Is the “New Apostolic Reformation Movement” a Cult?
Over the past several years I have received many e-mails asking for my opinion about something called the “New Apostolic Reformation Movement” (NARM). A few acquaintances have expressed profound concern about it—fearing that it might be an attempt by some conservative Christians to take over America for Christian fundamentalism. I have heard it briefly alluded to in some new broadcasts and commentaries—always as sinister if not downright pernicious.
One name is usually associated with the NARM—C. Peter Wagner. I have never met Wagner, but I have known of him for many years—as an evangelical scholar of world religions and missions at Fuller Theological Seminary. He came to public attention among evangelicals in a new way during the 1990s when he co-taught a course on miraculous “signs and wonders” at Fuller that attracted many students and much attention—some of it very critical. His co-teacher was John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement.
Because a friend kept asking me for my opinion about the NARM I wrote to Wagner and asked him for a brief explanation of it that would specifically address my friend’s concerns (which were also concerns of many strangers who e-mailed me about it). My friend believed the NARM was a kind of Trojan Horse dedicated to taking over America for conservative Christian politics (read “Religious Right”). The thought it was a theocratic movement aimed at infiltrating government and using it to impose conservative values.
Wagner’s written response to my inquiry was helpful, assuaging my friend’s concerns—or at least attempting to. He recommended that I read one of his books about the movement. One thing I learned from Wagner about the NARM is that it is no headquarters or “guru.” He, Wagner, is mainly a friendly scholar of the movement—not its leader. And the closer I looked at the NARM the less convinced I was that it is a cohesive movement at all. It seems more like a kind of umbrella term for a loose collection of independent ministries that have a few common interests. In other words, I would call it an affinity more than a movement.
I have examined the web sites of several independent evangelists who claim to represent that affinity at the heart of the NARM. So far none of them seem blatantly heretical. Eccentric, non-mainline, a bit fanatical, maybe. But there is no “office” that governs the NARM; anyone can claim to be part of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some independent ministers and evangelists who use the NARM “brand” who are sinister in some ways.
Because Wagner is widely recognized as the scholar who recognized the NARM and has tracked it and backed it, I turn to him for clarification about what it really is. Some time ago Wagner published and disseminated a brief clarifying statement attempting to bring some order out of the chaos of opinions being expressed about the NARM. The title is “The New Apostolic Reformation: An Update.” I fear it may be copyrighted, so I am not re-publishing it here. You can search for it using an internet search engine. In fact, I urge you to read it if you are concerned about the NARM.
According to Wagner “NARM” is simply a name he invented to label an extremely diverse and widespread movement throughout the world. I would add that it is part (not the whole) of what some scholars are calling “Renewalism”—another umbrella term for charismatic-Pentecostal-Third Wave Christians worldwide. What distinguishes the NARM, according to Wagner, is belief that the “five ministries” mentioned in the New Testament should still function within Christianity: pastor, teacher, evangelist, prophet, apostle. (Most Christians assume at least the office of apostle ceased with the death of Jesus’ last disciple John and most collapsed prophet into pastor-teacher which many consider one office.) According to Wagner, NARM people also believe that God still speaks to his people—beyond the words of Scripture and mere Scripture interpretation (“illumination”)—but that all prophetic utterances must be judged by consistency with Scripture. Finally, according to Wagner, the NARM is interested in Christians permeating society with Christian values but not by force. Christians, NARM people believe, should take “Kingdom values” into their work places and seek to integrate them with their decisions and actions in the public spheres of life. I suppose this is where some critics get very worried and assume the NARM is infected with “Dominion Theology”—belief that Christians should dominate government and enforce conservative Christian beliefs and values on everyone.
However, liberal Christians have long sought to integrate their values with their public decisions and actions. What was the Social Gospel? What is Liberation Theology? Liberal-leaning Christians need to be careful about criticizing conservative Christians for doing what they have done (or attempted to do) for over a century. “Christ transforming culture” is nothing new; H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about it in Christ and Culture years ago. What’s good for the goose….
I have no doubt that if one peers into every corner of the NARM one can find cultish behavior on the parts of some people who associate themselves with it. As Wagner describes it, however, I have no serious qualms about it being a cult or cultic—which is not to say I agree with it. It’s far too unorganized to be “a cult.” I do not suspect Wagner of being a promoter of cultic or cultish beliefs or behaviors. I think many critics of the NARM are simply paranoid. Others are Christian fundamentalists (e.g., many in the anti-cult industry) who tend to label anything other than themselves as cults.
The one thing that concerns me about Wagner and his vision of the NARM is his reported statement that it is a revival of the Latter Rain Movement that divided Pentecostalism especially in North America in the 1940s and 1950s. Embedded within the Latter Rain Movement was a common belief in “the manifest sons of God”—men (perhaps some women) who could, through the power of the Holy Spirit, rise above mere mortal humanity and become supernatural beings with super powers. This was reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s opponents at Corinth—the “super apostles”—who defended their claim to be superior to Paul by appeal to miracles they claimed to perform at will. If I could advise Wagner and other NARM people I would tell them to drop any reference to the Latter Rain Movement as a precursor of the NARM and to strictly avoid any hint of its manifest sons of God doctrine.