Strange phenomena and the ministry of the Holy Spirit

Related to the topic at hand—the charismatic movement and its criticism—I have a story that is interesting, at least to me. I don’t want to give all the details, partially to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent, partially because long blog posts don’t get read.

During a time of major transition in my life and ministry, I was invited to attend a conference held by a small apostolic “network” (we say “network” now because “denominations” are bad, mkay?) in a Southeast Asian country. The attendance was about evenly split between Asians, mostly Indian and Chinese, and Westerners, mostly Americans.

Seeing this was an apostolic network, the head apostle started it off by introducing himself:

Some people are apostles and prophets.

Some people are apostles and evangelists.

Some people are apostles and pastors.

Some people are apostles and teachers.

I am an apostle and a drunk.

That statement set the tone for the whole conference and put me off of it from the start. The main emphasis of the meetings was on spiritual phenomena—falling down, shaking, and what is called “spiritual drunkenness.” If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. That’s what these people were all about. (That, and networking.) These are the sort of thing John MacArthur means by “strange fire.”

And a lot of phenomena took place. People spontaneously twitched, trembled, and fell down. Ministry time consisted of the leaders of the network—all Americans—laying hands on people and praying for them until they fell over. A lot of people spent considerable time on the floor.

Here’s the thing: those who experienced the phenomena were all Westerners or American-returned Asians. The local Asians didn’t.

For example, people took turns introducing themselves at the microphone. The Asians would get up and quickly say whatever they needed to and be done. The Westerners would start trembling the moment they touched the microphone and soon be on the floor. During prayer time, again, the Westerners would quickly fall as soon as they were touched. The Asians—again, unless American-returned—had to be pushed—and pushed they were. (As for me: I allowed myself to be prayed for but was determined not to let anyone push me over. The night before the conference I picked up numerous bad mosquito bites right in the center of my forehead. Boy, did it ever hurt when they started pushing on it!)

What gives here? Why did only certain ethnic groups experience the phenomena? If you think they come from the Holy Spirit, then was God being racist? If you think they are from, um, someone else, why did that someone only attack the white people?

How about a third answer? I would suggest that most of these phenomena are from neither God nor the devil but are learned (human) behaviors. People fell down not because God or the devil knocked them over but because they wanted to (excepting those who were successfully pushed over). Also, culture plays a big role: Americans tend to be emotionally exuberant, sometimes to the point of mania, especially when overseas. Asians, by contrast, are generally more reserved.

I have seen and felt some unusual things in my time as a Christian. I have seen people fall in connection with true healings. Once, after the service was over and you’d think everything would be quiet, a warmth and energy flooded the front of a church, and multiple people were knocked to their knees. Although such experiences have never been a routine part of Christian practice, they are not without historical precedent (see: “enthusiasm”), and I think you can find some indicators of them in the Bible as well. Now is not the time to go into such things, however.

I think a lot of what occurs today in the renewal movement is an attempt to reproduce such experiences. Good things happened when these phenomena took place, therefore if we recreate the conditions in which these occured by replicating the phenomena, the good things will also happen again. (This, I firmly believe, explains a lot of the current “worship” movement.) One time when the Holy Spirit “showed up,” people fell down; therefore, they should fall down again if He is really there.

These practices can be both harmless and harmful. Harmless, because they represent a genuine, psychospiritual response (religious feeling/Gefühl?) to the word and work of God. A woman living in an oppressive situation, for example, may look forward to a Friday night revival service. In response to prayer, she has an ecstatic experience, falling to the floor. There she feels rest and peace, the most she’s had all week, and is renewed in her knowledge that whatever else is going on, God loves her. Much could be said about this, but if it gives her a better life and makes her a better Christian, who has the right to judge it? Moreover, who can confidently conclude that God can’t (always a dangerous phrase) work in, through, and over such a human experience? (I am not a monergist.)

Harmful, for several reasons. Openness to spiritual experiences may lead to putting God in another kind of box; that God did something once may lead to an expectation that it must always happen that. People confuse phenomena for spiritual gifts or, worse, the Holy Spirit himself. A manufactured spirituality is about as good as it sounds, and the routinization of manifestations can open the door to charlatans and all sorts of abuse. The whole idea of the “spiritual drunkenness,” mentioned above, as a good thing is utter nonsense. A failure by charismatic leadership to discern and discipline abuses can lead many people to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject the renewal movement altogether (see again: MacArthur). Openness and patience are necessary, but as is said, we need to keep the main thing the main thing, and falling down isn’t it.

A closing note on my Southeast Asian conference: had I known in advance what it was going to be like, I probably wouldn’t have attended. (On other hand, free ticket!) I remember almost nothing that was said there except for one teaching by the “drunk apostle.” Quite soberly, he explained a simple, reflective exercise for finding God’s will for your life and invited us to go through it. I spent some time in prayer by myself, thinking over the questions he raised. At that point I was going through a major time of transition and really didn’t know what to do with my life. In completing that exercise, I began to get answers, and I felt as though God were giving me a new plan and direction for my life.

I’ve been following that plan and direction ever since. That exercise was what led me to realize my calling to theological education and ministerial training. Although it has not always been easy, it has been good to know what I am to do to my life. All credit and thanks goes to the Holy Spirit, but he used that drunk apostle to communicate to me.

And that’s why I don’t rush to judge my brothers and sisters, even when they’re nutty.

John MacArthur’s Strange Fire

Okay, being conflict-averse I don’t normally involve myself publicly in controversy on the internet, but I’ll start this blog off by wading into one: my take on John MacArthur and his Strange Fire book and conference. I’ve not read the book or viewed the conference, but essentially he’s made a renewed attack on the charismatic and Pentecostal movement for false teachings (i.e., heresy). Most of the criticism leveled at MacArthur has concerned his lumping together of the entire renewal movement with the excesses at its fringes. This has been a major topic all over the conservative protestant internets; an overview of the matter can be seen here, for instance.

To be honest, I’ve not been interested in MacArthur since his earlier work on the same subject, Charismatic Chaos. I find the cessationist argument extremely weak biblically and theologically; ultimately, it’s really based just on (a lack of) experience. There are so many good books I want to read by people I disagree with that I don’t want to waste my time on bad books by people I disagree with.

Moreover, such heat over this particular issue seems so… 1990’s. I can understand a cessationist writing a book or preaching a sermon on this, but an entire conference to attack a doctrine or Christian movement seems overkill in this post-denominational age. (What’s next? A conference against infant baptism? Amillennialism? Congregational church government?) Where I’m at, living and working with people from many different theological and denominational backgrounds, even if they don’t claim particular spiritual gifts, everybody believes that God still answers prayer and the Spirit of God still moves today. Everybody prays for the sick to be healed, and sometimes it happens. In my book, that’s kind of being a charismatic. (At the very least, everyone steals our music. Absolutely everyone.)

While its core beliefs are quite solid, I would never say that the renewal movement does not need introspection and criticism. Far from it. A common response to MacArthur’s criticism has been to stress that the Word of Faith movement (i.e., television Christianity) has only a minor influence and should not be seen as that characteristic of the broader movement. No, actually it is very widespread and influential, and it needs to be addressed more directly and frequently by the more orthodox sections. (Pastors, do you know what your church members are watching?)

Critiquing the theology of television Christianity is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel with a hand grenade. I don’t watch it (for many of the same reasons I don’t read authors like MacArthur), but some of it that I have been exposed to is so alien to what I understand Christianity to be that it is almost unrecognizable. I cannot square the “prosperity gospel” with the Jesus who said things like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Faith is good and should be positive, but the extremes to which many preach the idea of the “positive confession” is far from Scriptural. (In fact, this teaching actually does not originate with the historical Pentecostal movement but some of the esoteric “mind science” groups like Christian Science.) While not Pelagian in their teaching of salvation—like all good Protestants they teach that people are saved only by believing in Jesus—many popular preachers are thoroughly Pelagian in their teaching of sanctification and the Christian life: whatever God is going to do for you is totally up to you doing the right things. Worse, some of the founders of the Word of Faith movement have made statements regarding core Christian beliefs about God and Jesus that are nothing but heretical.

That said, on the rare occasions I catch moments of some of the popular names associated with this movement, I encounter none of the above. Most of the time, most preach positive, practical messages of how to live the Christian life and be more faithful to God that are not at all harmful. Would I like to hear more and better theology come from them? Oh yes. More accountability and less showmanship? Definitely. Correction of aberrant practices and careless teachings? Absolutely. On the main, though, I think most should be judged (yeah, judging: it’s something we all do and technically part of my job description as a theologian) by the overall good that their work produces (the same probably should be said of MacArthur) rather than more obscure, cherry-picked statements that put in the worst possible light people who are, bluntly, not at all theologically minded (unfortunately the same cannot be said of MacArthur and his more reckless claims.)

Good. That’s that, then—hugs all around, right? Not quite; let me turn the pointing finger around. Others have rightly pointed out the problems and dangers of MacArthur’s particular brand of cessationism, which arises from a severe misunderstanding of the purpose of spiritual gifts in the Bible and why God performs the miraculous. I have further issues with those like him, the self-appointed, ahistorical neo-Calvinist judges (as opposed to historical Calvinist theologians, many of whom, if not in agreement I am on good terms with) of who is and is not a Christian today. (To see their activities, just search the internet a little bit.)

This neo-Calvinist (as in young, restless, and reformed) inquisition holds the following beliefs that contradict the Bible and the Christian faith as understood by the vast majority of churches and believers throughout its entire history:

  • That God does not love everyone (contra John 3.16)
  • That God does not desire all to be saved (1 Tim. 2.4)
  • That Jesus did not die for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2)

These errors are being presented as “the Gospel, and nothing else,” the true “doctrines of grace,” which the rest of the Christian church lacks. Discernment is needed here, too: how are the areas of charismatic belief that are commonly attacked any worse? We give these a pass because they are associated with a (small, minority) historical tradition and “good Bible teachers.” In reality, they represent a major internal threat to contemporary preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and they need to be called out for it.

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A note on comments and documentation: Writing a blog is something I do in my leisure, and as time=work=money & other responsibilities, there are real limits as to how thorough a blog post can be. I will elaborate more on this later, but in general I don’t have the time to give voluminous citations to backup every claim that I make, and often they would be from offline sources anyway. All the topics mentioned here I have addressed, at least tangentially, in my Master’s and Doctoral thesis. If you have any questions about the veracity of my statements, please make an effort to investigate them first. Thanks!