It is easy for us to forget that the church is supposed to be a supernatural institution. The New Testament teaches repeatedly that churches are to be inspired and led by the Holy Spirit. And it was to remind the church in Corinth, Greece, of that fact that concerned Paul for a good part of his first letter to them.
1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-11:Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth offers guidance, advice and correction of theological errors. One thin he emphasized was how the members of a church, though many, comprise only one body of believers. He put it this way:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. ... 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. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body ... and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”So since then we of the church call ourselves the body of Christ – I say this all the time. Like our individual bodies, we may think of the church as a living organism. As a church we breathe both ordinary air of the atmosphere and the spirit of the Lord.
Here are a couple of illustrations of how the church is made up of individual members comprising one body.
Geese fly in V-formation as they migrate. Research revealed that this formation is very aerodynamically efficient for them. Each goose except the lead goose is aided by the turbulent air ahead that is created by flapping wings, just as NASCAR drivers try to “draft” cars ahead of them.
As a whole, the V-formation is a lot like the swept wing of a jet plane. In formation, the geese can fly nonstop a distance two-thirds greater than one goose can fly alone. Common direction and purpose makes for easier trips, less fatigue and faster arrivals.
The lead goose has the toughest job. That’s why the lead changes every so often. That made me think of the Methodist practice of no one occupying any office permanently. It’s a good idea not to have permanent occupiers of church offices.
For geese, the greater body is a formation, and they are all members of one formation.
In New York city the renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra does not use a conductor. The orchestra developed a process called, naturally enough, the Orpheus Process, “built on individual responsibility, shared leadership and workplace democracy."
The orchestra achieves excellence through team building and collaboration. For concerts, “an elected committee of musicians selects a concertmaster and each instrumental section chooses a representative.” This core group determines how to play and interpret the music and the structure for rehearsals. Then the whole orchestra begins to rehearse. This method provides leadership and ensures that every member has a stake in the outcome of each performance. Businesses, colleges, non-profit and public-sector organizations have adapted this model.
Their body is the orchestra. The Orpheus process works because each member is both individually and collectively responsible. Everyone participates. No one shirks.
John Wesley wrote, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit - Divers streams, but all from one fountain.” The essential character of the church can rightly spring only from one source: the Spirit of the Holy God, the grace of Jesus Christ. And Paul adds, the gifts of God to the members of the church by which the church is empowered to be the body of Christ. We “are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
So far so good, but then Paul starts talking about God’s appointment of apostles, prophets, teachers, gifts of healing and other things. And this teaching often throws people for a loop. There’s a saying I heard once, “God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.” That’s where spiritual gifts come in. They are how God qualifies Christ’s disciples to flower as members of the Christ’s body, the church.
God’s grace is given to us that we may be saved. Spiritual gifts are given us that we may help save others. That is what a church is for. We are to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and lead others to become disciples. By grace we are disciples, by God’s gifts we lead others to discipleship.
Spiritual gifts are abilities that God gives his people by the Spirit to enable them fully to be his disciples. Cathy and I attended a weekend workshop in 1989 where we discerned our spiritual gifts. It turned out to be our first step in the journey that led us to be called by God into the ministry. So for us, discovering our spiritual gifts was literally life changing.
Paul mentions apostles, prophets and teachers, among other gifts. An apostle is one who has the spiritual power to adhere to the personality of Christ in such a way as to wield spiritual authority and oversight of groups in other places to extend the Gospel to new people, places and circumstances.
Prophets are those who have the spiritual power to make contemporary connections between biblical truths and God’s will for today’s living, and to manifest or reveal God’s word for Christian living in this time and place.
Teachers are those who have been gifted with the ability to discern, analyze and deliver spiritual and biblical truths in such a way that others hear and learn the clear calling of God to righteous living.
Paul also discussed speaking in tongues, which is what the Corinthians focused on too strongly. Tongues, or praise language, is the ability to praise God with utterances not familiar as a known language, and with such a joy-filled intimacy with Christ that the church’s faith is strengthened.
There are at least 32 spiritual gifts identified in the Bible, so a full discussion of gifts can’t be done in one sermon. Discovering one’s spiritual gifts is one of the most liberating experiences a Christian can have. It sets you free from doing what you think you “ought” to do to doing what you want to do. Martin Luther said, “Love God and do what you want.” Using the gifts is the way to do so.
Churches that ignore the gifts may survive, but they will never thrive as God intends unless they study and use the gifts. For members to devote themselves to discovering their gifts makes the usual worries churches have almost irrelevant. Churches worry about things like money, whether they are too small or too big, who will teach Sunday school, who will serve on various committees – all kinds of peripheral junk like that. Churches whose members know and use their gifts still have to deal with such issues, but they do so far more easily and without worry.
John Wesley began his conferences with a simple question: "How may we best improve the time of this Conference?" The answer: "While we are conversing, let us have an especial care to set God always before us." Wesley's vision for the people called Methodists was "to reform the nation, and to spread scriptural holiness across the land."
By remaining focused on this fundamental Christian duty, we will avoid what Methodist minister and seminary professor David Lowes Watson called,
... a common mistake in the life and work of the church. ... We join the church as a community of those who receive new life in Christ, by grace through faith, and who seek to grow in that grace as faithful disciples. But all too often we find ourselves distracted by a range of activities that focus on the life of the congregation rather than the commandment of Christ to be his witnesses in the world. Instead of growing as disciples, we find ourselves enveloped by church programs...The danger is that we start and continue programs that serve our own interests first, rather than the work of Christ.
How is the Holy Spirit leading us? There is more than one way to discern it: Bible study, prayer, worship, devotional. But the key way is to study and discern the spiritual gifts God gives each believer.
Do you want to know what God wants you personally to do? Then study the spiritual gifts and discover the ones God has gifted to you. It is so simple as that.
In spiritually thriving churches, many ministries and programs come and go as the Spirit leads the spiritual formation and re-formation of the church. One of the warning signs that a church suffers from what Samuel Chadwick called human management rather than God-government is that programs and ministries are done this year simply because they were done last year, and the year before that and the year before that, and so on.
We will never thrive with top-down leadership, where the pastor and committees decide what the ministries of the church will be, then nominate and elect members to carry them out. We will thrive with ministries that emerge from Spirit-led disciples who are mostly self-organizing.
When churches lose contact with the Spirit, they become church factories, where newcomers are evaluated on how they help the church continue to do what it has always done. Spirit-led churches don’t do that. We understand our enduring goal to be to help people grow into Spirit-led builders of transformed homes and communities. We know that the church is not a fortress for the saved, but a base of operations from which scriptural holiness may grow across the community.
How is that done? The prophet Zechariah explained, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”
Chapter 12 of 1st Corinthians (click here)
The UMC's own web site devoted to the gifts (click here),
Bible.org's web page on the gifts (click here)