Recovering From Strange and Friendly Fire

I thought it was a bad idea: a conference hosted by one group of Christians to explain how bad another group of Christians is. But the rationale was that since the troubled group wasn't correcting their own troubles, someone had to do the dirty work. Hence was hatched John MacArthur's "Strange Fire" conference. And it has kindled a strange fire, bringing to many Christians ears words they may never have heard before, like "cessationism", the belief that the "revelatory gifts" of the New Testament have ceased. Normally churches like mine – a "Reformed" church – hold to cessationism. The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA) requires its chuches to be "cessationist". That's why we're not a part.

The argument for cessationism is simple: the "revelatory gifts" of the New Testament were for the purpose of revealing scripture and since that is now done, we don't need those gifts. So they've ceased. To think otherwise, they say, is to throw open the door to abuse and charlatans.

That seems reasonable. The problem with that theory is the Bible. If the Word of God describes a Christian life (including a church life) that is open to the gifts of the Spirit, then we should follow, be open to experiences with the Holy Spirit while guarding against the excesses by doing the difficult work of discernment. If it teaches cessationism, then we can close the door on "charismaticism" entirely.

The problem for cessationism is that one can't proffer a basis for the sufficiency of scripture, a doctrine scripture doesn't contain. Even responsible cessationists will concede, the Bible doesn't teach cessationism. Scripture has no explicit cessationist statement. Further, the Bible doesn't call spiritual gifts "revelatory gifts" (or "sign gifts"). It calls them "charismata" (literally, results of grace; or alternately it calls them "spiritual things"). "Revelatory gifts" is a term made up by cessationists to get us to the conclusion that they have ceased. Calling them "ceased gifts" and then concluding from that name that they have ceased, would be no more circular in reasoning. The term "revelatory gifts" is imposed onto scripture and gives the illusion that cessationism is a product of careful Bible study.

And so cessationism is a self-contradictory doctrine that claims the Bible is sufficient so we don't need spiritual gifts (that the Bible tells us we need) but we do need the doctrine of cessationism (that the Bible doesn't teach.)

Not that the Bible is silent on when the "charismata" will cease. It's not. It tells us that they will cease at the second coming of Christ (1 Cor. 13:10-12). When the "Perfect", whom we'll see "face-to-face", comes, then (not before) the gifts will cease. 1 Corinthians 12-14 appear to teach what should be the norm for the church: a body alive with the gifts of the Spirit, discerned by the mature leaders, continuing during the entire church age until the Lord Jesus returns. Acts furnishes illustrations: people being filled with the Spirit, some speaking in tongues; some prophesying (and not always perfectly) while the church is on its mission to spread the Word of God. To that, ceassationism leaves us wondering why we should be closed to what the Bible says we should be open to.

Some say the great problem today is "charismaticism", the belief in the on-going reality of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Openness to those gifts, like leaving the screen door open on a summer evening, also lets the bugs in. The problem with that is four-fold.

First, certainly there is much abuse and exploitation that goes on under the banner of the power of the Spirit. The gospel of heath and wealth is a far cry from the gospel of the Kingdom for which believers suffered for in the book of Acts. However, today as many critics of "Strange Fire" have pointed out, not all, and perhaps not even most modern "charismatics" are of the irresponsible prosperity gospel type the conference was about. If someone wants to argue that the great problem with our society was the prosperity movement, that might be true; it may indeed be a case of a materialistic culture warping the gospel into a worldly mold. But by lumping all "charismatics" together and incredibly calling them the problem, "Strange Fire" "paints with a broad brush" (as the common and probably very under-stated criticism of "Strange Fire", puts it.)

Second, the suggestion that "charismatics" simply never police their own is false. David Wilkerson was out-spoken and just as severe in his appraisal of the prosperity "gospel" as is John MacArthur. Jack Deere, with others, imposed church discipline on Paul Cain for moral failures. John Wimber distanced his Vineyard churches from "The Toronto Blessing" and rebuked the "Kansas City Prophets". The Assemblies of God famously tried to discipline Jimmy Swaggart and eventually defrocked him when he wouldn't submit. Yes, there should be more of such correction but people are only responsible to discipline what is under their authority. Should we hold all Baptists responsible for the Westboro Baptists? Should we accuse everyone who believes in the inspiration of scripture (like me) for being as irrational as the King James Onlyists?

Third I don't believe that MacArthur and his followers have consistently disciplined themselves. Phil Johnson, MacArthur's aide, accused another evangelical leader of "pornographic divination" even though what he was criticizing fits neither the definition of "pornography" or "divination". It may come as a surprise to many of the fundamentalist cessationists but there is a commandment dealing with the content of our accusations: the ninth (Ex. 20:16). "You shall not bear false witness," is part of God's Word too. I'll believe that MacArthur and company are interested in the purity of the church when they seriously take up the issue of Phil Johnson's inflammatory rhetoric.

Fourth, some assume that if not for what they ham-fistedly label "charismatics", all those people in those store-front prosperity churches with the long names and "apostles" (often female ones) as their leaders, would be going to a solid Reformed church, learning their catechism and singing "A Mighty Fortress". That's not just doubtful, it's a very unReformed assumption. The Bible teaches, as we "Reformed" are famous for putting it as our "T" is TULIP, that people are depraved and their depravity takes many forms: intoxication, immorality, false doctrine. If we take away the false doctrine, that won't mean they'll go to true doctrine. It means that without God's grace they will go to another form of depravity.

Finally, church history shows us that people – including sincere Christians – want and need an experiential dimension to their faith. Church was never intended on simply being a school that specializes in religious curricula. People want to taste the reality of the One Francis Chan described as "the Forgotten God". Every century since the Reformation has seen some kind of "charismatic" movement – the enthusiasts, the Quakers, the Moravians, the Plymouth Brethren, the Pentecostals, etc. (The Puritans, by the way, were actually much more experiential – or "experimental" as they put it – and open to visions, dreams, etc., than are current cessationists.) So the lesson of history is that if you try to bottle-up that quest for the experiential, it will come out somehow and if not in a Biblically-informed, mature way, then it will come out in an irresponsible, excessive, and perhaps heretical way. The lesson, really, is as simple as going back to the Bible and seeing there that the Spirit-led Christian life doesn't only belong to an era that has ceased. That it can be a living reality today.

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