“Strange Fire?” Fundamentalists and the Holy Spirit
Just this month fundamentalist-Calvinist pastor John MacArthur, host of the “Grace to You” radio program and author of numerous books (including Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship ) hosted an anti-Pentecostal, anti-charismatic conference in Southern California called “Strange Fire.” You can check it out by simply googling that phrase and visiting the conference web site.
To be sure there are excesses and aberrations among Pentecostals and charismatics. Some of them deserve the label “strange fire.” When I was growing up in the thick of the Pentecostal movement we sometimes talked about “wild fire” in certain Pentecostal churches. We distinguished between that and the true “fire” of the Holy Spirit that enlivened and energized Christians to live holy lives and witness to the lost. Occasionally, in response to people like MacArthur (who has been bashing Pentecostals and charismatics for decades) we said “Better wild fire than no fire at all.” After visiting some so-called Pentecostal churches and charismatic meetings I’m not so sure about that, but I have deep qualms about conferences like MacArthur’s.
MacArthur talks about the danger of offending the Holy Spirit with “counterfeit worship.” I agree that there is that danger. However, I wonder if MacArthur and others (like R. C. Sproul) who spoke at his conference have considered the danger of offending the Holy Spirit by opposing a worldwide renewal movement that, for all its flaws, has brought millions of people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? And by attributing the Holy Spirit’s gifts to unholy passions and imagination (if not to Satan)?
Frankly, in my considered opinion, cessationism (belief that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the close of the apostolic age and the completion of Scripture) is simply silly. It’s exegesis of its only allegedly supporting biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, is simply tortured. It’s blatant eisegesis.
I can’t help but suspect that there’s more than a bit of God envy going on the fundamentalists’ loud protestations against the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. They doth protest too much and too loudly and on such thin grounds. Every large and widespread religious movement has its extremes and aberrations, including fundamentalism! And yet, to listen to these men (and a few women) you’d think every Pentecostal and charismatic was a religious fraud and/or fanatic worthy of nothing but disdain.
The reason I suspect these fundamentalists of God envy is that their own movement (cessationist) is on the ropes, so to speak, dwindling and fighting for survival, while Pentecostalism and charismatic groups are thriving worldwide. Sociologists of religion inform us that Pentecostalism (in its various forms) is the fastest-growing and largest Christian movement in the world. Protestant Christianity in the Global South is dominated by Pentecostals and charismatics.
One Pentecostal response to the Strange Fire conference has come from the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God George O. Wood. I am including it here. It is a model of generosity of spirit in the face of backstabbing by fellow conservative Christians. I fear I could not be so kind and gentle. In fact, I would like to issue a warning to the Strange Fire folks that they may be in danger of offending the Holy Spirit themselves. Sounding a warning about excesses and aberrations rampant in some Pentecostal and charismatic quarters is one thing; condemning the whole movement as “counterfeit” is simply verging on sinning against the Holy Spirit.
Here is Wood’s response to Strange Fire:
From the General Superintendent’s Office
Statement Regarding Strange Fire Conference
Recently, Dr. John MacArthur and Grace to You Ministries hosted the Strange Fire
Conference at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.
Dr. MacArthur believes that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit ceased with the close of the
Apostolic Era and that the Pentecostal and charismatic movements are therefore
theologically aberrant at a foundational level.
By contrast, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians believe that “the promise [i.e., the
gift of the Holy Spirit] is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all
whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). With this promise comes the evidential
sign of speaking in other tongues and power to be witnesses of Jesus Christ “to the
ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, 2:4, cf. Luke 24:49). Consequently, following the Apostle
Paul’s teaching, we “eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:1).
While there have been isolated aberrations of behavior and doctrine over the past
century among those who self-identify as Pentecostal or charismatic, the movement as
a whole has proved a vital force in world evangelization—a fulfillment of the promise
Jesus made to His disciples in Acts 1:8. On behalf of the 66 million adherents and
360,000+ churches in the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, I thank God that the
faith and life of the Acts 2 church are still being believed and experienced today.
The Assemblies of God celebrates 100 years in 2014 and remains committed to the full
authority of God’s Word. As a founding member of the National Association of
Evangelicals, the Assemblies of God has sought to cooperate in the Great Commission
with Christians of like-minded faith, even when they are not Pentecostal and charismatic
and we remain committed to that collaboration.
We trust the time will come when Dr. John MacArthur and those who share his
perspective will acknowledge the great contribution that Pentecostals and Charismatics
are making in the evangelization of individuals without Christ. We pray God’s blessings
on their efforts to share His gospel with a lost and dying world. Pentecostals and
charismatics are their co-laborers in this effort so we ask that they would similarly pray
for God’s blessing on us as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission that God has given
George O. Wood
General Superintendent, The General Council of the Assemblies of God
Chairman, World Assemblies of God Fellowship