To Whom Are The Spiritual Gifts Given?

If that’s the question, here’s the answer: To whomever the Spirit wills (1 Cor. 12:11).

So, is there anywhere in the Bible that indicates that the Spirit has given some gifts to men and others to women — anywhere indicating that distribution of the gifts is listed or assigned by gender? There isn’t.

A third question, then — are people responsible for making full use of the spiritual gifts given to them by their Giver?

Of course. We probably should assume a “yes” on this one if we take the first point to be true; ignoring the presence of one’s spiritual gifts demonstrates not just insouciance toward the needs of those who would benefit from them, but also shows contempt for the One who gives them. Nonetheless, Paul discusses the imperative to be good stewards of the gifts given to us in 1 Corinthians 12, where he delineates the specific gifts and discusses them most comprehensively; 1 Corinthians 14:1; and also, arguably, in his letters to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14 and 2 Tim. 1:6, where Paul admonishes his young protege to nurture, and certainly not neglect, the spiritual gift Paul acknowledged in him through the laying on of hands).

If we can demonstrate, then, that God gives all of the spiritual gifts to anyone, male or female, God chooses to give them to, then we have to conclude that, at least as far as a New Testament discussion of the gifts, there is no such thing as “women’s gifts” and “men’s gifts.” In fact, Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 12 follows a lengthy discussion in Ch. 11 regarding women’s head coverings, a confusing passage that nonetheless, en toto, affirms the prophesying woman and echoes much of the mutuality found so markedly in Ch. 7.

Further, Paul has ample opportunity in Ch. 12 to caution the reader that women need to stay away from exercising some of the gifts, or that they cannot have been given some of the gifts in the first place — indeed, it would seem he ought to, if gender-based giftedness is a reality. And in some of the three or four other Pauline verses that appear, at face value and apart from context, to restrict women in exercising their gifts, he also doesn’t suggest that the gifts were distributed on the basis of gender.

The clear testimony of Scripture is that the Holy Spirit, in building and strengthening the Church of Jesus Christ, has poured out the gifts on those women and men he chooses — and he expects them to nurture them, exercise them faithfully, and encourage their expression in others. This pouring out is part of the prophecy of Joel, the “new thing” of Isaiah, and the promise of Pentecost. But a handful of other verses, read at face value and considered apart from both cultural context, have been used to trump not just the overwhelming testimony of Scripture regarding the gifts — the element that most determines who serves in what capacity in the local Church — but also the clear testimony of gender equality in the New Testament that I’ve discussed previously.

This violates what every first-year Bible student knows, and that’s that a basic principle of hermeneutics — the academic discipline of interpreting Scripture — insists that unclear or seemingly aberrant passages of the Bible be interpreted in light of more clear testimony. It’s for this reason that, despite what James 2:14-27 clearly teaches, no Bible teacher would teach that works are essential to my salvation or yours. Now, we know that without appropriate works, we might question the genuineness of faith demonstrated by a professed believer, and do so with reason — but no Bible-believing evangelical believes that our salvation is appropriated via a combination of faith and works, which is what James says at first reading (cf. v. 14, where the answer to the question “Can faith save him?” is clearly intended to be “no,” as evidenced by the remainder of the text). We understand that James is making a point, and those of his statements seemingly at odds with the soteriology wrought by the rest of the Word are viewed in that light. Likewise, I have never met an evangelical preacher who insisted, like Paul does in 1 Cor., that men and women are better off not marrying; it’s understood that Paul was writing not only as an unmarried man, but as a first-century Apostle who believed the Lord would return very shortly. In both examples, and there are many more, the culture and intent of the passage and not its seemingly aberrant doctrine or teaching is the consideration that guides our understanding.

(I would add Paul’s position on slavery as another example, but the question of slaveholding seems yet to be fully resolved for some of my neighbors in Moscow. Fortunately, those who understand context, culture, hermeneutics and history probably get my point . . .)

Why, then, do we insist that a few verses from Paul, all of which have alternate Bible-affirming, scholarly, and evangelical interpretations, trump the astonishing, revolutionary fullness of our Lord’s Gospel of reconciliation, restoration, and renewal? Can we really argue that the enmity predicted by God in Genesis between men and women is the one aspect of the Fall that the Gospel can’t, or shouldn’t, or hasn’t, overcome?

And why have other New Testament writers not placed these restrictions on women in ministry, if, as complementarians would have us believe, the absence of those restrictions strikes at the very heart of the Gospel? Why did Jesus not only NOT say anything — not one word — about limiting gifted women in their service, but actually demonstrate a pattern of inclusive behavior towards them that was nothing short of shocking? For that matter, why did Paul, if he was so insistent on women’s differing — and unchangeably subordinate — roles in the work of the Gospel, talk so favorably about women as leaders of the home churches, or Junia as an apostle, or Priscilla and other women as co-laborers with him and other men? Isn’t it at least somewhat likely that his words in 1 Timothy 2 were a one-time prohibition given out of concern for the excesses of the Gnosticism that had begun to seep into the Ephesian Church, a Gnosticism that at times elevated women above men, featured gross immorality on the part of men and women, and caused Christianity to be seen as unremittingly wild and uncontrolled by the non-Gnostics in Ephesus?

Men and women who honestly seek to understand what the Word really does teach about gender equality will ask these questions — and seek answers from sources other than Piper, Grudem, Wilson, Bayly, and Sproul Sr. Men and women who’d rather stick to what they’ve always believed to be true, won’t. That’s their right, I suppose. But I have to ask my complementarian brothers — do you really think, in light of the discussion above, that you can rightly insert yourself between any woman, the Holy Spirit, and the gifts and calling he’s given her?

Because with all due respect, and in all charity, you’re unqualified to restrict the exercise of what God has given your sisters. If blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is, as some exegetes teach, the attributing to Satan of the Spirit’s works, your denying his call on a woman’s life is, if not quite itself unforgivable, then certainly a little too close for comfort. And any woman who loves the Lord and who loves you, as I do, would hate to see that.

One Response to “To Whom Are The Spiritual Gifts Given?”

  1. Ashwin says:

    The major problem I have with your arguments is that Christ is superfluous to them.

    The complete exclusion of all reference to God and Christ and the Spirit would not change the force of your statements.

    What you are saying is essentially that some Providence (of the reader’s choice, it could just as well be Mother Nature) has conferred upon womankind the same sort of abilities that have been conferred on men. Consequently, it does not do to discriminate against women.

    Mao expressed your point of view more elegantly when he said: “Women hold up half the sky.”

    So now when one sees what are ultimately leftwing demands for temporal authority being presented in the name of the Living Lord, one begins to wonder whether the Lord is not being reduced to a wrapping. A sugar coat that masks something entirely else.

    What if Paul really meant what he said in Corinthians? What if man really is the head of woman as Christ is the head of man?

    When you quote from the Bible as though from a law-book, do you take into account the fact that the Holy Spirit is more than able to have His will done? Do you think that the grace which allowed so many to go joyfully to horrible tortures, deprivations and deaths would be unable to smash gender hierarchies?

    And lastly is it not better to serve than to be served. Is not the lower place, willingly chosen, better that the high seat aggressively wrested? Is it not better to serve in Heaven than to reign in Hell?

Leave a Reply