Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Theologizing Charismatic Excess (or How Satan Really Works when Charismatics Meet)

A lot of folks who reject the charismatic movement do so on the basis of obvious excesses. My evidence for this is anecdotal, but most of us realize it's true.

Many continuationists, myself included, do not think that baptism of the Spirit can be subsequent to salvation or must be accompanied by tongues, and therefore reject Pentecostalism. But even apart from this, charismaticism is so often associated with people rolling on the ground in one part of a room while other folks (often including the pastor) are loudly speaking in tongues all at the same time without interpretation. This sort of behavior obviously disobeys the parameters of mutual edification, orderliness, and the necessity of interpretation if tongues are spoken publicly as laid out by Paul in 1 Cor. 12-14.

People see this sort of thing and reject charismaticism. In one sense this is understandable: it is indeed frustratingly rare to see charismatics take the limiting instructions in 1 Cor. 12-14 seriously, and I hate that fact. It keeps people from embracing all that the Spirit has to offer.

But this is like rejecting Calvinism because of Hyper-Calvinists, isn't it? That is, it is foolish! Almost any good and true thing, whether or not it is a theological issue, can be taken to an unreasonable excess. But that does not mean that the thing itself has no value or is wrong.

Perhaps what is troubling about charismatic excess is that it deals so directly in the spiritual realm, which is why it is common for people to attribute the unbiblical excess to demonic influence. This is possible in some cases, but I am not inclined to think it is the usual cause of excess, for at least two reasons.

First, most charismatics I know are godly people who believe that the Spirit works "charismatically" today. Even if there is excess when they meet (and there often is), these people are still genuinely seeking the Lord. They should be corrected because they are seeking him in ways that are unbiblical. But we need to take seriously that most times these are not the kinds of people who want anything to do with demonic influence. They are seeking the one true God exclusively through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Where is the entrance point for such direct demonic influence?

To be sure, Satan is always at work trying to thwart God's plans in a general sense. But this is not the same as saying that people are speaking in "demonic tongues" or giving "demonic prophecies." It could be happening, but I certainly do not see it as necessary either from experience or from the biblical instruction.

Which leads to my second reason: of all of the critiques of charismatic excess that Paul makes in 1 Cor. 12-14, there is one critique that is conspicuously absent: Paul never says that the Holy Spirit is not the one working. There is no passage that says, "When you speak in tongues without interpretation, the tongues are no longer genuinely Spirit-inspired tongues." Rather, he simply commands that tongues are followed with interpretation because we need to be edifying and orderly.

The problem is that we misuse what is genuinely the work of the Spirit. This might sound strange at first, but it actually fits with most of what we know of Christian practice. Consider this: if the Spirit only ever worked in any of our ministry when we did that ministry exactly right, when would He ever move? Probably never. God is gracious and gives us the good gift of His presence and guidance through the Spirit even when we fail to utilize that gift correctly. In a certain sense that seems to be the whole point of the gift of the Spirit- we mess things up, so He helps us!

Perhaps Satan's major work to thwart God's ministry in regards to charismaticism is more subtle. Perhaps he is at our charismatic church meetings whispering in our ears, "That prophecy is from God- just say it. That tongue is angelic speech- just say it out loud." And perhaps he and his demons are doing that to many people at once, encouraging all of the unedifying, disorderly stuff that the Holy Spirit already made clear should not be happening while He works.

And perhaps all the while Satan is saying to all of the onlooking non-charismatics, "See, they are being unbiblical. That is Satan's work, not the Holy Spirit's. It's like they don't even read their Bibles! And you don't want any part of that, now do you?"

1 comment:

Bill Faris said...

Lately, I have come across some blogs where folks refer to themselves as "post-charismatic" which I infer to mean that they believe the supernatural gifts of the Spirit are still operational today but that "charismatic" has become identified with a certain brand of Christian subculture and religious expression.

I think that's interesting.

It seems to me, however, that the call of Paul to "earnestly desire" spiritual gifts (esp. prophecy) in I Cor. 14 is ignored because of the fear of "excess" and, in its place is a sort of "we'll allow it, but don't push it" attitude. Where does one find "open, but cautious" in the Bible?