Mark D. Roberts

Part 2 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
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In my last post I introduced the bodybuilding work of the Spirit. The church, as the body of Christ, is shaped and enlarged by the work of the Spirit through ordinary members of the body.
This bodybuilding work of the Spirit is explained in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul did not write about the gifts of the Spirit simply to provide basic instruction for the new believers in Corinth, however. He wrote because the Corinthian Christians there were at odds over their diverse experiences and interpretations of the Spirit’s power. Like all Christians, those in Corinth had received the indwelling presence of the Spirit when they first trusted Christ for salvation. By the Spirit, they had been generously blessed with lots of spiritual manifestations, or at least some of the Corinthians had been so blessed (1 Cor 1:4-7).
In particular, certain people in the congregation were speaking in tongues (unknown languages). This may not have been a problem, except for the way the tongues-speakers were behaving. Not only did they interrupt the Christian gatherings with their unintelligible speech, but also they boasted of their spiritual prowess, claiming to speak in the language of heaven itself (1 Cor 13:1; 14:6-19). They even criticized other brothers and sisters who did not adopt their highfalutin practices, denigrating their spiritual maturity and questioning their value to the church (1 Cor 12:14-17). Those who thought of themselves as super-spiritual used their supernatural manifestations for their own selfish gain, to the detriment of the Christian community.
From Paul’s point of view, these folk got it all wrong–or almost all wrong. Speaking in tongues was not wrong, per se, as Paul would explain in 1 Corinthians 14. In fact, he claimed to speak in tongues more than any of the Corinthians (1 Cor 14:18). But their understanding of the purpose and significance of this experience was completely off base. Its effect in the community was precisely opposite from what the Holy Spirit intended. So as he wrote 1 Corinthians, Paul added a substantial discussion of spiritual empowerment to his letter, the chapters we identify as 1 Corinthians 12-14.
Ironically, we have seen what might be called an outbreak of “Corinthianism” in the last fifty years. Positively, millions of Christians began to discover the power of the Spirit through spiritual gifts. Negative, this often caused division in the church, sometimes because the “spiritual” folk focused too much attention on speaking in tongues, just like the Corinthians had done 1900 years earlier.
Let me supply a bit of history that places our conversation of spiritual gifts in context.
Awareness of the Holy Spirit has grown among Christians during the last several decades, in part because of the prominence of Pentecostal and so-called “charismatic” expressions of Christianity. Pentecostalism takes its name from the Jewish festival of Pentecost, during which the Holy Spirit was first poured out upon the earliest followers of Jesus (Acts 2).
Beginning early in the twentieth century, certain Christians experienced a powerful outpouring of the Spirit not unlike that of the first believers. They fashioned a theology of the Christian life in which a Pentecost-like experience or “second blessing” of the Holy Spirit was essential for all believers. Pentecostalism was characterized by emotional exuberance in worship and the exercise of spiritual gifts not generally practiced among Christians, especially speaking in tongues (or unknown languages). Because of its perceived peculiarity and disconnection from mainline denominations, Pentecostalism remained on the fringes of Christendom. (Photo: 312 Azusa St., Los Angeles, California. A Pentecostal revival started at the Azusa Street Mission in 1906, under the leadership of William J. Seymour.)
In the 1960’s, however, Pentecostal reality began to impact these denominations. Both clergy and lay people in mainline churches had life-transforming experiences of the Holy Spirit and began to worship in the more expressive style of the Pentecostals. Yet they remained actively involved in their own churches as part of a “charismatic” renewal movement. The word “charismatic” means “gifted” and focuses upon certain “gifts” that can accompany the presence of the Holy Spirit. (“Charismatic” is an unfortunate word choice, as we’ll see later, because all true Christians are gifted by the Holy Spirit whether they identify themselves as “charismatic” or not.)
Sadly, the charismatic presence in churches often led to conflict, partly for theological reasons, partly because of divergent worship preferences, and mostly because Christians both for and against the charismatics failed to exercise patience, humility, and Christ-like love. The charismatics, whose experience of the Holy Spirit was often associated with speaking in tongues, generally made this particular gift the most important of all. Sometimes they even tried to pressure other Christians into speaking in tongues, a strategy that was neither loving nor productive nor consistent with a biblical theology of the Spirit. Christians who didn’t speak in tongues felt rightly denigrated, and responded not only with theological critique, but often by rejecting both the charismatics and the spiritual experiences they were having.
In the last couple of decades, however, unity among “charismatic” and “non-charismatic” Christians has been substantially restored. Many who have had dramatic encounters with the Holy Spirit have revised their theology to reflect biblical teaching rather than their experiences, thus minimizing theological objections to their understanding of the Spirit. Moreover, formerly fervent opponents of “charismania” have realized that their own theological commitments were sometimes built upon their limited experience of the Spirit, rather than biblical teaching about the Spirit’s presence and power. Some differences of theology and experience of the Spirit still remain, but these are less divisive than they were since many Christians have rightly emphasized their true unity in Christ.
In my view, the most important corrective to the “Corinthianism” of the last fifty years and the negative response it spawned has come from a careful study of the biblical teaching on spiritual gifts, especially as it’s found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. So, to this text we will return in my next post in this series.

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