And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. (I Corinthians 12:28)
Contemporary Friends often feel an implicit (or explicit) hierarchy hidden in discussions about spiritual gifts. The dominant culture in North America teaches individuals to be skeptical about hierarchies in general, and there is reason to be skeptical. Paul, writing to us across an abyss of generations, cultural change, language, and other obstacles, seems at times to be reinforcing this notion that some spiritual gifts are superior to others. We 21st century Friends are then quick to make the additional conclusion that people with these “superior” gifts are in some related way “superior” themselves.
My own reflections on spiritual gifts, in the silence of contemplation and individual worship, lead me to believe that an unbroken circle is a truer image for the relationship among the spiritual gifts than a ladder of hierarchy. Paul’s first, second, third are not labels of importance, but indicators of a chronological order needed to get the circle started the first time around. After that start, each gift works to advance the community’s faithful actions and to set the stage for the next gift to step in.
Viewed in this way, Apostles lay out for the community the unfolding vision of the Realm of God; they describe in inspiring ways the New World into which God is inviting all of us.
Prophets apply this vision to the condition of the people; as advocates for the Covenant Relationship between God and the faith community, they describe the life we believers are called to lead in order to do our part to make the vision come true. In particular, prophets often focus on changes we need to make in our lives together to help the vision come true.
Teachers make the word of the prophet more generally understood; they explore the nuanced details of how to meld heart and head to guide an integrated life.
Those with inner power help do the “hands on” work that changes the community and helps bend the world toward gospel order. Those who heal and aid others keep the community strong for accomplishing its tasks. The leaders and administrators organize and coordinate the activities of the community so that every person can easily find the place and work where their own efforts can be most effective.
Those with the gift of tongues articulate what has happened to the community and how God has been at work in and through them. Through journals, oral histories, and tales told around the pot luck dinner table, these Friends tell the stories that help us all remember who we are as a people of faith, and how we have lived into that faith and brought its promises into reality over the years.
Understanding that story enables the Apostles to step forward again, to articulate how the vision is always changing, always moving ahead of the community to show the way. They articulate in new words and with new insights God’s invitation in the present day – and the circle begins again.
Viewed this way, it is clear that every spiritual gift depends on every other spiritual gift being exercised in the right way at the right time. Every gift is essential. No gift is adequate (or even sustainable) in isolation; all are needed for the community to thrive. When we recognize a gift in ourselves or in another, then, we are not uncovering a covert hierarchy but seeing another part of the circle demonstrating the nature of God’s love for us all: each person is marvelously different from each other person, and each person is vitally necessary in order for each other person to complete their own tasks for God, community, and the Creation at large.
(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the apprentice authors, and not official statements of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) or Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) of the Religious Society of Friends.)