Come Holy Spirit? (Mar – Apr 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by Randy Harris
March – April, 1996

I resonate with the response of the person who, after having the Trinity explained by use of the account of the baptism of Jesus, replied, “Honorable Father I understand and Honorable Son I understand, but Honorable Bird I do not understand.” I admit that I have grown up with a somewhat impoverished view of the Holy Spirit, a weakness in my theology I am attempting to correct and not a moment too soon!

There seems to be a new “Holy Spirit” movement afoot which is having considerable appeal to members of Churches of Christ. This new movement should not be confused with Pentecostalism or Neo-Pentacostalism (often called charismatic) since it differs in theology and expression from these earlier movements in significant ways. The acquaintance of members of Churches of Christ with this phenomenon comes largely through the ministry of Jack Deere and his book Surprised by the Power of the Spirit.

Space will not permit me to lay out a comprehensive “pneumatology” (doctrine of the Holy Spirit) here. To be honest, space is the least of my problems. I don’t have the knowledge or ability! I will instead offer a few observations about this new movement and leave the reader to put them in their proper broader context.

Three Movements

Pentecostalism in its classic expression raises images of wildly emotional services lasting for hours in which the worshipers are whipped into a frenzy and eventually begin speaking in tongues (not to be understood as any known foreign language). This speaking in tongues is seen as a sign of spirituality (or at least spiritual maturity). One who speaks in tongues is seen as spiritually more advanced than one who does not. This presents profound and obvious theological problems. Paul makes it abundantly clear in First Corinthians 12-14 that love, not tongue speaking, is the expression of mature spirituality, and further, that trying to get everyone to attain the same gift is wrong-headed. (“If the whole body were an eye….”) There is the further problem that these gifts are a result of God’s graciousness to the church, not the result of human pursuit.

Although the charismatic movement of the 1960s and ‘70s is sometimes reviewed as warmed-over Pentecostalism, I am convinced there are important theological differences. The emphasis on the “second work of grace” of Pentecostalism has disappeared, where the tongue-speaking is viewed as virtually a second conversion experience. The charismatic movement appears to be more a quest for “spirit-filled worship” where spirit-filled may be expressed by both emotions and tongue-speaking.

I don’t believe the theological problems here are as severe but they are not absent. Paul’s injunction about how the charismatic expressions are to be prioritized are routinely ignored. (No more than two or three and someone must interpret; the prophet’s ability to control his or her own utterance; little emphasis on other gifts.) It is interesting that a number of charismatic churches still have emotive services but tongue-speaking is seldom practiced in the assembly.

The third movement, with which I am currently concerned, differs from the other two. It differs from Pentecostalism in that it has none of the above problems. It differs from the charismatic movement in that it is not driven by the quest for more emotive worship and tongue-speaking is not its primary experience; healing and revelation are.

I merely want to point out that the old theological arguments which can be raised against Pentecostalism, and all the arguments about the nature of tongue-speaking and how to verify it, which were raised against the charismatics, do not touch this new movement. (There can be little question about how one would verify whether certain kinds of healing take place!)

Legitimate Fears

Nonetheless, there are some legitimate fears which one can raise about this new movement. Let me point out six:

    1. Too much focus on physical healing can de-emphasize our spiritual ministry. As Jesus does his miracles in Mark, the most common reaction of the people is amazement. They follow Jesus everywhere so it is sometimes impossible for the apostles even to eat! But from Mark’s point of view this is not faith. Faith is expressed by being willing to follow Jesus to the cross. Jesus is not just a wonder-worker. He is the dying Lord. Too much focus on physical healing may draw people to the church building without drawing them to the cross!

 

  • Spiritual superiority. Jack Deere’s book works very hard to avoid this problem (I chalk this up to the author’s heart and integrity) but not entirely successfully. Since Churches of Christ have a long history of being the ones with the “right answers,” I cringe at the notion of another subset of people who, once confused, now see what the rest can’t. The subtitle of Deere’s book is “A Former Dallas Seminary Professor Discovers that God Speaks and Heals Today.” The condescension can hardly be missed.

 

 

  • Closely related to number one, we may lose sight of what Paul says the fruit of the Spirit is—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The primary work of God is to transform our hearts, not to improve our circulation.

 

 

  • The star syndrome. Are we preparing to create a new cast of church celebrities who will display their remarkable gifts of healing and revelations, and draw huge crowds to see their wonder-working and will this result in the glory of God?

 

 

  • Disappointed expectations. Although Deere attempts to argue the point (unconvincingly, in my opinion) that the apostles and even Jesus couldn’t always heal successfully, I wonder how people will react to our failures, especially in such cases as AIDS where we truly need some miraculous intervention. Beware lest we wreck more faith than we engender.

 

 

  • Decentering of the Word. It is always possible that the phenomenon of revelation would cause us to lose our focus on the revelation. I recently learned about a claim of the Spirit revealing to a person something he should do. I was fascinated because Scripture had spoken specifically to this issue and gave contrary instruction. The person decided that the Spirit had special plans for him. This raises the concern often expressed that with the Word we have an objective standard, but all of this “experience stuff” is hopelessly subjective.

 

On the Other Hand…

A careful reader will note that none of the above criticisms are evidence enough to totally deny the practices. That is, it would be possible to have a ministry of healing and revelation that had none of the above problems! In other words, I have thrown up no stop sign but only a caution light. A warning against faddishness is always in order!

But is there a stop sign in Scripture? I can easily say I do not find all of Deere’s handling of Scripture convincing. But, how about my own case? I cannot lay out my whole understanding of the crucial passages here, but I do want to say that the theological position I finally come to is the result of conclusions drawn from a variety of biblical witnesses and not the result of the clear and unambiguous teaching of a passage (I find the argument for cessation of spiritual gifts drawn from First Corinthians 13:10 unconvincing, but the passage definitely is not unambiguous.) There is always the possibility my conclusions are wrong.

This new movement challenges us to re-study and re-think the concept of the reign of God and what that might mean in our day. This challenge ought to be accepted. It is time to open our Bibles and reason together — not scream at each other or impugn each other’s faith, motives, or spirituality. Does this ask too much?

I freely admit this movement has no appeal to me, just as the previous two do not. Some have observed that I do not have a charismatic bone in my body. But personal taste aside, I also believe I have a theological case to make about the peculiar function of the miraculous in the ministry of Jesus and the early church. (One’s final conclusion as to the validity of any faith expression must be filtered through biblical theology.) I do not, however, wish to tell God what he may or may not do.

I am now left with the uneasy feeling that I have written an article that will please no one. (I can already see those cards and letters coming in!) I have neither jumped on board nor condemned as heresy this new expression. Integrity allows me neither option. Would it make sense to you if I said that as I have gotten older I am both more skeptical and more open? In the end my opinion won’t matter anyway, for in the fullness of time God will be who God will be….Wineskins Magazine

Randy Harris

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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