A middle way on Spiritual Gifts

Ours is a day in which Christians experience a variety of churches as they move at different times of life. One thing this can lead to are questions about the practices Churches may differ on. Perhaps the most significant of these, is the question of the spiritual gifts evidenced throughout the New Testament. Those discussed include receiving prophetic revelations or insights called words of wisdom or knowledge, being used in healing or other miracles, praying in a supernatural language known as “tongues,” or discerning whether someone is influenced by demons or the Holy Spirit. Two views seem prevalent in how we are to understand such things.

The majority historic view is known as “cessationism.” It holds that the more miraculous gifts seen during the time of the New Testament ceased with the ending of the apostolic age. They point out that the New Testament tells us that such things were “marks of a true apostle” (2 Cor 12v12), intended to bear witness that their message was from God (Heb 2v3-4) as the “foundation” on which the church would be built (Eph 2v20, 3v5). Because the foundation is now laid and Paul was the last apostle (1 Cor 15v8), cessationists argue, such things have now ceased.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century a view known as “continuationism” has became increasingly dominant. It is the view of Christians who call themselves “charismatics” after the Greek “charismata” (meaning "gifts"). They hold that the more miraculous gifts of the New Testament should be sought and expected to the same extent today as they were then. They point out that the New Testament tells us that the entire “last days” between Jesus’ ascension and return is to be marked by “prophecy” and “signs and wonders” (Acts 2v17-21), and that “prophecy” and “tongues” will only cease when the Christians sees God “face to face” (1 Cor 13v8-12) which is when Christ returns. Because such things continue, continuists argue, we should expect them as much today as people did then.

To our mind there are two problems with both views. First, neither does justice to the compelling arguments of the other. The fact is that scripture does seem to teach that the miraculous gifts were marks of apostleship and in some sense foundational, but also that they characterise the last days in which the Spirit is poured out and so can be expected to continue to some extent.

Second, neither acknowledges the realities of the church’s experience. Cessationists accept that God might grant revelations or performs miracles or impress something on a believer, but stress that we cannot expect such things as the norm. But what makes something normative? If these things are taking place regularly, surely it is more honest to accept that to at least some extent the gifts do continue. Not doing so, not only fails to do justice to the nuances of the Bible’s teaching but can keep Christians from praying for or acknowledging genuine works of the Spirit. However, that is not to say continuists have it. Their problem is that contemporary experience just doesn’t fit what we read of in the New Testament. It is certainly not the norm to see limbs grow and the dead raised. And this needs acknowledgement too. Otherwise Christians and churches assume they are somehow failing when they don’t see such things. Moreover, it can lead them to claim the gifts are in evidence when they are not because of the desire to feel God is at work as he was in the first century. For example, whereas the model for NT prophecy is that of the OT (Num 12v6, Acts 2v17) meaning that it comes predominantly by vision or dream and with accuracy, continuists claim anything God spontaneously brings to mind for others is prophecy. And whereas “words of wisdom” or “knowledge” (1 Cor 12v8) in the wider context are most likely the ability to speak out the wisdom of the gospel or knowledge about God and his moral will (1 Cor 2v6-7, 8v1-7), these are now said to be the speaking out of whatever is impressed upon you about others. Again, whereas biblical healings are almost always definite, immediate, physical and total, today slow, partial and inner healings are all celebrated as miraculous, and the vast majority who are not healed are rarely acknowledged.  

All this leads our view to be midway between the two. It might be titled “contractionism” because it argues that the gifts do continue beyond the time of the apostles but in a more limited sense. It seeks to do justice to the fact that the age of the apostles was unique and so marked by a powerful outpouring of the miraculous in order to authenticate these men and the message they carried as the foundation for the church. But it also seeks to do justice to the fact that the wider need of the gifts has not ceased. Although no Christian expects God to be revealing the gospel or its implications by prophecy now we have the New Testament, there may still be famines the church needs a prophecy for in order to prepare (Acts 11v28). Likewise, there are still sick people in need of healing, prayers that might be said in tongues, and unbelievers who by witnessing the miraculous will consider the gospel the church proclaims. This view protects us against a failure to seeking such things from God, but also against assuming failure unless the book of Acts is in evidence today.

From principle to practice
What then for the way ahead? Quite simply, it is to get on with the priorities of church life with a longing prayerfulness for God to grant by his Spirit whatever gifts are most needed for the upbuilding and witness of the church – but to do this with a clear understanding from scripture as to what these gifts actually entail, and an eye out for how the Lord might be giving them. If someone has a vision-like experience or vivid dream in which they are convinced God is revealing something, they should talk to their elders as it may be a prophecy for the church. If someone is sick, the elders should pray expectantly for healing (James 5v14-15), but any who sense a particular compelling to pray should also do so, but communicating that although healing may be given it is not actually promised. If someone feels moved to pray out in an unknown language at home, they should freely do so, and if in church, only with a conviction that someone has been given an interpretation of it (1 Cor 14v27-28). If someone is convinced the Holy Spirit has given them an impression, compelling or picture as guidance or insight for themselves or for others, they should not describe it as a word from God as this is not how scripture portrays it – rather they should consider it as no more than God’s possible leading.

The key objection cessationists could make to this is that claiming prophecy continues to be accurate and authoritative undermines the sufficiency of scripture. But this is not so. Scripture claims to be sufficient for making us wise to salvation and training us in righteousness. All agree that prophecy revealing these sort of truths was foundational and has ceased. The sorts of prophecies that can be expected are therefore more circumstantial. If, for example, a prophecy is given that warns of a coming famine, there is no challenge to scripture in saying this is accurate and authoritative. But it would certainly need to be if the church is to take it into account in the decisions it makes.

The objection continuists might make is that in practice the contractionist view will simply allow churches to continue without promoting spiritual gifts. The response here is simply that bad practice doesn't negate the truthfulness of a matter. All churches are responsible for understanding the Bible's teaching correctly and acting accordingly as they consider is best.