Friday, September 30, 2016

Awkward Continuationist: Both/And

In any group of people -- spending a lot of time together, growing in community and working alongside each other -- tidbits of jargon appear.

Jargon isn't a bad thing, if you take the time to explain what you mean. At its best, jargon serves as a sort of "verbal short-hand", where complex ideas can be quickly communicated without having to go into all the details each and every time.

For example, Canadians know instantly what the term "double-double" means (two cream, two sugar in the coffee, please and thank you). It's jargon, but it's almost universally understood in this country. It only becomes a problem if you use the phrase outside of Canada and expect people will know what you're talking about.

A well-known phrase (among many) within the Vineyard is: "evangelical in theology, charismatic in practice". It has often been explained as, "the best of both worlds: the solid preaching of the evangelicals and the open-ness to the Spirit of the charismatics".
Of course, even though we use the phrase as a compliment to both groups, it sometimes backfires. Evangelicals have reacted, "What do you mean? Are you insinuating we don't have the Spirit?"
And pentecostals/charismatics have wondered, "What are you saying? That we have lousy preaching?"
The phrase got me thinking about the "radical middle" between evangelical and charismatic, and specifically, what I really appreciate about my evangelical roots. On one hand, it's pretty basic. But on the other, I keep meeting Christians who are just now discovering (or searching for) the same things. A few examples:

1. God loves me. Period.
There is nothing I can say or do that will make Him love me more.
There is nothing I can say or do that will make Him love me less.
2. There is no condemnation.
I'm always amazed at how many Christians walk around feeling condemned. It's a problem for every generation, it seems. I'm thankful to have learned that the story of St. Paul's struggle with sin in Romans 7 is answered immediately in Romans 8.
3. God is not one-dimensional.
God is quite capable of loving us and yet also despising our sin and its effects.
God can be angry at injustice and yet show mercy to the perps.
He is the Holy King, Lord, God Almighty, and Jesus calls us friends.
God is Judge, and God is Father.
These are just a few, but I'm grateful to my evangelical upbringing for teaching them to me.

"Evangelical" has become the favorite scapegoat for just about anyone with a bone to pick or an axe to grind. But I would like to suggest that if some Christians have never learned that there is no condemnation (for example), the problem isn't evangelicalism. If anything, it might just show that some churches haven't been evangelical enough.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Awkward Continuationist: Family Feud


When you are a continuationist, one of the more bizarre realities that you have to wrestle with is that some of your harshest critics are other Christians.

You know, your extended spiritual family. And as the saying goes:
“You can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives.”
And one of our crazy cousins—the unpredictable one you would think twice about inviting to the annual summer family BBQ—is John F. MacArthur. He’s written three (count ’em, three) books attacking all things pentecostal and charismatic, with each one getting progressively meaner and more volatile.

The first book was 1978’s The Charismatics, which you wouldn’t exactly call complimentary. But it did at least close with the chapter: “What We Can Learn From Charismatics.”

By the time Charismatic Chaos was published in 1992—largely a rehash of the first book—the closing chapter was gone. Apparently, there was nothing to learn from charismatics, after all.
Full Disclosure:

I read The Charismatics while still in high school, via the three-month installments made available in Moody Monthly magazine. And I purchased a copy (hardcover, even!) of Charismatic Chaos when it first came out. I read it, front to back, several times. My reasons, at the time, were two-fold:
  1. It was the best-selling book of the year in our local Christian bookstore, and I knew I had better be aware of what Cousin John was saying. Sort of a continuationist application of “always be ready to give a reason” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
  2. I thought there might be some helpful critique that we continuationists needed to hear.
Boy, was I disappointed on item #2. The numerous misrepresentations, exaggerations, caricatures, and generally sloppy research resulted in the book having no redemptive value. Plus, the shrill hyperbole and hysterical tone made Cousin John sound like he was cussing out his enemies, not addressing his brothers and sisters in Christ with love and respect, even in disagreement.
Rich Nathan wrote an excellent response to Cousin John’s section on the Vineyard, which you can download for free here.
But, never one to leave well-enough alone, Cousin John did it again in 2013 with Strange Fire. This time around, I knew better than to waste my hard-earned money and meager book budget on it. But through the modern miracle of Amazon’s Look Inside preview, I was able to verify the following quote from the book’s preface:
“Charismatics now number more than half a billion worldwide. Yet the gospel that is driving those surging numbers is not the true gospel, and the spirit behind them is not the Holy Spirit. What we are seeing is in reality the explosive growth of a false church, as dangerous as any cult or heresy that has ever assaulted Christianity. The Charismatic Movement was a farce and a scam from the outset; it has not changed into something good.

“This is the hour for the true church to respond… There must be a collective war against the pervasive abuses on the Spirit of God. This book is a call to join the cause for His honor.”
(John F. MacArthur, Strange Fire?, page xvii)
Um, yeah. You really want to go there, Cousin John?
  • A “false gospel,” you say?
  • As dangerous as any cult or heresy?
  • It’s time to declare war on continuationists?

I think it’s safe to say that Cousin John is confusing “gospel” with “secondary teachings.” For example, believing in the gift of tongues (or not) has absolutely zero effect on the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. Believing that God still heals and performs miracles today (or not) has no impact on Jesus being the Way, the Truth, and the Life and the only way to the Father (John 14:6). You’d be hard-pressed to find any difference in the gospel being preached by MacArthur and that of the overwhelming majority of continuationists.

Cousin John has gone beyond the bare facts of the gospel and added cessationism to the mix. The irony is quite glaring: Cousin John is upset at some of the secondary doctrines in the continationist camp (Word Faith, NAR, for example), and yet his secondary doctrine of cessationism is just as biblically indefensible (you could call it false teaching without exaggerating).

Cousin John is right to be concerned about some of the wacky secondary teachings in certain continuationist circles. I wouldn’t have taken the time and effort to write Post-Charismatic (and the resulting flak) if I didn’t agree. The bathwater needs cleaning. But that’s a far cry from words like false gospel, cult, heresy, or war.

At this point, it would be very tempting to just write off Cousin John as a grumpy curmudgeon with an axe to grind. But then I remember something John Wimber once said:
“Your brother is never your enemy, even when he acts like it.”
So, Cousin John, we may never have a BBQ together this side of eternity, and it would appear that a snowball in hell has a greater chance of survival than you and I agreeing on everything. But despite our differences, and our disagreements, you are my brother.

Yes, that’s right. You’re stuck with me.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Awkward Continuationist: Revival ≠ Circus

Revival.
 
Now, there’s a word that comes pre-loaded with all manner of mental images, assumptions, and expectations.  

photo source: Wikicommons

To be “revived,” if we are going to be carefully specific, means that what was once alive, and then died, has been brought to life again. For example, a drowning victim who begins to breathe once more after a lifeguard’s intervention.

Or when a patient’s heart stops on the operating table, and the next thing you hear is: “Clear!” Kah-CHUNK! beep-beep-beep… “We’ve got a pulse.”

In popular usage, of course, revive can also refer to any number of topics beyond the rigid understanding of life or death.

A Shakespearean play can be “revived” following years of non-performance. An interest in a personal hobby can be revived once the demands of our schedules have become better balanced.

Among Christians, of course, the term revival is used to refer to anything ranging from a pre-planned series of meetings with invited guest speakers/evangelists, to a sovereign and unexpected move of the Holy Spirit.

But even in these cases, to be revived presupposes that you were once alive, but had become spiritually dull, dismissive, or embraced deliberate denial. Revival is not the same as evangelism. When people first become Christians, they are not being brought back to life; they are entering into spiritual life for the first time (Ephesians 2:1-6).
Revival is for believers.
You can see it in the Old Testament, when the people of Israel—God’s chosen people—have a collective wake-up call regarding the destitute state of their spiritual lives. They respond by renewing their commitment to the Covenant with their heavenly Father. It was typically a time of sombre reflection, repentance, and “coming back.”

Examples include when Nehemiah reads the Covenant to the people (who apparently hadn’t heard it in a long, long time) and they responded with tears and repentance (Nehemiah 8:1-12). Likewise, when King Josiah heard the Book of the Covenant for the first time, he responded with deep repentance and “came back,” and led his whole nation in corporate repentance as well (2 Kings 22, 23:1-25).

The message of the OT prophets could also be summed up as calling people to “come back” (repent) and follow God with all of their hearts.

Even Jesus’ last words in the New Testament—the letters to the seven churches in Revelation—echo this same sense of “turn back” (Revelation 2 & 3).
Revival has always had a connection to repentance (turning back) and following God whole-heartedly.
Unfortunately in the 21st century, we have all-too-often made revival look more like a three-ring circus than a genuine move of the Holy Spirit. As soon as anyone gets a whiff that God is stirring people, it is only a matter of time before the Traveling Revival Roadshow arrives.

And—sadly but inevitably—celebrity leaders attach themselves to this latest “move,” the CD’s are recorded, the video DVD’s are packaged, the claims of miracles and healings are exaggerated (or invented), anyone who exercises discernment is buried alive under a deluge of charis-slogans, and eventually something causes it all to fall apart (again).

And then people are divided into two groups: (A) the disillusioned who give up, and (B) the die-hards who will just wait for the next circus sideshow anointed event, and do it all over again. (Nothing new under the sun; I wrote about this eight years ago.)
I am praying for a Holy Spirit revival. We desperately need the Real Thing.
Nothing qualifies me as an “awkward continuationist” more than the deep desire for revival—where Christians are so impacted by the Holy Spirit that they renounce sin in their own lives, are convicted of where they have compromised with the world’s thinking, and are emboldened to share their faith in the marketplace as they serve “the least of these.”
We don’t need another charismania three-ring circus.
We need—I need—a Holy Spirit-inspired revival that rocks our world and leads us back to Jesus.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Awkward Continuationist: Kingdom of God

“Is this church going Kingdom Now?”

She asked the question with a furrowed brow, mirroring the expression on her husband’s face as he hovered next to her.

Kingdom Now?” I replied. “Never heard of it. What do you mean?”

She gave me a quick thumb-nail sketch describing some of the signature teachings of Kingdom Now advocates, and my initial response was a cheerful: “No, we are definitely not going in that direction at this Vineyard. Not on my watch, anyway.”

She didn’t appear convinced. Her husband said nothing, but looked as if he wasn’t sure that he believed me, either.

And with good reason, I guess. They had been raised Pentecostal, which meant they were already very familiar with the Latter Rain movement, a.k.a. Kingdom Now, or Domininism. They recognized the “buzz words” that had begun showing up in our local Vineyard church.

I, on the other hand, had been raised in a cessationist evangelical denomination, and was blissfully unaware of the Latter Rain or its teachings. I had heard the same buzz words and thought they were strange, but didn’t understand the full implications.

After doing the background research for writing Post-Charismatic: Rekindle the Smoldering Wick, I now realize—in the perfect clarity which hindsight provides—why the concerned couple seemed unconvinced by my assurances that our Vineyard wasn’t moving in that direction. They saw the signs; I didn’t. (And, also in hindsight, they were right about the direction the church was shifting towards.)

The Kingdom of God is a very important concept throughout the Bible. It was Jesus’ introductory message during His earthly ministry: “repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” There are many denominations which explain it as the already and not yet—the Kingdom is “already” breaking into human history in the ministry of Jesus, and “not yet” because it won’t come in its fullness until the second coming of Jesus. George Ladd wrote eloquently on this topic is several of his books (which were my inspiration for writing The Genesis Cafe).

The similarity of language in the Latter Rain view is probably why a lot of people don’t recognize the trajectory away from orthodoxy. (And might also explain why people today are suddenly lauding its proponents like William Branham—I hope they’re just unaware of what he actually taught. But it would be nice if they would do their homework before promoting Branham.)

The already/not yet view of the Kingdom has some key points to emphasize against Kingdom Now teachings. While not an exhaustive list, this would include emphasizing:

  • Jesus brings the Kingdom; we do not hand it over to Him when He returns
  • Jesus will bring the Kingdom in its fullness when He is good and ready; He is not trapped in heaven until we complete the spread of the Kingdom
  • whenever healing occurs, it’s the Kingdom breaking in (conversely, whenever healing does not occur, it is a sign that the Kingdom is still “not yet”); as opposed to the idea that healing is 100% available on demand (there is some overlap with the Prosperity teaching on this point)
  • we participate in the Kingdom by responding to the voice/promptings of the Holy Spirit as we minister to others; we do not run ahead, assuming that we already know His will for the world
  • we, the church, are citizens in His Kingdom; the church is not the Kingdom
There were many other Latter Rain/Kingdom Now teachings that range from bizarre to heretical, but there isn’t space here to go into it (at the risk of blatant self-promotion, you could always read the book).

A biblical understanding of what the Kingdom of God is about would be a good antidote. As the saying goes, if you know the real thing, the counterfeit becomes obvious.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Awkward Continuationist

I was there when this album was recorded, oh-so-many years ago.

It was not the first time I'd been to something “Vineyard,” but it was the first extended (four day) time of enjoying worship and workshops.

It was a “high water mark” in my spiritual journey up to that point.

And yes, it also had a direct connection to getting fired by my church shortly after. But that’s a story best left in the past, where it belongs.

Ironically, my termination confirmed a corollary to something John Wimber had written a few years earlier:
Many [people] were not offended by the theory of divine healing; it was the practice of healing prayer that offended them.” (Power Healing, pg 49, emphasis in original)
The corollary, in this case, was the difference between believing the gifts of the Spirit are available today (which they did), and the practice of them (which they rejected). Long story short: attending the Worship Festival will always be a fond memory in my spiritual life.

Years earlier, when Wendy and I were dating/engaged, we usually attended a charismatic church near our Bible college because we really enjoyed the lively worship and the joyful zeal of our friends there.

The preaching made us cringe at times, but we were encouraged to know that quite a number in our “college ’n’ career” group had similar concerns. We invested many hours in local coffeeshops, discussing what we loved about the freshness in the worship, and debating the content of the sermons.
And at one point, Wendy and I gave voice to The Dream: “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a church that had the exegetical preaching of the evangelicals, and was also open to the charisma of the Spirit?”
In our Bible college, some of our required reading included books like Furnace of Renewal and Those Controversial Gifts by George Mallone, as well as Michael Green’s To Corinth, With Love and I Believe in the Holy Spirit

These books gave us hope that it might be possible to be evangelical in belief and charismatic in practice, without compromising sound theology or quenching the Spirit. And while I would (and still do) describe myself as evangelical (as per Bebbington’s quadrilateral), there had also been some powerful and unexpected encounters with the Holy Spirit that informed some of our desire to see some kind of “radical middle” between the two.

So in retrospect, the Worship Festival hosted by the Langley Vineyard was just another step in a journey that had begun years earlier.

Being a “continuationist” is almost as awkward as the word itself; the radical middle is hard to find and harder to maintain. Because people.

Bebbington’s Quadrilateral is a helpful (albeit broad) synopsis of evangelicalism. I am not aware of a widely accepted definition of continuationist. I think it would be safe to define it like this: a belief that all of the charisma (gifts of the Holy Spirit) are available today and necessary for the church to function biblically.
And there will be a plethora of caveats and permutations of what that looks like. There is nothing new under the sun. :)
Of course, I suppose continuationist could reasonably be called “vague,” because everything from Prosperity (Health and Wealth) on through to Latter Rain (New Apostolic Reformation) would also fit under that banner. It’s not unlike the term evangelical. You almost have to say “yeah, but which kind?”

Clearly, it’s awkward to call myself a continuationist, but at the very least, it has less negative baggage than the term charismatic.

I’d rather avoid turning negative at this point, and saying “well, yes I’m a continuationist but not like (fill in the blank).” It’s better to look at the foundational understanding of the context in which the charisma can function in a healthy, biblical, Spirit-honouring way.

And that foundation would be our understanding of the Kingdom of God.

Stay tuned. :)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Evangelical: Say What You Mean


image credit: CredoHouse

I wrote a post recently about how the term evangelical seems to have been co-opted and caricatured to the point where it has almost become meaningless. And possibly even detrimental. This came out of ongoing conversations with friends, representing a variety of denominations and age demographics, about whether or not the term evangelical could possibly be redeemed.

More than once, weve sadly lamented that its probably better to dump the word altogether. Irredeemable. Beyond hope. Deep-six that sucker. Ghost the term.

But the more I think about it, the more I have become convinced that abandoning the term evangelical  would be the wrong choice to make. And heres why:
  1. If having an honest conversation is the goal, then the term evangelical becomes a door-opener. Hey, do you have time for a coffee? Id love to explain, as an evangelical, what the term means to me . . .
  2. If people are just looking for a quick way to write you off, and they have a stereotype caricature inaccurate understanding of the term, well . . . that was never a conversation in the first place.
(So why allow them to control the narrative and try to put you into a box that doesnt exist?)
The graphic at the beginning of this post is a good summary, and I like providing solid explanations in a visual arts medium. But at the same time, its full of a lot of insider-jargon that could make any conversation over coffee long and one-sided.

A more basic approach might be to start with the four key elements that describe evangelicalism as introduced by David Bebbington in what has become known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral (in one of his earlier books)There are ranges of opinion and nuance under each of these four items, but as a broad description, it works:
  1. Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  2. Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross making salvation possible
  3. Conversionism: the belief that each person must choose to follow Jesus (oldskewl: be born again)
  4. Activism: the gospel is a marketplace faith and societal impact is the fruit (missions & ministry among the poor and marginalized)
I would probably insist strongly recommend that you put it into your own words, so you dont sound like an encyclopedial parrot. For starters, you dont need to call it a quadrilateral or give a biographical sketch about who David Bebbington is.

Just sum it up in your own personal-speak:
  1. The Bible is a Big Deal: when its teachings and my life dont match up, guess who needs to change?
  2. Jesus was crucified so we can have life. Yes, He loves us so much, that He would voluntarily go to that extreme.
  3. Nobody is born a Christian, you have to make a choice to surrender to Jesus. And keep surrendering (that's called 'discipleship').
  4. Faith in Jesus is a private decision that is expressed in the public square. By serving, not by being obnoxious.
However you might choose to put it into words, I think its time for those of us who are evangelical to stop playing possum when people misrepresent who we are and what we believe.

So when you hear somebody make a comment about typical evangelical and you suspect they dont really know what the term means, why not invite them into a conversation about it? Buy their coffee.
Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. (1 Peter 3:15)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Reclaiming the Co-opted Label

Historically, fundamentalism was a theological position; only gradually did the movement come to signify a mood and disposition as well. In its early [years], leadership reflected ballast, and less of bombast and battle . . .

If [liberalism] stands discredited as a perversion of the scriptural theology, certainly fundamentalism in this contemporary expression stands discredited as a perversion of the Biblical spirit. (Carl F.H. Henry, 1957)

The above quote was originally published almost 60 years ago, in Christianity Today magazine, to delineate the differences between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Both groups shared some key beliefsprimarily the need for conversion by faith in Jesusbut there were some significant cultural differences. The fightin fundies railed against liberals, culture in general, and each other, while evangelicals were firm in their theological beliefs but more culture-neutral.

My friends & I at ThinkTheology.org have had an ongoing & lively debate over whether or not the label evangelical can be rescued from the caricatures that have been created around it in the past decade or so. Ive been an advocate for keeping the term, but after watching the current presidential spectacle south of the 49th parallel (USofA), I am less optimistic. Heres why:
As the Wittenburg Door cover at top left suggests, there once was a recognizable difference between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. Todaysomehowthe fundies have been conflated with the evangelicals, and right-wing fundamentalism is now labelled evangelical.
The Wittenburg Door issue (pictured above) poked fun at Liberty University and its founder Jerry Falwell, and included the satirical application form for Legalism Bible College. The Door (and their readers) knew what a fundamentalist was. And that evangelicalism was not the same thing.

Yet recently, Jerry Falwell Jr. & Liberty have been held forth by the media as an example of  evangelical.

Back in the day, we knew the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical. But somebody erased the distinction and lumped everybody under one handy label.

Even some of the pejorative phrases that people love to employ onlineie. bible-thumpingwhich one would normally associate with fundamentalism are now applied to evangelicalism as if they were one and the same.
It is difficult to redeem a word that has had its meaning co-opted and brought into disrepute. A recent example of this would be a gathering where I had been invited to lead worship, and also provide a brief testimonial about the value of higher theological education.

Everything went well, and as the meeting was adjourning, the seminary president (guest speaker for the event) shook my hand and thanked me for what I had shared, and for leading worship. He was all smiles and friendliness.

Until that fateful moment when I gave him copies (free!) of The Genesis Cafe (18 months' worth of research & writing) and Post-Charismatic (over two years of research & writing), while saying something to the effect that I thought he might be interested in the theological writings of one of his former students.
Ill never forget his reaction.
His smile froze, and he stopped shaking my hand. His only comment was, So—you would consider yourself a . . . charismatic, then?
Id be very surprised if he read either book. I had been labelled, categorized, and deep-sixed by the time hed finishing making his comment.
I told him that Id prefer to use the term continuationist,” and that Post-Charismatic would explain what I meant and why I thought it was important.

I admit that continuationist is an odd termits really just the opposite of cessationist, which is a familiar term to manybut my hope was that it might, potentially, hopefully spark enough interest that someone would ask what I meant by it.

And then I would have the opportunity to explainpositivelywhat I believe, instead of having to say yes, I guess you could call me charismatic, but not like . . . and devolve into the kind of smug anti-statement.

But the term/label evangelical . . . What to do, what to do?