In a well-intentioned, but misguided effort to boost the “involvement” of congregational members long reduced to mere spectator roles, countless institutional “churches” have jumped on the bandwagon of “Gift Discovery” campaigns. A closer examination of their queries of “What are you good at?”, or, worse, “What are you passionate about?” (“empowering people for serious encounter with the Biblical text” is seldom an acceptable answer!), reveals that what they really mean is, “Which already-highly-defined slot in our corporate structure are you willing and able to occupy?” – an exercise that has absolutely no connection to the New Testament concept of the “gifts of God.”
The English word “gift” has been chosen as the translation for no fewer than nine different words in the Greek text. These can be loosely grouped into three categories:
1. “cosmic” gifts – dorea, dorema, dosis, classically representing a “bounty” from a king or other superior, a legacy, or a privilege granted
2. “material” gifts – doron, anathema, doma, classically applied to fees, bribes, votive offerings, or simple presents of any kind
3. “spiritual enablements” – charisma, charis, merismos, reference to graciousness, usually of a god.
None of these refers to learned skills or innate talents. Skills and talents are certainly also given by God, and should definitely be used in his service, but they are not “gifts” in the New Testament sense of the word.
We will examine the most frequently used word in each of these categories, in an effort to sort out the diverse implications of the terms. Please try to remember, these are not simply different ways of saying “gift”. They are different words, and not one single concept. It may be helpful to consider, in each case,
1. Who is the giver?
2. Who is the recipient?
3. What, exactly, is the gift, or for what purpose is it given?
Dorea is exclusively applied to the overwhelming gift of God to mankind: his life (Heb.6:4), his Son (Jn.4:10), his Holy Spirit (most of the rest.) Deliverance from death (Rom.5:15), and the privilege to participate in God’s own justice (5:17) are also included. No person is capable of giving these: see Ac.8:20, where Simon the magician is harshly judged for presuming that he could purchase the power to do so. Dorea is frequently paired with charis – in which case it is translated “gracious gift” or “gift of grace.” It may enable human generosity (II Cor.9:15) or service (Eph.3:17), but the source is clearly in God, and the result is the gracious inclusion of people in his glorious life.
Doron, on the other hand, except for one anomaly in Eph.2:8, is the province of mortals. It speaks of people giving presents to other people (Mt.2:11, Rev.11:10), and of people making offerings, usually at the temple (Mt.5:23-24, 8:14, 15:5, 23:18-19, Lk.21:1, and Heb.5:1, 8:3, 8:4, and 9:9). In both cases, the “gifts” are material things, or money. The recipients, too, are human: either individuals, or the temple hierarchy.
While both of the words above occur in the Old Testament (LXX), charisma does not. It is a strictly New Testament word, that appears only after Pentecost! More specific than dorea, it nevertheless consistently comes from God (mostly the Holy Spirit), although on occasion it was mediated by a person or group (II Cor.1:11, I Tim.4:14, II Tim.1:6). Paul is careful to avoid taking credit for charisma (Rom.1:11-12), where he is quick to clarify his desire “that I may share with you all some spiritual gift for your strengthening” by adding “to be mutually encouraged among you all by means of one another’s faithfulness.”
The vast majority of charisma references relate to the formation and function of committed disciples as the Body of Christ (see Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 7). Rom.12:6 is the first specific reference to “gifts” in the Body, but 12:3-8 elaborates on the subject, as does the rest of the chapter. Here we meet the concept that “spiritual gifts” are intended to be the equipment needed for the mutuality that is essential to a faithful Body. I Cor.1:7 affirms that they assure the full provision for faithful activity, and I Cor.12:4-31 is the most complete treatise on the subject. Diversity of empowerment and function is emphasized. Service is the goal (5 and 6). “The manifestation of the Spirit is given, by means of each one, for everyone’s benefit” (v.7). These dative cases, traditionally interpreted as indirect objects (“to each one”), given the contextual emphasis on mutuality, are much more likely to intend datives of agency or means (see the section on this passage in Translation Notes, and “Uses of Cases” in the Appendix). The Holy Spirit is the giver, the recipient is either the body of believers or a person in need; the individual is the agent or means by which the necessary enablement (gift) is delivered – a sort of a “postal service.”
I Peter 4:10 (actually, also v.11) echoes the same concern: “Just as each one of you has received a spiritual gift, serve each other with it, as good trustees of the many-faceted grace of God.”
Notice again, that none of these “gifts” is a learned ability or natural talent, but the supernatural provision of God for the need at hand.
In no case are “gifts” represented as “diplomas” for having achieved a certain level of “saintliness”, or titles of honor (which Jesus had forbidden).
In no case are they the possession of any individual – and certainly not a permanent possession. They seem to be distributed almost at random, as needed (I Cor.12:11), and a perusal of the Acts account indicates that different folks may be called upon for different tasks at different times. The Spirit seems to use whoever is available!
The gifts of God are many and varied, but their purpose is one: to create (by means of dorea) and then to empower and manage (by distribution of charismata) a people who, together, can function as the Body of Christ in the world, “continuing the work of Jesus.”
The responsibility – and the privilege – are enormous. But so is the provision.
May we respond in faithfulness!