In Wayne Grudem's book, "Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?" he identifies four views on the Cessationist/Continuationist debate about the charismata displayed in the New Testament. They are (i) Cessationist; the sign gifts ceased with the death of The Apostles, (ii) Open but Cautious; the Biblical case for cessationism is poor, but concerns about the Charismatic movement remain, (iii) Third Wave; 1960s charismatics, both those in house churches and those within older denominations, (iv) Pentecostals, in their own denominations, emphasising a distinctive post-conversion Spirit-baptism evidenced by glossolalia. Detailed descriptions of these positions and helpful debate between them can be found in the book.
This short article has one aim, which is to suggest how someone from the "Open but Cautious" perspective might respond to John Macarthur's recent "Strange Fire" cessationism conference. Strange Fire attacked "The Charismatic Movement" (sic), as being essentially bogus, the result not of any genuine desire to follow the Bible's teaching, but merely a response to post 60s culture, resulting in a toxic mixture of self and demonic deception.
The talks from the conference are available online, and can be listened to. Along with those talks, there has been a lot of discussion about the claims made at Strange Fire, and Macarthur's spokesman Phil Johnson, has sought to address much of the criticism generated.
In addition to much of what has been said, I would like to offer the following:
1. The discussion has become far too polarised. This is not to say that there should not be robust debate, or that truth should be downplayed, or that being "nice" is the only Christian virtue. The problem is that when you line up a Macarthurite against a Pentecostal, you are by default excluding moderating positions which while no doubt producing a lot of good feisty media - presents a view of the Christian landscape which is far more polarised than the reality on the ground. Sometimes, it is possible to find that one has more in common with a 'moderate' on the other side of an argument, than with an extremist on your own side.
2. "Open but Cautious" Christians would want to identify with Macarthur's rejection of abuses, scandals, fraudsters, and heretics within the Charismatic Churches and on TV channels. There are showmen, holy snake-oil salesmen, showbiz freaks, and nutters to be found, exploiting the weak, gullible, and vulnerable; peddling dubious faith-cures, and promoting dangerously bad theology. John Stott famously called Prosperity Theology a "virus" within the church, J.I. Packer called the "name it and claim it" school of Word-of-Faith teachers the "gab it grab it" lot. Christians in the Open but Cautious camp typically cannot stand watching the likes of GODTV, as it is so often a platform for the weird, the dangerous, and the downright Todd Bentley.
3. However, while Open but Cautious Christians will stand resolutely with Macarthur's criticism of specific errors and abuses; they do not accept that these examples of error make the case for complete cessationism. The case that the final, and complete ending of the operation of the genuine gifts of The Holy Spirit ceased with the death of the Apostles and the completion of the Canon of Scripture is ill-founded in their view; and cannot be proven by demonstrating the existence of oddballs with TV shows. The biblical case for cessationism (however well articulated as at Strange Fire) is unbelievably thin. It is a very great weight suspended on the slenderest of threads. In Cessationist thought, the possibility of any form of extra-scriptural information being given to believers by The Holy Spirit, is an assault on the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture. Now, Open but Cautious believers (along with many Charismatics) would agree that any doctrinal disclosures, or any which were thought to be of equal authority to scripture, would indeed undermine a healthy view of sufficiency. However, the other extreme danger here needs to be identified as well. Cessationism supposes a massive change in the nature and practise of the church, after the likes of 1 Corinthians was written. It supposes that a gifted multi-member ministry is replaced with a preacher-centred ministry centred on one man who is trained to teach the Bible. It assumes that the way The Holy Spirit works in the church underwent a sea-change, after the Bible was written. Strict Cessationism, is then (in the Open but Cautious view), a major attack on the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture, as it bases its ministry model on post-Biblical developments; not on the text. In fact, it seeks to sideline the major texts on the subject of the Spirit's work in the church as being not relevant for this dispensation.
4. Thankfully, scripture is sufficient to answer the problems the church faces throughout its many ages. 1 Corinthians contains a masterclass from the Apostle Paul in dealing with charismatic excess and abuses. It looks very different from the approach taken at Strange Fire and Open but Cautious believers would wish to see the urgent correction of Charismatic abuses; but done in the manner the New Testament provides, not the Macarthur approach. The Corinthians were running a disastrous church, in which there was undignified chaotic worship, excess wine consumption, abuse of the gifts of the Spirit (especially tongues), and it was so bad that Paul told them their meetings did more harm than good. Open but Cautious believers who have watched Charismatic TV, or visited a more extreme Charismatic fellowship will have similarly recoiled at some of what we have experienced there. There are clearly some events which do more harm than good, like Corinth. However, Paul's grace-based understanding of salvation and incorporation into Christ's body controls the way he responds to the wayward Corinthians. He does not seem to suggest (as Macarthur gets dangerously close to doing on repeated occasions), that salvation depends on faith in Christ plus wisdom, discernment and becoming error-free. Rather, he assumes that people with faith in Christ are both genuinely Christian, but whose errors hamper their maturing, and distorts the church's witness. Paul seeks to firmly Reform the Corinthians as a matter of great urgency, while all the time remaining in fellowship with them and affirming their place in the body of Christ. He specifically does not, take their pneumatalogical enthusiasms as being the definitive test-case to demonstrate their true conversion or otherwise. Macarthur would do well to follow Paul's model here.
5. Open but Cautious believers seek to maintain discerning fellowship with our fellow believers on both sides of this discussion. As such many of those in this group are grieved on one side by the spurious claims of the bogus faith healers, as we are by Macarthur's harsh words about all Charismatics. Macarthur frequently uses the term "The Charismatic Movement" as if it were a monolith which stands or falls together. Looking more sympathetically into Charismatic Churches from the outside, - Open but Cautious believers do not see a "Charismatic Movement", but rather many, many "Charismatic Movements" which cannot possibly be lumped together as if they were one. In fact, it seems to many people that it would be as unwise to talk about "Charismatic Christianity" in these terms as it would be to speak about "Non-Charismatic Christianity" as if it were one movement. I can't imagine how upset Macarthur would be if we were to lump him in with the likes of Bishop John Selby Spong, and argue that his cessationism is simply the modern outworking of liberalisms anti-supernaturalist presupposition! The fact is that Charismatic believers I know, have virtually nothing in common with the abuses, and excesses paraded on "Christian" TV. To suggest otherwise is simply a category error, and a massive logical fallacy in argument. Perhaps there are good reasons for Macarthur's position here. Perhaps he thinks that to present a nuanced and accurate view of this would take the heat off those who must be called to repentance and reformation. There would be nothing better than if some charlatan was to read these conference manuscripts and publicly repent of his evil, or if some prosperity teacher was to re-cast his message in biblical terms. Macarthur is no doubt in accord with that, but thinks that the danger would be that a nuanced approach would enable a bogus healer to merely add some bible-studies to his performance to add a veneer of orthodoxy to his fundamental deception; not actually repenting but merely making his error more complex. This is a real danger. However, the reality is that most Charismatics will never even consider the good points that Strange Fire makes, as they will instinctively know from the outset that they are being inaccurately maligned. A more gracious, fair and accurate approach might actually persuade more Charismatics about his legitimate concerns.
If Macarthur is wrong in failing to see the diversity in these movements, he is also very wrong to make broad brushed assessments of Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. He makes five major denunciations in the transcripts and recordings I have read and heard. These are (i) the movement contains false teachers who have departed from biblical truth, (ii) biblically orthodox Charismatics do not practice adequate separation from the wayward and all are guilty by association, (iii) Charismatics have made no contribution to the worship of the church (iv) Charismatics have made no contribution towards social concern and the relief of poverty, (v) There is no useful Charismatic contribution to Christian theology.
What would Open but Cautious believers have to say about these five accusations about all Charismatics? Let us consider them in turn.
5i. The Charismatic Movement(s) do contain false teachers. Mention has already been made of the flawed health and wealth movement. In fact, one of the strangest phenomenon I have experienced is of the type of Charismatic teacher who says almost nothing at all! Christian TV channels are full of talking heads who as Churchill once quipped are remarkably adept at "compressing few thoughts into very many words". There is, I suggest, an urgent need for Reformation of swathes of this movement who have lost all biblical moorings and seem adrift in a sea of subjectivity, entertainment and thrill seeking. But, let's be clear, the non-Charismatic world has its headbangers too! However, Open but Cautious believers would pretty much accept Macarthur's criticisms of the specific abuses he cites here.
5ii. Phil Johnson's debate with Mike Brown on the subject of separation from error was a fascinating listen. Johnson argued that Macarthur was correct to distance himself from, to break fellowship with, Charismatics who have not said, or done anything wrong themselves; but who are in fellowship with others who have! This is the old fundamentalist doctrine of double-separation, re-worked for today's issues. So the orthodox preacher and church leader Sam Storms is attacked because he is in fellowship with Mike Bickle, who in turn is in fellowship with some wayward discredited leaders, for example. The Open but Cautious Christian would tend not to want to embrace this kind of thinking, as it goes beyond the New Testaments requirements to separate from error, and looks more like the establishment of a command and control system in which powerful individuals assume for themselves the right to draw the boundaries of the church. To deny fellowship to a fellow believer, because they have some dubious connections, is beyond the biblical mandate. Macarthur's cessationist assumptions make him see orthodox Charismatics as merely being a 'front' for the extremes. Open but Cautious believers will want to be in fellowship with sound Charismatics, sifting and searching for the valid and authentic work of the Holy Spirit.
5iii. Macarthur claimed that Charismatics have made no helpful contribution to Christian worship. Open but Cautious Christians, would wish to point out two things here. Firstly, the Christian TV channels pour out a stream of the weird and the irrelevant which they bill as worship. I remember clearly watching a 'Christian' band leading 'worship', but the only lyrics being sung were a bizarre chant of the word "push". There are extremes of flippancy, biblical illiteracy and showbiz, which are truly dreadful. Macarthur is right to point out that such things are not what the New Testament church gathered to do. However, to use that as a basis for dismissing all worship offered to God by Charismatics is so wrong, as to be actually a sinful slander of fellow-believers. Amusingly, I have heard that at the Strange Fire conference they unwittingly used songs like In Christ Alone, by Stuart Townend of the decidedly Charismatic New Frontiers group of churches! Yes, in sung worship there is a lot of dross - but so is there in non-Charismatic hymnody. The truth is that most decades probably only produce a couple of songs which will be in common currency in a Century, songs which are recognised by the whole church as being rich in truth and helpful vehicles for singing God's praise. (Oh for a thousand Tongues to Sing!). Charismatics have contributed handsomely to the great songs of our age, and to pretend otherwise is simply erroneous, ill-informed and seems to me to be almost spiteful. Having worshipped with Continuationists, as Cessationists, I have experienced the poor and inept on both sides; and been led to a deeper appreciation of the Holiness, Majesty and Love of God by both too. Macarthur, I think owes several apologies on this score.
5iv. Macarthur alleged that Charismatics have made no contribution to social concern or relief of poverty. It is firstly very helpful that Macarthur correctly identifies social concern as one of the hallmarks of authentic historic Christianity which he wishes to encourage and promote. There have been those from his dispensationalist school who have seen it as a distraction from propagation of the gospel, and have stimulated the so-called 'great-reversal' of evangelical abandonment of social concern. Open but Cautious Christians who have taken the time to live in close fellowship with their Charismatic friends will be aware that this accusation is blatantly false. For a start there are many mercy ministries (like Mercy Ships) which were born from charismatic ministries. More significantly though, the existing social concern agencies are packed full of Charismatics, who not only staff these charities in great numbers but in my experience give to them too. The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund (TEARFund) is the largest evangelical relief organisation in the UK, and has enormous support from amongst Charismatic Churches. Likewise, you could visit countless MAF bases around the world, and find Charismatics and non-Charismatics serving together bringing medicines, aid or Bibles to the physically and spiritually hungry. No doubt the prosperity teachers invest in their mansions and private jets - but these figures which loom so large in the mind Macarthur are a total irrelevance to the ordinary Christian. As a Open but Cautious believer, I want to stand with my Charismatic friends and tell them that while I might dispute some of their claims, I cannot allow them to be so falsely maligned as they are here.
5v. The final claim to be looked at here is Macarthur's claim, made at the Strange Fire conference that Charismatics have made no valid contribution to Christian Theology. The fact that there are a lot of superb Bible commentators and theologians who do not endorse cessationism seems to have escaped Macarthur's attention, and suggests that he is not actually an expert on the Charismatic Movement(s), so much as on TV Evangelists and their foibles. Macarthur has said he is OK with continuationists such as Piper and Grudem, except that their lack of cessationism is their blind-spot. This leaves Macarthur with a circular argument in that he starts with cessationism as an assumption with which to filter 'good' and 'bad' theology. Therefore he excludes any Charismatic theology from being good by his own definitions. He is therefore saying little more than "I disagree" but trying to do so using absolute moral categories. This is highly manipulative and rather unfair. As Adrian Warnock has pointed out in his blogs on Strange Fire, it doesn't seem to have occurred to Macarthur that it is the biblically grounded theology of people like Grudem which actually drives their continuationalism. Open but Cautious believers would want to stress that there is some bad theology on both sides of this debate at the extremes. "Word of faith" teachers end up instructing God "You Must..", while cessationists unwittingly find themselves saying to The Lord, "You May Not!.." Here is theology at both ends of the spectrum to decisively avoid.
The Open but Cautious believer would want to endorse many of Macarthur's criticisms of excess, bad theology and odd-ball distractions from the gospel. However, such believers take great exception to some of Dr Macarthurs erroneous and ill-informed, slanderous accusations against our Charismatic brothers and sisters; and to ask serious questions about the spirit in which they have been made. Frankly, if you are Open but Cautious towards the Charismatic movement, you will find yourself being Open but Cautious towards John Macarthur too.
When I was young, my pastor Derek Swann was a cessationist, who believed that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit occurred at conversion. Yet, he was a man who knew what it was to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and to encounter the presence of God in remarkable ways. On one occasion he recalled being with his great friend Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, when a number of the pastors pressed Lloyd-Jones on his view of the Baptism of the Spirit being a definitive post-conversion experience. They persuasively expounded the relevant New Testament texts which indicate the reception of the Spirit occurring at conversion and looked to "The Doctor" for a response. According to Mr Swann's recollection, Lloyd-Jones quoted 1 Peter 1 and asked which of them knew "joy unspeakable" and were "full of glory". The lack of response indicated that those whose exegesis was so sure, knew that in the experience of God described and expected in the New Testament they lacked.
Open but Cautious believers would finally wish to point out that there are dangers which lie in two directions. To the right there is the danger of Charismatic excess, of false prophets, charlatans and bogus healers on which Macarthur is the expert. We should be warned there are indeed great dangers here. However, there is another terrible danger to the left; and that is of settling for an arid, sterile academic faith only of the mind that doesn't seek the life, fire and power of God. There is a danger that in assuming that 'we got it all at conversion' we settle for knowing God less than we should, of experiencing Him less than we should, of worshipping Him more meanly and superficially than we should and becoming the dullest people on earth. One of Jesus' most stinging rebukes to the teachers of the law was this, "You are in error for you do not know the scriptures, or the power of God". The profound experiential knowledge of both these things are surely the hallmarks of authentic biblical faith.