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.