Recently I felt the gentle nudge of the Holy Spirit to share Jesus with an Ethiopian immigrant. When I asked him about his faith he responded that he was a Muslim, and then he was quick to say that he was not of the fanatical, Al Qaeda variety. By no means did he want that fringe group to represent him and his Muslim beliefs in any way.
We’ve all been in that situation haven’t we? You know where you find yourself apologizing for being of a certain group, because a few eccentrics who also are a part of that group have painted a caricature in people’s minds of what that organization and therefore you are all about. The moment you say you pledged a certain fraternity or sorority you have to explain that you’re not a pretty boy, dumb athlete, loose woman or a thug. Or if you say you grew up Baptist (like I did) that you’re not legalistic. Or if you are a republican you actually do care about the poor.
It’s a problem we’ve been battling with since day one- labels. Which brings me to the moniker charismatic, and the Strange Fire conference. Let me begin by saying that I hold Dr. John MacArthur and most of the assembled team of speakers in high esteem. For years I’ve had the Grace to You app on my phone, and have been inspired and enriched by his sermons. In fact, I even experienced spiritual nourishment as I listened to many of the messages from the Strange Fire conference on the app. But I must pause and offer a few concerns- not a rebuke- just some concerns.
I found myself listening to Dr. MacArthur and his battery of speakers referencing charismatics in a way that I do not personally relate. If by charismatic you mean that I affirm all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as still being in operation today, and that I do believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to me in clear and specific ways then I must affirm that I absolutely am a charismatic. However, if you mean that a charismatic is someone who rolls around on the floor and barks like a dog, commands his checkbook to be full of money, and his wallet to immediately overflow with large sums of bills, and if you mean that a charismatic is someone who believes that God gives additional revelation to what he has already supplied in the Word of God while he listens to some “peddler of the gospel” on television, then I must say to the latter that I most certainly am not a charismatic.
Which becomes my first area of concern with the Strange Fire conference. In the messages that I listened to I did not really hear a carefully defined definition of charismatic that I thought was clear and accurate of the growing swath of people who are a part of that movement. To address a group of people, and levy harsh judgments against them without having a fair representation of those who are a part of the mainstream of that group (not the fringe), is to do a disservice. It would be like me leading our church into Hispanic ministry without a Hispanic voice on our leadership team to press against my stereotypes and assumptions (my guess is some church has probably tried that).
The second concern I have with the Strange Fire conference is that it seems to lack an awareness of where things are moving theologically in general. What I mean by this is that I am consistently running into young men and women of God of whom it would be impossible to corner as one theological thing. Just a generation or two ago Christ followers could be labeled as cessationist’s or charismatics, reformed or dispensational, but now there is a real movement into what some would call hybrid theology, or what Brian Bantum has referenced as mulatto in his book, Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity.
I found myself relieved after reading Bantum’s book for he gifted me with a vocabulary that expresses my multi-theological views, not in some McLaren “A Generous Orthodoxy” way, but in a robust biblical fashion. I tend to drive older theologians nuts when I express my dispensational leanings when it comes to my eschatology, but my reformed commitments in my soteriology. And, I have also found a place to be ruthlessly committed to the Word of God, and the Reformers passion for sola scriptura, alongside of a growing fierce sensitivity to the voice of the Holy Spirit who does not add to the Word of God, but helps me to apply the clear black and white principles of the Scriptures to my often gray scenarios of life. Yes, I do believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to me.
Please don’t misunderstand me, my theological hybridity was not planned as if I wanted to thumb my nose at the establishment by becoming unduly obstinate. Instead it was a loving pathway that the Holy Spirit sent me on. While in seminary at Talbot School of Theology I fell intensely in love with the Word of God at a place that is unashamedly passionate about the Scriptures. At the same time I attended and served at a charismatic church where people spoke in tongues, interpretation was called for and I saw both the incredible move of the Holy Spirit, and I witnessed plenty of unfortunate abuses (like the time a woman at the church called me to tell me that the Lord told her I was her husband…she clearly “mis-heard”). I agree with Dr. MacArthur that one of the fundamental errors of the church today is a lack of discernment. He goes onto “discern” that the charismatic movement is evil. I discerned, from the same Word of God, that there are evils within the movement, just as there are evils among every denomination, and organization, but if I discover that one of my spiritual mentors is a philanderer does this mean that I should no longer be a follower of Jesus? In the same way the abuses of the likes of Marilyn Hickey or Creflo Dollar do not cause me to denounce my biblical charismatic convictions.
A final concern that I have was that the spirit of the conference seemed to lack any kind of love. What I sensed were a group of people who had gathered all from the same tribe content to amen how right they are and how very wrong the charismatics are. I felt no sense of pleading, no real abiding love which is the cardinal New Testament virtue. In fact, what I felt were men who were using their spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12, 14) devoid of love, which came across as the metaphor Paul uses for this very scenario (the exercise of gifts minus the ethic of love) in I Corinthians 13.
Will there be some charismatics in hell? Unfortunately yes, just like there will be some cessationist’s, alongside of some open but cautious and pentecostals. What I believe about the person and work of the Holy Spirit is wildly important, but it is not an essential to salvation. If this be the case, then could we be at least open to the fact that charismatics or cessationist’s or dispensationalist’s or reformed are not the enemy, and could very well be our brothers and sisters? And if it’s possible that we might be of some kin, is there not a place for love?