What are Spiritual Gifts?

June 13, 2015 § 2 Comments

When I started writing the queries for a previous post that meetings might use to examine and deepen their understanding of spiritual gifts and of their nurture, I realized that some meetings might not be very clear about what spiritual gifts are, or at least, about what I mean by spiritual gifts. Then I realized that I needed to be more clear myself. So I revisited some of the thinking I’ve done on gifts of the spirit for workshops I’ve done that apply Paul’s discussions of gifts of the spirit to Quaker needs.

I think we have two ways to categorize spiritual gifts. The first is according to the character of the giving. The second, adapted from the writings of Paul, is according to how they manifest.

What are spiritual gifts—in terms of how they are given?

Innate gifts. Some spiritual gifts seem to be innate and personal. Such spiritual gifts are talents, inclinations, and experience that give shape and direction to one’s spiritual life and/or that are useful in service to the religious community and in the wider world. An example is the gift of studiousness, or the love of learning, which often is paired with the gift of teaching; another is the gifts of money management, another—being good with your hands. Of course, we can think of even innate gifts as Spirit-given.

Gifts of the Spirit. Subtly different are “gifts of the Spirit”, as Paul calls them, manifestations of the Spirit that arise in a person independently of the person’s more innate gifts. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:7. The signature example of a Spirit-given gift is the opening that prompts vocal ministry in meeting for worship.

Spirit-nurtured gifts. Somewhere in between lie the majority of gifts, I think, gifts that arise from some apparently innate attribute but that have clearly been nurtured into maturity by the Holy Spirit and by the person holding the gift. In this group, I would include the gift of hospitality, of making people feel welcome and at home, the gift of teaching, which might arise from the more innate gift of studiousness, and the gift of healing, which in many healers starts as an innate inclination toward and gift for caring for others, but which the person holding the gift has developed by learning the healing arts.

What are gifts of the spirit—in terms of how they manifest?

Paul offers us two categories of spiritual gifts, according to how they manifest: gifts of speaking, and gifts of serving. And I would add a third as I see them described in Paul’s letters—gifts as signs.

I’m not sure how useful these categories are, especially since Paul does not mention a lot of the gifts that we find at work among us today. But I do think it’s useful to list and describe gifts of the spirit, so that Friends recognize them in their members and attenders. Below is my list and descriptions, as I see them manifesting among Friends. Where I have found them in the letters of Paul, I have indicated this. The letters I am referring to are 1 Corinthians 12–14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4 *.

Naming spiritual gifts.

A tentative list of spiritual gifts and their descriptions:

Vocal ministry

Someone who feels called to vocal ministry, whose ministry consistently lifts up the meeting and speaks often to the inner needs and lives of the members, not necessarily just someone who speaks often in meeting. Also manifesting any time in any Friend who brings us spirit-led ministry.
    In Paul’s letter, the gift of prophecy.


Someone whose gift of vocal ministry manifests at times in sustained spirit-led ministry that draws the meeting into a deeper understanding of and feeling for the life of the spirit; whose ministry would seem to violate the frequent recommendation to make your message brief, except that the sermon does speak to someone’s condition, or to the meeting’s condition. Among liberal Friends, “preach” is often considered a four letter word, though, of course, programmed meetings know full well that preaching is a spiritual gift. I think it depends entirely on whether a sermon is Spirit-led, and I am certain that the Holy Spirit does sometimes take longer than “brief” to say what needs saying—and that Friends should not quench that Spirit by invoking a convention found in books or out of some fear that “preaching” necessarily means some form of preachiness.
    Paul: evangelism, exhortation


Someone who through vocal prayer (praying out loud in meeting for worship) can often draw others into true communion with the Divine. Also manifesting at any time in any Friend moved by the Holy Spirit into prayer. It is worth noting that William Penn said in his introduction to George Fox’s Journal that Fox’s greatest gift was the gift of prayer. This gift is almost completely extinct among liberal Friends.
    The gift of prayer is not in Paul.


Someone who often sees to the heart of matters, understands what a person or the meeting needs in a given situation, or finds solutions to problems. Someone with a gift for clerking and/or recording. Also manifesting any time in any Friend who leads us to the Truth.
    Paul: discerning spirits.


Someone who recognizes spiritual gifts in others and seeks ways to nurture these gifts into maturity and support them when they blossom into active ministry; who recommends books or conferences to Friends who show an interest in the Quaker way; who recognizes newly emerging ministry and ministers and encourages it or them; someone who finds themselves holding the meeting in prayer, or who finds fulfillment in serving as a companion to a minister in their service or their travels in the ministry; someone who recognizes walking that disturbs the spiritual welfare of someone’s own self, or that of others, or of the meeting as a community, and who seeks ways to restore gospel order, to bring affairs back into the Light. Also manifesting at any time in any Friend as the divinely inspired ability to teach, lead, and correct the members of the meeting out of one’s own experience of Christ’s inward transformation.
    Paul: exhortation, direction.

Pastoral care

Someone who by nature keeps track of people who need care and often sees that they get the care they need. These Friends often are employed in the secular church, as social workers, therapists, doctors, etc. Also manifesting any time in any Friend who finds herself or himself knowing just what to say or do to meet someone’s needs.
    Paul: pastors, helping, showing mercy.


Someone whose knowledge and passion for a subject manifest as a desire, even a need, to share it. Also manifesting any time in any Friend who finds herself or himself sharing what they know in response to someone else’s desire to know.
    Paul: teaching.


Someone who has a way of making people feel welcome and at home in the meeting, or who consistently feels led to organize fellowship gatherings, who brings food to the meeting, and/or who likes to greet newcomers.
    Not found in Paul.


Someone who brings to an individual, or to the meeting, or to the Religious Society of Friends, or to the wider society a message of correction, and/or the inspiration to take a new direction, manifesting at any time in any Friend.
    Paul: prophecy.


Someone who carries a concern for bettering the world, for building the kingdom of the Spirit on earth, often with a focus on some specific concern, manifesting at any time in any Friend as a leading into witness ministry.
    Not found in Paul. (One of Paul’s great failures was his spiritualization of the gospel of Jesus and his abandonment of the world to its suffering, turning instead to evangelizing the world to his gospel as its cure.)


Someone who finds spiritual fulfillment in service to the meeting community, or to the wider community. Also manifesting at any time in any Friend who takes up a task of service. Often manifesting in combination with the gifts of leadership, administration, hospitality, and financial or property management.
    Paul: serving.


Someone who, out of the gift of serving, also gets things done, who knows how to organize things effectively and leads by serving example.
    Paul: leadership.

Financial management

Someone who, by natural inclination and through life experience, knows how to manage money matters and, through the gift of serving, brings this gift to the meeting.
    Paul: leadership.


Anyone who supports the meeting financially out of the promptings of the Holy Spirit, or who responds with generosity of treasure and spirit to someone’s financial or other material need.
    Paul: contributing.
Property management

Someone who, by natural inclination and through life experience, knows how to manage and take care of property and, through the gift of serving, brings this gift to the meeting.
    Not in Paul.


Someone who, through natural inclination and acquired life experience, brings the healing arts to the meeting and to the world, often but not necessarily manifesting in a healing vocation. Also manifesting at any time in any Friend as spirit-led ministry that alleviates suffering.
    Paul: Healing.


Someone whose faith is so deep and so manifest in their lives that it lifts others up into a stronger sense of God’s presence in their lives. Also manifesting any time in any Friend whose faith, in the moment, turns others toward the Light, or the Presence in our midst, or toward the divine wish for the community’s direction.
    Paul: faith.


Manifesting at any time through any Friend as the Holy Spirit bringing about the utterly unexpected and seemingly impossible outcome.
    Paul: miracles.


*  Once, when I was leading an exercise in naming spiritual gifts and started discussing Paul, a woman asked why we should bother with Paul—and I had to agree that we didn’t have to look to Paul as an authority. Taken aback in the moment, I could only answer that I did not feel responsible to the tradition, but that I did feel responsible for it, that, even when we decide to lay down some aspect of our tradition, we should know what that tradition is and we should leave part of our tradition behind only in spirit-led discernment, not through ignorance or unconsidered drift of purpose and identity.

In the instance of gifts of the spirit, I actually find Paul useful, maybe even spirit-led. In general, I don’t like Paul. I think he hijacked the gospel of Jesus. In abandoning all aspects of Torah, he gutted Jesus’ teachings, especially those about the kingdom of God. And, of course, he drifted away from Jesus’ egalitarian treatment and respect for women, especially as he got older.

But Paul was a religious genius and he was not always wrong about everything. And his treatment of the gifts of the spirit are brilliant. His famous passage about love in 1 Corinthians 13 is sandwiched in between two discourses on the gifts of the spirit in chapters 12 and 14, and this hymn to love is an integral part of his understanding of the place of spiritual gifts in the life of the community. His metaphor of the body for the relative importance of the various spiritual gifts is also a profound opening.

Finally, he did, after all, give us a pretty good list of spiritual gifts as a starting point. It’s hard to figure out what some of them mean, and some come clear only after some study, not just of Paul’s letters but also importantly, of the structure and practices of the early Christian church. His gifts of serving, for instance (leadership, helping, contributing, having mercy), mostly define roles in the church’s social welfare system, its mechanisms for taking care of the poor.

Therefore, because I feel responsible for our tradition, I indicate when one of the gifts I name here appears in Paul’s discussions of gifts. But I’m not going to go any farther than that with Paul’s list in this post. One of these days, I will write the monograph for which I have extensive notes on Paul’s gifts of the spirit.


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§ 2 Responses to What are Spiritual Gifts?

  • vombutch says:

    Gift and Goodness are never separate since every spiritual gift is given to and for those who are undeserving – as art, not science, serves the human, not biological, life-experience better. Talents are to the Bachelor of Science, then, what spiritual gifts are to the Bachelor of Arts.

  • treegestalt says:

    I think Paul does (elsewhere) describe ‘prayer’ as a gift of the Spirit, but simply neglects to include it among gifts an individual might have.
    SynchroniciDaddy does strike again: Yesterday I was reading _Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels_ by James Dunn — like Paul, sometimes iffy and sometimes muy illuminating…
    “…Paul conceives of a rich diversity of charisms. The lists he offers in the three passages just referred to [!] were surely not intended as comprehensive or complete lists. The fact that several of the charisms he includes in these lists are rather vague or overlap makes the point… for Paul, a word or action was a charism whenever it brought grace to expression. One corollary … is worth noting immediately: that we should beware of limiting the concept of ‘means of grace’ to the sacraments or the preaching of the Word. For Paul, any word or action through which God’s grace comes to expression for the benefit of others is a charism…”

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