Once again: on being unapologetically charismatic

‘Are you a closet charismatic, Steve?’

I was having lunch with someone I like and respect greatly when he threw this one at me a month or two back. My response was heartfelt and immediate: ‘What do you mean, “closet”?’ On this issue, I’m out and proud – although hardly uncritical of the movement as a whole, or in its various strands.

Because of this, I initially looked seriously at the first reports from the ‘Strange Fire’ conference that happened across the pond a while back; I have to admit that I quickly lost interest: there are some serious theological criticisms to be made of the charismatic movement, but there was no-one on that platform capable of making them. I picked up a farrago of unsubstantiated assertion, inaccurate history, poor exegesis, and – well, generally, it wasn’t good, and I quickly tuned out. One point stuck with me from what little I read, though.

My friend Andrew Wilson, who clearly has far more patience and Christian charity than I do, engaged seriously with some of the arguments presented at the conference on the Think Theology blog here; I want to pick up just on one theme, albeit a rather central one: the definition of ‘charismatic’. Andrew quotes, and accepts, a definition offered at the SF conference by Tom Pennington: to be ‘charismatic’ is to support the continuation of the ‘miraculous gifts’. I am not convinced by this definition.

My concern with this is simple, and deeply partial, in the sense that it is based only on my own experience and knowledge only, and not on any serious research. The charismatic movement which I know might formally be characterised theologically by its belief about certain spiritual gifts, but this is some distance from its lived concerns and interests.

Andrew makes the point that the ‘charismatic/cessationist’ debate is not about belief in continuing miracles: conversion – God giving new life to someone dead in their trespasses and sins – remains the fundamental miracle of the church’s experience, and is believed and rejoiced in on all sides of this debate. I want to push this further, though: consider the ‘gift of healing’: on the ‘cessationist’ side, I have never met a pastor who does not pray seriously for God’s healing for his/her flock when they are ill; on the ‘charismatic’ side, I do not think I have met anyone who claims to have ‘the gift of healing’ (I know they exist; my point is that much – perhaps most – charismatic life is not narrated in these terms). I know many people – including one of my own children – who can give serious testimony to seeing instantaneous and apparently-miraculous healing happening in response to prayer; but the language of  a ‘gift of healing’ is not the way these testimonies would be framed.

Similarly, I think of people in congregations I have led (or been a part of) who would regularly prophesy in our worship times; none ever (in my hearing) claimed a ‘gift of prophecy’; that was not their self-understanding of how they were ministering. Again, I stress, I am reflecting on my own experience – but I have been on the speaking or leadership teams of several major charismatic conferences in the UK over the last decade; in some of these prophecy, healing, and salvation were daily realities; I never recall hearing the language of ‘gift of healing/prophecy’ in any context in any of them. When I have been present when messages in tongues have come, the request from the front has always been something like ‘Did anyone sense God speaking as that message was brought?’ not ‘Does anyone have the gift of interpretation?’

Again, I know lots of people who pray in tongues. It happens that I pray in tongues every day (that rumbling sound you can hear is the collapsing of my academic credibility). I suppose if someone asked me ‘have you received the gift of tongues’ I would say yes, but I do not recall ever being asked that question, and I do not habitually think of my spirituality in those terms; my ordinary daily discipline is to say an office, to pray in tongues, and to intercede for needs I am aware of; during the day, I will respond to events/thoughts in prayer regularly, sometimes praying in tongues, sometimes not (our family prayer time at night is obviously in English exclusively). The daily office – and the family devotional material we use – would be as much a ‘gift’ in my narration of this as the ability to pray in tongues; to speak of ‘the supernatural gift of tongues’ is just not normal/common in my life, or in the – fairly wide – charismatic circles I have moved in.

Instead, language of ‘giftedness’ tends to be reserved for public liturgical ministries: preachers and worship leaders are routinely described as ‘gifted’ in my experience – and that is true in charismatic, cessationist, and confused circles alike. When we say ‘gift’ we mean pretty much the same thing. (Again, I am not claiming universal insight here, but narrating my own experience, which however is fairly wide in the UK at least.)

So what distinguishes a charismatic like me from my more ‘cessationist’ sisters and brothers? In my experience, it is certain practices: a practice of worship that focuses on and aims towards an experienced encounter with God; a practice of pastoral care that sees one-on-one extempore prayer ministry as fairly central; a practice of liturgy that is expectant of, and welcoming to, unplanned interventions; a practice of ministry that assumes the involvement of a significant number of lay people, some acknowledged to be more skilled/effective in certain areas than the pastor herself; and a ‘crisis’ spirituality which expects a series of defining moments that will lead to step-changes in Christian experience/discipleship.

A couple of examples. In my experience, all pastors will pray for healing for a member of the congregation who is unwell; the charismatic pastor – or a lay member of her team – might well do so in the context of a time of prayer ministry that follows an extended time of worship, and might well expect some sort of immediate change in the experience of the one prayed for – which might include physical healing, but might equally include a new depth of discipleship in one direction or another. Again, if asked to identify the most quintessentially charismatic services I have led, I would point to a couple of gatherings where nothing obviously ‘supernatural’ happened, but where congregational involvement (sometimes bringing ‘prophecies’, yes, but equally in open prayer and the like) led to such a strong sense of direction in the assembly that I and fellow leaders felt constrained to abandon what we had planned and go in another direction completely – once (only) I left a full sermon script on my seat and preached without preparation on a different text because the way the worship had moved convinced me that I had to switch themes. On that occasion I am fairly sure no-one in the room would have said ‘a gift of prophecy’ had been exercised, but there was a shared sense of God leading us in a different direction to the one we had planned.

All of which is to say that I suspect that an engagement between ‘charismatic’ and ‘cessationist’ evangelicals which is attentive to the lived reality of faith will turn less on confessions of belief about supernatural gifts, and more on debates about the place of spontaneity in worship, and about the effectiveness of crisis moments in sanctification and about the right ways to work out vocation. On the one hand, this approach will problematize the recent phenomenon of ‘Reformed Charismatics’ (yes, I’d own the label if I had to): charismatic spirituality, as I have narrated it here, stands very visibly in a genealogy that traces back through C20th Pentecostalism and C19th Holiness traditions to Methodism in the eighteenth century. I don’t think this genealogy makes ‘Reformed Charismatic’ an oxymoron, but I do think that it is a surprising development that stands in need of defence, if people are genuine about wanting to stand faithfully in both traditions. On the other hand, the approach I am suggesting will focus the charismatic/cessationist debate not on questions of orthodoxy, but on questions of best pastoral practice: how best to encourage growth in holiness, and similarly messy questions; I think this is just right; these debates, if properly understood, are about spirituality, not doctrine; to try to draw hard doctrinal lines is ill-informed and divisive.

 

7 Comments

  1. Neil
    Dec 7, 2013

    Thanks for this. Insightful and irenic as usual. I’m sure you are right that drawing hard doctrinal lines is unhelpful, the situation is far more nuanced than a charismatic / cessationist divide.

    I’d be interested to see how far you would push ‘crisis’ as an integral part of charismatic spirituality. Clearly it is an element of charismatic life, but so is the notion of ‘crisis’ in conversion within cessationist spiritualities (and perhaps other things such as responding to a call for missions).

    My own experience suggests that many encounters with the Spirit are part of an ongoing journey. For example a word or picture shared in the context of prayer, may not be a defining moment nor happen at a critical moment, but simply an example of an ongoing experience of the Spirit of God. It seems to me that this assumption that God is speaking and present alongside us all through life (and that we will encounter / experience this on a daily basis) is at least as important as more emotionally charged ‘crisis’ events.

  2. steve
    Dec 7, 2013

    Thanks, Neil. By ‘crisis’ – maybe not the right word – I meant a sense in charismatic spirituality that growth or calling occurs in moments of high intensity in worship, rather than more gradually through the practice of daily disciplines. So the call forward for prayer ministry represents the conviction that something decisive is likely to have happened during the time of worship – we don’t routinely offer prayer ministry on Tuesday nights, because we don’t (rightly or wrongly) expect people to have had decisive encounters with God at work or at home on Tuesday afternoon…

  3. Chris E
    Dec 7, 2013

    ” I do not think I have met anyone who claims to have ‘the gift of healing’”

    .. but there are plenty of circles in which this is a norm – certainly large parts of New Frontiers (since you are referencing Andrew Wilson). Ditto ‘the gift of prophecy’.

    “there are some serious theological criticisms to be made of the charismatic movement, but there was no-one on that platform capable of making them.”

    Completely agree with you – but no one capable of making them is making them at think theology either – apart from some fairly anodyne ‘take the good, leave the bad’ assertions.

    • steve
      Dec 7, 2013

      Thanks Chris. My point is not that the language of ‘possessing a gift of …’ is never used, but that its use is – in my observation, which may be wrong – sufficiently patchy that it cannot work as a definition of what it is to be charismatic. To take an analogy, NFI churches also tend to stress the importance of biblical eldership, but we could not make that a definition of what it is to be charismatic, because lots of other charismatics don’t…

  4. David Rollings
    Dec 9, 2013

    I think the origins of the Pentecostal Movement even in its development of the doctrine of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is more diverse and complex than just the Wesleyan roots. Indeed from the time Fletcher first used the term (which Wesley did not like) the stress changed from purity to power. For documentation of this point please see my “From Purity to Power: the development of the doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in 19th Century America” ( this can be found on my blog pneumaandlogos.com). Faupel in his book “The Everlasting Gospel” in a number of chapters discuses the influence of Reformed Theology on the origins of the Pentecostal movement especially because a large number of early Pentecostals came from Baptist,Presbyterian and Congregationalist backgrounds . Thank you for a thought provoking item,it is much appreciated.

  5. Patrick M
    Dec 13, 2013

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts Steve. Very helpful and they ring true. Does suggest an increasingly subjective and loose ethos of ‘charismatic’ and a shift in how that word has been understood?

  6. Bob Jaffray
    Feb 12, 2014

    I came to your blog via a link from Darren Sumner’s
    Theology Out of Bounds because an interest in dealing
    with what various Evangelicals are saying about
    Christology. But I noticed this “Once again …” post.

    Steve, I don’t see anything in what you say distiguishes you as “unapologetically charistmatic” from what cessationists at the Strange Fire conference hold. But the main thrust
    of the conference as I understand it is the overwhelming
    number of continuationists advocating out right error,
    and “Reformed continuationists” not opposing it
    except to say as you do that there are problems but
    not identifying them and opposing them.

    So my question is, What do you identify as problems
    and are they the same as what are identified and
    opposed in the Strange Fire Conference.

    Phil R. Johnson mentioned Darren Sumner as sitting
    on the fence, but said that Sumner’s comments
    indicated to him, that Darren did not understand
    the doctrine of God’s providence as stated in
    historical Reformed theology, which states that
    God is always active at all times in history and
    in the lives of people, otherwise Darren would not
    have compared cessationism to Deism.

    Bob Jaffray

    P.S. I apologize for the condition of my websites. I have a whole bunch of clones under various free hosts so that if one or two
    go away something will be left. The only thing that I can
    think might be of any interest to you is my book entitled
    Explosive Evangelism.

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