Search this blog

So argues Ken Berding in his book, What Are Spiritual Gifts? Rethinking the Conventional View.

The conventional view is that the “spiritual gifts” (Eph. 4:11-12; Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28-30) are God-given special abilities that Christians are to discover and then use in ministry. Berding’s argument is that the spiritual gifts, understood contextually in Paul’s letters, are actually ministry assignments or roles, that is, the actual ministries themselves.

In an interview Dr. Berding gives some reasons for why he holds this view:

1. Many people assume that the Greek word charisma means special ability. This is a misunderstanding of how words work and confuses the discussion.

2. Paul’s central concern in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12-14—the “spiritual gifts passages”—is that every believer fulfills his or her role in building up the community of faith. That’s what he’s writing about; that’s what he cares about. The Corinthians, not Paul, were the ones who were interested in special abilities.

3. Paul doesn’t use any ability concepts in his extended metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. His illustration is all about the roles—or the ministries—of the various members of the body.

4. The actual activities that Paul lists in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12 can all be described as ministries, but they cannot all be described as abilities.

5. The idea of ministry assignments is a common thread that weaves its way through Paul’s letters. The theme of special abilities is not an important theme in his writings.

6. In approximately 80 percent of Paul’s one hundred or so lists, he places a word or phrase that indicates the nature of the list in the immediate context. There are such indicators in all four of Paul’s lists. This is significant because indicators such as the words appointed, functions, and equipping instruct us that we must read these lists as ministries.

7. When Paul uses the words grace and given together, he’s discussing ministry assignments—either his own or those of others—in the immediate context. This combination appears in two of the three chapters that include ministry lists.

8. Paul talks in detail about his own ministry assignments and suggests that, just as he had received ministry, all believers have also received ministry assignments.

9. The spiritual-abilities view suggests that service should flow out of our strengths; Paul says that sometimes—though not always—we’re called to minister out of weakness. The weakness theme in Paul’s letters does not work with the idea of spiritual gifts as strengths.

10. Neither Paul nor any other New Testament author ever encourages people to try to discover their special abilities; nor is there any example of any New Testament character who embarked on such a quest.

You can read the whole interview here.

View Comments


18 thoughts on “10 Reasons Why the Conventional View of “Spiritual Gifts” May Be Wrong”

  1. John Botkin says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for the summary and link.

  2. Scott Canion says:

    A couple more would be that the “gift list” passages are not meant to be either technical or exhaustive as we tend to use them. Another is that the elevation and/or idea of “spiritual” gifts is a deistic notion that marginalizes other aspects of a person’s unique abilities unless they are “spiritual” per se.

  3. I had to read this book and write a paper on it in seminary. Very interesting premise and conclusion. Challenging and helpful read.

  4. Zach Kennedy says:

    Very interesting view on the gifts…one that I have not heard articulated before. Without having read the entire interview, it seems his main point is that the gift is not an ability so much as it is the role to be fulfilled. I.e., God gives certain men the “gift” of functioning as a pastor or as a deacon. This certainly makes sense considering the reasons he gives.

    My immediate question in response to this though, would be this–”When God gives a certain role or function to individual to fulfill as a gift, would He not also give necessary abilities, be they entirely “spiritual ones” (not mere enhancements of natural talents) or amplifications of natural giftings, to fulfill such roles/functions?” It seems to me that an argument could be made from narrative passages in Scripture that in general, God provides abilities that go along with the roles given to people to fulfill, both in the OT and NT. If this is the case, wouldn’t it be appropriate to see the gifts lists, while primarily referring to roles, also referencing the abilities needed to successfully fulfill those roles?

    I’d love to hear your responses on this.

    1. Andrew Faris says:

      Hey Zach,

      I’m the one who conducted the interview with Dr. Berding and I’ve taught his view for awhile now in church and academic settings, so maybe I can take a stab at your question.

      First of all, it’s a really good question: does this view mean that God just throws people out there for ministry without empowering them to do it? And the answer, I think, is no, not necessarily. What Dr. Berding is concerned about is showing that the Bible points us to think first and foremost about function because our call is to look to the needs of the church more than to look inside ourselves to try to discover some special ability.

      Once we see the needs of the church and seek to wisely assess how best to meet them, then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that God’s Spirit is at work empowering us as we go.

      In that case I think we can get rid of all of the bad baggage associated with the conventional view while retaining its one helpful emphasis, namely that the Spirit empowers our ministry.

      So in this case, the spiritual gift lists are not referring to the abilities themselves much at all, strictly speaking, but we can reasonably say from other parts of Scripture (as you mention) and from some of the surrounding context that God is glad to empower our ministries.

      If this seems nit-picky or needless nuancy, let me suggest that it is far from it. As mentioned in the interview, both Dr. Berding and I have consistently found that teaching this view has helped to free people from feeling like they are constantly at risk of ministering somehow improperly or outside of God’s will if they minister “outside of their gift-mix.” This thinking leads to a lot of ministry paralysis, whereas the Spiritual Ministries View gives people confidence that if they are seeking to serve the church in wise ways, they can trust that God is at work in it and will empower it along the way.

      Hopefully that helps.

      Andrew Faris
      Someone Tell Me the Story

      1. Andrew, I was starting to comment and say many of the things you stated. Then I realized it would take a while and I was having a hard time with my thoughts. Thanks for doing a better job.

        Let me agree that this is a very good question and also add that often we don’t know very well the abilities God has given us until we try to fulfill a role or function.

        Like Andrew suggests, this isn’t a call to irresponsibility in doing something we have no business trying. Rather it is stepping into the gaps that we see, perhaps that burden our souls, when we have reason to believe we can do something helpful. Then we find along the way that the Spirit has equipped us and had we never walked in faith we would never have known our “gifts” or abilities without attempting to fulfill the role in the first place.

        So, in my mind, we can’t even begin to discern gifts, abilities, etc. in the abstract. We only truly begin to understand our abilities when we step into some gaps we see trusting God will equip us, or will replace us with someone more equipped for the role.

        Thanks JT, others for a very helpful discussion for pastors.

  5. Walt says:

    Yes! So pleased to see this approach to spiritual gifts being discussed. I grew up in the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) — that denomination’s understanding of spiritual gifts is rooted in the context of Paul’s letters. Primarily, the gifts are manifestations of the Spirit for the gathered body of believers to use and minister to the needs of others in (and outside of) the church. (Not the best sentence in the world, but I think it makes some sense.)

    The great thing about this understanding is that it frees us from pigeon-holing ourselves. (“According to the survey I filled out 10 years ago, my gift is generosity, so I don’t need to assist the Sunday School teacher next month.”) More than that, though, we don’t pigeon-hole God into what He is “allowed” or “not allowed” to do; a short-coming of both charismatics (who may insist on miraculous occurrences at every service) and cessationists (who might deny that the Holy Spirit can cause people to be healed through laying of hands, etc.).

    The simple catch-phrase for the C&MA understanding is “Expectation without agenda”. You can find more details here:

  6. Scott Canion says:

    @Zach It seems like your question has some underlying assumptions of emphasis on detail and specialization, and the limitations of a believers participation to only things that he/she is acutely gifted for. Could part of one’s calling perhaps be to deal with a difficult situation that we are not prepared for, or even to take on a role that fulfills a need, even if such a role does not align well with one’s own giftedness… the idea of ‘station in life’ and the ability to be entrepreneurial certainly both require us to manage things we may not necessarily be gifted at, but which may be part of the journey we are on in the larger calling of God on our lives. That’s my way of thinking of it.

  7. Gearoid says:

    I have been aware of Dr. Berding’s view for some time now. Some questions: How does his view correlate with a view popular in the early 80s that all spiritual gifts have ceased? Secondly, are Dr. Berding’s view and the traditional view necessarily mutually exclusive?

    1. Andrew Faris says:

      As he says in the interview, you can be a continuationist or a cessationist and take Dr. Berding’s view.

      As for your second question, the answer is yes: either the definition of a spiritual gift is a concrete ministry assignment, or it is the ability to do that ministry, but it cannot both in strictly logical terms.

      For more clarification, read the full interview, and check out my response to Zach above.

      Andrew Faris
      Someone Tell Me the Story

  8. Daniel says:

    Thanks for the article. Very helpful and a lot to think through here. I do have a question, however. In the interview, Dr. Berding says that this view of the gifts doesn’t have a bearing on the continuationist/cessationist debate. However, Justin I believe I’m correct in thinking that you are a continuationist in a similar vein to that of Piper, and Piper, for instance in his recent videos on the “spectacular” gifts made it a point to differentiate between, say, a gift of healing and healers. So, I’m just wondering, as a continuationist who might accept this view of the gifts, what do we do with the spectacular gifts. Would we argue that there is a ministry of tongues or prophecy or healing, or would those specific things be “empowerings” of the Spirit (as Andre Faris said in a previous comment) toward other ministries? Just trying to work these things out. Thanks again for the article and for your blog, brother.

    1. Andrew Faris says:

      Great question.

      To use your example, my own take on this is that sometimes God gives a longer term ministry of healing to someone, and other times he just gives one particular healing. That is very much how the Greek text reads in 1 Cor. 12, by the way (where God gives a “prophecy” or a “discernment of spirits”, not the “ability to prophesy” or “the ability to discern spirits” as most English translations say).

      Of course, in those particular cases, for them to happen at all, there does need to be a unique kind of empowering by the Spirit to make the function happen. But Paul directs the focus of the church in each case to edification. As we seek to edify in the gathered congregation, God may see fit to give prophecies, healings, etc. along the way. The “spiritual gift” in such a case then would be the prophecy or healing itself, rather than the ability to do it.

      I hope that helps!

      Andrew Faris
      Someone Tell Me the Story

      1. Daniel says:

        Thank you, Andrew for your response and for responding so quickly (I saw your answer earlier, but wasn’t able to reply). That is helpful and I think in line with what Piper and others have tried to say and, most importantly, the Bible. Thanks also for the interview.

  9. Ken Berding says:

    Perhaps I should jump in for a moment. (Thanks, Justin, for linking to Andrew’s interview.) Daniel, I’m using the word “ministry” expansively to refer to any activity that builds up the body of Christ. It can be life-long (like Paul’s apostolic ministry), long-term, short-term, or twenty seconds long (like a tongue in combination with an interpretation, or a word of encouragement). The more miraculous ministry-assignments (such as you find in the list in 1 Cor 12:8-10) seem to be in the shorter-term or spontaneous category. Some of the other ministries Paul lists at the end of 1 Corinthians 12, or in Romans 12 or Ephesians 4 are longer term. So the short-term or spontaneous ministry of a healing is intended by God to build up the body of Christ as is the longer-term ministry of teaching (though some people will be called upon to be involved in healings more frequently than others and some who rarely teach may occasionally be called upon to teach). But I do not think that the basic issue of what spiritual gifts actually are is impacted by one’s view of the cessationist/continuationist discussion (though I am a continuationist). I think that both charismatics and non-charismatics need to go back and do a careful re-evaluation of their assumptions on the basic nature of spiritual gifts.

    1. Daniel says:

      Thank you, Dr. Berding. That’s helpful. And I certainly agree with you. Spiritual gift quizzes and evaluations have always struck me as unbiblical and you’ve helped me to articulate what I believe are biblical reasons why.

  10. In some respects I really like this view. It dovetails with something I once heard Elisabeth (Elliot) Gren say; such that if one is married, one is called to be married and if one is single, one is called to be single.

    I’m not overly comfortable with the spiritual gifts lists not being technically accurate. On the other hand, they don’t fit neatly into categories. Some do seem to be offices, but they overlap. In one passage, Paul admonishes pastors to do the work of an evangelist, where if we hold to the gifts as strictly being offices evangelist and pastor are two separate offices.

    Also, who ever heard of the office of tongues? I suppose we could point to Bible translators or cross-cultural translators as having the office of tongues. Even the “gift” of tongues is tough to figure out. In Acts 2, the apostles spoke understandable languages miraculously. However, charismatic tongue-speakers mutter incomprehensible things and Paul also says they need a translator.

    So, I’m still out to lunch on this and discerning number 8 for me is still hit and miss at this late date in my life.

  11. Brooks Waldron says:

    This makes some sense to me, and I also think it connects to how I’ve understood Paul in his discussion of marriage and singleness. I hear people often interpret Paul as saying that some have a special ability to be content in singleness and that this signifies a “gift” of singleness. If, however, one struggles with purity or contentment as a single person then one must not have that gift. Whether one has some special ability seems to be somewhat besides the point to Paul. If one is single, then one has the gift, for a time anyway. The same is true with marriage. This does not deter Paul from instructing us to seek a spouse, or to seek other spiritual gifts, but I wonder if the point is that we should focus less on ourselves and more on glorifying God in whatever place we find ourselves.

Comments are closed.

Search this blog


Justin Taylor photo

Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books