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Spirit and Community
by Richard Rice

The church is a continuation of the Spirit-anointed event that was Jesus Christ.

— Clark Pinnock

The growing interest in things spiritual

When he was writing his systematic theology back in the 50s and 60s, the famous theologian Paul Tillich wondered if he could even use the word spirit. He felt that modern culture was so out of touch with the spiritual that the word had lost its meaning. Things are entirely different today. People everywhere are concerned about spiritual matters. Bookstores now offer a variety of titles under the topic of "spirituality." Angels have become popular figures. Glossolalia now appears not only in Pentecostal churches, but in mainline denominations, too. Faith healings are no longer the province of backwater preachers. Benny Hinn is a figure of international renown.

Dramatic spiritual experiences are not the province of the few. Almost every family contains stories of inexplicable or "supernatural" phenomena. One man I know offers the following list from his own experience.

"My grandmother, a young girl from Sweden, was scheduled to cross from England to America on a new ocean liner in 1911, but they didn’t finish constructing the ship in time. So, instead of sailing on the Titanic, she came to America on the Lusitania.

"Several years later, she enrolled at an Adventist college near Chicago. Arriving late for the school year, she found that an important examination was scheduled for the next day. She was just getting learning English and wanted to postpone the test, but the principal refused. In a dream that night she saw a teacher standing in the front of a classroom, writing questions on the blackboard. When she took the test the next day, the test the questions were the very ones she had seen in her dream the night before.

"In 1970 I received two items in the mail on the same day—a letter of acceptance to my first choice in graduate programs and a letter from my employing conference that granted me a leave of absence. Was it sheer coincidence, or had God answered my prayers in a remarkable way?

"One afternoon in the late 70s our two-year-old son vanished outside our house. We searched in vain around the neighborhood, the fear rising in our throats. He was eventually returned to our front door by two men we had never seen before, and have never seen since.

"On a visit to Barcelona two years ago we became hopelessly lost. We drove around the city for hours, it seemed, unable to find our destination. Although we asked for directions several times, we could barely understand them and were unable to follow them. Our frustration was turning to desperation, when a car stopped beside us driven by a man with several children with him. Hoping he could speak English, we rolled down our window and asked for help. He didn’t just give us directions, he patiently led us through the city, street by street, for the next 45 minutes until we reached our destination. Then he waved pleasantly and took off. We never saw him again.

"Years ago a young woman I know claimed that God was calling her to be a prophet. She was a brilliant student, and it was difficult to believe that she would make up a story like this. But within a few months it was obvious that she had suffered a complete mental breakdown. And she has needed professional help ever since.

"I felt the Spirit in a powerful way on one occasion when I was 13 years old and going through a deeply religious phase in my experience. I studied my Bible daily and prayed intently, sometimes for long periods of time. One evening I was praying for the gift of the Spirit with great earnestness, when my body was filled with a power I had never felt before. The best description of the sensation is one Ellen White gives of her own experience, when she says, "Wave after wave of glory passed over me." That’s how I felt. I was convinced at the time that God had answered my prayer, and I have never doubted that conviction. Nothing like that has never happened to me again."

Remarkable coincidences, audible voices when you’re alone, mysterious helpers, revealing dreams, physical transport—what do we do with experiences, and reports of experiences, like these? Do we accept them at face value? Do we flatly reject them? If we allow that God can and does act in dramatic ways, are events like these exceptions, or do they occur on a regular basis? These are some of the questions we need to wrestle with. To answer them, we need to develop a perspective on the Holy Spirit’s fundamental work.

The Spirit gives life

We can easily come up with a list of the Spirit's activities. From Bible studies and Sabbath school lessons, we know that the Spirit participated in the world’s creation (Gen 1:2), inspired the biblical writers (2Pet 1:21), brings about the new birth (Jn 3:5), provides spiritual guidance (Jn 16:13), bears fruit in lives of Christians (Gal 5:2-23) and gives gifts to the church (1Cor 12:28-29). But behind all these specific activities lies one fundamental function. The Spirit is the source of life. Its work is to animate and empower.

The life-giving work of the Spirit appears throughout the Bible, beginning with creation. According to Genesis 1, the Spirit hovered over the waters—an indication that life is about to break forth. And according to Genesis 2, the spirit, or "breath of life," entered the human body God had fashioned, transforming it a "living being."

There is one Hebrew word for both "breath" and "spirit." The breath from God that brought life to humans animates other creatures, too. "All have the same breath," says Ecclesiastes 3:19; "man has no advantage over the animals." In one of the great creation Psalms, the Spirit of God and life-giving breath are closely associated: "when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created" (Ps 104:29-30). We see the Spirit’s life giving power in one of Ezekiel’s memorable visions. A valley of dry bones came to life when God sent breath into them (Ezekiel 37:5. 10). The Letter of James states a principle that underlies biblical thought when it asserts, "the body without the spirit is dead" (Jas 2:26).

As described in the Bible, the human spirit is not just respiration or life-force; it involves consciousness, feelings and emotions, such as fear, anger, joy and pride (Gen 41:8; Jg 8;3; Gen 45:27). It is also related to specific states of consciousness and certain emotional experiences. When an intention, attitude or emotion is particularly strong, the Bible sometimes describes it as a spirit that comes to reside within a person, like a force that enters from outside. It might be an evil force, like jealousy (Num 5:14-30), hatred (Jg 9:23), and prostitution (Hos 4:12), or a good force, like justice (Is 28:6) or supplication (Zech 12:10).

The Bible also describes God’s Spirit as the source of unusual human abilities. It accounted for Samson's extraordinary physical strength (Jg 15:14), for Mary's ability to give birth without having been with a man (Lk 1:35), for the power of John the Baptist's ministry (Lk 1:15), and for the various abilities of members of the Christian church (1Cor 12). These endowments are related to the Spirit's life-giving role. The Spirit is the source of every person’s life. And when certain people have distinctive abilities, it shows that the Spirit's life-giving power is present to an unusual degree. Such people are more "alive," in certain respects, than humans ordinarily are.

The Spirit creates community

The role of the Spirit in the plan of salvation rests solidly on the Spirit’s basic role in creation. It is an application of its life-giving power. The principle, the body without the spirit is dead, applies to the church as well as to individual human beings. Unless the Spirit animates, enlivens, inspires, the body of Christ is nothing but a corpse. The Spirit’s fundamental work in salvation is to give life to the church, to bring to life the body of Christ.

So closely connected are Spirit and church that we cannot understand the church unless we understand the Spirit. On the one hand, the community is the creation of the Spirit. On the other hand, the creation of community is the Spirit’s most important work.

We may have to reach a bit to appreciate this function, because our concept of the Spirit’s work, like our concept of the religious life generally, is something we typically think of in individual terms. Our natural tendency is to think of the Spirit as working in us individually, one by one, reaching into the inner recesses of our souls. Important as this is, the more fundamental work of the Spirit is to bring us into a community, a new kind of community, a community that exists nowhere else in human experience.

Like many people, my love for music vastly exceeds my ability to produce it. Whenever I see a grand piano sitting on a stage I am reminded of a painful episode in my musical past, a piano recital I participated in when I was 14 years old. My teacher at the time, someone named Sid, held his student recitals on Sunday afternoons in the auditorium of the local women’s club. He liked Sundays because parents weren’t working and he could get a good audience for his students.

As one of the older kids I was scheduled near the end of the program, so I had time enough to get really nervous. Not only that, but Sid came up with the idea that all the performers should sit in a circle around the piano in full view of the audience and come to the keyboard one by one when it was time for them to play. As a result we had to squirm and sweat while everyone looked on. I sat folding and unfolding my hands, playing my number over and over in my mind, until I could hardly remember any of it. Finally, my turn arrived.

My recital piece that year was "Ritual Fire Dance," by Manuel de Falla. It’s an exciting composition, with lots of dramatic effects that call for heavy pounding on the keys. That allowed someone like me to compensate for a lack of musical skill with sheer physical strength.

I was giving it everything I had, when suddenly, about halfway through the number, the piano rolled away from me. It didn’t go far, just a foot or so before it stopped. But I didn’t know what to do. I could still reach the keys, but they were uncomfortably far away. I certainly didn’t want to stop in the middle of the piece—I wasn’t sure I could ever start again—so, I kept playing with one hand, reached down with the other and dragged the bench toward the piano. For several measures things were fine, and then the piano moved again. So, I reached down and pulled the bench forward a second time. This went on for the rest of the piece—the piano kept moving and I kept following it until my number came to a merciful conclusion.

Around the punchbowl after the recital I got lots of compliments about my performance. Nobody mentioned the music. They only talked about my skill at maneuvering the bench as I chased the piano across the stage. I thought a lot about that occasion, and I think the piano was trying to tell me something. It took me awhile to figure it out, but eventually I got the message: God put you on earth to do something other than play the piano.

Fortunately, piano solos were not the only musical outlet available. I also joined choirs and bands, and performing with a group changed everything. One mistake didn’t ruin a performance, so there was much less pressure. And more important, the members of a group could reach musical levels together that they could never attain on their own. Somehow our individual efforts formed a whole that was greater than its parts. Individually, we had modest talents, but working together, we could sound terrific.

The same principle holds in other areas, too. Working together, people often surpass everything we expect from them as individuals. Basketball fans will never forget the championship series of 1977 between the Portland Trailblazers and the Philadelphia Seventy-sixers. It figured to be totally one-sided. Philadelphia had an all-pro line-up that included the likes of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Lloyd Free. The Portland team had a bunch of average players and center Bill Walton, their only stand-out. Looking at the rosters, experts predicted a sweep. And it was, but not the one they expected. Instead of caving in to Philadelphia’s superior talent, the Portland team played way "over their heads," and after dropping the first game, won the next four to take the series.

The startling outcome generated a flood of commentary. How could a team of no-names defeat the best line-up in the league? One sports writer summed it up this way: "Philadelphia was a team of stars, but Portland was a team with stars." The Trailblazers blended into a team, the Seventy-sixers didn’t. The players were too concerned with individual success. No matter how talented they are, athletes preoccupied with their own statistics are often less effective than those who put the team first.

The same truth applies to Christianity. What people are together is more fundamental, more important, and more effective than what they are individually. Our culture makes it hard for us to understand this, and so does our religious heritage. Most of us were raised to believe that Christianity is essentially a private matter, between an individual and God. But unless we understand the priority of community, we will never understand the church. And unless we accept this priority, we will never become the church. The most we can ever be is a collection of people who have a few things in common.

The Spirit creates a special kind of community.

The New Testament not only affirms the priority of the Christian community, it also affirms its uniqueness. The Spirit creates a kind of community that is unlike any other.

What people are together is often more fundamental, more important, and more influential than what they are individually. This is true of many groups, but togetherness is more important than ever when it comes to the church, because the church is what gives individuals their Christian identity. We don't make the church what it is, the church makes us what we are.

For those of us from highly individualistic cultures like the USA, and possibly Australia, this is difficult to grasp. For us, the primary unit of human reality is the individual, rather than the group. The principal figure in American folklore is the cowboy, who rides off the range and cleans up the town all by himself with nothing more than his trusty six-shooter. Then he mounts up and rides off into the sunset. We don’t know where he comes from or where he’s going. We know nothing of his background or his family. We may not even know his name. Many western heroes wore masks to hide their identity. But we admire their solitude and anonymity. Anything worth doing is better, it seems, if you can do it by yourself.

This cultural attitude often plays a major role in the way we look at the church. We tend to think of the church as a collection of individuals, each of whom is striving to reach the individual goal of salvation. The church is like a health club or a grocery store. Its value lies in the fact that it meets our individual needs. We want to be saved and the church has resources that will help us get there.

Our visceral individualism makes it difficult to perceive the type of community that church involves. The Spirit brings into existence a distinctive quality of existence. It not only makes the church a community, it makes the church the body of Christ. The Spirit moves over a massive, chaotic diversity of human beings and brings it to life. It takes people you could not imagine together in any other social arrangement, transforms them inwardly and outwardly, individually and collectively, and brings forth the body of Christ. Without the creative power of the Spirit, the church is nothing but a collection of individuals.

Not only does the Spirit create the church, the creation of the church is the Spirit’s most important function. In fact, so closely related are Spirit and church that we can’t understand one without the other, and Christian thinkers have sometimes concluded that Spirit and church are simply two aspects of the same doctrine. The Apostles’ Creed, the most famous expression of Christian faith since the New Testament, affirms faith in God, Christ, Holy Spirit and Church. While some theologians hold that there are four articles of faith—Father, Son, Spirit, and church—others maintain that there are only three. They see the church and the Spirit as two aspects of the same article of faith. To affirm the Spirit is to affirm the church, and vice versa.

1Cor. 12:14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.

1Cor. 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

When Paul compares the church to a body, we ordinarily view it as an illustration of the fact that people with different personalities and abilities can learn to get along by recognizing that they can complement each other. But the apostle’s point is more radical than that. He is really saying that Christian existence is essentially social. In other words, church membership is essential to spiritual life. If we are really parts of the same body, then we need each other for our very survival. Separated from each other, members of the church have no more life than a severed body part. No organ of the body can live on its own; neither can a solitary Christian. It is a spiritual as well as a biological principle: nothing has life in isolation. So, being part of the body is not just the best environment for spiritual flourishing. Connecting to the body gives us our only chance of survival.

Paul’s description makes another point as well. In the complex reality of the church, each member not only depends on others to survive, each member acquires its identity from its relation to the others. There are two sorts of communities we belong to. There are communities we create, and there are communities that create us. My wife and I have memberships in a health club and a shopping club, I guess you’d call it. In each case, the organization exists for the private benefit of the members. We go to the health club because it has exercise and weight machines we like to use. We go to price club because it gives us good deals on the merchandise we need, and a lot of the merchandise we don’t need! These institutions are not important parts of our lives. We don’t list these memberships on our CVs. If they closed, we wouldn’t feel that we had lost something of great personal significance. They are important because we belong to them, not the other way around.

But things are quite different when it comes to other groups we belong to. The best example is our families. A family is not an organization of convenience put together to serve private, individual needs, like better deals on automobile tires. A family is something that makes us what we are. It gives us our identity. Like a family, then, the members of the church draw their identity from participating in the body of Christ. They are important because they belong to the church.

Comparing the church to a body makes another point, too. This is the fact that the church is Christ’s body. He gives the church its identity, and he is responsible for the unique kind of life it makes possible. When Jesus talked to his disciples on the night before his crucifixion, he laid out the essential principles of the life that he had come to offer them. It was a life whose central quality was love. Not the sort of love that exists in any ordinary relationships, but the kind of love that he had revealed to them. Love one another as I have loved you, he said.

From statements like this (and especially from Jesus high priestly prayer), we see that Jesus wants to bring his disciples into the circle of love that binds him to the Father. The Spirit that unites the Father and the Son also unites Christ with his followers, and it unites Christ’s followers with one another. This means that the love that binds believers to one another reflects the very love that binds the Father and the Son. The church is a community whose inner reality reflects God’s own reality. Indeed, the church is the means of bringing human beings into God’s own life.

The Spirit, then, gives the church its vital connection to Christ and makes the church his body. It creates such close contact between Christ and his people that they live in him, and he lives in them. As a result, the church shares the life that Jesus lived. Like Christ, its members are children of God, incorporated into his family. Like Christ, the church is devoted to the work of the kingdom. It lives to serve human beings, especially those in great need. Like Christ, the church exhibits self-sacrifice and compassion. Like Christ, the church encounters opposition and suffering in the world. And, perhaps most striking, the church, like Christ, reveals God to the world. Two interesting verses from John’s writings, one from the Gospel, the other from his first epistle, support this conclusion:

"No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (John 1:18).

"No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us" (1John 4:12).

The identical opening phrases suggest a similar purpose in the statements that follow. The invisible God is revealed in the life of Jesus, and in the life of the Christian community. God’s own love for humanity becomes visible in the love that Christians display toward one another. So, the church shares Christ's experiences, Christ's character, and Christ's work.

When the Spirit gives life to the Christian community, it also gives it a distinctive character. It creates an atmosphere, a mystique, all its own. Successful organizations strive to develop a strong sense of corporate identity. At Disneyland, all the workers are called "cast members," whether they are actors, salespeople, or janitors. They are told to think of themselves as being "on-stage" whenever they encounter the public. The chaplain at Harvard University tells the students that they belong to the greatest educational institution that ever existed. Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics told his legendary basketball teams that they would win simply because they were Celtics, and they proved him right with one championship after another. Leaders in every area know that an organization cannot achieve its full potential without a group spirit. So, they strive to cultivate a strong sense of identity.

It is the Holy Spirit who gives the Christian church its sense of identity. It generates the ethos, the distinctive characteristics, the sense of identity, that Christians have in common. It creates a community whose members know and care for each other, who are deeply committed to certain values, and who share a strong sense of purpose.

We have taken time to spell out the Spirit’s relation to the church because this perspective on its work is basic to any understanding of the Spirit that is faithful to the NT. Consequently, whatever people say about the Spirit’s activity, whatever they claim about their encounters with the Spirit or the power of the Spirit in their lives, it must be referred to the Spirit’s work in creating and guiding the church, the community that is Christ’s body.

The gifts of the Spirit

With this picture of the Spirit and the church in mind, we are in a position to understand the nature of spiritual gifts, as Paul’s describes them. The main term Paul uses to refer to the Spirit’s work through "mutual ministry" is charisma, meaning "gift." And for Paul the word encompasses virtually the whole of God’s saving activities—sonship, glory, covenant, giving of the law, worship and promises, justification, faith, eternal life, even Christ himself.

Paul also sees the gifts as ongoing features of the community’s life. There is no indication that the gifts were meant to last for a limited period of time. They were not given just to get the community started. To the contrary, Paul desired that the church in Corinth should have all the gifts it needed right up until the time of Christ’s return (1Cor 1,7).

Paul’s writings contain five main lists of gifts, three in 1Cor 12, if you count vs. 28 and verses 29-30 as different lists. If we look at these lists carefully, and the discussion surrounding them, a number of important characteristics emerge.

1Cor 12:7-11

  1. utterance of wisdom (insight into Gospel)
  2. knowledge (understanding of OT and Christian traditions)
  3. faith (re special circumstance)
  4. healings (not miraculous; cf. following gift)
  5. miraculous works (exorcisms)
  6. prophecy (knowing God’s will intuitively)
  7. discernment of spirits (whether from God, demon, or human opinion)
  8. tongues (glossolalia)
  9. interpretation of tongues (glossolalia)

1Cor 12:28

  1. apostles
  2. prophets
  3. teachers
  4. workers of miracles
  5. healers
  6. helpers
  7. administrators
  8. speakers in various kinds of tongues

1Cor 12:29-30

  1. apostles
  2. prophets
  3. teachers
  4. miraculous works
  5. healings
  6. tongues
  7. interpretation

Rom 12:6-8

  1. Prophecy
  2. Concrete acts of service
  3. Teaching
  4. Exhortation
  5. Financial aid
  6. Ministry of guiding
  7. Merciful actions

Eph 4:11

  1. Apostles
  2. Prophets
  3. Evangelists
  4. Pastors and teachers

An examination of these lists supports the following conclusions about the gifts.

  1. They are open-ended in character. The lists are not exhaustive. There may be other possibilities for spoken and practical ministry in the church. Paul nowhere provides a systematic or full description of the gifts available to the Christian community. Paul would recognize any instructive contribution of a constant member as a gift.

  2. They are individually, but not evenly, distributed. Each person in community receives at least one charisma for the benefit of fellows. But not all have the same gift, and some obviously have more gifts than others.

  3. They are ranked according to their benefits, not according to their appearance. The Corinthian error was to evaluate the gifts on the basis of their form, attaching greater significance to the more dramatic gifts. But Paul’s lists show that quite ordinary, practical actions are more valuable than those dramatic ones, such as glossolalia. Paul wishes to eradicate any distinction between gifts made on the basis of appearance. Instead, the gifts are graded on the basis of their effect. Those that make the most profitable contribution to the community’s growth are accorded the highest importance. As a result, certain gifts of speech predominate over those of deed.

  4. Paul gives first place to apostles because of their crucial role in the founding of the church. Perhaps the apostle possesses all the basic gifts. Second are prophets, who communicate to community those things that it needs to hear directly from God for its concrete encouragement, admonition, and direction.

  5. They are exercised on any appropriate occasion. In texts where lists of the charismata occur, the primary context for Paul’s discussion is not the "church" but the "body," not the gathering of Christians together but the local Christian community itself. So the gifts are exercised not only in church services, but also worship services. They can be exercised on other occasions when Christians are in contact with one another, although the full range of gifts to the community becomes evident only when all are assembled.

The purpose of the gifts.

What is the purpose of the Spirit’s gifts? The key word for understanding Paul’s concept of spiritual gifts is edification. The gifts are granted to individuals not primarily for their own enjoyment but for the building up of the community (1Cor 12:7, Eph 4:12). In church the service of others, not oneself, is the goal. In fact, it is precisely through seeking to fulfill the needs of others, rather than an individual quest for the charismata themselves, that various members of the community will come into a greater experience of the gifts (1Cor 14:12).

We see this basic principle in Paul’s famous statement, "all things should be done for edification" (1Cor 14:26). Therefore, gifts should only be exercised when the objective is to build up the body of Christ.

The exercise of the gifts.

If edification broadly understood is the purpose of the gifts, how should the gifts be exercised? These are the basic principles of the Spirit’s operation: balance, intelligibility, evaluation, orderliness, loving exercise (105).

  1. In a proportionate way.
    More time should be given to the more important, more fundamental, gifts, viz., the ones that promote the community’s understanding. These include prophecy and teaching and those gifts directed toward growth of the community’s understanding. These gifts promote the psychological and social harmony of the community. Still, lesser gifts should not be ignored just because others are more inherently helpful. The higher gifts should not dominate in an unbalanced way (14:29). All aspects of the church’s life should develop in proper relation to one another.

  2. Within an intelligible context.
    One of the main criteria by which contributions are judged is their intelligibility. This is particularly evident in the case of glossolalia. This gift is not without rational content, but this content is hidden from the mind of the person giving expression to it. The gift’s incommunicability, not its irrationality, makes it presence inappropriate in the gathers. See 14:18-19. Five words with my mind are better than 10,000 words in a tongue.

  3. Under the individual’s self-control.
    Self-control must characterize everyone exercising a gift, even with respect to the more spectacular gifts (tongues, spirits of prophets 14:32). Neither prophecy nor glossolalia are ecstatic phenomena that the speaker has no control over. In fact, this is the distinctive mark of the Christian exercise of charismata. Those who have the gifts are able to control them (12:2). Paul avoids all the Greek words for ecstatic experiences (the words common in Hellenistic religious circles to talk about extraordinary charismatic phenomena, especially those of an ecstatic kind): ekstasis, entheos, empneusis, enthusiamos, and probably pneumata. These words apply to people who are manipulated by idols so they have no control over what they say or do.

  4. Within a framework of love: the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit.
    This is the most basic principle of all, according to all Paul’s discussion of gifts (1Cor 13; Rom 12:8-9; Eph 4:15). All contributions must take place within framework of loving behavior among the members. The fruit of the Spirit must always accompany the gifts of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is love (Gal 5:22). Since love is not rude, does not insist on its own way, and is not jealous or boastful, it is easy to see its relevance to the previous criteria for spiritual gifts.


When we place the gifts in the context Paul provides, it is clear that there is one fundamental test their exercise must meet. They must contribute to the building of community. In Paul’s scheme of things, that is the one criterion by which every aspect of Christian practice must be evaluated. So, the gifts of the Spirit are not private experiences, they are public. And their purpose is not personal, but communal. Genuine manifestations of the Holy Spirit will build up the Christian community, strengthen the corporate life of the church, edify members in the body of Christ. That is the central goal of the Spirit’s work in the world.

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