The Apostolic Teaching of Spiritual Gifts for the Church Today — Part 1

In this series I will make the case that there is solid hermeneutical support in the Scriptures for the continuation of the spiritual gifts beyond the apostolic era and throughout the entire kingdom building age until Christ returns at the end of history. The gifts are intended to be normative in the ministry of the church in all local instances of congregations according to apostolic teaching; in fact, they should be the core of the ministry of the Spirit for believers. The New Testament (NT) lays out the formula for this in the key passages of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. I will provide a breakdown of the biblical references of this argument in a future segment. Let it suffice at this point that much of the ground breaking theological analysis and explanation supporting this position among modern orthodox evangelicals has been contributed in monumental books by Christian pillars that include D. A. Carson and Wayne Grudem1.

DISCLAIMER: The views of this series of articles are not necessarily those of the authors referenced herein nor are they endorsed by such authors, although some points made in this article are derived from those sources.

At the outset, I posit that it is critical for God’s people to understand that the spiritual charismata are not meant to compete with the authority of or add to the Word of God in the Bible. The God who established the revelation of His will to man in the inspired writings of the Holy Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:1, 2) also prescribed the spiritual gifts as a system of ministry in those same writings handed down by Christ’s apostles in the NT (Rom 12:4 – 6a; 1 Cor 12:1, 4 – 7; 1 Pet 4:10 Note – each reference is from an epistle by an apostle). Since the gifts were prescribed for ministry in the Body of Christ by the Word of God through the Holy Spirit, God designed them to be exercised without jeopardizing His Word. That holds true for the gift of prophecy (Roms 12:6) as well as any of the other gifts. The primary apostles (the original Twelve appointed by Jesus Christ and later on including Paul) alone spoke and wrote divinely inspired words in the first century (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Pet 3:16, 1 Jn 4:6), but this included their ministerial associates who recorded their teachings, i.e., Mark, Luke, Jude, etc., and considered part of the apostolic community. The NT refers to them in the same terms of authority as the Old Testament (OT) prophets (Eph 2:18).  It is well established in Christian orthodox theology and since the Early Church period that it was the apostles whom God exclusively chose to invest with words of divine authority that furnished the foundation for the NT scriptures at the exclusion of those who were mere prophets (i.e, not apostles) of that era (Luke 11:49; Jn 16:12 – 14; 1 Cor 2:9, 13; 14:36; 2 Cor 13:3; 2 Pet 3:2). It was the apostles to whom God gave the sign gifts and miracles to attest to the divine messages they preached and not to the NT prophets. The only inspired writings contributed by prophets that are included in the Bible canon are those of the OT (Heb 1:1; 2 Pet 3:2). Thus, the argument that the OT prophetic ministry carried over into the NT era at the same level of divine inspiration and authority, apart from the apostles, is specious and not supported in the NT. It must be said at this point there clearly is the element of divine revelation connected with the gifted prophets and the prophetic ministry in the NT (1 Cor 14:30). 1 But it has also been clearly shown that the terms for prophet and prophecy used in the first century of Palestine and the Roman culture had a broad usage and meaning that was not restricted to divine revelation in the Hebraic sense and was in common usage by heathen sources as well. Those factors may be behind the Lord’s choice of the apostle to speak His words with divine authority. 1 Although the apostle often functioned as a gifted prophet (Eph 3:3, 5) as well as a teacher in the NT (Acts 13:1), the gifted prophet or teacher was not an apostle.  The role of prophet or prophetic gifting was not included in any of the qualifications for church leadership of deacon or eldership, but apostleship and teaching were. The apostles and elders had the authority to appoint elders (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 4:14,Titus 1:5), whereas the gifted prophets and teachers did not. Thus, although the prophetic gift inherently involved divine revelation according to the NT pattern, apart from an apostle it was not to be treated as a direct command of God, at the same level and authority as the Scriptures.  The revelations of a NT prophet had to be vetted by the congregation (1 Cor 14:29), which would not be the case if such revelations were in the same class of divine inspiration as the apostle’s teachings. Paul made that point very clear (1 Cor 14:36 – 38). Therefore, those who place the speaking gifts on a plane equal to or higher than the Holy Scriptures appear to not understand the divine purpose for the gifts, are not rightly dividing the Word, and may be doing injustice and a disservice to biblical truth. They repeat the error of the Montanists in the second century.2 And those who confine all of the miraculous gifts to apostolic signs are committing a similar error. It is also an unbiblical argument to appeal to how the spiritual gifts played out in the history of the Church down through the centuries to the present. The divine law and principles in the sovereign plans of God revealed in the Scriptures are agnostic to the fallacies inherent in mankind, including the failures of the Church on earth. Finally there is the problem of denying the spiritual power and presence of God in and amongst His people because of fear or discomfort of His intrusion when they reject the ministry of spiritual gifts. This might be akin to the liberal camp’s denial of the supernatural to shut God out of their lives and consciences. Therefore it is not a trivial thing to shut out the presence and supernatural working of God in the individual and the church through denial of the charismata. This might account for the spiritual insipidity of many Christians today.

In view of the preceding, the question shouldn’t be whether God intended for such gifts to continue beyond the Apostolic Era (the Cessationist debate), but why Christians fail to understand how God intended for them to be exercised in the churches for corporate edification throughout the entire Church Age in accordance with apostolic instructions. Since God designed them for the Church’s benefit until the second advent of Christ, His wise design would never run counter to or conflict with the inspired Word of God. Christians must determine what this divine plan is through the apostolic teaching and exercise the spiritual gifts accordingly.

In his apostolic role, Paul felt it important to address the ignorance of the Corinthians about spiritual gifts, especially to curb abuses in their practice which may have been carried over from their pagan religious experiences (1 Cor 12:1, 2) and the influences of that culture. It also presented an opportunity, similar to the teaching about the proper exercise of the communion supper in chapter 11, to lay foundational doctrine concerning the spiritual gifts for the Church. He never taught that the spiritual gifts were assigned to a restricted period of time in history, including any allusions to this that are assumed to be in 1 Cor 13 (a subject to be addressed in the next article). The tenor of the entire teaching is that of presenting enduring fundamentals of church practice.  As such, when this apostolic teaching is ignored, errors and excesses are sure to follow, such as is the case in the abuse of the practice of speaking in tongues that are well known in our day. On the other hand, to prevent the exercise of the ministry of spiritual gifts on the grounds of avoiding abuses incurs the risk of defrauding the Church of a significant means of spiritual edification and growth that God intended for His people, out of His wisdom, grace, love, and mercy. It also contributes to the quenching of the Spirit, warned against by Paul (1 Thess 4:19), which directly affects a believer’s fellowship with God. When this quenching comes through the church’s leadership when they suppress the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit, it can often have a negative effect on the corporate working of the Spirit within the congregation as well.  When the Spirit is hindered, ministry and the body life of the members also suffer. And the opposite is true if the church’s leadership actively embraces the working of the Spirit through spiritual gifts in biblical obedience–the activity of the Spirit also tends to be manifested through members of the congregation in that welcoming environment, resulting in the benefits of ministry through the church body described in 1 Cor 12 and 14.

The Bible’s teaching on spiritual gifts drives home that they are generated by the Holy Spirit within individuals and are not merely based on natural talents and abilities the person may possess from birth, training, education, upbringing, etc. (1 Cor 12:3 – 11; Rom 12:6). The clear doctrine in scripture is that God chooses what gift(s) will be given and manifested and to whom according to His sovereign will (1 Cor 12:11). There are allowances made to seek for God to give gifts that would have corporate benefits (1 Cor 14:1). If the gifts were actually dependent on innate human talents, they could not be considered grace gifts freely administered according to God’s will or distributed and energized by the Hold Spirit, but merely human efforts and accomplishments based on human abilities, even if done in service to God. For instance, although preaching is prescribed in the Bible as the primary means for delivering the gospel message (1 Pet 1:12), it is not included with any of the listed spiritual gifts. Thus, preaching is an act of the individual in obedience to God, using his wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of God’s revealed will acquired through personal study and reflection involving the Scriptures and optimally with the illumination of the Spirit, to deliver a message or teaching. Although the person may be depending on God by faith for leading and guidance in preparation and deliverance of the message, that in and of itself is not an exercise of spiritual charismata. However, the NT Greek word for preaching has the same root that is used for teaching. It could be that the passages covering the gift of teaching would also apply to preaching. On the other hand, it is also possible that some different spiritual gifts would be manifested during a sermon. There are documented occurrences of this with well-known preachers, even some who did not hold ostensible charismatic beliefs. 1 And while the gifts are from the Spirit, in their delivery they are still under the control of the individual. This allows the person to use discretionary judgement on the timing and manner of exercising the gift, according to the Pauline instruction in 1 Cor 14, to maintain godly order and promote the efficient conduct of the worship service. This shows the graciousness and meekness of God in fostering a cooperative relationship with the believer and allowing a share of the control in His operations. The objective for this includes elimination of any claims that God is the author of bizarre and uncontrolled behavior, such as that associated with so-called ecstatic utterances, trances, god-possession, extremes of being slain in the Spirit, etc., that are more characteristic of heathen demonic activities that Paul is trying to avert.2

When people are ministered to by the Spirit through the gifts in accordance with the biblical formula, God and His love often becomes more real and personal to them: their faith is bolstered, they’re put in awe, and have increased admiration for God. This can spur them on to more service and good deeds on behalf of their brethren, as well as evangelical ministry. For instance, if a person is healed of a sickness or injury through the ministry of the church, whether by the exercise of a spiritual gift or by means of the anointing with oil according to the James formula (James 5:14ff), the recipient has received the benefit of being miraculously restored to health, which in and of itself is a mercy of God, but the benefits extend beyond that to providing edification to the heart and soul of the recipient as well as others who witness the healing or receive news of it. God gets the glory through the obedience of his children and receives pleasure in being able to show His love in tangible ways, as well as increasing the growth of His children. The one who exercised the gift (or ‘ones’ plural in the James formula) is also edified if exercised in an attitude of humility and spiritual maturity. In response to this demonstration of God’s love, the believers’ hearts are enlivened by His grace, and in thankfulness to God would extend services of love to their neighbor. It doesn’t matter that it is in response to a healing–that doesn’t denigrate the motive of the respondent. And, of course, all of this assumes that the exercise of the gift is genuine, accomplished through the Spirit.

Please stayed tuned for the continuation of this message in The Apostolic Teaching of Spiritual Gifts for the Church Today — Part 2.

Bibliography

1 Carson, D.A. Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Baker Book House Company, 1987

Grudem, Wayne The Gift of Prohecy in the New Testament and Today. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000 (Revised edition)

2 Kydd, Ronald A.N. Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church: The Gifts of the Spirit in the First 300 Years (eBook edition). Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 1984, 2014

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