While some aspects of the charismatic movement are commendable, there are also glaring concerns. When I was unable to find a church home during college, my father told me sometimes picking the right church is like eating deep fried catfish. You eat the meat and spit out the bones.
And there is both meat and bones in contemporary charismatic circles. I offer three categories of each.
Whereas quiet contemplation is the modus operandi for worship in many contexts, MPCM churches offer congregants a venue for joyful and enthusiastic praise. Their gatherings typically greet the worshiper with hipster digs, intergenerational representation, and an atmosphere that seeks to foster freedom and joy.
Though the spiritual life of the believer is fraught with suffering and hardship, joy is a biblical command (Matt. 5:12; Phil. 4:4). Believers are commanded to rejoice in all things (1 Thess. 5:16), with joy being a Christian’s distinguishing mark (James 1:2). Indeed, joy’s objective source enables the believer to enjoy and rejoice in communion with God no matter the season.
2. Emphasis on the Holy Spirit.
Mainstream evangelicals often speak of the Holy Spirit in hushed tones. We subtly fear overemphasizing the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, there have been gross misrepresentations of the Spirit’s activity, but this failure shouldn’t prompt churches to skip Scripture’s teaching on the Spirit. Trinitarian implications in creation, redemption, and biblical inspiration abound. Moreover, progressive sanctification, daily empowerment to believe, and the prerogative of the Spirit to move where, when, and how he pleases are themes Reformed Christians should celebrate and learn from our MPCM friends.
3. Wonder and awe.
Charismatics have sought to recover the mystery of Christianity. Whereas the Reformers were unprecedented taxonomists—necessarily so—and pietists contributed essential rigor to the spiritual disciplines, our charismatic friends offer the church the safe haven of mystery, engendering wonder of God in the faithful.
Christians in the charismatic tradition believe God can do anything—and they expect him to. With each grand act of God comes an inability to render his works common. We discover there, in the uncommonness of God, the admiration, beauty, and inexplicable awe of the Godhead.
1. Primacy of the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure, he promised to send a helper who would empower and instruct them in his absence. He describes the helper’s objective with four simple and powerful words: “He will glorify me” (John 16:14).
To prize the Spirit at the expense of a strong Christology makes too much of the Spirit and too little of Christ. Such overemphasis places the charismatic tradition in danger of a neo-Montanism that leaves adherents enthralled by pneumatological phenomenon yet underwhelmed by the person and work of Christ.
Where the Holy Spirit is present, Jesus Christ is magnified.
2. Impotent theology of suffering.
As a child, guilt was always a close companion. I prayed that my great aunt would recover from an illness, but she died. I once prayed to no longer be teased because of my weight, but the harassment persisted. On Sundays I would listen intently to the words of my pastor, praying for absolution since my weak faith was responsible for both my aunt’s death and also my weight problem. I hung on the edge of my seat only to discover that I lacked faith or had prayed incorrectly.
While our charismatic friends encourage us to wonder at God and expect miracles, many lack a robust theology of suffering that accounts for the seeming silence of God in response to desperate pleas for help. Suffering is guaranteed this side of heaven. An impotent theology of suffering stems from an over-realized eschatology—the idea that heaven can been brought to earth now. It ignores the daily struggle necessary to know Jesus and to share in his sufferings (Phil. 3:10). Reprimanding believers for failed prayers implicitly promotes a man-centered view of faith.
Rather than believing the Lord gives and takes away (Job 1:21) or that all things work together for the good of those who love God (Rom. 8:28), some are led to believe their petitions aren’t effective because they themselves are defective. A biblical response to suffering, then, showcases the sovereignty of God and the faith he gives in the midst of woe. This response brings glory to the Father instead of ourselves. Further, suffering helps wean us off inferior pleasures and conforms us to the image of Christ—a transformation that will be fully realized only when he returns (1 John 3:2).
3. Overemphasis on experience, underemphasis on doctrine.
Some charismatics see deliverance from illness or poverty as normative for every believer. All you need to do is spout the right formula, muster the right faith, and God will do the rest. But this approach fails to see life through a biblical lens, which accounts for the importance of experience as interpreted by Scripture alone.
A common misunderstanding within the charismatic movement involves viewing subjective experience as most important in the Christian life. Prizing experience over Scripture results in the abhorrence of doctrine or theological thinking. This line of thought is exemplified in statements like “Just give me Jesus,” “seminary equals cemetery,” or “I don’t need a book to tell me how to love God.”
While such sentiments may seem innocuous, and there is biblical precedent for mighty works from “uneducated common men” (Acts 4:13), Peter and John had received the most intensive course in Christology the world had ever known. Both sat at the feet of the Word of God incarnate and saw the world through his eyes.
To love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength necessitates loving him through Scripture in its fullness, not through the partial reality of a particular experience.
- Jason Cook