Part 6: Spiritual Gifts

When we talk about ecclesiology (our understanding of the church), there are two levels to consider.  The first is the abstract, presumably universal level at which we think about what the church is.  The second is the practical level at which which we think about how a local church must embody that essence.  One problem that has affected many churches is the assumption that the second level, that of application, is just as universal as the first.  This belief leads some to the conclusion that the forms, styles, practices, and traditions of the church universal should be pretty much uniform throughout the church local.  The expectation that the New Testament will provide those forms bolsters the assumption.  

In this series, I will work through some of the factors we take into account as the church in Arequipa seeks to embody Christ faithfully in our context.  I hope to show how we go about translating the first level into the second level.  

To access all of the posts in this series, visit the "Church in Arequipa" tag.

I am increasingly convinced that I don’t understand spiritual gifts.  I think that the way in which they are stifled in many church structures is detrimental to the wellbeing of the whole body--the “common good” (1 Cor 12:7).  We tend to focus all our mutual edification expectations on a few  “ministers” and on the abstract notion of fellowship--just being together.  Then there is also a tendency to let personality and proclivity, in a variety of ways, to overpower the underlying reality of the Spirit’s work.  And lying like a patina over the whole discussion is the doubt about emotionalism and, no less, the rationalist’s ironically overly emotional reaction to emotionalism.  But while I can lay out these issues, I’m unsure just how to approach the situation.  For, in addition to my lack of clarity, there is a tension in our kingdom-sowing situation that has gifts at its heart.  

It is not an especially complicated dynamic, but it is powerful.  One one hand, our situation is typical of many in that the freedom to exercise gifts is liberating.  For vast numbers of people, the ability to make a community-affirmed contribution is a matter of unprecedented self-worth, dignity, and empowerment.  One form or another of a high view of spiritual gifts therefore tends to accompany significant church growth among poor populations.  And there is a healthy dependency upon the Spirit among kingdom-sowers who refuse to snuff out this sense of church. These brothers and sisters mostly do not have education and wealth as crutches between which to swing; if the Spirit does not activate other capacities among them, crippled they must remain.  (Which, in reference to last month’s article, is why the pull to work among the middle class can be so strong.)

On the other hand, the lack of biblical teaching is a notorious hallmark of such churches.  This should be somewhat confusing, since the gifts of teaching and knowledge figure rather prominently in the biblical narrative.  But the above class issues--especially when homogeneous churches are the norm--make the teaching deficit quite understandable.  Other gifts are unfortunately played off against teaching and knowledge, as though the former are intended to compensate for the latter’s absence, rather than mutually complement their role.  What happens when the church is not homogeneous?  I can only speak for my own experience in Arequipa.  

Because culturally-shaped class issues are the inner dynamic of a socially heterogeneous church, and because education is a major facet of class structure, the power that complicates cross-class relationships in everyday interaction is, like it or not, the same thing present when the church gathers.  Where the teacher, whether US missionary or educated Peruvian, steps forward to instruct, it squelches the mutuality of the exchange, because the underclassed find themselves in the familiar role of the ignorant, the ineloquent, and ultimately, the objectified receiver.  Their reaction is not, as the socially powerful would expect, to assert the equal value of their own gifts.  They respond, perhaps reflexively, perhaps unconsciously, according to the expectations of such relationships in every other setting: with passivity.  They feel that sense of self-worth and dignity vanish.  And when I say “they,” I’m talking about some of my friends.  

Must teaching lead to this conclusion?  In theory, no.  In practice, these relationship scripts are extremely difficult to overwrite.  More so because so many churches default to a teacher standing up front, telling a passive audience how it is.  Writing a new script requires a paradigm shift that goes beyond sitting in a circle.  Even in the intimacy of a living room, the old scripts are at work when someone occupies the role of the knowledgable.  We are struggling to grasp a new paradigm.  What is teaching, really, and how can we exercise that gift in community without overwhelming the gifts of others?  How can we communicate the essentiality of biblical knowledge without making it the priority?