The use of what have come to be called “spiritual gifts” (12:1) seems to have caused much contention in the church of Corinth. It seems that the gift of tongues (i.e., Spirit-led ecstatic utterances) in particular was being used to accentuate status differences in the church, with those who practiced this gift claiming to be more spiritual than those who didn’t (see 12:1–3, 13:1, 14:1–25). In countering, Paul articulates a broad understanding of the gifts of God’s Spirit that has major applications to work.
The first thing to observe is that the term “spiritual gifts” is too narrow to describe what Paul is talking about. They are “spiritual” in the broad sense of originating from God’s Spirit, not in the narrow sense of being disembodied or paranormal. And “gift” is only one of a number of terms Paul uses for the phenomenon he has in mind. In chapter 12 alone, he calls the various gifts “services” (12:5), “activities” (12:6), manifestations” (12:7), “deeds,” “forms,” and “kinds” (12:28). The exclusive use of the term “spiritual gift” to refer to what Paul also calls “manifestation of God’s spirit for the common good” or “kind of service” tends to skew our thinking. It suggests that God’s Spirit supersedes or ignores the “natural” skills and abilities God has given us. It implies that the recipient of the “gift” is its intended beneficiary. It makes us think that worship, rather than service, is the primary purpose of the Spirit’s working. All of these are false assumptions, according to 1 Corinthians. The Holy Spirit does not dispense with our bodily abilities, but honors and employs them (12:14–26). The community or organization, not merely the individual, benefits (12:7). The purpose is to build up the community (14:3–5) and serve outsiders (14:23–25), not merely to improve the quality of worship. “Giftings” might be a better term to use, since it carries these important connotations better.
Second, Paul seems to be providing a number of examples rather than an exhaustive list. Paul also lists gifts of God in Romans 12:6–8, Ephesians 4:11, and 1 Peter 4:10–11, and the differences among the lists suggest they are illustrative rather than exhaustive. Among them there is no standard list or even a standard way of referring to the various ways the gifts are given. Contrary to much popular literature on the subject, then, it is impossible to compile a definitive list of the spiritual gifts. They exhibit a striking variety. Some are what we would call super natural (speaking in unknown languages), while others seem to be natural abilities (leadership) or even personality traits (mercy). As we have seen, Paul tells us to “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), and here he lists a few of the amazing things God will give us the ability to do.
Paul has the church in mind here (14:4, 12), and some Christians suppose this passage to mean that the Spirit gives gifts only for use inside the church. However, Paul gives no reason to suppose that these gifts are limited to the confines of the church. God’s kingdom encompasses the whole world, not just the institutions of the church. Believers can and should exercise their giftings in every setting, including the workplace. Many of the giftings named here—such as leadership, service, and discernment—will be of immediate benefit in the workplace. Others will no doubt be given to us as needed to serve God’s purposes in whatever work we do. We should by all means develop the giftings we have been given and use them for the common good in every sphere of life.
In fact, the most important question is not who, where, what, or how we exercise the giftings of God’s Spirit. The most important question is why we employ the gifts. And the answer is, “For love.” Gifts, talents, and abilities—coming as they do from God—are sources of excellence in our work. But as he begins to discuss the importance of love, Paul says, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (12:31), “for the greatest of these is love” (13:13). If I exercise every wondrous gifting of God’s Spirit “but do not have love,” says Paul, “I am nothing” (13:2). Chapter 13 is often read at weddings, but it is actually a perfect manifesto for the workplace.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (13:4–7)
If Christians would exhibit these kinds of love in our places of work, how much more productive and enriching would work be for everyone? How much glory would it bring our Lord? How much closer would we come to God’s fulfillment of our prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth”?
See Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 87–92.
For a scholarly discussion of the problems involving the term “spiritual gifts,” see Kenneth Berding, “Confusing Word and Concept in ‘Spiritual Gifts’: Have We Forgotten James Barr’s Exhortations?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43 (2000): 37–51.