An unspiritual church

‘Spirituality’ is a term of great confusion today. Both inside and outside Christianity, people use the word in ways quite different to the Bible. This not only confuses Christians in what to expect from the Spirit of God but also confuses non-Christians about the work of God’s Spirit and the teaching of Christianity. For when Christians, in our confusion, misrepresent God’s word it is no surprise that non-Christians do not understand our message.

Non-Christians today commonly describe themselves as being ‘very spiritual’ while having nothing to do with organized religion or Christianity. This spirituality is a way of saying they are not materialistic atheists but it rarely has any theological content other than a vague mysticism. If it has any intellectual content it tends towards an anti-rational experientialism—feelings, experiences, awareness, asceticism, ascetics, pantheism, meditation and miracles. It also tends towards tolerance inclusiveness of all religious experiences and intolerance towards any theological propositions or exclusive claim to truth. It is naturally quite hostile to biblical Christianity with its clear expression of theological truth claims about the uniqueness of Jesus and his way of salvation.

One of our joys and sorrows is the ability and inability of communicating the gospel in the language of the people—in this case English. The same word, ‘spiritual’, has very different meanings. The common language is a bridge by which we can explain ourselves to different people. However, bridges are two-way thoroughfares—and a lot of traffic comes from the world into Christian understanding.

Paul could not address the Christians of Corinth as Spiritual (1 Cor 3). This, the apparently most gifted of churches, was unspiritual. Indeed, their interest in gifts was part of their unspirituality. Ironically, Paul had to write 3 chapters (1 Cor 12-14) to this gifted church in order to explain the spiritual use of gifts. To read these chapters as if gifts are the sign of spirituality or that they are about gifts at all, is to seriously misunderstand Paul’s point. The sign of spirituality is the loving way we use the gifts to serve one another, not the gifts themselves. The sign of the Spirit is not that we have extraordinary or apparently miraculous gifts but that in love we humbly use our gifts, (extraordinary or ordinary, significant or insignificant) for building up the one body of Christ. It is why Paul could not speak to the Corinthians as spiritual; for they were dividing the body of Christ in their jealousy and strife (1 Cor 3:3f).

Our English translators do not help us in their attempt to simplify and communicate the Greek New Testament. The phrase ‘spiritual gifts’ is not used in the Greek. When the word ‘spiritual’ is there, the word ‘gifts’ is missing: and when the word ‘gifts’ is present, the word ‘spiritual’ is absent. (For example, 1 Corinthians 1:7 has ‘gift’ but not ‘spiritual’ and 1 Corinthians 12:1 has ‘spiritual’ but not ‘gifts’). This is not to say that the Holy Spirit has no involvement in the gifts given by Christ to his church, but that the simple phrase ‘gifts of the Spirit’, which is so often used to mark out particular gifts as spiritual and to mark out the heart of spirituality as having gifts, has been imposed upon the text and not drawn from it. Gift giving is not the unique and special role of the Holy Spirit. The same gifts are given by God the Father in Romans 12 and by the risen Son in Ephesians 4.

Concentrating our understanding of the work of the Spirit on 1 Corinthians 12-14 fails not only to understand 1 Corinthians 12-14 but also the New Testament’s teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit. Apart from prophetic expectations of the coming of the Spirit, the most important place to start understanding the work of the Spirit as we await the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, is found in John 13-17. Here, Jesus explained to his disciples what was about to happen to him in his death and resurrection and what would happen to them through this and after his departure. Critical to his plan was the coming of the Spirit to teach the disciples and to evangelistically convict the world. Central to this work is the use of words to address minds about the unique and exclusive truth of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. True spirituality is not found in miracles or meditation, music or emotions, ascetics or aesthetics but regeneration through the gospel and holiness through the renewed mind. Nothing can be much more spiritual than teaching and being taught the very words of Jesus gospel (1 Thess 2:13, 1 Pet 1:10-12).

In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul’s first point about spirituality is that the work of the Holy Spirit is not being carried away like the pagans but in acknowledging the lordship of Jesus. For the work of the Spirit in the world today is to bring us to Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 12:2), God as our father (Rom 8:15f) and holiness of life (Rom 8:13). We are not the people of instant gratification but “through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness”(Gal 5:5). The fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22f) is an infinitely more accurate indication of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian than any gifts a Christian may display.

Identifying the ‘Spirit filled church’, by its acceptance of extraordinary or miraculous gifts, is a failure to understand the desire or work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s desire is to point, not to himself, but to the risen Christ who was crucified for our sins. He does it not so much by the cross logo (even less by the dove logo) but by our proclaiming the gospel and loving one another (John 13:35). Ironically, the church that speaks most about the Spirit can be the least spiritual; sometimes like Corinth of old, they cannot even be addressed as ‘spiritual’.

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