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The Purpose of Spiritual Gifts

To edify the Body of Christ, wherever and whenever needed

The Spirit gives us abilities to build up the whole Body of Christ, which extends beyond the programs of a single church.

The primary purpose for which all of the spiritual gifts are given is to build up the Church, the Body of Christ. The New Testament reminds us of this as a part of every discussion of gifts. In Romans 12:4-6, for instance, we are reminded that we are all one body in Christ and that each of the members of a body belong to the other members, even though they have different functions. A partial list is then given in verses 6 through 8 of the gifts or functions we may have for the benefit of the body, along with an exhortation to fully exercise those gifts. A somewhat longer discussion of the same theme is found in I Corinthians 12:12-27, a passage located immediately between the partial lists of gifts given in verses 8-11 and 28 and tying them together. The teaching of the overall passage is that, in the same way that each member of the human body has been placed where it belongs, is necessary to the body and each other member and is cared for by the body in the manner appropriate to its function, even so the Spirit has placed each of us in Christ's body exactly where we belong, with gifts appropriate to our function, and each member belongs and is necessary to the body and each other member and should be cared for appropriately. Differences in gifts and functions are part of being a body, and if we reject each other or refuse to perform our own functions because of these differences, the whole Body suffers. This same theme is reiterated in I Corinthians 14:12 and 14:26: we are to desire and pray for gifts which edify the church and are to exercise gifts in meetings of the assembly in a way which builds it up. Finally, in Ephesians 4:12 it is made clear that the purpose for which God gives certain people to the Church in the more noticeable public ministries (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor or teacher) is to equip the rest of the Body to perform its work, "for the edifying of the Body of Christ."

Once it is observed that the primary purpose of the spiritual gifts is the edification of the Body, there are two errors which are commonly made. The first error is to limit the scope of the gifts by taking an overly narrow view of what it means to "edify" the Body of Christ. The traditional view tends, unfortunately, to insist that the only activities which "edify" are those which contribute in some immediate and fairly obvious way to some statistical measure of success -- e.g., "conversions" or "decisions" (expressed as a number), baptisms, attendance or offerings. The key words here are "immediate and fairly obvious" -- although it may in general be a good thing to help Christians lead deeper or better lives, for any effort to truly "edify" it must have improving the statistics as one of its goals and must actually result in better numbers within a relatively short time. Indeed, this author has actually heard it preached that the only way one can know whether his or her spiritual gifts are being properly used is by looking at the numbers!

Of course, when he inspired the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit stated no such limitation on his work or his gifts. Neither Romans 12 nor I Corinthians 12-14 contain a single word suggesting that we should judge the effectiveness of the Spirit's work at all, let alone that we should judge it by the number of "decisions" or baptisms it produces or by the size of the offerings collected. Indeed, the need to compare ourselves to others using some outward, "objective" measure is a work of the flesh, and the insistence on measuring "effectiveness" using church statistics arises partly from this need and partly from a rejection of the idea that individual communion with God even matters. Instead, these chapters repeatedly stress yieldedness, obedience, exercising the gifts and offices given us by the Spirit to the full measure of those gifts. We yield, and the Spirit is responsible for the results.

The second common error is to take too narrow a view of the "Body" of Christ, and therefore limit the exercise of the gifts to the worship services or other formal programs of a local church. There is no indication anywhere in Scripture that we are to limit the exercise of our gifts either so that they occur only as a part of organized programs of our local church or so that they benefit only members of our local congregation. To be sure, I Corinthians 14 provides regulations for the exercise of a few of the gifts (prophecy, tongues, interpretation and teaching) during organized worship in the local church. However, nothing in this chapter states that even these gifts are to be exercised only in organized worship events, and New Testament examples indicate that they were frequently exercised outside of "church," on the streets. The Book of Acts is full of spontaneous street preaching. In Acts 7, Stephen taught the Sanhedrin the meaning of the Jewish Scriptures -- not in church but at his own trial. Similarly, in Acts 9, Ananias acted on a prophecy he had received in his own home and went to the house of an enemy -- the murderous Saul of Tarsus -- to lay hands on him. So also, at the end of Acts 8, Philip taught the Ethiopian eunuch the meaning of a passage about Jesus while riding in his chariot. Paul is said to have "taught" in several places, including the school of Tyrranus and several private homes which became meeting places of churches (but not until after Paul began his work there). Finally, in Acts 27, as a prisoner Paul prophesied on three separate occasions to the centurion guarding him and the master of the ship in which they were sailing.

As for the gifts not explicitly regulated by I Corinthians 14, it will be observed that, when they are seen in Acts, it is almost always outside of an organized worship service. For example, only one of the many healings mentioned in Acts occurred during a worship service, and even that one occurred during a service only because someone was rude enough to die while Paul was preaching. Acts 20:9-10. Similarly, only one of the notable miracles of Acts occurred in anything which could even arguably be called a church service, and that event -- the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost -- very quickly moved out of the "house" where it started to the street where it could be observed by thousands of people. Acts 2:1-6, 41. Moreover, there is nothing that would logically limit the exercise of a gift of service, administration or leadership, knowledge, wisdom, faith or even giving to being used or useful only as a part of a worship service or organized local church program. And the occasions for exercise of a gift of exhortation or mercy would, it seems, seldom arise during a worship service or an organized program, but would, quite literally, occur during everyday life, precisely "as the need arises."

Jesus died to change our whole lives, not just the time we are in church, and He therefore provided gifts in the Body that would permit him to reach us and deal with us at any time. By placing artificial limitations on who these gifts may benefit and when they may operate, we have damaged ourselves. The primary purpose of the gifts is to edify the Body of Christ -- the whole Body, whenever and wherever edification is needed.

NEXT PAGE: The Purpose of the Gift of Unknown Tongues

Ian Johnson
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© 2000 by Ian Johnson


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