Theologian identifies common misconceptions, 'bad use' of spiritual gifts ahead of Pentecost


Ahead of Pentecost, a theologian has identified some common misconceptions about spiritual gifts and shared how Christians can demonstrate greater maturity in the way they steward the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Jeff Dryden, professor of biblical studies and department chair at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, told The Christian Post that the book of Acts clearly reveals that spiritual gifts are given by God for the flourishing of the Church, for the common good, and for the building up of the Body of Christ.

“In Acts 2 and 3, you have this account of the early Church in community together, meeting one another’s needs,” he explained. “And it’s a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about a new humanity, a new community. Spiritual gifts are part of that gifting to bring God’s blessing to the Church to help it to grow and flourish.”

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But sometimes, people use what they perceive to be their spiritual gifts to “spiritualize and short circuit a natural process of figuring out who they are and what they should pursue,” Dryden said.

“We all have questions about where we fit in, what roles we should adopt, what paths we should pursue in life — especially when we’re younger, but that continues through life,” he said. “Sometimes, when people talk about spiritual gifts, they’ll say, ‘I have this spiritual gift, and therefore it’s God’s approval on my life.’ Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but oftentimes, it’s a way of spiritualizing the avoidance of our own agency and responsibility.”

“That’s a bad use of spiritual gifts,” he said. “It puts the onus and responsibility on God and not on ourselves on what we have to do and figure out as part of a natural process."

Other times, people use spiritual gifts to excuse or explain negative behavior, Dryden said.

“People will say, ‘I have this spiritual gift, and thus you have to accept it from me,’” Dryden said. “But because all human beings struggle with sin and we live in a complicated world, there’s not always a clear right choice when it comes to making decisions. For a lot of folks, the weight of those choices is something we want to avoid, and so sometimes, spiritual gifts are used as a way of trying to spiritualize what is a natural process of maturity to avoid responsibility.”

It takes discernment to identify one’s spiritual gift, Dryden contended, and that process only happens within community.

“We don’t determine our gift by looking inside ourselves, which is what we’re taught to do in this culture,” he said. “Other people will know if you have a spiritual gift, and so it’s only in community that we discover our gifting.”

“If you have this spiritual gift, it will be evident in how you relate to folks in your community and others will recognize it,” he added. “I think that’s part of the maturity.”

A 2009 national survey by The Barna Group asked people who said they were Christian and who claimed to have heard of spiritual gifts to identify which gifts they believed God had granted to them.

The study found that the most commonly claimed gifts were teaching (9%), service (8%) and faith (7%). Those were followed by encouragement (4%), healing (4%), knowledge (4%), and tongues (3%). The gift of leadership was mentioned by just 2%.

All spiritual gifts are still active and valid today, Dryden said, even though certain evangelical denominations are “squeamish” about acknowledging that reality.

“There’s no reason to think that any of the gifts have ceased, and there’s no good biblical argument for that,” Dryden said.

He explained that there tends to be a polarity of people who will either say certain gifts — like speaking in tongues and healing — have ceased, or claim that such gifts are essential and the only true work of the Holy Spirit.

“Both sides are wrong,” he emphasized. “Those two polarities are both making mistakes. It's up to the work and discernment of the Spirit as to what gifts are needed in a particular place and time. We can’t demand gifts, because they’re gifts.”

“We have to be careful about getting pushed into one of those two categories of, either, ‘these certain gifts no longer exist,’ or ‘these are the true mark of the spirit,’” he added. “Both of those are mistakes and unbiblical. The New Testament gives no justification for either one of them.”

Pentecost, which this year falls on June 9, commemorates the events of Acts 2:1–13, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the early Church.

Christians should celebrate Pentecost, Dryden said, because it’s the birthday of the Church and the representation of the second coming Christ.

“We celebrate Pentecost because of the past — the birth of the Church — but also as a thing that points us to the future and the coming fulfillment of our salvation and our longing for that,” he said. “Both of those things are present in the celebration of Pentecost.”

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