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.
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.
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.