There are two main passages in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul in his letters describes the church as the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12:1-13 he says that the church is to function and grow as Christ’s Body through each person using the spiritual gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit. This is in fulfilment of Joel’s prophesy quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon: ‘In these last days, God says: I will pour out my Spirit on all people . . . sons and daughters . . . young men . . . old men.’
Paul talks of these spiritual gifts, given by the grace of God, as like the arms and legs and eyes and ears that are important to the functioning of a human body. In Christ’s Body, we are all either an arm or a leg or some other part. The emphasis is on each person receiving and using their gift(s). Otherwise, the whole church is poorer. We minister through our spiritual gifts, working in unity to bring glory to God and serve in his world. We are not meant to relate to God just as isolated individuals but as a community of believers.
Paul gives a list of spiritual gifts in these passages. Each list is a bit different, so it looks like they are examples, rather than meant to cover everything. But no distinction is made between people of different status, ethnic background or gender. All receive at least one gift and have the responsibility to develop and use it. This includes women. In fact, in the 1 Corinthians passage, Paul urges us to especially encourage in using their gift those not thought of favourably by others. And in Romans, he warns us not to think too highly of ourselves, whatever gift or gifts we have been given. It is God’s grace alone that we have them. Rather, we are to pursue cooperation and service through the Holy Spirit.
Later in Ephesians 4 (the last letter we have from Paul before he was martyred), he says a bit more about the roles played by different people in the church, but again the teaching is that there is one Body and one Holy Spirit and all are to work together to reach unity and knowledge in the fullness of Jesus Christ for the good of the Body. In Colossians and Ephesians, Jesus is described as the head of this Body, the church. All flows undeserved from him, at his choosing and with his timing.
Sometimes people ask what the relationship is between our natural talents and these Holy Spirit-given spiritual gifts? We need to remember that it is the same God who gives both the talents and the spiritual gifts, so it is likely that they are related. But Christ determines what is needed in his Body at any one time and place, and so he has the final say. We may have a creative ability, for example, but if it is not what God is calling us to do in that time and place, then it will not be our spiritual gift. If it is our spiritual gift at that season in our life, however, we and others will be able to recognise that because it will come with spiritual power, and others will be blessed through it.
A helpful terminology is to call natural talents, creation gifts. And call spiritual gifts, grace gifts. All gifting is Christ’s to bestow and we are urged to respect and encourage one another in use of our gifts. Ask someone who knows you well what creation and grace gifts they see God using in you.
For more on spiritual gifts for all, see
Holding up half the sky: A biblical case for women leading and teaching in the church by Graham Joseph Hill (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020)
And for stories of male leaders impacted by observing spiritual gifts of leadership in women, read
How I changed my mind about women in leadership: Compelling stories from prominent evangelicals by Alan F. Johnson (Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan, 2010)
Questions in this series:
1. How do we read the Bible to decide what to do today?
2. What principles of interpreting Scripture should we apply to understand the passages that are used to limit women’s leadership in the church?
3. What roles did women play in the early church?
4. Did Jesus have female disciples?
5. Does the Holy Spirit give spiritual gifts to all Christians?
6. How can men pave the way for women to have greater opportunities in the church?
7. Why is it important to hear women preach and teach Scripture?
8. I am uncomfortable with the fact that women are restricted from leading and teaching men in my church. What advice can you give to help me raise this issue at my church?