Charismatic in Name Only

It was the end of October 1967.  I was in a time of great skepticism as I worked hard on courses in my junior year at Wheaton College.  A chapel forum included the pastor of a nearby church who claimed that the people of his church had received the supernatural gifts of the Spirit and practiced their expression.  Maybe I could find a miracle to confirm faith.  Soon after I found myself on a double-blind date with a new friend.  As we left the women off at the Wheaton College nursing school, we spoke about the chapel speaker.  We both wanted to go, and so we went together in my car the following week for their Sunday evening gathering.   

The church would later grow to over 600 in its evening meeting with many Wheaton students and a handful of professors as well.  At this point in time, the gathering was small, maybe 35 people.  There were tongues and interpretations, prophecy and prayers for healing.  It was a small intimate meeting. The questions loomed.  “Were these people really speaking from a supernatural Spirit?  Is this really I Corinthians 14 in practice?  I attended this church from then until the end of May 1969.   At that time, the church represented what was happening in the early charismatic movement.  It was a movement whose leaders and people were zealous to practice the supernatural gifts of the Spirit and who would regularly manifest tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, deliverance, and more.  For those who experienced those exciting days, it was like a return to the book of Acts.

In recent years I have connected to leaders, congregations, and movements of congregations that were zealous to practice the gifts and manifestations of the Spirit and to see miracles.  More recently, I pointed to the famous John Wimber and his Vineyard congregational movement.  His large congregation of 7,000 in Anaheim, California, which I visited in 1989, was notable for the manifestations of the Spirit and even in the very large congregation. This included tongues, interpretation, prophecy, words of knowledge prophecy, amazing healings, and more.  There would also be manifestations of prophecy and healings on the cutting edge of evangelism.  Wimber practice a freer orientation in his large gathering than in our practice where only those who were vetted for maturity would minister publicly in the spoken gifts.

In recent years we have been concerned that our congregations really experience the gifts of the Spirit as a normal part of their life together.  We have invited Sid Roth, Robbie Dawkins, and last year Randy Clark.  I think our last conference in Tikkun America made the greatest gains.  We desire that our congregations’ experience be a supernatural normal.

I have noticed that many congregations that claim to be charismatic or Pentecostal seem to rarely practice public gifts of the Spirit if at all.  They are not manifested in the larger service or in home groups (the house gathering is rightly understood as the context in I Cor. 14).  We see many that do not promote immersion (baptism) in the Holy Spirit on a regular basis.  Perhaps the majority of congregations in Israel are known as charismatic.  However, one senior leader who has been ministering for decades told me that most congregations simply do not practice seeing people immersed in the Spirit by speaking in tongues or the other gifts of the Spirit.  I see this in America too, even with Vineyard congregations that were formerly very oriented to gifts and manifestations.  How can this be?

I have written before on what I call the second law of spiritual thermodynamics.  The general second law of thermodynamics says that the Universe is in a process of entropy increase, meaning that the Universe is using up energy and will come to energy exhaustion.  Unless there is an infusion of energy outside of the Universe, this entropy will lead to the death of the Universe.  In the same way, it seems that individuals and congregations need periodic infusions of the energy of the Holy Spirit.  As one person said, the Bible says we are to “Be being filled by the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), but we are leaky buckets.   This might be part of the explanation. Unless we are zealous to live Spirit filled, this can indeed happen.

However, I think part of the problem is that leaders have been sold on directions that are producing a sub-normal congregational life.  My sense of this was greatly increased after reading Randy Clarks two books, Baptism in the Spirit, and Intimacy with God through Obedience. The magisterial book The Cessation of the Charismata by John Mark Ruthvan was also an amazing read.

Here is my sense of the reasons.

  1. First, many leaders though having had a charismatic experience, baptism in the Spirit and speaking in tongues, just do not know how to impart the experience to others or promote it in their congregations.  They do not have confidence in themselves to promote it.
  2. Secondly, many leaders to not have confidence to govern a gathering with charismatic manifestations.  They back off due to their insecurity.  This could be overcome by training under those who are capable in this, but they do not seek out this training. They may give themselves to the excuses in the next reasons given below.  These reasons, however, are not necessarily due to insecurity but may be.
  3. It is thought that charismatic manifestations will be a distraction in large gatherings and will turn away seekers who will be confused and put off.  Of course, that may happen but if done in right order with good government, my experience is that this reality really draws people.  There are churches like Wimber’s that had many thousands, and the reality of real words of knowledge and healings drew thousands.
  4. Some leaders of large congregations see that what they are doing is drawing large numbers.  The multi-media, upbeat professional type worship, and engaging message with humor draws many.  These services are managed to the minute and all is planed out to perfection.  There just is no space for spiritual manifestations. These are in two groups.  Those who believe that ministry with the gifts is important and foster it in small groups and those who do not foster it at all though they may have experienced immersion in the Spirit and pray in tongues.

My answer to this is that this may be a sociological phenomenon but may not have the last that some think.  When Paul said his preaching was with the manifestation of power so their faith would not rest on the merely human (say psychological and sociological, can we have a superior position than Paul and his instructions in I Cor. 12-14?

I believe that the progress of the Gospel will of course be much greater when we walk out fully the pattern that is in the New Covenant Scriptures. I do want to affirm that the preached word itself does have power to convict and can be effective.  However, this is only one great tool in the Holy Spirit tool box.

Here are some guidelines for change.

  1. If you as a leader and are not experiencing the full New Covenant gifts reality in your community, submit to someone who is and learn to foster and govern.
  2. While I believe we should make space for gifts in all our gatherings, the way this is done in large gatherings I believe is best done through vetted people who have proven their quality and who minister in submission to moderating elders.  This is a key to success.  In the smaller house gatherings, as Paul says, there is time for all to express themselves in word gifts.
  3. Read books that will motivate you so you will not accept “charismatic in name only” as acceptable.
  4. Famous Pastor Don Finto, at 92 years old, exhorted us in our Tikkun Israel leaders retreat, to be constantly laying hands on people until we see physical healing, impartation, and soul healing.

I wanted to also say something about prophecy and public tongues that are meant as a spoken word given for interpretation.  I Corinthians does not limit the number of people who can prophecy or give tongues and interpretation.  This would obviously contradict I Cor. 14 which says all can speak in turn. It rather limits us to two or three messages of prophecy or tongues and interpretation at a time.

Paul seems to elevate prophecy for its ability to encourage and convict by supernatural knowledge. Yet, he then notes that tongues with interpretation can really be important was well.  People have asserted that tongues when interpreted is the same thing as prophecy. However, the great Pentecostal scholar, Gordon Fee (my wife Patty’s professor at Wheaton College over 50 years ago) argued that tongues is usually prayer to God and prophecy is a message from God to the people (His Empowering Presence).  My view is that Fee’s analysis of Scripture was correct.  The general sense both in Romans 8 of the Spirit interceding for us beyond what we can speak or comprehend and I Cor. 14 that the one who speaks in tongues speaks mysteries to God, shows that tongues is usually prayer to God.  Fee proves that the phrase praying in the Spirit means praying in tongues.  When tongues and interpretation is exercised in a congregation, the Spirit is searching the deep things of God and expressing the heart of God in prayer beyond mere human ability.  When interpreted it shows this heart of the Spirit and can lift a congregation to great heights in prayer.

It was a strange thing to me as young man to find that classic Pentecostal congregations had tongues and interpretation but few or no prophetic words.  It almost was a culture that was saying that without tongues being spoken first people could not speak by the Spirit. In charismatic circles, prophecy was common but then it was as if their culture was saying why give a public message in tongues since tongues and interpretation were thought to be equivalent to prophecy.  It was as if messages in tongues were superfluous.  Gordon Fee clears up that misunderstanding.  Tongues and interpretation are not superfluous.