Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Gifts in Romans 12

I’m sure that, at some point, I had read in Romans 12 of “gifts” and perhaps heard someone preach or teach from chapter 12 about "the gifts." However, I certainly would not have thought of Romans 12 when Christian conversation turned to “spiritual gifts.” 1 Corinthians 12 would always come to mind when the subject of gifts came up, or even Ephesians 4:11. But here we are in Romans 12 right now in our Sunday School class, and there they are: the gifts.

Is there something different about the Romans 12 gifts, in substance or at least in emphasis? I think there is. When Paul writes of God’s gracious gifting in Romans 12, he focuses on putting those gifts to work and not simply on the idea of our being gifted.

Here are verses 6 through 8 in the NIV (2011)

6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

This is no mere list of gifts; this is a call to them to put them to work in a way that will be effective. If I may, by way of example, paraphrase the reference to leadership in 8b, Paul writes this: “If it is your gift is to lead, then for God’s sake start leading!” Gifts, then, are not about status, as in “the young man is so gifted,” gifts are about putting them to immediate and effective use to build up the people of God.

Maybe Paul had run out of patience with people who claimed that their status entitled them to do essentially nothing except congratulate others who shared that status and dispute with those who did not. “I am a Jew, therefore I am chosen of God [and you are not], therefore treat me accordingly.” Or “I am a Roman Citizen [and you are not, you are a conquered people], therefore I have these special and exclusive rights and privileges.” But Paul is not about status or being when it comes to the people of God, he is about functioning or doing.

I began to think of the ways that we tend to gravitate toward status and away from function. This reflects a law of our fallen world, and that is inertia. We tend to run down and come to a stop. An illustration that comes to mind is the complaints of a young couple in counseling. There, before the counselor, the young man complains that his wife is not a wife in the bedroom any more. To which she responds that he is not a husband outside the bedroom, that is, he does not function in that capacity in their marriage and the main locus of that functioning, to her mind at least, is not in the bed. It is in taking care of the family.

“Husband” is a good word to illustrate the point, because “husband” is a very strong, though much less used, verb. It is not just a noun. To “husband” is to care for, to nurture, to cultivate. No man is worth marrying if he won’t do those things for his wife and family. By the same token, the writer does not say in Genesis 2:20 that Adam needed a wife, Adam, who was hard at work "naming" the animals, that is cataloging them and learning about them to the end of being God's own agent of nurture. Adam needed someone to help him. In Adam's situation, Scripture observes, “there was not found an help meet for him.” (KJV. “Helpmate” is a corruption of “help meet”.) There immediately follows God’s creation of Eve, the divinely appropriate helper. At the risk of having my feminist credentials revoked, the Scripture says that being a good wife is about helping, as it says that being a good husband is about nurturing. Both of which, I would finally argue, amount to about the same thing.

So when Paul writes about gifts in Romans 12, he writes about what God gives each of his people so that they can nurture, help, and serve the needs of others. These others are those already in the body of Christ and and also those outside of that body's thoroughly unifying, defining but always and often mysteriously permeable and beckoning cell wall.

Teeing off on Romans 12, I brainstormed this idea of nouns versus verbs. Here’s my list:

Being vs. doing

Status vs. function

Feeling vs. acting

Transformed vs. Transforming (that is, in transforming the world)

Saved vs. saving (same idea as transforming – evangelizing)

Redeemed vs. redeeming (same idea again – as in “we are involved in God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ")

Gifted vs. gifting (same idea again - as in "gifting to or generously sharing our gifts with others"

Leader vs. leading

Servant vs. serving

Lover vs. loving

Hoarding vs. investing

Potential vs. realization

Husband vs. husbanding

Helpmeet vs. helping

Getting a degree vs. Preparing for service

Punching a clock vs. accomplishing a task

Billing by the hour vs. value billing

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