What do Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Paul and Jan Crouch, John Hagee, Benny Hinn, and T.D. Jakes have in common?
[Benny Hinn praying for a miracle]
They’re all popular leaders with large followings within the Christian Charismatic community. The popularity of their conferences, books, television and radio programs makes them highly influential, and their charismatic teaching, according to John MacArthur, makes them dangerous.
MacArthur’s Strange Fire Conference
John MacArthur, a well-known and theologically-conservative author and pastor of Grace Community Church in southern California, has been called one of the 25 most influential pastors of the past 25 years. Last week, at MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, and in his forthcoming book by the same title, he takes the charismatic movement head-on to publicly challenge its biblical and theological basis. According to the Strange Fire Conference website, the broader church has been too silent for too long, ignoring the charismatic elephant in the sanctuary:
For the last hundred years, the charismatic movement has been offering a strange fire of sorts to the third Person of the Godhead—the Holy Spirit. And evangelical churches have chosen to be silent or indifferent on the matter. This hasn’t served the church or the Spirit of the church with honor.
Who are Charismatics?
Charismatics are a large, diverse, loosely knit group who are difficult to define because they are often independent, united only by the personalities they follow, rather than being formally organized as groups of churches. But in general, Charismatics (and their theological first cousins, Pentecostals) are Bible-believing Christians with this distinguishing feature: They are committed to the ongoing miraculous work of God’s Spirit in Christians’ lives.
Charismatics tend to be experience-driven, pursuing personal power, victory, and prophecy while placing a low value on doctrinal and theological training. They tend to appeal to their personal experiences for proof that a particular belief is true, or practice is valid. They crave ecstatic experiences, the miraculous, new revelations, and physical healing, and generally believe that these are all available to those who have enough faith. Since they prefer immediate experiences over life-long biblical learning and growth, they can be easily persuaded to believe whatever a convincing personality tells them. In other words, they are easily deceived. And according to MacArthur, they often are.
The Average Us Perspective
There are two contemporary trends in the modern church that truly distress and sadden me. The first is the abysmal disunity and fragmentation in the Protestant church, which I’ve written about in Sometimes I Wish I Could Be Catholic. The second is closely related: I’m distressed by the deceptive, false teaching, sometimes arising to the height of heresy, that pervades the Charismatic and Pentecostal communities.
(I write here, as humbly as I can, as a former Pentecostal pastor, yet still a friend of those who remain inside. You can read here about Why I Left Pentecostalism.)
Therefore, I have to applaud MacArthur’s willingness to publicly challenge Charismatic beliefs and practices. I have often wondered if modern Protestantism could produce a leader of sufficient stature, with authority and courage to take this issue on. After all, the numbers, the popularity, the Christian television, and the money are in the hands of the Charismatic ministries, though I believe Scripture is on MacArthur’s side.
Even if MacArthur oversteps in word or attitude (which is likely in any debate), I’m glad he is willing to make an intelligent defense for why Charismatic beliefs and practices are harming the Church, despite their rampant spread. I believe an open debate is necessary to defend the historic Christian faith against the teachings of Charismatic leaders. Their errors range from oddities and novelties to outright heresies as defined by the early church counsels. All of these result–to a lesser or greater degree–in spiritual damage to churches and Christians. I’m not hopeful that the leaders mentioned above would radically change their message (because another thing they have in common is that they submit to no earthly Church authority). Nevertheless, an open debate will expose their errors to the light, allowing their followers to scrutinize what they’ve held dear.
It’s not that I want to see people leave Charismatic and Pentecostal churches in droves. It’s rather that I would see those Christian communities re-think their beliefs and practices and abandon those beliefs that do not rightly adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ. Chief among those beliefs is the belief in personal revelations that relativize the Scriptures and abandon the historic teachings of the Church. I have argued in another post that that anti-doctrinal sentiment (and the disunity it spawns) are dangerous threats to the clarity of the gospel we proclaim in the world.
A Closing Thought
If you are one of my Charismatic or Pentecostal friends, I want to say that debate is not about who is right or wrong. It’s about what is right and wrong. I wrote this post because I, like you, care about what God has said and done in the world. We both care about what is true.
So with that shared commitment, let me encourage us all to read more widely, think more carefully, pray more humbly, listen more cautiously, and submit every thought to Scripture.
Grace and peace to you, Lon
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