Spiritual gifts in the church today

The topic of spiritual gifts has been receiving increased attention by many churches as they seek to help members in Christian service. Yet we tend to be selective in the gifts we recognize. The Scriptures seem to indicate that we can expect all the gifts to remain in the church until the need for them is swallowed up in eternity.

Richard Hammill, Ph.D., served as a vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists prior to his retirement. He now writes from Olympia, Washington.

The catholic or universal Church ... is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all . . . Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. —The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), Chapter XXV.


The desire of our heavenly Father to give good gifts to His earthly children is emphasized in the New Testament (see Luke 11:11-13; James 1:17). Jesus Christ Himself is called God's gift to mankind. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" (John 3:16, K.J.V.) is one of the best known and most cherished passages of the Bible. The Holy Spirit is also called a gift from God to everyone who repents and is baptized (see Acts 2:38). In sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit from heaven to this world, our heavenly Father gave the best spiritual gifts in all the universe.

In turn, these two divine beings began immediately to give their own gifts to the human family. For example, the apostle Paul insisted that the believers in Corinth not "be uninformed" concerning the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit gives (1 Cor. 12:1). * This negatively worded phrase is a typical Pauline expression that the apostle often used when he wished to emphasize something. If the subject of spiritual gifts was important to the believers in Corinth, it is also a vital teaching for the church today.

The apostle stressed the wide variety of the Spirit's gifts: "Now there are varieties of gifts [charismaton], but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service [didkonion], but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working [energematon], but it is the same God who ihspires them all" (verses 4-6).

Two observations are in order: First, although we often stress that the charismatic gifts are bestowed by the Holy Spirit, here the Lord (Jesus) and God (the Father) are also mentioned in connection with the gifts. In Ephesians 4:7, 8, and 11, Jesus is mentioned as the giver of some of the gifts. It seems that all persons of the Trinity are thought of as the source of the "grace-gifts" (charismaton), but the Holy Spirit distributes them to various believers for the best good of all (see 1 Cor. 12:7, 11).

Second, the threefold categorization of the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, although used somewhat as synonyms, do hint of Paul's conviction clearly expressed later that the variety of gifts denotes difference not only in function but also in degree of usefulness for the upbuilding of the church. Paul seems to say that all are charismatic gifts but that some are more service- and action-oriented than are others.

The apostle's first list of the gifts includes: utterance of wisdom and knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, ability to distinguish between spirits, various kinds of tongues, and interpretation of tongues (see verses 8-10). He then cites the cooperative and complementary functioning of the various organs of the human body to illustrate the necessity for persons possessing any Spirit-given grace gift to work in harmony with those possessing gifts different from their own (see verses 12-26). There must be unity, he says, in the exercise of the diverse gifts of the Spirit.

Next, the apostle lists again the Spirit's gifts. It is significant that in this second listing in the same chapter Paul definitely ranks the gifts in terms of their usefulness to the church: "And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues" (verse 28). The apostle includes some gifts not mentioned in his first list and omits others.

No one has all the gifts, says Paul, but believers are to "earnestly desire the higher gifts" (verses 29-31). Thus he highlights his emphasis on the usefulness of the gifts to the church. The purpose of the gifts is to produce spirituality, he says in 1 Corinthians 13. The gifts will pass away at the eschaton, but their fruit in the lives of believers will last forever. His point is that the church must value highly those gifts that contribute most to the spiritual growth of believers and to the upbuilding of the church by the proclamation of the gospel.

Paul elaborates on the principle of usefulness in chapter 14, where he points out that the gift of prophecy, which instructs believers and nonbelievers alike in the knowledge and love of God (see verses 1-3, 24), is much more useful than the gift of tongues: the latter does not significantly edify or strengthen the congregation of believers, although it may be helpful to the individual (note especially verses 4, 28). He did not explicitly forbid speaking in tongues (verses 39, 40), for he believed that gift was operative in some way in his own experience; "nevertheless," he wrote, "in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (verse 19).

Then, repeating his contention that believers should desire those gifts that were most useful to all the believers and to the fulfillment of the gospel commission, the apostle made this appeal: "Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature" (verse 20).

On this basis Seventh-day Adventists do not participate in what is commonly called "the charismatic movement," for we believe that other gifts of the Spirit are far more essential for fulfilling Christ's command to " 'go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation'" (Mark 16:15). And yet, since all of the gifts of the Spirit are charismata, in a sense we are indeed part of the charismatic moving of the Holy Spirit in these end-times.

In his letter to the Ephesians, written seven or eight years after his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul gives another list of what he calls gifts (dorea) of Christ (see chap. 4:7 ff.). This list concentrates on the service-oriented ministries to which Paul had previously referred in 1 Corinthians 12-14. "And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (verses 11-13).

Here Paul omits such gifts as healing, faith, tongues, helpers, and wisdom, which were mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, and adds two new ones, "evangelists and pastors," which evidently are a further subdivision of "apostles" and "teachers" listed in 1 Corinthians 12:28. The passing of time has apparently led Paul, under the Spirit's guidance, to emphasize ministries that were proving most productive in building spiritual life and promoting unity by helping believers to avoid various "winds of doctrine" that were being promoted by certain persons (see verses 14-16).

Among those ministries proving to be most useful to the church was prophecy, which Paul had twice mentioned as second in rank (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11) and once as first (Rom. 12:6). He had, in fact, urged, "So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy" (1 Cor. 14:39).

Most Christians are familiar with the phenomena of the Biblical prophets, who were persons called of God to bear special messages from Him to His people. The Holy Spirit spoke to the minds of the prophets, revealing to them ideas and instructions God wanted them to give to the people. They did not speak or write on their own initiative, for, as the apostle Peter put it, "No prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:21).

Only a few prophets of New Testament times are mentioned by name (see Luke 2:36; Acts 11:27, 28; 13:1, 15:32; 21:9- 11), but general reference is made to others who were prominent in the early church (see Eph. 3:5). The fact that the apostle Paul usually mentioned prophecy second, or even first, in his list of charismatic gifts is evidence of its importance in the apostolic church.

Genuine manifestations of the prophetic gift occurred also in the post-apostolic period. The prestigious and scholarly Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that "the prophets did not vanish at a stroke," and maintains that prophets were held in high regard in the church "right up to 300 A.D." (Vol. VI, pp. 859, 860). The proliferation of false prophets led to loss of esteem for prophecy, and properly so (see 1 John 4:1). This was especially the case when the church, after much agitation, repudiated Montanus' claim to be a prophet.

Most Protestant denominations now hold that prophecy ceased at the end of New Testament times, but this claim is without Biblical foundation. The necessity for God to communicate directly with His people did not end when the New Testament canon was closed. In the crises of the last days the church of Christ especially needs particular divine guidance.

The apostle Paul asserted that the charismatic gifts Christ gave would continue in His church until it comes to full unity of faith and to mature spiritual development in Christ (see Eph. 4:13). The church has not yet reached that stage, and it still needs all the gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy.

Seventh-day Adventists note in the Bible record that the prophetic gift was manifested in the ministry of many persons who gave their messages only orally. They did not write down their Spirit-given messages; or, if they did, it was not God's will that those writings become part of the canonical Scriptures intended for people of all ages. They were God's message to particular people of a given time (for example, see 1 Chron. 29:29, 30, and other similar Biblical references).

The prophetic gift has not been permanently withdrawn. It has been operative at different times since the canon of Scripture was closed, although on a greatly reduced scale because of widespread apostasy in the church.

The gift of prophecy still belongs to the church today, according to the teaching of the apostle Paul, and it will be manifested whenever and wherever God sees the need for it. (For additional Seventh-day Adventist perspectives on the permanency of the prophetic gift and its latter-day manifestations, see Carlyle B. Haynes, The Gift of Prophecy (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Publishing Association, 1931), and A. G. Daniells, The Abiding Gift of Prophecy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1936).

According to the book of Revelation, when the powers of evil are attacking the church in the last days, the prophetic gift will be active in God's last-generation people, described as those who "keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (chap. 12:17, K.J.V.). The "testimony of Jesus" mentioned here is defined in Revelation 19:10 by the angel narrator as the "spirit of prophecy." The phrase "'your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus'" (verse 10) is replaced in Revelation 22:9 (a parallel passage) by the expression " 'your brethren the prophets.'" This is a weighty factor in interpreting the words "testimony of Jesus" in Revelation 12:17. Although "testimony of Jesus" can properly be translated several ways (see chap. 1:2, 9), the explanations of the angel narrator in Revelation 19:10 and 22:9 attest that the phrase was intended in this setting to refer to the prophetic gift, which was to be active among God's last-generation people (see chap. 12:17).

Through the "spirit of prophecy" Jesus is bearing a witness to His "remnant." The voice of the prophets is the voice of Jesus. And this prophetic activity greatly augments the testimony the "remnant" bears about Jesus during the time portrayed by the revelator when the great dragon intensifies his attacks against Christ and His followers (chapter 12).

When Jerusalem had been captured by the Babylonian army, Jeremiah wrote: "The law is no more, and her prophets obtain no vision from the Lord" (Lam. 2:9). It is significant that the revelator saw the prophetic gift being renewed when the "remnant" keeps the commandments of God.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that the gift of prophecy was active in the ministry of Ellen Gould Harmon (later White), who first received revelations from God in 1844. From that time till the close of her life in 1915, she received special instruction from God for His followers in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The spiritual guidance Ellen White set forth orally and in writing helped the Seventh-day Adventist people avoid numerous spiritual pitfalls and doctrinal errors. It led them to become a missionary church, assisting in carrying the good news of Christ to all the world. An active leader in the temperance movement, Ellen White stressed lifelong health education. Her counsel led to the establishment of a worldwide system of health care for the sick. She helped form the Seventh-day Adventist system of Christian education, which presently enrolls more than 475,000 youth from kindergarten to university levels.

Although she never held an official position, was not an ordained minister, and never received a salary from the church until after the death of her husband, her influence shaped the Seventh-day Adventist Church more than any other factor except the Holy Bible.

Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit Ellen White produced an extensive amount of literary work from which eighty-eight books and more than 4,500 articles have been published, all of them exalting Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and upholding the high moral and ethical values of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Her writings emphasize both the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. They contain a scriptural balance between soteriology and theodicy.

Though written primarily for Seventh-day Adventists, the Ellen G. White writings have been read with great appreciation by a much wider audience. One of her small books, entitled Steps to Christ, has been published in more than one hundred languages, with some 15 million copies sold to date. Her magnum opus is the five-volume Conflict of the Ages Series, which develops the Biblical theme of the cosmic struggle between God and Satan from the latter's rebellion in heaven, down to the eschaton, the inception of God's kingdom of glory, and the restoration of Paradise following the final destruction of rebellion from the universe. Though certainly not a theologian, Ellen White did set forth many creative insights regarding the nature of God's kingdom and His purposes for the human race.

It is necessary to emphasize two concepts that Seventh-day Adventists do not hold concerning the Ellen G. White writings. First, her writings do not take the place of the Bible for us. An authoritative Adventist work clearly states: "In accord with the historic Protestant position, SDA's accept the Bible and the Bible only as the Christian's rule of faith and practice. . . . The canon of Scripture is God's message to all men of all ages; extracanonical revelation belongs to those to whom it is originally addressed."—SDA Encyclopedia, p. 1413.

Though believing that the Holy Spirit had genuinely spoken through her own writings, Ellen White wrote the following, which is typical of many similar statements: "The Spirit was not given—nor can it ever be bestowed—to supersede the Bible; for the Scriptures explicitly state that the word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested."—The Great Controversy, p. vii. She was convinced that the genuineness of her own writings must be tested by conformity to the Bible.

Seventh-day Adventist doctrines are based upon the teachings of the Bible, as we understand it. Using the soundest hermeneutical principles that we can find, we attempt to interpret passages of the Bible in harmony with their context, bringing to our study of the Holy Scriptures rigorous analysis and careful investigation of the meanings of words, sentences, and the total message of a given book, and indeed, of the entire Bible. The writings of Ellen White are, as she herself described them, "a lesser light" that aids in under standing the "greater light" God has sent us in the Holy Scriptures (Review and Herald, Jan. 20, 1903; see also Evangelism, p. 257); but they do not supersede the Bible for us.

That Ellen White played an important part in the development of Seventh-day Adventist doctrines is clearly evident, but that role was formative, not normative. Her distinctive contributions lay in the secondary stage of theological insight, not in the preliminary stage of exegetical interpretation of the Bible. Her insights were those of the evangelist, the preacher, the prophet, and helped form the distinctive thrust of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But the Bible has always held the normative role in Adventist doctrines.

Second, the writings of Ellen White are not an addition to the Bible. Of an individual who once advanced that view, she wrote, "In this he presents the matter in a false light." Her writings, she added, were intended by God "to bring the minds of His people to His Word" (Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 246).

In Old and New Testament times, as well as since, the prophetic gift was given to many persons besides those who wrote the Bible. But it was not God's purpose that their messages become a part of the canon of Scripture, which was intended for all men in every age. These other prophetic messages were intended only for the people to whom they were addressed. This is the conception Seventh-day Adventists have of the ministry of Ellen White. The phenomenon of revelation and inspiration in her ministry was the same as that of the Bible-writing prophets, but the purpose or function was different.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that except for certain objective revelations such as the giving of the Ten Commandments, the revelation and inspiration of Biblical prophets was subjective; that is, the revelation was given to the prophet, who then wrote out the God-given ideas in his own words. The writings vary widely in style, vocabulary, and logical arrangement of their messages. The Holy Spirit led the prophets so that God's ideas, not their own, were written down; yet different levels of literary training and ability are evident in their writings, whether in the simple prose of the evangelist John or the involved literary style of Hebrews.

This same phenomenon was operative in the writings of Ellen White. Having had little formal education, her early style of writing was simple, though clear. Over seventy years of ministry, her literary style and vocabulary improved. The process of the Holy Spirit speaking through her resulted as the years went by in an increased breadth of understanding and ability to express it.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that only God is infallible. Though they think that, like the Bible, the writings of Ellen White are the result of Spirit-given revelation, they do not make an issue over questions of inerrancy concerning details but stress that the message of the Bible as a whole and of the Ellen G. White writings as a whole are heaven-sent, true, and authoritative. We believe the writings of Ellen White are in harmony with the teachings of the Bible, are indeed the result of the genuine charismatic gift of prophecy, and meet the Bible test of upholding Jesus Christ as Saviour and Messiah, God's Son who became one of us for our salvation (see 1 John 4:2, 3). We approve of the admonition "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (verse 1).

In regard to the gift of prophecy, the apostle Paul set forth the test of experience: "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast that which is good, abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thess. 5:19-22). Concerning this counsel, Ellen White wrote: "There is an evidence that is open to all—the most highly educated, and the most illiterate—the evidence of experience. God invites us to prove for ourselves the reality of His Word, the truth of His promises. He bids us 'taste and see that the Lord is good."... 'Do you ask why I believe in Jesus? Because He is to me a divine Saviour. Why do I believe the Bible? Because I have found it to be the voice of God to my soul.'"—Steps to Christ, pp. Ill, 112. We believe, as the apostle Paul said to the church at Corinth, that it is God's will that His followers be "enriched in him" and that they not be "lacking in any spiritual gift" as they "wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:5, 7).

In view of the predicament of human beings in all ages, and especially in these days of the end-time, every genuine communication from God must be highly esteemed as an aid for believers in God to live for His glory and to help accomplish His will on earth as it is in heaven.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Richard Hammill, Ph.D., served as a vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists prior to his retirement. He now writes from Olympia, Washington.

July 1982

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