What is the fire for?
Are Charismatics and Cessationists both missing something about the Holy Spirit?
I tend to stay clear of public theological controversies in the media, particularly those centred on the other side of the Atlantic, but even I couldn’t avoid reading about the Strange Fire conference hosted by John MacArthur towards the end of last year and its aftermath. MacArthur’s basic thesis is that the rise in charismatic manifestations in certain sections of the church is unbiblical, divisive and at worst, a huge deception. The relative merits of the theological positions have been well rehearsed elsewhere (for example here).
As a card-carrying charismatic since the age of seventeen (despite being in a cessation-preaching church at the time), I have had little time for the debate. Ever since reading Jack Deere’s Surprised by the Holy Spirit my experience became married to a robust theology of the gifts of the Spirit in the present age. Sure, as Deere points out, there are charismatic abuses and excesses and some strange stuff at times; I personally find the cultural associations between charismatic worship and individualistic need-fulfilment and prosperity Gospel rather disturbing. However, I am convinced that the cessationist case is more founded in experience, or perhaps lack of it, rather than consistent exegesis of the relevant texts. Mind you, there can be some pretty strange practices in non-charismatic worship as well; people wearing vestments and funny headgear performing elaborate ceremonies at altars has always struck me as looking pretty odd, particularly in the light of the New Testament. It is a legitimate question to ask which is more odd: someone prostrating themselves on the floor under the anointing of the Holy Spirit (with or without accompanying noises), or someone bowing whilst wearing an ornate flame-shaped hat symbolising the anointing of the Holy Spirit?
So it is easy to dismiss MacArthur as sincere and well intentioned, with a concern for right doctrine and a care that God’s people are not misled, but nevertheless wrong on the gifts of the Spirit. It is also easy to dismiss the ballyhoo surrounding Mark Driscoll’s flash-strike on the conference as more to do with North American hubris and publicity for his book, rather than contributing anything meaningful to a theological debate.
And yet… I have a persistent and uncomfortable niggle about the whole thing, and it’s this: where is mission in the debate? Even a cursory look at Acts suggests that a primary purpose of the baptism in the Spirit (yes, Jesus used those words) is for empowerment and boldness in mission. Charismatic manifestations are thoroughly missional in purpose and effect in the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, Peter, Paul, John and others in Acts, and implied in the Pauline Epistles. Even speaking in tongues, the most individualistic of the charismata, can be used both to build up the individual (1 Cor. 14:4) and as a sign to unbelievers (14:22). The gifts of the Spirit work at every level, for edifying the individual disciple, for the community of believers in worship and in equipping for service, and for being bold in reaching the lost to whom disciples are sent. As Oscar Penhearow, a godly Pentecostal evangelist (see a recent obituary here) succinctly explained the baptism of the Holy Spirit to a questioning young Arthur Wallis: ‘But Arthur, it’s power for service!’
This could, of course, feed into the cessationist claim that this is to be expected of the apostolic age alone. Apart from the biblical texts, which I take to mean otherwise, there is also enough in church history to suggest otherwise. One of my favourite stories is the (often under-rated) experience of the Moravians. An ecumenical gathering of disaffected and displaced believers from all over Europe had an intense and protracted experience of Pentecostal worship in August 1727. This propelled them into a self-sacrificial missionary movement fuelled by 24-7 prayer. The charge that charismatic manifestations are divisive and self-centred simply wasn’t true in the case of the Moravians; their charismatic experience forged their unity and empowered their mission.
So here is the challenge: Cessationists need to face the fact that Pentecostals and Charismatics are globally the fastest growing wing of the church (see recent statistics from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity); the scale of this cannot be easily dismissed as the ‘attractiveness’ of their faulty self-fulfilment teachings and indulgent practices (sic). Nonetheless, much theology of the Spirit in charismatic circles is rather characteristic of the age, ticking both modern autonomous-individualist and post-modern self-fulfilment-spiritual-experience boxes at the same time. To my shame, despite being a charismatic for over thirty years, this is uncomfortably close to my own experience. Despite knowing personal edification, the rhema of God and empowered corporate worship, I have become no more bold in mission in that time. That this appears to be true for many around me offers no protection of safety in numbers; I need to face up to the uncomfortable fact that both my theology and experience of the work of the Holy Spirit are severely deficient. I am fearful to ask this of myself: If I am not bold in mission, then have I really been filled with the Holy Spirit?
So, wherever you are on the spectrum between hard-line MacArthyism to committed fire-catcher, the challenge is essentially the same. If you have caught the fire, are you being boldly missional with it? On the other hand, if you don’t think that there is a fire to be caught, are you being boldly missional without it?