It’s perfectly natural to hear Paul speak of spiritual gifts and to wonder what ours might be. We look with curiosity to the lists of gifts Paul includes in his letters—1 Corinthians 12:8-10; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11. Do we recognize ourselves in any of these texts? Do we secretly hope more for one gift than another?
Before we look at the passage in 1 Corinthians 12, let’s pause a moment to remember that Paul has already used the language of gifts in the letter. In chapter 7, when dealing with issues the Corinthians raised about marriage and sexuality, Paul suggests that celibacy is a gift from God.
That one probably wasn’t high on your list of preferences. Maybe it wasn’t on the list at all.
In none of these passages does Paul seem to be intent on making a comprehensive list for the purpose of spiritual self-diagnosis. Read the passages in context: his primary emphasis is on the unity of the body of Christ, in which by God’s design believers have different roles to play.
Here, for example, is the set-up for the list of gifts in Romans 12:
Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. (Rom 12:3-5, CEB)
This is a pastoral word given to a church divided by the ethnic tension between Jews and Gentiles, both groups thinking that they are the true people of God. “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought,” Paul insists. Can they actually see themselves, together, as one body?
Paul’s list of gifts in that chapter reads like a parenthesis to the more fundamental point in verse 6: “We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us” (CEB). Gifts and grace: in the Greek, charismata and charis. One can almost hear Paul say, “For instance…” before he says, “If your gift is…” And what he says about each gift seems to amount to little more than, “Whatever your gift is, use it appropriately.” The rest of the chapter is then devoted to teaching them how to build their unity in love.
And here is the context of the verse in Ephesians 4:
You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. …His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. (Eph 4:4-5,12-13a, CEB)
Math quiz: what number does Paul mention in this passage? One, one, one, one, one, one, one—with the purpose of building up the body of Christ into the unity of faith.
Any understanding of spiritual gifts that becomes more about me than about us as a body severs the gift from the Giver and distorts God’s purpose. That, apparently, was the problem in Corinth, as we’ll explore further in the next post.