One Reason I’m Not a Huge Fan of Spiritual Gifts Testing

Ready for it?

Here it is: The church at Rome did not have Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

Take a gander at the list in Romans 12:6-8.  Now look at 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 and 12:28.  Different list isn’t it?  Now we in the 21st century have the advantage of going through all of these various spiritual gifts listed by the apostles and in then compiling a handy list of all the spiritual gifts in the Bible.

Once you have the list of these gifts you ask people various questions to find out what they are passionate about and then you match their passions and experiences with the biblical lists of spiritual gifts.  And in all honesty it’s probably closer to say that a spiritual sounding personality test emerges.  Because let’s be honest an unbeliever could really like singing in church.  And a very moral unbeliever may really get his kicks from serving people.  Nonetheless…

Roll back to the church at Rome that receives Paul’s letter.  There are only eight things listed.  Nothing about discernment, wisdom, evangelism, miracles, healing, tongues, interpretation of tongues, faith, apostles, and some of the others that crop up on these inventories.  So what did the poor chap who has the gift of discernment do in Rome?  Did he move to Corinth where they’d really use, acknowledge, and appreciate his gift?  Did he just try to go with some of his secondary gifts like teaching?

Is it possible that Romans 12:3-8 isn’t an encouragement to find your spiritual gift but it’s actually something else?  Is it possible that the early church did not run people through spiritual gifts inventories?

If Not Spiritual Gifts Testing, Then What? 

I don’t see the church of Rome sitting around taking tests trying to figure out where they are to serve in the local church.  Nor do I see Paul’s encouragement here in Romans to be about the business of assessing their spiritual gifts, find out which one or two of these they have and then do them.  I see it much less complicated.  Let me give you an example.

As I’m writing this one of my good friends, Jason, has a medical issue with his face.  Without giving away all of his medical history I will just say that it’s a very painful malady that will require him to get surgery later this month.  I love Jason dearly.  When I see that he is hurting my heart wells up within me to help him.  But here’s the deal.  I really really want to serve him but I’m going to do it really awkwardly because “acts of service” isn’t my spiritual bent.

Yet there are other people in our church that when somebody like Jason is hurting they immediately know what to do to provide comfort and service.  Why?  Well, because that’s their spiritual gift.  Me?  When Jason is hurting I pray for him, I exhort him, I might lead others to help, or even somehow teach because that is where my spiritual giftedness lies.

Let’s use Romans 12 to imagine Paul speaking to our church concerning Jason.  “Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought.  You know your level of faith.  Don’t try to pretend that you are a superhero in the faith and that you have all the answers to pain and suffering if you’ve only been saved for about 3 weeks.  But also if you’ve had an experience like this don’t pretend that you’re an idiot and can’t help.  You know what God has done in your life.  Respond accordingly.  We all have different gifts and roles in the body.  God makes it all move together in Christ.  Guys, we know that Jason really needs his church right now.  You know what to do…”

Now at this point when he says, “You know what to do” a different thing wells up inside of each of us.  For some they say, “ah, yes I’ll bake him a cake”.  For others, “oh, yes I’ll pray for him”.  For somebody else they say, “right I’ll organize a group of people to throw a benefit dinner”.  Another guy says, “ Janet, give me the check book”.  And yet one other person says, “I’m going to go hang out with Jason and give him some encouragement”.  And yet another guy writes an article about spiritual gifts and thinks that in some way it might help his buddy Jason.

And that’s what Paul is saying in Romans 12:4-8.  When the hammer drops with a “you know what to do” we do it according to the way God has gifted us.  And we do it with a Spirit-motivated attitude.

Serve the church.  Serve our community.  You know what to do…

This will hopefully make even more sense in part 2 when we look at how spiritual gifts testing can actually be crippling to a church’s discipleship and service.


  1. PAUL W FOLTZ DD says


    • Dale Pugh says

      And the “caps lock” button on the left hand side of your keyboard regulates your font size. Try it.

    • Greg Harvey says

      In spite of the caps–which by tradition on the Internet are interpreted as yelling and considered rude (plus it’s harder to scan all caps)–I fundamentally agree with this comment. But they are mentioned in the Bible and knowledge and specificity is given to us so we will understand at least a portion of the mystery of spiritual gifts.

      My main problem is that spiritual gift inventories invariably lead to assumptions as to limitations on spiritual gifts when I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is in no way limited except by divine decision (in your words “sovereignty”). If God chooses to stack all of the gifts into a very small group it can function as if each member is extraordinarily talented. And this isn’t just a mental capability but I believe it also includes true spiritual awareness (the kind that spiritually dead people demonstrate in very limited ways and also tend to “modulate” via sin and pride to be destructive rather than constructive to “a body”.)

      I also dislike the pigeonholing and it’s similarity to psychological profile testing and the Greek “humors” temperament categorization that periodically fads its way through Christian groups as if it is a variant of gift inventories.

      But I believe based on what the Bible says and rather unexpected experiences in my life that spiritual gifts are real, active, and effective in both the local church and in communities where the local church is active including community organizations that have saved leadership and workplaces where believers lead by the principles (not law or rules) of the Bible. I also believe that a highly motivated believer who is both well educated/trained AND consistently demonstrates the fruits of the Spirit might be more effective in leadership because spiritual gifting underlines both the motivation and the self-preparation.

      But it isn’t a game and turning it into one will lead to cynicism. These gifts are a sacred ministry by the Holy Spirit through the individual believer to the congregation for its construction which means they are effective beyond the boundary of “just the saints” in who is effected (not given the gift) by them. The often very effective disaster relief work of the state conventions and the NAMB is an excellent example of giftedness providing common grace.

      And make no mistake: human efforts to channel resources are gifts from the Holy Spirit, too: the gift of administration. God in my experience might coordinate separate efforts to produce a miraculous result, but usually a leader for the moment is front and center within any specific effort.

    • Christiane says

      The ‘lists’ given in sacred Scripture are not meant to be exhaustive, no. So you are on to something very important, BILL MAC.

  2. John Wallace says

    Thanks, Mike.

    In my experience, spiritual gifts testing was really a corrective to an older system in which people were shoehorned into church-sanctioned positions. I once served as pastor of a small church that had dozens of positions identified in their official documents. Every position HAD to be filled every year. The result was that some church members ended up filling three or four positions, a couple or three of which they had little motivation to actively engage. I remember the recruitment drives when potential volunteers were told, “It’s really not much work.”, “They only meet twice a year.”, etc.

    When I tried to steer the church to a simpler, more flexible ministry-based system that would allow people to serve in areas of their passion, I met resistance from those who claimed, “That would consolidate too much authority in fewer places!” The loudest complaints came from those who served on multiple committees and used their positions to control virtually every decision in the church, even through they contributed very little to the church’s ministry.

    Spiritual gift testing isn’t perfect and it’s usually unreliable but it can serve as a corrective in churches that have functioned for decades in highly-structured, sometimes oppressive, systems. It can have the effect of empowering those who have served silently with their passions under a bush to speak up and challenge the status quo.

    • says


      Thanks for bringing this perspective. What you mention here is one of the benefits of things like spiritual gifts testing. In my third part I mention some of the benefits and I think you’ve shown one of them here. What has happened, though, is that spiritual gifts testing has almost become an oppressive regime in itself. Some have replaced one with another.

  3. says

    Thanks for this post, it’s awesome. A buddy and I were just talking about this, and how we have created these tools and then try to control we also try to manipulate people into having the “right” gift. Brilliant article!

  4. says

    I’ve often wondered how such a survey, which measures interests and inclinations, can be an accurate “spiritual” survey when non-believers can get results that could be usefull to them in making job or volunteer choices.

    What makes them specifically “spiritual” rather than just personality or character surveys?

  5. says

    Good post, Mike. The inventories are church parlor games in my view, sort of like personality inventories. Most pastors recognize that there are true believers in both of these (including one that melds both) in their congregations who have to be handled carefully. Generally, these are harmless and might have limited value in helping church members consider the concepts.

    …of course, Gothard had it down to a science with lengthy descriptions and lists.

  6. says

    1 John 4:1

    While I think much of spiritual gifts testing is motivated more out of an attempt to get people involved who don’t have a clue how to be involved, I think one reason some engage in the testing of people’s spiritual gifts is to refocus some people who are doing things they aren’t gifted in because no one else is doing them.

    It’s a matter epistemology and discernment. How do we know what someone is called to do? In other words, if we just took someone at their word that they are called to do a thing because we had no method for determining whether they should or shouldn’t perform some function, then it lends itself to poorly administered ministry. Leaving discernment up to each one without an objective standard without recognizing that we are sinful people in need of checks and balances is dangerous. It’s why we have elders and/or deacon boards. Even the pastor needs accountability.

    Now, I’m not saying that the way spiritual gifts testing is often done is the way it should be done. Frankly, I don’t have a good suggestion otherwise. Perhaps this is the reason why 20% of the people do 80% of the work in most churches.

    Paul’s purpose for Romans was to unify the Jewish and gentile believers so he could use Rome as a base of operations for reaching Spain. The Romans 12 passage was the same argument Paul made to the Corinthians (chapters 12 and 13) for the same purpose. The overarching argument is that God made us different from each other for a reason, but that he intends these differences to work together for his purposes. So we are to be unified in our differences by the common bond of Christian love and devotion to God. If we take our discernment of spiritual gifts out of that context, we fail. So whether we test in a very rigid objective way or a more organic way, we must include the biblical context in which they are given as foundational. Otherwise we also fail to follow John’s admonitions on how to determine if the gifts are merely talents being used with some ill desire or genuine gifts of the Spirit.