December 4, 2013

Making a list and checking it twice: listing the spiritual gifts

by Lyndon Unger

gift boxes over white background 3d illustration

In all my reading about charismatic issues and spiritual gifts, I have seen many lists and definitions of spiritual gifts.  There’s one issue though that seems really strange to me, and that’s the question of whether or not the list of spiritual gifts in the New Testament is comprehensive.  At my count, the New Testament lists 18 spiritual gifts:

For to one is given through the Spirit the (1) utterance of wisdom, and to another the (2) utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another (3) faith by the same Spirit, to (4) another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the (5) working of miracles, to another (6) prophecy, to another the (7) ability to distinguish between spirits, to another (8) various kinds of tongues, to another (9) the interpretation of tongues. – 1 Corinthians 12:8-10

And God has appointed in the church first (10) apostles, second prophets, (11) third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, (12) helping, (13) administrating, and various kinds of tongues. – 1 Corinthians 12:28

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if (14) service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the (15) one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the (16) one who contributes, in generosity; the (17) one who leads, with zeal; the one who does (18) acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. – Romans 12:6-8

Now, of course, there are possibly +/- 1 or 2 more (depending on whether you consider some of the gifts listed as synonyms), but the general NT listing is around 17 to 20 (and whether or not you include other passages that may or may not include another spiritual gift or two, like 1 Peter 4:10-11).

Still, many churches have spiritual gift lists that include things not explicitly listed as spiritual gifts in the New Testament (and often aren’t even gifts found in the NT at all).  A good example of this would be the Willow Creek Spiritual Gifts handout that includes gifts like craftsmanship (based on Exodus 31:3, 35:31, 35 [passages that mention 2 people empowered by the Spirit of God in craftsmanship], as well as 2 Kings 22:5, 6 and Acts 9:36, 39;  two passages that don’t even mention the Spirit).

Now, I know that Exodus 31:1-5 says

The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

Exodus 31 2-8 Bezalel and Oholiab making the Ark of the Covenant

 That sure looks like a spiritual gift, right?

Well, for the record, Exodus 31:6 says that those gifts/empowerments were given to all the craftsmen for the specific purpose of making the tent of meeting and all it’s accoutrements.  It was a temporary gift that I would argue foreshadowed the coming of spiritual gifts when the Spirit was poured out, but the “craftsmanship” given to Bezalel and the every other craftsman is not available today.

Still, if a person thinks that “craftsmanship” is a valid gift, why doesn’t that same person look back in the Old Testament at all the times when the Spirit of God empowered other people and include those gifts/empowerments on their list of spiritual gifts?

Why isn’t there a spiritual gift of:

– Judgment? (Judges 3:10; Isaiah 42:1)

– Motivating Groups of People? (Judges 6:34)

– Traveling? (Judges 11:29)

– Decapitating Lions? (Judges 14:6)

– Slaying Philistines (and stealing their clothes)? (Judges 14:19)

– Physical Strength (and tearing ropes)? (Judges 15:14)

– Anger? (1 Samuel 11:6)

– Naked Prophesy? (1 Samuel 19:23-24)

– Prophetic Confusion? (Isaiah 29:10)

– Fertility? (Isaiah 44:3-4)

– Out of Body Travel? (Ezekiel 3:12-14, 37:1)

– The Interpretation of Dreams? (Daniel 4:8-9)

– Intelligence? (Daniel 5:14)

– Church Maintenance? (Hosea 1:14)

I don’t know about you, but having the fourth gift on that list would make for some pretty entertaining public speaking engagements.  The second would be really helpful in evangelism…but, those gifts don’t appear on any spiritual gifts inventory that I’ve seen (cue that one reader to send me a spiritual gifts list of 97 gifts).  Why is that exactly?  All those passages include specific mention of the Spirit being placed on someone, and the actions in the verse are the specific outcomes.  If Exodus 3 has the Spirit giving people the ability to perform acts of craftsmanship and we do include “craftsmanship” on the list of spiritual gifts but we do not include “slaying Philistines”, there’s some rather horrid inconsistency in our picking and choosing of what is/is not a spiritual gift, right?


I’d suggest something rather simple: either the passages that directly mention spiritual gifts make up a comprehensive list, or we must be consistent and include “slaying Philistines” on our spiritual gifts tests.  Imagine taking a spiritual gifts test and running across the following question:

17.  Do you enjoy spending time nurturing and caring for others?
18.  Are you able to communicate God’s word effectively?
19.  Are you often compelled to slay the enemies of God and steal their clothing?
20.  Are you often sought out by others for advice about spiritual or personal matters?
21.  Are you careful, thorough, and skilled at managing details.

It seems that a consistent approach to the addition of Old Testament gifts/empowerments of the Spirit to a spiritual gifts list would lead to some rather interesting inclusions!.

It’s probably worth remembering that spiritual gifts tests are made by men, and those men don’t always have a consistent approach to scripture, but that’s why we need to strive to evaluate things like spiritual gifts tests with a consistent approach to scripture.

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him didn’t.
  • Matt

    Great article, Lyndon…I can understand the temptation to make OT gifts for everyone, at all times. Personally, I’d rather have a spiritual gift to decapitate lions than administrate any day.

    Something that’s always bugged me about folks looking for their “spiritual gifts” is that many of them seem to be simply an extension of their personality. Something you could discover from a Meyers-Briggs test. It could be the way I’m looking at the issue, but it seems that these NT gifts were given upon salvation. They weren’t part of the receiver’s personality previously. Am I correct in thinking that, or is it more nuanced?

    • Lyndon Unger

      Well, that’s a place where there’s a lot of speculation Matt. When you think of the “gifts”, there’s definitely a sense where things like “helping” or “administration” are things that people without the Spirit regularly do, but then things like “healing” or “tongues” are certainly things that nobody does without the Spirit.

      Without getting into a whole other secondary post, I’d simply suggest a fairly simple framework for thinking about this:

      1. Natural talents aren’t spiritual gifts, since people who don’t have the Spirit have tons of natural talents.

      2. Spiritual gifts may overlap with divine “wiring”; how God has assembled a person’s abilities and desires (i.e. I doubt that someone who gets the gift of teaching or administration is functionally illiterate before they receive that gift).

      3. Whenever the Spirit empowered someone to do something (either in the OT or NT), it was something that was evident to those who witnessed it.

      4. Whenever a person is empowered, the desired outcome is always edification of other believers (i.e. 1 Cor. 12:7, 14:4-5, 14:12. 14:26).

      5. People don’t always use their gifts to edify other believers (hence Paul’s correction to Corinth).

      6. Spiritual gifts can be developed (i.e. 2 Tim. 1:6 and the Corinthians could have heeded Paul’s correction and used their gifts in a more excellent fashion than they already were.)

      7. Spiritual gifts aren’t given to individuals for the individual, but for the church. I’d dare suggest that the “gifts test” is the totally backwards way of discerning your gifts; it’s more likely a process of discernment that should be performed by a church (or some component of a church).

      All that would make a heptagon-shaped field in which one could explore spiritual gifts.

      In answer to your question, I’d simply say I don’t really know…

      …but I’m not really sure whether or not the question is one I need to worry about. If I’m not really the one discerning my gifts, then it’s not really my concern as to what they are. My main concern is fulfilling the needs that I can within my local church, and doing so according to the things that I want to do where others in my church recognize and affirm my competence.

      The Bible doesn’t really spell it out for us (at least as far as I have uncovered), but that’s at least some sort of direction for you (I hope).

      • Matt

        I like the framework you gave, helps to put them in a better perspective. Definitely helps. It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t spell it out more clearly..for some reason I thought it did. Nevertheless, I appreciate your advice in serving the local body. Thanks very much!

  • When I think of spiritual gifts, I limit them to the church b/c Israel was not a spiritual entity. People were not sealed with the Spirit, and the Spirit was not using every member of Israel to be a spiritual representation of the second member of the trinity on earth.Rather, Israel was (for the most part) ethnic, you entered it by physical birth and a physical covenant, and in that sense it was decidedly unspiritual. God’s Spirit still accomplished his purposes, of course. Usually by empowering a person here or there to do something essential in the building up of theocratic Israel. But it would be a mistake to call those Spiritual gifts in any sense like the NT.
    So here is my question: am I wrong on that? or are we saying the same thing?

    • Lyndon Unger

      Jesse, we’re on the same page. I’d suggest that the times in the OT where the Spirit empowered people was only a sort of foreshadowing of the outpouring of the Spirit in the NT.

      I definitely don’t consider the manifestations of the Spirit in the OT as being spiritual gifts (for a variety of reasons), though there is a somewhat slight OT/NT overlap in manifestations of the Spirit (i.e. with prophecy and healing), most likely because the same Spirit was at work in both the OT and NT.

  • Thanks again! Right on! I embrace Jesse’s comment too. Spiritual gifts were given for the edification of Christ’s church, not for the work of the Spirit before Pentecost. Christ sent the Holy Spirit as a gift to His church for His purposes.

  • Ray Adams

    My Gk prof – under the banner of the lists given in Romans and 1 Corinthians as being incomplete and suggestive – declared that he had the gift of musically playing the trombone. I have always opted for the more limited view that what the Spirit has given in the text is neither incomplete nor suggestive of other possibilities. The vastness of variety comes from the “varieties of effects” which He produces from the gifting combinations and the ministries we are drawn to. I also subscribe to the idea that because we are under the New the elements of the First are not applicable across the board as though of the same foundation. The Spirit’s work then is distinct from His work now.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks for the good thoughts Ray!

      I’ve heard tons of absolutely bizarre things included in supposed “lists” of gifts (i.e. running church sound) on the basis of no one list being complete.

      I’m glad to have given a helpful reminder. God bless as you serve him in your church.

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  • Elhanan

    Please correct me if I’m mistaken but aren’t you a cessationist? And if so, why even bother with the list?

    • Good ?, and I’ll answer for Lyndon: being a cessationist doesn’t’ mean you don’t think any spiritual gifts are active–but simply that the “sign” gifts (apostleship, healing, miracles, tongues, interpretations of tongues) have ceased. So in that sense, it is good to know what the other gifts are!

      In my experience though, it has mostly been my charasmatic friends that are eager to identify exactly what their gift is (from an enumerated list) and most of my more cessationist friends that are cool with the “just serve God and serve the church” approach.

      • Elhanan

        Thank you for the clarification and description of your experience. In my experience the “discovery” of spiritual gifts including the sign gifts came about as a result of serving God and serving the church. As such, there was no dichotomy and no need to take a spiritual gifts inventory.

  • It seems like in today’s church landscape, some might believe they have the OT spiritual gift of bringing strange fire to a service

  • The (supposed) spiritual gift that always bugged me is “hospitality.” First, it’s never listed in any of the NT lists of gifts. Second, what most people mean when they say “hospitality” is that they like being around friends and even having them over for dinner. However, a better translation of the Greek word is “Love a stranger like he is your brother.”

    • Lyndon Unger


      I also don’t see it listed on any of the NT gift lists…so which word are you thinking of? Are you thinking of philoxenia in Romans 12:13? I’d agree with you on the translation of the term, but I don’t know why the issue comes up.

      It seems to me that the first point (it’s not on any list) kinda tosses discussions about the meaning of terms out the window (at least with regards to any relevant discussion of spiritual gifts).

      I looked at the authority on non-biblical spiritual gifts and found these comments on the supposed spiritual gift of hospitality: ( Interesting how whoever wrote that doesn’t seem to find the gift listed in any of the gifts passages too…

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