Editors Note: Though I may now belong to an Anglican Church, I am deeply indebted to, deeply in love with, and still deeply involved with the Charismatic Church of my youth and the Third Wave Church of my initial foray into ministry. That is why I was deeply saddened to read about the most recent John MacArthur weekend event, Strange Fire, in which he and others spent the weekend complaining about and warning against this church. I was also pointed to a recent post in which a fellow Anglican, if not defended, at least explained away the travesty of the weekend by pointing some qualms with the movement. In response I have prepared the following letter in response to that essay, which can be read in its entirety here. More information on the Strange Fire can be found here.
To be honest, the best defense I have seen for the views of the Charismatic / Pentecostal (henceforth noted as C/P) Movement is from Wayne Grudem and can be seen here. I recommend reading it and saving it for the next time MacArthur brings up the same tired arguments. Let me stop here, for a minute, and note that this is one of the reasons this weekend was so annoying. MacArthur has made the same points before, points that have been capably addressed, and during the course of the weekend I neither saw nor heard of any attempt by MacArthur to acknowledge, must less engage, these answers. I would argue this speaks to this type of things being more of a vendetta; than an attempt at honest, discussion, a chance to smear the names of good people; rather than an honest concern for their souls.
Yet, let add a few things to the discussion. I could possibly be part of that 90% and still be against the prosperity doctrine. If the survey question is: “do you believe God wants you to be prosperous?” I would say unequivocally “yes.” And I would say this because I love scripture and believe its teachings. There are verses in scripture which state unequivocally that God has good plans for His people and wants to see them succeed. This goes back to what I see as the true problem with the prosperity doctrine; i.e. that it misappropriates these passages to mean a culturally centered form of prosperity: here in America that would be extravagant wealth in form of big houses, flashy cars, etc. If we say we are against people like Pat Robertson; let us attack him on scriptural means: i.e. what Jesus meant when he told the disciples he had great plans for them (which as God meant the knowledge that they would suffer and be martyred).
I think this is what plays into a survey. I would ask if there were questions that elicited questions about the views on prosperity. What did the respondents mean and how did they come to their conclusions. If they meant what I just said; then there is no foul there. If they came to these conclusions by reading scripture; then perhaps they should not have their Christianity called into question (while we may question their hermeneutical work). The use of uncontextualized stats like this, in my mind, calls into question this line of attack on the Charismatic world.
Second, I would like to say that telling a Charismatic that he or she places experience before scripture burns me almost as much as when Calvinists say that Wesleyan / Arminists put free will above the grace of God in terms of the mechanism of salvation. In both cases I would argue that the appropriate spadework at truly understanding what is being taught has not been done (Roger Olsen in Against Calvinism has done good work on the other front. So I will leave that there). In his systematic J. Rodman Williams outlines 3 forms of revelation: natural, primary / authoritative, and secondary. Natural is defined in a way that any Calvinist, Catholic or otherwise could agree. P/A is defined as the revelation of the Scriptures and the working out of this category is the same as any other you might read. Secondary is called the ongoing conversation between God and humanity and would include categories such as reason, experience, and tradition (categories which Wesley also included in his understanding of life). Williams would also include the gifts of the Spirit in this line-up. However, unlike say Wesley who at times came nervously close to equating scripture with the other forms he recognized, Williams never finches from saying that Scripture is the authority or rule of faith. What is said or done must line itself with the rule of faith or it is not to be used. This seems to be the main of the Charismatic / Pentecostal Movement. Scripture is given the primary and authoritative place; while it is encouraged to seek out how God’s word for today will fit with God’s Word.
Third, I would like the address the ever popular eschewing of experience. Despite the protestations that the C/P is all about experience and everyone else in Christianity is about solid reasoning based on the Bible; all this seems to be a protest too much. On the one hand the place of experience in the C/P is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by outsiders (many of our best viewers have pointed to this- Harvey Cox for one). On the other hand, any movement will have a lot of experience based in it. My current Anglican Bishop talks a lot about the importance of experiencing God within the sacraments of the Church. Wesley equated the experience of life and the faith with both the use of reason and tradition to inform the life of the believer. We, as humans, seem to have an innate desire for experience, and I have to believe we were created that way by our God. Reason is often plied as the foil to mere experience; yet time and again the scriptures show knowledge to be more than just the understanding of facts; but an experience of these facts. If the C/P world owes its tremendous growth to anything I would argue that its emphasis on going beyond the mere knowledge of the truth of God to the experience of the truth of God is the deciding factor in the attendance of many if not most new attendees.
The modern rationalistic church has placed too high a emphasis on the head of the faith without attending to the matters of the heart. As a member of Campus Crusade I was encouraged by the crude drawing of a train to place things in order: facts, faith, feeling. This is cute and possibly true; but tends to be entirely unworkable for real human beings. Only a puppet like Pinocchio can allow themselves to be moved along in just such a way. As many of the best Star Trek episodes reveal, not even Spock can truly operate in this manner. But for us real boys and girls, we have feelings and they are important; and any church that demands that we set them aside does so to out alienation. We cannot simply set aside our feelings for long; and being in a church that acknowledges, and works with our feelings is a church that is going to be a welcome blast of warm air in an otherwise coldly rational world.
Though there is great range in how members of the movement work this out. I can speak to the Third Wave Theology in which I, myself, was a direct participant. We believed like Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Barth, or any number of believers before us, that God is enacting His purposes in our world today. We believed that God has never stopped being God. The God of Scripture who brought the Kingdom into reality on earth; has continued to bring His kingdom into effect in our world. We looked to verses like Matthew 26; and saw that God there talked about His sheep feeding the hungry, healing the sick, redeeming the imprisoned and bringing justice into the world. And we simply asked God to continue to do these things in and through His people. As one pastor was said, we were called to live lives of ecstatic sadness: ecstatic joy in seeing the Kingdom break into our world bringing healing and salvation; as well as sadness when the King for whatever reasons chose not to intervene in our situations (or put a bit better, chose not to intervene in the way we had wanted).
Does this mean that some in the C/P Movement have not gotten things wrong (sometimes horribly so)? Yes. But I would argue that these have perhaps not been any different than those who have misunderstood Calvin, Luther, or Wesley to similarly disastrous effect. (Think Calvinists killing people over beliefs on baptism; or students inspired by Luther revolting against the government and getting slaughtered).
And this gets back to the main problem I have with MacArthur’s pugilism. I am all for fighters; but a good fighter attacks his enemy; not his friends. Yes, I know MacArthur thinks that is the C/P Movement is not his friend; but could he be wrong. This where I come to the disingenuous part of your narrative (and most of you who write against the C/P do it to some degree), The part where you talk about the many good people whose experiences you do not want to discount; even as, you discount the faith to which they have given their lives. Are we good people who love Jesus and will praise Him with you in the new Earth? Or are we people destined to the other place? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If we are good people; then why spend a weekend and all that money attacking us. Why not use that money to help the poor in the city that you met? Would that not be more Christ-like and more damning, more pugilistic to the enemy?
Tonal complaints aside; if we really are good people why not have a different kind of conference? Why not invite representatives from the C/P world to come and present their views alongside MacArthur. Why not come together, worship together, break bread together, and discuss all the things we have heard and seen together?
I would say here that you will never hear of a group of C/P people holding a weekend designed to talk about the Fundamentalists, or the Dispensationalists, or the Cessationists as dangers to the faith; people who may not be Christian, and quite possibly are destined for you know where. Now you may hear us critique the teachings of these movements (particularly in terms of how they continue to misread, misrepresent, and misinform others about us); but in all my 38 years as a member of the C/P movement I have never heard one pastor use the kind of language for them that MacArthur et al continually use for us. We believe John MacArthur is our brother in Christ, we wish him well, and hope that God continues to use him mightily. In fact should someone like MacArthur call me tomorrow I would gladly do whatever I could to help him reach the world for Christ. I just don’t wish him well in trying to poison our congregations and communities who do read his books and ask questions about them to us. You will never hear me question his faith; because though I might get accused of being a fighter myself from time to time; I believe in turning my fire on the enemy not the guy toeing the line beside me (if only for self-serving reasons.
Yet the fact of this weekend happening tells me that either the participants in this event don’t care for strengthening their brothers and sisters in Christ. But I don’t think this could be the case as the expense of running a weekend like speaks to MacArthur’s desire to strengthen the faith and the faithful. The seemingly more viable explanation is this: despite the kind words that everyone wants to say about their “friends” who are within our movement and their warm, fuzzy feelings about our experiences in the faith; get you guys (and gals) drunk enough and you might admit that you really don’t like us that much. In fact you kind of think of us as the dumb, socially awkward uncle who keeps showing up for Christmas dinner uninvited and even unwelcomed. If you all feel that way, fine, get it out in the open. We make you nervous, worrying about what we might say or do when the new wine (of the Spirit, of course) gets flowing in our system. You worry that we are making you look bad. You worry that people might see us and attribute our excesses to the image that you have worked so hard to create.
Yet as the time of Advent approaches I am reminded of another group of people that caused unrest in their more pious neighbors. I am reminded of a group that broke the rules, and offered new experiences of ecstatic joy and weird spectacles. They, too, were shunned by the more staid older brother. Yet in their passionate devotion to their leader, they changed the world and helped usher in a new understanding (and yes, experience) of the Kingdom of God. And while I could point to the disciples as you think I was about to do. Let me point instead to the strange Moravian Evangelists encountered by John Wesley on his first, ill-fated trip to the new world. Wesley’s pious system of knowledge paled into comparison to the ecstatic joy that would allow these men to lead a racous worship event in the midst of a tempest that had everyone else quivering in the bowels of their ship. Returning to England chastened and humbled by the experience, Wesley could have formed a retreat. He could have called a conference in which he worried about these strange new creatures. Instead he came together with them to worship, to break bread, and to delve into the Word of God for a new experience for their new day. And as he did he soon found his heart strangely warmed. The rest is, as they say, history.
Much of the Global South is aflame with a love of God and a desire to see His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Many lives in the West, too have been strangely warmed by this C/P fire. Does the C/P Movement face strong obstacles (within itself)? Yes. Are their dangers that leaders and members of the movement must face? Yes. I would like to think MacArthur and others for being faithful to us in helping us better understand these obstacles and dangers. In dealing with your words, I and others have had to think deeply about the movement we belong (and to which I as a 2nd generation member was quite literally born, repeatedly). Yet I would ask only that as you ask your questions and raise your alarms, you do so as our brothers in Christ. That you remember that one day all of us will bow our knees before our Lord. That you remember that all of us will one day join with the angels in worshiping our Lord. We can question one another, hold one another accountable, and even from time to time fight with one another. All families do so. But in the end all families must put aside their grievances and realize that they are family and nothing can change that fact. Maybe that acceptance might color a new page in our relationship. Maybe one day you can even learn to see us not as the crazy uncle who is an embarrassment; but as the crazy uncle that brings a sense of joy, lightness, and heat to what could have been an otherwise bland meal.