Strange Friendly Fire
By Timothy George
I do not possess the gift of healing, nor have I ever spoken in tongues—although when I was a high school student a charismatic Methodist friend of mine prayed that I would do so. Back then, in the 1960s, the charismatic renewal was still a new phenomenon in the mainline Protestant churches and virtually unheard of in the Southern Baptist Convention to which I belonged. Of course, the historic Pentecostal churches had been around since the Azusa Street revival of 1906, but the lines between them and other evangelical Christians were fairly hard and fast.
Now, in the 21st century, the picture is vastly different. Today, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians are not only the fastest growing sector within the Christian family but also the fastest growing faith community in the world, outpacing even Islam’s rate of growth during the past century. Soon there will be more than one billion charismatic Christians worldwide. As Philip Jenkins has reminded us, “Membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs into the hundreds of millions, and congregations are located in precisely the regions of fastest population growth. Within a few decades, such denominations will represent a far-larger segment of global Christianity and just conceivably a majority.”
Yet are charismatics really Christians? Is their teaching orthodox and biblical or downright heretical? Does God intend the spiritual gifts of healing, tongues, and prophecy for believers today, or did such supernatural happenings cease when the last apostle died or the canon of Scripture was closed? These were the presenting questions 74-year-old pastor John MacArthur asked at his Strange Fire conference held last month at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.
The conference was cleverly timed to coincide with the release of MacArthur’s new book, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. The “strange fire” reference comes from Leviticus 10 in which Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, were struck dead by God for offering “unholy fire” on the altar of the Lord. This is what the charismatic movement is doing today, MacArthur alleged. It offers to God unacceptable, distorted worship. It blasphemes the Holy Spirit by attributing to God what is really the work of Satan. While a few charismatics here or there might be saved by the skin of their teeth, the majority of them are unbelievers, deceived by the Evil One. Thus, the movement as a whole should be repudiated and denounced by all sober, Bible-loving Christians.
John MacArthur is a seasoned anti-charismatic crusader, having written two previous books on the subject: The Charismatics in 1978 and the slash-and-burn Charismatic Chaos in 1993. The idea for the current book, and the conference to launch it, came to MacArthur several years ago following surgery on his back and knee. According to one of his former church staffers, during his recuperation MacArthur was watching TV and ended up on Trinity Broadcasting Network. “He came back from his surgery with a renewed loathing for the prosperity gospel, false doctrine, and charlatanism on TBN, and he started taking a second critical look at the charismatic movement.” Perhaps he should have spent his recovery time watching Scooby Doo or listening to talk radio! But evidently his spirit was sore troubled within him, and he felt the growing burden of an undelivered attack. The conference and book were the result.
I commend John MacArthur for taking theology seriously and for identifying important issues that need to be discussed in a thoughtful, respectful manner. Careful biblical scholars can be found on both sides of the cessationist/continuationist interpretive divide. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, perhaps the greatest biblical expositor among Reformed evangelicals during the past century, believed in the possible continuation of the gifts of the Spirit in the life of the church and encouraged his hearers to seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, Sinclair Ferguson, one of the greatest preachers living today, argues for the cessationist view.
What is relatively new in this longstanding debate is the rise of leading pastors and exegetes within the Reformed camp who take a more open view of spiritual gifts, one at variance with the MacArthur line. Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and Sam Storms are just three of the many highly esteemed ministers who are not prepared to declare spiritual gifts obsolete tout court. Piper, for example, does not accept historic Pentecostal teaching on the gift of tongues and does not claim to have spoken in tongues himself. However, he does confess to having prayed for the gift, saying to the Lord: “A lot of my brothers and sisters have this toy—this gift. Can I have it too?”
Within the worldwide charismatic movement, there are no doubt instances of weird, inappropriate, and outrageous phenomena, perhaps including some of the things MacArthur saw on TBN. Many Pentecostal leaders themselves acknowledge as much. But to discredit the entire charismatic movement as demon-inspired because of the frenzied excess into which some of its members have fallen is both myopic and irresponsible. It would be like condemning the entire Catholic Church because some of its priests are proven pedophiles, or like smearing all Baptist Christians because of the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church.
When told that his all-charismatics-are-outside-the-pale approach was damaging the Body of Christ because he was attacking his brothers and sisters in the Lord, MacArthur responded that he “wished he could affirm that.” This is a new version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus—except that the ecclesia here is not the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church but rather an exclusively non-charismatic one.
Some of the charismatics who responded to MacArthur have lashed back with the same vehemence he hurled at them, accusing him of “insufferable hypocrisy” and “steroidal cognitive dissonance.” (What steroids have to do with it is beyond me.) But one of the best responses has come from George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God which claims 66 million adherents and more than 360,000 churches throughout the world. He wrote:
We trust the time will come when Dr. John MacArthur and those who share his perspective will acknowledge the great contribution that Pentecostals and charismatics are making in the evangelization of individuals without Christ. We pray God’s blessings on their efforts to share his Gospel with the lost and dying world. Pentecostals and charismatics are their co-laborers in this effort so we ask that they would similarly pray for God’s blessing on us as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission that God has given us all.
One of the wisest appraisals of the charismatic movement as a whole has come from the estimable J. I. Packer. Like John MacArthur, he is Reformed in theology and a cessationist in his understanding of spiritual gifts. Packer finds in the New Testament both a creedal and a moral test for judging whether movements are truly inspired of God or not, principles the apostles themselves applied in letters like Galatians, Colossians, 2 Peter, and 1 John. Packer writes:
When we apply these tests to the charismatic movement, it becomes plain at once that God is in it. For whatever threats and perhaps instances of occult and counterfeit spirituality we may think we detect around its periphery (and what movement of revival has ever lacked these things around its periphery?), its main effect everywhere is to promote robust Trinitarian faith, personal fellowship with the divine Savior and Lord whom we meet in the New Testament, repentance, obedience, and love to fellow Christians, expressed in ministry of all sorts towards them—plus a zeal for evangelistic outreach that puts the staider sort of churchmen to shame.
Back in 1978, John MacArthur himself was singing a somewhat similar tune. His first anti-charismatic book was an exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, and the views he held on spiritual gifts back then are the same as those he espouses today. But in his first book, MacArthur was willing to allow that “charismatics truly love Jesus and the Scriptures. . . . I thank God for much that is happening in the charismatic movement. The Gospel is being proclaimed and many people are being saved. I also believe that through this movement some Christians are recognizing a certain new reality in Christ and making commitments that they have never made before.” What this debate needs is a fresh dose of the early MacArthur.
Published at First Things, On the Square, November 4, 2013.
is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.