Myth #1: Different spiritual gifts are ranked according to visibility and obvious influence.
Word-gifts and leadership-gifts invariably get prized more than gifts like administration or service. Certainly, there is a reason to value those gifts, but the Bible does not teach they are more important or lasting or Christ-centered than other gifts. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 12–14, Paul rebukes certain gifts like the use of tongues and prophecy not because as speech gifts they are more important but rather because they have been inordinately prized and misused among the Corinthian church in a disunifying manner.
If we are to learn anything from passages like 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, the use of various spiritual gifts in the context of a local church is for unity’s sake and each gift is vital. Paul is clear, these gifts are to promote the building up of the body (1 Cor. 12:21-26). The “higher gifts” in 1 Corinthians 12:31 do not imply more worth or more importance to God, but likely they are gifts that bring greater clarity about the glory of God (1 Cor. 14:5) and gifts that lead more directly to and from love, which the very next chapter unpacks.
The church must value, train, and provide room for the full array of gifts, as Paul has described them in 1 Corinthians (cf. Rom. 12:3–8). We need the full body, to use Paul’s metaphor. Often churches, as a community, desire to be one big cranium without a proportionate body, almost like a theological Mr. Potato Head. This will not do. We need the whole body and in due proportion. We need helpers, administrators, prayer warriors, funders, encouragers, planners, and yes, we need preachers, visionaries, and teachers.
Myth #2: The Holy Spirit is only directly involved in empowering our gifts in “church-related” or other “ministry-minded” activities.
All the New Testament letters were written to local churches, both individual churches and city-wide groups of churches. But that does not imply that the teaching and directives of those letters apply only to formal and programmatic ministries of those churches or formal ministry in general. How we use our spiritual gifts in a context like gathered worship is important, of course, like prophecy and tongues (e.g. 1 Cor. 14), but Paul does not limit his exhortations to only gathered worship settings. Put another way, our identity and unity as local bodies are lived out outside the boundaries of our church buildings and are exemplified at home, at work, at play, at school, and the like.
Therefore, we ought to teach, to encourage, to lead, to provide insight, to offer mercy, and to administrate with our Spirit-given gifts in all spheres of our life, because all spheres of life are ministry.
Myth #3: Christians who disagree about the specific nature and ongoing relevance of the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing cannot fellowship or strive together in gospel mission.
The church does not have a consensus on the ongoing reality and practice of certain gifts that Paul names in 1 Corinthians, namely, tongues, prophecy, and healing. To be clear, it is a universal claim among orthodox Christians that the Holy Spirit can empower someone to speak insightfully, and even predictively, and that God can and does heal miraculously; but whether certain Christians have the ever-present ability to prophesy or heal is debated. Also, the reality and practice of tongues after the Apostolic period is also debated. The church does not even have a consensus on what Paul meant by tongues: was it a known human language (c.f. Acts 2), a heavenly language (1 Cor. 13:1), or both, depending on context?
Unfortunately, disagreement has often led to disunity—which is ironic given that Paul was arguing for unity as he taught about these charisma gifts in 1 Corinthians. However, though different Christian communities will have disagreements on doctrine and practice, these differences should not preclude all forms of fellowship and shared mission. By God’s grace, in recent years, more and more Christian denominations, networks, and local churches have found that a shared vision of Scripture, the centrality of the gospel, and the core aspects of discipleship have the unifying truth and power for significant fellowship and mission. Can all these traditions find that they can sustain liturgical fellowship over a long period of time? Probably not. But, can they share a worship space on occasion for fellowship and a display of God’s unified people, say at a conference? Absolutely. Can churches of differing convictions co-labor to fight sex trafficking, racial injustice, poverty, or intolerance of religion in our political spheres? Indeed. And, together we must promote the gospel among the nations.
The precise nature and application of Spiritual gifts are not core to orthodoxy and thus they should not preclude every form of fellowship and shared mission. In fact, despite differences in non-essential matters like this, there should be a beautiful and meaningful unity among Christ’s body. And, discussion and debate can and should occur, within that unity of Spirit.
Myth #4: Spiritual gifts operate in such a way that training, practice, discovery later in life, and spiritual maturity do not have a role in how I consider or use my gifts.
The phrase “spiritual gifts” implies that God the Spirit graces our lives with certain aptitudes to serve the purposes of Jesus. The Bible teaches that various gifts are given to various people in the church, and that is a wonderful reality that displays the beauty of unity amidst diversity. However, although the Spirit gifts us in these ways, that does not entail that these gifts come to us in some fully matured form that requires nothing of our personality, effort, education, or practice.
Let’s take preaching as an example. As an ordained minister, part of my ordination process was that I came under the care of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and I submitted myself to their sense of discernment of whether I had not just the character but the requisite gifts to pastor, not least in preaching. During this process, and during my college years when I attended College Church, I was pastored by a man who had the gift of preaching and yet had also labored over forty years to improve as a preacher. I would say that within the fourteen years I sat under Kent Hughes’s expositional ministry, I witnessed him continue to grow in communication and passion. That made an impact. Gifts of grace must be stewarded.
The Bible teaches that various gifts are given to various people in the church, and that is a wonderful reality that displays the beauty of unity amidst diversity.
I have been preaching in some form now for twenty-four years. Given that I am naturally reticent, I know this gift is from God. But I labor week in and week out. I seek yearly training through ministries like the Charles Simeon Trust. I get weekly feedback. And, simply by preaching sermon after sermon, I sense, and I am told, that I am making progress (1 Tim. 4:15).
Each spiritual gift is unique and has its own nature, but each in its own right must be stewarded by practice, education, effort, and let us not forget, as Paul labors to make clear in 1 Corinthians, by godliness.
Myth #5: Spiritual gifts are best discovered by personal instinct and reflection.
The Bible is not super clear about how one discovers spiritual gifts, at least not in a clearly articulate passage labeled “how to discover your spiritual gifts.” But, let me suggest that the overall tenor of the Bible reveals how we are to best discern and grow in our spiritual gifts.
First, let me commend that we ought not to try and discover our gifts in isolation. Often too many Christians, especially those with aspirations in leadership, preaching, and teaching, self-assess themselves to be of great effect in these areas. An inner feeling or sense is not irrelevant, of course. But that should never be final. How often have our feelings or emotions led us astray? And this works both ways. I find that on most Sunday afternoons after I have labored to preach the Word of God, I feel assaulted by doubts regarding my usefulness as a pastor and preacher. How often have pastors planned their resignation on the drive home from Sunday worship only to give themselves one more day by the time they pull in the driveway! That is my routine. Inner sense and feelings are part of the story, but only a part.
So, what is the best way forward? The voice of the church is perhaps the greatest and most objective means of discovering one’s spiritual gifts. Not even good diagnostic tests can rival the voice of the church which watches, listens, and knows you within the bond of love and loyalty. So, be open to listening and also giving insight to others as instruments of the Spirit. God has designed us to help each other in the body of Christ to find, steward, and promote the glory of Christ with our gifts. I am what I am and do what I do today because, as a young intern and then college pastor at College Church, friends, mentors, and church members said: “Jay, you have been made to preach by God. God uses you when you teach the Bible. I sense God’s hand on you as a pastor. Keep at it!” And, perhaps on occasion, we may be used of God to gently say to someone: “Brother or sister, this may not be your strongest gift, but I see other strengths God has given you that you may want to lean into.”
1 Corinthians 12–14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4 do not go into detail about spiritual gift assessments; but as a whole, these letters teach us the rich community of a local church—doing life and mission together—is a means of becoming our true selves in Jesus. In that context, we discover the work of the Spirit in and through us.
Jay S. Thomas is the author of 1 Corinthians: A 12-Week Study.