Cessationism, Charismania and Criticism

shouting guys_anger managementMy heart was a bit heavy as I witnessed the blogosphere light up today over John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference and the broad brush stroke polemics against Charismatics. I appreciated Michael Patton’s thoughts on the subject.

Now to be clear, I am not a Charismatic. But I used to be and commitedly so – third wave, direct experience (direct communication is better; we all should have some kind of experience), charged atmosphere, seeking signs and wonders (or what I thought were signs and wonders). But seven years ago I stepped away due to a challenge by a friend on the disjointed and fragmented way I was reading Scripture. As I studied and considered Scripture from a holistic perspective and learning how to read stuff in context, I transitioned into soft-cessationism. This was not due to any negative experience but as a result of a formulation of a robust view of the doctrine of Scripture and how God sufficiently spoke through it. In other words, when I considered how the 66 books fit together and pointed to God’s redemptive work through the Son and how everything pointed to him, it made me re-evaluate how I understood continuation of gifts, prophecy, hearing from God directly and an over-reliance on experiential phenomenon as proof of God’s Spirit at work.

It was not like I didn’t read the Bible, didn’t believe in essential Christian truths, or didn’t have a commitment to Christ’s church.  In fact, many in my circles genuinely loved the Lord, sought to serve and please him and recognized that he had paid the price for their life. Although, I went to extremes after my conversion away from Charismania, I came to rest in kind of a tense area.  In fact, I have said on a number of occasions, that I went from being a crazy charismatic to a crusty cessationist and now live in a place called tension.

Why tension? Because I discovered that there are actually thoughtful, well read and even scholarly Charismatics who believe in the authority of Scripture and allow it to interpret how to consider God’s work in the world today. I ran across guys like Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms, scholars, pastors and authors. I encountered Vineyard guys like Luke Geraty and others who took the Bible and discipline of theology serious. These folks are not the experience driven, ignore the Bible, anything goes step-child fringe that rightly deserves critique.  In Michael’s article, I appreciated his statement that you can’t judge all Charismatics by the ugly red-headed step children.

And here’s the thing, the Charismatic movement is not a monolith. Charismatic has to be defined because there’s a range of beliefs. Again, Michael offers some good food for thought in this article Will the Real Charismatic Please Stand Up. He identifies some key components and says it really depends on what you do with each one. In the end, he like me, falls on the cessationist side but the plea to be reasonable.

In the New Testament, we are told that God has gifted the church and individuals with gifts (charisma) and offices that are for the mutual edification of the church. On the far charismatic end of the scale, there are those who not only believe that all gifts are still in operation, but whose life and ministry are centered around the practice of the more extravagant gifts. For them, the gift of tongues is a sign of maturity and the presence of the Spirit in their life. Every church service is chaos, as people are uncontrollably “led by the Spirit” to prophesy, speak in tongues, and/or pronounce a word of wisdom or knowledge. On the non-charismatic end of the scale, we have those who don’t believe in the gifts at all. Some believe that all gifts of the Spirit ceased in the first century. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself. I know of a very large network of churches which believes the gifts of teaching, giving, evangelism, tongues, healing, prophecy, and every other gift mentioned in the New Testament ceased in the first century…

It should go without saying that both extremes are not only unhealthy, but potentially destructive to the body of Christ due to their imbalance. There is a healthy middle which represents an orthodox position in all of these areas.

He provides this graphic here.

charismatic graphic

Amen! When you consider some of the arguments of Charismatics who really try to be thoughtful about the authority of Scripture and the work of the Spirit AND cessationists who have a robust view of the Spirit’s work, that middle part makes good sense.  We have to consider how each component/gift could be possible today and in some cases comes down to hermeneutics (and also definitions of what it means for God to speak).

And this is why I was so bothered by what I saw, not only the fact that a whole conference had been based on a polemic against the Charismatic movement wholesale. But in reaction against this, Charismatics did the same thing with cessationists, building tired strawmen arguments and calling cessationism silly and devoid of the Spirit.  I wish those that raise these polemics would consider this thoughtful article What Cessationism is Not. Please do check it out and realize there are good and valid reasons for cessationism.

JesusFacepalmChristians, we have got to do better in addressing this topic than calling one side crazy or the other side callous to the Spirit. Clearly, there are those on the fringes. But in the middle are a whole lot of folks really trying to honor God, his word and work in the world. So allow me to turn Charismatic for a brief second. I have a vision of Jesus doing a facepalm. Not because of those seeking direct communication and miracles, as the cessationist would say. Not because of the so-called quenching of the Spirit and putting God in a box, as the Charismatic would say. But because of the divisive and uncharitable way in which his church is handling this topic and throwing a lot of God’s people under the bus in the process.

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About Lisa Robinson

Servant of Christ, DTS Grad, member of Town North Presbyterian Church (PCA), non-profit professional, anti-poverty advocate, writer, thinker, explorer of ethnic food, lover of good coffee and a good laugh.
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16 Responses to Cessationism, Charismania and Criticism

  1. Alex Jordan says:

    Lisa, I relate to you in that I too went through a charismatic stage and came out of it by God’s grace via a more mature understanding of Scriptural truths. I also agree with you and Michael that an irenic approach to theological disputes is often the best way. In the case of the charismatic movement, yes, we should avoid lumping everyone together– but we must plainly observe that the VAST majority of the movement is not sound and is doing incredible damage to the body of Christ worldwide. When this kind of damage is being done it is time to be blunt and challenge the false teaching. I too respect and have learned from gifted continuationists like John Piper, but unfortunately I think that when we point to them as being why the charismatic movement is not all bad and saying we can learn from them, we are simply missing what is glaringly obvious– these sound teachers are the minority fringe of the movement and it is the unsound, bad and false teachers who dominate the movement and are spreading their message like gangrene. It’s time to stop giving bad teaching cover and denounce it– exactly as Strange Fire is rightly doing.

    • Scott says:

      Alex –

      You stated: but we must plainly observe that the VAST majority of the movement is not sound and is doing incredible damage to the body of Christ worldwide.

      To be fair, the fuller statement I believe should be “the vast majority as tv celebrities”. TV is always sensational. Is Jack Bauer and 24 real life? No. What makes the news is not folk like you and I walking the path Christ has set out. It’s the sensational, and it’s normally couched as bad rather than good.

      Having said that, I’m also not too strict in what is “acceptable”. Biblical prophets walked around naked, married sexually unfaithful women, when a prophet-king dances with only his undergarment, when Jesus sat at the table with the people the religious said you should not eat with, when Jesus himself had a spitting ministry, mixed with mud, for healing, when handkerchiefs were used in healing, when such an extraordinary activity took place where people would state that certain folks looked drunk, etc. Noting these, I’m not surprised when things are not in perfect western order. 😀

      Now, I’m not advocating just being ridiculous with no thought to things. But in my short life, and in the testimony of the church in Scripture and in history, I note that God will come and disturb us just a bit at times.

      Be blessed.

      • Alex Jordan says:

        Scott, are trying to argue that reformed charismatics like John Piper, Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms are typical of the movement, while the sensational and bizarre that dominate the “Christian” media are in the minority? Again I would beg to differ. I’m not talking about the way Christians are portrayed on secular media– of course there, Christians are often mocked. But the sensational brand of charismaticism the “celebrities” represent seems to mark the majority of the movement and is a pattern and inspiration for many charismatics, is it not? “Papa” Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Oral Roberts, Kenneth Copeland– these are looked up to as the heroes of the movement by many. The bizarre is often accepted as God “disturbing us” from our usual routines. So we have people barking like animals, and having laughing fits while the Bible remains closed for entire services. Which leads one to ask why is a movement that is supposed to be taking its cue from Scripture and re-capturing the essence of what Christianity is supposedly all about– the supernatural movement of the Holy Spirit as manifested in prophecy, miracles, tongues, etc– produces so much that is obviously false and unbiblical? Ah but you say, we mustn’t throw out the good with the bad? What about the good being discarded as a result of this kind of charismaticism– i.e., respect for and careful handling of Scripture, the understanding that Scripture is a sufficient, complete revelation for the needs of the body of Christ? I hope that you too will be blessed, but I say one must find that blessing through what is authentic.

      • Scott says:

        Alex –

        I’m not talking about what “secular” media displays, but even on TBN. Let me give you an example – most people think that America has mostly big churches. Why? Because of what they see on tv, even “Christian” tv. However, the average people population of a given local church in North America is around 175 people. Or, you might come at it from the perspective that says half of the churches in North America have 75 people or less.

        But many, even Christians attending churches with 300-500 or thousand member churches.

        My point is that, though I know not exact numbers on the 500+ million continuationists in the world today (though maybe this would make for a nice doctoral thesis 🙂 ), I’m going to guess that the majority aren’t in the media in some way or another. And even those that are (say Driscoll’s church), they aren’t even thought as continuationist/charismatic in the normative sense because they aren’t going overboard.

        Most of us are good ol’ folk like you and I, walking with God, looking to God, studying Scripture, praying for miracles, listening to the Spirit to speak into our lives and the life of our local church, etc.

  2. Kathy says:

    I would have to agree with Alex. I definitely think we must be kind and thoughtful about how we engage with Charismatics, but I also think that men called to preach should be bold like John M. It is their calling to protect the body from error. Bottom line, he is accountable to God for preaching the truth. He will answer to God for the way he does this. At least he is doing it. So many other teachers ignore this.

    I used to hold the same position as you did, Lisa…..until I went to both Africa and Ecuador and saw how the false teachings of the charismatic movement build false hopes in the lives of our most vulnerable across the globe. Charismatic teachings (including the continuation of tongues, prophecies, etc — and prosperity teaching) is harming so many people, not just Americans. Imagine if you have literally nothing and you are taught to believe you will one day be rich — or perhaps you feel the spirit tell you that you will be blessed, blah, blah, blah.

    I didn’t get to see much of tonight’s broadcast but I hope to see more tomorrow. Yes, MacArthur and I don’t see eye to eye on some doctrinal issues. He can be very forthright in his convictions. However, in his case, though I disagree with his Dispensational leanings, the foundation of justification by faith is solidly present in his sermons. It is so essential for this particular doctrine to be properly sent across the globe because it is a huge foundation upon which to understand the Christian faith properly. I commend his boldness for this very reason.

    Can God work among Charismatics? Yes. Does he? Yes. Do I see many people in the Charismatic community confused and bewildered? Yes.

    Every time I read in the various letters of the New Testament about the false teaching infiltrating the body of Christ in the various cities, I note how Paul takes them head on and exposes them bluntly and in a forthright manner. I can’t fault John M for doing so today. I wish more pastors would do so….because quite frankly, there is much glaringly “false” about charismata, in general. I say that as someone who traveled within its midst for a few years. I loved the people I met there, but I could not help but see their confusion in regard to most, if not all doctrines. There was so much emphasis on personal “spiritual” discernment and self-prophesy, etc, and personal interpretation, that little regard was given to sound doctrine in the various circles I traveled.

    So, like it or not, he’s doing a good thing exposing the wrongful teaching. I don’t think you really help people by patting them on the back and saying, “it’s really OK.” “You can believe what you want.” I wish he wouldn’t say things like “crazy” if it is with anger. The word crazy can be said as if it is a conundrum or a puzzlement, so I would have had to see it to know how it was presented.

    Now, if he can get Covenant Theology right, then he’d be right on track 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. “I used to hold the same position as you did” What position is that? To be clear, I HAVE seen a lot of crazy and wrong stuff. I’m not saying give a pass to false or distorted teaching. What I am saying is there’s a pretty big range of Charismatic beliefs and we have to be careful how to not paint too broad of brush strokes.

  4. I have gone on the opposite journey from cessationist to charismatic but not to charismania. I do see gifts at work, I have seen valid and real healing and seen people give true accurate words of knowledge. The gifts are here and do work, however they need a lot of practice (just like the gift of teaching does).

  5. Scott says:

    Lisa –

    Thanks for your balanced thoughts and tender heart.

  6. I appreciate anyone teaching truth. That involves pointing out error. It can be painful, but it is needful for a strong church. MacArthur is bold. He teaches a lot that is commendable. However, he goes far too far in his hyper-generalizations about Charismatics. The things he says would be true IF APPLIED SPECIFICALLY TO THE THE TELE-EXTREMISTS. However, it is no more reasonable or coherent to paint all Charismatics with the same brush as it would be to do so of all Baptists and Calvinists in relationship to the Westboro Baptist “church.” It is poor argumentation to insist that. Hyper anything is representative of the whole. Sadly, that is where MacArthur has positioned himself. I know that Charismatics can and do cherish the Word, hold it far above personal experience, and disdain the radical showmanship of the wolves that pass themselves off as Spirit-filled ministers. I also know that someone can pray in the Spirit (“tongues”) often, hold that the gifts are for today’s church, etc., and still be conservative. I am a Charismatic Christian. I am also Reformed in all of my other theological proclivities. I am also Evangelical. I find it baffling that such an intelligent and educated person–as MacArthur obviously is–would insist that Charismatics in general are on the verge of committing blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

  7. DragonLady says:

    I grew up cessationist with a caricartured understanding of Charismatics as “Holy Rollers.” Because I have seen actual evidence of healing from laying on of hands, I am not so firm in cessationism. Actually, I am not at all firm any more. 🙂 I respect many of those who have spoken at the Strange Fire conference, but I get the sense that the conference as a whole is what I call soap-box preaching that is more divisive than edifying.

  8. Elizabeth, thanks for that comment. It speaks well to my concern.

    DragonLady, I think you articulated well a point I’ve been wrestling with. Of course it is good to speak out against distortions and false teaching. I myself have done so, especially with Word of Faith abuses because it encourages hope in the wrong thing and takes away from the Christocentric message of Scripture. So I don’t fault MacArthur for taking a stand.. But this approach is troubling and inevitably will not capture the audience that needs to hear it. What’s left is being on a soapbox, preaching to the choir.that will probably not make good distinctions in dealing with Charismatics and throw the whole lot under the bus..

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  12. daverogk says:

    We need more quality exegesis that’s contextual and balanced hermeneutics

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