The Strangest Fire

I grew up charismatic, in the 80′s and 90′s.

I grew up in a family that joined a pioneering kind of Pentecostal stream flowing out of the Jesus Movement of the 70′s, a stream that had strong pastoral personalities founding brand new churches, some of them mega, and even denominations, schools, TV stations, and seminaries. Part and parcel of this pioneering experience was an atmosphere of resistance from the non-charismatic church. There was a kind of scorn that developed among the Billy Graham Baptist evangelicals toward us crazy charismatics. Books and tapes and “discernment ministries” abounded telling of the eeeevils of charismatic Christianity. It was anti-intellectual, cultish…even O-ccultish. It was basically the church’s own version of Dungeons & Dragons.

There was also rejection and persecution from Christian family and friends when someone would get baptized in the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues, and join a Spirit-filled church. My parents experienced this rejection firsthand, and our family ethos was framed by a sense of persecution from the fundamentalists. The rhetoric, of course, then went both ways – WE were the alive church with genuine faith in a God who still does powerful things, while THEY were the dead church stuck in lifeless knowledge, stale religion, and nominal faith.

John MacArthur has long been one of the strongest voices opposing charismatic Christianity in America, and most of us charismatics viewed him as a kind of arch-nemesis in those days. We were also intimidated by him and by other leaders who seemed “intellectual.” Since our particular tributary in he stream was mainly led by untrained pastors whose casual charisma galvanized followers around exciting new spiritual experiences and ideas, the suited and tied academic in the pulpit armed with a doctorate and that thing called “theology” was pretty threatening. Instead of arguing, we avoided. We called it dead religion and moved on.

Of course, MacArthur has now launched another salvo against charismatics, this time lamenting the spread of Pentecostalism (and its ugliest manifestation, the prosperity gospel) globally, such that world missions is rife with tongue-talking, vision-having, prophecy-shouting “believers” (scare quotes MacArthur’s). This isn’t surprising for any of us charismatics. But it is a next (final?) logical step in MacArthur’s attack. The verdict is very simply that this global charismaticism is “strange fire,” an unbiblical, unChristian, and demonic last days deception. The adherents are likely hellbound, the set to whom Jesus will say, “You cast out demons, you prophesied, you did many wonderful works, sure. But, depart from me, I never knew you.”

The good thing about MacArthur’s strident claims is that they border on a degree of absurdity. What, substantially, does so distinguish charismatics and their Pentecostal mission from cessationists as to render the former hellbound and the latter unquestionably redeemed? It is, really, nothing except intellectual (gospel) content and a strong conservative cultural bias. And that’s where the beef of this critique is revealed: it is a somewhat elitist white critique, with a whole lot of anger at the “liberal” diversity infecting both American culture and the church. Since charismaticism is an inherently diversifying force in the church (black Americans! Women! Young people! Uneducated people!) and is wildly successful missionally in non-western nations, it presents a fearsome threat to established fundamentalist (mainly white) Christianity. Which makes sense: threatening homogeneity and self-absorbed religious power is, really, the whole point of Pentecost.

But the bad thing about MacArthur’s critique is that it continues to polarize the conversation about the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. And while I don’t think that his critique will gain much traction as the paradigm shift (schism?) within western evangelicalism continues, I do think it sets back the potential for charismatic Christianity to positively and creatively reform – not to mention the hope of unity in the church in general. His extreme critique creates a pendulum-like reaction in which ALL critique of charismatic expression is equal – an uncharitable, elitist, fundamentalist attack.

But the fact is that a careful, loving critique of charismatic Christianity is vitally needed. It is needed if abuses like prosperity theology are to be corrected and reformed. It is needed if some of the unhealthy leadership dynamics that seem all too common – cults of personality, unethical handling of power and finances, spiritual and emotional abuse – are to be addressed.

But one thing is certain. MacArthur’s critique backfires on its own claims to divine purity against diabolical power. The Holy Spirit is doing wondrous things the world over, rendering MacArthur’s book – not global charismatic Christianity – the strangest fire of all.

Experts who had come from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! He casts out demons by the prince of demons!” Jesus summoned them and spoke to them in pictures. “How can the Accuser cast out the Accuser? If a kingdom splits into two factions, it can’t last; if a household splits into two factions, it can’t last. So if the Accuser revolts against himself and splits into two, he can’t last—his time is up! But remember: no one can get into a strong man’s house and steal his property unless first they tie up the strong man; then they can plunder his house. I’m telling you the truth: people will be forgiven all sins, and all blasphemies of whatever sort. But people who blaspheme the holy spirit will never find forgiveness. They will be guilty of an eternal sin.” That was his response to their claim that he had an unclean spirit. /Mark 3

What do you think of MacArthur’s critique – and of the cessationist/charismatic debate in general? Do you have any constructive/creative critique of the charismatic movement? Is there some hope to be found in this conversation?

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.

  • Mike H.

    Hey Zach, Rob McAlpine has done a great job in this area. His book is called Post Charismatic. Fair and balanced.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      thanks for the heads up!

  • jaydpotter

    Spot on. I do have some fairly major issues with the charismatic/Pentecostal movement, mostly when it’s taken in the direction of prosperity (un)Gospel, and when supposed manifestations of the spirit actually seem to oppose what is written about spiritual gifts et al. But with that said the critique (as it should go for any branch of Christianity) is to acknowledge the critique from within the house (to use Lewis’ metaphor of the house of Xianity) in a manner that calls them brothers and sisters just as Paul did when he corrected “false” teaching.

    I would also note that if you took most of MacArthur’s criticism and changed words from charismatic or Pentecostal to reformed, fundamental or evangelical, the argument could be made much the same to his own theological camp.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      absolutely jay, great points.

  • Charissa Bowar

    So this reminds me of the post you put up about T.D Jakes and Tyler perry giving away a million dollars etc…While I absolutely disagree with the stance, and what seems to be the heart, of John MacArthur’s arguments. I do see problems with the charismatic movement and the marriage with celebrity christianity. Any thoughts about the girl with the prophetic spirit in acts 16, whose oracles made a lot money from her until paul cast the spirit out? she was proclaiming ‘god most high’ and ‘salvation’ but it meant something different to the culture than paul’s message ie. zeus and wealth, or prosperity. Do we see any similarities in the celebrity Christianity now?

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Charissa that’s a great point, and a needed critique. MacArthur simply errs on the opposite extreme – which hurts the positive reform that could come from points like the one you are making. So yes, I totally think that applies to prosperity/celebrity Christianity!

  • AtalantaBethulia

    When holding the “proper” orthodoxy becomes the foundational and defining element of faith, there will be no shortage of disagreement. The Church needs a reformation, but MacArthur, I believe, would put himself outside of being included in that reform. Humility is an essential element to objectivity. While I have my doubts and criticisms of the Charismatic Movement in general and am not in support of the Prosperity Gospel in particular, John MacArthur lives in a glass house. I imagine he would likely have an (unfavorable) opinion of Mysticism and gnosis as well. An underlying theme in Fundamentalism is an effort to discredit any revelation of God that is extra-biblical and can be subjective. This focusses on Scripture as the final, objective authority and allows for greater control, something dear to authoritarians.

    Claims of certainty tend to be expressions of how we see through a glass darkly. We should take care not to unnecessarily limit our understanding of how God chooses to reveal God’s self.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      yes, great points.

  • Marlena Proper-Graves

    I really appreciate this critique. You zeroed in on McArthur’s blindness while also pointing out the errors and abuses in the charismatic tradition. Every stream in Christianity has its errors and abuses, its sin. All of our denominations have spiritual cancers. Yet we also bring life to one another and to the world through God’s work in us. We dare not make the type of broad denunciations that MacArthur is making. I think the different denominations also serve like parts of the body of Christ. Some of us are arms or legs or mouths or eyes etc. We are correctives to one another. Together we make God glad.

    An aside: it seems like some people do not know how to function unless they have a nemesis. They have to have something to be against so they have something with which to contrast themselves. I think that’s why my friend and others call such people “Fighting Fundies.”

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Marlena, this is just awesome. Especially this: “We are correctives to one another.” That’s a beautiful insight into how real unity in diversity ought to function.

  • http://thingsfindothinks.com/ Findo

    I got sent a link to the stream, and listen for about 20mins… not sure who was talking (wasn’t Macarthur though) and I just got frustrated. As you point out, there are legitimate concerns and excesses (if not some downright heretical teachings) out there under the broad umbrella of charismaticism, but frankly, it seemed disingenuous to be talking about excesses and then quote Grudem in the same breath.. I mean, if guys like Grudem, Piper and Carson are already off the charismatic chart, then we’re in trouble! :D

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