Assembly Characteristics - 11 Spiritual Gifts in the Church

Chapter 11
Joel Portman

Spiritual Gift in a Local Assembly

1Corinthians 12-14

We have been looking at the Epistle to the assembly at  Corinth to learn some of the characteristics of a New Testament  assembly. We have seen that Divine teaching gives principles that  will direct the practices of any assembly. If Christ is to be  recognized as Lord in the assembly, all must yield to His authority  and will. That yielding will cause us to practice the teaching He has  given us in His Word. To set that teaching aside or disregard it is to  deny His authority.

The confusion of Christendom comes from the rejection of  Divine prerogatives and the assertion of man's opinions and will.  Our preservation today lies in continued obedience to the pattern of  Holy Scripture. Of course, it has always been this way. Obedience  to God’s Word will preserve God’s people and Holy Scripture  places great emphasis on simple obedience from the heart. If we  believe, as we profess, that the Lord knows best what His people  need, and since it is His will that is involved, then our responsibility  is to seek, as best possible through the enabling power of His Holy  Spirit, to carry out His Word. “He that hath my commandments and  keepeth them, he it is that loveth me..” (John 14:21). Dependence  on the Holy Spirit to work for the honor of the One in our midst is  what will maintain us and give power to go on in these days.

An assembly is a spiritual entity, the result of a work of God,  and it is a gathering of saints occupied with spiritual activities. Since  this is true, it is impossible to carry out this work by natural or fleshly  means. One may have great abilities naturally, but ultimately, we  must depend on spiritual power and spiritual guidance so that the  assembly will function effectively as God intends. 1 Corinthians  12-14 deals with this aspect of spiritual things. They are chapters  dealing with “spirituals” (literal rendering), the things that belong to  the Holy Spirit and the spiritual realm. This deals with either spiritual  men or spiritual things (including gifts), possibly both. Paul  introduces the subject by suggesting that these Corinthian saints,  though divinely gifted in every area (1 Corinthians 1:5-7), failed to understand the  principle of how God gives those gifts and how they should function  in the assembly. Spiritual intelligence must accompany the exercise  of a spiritual gift, and these carnal Christians, though gifted, were  ignorant of how God desired them to use those gifts.

We should seek to be intelligent in this area, particularly in  view of the confusion that exists all around us regarding spiritual  gifts. Ignorance abounds, and many fail to see the purpose for  certain gifts to the church and why some of them passed away  while others remain. In such cases, those involved do not discern  what activities are truly of God, and they cannot discriminate  between emotional excess and spiritual enablement. We must be  settled in these things, or we will be swept up with the tide of  confusion that is increasing in these days.

In addition, in most church gatherings, men who may have  spiritual gift and who could be used of God in that capacity are not  ever given the opportunity to exercise that gift. As a result, the Holy  Spirit is quenched and cannot function as He would. This has been  called a great sin against the Holy Spirit.

Individuals Possessing Gift

These chapters show us that the local assembly has  members who possess spiritual gift. We find the same teaching in  Romans 12:4-8. Other kinds of activities in the world may depend  on the power of human intellect or the force of human strength. The  believers in Corinth were evidently being influenced by that kind of  thinking that exalted man’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:19-21, 1 Corinthians 2:1-8). We notice that  they were impressed by certain displays of power or oratory and  were failing to recognize the essential importance of every spiritual  gift functioning properly in an assembly. The work of the assembly  is primarily a spiritual work and as a result, it requires spiritual  resources to accomplish it. Those gifts should be exercised by  believers who are spiritual, or under the control of the Holy Spirit.

We would never make progress spiritually, nor would we  accomplish any work for God without spiritual enablement, whether  individually or collectively. This is why spiritual exercise in every  believer is so essential for the proper functioning of the assembly.

Gift versus Natural Abilities

We should distinguish spiritual gift from natural ability or  talent. Some talk about a gift in some area of activity, but it is not a  spiritual gift if it is an ability that an unsaved person may also have.  Such abilities as singing, musical performance, administration, etc.,  are abilities that one may have, but they are not spiritual gifts. A  spiritual gift is a God-given ability in the spiritual realm, not a natural  ability which may or may not be used for God. We do not argue that  God can also use natural abilities in His service, but God gives lists  of spiritual gifts in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4.  We doubt if there are any gifts outside those listed.

Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit gives gift sovereignly (1 Corinthians 12:11); that means  that we do not choose the gift or the channel to be used. It is the  prerogative of the Holy Spirit, “as HE will.” We must allow the Spirit  of God to give gift and to enable its use in an assembly as He sees  the need and supplies it. He may supply that need through God  giving a member of that assembly the gift needed; it may be through  the salvation of a person who is then brought into the assembly, or  it may be through a believer moving into the assembly from another  one. The passage tells us to “covet earnestly the best (better) gifts”  (1 Corinthians 12:31). Paul is telling the saints in Corinth that they were  emphasizing the lesser gifts, whereas they should have been  seeking the exercise of those gifts that were more profitable. There  should also be a desire for those gifts to be found within and  exercised in the local assembly. This does not mean that we should  necessarily want them for ourselves, but rather that God might raise  up the better gifts as the assembly needs them.

The Grace of God Displayed

The gifts are given graciously, (1 Corinthians 12:7) and the word “gifts” or  “given” (coming from a word meaning “gift of grace”) indicates their  character. We do not have them because we deserve them or earn  them, but they are a gracious bestowal in God’s purposes. He has  given gifts and has given gifted men to the church (Ephesians  4:10-11). As such, no one has anything to boast in or seek glory for  self (1 Corinthians 4:7). It seems evident that in Corinth, that is  exactly what they were doing, and this condition can exist among  us as well. Even a carnal (fleshly or unspiritual) believer has a gift,  and in that person, there is often the tendency to boast of having it.  That attitude will usually result in the misuse and abuse of the  spiritual gift.

The Purpose of God in a Gift

God gives the gifts purposefully (1 Corinthians 12:3, 7, 18) so that He  might meet particular needs and so that He will further His  purposes. The purpose of spiritual gift is not self-edification (or  self-anything). Saints will clearly understand God's purpose in  giving the gift by examining His Word with exercise of heart.  Spiritual gift is given to edify believers, to build up the body of  Christ, and to bring blessing to the local assembly (1 Corinthians 14:3, 5, 19;  Ephesians 4:12). Gift is essential for all service for God. However,  we must emphasize once again that there is no gift connected with  worship. Worship is an exercise of heart and spirit, but failure in our  worship will hinder our spiritual service. The exercise of spiritual gift  honors Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3), not self. It promotes unity and harmony in the  assembly (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). The assembly is not the body of Christ but it  is to function in these aspects as a body would with its members  working harmoniously for the good of the entire body.

Gift edifies the saints (1 Corinthians 12:7) and builds up the assembly as  believers exercise various aspects of spiritual ministry in a  scriptural, spiritual manner. Proper expression of spiritual gift also  convicts the unsaved (14:22-25).

These issues are so essential for the preservation of  assemblies that we must seek to be fully aware of them. As a result,  we also should be spiritually exercised regarding our responsibility  toward the exercise of the gifts that God has given. Only in this way  will a local assembly prosper, grow, and be in the condition the Lord  desires.

Vital Necessity of Spiritual Gift

A New Testament assembly depends on the spiritual  exercise of spiritual gift that, as we have been seeing, the Holy  Spirit has given to every believer. He gives the needed gifts to carry  on that work in an assembly for the glory of God, the edification of  the saints, and outreach in the gospel. An assembly in a proper  condition allows and encourages the proper exercise of gifts.

Most religious gatherings today depend on one man (or a  few men) to do all the public work needed for that gathering. They  call one man the pastor or teacher and he receives titles, many of  which belong only to the Lord. He is responsible to do all the work  of visiting, instructing, preaching and administration in whatever  capacity on behalf of that group. That is not the pattern of an  assembly given us in the Word of God. In the New Testament we  see the

Harmonious Exercise of Gift

Consideration of 1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that an  assembly, in its body-like function, recognizes the importance of  every member and the part each one has to contribute. In a  physical body there are many different functions needed for its  well-being, both those that are contributed by the more obvious  members and also by the hidden ones. There are comely and  uncomely parts, outwardly seen and unseen inward parts, there are  feeble or strong members, but the body needs all of them for its  proper function.

The practical application of this truth to an assembly should  be obvious. The overall welfare of the assembly depends on the  contribution everyone makes. Each believer also needs to use the  spiritual ability and other abilities that he or she possesses to  contribute to the welfare of the assembly. If one is not exercising  that gift or is not functioning as God intends, it affects the entire  assembly to that extent. The strength of an assembly depends on  each one seeking to be and do whatever is possible in a spiritual  way. Those who are in assembly fellowship cannot casually sit back  and assume that others will do the work needed, and then criticize  when others do not do it. The unique character of a scriptural  assembly is that there is a work for everyone to do, and the  assembly needs everyone to accomplish that work.

Sometimes there are Christians in assemblies who seem to  think that they cannot do anything. That thinking results from wrong  teaching, or it may come from a wrong attitude on the part of others  in an assembly. However, it is not the teaching of the Scriptures.  When brethren do not take part and saints do not contribute, it  results in some believers having to do more than they should. To  that extent, it can develop into a form of one-man ministry if allowed  to progress.

In a body, all the members function together with no  jealousy between them. The same condition is to prevail in an  assembly (12:15-16). How could one ever be jealous of the gifts of  others if we realize that all gift is given by God (12:7, 11; 4:7)? Why  should one be envious of another's ability if every gift is important  to the welfare of the assembly? A spirit of jealousy only hinders the  proper functioning of the gifts and limits the effectiveness of the  work of the Holy Spirit in that assembly. Another situation may arise  when one believer seems to think he possesses all the gifts, but 1  Corinthians 12:17-18 makes clear that there is to be no monopoly  of gift by one member.

We can have too high an estimation of our abilities and  ourselves so that we do not make room for others and the exercise  they may have. There is a warning regarding this in Romans 12:3.  We are to think soberly, having a proper and reasonable  understanding of what God has given and how we are to exercise  it. There is diversity seen in the abilities of the various members of  a body (Romans 12:4-6), and the same is true in an assembly. One  person is never to exercise his gift so as to monopolize and  dominate other believers in the gatherings of the saints.  Harmonious and unified functioning of all spiritual gift is always the  mind of the Spirit of God for the saints of the assembly.

No doubt, chapter 13 appears at this point to show that for  proper functioning of gift in the assembly, love must be involved.  Only when genuine love is the motivation for all service, including  the exercise of gift, will it function as God intends. If the principles  of love for the Lord, for His truth and for His people motivate each  of us to use what He has given, then there will not be any room for  envy or jealousy between saints.

Appreciation of Spiritual Gift

Spiritual believers and an assembly in an exercised state  will appreciate the various gifts God has given. Only when we get  into a carnal condition do we fail to appreciate properly the variety  of gifts and their need in the assembly. Carnality produces a state  of self-sufficiency in which we do not see our absolute dependence  on God for everything to be done according to His will. As we know,  a carnal condition can coexist with the possession of spiritual gift  (as in Corinth), and if so, it will result in its improper exercise.

In 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, God gives a list of gifts that were  exercised in Corinth, some of which have passed away. In this list  there is great variety, but the point is that not all have the same gift,  and that the possession of a particular gift is not an indication of  superiority over others. Then follows the exhortation in verse 31  that they should covet (earnestly desire) the better gifts, likely the  gifts that are listed at the beginning of this section. They had been  emphasizing the very things from which God was seeking to turn  their minds at this point. His purpose was that they would  appreciate the superiority of those gifts that He could use to impart  His truth to them, not those gifts that appealed to the flesh.  The application to us today is that when there is a lack of a  needed gift in an assembly, discerning believers should be  exercised that God would raise up that gift in the assembly for its  benefit. If there is a lack of good teachers in an assembly, we  should pray that God would raise up and equip men who can teach  the truth of God for the help of the saints. We need a balance of all  the gifts in the assembly, and the exercise of those gifts is  important.

In 1 Corinthians 14:26, we see that the assembly makes  room for the exercise of gift. There are varieties of activities listed  here, and in all things that can be done for edifying of the assembly,  there is to be room for them. The sin against the Holy Spirit in  Christendom today is that normally it is not possible for a believer  who may have a spiritual gift to exercise it within the confines of that  system unless he has some official status. We need to be careful  that we do not fall into a form that is like that. We must allow the  Spirit of God to guide and control in the assembly functions.

The assembly should be able to recognize gift and its proper  use. In 1 Corinthians 14:27-32, there is instruction regarding the  exercise of gift. It is to be orderly, profitable, and convey the mind  of God clearly. Others who are spiritually able are to discern the  character of such ministry, whether it is of God or not. The platform  of an assembly is not open to every man. We do not believe in a  one-man ministry; neither should we think that the Scripture  teaches an every-man ministry. Brethren are responsible to  encourage development of gift when they recognize it, but they  need to have wisdom and discernment to know when one is  seeking to exercise something he does not possess.

We find an example of one who recognized gift in another  man and put it to use in Acts 11:25-26 when Barnabas (an exhorter,  v 23) seemed to realize the need for someone to teach the  believers at Antioch. He went searching for Paul, brought him there,  and the effect of his spiritual ministry brought blessing to that  assembly for many years. They worked harmoniously and in a  complementary way so that the assembly was edified and blessed  as a result of their interaction.

Again, in Acts 18:24-28, we see that Priscilla and Aquilla  saw a gift in Apollos that had great potential for God, yet he needed  more perfect knowledge along with it. They helped him privately by  bringing him into their home so that they could encourage and  teach him in the right ways of the Lord, with the result that his  ministry brought blessing and edification to many assemblies.  If these saints would have had jealousy or a lack of  appreciation for the gift that another possessed, the result would  have been to deprive others of blessing that they might otherwise  have received. It would also have quenched the Spirit of God  concerning the work He purposed to accomplish through that man  (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).

It seems that some Christians fail to realize how God can  bring His Word to them through instruments they may not fully  appreciate. We know of some who follow certain preachers whom  they like, and if those certain men are not at a particular meeting or  a conference, they do not attend. While we recognize that some  brethren may be more able to convey spiritual truth than others, we  also see that in doing this, they deny the Holy Spirit His prerogative  to speak to their souls as He chooses, and they are the losers. We  should expect God to speak to us whenever His truth is ministered,  and not be over-occupied with the man who might be used to this  end.

Relative Value of Gifts

Even while we can see that all gifts are important to the  assembly and their exercise is essential, it is also true that not all  are of equal value in the results they produce. In 1 Corinthians 14:5  (perhaps the entire section from verse 1 to 19), the apostle is  teaching that while there were different gifts in that assembly,  prophecy was far more important and more valuable than speaking  in tongues. What is in view is the effect and results produced  through its exercise.

The Corinthians were exercising the gift that, to them,  seemed more interesting, attractive and desirable. However, the  apostle was showing that if the gift was not imparting truth to the  assembly, it was only a waste with no effect. We need to consider  the results of any ministry, the fruit of any exercise of gift, and seek  to keep all things in perspective according to the Word of God.  May the Lord enable us in these days to understand and  exercise spiritually the continuing gifts that we surely need for the  blessing and welfare of the assemblies of the saints! If testimony is  to be maintained, we dare not drift away from dependence on the  Holy Spirit and the enabling power He gives to carry on the work of  God.