This article is part 2 in a series on strange fire. In my first article I responded to John MacArthur’s attack on the Charismatic movement, pointing out that he hurt the body of Christ with his sweeping generalizations and that he was guilty of rejecting the very medicine that God has sent to revive the dying churches of America. I did not refute specific charges he made or correct false teachings and bad interpretations of Scripture that he and others in the cessationist movement offer because before I get specific about errors from the Cessationists I feel it is appropriate to first take to heart the many valid points that MacArthur and others make regarding abuses and errors within the Charismatic church. So this article is the first installment of a soul-searching attempt to recognize and correct abuses that exist within the Pentecostal/ Charismatic movement.
My goal in exposing these errors is two-fold. First, I hope it will help Pentecostals and Charismatics to understand why Cessationists view them the way they do. Second, I wish to issue a call for change. It is not enough to avoid the errors of leaders within your movement; it is not even enough to point them out so that people will not be deceived by them. It is also necessary to take steps to bring change so the abuses will eventually stop. At the conclusion of the last installment of these articles I will suggest some things we can do, to borrow one of MacArthur’s phrases, to stop the Charismatic chaos.
As a person who has spent his entire Christian life within Charismatic and Pentecostal circles, I have had difficulty understanding the position of millions of believers who are of a tradition that denies the present-day power of the Spirit. As a young believer I could not fathom how Bible-believing Christians could fail to see the obvious New Testament teaching that speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing are a foundational part of the Christian life. Nor could I come to grips with a mentality that claimed that multiplied millions of Charismatics are empowered by the devil when they speak in tongues. How can they deny the obvious?
Maybe it is not simply a matter of denying the obvious. Maybe they see things in the Charismatic movement that cause them to shy away from it. What would happen if we looked at the Charismatic movement from the perspective of a disinterested outsider? What would we see?
Charismatics from the perspective of an outsider
Taking the perspective of a disinterested observer, I might ask, if the New Testament gifts of the Spirit were active today, there would be many people with gifts of healing. Healing would be the norm. Instead, today we see faithful believers getting sick and dying. It is not fair to say, as so many Charismatics coldly do, that they just must not have had enough faith. If our faith for salvation were as fickle as our faith for healing, we would all be bound for hell. Is faith for healing that much more complex, that much more difficult, than faith for salvation? So why are there not more healings?
If the prophetic gifts were active today, there would be prophets who do not utter false prophecies. Even if we grant that the New Testament prophet is not like the Old Testament prophet, and they can make mistakes, there still should be enough mature prophets who are reliable enough in their utterances that the entire church world would take notice. Indeed, the entire nation would fear such men and women, because when they utter a warning of judgment coming, their track record would indicate that judgment will indeed come. But where are those trustworthy prophets, who never utter a word that does not come to pass? Can you name even one?
Charismatics from the perspective of an insider
When I was in Bible college around 1990, I heard a statistic that about 36% of members of the Assemblies of God denomination in the U.S.A. have ever spoken in tongues. That means nearly two-thirds of AG members are Pentecostal in name only. How many more have only spoken in tongues once, the day they received the gift? How many have not spoken in tongues in a long time, or do it so rarely that it is of little consequence in their lives? Only a small percentage of Pentecostals are really living a supernatural lifestyle. Most churches in America rarely, if ever, experience the operation of a gift of the Spirit in their services. No wonder there are so many cessationists among us.
Charismatics are known to flock to services because they hear that people are receiving gold fillings in their teeth or that feathers are falling or gold dust is appearing. How much different is this from Catholic claims that a painting of the Virgin Mary was weeping or that an image of Jesus appeared miraculously on a grilled cheese sandwich? I am not saying that all claims of gold dust and feathers are false, but I think I now understand why outsiders observing the Charismatic movement are not drawn to become a part of it. Many of our charismatic manifestations are a far cry from visitors being “convicted of sin…as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare” through the prophetic word (1 Cor 14:24-25a). The church does not need more flaky manifestations; we need the manifest power of God causing us to fall down in worship. saying, “God is really among you” (v. 25b).
We need to police our movement
When we believe that miracles are for today but do not experience them in our daily lives, we look for them anywhere we can find them, hoping it will be the real thing. Maybe that is why so many people flocked to hear Todd Bentley a few years ago, even though the warning signs should have told us all to stay away. Maybe that is why we do not police our own movement, allowing flakes and wolves to run unchecked among the charismatic flock. But it is time for that to change. The Charismatic church needs to rein in its patently unbiblical practices. No longer should we give a free pass to leaders just because they are on TV and they speak in tongues. If this begins to happen, we may be able to bridge the gap between ourselves and the Cessationists, because we need each other, and the church cannot afford to be divided in this hour.
As we defend ourselves against the blatantly false charges MacArthur has made, we should also take inventory on our own lives and see if there is anything there that would qualify as strange fire. As we deal a death blow to the strange fire in our camp, we will become dissatisfied with the lack of fire in our midst, and that will cause us to cry out to God for a fresh explosion of the true fire. That is my prayer for the Pentecostal/ Charismatic church.