The Charismatic Apologist

In my previous article Modern Rabbis I examine what the qualifications of a teacher in the 21st century church should be. Having grown up in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles I see there is a huge lack in teaching in the movement. The deficit is not so much in quantity. Every year there are hordes of books and sermons from the charismatic world. The deficit is in quality.

The Charismatic Movement (CM) has long been criticised for sensationalism and lack of scriptural justification. Those in the charismatic world have responded by saying that they are just being genuine and the things that are seen among them are seen in the Bible. Even though I am a practising charismatic I have a serious critique of the movement.

I do genuinely believe that spiritual gits are for today and there are modern day prophets and apostles. It is the emergent charismatic leadership that I have serious problems with. On the whole I think charismatic leaders the world over are doing a good job. We should not paint these leaders all with the common brush of the caricature dubious televangelist. To be sure there are many decent televangelists out there. The Church the world over does face some serious problems but we should not be fond of thinking the church is hopelessly lost. God always has reserved those who have not bowed to Baal.

I feel that charismatic leadership, especially prophets and all those who move in signs and wonders, has had some major failings in certain areas. The lack of quality teaching from these leaders has affected how other issues like spiritual gifts, the prophetic and ethics are dealt with.

Moses was unquestionably the greatest prophet in the Old Testament. He was also the first teacher in the Biblical record. The didactic role of prophets was very clear in the Bible. When I listen to modern day prophets and charismatic teachers I often find myself rolling my eyes. When they speak there is a lack of coherence in their message, very little Biblical exposition, using the Scriptures out of context a lot, and a general lack of decent scholarship. There is often a strong sense of Gnosticism where they have special revelation or insight into the Bible which is either not present in the text or outright contradicts it. There is an inordinate interest in “oohs” and “ahhs”, spectacles that produce very little light but a lot of heat. Charismania helps no one. Fortunately, there are charismatic leaders who defy this mould like the late John Paul Jackson, the founder of Streams Ministries International.

When criticisms are levelled against a group it is quite telling how they respond to it. For instance when it comes to spiritual gifts (also known as charismata) the CM has a great response to those who say they have ceased from the Church. There is no clear statement in the Bible telling us they have ceased and the present empirical data tells us the charismata are very vibrant today. Dr Craig Keener, a New Testament scholar and a practicing Charismatic, does excellent work on this in his two volume book on miracles. The textual and empirical arguments for the charismata are both used by charismatic leaders but there is a lot lacking particularly on the textual front.  Often, they quote a couple of proof texts, cite what is happening in their ministries, shut their Bibles and happily declare, “Problem solved!” Very few of them are able to carefully demonstrate the role of the charismata in the Biblical schema. What precisely is a spiritual gift? Why did they show up when they did? When are they meant to work and for what reasons? Is there anything more to them than their immediate benefits? All these questions are largely left unanswered and it is rather the Cessationist camp which is more willing to tackle these issues.

I think spiritual gifts are pointers to the new creation that God is working out. The Epistle to the Hebrews describes them as “powers of the age to come.” When we see people speak in tongues it points to a time when the disintegration of human civilization at Babylon will be reversed by God dwelling among his people, uniting all humanity in the singular language of praise to him. When we see healings today, it points to the future resurrection of all believers where death and decay will be no more. The charismatic signs and wonders tell us the kingdom of God is here and now and there are better things still to come. The edification, exhortation and comfort the charismata provide is not just a personal subjective thing. It is meant to encourage the Church, furnishing it with real time confirmation of the promise of the Gospel. The charismata unite us in our common hope.

When we study Holy Scripture, the charismata are an important part of God’s plan for the church and the world. When Paul was discussing tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 he quoted the prophet Isaiah. Spiritual gifts do not appear in an interpretative vacuum in the New Testament. There is strong connective tissue linking them to the Old Testament where it is not only anticipated but explained. We need an intertextual approach to understanding charismatic signs and wonders where both testaments shed light on each other.

Another area where we severely lack is the prophetic. A lot of ridiculous things are said and done in the name of “thus saith the Lord.” However, there are also credible utterances. How do we distinguish between the two?

Most charismatic leaders affirm the authority of the Scriptures but in practice they seem to deny it. What sola scriptura actually means is a hot button issue. Instead of going on the defensive and throwing out a few proof texts to back their claim to prophetic status, they need to develop a robust, scriptural theology on the voice of God for today. I believe the onus is on them because they make the explicit claim to speak for God. Eminent British New Testament scholars N.T. Wright and James D.G. Dunn have already made important contributions on what scriptural authority actually means. Modern day prophets must be at the forefront of the theological discussion on God speaking today.

One aspect of the prophetic movement that is accused of being highly subjective is the phenomenon of visions and other ecstatic revelations. This harks back to the issue of scriptural authority. The so called “Heaven tourism” genre has been very popular and even a film has been made about one of these accounts. One Christian publisher this year pulled all such books from its roster when it came to light a popular book in the genre was actually a fictitious account. I do believe that God can give people fantastic visions of heaven. The major problem I have with them is that they are not a major concern in the Bible. Everybody has visions of going to heaven but no one has visions of the new heavens and earth. The point of the Book of Revelation is not going to heaven but heaven invading earth. Why do our modern prophets not have revelations of the new creation if they claim to be biblical prophets? God’s new order is a major theme for prophets like Isaiah and Daniel all the way to John of Patmos.

Furthermore, the very notion of a spiritual realm in visionary experiences is questionable. The Biblical authors did not think in the dichotomous categories of spiritual versus physical. The idea of a separate location called the realm of the Spirit is a very modern way of thinking. (In other posts I do a more detailed analysis of the Biblical concept of reality.) These visionary experiences need to be anchored to the Biblical text and worldview. During Pentecost, the apostle Peter explained the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God on the Church came with visionary and revelatory experiences. They are not exclusive experiences for the privileged few but the body of Christ is meant to participate and benefit from. When it is hard to place these phenomena in the Scriptures it makes it genuinely difficult for people to appreciate.

The final issue I would like to address is on the ethical front. Church leadership all over the world is being rocked by scandals on a fairly consistent basis. The recent Ashley Madison hack has affected congregations the world over. In my part of the world “pastors” being involved in various sex scandals makes the rounds on radio and social media. I have seen small fellowships rife with promiscuity. Apart from sex, issues regarding money are often sources of shame for the Church. Embezzlement and mismanagement of church funds and straight up fraud plague many churches. Sometimes these issues are not so clear cut and obvious. However, the way some church leaders use their position and influence raises a few eyebrows. Leaders in the CM are the major target of criticism in these areas and are in certain instances subject to scrutiny and formal investigation by the state. The various transgressions and excesses are too many to discuss here.

A lot of those who do these questionable acts base it of their perceived ministerial or prophetic status. Since they are men of God they get a pass. Signs and wonders are an awesome and dangerous gift to the Church. Charismatic phenomena are not play things. When must a Spirit inspired message or revelation be shared? How do you distinguish what God is saying to an individual or to a group? How do you know God is speaking at all? What hermeneutic do we apply to interpreting modern prophetic utterances? How do we make credible miracle claims? The ethical issues regarding charismatic phenomena are largely left unaddressed and a lot of well-meaning but misguided people are committing huge blunders. Paul spoke of order in practising spiritual gifts. There is a definite ethical component to these things in the Scriptures. Charismatics who are at the forefront have the responsibility of demonstrating the right way of doing things according to the Bible.

The CM needs its own apologists. Leaders who can help break down the intellectual and emotional resistance to their cause. The CM has its own flaws but there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water. It is evident that God is working signs and wonders in his Church all over the world. When Jesus was asked about the signs and wonders in his ministry he had a ready answer. The first apologetic that was offered to the world about Christianity was given by Peter when on Pentecost he defended from the Scriptures the miraculous things that were happening. We need to move from saying miracles can happen and explain the significance of why they do happen.

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