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July 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 3 · pp. 24–30 

Spiritual Gifts in the Life and Work of the Church

Arno Wiebe

“Is your church a charismatic church?” When I have been confronted with that often-asked question, I have responded by saying, “Yes, very definitely.” Invariably the discussion has then moved to speaking in tongues, showing that the word charismatic has come to be used of those groups that emphasize speaking in tongues and the gifts of healing and miracles. Out of this has come the unbiblical division of churches into charismatic and non-charismatic churches.

Yet every New Testament congregation, every local body of believers, is a charismatic body. It is a body in and through which the Holy Spirit works by His power and through His gifts. It is important for the life and work of the church to recognize this fact and to ask the real questions: “What are spiritual gifts?” “What gifts has the Holy Spirit given to our body, and how can we discover and employ these gifts in and through our body so that we constantly become what God intends us to be?”


In Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:7-16, and 1 Peter 4:10-11, a number of different words are used to speak of spiritual gifts.

The Words Used for Spiritual Gifts

1. The word charismata (the plural form of charisma) means “a gift, freely and graciously given.” It is the word most frequently used for spiritual gifts in the New Testament, and it always refers to gifts of divine grace. In Romans 5:15, 16 and 6:23, the word is used of salvation as a gracious gift from God. However, in ten of its seventeen uses it refers to the endowments or abilities distributed by the Holy Spirit which make it possible for every believer to serve the body of Christ and through that body the world.

2. The word pneumatika means “pertaining to the Spirit, spiritual {25} . . . caused by or filled with the Spirit.” It is used to speak of spiritual persons, as in 1 Corinthians 2:15 and 3:1, and of spiritual things, as in 1 Corinthians 9:11. It is used of spiritual gifts only in 1 Corinthians 12:1 and 14:1. Some attention needs to be given to this word because misunderstandings of it have fostered the unbiblical division of churches into charismatic and non-charismatic.

In the context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 the word is used of spiritual things, that is, spiritual gifts. It seems that some of the Corinthian believers had become enamored of the extraordinary gifts like miracles, healings, and especially of speaking in tongues. In 1 Corinthians 12:2 Paul related the experience of speaking in tongues to the pagan idea that a worshipper was possessed by a supernatural being or thing when he was “carried away,” or “swept away.” Now, apparently, some believers were claiming that the sense of being irresistibly swept away in the experience of speaking in tongues was a mark of possession by the supernatural Holy Spirit. This experience was the spiritual thing, the true spiritual gift.

Paul picks up this concept and then sets forth, in the following chapters, a better understanding of spiritual gifts. The extraordinary gifts do not make believers spiritual nor are these gifts more important than the other gifts. In fact, “more abundant honor” needs to be given to those parts of the body and to those gifts which seem to be less important so that “there should be no division in the body.”

The word pneumatika, therefore, does not apply only to the extraordinary gifts, but to all spiritual gifts. They all have their source in the Spirit and are to be exercised for the common good.

3. The word dorea means “a gift.” In the New Testament it is used of a gift of God or Christ, always implying that the gift is the result of God’s grace. In seven of the eleven usages of the word the gift of the Holy Spirit is in mind. All four instances of the word in Acts (2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11;17) refer to the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 4:7 Paul uses the word to teach that the first and foundational gift is the Holy Spirit himself. He is the personal embodiment of God’s grace, and spiritual gifts are particular manifestations of the Spirit.

This thought is also expressed in 1 Corinthians 12 in the midst of an emphasis on spiritual gifts. In verse 13 Paul says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and were all made to drink of one Spirit.” When believers become members of the body of Christ, they are also “made to drink of one Spirit.” This means that the Spirit has entered into the innermost being of the Christian {26} and is at work in the deepest recesses of the personality. Goodspeed translates, “We have all been saturated with one Spirit.”

This saturation by the Spirit has, as one of its goals, the distribution and energizing of spiritual gifts so that the believers will be able to serve the body of which they have become members.

This word study teaches us that the first gift given to believers is the Holy Spirit. Because the Spirit has entered into the innermost being of the believer and is at work in us, we are assured both of the possession of spiritual gifts and the grace and power to exercise them. These gifts are endowments or abilities given by the Spirit so that we can function as members of the body of Christ, contribute to the life and growth of the body, and through the body serve the world.

Spiritual Gifts Enumerated

Specific lists of spiritual gifts are given by Paul in Ephesians 4:11, Romans 12:6-8, and 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30. The Spirit knew what gifts were needed in the first century church, so the gifts were supplied to meet those needs. Therefore, not only must the sovereignty of the Spirit be acknowledged in the giving of the gifts, but also his creativity. The fact that none of the lists of gifts are alike suggests that they are not exhaustive. Though they are not exhaustive, they are representative. Through the creativity of the Holy Spirit, the spiritual gifts needed in every period of church history are supplied.

The following classification is suggestive and the brief statements are meant to help our understanding of the way the Spirit works in the churches.

1. Gifts to the Church. Though apostleship uniquely applied to the men whom Jesus chose and a few others who had laid the foundations of the church, it includes missionaries and those involved in church-planting ministries anywhere. Prophecy is the ability to proclaim God’s Word authoritatively and bring the truths of God to bear on the lives of people. So also evangelism, the grace to share the gospel so that men respond freely to it, applies to mass, small group, or personal evangelism. The gift to care for others, or to shepherd them is needed not only by the pastor-teacher but also by all those who assist the pastor in the shepherding work of the church.

2. Speaking gifts. To the teacher is given the ability to present God’s Word clearly so that it will be understandable and applicable to daily life. Exhortation is the gift of seeing the needs of others and speaking {27} the word to help, correct, and encourage us to move forward in our walk by faith. The utterances of wisdom and of knowledge grant a comprehension of truth in its larger dimensions and the ability to express it and to apply it to a given situation. Distinguishing between spirits is the ability to discern between truth and error.

3. Service gifts. Service, particularly the responsibility of deacons, includes others involved in caring for the poor, the suffering, the depressed. Helps refers to the gifts needed in those tasks which help along the ministry of the church, including things like ushering, nursery care, secretarial work, and serving meals. Acts of mercy are ministries to the sick, the aged, and the disabled. The grace to trust God for what most believers think to be impossible as well as the gift of vision which sees beyond the ordinary limits is the gift of faith. Those with the gift of giving share freely, far beyond the average, of their material goods. Leadership is the ability to lead others and to manage the affairs of the church.

4. Sign gifts. Healing is the ability to heal the sick, physically, spiritually, emotionally. Miracles, the capacity to see things accomplished which are supernatural, is mostly expressed today in the area of miraculous healings. Tongues, speaking in unknown utterances directed in praise to God, is useful to the church only when someone gifted in the interpretation of tongues is present to do so.

5. Other gifts. What about the gifts of the craftsman, the musician, the artist, the writer, the technician, the linguist—all of whom contribute so tremendously to the life and work of the church today? Again, it must be said that the creativity of the Holy Spirit makes available those gifts needed by the church in any age.


The order that will be followed in this section is suggested by 1 Peter 4:10-11. “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one by the strength which God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Every Believer Has Received a Gift

That “each has received a gift,” is also stated by Paul in Romans 12:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 12:7,11. The image of the church as a body, which dominates all the sections dealing with spiritual gifts, stresses the fact that each member is essential for the well-being of the whole. It is {28} necessary, therefore, for the believer to accept responsibility to the body and for the body to accept the believer with his or her gift. The believer cannot say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not part of the body.” In turn, the body cannot say to the believer, “I have no need of you.”

Believers need to know how to discover the gifts they have. This discovery does not usually begin with some special insight or experience. The believer who is willing to use the opportunities for service that are available will be directed to specific gifts and ministries in the course of willing service.

Further, the body of believers has the responsibility of helping individuals in the discovery and exercise of their gifts. This would include encouragement for a person to serve where fellow believers think one might be effective. It would also include openness on the part of the body to allow a person to function in an area of service he or she would desire to try. In such mutual care, respect, and encouragement the atmosphere is created for the discovery and exercise of one’s gift.

The Gifts Are Given for Service

The test of our service “for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace,” is whether or not it builds up Christ’s body, the church. Both in Ephesians 4:7-16 and 1 Corinthians 14 the theme of “building up” is dominant. In the figurative sense it means “spiritual strengthening,” that which promotes spiritual growth and maturation into Christlikeness.

The gifts are not for personal advantage or importance, not for rivalry or jealousy, but, as 1 Corinthians 12:7 says, “for the common good.” When gifts are used as a means of self-gratification or aggrandizement, it is a sin against their giver and against those for whose benefit they were given.

The key to the fruitful exercise of gifts is the spirit of service. Service, which has the good of Christ’s body in mind, must come out of a thoroughgoing commitment of oneself to God. Such service must also be given out of a genuine love for God and for the church. It is to be noted that the great love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, is right in the middle of Paul’s lengthy discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

But often believers hesitate to accept responsibilities because they feel inadequate or feel that the demands will be greater than the resources. Strength has its source in “God’s varied grace.” The truth here is that God supplies the grace to exercise the gifts he gives. This idea is also expressed in Ephesians 4:7; “But the grace was given to {29} each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Thus if a person is given the gift of mercy, God supplies the grace to exercise that gift.

The word “strength” in 1 Peter 4:11 refers to the ability provided by God to exercise the gift he gives. In 1 Corinthians 12:6 and 11 energeo is used and is translated by words like works and inspires. It means energy, power, and particularly “God’s power in action.”

That is the reality believers face in relationship to their own gifts. The Lord, who gives the gift out of his abundant grace, also supplies the strength and energy for the exercise of the gift. That supply is also abundant. Because we have been saturated with his Spirit, there is never any lack.


The church is a charismatic body, therefore the health of the church depends upon the ministry of all of the members. Often only some of the members are involved in joyful service in and through the church. This may be because spiritual leaders have failed to consistently teach and to train believers for the ministries God has intended for them. It may also be because believers have been unwilling to commit themselves to the Lord and to the life and work of the church.

My appeal is that spiritual leaders commit themselves to make the church what the Lord intended it to be, a body whose members all contribute to its life and growth. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.” {30}


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Arno Wiebe is the pastor of the Garden Park Mennonite Brethren Church, Denver, Colorado.

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