My brother-in-law was fascinated with the concept of spiritual gifts. His Christian worker friend, David, had told him that when somebody becomes a Christian they get a spiritual gift.
Growing up nominally Catholic, this was the first that he had heard about charismatic gifts. “Wait a sec. You mean, like, X-men?”
David had told him that his spiritual gift was “sermon spirits.”
“Sermon spirits?” I asked. After excusing myself and consulting my Bible, I realized that sermon spirits sounds a lot like discerning spirits from 1 Corinthians 12:10.
He asked me, “Does anyone get flying as their spiritual gift?”
In a white, western, evangelical culture, we have a well-intentioned but overly-schematized approach to spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are given prominence even in churches that are not charismatic or where language about the Holy Spirit is muted. Our interest in spiritual gifts is not really about the Holy Spirit. It’s about us.
A Culture that Values Self-Assessment
Western culture orients life around the individual over the community. We celebrate the small pieces of our identity that differentiate us from everyone else. We invest tons of time and money into self-assessment. We live in an age of personality tests: Myers-Briggs, DISC, Enneagram, Strength-Finders, and Parachute colors, not to mention the myriads of BuzzFeed quizzes (“What cheese are you?”) These can be helpful tools for self-understanding. Our fascination with personality quizzes is indicative of an individualistic cultural lens through which we understand the Spirit’s gifts to the Church.
The various spiritual gifts assessments circulating around evangelical churches today are a biblicized type of Myers-Briggs. Passages that address the Spirit’s gifts such as 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4 are used to give the force of Scripture to our spiritualized personality quizzes. Instead of Scripture alerting us to our egocentric cultural tendencies, it is being used to baptize our ego-enhancement. The language of spiritual gifts assessments implies that we possess these gifts and that they are intrinsic to who we are. But when we talk about spiritual gifts focused on ego and identity, we are doing exactly what Paul warns the Corinthians not to do.
Spiritual Gifts in Corinth
The Corinthians were enamored with certain kinds of spiritual gifts – particularly words of knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1ff.), words of wisdom (1 Cor. 1:17-2:16), and speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 13-14) and their boasting of these gifts was causing divisions in their church. Paul’s message to them is to stop elevating particular gifts above others because the same Spirit is at work through a diversity of gifts.
Paul has six different lists within this section in 1 Corinthians (12:28, 29-30; 13:1-3, 8; 14:6, 26) and “none of them are exactly alike in language, number, or character.” He is listing off a variety of manifestations (or disclosures) of the Spirit to support his argument that there are many ways that the Spirit works through the church (not just one or two) and in each way it is the Spirit who is the source of the work/gift (not the individual). Paul never gives us a comprehensive, prescriptive treatment of spiritual gifts. His central thesis is that everything done in the church is powered by God for the common good (12:7). The focus is not on self-fulfillment or naming our giftedness. The focus is on what these various gifts do, namely, build up the body.
Spiritual Gifts Schemas
The Spirit is still active today. But Paul’s flexible and varied language around gifts/manifestations of the Spirit should keep us from creating an ultimate framework for how the Spirit works. I am not pitting tradition against Scripture. Scripture has no interest in prescribing a spiritual gift matrix for each of us to discover our spiritual gift. Those who advocate for spiritual gifts assessments often say that it has been validated from ecclesial experience but this is simply confirmation bias. We have a theory about spiritual gifts from Scripture and it shapes what we observe (and miss) in the church.
Self-understanding is good. Understanding other people in the church and in ministry is helpful. But the schemas that we put on top of spiritual gifts, rooted in personality types, makes the Spirit too small – too captive to our culture.” We turn the Spirit’s gifts into the equivalent of “what kind of cheese are you?” The Spirit will work however and through whomever the Spirit chooses (I Cor. 12:11).
In the New Testament, the spiritual gift motif is about the diverse ways the Spirit works in the Church. It is not about self-assessment and creating our own personal church job descriptions. We are not X-Men (or X-Women). We have not been gifted with special powers, abilities, or ministry orientations from the Holy Spirit.
We have been gifted with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the spiritual gift who works through the Church in many different ways.
Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians is a must read if you want to understand spiritual gifts for the church today.
 I’m American Cheese in case you cared. #Merica
 Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. 1987 P. 585
 For a more extensive pushback on one such spiritual gift assessment: http://tendingaflame.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/an-open-letter-to-release-the-ape/