Manifestations of Grace: 3 Reasons to Move Away from Spiritual Gift Surveys
One of the staples of the discipleship diet for the past thirty years in evangelical circles has been the spiritual gift survey. Various shapes and sizes abound (just do a quick internet search), with some robust tests reading like a Christian Meyers-Briggs analysis and others feeling more like a pop quiz out of the back of People Magazine. Regardless of form, Christians have been encouraged to take these surveys in an effort to discern their roles within the body of Christ. Whether required in a membership class, administered in a small group meeting, or simply referenced in a Sunday sermon, identifying your spiritual gift(s) has become an integral part of Christian discipleship.
Despite the good intentions of disseminating spiritual gift surveys, there are some significant problems with approaching the biblical concept of spiritual gifts through the framework presented by these surveys. In fact, the problems are so significant, the time has come to call for a moratorium on such tools.
This is shocking—I know. Agreeing with this survey suspension requires nothing less than fundamentally rethinking the way we view spiritual gifts. The gifts of the Spirit are both momentary and long-term manifestations of the Spirit’s power in the life of believers for the building up and strengthening of the church. Much more can be said about the spiritual gifts than this space allows (see Craig Blomberg’s helpful article here), and to be clear, I am not addressing whether or not certain gifts have ceased. My point is to demonstrate that no matter which gifts you believe are operative in the church, identifying them through a spiritual gift survey is not a valid approach. Here are three reasons that support this understanding of spiritual gifts and why spiritual gift surveys dangerously distort the New Testament portrayal.
The Spiritual Gifts Listed in the New Testament are Not Exhaustive
Three main biblical passages comprise our list of key spiritual gifts texts: Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13:3, and 1 Peter 4:8-11. Each of these passages presents a different number of spiritual gifts while also including some overlapping gifts like teaching and service. The list given to the Corinthian church appears to reflect their interest in the more “supernatural” or revelatory gifts like prophecy, tongues, and healings, while the list in Romans focuses on more common acts of service like mercy and generosity. The point is that these lists are not exhaustive, but instead reflect the occasional nature of the epistles in which they’re found. They are samples of spiritual gifts in the early church. While it is possible to derive more generic categories of the types of gifts given, the best delineation might be the simple pattern found in the passages in 1 Peter and Romans—gifts of service and gifts of word. Once we recognize that the spiritual gifts alluded to in the New Testament are samples of the various gifts God gives to his church, our spiritual gift surveys quickly run afoul. Instead of trying to match ourselves with the gifts included in the lists, we should seek to serve in the body of Christ according to our passions and the church’s needs, recognizing that love for our brothers and sisters should guide us (Rom 12:9; 1 Cor 13:1-3; 1 Pet 4:8).
Spiritual Gifts Are Not Easily Self-Identified
Spiritual gift surveys also lead us to conclude that we can individually identify our spiritual gifts. To be fair, the better spiritual gift surveys include questions like “Have others affirmed your service in this area?” However, the process of taking, grading, and analyzing your own test does not point us toward the necessity of the church in identifying the unique ways God has called us to minister. In our individualistic, just-me-and-Jesus culture, we often first identify our gifts and then subsequently find people who will affirm what we ourselves have already concluded. If gifts are given to build up the body of Christ, it is only within the context of the body of Christ that we can gather any sense of certainty about the gifts of the Spirit in our lives. Understanding that we can experience multiple gifts in different moments of life liberates us from the pressure of trying to identify that one gift that truly encapsulates us. Click To Tweet
Spiritual Gifts Are Not Necessarily Permanent Gifts
Some gifts mentioned in the New Testament appear to have long-term applications. For example, the gift of teaching seems to manifest itself in certain people for the duration of their ministry. However, I do not believe that this is the case for all spiritual gifts. Instead of thinking about a person’s spiritual gift as a Spirit-induced personality trait, we should recognize that spiritual gifts include temporary, or even momentary, manifestations of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:7) for the benefit of others. This might be paradigm shifting for some. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a “27 in leadership…so I should only be in leadership roles,” we need to recognize that the Spirit can and does work through people in various ways and in varying seasons of life and ministry. This is not to deny that each person has a spiritual gift (see 1 Pet 4:10). However, our gifts can change in different seasons of service and in moments of need within the body of Christ. Recognizing this changes our perspective from thinking “I can’t keep the nursery because I’m not gifted in that area,” to praying “God give me power by your spirit to serve my brothers and sisters this morning in an area of my weakness.” And by God’s grace, should we joyfully serve in the nursery in weakness, the Spirit has indeed gifted us and the church.
Understanding that we can experience multiple gifts in different moments of life liberates us from the pressure of trying to identify that one gift that truly encapsulates us. Every time I have taken a spiritual gift survey I have found myself wondering, “Shouldn’t I be striving to do all of these things?” And I have come to the conclusion that the answer is yes. We should be striving to do all of them; in fact, in other passages in the New Testament every Christian is called to do them. Paul encourages the Corinthians to desire certain gifts (1 Cor 12:31), not simply identify with some. 1 Cor 12:9 describes the gift of faith. All Christians are expected to exercise faith, so what does it mean to be gifted in faith? This could mean that certain people within the body are given stronger faith throughout their lives. Or, it could mean that God graces some of his children with the gift of faith in seasons of trial and darkness in order to endure and encourage. Spiritual gifts do not always equal areas of strengths. Sometimes the gift may come in our moments and areas of weakness (2 Cor 12:9).
If the above statements about spiritual gifts are true, then numerical surveys are not only incapable of measuring and affirming spiritual gifts, they actually lead to serious misunderstandings about the nature of spiritual gifts. I do not believe that this is overemphasizing the matter; this exercise is not benign. Like all activities carried out in the church, spiritual gift surveys communicate an implicit theology, and the implicit theology behind these surveys is not sound. Therefore, as leaders and members of the body of Christ, it is time that we laid these tools to rest.