‘Strange Fire:’ Addressing the Dangerous yet Popular Teaching of Charismatic Leaders

Question:

What do Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Paul and Jan Crouch, John Hagee, Benny Hinn, and T.D. Jakes have in common?

photo of Benny Hinn preaching

[Benny Hinn praying for a miracle]

Answer:

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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23 thoughts on “‘Strange Fire:’ Addressing the Dangerous yet Popular Teaching of Charismatic Leaders

  1. Why you left Pentecostalism is why I left Pentecostalism (with a bit more teenage angst added to the mix). And why you wish you could be Catholic is precisely why I am Catholic. So why aren’t you? (Not to provoke any sort of debate; I am just curious.)

    I’ll read your posts in a bit more detail and possibly add some more comments there.

    • Thx for reading! And I appreciate the question. Brief answer: While I admire the unity of the RC, I still hold to the core theological principles of the Reformation, which the RC rejects, and Pentecostalism abandoned. So, “here I stand,” though I hope, in a collegial spirit. (Average Us is read and supported by several RC friends).

      • With regard to MacArthur’s conference: I am very troubled by many of the theological errors in Pentecostalism. My parents are still in the Assemblies of God and especially my mother is very caught up in word-faith thinking. But I blame the folks on TV for that more than their local church, which despite a taint of “prosperity,” is mostly just theologically empty rather than erroneous. Most of the people I know there are sincere and loving Christians who love God and seek Him as best they know how. On the other hand, I’m even more troubled by MacArthur’s approach. Denouncing those with whom you disagree as “false churches,” holding conferences on their errors which none of them will attend, is no way to have a theological discussion in Christian love. (And yes, I realize the irony of that statement.) I don’t see that MacArthur has sought to have much loving conversation (he published the polemic Charismatic Chaos twenty years ago, so this new book is nothing new).

        In defense of the councils of the historic Church: those cases as a rule occurred only after “theological discussion in Christian love” had hopelessly broken down. The Church, since the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), has always sought to follow Jesus’s scriptural injuction: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15–17).

      • Thanks for commenting Joseph. I really appreciate the additional historical background on church counsels. I don’t know enough to defend MacArthur’s approach in this conference, but I do think it’s clear that the broader church has been avoiding a necessary confrontation for decades. Thus, I think this could get messy before any new clarity or unity arises. Personally, I’d love to see guys like Packer and Piper address this, too. I agree that the typical Pentecostal church is “mostly just theologically empty rather than erroneous.” But the trouble is that charismatic nonsense or worse is always available to fill the doctrinal vacuum. When I was a Pentecostal (A/G) pastor, I was often amazed by the lack of discernment, and even unwillingness to be discerning, exhibited by leaders of the movement. Breaks my heart.

    • perhaps so, TC. I could wish someone like Piper or Packer was leading this. But, I’m glad someone is finally calling for us to define some things as “out of bounds.”

      • Lon, I would love to see a discussion between MacArthur, a cessationist, and Piper, a continuationist, on this matter, and since both are staunched Calvinists.

      • agreed, but I think both of these positions should unite against much of what we see in the charismatic movement. I think there is little “continuation” of anything biblical in that movement. (forgive the pun ;)

  2. Lon,

    I appreciate this post, and I agree with what you’ve written, but…

    I am presently in an AG church, have been for years. And I have noted and become more and more aware of a paucity of theological proclamation from the pulpit. I call it Part 1 and Part 2 preaching. Part 1 is, for instance, Paul’s theological basis presented in the beginning of his epistles, which are the foundation and lead up to his “Therefore..” or how we are to live in Part 2 of his epistles. Most sermons are Part 2, praxis, without Part 1, basis.

    I responded in the past to your post concerning why you left Pentecostalism, explaining why I have stayed. Basically, these are people saved by the grace of God and the blood of Christ, saved by the monergistic grace of God, whether that is acknowledged or not. They are His!

    A lot of what MacArthur et al said is true. But his apparent excoriation, tossing all Pent/Charis persons in the same pit as Jakes, Hinn, Bentley, Dollar and Copeland was wounding. Where were the tears for those ignorantly caught up in any non-Reformed churches? Where the extended hand of rescue?

    As I read Rev ch 2 & 3 I see Jesus addressing the faults of churches, and then prescribing the remedy with admonitions to repent. My point being that John’s letter, The Revelation to John of Christ was sent to and read in these errant churches. The letter to Laodicea is especially apt, “I advise you to buy from me … eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see… repent…Behold I stand at the door and knock…” This to the church which Jesus threatened to spit out of his mouth!

    So, my sincere question is, how do we reach out if we shake the dust of our feet, toss our curls, and leave? I think somehow Strange Fire morphed into a flame thrower.

    BTW, It’s not my intent to be trite, sarcastic or confrontational, I’m just saddened.

    • Hi Dick! Thanks for commenting again. I agree with your perspective on our brothers and sisters in a typical A/G church. I think your flame thrower analogy is apt. But if that’s the case, it should be directed at the leaders and teachers, not the masses of sincere believers, or even deceived believers. Jesus and Paul were aggressively passionate against false teachers because clarity of the gospel is at stake.

      I also agree with your assessment of the preaching you typically hear. The theological indicatives in the epistles – what God has done for our salvation (what you call, “type 1”) must precede the moral and practical imperatives (your “type 2”). Otherwise, preaching devolves into preaching law without the gospel that empowers us to obey it. In my 20-year experience with the A/G (and pentecostalism generally), I never heard any strong doctrinal preaching. The reason is clear: it isn’t valued, it isn’t taught, it isn’t studied, it isn’t known. The preaching you have observed would grow less common if theological content with practical application, and expository preaching, and preaching through books of the Bible were more highly valued.

      As for MacArthur’s approach, I can’t say I know enough to defend or condemn it. If he goes too far, I’m sure other voices with moderate. But, for now at least, I’m simply glad that someone with a broadly respected voice is standing up to say, “Enough!” This should not be merely a theological debate between cessationists and continuationists regarding spiritual gifts. The critical question is whether the practices and beliefs of the popular charismatic leaders have anything to do with the faith once delivered to the saints. In my view, they are inventing a new religion that is every bit as dangerous as the Judaizing and gnostic sects encountered in the apostolic age.

      It will be interesting to see if this conference gains any traction in the broader Christian community.

      I sincerely thank you for reading and commenting. Grace and peace to you, Lon

  3. Interesting thoughts, Lon. I do not deny abuses in the Pentecostal/charismatic camp. I have found the need to separate myself from as many labels as possible, but if you were to investigate my theology and ministry, you would probably still call me “charismatic” even though I might not claim that designation. Some of the generalizations MacArthur addresses are not true of many Pentecostals and charismatics, however. At least I don’t identify with his criticisms. I agree with you that regular, spiritual discipline does more in the long run than crisis moments, but we both need to avoid the error of turning grace into works and changing the Trinity to “Father, Son and Holy Bible.” Though I teach Greek and Theology at the college level, I do believe that our faith is more than a mental exercise and it should impact us emotionally and experientially. True relationships do that. But I agree with you that if the experience is not based on the truth of God’s word, then it is a false experience. I just want to see God do what He did in scripture, and I don’t see any indication that it was suppose to change. What troubles me is when it is forced or assumed or Scriptural manifestations are substituted with emotional, fleshly imitations. But while we’re identifying groups that need some correction, let’s not leave Evangelicals out of it. Typical Evangelical theology suggests that “praying the sinner’s prayer” makes someone a Christian. Talk about an unbiblical, crisis moment! People often put faith in that prayer instead of in Jesus, just like others put their faith in infant baptism. Though a calling card of Evangelicals is the importance of evangelism, for the average Evangelical, evangelistic efforts or thoughts are far from practice or mind.

    • Hello Russ! It’s good to hear from you. :)

      I concur and sympathize with your comments criticizing pentecostals/charismatics and evangelicals. (You’re correct about “the sinner’s prayer”). I’m not sure there is much you expressed here that Reformed people (like myself) would disagree with. As you know, I ultimately left Pentecostalism, for biblical/theological reasons. (If you’re not aware, you can read Why I left Pentecostalism).

      On the present issue, I don’t think the question is whether we should all be cessationists and continuationists regarding spiritual gifts. The critical question is whether the practices and beliefs of the popular charismatic leaders have anything to do with the faith once delivered to the saints. In my view, they are inventing a new religion that is every bit as dangerous as the Judaizing and gnostic sects encountered in the apostolic age.

      If I missed anything that was important to you, let me know and I’ll follow up with additional comments.

      Thank you again! Average me, Lon

  4. Amen, Lon. Glad MacDaddy goes after soft targets like the charisma-heretics.

    Now, though: What do Copeland, Dollar, Meyer, Crouch, Hagee, Hinn, and Jakes NOT have in common with C.J. Mahaney, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Mark Driscoll?

    The former are bereft of the gospel of God’s sovereign grace, and the latter are not charlatans.

    • Hi Hugh, you may be correct, though I hesitate to use pejorative labels for people I haven’t met. I would encourage us all to defend the gospel with equal parts conviction and grace.

  5. Hi Lon, I’m not sure if there’s anything missing–but there’s always something to add! My biggest concern about MacArthur is that he takes the cessationist stance. I think this is a critical issue, but whether one is a cessationist or a continuationist speaks to how we view and evaluate what God and Satan are doing or not doing in the world today. Pretty critical issue. If the cessationists are wrong, and that God is still doing miracles today, then they are forced to attribute supernatural phenomenon either to emotionalism or Satantic activity. They better be sure they are right! Because if they are wrong, and God is still doing miracles today, cessationists are guilty of blasphemy, according to Jesus’ definition: attributing the work of the Spirit to the activity of Beelzebub. On the other hand, Pentecostals who attribute human-derived emotionalism and human-inspired prophecy as coming from the Holy Spirit are equally guilty–not of blasphemy, but of divination. That is, “divining” spiritual activity from a source other than God. If it’s not of God, and we say it is, that’s witchcraft. If it’s of God and we say it isn’t, it’s blasphemy. May we be sure in our minds, slow to judge, and quick to humble introspection. God help us know His Word and his ways that we might impact this world for His glory.

    • good analysis, Russ. Thanks for the feedback. Your right that the spiritual gifts debate (continue vs cease) is important for the reasons you named. However the teaching from these leaders begs even more important questions: What is the gospel? And are these guys distorting it beyond recognition? (i.e. do their ministries deserve the name “Christian”?) To me, their beliefs and practices bear little or no resemblance to Scripture. So even if we should all be continuationists regarding spiritual gifts and MacArthur is mistaken on that, we must still ask whether this movement represents “the continuation?” I think not. Not even close.

  6. Good point, Lon. You may be right that their ministry might not deserve the name “Christian.” They would take offense at this, of course, because as far as I understand they completely acknowledge the Deity of Christ, that He came in the flesh, and that His death on the cross satisfied the wrath of God in our behalf and that God’s grace is communicated to us only through faith, not works. On these matters I think they agree, right? which I think fits the basic definition of Christian. Their use of the gifts, the meaning of the gifts, and distortion of the gifts is certainly unsettling. Does this qualify them to be heretics–to be a cult? I’m hesitant to label as such, since I know I am still working my theology out and cannot claim doctrinal perfection. I hope my errors don’t label me as a heretic in the eyes of someone I would call a brother.

    If we are quick to label such as these as cults, then what do we do with our Catholic friends who pray to Mary and try to combine works with faith and tradition with Scripture? That is as heretical, in my mind, as the “prosperity gospel.”

    What about MacArthur, for that matter? If I’m correct (that spiritual gifts are still in operation) and I pray for someone to be healed–and he gets healed–then if MacArthur denies this and says it was the power of suggestion or Satanic when it was really the Holy Spirit, isn’t that the Spirit of antichrist?

    • Hi Russ, you ask great questions that range further afield than the topic I addressed in this post. I wish I could sit and chat over this with you. But as it is, please allow a few very brief responses.

      1. Deity/Humanity of Christ etc – Whether each Charismatic leader believes the tenets you point out is questionable. But even if they did, the material point is whether they communicate this, or abandon it in place of a different gospel. From my view, they preach another gospel. Please also remember that the Trinity is essential to Christian orthodoxy (and thus the gospel), which at least two of the prominent leaders are questionable on.

      2. Heretic labeling – I don’t think anyone is quick with name-calling and labels. Our modern church movement avoids this like the plague–which only encourages error. My support of someone with authority standing up on this (at long last) was the motive of my post.

      3. Catholicism – I think that’s essentially what the Reformation did, right? The Reformers believed in the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Roman church–that it was full of heresy at that time. However, as far as I know, Calvin, at least, still left room for the fact that individual believers in Christ’s saving work who are in a non-true church (small “c”) are still part of the True Church (capital “C”).

      4. MacArthur – I don’t know whether he would deny this. I don’t believe being a cessationist means you don’t believe God works healing by means of prayer. (btw – full disclosure, I haven’t decided that question yet for myself–another coffee discussion ;). In any case, I will return once again to the theme of my post: The problem with the charismatic leaders relates to the gospel, not just the gifts question. Their’s is a different gospel. And if that is the case, their gifts and ministries are false and cannot be continuations of the apostolic gifts.

      If you want to discuss further, let’s take this onto email instead, please.

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