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Prospects For Reformation Among The Charismatics?

Author
Category Articles
Date June 9, 2006

An interesting find

Browsing through the shelves of a Christian bookstall I discovered a book called The Gospel-Driven Church, a title that immediately aroused my interest. Written by Ian Stackhouse, Pastor of Guildford Baptist Church, it was all the more interesting because of its subtitle – “Retrieving Classical Ministries from Contemporary Revivalism.” The book, which one assumes is addressed primarily to the Charismatic constituency, proves to be faithful to its title. Indeed the non-Charismatic reader will find challenges to many “reformed” preconceived notions about contemporary Christianity. For example, there is a tendency within the reformed tradition to adopt the attitude “Can any good come out of the Charismatic Movement?” This book will offer something of a rebuke to that attitude. It shows there is at least some capacity in Charismatic circles for honest self-examination. In this book the searchlight is especially focused upon the unscriptural and human/worldly philosophies that form the basis of so many contemporary schemes for church growth. Often the proponents of these approaches claim church growth is the evidence of revival which is the goal of so many of these systems and models. Against such views, this book argues for a return to the biblical pattern of personal and corporate Christianity.

Passing fads

The author assembles his argument in three parts. As there is not space in an article of this nature to do justice to the material presented in the whole book, we will concentrate on Part One “The Pathology of Revivalism”. This section, containing three chapters, discusses the arrival and passing of various “fads” or systems, each claiming to foster revival and church growth. The ‘Toronto Blessing’, Willow Creek, Pensacola, and Strategic Level Prayer Warfare are all soberly examined as to their real purpose and philosophy – the desire for success, measured in human terms.

The author quotes extensively from other commentators to make this point. One of the most telling is a quote from Ken Gott (one time enthusiast for the ‘Toronto Blessing’)

“Success cannot simply be measured by the size of our church, the number of meetings we can persuade people to attend, the church programmes we run …. Success in God’s eyes can be reflected only by our obedience to the command Jesus has given us, first to be a disciple, then to go and make disciples”

A substantial amount of space is devoted in this opening section to the ‘Alpha Course’ and a number of quotations are given of which the following are significant,

“Analysed at a cultural level Alpha is successful because it has simplified evangelism to a predictable process. . .Christian mission is a broader and probably more costly endeavour than participation in an Alpha course.” Pete Ward

“Contextualisation of the gospel, (as promoted by the ‘Alpha Course’) both in its original move away from Judaism and now in the contemporary setting requires us to suspend the language of repentance and the kingdom of God.” John Peters.

The author goes on to comment

“Alongside these general concerns it is possible to adumbrate more specific theological concerns, for not only does Alpha replay the docetic heresy by separating Christ and the Spirit (simply by demarking a Holy Spirit weekend from the rest of the course), it also assumes conversion very early on, as evidenced by the fact that the material moves swiftly on from matters of faith to reading one’s Bible. For a course purporting to introduce the Christian faith without the pressure of commitment, it is an odd move. More seriously it engenders a faith that is without any true sense of crisis. This of course is intended. Crisis conversion is one of the things Alpha is trying to distance itself from. But conversion without any sustained note of confrontation and offense can only be a breeding ground for the worst kind of apostasy. It will spawn churches that are growing, active, friendly and popular, but without any instinct for the gospel drama, proper conversion and, consequently, without any evidence of authentic spiritual discipline.” (Page 25).

These are telling comments and clearly identify the humanistic/ Arminian elements in this system, which are the hallmark of any non-biblical approach to evangelism and church growth.

The meaning of revival and the Christian community

The first chapter ends with a section entitled “Heal our Nation” in which our attention is drawn to the fact that early revivals were not in fact a means to promote religion. Rather, as in the case of the Eighteenth Century awakening in New England involving Jonathan Edwards, revival was the result of a critique of religion. Edwards was concerned with the lamentable state of covenantal religion in second generation New Englanders. Edwards experienced revival as a result of attending to the much larger issue of God’s revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ, and the vitality of the Holy Spirit. That this concern eventually led to many people being converted was why Edwards described the resulting “revival” as a “surprising work”. Adding numbers to the church was not the primary focus of this concern. (Taken from Robert Jenson)

Drawing on this experience, our attention is drawn to the fact that the Church has and always has had within itself the resources to arrive at the proper understanding of church growth. Churches grow as Jesus Christ adds to the church such as should be saved. This is a work that only He can do. However, the church then needs to cultivate, feed and protect new believers. Then the combined Christ-like witness of the members forms a distinct community within society – a counter-cultural religious community rooted in faith and baptism. Our author goes on to state that the church should realize that, in an increasingly diverse and secular culture, the only way for Christian communities to thrive is to become “resident aliens”. In short revival is as much a function of spiritual life within the Church as it is in the evangelization of the lost. This emphasis has been largely obscured by the huge interest in ‘getting numbers in’.

The Church of course is relevant to every age because it is the bearer of the Gospel to every age. We take comfort from the Lord’s reply to Peter’s confession “Thou art the Christ the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). He tells him “…thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). On the basis of this fundamental text church growth is not an issue for the church to be obsessed with. The Lord will do His work. What is of real concern is that we should be a witness by our Christ-like lifestyle to the world where we are placed. Living as “resident aliens”, in other words as authentic Christians, in a hostile world should be higher on our agendas.

Something to think about

The majority of readers of this article may well be those who rejoice in the Doctrines of Grace and worship the Sovereign God in the time-honored manner of Protestant Dissenters. The impact of this book on such people (and I include myself in this definition), is to discover there are perhaps among the Charismatics “7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal”. It is also significant that these thoughts come from the pen of one who has clearly been involved in the things he writes about. There are course views expressed in the book with which we would not agree and find to be biblically unsound. In another article, we shall see that there is still a long way to go, for example, in their understanding of the gospel. However this should not deter the serious Christian from taking comfort and instruction from this book.

The issue of Charismatic worship and teaching has, for many 30 years, been an issue that has divided the church and, in many cases, weakened its witness. This book clearly identifies the motivations behind splits in churches as one group desiring revival and seeking it through one of the many systems have separated themselves from other brethren who wish to continue in the traditional and God-honouring way. Sadly many Christians, on both sides of the argument, have fallen prey to the Pharisaical attitude “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men”. This has meant people have looked down on the perceived weakness of others, either for not having the courage to embrace change or for having fallen for every new fad or “ism” that comes along. The issue of what is best described as “party spirit” which divides churches, is of course not a new phenomenon. Paul had to deal with those at Corinth who said “I am of Apollos, I am of Paul, I am of Cephas, I am of Christ.” Paul’s sincere desire was that such issues should be subjugated to the overriding issue of the Gospel. The test of Scripture has to be applied. Perhaps there are more Berean’s among the Charismatic Movement than we might have suspected. Either way, if you have the means to obtain a copy of this book, read it with an open mind before God. You may find yourself unexpectedly encouraged and challenged.

[Taken with permission from Today’s Contender May 2006, edited by Chris Hand]

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