I’m teaching Romans and 1 Corinthians this semester, so I’m giving some thought to spiritual gifts. Paul speaks of these throughout both letters.
It seems to me that “spiritual gift” talk among evangelicals has been hijacked by the Disney ideology—what’s important is that I am given opportunities to exercise my giftedness. I need find fulfillment, to realize my spiritual potential. If my community is an obstacle to personal fulfillment, I’ll go elsewhere.
I remember taking a “spiritual gift test” when I was in college. It was fascinating in the same way that personality tests are fascinating. It told me more about myself and only fostered my already exalted self-image. It did little to motivate me to serve others.
This isn’t at all how Paul speaks of spiritual gifts. He opens his letter to the Roman church(es) this way:
I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you, among you—each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine (1:11-12).
Two things are striking. First, Paul wants to impart to them “some spiritual gift” for their blessing.
Personal fulfillment isn’t a factor for Paul. He isn’t very specific about what sort of gift he’ll impart to them. It seems that Paul is open to having his contribution to the community shaped by their needs.
Paul’s giftedness and the opportunity to exercise it are contingent. What is non-negotiable is that the community be blessed and refreshed.
Second, Paul speaks of an intentional mutuality. Blessing runs both ways; he wants to be among them to refresh and be refreshed. This is an attitude that creates space for others to thrive. He situates himself as a sibling of the Roman Christians, not a parent or patron.
There’s some sort of impulse that runs through the American middle-class (self-reliance? do-it-yourself-ness? aversion to charity?) that makes it very unpleasant for us to receive service from others. Most middle-class Christians I know are actually eager to serve when presented with opportunities. Being served by others is another thing altogether.
Blessing and being blessed, refreshing and being refreshed by others, however, is the sort of mutuality that characterizes the flourishing of God’s people. It’s the sort of healthy community that God, by the Spirit of Jesus, is creating by giving to his people spiritual gifts.
Spiritual gift language is easily perverted by our cultural values and practices. We need to make sure it is shaped and disciplined by what Paul actually says.