I wrote the following to some Christian friends, a number of whom wished their church to move in a more ‘charismatic’ direction. It is a plea to listen carefully and patiently to those who are more cautious.
To many Christians, the whole discussion about spiritual gifts is simply debating the Blindingly Obvious: God has promised gifts, and it’s down to us to receive them joyfully and use them effectively.
But there are still people around who are cautious about some of the gifts. (I’m thinking, of course, of those gifts that we might refer to as ‘extraordinary’, such as prophecy, healings, and tongues). Why might this be so? I don’t deny that some of this caution may be due to excessive fear of disunity, resistance to change, or even spiritual complacency. It may also be that people are too much in the habit of testing phenomena by the worst examples, rather than by the best examples. I would only say that these are traps into which we can all fall, whether we are cautious or enthusiastic about spiritual gifts.
But there might be other, more valid, reasons why some people remain cautious.
1. Perhaps they are not yet convinced that the Bible teaches quite what the ‘enthusiasts’ say it does. They note, for example, that the gift of tongues in Acts 2 involved real languages, and yet the modern ‘gift’ seems not to. They see that being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, along with accompanying signs, happened in Acts with divine spontaneity, not with the kind of formulaic approach that too often occurs in the modern church. They read in Scripture of a whole range of activities of the Holy Spirit, and think that latter-day enthusiasts neglect some of these, in favour of a few of the more exciting manifestations.
People who are cautious about the availability of the extraordinary gifts for today might note that even within the pages of the New Testament there appears to be evidence that they gradually faced from the scene. These gifts appear to be in operation until the end of the period covered by Acts. They are, accordingly, mentioned with some frequency in the Epistles written during this period (1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans). But they are referred to much less often in the later Epistles.
2. Perhaps they are concerned that, historically, charismatic activity belongs to the edge, rather than to the mainstream, of Christian faith and practice. They might argue that although one can see outbreaks of the charismata occurring from time to time in Christian history, the church down the ages has generally experienced spiritual renewal without any (or much) attention to the extraordinary gifts. The list of Christian leaders who either explicitly rejected or were dubious about extraordinary gifts is impressive, including as it does Chrysostom, Augustine, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Whitefield, and Spurgeon. And yet these leaders, together with many others of similar convictions, can scarcely be accused of being strangers to the Holy Spirit.
[Speaking of history: Warfield’s (in)famous book Counterfeit Miracles was essentially an historical study. His main contention was that genuine miraculous gifts have, as a matter of historical fact, ceased in the Christian church. He examined claims to such gifts from patristic and medieval times, from Roman Catholic sources (including Lourdes), from amongst the Irvingites, ‘Christian Scientists’ and ‘faith healers’, and judged them to be spurious. From the Roman Catholic side, a rather different, but similarly negative, account was given by Ronald Knox in his book Enthusiasm.]
3. Perhaps they regard the question of spiritual gifts as deflecting attention from more important issues. “Sure, God can bestow extraordinary gifts as and when he pleases. But he has more important things for us to be occupied with.” After all (they might argue) the discussion about spiritual gifts is essentially inward-looking; it’s about what we do at church. We are called to be outward-looking, focussing our attention and energies on reaching out to a needy world.
The central thing in the New Testament (it might be pointed out) is the gospel itself – commitment to it, sanctification in it, and proclamation of it. In our own day, there are too many practitioners who seem to be strong on gifts, but weak on gospel content; hot on physical and emotional manifestations, but cool on repentance, love, holiness and acts of mercy.
I sympathise with those who want to move forward quickly on this issue. They have been waiting a long time, and have been very patient. I ask for yet more patience. I do not ask them necessarily to agree with the cautions raised above, but I do ask that they take them seriously. I also ask for much prayer, so that we can re-commit ourselves to those many aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry about which we can all cordially agree, and continue to seek together the renewal that God wants for us.