It seems that at most times in the life of the church of Christ there are issues which people disagree over, and get worked up about. These seem vitally important for a few decades, then fade away either through some form of resolution or because people have found something new over which to differ.
When I was growing up the issues seemed to be liberalism and the Second Coming. Now old-style liberalism seems to have largely faded away as it had nothing to offer for people's souls, although it has unfortunately been replaced by neo-evangelicalism - liberals who like to call themselves evangelical. The Second Coming is now rarely mentioned.
For most of my adult life a hot topic has been the continuation, or not, of the supernatural charismata of 1 Corinthians. This issue may now be approaching something of a resolution, but I am concerned about how this is happening.
The old-fashioned evangelicals of my youth generally took a middle-of-the-road view on this. They were not interested in the charismata, believing them to be the special 'thing' of pentecostals, but they did expect God to intervene in their lives and give quite clear guidance or miraculous provision when necessary.
The rise of the charismatic movement in the 1970's and 80's brought about a parting of the ways. Those evangelicals who were more open to divine intervention moved to charismatic churches, while those who were less inclined to this became more strongly cessationist - for them the gifts were not someone else's 'thing' but a delusion. It seems that some of them were encouraged in this by reading B.B. Warfield, although he was addressing a rather different issue. These cessationists often liked to call themselves Reformed, not realising that many of the original Reformers would disagree with them on this issue.
A new generation of conservative evangelicals then simply assumed that cessationism was the default position of 'Bible-believing' Christians. Meanwhile, a new generation of charismatics did not have the benefit of the careful Bible teaching received by their forerunners. As a result the split got wider. Conservatives became rigid and cautious, and in respect of modern miracles every bit as unbelieving as the liberals had been of historical miracles. Charismatics began to drift into a mixture of liberalism and New Age 'faith in faith' wishful thinking (and sometimes worse - there is more than one source of supernatural power!). Fortunately it wasn't quite as bad as that in all churches of either type, but there was at least a hint of these problems almost everywhere.
Now there seems to be some measure of reconciliation, from at least the less rigid conservatives and the more biblical charismatics. The two groups are now talking to each other and even swapping pulpits and attending each others' conferences.
There are now those who call themselves Reformed charismatics, while others prefer the term 'continuationist'. Continuationists hesitate to call themselves charismatic because they wish to distance themselves from what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be the errors and extremes of the movement. This all seems quite positive. Cessationists have lost the biblical argument, as the more thoughtful ones among them always realised, and they are losing their majority in evangelicalism as the fastest growing churches are generally those which combine preaching the Word with the power of the Spirit. Cessationism may come to be seen as a temporary fad, during a period when the evangelical church was overly influenced by rationalism.
Although pleased with these developments, I have a concern. Will bringing us back into the evangelical 'tent', from which we should never have been evicted, blunt our edge? It has long been a technique used by managers, politicians (and church leaders?) to control the awkward squad: bring them into the tent. I am not accusing people of deliberately doing this, but I wonder if there is a malign intelligence behind this.
The basic issue is this: is it possible to simply tack on the charismata to a normal conservative evangelical church? Are some continuationists happy to be charismatics in theory, but cessationists in practice? If the charismata are possible, then they should be inevitable. If they are not banned, then they ought to be encouraged. Is "open but cautious" (with the emphasis usually on cautious) a valid biblical position?
What ought to happen if a conservative evangelical church began to be truly continuationist? Here is my list:
It can be seen from the above list that embracing the charismata would be disruptive. People who are used to cessationist ways, irrespective of their theoretical belief, may not realise this or may realise it only too well and fear it. Some would not cope. The disruption would be cited as a reason to believe that this was not of God. Yet God has always been disruptive!
Imagine that you live in a far-away land where there are no Bibles. Instead, each Christian has a few old yellowed pages from a Bible. In most cases these are the same pages for each person, although there is some variation. People try to do their best to serve and please God, but there are whole areas of truth hidden from them. Imagine this state of affairs has gone on for many generations. It is likely that people would adopt one of three positions:
In addition, it is likely that different groups would form according to exactly which pages they possess. They would argue with each other about the genuineness and relative importance of their pages.
Then one day Bibles become freely available. Many were of course delighted and began to explore the new territory which had opened up to them. They discovered new things of God, things which were consistent with what they already knew but which you could not have predicted from their previous limited knowledge. Sadly, others were not interested. It was all too much for them. They wanted to stay with old familiar ways. Some doubted whether this really was the true Bible, sent from God. If it was from God, why was it causing so many problems? They accused the 'whole Bible' Christians of suffering from 'enthusiasm', and said that if God wanted us to have the whole Bible then he would never have withdrawn it from circulation. Much later it was discovered by historians that God never withdrew the whole Bible but, guided by their leaders, people themselves decided which bits they wanted to follow and simply threw away the rest.
Hint: retell the above story, but replacing the Bible by the Holy Spirit, and truth by power. Does it now sound familiar?
So, I am both pleased and concerned. If continuationism is a genuine recognition that on many of the major issues the charismatics were right all along, then it is to be welcomed. If, on the other hand, it is merely an attempt to separate theory from practice or to push the square peg of life in the Spirit into the round hole of conservative church formats and structures then it should be resisted. Charismatics must be careful that in winning the battle for truth they don't lose the war for genuine change.
back to Bible home, becoming a Christian, receiving the Spirit, listening to God?, starting with the gifts, the gift of tongues, driving or pushing?, Spirit baptism
updated 13 July 2010: link to inconsistent continuationism