Weibe explains the Greek in his article “‘Gifts of the Spirit’: Literally not even in the Bible.” The original language does not have the word “gift.” The term translated “spiritual gifts” is “charismata” in Greek. This is the word “grace” with a suffix that means “effect” or “result.” Paul is talking simply about “grace-effects,” or the different manifestations of God’s grace. This discovery confirms my suspicion that individual healings, prophecies, or words of knowledge are “charismata” in scripture, in contrast to the idea that “charismata” are “special powers” that some Christians may or may not receive.
Others have pointed out the same thing. If you want to understand the matter better, you can read Garth’s article and also James A. Fowler’s article on the “charismata” from christinyou.net Quoting from the commentary on verses 8-10 in his article:
Paul begins to express that diversity by noting that “to one is given a particular expression, and to another a differing expression.” As often translated into English this tends to lend itself to a misconception of separate entities or abilities being given to differing individuals; “to one is given…”. The original Greek word order forestalls such somewhat by inserting “through the Spirit” between the subject and the verb; “For to one through the Spirit is given…”. Paul is not implying any possessive acquisition of an independent gift, but seems to be indicating that a particular Christian individual is given the opportunity to express a particular expression of Christ’s ministry at a particular time in a particular place.
And then from James Fowler’s commentary on verse 11:
To translate diairoun as “distributing” (NASB) or “dividing” (KJV) seems ill-advised, for it can thus contribute to the misconception of the distribution of divided entities or commodities, which could then be possessed or controlled by the recipients. Consistent with the word’s etymological origin, dia meaning “through” and haireomai meaning “to choose” (cf. vss 4-6), a more consistent meaning might be that “the Spirit energizes all grace-expressions, choosing to work through each individual Christian according to His own divine deliberations.”
One thought that came up as I pondered 1 Corinthians 12 was this: What if when it says God “distributes” the charismata “as he wills,” it is not saying “according to his whim…” as many ready it, but rather, it is saying that God gives these “grace-expressions” because he wills to? Checking Strong’s concordance and Bible dictionary seemed to confirm my suspicions, and as you’ll see in the next post, Garth Wiebe’s notes on the Greek did so even more. God wills to manifest his grace and his Holy Spirit through you.
Do you still have questions? We’ve just gotten started diving into this subject! Stay tuned for The Misconception of “Spiritual Gifts” Part 2: There’s One Spiritual Gift.