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This is a continuation of Applying 1 Corinthians 11.
As is the case with much of Paul’s teaching, his teaching on spiritual gifts is glaringly flawed, and those flaws have sparked all kinds of debate in the Church. In this chapter Paul means well—he’s trying to encourage unity among the bickering believers in Corinth. But by the time he’s done oversimplifying things and leaving out a lot of pertinent information, we end up in a confused muddle. Today Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts is used as an excuse to make some Christians feel inferior to others, and to make all Christians feel guilty for not participating in manmade ministry programs. We can’t blame this on Paul—the man was just a subpar teacher in his day who was given far more authority than he could handle. We’re the fools who have decided everything Paul says must be a rock solid truth. So now let’s get out our sifter and see if we can sort out the truth from the guff in this chapter.
Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about the special abilities that the Holy Spirit gives us. I don’t want you to misunderstand this. You know that when you were still pagans, you were led astray and swept along in worshiping speechless idols. Therefore I am informing you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:1-3)
That last line is widely quoted in the Church, but it’s a bunch of guff. Satan has no problem saying things like, “Jesus is Lord”, and “All glory to God.” He’s got his human servants in the Church saying these things all the time in order to lower your guard. So no, the fact that someone says “Jesus is Lord” doesn’t prove that that person is speaking in alignment with the Holy Spirit. And just because a Christian cusses God out doesn’t mean that Christian is secretly worshiping Satan (see Cussing God Out: How Our Meltdowns Move Us Forward).
To teach Christians to put their trust in a human’s choice of words is to set them up for all kinds of harm. You cannot rely on words, mannerisms, confidence, actions, supernatural signs or any other sensual feedback to test whether someone is speaking for God or not. Instead you need to look to God Himself, and that means asking the Holy Spirit to show you whether a message is true or not (see Practicing Discernment: 3 Biblical Tests That Let Us Down).
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. (1 Cor. 12:4-6)
Paul goes in and out of giving God the credit He deserves. Jesus taught us that we can do nothing worthwhile on our own and that we deserve the credit for nothing. Occasionally Paul agrees that God alone deserves the glory, but far more often he reserves a large portion of credit for himself by suggesting that God depends on us humans to accomplish His will in this world. We saw an example of this in Chapter 10 when Paul said that the way we behave could actually prevent others from being saved. Other times Paul completely writes God out of the picture and hogs all the glory for himself, such as in Chapter 9 when he told the Corinthians that they have him to thank for their salvation.
A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. (1 Cor. 12:7)
This one statement has become the source of so much angst among sincere believers. It’s also complete guff. No, we don’t each have some obvious spiritual gift that we can point to as evidence of our salvation. Plenty of us don’t feel gifted at all, nor do we feel God calling us to do any particular kind of work. Does this mean we are spiritually flawed or being passed over by God? Not at all (see Christians without Callings: You are Just as Special to God).
So what exactly is a spiritual gift? Well, truth be told, the whole doctrine of spiritual gifts is a useless pile of hooey and you’d be much better off if you’d never heard of the term. In real life, you can’t even breathe without God’s help. Once we take an honest look at how utterly dependent you are on your Creators for every little thing, who are we kidding by making up a category of special abilities that we call spiritual gifts? A spiritual gift is supposed to be something that you can’t do without God’s help. Great. You can’t move without God’s help. You can’t eat, think, walk, or breathe without God’s help. Why is your dependency on God being minimized in these areas while we make a big fuss out of spiritual gifts?
Paul acts like spiritual gifts are something that only occur in the lives of Christians. Since it’s natural for humans to be selfish, coldhearted little beasts, if you suddenly find your heart overflowing with mercy and love towards someone, in the Church we would say that you’re exercising your gift. Great. So how do we explain all of these unbelievers who go around doing charity work with a sincere desire to help the poor and downtrodden? Look around in this world and you’ll discover that there’s a boatload of people who are inwardly rejecting Christ while they externally exhibit many of His characteristics. Why don’t we say these people are exercising their gifts? Because they’re not saved, so they’re not supposed to have any gifts.
You see, Christians today want to believe that God only ever works through them. Well, this is egotistical foolishness. The truth is that God works through both the saved and the unsaved all the time. God is the One inspiring an atheist fireman to go charging back into a burning building to save the life of a child. God is the One infusing a Muslim soldier with the courage he needs to run out into the line of fire in order to pull his buddy to safety. Whenever you see people being kind, gracious, and merciful towards their fellow human beings, you’re seeing God at work. There is no such thing as a human who is born nice. We’re all born as depraved, selfish little things, but God is constantly overriding our carnal impulses and using us to accomplish His good purposes down here. So when Paul starts in with the guff about spiritual gifts, he’s really trying to set aside certain actions and attitudes that he personally finds admirable and pretend that those things are special works of God—more special than all the other works God is constantly doing in this world. Well, no, this is rubbish. All of God’s works are deserving of praise. God is so not a fan of us coming up with our biased little lists and deciding that when He prophesies through someone, that’s super cool, but when He shows compassion through some unbelieving doctor, that’s just due to the man’s pleasant temperament.
The doctrine of spiritual gifts doesn’t take us anywhere good. It encourages us to rank God’s works and only applaud the ones that make it to the top of our list. It also encourages us to deny that God works with equal skill and frequency through the saved and the unsaved. Let’s get real: if Christians were the only ones God ever worked through, we’d all be in a serious crisis. But He performs healing miracles through unbelievers all the time. The fact that someone isn’t standing on a stage declaring “In Jesus’ Name be healed!” doesn’t make a miracle any less miraculous. When some atheistic doctor prescribes a medicine that cures your ailment, who are you going to give the credit to: the pills, the spiritual rebel, or God? The doctrine of spiritual gifts is Paul’s very carnal attempt to say that the mere fact of being saved somehow kicks the Holy Spirit into high gear and suddenly God starts doing things through us that He wasn’t doing before. It’s also his way of saying we can track and predict God. All we have to do is identify what our “gift” is (because somewhere God signed a contract saying He’ll give us all at least one), and then we can predict how God will work through us for the rest of our lives. What a bunch of hogwash.
To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. (1 Cor. 12:8-11)
Here Paul starts listing the actions which he personally views as superior acts of God. Wisdom. Really? So God never says anything wise through an unbeliever? We certainly can’t believe that is true. Healing. What exactly does it mean to have the gift of healing? Paul’s language here is very problematic, for he makes it sound like God is actually allocating His power to us. Well, no, this isn’t how it works. God doesn’t just drop the power to heal in your bucket and then leave you to use it however you wish. God doesn’t ever “give” anything to us in the sense that we think of when we talk about gifts on earth.
If I give you a car, you assume ownership of that car. If I just loan you a car, the car remains my property. Everything God gives us is a loan which He will take back if we start disrespecting Him. This is how it works with the wisdom of God. When you start understanding deeper truths about God, it is a loan from the Holy Spirit. If you become rebellious, He’ll take His wisdom back and turn you into a blind fool who can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. Look around at how many teachers in the Church today are saying idiotic things with absolute confidence and you see how ugly things get when the Holy Spirit takes back His loan of wisdom.
Now we are never going to be able to get our greedy little hands around one iota of God’s power. So there’s no such thing as God gifting or even loaning His healing power to you. When God heals someone through you that’s like you pouring water through a metal pipe. The pipe has no control over what you do. It can’t make you pour water through it. It can’t stop the water from flowing through it, and it can’t absorb the water that’s flowing through it. What we call “healers” in the Church today are nothing more than pipes who God sometimes decides to pour His power through. The healers have zero control over who, how and when God heals. But you’ll notice that many of them actually schedule healing conferences for you to attend (for a nominal fee, of course). Isn’t it a bit brassy for a mere pipe to try and schedule God? What if He doesn’t show up and agree to heal on command? This is a very real problem for healers who are trying to use shows of God’s power to exalt themselves. This is where the use of shills comes in. With a little practice, it’s very easy to fake healing miracles (see Trained Shills & Blind Trust: A Winning Combination for False Shepherds).
So how about prophecy? A prophet doesn’t have a gift, he has a calling. Being called to be a prophet just means God says to someone, “Hey, I want to use you as a pipe for this kind of material, so get ready.” A prophet doesn’t have a gift. He doesn’t open and close God’s mouth for Him. He doesn’t have some crystal ball at home that he can use to see into the future whenever he feels like it. As usual, Paul is talking like a fool who is lecturing people on a subject matter that he doesn’t understand anything about.
God works through people in a variety of amazing ways. We are creatures who are utterly dependent on God for all things. These are truths which will steer us in the right direction and lead us away from self-exaltation, but of course a glory hog like Paul doesn’t want us to not exalt ourselves. He’d rather we all sit around contemplating our giftedness and act like the moment we get saved, we can start predicting God and modifying His daily agenda.
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.
Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?
But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where He wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” (1 Cor. 12:12-21)
No one is better than anyone else—that’s the point Paul is making here. It rings pretty hollow coming from a man who spent all of Chapter 9 beating our ears about how fabulous apostles are. And soon Paul will be reminding us yet again that apostles are superior to everyone else.
In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.
All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church: first are apostles, second are prophets, third are teachers, then those who do miracles, those who have the gift of healing, those who can help others, those who have the gift of leadership, those who speak in unknown languages. (1 Cor. 12:22-28)
Isn’t it nice of Paul to set up a little ranking system of who should be viewed as first, second and third in the Church? Oh, look, apostles are first. No surprise there.
Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in other languages? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. (1 Cor. 12:29-31)
Notice that last part about earnestly desiring “the greater gifts.” What was that about not elevating one part as better than another? What was that about all the parts being important? Paul does such a weak job at faking humility. Here he’s saying that we Christians ought to let God know that we’re not satisfied with how He’s working in our lives by telling Him which gifts He ought to be giving us. Never mind seeking trivial things like God’s pleasure and satisfaction—no, we should all be clamoring for the glory gifts. This from the man who claimed to be trying to quell division among believers.
But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all. (1 Cor. 12:31)
Paul will return to his discussion of gifts in Chapter 14. But first our glory hogging, gift exalting, pompous little apostle is going to pause to give us a lecture about love. We’d better brace ourselves.
UP NEXT: Applying 1 Corinthians 13: A Love that Misses the Mark