One of Half a Billion: Reflection on Strange Fire

One of Half a Biillion

There’s been a lot of chatter online about the Strange Fire Conference hosted by John MacArthur last weekend. The purpose of the conference was to highlight and condemn the dangers of the Charismatic Movement and to make the case for Cessationism. As I am not a theologian and know next to nothing about cessationism, I followed the discussion with a lot of interest through the summaries on Tim Challies’ website and the transcripts from Mike Ricardi. I originally picked up on the conference through Adrian Warnock‘s website.

In short the cessationist view is that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, namely speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy, are no longer in operation today as part of the normative Christian experience.

Helpful

On the one hand, I am very grateful for the few helpful sessions that taught me about cessationism, such as Tom Pennington’s case for cessationism and Phil Johnson’s session on providence. They were very helpful and corrected many wrong assumptions I had formed about the cessationist view. There is a great article on the web about What Cessationism is Not which was also very informative. One particular thing I noted is that continuationists and cessationists use the same terms ‘Holy Spirit’, ‘gifts of the Spirit’, ‘work of the Spirit’ and do not mean the same thing at all and so I welcomed the clarification. Now I happen to believe that the case for cessationism is weak and people like Andrew Wilson commented on it much better than I ever could hope to do myself. However the conference highlighted areas of error within the movement with which I (and I dare say many thousands of other charismatics) wholeheartedly agree and I myself observe with cynicism, such as the Prosperity Gospel and the healings so obscure they cannot be confirmed (hello, one leg longer than the other ‘healings’).

Not So Helpful

Alongside these helpful comments, I was nonetheless originally surprised and then pretty appalled by the tone of the conference and the sweeping statements that painted an entire movement as a work of the devil, in particular the final address from John MacArthur and the Q&As. Mr MacArthur made his view very clear and that’s the one good thing about it. Whilst sort of extending grace to a few reformed brothers like Piper and Gudrem (I say ‘sort-of’ because he seems to not quite be able to get his head around it), the rest of the charismatic movement was rounded up and treated to this:

There are others who criticized by saying, “You’re attacking brothers.” I wish I could affirm that. We’ve said this one way or another this week: this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians.

As someone who identifies strongly as both continuationist and charismatic but not a Reformed Calvinist like Piper and Driscoll and therefore not in the good camp, I was still not expecting to be dismissed so categorically, especially with regards to salvation. Not only that, but apparently I am in actual fact engaging with Satan and his demons (see the Q&As for the full quotes).

Am I really so deluded and far from faith in Jesus-Christ that every time I pray to God and express it in a charismatic way, I am actually colluding with demons? What a way to shut down the conversation.

My Story

I am not going to continue to be offended further because I do not see myself in that description but instead will say the following:

I have been on both sides. I grew up in as uncharismatic, possibly cessationist – Bible-preaching Baptist evangelical – a church as you could find, and I lived in a super-charismatic setting for eight years. For all its strong biblical emphasis, many believers in that Bible-based church failed to display of the Fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5.22-23) to the degree that I was quite convinced that God was a nice theoretical idea with no actual observable life-changing power other than being a make-believe crutch to be held on to for dear life. When I became a Christian at fifteen years old through personal conviction of who Jesus was, it was accompanied by a physical experience of the Holy Spirit. Subsequently, over the next few years in France but mainly in the UK, I went through a period of intense emotional healing, more often than not accompanied by some form of charismatic experience of the kind that is described by the Strange Fire people as the work of demons.

I will readily admit that there are many things within the charismatic circles that have left me with questions and great discomfort.  It has been my observation, as a Christian who holds the Bible to high regard, that the charismatic desire to seek a better understanding of the Holy Spirit and His work can lead to a focus on non-essential doctrine and overstretched teaching and it is with this in mind that I now seek to educate myself. I absolutely agree that more discernment is needed. But even in the super-charismatic church I attended for many years, I know of no single person who holds to the prosperity gospel in any shape or form, or who would not recommend going to see a doctor and to continue with medication after a healing until a full sign-off from the medical profession.

The point I am getting at is, I could say the very same thing of other non-charismatic reformed churches as well. Extend the theology of total depravity to its extreme limit and you get the groups who believe that a toddler’s spirit needs taming through physical discipline; extend Paul admonition to not sue your brothers in Christ to its extreme and you get all sorts of sexual abuse in the church swept under the carpet for the sake of unity; extend another bit of the text and you get Westboro’s God hates fags campaign.

By contrast, Reformed theology, sound doctrine, is not a haven for false teachers. It’s not where false teachers reside. Reformed theology, sound doctrine, faithful biblical exposition among the long line of godly men, is not a place for false teachers, where frauds, deceivers, liars, and misrepresenters of the truth go. You’re not going to go to a Reformed church and find false miracles, false visions, false prophecies, false anointing, bizarre mindless pandemonium breaking out, shaking, rolling over, and falling down, saying false things about the Holy Spirit. That’s not going to happen in that environment, because they’re anchored to the truth.

The idea, espoused by the Strange Fire Conference, that somehow the cessationist reformed view is pretty much free from error is as heretical as it is arrogant, yet never in my wildest dream would that lead me to question their salvation.

A Slippery Slope

The point I am trying to make is that were it not for the revelation that the Holy Spirit is at work today as taught to me in a charismatic context, I would most likely not be a Christian today, or I would be a very unhappy one. I received all the biblical foundation knowledge you would expect from growing up in a reformed setting and was familiar with the creeds and the Gospel message, and I held back and remained unconvinced for the longest time because of the lack of fruit in my church. Even after my conversion, without a personal experience of the Holy Spirit answering prayers and yes, giving and receiving prophetic words of encouragement and direction for my life, my faith would have remained desperately intellectual and might eventually have died. I would in most likelihood be agnostic today were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit and those wacky charismatic ways.

That’s not to say that I myself have healed anyone, or that I call myself a prophet, or any of these things. But I desire them, and I believe them to be available to me, today, not for any sensationalist reason but because I believe it is an integral part of what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, who modeled how to walk in the will of the Father with the guidance of the Spirit. I reject the idea that the healings and prophecies and words of knowledge served only to confirm who Jesus was, but that He did these things because He loved people and His heart was broken for them. That is the Jesus I wish to follow, who did not just teach the Word but also touched the poor in acts of love, not just through practical service but also with words of knowledge and healings.

For me it comes down to the fact that I cannot separate doctrine from experience. The cessationists of Strange Fire seem very fearful and skeptical of emotions and of using intuition because it might not be entirely exact. Because of this they turn to an entirely biblical approach which gives them the reassurance of certainty and in the process elevates the mind as if it were not also capable of error. But we are renewed not only in our minds and spirits but also in our emotions and we cannot be a whole person unless our emotions are engaged in our worship of God, which may or may not express itself in exuberant fashion. Worship from the mind alone falls woefully short from who we are meant to be as humans. It also leaves little place for doubt and is, in my opinion, a slippery slope towards legalism.

A Final Note

Many cessationists in their comments on blogs in relation to the Strange Fire conference have argued that using the ‘my story’ card is not valid because it is ‘say-so’. I just can’t go with that. Basically it is not just calling many believers liars and emotion-seekers but coming at it with the assumption that they are all liars. My only advice to them would be to get alongside some charismatics, maybe even some in the more wacky settings. Become friends with them for their sake, not just because you think they are wrong and you want to set them on the right path. Ask them to tell you their stories. Then come back and tell me that we are all liars, heretics and unsaved.

With this in mind, I am grateful to C Michael Patton who is not a charismatic and yet was (shock) able to publish the most brilliant exposition of the wide range of what it means to be charismatic with grace and balance and avoided tarnishing everyone in the same ‘not-a Christian’ brush.

 

When I was on fire

This post is part of Addie Zierman’s synchroblog to celebrate the publication of her memoir When We Were on Fire, which talks about growing up in 90s American evangelical culture. It’s quite different in scale to my experience in France and in the UK but not that different either, and I hope to purchase her book soon.

 when we were on fire synchroblog

Its a fire
These dreams they pass me by
This salvation I desire
Keeps getting me down
(It’s a Fire – Portishead)

When I was on fire… I was 15, a new Christian and my local church was not equipped to deal with my hunger to know more of God. For one thing, there was not much youth, there couldn’t have been more than a handful of kids my own age, so there was hardly anything set up for us. There was also a sense that young people were not really full persons. At 15, you were still a child, and it showed in how you were talked to. You did not count yet, you were not wise, you were not learned, you were the generation of tomorrow. So if you were young, and female to boot, what could you possibly bring to the table?

When I was on fire… I was 16 and I pledged I wouldn’t date anyone until I was 18. I can’t remember who instigated it, me or my mum, but it was really a secret between me and her. I did it wholeheartedly but it wasn’t hard, I hadn’t dated anyone before and for the longest time there was only one guy in our youth group anyway. I’d caught glandular fever a few months earlier after kissing a guy at a Christian camp (I know I got it from him, there was an actual trail of illness to follow) and I didn’t want to repeat the experience. The pledge just gave my decision a bit more holiness, a little more weight.

When I was on fire… I was 17, and I asked if I could join the student youth group, because they held Bible studies and I wanted to engage in proper discussions about God, not just attend Sunday school. I was told no by the group leader, and it took the church pastor to speak on my behalf for me to be welcomed. When I say welcomed… I asked why we met only once a fortnight and not every Saturday evening, surely a couple of hours spent talking about God and having fun together couldn’t be that detrimental to studying, and I was shot down and told that I wasn’t a college student, how could I possibly know what I was talking about?

When I was on fire… I was 18 and you could have knocked me over backwards when I realised that the Holy Spirit was real and not just a theoretical idea. I had questions about that, and it was ok to ask them. We didn’t do much teaching from the Bible but that was OK, because people did that in their quiet time, and God turned up in the meetings anyway, didn’t He?

When I was on fire… I almost went to Africa on a small mission and I could have cried in relief when the project was cancelled. I had zero desire to go on missions to the far corners of the earth and I was terrified that because it was the one thing I most feared, it meant that it was probably God’s will that I should go.

When I was on fire… I asked this one guy out and he said he liked me but he felt that God was asking him to dedicate the next year to Him and that he should not date anyone. I respected his desire to be on fire for God and I admired and loved him more for it. A year later I asked again and he turned me down. He didn’t say so, but it’s fairly obvious he just wasn’t that into me in the first place.

When I was on fire… I didn’t say anything when I was told by the people I lived with that my friend was not welcome in their home because of things she had done in the past that were not appropriate. They didn’t think she was a good influence and her presence would affect the spiritual atmosphere of their house. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, but I had literally just moved in, their house, their rules. I had just committed to being accountable to this leader. All this spiritual warfare stuff was new to me and I was too involved to objectively take a step back and see heresy for what it was. I was there to be taught and I knew I had much to learn still; I wanted to be a better Christian and a better person and for that you need to have a teachable spirit. I remained silent, and I didn’t ever invite anyone into my home.

When I was on fire… I didn’t go visit this one friend who lived up north. Because if I had, I would have had to sleep on his sofa, and he lived alone. I knew we would have been absolutely fine and we would have had a great time but I decided not to go anyway because I would have had to lie to those I was accountable to. I didn’t think I could pull it off, and I didn’t want to be questioned about what was and wasn’t appropriate. He was a man and lived alone, and it’s just not done for men and women who aren’t married to sleep in the same house. It might lead to temptation.

When I was on fire… Being passionate meant being involved. Being ‘on fire’ meant being a servant like Jesus so serving the church was the way to go. For a while I led worship almost every Sunday; I led worship for the Saturday morning prayer meeting, 2 hours at a time. I was where it was happening. I was told I was hearing what the Holy Spirit was saying to our church for such a time as this. I thought my level of involvement was right and good. I thought it meant I was on the right path with God, that I was in His will, that I was fulfilling His vision for my life. I look back now and I’m not sure where it was leading me to and what I learnt. One thing I do know: I don’t make much of a Christian where it matters. I don’t have much empathy; I find people exhausting and annoying, especially those who don’t have ‘pick up and go’. I am afraid of being eaten alive by other people’s emotional need. So the thing I needed the most, to be taught about compassion, to be taught how to feel like Jesus, how to act like Jesus, how to care like Jesus, despite all the accountability and the self-examination, I didn’t learn. I didn’t know about the need outside of my church aside for their general need for Jesus. I didn’t make a difference where it matters, with the materially poor, with the mentally broken, with the isolated and the marginalised. I waited for them to come to me whilst I hosted a Holy Spirit party for the grateful few.

When I was on fire… For a long time I didn’t have much interactions with non-Christians outside of work. I didn’t know how to talk about my life and my church. I lived in a Christian bubble that wasn’t seeker-friendly and only had one non-Christian friend. I couldn’t invite her to church because our services were a bit too ‘out-there’ and were really just for us to hear the Spirit. For all our declarations, she wouldn’t have heard much about Jesus there, because there wasn’t much Bible teaching going on. I couldn’t invite her to my home because she was not a Christian and my hosts did not know her. So I went out with her, to her house, to pubs and clubs where I let down my guard a little bit and had fun. I felt a little bit more like myself. I was not double-checking myself all the time, it was liberating. For a while, there was more freedom.

When I was on fire… I was part of the leadership of a house church. I didn’t like the way commitment to God started to become synonym with engagement with everything God we were doing as a group and a community.  I didn’t like that it was ok to call people on Sunday morning to ask if they were going to attend the meeting.

When I was on fire… Suddenly I wasn’t leading worship at all. Hard to do in a house with just ten other people when you play the keyboard and not the guitar. I had so many questions and I wasn’t sure what I was doing anymore; if not worship, what was my calling, was this what I wanted to do with my life? Where was it going?

When I was on fire… the flame burnt out. I couldn’t pretend anymore that the things I was doing were for God. I distrusted everybody’s intentions. My faith was hanging by a thread and it took years for it to start growing again from the ashes of my former life. Now it burns again but it doesn’t look the same at all. No striving, just grace and the space to ask questions and be myself without judgement, warts and all. I know a little bit more about myself and where I need to change and it’s about growing, not burning. Fire is only good if it starts within and turns into warmth without, not if it shines without and destroys within.