There has been a lot of dust-ups over the StrangeFire/MacArthur conference. A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I attended an Assemblies of God church as a kid, and when I decided to follow Christ when I was 17, I had TBN on almost 24/7 (and that’s not much of an exaggeration). I loved the channel. Vegas, although diverse in terms of denominations by name, is pretty much a charismatic church town. The influences are apparent everywhere, even within the denominations that do not consider themselves “charismatic.” So I was immersed in the culture. I know it well. I’ve been to the camps, the concerts, the youth groups rallies, the revivals, the prayer meetings, the services.
When I realized that many teachers on TBN had gone south, I corresponded with Paul Crouch, and sincerely urged him to remain a voice for God in the world by not allowing these Word of Faith teachers to usurp the platform. It, of course, fell on deaf ears. He simply told me that he thought these issues were secondary. Secondary? I thought. Secondary to what? It is clear now, even if not then, that he considered issues of the theology secondary because he had been influenced by various widespread aberrations within the larger movement of which he was a part.
I eventually grew out of the movement and slowly became more reformed in my thinking, and left my concerns with the movement behind. So when everyone started discussing the conference, I just thought to myself, “I don’t really care about it. I have bigger fish to fry.” But, having thought about it, the movement actually is a major catalyst for issues that consist of a host of big fish I want to fry within the larger church. So I decided just to chime in on a few things.
I want to, therefore, just note things I find to be good, bad, and ugly. The good is what I find to be admirable, the bad consists of what is potentially dangerous and leading to the ugly, and the ugly is what largely describes what is heretical and evil within the movement.
1. There is a lot of desire to believe what the Bible says is true, even if that desire does not always find its mark by believing what the Bible says is true. Charismatics view non-charismatics as fudging on the issue of biblical authority when it comes to the texts that deal with gifts of the Spirit. So, at least among some, there is a great desire to believe the miraculous in the Bible, especially in the face of the naturalism that is so invasive in our culture.
2. There is an attempt to see the faith as living and the Bible as something that is directly applicable to the church today. Much of the charismatic emphasis is in the area of revival and renewal, seeking to bring the church back to life from a culture that has sought to naturalize it and kill it.
3. Its boldness to proclaim the gospel both in our culture and throughout the world. The Christian Charismatics I have known in my life are not ashamed of the gospel, of prayer, of sharing a Scripture, of boldly refuting error, etc. This drive likely stems from their desire to see God exalted in a culture of death, and they truly believe that the power of the Holy Spirit can overcome even the most hardened unbeliever.
4. Because of all of this, Charismatics see their world in terms of the spiritual. They speak of spiritual things and live lives focused on the spiritual world around them.
The “bad” refers to a lot of misunderstanding of Scripture that Charismatics attempt to obey that has led to certain ideas and practices within the charismatic church.
1. Taking descriptive texts as prescriptive, as in the case of taking something that happened in the Book of Acts as normative for all Christians and all churches. There is nothing to suggest that all should speak in tongues, or raise people from the dead, or be bitten by poisonous serpents, simply because Acts describes those events occurring with the apostles, anymore than little strands of fire should be visibly seen above your head when you speak in tongues (that’s not even normative within the Book of Acts itself, so why should we suggest that any of it is normative?). The message of Acts is normative, and its message is not that all should do these things, but that the apostles have been uniquely commissioned by Christ to proclaim the message given to them by Him. Ironically, the normalcy of that message would seem to fly against taking the descriptive here as prescriptive and normative.
2. Seeing the Holy Spirit as one views the force in Star Wars. It’s no mere coincidence that the Holy Spirit, in our day, is seen as some impersonal, empowering force that stirs us up to do miraculous things, since our culture has been inundated with this type of spiritism since the late eighteenth century. The biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit, however, is that He is the third Person of the Trinity, and He stirs us up, normally, to follow Christ and pursue His Word. This manifested itself in the early church with gifts, but Paul needed to set the Corinthians straight that the Spirit’s gifts were not given to be displays of power and emotion, but as stable candlesticks to the candle of the Word. Hence, they were to be used to help the Word light up the room and guide our paths, not as something that replaces or diminishes our emphasis on the Word. They were truth holders, not truth themselves, and without biblical truth and love for God (remember Chapter 13 and how Paul tells them at the end of the letter that all who do not “love” the Lord Jesus Christ are anathema?) the gifts are worthless.
When one continually refers to the Holy Spirit as “it,” in our culture, or “throws” the Spirit by his hands, it evidences that the way he or she thinks about the Spirit as an impersonal substance to be thrown around. And Jesus breathing on the disciples so that they receive the Spirit is meant to say something about His deity, not give us the means through which we bring the Spirit to others, which is through the Word of God and prayer (e.g., the laying on of hands).
3. Viewing God’s interaction with us as direct rather than through mediation. This is most often displayed when charismatics talk about God speaking to them. In biblical prophecy, God’s revelation is received through an angel, a vision, or a dream. The only other way God has ever communicated directly was through a visible manifestation such as the theophany on Sinai and through the incarnation. All other prophets and apostles, apart from receiving revelation through a physical manifestation, receive it through an angel, a vision, or a dream. The NT does not depart from this (e.g., even Paul receives his revelation from Christ, both in conversion and teaching, through visions).
Hence, God does not speak in the Bible by dropping a thought in your head. He speaks audibly in a dream, vision, angel, or theophany. You can hear what He says while awake or in a trance. His thoughts are not blended with your own. So the guy who went into no trance before he tells you that God just spoke to Him is putting forth a new way of God speaking to mankind that is not to be found in the Bible.
4. The misinterpretation of the Old Testament promises that are meant to be fulfilled (1) primarily in terms of having a prosperous spiritual relationship with God, and (2) come to be manifest tangibly in the eschaton as an eternal meeting of our needs to sustain our lives so that we can fellowship with God. Hence, not only is the Charismatic view often an overrealized eschatology that believes that the promises can be fully obtained today, but that eschatology itself distorts the purpose of “blessings” as things that we desire in and of themselves versus things that sustain our lives and give us the ability to live without threat of extermination and know God.
5. The misinterpretation of the word “heart” in Scripture as something that deals primarily with emotion, rather than with one’s thoughts and way of thinking has contributed to the idea that Christianity, and loving God, is primarily about a feeling one has toward God. Hence, Christianity is primarily practiced and confirmed by how one feels about his or her experiences with “God.”
I’ve discussed before here that the heart in the ANE is not the seat of emotion. It is the seat of the mind. Hence, a person says something in his “heart” when he thinks a thought. Thoughts are attributed to the heart. When the Bible most often says “heart,” therefore, it isn’t talking about how we feel about something, but how we think about something.
As I’ve said before, when the Bible talks about David being a man after God’s heart, it doesn’t mean that David felt similarly in the way that God felt. It also didn’t mean that David had feelings for God. Affection is definitely a huge part of David’s relationship with God, but that’s not at the core, and that’s not what the phrase means. What it does mean is that David is the man that God thinks should be king. He is the man according to God’s way of thinking, as opposed to Saul (and David’s brothers) who look like the type of man that the people think should be king. Hence, the text is not teaching us “heart”-religion, where the core of our relationship with God is our feelings, but instead, is teaching us that God’s thinking is higher than our own and should be affirmed in our worship of Him. Ironically, then, it is a part of “thought”-religion that bows its thinking to God’s, which is the real religion the Bible teaches us to follow.
Hence, when Jeremiah tells us that our “heart” is desperately sick and wicked above all things, he’s telling us that there is a problem with the way we think. There is a problem with our thoughts that drive the life of the man, including his feelings.
The guts are used to discuss emotions. Feelings are in your gut. I find it fascinating, therefore, that when we are told to love God, the emphasis is on the mind, body, and will of a person, and these are to be employed in loving Him to the utmost. The heart is mentioned here, but the gut is not.
6. The biggest issue, for me at least, however, stems from the problem just mentioned. There is a confusion concerning what it means to love God. I cannot describe how many times I have heard people in flagrant sin tell me that they love God. Yet, loving God in Scripture is obeying His commandments. The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, concerns loving God with all that we’ve got; but the expression of such a love is obedience. How did so many get from that to the idea that they can just do what is unpleasing to God and still have a loving relationship with Him?
Such a contradictory religion can only stem from one thing: a redefining of love as a feeling rather than a commitment to do good to another. Sinning against God is betraying Him, robbing Him of the worship due to Him, and murdering the image of God He made you to be in order to replace that image with a rebellious, self-worshiping little deity that seeks to supplant Him as the Lord of one’s life.
A misunderstanding of worship as “getting emotional,” rather than the fruit of the Spirit that is love of God expressed in doing good and having self control. Again, this is not about not having any emotion. It is about either being out of control or thinking that one’s emotional experiences can replace a commitment to please God through obedience to what He has said.
The spiritual fireworks often remove the focus from the Bible as the means through which one must worship God to experiences that one is having or observes in a desire to meet God unmediated by, and without obedience to, His Word.
In many ways, seeking emotional stimulation as an act of worship is not something that is necessarily theocentric. In fact, there is nothing to tell us that God actually has emotions. Those descriptions in Scripture where God burns with anger, is moved with compassion, etc. might very well be anthropopathetic. But, even if they are in some way literal, how does my getting emotionally stimulated, even to the point of losing emotional control, seek to please God?
If God had communicated to us that He is pleased and worshiped by our emotions, then we might have precedence for such a strange religion; but as we have seen above, God is pleased with our hearing, submission, and conforming of our minds to the Word of God. I imagine in that process, God is pleased if we are pleased with doing that. That’s not really the issue. One cannot remove emotion from what he loves, even if other factors may often remove it for various reasons. The point above is that there is nothing in Scripture that indicates some normative nature of losing emotional control in worship to God. It is, however, rampant among pagan religions, precisely, because pagan religions are nothing more than the religion of the self manifesting itself in the seeking of self-stimulation, using religion and the divine as a drug to do so. What might we conclude, then, but that God is often used by Charismatics (and others in churches of false worship for that matter) as a means to please oneself. This is why one doesn’t really need a preacher who proclaims biblical truth that exalts God as much in these assemblies as much as one who can deliver an emotional moving speech. Hence, we often see motivational speakers replacing biblical preachers, precisely, because the speaker doesn’t need God’s truth to motivate as much as he needs the right inflections in his voice, moving music, and a plethora of self-exalting talking points that pump people up into a frenzy. Of course, this is often lightly seasoned with some Scripture, often out of context, in order to supposedly “Christianize” it in some way.
As I have argued before, therefore, there are only two religions on the planet: Christianity, which seeks to worship God, and the religion of the Self, which manifests itself in a variety of religions and so-called non or anti-religions. This means that if a large segment of the Charismatic movement is not worshiping God through the means He has declared as that which He accepts as worship, and rather seeks to use God as some sort of catalyst to please the true deity of self, then it is not a Christian religion, but rather another manifestation of the devil’s religion. But this cannot be something that blankets all Charismatics, since some place the Word of God at center and seek to get excited over it. Here, I would simply caution that such churches, that are very likely genuinely Christian, that a very Christian church and pursuit to worship God can, at the drop of a hat, turn into a religion of the self due to our sin nature. Thus, the 10%, or what have you, need to be on extra guard duty that something that the Bible doesn’t necessarily call us to in the first place, could easily cause many to stumble into a false religion.
But what might show us, or rather confirm to us, that many Charismatics are not followers of Christ, but of the devil’s religion of self-exaltation and worship? I would call upon another post I did in terms of looking at how people view heaven. If heaven is first about God, and not about my receiving this or that blessing from God, which is a secondary and subsequent result of enjoying God’s presence as a saved person, then one might conclude that such a person is a genuine believer. But before the Sunday School, “right answer,” to that question comes out of everyone’s mouth, it is important to note that the way we can tell whether one really looks at a relationship with God that way is by looking at what he primarily desires to do in his worship today. If the emphasis is on receiving gifts, blessings, feelings, money, a better life, health, etc., then the person claiming that heaven is really all about God is a liar. Your heart/mind is where you treasure is, and that’s where your thoughts and speech are. If, however, one is continually seeking to exalt God through His Word, speak God’s Word as a means to lift God up, and views the possibility (or rather likelihood) of suffering, poverty, sickness, etc. as something he might need to worship God, and tangible “blessings” as things that he definitely does not need to glorify and love God, then I say, “Amen. Charismata it up, my brother!” I may not agree that such is the right expression of worship in our context, and rather that it may likely be a cultural phenomenon that has gone global that simply misunderstands what miraculous displays were for in the biblical context, but I take no issue with his Christianity at its core.
My concern is that the religion of the Self has slipped into the entirety of the modern church, charistmatic or otherwise; and the Charismatic movement is more often a mighty expression of that false religion. There is a reason why Christ tells us that the “many” as opposed to the “few” will come to him on that day and wonder why they are not saved. Their lives are characterized by anomia “lawlessness,” which refers to the idea that one lifts himself and his own desires above those expressed in God’s Word, which Christ defends as His own in the SoM. Hence, He declares to this larger group of professed Christians who worship the self instead, “Depart from Me. I never (ou pote “at no time”) knew you, you who practice self-exaltation.”
So when I walk into a house, where so-called believers who are boyfriend and girlfriend are in robes right after they just attended “church,” and they think that they are believers because they had a lot of emotional and miraculous experiences with “God,” then I have very little to believe that these people are followers of Christ and the biblical religion that exalts God the Father through the exclusive means of worship to which He calls them.
But when I also see Charismatics who love God through their love of the Word of God, and seek to engage it thoughtfully, because their religion is one of the mind, where their minds are set primarily on the glorification of God as their treasure, then I say that there are 7,000 worshiping amongst a corrupt Israel who have still not bowed the knee to Baal.
As you can see, my issue is far less about whether one believes in miraculous gifts or not. It has far more to do with an exchange of one religion for another. The tendencies above are evident in mega-churches that are not necessarily charismatic as well. They are seen in small churches that are not necessarily charismatic. They are even seen in reformed churches that are not necessarily charismatic. I once had one of my parishioners tell me that we need both the Spirit and truth, not just truth, when referring to needing an emotional excitement in worship. I think people should be excited to worship, but Jesus isn’t saying there that you need truth and emotion to worship God, but rather that one must worship God through the truth and spirit/Spirit, i.e., that which is unseen, as opposed to what is seen. That doesn’t have anything to do with emotion, much less an emotional frenzy, in the Gospel of John.
But I also see that the presuppositions of this misunderstanding of worship, the love of God, overrealized eschatology, reading the miraculous as normative, etc. feeds into what are considered only unconnected aberrations of the Charismatic movement, such as the Word of Faith/Health and Wealth/Prosperity Gospel. These false assumptions have worked to produce that false religion. It is not something that merely came out of nowhere. To be sure, there is a lot of influence of Eastern thought and spirituality that pervades the charismatic culture. For instance, treating the Spirit like the force in Star Wars, and viewing God’s Spirit as something that one taps into through some existential connection rather than through the preaching of the Word of God. The Holy Spirit becomes an “it,” and not in the way that simply attempts to make a pronoun and a neuter noun agree in Greek, but in the very real sense that the Holy Spirit is not a Person that guides us through what He has spoken, but a force that empowers us like Castle Greyskull from He-Man.
This is all bad theology, and bad theology leads to bad worship, and bad worship leads to a bad relationship with God who is supposedly loved by us, and a bad relationship with God leads to a bad life lived through the false religion of the Self.
But is it possible to be a charismatic without all of this baggage? Sure. I know it is. I know charismatics who could not be characterized in such a way, with, perhaps, the exception that they do not see the miraculous in Scripture as anomalous rather than normative.
And I think, therefore, that when we speak of the dangers of the charismatic movement, we need to identify various strands of thought with which we take issue, not the movement as a whole. And if we do critique the movement as a whole, we do so in the sense that we critique the modern church as a whole, as most of the issues above can be said of it, regardless of whether it is charistmatic or not.
I see immaturity in thought all over the place. I see it in my church. Should I throw off the whole of my church because of it? I confess, I would never go to church then. There is no church where there is no immaturity in thought. That’s because there is no real church where believers don’t need to grow in their understanding of God, love, worship, etc. Discipleship isn’t breaking relationships with people who have committed their lives to Christ. It is correcting, rebuking, reproving, encouraging. That’s hard to do if everyone already agrees with the Scripture. The Church is done then. There’s nothing left to do. Let’s get out of this place.
But obviously, there is much more work to be done, and the charismatic movement is an opportunity to teach not only charismatics the nature of true worship (as Paul seeks to do even among a genuine display of the gifts in 1 Corinthians), but also those within our own camps.
Of course, there is a difference in discipling individuals committed to Christ and putting out those who would hinder discipleship by reinforcing many of the ideas above, even in the face of rebuke. If one determines to teach his “heart”-religion that removes God’s religion and exalts the devil’s religion, then such a one must be disciplined accordingly, as his religion is antichrist, and seeks to replace worship that seeks to love God through obedience to His truth with stimulating oneself through emotions brought on through musical manipulation and entertaining spiritual fireworks.
But I have also seen a greater teachable spirit among charismatics, far greater than those within my own circles. I have seen a greater willingness to follow God to whatever He may call them among the true believers in the movement. They may not stay in the movement, but it may be that God started them there for a reason. Others, of course, even the majority, according to Jesus Christ Himself, are not His followers. They are the followers of Self-lordship, Self-deification, the practitioners of anomia. Both of these are “saved” at concerts, at camp, at revival meetings, etc., but one group stays at the concert, stays at camp, stays at the revival meetings to perpetuate its religion of the self. The other group leaves it. They mature. They grow and learn what faith really is. They follow Christ through what He has spoken and are not offended by Him. The “camp Christians,” if they remain there, are always offended by Christ, as He seeks to occupy the position of authority over their thinking and actions in life, and that is something a “camp Christian,” who has immersed himself in the pleasure of his own self-styled spirituality cannot stomach. He’s too enamored with his experiences to listen to God’s Word and be transformed by it.
And that’s what the charismatic movement is to me. It’s camp. It’s concert. It’s youth group culture. It isn’t a place of maturity or a place that seeks to cultivate the true religion of Christ. Those who are repulsed by real Christianity, but love their camp/concert/youth group experiences are evidence of that. I’m not saying you can’t have a good camp, concert, or youth group. I’m just saying that these things usually work for the religion of the self, and the types of “Christians” they produce are evident. Other churches, more solid in the religion of God, must now come along and shine the light of God’s Word on them in order to call true believers to real faith and maturity. The charismatic movement as a whole doesn’t often do that, but there are exceptions.
In any case, that’s just my two cents for what it’s worth. I care far more about your definitions of God, love, worship, etc. than I do about whether you are a continuationist or cessationist. My concern is whether the movement primarily works for one religion or the another. If a church works toward the religion of God, I frankly don’t care whether it considers itself charismatic or not. If a man works toward the religion of God, I frankly don’t care whether he is a continuationist or cessationist. We may disagree about the normative versus anomalous nature of miracles and miraculous gifts (“miraculous” in the sense that they break from God’s normative work in nature), but such is a minor difference in my mind, not something to divide over. If the Word of God takes center stage in church and in thought, with a desire to exalt God through it, then as I said before, “Charisma it up.” If not, however, then whether you believe that the miraculous gifts are for today is irrelevant. Your religion is false. Your faith, which is centered on self, is worthless. And you are without God and the salvation of His Son in the world. I’d set my sights on that if I were you. And it is my hope that most of the discussions that are held between charismatics and non-charismatics alike emphasize these points.
There is a lot more I could mention here, but these things I think are more prominent.
Sola Dei Gloria.