Dividing Lines 1: The Charismatic Gifts

Some people divide evangelicals into two groups – the charismatics and the noncharismatics over the issue of “spiritual gifts”. This is probably over-simplistic and three groups would be a bit more representative (as Jeremy Pierce pointed out responding to my rather vague description of charismatic in an earlier post).

The name charismatic comes from a Greek word used in 1 Cor 12 to describe “spiritual gifts”. Of course, a large number of spiritual gifts are non-contentious (such as teaching, administration etc) and are often referred to as “natural”. However, there are a number that are patently supernatural such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, healings and miracles. The first of our three groups are known as cessationists – they believe that the general availability of these gifts has ceased. They have various biblical and historical arguments for this, and therefore view any claims to modern day manifestations of these gifts as spurious.

Then we have the charismatics, who have existed in small numbers throughout church history, but exploded onto the scene in the last 100 years or so with the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. They actively seek God for more manifestations of these supernatural gifts, especially prophecy, tongues and healing. It would be considered somewhat disappointing for a few meetings to go by without these gifts being evidenced. Tongues speaking in private is also stressed as an important spiritual discipline.

Finally there are the noncharismatics, who are the hardest to define. They sometimes call themselves “open but cautious” with regards to these spiritual gifts. They consider the charismatics to be right in saying that the gifts are available, but wrong in the way they emphasise them and make them so important. Many are deeply concerned about some of the practises and attitudes in charismatic churches, even doubting whether the Spirit of God is truly at work, but they do not attempt to argue a cessationist stance, and are theoretically willing to welcome these gifts in their own churches should God so desire to bestow them. But the onus is most definitely on God to give – they have no plans to ask. So the difference between a charismatic and a noncharismatic is not so much about doctrine but emphasis and a debate between the two rarely has them completely disagreeing but repeatedly saying “Yes, but…”.

Don Carson, who would probably classify himself a “noncharismatic”, writes of the suspicion with which the noncharismatics (including the cessationists here) view the charismatics, and vice versa:

It is probably fair to say that both charismatics and noncharismatics (if I may continue to use those terms in nonbiblical ways) often cherish neat stereotypes of the other party. As judged by the charismatics, noncharismatics tend to be stodgy traditionalists who do not really believe the Bible and who are not really hungry for the Lord. They are afraid of profound spiritual experience, too proud to give themselves wholeheartedly to God, more concerned for ritual than for reality and more in love with propositional truth than truth incarnate. They are better at writing theological tomes than at evangelism; they are defeatist in outlook, defensive in stance, dull in worship, and devoid of the Spirit’s power in their personal experience. The noncharismatics themselves, of course, tend to see things a little differently. The charismatics, they think, have succumbed to the modern love of “experience”, even at the expense of truth. Charismatics are thought to be profoundly unbiblical, especially when they elevate their experience of tongues to the level of theological and spiritual shibboleth. If they are growing, no small part of their strength can be ascribed to their raw triumphalism, their populist elitism, their promise of shortcuts to holiness and power. They are better at splitting churches and stealing sheep than they are at evangelism, more accomplished in spiritual one-upmanship before other believers than in faithful, humble service. They are imperialistic in outlook (only they have the “full gospel”), abrasive in stance, uncontrolled in worship, and devoid of any real grasp of the Bible that goes beyond mere proof-texting.

I can testify that Carson’s portrayal of the attitudes of these groups towards each other is all too often accurate. What is more sad is that also in many cases the substance of the allegations is fairly accurate as well. But I do not believe that these weaknesses on each side should cause us to simply choose which group’s failings we feel most comfortable with and decide whether we are more comfortable being in a “Word-based” noncharismatic church or a “Spirit-led” charismatic church. As I discussed in my previous post, I am convinced that an evangelical appreciation of the Word is not incompatible with a charismatic experience of the Spirit. This, I know is the goal of many churches, including those in New Frontiers, which the church I belong to is part of. There are other groups too, like Sovereign Grace who have a similar passion, as well as growing numbers of churches within the established denominations. My prayer is that they will achieve this right balance of emphasis and which will move us some way to a point where the labels “charismatic” and “noncharismatic” will no longer be necessary.

1 thought on “Dividing Lines 1: The Charismatic Gifts

  1. Pingback: My Reformed Charismatic Journey Part 1 « wordandspirit

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