The Relevance of Spiritual Gifts in the Modern Church: A Soldier’s Perspective

Introduction

The existing dispute regarding the cessation of certain spiritual gifts continue to divide and weaken the body of Christ, thus, at times, rendering it combat ineffective in spiritual warfare.  In saying that certain crucial gifts have ceased, such as the discerning of spirits, prophecy, and healings, many theologians unknowingly strip believers of valuable spiritual weaponry.  In turn, this decreases the resiliency of the body of Christ and prevents a more victorious testimony of Christ in the face of the enemy.

For the reasons stated above, a detailed discussion is imperative for the resilience and mission accomplishment of the modern church.  This discussion of all spiritual gifts must serve to rectify any schisms that exist within the body of Christ, as well as bring them to the forefront of discussion among believers.  In doing so, those spiritual gifts deemed inapplicable to the modern church may very well prove to be critical to mission accomplishment in saving a lost world for Christ.

In following the Apostle Paul’s lead in some of his Scriptural analogies, this particular discussion will utilize military terms and principles to defend the applicability of all spiritual gifts.  It will focus on their purpose and benefits for both the individual Christian (spiritual soldier) and the corporate body of Christ (spiritual military unit) in persistent spiritual warfare.  Therefore, despite claims that some spiritual gifts have ceased, all spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament remain in the spiritual arsenal of the modern church in order to foster unity of command and effort, maintain lines of communication, and equip the body of Christ throughout the age of the church.

Background

As mentioned above, there are various opposing views on the relevance of spiritual gifts to the modern church.  However, to understand each view, one must first be familiar with the gifts of the Spirit and the distinct purpose of each one.  The Apostle Paul provides a list of the major gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, which includes the word of wisdom and knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.  He also indicates the source of these gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:7, as well as their purpose in Ephesians 4:12, which is to perfect the saints, aid in ministry, and edify the body of Christ.

With ministry as a focal point of these spiritual gifts, they play an integral role in transforming every believer into a minister for Christ.  According to Kenneth Boa, “every Christian is a minister with a unique contribution to make to the body of Christ; the central thrust of our ministries depends on the spiritual gifts we have received…thus the gifts of the Spirit are an integral part of our spiritual formation.”[1]  In essence, one’s spiritual gifts are the building blocks of both one’s Christianity and ministry.  However, there are differing viewpoints on which gifts are still given to aid in modern ministry.

The two types of believers with differing viewpoints can be characterized as ‘Spirit-centered believers’ and ‘Word-centered believers’.  Boa affirms that “Spirit-centered believers believe that all the gifts are still given, but many Word-centered believers believe that the controversial gifts have ceased.”[2]  With the controversial gifts, namely sign gifts, at the crux of the dispute, Spirit-centered believers strongly affirm their contribution to ministry.  According to Boyd Luter, “the Spirit originally guided apostles and other writers into producing the written Word; now, He guides those who study and prepare for such important ministries…into all the truth they will need.”[3]

On the other side of the argument stand Word-centered believers, or cessationists.  These believers affirm that the controversial, or sign, gifts have ceased and are no longer relevant to the modern church.  Boa states that “cessationists generally make the distinction between sign gifts and edification gifts; sign gifts, they say, served their purpose in the first century by attesting to the authority of the apostles and their divinely inspired message.”[4]

However, one may wonder about the origin of such schisms.  How did the controversial gifts become controversial?  Boa provides one explanation by stating, “The teaching that miracles and words of knowledge are not valid today derives from theological axioms that cannot be demonstrated from the Scriptures.”[5]  He promptly declares that “I was formerly a cessationist, but I have come to view these biblical and historical arguments as inconclusive and unconvincing.”[6]

Many other believers who share the same view concerning the sign gifts adhere to charismatic theology, which further led to various charismatic movements throughout the history of the church.  As a whole, charismatics utilize such sign gifts as tongues and healing as an integral part of their ministries.  According to Paul Enns, “believing the sign gifts of speaking in tongues and healing are not restricted to the apostolic age; charismatics affirm these gifts as valid throughout the centuries and into the present.”[7]  Not only did these gifts prove crucial to apostolic ministry, they remain relevant for modern ministries as well.

As mentioned earlier, this belief and utilization of sign gifts sparked various charismatic movements, with the first occurring in the seventeenth century and the latest still ongoing.  While these movements have many positive attributes, such as the use of all spiritual gifts for ministry, they can often become too focused on these gifts while neglecting the gospel.  According to Mark A. Maddix, the original Charismatic movement in the seventeenth century, as well as parts of the modern movement, “reflects the life of Christ as being empowered by the Spirit; the weakness of this movement is the neglect to proclaim the gospel.”[8]  As a result, these movements often neglected the primary mission of the church—to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission.

Prior to Christ’s ascension, He issued the Great Commission as the mission of the church, with the Holy Spirit as the empowering force to accomplish this mission.[9]  With the term ‘commission’ comes certain implications of a military order that is to be strictly obeyed.  According to David Early and David Wheeler, this term “is a military term meaning an authoritative order, charge, or direction; obedience is not an option; to disobey would be an act of treason.”[10]  The military connotations of Christ’s order to all believers is akin to a General’s order during a major wartime operation.  However, many may wonder which wartime operation is connected to this order.

It is well documented in Scripture, such as Ephesians 6:10-20, that believers are constantly engaged in a spiritual war with the forces of evil.  However, many believers neglect the multiple dimensions of this war, which severely minimizes the effectiveness of both the individual soldier and the military unit.  Boa states that “Scripture affirms that the war with evil is multidimensional; instead of compartmentalizing it, we should take into account the physical, the personal, the cultural, and the spiritual influences that impinge upon us.”[11]

As stated previously, there are two critical pieces that represent the forces of righteousness—the individual soldier and the military unit.  First, at the lowest level, each believer is an individual soldier that is charged with carrying out Christ’s order.[12]  It is very clear in Scripture that the life of this soldier is wrought with adversarial struggles, which explains the use of this analogy.  As Roger L. Bradley states, “the Apostles use the illustration of the hard and disciplined life of a soldier to show how a Christian life consists of a struggle with adversaries.”[13]  However, to be effective, each individual soldier must function as a unit.

Second, the church functions as a spiritual army comprised of individual believers, or soldiers, with the same order and mission.  In addition, when fully empowered by the Holy Spirit down to the lowest level, this army executes its order like a well-oiled machine, and is capable of serving in a plethora of different roles.  As Boa describes, “while the church is an army, it is also a family, a hospital, a school, a mission center, and an organism.”[14]  In addition, in order to be effective, this army must be empowered with the best tools and weaponry to accomplish its given mission.

In the beginning of the church, the full empowerment of the Holy Spirit included certain tools and weapons—the gifts of the Spirit—needed to defeat the most cunning of enemies.  Even though issued to each soldier, these tools and weapons were designed to contribute to the combat effectiveness of the whole unit.  When employed in unison for the benefit of the unit, these tools and weapons were most effective.

As discussed previously, even though there has never been a change-of-mission issued by the Commander, some believers attest that some of these tools and weapons are not used today, such as sign gifts.  Despite these claims, however, all spiritual gifts, especially sign gifts, mentioned in the New Testament remain in the spiritual arsenal of the church in order to foster unity of command and effort, maintain lines of communication, and equip the body of Christ until mission completion.

Discussion

First, the gifts of apostle and prophecy remain in the spiritual arsenal of the church due to their unique ability to foster unity of command and effort.  The United States Army defines unity of command and its relationship to unity of effort as “a single commander directing and coordinating the actions of all forces toward a common objective; giving a single commander the required authority is the most effective way to achieve unity of effort.”[15]  As the Commander-in-Chief, Jesus Christ gave an order to all Christians in the form of the Great Commission, which defines the mission of each believer.  Under the full authority of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit serves as the single commander that directs and coordinates forces toward mission accomplishment, thus achieving unity of effort.  Through the spiritual gifts of apostle and prophecy, He directs and coordinates the actions of the church.

As a gift, Enns states that apostle “may be used in a general sense as one who is sent from.”[16]  Since Scripture affirms that apostles are called to serve the will of God, as indicated in Romans 1:1 and 2 Corinthians 2:1, they are generally called to relay messages from the Spirit to a body of believers.  C. Peter Wagner states that “apostles have been entrusted with tremendous authority; they have the authority over individual leaders, over churches, over networks of churches and over ministries; apostles are those most likely to hear and declare what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”[17]

Given its definition and purpose, as stated above, the gift of apostle clearly applies to the modern church.  The Holy Spirit still requires certain people to relay messages to the church, and there is no directive in Scripture detailing a change-of-mission for the church.  The enemy and struggle remains the same, and Christ’s Great Commission is still a standing order.  According to Jack S. Deere, “I am not willing to rule out this possibility [of modern apostles] because I do not think the Scriptures rule it out; even if apostles have ceased, that would prove nothing in regard to the ministry of signs and wonders or of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit.”[18]  In essence, this gift enables the timely transmission of information from the Commander to His units in the field.

Another spiritual gift that fosters unity of command and effort through the timely transmission of information is the gift of prophecy.  According to Boa, prophecy is “the ability to receive and proclaim a message from God.”[19]  Even though Scripture is God’s revelation and message to all humanity, there may be times when He has a specific message for a particular time or situation.  Boa states that “congregational prophecy, unlike the canonical prophecy of Scripture, is a message from God for a specific people, place, and time.”[20]

When applied in military terms, Scripture may be the official operations order, while a message via prophecy may be a radio transmission or a voice order used in certain tactical operations.  There may be situations when the Commander needs to transmit a specific message pertaining to a particular situation or unit.  In essence, the gift of prophecy helps foster unity of command and effort by providing flexibility for the Commander to address specific conditions on the battlefield.

Second, the gifts of prophecy and tongues remain in the spiritual arsenal of the church due to their assistance in maintaining lines of communication.  The Department of Defense defines lines of communication as “all the land, water, and air routes that connect an operating military force with one or more bases of operations, and along which supplies and reinforcements move.”[21]  Essentially, these are those routes and avenues along which supplies and reinforcements move, and must be protected at all costs.  They can also be a critical vulnerability for an army since its strength is maintained along these lines.

The gift of prophecy is a critical gift that strengthens the church through direct messages from God that apply to specific issues and circumstances.  It edifies the church, and provides much needed encouragement and motivation to continue its mission.  According to Deere, “the value of spiritual gifts in strengthening the church is particularly true of the gift of prophecy; Paul maintains that ‘everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort (1 Cor. 14:3).”[22]

In turn, the gifts of tongues and interpretation work in conjunction with the gift of prophecy in strengthening the church.  Wagner equates the use of tongues in public to “a functional equivalent to prophecy; the whole argument of 1 Corinthians 14 develops this equivalence.”[23]  In addition, one of the original uses of tongues was to declare the mighty power of God through the work of ministry.  According to Deere, “the tongues of fire represented inspired, prophetic speech that would declare ‘the wonders of God’, as stated in Acts 2:11.”[24]

For use in modern ministry, these three gifts are just as useful and effective as they were in the beginning.  Nothing concerning the essence of God, the purpose of the Holy Spirit, or the mission of the church has changed, and remain constant even today.  Instead of yielding hard-won lines of communication to the enemy, these gifts must be preserved and utilized in order for the church to continue its mission until the receipt of a valid change-of-mission order from the Commander.

Third, the gifts of healings/miracles and the discerning of spirits remain in the spiritual arsenal of the church due to their ability to equip the body of Christ.  A more relevant military term that applies to this discussion is ‘equipment operationally ready’, which is “the status of an item of equipment in the possession of an operating unit that indicates it is capable of fulfilling its intended mission.”[25]  By keeping these two gifts ‘equipment operationally ready’, the church is more capable of fulfilling its intended mission.

Given the discussion of the linkage of prophecy and tongues above, the gift of healings/miracles also share a common link with both.  While the previous two are based on immediate words from God, healings/miracles are based on immediate deeds from God.  According to Wagner, “whereas prophecy and tongues are immediate words of supernatural origin, miracles and healings are immediate deeds of supernatural origin.”[26]  In essence, the Holy Spirit equipped the church with these gifts to provide immediate sustainment in the face of insurmountable opposition.

The Holy Spirit also equipped believers within the church with the gift of discerning of spirits.  In its simplest form, according to Boa, discerning of spirits is “the ability to discern [recognize] the spirit of truth and the spirit of error,” as indicated in 1 John 4:6.[27]  In essence, those believers that possess this gift are able to supernaturally recognize the source and intent of various spirits.  Boa states, “With this gift, one may distinguish reality versus counterfeits, the divine versus the demonic, true versus false teaching, and, in some cases, spiritual versus carnal motives.”[28]  In light of this statement, this gift is crucial to the security and integrity of the modern church in discerning those mentioned in Matthew 24:24.

The question regarding the modern relevance of these two gifts should be nil at this point, especially discerning of spirits.  Their criticality to the successful mission, and very survival, of the modern church is obvious given their intended purposes.  In addition, many influential theologians have championed their usefulness, including one of the early church fathers, Augustine.  “Augustine argued that miracles, wrought so that the world might believe, have not ceased even when the world has come to belief; miracles demonstrate God’s sovereignty.”[29]  Furthermore, as the end of this spiritual war continues to approach and combat operations intensify, these gifts will prove even more critical to the modern church.

Conclusion

In conclusion, all spiritual gifts, including the controversial sign gifts, mentioned in the New Testament continue to make up the spiritual arsenal of the modern church since they foster unity of command and effort, maintain lines of communication, and equip the body of Christ.  Furthermore, through the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the driving force of all these gifts, the church remains equipped with all of these gifts for the very same purpose as the apostles—to fulfill the Great Commission of Christ.  Given that this mission, and anything related to it, has not changed since it was issued by the Commander, these gifts enable the church to serve as effective soldiers for Christ until mission completion.

—————————————

[1] Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0: Operations (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2008), A-3.

[2] Enns, 704.

[3] C. Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow (Ventura: Regal Books, 2005), 195.

[4] Jack S. Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 251.

[5] Boa, 307.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Department of Defense, JCS PUB 1-02:Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1987), 209.

[8] Deere, 225.

[9] Wagner, 222.

[10] Jack S. Deere, Surprised by the Voice of God: How God Speaks Today Through Prophecies, Dreams, and Visions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 52.

[11] Department of Defense, 132.

[12] Wagner, 223.

[13] Boa, 309.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Colin Brown, “Issues in the History of the Debates on Miracles,” in The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, ed. Graham H. Twelftree (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 275.

[16] Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 301.

[17] Ibid., 306.

[18] Boyd Luter, “Holy Spirit, Role in Apologetics,” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, ed. Ed Hinson and Ergun Caner (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 267.

[19] Boa, 306.

[20] Ibid., 307.

[21] Ibid., 306.

[22] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 706-707.

[23] Mark A. Maddix, “Spiritual Formation and Christian Formation,” in Christian Formation: Integrating Theology & Human Development, ed. James R. Estep and Jonathan H. Kim (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 251.

[24] Matthew 28:19-20, KJV.  Variations of this commission are included in all four Gospels, as well as the book of Acts.

[25] David Earley and David Wheeler, Evangelism Is…: How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence (Nashville: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2010), 21.

[26] Boa, 360.

[27] 2 Timothy 2:3, NKJV.

[28] Roger L. Bradley, Brass Tacks Christianity and Beyond (Bloomington: Trafford Publishing, 2011), 12.

[29] Boa, 360.

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