After five years my term as a church elder has finished. And at the same church meeting suggestions for the future direction of the fellowship were solicited.
Most ideas that were expressed fitted the direction we’re already headed, fruitfully I hope. One said we needed “more diversity,” and if we were to act on that woke buzzword, I’m sure our long history would end within a few years. It’s funny how when one updates traditional Christian vocabulary, doctrine and practice soon meld into the spirit of the age. One to watch.
Some others, though, asked for “more teaching on the gifts of the Spirit.” Since that’s the same mantra I’ve been hearing regularly since I first encountered the Charismatic Movement over fifty years ago, it drew my attention, and it’s worth asking whether that’s really what the churches need. And if they need it, why they haven’t got it.
For a start, every neighbourhood Christian bookshop has now been flooded with books on the Holy Spirit and his gifts, according to Charismatic theology, for that entire half-century, and the Internet allows one to sit in on every prophetic seminar, healing session and drop of miraculous glitter from the air-conditioning across the world in high definition. Theology is often largely learned from hymnology, and Charismatic worship music from Hillsong and Bethel dominates the CCM genre album sales and the CCLI top 100 songs sent out to every church to remind them to be on trend for Easter. There are not similarly insistent calls for more teaching on atonement, or the Trinity, so how come this particular itch is never satisfied? Furthermore, there are few churches that are not already actively set against the Charismatic movement where a kind of Vineyard-lite has not been grafted on to whatever theological and denominational distinctives there were before.
So the heady feeling in 1973 that we enthusiasts were the minority in our churches in touch with the “Things of the Spirit” lacks any real justification now. It has been the Evangelical mainstream for decades. The Archbishop of Canterbury comes from the Evangelical Anglican church that spawned Alpha Courses with their whole day set aside for “Holy Spirit” (incidentally our local HS Day recently had folks praying for bigger houses and new kitchens, I gather – James 4:3 is apparently forgotten locally as well as at Word-Faith). Bono began as a Charismatic before graduating to writing poems for Nancy Pelosi on Ukraine. President Trump’s spiritual adviser was a Charismatic Televangelist.
The reason most churches are still only paying lip (and occasionally tongue) service to spiritual gifts is, I strongly suspect, because despite all the teaching and enthusiasm, Charismatic theology has actually failed to deliver on its promises. Although many will testify to vivid experiences of some sort, positive changes to the world around in moral or spiritual terms have not materialised. There has not been the long-promised (and oft-prophesied) revival in the West, and the gifts of the Spirit have not halted the decline in church numbers, let alone produce influential new disciples in large numbers. Like electricity from nuclear fusion, the transformation of the Church into a miraculously successful enterprise is always dependent on some future breakthrough, which explains the endless stream of promises of “new outpourings” in the excesses of the Kansas City Profits, the Tonto Blessing, The Pepsicola revival and so on and so on.
It seems to me that these much-hyped movements far away, though benefiting primarily the charlatans running them, serve a purpose within the broader Charismatic movement of suggesting to the man-in-the-pew, who knows nothing of the fraud and spiritual abuse going on but has seen a couple of spectacular videos and some slick musical performances, that with a bit more faith (and more teaching on spiritual gifts) they could have the same blessings at St Crispians or the Cornerstone Centre. Our decrees over Satan’s power may have produced only embarrassment so far, but that will all change if we pronounce them more stridently in Jesus’s name.
I want to stress at this point that I am no opponent of the miraculous, nor even of the spiritual gifts described in the New Testament being in existence now. In fact one of my criticisms of Pentecostal theology is that it has bought into the Enlightenment’s false natural/supernatural distinction, so that it strives officiously for miracles whilst missing the providential work of God in the mundane. But I’ve simply come to the conclusion that the Charismatic theology that is almost universally applied to the whole subject of ministry nowadays, arising from Edward Irving and nineteenth century Pentecostalism, channels expectations of the Holy Spirit in finally unhelpful directions.
And so I have personally prayed for, and seen, miraculous physical healing. But I have also seen that the quest for gifts of healing, or times set aside for healing in church, have led to much disappointment (even to the point of some abandoning the faith) and, worse, to spiritual gymnastics to explain away failure, or even to the practice of fraud (adopted to counter the disillusionment, I suppose). There is a tendency for churches to embrace healing ministries enthusiastically, and yet for them to wither away after a few years. It’s as inevitable as people eventually abandoning vaccines if the disease remains as common as ever… but like the latter, it can take generations for the penny to drop.
Likewise, I believe in prophecy. The most powerful contemporary prophetic voices I have known were associated with a magazine for which I worked for 15 years, Clifford Hill’s Prophecy Today. Yet although the magazine’s readership was largely Charismatic, Hill (and many of his associates) had an uneasy relationship with the big names in the Charismatic movement, and were never really “in the club.” For the latter it was all “Peace, peace,” but PT warned consistently of God’s coming judgement on Britain if Church and nation failed to repent of their disobedience to God’s word – and here we are today watching the West collapse into its own corruption.
By contrast, virtually every Charismatic prophecy I have heard in churches or meetings over the last 50 years has been either insipidly “vanilla” (“I love you, my children…”) or if testably specific has not been fulfilled. Sorry, but that’s how it seems. The extreme expression of this is the total failure of the US “prophetic movement” and its celebrities with respect to the 2020 US election, COVID, and the current meltdown of western civilisation following these and the Ukraine invasion. Something is wrong when most prophecy is false prophecy, and none of it is ever repented. “For if the trumpet produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” (1 Cor 14:8).
Now once again, I could cite many exceptions in which individual Christians have been profoundly helped by spiritual insights about, say, their calling from other believers. I myself can trace my ministry since 1986 to just such an unexpected and encouraging word (thanks Daniel). But these things are not unique to Charismatics: remember that it was such a convicting word from William Farel that sent John Calvin (under threat of God’s wrath!) to Geneva.
It is the introspective and subjective nature of most Charismatic prophecy, and its failure whenever it addresses broader events from local revivals to international crises, that leads me to my last point. And that is the extreme rarity of any true sense of discernment about world events on the part of Charismatics. How different that is from the canonical prophets, who knew the meaning of what was going on in the world even when kings and people alike had no clue.
Clifford Hill had this role in mind when he encouraged local “prophets” to form Issachar Groups, based on the passage that says the men of Issachar understood the times (1 Chron 12:32). He overestimated their gifting, I think. Though not involved myself, I knew many of those in my local Issachar Group, and they had little concept of the political and spiritual forces at work in Britain beyond what they had read in Charismatic paperbacks. It was all about prayer marches to bind territorial demons, rumours of witches’ covens, the evils of the local Freemasonry lodge, and the vague idea that once the churches got filled with the Spirit (through more teaching on spiritual gifts) Britain would be transformed morally and politically, in much the same way that followers of Transcendental Meditation expected to change the world when TM reached some crucial level of adherents.
In practice, although the Charismatic movement in many cases generated zealous new projects, some highly beneficial (like Bookshops and Coffee drop-ins), and some damp squibs (like the buying of an old water reservoir in Colchester as a prayer tower), what has happened in practice is not a more Christian nation but a loosening of morals within the churches mirroring that in society, and most notably the ingress of woke ideology into the churches on the basis of … diversity and inclusiveness. For all the spiritual warfare talk, the real spiritual enemies have usually passed unnoticed. Who is surprised? If churches don’t bother to distinguish their own false prophecies from true, how are they ever going to discern the spirit of antichrist in the world?
Particularly it’s been profoundly disappointing to see the minds of most Christians being moulded like plasticine by the propaganda of an entirely godless media and government, over COVID, climate change, gender identity, and now the European military crisis. Scripture speaks of the Great Deception dividing off the elect from the reprobate, so one can only suppose there is a steep learning curve to come. But humanly speaking, one is not surprised for people to be misled by those whose entire trade is to mislead. The Charismatic claim, though, is about spectacular supernatural insight from the Spirit of Truth, and I find that to be lacking, unless the Spirit is a Guardian reader and I’ve missed it. I believe it is ultimately the theology that is to blame, and it involves the failure to appreciate just how the Spirit works through, not apart from, human effort.
Wisdom, for example, is a moral character developed over a lifetime from the fear of the Lord. And so a word of wisdom given by the Spirit ought to be spoken by a wise man, not by a new convert with a mental impression in a prayer meeting. Likewise, knowledge is what one has learned propositionally, and which the Spirit makes appropriate for the moment, and nothing in Scripture confirms that “a word of knowledge” has anything to do with sensing that someone in the hall has a bad back.
And talking of bad backs, when Christians have to do faith-healing tricks to miraculously “discover” short legs to explain back pain, before “miraculously” lengthening them, the fundamental concept of asking God to heal what you know is wrong with you has been significantly diluted.
In the early days of the Charismatic movement, the Charismatic vicar of St Matthews in Cambridge made a point of preaching without preparation, and it was uniformly bad. Where preaching has not degenerated into superstitious anecdote (I’m looking at you, Bethel) and biblical exposition is still valued, we celebrate theological training, deep Bible knowledge, and careful preparation. So why do we give house-room to people prophesying about the national situation who get their entire understanding of politics from the BBC news? An Isaiah or a Daniel kept the company of kings, and sought to understand the geopolitics of their day as much by careful analysis as by dreams and visions. The Holy Spirit worked through their mental struggle to understand, not apart from it. In part that is what gave Clifford Hill his own insight – he had studied sociology, and consulted with both Archbishops and cabinet ministers, even as he sought the Lord for understanding.
Charismatic theology provides, contrary to assumption, a pretty low view of the work of the Holy Spirit in historical terms. I learned that by reading John Owen’s comprehensive 17th study of his role and activity back in the 1980s, much of which would surprise many modern devotees of the Holy Spirit. Amongst other things it would show how the Spirit always points away from himself to glorify the Father and the Son, not to mention the extent to which he works, day by day, through our devoted study of the Scriptures. The Charismatic churches repeatedly fall away from dependence on the Bible to personal inspiration because that is the natural grain of the theology. It stresses experience, rather than instruction, so why do the hard work of getting instructed?
We need believers filled with the Spirit today. Whether we need more Charismatics I’m not so sure.