Church on Fire
Charismatic Renewal: Myths and Realities
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by Rowland Croucher
The Rev. Dr Rowland Croucher wrote as a Baptist minister and was editor of the newsletter Grid. This chapter is adapted from the Summer 1986 issue. Also reproduced in John Mark Ministries
Charismatic renewal is not going way. According to David Barrett, editor of World Christian Encyclopedia, pentecostals and charismatics numbered an estimated 100 million worldwide in 1980. He says that number jumped to about 150 million by 1985 and 337 million by 1989.
The word charismatic (Greek ‘charisma’ – a gift of grace) is useful as an adjective but sometimes offensive as a noun. Here we will reluctanly use charismatic as a noun, and as an adjective, but with the understanding that every true Christian is charismatic.
We are now hearing about post-charismatics. They had assumed the experiences in Acts 2,8,10,19 and 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 were normative for all Christians for all times. Having sought an emotional high, they found that their version of the charismatic renewal promised more than it delivered.
Let us work through the myths or misconceptions in order.
1. Renewal is a fairly modern phenomenon
Those unfamiliar with the mistakes of the past, as Santayana said, are likely to repeat them. Movements of religious renewal are not new. That happens when something lost is found: the book of the law (Josiah), prayer and asceticism (Desert Fathers), simple lifestyle (Franciscans), justification by faith (Luther), sanctification (Wesley), spiritual gifts (Pentecostals).
Christian renewal emphasizes the church’s organic, communal nature and tends to idealise the primitive apostolic church. Static institutions are challenged to change and become dynamic.
Traditionalists are usually blind to the disparity between the institution’s claims and its ineffectiveness. Renewalists often have little, or an idealised, sense of history; God is on their side and against the institution. They don’t realize that they too will set up new institutions which will eventually settle down, preserve a status quo and be challenged again.
Howard Snyder and others have helped us formulate a mediating model of the church, which affirms history and expects renewal – both.
2. Enthusiasm is a sign of immaturity
Not necessarily. Stolid Anglo-Saxons may not approve of too much enthusiasm, but other cultures (Latins, Africans) like it. Two Israelite leaders, Eldad and Medad, got excited when the Spirit fell on them, so Joshua the institutional spokesman told Moses to stop them. Moses retorted by wishing the Spirit might similarly fall on the lot of them (Numbers 11:26-30)!
Experiences of some of the mystics (Richard Rolle, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross), reveal an affinity to modern charismatic phenomena.
The Holy Spirit being manifested in a person, a culture or an age produces various attitudes: an ordering attitude, a praying attitude, a questioning attitude, and an attitude of receiving. Without the receptive attitude the other three dry up. Mark Hillmer says that without mystical experience, without an ongoing awareness of the presence of God, we do not live a full and rich Christian life. The charismatic renewal represents the re-entry into the world of the felt presence of God. It means that mysticism, the attitude of receiving, is being renewed for us.
In all renewal movements there is a predictable dialectic: a move far enough one way will cause the pendulum to swing back to the other extreme.
The sad history of enthusiasts illustrates both the dangers of unchecked fervency not centred on the revelation of Jesus Christ, and also the inadequacy of merely institutional or rational authority. The faith is endangered when Christians have to choose between this uncontrolled fervency and dessicated, authoritative, uninspired orthodoxies in Protestantism or Catholicism. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of love and community, the Spirit of reflection and control.
3. Pentecostalism is an ecclesiastical abberation that can be ignored
Not without reason has Pentecostalism been called the third force within Christendom. Pentecostalism teaches a necessary second stage in a believer’s relationship to the Lord – baptism in the Spirit – whose initial evidence is speaking in tongues. Its mission has been to restore spiritual gifts that had been neglected or opposed by the churches: tongues, interpretation, prophecy, faith, miracles, healing, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).
4. Charismatic renewal in the 1960’s and 1970’s was indistinguishable from the older Pentecostalism
The Neo-pentecostal renewal began in a significant way in the historic churches in the 1950’s.
Catholic charismatic renewal (the term Neo-pentecostal soon went out of vogue) probably goes back to Pope John XXIII convoking the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and his prayer that the Holy Spirit would renew the church as by a new Pentecost.
Charles Hummell uses a World War II analogy to explain what happened. Pentecostalists based their pneumatology on the Synoptics and Acts: wasn’t Jesus first conceived by the Holy Spirit, then later baptized in the Spirit? Didn’t the disciples receive the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them, but were later filled with the Spirit at Pentecost?
Traditional theologies, on the other hand, were Pauline. They said you mustn’t build doctrines from these events in the primitive church, but rather ask ‘What do the New Testament letters to various churches teach us?’ And only once is baptizing in the Spirit explicitly referred to there (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). And so the battle-lines formed, and the troops became entrenched within their fixed positions.
It was something like the French Maginot Line facing the equally impregnable Siegfried Line. Each army was safe behind its ramparts but unable to advance. Suddenly the German panzer divisions moved swiftly around these fixed positions and rolled into Paris without a pitched battle.
So with our little theologies. We fight our wars, protect territory already won, and are often ill-prepared to take new ground. Hummell explains that for decades pentecostal and traditional theologies of the baptism in the Spirit faced each other along one major doctrinal battle line. Then suddenly the Holy Spirit moved around these fixed positions to infiltrate charismatic renewal behind the lines in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.
Catholic charismatic renewal has less emphasis on spiritual gifts and more on nurturing a personal relationship with Christ and on developing Christian community. In 1979 the Australian Catholic Theological Association said that through the movement thousands of Australian Catholic men and women were able to experience a deeper conversion to Jesus Christ; a renewal of faith; an introduction to a serious prayer life; a new appreciation of the Scriptures; an openness to the use of their gifts from the Holy Spirit; a commitment to evangelism.
5. Conservative churches are frightened to touch charismatic renewal because it is an all-or-nothing package
Peter Wagner, professor of church growth at Fuller Seminary has popularized the notion of a third wave of renewal experienced in many churches in the 1980’s. He says that many historians feel this century has seen the greatest outpouring of the Holy Spirit since the first century or two. The first wave came with the pentecostal movement. The second came around the middle of the century with the charistmatic movement. The third wave is more recent, having begun around 1980, with the same powerful, supernatural acts of the Holy Spirit which had been confined to pentecostals and charismatics now being seen in a growing number of evangelical churches.
Wagner goes on to talk about his ‘120 Fellowship’ that meets from 7.30 to 9.15 Sunday mornings. They see signs and wonders on a regular basis. They don’t teach a baptism in the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace but see the Spirit’s impact as a filling or anointing of the Spirit which may happen to a person many times. They do not permit themselves to be called Spirit-filled Christians, as if others in the church were something less than Spirit-filled.
They try to avoid the Corinthian error concerning tongues; they neither forbid nor stress it. They treat tongues as just another spiritual gift, not as a badge of spirituality. Many pray in tongues, but they do not encourage public tongues in their class.
Wagner sees the third wave of the Spirit as an opening of the evangelicals and other Christians to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. He notes evidence of this in many mainline churches now incorporating renewal in their worship service, sponsoring healing services, or praying for healing and deliverance in their normal worship times.
6. There’s only one way to understand the term baptism in the Spirit
Baptism in the Spirit, in the pentecostal and charistmatic traditions, is an effusion of God’s Spirit upon a Christian with power for praise, witness and service. It is an experience which initiates a decisively new sense of the powerful presence and working of God in one’s life, and usually involves one or more charismatic gifts, observes Francis Sullivan. Pentecostals normally view it as a second work of grace. Charismatics have come to understand it as a deepening of the faith grounded in the new life received in Christ.
When a person becomes a Christian (and that can happen in many different ways), he or she never realizes all that has happened. A fuller understanding of justification, for example, may come much later. But it happened earlier. So we mustn’t put dogmatic strait-jackets on this experience. Conversion can be dramatic (if the person was running hard from God beforehand, for example), or quite matter-of-fact.
So with the Holy Spirit. Luke and Paul write about the work of the Spirit from different perspectives. For Luke the Spirit gives believers power for witness in the world – and that can be repeatable. Paul talks about the Spirit incorporating us into the body of Christ – that’s once-for-all.
Words can have different meanings in different contexts. Paul has perhaps five separate meanings for flesh. The Bible has many ways to describe the meaning of the death of Christ. Baptism is used in the Scriptures as a flexible metaphor, not merely as a technical term. I heard theologian Clark Pinnock say that so long as we recognize conversion as truly a baptism in the Spirit, there is no reason why we cannot use ‘baptism’ to refer to subsequent fillings of the Spirit as well’.
7. Regarding spiritual gifts, the best course is to be conservative (stick to the safe ones and leave the others well alone)
Every church ought to be open to the full spectrum of the gifts. Spiritual gifts are meant to create truly Christian community. Where there is love, there’ll be gift-giving. God’s gifts are love-gifts – God at work.
Gifts are given freely by the Holy Spirit. They can’t be manufactured by us nor is their presence or absence a sign of Christian maturity.
In a truly biblical fellowship the focus is not on the gifts, but the Giver. But that shouldn’t be a cop-out, ignoring the gifts we aren’t comfortable with.
Here’s a common problem: ‘I had the best hands laid on me, but nothing happened’. Well, what did you expect to happen? Faith-filled prayer believes you have received the Spirit: leave the rest to God’s timing. David du Plessis (Mr. Pentecost) says that baptism in the Spirit is always easy when Jesus Christ does it for you, but always difficult when you struggle to do it yourself or with the help of others. And Richard Lovelace comments that Christians act as though fellowship with the Holy Spirit were very hard to establish. Actually it is very difficult to avoid! He says all that is necessary is for the believer to open up to that divine Reality in the centre of consciousness which is the most fundamental fact of a Christian’s inner life’.
8. Prophecy isn’t needed today – we’ve got the Bible
Western fundamentalism has been infected with dispensationalism which sees the activity in the Book of Acts as transitional; the canon of Scripture is now closed, and the curtain has been brought down on all this sort of thing. When Paul says tongues and prophecy will be with us until the perfect comes (1 Corinthians 13:10) they say Paul meant a perfect Bible. The rest of the church interprets Paul as referring to heaven, when we shall see face to face.
Prophecy is a direct dominical utterance (thus says the Lord) for a particular people at a particular time and place, for a particular purpose. The Divine Word also comes through Jesus, through Scripture, through circumstances, and through visions (more commonly in non-Western cultures).
Prophecy gives the church fresh insights into God’s truth (Ephesians 3) or guidance about the future (Acts 11), or encouragement (1 Corinthians 14:3, 1 Timothy 1:18), or inspiration or correction. It either edifies the church or brings it under judgement (God is in this place! – see 1 Corinthians 14:25). The biblical prophets combined judgement with hope.
9. Tongues is an ecstatic gift (for immature Christians)
The gift of tongues (glossolalia) is a quasi-linguistic phenomenon, not language in the normal sense of the term.
Tongues-speaking is not an indication of mental imbalance. After fifty years of research the consensus still runs, as with Virginia Hine over twenty years ago, that available evidence requires that an explanation of glossolalia as pathological must be discarded.
Two decades of research into the discrete functions of left and right hemispheres of the brain appears to show that the dominant cerebral hemisphere (the left, for 95% of the population) specializes in thinking processes which are analytical, linear, logical, sequential, verbal, rational. The right hemisphere normally shows preference for thought that is visiospatial, simultaneous, analog (as opposed to digital), emotional.
While speech has been seen to rise from mapped sectors of the left hemisphere, language-formation capacities are probably spread over both hemispheres. Glossolalia may be right hemisphere speech, sharing a location beyond – but not contradictory to – the usual canons of rationality. It is appropriate to think of glossolalic prayer as neither irrational nor arational, but rather transrational; when reason fails in prayer, the Spirit helps (Romans 8:26,27). It’s spirit to Spirit communication rather than mind to mind. (1 Corinthians 14:15).
Richard Beyer claims that there is a fundamental functional similarity between speaking in tongues and two other widespread and generally accepted religious practices, namely Quaker silent worship and the liturgical worship of Catholic and Episcopal churches.
10. What if they’re not healed?
Let’s look at the tough questions.
Does God want everyone healed? Pentecostalists usually say yes (and if you aren’t, the problem is with lack of faith – yours, or your praying friends’ or your church’s).
Most others would say no.
Francis McNutt offers a more balanced view. In general, he says, it is God’s desire that we be healthy, rather than sick. And since he has the power to do all things, he will respond to prayer for healing unless there is some obstacle, or unless the sickness is sent or permitted for some greater reason.
The church today surely needs less pride and prejudice in this area. ‘But what if we pray publicly and they’re not healed?’ is the kind of faithless question that stymies our maturing in this area. Our calling is to be faithful and obedient. It’s God’s business whether he heals or not!
11. Deliverance from evil spirits is a medieval or animistic idea. We’ve now outgrown all that.
Naturalism is a view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.
This world view has influenced theology in this century principally through Rudolf Bultmann. He claimed that because the forces and laws of nature have been discovered we can’t believe in spirits, whether good or evil.
Against this, the biblical worldview holds that the universe consists of both visible and invisible creatures, angels, demons, and powers. As theologians like Gustav Aulen and Helmut Thielicke point out, the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the ministry of Jesus Christ can’t be understood apart from its being a war against the principalities of evil. Emil Brunner says we cannot rightly understand the church of the New Testament unless we break out of the strait-jacket of naturalism and take seriously the dynamic manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
Someone has calculated that 3,874 (49%) of the New Testament’s 7,957 verses are ‘contaminated’ with happenings and ideas alien to a naturalistic world-view. Morton Kelsey noted that the only large group of Christians who take seriously the idea of a direct encounter with the non-space-time or spiritual world are the Pentecostals and the charismatics, and they have come in for derision from every side.
However, as C.S. Lewis and others have warned us, there are two opposite errors we must avoid: either disbelieving in the devil’s existence, or giving Satan more attention than he deserves. Cardinal Suenens similarly exhorts us to steer a safe course between Scylla and Charibdis, between underestimation and exaggeration.
Within the church the gift of discernment of spirits is very important. The Scriptures suggest various tests to discern the spirits: Is Christ glorified (John 16:14)? Is the church edified? Are others helped? Does it accord with Scripture? Is there love? Is Jesus Lord of the person’s life? Is there submission to church leaders – allowing others to weigh what is said or done?
12. It’s all so divisive that we ought to leave charismatic issues well alone
Divisiveness would head anyone’s list of the issues confronting us in the modern charistmatic renewal.
My observation, however, is that divisiveness is not a function of the presence or absence of certain spiritual gifts, but of insecurity, fear (charisphobia), insensitivity (charismania), or lovelessness on one or both sides.
David Watson talked about tidy churches, with piles of papers neatly in order. The windows are opened, but the fresh wind of the Spirit blows the papers about, so the elders scurry around collecting them all again, and close the windows. You’ve got tidiness, even stuffiness.
That’s the picture of many a church, he suggests. He wants to have the windows open with a fresh breath of the Holy Spirit blowing. Untidiness with life is preferable if the alternative is tidiness and death. One of the tidiest places you can find is the cemetery.
Let us beware of the error Gamaliel warned about (Acts 5:33-39). If this is of God, we must take the movement seriously.
Certainly the swift stream of renewal often throws debris on to the banks. Old wineskins can’t cope with new wine without bursting. When the Spirit is at work, the devil will be sowing weeds among the wheat.
13. Experience-centred and Word-centred theologies won’t mix
The success of an experiential theology must be judged by the ease (or lack of ease) with which it moves from Spirit to Word. If Word and Spirit can be held in dynamic union, then experiential theology has the possibility of becoming definitive for the life and witness of the church today.
Too often Word takes the place of Spirit. Our traditional theologies run the risk of being rationalistic, contrived conceptual schemas. The Holy Spirit is the subject of a sterile pneumatology, with little openness to an experience of his power.
But, again, an experience-centred theology sometimes stays there. Sometimes there’s an unhealthy identification of truth with a prophetic leader, or a great experience; everything else derives validity through reference to these. Or else the Bible is used as a sanction for one’s independent feelings and experiences. Or perhaps we are not open to the whole of experience.
Thus an unhealthy individualism and a pervasive subjectivism often accompany pieties of personal experience. As Russell Spittler has put it, individualism is a virtue when it assures conscious religious experience, but becomes something of an occupational hazard for Pentecostal-charismatics. Add in some dominant personality traits, take away an acquaintance with the church’s collective past, delete theological sophistication, and the mix can be volatile, catastrophic.
Let us beware of inhabiting simplicity this side of complexity, or complexity the other side of simplicity, but rather move to simplicity the other side of complexity!
The security of the slogan is easier than the hard work of discovering the truth. Much of what is written in pentecostal/charismatic books is what Kilian McDonnell calls enthusiastic theological fluff – pink hot air in printed form.
There is a great need for a thorough-going charismatic theology. For example the juxtaposition of the ideas of baptism in the Spirit and the release of spiritual gifts may be seen to be a most significant contribution to twentieth-century theology, but a lot more work has to be done on it yet.
14. In the church’s worship you can’t mix charismatic elements with traditional forms
Probably, in retrospect, it will be seen that the pentecostal movement will have made its most important contribution in corporate worship, in the sphere of liturgy and preaching, and not in the sphere of pneumatology, as is constantly and quite wrongly supposed, suggests Walter Hollenweger.
Aspects of pentecostal/charistmatic worship are invading traditional churches with a rush! It’s becoming more common for worshippers of all kinds to raise their hands in adoration, as they sing scripture-songs in their morning worship-services. However these songs are as limited as is charismatic theology. There are very few about mission and justice, for example. They’re mostly ‘God loves me and I love God’ songs. Nice, but there’s more; love issues in a life of witness and obedience in a hostile world.
The way forward ultimately is to integrate the unique insights and results of charismatic renewal into the full life of the church, with a submission to the order, tradition, doctrine and spirituality of the church as a whole. It’s not helpful to go underground. Every special movement needs the whole church body to give focus, direction, discernment and correction; it needs to be tested, evaluated, encouraged, improved and admonished. As Cardinal Suenans says, to be most useful, the charismatic movement must disappear into the life of the church.
15. The problem of elitism should eventually go away
I’m pessimistic on this one. We enjoy sorting others out according to false hierarchies of value. There have always been ‘haves and have-nots’ in the church. Only the categories change. In one era a priestly caste takes special prerogatives to itself and we have the evil of clericalism. In others there are heresy trials with the orthodox removing the heterodox. In the charistmatic renewal, experience is the watershed: those who have ‘arrived’ have been ‘baptised in the Spirit’ in a discernible experience subsequent to conversion, and speak in tongues. But the New Testament mostly uses ethical rather than experiential categories to define stages of Christian maturity. For example, Barnabas was spirit-filled; that is, he was filled with goodness and faith (Acts 11:24).
16. Magic isn’t a problem if we’re ministering in Christ’s name
It is possible for a miracle-centred theology to become theurgical (Greek ‘theourgia’ – magic). An openness to signs and wonders can easily degenerate into miracle-mongering.
Miracles are not just for show. Jesus resisted the temptation to work miracles to dazzle people or to seduce them into believing in him, notes Alan Richardson. He refused to give the Pharisees a ‘sign from heaven’. He did not want to be sought after as a wonder-worker.
Magic involves repeating formulas (vain repetitions). It’s wanting blessings more for my sake than God’s. It’s manipulating deity for my ends.
17. The charismatic renewal is ecumenical
If it is charismatic, it’s ecumenical, says Mr. Pentecost, David du Plessis. But he adds that there has been a dangerous tendency by pentecostals/charismatics to criticize the church, leading to the formation of schismatic, independent groups:
The more schismata the less charismata (1 Corinthians 12:25,26), he would say. This humble Pentecostal pioneer had a passion for unity because the prayer of Jesus was for unity, that the world may believe. He saw little hope for the world unless unity comes to Christianity.
18. Charismatic renewal and mission
Christians are commissioned to do in their world what Jesus did in his: bringing salvation (wholeness, the reign of God), where there is pain, sickness, lostness, alienation, oppression, poverty, war, injustice. So the church’s mission has three dimensions: evangelism (preaching good news), works of mercy (relieving persons’ pain), and works of justice (addressing the causes of pain). It uses three instruments: word (what we say), deed (what we do) and sign (what God does).
Pentecostalists/charismatics have brought the church back to signs and wonders and they have generally done evangelism better than others.
But pentecostal/charismatics churches are weakest of all in the justice area. There’s more in the prophets than Joel’s promise of the Spirit on all flesh. The prophets cried out for justice, the redress of wrongs done to the poor.
19. Being baptised in the Spirit is an antidote for antinomianism
It isn’t. Antinomianism (living carelessly and lawlessly) is as much a trap for pentecostals/charismatics as for anyone.
20. Conclusions: the way forward
Sherwood Wirt noted that the most important gift God has given to the charismatic renewal is a fresh outpouring of love. Not joy, not ecstasy, not tongues, not miracles, not even martyrdom, but love.
And there’s something else the cautious ought to be more afraid of: attributing the work of the Spirit to the devil. That’s a very serious sin, Jesus warned.
Paul sums it up: ‘Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts’ (1 Corinthians 14:1).
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