October 18, 2017

More Like Fruit that Grows than Fire that Falls

“Signs and wonders, miracles and mighty works are certainly part of the story, yes, an essential part of the biblical story and its continuation and outworking in the Christian life; but out of context, apart from God’s revelation of himself in Jesus, severed and then removed from their organic positionings in the intricate and detailed formation of God’s people, they are simply things, miracle-commodities that are bought and sold on the religious stock exchange.”

– Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

* * *

As part of our discussion about “signs and wonders,” I want to offer some comments by way of critique. This is not meant to be a comprehensive statement of what I think about Christian groups that emphasize the Holy Spirit and supernatural gifts. That’s a book, not a blog post. Instead, I want to focus on a few fundamental reasons these theologies, movements, churches and parachurch groups ought to be critiqued.

My primary problem with the pentecostal/charismatic groups preoccupied with “signs and wonders” that I’ve been exposed to in my life may be summarized in the following two observations:

  • They have been too fixated on a limited stock of supernatural experiences and manifestations, with a tendency to define them as normative for Christian living.
  • They have not been sufficiently grounded in creation and a robust sacramental appreciation of the material and ordinary stuff of life.

These groups have therefore become vulnerable to a number of serious errors:

  • Docetism: Since God cares more about the spiritual than the material, earthly things are ultimately unimportant.
  • Escapism: Since the world is doomed, we need not take responsibility for improving it.
  • Separatism: Since the world is evil, we must avoid sympathetic contact and practice a confrontational stance.
  • Gnosticism: Since the world has no true knowledge to offer, we must seek divine insights through secret insider teachings and practices.
  • Elitism: Those who have had extraordinary experiences tend to set themselves apart from others, indicating in subtle or not-so-subtle ways that they have arrived at a higher level of spirituality.
  • Anti-institutionalism: Since a person or group’s authority is determined through allegedly experiencing God’s activity, no mere institution or outside authority figure has the right to critique them.
  • Authoritarianism: Since some show special aptitude and charisma (in all its senses), these individuals rise to an authority which no one can question because it is based on personal testimony of divine intervention.
  • Triumphalism. The theological term we learned for this in seminary was “over-realized eschatology.” In simple terms, it means claiming too much too soon — thinking that God’s future blessings are available for us to experience now. “Victory” or “dominion” becomes stressed in such a way that the N.T. teaching on suffering and service (theology of the cross) gets swallowed up by an emphasis on power and superiority (theology of glory).

Their biggest error is part and parcel of every movement that places an unbalanced emphasis on a particular area of doctrine or practice that is not at the creedal core — Jesus gets left out. The Gospel ceases to be the focal point of attention. God’s simple cruciform gifts of baptism, community, and pastoral ministry, Word and Table, lament and thanksgiving, and vocation and service become overwhelmed by an enthusiasm for spiritual experience and manifestations of divine power. The fruit of the Spirit gets swallowed up by the gifts of the Spirit (as we define them).

St. Paul Healing the Lame in Lystra, du Jardin

Now, as to the fundamental critiques:

1. They have been too fixated on a limited stock of supernatural experiences and manifestations, with a tendency to define them as normative for Christian living.

In my opinion, signs and wonders groups have a definition problem. This definition problem is rooted in a “dirty little secret” about the Bible — much of what we think we know about “the gifts of the Spirit” is simply not very clear in the Biblical text. Some examples:

  • What are we to make of the lists of gifts in the N.T. (Rom. 12, 1Cor. 12, 1Pet. 4)? Are these the gifts of the Spirit or are these lists merely suggestive? Do the entries on these lists include only supernatural manifestations or do they include the exercise of natural abilities? Are these gifts to be sought? Can they be taught? Developed? Why is the Corinthian list the only one that emphasizes obviously supernatural manifestations?
  • And what of specific gifts? Let’s admit it: we don’t really know from any explicit statement or example in the Bible what the “word of knowledge” is, do we? Nor do we have any actual indication in the Bible of how “faith” is exercised as a gift. How, specifically, did someone with gifts of “healings” use that gift in Corinth? What is “prophecy” and is this still operative today? Does the fact that we have a completed canon of Scripture have any implications for our understanding of NT prophecy? There has been a long debate as to the nature of “tongues.” Are these languages or some ethereal “prayer language”?

Certain groups may have come to conclusions about such matters, but in my opinion, Biblical evidence that would allow anyone to define the exact nature of the gifts is far from conclusive. Just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean we have a clue about what it actually means — especially when it only appears as a single word or phrase in a list. [I recognize that this statement will be anathema to biblicists who insist that every word of the Bible is capable of being fully understood and applied in like manner today. That’s another discussion.]

The differences of interpretation that exist about these matters testify to a frustrating lack of clarity in the NT itself. If anyone claims to speak with precision and authority about such things, I find them automatically suspect. Yet we hear authoritative, dogmatic pronouncements about spiritual gifts all the time. In my experience the vast majority of what I’ve heard has not rung true.

What is clear, then, about the Holy Spirit, his gifts, and supernatural manifestations?

  • The NT clearly teaches that Christ has inaugurated his Kingdom and that the life of the new creation has begun breaking in to this age.
  • Christ poured out his Spirit on the church, and it is the Spirit’s ministry to bring this newness, sometimes in remarkable ways.
  • We should be open to this, expect God to act, and pray for him to make his reign known (see Acts 4:29-31).
  • That does not mean we should think we can define and codify the Spirit’s ministry and urge particular manifestations or experiences upon our fellow believers.

St. Paul in Prison, Rembrandt

2. They have not been sufficiently grounded in creation and a robust sacramental appreciation of the material and ordinary stuff of life.

Speaking from my own experience, groups that emphasize signs and wonders miss the regular, supernaturally-natural, main work of the Spirit by focusing so much attention on his more occasional and exceptional supernatural manifestations. The main work of the Holy Spirit is to bring life and then produce his fruit in the community of believers.

Fruit is organic. It doesn’t get “manifested,” it grows. It is born of life and exhibits the characteristics of life. It gives life. It begins with a living seed, which is buried in obscurity and “dies” to produce something greater than itself. It grows, and out of its life fruit emerges that is capable of giving nourishment and sustenance to others. Fruit cannot be manufactured or “produced” at will. Unlike supernatural manifestations that appear intermittently like shooting stars across the dark skies of our lives, fruit is produced as God’s life takes root in us and grows and comes to maturity over time.

As you can see, I think it is key to use organic metaphors to describe the most fundamental and important work of the Spirit. He works in and through the stuff of this present creation. He gets in the very dirt and manure and weeds of our lives; he is not ashamed to be present with flesh and blood, fully human sinners like you and me. None of us will be looking in the mirror and seeing anything that looks much like “glory” anytime soon. The Spirit’s work in our lives does not produce an instant makeover or anything close to that.

Most of the time, it is more like fruit that grows than fire that falls.

The Fruit of the Spirit Is Love

I was taught that Galatians 5:22-23 can be legitimately read like this: “The fruit [singular] of the Spirit is love; that is, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  The one fruit of the Spirit is love, in all its many beautiful facets. Love, the greatest virtue, is what the Spirit was given to produce in our lives and churches. Earlier in the same chapter, Paul virtually defines the Christian life by that one word, love: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love(Gal. 5:6).

It is instructive to note that every passage that contains a list of spiritual gifts also has a strong emphasis on the priority of genuine Christlike love:

  • When Paul talked about spiritual gifts with the Corinthians (1Cor. 12-14), what did he put at the heart of his teaching? He showed them the most excellent way, the way of love — 1Cor. 13.
  • In Romans, in the context of urging the church members to use their gifts, Paul says their first duty as a community in Christ is to practice genuine love for one another (12:9).
  • In 1Peter, the apostle’s teaching on using gifts to serve each other begins with these words: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8).

The priority of love in the NT is incontestable. What is often missed is how essential the ministry of the Holy Spirit is in producing that love in our hearts and enabling us to practice love toward one another and our neighbors.

The heart of the New Covenant life that is in the Spirit and not under the Law is that God will write his laws in our hearts and cause us to walk in his ways (Jer. 31:31-34, Ezek. 36:25-27). And what are the laws that God will move his people to obey? The greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors.

Recognizing the Spirit’s key role in making believers people of love leads me to observe that what most of us fail to appreciate is the absolutely supernatural character of a life of genuine love.

We fail to appreciate it because, in actual practice, love is not glamorous or sensational. Usually it’s hidden and those who extend it to others have no interest in attracting attention. It takes place mostly in common settings or behind the scenes and without fanfare or thought of reward. It doesn’t make headlines or even a great testimony.

We might think of serving others in love as ordinary, daily, routine or mundane, but in reality it is the most extraordinary way of living we can imagine. The “signs and wonders” I see in my daily hospice work are incredible, and 99% of those “miracles” involve people who are selfish and sinful by nature laying down their lives for others. Every now and then, God sprinkles in a mysterious manifestation of the Spirit for a little divine “frosting on the cake,” but the truly miraculous and life-giving acts of love that I see people engage in day in and day out are the real “meat” of the new creation.

If that’s the case, what should the church be emphasizing in its teaching and corporate life?

Let God break in with extraordinary manifestations of his presence and power as he will. Let his people walk in the Spirit of love.

The Field of the Spirit Is Suffering

One of the most glaring shortcomings of many signs and wonders seeking groups is their lack of a theology of suffering. It’s all victory all the time, or at least seeking all victory all the time.

That’s a religion Paul would not have recognized, not the man who wrote, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. ’So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2Cor 12:9-10).

The suffering apostle wrote those words to the same gift-seeking Christians at Corinth he addressed in 1Cor. 12-14, who at the time of his second epistle were being manipulated by a number of “super-apostles,” spiritual strong men who claimed great revelations and manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

We did a recent series on this section of Scripture — 2Corinthians 10-13 — and called it, “A Letter for the Church Today.” Paul’s words, I think, have special applicability to many contemporary charismatic ministries that rely on hype, spectacle, and claims of continual divine intervention to keep their congregations fired up and active. In these four chapters, Paul lays out an alternative model of church leadership and Christian living shaped by the cross. In Paul’s model, people refrain from (1) using fleshly tools in ministry, (2) basing their credentials on charisma and claims of spiritual power, and (3) advertising their spiritual experiences. Instead, authority and spiritual maturity are hard won through the faithful practice of loving service, which brings constant challenges, hardships, and discouragements.

Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul makes clear that it is only the power of God that enables a Christ-follower to persevere in love that brings life to others:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

– 2Cor. 4:7-12, NRSV

In other words, the apostle forcefully reminds us, the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit is made evident in our lives not primarily through extraordinary divine manifestations but through the grace and strength of a Spirit-soaked inner character, which manifests Christ to others when we lay down our lives in love for their well being.

The Spirit’s power is displayed preeminently in a suffering servant.

Just as it was in Jesus.

Comments

  1. “We fail to appreciate it because, in actual practice, love is not glamorous or sensational. Usually it’s hidden and those who extend it to others have no interest in attracting attention. It takes place mostly in common settings or behind the scenes and without fanfare or thought of reward. It doesn’t make headlines or even a great testimony.”

    Very good. I was just thinking tonight about the contrast between a sacramental, vocational view and the typical esoteric signs-and-wonders view. I see this contrast in the book of James: it isn’t that works save us; rather, faith is incarnational and earthy.

    It is interesting how Christians embrace weirdness and then try to find ways to overcome that embarrassment by marketing faith as pragmatic. Love is just too boring, but its what people hunger in this world, where we are more connected and yet still estranged.

    • Adrienne says:

      Love your phrase “faith is incarnational and earthy.” Excellent comment dumbox. Chaplain MIke, maybe dumbox could be a guest blog writer once in awhile?

    • Is it possible that by being too connected to people so far away that we don’t have the time to really nurture those relationships closest to us? We ARE more estranged than ever before and it kinda flies in the face of what the “connection” age was supposed to bring us. Your thoughts, dumbox?

  2. I wonder why “signs and wonders” and “spiritual gifts” are automatically associated with dramatic, otherwise impossible things, like thunderstorms being averted or ESP.

    The nature of a “sign” is that it gets its character from what it points to, the nature of a gift is that its free and offered benevolently…there’s so much to talk about there before we get to limbs being regrown, and all that. Yet that’s where most of us hear in these phrase- wild, inexplicable activity that seems almost magical.

    I believe I have the spiritual gift of doing people’s dishes for them. I believe it’s a “sign” when someone forgives his brother a wrongdoing. Likewise when a church contains friendships between people that are very different, or who have reasons to dislike each other.

    Seems like when the emphasis is on love, the entire dialogue about this stuff could shift quite dramatically- off of primarily the miraculous, except perhaps the few instances when it actually happens that way.

    • Nate, you said it well — “Seems like when the emphasis is on love, the entire dialogue about this stuff could shift quite dramatically…”

      That’s my hope and prayer.

    • > thunderstorms being averted

      And how do we ever *know* the storm was averted? Just because it was *likely* to come this way, and then didn’t?

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      Not quite sure why God would need to avert a thunderstorm. I’d rather that He focus his attention on real natural disasters like tornados, tsunamis, Kardashian reality shows, etc. But I digress…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I wonder why “signs and wonders” and “spiritual gifts” are automatically associated with dramatic, otherwise impossible things, like thunderstorms being averted or ESP.

      “Thunderstorms being averted or ESP”? I’d use the term “spectacular Magick”.

      I’ve been reading a lot of classic Manly Wade Wellman lately, specifically his 1940s-vintage “John Thunstone” series, double-specifically his continuing villain of the series, one Rowley Thorne (a hyped-up fictionalization of Aliester Crowley). In the story “Thorne on the Threshold”, Thorne is trying to recruit others into his occult coven using an Occult version of a revival meeting; his performance involves showing Great Signs and Wonders such as “thunderstorms being averted” and spectacular “ESP” and several of the “isms” listed above, specifically Docetism (with devils as the superior spiritual reality), Gnosticism (secret/occult knowledge), Elitism (We Have Power), Authoritarianism (total submission to Thorne/Crowley) and Triumphalism (We Will Take Over/We Have Power).

      Now I don’t know where I’m going with this, but when the “signs and wonders/fire that falls” spectacular Christianese hype suggests the M.O. of an occult pulp villain patterned after Creepy Crowley, something is just WRONG.

    • Nate – I see you point regarding spiritual gifts. However, everything in the Bible referred to as a “sign” that I can think of off the top of my head (I may be wrong, I’ll fact check later) was dramatic and many times miraculous. The reason for a sign is to grab people’s attention and point to something.

      • TPD, and yet the Apostle Paul, in the 13th chapter of the first letter to the Corinthian church makes it pretty clear that all those sign are worse then useless compared to the highest and best sign — love. Paul doesn’t deny these signs — he simply assigns them a lower and less important place in the life of the Christian.

        • No argument about that. I was specifically referring to the quote:

          “I wonder why ‘signs and wonders’ and ‘spiritual gifts’ are automatically associated with dramatic, otherwise impossible things…”

  3. It’s great to love a suffering patient in hospital and keep visiting to provide comfort, but wouldn’t it be great if you had the gift of healing to help end their misery?

    These gifts can be an extension of God’s mercy and benevolence to a suffering world, so the problem is not with the gifts in themselves, but what has become of them in the circus maximus of the charismatic movement by the self-proclaimed gift carriers.

    • It would be great. I find that such gifts of healing remain occasional and relatively rare.

    • What if your visit healed their soul, so that despite their physical suffering, they could feel God with them. Why does “healing” always have to be physical in order for it to be “the best and highest form” of healing? Jesus reminds us constantly, as does Paul, that our physical existence is fleeting but our spiritual existence lives forever and should therefore garner more attention. So, if that hospital patient was healed physically by a faith-healer, but still had a hardened heart towards God, the body is saved, yet the soul is lost. I say heal the soul which lasts forever in the Risen Christ and the body will find comfort.

      • One clarification – I’m not suggesting that we should ignore the needs of the body since it is of God’s creation and our mortal vessel – and suffering should be relieved whenever possible by faith healing, medical healing and loving care. But rather, I’m talking about using physical healing as the ultimate end-all-be-all and not holding in equal esteem healing of a sin-sick soul.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Mike. Well thought out and dead on.

      I have been an RN for 22 years…18 in critical care & 4 in hospice. Have to agree that most “miracles” I have witnessed are of the nature you mention. They are the daily sacrifices of caregivers, which are certainly not very glamorous.

      And I have prayed with many patients & families. Have prayed for hope, comfort, competency of caregivers, and even for divine healing. And I will continue to pray; but, I have never, not one single time, seen a patient, who is knocking at death’s door, be miraculously healed regardless of how many people were praying. Not saying that it doesn’t happen, I have just never witnessed it.

      What I have witnessed is the pity and what appears to be loathing of sickness by Pentecostals. It is as if the sick have done some wrong…and it disgusts me!

      WHY are so many Christians, and especially charismatics, so afraid of death? Seems they believe they are somehow exempt from suffering and death. Have news for them…EVERYTHING & EVERYONE DIES! No exceptions.

      • Part of the problem with dualism is that it leaves out so many people. For example if a person made a recovery from cancer..say it went into remission. Many charasmatics would attribute it soly to God. In the process they would leave out the nurses, medical staff, doctors, pharmaicists, and even the folks in the cafeteria who prepare the food that helped nurish the body. I would think that any and all of the above could be used by God. But with the intstant healing crowd with signs and wonders dualism leaves out a lot.

  4. Jon Bartlett says:

    Chaplain Mike,

    Trouble is, most of your arguements can be applied to all parts of the church…

    These ‘serious errors’ are all symptoms of malaise that can be found throughout parts of the church, and not just the charismatic one.

    Tom Wright’s ‘How God became king’ s theme is how the creeds exclude Jesus’ life – but we say that we ‘believe in the Holy Spirit’ every week.

    A ‘word of knowledge’ is not described explicitly in the Bible. Nor is justification nor the Trinity.

    Your comments are accurate and true about an extreme section of the charismatic church but not all of it. I’d love you to complete this series with a positive piece – how do we live both in Word and Spirit, in Gifts and Fruit, in sacremental discipline, but in expectation of God breaking into our lives.

    • > These ‘serious errors’ are all symptoms of malaise

      Is it “malaise” or, possibly, fear. Or fear turned into malaise (is there a specific word for that?). Any reason at all that can be found not to “do” because the doing is really scary and uncomfortable. Eventually it is like someone grown fat thinking about jogging.

      > A ‘word of knowledge’ is not described explicitly in the Bible.
      > Nor is justification nor the Trinity.

      Agree. An awesome amount is written and speculated about on things that to me, the layman, see terribly tenuous. One more sermon on the nature of the trinity and I’ll just feint in frustration. But question the merit of that doctrine beyond the jesus-and-the-father-are-one (which scripture explicitly states) and you’ll be set upon like a heretic of old. What does believing in the triune nature of the godhead do?

      > this series with a positive piece – how do we live both in Word and Spirit…

      Ditto to the max. I’m very tired or reading very good books, texts, articles, that then taper off without a “there”. I just finished “Knowing Darkness” [a very good book, recently reviewed here] and I feel it does the same thing. It lays a good foundation, and then ends. It ends I suppose where clergy / pastors should pick up. But the great majority of them don’t; we just get treated to yet another lame and vague father’s day sermon.

      • A word of knowledge is not described explicitly in the Bible. Nor is justification nor the Trinity.

        There is far more biblical support for our understanding of the Holy Trinity than for the common belief about message of knowledge. Outside the one biblical reference of “message of knowledge” can anyone find another Bible verse that even engages the subject?

        What does believing in the triune Godhead do?

        Actually Trinitarian thought has dramatic effects in understanding human relationships. Pair Romans 13 with Philippians 2 and you can understand the biblical dynamic of human authority. While Christ is equally God as the Father is, nonetheless Christ submits himself to the Father “for us and our salvation”. In turn the Father exalts Christ and causes created order to worship Christ. And so it is between people, while we are all equal (neither male nor female, rich nor poor…) some hold greater authority than others whole others submit to that authority. However the authority exists to serve and exault those under submission. Typing this out on the mobile device is hard.Click on my name and it’ll take you to my church’s website. Scroll down to the sermon titled “Trinity and the relationship between men and women”. It is from a complementarian stand point but it could be applied to a variety of other perspectives. But its one example on how Trinitarian theology has everyday impact.

        • Just a few of the Scriptures dealing with word of knowledge beyond 1 Cor 12:8

          -Jesus meeting the woman at the well in John 4 and all the other verses that say something like “And Jesus, knowing what they were thinking…”
          -When Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira.
          -When Cornelius was told to send for Peter and where he would be.
          -etc.

          • TPD, none of these mentions being a “word of knowledge”, nor is their context anything close to I Cor. 12. Furthermore, all the examples you mentioned have either Jesus or Peter (an Apostle) as their reference, and cannot then be extended generally to all believers without justification.

          • You may think those are examples of this gift, but that is not clear from Scripture. You are making a connection because they sound like what a “word of knowledge” might entail.

          • Correction: obviously Cornelius was not an apostle. I read the sentence too quickly.

            The real issue I desire more wisdom in is this: to what extent do the experiences of the Christians in the book of Acts become not just descriptive, but prescriptive? I think it fallacious to simply assume that their experience is normative. But obviously they are intended to be instructive in some way. I am still working through exactly which way that is.

            In any case, I don’t consider it good exegesis to simply assume Paul’s “word of knowledge” in the Corinthian’s church service is to be equated selected examples in the historical narratives.

          • “You are making a connection because they sound like what a ‘word of knowledge’ might entail.”

            CM – You’re right. We draw a lot of “this is that” connections in many of our Christian doctrines. And yes, sometimes we are wrong.

            “I don’t consider it good exegesis to simply assume Paul’s ‘word of knowledge’ in the Corinthian’s church service is to be equated selected examples in the historical narratives.”

            Daniel – And I think it makes perfect logical sense to equate “word of knowledge” with receiving a word from God containing knowledge that can’t naturally be know.

            • TPD: Please hear what I’m saying. I wasn’t suggesting your linking of the examples to “word of knowledge” was unreasonable. I am saying we really don’t know exactly what Paul was talking about to the Christians in Corinth when he said some of them had exercised a gift of the Spirit called a word of wisdom or knowledge. Nor do we know how “faith” or “healings,” etc. actually worked in that setting. We can make reasonable guesses, but in the end we really don’t know.

              Therefore — and here is the point — we should not let a pastor or group tell us authoritatively that THIS is what a word of knowledge is and say we should be practicing it in that certain way.

              Instead, we should just all concentrate on walking in the Spirit and growing in the practice of Spirit-produced love. When we do that, whatever the gifts are, they will come forth. We may not even know what to call them, but we will know that God has been with us.

          • I dunno CM, it seems straightforward enough to me that I would feel comfortable teaching on it. I guess we’ll agree to disagree. But I do agree 100% with your main point that…

            “…we should just all concentrate on walking in the Spirit and growing in the practice of Spirit-produced love. When we do that, whatever the gifts are, they will come forth.”

          • There is absolutely straightforward or clear about message of knowledge. I agree with Daniel’s point

    • A positive piece is forthcoming.

    • I’m personally under the impression that a living in love does exactly what you’re hoping for in your last paragraph., I believe 1 Corinthians 13 bears that out. The point here is that there really doesn’t need to be a question of “how do we live in the Spirit,” or “how do practice the gifts.” The only real question is what is love, and how am I to be conformed to it, in Christ? It’s an exercise in missing the point to have long dialogues or teachings about the gifts themselves.

  5. Chaplain Mike, did I miss it or is anti-intellectualism on your list? Personally, that is what has turned me away from these types of movements the most. It seems to me that God-given deep thinking, discernment and even common sense are downplayed or even shunned in the signs & wonders camp.
    Or said another way, signs & wonders theology teaches implicitly and sometimes explicitly that our mind’s are of no use in the kingdom – rather our emotions and subconsciousness (as in dreams and trances etc) are most important…

    Being introverted and a thinker etc has always put me at odds with the charismatics and fanatical…much of my life (while in those types of gatherings) I felt like an outsider unable to attain God’s grace or love because I just couldn’t get that kind of spirituality to flow freely…

    • > I felt like an outsider unable to attain God’s grace or love because I just
      > couldn’t get that kind of spirituality to flow freely…

      You’re not an outsider.

      They are all outsiders. I am 104% convinced that the primary purposes of this spectacle is to make everyone feel like an outsider, then they are compelled to participate in order to fit it. Participate often enough and it will start to feel normal or natural. It is the same purpose as the practice of hazing practiced by fraternities and sororities; “now you’ve made a fool of yourself, you are one of us”. Of course that is never stated or possibly even consciously thought – but that is the effect. And why such practices can never be questioned without *very* quickly meeting open hostility.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        They are all outsiders. I am 104% convinced that the primary purposes of this spectacle is to make everyone feel like an outsider, then they are compelled to participate in order to fit it. Participate often enough and it will start to feel normal or natural.

        I’m reading way too much Wellman. This is the Exact Same Rationale of that occult pulp villain’s M.O. I referenced above. And regarding “participation”; a common theme in Wellman’s weird fiction is that “if you participate in an occult ritual, even by watching it without protesting even to yourself, you give it power over you”.

        This is starting to go from Weird City to Creepytown.

        It is the same purpose as the practice of hazing practiced by fraternities and sororities; “now you’ve made a fool of yourself, you are one of us”.

        Initiation rituals. Like baptism, in a way. Or the Mafia ritual of being a “made man”, which usually involves doing a murder. Or its much more informal street-gang version. Classic diabolism involves committing some Unpardonable Sin as an initiation ritual, forever separating the initiate from salvation. The Gadhafi regime in Libya would make its enforcers torture/kill one of their own kin to ensure blood feud between them and anyone they might be connected with; their only refuge and protection was Brother Leader Gadhafi. In the postholocaust SF novel Lucifer’s Hammer, one postholocaust gang were cannibals, and forced new recruits to “eat of the stewpot or go into the stewpot”.

        All putting them beyond the pale of anyone else except their new tribal identity and cult leader.

        “One of Us,
        One of Us,
        Gooble! Gobble!
        One of Us!”
        — Tod Browning, Freaks

        • Separation is used by many evil forces while God’s word is all about loving inclusion and living in true community. The child molester works to separate their victim from their support structures, evil cult leaders ensure that members are removed from family connections – usually telling their members that the family isn’t “part” of them. I am always suspicious of any practice that creates an “us vs. them” separation mentality. The love that CM discusses here is a force to bring people together in Christ, not separate them from one another.

    • Adrienne says:

      Andy ~ please get a copy of “Knowing Darkness” by Addison Hodges Hart which Chaplain Mike recommended recently. It speaks directly to “introverts and thinkers.” A breath of fresh air.

  6. JoanieD says:

    Excellent post, Chaplain Mike. One of your very best. I like your emphasis on love. Without love, all those signs and wonders are NOTHING. I like your “The main work of the Holy Spirit is to bring life and then produce his fruit in the community of believers” and “what most of us fail to appreciate is the absolutely supernatural character of a life of genuine love.”

    The unsung heroes are those going about their work on a daily basis caring for those around them with great love, especially if the people they are caring for seem to be difficult to love. I am reading Why I Am Still a Christian by Hans Kung and his description of God being so loving and kind to human beings is wonderful. As Christians, we want to let the world know about the love of God. Insted, so many people are actually being taught to be afraid of God. If you feared your parent, would you want to share your intimate thoughts, fears, feelings with that parent? I think not.

  7. Adrienne says:

    Whew!! Chaplain Mike you have outdone yourself. This post is just incredible. Though I was never into the Pentecostal/Charismatic camp I was very much exposed to the signs and wonders folks as they came into the bookstore in which I worked. And there were many of them in my church also. Now that I have stepped away from, or maybe I should say God removed me from, the Theology of Triumphalism or Victory camp and into the Theology of the Cross, I almost feel sick when I look back. I feel so rooted and secure, as if I belong in the Cross Theology way of living. As if I have come home. Thank you again for this incredible post.

    BTW – thanks also for recommending “Knowing Darkness”. My copy arr’vd yesterday and it is just “delicious”. I read until I was getting tired and had to stop. I didn’t want to miss one word due to fatigue. Sometimes I wonder, who are you REALLY? Kind of like “who was that masked man?” 🙂

  8. Phil M. says:

    Personally, I would like some specific examples of the groups you’re thinking about. Not every Pentecostal is a Joel Osteen acolyte. And not all of them can easily be typed. Perhaps it’s simply because the majority of Christians I know are Pentecostal or Charismatic, but I just can’t say that this applies to them.

    For example, if you’re around African American Pentecostals for very long, you’ll quickly find out that they have a more robust theology of suffering than many non-Pentecostal denominations. What they don’t do is attribute suffering to God. They may say suffering persists because God permits it, and they will say that God will work good from it. But they do not say that Christians are less spiritual because they suffer. I’m sure you can find some people who say that, but I can I find a lot of heresies in a lot of churches.

  9. Pastor Don says:

    CM,

    Very good post. While I have witnessed miracles I have witnessed things far more pervasive: their emphasis over the true currency of the Kingdom–love and grace and their abuse. As I said in a previous post, all things should center around the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and when they don’t, excess and abuse result.

    Several have pointed out different Scriptures to support your points, may I add one. At the first Pentecost, when people saw and heard all that was going on and Peter’s sermon (which had nothing to do with “signs and wonders,” what was their question? “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s answer? “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” If there was a time where the Lord could have emphasized the importance of “spiritual gifts” it would have been that first Pentecost, but he didn’t. The emphasis was on Jesus, as it should always be.

    You spoke about Scripture not being clear in defining spiritual gifts. That’s true. What’s also true is they’re not going to be identified by spiritual gift questionnaires that look more like psychological inventories. I’d better stop before this post turns into a book. The excesses in the Pentecostal/Charismatic circles are egregious. The excesses are a bain on the Gospel. But in spite of the excesses and the abuse, miracles do happen from time to time. While the gifts can be abused, we are not to forbid them.

  10. As several have already said, “Excellent post. One of your very best.” I also agree that this applies to so many different stripes of believers. I do not belong to a “signs and wonders” type church, but I felt like the post was describing our problems as well. Perhaps all of us in the American culture have a proclivity toward the spectacular, victorious, and successful as we despise the ordinary and mundane.

    “He gets in the very dirt and MANURE and weeds of our lives; he is not ashamed to be present with flesh and blood, fully human sinners like you and me.” Priceless thought, very well written. Thank you.

  11. humanslug says:

    Good solid stuff, Mike.
    But I suspect that a lot of the excesses we see today were in the beginning a reaction to the stuffiness and emotional lifelessness that had crept into many mainline denominational churches by the middle of the 20th Century.
    Focusing more on miraculous manifestations than the true fruit of love certainly leads to a number of abuses and errors. But a focus on doctrine, ritual, or tradition without the life that flows from God-inspired love tends to create religious crypts filled mostly with people who are already spiritually dead and just waiting around for their bodies to catch up.
    I grew up in a denominational church, and sometimes you could almost physically hear the rusty creak of raised eyebrows if someone dared to offer an “amen” with a level of enthusiasm above a miserable mumble.
    And I think a lot of people migrated from denominationalism toward Pentecostalism and charismatic churches just to escape the life-choking religious environments they were forced to endure as children.
    But I guess it’s the endless cycle of reaction that keeps the old pendulum swinging.

    • Humanslug, as a practicing member of what is sometimes coined “the frozen chosen”, your statement resonates with me. Again, I think we should be open to many forms of gifts, some are louder than others :). Just because I’m sitting still and quietly in my pew doesn’t mean that my life isn’t full of the love of Christ and that I don’t try to take that into every interaction I encounter – I do. While I hear the creaking eyebrow whenever anything “exciting” happens in church, I also know that while I don’t join in, I support and encourage every expression of faith that is positive and born of love. But that street goes both ways…personally, I don’t experience God in a way that creates a need for me to say “amen” loudly and those that do should give me my space as well.

      • humanslug says:

        While I prefer things a little lively and informal, I’ve got no beef with those who prefer quiet, more reserved worship. And if love is central and evident in a church, then people will be mindful, tolerant, and willing to compromise when it comes to the style and tempo of worship services.
        What I was referring to are churches where a very narrow zone of comfort and acceptable conduct has been established — usually by an elite minority of first class members — and violations of that zone are punished with withering stares, behind-the-hand comments, and character assassination via the rumor mill. In such churches, pastors have to walk a very thin tightrope, making sure to keep both the congregation and the content of their sermons safely inside the zone. But his main job is to keep the “important people” reassured that they are still God’s chosen darlings no matter how poorly they treat their brothers and sisters in Christ.
        I’m talking about churches where undiluted truth is not welcome, love is highly conditional, and the status quo is protected as if it were some kind of magic that guarantees God’s approval.

  12. Docetism: Since God cares more about the spiritual than the material, earthly things are ultimately unimportant.

    Escapism: Since the world is doomed, we need not take responsibility for improving it.

    Separatism: Since the world is evil, we must avoid sympathetic contact and practice a confrontational stance.

    Gnosticism: Since the world has no true knowledge to offer, we must seek divine insights through secret insider teachings and practices.

    Elitism: Those who have had extraordinary experiences tend to set themselves apart from others, indicating in subtle or not-so-subtle ways that they have arrived at a higher level of spirituality.

    Anti-institutionalism: Since a person or group’s authority is determined through allegedly experiencing God’s activity, no mere institution or outside authority figure has the right to critique them.

    Authoritarianism: Since some show special aptitude and charisma (in all its senses), these individuals rise to an authority which no one can question because it is based on personal testimony of divine intervention.

    Triumphalism. The theological term we learned for this in seminary was “over-realized eschatology.” In simple terms, it means claiming too much too soon — thinking that God’s future blessings are available for us to experience now. “Victory” or “dominion” becomes stressed in such a way that the N.T. teaching on suffering and service (theology of the cross) gets swallowed up by an emphasis on power and superiority (theology of glory).
    ———————–

    CM…this list you have could describe many groups in Christinaity today. In addition to the charasmatics and Third Wave crowd this list could also be applied to the Neo-Calvinists. From John Piper, to Mark Driscoll, etc…several of these bullet points cold be used to describe them.

  13. Oh my goodness, while I am not particularly Pentecostal (I do attend a Baptist church), or overly charismatic, I feel I need to be a dissenting voice here. While I do not disagree with ALL your points, I do need to take issue with many of them.

    They have been too fixated on a limited stock of supernatural experiences and manifestations, with a tendency to define them as normative for Christian living.

    You are talking about charismatics here right? The exact same quotation can be applied to cessationists. As I quoted Michael Spencer yesterday, “But we ought to be more concerned about a kind of theology that tells the church supernatural means are not available to encounter the powers of evil and the results of sin.”

    They have not been sufficiently grounded in creation and a robust sacramental appreciation of the material and ordinary stuff of life.

    See my comments under Docetism.

    Docetism: Since God cares more about the spiritual than the material, earthly things are ultimately unimportant.

    From my experience it has been the Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Mainline churches who have taken the lead in food banks, men’s shelters, etc. In my part of the world, I can point to lots of food banks and shelters run by Pentecostals, Main line churches, and Catholics. Over evangelicals (other than Salvation Army), not to be seen. When hiking in Western Canada I ran into a group from a vineyard church. They told me that they had decided in their founding constitution not to build a church building, but to direct their tithing into running a soup kitchen.

    Escapism: Since the world is doomed, we need not take responsibility for improving it.

    This is true for many evangelical groups, but has its roots in dispensationalism, not charismata. The cessationist group I grew up in would fall squarely into this category.

    Separatism: Since the world is evil, we must avoid sympathetic contact and practice a confrontational stance.

    While I see this among Pentecostals and Charismatics, especially among those who homeschool, I see it much more among the Reformed. In my area they have they have built all their own schools, and have for all intents and purposes taken over a faith based sports organization. While in Seminary I wrote a paper on how Reformed theology of separation led to the implementation of Apartheid in South Africa.

    Gnosticism: Since the world has no true knowledge to offer, we must seek divine insights through secret insider teachings and practices.

    I don’t think the first half of this is true when it comes to Pentecostals and Charismatics, but I certainly have seen the second half. Conspiracy theorists seem to have a home in some of these churches.

    Elitism: Those who have had extraordinary experiences tend to set themselves apart from others, indicating in subtle or not-so-subtle ways that they have arrived at a higher level of spirituality.

    The history of the Pentecostal church is that God is no respecter of persons. The Christian and Missionary Alliance was founded partly because A.B. Simpson’s Presbyterian church didn’t want the converts that he had made among the Italian dockworkers coming to their church. Azuza street was extraordinary because White’s were worshiping under a Black Pastor. I have experienced much more spiritual snobbery in Liturgical churches than I ever have in Pentecostal or Charismatic ones.

    Anti-institutionalism: Since a person or group’s authority is determined through allegedly experiencing God’s activity, no mere institution or outside authority figure has the right to critique them.

    I think is more of a denominational versus non-denominational issue. Certainly there are many Pentecostal groups that have accountability structures in place (AoG, PAOC, Vineyard), while there are many non Pentecostal groups that seem to be lacking in this (Mars Hill anyone).

    Authoritarianism: Since some show special aptitude and charisma (in all its senses), these individuals rise to an authority which no one can question because it is based on personal testimony of divine intervention.

    See my previous comment about Mars Hill – though not necessarily based on “personal testimony of divine intervention.” I must say though that I did not see this in Pentecostal Churches any more that I did in non-Pentecostal churches.

    Triumphalism. The theological term we learned for this in seminary was “over-realized eschatology.” In simple terms, it means claiming too much too soon — thinking that God’s future blessings are available for us to experience now. “Victory” or “dominion” becomes stressed in such a way that the N.T. teaching on suffering and service (theology of the cross) gets swallowed up by an emphasis on power and superiority (theology of glory).

    Recent teachers, N.T. Wright among them, have emphasized a “Now, and not Yet” theology. While Pentecostals and Charismatics may emphasize the “Now”, most churches over emphasize the “Not Yet”.

    Having said all of that, you do make a very good point about Fruit. What initially attracted me to Pentecostals was a genuine Joy of the Lord that I did not see in my own church. I must say having spent some time in both Pentecostal and non Pentecostal churches that the Fruit of the Spirit is severely lacking in many individuals in both.

    • Michael, I’m curious to know what you are expecting of individuals in these churches you speak of where “the Fruit of the Spirit is severely lacking”? The reason I’m asking is that I’m often amazed at how impatient people get with “individuals in churches” – somehow expecting everyone in that church to be near-perfect practitioners of their church’s teachings. I posit that as hospitals are filled with sick people, that churches are filled with people who are in need of the healing that church should provide. God takes us back time and time again, failure after failure – giving people room to grow while loving them all the same is our Christian call.

      • (Disclaimer: I am talking about past experiences, in case I appear to be criticizing my current church.) I am talking about leaders in the church who do not show love for each other. I am talking about the older ladies sitting behind me criticizing the Youth Pastor’s choice of tie. I am talking about the lady who has been in choir for 40 years who disparages the worship team during the worship time. I am talking about business meetings where two sides of an issue show no graciousness towards each other. I am about those who have been in the faith a long time, but fail to love others as you said “is our Christian call.”

        I am not talking about new believers, or those who are new to the faith. I am not talking about those who are hurting or need healing.

        • Gotcha…however, everyone is on a journey – just because we’ve been on the road a long time doesn’t mean they don’t have a long way to go :). I’ve been on the journey my whole life (never have had a crisis of faith) and I still need a LOT more help. Some travel the road faster than others.

    • Phil M. says:

      I’m glad to know that I’m not alone! I wish I could have been as eloquent in my response. The people or movements who are portrayed in this post simply don’t resonate with my experience. I grew up in the AoG, and while I have a lot of disagreements with their doctrines, I can’t say that I notice more lack of fruit in AoG folks and other Pentecostals than I do across the board. If anything, the Pentecostals I know have shown me personally more kindness than other Christians.

      I think that any critique that comes from the outside in is going to be inherently weak. The people in the movement will simply dismiss it. Fortunately, there are people within the Pentecostal movement who are raising flags about things now. Lee Grady the editor of Charisma Magazine comes to mind as someone who has been good about calling out things.

    • Michael, as always, you give good and thoughtful pushback. Let me just make a couple of comments:

      1. Most of the critique of charismatic/Pentecostal/Third Wave (from here on referred to simply as “charismatic”) here is simply an extension of my overall critique of revivalistic evangelicalism, which has been consistent here at IM.

      2. I agree that charismatics have often been on the forefront of charity, particularly toward the poor and fringe groups. This will be one thing I will praise in my positive article to come. This does not totally overcome the problems of an overly “other-wordly” theology which, in my experience, is usually taught.

      3. You often distinguish charismatic groups from dispensationalism, and I would agree that dispensationalism is subject to many of the same errors. However, most charismatic teaching that I have heard in my life has bought fully into the same end times teaching and in some cases has taken it to even more bizarre levels.

      4. In terms of elitism, my experience differs from yours. You talk about the C&MA and Pentecostals, which have been inclusive of a broader spectrum of society. That’s not exactly what I meant. I’m talking about different groups, for example, those from the days of the 1960’s and 70’s (and beyond) who “got the Spirit” and had “second blessing” experiences and suddenly began holding separate prayer meetings and splitting churches over charismatic emphases.

      5. Though authoritarianism is a problem in all free churches, I would argue that charismatics are especially vulnerable to pastors taking the spotlight and even becoming dictatorial because their authority is rooted in their charisma and testimony. There’s a reason there are more charismatics on television than anyone else. The theology itself lends itself to celebrity.

      6. In my positive post, I will also commend charismatics for waking up the American church to an eschatological awareness. Their openness to the Spirit reminds us all that Jesus brought something truly new and that the new is continually breaking in to this current age. “Over-realized” means, however, that they claim too much. For example, many Pentecostals say that “healing is in the atonement” — by which they mean that we can claim healing NOW because by Jesus’ stripes we are healed. I would agree that “healing is in the atonement,” but I would disagree that anyone and everyone can claim physical healing at this time and receive it. What we can all claim with assurance is ultimate healing through resurrection into a new creation.

      7. I am not picking just on charismatics here. I agree with you that the Spirit’s fruit is lacking in all kinds of churches. Whereas charismatics may miss the supernatural character of practicing genuine love in favor of seeking more dramatic displays of God’s intervention, non-charismatics may miss it because they don’t have enough of a supernatural mindset.

      8. I would just say finally, that these observations are just that — observations. So what I am describing is what I have seen in certain forms of charismatic theology and practice that I have been exposed to here in America. Depending on what you’ve seen and where you live, your mileage may vary.

  14. Very good article, although I agree with Michael Bell that Charismatics/Pentecostals are not the worst offenders in many of these areas. Still I find the criteria given very helpful in identifying and evaluating some of the problems I saw in these movements. One thing I am conflicted about though; Triumphalism was an aspect that revived my Christian walk. Back in the early 80’s when I found out that there was power in the Gospel and that I could do more than just hang on by my fingernails as a Frozen Chosen Anabaptist waiting for Jesus to return, the idea that we could actually triumph was like water on parched ground.

    • I had a similar experience. The question is: Does Jesus change lives in the here and now? My answer is “Yes” he changes lives in the “Hear and Now”, but also “Not Yet”, as in when we are in the future presence of God we will be fully changed.

    • There are important differences between triumph and triumphalism.

  15. INSTANT CLASSIC

  16. Having been involved in groups on various sides of this question, I agree with many of the things both Chaplain Mike and Mike Bell have said in about equal portions. I am convinced there are genuine aspects of truth that each denominational perspective has blown out of proportion. It comes, I am convinced, from the kind of divisiveness that was there in the church of Corinth and which I believe the churches current divisions now reflect. We all are in danger of elitism and blowing our favorite distinctives out of proportion. I agree that what we need to focus on Jesus, the gospel and loving one another and letting the other details fall into place as we go along. I look forward to Chaplain Mike’s positive post on the subject.

  17. Wow, great summary, and to the point. It never ceases to amaze me how sometimes I read CM posts and think, “where on earth is he coming from?” and the next moment, he writes something and I’m like “that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking!” This is one of those latter.

    But let’s trace the history of this phenomenon back a few steps. The Charismatic movement came out of Pentecostalism, as their distinctives invaded other traditions. The Pentecostal movement came from the Holiness tradition, which eventually traces back to Wesleyanism, if you’ll pardon my brief brutalization of history. Wesley himself was inspired by some pre-charismatics. The story is commonly told of Wesley’s encounter on a trans-atlantic voyage with some Moravian brethren, whose sincerity and piety influenced him deeply. These Moravians witnessed an event similar to the Azusa Street Revivals which sparked Pentecostalism, only a couple centuries earlier. They reported the Holy Spirit falling on them and doing strange and wonderful signs. Here’s the difference: Look at the “fruit” of the Azusa Street revivals: new theology, ecstatic experiences, and mostly undocumented “miracles.” A movement which has grown to include Benny Hinn (“let the bodies hit the floor!”). The Moravians, on the other hand, when “the Holy Ghost hit their meeting,” experienced an entirely different manifestation, that was centered primarily on two things: First, they claim that they had been given an increased ability to truly love one another with gifts of sacrifice, devotion, and service. Second, the experience a renewal in dedication to prayer. You think some mega-churches are special with their 24 hour prayer vigils? The Moravians had a non-stop 24 hour prayer vigil that lasted for over 100 years.

    Love and prayer. Had that been the focus of the Charismatic movement, rather than “shambala-shingi”, I would be much more of a fan.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Love and prayer. Had that been the focus of the Charismatic movement, rather than “shambala-shingi”, I would be much more of a fan.

      When I was on the fringe of Charismatics, I noticed that “Signs & Wonders” usually equals Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, and Tongues. (“Scat-singing in Hebrew” as one outside observer put it.) Just like YEC or Secret Rapture Eschatology, Speaking in Tongues (TM) as much as possible became the Litmus Test of your Salvation.

  18. I am sure this paragraph has touched all the internet users, its really really pleasant paragraph on building up new web site.