Scaring the theologian

As a theologian, I regularly hear scary things. Of course there is plenty of scary theology going around, but I’m not talking about that in this short post. I get scared other ways, too!

Scary thing the first: People ask me what I do, and when I tell them, they ask me what I teach. After I say theology, they will frequently ask, “Oh. Does that have to do with the Old Testament or the New?” It’s scary that many Christians don’t know that there’s a thing called “theology” or anything to learn about our faith besides the Bible.

Scary thing the second, related to the previous scary thing: As before, I give the answer, “theology.” Once a woman immediately replied, “Be careful with that, or you’ll miss the Kingdom of God!” She must have had a scary idea of what theology is!

Scary thing the third: I’ll admit that, when called upon to preach, I will frequently “sermonize” a theology lesson. I change the presentation and delivery, remove jargon, and build up the practical application part. Believe it or not, usually it’s very well received. After the message, people will tell me, “Brother, I enjoyed that very much!” That’s the nice part; here comes the scary part: “I’ve never heard anything like that before!”

So many people and churches are thirsting for good, sound theology, but they are not getting it. Frankly, it’s a scary situation!

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.