Sunday, March 10, 2013

Will the Real Charismatic Please Stand Up?

It is difficult to know who is and who is not a charismatic these days. In fact, it seems to be quite the theological novelty to call oneself charismatic. However, when one person says he is “charismatic,” it may not mean what you think it means.
When I associate the term “charismatic” with Christians, six primary things come to mind. Any or all of these could be present in my thinking when I use the word:
1. Unusual attention given to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer
2. The tendency to seek and expect miraculous healings
3. The tendency to seek and expect God’s direct communication (dreams, visions, experiences, personal encounters, etc.)
4. Unusual attention given to the presence of demonic activity in the world
5. Very  expressive worship
6. Belief in the continuation of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit
I am going to briefly explain each of these. Please pay special attention to the graphs (Yes, my mind works in graphs!) since I am going to attempt to show how, with all of these, the designation “charismatic” works on a sliding scale. Here is the model:

Please notice that the scale is not black and white (well, it is not red and white, but you know what I mean!). There is a gradation shown here, indicating that one can be more or lesscharismatic, depending on the issue in question. Better, I consider myself more or less charismatic, depending on the issue. The line in the middle represents that subjective place beyond which the designation “charismatic” is likely to be made. I don’t always know where it is, but I think it is safe to say that the line is there somewhere.
Below, I am going to briefly explain each of these options by speaking to the extremes. Please humor me. I think I know where I am going.
1. Unusual attention given to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer
There are certain Christians who give unusual attention to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Conversely, there are Christians who rarely, if ever, recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit at all. For those on the non-charismatic side of the scale, the Holy Trinity could best be described as the Father, Son, and Holy Bible! For the charismatic, the centrality of Christ’s person and work is replaced with the centrality of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
2. The tendency to seek and expect miraculous healings
Many Christians believe that God’s benevolent healing power is available for all who have enough faith. That would be the far right extreme. Other Christians, on the far left, never hope in God’s miraculous intervention in any way (Unfortunately, I tend  to lean toward the left).
3. The tendency to seek and expect God’s direct communication (dreams, visions, experiences, personal encounters, etc.)
Some people believe God communicates with them directly. They have little use for the Bible, since from their perspective God’s answers are available immediately upon request through direct means. Every dream, vision, or unexplained sound is God trying to tell them something. On the other hand, some believers do not seek God’s guidance in any way other than through the Bible. These often misunderstand the idea of sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is our onlyauthority and source for guidance, not (as it should be understood) as our final and only infallibleauthority in matters of faith.
4. Unusual attention given to the presence of demonic activity in the world
There are those who believe that demons are the cause of every problem we face. If someone is depressed, it is never due to a chemical imbalance, but demonic oppression. If someone is sick, medicine is not the answer, exorcism is. They have “deliverance ministries” in which all problems (including being overweight!) are solved by finding and breaking the demonic stronghold. On the other side of the fence are those who, while maybe giving lip service to spiritual warfare, don’t really engage in battle against the forces of darkness in any way. In fact, they are quite embarrassed to acknowledge the reality of Satan and his demons at all.
5. Expressive worship
And, yes, there are the “expressive worship” people. You know, the ones who not only raise and/or clap their hands during worship, but weep, scream, dance, and sometimes go into convulsions during their time of worship. And there are the others who lip-sync the songs, have their hands in their pockets, and . . . wait . . . let’s get real: There are those who “accidentally” show up twenty-five minutes late to the service every week, just in time to catch the sermon and (oops!) miss worship time. The latter is me.
6. Belief in the continuation of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit
In the New Testament, we are told that God has gifted the church and individuals with gifts (charisma) and offices that are for the mutual edification of the church. On the far charismatic end of the scale, there are those who not only believe that all gifts are still in operation, but whose life and ministry are centered around the practice of the more extravagant gifts. For them, the gift of tongues is a sign of maturity and the presence of the Spirit in their life. Every church service is chaos, as people are uncontrollably “led by the Spirit” to prophesy, speak in tongues, and/or pronounce a word of wisdom or knowledge. On the non-charismatic end of the scale, we have those who don’t believe in the gifts at all. Some believe that all gifts of the Spirit ceased in the first century. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself. I know of a very large network of churches which believes the gifts of teaching, giving, evangelism, tongues, healing, prophecy, and every other gift mentioned in the New Testament ceased in the first century. However, I don’t want to limit this category to just those who build extreme cessationism into their theology, because I would leave a lot of others out! While some would never openly affirm this theological stance, practically speaking, they might as well do so. In many churches, if you are not the pastor, an usher, or on the worship team, there is no need for you in the church other than to fill a seat Sunday morning and to pay your dues as the offering plate is passed around. For these, the mass majority of Christians are non-essential, non-contributing members of the body of Christ.
It should go without saying that both extremes are not only unhealthy, but potentially destructive to the body of Christ due to their imbalance. There is a healthy middle which represents an orthodox position in all of these areas. Take a look at this modified version of my chart.
In these types of discussions it is easy to create a caricature of one side by immediately associating them with the extremes of their positions. This is called a “straw man argument;” it is an unfair assertion which honors neither the issue nor the people involved, much less the Lord. Though I am not a charismatic, this does not mean that I am on the far left. At least, I try not to be. Similarly, I suspect most charismatics don’t want their perspectives to be caricatured with those on the far right.
Concerning these six options, I propose that a true charismatic in a theological sense is not necessarily one who holds their hands high during worship. Neither is it accurately characterized as someone who believes very strongly in the presence of demonic forces. In fact, I believe that a real charismatic is associated with the sixth option alone, believing that all (or at least most of) the gifts of the Spirit are still in operation today and is personally seeking them.
However, with all six issues, I would say that I am to the left of the charismatic line. On some, I am pretty far to the left. On others, I hug the midline. For example, as I alluded to just a moment ago, I am not expressive in my worship at all. Yet when it comes to the reality of the presence and activity of Satan and his demons, I find myself moving further and further to the right all the time. Because of this, and because the line between being charismatic and non-charismatic is somewhat subjective, I imagine in many people’s eyes I would be labeled charismatic with regard to the issue of demonic activity. While I recognize that these issues are somewhat connected, I am nevertheless persuaded that  none of these, with the exception of number six, is the final determinant of whether or not one is truly a charismatic.
Gifts of the Spirit across the Spectrum
Having laid some basic groundwork, here are the four positions (generally speaking) that one can take with regard to the charismatic issue:
1. Hard Cessationist: The term “cessationist” is taken from the word “cease.” The hard cessationist believes that particular gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, miracles, healings, and the like, necessarily ceased in the first century due to an exhaustion of purpose. The hard cessationist would distinguish between what are called “sign gifts” and all other gifts. “Sign gifts” are the gifts that are evidently miraculous, and therefore provide a sign to the witnesses that the message of the one who performed these gifts was truly from God. According to the hard cessationist, once the New Testament was completed, there was no longer a need for these gifts to be given to the church, since the Gospel message had been firmly established. They would be considered “hard” cessationists, since they believe that both the Bible and biblical theology necessitates their cessation.
2. Soft Cessationist: The soft cessationist would agree with most of the arguments of the hard cessationist, except they would be open to God’s use of the sign gifts in areas that are unevangelized. Therefore, the “ceasing” of the gifts has less to do with the completion of the Bible and more to do with God’s missional purpose. For the soft cessationist, it may very well be that God continues to use these gifts to establish the Gospel message in areas of the world that have yet to be penetrated with the Gospel. Once the Gospel is established, the gifts would cease.
3. Continuationist: The term “continuationist” is taken from the word “continue.” Continuationists, simply put, believe that all the gifts of the Spirit have continued throughout the church age. For the continuationist, while many of these gifts would have indeed served as signs to the outside world, their primary function is not to evangelize the lost, but to ensure the health of the church. In other words, God gives them out of his benevolence. The continuationist sees no biblical evidence that these gifts would ever cease; on the contrary, he believes the Bible teaches that these gifts are normative for the church age.
4. Charismatic: Every charismatic is a continuationist, but not every continuationist is a charismatic. I think this is an important distinction to make. The charismatic would agree with all of the continuationist’s positions; the primary difference is in their pursuit of all the gifts for the church. I would like to propose this as a formal working definition of a charismatic for our purposes:
A charismatic is one who believes that all of the gifts of the Spirit have continued, are normative, and should be sought out by the church.
The last phrase “and should be sought out” is the key difference between a continuationist and a charismatic. In other words, the theology of the charismatic is not simply a passive academic argument, but one that should be practiced and affect the life of the church. If you believe that all of the gifts have continued, but neither practice them yourself nor belong to a church which seeks them, then you are not really charismatic.
Here is what my chart would look like now:
For the record, I think I would be best placed somewhere between a soft cessationist and a continuationist, most days leaning my back against the door of the soft cessationist. I don’t like the word “ceased” with regard to the gifts (too definite) but I don’t like the word “normative” either.
I hope that this helps a bit to clarify what the word “charismatic” means in theological context. I think with such a definition, it would be easier to tell who the real charismatics are and who are just more charismatic than others.

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