Mea Culpa (de Spiritu Sancto)

In the current series of posts on Charismatic theology, it has been easy to give the impression of having been the wise one who saw all the pitfalls from the start, and avoided them. This is very far from the case. It is certainly true that from the first I was cautious, having been converted several years before I came across Charismatic teaching or practice. It’s also true that I was always suspicious of theological or practical excess, and more so when I had had some experience of it (what do you say to the girl who arrives on your doorstep and tells you that the Spirit moved the handlebars of her moped until she involuntarily turned up at your house?).

But often what I now report as problematic are problems I suppressed in myself at the time. Sure, that prophecy about the 1000 conversions at the open air festival didn’t come true (it was five, max), and the excuses seemed nonsensical, but these guys knew more than me about such things, and even if they were wrong, that was just one group, right? The singing in the Spirit in Guildford Cathedral (see my comment under previous post) seemed more like group dynamics than supernatural manifestation, but the fat guy bellowing out of key in the row in front certainly loved the Lord… and David Watson and those others on stage were famous speakers, so surely must know.

The reasons I threw in my lot with the Charismatics were the same as those of others I have described in these posts, but were not, in fact, based on persuasive spiritual experience – I now believe that’s because I’m naturally low on the suggestibility spectrum. Important things have indeed happened to me spiritually, but they don’t fit into the Charismatic “manifest power” belief system very well.

The most important of such changes was, in fact, just a month before I encountered my first Charismatics, when I came out of a fortnight’s coffee-bar mission organised, by some student friends, unaccountably renewed in zeal, and permanently convinced of the deep and saving truth of the Bible, having gone into the mission – and most of the way through – in a very half-hearted way. It was a renewing work of the Spirit, I have no doubt – but so insensible that once I’d bitten the Charismatic bullet I spent years on the quest for “the baptism/filling/drenching” or whatever anyway.

A year or so into that quest I had a vivid dream in which someone I’d met before laid hands on me and I experienced a “fiery filling” before waking up. When I met the person in question again, it turned out she was indeed a Charismatic, but since nothing had changed after my dream she agreed with me that it was more a promise than a baptism (and she gave me a book on “being filled” which I still have, and even met the author a couple of times). In retrospect, the sensation in the dream was no more vivid than those in dreams in which I’ve fallen off a cliff or been shot, and the subject matter was inevitable, given my preoccupation.

Thirteen years after that, believing I must have done something wrong not to have experienced what others had, I went to a service at an OTT Charismatic house-church in town, where the speaker was a well-known Pentecostal with a ministry of healing. He laid hands on me, and (not unwisely) told me I’d only notice the difference when I came to minister. No electric shocks, then, though I did venture to speak in tongues in the car on the way home – or, as I only much later admitted, to practise non-linguistic glossolalia purely naturally. Incidentally the following year the speaker died of cancer, I understand refusing pain relief on the grounds of “believing for healing.” But there was no discernible difference in my ministry – I was already in trouble at my church for rocking the boat, and that didn’t change before I left for pastures new.

Those episodes apart, though, my drift into the Charismatic came for a number of secondary reasons, some of which I list in no particular order:

  • I was too ready to accept testimonies of wonders from far away, and ignore the litany of failures closer to home.
  • I took the Scriptural justifications of the theology too much at face value, without examining the counter-arguments closely enough.
  • The hunger for the experiential, once aroused, is hard to put aside whether it is Scriptural or not.
  • It was hard to deny the direct experience of others (and one of the hardest questions to answer is how conversion or genuine healing at the hands of charlatans running the Toronto Blessing or the Brownsville Revival can be of God, and if not, what is going on?). It is well to remember, though, that since there is often a mixture of the truly Christian with the flesh, or even the demonic, in such events, then Christian theologising of Charismatic experience is not a reliable guide to God’s work, sadly. It is Scripture that defines Christianity, not experiences that seem identical to those reported by Hindus, Mormons, or New Agers. Also, I noted that, despite the hype, there was little correlation in those I knew between spiritual experiences and true spirituality: in some cases I have strong reasons to doubt that those speaking in tongues after Spirit-baptism were Christians at all (do Spirit-filled Christians hire hit-men to do acid attacks on other believers?).
  • If I’m brutally honest, there may well have been an element of contrarianism in my position. Even apart from the NAR church-takeover programme, haven’t you met many Charismatics determined to drag their churches kicking and screaming into “moving in the gifts”?
  • Most of all, though, it seemed to me that, right or wrong, the Charismatic movement was where God seemed to be working. Certainly it was where many of the keen and creative believers had settled. That pragmatic element probably saved me from being totally uncritical of the movement, making it easier to back off later. But bear in mind that, in earlier times, God worked through the non-Charismatic Holiness movements, through Moravian pietists, through Savonarola, through the Brethren of the Common Life, through the Lollards, and through various monastic movements, all of whole theological faults came home to roost as they passed their peak. As in science, it is truth, not consensus, that should motivate us.

Whatever the reasons, though, the fact is that at one point I was a paid up Charismatic, and even the accredited “Penty” on my church’s teaching team, diaconate and, finally, eldership. I yesterday came across a letter I wrote in 1989 (when I was on the teaching team and a deacon) proposing a three-part series on Spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians. My position is shown by the emphasis in the provisional titles I gave to the talks:

  • SPIRITUAL GIFTS(2): TONGUES AND THEIR MEANING (including “practical ministry”)

I ended by writing: “What I’d like to avoid is giving a token coverage of the subject that doesn’t give the Lord the opportunity to manifest himself in new ways among us.” Ah – God’s New Thing returns! On the plus side, I note that I stressed even then that I disliked the term “gifts of the Spirit” (as I’ve explained earlier in this series). I also emphasised their role in inculcating brotherly unity and holiness (rather than power!), in recognising the role of natural gifts also through the Spirit, and I recognised the giving of the Spirit at conversion.

You will see from this that my thinking has changed quite substantially over the last thirty-five years, and I put that down to learning from Scripture, learning from experience – and learning how to cope with disillusion. It’s on this last point I want to finish today.

Most of us adjust our theology over the years. I’m glad to say that I haven’t found reason to change my mind on the gospel of salvation I was taught, and finally accepted, back in a Bible Class in the 1960s. Even so, not only have I had to deepen my understanding, but there are points at which the Evangelicalism of that time and place was in error.

For example, the reaction against the liberal social gospel had led to an Evangelical suspicion of any Christian role in social or political matters, and this has been one area of (partly) beneficial change in Evangelical thinking since. It was relatively painless overall: one of my fellow Crusaders became a leader in TearFund, and a member of my Holy Trinity Brompton Bible Study Group went on to be a leader of UK Christian Aid. But for a while, around 1970, encountering more liberal churches led me to wonder why one group was always on about Vietnam, Biafra and apartheid, and the other about Russia, Israel and abortion.

It is a lot more traumatic to come to the realisation that the tradition in which you were saved is fundamentally flawed. It was fascinating, and quite sobering, to understand the pain of people from a Closed Brethren tradition coming to see just how oppressive their sect was for women, and indeed how cult-like it was in its leadership structures, its dogmatic interpretation of Scripture (thankfully often correct!) and so on. Somehow, a person brought up and led to Christ in that movement has to find out what was wrong, and unlearn it, whilst not becoming cynical about what was true.

Not only does this painful process lead one to doubt the very foundations of one’s internal worldview, but it requires re-evaluation of those people you have looked up to as role-models for life and faith. This is particularly hard for people coming to terms with the truth that they have been deceived by an actual cult like one of William Branham’s Word sects, or the false prophets of Bethel and the New Apostolic Reformation.

It is bad enough coming to terms with the saintly Kansas City Prophet or anointed Apostle turning out to an out-and-out fraud and sexual abuser. It’s not much easier getting your head round a role-model simply being mistaken. I mentioned David Watson at the festival of the Holy Spirit earlier – but not that it was reading about it in his autobiography Fear No Evil, a decade later, that brought me back from a long period of backsliding. Somehow, one must appreciate the reality of “treasure in jars of clay.”

It’s arguably even harder to deal with the fact that those close to you, rather than public heroes, have been deceived and, perhaps unwittingly, deceivers as well. Think of those young people converted under Mike Pilavachi at Soul Survivor: how do they cope with knowledge of his true character? I identify with their pain in a small way: the curate I looked up to at one church of my youth was Jonathan Fletcher, also shown recently to be an abuser. I don’t think it’s much easier to adjust to genuinely (and non-abusingly!) important role-models as having taught you bad theology. We naturally divide people into friends and enemies – it is harder to live with the possibility that they are both.

But we have to adjust to such personal disillusion, if we are to live by faith and truth. In the end, that means holding in tension the truths that the Kingdom of Heaven is a community, and that it is also a community of actual sinners. We must love the brethren, even when they prove to be splintered reeds. But we can only do that, I believe, by fully engaging with the reality that only Christ is the reliable rock of truth, and we only find that truth through his Spirit in his word. That’s the message of 1 Corinthians 3:1-17, and it’s vital.

All other ground (not least the opinion of this this changeable writer) is sinking sand.

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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.
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2 Responses to Mea Culpa (de Spiritu Sancto)

  1. Ben says:

    I’ve been thinking along similar lines as your last few paragraphs over the past few weeks.

    Provoked by reading the report of the theological commission investigating Jean Vanier (, which was mentioned in passing in the context of a wider discussion on charismatic theology (triggered by Pilavachi) somewhat similar to your series (here, sorry if I’ve already mentioned it and forgotten – as I said, I’ve been thinking and talking about it a lot recently!

    It’s easy to jettison someone as a false prophet when some hidden sin comes to light. But what do you do with someone who has an apparently positive ministry, and also these terrible sins? I guess, knowing our own selves, we shouldn’t be naive. And Jesus did talk about the wheat and the chaff (though I thought that the standard interpretation was that this was about different people: not wheat and chaff in the same person, which sounds potentially purgatorial!).

    It bothers me less for the big stars and gurus, I’ve been guru-proof (I think) for a good while now. But in the context of my own life: who do I trust? I guess I’m not expecting anyone to be perfect or sinless (moved away from that theology also with time), but given the apparent inability for the entourage to discern these problems, should I be distrusting and suspecting everyone, all the time? What is hardest (in the case of Jean Vanier for example) is someone who doesn’t even consider that their sin IS sin, and has wacky (and secret) theological gymnastics to justify it.

    As you say, only Christ is the reliable rock of truth.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I guess my “practical” take on this is:
      (a) Someone convicted of serious, public sin is thereby disqualified from the ministry, because one of the scriptural qualifications is being “above reproach, of good reputation with outsiders” – which of course doesn’t mean every personality quirk or personal weakness disqualifies. It’s the reputation , and the risk of leading the flock astray, that matters.
      (b) The above says nothing about deciding whether someone is saved, but fallen, or simply a wolf in the flock. That is between them and God. So you don’t reinstate them, a la Todd Bentley, a year or two later, and neither do you fail to inform the authorities because “he’s a brother.” But to restore a genuinely penitent offender to full fellowship is a virtue (but rather dependent on victims of abuse being reconciled as well).
      (c) The gospel is the gospel, and it’s that, rather than individuals, that saves. So even if an imposter preaches the gospel, it may still be effective – “whoever is not against us is for us,” said the Lord. The real killer (all too common in these cases) is the person who owes their salvation to someone, but is also abused by them.

      Yet I agree with you that, for most of us most of the time, the difficult job is not dealing with criminal or immoral acts, but knowing how to handle a friend whose theology is off the rails… or how to disengage lovingly when you realise you’ve been in a tradition that’s off the rails.

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