Posts Tagged ‘cessationism’

In October of 2013 John MacArthur hosted the Strange Fire Conference (followed quickly with the publication of a book by the same name). This re-ignited a serious debate among biblical Christians, one that split people within certain denominations and theological traditions while also uniting people of diverse denominations and theological traditions with one another.

The nature of the Strange Fire conference and book evoked a certain degree of outrage within Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. Having a great gift for remaining uncontroversial, I wrote a blog post titled “A Pentecostal in (General) Support of the Strange Fire Conference.” This blog, much to my surprise, drew a lot of attention. John MacArthur himself positively quoted it in an interview he did with Tim Challies. My guiding conviction in that post was that, while I believe the gifts have continued, they need to be exercised and practiced biblically. Far too often continuationism has provided cover for every kind of abuse, absurdity, and at times even heresy.

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Dear Pentecostals and Charismatics,

If you know me, you know I am one of you. I am an associate pastor at a Pentecostal church. I volunteer with Chi Alpha, the Assemblies of God college ministry. A Pentecostal church was founded in my paternal grandmother’s home. At times I have even undertaken to defend our doctrines from cessationist critics.

Yet I’m an awkward Pentecostal. I don’t really fit in very well. I stand between two families of Christians, Pentecostals and charismatics on one hand, and my more reformed Baptist and Presbyterian brothers and sisters on the other hand. This is not a normal place to be. My reformed friends find my belief in the gifts a curiosity, an enigma, an outlier and anomaly. My Pentecostal and charismatic friends find my Calvinism to be strange, if not antithetical to Pentecostalism itself. This despite the fact that the Pentecostal and charismatic movements have always been highly ecumenical, spanning denominational boundaries and finding homes in a vast array of theological contexts.

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The issue of John MacArthur’s recent Strange Fire Conference (and forthcoming book) is all the rage in the Evangelical blogosphere right now. Truth be told, I’m impressed by the attention the whole thing is drawing. If you know anything about MacArthur you know he is a cessationist, and that he has promoted cessationism publicly for quite some time.

I gather the issue is not MacArthur’s cessationism, which is well-known. The issue is that MacArthur has thrown down the theological gauntlet. He’s not merely saying continuationism is wrong, he’s saying it’s wrong and dangerous. While I was not at the conference, reports I read had MacArthur likening Charismatics to Mormonism, saying that Evangelicals will challenge 14 million Mormons, but are silent in the face of half a billion Charismatics. This is inflammatory, perhaps even reckless, speech.

But as you may have gathered from the title, I’m not writing this post to point out MacArthur’s errors or where I disagree with him (though such disagreements do exist). That I’m writing in general support of Strange Fire implies I have particular differences with the conference and some of its themes. This post is about my support of the conference, not my differences with it.

You might be curious about how I, as a Pentecostal pastor, could possibly support any conference that fundamentally challenges the theological foundation  of my movement and condemns many of its practices. My reasons are simple:

1. Any error John MacArthur espoused at the conference, and any recklessness he demonstrated, is far less than the errors and recklessness we see in much of the modern Charismatic movement.

We may say that things like barking in the Spirit represent the fringe of the Pentecostal Charismatic movement. In some cases, this is true. I have no doubt that if the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God (George O. Wood) saw a congregant doing this that he would confront them about it. But George O. Wood is, unfortunately, NOT the public face of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. The most prominent and popular Pentecostal/Charismatic pastors tend to be TBN broadcasters. And what we get from TBN is error after error, from false prophecies galore to Prosperity “Gospel” nonsense. People hear “Charismatic” and they think “Todd Bentley” or “Bethel Church, Redding.”

I know many Charistmatic/Pentecostal leaders have responded to Strange Fire with calls for distinction. We want a distinction between those with common sense and Biblical fidelity in our movement and those who lack this (like Todd Bentley, Benny Hinn, and nearly every other pastor on TBN). But let’s be honest here, we Pentecostals have failed to make such a distinction, and that brings me to my second point.

2. Pentecostals and Charismatics are allergic to doctrinal distinction and discernment.

I wish I could say I was lying about the sentence I just wrote, but I am not. We want cessationists like John MacArthur to draw careful distinctions between different groups in our movement, but we ourselves refuse to draw such distinctions. This refusal has primarily come in the form of SILENCE regarding false teachers and false prophecies. While we Pentecostal pastors and academics often do not buy the Prosperity nonsense, we refuse to condemn those who teach it.

A few years ago, as an undergraduate student, I attempted to publish a paper in a peer-reviewed Pentecostal/Charismatic journal. In retrospect, my article was probably not up to academic par (I was an undergraduate student, mind you). The basic idea behind the article was to point out certain denials of the sufficiency of Scripture within some of the more popular teachings in our movement. I went after, for example, C. Peter Wagner and his book 7 Power Principles I learned After Seminary. I also challenged Prosperity teaching and one or two other things. My article was rejected for publication, but the editors of the journal did not cite academic quality (which could have been amended by adding a few more sources and revising a few footnotes) as the reason for the refusal. Instead, they said while they agreed with much of the content of my article it was too divisive and would not be published. I could have accepted something like “You don’t have the academic credentials we want” or “You need to add additional sources” or something like that. But no, the stated reason for the refusal was divisiveness.

I recognize the value of unity, but a unity not grounded in and centered on the truth is merely a superficial unity. If we Pentecostals want John MacArthur to make distinctions when he calls out the Charismatic movement for its abuses, then maybe we should be the first ones making distinctions and calling out heresy and excess where we find it.

Where are the orthodox Pentecostals condemning Oneness Pentecostalism (modalism)? Do we hold the nature and character of the Triune God in such low esteem? Where is the unified front of Pentecostal and Charismatic pastors speaking out against the Prosperity Gospel? Where are the Pentecostals warning about the creeping influence of Open Theism in our movement? Where are the Pentecostals upholding and demanding the regulative principle of worship in our services?

The answer is, sadly, that the Pentecostals/Charismatics speaking out on such issues are the real fringe. We put ourselves in the difficult position of upholding truth and doctrine in the midst of a movement that tends to value experience. When we do speak out against abuses and false teachings, even our brothers who agree with us tend to warn us about being too “divisive” and not being “sensitive to the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps those who are truly sensitive to the Holy Spirit are those offended by the abuses and lies taught in His Name. If we fail to expose known lies we become implicated in their continuation.

3. The false teachers have more influence than we think or admit.

While we’re on this topic, the abuses and excesses of the Charismatic movement are often rejected by certain pastors (though they are accepted and promoted by others) and denominational leaders. But let’s not forget the people in the pew. As an associate pastor, I often speak out against the Prosperity Gospel. But I know, despite this fact, that there are certain congregants who continue to believe it. In my involvement with Chi Alpha I’ve often spoken out against Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and T.D. Jakes. It seldom fails that I offend a brother or sister when I do so.

Why does this matter? Because I’m on staff at a small church. I’m around average Pentecostals in my congregation and campus ministry. I’m not constantly around denominational leaders or scholars. And among most congregants the likes of Osteen, Meyer, Copeland, and Shuttlesworth are incredibly popular.

I’ve heard demands for MacArthur to evaluate us by looking at French Arrington or Stanley Horton. To be completely honest, my congregants have no clue who those men are (apart from perhaps a vague familiarity established by sermon references). My congregants do know who Kenneth Hagin is, or who T.D. Jakes is. I don’t think MacArthur’s concern is primarily with the Pentecostals who hold Horton in high esteem. It’s with the congregants who hold Jakes and Copeland in high esteem, and given that priority, MacArthur’s approach makes more sense.

MacArthur wasn’t looking to spark a debate in peer-reviewed literature. He was looking to engage at the popular level, and he has been wildly successful at this. It’s the popular level where the false teachers and excesses are often a problem, and it makes sense to aim there.

It should also be noted that TBN is exported to other countries. They broadcast all over the world. They broadcast to Christians who don’t have the benefit of owning their own Bibles. The incredible damage of Prosperity teaching in world missions must be carefully observed.

4. We routinely ignore the regulative principle of worship.

Much of MacArthur’s criticism has been aimed not merely at doctrinal issues like the Prosperity Gospel, but at practical issues like what is allowed in worship. If you’re Todd Bentley, you say the Holy Spirit demands things like kicking women in the face. If you’re like most Pentecostals/Charismatics, you permit being “slain in the Spirit” despite the fact there’s scant Biblical evidence for such a practice. If you’re like me, you think we should only promote and permit that which can rightly be found to be the normative practice of Scripture.

Honestly, this puts me at odds with many fellow Pentecostals/Charismatics. The people promoting the really strange practices, people like C. Peter Wagner and his “power principles,” and their followers are incorrigible. They are not open to rebuke, even if that rebuke comes from the Bible. I speak from experience as a Pentecostal. But we Pentecostals have allowed things that seemed harmless, even though they don’t seem to come from Scripture, and now we are increasingly seeing things that are harmful and that still don’t come from Scripture. But we have no experience saying “no” to anything in worship, so we implicitly or explicitly say “yes” to everything.

What’s really concerning about the whole thing in most Pentecostal/Charismatic circles a debate about the regulative principle of worship is not even underway. We just don’t care about it. We’re at risk of nullifying the commands of God for the sake of our traditions. We need to rigorously Biblically evaluate our movement’s practices in worship.

5. We functionally ignore Sola Scriptura.

This point follows from the last one. While we tend to uphold Sola Scriptura intellectually and verbally, we tend to ignore it functionally. This is true not only in worship, but in evangelism, church growth, counseling, and church government. Let’s be honest, most of our Pentecostal churches (mine included) are run by boards of trustees that have more in common with corporate America than anything we find in the Bible.

We want to grow our churches by applying the marketing strategies of corporate America. We, a movement dedicated to the work of the Holy Spirit, consistently outsource our counseling to bloody secularists. We buy into pop-psychology about love languages.

If what I’ve just said sounds like Evangelicalism as a whole, you can probably understand why John MacArthur is so upset. I don’t think all (or even most) of the above problems originated in our movement, but our movement’s adoption of the above practices along with it’s explosive growth has gone a long way to carry these things further into the identity of the broader Evangelical movement. We Pentecostals and Charismatics are now very influential, and we haven’t always used our influence intentionally or responsibly.

We need to recapture our dedication to the sufficiency of Scripture and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. We need to articulate our understanding of spiritual gifts in such a way as to not conflict with the sufficiency of Scripture. If the effect of our teaching is that people look to a subjective experience for guidance and assurance before they look to Scripture for those things then our teaching is dangerous and needs to be corrected.

Conclusion

I know in what I’ve said I probably have not sounded much like a Pentecostal. But it is because I love my heritage and my movement that I grieve deeply for it. What we love greatly is capable of hurting us deeply. And I have been hurt by the abuses and lack of Biblical fidelity in my own movement.

This doesn’t mean I agree with everything John MacArthur says. I remain a continuationist, he a cessationist. We have some real differences. This doesn’t mean I always agree with the way John MacArthur stated his rebukes, some of them were too general and lacked necessary distinction.

But an overly broad condemnation of real problems is better than no condemnation of the problems at all. We Pentecostals and Charismatics needed to be offended, I’m afraid it may be the only thing that will make us think critically and Biblically about ourselves as a movement. And for this offense I want to thank John MacArthur and the participants in the Strange Fire Conference. The most hurtful thing about that conference is not the broad generalizations, sweeping condemnations, or lack of distinctions. For me as a Pentecostal the most hurtful thing about the Strange Fire Conference is my knowledge that far too many of the criticisms are true.

Read more on this topic, and learn about a book I have co-authored on it, by following this link.

God bless,

Joey