Many of you have attended a class at church designed to help you discern your spiritual gifts. Thankfully, over the years, excellent biblical resources have been produced that equip believers to discover and develop the gifts God has given each of us for service. But what Scripture has revealed about our service in God's covenant community was as counter-cultural in the ancient world as it is for some people today. Why?
From Genesis to Revelation, some of the most unlikely people possessed some of the most extraordinary gifts. From elderly Sarah, whom God equipped to give birth to God's covenant people; to David, a young shepherd who rescued Israel; to Deborah who served as prophet and judge, God gives enormous capacity to people, not according to human standards or expectations, but according to God's purposes.
Scripture explains that every person who comes to faith receives from God spiritual gifts or abilities. These gifts are a sign of God's presence or power in our lives equipping us for service. Because the gifts come from God's Spirit, they are supernatural and an extension of God's power active in our lives.
The gifts he gave are these: some are to be apostles; some prophets; some evangelists; some pastors and teachers. These gifts are to make God's people better able to do their work for him and to make the body of Christ become stronger (Eph. 4:11-12, Worldwide English New Testament).
Because it is God who provides the spiritual gifts, we do not choose which gift we receive. The spiritual gifts are chosen for us by our all-knowing and loving Creator. Because of this, we may receive from God a spiritual gift which is unexpected and also challenging, given human prejudice. However, Scripture is quite clear that our spiritual gifts are accompanied by a responsibility to God. We are to "fan into flames the gift within us," according to 2 Timothy 1:4-7, recognizing that our spiritual gifts are to be developed and used for God's glory (1 Pet. 4:7-11, Rom. 12:3-8, Eph. 4:7-16, 1 Cor. 12:1-31.)
When Paul addresses the spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8, 1 Cor. 12:7-11, Eph. 4:11-12) he does not indicate that these gifts are given according to gender, ethnicity, or class. If leadership and authority were limited to males or people of a specific ethnic background (as has been argued by some Christians throughout history) would not Paul make that known in these passages addressing spiritual gifts? Is this not the most likely place to make clear the gender limitations of leadership? Yet, where Paul addresses the spiritual gifts, he omits any limitations of leadership based on gender. Furthermore, the Bible tells us of women whose spiritual gifts enabled them to serve beside Paul as evangelists, prophets, pastors, teachers, and apostles (Eph. 4:11-12, I Cor. 12:28a).
If Scripture is intended to inform Scripture, then what is unclear must be understood through what is clear. It is clear that Junia was a female apostle (Rom. 16:7) and that women served as prophets who spoke in the churches (Luke 36 & ff, Acts 2:17, Acts 21:9, 1 Cor. 11:5). Women were evangelists (Mark 7:24-30, John 4:5-42, John 20:17); deacons (Rom. 16:1-2); teachers (Acts 18:24-26, Col. 3:16) and leaders of house churches (Acts 16:13-15, 40; Acts 18: 1-3, 18, 24-26; Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 1:11; Col. 4:15; Phil. 1-2; and 2 John 1:1). Paul said that women like Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis "worked hard in the Lord" (Rom. 16:12). To "work hard in the Lord" is how Paul describes his own missionary work. Euodia and Syntyche are said to have served as evangelists or coworkers in the church in Philippi (Phil. 4:2-3).
Countering the patriarchy and ethnic prejudice of the ancient world, Scripture makes clear that gender does not limit service in Christ's new covenant community. The spiritual gifts are given to us, not according to cultural expectations, but according to God's divine purposes for building up the church. We exclude the gifts of women at our own peril.
Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality. Join her this July 24-26 and consider these themes more closely at CBE's 2009 conference, titled "Are Men from Mars and Women from Venus? A Biblical Response to Gender Difference."