It is a strange quirk of the contemporary church that arguably the most common way of handling the charismatic gifts, at least in the West, is the only one that simply cannot be defended from Scripture.
For now, I will leave aside the question of whether the distinction between “miraculous” and “other” gifts would have occurred to Paul. On a number of occasions, however, Paul tells his converts to pursue, use, or eagerly desire the so-called “miraculous” gifts, and prophecy in particular:
- Earnestly desire the higher gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:31)
- Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:1)
- Earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39)
- Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith. (Romans 12:6)
- Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21)
Notice that Paul’s exhortation is not a one-off but a repeated instruction to his churches that they should use their gifts (including the “miraculous” ones) to serve one another as the body of Christ.
Three Possible Responses
The contemporary church responds to those instructions in one of three ways:
The Charismatic response is to take these imperatives at face value, and thus to pursue all the spiritual gifts of which Scripture speaks.
The Cessationist response is to argue that these imperatives do not apply to the post-apostolic church, and therefore we should not seek to observe them today. Charismatics believe the gifts are for today, and pursue them; cessationists believe they aren’t, and don’t. So far, so good.
The Cautious response, on the other hand, is to affirm that the charismatic gifts are for today, but that because they are so often misused or divisive, we should not especially pursue them. We should be “open” to God speaking prophetically, or healing through us, but we should not actively seek them (let alone “eagerly desire” them) in our churches or personal lives, because to do so might open us up to error, imbalance, or silliness. This, from my (admittedly limited and UK-based) experience, is the most commonly practiced position of the three in the Western church today. It is also by far the least defensible.
The Contradiction of Caution
Cessationism, though it is not my position, is a consistent position. If we believe that certain spiritual gifts — prophecy, languages, interpretation, and usually miracles and healings as well — died out with the apostles, then we should make that argument, and treat all claims to them with suspicion.
Continuationism is consistent, too. If we believe that such gifts have been given to equip, serve, strengthen, and encourage the church, we should delight in them and pursue them.
Open-But-Cautious Continuationism, however, is almost always neither one nor the other. It involves the strange affirmation that Paul told his converts to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, and that his instructions still apply today, but that we are not especially going to follow them! This, for anyone with a high view of biblical authority, surely cannot be right. Paul’s exhortation in Romans, as we have already seen, is that “having gifts that differ, . . . let us use them” (Romans 12:6).
It is important to recognize why. Spiritual gifts, for Paul, are a major way in which the body of Christ can express its unity and diversity. Each member brings a gift, and each member requires others to bring their gifts. This cultivates humility in the church, so that no one thinks more highly of himself than he ought (Romans 12:3–8). Nobody can do without the rest of the body, or look down on the gifts that others have, for we have all been baptized in one Spirit into one body, and all have been given one Spirit to drink (1 Corinthians 12:12–31).
Not only so, but the one who prophesies brings comfort, edification, encouragement, and strength to believers, and makes unbelievers aware that God is really present (1 Corinthians 14:1–25). The gifts have been given to strengthen the church and challenge the world. To acknowledge that God has given a particular gift, while simultaneously deciding not to use it, bears more than a passing resemblance to one or two of Jesus’s gift-parables, and not in a good way.
How (Not) to Practice Spiritual Gifts
For those who are persuaded that the gifts continue, as I am, the question then becomes: How do we pursue these gifts without being distracted, dominated, or divided by them? The answer, without wanting to be flippant, is simply: by doing what Paul says, especially in 1 Corinthians 12–14. There are all sorts of constraints in there that will help us, whether as pastors or church members, to handle the gifts with wisdom, love, and an unwavering focus on Jesus. Boundaries are blessings. Guardrails are gifts.
We could state this negatively: If you want to put people off of spiritual gifts, practice them unbiblically. Put contemporary prophecy on a par with Scripture. Teach that tongues are the primary measurement of spirituality, and that they should be used in public meetings whether or not they are interpreted, preferably all at once. Emphasize the signs more than the Person they are pointing to, your spiritual experiences more than the love of your neighbor, and spiritual fireworks more than whether enquirers can understand what’s going on. Connect spiritual blessings to financial gifts wherever possible. Promise people that they will always be healed or see the miracle they need, if they have enough faith. Ensure that no tongue-speakers ever interpret their own language. Test nothing. Make it clear that healings and miracles validate a person’s interpretation of Scripture, so if you want to know whether someone is theologically correct, just look at whether they have the gift of healing. Build the church or ministry around a personality, with minimal accountability. If anyone challenges you on any of this, wave them away as carnal or legalistic or both.
Or we can work through what Paul says in 1 Corinthians, consider how to apply it in our context, and ask advice from those who have done it well. We can read widely, teach faithfully, and pray fervently. We can wait patiently, desire earnestly, and love deeply. It may feel, at times, like a high-wire act, but that’s okay. The God who lovingly gives us the gifts, and the guardrails, and the messiness of church life is not a God of disorder, but of peace.