(by Lisa Robinson)
A while ago, I addressed in A Theology of More a mentality that has a continual quest for greater external manifestations that demonstrates that God is active in the lives of his people, both individually and corporately. The quest is usually part and parcel of alignment with Charismatic/Pentecostal theology and the belief that people today should experience the full continuation of gifts, miracles, signs and wonders, etc. similar to what was experienced when the church was first implemented. I myself, spent a number of years as a Charismatic. That means I was a full blown adherent of the continuation of spiritual gifts, believed in the 2nd work of grace known as the baptism in the Spirit and was fully committed to the language used to express what I believed the Charismatic movement offered in terms of reasonable expectation for Christian life, worship and service.
Since that time, I have reverted my position, not because of experience or personal reasons. But because I began to consider how the book of Acts was read in context of God’s redemptive program outlined in scripture. It was also because I began to consider the purpose of the gifts in relation to the exaltation of Christ and the edification of the church. Most significantly, it was because I began to consider how certain gifts were endemic to the foundation that was being laid with the implementation of the church (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 3:10), specifically through the apostolic witness to the revelation of Christ (John 14:26; John 16:13-15; Acts 1:2-8; Hebrews 1:1-3)
Hopefully, I will be writing more about this in a separate post, specifically with respect to the foundation and authority of the apostles. But for the purposes of this post, I would like my Charismatic friends to understand that there are good and valid reasons that cessationists hold to the position that some gifts were revelatory in nature and foundational to the establishment of the church. But cessationists believe they are not needed today since the revelation of Christ is complete and transmitted through the apostolic witness which is inscribed with the completed canon. The signs and wonders as described in Acts are associated with this apostolic witness. Some believe that the gifts that were revelatory in nature are permanently extinguished while others, including myself, believe that such gifts are not needed with the completed canon but can be continued in places where Bibles are absent. Cessationists are not putting God in a box, only recognizing the box that is believed God himself created. Cessationists do not negate the living and active role of the Holy Spirit who indwells every believer and who commands to fill every believer such that His control and influence is experienced. Nor do most negate the existence of miracles and healing. I know I certainly don’t and can’t given contemporary evidence, especially in remote parts of the world.
However, the point of this post is not to discuss distinctions in cessationism vs. continuationism, nor to argue about which position is right. Much ink has been spilled in Michael’s comprehensive series here. My friends over at To Be Continued write extensively on this topic and have addressed some of there concerns with his position. While I am no longer aligned with the Charismatic/Pentecostal theology I once embraced, I do seek to find common ground and focus on things shared in common. In fact, I have backed away from challenging the continuatist position by recognizing that if one is edified and experiences Christian growth through the use of some things I do not consider essential for the church today, then who am I to quibble.
However, I would like to address an attitude that comes with the belief that Charismatic expressions must be part of the fabric of the church and that anything less is not sufficient. It is the idea that the ones who are aligned with this movement somehow have something more than those who do not. Those who don’t are missing it out on something. Now, I don’t think it is intentional nor can I make a general accusation of uncharitable or prideful motives or actions in relation to adherence to full blown Charismatic expressions. I don’t think that my Charismatic and Pentecostal brothers and sisters seek to create a two-tiered system in which they have something more than what non-Charismatics have.
But the by-product of this theology can create such a mentality. I have not only witnessed the attitude, but once embraced it myself. I also think that certain language that is used only fosters this divide. I have noticed both while I was involved and having stepped away, is that beliefs are ensconced in language that I believe creates an air of division and a tiered system of Christianity that can elevate those aligned with Charismatic/Pentecostal belief and practices over non-Charismatics.
One such term that I increasingly find problematic and fosters the two-tiered Christianity is “full-gospel”. The term has come to be used of as an adjective for alignment with Charismatic/Pentecostal beliefs. The implications of the term is that those who don’t embrace the full continuation of gifts today have only part of the gospel. Again, I am not saying that is the accusation but it certainly is the inference. I recall when I was seriously considering seminary and initially was looking into Gordon-Conwell in Boston and Fuller in CA. I had run into a couple who were at one time mentors to my former pastor from the last Charismatic church I was involved in. They discouraged Gordon-Conwell and indicated Fuller was the better way to go since it was “full gospel” and Gordon-Conwell was not. The implications were that Gordon-Conwell was insufficient. I can only imagine what must be thought of me being at DTS. Perhaps it might be considered woefully inadequate, and yet it was the only program I found that provided a solid instruction in all 66 books of the Bible, which are required for every student.
Another term that I have found gets tossed around a bit is “spirit-filled church”. Similar to “full gospel” it references a church that embraces the Charismatic expression of gifts. So in other words, the spirit-filled church is one where there might be a demonstration of tongues and interpretation or prophecies given or other Charismatic expressions. The implication of this terminology, is that corporate gatherings are spirit-filled if they embrace these expressions. Otherwise, the inference is that congregations where this does not occur is not spirit-filled and again casts a divide between those that have more and those that are insufficient.
Unfortunately, I think the terminology does a disservice to the Biblical evidence of what constitutes a spirit-filled congregation. All believers are indwelt by the Spirit, given spiritual gifts and if walking according to the Spirit, should yield the fruit of the Spirit. The point of corporate gatherings is for members to worship, to learn, to grow and to serve. If believers are gathered together, serving this function and building each other up in love, then I would suggest that is what constitutes a spirit-filled church. Michael Svigel, DTS professor and author, did an excellent piece on this topic here. The bottom line is just because a congregation embraces the continued use of all gifts, does not necessarily make a spirit-filled church nor does not embracing the continued use of all gifts make a congregation any less spirit-filled.
A common rebuttal that I have heard in reference to the more of Charismatic beliefs is that if the church is meant to have full use of gifts today, and if some of the gifts are not practiced, then doesn’t that mean a congregation is experiencing less than what they should? By inference that means the ones who do embrace all gifts, experience more. Again, I hope to address some specifics of cessationism in a separate post. But I do not believe that is the case, especially since what is sufficient has been provided, as noted in the previous Theology of More post – the sufficiency of Christ, the sufficiency of the Spirit and the sufficiency of the Word. It is up to the leadership to foster growth and discipleship and every believer in the Christian community based on what has already been provided.
Moreover, I don’t think that the full exercise of gifts necessarily provides something more. Based on personal experience as one who has spent much time within the Charismatic movement, I have witnessed countless so-called tongues and interpretations and numerous prophecies. In general, these were not bad experiences. In fact they were good and most were delivered in a very orderly fashion. But to be honest, what was delivered could have been easily addressed through a powerful sermon or individual exhortation. In fact, I have been more edified through good expository preaching of scripture than through my previous experience. Moreover, I believe these expressions can create confusion since the validity of truthfulness must be discerned as to what is legitimately from the Lord. Whereas, there is no question regarding the preaching of scripture, interpreted appropriate to God’s revelation. Now I am not saying there is no edification to be found if one gives a tongue and interpretation or a prophecy in a corporate gathering. But what I am saying is that based on what has been provided to the church, the ones who don’t embrace Charismatic expression of gifts are no less instructed, no less edified and no less spiritual than those who do.
I recognize that the tensions of cessationism vs. continuationism will probably be around until Christ returns. There are those who believe that all gifts are for today. There are those who believe they aren’t. And there are a number in between. But my plea with this post is for all who trust in Christ as savior to recognize that everyone has been given what is necessary for growth and service (2 Peter 1:3; 2 Timothy 3:17). Continuationists do not have something more nor are cessationists missing out on what they need.
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