Admittedly, this article will take me a little out of my comfort zone. I often write a great deal about unity in the church since Jesus prayed for that very goal, and I do not want to do anything to dishonor my Lord or harm the advancement of the Kingdom of God. For the sake of peace, I have even been known to ignore when one of the other sheep bites his brethren. However, it is hard to ignore when one of the sheep is dragging the others behind the feeding trough and stomping them into a mud hole.
The idea for this article started when I was talking to a person at church who was bothered by the seeming rash of documentaries, books, and sermons smashing the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. I tend to not get into inter-church controversies as a ‘unity preacher,’ but it was not hard to trace the popularization of the anti-charismatic movement.
John MacArthur wrote a book in 1978 called The Charismatics, followed it, in 1992, with Charismatic Chaos, and in 2013, released Strange Fire. The last book was launched at a conference by the same name. MacArthur, as a cessationist and reformed theologian, is certainly not a fan of charismatic believers, who he tends to lump into one giant group as if we all have an identical theology in every respect (MacArthur makes this error in his understanding of the Charismatics because reformed theologians have a strict set of interpretations across the Scriptures they must adhere to for membership in the group. Basically, he projects his group membership rules onto others).
In writing the book in 1992, MacArthur still writes that he loves charismatic believers in the opening pages of the book while offering harm criticisms and painting the whole movement with fringe examples and beliefs. However, by the 2013 conference, MacArthur had taken the gloves off, and at a Q and A panel with four other reformed theologians, the group declared that Charismatics were not saved and were not Christians. MacArthur gathered the heavy-hitters of reformed theology for his conference and launched personal attacks on all Charismatics.
If you have not seen the video of the Q and A panel on YouTube, I honestly cannot recommend that you waste your time. You will be insulted and discouraged at the words of your Christian brothers. MacArthur and four other men, all in suits, polished shoes, and with impeccable credentials sit in judgment and, at times, mock the entirety of Pentecostalism and all Charismatics. Really, I could spend a year writing responses to everything the men alleged, but, really, my basic question is: Why should one part of the flock attack the other?
During the course of the Q and A, the group decides that Charismatics do not know what basic words in the Bible and Christianity mean, so they go about trying to educate our ignorance. They criticize the oft-repeated prayer for the fire of God to fall from heaven and even show a clip of the group Jesus Culture singing a song about fire. The moderator then tells them the song is 17 minutes long and asks the group if the fire falling from heaven is a good thing.
They began to mock the prayers for heavenly fire and teach that fire falling from heaven is primarily in judgment. They pay only tacit heed to the tongues of fire in Acts 2. Here is the problem: for a group of learned Bible scholars, they would be well aware of the many meanings of fire in the Bible. Fire has great significance and is an oft used symbol in the Bible in many different ways outside of the idea of judgment.
When Charismatics pray for fire to fall from heaven, they are not referencing judgment or just repeating something they have heard others say. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11, ESV) were the prophetic words of John the Baptist said to both the people coming for water baptism as well as the Pharisees, so the fire has an element of judgment to the latter group but not the former. He said the statement to both, so it must have a double meaning, one to each group.
The problem for MacArthur’s panel is they deny the clear use of fire throughout the Scriptures. God speaks to Moses through a burning bush (Ex. 3). God allows fire to fall from heaven on the offering of Elijah to demonstrate his power (1 Kings 18). God judges our works with fire to see if they are gold, silver, precious stones, or hay and stubble (1 Cor. 3). God uses fire to refine his followers (Zech. 13:9). And tongues of fire rested on the believers at Pentecost (Acts 2).
That is what Charismatics mean when they pray and sing for the fire of God to fall on them. They are asking for God to speak to them like he did Moses, use their life as an offering like Elijah’s sacrifice, judge their works to see if they will last, refine them for his glory, and fill them with the Holy Spirit. These are but a few uses of the fire imagery in the Bible, and the Charismatics that I worship with are not confused as to what they ask the Lord for when they pray or sing about the fire of God.
A learned group like the Q and A panel of reformers would have known of all the uses of fire in the Bible, so why were they mocking Charismatics about fiery judgment? Charismatics know what they believe, so the panel was not going to fool any of them. They said this at a conference for reformed believers. Does the panel believe their own congregants to be ignorant of the fire imagery of the Bible? Or are they wanting to paint a dismal and scary view of Charismatics so that reformed believers will not dare to seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit for themselves? Either way, I do not believe for a second those learned men do not know all the symbolism of fire in the Bible.
MacArthur’s group really dislikes charismatic worship: dancing, singing praise choruses, jumping around, shouting, hands raised, etc. In fact, some of the worst vitriol in the Q and A panel is when they call the worship of Charismatics “low,” “mindless,” and refer to the choruses as “7-11 songs: seven words repeated eleven times.” MacArthur then launches into a diatribe about why old hymns of the church are better than praise choruses, and he further claims the mind cannot be engaged with what he describes as low praise songs.
After making hand motions in frustration and disgust at the question of worship, MacArthur finally says the best worship fully engages the mind, not the emotions. He offers no Scripture for this “doctrine of hymns” or his belief that God wants dry intellectualism without emotion. The panel has elevated their preference for quiet, reflective worship to the level that no one should dare bring loud worship for fear of being labeled “low” and “mindless.”
In contrast, Jesus said, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’” (Matt. 22:37, ESV). The verse seems to indicate a total worship experience, not just the mind. Also, in Revelation, the Bible describes the throne room in heaven. “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev. 4:8, ESV).
A similar scene is described earlier in Isaiah 6:3 where we learn the creatures, called seraphim, are flying around the throne as they praise. So, in heaven, angelic seraphim are flying around the throne of God in near constant motion, repeating a praise chorus with eleven different words for all eternity! What type of worship does that sound like? That’s right “eleven-eternal.”
Let’s look at an important Scripture about worship style.
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.”
And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50, ESV).
This woman comes to a meal Jesus is attending and pours extensive ointment (perfume) over Him while she weeps. Then she washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and wipes them with the hair of her head. Wearing sandals and walking on the ground would have meant the woman washed dirt and mud off of our Lord’s feet—a grimy, low job. She kisses His feet and pours oil on them. It was weird and uncomfortable for those sitting at the table, and this type of practice was not common by the reaction of both the hosts and the disciples. This woman made a spectacle of herself for the Lord in front of Jesus and the crowd in her costly act. However, it is written about in all four Gospels!
Does Jesus rebuke her? Does He tell the others she is too emotional? Does He give a sermon on the appropriate ways He wants to be worshipped in the future? No and no and no. Our Lord defends her with a parable, pointing out that people who have been forgiven more love more. He even tells the Pharisee Simon that she only did what the host should have done. What a rebuke of the condition of Simon’s heart! Then Jesus tells them the woman’s actions will be published widely with the spread of the gospel (Mark 14:9). She will be remembered for her spontaneous, out-of-the-box, humiliating worship. And Simon is remembered for judging her harshly and wrongly.
In the charismatic churches I have been privileged to be a part, they have many former homeless people, prostitutes, and a slew of recovering addicts. These people did not grow up in church and are redeemed from the parts of society most people don’t dare to go. They have been forgiven much, so they love much. Their worship is often spontaneous and from a deep place of awe for their Savior and Redeemer because they do not know the centuries-old “rules” that help the reformed theologians not be offended. The Bible tells us of the two main people who did not like the woman’s worship. One was Simon the Pharisee who was mentioned above (also called Simon the Leper in Mark 14:3). The other was Judas Iscariot, the traitor (John 12:4).
Lumping Us Together (Seven Hills)
The panel then discusses a doctrine called the ‘seven hills.’ They speak about it as if it is an article of faith with all Charismatics, and I am sure it is with some because I don’t think they are just making stuff up. However, I have been in charismatic churches for years, and I have never heard of this doctrine. They also claim Charismatics are ‘post-millennialists.’ Again, some probably are, but I do not know any. I know some that are pre-tribulation, pre-millennialists. I know some that are post-tribulation, pre-millennialists.
MacArthur’s group fails to realize the strength of the charismatic movement is a unifying belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the World, a dedication to the full gospel revealed in the Scriptures, and a recognition and seeking of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Other than that, you will not find many rigid doctrinal tests (other than those required by Scripture). This point probably bothers reformers as they tend to be extremely rigid with all points of doctrine.
Saved or Not?
One of the most disturbing parts of the panel is the claim that Charismatics are not saved. The Bible is clear on salvation: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31, ESV). “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9, ESV). “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13, ESV). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8, ESV).
Believe, confess, call on the name of the Lord, grace through faith—it seems fairly clear to me that the way of salvation is for the person to acknowledge, in legitimate belief, the salvation and Lordship of Jesus Christ over his or her life. It is also clear that the faith to believe is a gift from God.
Salvation doctrine is not new. And MacArthur’s panel smears an entire movement that is based on faith in our Lord Jesus Christ as non-Christian? Is the panel denying the clear teaching of Scripture? They also seem to imply (and I hope I am wrong) that they view salvation only as the elimination of the possibility of Hell. Most Charismatics see salvation as avoiding Hell, certainly, but, on a deeper level, see conversion as the beginning to both the covenant relationship and their entrance into the Kingdom of God. In other words, salvation is more than just the avoidance of punishment.
The Older Brother
The most devastating comment made by the panel were when they tried to describe the beginnings of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. They claim the movement has three streams: the Toronto Blessing, the International House of Prayer, and Bethel Church in Redding, California. I do not know why they do not mention the Azusa Street Revival (where most Pentecostals trace their roots) or any of the other outpourings of the Holy Spirit.
However, the panel describes the three streams of charismatic teachings as forming a ‘river of sewage.’ They actually called the entirety of charismatic believers sewage and revealed their own hearts with the statement. The Apostle Paul said, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2, ESV). If you understand everything and have all knowledge but do not have love, you are nothing. The panel definitely does not speak in love to the Charismatics.
In the parable of the Lost Son (or Prodigal Son) in Luke 15:11-32, there is an interesting character. After the return of the younger brother and forgiveness from the father, we are introduced to the older brother. The younger son has been given the best robe, the family ring, new shoes, and a killed fattened calf in celebration with music and dancing.
The older brother is livid and refuses to come into the celebration where his father and brother are; instead, he opts to stay outside. The father, full of mercy, comes out to the older sibling to invite him inside and tells him everything is his. The older brother refuses to come inside to his possession because of the presence of the younger brother. He opts to argue with his father about his younger brother’s sins. The passage does not say if the older brother ever comes back into the house with the father or if his offense at his brother was too great.
Featured image by Raquel Raclette