It was several years ago. I don’t remember what the topic of my sermon was. I only remember the conversation that came after.
A white-haired gentleman who looked to be in his late sixties approached me a bit hesitantly, but soon poured out his story. He had grown up in a tradition that emphasized the gift of tongues in a way that created two groups of Christians: those who were “blessed” with the gift, and those who weren’t. And whatever the official church doctrine, the unofficial social reality was that those who had never manifested the gift were treated as second-class citizens. They were told that they needed to pray harder or have more faith, and were often made to doubt whether they were really saved at all.
He met my eyes with an urgent question. “I’ve loved Jesus practically all my life,” he said, voice quavering. “But I’ve never spoken in tongues. Am I really saved? Am I going to heaven?”
My heart ached for the man; he had been plagued with self-doubt for decades. I reassured him as best I could, but didn’t know how much good such words could do against so many years of rejection. Surely I wasn’t the only person he had ever asked. He smiled — rather weakly, I thought — then thanked me and shuffled away.
I never saw him again. But I’ve never forgotten that conversation. And since then, I’ve heard several similar stories: I love Jesus; I think I’ve been saved; but people are telling me otherwise because I haven’t spoken in tongues.
Don’t get me wrong. I see no biblical reason to doubt that speaking in tongues is still a legitimate spiritual gift. Despite the trouble surrounding that gift in Corinth, Paul was still able to say, “I wish that all of you spoke in tongues” (1 Cor 14:5, CEB), even though he preferred them to have the gift of prophecy.
But I also see no biblical reason to believe or teach that either salvation or social acceptance in the body of Christ is contingent on the gift.
As we’ve seen, three whole chapters of 1 Corinthians are devoted to Paul’s answer to the their question about spiritual giftedness in general, and speaking in tongues in particular. Overall, the argument is deceptively simple:
- the church is not a mere collection of independently spiritual individuals, but a body;
- that body has many different parts, and they all need each other;
- spiritual gifts themselves are only passing realities, compared to the eternal significance of love;
- therefore, when the body comes together in worship, there should be the kind of order that reflects a shared and loving commitment to the edification of the whole.
To borrow Paul’s phrase, when I was a child, I thought as a child. When it was my birthday, I expected presents, and there were particular presents I really wanted. I was disappointed when I didn’t get them. But whatever the gift might be, one thing I knew for certain: it was mine, mine to enjoy, mine to do with as I pleased. (In all honesty, I’m still tempted to think that way about birthdays; the difference is that now I can just go out and buy whatever it was I didn’t get. Three cheers for self-indulgence.)
But that’s not the way to think of spiritual gifts.
The pattern is an ancient one: God has called a people whom he blesses in order to be a blessing to others (Gen 12:1-3). If we have spiritual gifts, therefore, it is so that we can be gifts to one another.
There is, of course, a wrong way to take that, as when people gossip about the preening egotist who believes that he’s “God’s gift to women.” I cannot easily say that I am a gift to you without sounding foolish or self-centered. But that’s very different from the spirit in which one declares, “You are a gift to me.”
We need both sides. I need to understand myself as a gift to you in a way that also humbly acknowledges that you are a gift to me. In the end, that is the proper context for any and all concerns about who has what gift.
Who, by the grace of God, has been an edifying gift to you?