A series of essays exploring what the church, considering its ongoing reformation begun 500 years ago, will look like in the next decade and beyond: A futurist’s snapshot of the Christian Church.
In the past weeks, I have written about the character of the Followers of the Way, which, while not directing the mission of the church, still the same, impact its mission. It is for this reason, that the Reforming Church does not neglect to cultivate the Fruit of the Spirit in every Follower of the Way.
Not to be confused with the Fruit of the Spirit are the Gifts of the Spirit. These Gifts of the Spirit, or Spiritual Gifts, are given to Followers of the Way defining the mission of the Church. The Gifts of the Spirit are ever changing, always relevant to its immediate context, deployed in every Follower of the Way and activated by the Spirit as the Spirit has need. Unlike the Fruit of the Spirit, all of which are cultivated in all Followers of the Way, Spiritual Gifts are more focused. Spiritual Gifts are given discretely to individual Followers of the Way as there is need.
As the Reforming Church sets its bearings, the process of focusing its mission must include an assessment of the Spiritual Gifts given to Followers of the Way. It is not always evident to an individual Follower of the Way which Spiritual Gift he or she has been given. The Reforming Church helps Followers of the Way discern the Spiritual Gift they have been given.
In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul enumerates the Spiritual Gifts (chapter 12 and 13). I suspect that the list in those verses is only a short list. After all, Paul’s elaboration was necessarily limited by the context he understood in the first century. He could not possibly have described what Spiritual Gifts would have been necessary in 1517, propelling the Reformation, let alone relevant to the state of the world in 2017 and beyond.
This is to say, that the Church seeking to discern the Spiritual Gifts given to the Followers of the Way limited by only those gifts Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians is misguided. The witness and mission of the Church in 2017 and beyond is so dramatically different as to be unimaginable to Paul.
The Reforming Church, grounded in scripture, finds itself having to do something for which it only has a theoretical basis to guide it. It is faced with trying to find its way using a roadmap drawn before there were highways. That isn’t to say that the list of Spiritual Gifts in 1 Corinthians is irrelevant.
Paul writes, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues” (NRSV 12:28). And then as if he himself knew this list was insufficient he added, “But strive for the greater gifts” (NRSV v.31). He continues, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (NRSV 13:1-3).
So, this is the map the Reforming Church has to guide it in its processes of discerning the Spiritual Gifts given to Followers of the Way. The task ever present before the Reforming Church is more than discerning those gifts, however. The Reforming Church is also tasked with equipping, preparing, calling and sending – deploying the Followers of the Way into the mission.
One last thing before I wrap up this entry. It must be said, there is a guiding principal in this process and it must be said in two different ways. First, in all that the Followers of the Way are called to do, they must understand and commit to an understanding of the “common good.” Whatever Spiritual Gift Followers of the Way have the over-arching goal is the “common good.” Paul writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (NRSV 12:7). That is to say, whatever the service, whatever the activity it serves a greater good. The “common good” has an aspect beyond the idea of what’s best for the Followers of the Way. The “common good” is that good which is universal. It is a truth that is self-evident and the Reforming Church holds the “common good” as a sacred obligation offering hope to a world torn by hatred, warfare, greed, poverty, and over-grasping power.
Secondly, and related to the “common good” is the unity of the Church. If Church history teaches anything, it teaches that whatever the Church’s commitment is to a “common good” it is trivialized if not altogether squandered by its divisions grounded in both doctrine and polity not to mention sheltering conduct of its leaders that is sometimes immoral.
Paul is clear, in his discussion on Spiritual Gifts, the unity of the Church matters (12:12-26). What’s at stake is the integrity of the greater thing the Church seeks to do.
At last, I can say, the Reforming Church tasked with discerning the Spiritual Gifts of the Followers of the Way, equips, prepares, activates, calls, sends, and deploys the Followers of the Way into its mission. It is a mission determined by what Spiritual Gifts are given to the Followers of the Way. But that is not all with which the Reforming Church is tasked. It is also tasked with expanding the “common good” and maintaining the unity and integrity of the Church.
Next week I will connect the experience and energy of the Day of Pentecost told in the Acts of the Apostles with the 16th century Reformation and its ongoing commitment in the Reforming Church via the agency of Spiritual Gifts.