Forming Faith Blog

What Type of Gifts? (Acts 2, 1 Cor 12)

On a festival day devoted to the Holy Spirit, should we ask whether God still gives us spiritual gifts? Even if your answer is “no,” you can discuss our unique talents and how they can be used for the common good.

Hands giving and receiving wrapped gifts.
Photo by ANTONI SHKRABA production on

Happy Pentecost! This marks the end of the Narrative Lectionary’s Year 2, and for many, a seasonal pause on formal Christian education. Along with the obligatory inclusion of the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, this is the fourth and final passage from 1 Corinthians. To match with the focus on the Holy Spirit, we have jumped back two weeks to the chapter just prior to the famous love passage in chapter 13. As I mentioned in that reflection, Paul’s description of love is a direct inclusion within the discussion of gifts of the Spirit.

Problem in Interpretation

While I love the imagery of the body of Christ and the truth of one body with many (diverse) members, I have a struggle with the first part in verses 4-11. Or, really, I have a problem with any of the passages in the Epistles about spiritual gifts. We often (and I include Spirit & Truth’s resources in this) will use this opportunity to talk about how God (the Holy Spirit) has created each of us with unique gifts (skills, talents, and abilities) that we should recognize, celebrate in each other, and use for the common good (v. 7). I truly believe that God has created every human being with talents and aptitudes that we are called to use in service to one another. But, is that what this passage is really saying? My answer: Maybe?

In this reflection, I’m going to focus on verses 4-6:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

Gifts (Charisma)

When Paul and others write about spiritual gifts, I think it’s clear that they are referring to the supranatural abilities listed in verses 8-10 like healing, miracles, and tongues (and given their inclusion in this list, I assume that the wisdom, knowledge, and faith Paul includes mean something beyond our normal usage of those words).

The theological challenge here is this: Does God still commonly give the listed spiritual abilities today? There are two main camps here, cessationism and continuationism. The first asserts that this type of spiritual gifts stopped at the end of the apostolic era, while the second argues that they, well, continue to this day.

I would say that most larger denominations would fall closer to the cessationism camp, which is where I fall as well. So, what does this mean? Do we toss out this entire passage because it no longer applies to us?

Services (Diakonia)

No. While we don’t necessarily interpret and accept every passage directly as it is stated in the Bible, we can indeed learn from them. In the verses I quoted above (vv. 4-6), there is a clear pattern: varieties of gifts… varieties of services… varieties of activities. I would guess that this might be a literary technique drawn from Hebrew: parallelism or “rhyming” by repetition. This is seen often in the Psalms:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 27:1

Each sentence doesn’t say the same thing, but they communicate the same idea. So, gifts, services, and activities are likely intended to be three ways to say the same thing. But they are different, which gives us a different way to look at the Spirit working among us.

The second of these parallel phrases is “services,” which is a valiant attempt to translate something that doesn’t have a great parallel in English (as “services” is not a clear plural of “service”). The Greek word here is “diakonia” (service, or more literally waiting at a table) related to “diakonos” (servant, steward, later deacon). Another way to translate diakonia is as “ministry,” so “ministries” works, too. But it is parallel to “gifts” so it could be more like “abilities for the purpose of service.”

Workings (Energema)

The last one (energema, NRSV “activities”) is even more difficult to succinctly communicate in English. It is related to the verb at the end of the verse “the same God who activates all of them.” It is also found in verse 10: “to another the working of miracles.” This is from ergos (work) where we get our word “energy” from. So, perhaps we can call this “abilities to do work.”

Again, I do think Paul intended all three of these to indicate the same thing, or at least similar things, and that would be supranatural spiritual gifts. But, even if we believe that God has stopped giving these supranatural gifts, we do still believe that God gives each of us abilities, talents, and aptitudes that we can use for service (diakonia) and work (energema) for the common good (v. 7).

Faith Formation Connections

Despite all of this, I think that this passage is a great opportunity to talk about the things we enjoy and are good at and how we can use those to follow the greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbors. Or, another way to say it is:

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC

This conversation can happen with most age groups: youth, adults, intergenerational groups, and even children!

My biggest request is that we be aware of how we use the term “spiritual gifts.”

Empowered by the Spirit,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 10 to May 19), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download the “Fellowship of the Body” activity from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship (NL Year 3) curriculum. This activity can be done with youth, intergenerational groups, and even adults!

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