Opening the Overton windows of faith

I occasionally wonder how isolated communities of ancient (and sometimes rather esoteric) Christian denominations have survived under the servitude of Islam since the incursion of the Arabs many centuries ago. Supernatural perseverance aside, what factors prevent such populations simply capitulating to the dominant religion, with all the cultural advantages, and fading away over the generations? What makes a twentieth generation Egyptian pig farmer, denied education because he is a Coptic Christian, carry on?

Given the often inward-looking and impoverished nature of some of these churches, it seems unlikely to be primarily the result of ongoing critical reflection on the relative merits of the Bible or the Qu’ran, but more the conservative power of cultural identity and, dare I say it, compliance conformism.

In a similar vein, closer to home we have the phenomenon of families that have remained staunchly Catholic since the Restoration, despite the diversity of religious options and, in the past, frank discrimination. Even amongst Protestants in an increasingly secular age, there are those who can trace their descent from lines of Methodists or Baptists or Anglicans for centuries. Now, given that YouTube alone is full of videos showing how Lutherans are heretical, Calvinists are not Christian, Catholicism is unscriptural and so on, it is clear that people are capable of making persuasive arguments for all manner of positions, yet many people tend to stick with the denomination into which they were born, or in which they were converted, rather than reach personal convictions.

If nothing else, life since COVID has demonstrated how compliance is almost the strongest conditioner in society, currently to the detriment of everything that is true… not least because disbelief in truth itself has become culturally dominant. Yet such conformity is not necessarily a bad thing. When almost the whole culture acquiesced in Christian values, one did not have to waste effort in intellectual turmoil to decide that adultery (for example) was wrong, or that your neighbour was worthy of respect without his needing to prove it first.

For myself, being a member of a Baptist church that has stayed faithful to biblical truth for 370 years is a genuine incentive to handing on the baton intact, even though I have no familial link to the Baptist denomination. And so, I suppose, compliance with “tradition” is morally neutral – like martyrdom, it’s the cause that makes the martyr: dying as a libertine and dying for liberty are not equivalent. One just hopes one is living for, or dying for, the truth rather than a lie.

But the flip side of that is that people have a tendency not to examine the reasons for maintaining their particular positions critically. And here, I must distinguish between individual theological truths, crucial as those are, and fundamental axioms. For example, the Catholic who maintains, on principle, that Church tradition carries equal weight to Scripture works on a foundational principle that is particularly difficult to challenge, but which might work out in a variety of different options consistent with it.

But my aim today is to return to my recent interest in Charismatic theology amongst Evangelicals whose shared fundamental conviction is the sufficiency of Scripture for all matters of doctrine and practice. My concern arises from the “Pentecostalisation” of Evangelical churches over the last two or three generations, which as I discussed in a series of recent pieces (beginning here) has in my view not only dangerously divorced them from truth and reality, but increasingly from that founding principle of Sola Scriptura itself.

I would like to believe that my own critique of Charismatic theology relies on some virtuous theological discernment on my part. And it’s true that over the years I have become more questioning about my assumptions, and more open to having my mind changed by Scripture, even when that means swimming against the stream. But at least part of my questioning arises simply from the fact that I was converted a few years before Charismatic teaching became a (controversial) thing, and was never tied to a particular denomination, or even theological tradition. And so although I explored Charismatic teaching, and even embraced it because some of the keenest Christians I knew did, I was always interrogating its compliance to the Bible (in which I had gained a fundamental, and I believe Spirit-led, trust). Eventually, I was persuaded it is in error, and ditched it entirely.

It seems to me that part of the problem in openly questioning the whole Charismatic thing in churches nowadays is that it has become so entrenched as to be considered a core part of Evangelical theology, although in fact it was adopted widely, from very fringe Pentecostal teachers, only around 1970. Its immediate attraction was the promise of the supernatural here-and-now, represented as Scriptural normality. That is still the promise, never quite delivered, but now institutionalised through worship music, Spring Harvest, John Wimber and so on.

Consider an “average” person coming to faith within the last decade or two, perhaps through an Alpha Course in a fairly ordinary local church.

The “Holy Spirit Weekend” taught him all about the “Gifts of the Spirit,” interpreted according to Pentecostal teaching, and applied practically in an atmosphere of suggestion and cultivated expectation. This at least whets his appetite or, just as likely, encourages him to burble and believe he has the gift of tongues, or to empty his mind and believe that the first picture to come into his mind is a word from God himself. (Do all speak in tongues? Yes, if they want. Do all prophesy? Yes – they just speak out their first thought and it must be God because… Holy Spirit weekend.)

In many, perhaps most, Evangelical churches, subsequent weekly services will say little about those gifts or, as I suggested in previous articles, the reality of failed or anodyne prophecies, non-healings and so on will lead to looking for the reality elsewhere – perhaps in that magical world of Bethel, Elevation or Hillsongs whose songs constitute most of what is sung in their church.

In some cases individuals, or churches, are discriminating enough to see through the excesses of the megachurches, whether at their source or in local divisive manifestations (you should be aware that one of the key aims of “New Apostolic Reformation” centres like Bethel Redding is to infiltrate local churches and get them under the oversight of their “Super apostles” – see 2 Corinthians 7:5). But those only familiar with Charismatic Evangelicalism will see such things only as aberrations from “the real thing,” rather than as what I believe they are from experience – the near-inevitable end point of a whole theological system based on controlling the supernatural.

But now imagine the teaching task for a pastor who works through the whole thing in the way I have – or for someone like me, working it through without any leadership authority in the church. Not only does he have the difficult task of countering the enticing videos of falling angel-feathers, screaming demons and false healings by saying, in effect, “You have the whole damn thing all wrong.” Not only does he have to unpick an unbiblical theology of spectacular revivalism that has become the Holy Grail of Evangelical hope since Charles Finney. Not only does he have to get his people to unlearn kenotic theology, belief in territorial spirits, inherited curses, prayer-decrees and all the rest of the false teaching.

But he has also, somehow, to help people see that the tongues they themselves have spoken for years are not an angelic language, nor even an earthly language like those in Acts, but meaningless glossolalia identical to that spoken by Mormons and pagans. He has to persuade the person whose leg was miraculously lengthened by the famous evangelist at a big conference (even though it didn’t help the backache for long) that they have been the victim of mere charlatanry, and have paid for the privilege. He has to warn people that the “Sozo deliverance” being offered by the church down the road is, in fact, spiritually dangerous as well as ineffective. He has to persuade them that the Spirit was given not to add powerful signs to the proclamation of the gospel, but to empower the proclamation of the gospel itself.

Now, all this can be done by careful examination of Scriptural teaching. But Charismatic theology gives near-equal weight to experience as to Scripture, in a society where “lived experience” is culturally seen as “my truth.” And above all, now that the whole Charismatic thing has become part of Evangelical Orthodoxy, people are likely to react in the same way to critiquing it as they would to being told that the Pope really is the head of the Church on earth. Or, indeed, if one of those culturally Catholic families were to be told that he is not.

It is a daunting task. When I worked for the magazine Prophecy Today, and Cliff Hill or others wrote articles condemning the ungodly excesses of the Toronto Blessing and its like, a stream of letters from readers would arrive to accuse the author of lack of love, of quenching the Spirit, or even of unforgiveably blaspheming against him. This too was built into the theology from the start of Pentecostalism: anyone who exposed chicanery, huxters or self-deception by the word of Scripture was, by definition, opposing God. If you were a High Anglican that didn’t bother you – but for people in those Pentecostal churches it was social and spiritual suicide, as it is for the megachurches now.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I heard the testimony of a refugee from Bethel Redding who left believing that, though he would end up in hell for doing so, at least he could escape hell for a while in this life. Fortunately when the dust settled he discovered the gospel. But it’s salutary to realise that the devil’s purpose in false teaching is less to send people to their graves under deceptive teaching, than to disillusion them and send them to their graves soured towards God altogether.

But how can people be persuaded of that, when two or three generations of Evangelicals have now been culturally conditioned to forget that Charismatic teaching arose not from the Reformation, but from snake-oils salesmen at camp meetings of the biblically unschooled? Answers on a postcard, please.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in History, Politics and sociology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Opening the Overton windows of faith

  1. Ben says:

    “burble and believe he has the gift of tongues” – ouch!

    I remember someone saying that prophecy was mostly ‘pious musings’. Admittedly it’s easier to take it that way if it isn’t prefixed with “Thus saith the Lord”.

    As for your final question: I think those who are inclined/pushed to search beyond the confines of their local orthodoxy can be motivated by the pain of the disconnect between reality and theory, or possibly between the local theology and what they read in the Bible. But you have to have a crazy amount of confidence in your own ability to interpret the Scriptures if you want to stand up (even in your own head) to what you’ve been taught all your life. (And in parallel you need a crazy amount of humility to not end up creating your own off-the-wall theology).

    I concluded many years ago that it’s not possible to construct a heresy-proof church. At best you can try to steer clear of heresy yourself.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      “burble and believe he has the gift of tongues” – ouch!

      Yes indeed, but when people are taught that praying in tongues is as easy as opening their mouth and saying whatever comes out, that directly contradicts Paul’s sole teaching on tongues, which implies that not all have that gift, any more than everyone can prophesy.

      Yes to your other points too – though it’s worth remembering that those who invented Pentecostal theology had been taught something different all their lives, but prevailed. As previous posts explore, the theology was from the start promulgated by strong and small “c” charismatic leaders – a characteristic that continues to this day. I guess that makes it harder to establish contrary teaching that questions the role of strong charismatic leaders!

      As in all true reformation, the solution will finally come from the Berean spirit, when groups of believers look carefully at Scripture and agree they’ve been in error.

  2. shopwindows says:

    Hubris, humility, drill down comprehensiveness, a theory of everything and conflict.

    Intolerance of inadequately rationalised positions by those feigning to have answers, might be branded tub thumping, even charismatic force of personality. Humility is often cultivated by some sort of a cathartic journey, perhaps even repeated discovery of their own fake news, misguided assumptions. The hubristic tendency is dimmed not extinguished.

    But can I suggest that comprehensively defined sects of whatever brand, religious, secular, ought by acknowledging the empirically observable incompleteness of man’s understanding together with the clear divisiveness of fleshed out sects thereby practice open minded humility focused on our common objective of a functioning civilisation excluding only perhaps nihilistic Malthusians, yet to stumble totalitarians.

    The idea of a Book to answer all questions, to prescribe behaviour is useful but analogous to me with a senile trying to write down how to operate the tv remote or mobile phone. They’ll lose the bit of paper, they either get it or they’re not equipped. If they, we, have to go to page 345 for the detail they’re almost certainly lacking context and we know a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or perhaps that ignorance is bliss, do we not?! This is not an argument for anodyne fence sitting but it is a “rationalisation?!” for nuanced non combative engagement failing which lets bomb them.

  3. shopwindows says:

    Or in the case of “GPO” executives let’s not practice what we preach…

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “Humility is often cultivated by some sort of a cathartic journey, perhaps even repeated discovery of their own fake news, misguided assumptions. The hubristic tendency is dimmed not extinguished.”

    In Christianity, that’s the principle of repentance. to quote Luther’s first thesis: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”

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