Paul told the Corinthians to “eagerly seek the best gifts.” That is in the context of his lengthy discussion of the gift of tongues. But it led me to ask, “What is the greatest gift of the Spirit?”

Now, God’s greatest gift clearly is his son, Jesus. But Jesus was not a “gift of the Spirit.” Quite the opposite. The Spirit was His gift to humanity. So, what is the greatest gift of the Spirit? Now Scripture has three different lists of the gifts of the Spirit: in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4. They are similar, but not identical, making it difficult to rank the gifts. Besides which, I contend that the greatest gift of the Spirit is not in any of the three lists. Rather, the lists are themselves within the greatest gift–the Bible.

Yes, as noted, Jesus is the greatest gift of God, but it is from the Bible that we get most of what we know about Him. From the earliest times, God’s Spirit moved men to communicate His love to humanity. The scriptures testify of Jesus, and confirm Him as Messiah, Savior, and God.

But who decided which books belong in the Bible, and which do not? The answer to that question is not as clear-cut as we might like, and more than a little surprising. Just because the Bible claims to be the Word of God is insufficient proof, else we would be compelled to accept every text, every person, that claimed to be inspired. And we don’t. Oddly enough, the answer is hidden in those three words.

Once, when presenting to a group of Christians (mostly not Adventist church members) on spiritual gifts, I was asked, “What about the gift of rebuke?”

“The gift of rebuke?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “We had someone in our church who claimed to have the gift of rebuke!”

I responded by saying I believed I had met a number of people who thought they had that gift, but as it was not included in any of the lists in Scripture, I had reservations that it actually is a gift of the Spirit. I may have also said it was something for which the supply was much greater than the demand.

In more recent years, I have encountered a number of individuals who claimed the gift of discernment, which they then employed in discerning when and whom to rebuke. But what about it? If a sincere person claims a spiritual gift, does that mean they have it? And if not, how do we know?

The answer is relatively simple, but often unsettling: gifts of the Spirit must be ratified by the Body. The Church decides. That’s how we got the canon of Scripture. The total process took a long time, but it boils down to this: a series of committees voted on which books belonged and which did not.  The church decided. The Body ratified the greatest gift of the Spirit.

Most of us would like something more. . . well, more divinely authoritative. A list from God, or something. Of course, mere humans would have to decide if the list actually came from God. That’s how God works with people. He doesn’t dictate, doesn’t coerce, doesn’t preempt; He gives mere humans a crucial role. So, whether it’s the gift of rebuke or discernment, or the Bible itself, the Body has the final say.

Note: none of this changes the facts of whether or not the Spirit gave some gift; it does, however, change whether or not that gift is authoritative for that group.

The Bible is authoritative for all Christians. But not for non-Christians. That’s why, until a person accepts the Bible as authoritative, our discussions with them should focus on what’s called “natural theology.” With other Christians, we can cite the Bible as authority. Do you see where this is going?

The Adventist Church has ratified Ellen White’s gift of prophecy. Her writings can be authoritative within the church. But not outside. Those outside the denomination have not accepted her as authority, so it is inappropriate to cite her as authority to them.

It might help to think of it this way. Different states have different speed limits on major highways. The people of that state, through their representatives, have accepted that speed limit. When traveling through, say, Pennsylvania, it does not help to quote the speed limit of New Mexico. In the same way, quoting an authority from a one denomination or faith community, while it may be informative, carries no weight in another faith community.

Think about it. How would you react to a quotation by Confucius or Buddha in a sermon in your church? It might be informative, perhaps even inspirational, but rarely would Christians see a statement by either man as authoritative.

Some will have noted that I said Ellen White’s writings can be authoritative. “Wait a minute,” you may be tempted to say, “if the Body has ratified her gift, wouldn’t we say her writings are authoritative, rather than can be?”

An excellent question, which I’ll take up next time.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.