What are spiritual gifts?

During some study of this question several years ago, I came across Ken Berding’s book What are Spiritual Gifts? I continue to find the view he advances compelling.

The essential argument Berding makes is that the conventional view of spiritual gifts as God-given abilities that Christians must discover and use in ministry does not best account for the biblical data. Instead, Berding argues, spiritual gifts are better viewed as ministries or functions in the church, of which some might be abilities that build up the church.

Dr. Berding gives some reasons for why he holds this view:

1. Many people assume that the Greek word charisma means special ability. This is a misunderstanding of how words work and confuses the discussion.

2. Paul’s central concern in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12-14—the “spiritual gifts passages”—is that every believer fulfills his or her role in building up the community of faith. That’s what he’s writing about; that’s what he cares about. The Corinthians, not Paul, were the ones who were interested in special abilities.

3. Paul doesn’t use any ability concepts in his extended metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. His illustration is all about the roles—or the ministries—of the various members of the body.

4. The actual activities that Paul lists in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12 can all be described as ministries, but they cannot all be described as abilities.

5. The idea of ministry assignments is a common thread that weaves its way through Paul’s letters. The theme of special abilities is not an important theme in his writings.

6. In approximately 80 percent of Paul’s one hundred or so lists, he places a word or phrase that indicates the nature of the list in the immediate context. There are such indicators in all four of Paul’s lists. This is significant because indicators such as the words appointed, functions, and equipping instruct us that we must read these lists as ministries.

7. When Paul uses the words grace and given together, he’s discussing ministry assignments—either his own or those of others—in the immediate context. This combination appears in two of the three chapters that include ministry lists.

8. Paul talks in detail about his own ministry assignments and suggests that, just as he had received ministry, all believers have also received ministry assignments.

9. The spiritual-abilities view suggests that service should flow out of our strengths; Paul says that sometimes—though not always—we’re called to minister out of weakness. The weakness theme in Paul’s letters does not work with the idea of spiritual gifts as strengths.

10. Neither Paul nor any other New Testament author ever encourages people to try to discover their special abilities; nor is there any example of any New Testament character who embarked on such a quest.

I would encourage you to get a copy of Berding’s book. It is an interesting thesis that has a lot going for it.

NB: In an interview on this work, Berding addressed a direct question on whether this view impact on the continuationist/cessationist discussion:

Does your approach to spiritual gifts have any bearing on the cessationism vs. continuationism debate? Or perhaps put another way, does it matter which of these positions I hold for my evaluation of your view?

Before I respond to this question, let me say that this isn’t really my view of spiritual gifts.Many—perhaps most—of the insights I draw upon have already been made by other biblical interpreters. Most of what I’ve done in the book is to pull them all together. In other words, if what biblical interpreters are saying is true here, and here, and here, then perhaps our overall understanding of spiritual gifts needs to be adjusted.

But in answer to your question, my understanding of this issue really does not have much bearing at all upon the cessationism vs. continuationism debate. Actually, the thesis I argue has been well received by many cessationist scholars (one of the positive reviews of the book was done by a professor at Moody Bible Institute) and by continuationist scholars (another positive assessment was given by a professor at Assembly of God Theological Seminary). Really, I am taking on the assumption of both charismatics and non-charismatics that the spiritual gifts are latent abilities that you have to discover so as to be able to do ministry. As a result, it can be adopted by charismatics or non-charismatics.