Controversy is like a social hemorrhoid that will flare up on a regular basis & need to be cooled and soothed (I almost used the term strange anal fire but I thought better of it).  Some controversies are uglier than others. The worst kind of ugly controversy is the kind that might have been avoided because it wasn’t entirely necessary. Usually the culprit is misunderstanding, failure to define terms, or generally sloppy reactionism. When the internet was set ablaze with the anointing flame of controversy last week over the “Strange Fire” Conference in So-Cal, I had to wonder if this had the makings of one of those misunderstandings and failures to make responsible distinctions.

And in large measure I fear that this was just the case. As the smoke from the temple clears, I think there is a lesson to learn from this. The controversy was not just a quiet charismatic-cessationist stare-down. It was at times noisy and contentious. Names were dropped, reputations put on the line, and personal feelings bruised. Unfortunately there will likely remain some rifts between prominent persons and between prominent churches over the affair. And it may have been avoidable.

The biblical and theological debate about the gifts aside, wisdom demands something from us when it comes to a big public cyber-spat like this one. In this case I humbly submit that discernment requires distinctions. Some distinctions were not made that should have been made. Going forward, here are three things that must be clarified and made distinct on this subject.


1. The meaning of “charismatic”

Quick word association: I say “charismatic” you say …

Maybe you think of Robert Tilton with eyes shut tightly and hand raised, asking viewers who need a financial miracle to place their hands on their TV screens. Is that what we mean by that word? For some people it’s anyone who ever lifted a hand during worship. Maybe it’s belief in Holy Spirit baptism (aka “Second Blessing”). Or is it merely non-cessationism?

One thing is for sure, you’d better make clear the meaning you have in mind, and if you’re debating someone about it, you’d better agree between the two of you what precisely you both mean when you use the term. It has been painfully obvious to me in the brief eruption of attention on this issue that people are using the term differently. Some of them mean merely those whose theological position is not cessationism. Others seem to mean Todd Bentley, Kenneth Copeland, and people spending hours “Holy Ghost glued” to the floor.

Often usage determines meaning, and common or shared usage of a word can alter how we perceive it. Since this word is biblical, it seems most appropriate to recapture, as best we can, its early etymology as at least a starting place for defining it properly. As first year Greek students learn and as footnotes in your Bible may tell you, the word is essentially the word “grace” (“charis”) used in such a way (charisma or charismata) as to denote gracious acts or gifts. The specific use of the word to describe spiritual gifts (mostly in I Cor. 12 and Eph. 4) – and particularly the more extraordinary and supernatural gifts, like miracles, healings, tongues, prophetic words – is responsible for it being used to describe Christians who emphasize those kinds of supernatural gifts of the Spirit.

So far so good, but this still doesn’t help me know whether or not I should use the word only to describe those who believe that the supernatural gifts did not cease (as opposed to “cessationists” who believe that those gifts were for the messianic and apostolic eras and not normative for the church all-time), or whether I should use the word to include things like the prosperity movement, the strange semi-Eastern doctrines about how your words create spiritual realities (the so-called “Word of Faith” movement), and the outlandish “outpourings” that have people spending hours gyrating, fainting, laughing then growling, freezing and seizing.

Like many people, I have seen both the good and the utterly bizarre under this umbrella of “charismatic.” I have attended churches and have known ministers (even in my own family) who are charismatic by identification, of whom I would never say the sorts of things I say about certain televangelists. I’ve met old-school Southern Baptists overseas serving as missionaries who, though they were raised in a non-charismatic church setting, are convinced of supernatural spiritual activity based upon years of experience.

Then again, I’ve attended a charismatic service where the so-called preacher reads one verse from Isaiah (31:4 in case you need an idea for Sunday) about how God speaks as a “roaring lion” and then proceeds to lead the congregation in 45 minutes of “roaring in the Spirit.” A simplistic approach won’t do. There are charismatic Roman Catholics whose language and church life bears little resemblance to what you would find at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church (as it used to be called). When debates on cessationism broke out in the seminary classes I attended long ago, the mostly Southern Baptist students were very much split on the issue.

It may well be that we cannot presume to know what another person hears in the word “charismatic”, which means that we have to make the minimal effort of finding out and negotiating a definition that we can all understand. Even if I and an opponent agree to define the word differently, each of us will at least know what the other person is meaning when he or she uses the word.

2. “Charismatic” vs. the Prosperity and/or Word-Faith & Otherwise Whack-job Televangelists

A lot of what we say and think is categorical in nature. This is simple categorical logic, meaning we are identifying things in categories. Basic categorical propositions come in forms like “All x is y”, “No x is y”, “Some x is y” and “Some x is not y.” Part of the task of critical thinking and discernment is getting these kind of statements right and not being sloppy about it. Suffice to say that when someone uses the more sweeping and universal forms “All” and “No” there is a risk of over-generalizing in that hasty fashion that ends up unnecessarily implicating and offending otherwise innocent people in a given category.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. “All Charismatics are biblically ungrounded spiritual wierdos” would certainly count as the kind of categorical statement that ought not be uttered by a discerning individual. Not that anybody in the recent conference said that exactly, but similar sentiments, it turns out, are what caused such an uproar. A wiser person goes with the more modest “SOME x is y” and then proceeds to explain in greater detail. Would anyone disagree or take offense at the statement, Some of those who identify as charismatics are caught up in unbiblical weirdness?” Maybe a few of those of whom this is actually true would take offense, but that is not a problem, so long as those taking the offense actually are those of whom the statement speaks. But you know who would NOT be offended? Those not described by the statement.

By similar example, if I hear someone say (as I have in recent years), “Christians are hateful bigots toward gays,” I am obliged to take exception to this. Without clarification this is in the form “All x is y.” It is an unfair hasty generalization. BUT if I hear them say, “Some Christians are hateful & bigoted toward gays,” I may well agree and assist in making the distinction clear (naming names – e’hem (under my breath) “Westboro”) & maybe re-stating it as “Some who claim to be Christians are hateful toward gays.”

Can you see how a little fairness and accuracy prevents an unnecessary fight?  Why not take the effort to zero in on the true target instead of going all ‘drunk cowboy’ & firing buckshot into the crowd? There exists a legitimate problem to be addressed, and according to transcripts & summaries of the talks given at the conference, this very real problem was discussed. But it is a problem not unknown to many of those who identify as charismatic.

I am talking, of course, about that vast freakshow that includes prosperity teachers, self-proclaimed apostles and prophets, televangelists, etc. We all know who I’m talking about here, and unfortunately their success has indeed made them a global presence. They dominate the religious airwaves, they fill arenas, and they transmit their spiritual diseases to other continents like the early Europeans transmitted smallpox to populations around the world. Only the Europeans did so mostly by unwitting accident. These guys know full well what they are doing, and they are laughing-in-the-spirit all the way to the bank. They deserve all of the condemnation we can muster against them. Their jets can’t crash into their island resort summer homes fast enough to suit me. That’s the kind of strange fireball (and spiritual gift) I can believe in. (Note: I’m just kidding about the deadly jet crash, so commenters need not chastise me).

But that being said, what, I ask, does Paula White, for example, have to do with, say, Wayne Grudem, a writer of seminary theology texts who is a notable representative of the non-cessationist view? At most, I guess both of them would agree that the Holy Spirit actively does the sorts of things that accord with the more supernatural gifts. That, I would think, is where their agreement would end. I doubt very seriously that Grudem would, on that account, number among the fans and devotees of the pasty prophetess with the strangely contrived accent. There are several rather popular Youtube selections in which the prosperity gospel is given both barrels-full by one of the very writers who is theologically sympathetic with non-cessationism (see this one for example, where Piper uses the theological term “crap” in his scathing assessment of the movement).

I don’t fault the conference one bit for taking full aim at specific teachings, practices, even specific teachers, ministries or churches, so long as they remember that this means that “some”, not “all” charismatics are in league with Peter Popoff and Benny Hinn. Make the correct distinctions and then fire away. Had the conference designers and advertisers done this, I doubt we would be dealing with the uproar and aftermath of the whole affair.


3. Orthodox Charismatic Churches vs. Unorthodox (Perhaps Heretical) Teachers & Churches

An important distinction that charismatics need to make, make loudly and make often, is essentially the same one as #2 above but from their unique position and perspective. These are two sides of the same coin, in other words, but I want to be clear that charismatic churches, preachers and writers are under an obligation today, given the proliferation of the aforementioned excrement of false teachers, to distinguish themselves and join the open rebuke against them. Assuming a charismatic church is reasonably orthodox, I can think of a couple of pretty good reasons why the people would want to distinguish themselves from others who call themselves charismatic but are not orthodox.

One is concern for the overall reputation of the Church and the Gospel to the outside world. Those too enveloped in the Christian cocoon can forget just how many people on this planet have never been inside a Christian church nor had much interaction with believing Christians. They stand on the outside trying to figure us out, and very often their perceptions have been shaped by the worst possible influences.  When I lived in Utah I often met people who had spent their Mormon lives looking from the outside at evangelical churches. Maybe they knew where a few were located in the city and had worked with someone who attended one, but as to what really goes on inside, it was mostly mysterious. But they HAD seen movie portrayals and plenty of televangelists. I discovered that some people suppose that every non-Roman Catholic church is something like what they’ve seen on TV, and every preacher inside basically some sub-species of Jesse Duplantis.

So if we fail to distinguish biblical churches -especially if they are charismatic in style – from the prosperity or ‘word-faith’ nonsense, we simply allow people to have a false impression that maintains an unnecessary obstacle for people and tarnishes the image of Christianity.  Talk to secularists, Muslims or other outsiders sometime and get their impressions of what they think your church is probably like. You may be surprised. In all likelihood they will guess that your preacher yells everything, or maybe that the sermons are all about abortion and gays (thanks to the media’s portrayal), or that your church spends a lot its time getting people to give their money, only interested in the Almighty (Creflo) Dollar. These are stereotypes based on real cases, but people are allowed to persist in these characterizations and the Church gets a black eye because of it.

Besides removing false images of the Church that outsiders may have been given, another reason why charismatic churches should distinguish themselves is to maintain unity among all biblical and historic Christians while preventing hucksters and charlatans from using the silence of reputable teachers and churches as tacit approval or endorsement. The simple and undeniable fact is that the influential heretical movements in question have cast themselves in the charismatic image (again, mostly I’m thinking here of prosperity, word-faith, and wierdo-fests with the people becoming barnyard animals in the spirit – sometimes all being mixed but not necessarily in every case). Once called “Neo-Pentecostalism”, the worst offenders – whether getting filthy rich or prophesying falsely out of their rear-ends – have dressed themselves in the cloak of Pentecostal charismatic church stylings.

Because of this reality, like it or not, charismatic churches bear more scrutiny and have all the more duty to show themselves biblically faithful while calling liars and pseudo-apostles out. Non-charismatic (or at least less charismatic) churches need their charismatic brethren to uphold a more biblical picture of charismatic church than what the shysters are demonstrating. As some charismatic leaders have admitted, opening the door to the supernatural gifts requires a particular vigilance, given that people, simply by virtue of what they are, will always be prone toward error. Since we live in a biblically illiterate age where post-modern thinking has aroused a kind of mindless and undiscerning spiritual cocktail served up by writers and speakers whose expertise amounts to Oprah endorsements, it is that much more vitally important that charismatic churches keep things biblical and guard against a slide toward an anti-intellectual spiritual free-for-all. I don’t think this point is all that controversial. Sam Storms, our local theologically erudite while decidedly non-cessationist pastor of the Reformed persuasion, has said more than once that being fully open to the supernatural gifts, on the one hand, while warding off mere subjective whims & wide-upon spiritual freelancing, on the other, is not the easy road. Charismatic churches, however, can’t afford to take the easy road these days.

Ultimately the debate between cessationism and non-cessationism remains itself distinct from the discussion about prosperity & word-faith televangelism. The latter need not require much debate. We should roundly condemn it and seek to undermine it and/or correct it. But cessationism, like eschatology & a few other all-time intramural theological debates, can continue to be a civil discussion among Christians. To be fair, a lot of what was done at the controversial conference, according to transcripts I’ve seen, was simply defending cessationism and critiquing abusive heretical weirdness, neither of which should be controversial among biblical Christians, since the first is an ongoing debate of a mostly civil nature while the second is largely agreed upon by orthodox charismatics and non-charismatics alike.

The error was a lazy lumping together of all non-cessationists with the weirdos, or at least somehow blaming non-cessationists for the wierdness of certain self-identifying charismatics. And in full equality we should admit that some of those in the charismatic camp have been guilty of the reverse error, as Phil Johnson’s talk at the conference demonstrated, by calling cessationists deists or God-deniers (or even atheists).  Why do that? Why run your mouth so recklessly and cause offense to people who are your brothers and sisters? I can’t see any excuse for it. Just as not all Muslims are terrorists, not all Mormons are polygamists, etc., so likewise not all cessationists deny the Holy Spirit’s existence or God’s activity on earth, and not all self-identifying charismatics flail wildly & bark like dogs during worship, have imposing Jan Crouch hairdos, and send their money to this guy hoping for a “harvest.” Failure to make these distinctions insults a lot of people unnecessarily and turns the blogosphere into a holy war. Let this be a lesson to us all.

Clint Roberts
Clint Roberts

Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade or so. He likes the Credo House because he once launched a similar non-profit establishment in a different state. His Masters is from a fine theological institution and his doctorate focused on famed arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas a little while, then Idaho very briefly, then Salt Lake City for several years prior to coming to the prairie lands of Oklahoma. They had four kids along the way, and later adopted two more humans, a few goats and chickens, and a pony.

    267 replies to "Let this Strange Firestorm be a Lesson"

    • Ken

      Susan – my post did eventually make its way on here!

      Now I like it when people agree, but let me push the issue just a bit further. The ‘prompting’ of the Spirit we agree on – could it just be that in the NT this is referred to as “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, …”? A gift of miracles could be miraculous timing. May be even to “speak to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” which is what prophecy is. This is not new revelation, but something to bless specific individuals at specific times.

      If I put my badly fitting charismatic hat back on, that is what ‘the gifts’ mean to me, nothing whatever to do with Hinn and Copeland, who are of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith. I left the charismatic scene in part because it had, quite literally, gone barking mad, and had left the apostle Paul behind. (If any bark, let it be two or at most three; and let one howl …. not in the NT!)

      You can ask for such gifts because the completed New Testament encourages you to do so. No-one thinks that because we have examples of answered prayer in the NT we no longer need to pray because this would be adding to scripture. Could you see prophecy in the same light?

      Just thought I would stir you up …. (to love and good works, obviously). 🙂

    • Susan

      Ken, I think we are close again. Going back to the conference as a reference point, since that’s what this thread is about, MacArthur and co. didn’t disparage the modern day employment of word of wisdom, nor word of knowledge. I wouldn’t call a well-timed word of wisdom to be a ‘miracle’. Miracles are extraordinary in a different sense. ‘Providential’ would be a more appropriate term to use. The Spirit told Phillip to go speak to the Ethiopian. I wouldn’t call that a miracle. BTW, I once asked a NT text critic if he thought the Spirit spoke to Phillip in an audible voice. He said, ” yes”. I have known the providential promptings of the Spirit to share the gospel with specific people. Once I tune into that I begin to pray about it, seeking wisdom and an opportunity. I’m in agreement with you as long as you are not advancing the idea that people are now given new revelation.

    • Ken

      Susan – thanks again for your reply. We are not likely to get a heated argument out of this, are we! I prefer it that way anyway.

      Just a couple of things. You are clearly not ‘continuationist’, but something I genuinely don’t understand is the cessationalist contention that the gifts of the Spirit could include revelation additional to the bible. How many actually believe that on either side of this issue? I haven’t been in an overtly charismatic church for a couple of decades, but when I was I don’t think anyone believed that. It was in the UK, and very wide exposure to the various streams back then. There seems to be a fear that the gifts of the Spirit will undermine the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. Back then it was the charismatics who tended to take the bible seriously, believe it or not.

      I’ve also finally realised what is bugging me about the Team Pyro blog on this issue. They are mocking the modern gifts and those who claim to have experienced them. Charismatics aren’t going to listen to them as a result, and frankly I don’t blame them. The attitude is really irritating even if you might otherwise be inclined to agree with some of what they say. To add insult to injury (as it were) they define the gifts in such a way that continuationist would have to agree with them (e.g. the real gift of prophecy has to be as infallible as scripture), and then think they have won the argument, as though that is really what this is all about. If you do testify to other gifts you have experienced – if only very rarely – that do meet their criteria, they simply ignore that.

      I appreciate your attitude on this which is a more amicable disagreement – even to the extent there is real disagreement.

    • Susan

      So, everyone, I guess you were trying to have a conversation with Larry Lea, Television Word of Faith Preacher of the Worldwide Web Church.

      Here’s a youtube if you care to see him and sample his wares:

    • cherylu


      How do you know the Larry we were talking to was Larry Lea on this Youtube video? (I haven’t been able to watch it yet.)

    • Susan

      I was listening to a radio program recording online and Word of Faith theology was discussed a bit, Kenneth Copeland and Larry Lea were mentioned. On this blog Larry mentioned his interactions with Benny Hinn, in his office and such, and he posted a link to an article by Copeland on WofF theology so I was just putting two and two together. I had suspected all along that Larry is probably a well-known person, but I don’t know much about W of F preachers. Of course I can’t know for sure, but I think it’s quite likely.

      You might try going to youtube and putting that wording into the search bar. That’s how I was finally able to grab a link. There are other you tubes of him as well, and several articles online.

    • Larry

      I’m nearing the completion of our roll-out … and will then address the questions which have been posed here and continue our discussion, but Susan’s fanciful deductions merited a quick response.

      First, I did not link to any Copeland articles and while I did have occasion to dine with Larry and Melba Lea (prior to their sad divorce) … I am not Larry Lea.

      Susan, perhaps you should turn your imagination to the possibilities of rethinking your theology … rather than to this sort of postulation.

    • Susan

      Same to you, Larry.

      And how do we know when Larry is telling the truth since he purveys a false gospel?

      Matt:7:15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.”

      2 Peter 2:1-3 ” ….there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves. And many will follow their debauched lifestyles. Because of these false teachers, the way of truth will be slandered. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation pronounced long ago is not sitting idly by; their destruction is not asleep.”

      Acts 20:30-31 “Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. Therefore be alert…”

      Matt 24:24 “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”

    • cherylu


      I am sorry, but I’m thinking that your statements here are running on the quite irresponsible side.

      This conversation has at times been quite bizarre and extremely hostile. Is there any chance we can now keep it to discussing the theologies in question and not go off into speculations about a person’s identity with no proof to back it up?

    • Susan

      Cheryl, you are not reading hostility from me, but I have little sympathy for a false teacher who corrupts the gospel by which people are brought into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
      The message of W of F is hostile to the gospel.

      It didn’t appear to me that there was going to BE any continued discussion.

    • cherylu


      I have no sympathy for WoF theology either–or any other theology that corrupts the Gospel.

      However, unsubtantiated claims and implications about a person’s identityabout and truthfulness or lack thereof are not likely to be very helpful in getting people to see that there are huge theological problems with WoF beliefs.

      Why would you expect people to be convinced that what you are saying and believe is correct if you are going to make such unsubstantiated claims and implications about someone? You are putting your credibility on the line with such statements.

    • cherylu

      Sorry about the stupid editing error. The first sentence in my second paragraph in my last comment should read, “However, unsubtantiated claims and implications about a person’s identity and truthfulness ……”

    • MarvinTheMartian

      Susan, perhaps you should turn your imagination to the possibilities of rethinking your theology … rather than to this sort of postulation.

      This is highly ironic coming from someone who used the postulation that I was Clint Roberts sock puppet-ting as MarvinTheMartian as a way to avoid answering direct questions.

    • cherylu

      I don’t recall that Larry’s postulating about Marvin the Martian really being Clint Roberts did a great deal to further his credibility either, did it?

    • Susan

      Cheryl, I’m not worried about my credibility. And you can’t blame me for thinking this discussion was dead in the water, since it’s been what, two weeks with no sign of Larry? Didn’t he say he’d be on it in a week? Do you really think there are a number of people subscribing to this conversation who need to be warned about W of F theology?
      Will newcomers to this post read 250 comments to be enlightened by this conversation? If you think so, then you’ve got a mission to accomplish here. Go for it.

      Marvin, my friend from Mars…. Yes, I did have you in mind when I read Larry’s ironic reply. Perhaps he thought you were a phony masquerader because he’s familiar with that role.

    • cherylu


      This discussion is going nowhere.

      Just one quick thought, then I am out of here. Any one that wants to make a point in a conversation whether it is online or in some other venue, really does need to be concerned about their credibility. Unfortunately, without credibility, no one pays much attention to what a person says.

    • Susan

      Cheryl, you were definitely a latecomer to this conversation. If you read through the first 200 comments I think you would have a different perspective on the conversation, perhaps including my stand. Since you are unaware of much of the conversation it seems odd that you would make assumptions about me and feel the need to help me maintain my credibility. I have a life away from this blog that keeps me fr commenting here much at all anymore. I think one can waste many hours of one’s life blogging and not really accomplishing anything worthwhile in the process. It seems that this blog is central to the lives of a few here who’s names appear much, on a near daily basis, for several years. I guess for such a person credibility as a comment or here is to be guarded and maintained. I have NO regrets about any of the comments I’ve made on this thread. If this lessens me in the credibility ranks here at P&P in your mind, so be it. I care much more about what my Lord thinks of me than what you or anyone else on this thread thinks of me.

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