13 myths Christians believe about the gifts of the Spirit

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This is a blog post that I recently realised I have been writing in the back of my head for the past 6 months or so. From dozens of conversations with people and epiphanies in the shower, all of which I thought were unrelated, I’ve realised that a lot of the thoughts I’ve been thinking lately can be more or less unified under the topic of misconceptions Christians hold about the Holy Spirit, his gifts, and his interactions with us. So here are 13 myths that I think (many) Christians believe and should start unbelieving about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

While this is partly a cathartic rant unloading all the ways everybody but me is wrong, actually, I hope much of what’s written here is a liberating and empowering encouragement to people to, as Paul says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” (1 Corinthians 14:1), with even a few practical ways that we can actually do that, all towards a vision to use these gifts to build up the church and see real change in our lives. Much of what I say here we can all agree on, while every reader, from every denomination and theological persuasion, will probably find something to disagree with.

1. Equating the gifts of the spirit with the Holy Spirit himself

I’m kicking things off with this one because it was encountering this myth in a recent conversation that got me frustrated enough to write this thing in the first place. You see, this is something that we charismatics say a lot, and I wonder if we realise what we are saying – where we use the term “the Holy Spirit,” to refer specifically for some reason to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It’ll just be a passing comment where someone will say, “It’s so sad how those traditional Christian folk don’t believe in the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Unlike them, we believe the Holy Spirit is present in the Church today,” or, “What a shame that so many Christians miss out on the Holy Spirit.” And we’ll talk about how the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s were the long awaited return of the Holy Spirit to the Church. We’ll even put on services at church with a focus on healing and prophecy, and we’ll call them “Holy Spirit” nights.

There is a gigantic problem with this way of speaking, and it is that it equates the gifts of the Spirit with the Holy Spirit himself. Or more specifically it implies that the Holy Spirit’s sole function in the Church is to give people “spiritual gifts”. The reality is that the Holy Spirit does a lot more than give us spiritual gifts. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Holy Spirit has far more important things to do than give us spiritual gifts, such that by far the majority of the roles the Holy Spirit plays in the lives of Christians are things that every Christian believes in, whether they’re charismatic or not.

First of all, it is impossible to be a Christian without having the Holy Spirit living within you (Rom 8:9-11, 1 Cor 6:19). To say that someone doesn’t have the Holy Spirit is to say that they are not a Christian at all. So let’s be careful with what we say. Further, to put it bluntly, the Holy Spirit is the one who actually does the dirty work, on the ground, of actually saving us (Titus 3:5-7, John 3:5, Romans 8:15). The Spirit is also the one who empowers us to believe and say that Jesus is Lord – according to Paul, without the Spirit it is impossible for us to do this (1 Cor 12:3). The Spirit is also the one who sanctifies us and empowers us to die to sin and live in obedience to the Father. There’s a reason our good works are referred to as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26, Romans 8:13). I could go on listing all the other nifty things the Holy Spirit has been involved in, from creating the universe to raising Jesus from the dead, but we’d be here all day. Hopefully by now you can see that restricting the Holy Spirit’s resume to “spiritual gift giver,” really fails to give him enough credit, which is ironic when the people who talk like this claim to be the ones who like the Holy Spirit more than other kinds of Christians.

When we talk about prophecy, tongues, healing, and other spiritual gifts, we are talking about something much more specific than the entire person of the Trinity that is the Holy Spirit. We are talking about one of the many things the Holy Spirit does. And so when it comes to charismatics (who believe in the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit) vs cessationists (who believe these gifts ended with the first generation of Christians), both of these camps believe in the reality and power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. In fact charismatics and cessationists agree on far more about the Holy Spirit than they disagree on. Also, I know we mean well, but it’s kind of nonsensical to talk about “Holy Spirit nights” at church. Every church service in the history of church services has had the full involvement and cooperation of the Holy Spirit, without which nobody would be saved, nobody would be edified, and Christ would not have been proclaimed or worshiped. And as for the “return” of the Holy Spirit to the Church in the Pentecostal revivals… If the Holy Spirit ever actually left the Church, the Church would cease to exist. Continue reading

When faced with all the crimes the Church has committed in the past and the present – the judgementality, the bigotry, the discrimination, even the violence – the Christian who doesn’t understand unity will turn to the world and denounce and condemn these “other Christians”, distancing themselves from their works.

But the Christian who understands unity will turn to the world and say, “I am sorry.”

On the Unity of the Church – What is this thing called Christianity?

[Edit (03/10/14): Apologies for how long this post is. If you’re in a hurry you may find it effective to just read the bits in bold to get the main points, and prioritise reading the final section.]

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“Christianity” can mean so very many things.

When you meet enough people – especially people who have met a lot of other people – and when you see enough of the world, you must concede this fact, that two different “Christians,” when randomly plucked from different places on the globe, will not necessarily adhere to beliefs or practices that at all resemble each other. To study history only multiplies this phenomenon: not only is Christianity different from one place to another, but also from one time to another, within the same place! Over the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, those who claim to follow him have said and done radically different and irreconcilable things. In the name of Jesus, some people have fed the hungry and clothed the poor, while other people have fought wars and taken land by force; some people have abolished slavery, while others have enslaved generations; some people have set up schools as centres of free education, while others have sought to suppress and persecute free thought. Some Christians have called Jesus the very Son of God, while others have called him only a good teacher; some have said that salvation is a free gift received by faith, while others have said we are to earn our way into Heaven by our good deeds. Some Christians believe fully in the authority of scripture, while others say it’s only a flawed human guideline. Of those who do believe the Bible, they can’t agree on how long it took God to create the Earth, or whether God exists as a Trinity, or whether or not women ought to preach. All the while some of these people are singing hymns while others sing rock music – and have even waged war on each other over differences comparable to this.

I hope you get the point. There is a serious question on the minds of so many people on the outside, looking in: What is this thing called “Christianity”? And why can’t its proponents get along? How can you say that there is one Christian religion worth talking about, when there as many interpretations of it as there are “Christians”? Of course, Christians like myself will say that people who fight wars in the name of Christianity have entirely abandoned the very essence of what Jesus came to earth to achieve – a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36). “They are not true Christians,” I will say. But of course that’s exactly it, they shall reply: who gets to decide who are the true Christians and who are the fake ones? Your peaceful Christianity is just your interpretation, while those who want to advance Christendom by the sword will tell you that your interpretation is wrong; you are the fake Christian. Who, then, can be the arbiter? Who can really say what ‘true’ Christianity is?

To complicate matters further, while there are a whole bunch of people who claim to be Christian that I will say are in fact not Christians, there is a whole group of other people whom I affirm when they profess to be Christian, even though I disagree with them on smaller but still major theological issues, such as the nature of God’s sovereignty and its relationship to human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or creation and the age of the Earth. Yes it seems as though Evangelical Christians (by which I mean roughly “Protestant Christians who believe that Bible is the sole authoritative word of God and that people must be saved from deserved punishment for sin through a personal faith in the atoning work of Jesus’ death and resurrection”), have decided upon a certain set of criteria for what it is to be a real Christian. We have at some point drawn a theological circle, inside which you count as a Christian and outside which you don’t. And of course, “to be a Christian” is here synonymous with “to be saved”, and thus such theological line drawing comes with a certain level of moral connotation, and can cause all sorts of offence. And yet such line drawing must be done, for not just any old person who believes any old thing can be called a “Christian” just because we want to be nice – no more than just anybody can be called a “hipster” (not that they necessarily want to be). The question then is, on what basis do we mark the cut-off between Christian and not? Just how much can a person disagree with me before I say they have departed from the true faith? Ultimately, on what basis can I say that there is one religion called Christianity? Continue reading

On prosperity theology

Even in the case that prosperity theology is true, then I still do not see how the believer is left with a reason to “chase God’s blessing.”

If the truth is that obedience to God will attract material blessing towards you, then this could only be a reason precisely not to chase wealth. For “it will chase you.”

The believer’s only task, then, would be to simply obey God by being generous towards others with their wealth.

It seems to me that any person who is storing up for themselves treasures on earth is not living a life that is consistent with prosperity theology.

On women preaching.

There are Christians who believe that women should not preach to men.

Understandably there are many Christian women who are upset about this.

But we must remember, that to preach is an act of service. It is not done for the good of the preacher, but for the good of the listener. The only right some women are being deprived of is the right to serve others.

This is true about all gifts within the body of Christ: they are not toys that the Christian has a right to play with, but tools that the Christian has a responsibility to serve the body with. I play keys at my church. If somebody in leadership decided that I couldn’t play in church because I was left handed, how should I respond? Would I assert my equal right to play? Why would I do that? Was I trying to gain something by playing? I hope not.

I hope that I would be upset not because I have lost something, but because my church has lost something. I hope that my love for the church would be so great, so central to my vision, that it would alone be my inability to help them that hurts me.

Preaching is no exception to this law. It seems to me that, if women are angry about the lack of opportunity for those of their gender to preach, it ought not be because they feel that Christian women are being deprived of something, but because men are being deprived of something.

And here lies precisely the reason why it makes no sense for women to be alone in speaking about this issue. If God doesn’t forbid women to preach to his Church, then the absence of this in the Church is an issue for everybody – especially men, since they are the only ones who are unable to hear sermons from the mouths of women. If God desires women to preach to mixed congregations, then it is because he has made man such that he needs it, such that there is something about the way women think, speak, and exhort that men need to hear.

If God desires women to preach to men, then men should be more upset about their suppression than women.