Over the last four decades, a heated controversy has raged in the church over the question of spiritual gifts. It has been my experience that much of the disagreement among believers regarding spiritual gifts often finds its basis in a conflicting conversational style. That is to say, two believers may actually have similar beliefs and experiences regarding the gifts, but because they use different theological jargon, they mistakenly conclude that their beliefs and experiences are worlds apart. I liken this phenomenon to that of medicine and medicine labels.
Suppose, for example, that your doctor prescribes a certain medicine for a stomach disorder from which you suffer. Through a careless mistake, the medicine is labeled improperly. Instead of labeling it “Senna,” as it should be, the medicine bottle is mislabeled “Sopor.” Not knowing the difference, you take the medicine and it aids in your recovery. Yet when you tell others how this medicine (Sopor) has helped you, they are dumfounded because Sopor does not relieve stomach problems.
Now shift the scenario. Suppose that your doctor tells you that you need to begin taking Valium. When you receive the prescription, you are given the wrong medicine—it’s actually Ritalin. Regrettably, the label reads “Valium.” The consequences would be disastrous. You, in effect, would be deceived by the label, thinking you were ingesting a certain medication when in fact you were taking something else.
This analogy is an apt metaphor for the conversational barriers that often bring confusion to discussions about spiritual gifts. The medicine is analogous to the gifts, while the label is analogous to how we describe and define them.
Oftentimes, Christians will actually have tasted the same medicine. But because one is using a Pentecostal label and the other is using a Reformed label to describe their experience, confusion and marginalization over the issue are the net effects. At the same time, just because a person may use Biblical language to describe his or her experience does not insure that the experience is valid. The label can be correct and the medicine wrong. Let me pose an example to illustrate how this fleshes out. Suppose Pete and Roger are carrying on a dialogue about the gift of prophecy. Pete is a Pentecostal. Roger is Reformed.
Pete believes the gift of prophecy exists today and claims to have it. Pete describes his gift with a Pentecostal label. Thus his explanation of the gift is punctuated with expressions like “revelation,” “thus saith the Lord,” “God told me,” “I felt led,” “God showed me,” etc. Roger believes that “Divine revelation” is no longer given to the church and that the gift of prophecy ceased with the closing of the NT canon. Pete shares with Roger that he has given people “personal prophecies.”
In describing these experiences, Pete uses the King James expression “thus saith the Lord.” When Roger asks Pete about the content of these “prophecies,” he discovers that they were mainly general exhortations and had no real impact on the people Pete delivered them to.
Roger is both skeptical and turned-off by this. You see, Roger rejects Pentecostal theology. And he does not employ standard charismatic jargon to describe his experiences. But he does have a vital relationship with God. In addition, Roger often receives “thoughts” and “burdens” to exhort, challenge, and direct others in their walk with God. He also senses things about people that go beyond his natural reasoning powers.
In one instance, Roger was awakened from sleep one night to write a letter to a friend who had left the Lord. After prayerfully writing the letter, he mailed it the next day. When his friend received the letter, he notified Roger and told him that it was exactly what he needed to hear. As a result, Roger’s friend was restored to the Lord.
Roger was exercising the genuine gift of prophecy through his letter (1 Cor. 14:3, 24-25), but he feels uncomfortable using the word “prophecy” to describe it. Because Roger fails to describe the letter with the charismatic accents that mark Pete’s description of prophecy, it never occurs to Pete that Roger has in fact prophesied by the Spirit of God.
The fact of the matter is that Roger has operated in the gift of prophecy. But because of his Reformed doctrine concerning the gifts, Roger fails to call it by that label.
On the other hand, while Pete may use the correct label when describing the gift (prophecy), he does not own the true medicine himself. Instead, Pete appears to have substituted his own good intentions, ideas, and zeal with the genuine gift of prophecy. In a word, Roger has tasted the correct medicine, but he has used the wrong label. Pete has tasted the wrong medicine, but has used the right label.
This illustration demonstrates how disagreements over the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are often rooted in varying conversational styles. The principle of the medicine and the medicine label lies at the root of many other controversies regarding Christian experience. Such divergent labels that are commonplace are as follows:
“The baptism of the Holy Ghost” vs. “the fullness or empowering of the Spirit.” “Illumination” or “spiritual insight” vs. “revelation.” “Faith healing” vs. “Divine healing.” “Delivering a message” vs. “bringing a word from the Lord.” Feeling “burdened” or “exercised” vs. being “led.” “Following a spiritual instinct” vs. “following the Spirit.” Having an “unction” vs. having “an anointing.” “Ministering life” vs. “giving Christ” or “bringing the Lord.”
These are some of the semantic differences that Christians have when describing spiritual experiences. The common mistake of confusing the label with the medicine ought to urge us to re-evaluate the language we use when discussing supernatural phenomena and spiritual experiences. Rather than hone in on the specific rhetoric that one employs, it’s wiser to seek to hear and understand the reality of another’s experience—realizing that the person may describe it in a way that is foreign (and sometimes irritating) to our ears. As we seek to do this, we can better learn Jesus Christ from one another.
Note: I sketch out the three major spiritual conversational styles that Christians use in Revise Us Again.