Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Ephesians 4:11-13: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
1 Corinthians 12:27-31: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.”
1. God has given spiritual gifts and arranged and combined them in each congregation in a certain way to accomplish the purposes of Christ in this world.
2. There is a combination and arrangement.
A. All the gifts necessary to fulfill the purpose of the church are present. Nothing is missing.
B. There is no randomness to it. God intentionally has arranged and combined the right gifts in each congregation. Each congregation is custom designed to carry out the purpose in a unique way. Each congregation has a role to play and God has arranged those roles. There are hundreds of thousands of congregations just in the US and millions outside the US. There is no way to organize all of them except by the Spirit of God.
3. There is a priority of gifts but not based on status or hierarchy. The priority is found in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12. Paul is clear about that. But, all of them fall under the priority of 1 Corinthians 13. Love is the greatest gift and without it all the other gifts are meaningless.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
This is the soul and the DNA of the Church. Everything else can be mimicked or reproduced in some way. This is what is most at risk. We may gain the whole world. We may change the culture. We may make and break political figures. But, without love, we have lost our souls.
These were the priorities of the earliest Church. There were no plans or strategies or building programs. There were no sophisticated growth strategies. There was no mission to change the culture. No one thought about mobilizing the church to win elections or eradicate poverty and disease. They were building the foundation of everything that would come after them. These were the essentials.
But, I think, the gift of love – as Paul describes here and in Philippians – is still the one that eludes us most. The church as become an institution and force for good in the world and the foundation of Western Civilization. But being a force for good or anything else we might accomplish is worthless, as Paul says. If we do not have the one characteristic both Jesus and Paul said would make us the Church. Love for each other. Not loving everyone in the world as people often say is the mark of Christians. It does not say that in Scripture. They will know we are Christians by how we love each other – not everyone else. It is not saving the world. It is not having a place at the table. It is not giving all we have to the poor. We can do all these things on our own but there is one thing we can only do supernaturally because it goes against all of our instincts and inclinations. It is not human and cannot be generated in any way other than as a gift of God.
Back to the gifts!
Apostles were those who had been with Christ and they were those who went out announcing the Gospel. They are not the same as missionaries. They had a personal relationship with Christ. It was one of the biggest controversies of the early Church because Paul claimed to be an apostle and there were those who contested that.
Prophets are not those who predict the future. They are those who are divinely equipped to strengthen, encourage, comfort, challenge and communicate God’s will to his people. They do not need to call down fire on the false prophets of Baal or have a nametag that says, “Prophet”. Rather, they are people who have the unique ability to speak God’s truth in a way that is productive.
Teachers are those who instruct in sound understanding and behavior. This is not limited to Sunday School or from the platform. How many different ways can we encourage sound understanding and behavior?
The gift of helps is given to those who take care of the needs of the congregation – both young and old. They are probably the easiest to recognize because they are the first to volunteer to do the practical things. They are the ones with compassion and who listen. They fix appliances and deliver meals. They understand what it means to simply serve.
By fellowship, the early church did not mean socializing. It is like the difference between being body builders in a weight room and a group having a party in a weight room. Fellowship is the joy of common discipline and care and building up. Fellowship always leaves people being a little stronger in their faith and more committed to the purposes of the church. It is not just an activity for getting people together.
Do priorities change over time? Have we changed the priorities? What are our criteria for choosing a church now? Are our reasons even on this list?
4. Understanding the priorities of the church leads you to understand the purpose of the church. What is the purpose of the church based on these few priorities?
A. To support the work of the apostles – preaching and going out.
B. To support growing up into maturity – prophets and teaching.
C. To support the health of the church and the needs of people in it – helps.
Gifts only operate where the purpose of the Church is right, the priorities are clear and they are combined with other gifts. They are not for personal development. By themselves they are practically useless and inert.
The Corinthian church was split over personalities because it was ignorant of its purpose. Without a clear purpose a congregation will polarize around almost anything – personalities, buildings, music, location, programs, budget, doctrine.
Is the purpose of our congregation clear? Is it still going out, growing up and taking care of each other?
The program of the church is not the purpose.
The people of the church is not the purpose.
The platform of the church is not the purpose.
The purpose of the church is to be salt and light – to dissolve and illuminate.
The gifts do not operate for any other purpose or for any other set of priorities. We can only expect them to operate when, first, the purpose is clear, they are in the right priority and combined with the gifts of others.
It is important to know our spiritual gifts because we cannot be effective in our calling in this congregation unless we do. But what is my spiritual gift is just the first question. The second, and even more important, is “What is the purpose and priorities of this congregation?” Third, is “where does this gift fit? How has God arranged for me to fit and help this body of believers carry out God’s purpose?”
The blessing and curse of the large church is we have professional staff who are responsible for the work of the church. The rest of us are volunteers but we may not see ourselves as essential. We are free to come and go because someone else will see that it gets done. Maybe we can never go back to the survival mode of the earliest Church when everyone was essential and connected. There were no volunteers. There were only other people in the life boat. We are not longer a life boat. We are a cruise ship with all the comforts and conveniences. But, that is not the church in most parts of the world. It is still a matter of survival and, perhaps, that is the hope of the Church. They are clinging to a life raft but nothing could be more like the earliest Church.