An Unnecessary “Strange Fire”

 

I was greatly saddened this week to hear that prominent pastor and author John MacArthur held a national conference he called “Strange Fire” to attack and denounce charismatic Christians.

MacArthur has long been a staunch advocate for the “Cessationist” point of view, which holds that certain gifts of the Spirit ceased at the death of the apostles. The Strange Fire conference coincides with the release of his book by the same name. It is his third book attacking the charismatic movement.

Though labels are problematic, there is truth in the over-simplifcation that Evangelicals believe in the necessity of conversion through personal faith in Jesus, the authority of the Bible and that the role of the Holy Spirit is to make us like Jesus (holiness). Charismatics also believe the same things, plus that the Holy Spirit plays an active role in a Christian’s life by giving us the spiritual gifts listed in the Bible for the ministry of Jesus.

Over the last 100 years most of the growth of the Christian Church worldwide has been in the “charismatic” wing. As MacArthur noted, there are now about 500 million Pentecostal/charismatic believers world-wide., and he does not like this one bit.

That is disappointing.

One of most encouraging developments in the Church over the last 40 years has been the tumbling of the walls people built between the evangelical and charismatic segments of the Church. That growing unity allowed greater missional cooperation, not to mention a healthier testimony to the world.

MacArthur seems bent not just on rebuilding the walls of separation, but on eliminating the charismatic movement altogether. Through his conference and upcoming book, he attacks it as “a farce and a scam”, saying nothing good has come from the charismatic movement or theology, that they do not worship in a God-honoring way, that they do not hold nor value sound doctrine, and more.

It appears to me that their greatest “sin” is that they do not believe exactly as John  MacArthur does.

Some of MacArthur’s statements indicate that his passion to stamp out charismatic Christianity is trumping his judgement.

For example, he said “if you criticize them [charismatics], if you endeavor to be vigilant and discerning, and if you endeavor to contend for the truth and hold them to Scripture and expose their error, they will condemn you as the sinner … How do I know that? I have lived that.”

MacArthur apparently doesn’t see this is exactly what he is doing himself. If someone claims to have experienced and ministered with a gift of the Spirit that he doesn’t believe in, he condemns them as heretical, unsound doctrinally and worse.

He said, “We are not trying to divide the Body of Christ by this conference, we are trying to identify the Body of Christ.” Can he really believe that anyone who doesn’t line up with his teaching on spiritual gifts is not a part of the Body of Christ?

It is surprising that MacArthur lumps all charismatics together as if they are all the same, and then calls out the abuses of some to characterize them all. No movement can withstand such treatment.

* Are there some charismatics who worship with an emotion ungrounded in biblical truth? Of course.

Yet are there some Evangelicals who worship with a cold, dead orthodoxy? Absolutely.

* Are there some Pentecostals who teach unbiblical concepts? Certainly.

Has error or heresy ever cropped up in Evangelical churches? Without question.

* Have there ever been abuses in the use of spiritual gifts in charismatic circles? Yes.

Yet there have been abusive practices of other kinds in Evangelical churches too.

The reality is that there are 500 million pentecostal/charismatics in the world because they are lit with a fire to share their faith. Evangelical leaders regularly urge people to read their Bibles and to share their faith, but it is those who testify of an experience of the Holy Spirit who are actually doing it.

Charismatic and Evangelical believers have so much in common. It is very sad to see someone wage war on fellow believers when the world is in such desperate need of Jesus. And the Church needs all the tools (spiritual gifts) God provides in order to fulfill the mission of Jesus in the world.

If I’d have to pick a label  for Crossroads (which I usually resist doing) I’d use Rich Nathan’s term and say we are “Empowered Evangelicals”. We adhere to the evangelical’s primacy of scripture as well as use all the gifts of the Spirit. In the process we try to steer away from the abuses of either camp.

I call John MacArthur my brother in Christ, though I am not sure he’d label me his. None the less, I love John and pray God’s best on him.

MacArthur has a valid point that the global charismatic movement needs to call divergent teachers back to the grounding of the scriptures. But to deny that the Holy Spirit is doing something remarkable in the world today is myopic at best. An unbiased reading of the book of Acts and the letters of Paul would not naturally lead one to conclude that Christ-followers who see God heal the sick, speak in tongues, encourage and build up people through biblical prophetic words or see miraculous works done are not part of the body of Christ.

J.I. Packer is a highly respected evangelical writer and professor who is decidedly not charismatic. He wrote a lengthy scholarly paper on the charismatic renewal in which he concludes:

“Though theologically uneven (and what spiritually significant movement has not been?) the charismatic renewal should commend itself to Christian people as a God-sent corrective of formalism, institutionalism and intellectualism; as creatively expressing the gospel by its music and worship style, its praise-permeated spontaneity and bold ventures in community; and as forcing all Christendom, including those who will not take this from evangelicals as such, to ask: What then does it mean to be a Christian, and to believe in the Holy Spirit? Who is Spirit-filled? Are they? Am I? With radical theology inviting the church into the barren wastes of neo-Unitarianism, it is (dare I say) just like God—the God who uses the weak to confound the mighty—to have raised up, not a new Calvin or John Owen or Abraham Kuyper, but a scratch movement, cheerfully improvising, which proclaims the divine personhood and power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit not by great theological eloquence, originality or accuracy, but by the power of renewed lives creating a new, simplified, unconventional and uncomfortably challenging life-style.” (from Theological Reflections on the Charismatic Movement)

Let’s work together to share Jesus with a dying world.

 

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