Understanding Spiritual Gifts

  • Read 1 Corinthians 12 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

An element of my sermon this week that received positive feedback was a comparison of spiritual gifts that I found in the Romans volume of the Life Application Commentary series. This table provides an example of how different gifts might respond to the same situation.

The situation is this: A family obviously struggling with poverty has just walked into a worship service and captured the attention of the whole congregation, at least out of the corner of people’s eyes.

The prophets will ask the congregation What is wrong in our society or neighborhood that needs to be corrected? What caused this family to experience these problems?
The servers will ask the person Are there others we need to help too?
The teachers  will ask the person What can we do for you?
The encouragers will say to the person How can we help you avoid this situation in the future? What skills, wisdom, and spiritual insights will give you better direction?
The givers will ask the person You must be feeling bad. Please know that we will care for you any way we can. Before you know it, you will be helping someone else.
The leaders will ask the church How much will we need to meet these needs? How can the church respond to this need in the most effective manner?
The merciful Will probably not ask any questions, but welcome the person with smiles, hugs, warm acceptance, and understanding.

Life Application Bible Commentary:  Romans p236

None of these responses are more correct than another. Love motivates each of people and they are obviously using their gifts to serve others. Yet, according to their gifts, each person responds to a different aspect of the family’s circumstances.

A significant theme surrounding the concept of Spiritual Gifts is “unity”. Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 both talk of different gifts, but one body. Ephesians 4 contains one of the strongest unity passages in the Bible in verses 2-6:

Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other. Try your best to let God’s Spirit keep your hearts united. Do this by living at peace. All of you are part of the same body. There is only one Spirit of God, just as you were given one hope when you were chosen to be God’s people. We have only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. There is one God who is the Father of all people. Not only is God above all others, but he works by using all of us, and he lives in all of us. CEV

Then just after encouraging the church toward oneness, Paul describes how Christ gave the church people with a variety of gifts “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity…”.

When we read the table above, and the various responses it’s difficult to see how that church could have unity as it decides how to respond to the family’s plight. Yet that’s exactly what God seeks from the church. Our spiritual gifts are to serve, express love and unite us to each other. As Ephesians 4:2 notes, it requires “humility, gentleness, patience and love”. Recognising our spiritual gifts is a first step to working with them.

In his book “What You Do Best in the Body of Christ” (rev. ed. 2005) Bruce Bugbee writes,

God is glorified and people are edified in the church that teaches and develops gift-based ministries. God is honored and pleased when the gifts he has given are used to glorify him in ministering to others. Jesus called attention to the kind of deeds that are done in such a way that people may see them and glorify the Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). When spiritual gifts are properly expressed, people can see the servant’s motivation to serve others, noting that these acts of servanthood could only be the result of a heart that has been truly transformed by a loving, gracious, and caring God. This truly models God’s love for the world. (p43)

  • What questions do you still have about Spiritual Gifts?
  • Can you give an example of when someone else’s spiritual gift has filled a weakness you have to allow you to work well together?
  • How do you decide where to serve in God’s kingdom? Does your gifting play a role in your decision?


  1. James Nored


    I liked the chart that you have here. Alan Hirsch emphasizes the five fold gifts of Ephesians 4:11–apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. In his books, The Shaping of Things to Come, and The Forgotten Ways, he does much the same thing for these gifts.

    Apostle – the entrepreneur or mission leader who is asking, where are new mission fields, who has not been reached?

    Prophet – the questioner of an organization or church who is probing, pointing out what is wrong, calling the organization/church back to its purpose/God

    Evangelist – the salesperson of the organization/church, who asks, who can I share the good news with?

    Pastor – the HR, caretaker person of the church/organization, who asks how to bring peace and stability and healing to the organization/church

    Teacher – the systemitizer of the church/organization, who seeks to deepen understanding, asking, how does all of this fit together and make sense?

    Hirsch theorizes that the five fold spiritual gifts draw upon these parallel natural gifts found in any healthy organization. It is an intuitive argument that I agree with and have witnessed. I believe that it also has a biblical/theological basis. I would love for someone to do more statistical research on this.

    • ozziepete

      James, Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      I definitely need to read Hirsch, all my friends have. 🙂 I appreciate your expanding on those roles. I think for many people they’re difficult to distinguish and fit into today’s church. Those definitions help.

      I have found the whole natural gift vs spiritual gift very difficult to articulate. It seems that by using our natural gifts for God’s purposes the Holy Spirit can help them bear extra fruit, making them spiritual gifts. But the actual inclination or talent hasn’t necessarily changed.

      I have seen a similar split of church leadership roles using the terms: Shepherd, Priest, Apostle/Prophet, and King. Following the point you & Hirsch make, this isn’t a hierarchy, but a diversity of leadership roles working together. And a healthy church will have each role represented in its leadership team.

      • James

        Peter, in response to your statement “and a healthy church will have each role represented in its leadership team”–that is exactly the model that Hirsch advocates. He also says that it is the nature of institutions–and churches–to be dominated by the pastor-teacher role. The apostle, prophet, and evangelist roles all are “disruptive” to the system, and the nature of pastor-teacher roles is to keep peace and prevent disruptions, making sure things get back to “normal.”

        On the organization side–who in the record business wanted to have a prophetic voice telling them that they might soon be out of business with the advent of tape cassettes? Or that Blockbuster would go bankrupt unless it changed its business model? Think how hard it is for Microsoft to think beyond its cash cow of Microsoft Office on personal PCs to a cloud based Office model that might be less profitable–but in the end, might allow Microsoft to survive the Internet age.

        On the church level, think of the bus ministries of the 1970s. They disrupted the local church, and despite the fact that they did reach a lot of people, many local churches were too disrupted by these ministries to continue them.

        Hirsch says that the APE gifts of the APEPT Eph. 4:11 gifts become marginalized in the local church. They have little voice in leadership and the “system” pushes them out due to the disruption they cause. So those with this gifting usually go overseas on mission trips, go into church planting more recently, or become a part of para-church organizations that focus on feeding the hungry, taking care of the homeless or battered women, reaching out to minority groups, etc.

        If those with APE giftings are not “in the room” when decisions are made (which historically, has often been the case), then the PT giftings will dominate and always advocate the least disruptive path–which will inevitably lead to the church’s or organization’s slow decline and eventual death (business do fail and individual churches do close, even if the Church will always continue).

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