Spiritual leadership

Spiritual leadership: What is “spiritual” about being spiritual?

It’s time to view spirituality as sensible, not sentimental.

Hymers Wilson, MDiv, MSW, a retired pastor, is a licensed counselor at Fleming College, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

My friends, you are spiritual. So if someone is trapped in sin, you should gently lead that person back to the right path” (Gal. 6:1).1 Unfortunately, the word spiritual has been bandied about in such a cavalier fashion that it has come to mean pretty much anything that the person using it wants it to mean.

The word, for instance, is often used to mean “holy.” Yet, even then, there is enough vagueness about its definition to assume it means something so ethereal that, although the reader or listener cannot quite define it, it nevertheless allows them to experience a warm glow, knowing that it sounds good enough, and godly enough, to be desirable. In fact, at times it has taken on a mystical, even other-worldly meaning. “That person is very spiritual” sounds as if the person has one foot in the realm of the supernatural.

In Ontario Highlights, a commentary on a constituency meeting stated that it was “one of the most spiritual and orderly” the author had ever attended.2 What, exactly, is a spiritual constituency session? Did the writer mean that the session was one where everyone was in a constant misty-eyed attitude of prayer? Was it a session where everyone was smiling happily with no disagreements or outbreaks of anger? Was it “spiritual” because there was no hint of unethical politicking? What made it “spiritual”?

In the May/June 2011 issue of Faith Today, Carey Theological College was advertising a master of arts in spiritual formation. I asked myself, “What is spiritual formation?” Is spirituality something that can be taught? I have a mental picture of graduates from this program sitting in their robes and hoods, eyes bright, faces shining from their newly formed spirituality. I can imagine parents, anxious for their progeny to become good people who contribute to the Christian mission, encouraging their children to get formed into spiritual beings.

An advertisement on the back page of the May/June 2011 Canadian Messenger encouraged young people to study at the then Canadian University College. It read: “It’s about your university experience. . . . It’s about where you can feel at home. . . . It’s where you can grow academically, physically and spiritually.” What does it mean to grow spiritually? In a Christian context, it seems that if you throw in the word spiritual, there’s enough succulent bait to get folks to bite, believe, and embrace.

One article stated, “A survey of reviews in 2005 by McCarroll . . .dealing with the topic of spirituality gave twenty-seven explicit definitions, among which ‘there was little agreement.’”3 I found that number astounding but not surprising, because when I have asked people what they meant by spirituality, they struggled to explain it, actually.

Based on that Wikipedia article, it seems that, for some, spirituality has to do with a personal belief in the supernatural or with a quest for meaning in life. For others, it’s about a sense of wonderment and reverence toward the universe.

Spiritual in Scripture

How, then, does the Word of God use the term spiritual?

In the Bible, the concept of spirituality originates with the Holy Spirit, not with humans. In 1 Corinthians 12, the “spiritual gifts” are given by the Holy Spirit. We do not set the standards for what is  spiritual. Spirituality comes from God alone.

Ephesians 6:12 speaks of “spiritual” forces of evil, apparently referring to supernatural forces in opposition to the forces of good. First Corinthians 10:3, 4 refers to “spiritual” food, the manna, as well as the drink, supplied by God to the Israelites. Galatians 5:17 declares that the “spiritual” nature originates with God. Speaking of the law of God, Paul in Romans 7:14 said it is “spiritual,” meaning that it originated with God. The law describes perfect action. Paul saw himself, in contrast, as unspiritual—a prisoner of his own imperfect urges. In 1 Corinthians 2:13, 14, “spiritual” truths are taught by the Holy Spirit, and, unless one has the Holy Spirit, one does not stand a chance of understanding or accepting spiritual things. Galatians 5:25, 26 makes it clear that being “spiritual” involves a strong and purposeful link with the Holy Spirit and that every Christian is challenged to become spiritual, taking our cue from the Holy Spirit and keeping in step with Him.

The story of Barnabas

Meanwhile, the story of Barnabas models spirituality for us. He is an excellent example of a spiritual person. His real name is Joseph (Acts 4:36), but his nick-name is Barnabas, meaning “son of encouragement” (NIV) or the “one who encourages others.”

In contrast, Acts 9:26 presents a picture of Saul as a man feared by the disciples. Saul is like that manager at work who is constantly on your back, making life miserable, that manager who treats others favorably but seems to intend to harm you. Saul has betrayed you with gossip, but now he wants to come to your church.

Despite Saul’s poor reputation among Christians, Barnabas protected the converted Saul. He became Saul’s advocate. He was willing to give Saul a chance. Barnabas was willing to take a risk with this man who had persecuted the church.

Barnabas was not swayed by whispering hearsay. He heard and saw how Saul had preached and, thus, Barnabas came to his own conclusion. He listened to what Saul had to say about his conversion and gave him the benefit of the doubt. He put the best spin on Saul’s motives. Instead of looking for an opportunity to give a harsh, heavy-handed condemnation of Saul, he used this golden opportunity to harness Saul’s talents. Barnabas had a sense of fairness that was not swayed by other loyalties (Acts 15:36–40).

Barnabas was not perfect. In Galatians 2:13, Peter, unable to resist his xenophobic urges, with-drew from the Gentile Christians and “even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” The word “even” is used because it was, probably, uncharacteristic of Barnabas.

According to the account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, if it were not for Barnabas and Saul (now Paul), every Christian male in the centuries thereafter would have to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in order to be baptized and join the church.

The sum of the matter

So, here’s the punchline: Being spiritual is about being filled with God’s love; it is about how we relate to other and whether we build them up for the kingdom or drive them away from it.

Being spiritual is about being filled and led by the Spirit and having the fruit of the Spirit. A spiritual person, in Galatians 5:22, 23, is one who is loving, kind, self-controlled, gentle, humble, and has a sense of peace and joy.

Being spiritual is not about looking holy or throwing out your TV or never having fun or constantly praying or smiling or being a doormat. It is about not being conceited and not provoking or envying others. Being spiritual is about being humble and godlike in the way that we relate to others because we show our love for God by the way we love others.

Perhaps Paul was thinking about Barnabas when he appealed to the Galatians (Gal. 6:1), giving them a practical illustration of spirituality in action: “My friends, you are spiritual. So if someone is trapped in sin, you should gently lead that person back to the right path.” That is, you who have been touched by the Spirit, not you who can recite large chunks of the Bible; not you who can explain the 2,300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:14; not you who know how to interpret the beasts in Revelation; not you who have been members for 20, 30, 40 years or can who recite the church manual. No—“you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (NKJV). Not only restore, but restore with a spirit of gentleness, a spirit of tact, kindness, and love.

The restorer

When my children were younger and I disciplined them, I always tried to remember that I was a child once. How would I feel being spoken to harshly or being put down?

The restorer avoids gossip and keeps their talking and advice to the minimum. Restoring is not lecturing. The spiritual restorer puts the best interpretation on the actions and motives of the fallen. The spiritual person is not looking for an opportunity to give a harsh, heavy-handed condemnation or to display their own superiority. They are not accusatory, nor do they demonstrate a holier-than-thou attitude. Rather, they are sympathetic and tactful, carefully selecting their words and monitoring their body language. 

Most of all, they are humble. Restoration is not for those who feel spiritually superior.


So next time you hear someone talk about those who are “spiritual” or about a “spiritual” program or “spiritual” event, ask yourself whether they are talking about a spirituality of their own creation or about true spirituality, which only comes from God. Is it a spirituality that is relational? Is the spiritual program, or the spiritual degree program, designed to help us be a better neighbor, parent, spouse, or friend—or even just a better person in general?

Is the spiritual atmosphere at a convention or conference one that encourages us to be like Jesus, the Lamb who submitted to God and, ultimately, to death on a criminal’s cross? In addition, does the spiritual climate in your church emulate not only the gentle Jesus but also the One who fearlessly spoke out against injustice?

True spirituality is seen in the way we relate to others. It is seen in the way we treat others; that is, do we treat them with fairness and tact; with kindness, love, and compassion? It is seen in the way we advocate for the less fortunate, those who are looked down upon or maligned. It is seen in the way we respect all, not just those with position, power, or money. It is seen in the respectful way we relate to those of a different ethnic back-ground, realizing that there is only one race, the human race. True spirituality comes out of a recognition that God is like a mother hen gathering her chicks, wishing only good for them all. True spirituality conducts one’s life in step with God’s intentions: the salvation and restoration of all.

1  Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture in this article is from the Contemporary English Version.

2  Halsey Peat, “The Last Word: Halsey Peat’s Perspective on the 34th Constituency Meeting,” Ontario Highlights, Spring/Autumn 2017, 12.

3  Wikipedia, s.v. “spirituality,” last modified June 6, 2019, 2:01, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality.

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Hymers Wilson, MDiv, MSW, a retired pastor, is a licensed counselor at Fleming College, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

July 2019

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