Tag Archives: Pentecostalism

Sunday Sermon: Belief But No Spirit

It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men.

And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.

Acts 19:1-10 (NASB)

I know I finished my review of MacArthur’s sermon series, but today (Sunday, February 9th as I write this), the Pastor at my church delivered a sermon based on Acts 19:1-22. As you’ll recall, MacArthur’s final sermon in his series was based on Acts 19:1-7 so there is the potential for overlap between MacArthur’s message and Pastor Randy’s preaching. In fact, there was sufficient overlap and parallel, that I felt compared to present my own interpretation today.

I can only read or listen to a recording of Pastor MacArthur, but with my own Pastor, I’m sitting in the pew, watching him, listening to him, and directly experiencing his message, particularly with the background of knowing something about him and how he thinks.

He opened with the Bonfire of the Vanities, which I’ll skip, and I just thought that was a novel by Tom Wolfe, one I haven’t gotten around to reading (Pastor mentioned that Wheaton College might need to burn a few things, but I had to look that up online to know what he was talking about).

Oh, to see why bonfires are relevent to this sermon, see Acts 19:18-20. I also mention those verses at the very end of this missive.

The “MacArthur connection” came in when Pastor backed up a bit into his sermon for last week and discussed Apollos.

Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Acts 19:24-28 (NASB)

You may want to refer to the relevant sections of MacArthur’s sermon to see how MacArthur’s and Pastor Randy’s messages interface. Just a suggestion.

Relative to both Apollos and the twelve disciples Paul encounters at the very beginning of Acts 19, Pastor Randy seems to split the state of being a “believer” with being a “Christian.” I tend to use the two terms interchangeably, but Pastor Randy drew a sharp distinction based on this:

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

James 2:19 (NASB)

walking_on_waterApollos and the twelve disciples were taught the baptism of John (probably not by John himself) but, as MacArthur said in his sermon, didn’t have all of the details about who and what they were being baptized into. Frankly, I really can’t place any blame at the feet of Apollos and the other disciples since they didn’t have the Internet, email, text messaging, the telephone, or any other way to quickly disseminate a unified body of information in the then-civilized world of two-thousand years ago. Written letters were slow and when copied for re-delivery, may not have been copied precisely. I imagine there were a lot of folks with only bits and pieces of the teachings of Jesus who had to interact with other believers and teachers in order to get a better picture, but this would have taken a lot of time.

Both MacArthur and Pastor Randy said (and I like Pastor Randy’s delivery a lot better) that believing isn’t enough and that at this point and until they received the Holy Spirit, Apollos and the twelve weren’t Christians. In my previous review of MacArthur, I wondered how he arrived at that conclusion and Randy was able to fill in some blanks.

But this raised other problems. Like MacArthur, Pastor Randy said that a certain passage in this text has given rise to a misunderstanding.

He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”

Acts 19:2 (NASB)

Depending on the translation, the question could be rendered (erroneously, according to Pastor Randy) “Having believed, did you then also receive the Holy Spirit?”

The idea is that coming to faith and believing in Christ automatically results in, as MacArthur states, a one-time, momentary miracle of receiving the Holy Spirit. Apparently (I’ve never heard this but there’s a lot I don’t know) in Pentecostalism, there’s the idea that one becomes a believer and then at a subsequent time, one receives the Holy Spirit. Randy and MacArthur both stress that coming to faith and receiving the Spirit is a simultaneous event. It’s not one and then the other.

Of course, that makes quoting James 2:19 in this context seem odd since James is saying that believing isn’t enough. Then again, James isn’t talking about believing and the Holy Spirit, but he’s “marrying” belief/faith and actions, leading a transformed life. Of course, Christianity teaches that you can’t live a transformed life without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so I suppose that’s implied.

I got to thinking about Calvinism, which both MacArthur and Pastor Randy support, the idea that only certain pre-selected individuals will ever come to faith in Messiah and that, regardless of how we evangelize the rest, they are not pre-determined to be among the elect, and therefore, they are automatically condemned to Hell before they were ever born.

arminianism-calvinism-debateAccording to Calvinists, you’ll never believe let alone receive the Holy Spirit if you are not among the pre-selected elect. The gospel message of Jesus Christ will just bounce off of you. However, if you are among the elect, you will take hold of the message of salvation and receive the Holy Spirit and become a Christian. Of course to be pre-selected also supposes that in your future at some point, you are destined to hear the message of the plan of salvation. I can’t imagine God selecting someone and then not providing the opportunity to hear about Jesus.

I also can’t imagine God selecting someone as a member of the elect and then them becoming a believer but not a Christian. But then Pastor Randy did challenge the congregation. He said that we can’t take for granted that we’re saved just because we answered some altar call once upon a time or raised our hand at a Bible camp at age 14 indicating that we believed. If we aren’t living a transformed life, we haven’t received the Spirit. We’re not really Christians.

But if belief and receiving the Spirit is a unified event and don’t take place separately, then how is it possible to be a believer and not receive the Spirit, thus becoming a Christian?

I’ll take it for granted that I missed something in Pastor Randy’s sermon, but it certainly seems based on my notes and my memory, that a contradiction exists within the body of his message.

Randy painted a picture of someone at Heaven’s Gates asking to be let in. A voice asks the person, “Why should I let you in?”

Randy said the only appropriate answer would be, “I have trusted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”

Before Randy answered his own question, the first response that came to me, imagining such an august and solemn query was, “I am not worthy to enter the Heavenly Courts and to approach the Throne of God.”

Well, I’m not. Who am I? Just a guy. Why would God allow me to enter into His presence. Not because of any answer I could possibly give Him. Only because He is good and gracious and merciful. Belief and faith isn’t a magic ticket that gets you a free ride on the bus to Heaven. If God weren’t merciful in the extreme, no amount of belief we could cognitively or emotionally generate, and no acts of righteousness, even out of that faith and devotion, could sway God this way or that.

Yes, I believe human beings have free will and we can choose or reject God, but it is God who chooses to accept or reject us as Sovereign King, and the King only accepts out of His gracious mercy through our woefully inadequate and imperfect faith.

Although, thankfully, Pastor Randy didn’t use terms such as “Pre-Cross” or “wrong side of the cross,” he did characterize Apollos and the twelve disciples as “Old Testament Saints” as opposed to Christians (he also used “mini-Pentecost,” which MacArthur mentioned as well and I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean). The difference is the arrival of Jesus and the key verse “…no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). Before Jesus, Jews came to faith in God the Father and in that faith by God’s grace, there was salvation. Then Jesus arrived and faith in God was no longer the key, but rather access to God required faith in Jesus. Did God change the rules?

I’m not even going to attempt to evaluate that one and the Jewish anti-missionaries have a field day with the dissonance suggested in this doctrine.

I won’t go into the rest of Pastor Randy’s sermon since at this point, the parallels to MacArthur end, but I do want to mention the “saving grace” of the service, so to speak (not that I had anything against the preaching, but it raised as many questions as answers). Today (as I write this) is part of a series of services at my church aimed at promoting and supporting Christian missionary work, so normal Sunday school classes were suspended. Instead, one big Sunday school class with guest speakers was to be conducted in the sanctuary.

So instead of the last hymn being sung, Pastor Dave went up to the pulpit and conducted a closing commentary and prayer based on this:

Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of everyone; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.

Acts 19:18-20 (NASB)

burningPastor Dave invited us all to consider our lives, what we have in them that is displeasing to God, those practices, materials, and beliefs we need to confess and burn (literally or otherwise), all the “stuff” that separates us from a closer relationship with God, or even having any relationship at all.

Theology aside, Pentecostalism aside, transitions from Judaism to Jesus aside, this was probably the single most practical message based on these scriptures that I heard, the urging to leave our habits, our traditions, and our comfort zones and to honestly examine ourselves, and I hope (re)examine the scriptures, and re-evaluate who we are, what we’re doing, and what sanctifies and desecrates the Name of God.

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Gifts of the Spirit in Review, Part 1

D. Thomas LancasterOn the last, great day of the festival, Yeshua stood and called out, saying “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. One who believes in me, as the word is written, from his belly will flow rivers of living water.” He said this about the spirit that those who believe in him would receive, because the Holy Spirit was not given before Yeshua was glorified.”

John 7:37-39 (DHE Gospels)

We confuse ourselves regarding the giving of the Holy Spirit when we assume that, prior to the Shavu’ot event described in Acts 2, Jewish people did not have the Holy Spirit. That assumption also leads us to believe that non-Messianic religious Jews after that could not possibly receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit, act in any capacity of the Holy Spirit, or perform miracles by the Holy Spirit. These assumptions, I believe, are based squarely upon a misunderstanding of John 7:39 where it says, “He said this about the spirit that those who believe in him would receive, because the Holy Spirit was not given before Yeshua was glorified.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Chapter 3: A Pledge of What is to Come,” pg 39
Gifts of the Spirit

I so agreed with Lancaster’s statements in the third chapter of this book, and as originally presented at the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavuot Conference “Gifts of the Spirit” last May at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin, that as I was mentally planning to write this blog post, I couldn’t imagine it being something that John MacArthur and the other presenters at last October’s Strange Fire conference would criticize. Then I re-read the opening of the chapter again and realized they would not only be dismayed, they would be startled. I mean, how could any “normative” Christian believe that “non-Christian” Jewish people would have any access at all to the Holy Spirit post-Acts 2?

But what I was considering was that Lancaster didn’t offer any commentary on the “gifts of the spirit” as being apprehended by the faithful in the modern era. His entire talk centered about “the ministry of Jesus” and the Messianic promises presented in the gospels and other areas of the Bible that involve the Spirit of God.

Consider Ezekiel 45:4-5 and the filling of the Third Temple by the Divine Presence, or Joel 2:28 where God’s Spirit will be “poured out on all flesh.”

But there is no Third Temple containing the Shechinah, and the Holy Spirit has yet to be poured out on all living beings of flesh, so obviously, the work of the Spirit and of Messiah is not complete. Not by a long shot. In fact, Lancaster considers the giving of the Spirit as we see it in Acts 2 and subsequently in the New Testament as a down payment on the future, and a promise of what is to come.

Where both Boaz Michael and Rabbi Carl Kinbar linked the Holy Spirit with the Torah, Lancaster associates the Spirit with the Temple.

The whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy Temple of the Lord. In him you are also being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (emph. Lancaster)

Ephesians 2:21-22

Lancaster employs a play on the words “mishkan” and “mashkon”, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll have to refer you to the book for the details.

When we think of gifts of the Spirit, our mental image naturally reflects Pentecostal Christianity, since this is the denomination and movement that sought to restore the spiritual gifts of the church. And as we in the Messianic Jewish movement seek to objectively analyze and possibly incorporate the gifts of the Spirit, it is natural that we would begin by looking at Pentecostalism. But we should at least understand what Pentecostalism is and the mind-set that results in the outward expressions that we associate with the gifts of the Spirit. If we accurately understand Pentecostalism’s attitude toward the implementation of the gifts, then we can evaluate that viewpoint fairly and can determine which aspects of it are in line with a Messianic Jewish worldview and which are not.

-Aaron Eby
“Chapter 4: The Pentecostal Experience,” pg 53
Gifts of the Spirit

The first sentence Aaron uttered when he began this presentation was, “I spent most of my childhood years and my early adulthood in an Assemblies of God church.” Aaron brought a wealth of history and personal experience in describing how the “gifts of the Spirit” were practiced within his early church experience and then offered the counterpoint from a Messianic Jewish perspective. He was fair and honest in his appraisal of both without at any time denigrating or belittling anyone else’s religious orientation or perspective.

He did have this to say, which I tend to apply to the aforementioned “Strange Fire” conference, even though the “Gifts of the Spirit” Shavuot conference occurred a full five months before MacArthur’s gathering:

I saw another category of responders to Pentecostalism as well: the detractors, who thought we were either insane, demonic, or charlatans. That mind-set always offended me, and it still offends me to hear people speak of charismatics that way. There are probably all three kinds of people in the charismatic movement, but in my experience most of us were sincere, intelligent, sane, and spiritually healthy people who loved God.

-Eby, pg 54

To which any “Strange Fire” speaker would probably add, “…and you were also wrong.”

Aaron EbyI think what I took away from reading Aaron’s presentation and the very well-balanced nature of it, was how the focus between “Gifts of the Spirit” and “Strange Fire” were so different. Basically, they were addressing the same topic: the nature of the work of the Holy Spirit in our world today, but while MacArthur and Strange Fire defined itself as who and what they were against, FFOZ and Gifts of the Spirit defined themselves by who and what they were for.

That didn’t mean they didn’t tell the truth or watered down criticism. It meant that they did what Aaron said he wanted to do. They were fair.

I find that’s what attracts me to FFOZ and certain other individuals, organizations, and books: the desire to be fair and to be defined by what they believe in rather than who their “enemies” or “opponents” are. I can only imagine that if I were a Pentecostal sitting in a pew at Beth Immanuel and listening to these presentations (and I know some Pentecostals were present), I would be more inclined to listen and take note of what was being said, even when it contradicted my stated beliefs, than if I attended or listened to the podcasts of the Strange Fire conference.

Wearing a bow tie and jacket that clearly indicated that he was channeling his inner “Dr. Who,” Jacob Fronczak began his presentation “The Historical Context of Pentecostalism” (Chapter 5) with the words, “I love history.”

Though actually a Pastor, Jacob looks the part of the young history instructor at a liberal arts college who has just started teaching after receiving his degree. He did take the historical approach to Pentecostalism by way of nineteenth-century evangelicalism, enlightenment and post-enlightenment, heresy trials, modernism, fundamentalism, and finally, “Azusa Street.”

The “Strange Fire” conference also provided a historical approach, specifically with Steve Lawson’s presentation on Charismatic Calvinists, as well as Lawson’s commentary on Puritans vs. Quakers, but the difference was that Fronczak refused to take any sides, presenting history as history, a series of influential events that shape our understanding of both the past and the present, in an attempt to discover why “do some (churches) believe that these gifts were temporary means to grow the church in the first century while others believe that they are valid expressions of faith today” (pg 76).

There was also a more pointed reason for Fronczak reviewing the history as he did (pg 89):

Understanding how and why these movements came to be is a prerequisite to fully understanding their traditions — why their adherents practice the way they do. Once they are understood, these traditions can be analyzed, sorted through, and brought into line with the Scripture and with the emerging Messianic Jewish corpus of tradition.

He further said that we “must have a balanced, historical perspective on our own faith as well as on the faith of those who do not share our convictions.” Yet another piece of evidence that trying to authentically understand even those with whom we do not agree is a better and more noble road to communication and promoting healthy change (in my opinion, anyway) than wholesale “demonizing” of Pentecostals and Charismatics.

Aaron Eby returned to the podium for his presentation “The Miracles of Yeshua” (Chapter 6) to explain the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit relative to the miracles of Christ.

John MacArthurThat Jesus had the Holy Spirit rest upon him is not in dispute (Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22) as well as the fact that he performed many miracles in the three years of his ministry, but the question Aaron raised at the conference and in the pages of this chapter is the purpose of those miracles.

Somewhere in my “Challies Chronicles” notes, there is a reference to one presenter (it may have even been John MacArthur) stating that miracles were to validate the message of the gospel and that the speaker was an apostle (this also presumably applies to validating Jesus as “the Christ”). Once that need was fulfilled, according to cessationists, the “gifts of the spirit” stopped.

Aaron disputes that the miracles of Jesus were to validate the authenticity of his teachings or his identity as Messiah or Divine.

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.

Deuteronomy 13:1-3

The Bible is replete with tales of prophets and magicians who did not serve God and who were able to perform miraculous signs and wonders, so the fact that someone can perform miracles is no indication at all that they must be a servant of God. So much for the cessationist rationale for the purpose of miracles in the New Testament.

There were a number of episodes in the FFOZ television series A Promise of What is to Come that touched on what the miracles of Jesus and the apostles were supposed to communicate: the Gospel message of the coming Kingdom of God. If you followed my reviews of the show, you’ll likely see the connection.

That said, Aaron concluded (pg 110):

There are a few things that we can take away from this. First of all, miracles and signs should not be our primary focus. If they are, we place the cart before the horse, since miracles are simply the byproduct of the nearness of the kingdom. It is not for us to decide whether or not miracles should be happening in our day and age. Our particular beliefs on the matter do not dictate to God whether he will or will not do miracles for us. Rather, our Master taught us, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Thus, our goal should be to bring the kingdom nearer and to bring ourselves nearer to the kingdom.

What we believe, the theology to which we cling, and the doctrine we espouse, does not define God to God, it only helps define God to flawed and imperfect human beings.

In “Chapter 7, The Age of Miracles,” Toby Janicki asks if the age of miracles ended with the closure of canon or the death of the last apostle. And if miracles are happening today, where are they? Why don’t we see them?

Toby didn’t use the terms “cessationist” or “continualist” but he did say that the proponents of the end of the age of miracles often use 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 to justify their point of view. The problem is that “when the perfect comes” is up for grabs. How could “the perfect” be the death of the last apostle or the canonization of scripture (it wasn’t finally canonized for several centuries after John, the last of original apostles, died)?

From Toby’s point of view, “the perfect” can only mean the Messianic Age (see Jeremiah 31:34 and Joel 2:28-29 for instance).

Cessationists say that miracles were only to get the Church “off the ground,” so to speak. If that’s true, what about all of the miracles in the Old Testament (Tanakh)?

toby_janicki_vimeoOf course, it depends on what you define as a miracle. I just read about a miraculous healing of a Christian woman being treated for a cancerous tumor in Israel in the Israel Today online magazine. No special “faith healer” was involved, nor did anyone claim they utilized a “gift of the spirit” in her healing. It was just God. Her doctors had no explanation for why her tumor so dramatically reduced in size.

Toby says that a miracle doesn’t have to break the laws of physics. First off, our physical laws just describe what we observe about the usual behavior of the universe, it’s not a law code like the Torah. Toby pointed out that famed Christian theologian C.S. Lewis had much to say about miracles and their continuation in our world.

Of course, we’re not apostles, who were unique witnesses to Messiah, and so we shouldn’t expect to operate at their lofty spiritual level, but that doesn’t prohibit God from acting supernaturally, even today. In fact, if the Holy Spirit wasn’t active, no one would ever come to faith, which I consider a miracle. Toby also mentioned, that it doesn’t matter what a person does or doesn’t believe (relative to cessationism or continualism), since God acts according to His own will, not ours.

He made a number of other good points (buy the book if you want to find out what they are) but I thought this part of his conclusion was important (pg 131-2):

Miracles, as we have said, are not an end in themselves; they are not the goal for which the disciple labors. They are evidence of the Holy Spirit working among us, and they should, as they did with the apostles in Acts, instill in us the fear of the Lord. Miracles should cause us to tremble as we realize that God is among us and we become aware of his presence.

If the goal of our faith is receiving spiritual gifts of supernatural powers for healing or whatever, then we are nothing more than “spiritual thrillseekers.” Toby’s right. Seek first the Kingdom of God. God will take care of the rest.

There are four more chapters in this book and for the sake of length, I’ll cover them in Part 2 of this review.

Gifts of the Spirit, Torah, and Gospel

Spirit, Torah, and Good NewsThe theme of this year’s conference is “The Gifts of the Spirit.” To be honest, when the First Fruit of Zion staff first suggested this theme, I was not excited about it at all. I’m not what you might call a Pentecostal type of person. Growing up, my Jewish background was secular and non-religious, until my family got involved in a Baptist church, and then eventually Messianic Judaism, but I have never been what you might think of as a holy roller.

So when the staff suggested this theme for the conference, I groaned. I thought, “What in the world would we possibly have to say about gifts of the Holy Spirit?” I pictured us trying to act Pentecostal and Spirit-filled.

-Boaz Michael
“Let’s Get Pentecostal,” pg 5
Gifts of the Spirit

Note: This book is a compilation of the presentations given at the “Gifts of the Spirit” conference, organized by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) and held during the festival of Shavuot in May 2013 at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin.

I was surprised at the conference, and again by reading black text on a white background, that the modern Messianic Jewish movement was highly influenced by the Pentecostal church. Early Messianic services emphasized the Holy Spirit, called Ruach HaChodesh in Hebrew, but said-services were indistinguishable from their Charismatic Christian counterparts. Small wonder Boaz was less than enthusiastic when his staff suggested a “Gifts of the Spirit” theme for last year’s Shavuot conference.

But like so many other beliefs and practices in modern Christianity, the concept of the Holy Spirit was appropriated from ancient Jewish origins. After all, “Pentecostal” refers back, way back to the Acts 2 event which occurred on the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which in the Church is called Pentecost.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Acts 2:1-4 (NASB)

While the giving of the Spirit depicted above was a unique experience, Pentecost, or Shavuot, is an annual event, speaking to the Jewish people of the will of God and their response to Him. It is said that God gave Moses and the Children of Israel the Torah on Shavuot, so devout Jews consider it is the anniversary of the giving of the Law to the Israelites. But for Messianic Jews, and not a few Gentiles, it is also the anniversary of another gift, the power of the Holy Spirit, which enabled the apostles to fulfill their mission and their purpose of spreading the good news of the Moshiach to the Jews and Gentiles in Judea, Samaria, and ultimately across the globe.

And so we come to the Holy Spirit and what it means in Messianic Judaism today.

So that’s our objective at this conference. We want to recontextualize the role of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. To accomplish this, we must first understand the Spirit and the gifts from a Jewish perspective. What were the gifts? How did they function among first-century believers? Why? What was their purpose? What role did they play in first-century Messianic Judaism?

-Boaz Michael, pg 7

I quoted above how the Holy Spirit of God filled the apostles on an occasion which my Pastor calls “the birthday of the Church.” And yet, is this a completely New Testament concept?

This is not a New Testament idea. The Torah uses the same terminology to describe the endowment of God’s Spirit on Joshua, Caleb, Bezalel, and Oholiab. In those examples, the Torah compares a person to a vessel. God’s Spirit can fill a human being like water can fill a jar.

-ibid, pg 9

Receiving the SpiritThe Church believes that when a person truly becomes a believer, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, even though in the modern age, there are no visible or auditory cues that speak of the event; no rushing of wind or tongues of fire. Also, in Acts 2, the in-filling of the Spirit was like those more ancient days of which Boaz speaks, when the Spirit didn’t fill everyone, but only certain ones in order to enable those people to accomplish certain tasks, such as the apostles, the witnesses of the resurrected Messiah, to be able to spread the gospel message.

Boaz also writes of many other incidents in the Torah and the Prophets whereby a person or even groups of people received the Spirit.

And if we compare the events in Exodus 20 to the Acts 2 experience of the apostles, there are striking similarities, enough for Boaz to call the Acts 2 event a “second giving of Torah.”

What does it all mean? It means that the disciples of Yeshua experienced the day of Pentecost as a second giving of the Torah. They knew the rabbinic legends about the words of fire dividing into seventy languages as they left the mouth of God (Boaz references Shmot Rabbah 5:9). They knew the story of God’s voice speaking to all mankind in every tongue. Those legends gave significance to the miracles and signs and wonders that they experienced on Shavu’ot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.

-ibid, pg 12

I’m reminded of John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference and subsequent book which I know fails to address the ancient Jewish perspective on the Holy Spirit. But then, MacArthur’s purpose was not to examine the Biblical history or merits of the Holy Spirit, particularly from a Jewish point of view, but to more narrowly focus on the detrimental effect Pentecostals and Charismatics have on the larger body of the Christian Church today. Boaz Michael and the Shavuot conference “Gifts of the Spirit,” held five months prior to the MacArthur conference, took a completely different course. While Michael cites the Jewish perspective as linking Spirit and Torah (Bible), MacArthur declares that Pentecostalism divorces the Word of God from the Spirit of God, inordinately focusing on the later and all but ignoring the former.

But what if they were meant, as Boaz suggests, to go hand in hand? Moreover, what if the giving of the Spirit is the fulfillment of prophesy in a way MacArthur likely missed? Jeremiah 31:33 referring to the New Covenant, states that God will put His Torah within His people and write it on their hearts, while Ezekiel 36:27 says that God will put His Spirit within His people in order to cause them (the Jewish people in this context) to walk in His statues and to obey His rules (Torah).

R.C. SproulOf course, MacArthur and his conference presenters didn’t totally deny any activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of a genuine believer today, just that certain “gifts of the Spirit” were not carried over into the post-canonical world.

I guess I should mention that Strange Fire presenter R.C. Sproul did speak about Pentecost in relation to the Charismatic movement, but his perspective was hardly Jewish and he suggested (and I don’t know if he really meant this…I hope not because of its anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic implications) that only those Israelites (such as the prophets) who received the Holy Spirit were saved, not all Israelites who had faith and genuinely obeyed God.

Strange Fire speaker Tom Pennington did say that the work of the Spirit in today’s Church is not null and void, only that specific gifts have ceased:

The label “Cessationism” is negative, but the real problem is that it has been easily caricatured as believing that the Spirit has ceased his work. But the fact is that we who are cessationists believe the Holy Spirit has continued his work. Nothing eternal happens in a person apart from the Holy Spirit. Temporal things can happen, but nothing eternal. We only believe the Spirit has ceased in one function: the miraculous gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, and healing.

Church doctrine states that in order for believers to rightly interpret the scriptures, they must be helped by the Holy Spirit. It is also believed that the Spirit draws each person to God, indwells within each person as he or she comes to faith, and then enables them (us) to break free of the chains of sin and to live lives pleasing to God. While mainstream Christianity depends on the Holy Spirit to help us understand the words of God, the Jewish perspective, according to Boaz, goes even further:

It means that the work of the Spirit is fundamental to Messianic Judaism. If the Torah is important to Messianic Judaism, so is the Holy Spirit. We should not try to separate the two. They are married together.

-Michael, pg 13

It’s one thing to speak of the activity of the Spirit in the apostolic era and before, and another thing to apply it to the life of a believer in the 21st century. Unless you are deeply involved in the Charismatic movement, your experiences with the Spirit of God may not seem very tangible or even noticeable. We assent to the existence of the Spirit of God and we believe the Spirit is influential in our lives, but only invisibly, intangibly, unperceptively. In other words, when/if the Spirit is at work in our lives, chances are, most of the time, we can’t tell.

As MacArthur’s conference pointed out (at least to me), the different factions of Christianity seem woefully out of balance. The Pentecostals seek the Spirit above all else. Evangelicals/Fundamentalists rely solely on reading/studying the Bible for their understanding of God. Some people primarily pray. Some focus on preaching. Others believe evangelizing on the mission field is the only way to go. Boaz suggests that we need to be sitting on a three-legged stool to avoid falling this way, that way, or the other way. The three legs are:

  • The Spirit of the Lord
  • The Torah of Moses
  • The Gospel of the Messianic Kingdom

Note that each of the three legs must be of equal length, of the same strength, and equally secured to the platform upon which we are seated so we don’t start leaning in a particular direction or have our foundation break down beneath us. Boaz mentioned another “three legs” which we should be pondering.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (NASB)

white-pigeon-kotelIn reflecting on the “Gifts of the Spirit” conference, which I attended last May, MacArthur’s “Strange Fire,” and Michael L. Brown’s hastily constructed response to MacArthur called Authentic Fire, I can’t help but think that the FFOZ Gifts of the Spirit book, while not really a “response” to MacArthur, would have been a better way to speak to the Pentecostal community than the “Strange Fire” approach. In fact, as I recall, there were a number of Pentecostals at the Shavuot event, and they were made to feel welcome and participate fully. If FFOZ’s “Gifts of the Spirit” had received the same “press” as “Strange Fire” in the Christian media space, it might have made MacArthur’s efforts superfluous.

Something to consider at any rate.

The Challies Chronicles: Summing It All Up, Part 2

strange-pyreIf you haven’t done so already, please read the first part of “Summing It All Up” before continuing here.

Part 2 of the interview between Tim Challies and John MacArthur was published a few days after the first installment, and Challies says that several weeks have passed since the end of the conference. When Challies wrote his blog post, MacArthur’s Strange Fire book was to be released the following day, so from a marketing standpoint, the Challies blog was quite timely.

Kicking off the interview, Challies asked:

There are many areas of doctrine in which well-respected, godly theologians hold opposing views, and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are just one of them. Again, we are thinking here of the best and most gospel-centered of the continuationists. Why focus on this area now when it threatens to inhibit unity and further divide true believers? Why not focus on baptism or eschatology or another issue?

That’s a good question. There are probably thousands of different expressions or variations of Christianity worldwide, and they all disagree with each other about something. MacArthur comes across as completely sure of himself about everything, and completely sure he understands 100% of the content of the Bible (at least that’s the impression I get from what he says), in spite of the fact that there are numerous New Testament scholars in educational and research facilities across the globe who continuously are exploring new understandings about the apostolic era and what it means to Christians today. How can MacArthur believe he knows everything there is to know about a subject in the Bible and why does he choose to take this specific issue head on?

All true believers are unified at the core on those distinctives in the Spirit; but it takes time and study to experience that unity in our relationships. That’s why love must energize our quest for practical unity (Phil. 1:27)—love for God and His truth and love for one another. Even in 1 Corinthians 13:6, in the heart of Paul’s discussion about spiritual gifts, the apostle reminded his readers that “love rejoices in the truth.” So, drawing attention to serious error—error that’s being tolerated even in some of the otherwise-healthiest of churches—in order to recover and uphold the truth is a loving thing to do.

While it might be hard for some to understand, it was love that drove me to write this book and have this conference: love for God and His honor, love for His truth, love for His church and her purity, and, in the cases of the prosperity gospel that pervades the global movement, a love for the millions of souls who are trapped by some of the most deceitful false teaching that history has ever seen. It is my earnest desire and prayer to see the church unified. But a unity that knowingly tolerates error is not the unity that Scripture promotes. So, if we want to be truly unified, we have to be willing to confront error for the sake of the truth. And that might mean that superficial unity is disrupted.

MacArthur also said that he has taken on other issues in the past but, as you can read, both above, and by clicking the links to the interviews, he considers this particular problem vital in the world of Christian faith. I’ll take him at his word and believe he really does love the people he’s discussing, although from some of the responses I’ve read, his critics don’t feel loved. I’m no fan of the prosperity gospel, but again, that’s just one manifestation of the Charismatic movement, and I still think it could have been addressed in a more focused and measured way.

Challies asked:

We often hear today that many believers from a Muslim background—especially those from closed countries who do not have easy access to God’s Word—are claiming they had a vision of Christ and that in this vision he directed them to a place or person where they could hear the gospel. This proclamation of the gospel led to their conversion. Do you believe these stories? Do you consider such visions a valid means that God may work in our world today?

heavenly-manOh, that. Of course, MacArthur believes such events are completely bogus and not even a single supernatural event revealed Christ to a Muslim (or anyone else) apart from the Bible.

But that also contradicts much of what a Chinese evangelist named Brother Yun wrote in his book The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun. I reviewed this book nearly ten months ago (it was given to me by a friend), and Yun describes situations that occurred after China’s Communist Revolution, where Christ was supernaturally revealed to people who had absolutely no access to Bibles or Christian Missionaries. If you lock down a nation so tightly that no foreign Missionaries are allowed in and it’s nearly impossible to smuggle in even portions of a Bible, is God not going to act?

I can’t testify to the validity of any of these supernatural acts. I haven’t witnessed any of them. In reading Yun’s book, even I thought certain portions seemed exaggerated or fabricated. But then again, I can’t completely discount the possibility of God directly intervening in our universe, performing acts that defy the natural laws we are accustomed to in order accomplish His purposes.

According to what I’ve been told, MacArthur believes he was physically attacked, in front of witnesses, by a demon possessed woman but he doesn’t believe that even one person could have had a revelation of Jesus in a vision. Go figure.

Regarding the visions in question, it is important to recognize that those who have investigated such claims have found the evidence to be sorely lacking. For example, this article directly addresses the issue.

I suppose that brings us to the crux of the matter. Do I believe that people in the Muslim world are actually seeing Jesus Christ? No, I do not. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that he was “the last of all” to see the risen Christ. So, I believe that precludes anyone outside of those listed in 1 Corinthians 15 of being able to claim legitimate visions of the resurrected Savior. (The apostle John, of course, was one of those included in 1 Corinthians 15. Accordingly, I don’t believe the book of Revelation sets a precedent for believers to expect genuine visions of Jesus to occur throughout church history.)

Furthermore, it is important to note that these individuals are still unbelievers when they reportedly have these experiences. Consequently, these experiences (whatever they are reported to be) cannot constitute examples of the charismatic gifts having continued, since spiritual gifts are only given to believers (1 Cor. 12:7)—and these people do not come to saving faith until later.

Finally, the New Testament clearly states that the way in which the gospel is spread in this age is through preaching.

Receiving the SpiritIf performing a supernatural act were the only way for God to communicate to a non-believer in order to further His plan, would God be inhibited because the person He was trying to reach was a non-believer? Good grief, God even revealed Himself to Laban in a dream (Genesis 31:24) and he spoke directly with the evil magician Baalam (see Numbers 22:9-12 for an example) when Balak, King of Moab, wanted the sorcerer to curse Israel.

It seems you don’t have to be a believer to hear from God.

No one comes to God as part of a rational process, it’s a leap of faith, and I believe God does make Himself known in some manner, in order to bring people to Him. No, I never had a dream, saw a vision, or heard a voice from Heaven, but a long series of extremely unlikely events happened in my life in a period of six months to a year which ultimately brought me to faith. The process wasn’t entirely intellectual. I didn’t read and study the Bible with the result that I believed and came to faith in Christ. God did something inside to bring me to Him. I can’t articulate it. I just know it happened.

And preaching was really only a very minor part in my finally professing faith.

I suppose John MacArthur would think I’m some kind of fruit loop.

Challies asked a number of other important questions, but the last one really got my attention:

The Strange Fire conference focused primarily on the worst examples of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. While the charlatans rightfully need to be exposed and rebuked, there are also many godly Christians who feel like they have been unjustly tarnished with an overly broad generalization.

Exactly! I think a lot of people feel unjustly targeted, insulted, and maligned by the multiple presentations at the “Strange Fire” conference.

MacArthur responded in part by saying:

First, I want to clearly state that I take no joy in being perceived as unloving or in hurting the feelings of fellow believers. My heart is deeply burdened by the errors and excesses that I have spoken out against in Strange Fire. I do not issue these criticisms flippantly. I would also direct readers to the first part of this interview, where I interact with the idea that I have made an overly broad generalization.

But for those who want to get angry at me, I would humbly suggest that such anger is misplaced.

Charismatic prayerMacArthur went on to say that after the conference, he read a blog post written by a Pentecostal named Josiah Batten called A Pentecostal in (General) Support of the Strange Fire Conference (Challies didn’t provide a link on his blog post but I’m inserting it here so you can read Batten’s content). In a nutshell, MacArthur was thrilled with this response because he had achieved his goal with the individual involved: MacArthur had gotten him to think, to consider MacArthur’s position without defensiveness.

Oh, MacArthur and Batten didn’t end up agreeing, but Batten did point out some of the obvious issues with the Pentecostal movement while also acknowledging that he thought MacArthur had made some mistakes in his theology.

The interview dribbled out and ended without much flourish. There were lots and lots of comments in response on both of the Challies blog posts (comments are now closed) which may add some dimension, but I don’t really want to read hundreds of these statements and then try to say something about them.

In trying to sum all this up in my head, it seems like the conference offered one general impression and these interviews presented a somewhat related or parallel process. I think the conference really did paint with an overly broad brush and depicted all or the vast majority of Charismatics everywhere are dangerous or potentially dangerous, rather than just “wrong.”

Given the opportunity, MacArthur (with a MacArthur-friendly interviewer) was able to add more details to his views and, in certain instances, soften them up a bit. He remains hard-line in the end that he’s right and that the people who disagree with him should change and join him. He bases this stance on the perception that his interpretation of the Bible must, because of his scholarship, be correct in an absolute or near-absolute sense, and that he cannot be wrong.

Granted, if he’s trying to convince people to change, he can’t actually admit that he could be capable of error in his interpretations and assumptions, so confidence (to the point of arrogance sometimes) is expected. On the other hand, John MacArthur is indeed human and as such, he is just as capable of being wrong as the next man, even a highly educated and well-read next man. A certain tradition drives MacArthur’s perception as much as a learned interpretation of scripture, although that tradition, by necessity, drives MacArthur to deny that tradition has anything to do with how he perceives the Bible.

I agree that the study and the quest for correctly understanding scripture is the first and best means of understanding the intent and will of God for our lives. I’m also aware that exactly how we go about it, what system we employ, and the set of traditions (whether we’re conscious of them or not) that filter our interpretations are going to result in different believers coming to different conclusions about what the Bible is saying to us.

Beyond all that, once we believe we have discovered “truth,” what we do about it is critical. We can choose to demonize those we disagree with or we can find another way to get our point across. Frankly, demonizing people is a better way to get attention. Holding a controversial conference will definitely draw a much bigger crowd than a less dramatic and perhaps more user-friendly approach.

And MacArthur wants to draw a big crowd. In fact, he wants to attract the estimated 500 million Charismatics in the world. Yes, he got his message across to a lot of people. The book, at least in the short run (once marketing runs out of steam, the popularity of the book will likely dwindle), will reach even more folks than the “buzz” about the conference.

MacArthurBad press is still press, so everyone who criticizes MacArthur, including little ol’ me, still makes sure that he’s not ignored. Being ignored is the worst possible outcome that could happen to MacArthur and the “Strange Fire” conference and book. If people just paid no attention to him or them (like they should have to the recent comments of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame), then MacArthur and his views would have nowhere to go.

But MacArthur knows enough about human nature to make sure that he and “Strange Fire” would never be ignored and in fact, would grab lots and lots of attention and press in the Christian media space.

But as I said before, his entire goal wasn’t just to get attention, but to get Charismatics to think and even to change. Has he accomplished this? Making 500 million people feel insulted, abused, and harassed usually doesn’t get them to agree with you. I’m sure A&E’s banning Phil Robertson from being part of filming Duck Dynasty or GLAAD getting in Robertson’s face (figuratively) over their perceptions of his motives won’t elicit an apology and change of theological opinion from the Duck Dynasty patriarch anytime soon.

If MacArthur wants to transform even a non-trival number of Pentecostals into sola scriptura Fundamentalists, I don’t really know what he could have done differently to accomplish his task. I just don’t see what he actually did working, at least not for very many people. I think the audience that listened to him the most was the one that was already convinced. I think he was “preaching to the choir.”

The Challies Chronicles: Summing It All Up, Part 1

John MacArthurJohn MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference has come and gone and the book will be shipping next week. Whatever you felt about the conference, there is little doubt that a lot of work and a lot of discussion remain as we, the church, consider the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the aftermath of the event, and with the book on its way, I think we all have questions we’d like to ask Dr. MacArthur. A week ago I asked for your questions and sent them through to him. Here are his answers to the first batch of questions. I anticipate adding a second part to this interview within the week.

What was the purpose of such a controversial conference like Strange Fire? Why did you choose not to invite one of the best of the reformed continuationists to speak at your event and to defend his position? Wouldn’t that have strengthened the cessationist arguments while also showing an earnest desire for unity?

-from an interview of John MacArthur by Tim Challies:
“John MacArthur Answers His Critics,” November 4, 2013
Challies.com

This, and the second part of the dialog between MacArthur and Challies is a forum for Pastor MacArthur to respond to the criticism he received as a result of his Strange Fire conference. I’m going to put my impressions into two blog posts as well (a single blog post would be over 4,000 words) and afterward, there are no more Tim Challies articles for me to read about Strange Fire. It probably won’t be the end of what I have to say about the conflict between sola scriptura Christianity and spiritual Christianity, though.

You can follow the links I’ve provided to read the full content of both parts of the interview. I just want to draw attention to some of the highlights, so to speak.

In response to a question of Challies’ in the first part of the interview, MacArthur states:

On the one hand, I would agree that this is a second-level doctrinal issue—meaning that someone can be either a continuationist or a cessationist and still be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. I have always maintained that position, and I reiterated that point several times during the conference. I have good friends who consider themselves continuationists, and I am confident that these men are fellow brothers in Christ. But that doesn’t excuse the seriousness of the error. In fact, I would appeal to my continuationist brethren to reconsider their views in light of what Scripture teaches.

Here, MacArthur states that although he believes the continuationists are in serious error, they are still his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Except that directly contradicts something MacArthur said in his closing statement at the conference in response to seven points of criticism. In response to point 6, “They are attacking brothers,” MacArthur said:

MacArthur wishes he could affirm this. From his vantage point, this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians that lacks accountability. No one polices this movement. Every faithfully reformed elder, pastor, scholar and teacher of the word should bear the responsibility of policing this movement. People accuse MacArthur of being fixated on this issue, yet in 45 years of ministry he has only held one 3-day conference on this matter. Rather he has devoted his time to preaching the New Testament verse by verse and exalting Christ.

Tim ChalliesEither MacArthur is separating the continuationists he speaks of in part one of the interview from whoever he was discussing on the last day of the conference, or he contradicted himself. You can’t have it both ways. Either the continuationists / Pentecostals / Evangelicals are considered faithful Christians by MacArthur or not.

The only other response he could make would be to say that he believes some of the people in these categories are not believers while others are, but then he would have to describe his criteria for telling the difference. MacArthur goes on to say:

On the other hand, I am firmly convinced that this secondary issue has the very real potential to taint a person’s understanding of the gospel itself. In such cases, it becomes a primary issue. For example, charismatic theology does corrupt the gospel when it expresses itself in the form of the prosperity gospel. Moreover, the global charismatic movement happily shelters other heretical movements—such as Catholic Charismatics and Oneness Pentecostals. Taken together, the number of charismatics who hold to a false form of the gospel (whether it is a gospel of health and wealth or a gospel of works righteousness) number in the hundreds of millions, which means they actually represent the majority of the global charismatic movement. That is why we took such a strong stand both at the conference and in the book.

So apparently there is, as far as MacArthur believes, a line to be crossed within the Charismatic movement. On one side of the line, you are a believer, and on the other, having gone too far, you’re not.

Challies asked:

You acknowledge, of course, that many godly, respected theologians are continuationists. How would you explain the continuationist theology of faithful men like John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Wayne Grudem if the cessationist position is so clearly taught in the Bible?

In part, MacArthur responded:

As I noted at the conference, I believe their openness to modern charismatic gifts is an anomaly. Obviously, I cannot read minds nor do I desire to judge motives. But I do wonder if perhaps their positions are evidence of either the influence of personal relationships with charismatic friends and family members, or the pervasive impact charismatic theology has had on the wider culture.

Wayne Grudem, as I mentioned earlier, openly acknowledges that there are no apostles in the church today. John Piper says that he does not speak in tongues. And I’m fairly confident that D. A. Carson does not personally practice any of the charismatic gifts. In that sense, then, I think they may be more cessationist (in terms of their personal practice) than their published positions would suggest.

If I’m reading MacArthur correctly, his understanding of Charismatics may be more “nuanced” than the conference made it seem. He may recognize more variability of belief and variability of practice among individuals and groups of individuals to identify with the Charismatic movement than he previously presented. It’s easy to say for most of us, given how MacArthur speaks and presents himself, that he’s a really “black and white” type of guy, that there are no colors in his universe, especially when quoting Thabiti Anyabwile, he states:

He wrote, “First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong… . Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t… . Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well.”

I agree with all of that. This is an issue of critical importance because it affects our view of God as well as our understanding of how to live out the Christian life, both individually and corporately.

But hopefully, no one is quite as rigid and uncompromising as we make them out to be during a disagreement.

Finally, I think those who accuse me of using too broad of a brush are being naïve about the actual composition of the global charismatic movement.

I’m among those who have accused MacArthur and other presenters at the conference of painting with too broad a brush. That’s certainly how I read them on Challies’ blog posts. Of course, these presenters are speaking to a large audience and this is a one-on-one interview, so MacArthur has the opportunity to answer specific questions, when, at the conference, he and the others were “preaching” not discussing.

Our decision not to host a debate at the Strange Fire Conference was intentional. Debates are rarely effective in truly helping people think carefully through the issues, since they can easily be reduced to sound bites and talking points.

There’s both good and bad in what MacArthur said. It’s true that debates, if not properly moderated, degrade into name calling sessions and nothing gets resolved. On the other hand, during Presidential elections, the opponents present multiple public debates for the purpose of clearly offering American voters a (hopefully) clear understanding of the different platforms of each candidate.

Strange FireMacArthur did not escape these debates entirely. The rebuttals were simply managed in the blogosphere, in social media, and other venues rather than personally at the conference.

MacArthur ended the first part of the interview this way:

So, coming back to your question, I understand that some reviewers will find my tone too harsh and my brush too broad. But I think the problem is a whole lot bigger than anyone realizes. And it breaks my heart to think that hundreds of millions of souls are being caught up into a movement where they are being seduced by false forms of the gospel.

That is why I wanted to sound such a strong warning. And I’m willing to be accused of broad-brushing in order to get that message out.

I don’t doubt that he’s sincere in his belief and desire that he’s doing the right thing and that he’s doing it the right way, and I’m not commenting today to come out as pro-cessationists or pro-continuist. I’m stepping outside the narrow corridor of that argument and trying to understand how MacArthur sees himself and if what he did will have the response he desires. Only MacArthur can explain himself (well, God can explain him too, and probably better than MacArthur can), and I want to hear what he has to say.

For the sake of length, I’ll conclude my summation of the Challies Chronicles in Part 2.

The Challies Chronicles: Conrad Mbewe and Pentecostal Witch Doctors

Conrad MbeweThe first session of the final day at the Strange Fire conference brought Conrad Mbewe back to the pulpit. Phil Johnson introduced him by sharing how others have called him the Spurgeon of Africa. Today he brought message entitled, “Are We Preachers or Witch Doctors?”

Mbewe then contrasts Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy with the present picture in Zambia. He shares two newspaper clippings from July concerning evangelical preachers. In the first, a clergyman impregnated 10 women before his wife came forward about the scandal. She came forward after witnessing the scourge on the children in this church and the presence of the witchcraft taking place. In the second clipping two clergy men took two women into the mountains and sexually assaulted them. They first visited their home and took prayer requests and then led them into the mountain.

Pastor Tim Challies liveblogging
Strange Fire Conference: Preachers or Witch Doctors?”
Challies.com

As Conrad Mbewe chronicles the abuses of Pastors against members of their flock in Zambia, no one could possibly disagree with having evangelical preachers who are sexually assaulting women being called out, removed from their positions of authority, and hopefully arrested and incarcerated. How could any believer of good conscience support preachers and other church leaders behaving in such a destructive manner?

But, of course, the inference is that the Pentecostal movement is driving such abuses and as a denomination, are responsible for this criminal behavior, and therefore Pentecostalism must be stopped. Can a connection between the events being reported by Mbewe and all Pentecostals everywhere be reasonably made?

Conrad asks, “How can this be happening so frequently among so called evangelical churches today?” His response: a seismic shift in how people view the pastor. What is read in 2 Timothy is not the popular view today. It is because of how the view of the “man of God” has evolved today. Pentecostalism’s visit to Africa did not primarily emphasize the preaching and teaching component of the “man of God.” Now the “man of God” is primarily seen as the deliverer. Preaching has lost emphasis. It has become motivational platitudes followed by shouting and chanting.

The same thing can be seen in America on popular TV channels, but with different colored skin and nicer buildings. There are biblical quotes tossed about followed by a demon possessed, crazy and maddened looking preacher.

Yet, the important part of any service is what happens next. The “man of God”, wrested out of the context of 2 Timothy, takes on the role equivalent to a witch doctor.

While Mbewe lays the blame for the abuses he reported above fully upon the Pentecostals and their lack of emphasis on scriptural sufficiency and preaching, others who commented on this Challies blog post didn’t agree:

There are certainly issues that need to be studied, analysed and discussed in the contemporary pentecostal movement in Africa and worldwide. We need to understand their theological and liturgical practices–their strengths, weakness, meanings and innovations. Scholars of contemporary pentecostal movement have been at it for more than two decades. It would be very helpful to dialogue with their findings and suggestions. One of their major findings is that contemporary pentecostal movements underline that their members must “make a complete break with the past,” that is, they must completely disassociate themselves with African Indigenous Religions (henceforth ATR)–contrary to Mbewe’s claims. Scholarly findings also associate its theology of prosperity, deliverance and breakthroughs with the neo-liberal economy of the globalization era. On the overall, I find Pastor Mbewe’s take on it simplistic, upsetting and misleading. Basically, he blames it all on ATR. In the process, his comparisons are misleading misrepresentations of ATR, that serves to demonize the latter. If indigenous healers were to be brought into this conversations, they would not recognize the picture that is painted about them. But since evangelicals are unlikely to want to hold such dialogue with indigenous healers, it is as that proverb warns us: until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero. The image given about Indigenous healers is of course colonial, as attested by Mbewe’s reference to indigenous healers as “witchdoctors.” Mbewe’s colonial perspective is also attested in his wish to call for the West to rescue Africa from itself. His two opening stories harp on the colonial stereotypes of Africa as sexually immoral. His reference to western medicine as conventional medicine is so telling. Since Christianity has existed side by side with ATR for more than two centuries, why is this only happening now? Why has ATR not confused the church before, until now? Both the contemporary pentecostal movement and the indigenous healers would be appalled by Mbewe potrait (sic) and interpretation of the phenomena. Mbewe’s approach is suspect and must be heard as such. Those who hear him will do well to hear him with a pinch of salt.

Musa Dube

I am a charismatic Pastor in East Africa. Sadly however, I can confirm that what is said here is quite true. Of course, I do not agree that this is a charismatic problem but rather an aberration that claims to be Christian and Charismatic but is in fact neither. It would be wrong however, to say that the problem is confined to “charismatic” churches.

This problem manifests itself in these pseudo churches as false miracles etc. etc. But in the churches more palatable to McArthur (sic) and others, it manifests itself in double lives that pay mere lip service to the theology of the church. Polygamy, tribal politics, regular visits to the witch doctor (the traditional kind rather than the Bible carrying one) all thrive in Calvinist churches across the continent of Africa. They are preached against in the pulpit of course but hey, everyone does it. In very high number of cases, even the Pastor does it because of course that is just for preaching

This is because the problem is not charismatic theology but syncretism and This is not confined to any one church as anyone who has lived in Africa knows.

We may be charismatic but we are working hard to preach against hypocrisy in all denominations. Our focus is upon the work of the cross which unites us and demands a response from us all.

Sean McIntyre

Witch huntOf course, the larger body of people commenting on the blog post expressed split opinions, but I think it’s important to understand that a simple comparison between what Mbewe reports and what all Charismatics represent cannot be made. Mbewe’s logic goes something like:

  1. Some Pentecostal-influenced preachers in Africa are sexually abusing women and practicing witchcraft.
  2. Therefore all Pentecostals, Pentecostal teachings and Pentecostal/Charismatic preachers everywhere support abusing women and practicing witchcraft.

I agree with Musa Dube to the degree that Mbewe’s presentation is rather two-dimensional and lacks sufficient depth to establish the point he’s trying to make. Also, we have a report that such abusive activities are not confined to churches with Pentecostal affiliation but are rather multi-denominational.

Again, I want to say that in no way can I or any reasonable person of faith support sexual abuse of women, whether by clergy or anyone else.

Mbewe was invited to a radio broadcast panel discussion in Zambia about miraculous healing. There was a Catholic trying to ride the fence. Then there were two charismatics invited. One could not come because he was sick. He lied. Conrad saw this man shopping in the mall with his wife directly afterward with a trolley of goods.

During the broadcast the other charismatic and Mbewe locked horns. He challenged listeners to call in if they had been healed. Like a New Testament Elijah he taunted the charismatics for an hour due to the lack of calls. Two calls came in. The first a man who attested to a girl with unequal legs being healed 8 years ago, a very stale testimony for a country that claims to have healing crusades from prophets, bishops and “the man of God” all the time. The second came from a woman who chastised Mbewe as a dead theologian. There were only two calls in a nation where miraculous gifts happen all the time. The charismatic pastor responded that the people are shy. Unfortunately a week later he suffered a stroke and died after being in a coma for a week. None of his friends came to his aid and raised him because they knew it was all a fraud and a lie.

While this is all very dramatic, and while it likely establishes that claims of a large number of miraculous healings taking place in Africa are false, it still doesn’t make the larger point in painting the entire Pentecostal church with the same broad and tainted brush.

I know Mbewe’s presentation is only one among many, and I know that “Strange Fire” is meant to be taken as an entire unit, but even putting Mbewe’s discussion in the context of the entire conference doesn’t make what he is saying any more applicable to the entire world of Pentecostal believers. I may not agree with the basic premises of Pentecostalism, but I don’t believe they are all abusive and criminal either.

OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh because Mbewe didn’t come out and indict the Pentecostal church in such a manner. He only said that any church that does not depend solely on scripture and its sufficiency in building and leading the body of Christ is ripe for an infusion of witchcraft, sexual abuse, and other demonic influences.

And speaking of demonic, I know I quoted this above, but of everything Mbewe said, it especially drew my attention:

The same thing can be seen in America on popular TV channels, but with different colored skin and nicer buildings. There are biblical quotes tossed about followed by a demon possessed, crazy and maddened looking preacher. (emph. mine)

Although Mbewe called the preacher “maddened looking” as opposed to “maddened,” he declared that the preacher in his example (I don’t know if he was thinking of any TV preacher in particular or just throwing out generalizations) was “demon possessed” as opposed to something such as “like he was demonized.” As I’ve said before, I find it interesting that cessationists can say there are no longer any “gifts of the spirit” given to human beings, but that human beings can certainly be possessed by demons and exhibit strange and even supernatural behaviors. The equation doesn’t seem to balance out and gives the impression that evil forces have more influence than God.

But that’s just my personal observation.

Don’t worry. There’s only one presentation left, MacArthur’s final appeal, then Challies writes his own summary of the lessons he learned from the conference. After that, Challies writes two additional blog posts, both on MacArthur’s answers to his critics. I’ve briefly scanned those answers and MacArthur comes across as somewhat more reasonable than I found him and the others while presenting at the conference.

I know the conference was last October and it may seem as if I’m beating a dead horse, but these issues won’t go away just because a couple of months have passed. Beyond that, there’s the influence of MacArthur’s Strange Fire book (which I’d like to review, but I’m not willing to shell out cold, hard cash for the privilege) to consider.

doveThe topic is wearing on me too, which is why, in addition to Life of Pi, I’ve just started reading Gifts of the Spirit, which is a compilation of the presentations given at the First Fruits of Zion Gifts of the Spirit Conference held last Spring during Shavuot at the Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin.

I attended the conference and wrote numerous blog posts, including this one describing my experiences. However, all that was before MacArthur, “Strange Fire,” discussing MacArthur and “Strange Fire” with my Pastor, and my blogging on “Strange Fire,” so I need to even things out, so to speak, and revisit the spiritual side of the coin by reading “Gifts”.

So far in “Gifts,” I’ve learned (relearned) that a number of the presenters, including First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) staff, previously worshipped in and even grew up in the Pentecostal church. I look forward to going back to the “Gifts of the Spirit” and comparing that conference experience with the Challies Chronicles of “Strange Fire.”