The charismatic movement is predicated on the idea that it is the modern outpouring of the Holy Spirit as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Each charismatic person fully expects to be able to perform (or to learn from their numerous “schools”) the same works that were witnessed in the early Church.
Charismatics commonly appeal to a passage that appears early in the Acts of the Apostles. There, St. Peter preaches to a large assembly after the miracle of Pentecost. During his great sermon St. Peter quotes the Prophet Joel and and tells his hearers:
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)
Despite St. Peter’s explicit application of this passage only to those who spoke in foreign languages that morning, this is taken by charismatics as a proof text for the claim that these spiritual works will continue as a normative experience for the Church.
They, thus attempt to replicate these works (and others). Not only prophecies, but healing and visions about the future. They believe Holy Spirit manifests himself with ecstatic worship, spontaneous outbursts of emotion, and the speaking of tongues – glossalalia. The charismatic movement is restless and energetic in searching for new manifestations and experiences of the Holy Spirit, and this has caused the movement to spiral into increasing extremes. Today you can find everything within its pale from the fraudulent to the occult; from practices that are bizarre to those that are grotesque.
One of the fountainheads of the movement is Bethel Church in Redding, California. Bethel Church originates and popularises spiritual practises that are frighteningly indistinguishable from the New Age movement. Unfortunately, these ideas tend to spread outward from Bethel since the church operates a “School of Supernatural Ministry”. Here its students learn spiritual arts in something reminiscent of magical arts at Hogwarts.
Bethel claims that the Holy Spirit is active in their institution and people. They go so far as to claim that the tangible presence of God appears during their worship services (as in this official video). This “presence” looks exactly like craft store glitter released from air-vents in the ceiling sometimes with a few feathers swirling around allegedly from the wings of observing angels. As the glitter floats in the air, the pastor Bill Johnson cracks jokes, children point as if they were at a birthday party, and hoots can be heard from the audience.
Like the unbelieving world in our time, charismatics pride themselves on being loud and “messy”. Their services are boisterous and rowdy. Rowdiness is taken as a sure sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Quiet, discipline and restraint are typically viewed with suspicion or disdain. Thus, hooting, shouting and whistling, once the preserve of football matches, are ubiquitous in charismatic worship. It is behaviour that is modelled by pastors within the movement. It is not uncommon for a pastor to begin his sermon with a loud roar of excitement.
It demonstrates the extent to which the movement has adopted its norms of behaviour from the sporting and entertainment world. Indeed, popular cultural references are seamlessly interwoven with their preaching. To choose but one example among thousands, Passion Church in Maple Grove, Minnesota gives an annual performance of Jackson’s Thriller. The church looks like an absolute nightmare, with zombies shuffling through green fog in a graveyard and people painted up in the grinning, voodoo visages of the undead.
But Passion Church seems untroubled by the admission of dark, creepy worldly ideas about death into their church. Instead, they claim that people are led to “overcome their fear” and “step into faith” through the performance. Or put another way, you can lead people to Christ through Michael Jackson’s pop music.
Meanwhile, at Bethel Church, Jenn Johnson – the daughter-in-law of its pastor – goes even further with the deification of popular culture. She has given a number of presentations in which she reflects on the Holy Trinity, If you thought that nobody would ever dare to apply pop culture to the Person of God himself you would be greatly mistaken. In her presentations, Jenn Johnson describes the Holy Spirit as being like the “genie from Aladdin”. She says the Holy Spirit is “blue”, “funny”, “sneaky”, “silly”, and “fun”.
As she recites this list of attributes shared by both Disney’s cartoon character and the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, her voice trembles with a straining-to-be-meaningful emotion. We are to understand from these flutters that turning a cartoon character into an icon of the Holy Spirit is deep wisdom. (See: video compilation).
The movement is so filled with “lying wonders” and gimmicks that one could write a multi-volume encyclopedia and still not exhaust the material. For example, the charismatic movement has developed a practice called “fire tunnels“. During one of these rituals, a person wishing to receive blessing will walk between two lines of congregants. As they do so, people on either side pray over them, lay hands on them, praise their qualities, and infuse them with “fire”. There is usually a great deal of hollering, hooting and whistling, and the recipient of this blessing frequently shakes or falls to the ground overwhelmed with the spiritual energy they have received.
According to the Gospel Coalition, the leaders at Bethel and others within the charismatic movement have also practised “grave soaking” or “grave sucking”. This practice involves touching or laying on the graves of great evangelists or saints in order to absorb the spiritual power (“the mantle”) from their bones. Although there has been some back-peddling from this practice, Pulpit and Pen published an article last year in which they offered photographic evidence of “grave soaking” being conducted.
What are we to make of the movement? I think there are four sensible conclusions orthodox Christians can arrive at.
1. The charismatic movement is immutably anarchistic: Like rebels who take up firearms in the street, and shout to the heavens that they are freemen who will not heed the laws of the king for they have found a deeper truth, so the charismatic movement is also shaped by a deep longing for freedom from the “restrictions” of God’s word and law. To achieve this, the movement has a spaghetti tangle of pathways to follow that enable them to pursue their own inclinations and desires.
Spiritual anarchism is the direct result of legitimising claims of special revelation (“the Holy Spirit told me”). Since every charismatic is potentially a prophet like Jeremiah or Moses, and since their prophetic ramblings are taken seriously by other charismatics, each learns that they have a special authority. Although they claim to subordinate this authority to scripture, history has long taught us that such subordination never in practice occurs.
Imagine a society where citizen was elevated to a Supreme Court judgeship. The resultant discordant crackle of legal interpretations would be impossible to measure against any outside standard, even if every citizen claimed his authority was subject to the constitution. If everyone is a Supreme Court justice, to what degree does the constitution really hold authority?
2. The charismatic movement is functionally relativistic: Relativism is the doctrine that truth is not universal or objective but is individually discerned. Everybody has their own truth because the basis upon which each person discerns “their truth” is different. Truth differs according to person, situation, context, culture, time, and so on.
As philosopher Hillary Putnam correctly identified, the result of the doctrine of relativism is that it becomes impossible to believe that one is in error. For if there is no truth beyond the personal belief that something is true, then one can never hold their own beliefs to be untrue. Relativism, therefore, gives rise to an independent reality that is ungovernable by any facts, claims, authorities outside of the individual.
Charismatic claims of special direct revelation places them in precisely this situation. Few charismatics ever believe they are in error, because it is not possible for them to be so. Their special direct revelation thus forces them to function on the basis of relativism.
Imagine a charismatic walks up to you and announces, “The Holy Spirit told me that you must move to Minnesota“. Consider the tension in this claim.
The charismatic is saying that God the Holy Spirit is issuing you a command. You are being commanded to move interstate. This is a divine revelation from heaven, and since it comes from the Holy Spirit, it logically shares co-equal authority with the scriptures.
But here lies the conundrum. How do we know that this prophecy is actually authentic?
Even charismatics are forced to admit that there are many false prophets, faked prophecies, charlatans, tricksters, and frauds in their movement. They have to admit this because the sheer volume of demonstrable error is overwhelming. They will even accept that sometimes spiritual claims can be inspired by evil spiritual forces. Given this, how is any person to determine whether a revelation is true or just another fraud? For there is no independent authentication.
This results in a long, muddy quagmire over which the carriage of reason cannot travel. Each charismatic person claiming the “mantle” of prophecy believes themselves to be authoritative mouthpieces of God and therefore cannot be subject to correction. But, each charismatic who receives a prophecy must also accept it or interpret it according to their own inner revelation and they likewise cannot be subject to correction. Moreover, one charismatic can countermand another charismatic’s revelation by simply receiving a super-ordinate revelation.
So a charismatic who says, “The Holy Spirit told me you must buy oil stocks by the end of the week“, can be rebutted by another charismatic who says, “Well, the Holy Spirit told me that this prophecy was not for me and I must not listen to it“.
Even when a false prophecy is accidentally believed – like the apocalyptic warnings over Iran or North Korea which never eventuated – those instances are simply dismissed on the basis someone had a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit, or someone muddled the message, or did not have enough spiritual insight to interpret it.
The ultimate result of this complete dispersal of revelatory authority is that nobody is ultimately correctable. Nobody’s claims of truth can be proved or disproved by anyone else. This is why virtually nobody in the charismatic movement ever holds their own dreams, visions, prophecies or voices to be untrue, no matter how violently they disagree with reality, with facts, with scripture, with history, or even with other charismatics.
This leads to a galloping relativism as well as an imperial disposition that allows transparent charlatans and corruption to flourish within the movement. For who is to say that a charismatic pastor imprisoned for taxation fraud did not truly receive a revelation from the Holy Spirit who “told him to guard the Lord’s money from the unbelieving Feds”? If a charismatic believes it is true, his theology teaches him that it must be true. And who is one charismatic to deny the message of the Holy Spirit to another?
I once witnessed the full moral crookedness of this relativism vividly demonstrated in the fallout of a very tragic situation. A charismatic man in our community who was married to a delightful lady, had an affair with another woman. He then abandoned his children and took off with his mistress. Even while he was living in a state of separation pending a divorce, this man still claimed that God was directly giving him messages.
His graphically sinful conduct; his abhorrent lack of self-restraint; the unbelievable pain he inflicted on a very sweet and gentle woman did not give him the slightest hesitation in firmly believing that for all of his wickedness he was still genuinely in touch with the Almighty.
That is relativism to the max.
3. The charismatic movement is deeply materialistic, consumerist, and temporally focused: For all of their spiritual hocus-pocus, the movement itself is fuelled significantly by a thirst for “my best life now”, wealth, health, success, and power.
The website of nearly any charismatic church will contain terms like: “vibrant”, “fulfilling life”, “overcoming fear”, “health”, “relationships” and so on. These websites seem to have compiled every self-help buzzword in existence. They advertise a particular lifestyle characterised by ecstatic worships and “power” over all of their temporal problems. The focus is squarely on the temporal, the here-and-now.
In charismatic belief, the good life starts now. Thus people should experience healing, financial success, and all of the good things of life. Now. In tangible, measurable form.
4. Far from representing the final outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the charismatic movement is the terminal stage of a decayed Christianity. The charismatic movement is the polluted by-product of a toxic, ungodly culture. It does not subvert the world. Quite the reverse. It has been thoroughly subverted by the sinful spiritual debris of the age. It is what you get when you freely pour the acidic sludge of an ungodly, shallow and materialistic culture over the clean marble of Christianity: the acrid, stained fragments left over from this acid bath is only “new” in the sense that most of the original substance was deleted.
Everything about the charismatic movement distorts God. The movement presents God as a kind of granddaddy hipster and shows little regard for God’s supreme holiness and glory. If a person can seriously believe that glittery sparkles in the air is the glory of the Lord, then such a person has no comprehension at all – as much comprehension as the cattle have of the beauties of the stars – as to what the glory and majesty of the Lord really is like. When one has been in the true presence of God, like St. John beholding the exalted Christ, they fall on their faces as dead.
This distortion of God’s Person manifests in the triviality of their worship.
For example, there are few charismatic experiences not accompanied by laughter – sometimes even referred to as “holy laughter”. They laugh during sermons; during prayers; during healings; during fire tunnels. Bill Johnson cracks jokes and the congregation laughs appreciatively even as the “glory cloud” of God’s holy presence supposedly appears. Comedy is next to holiness, as is the nearly ceaseless turbulence of noise, motion, and music that is omnipresent at all charismatic services. People sway, they bob like Hasidic Jews, they shriek, they jitter and fall to the ground. Some wave their hands in the air. During services people run around, or walk or skip, while others stand listening to the sermon, while others sit, or others roll on the ground. There’s hollering and cheering. The band plays a nearly ceaseless sound track.
The concept of worship as a shared experience, orderly and disciplined to reflect the holiness of heaven and its King, has fled. The texts of scripture that say, “Be still and know that I am God“, could never be observed under such conditions. It seems that silence and deep reverence is only for the angels of heaven. Or, perhaps for the dead, cold Christians of the past (and present). But for the children of the fresh outpouring, the approved order is a kindergarten level of restlessness.
The charismatic movement actively feeds the narcissism that is frighteningly prevalent in the culture. The charismatic movement turns each man into an authoritative prophet who is beholden only to his own revelations.
It feeds on the present cultural fascination with supernatural powers by turning everyone into a Harry Potter. This mysticism and solipsism is deeply attractive to the culture, for it grants a hidden significance that none but the enlightened can reach.
Thus the new follower is suddenly swept into a world where they can receive secret messages, can cast healing spells, learn easy answers to all problems, and obtain special powers. It is as though they had stepped through a wardrobe into the land of Narnia. The reason they can enter this magical domain is because they are special. They have hidden discernment and insight. This is the very message that Samuel’s Mantle – a prophetic training school in Canada – gives its would-be students. Unlike other Christians, they have a particular anointing and a special calling.
To such a depth of magical delusion have some in the movement sunk, that charismatic “supernatural students” have even attempted to raise the dead as though it were a skill you could learn like sport or moves in a video game. The Gospel Coalition reports:
People in the Bethel movement believe that raising the dead should be something we aspire to. As a result, some Bethel students formed a Dead Raising Team. They go to the morgue to practice raising the dead. They also listen to the radio and try to beat ambulances to accidents to raise the dead or heal the injured before the ambulance arrives. From all accounts, they have yet to raise their first corpse.
Christianity Today reports that in 2008, two Bethel students were involved in an accident that left a man stricken at the base of a 200-foot cliff. The students believed that the man had died and so they tried to resurrect him by prayer. They waited until the next morning to call emergency services. Thankfully, the man survived but unfortunately, he remains paralysed.
Worst of all, the charismatic movement cheapens everything to do with the Blessed Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is presented as a force or a genie who is at the constant beck and call of the summoner. Receiving the Holy Spirit “fire” is as mechanical a process as an engine injecting fuel into a cylinder. Yes, the Holy Spirit is a divine Person, but apparently He functions very much like an impersonal force or energy field.
St. Paul tells us that he “purposed to know nothing” among the Corinthians, “but Christ and him crucified”. As always St. Paul was in perfect harmony with our Inerrant Lord who taught us that he would send the Holy Spirit to exercise a very specific ministry. For the Holy Spirit would not point to Himself; the Holy Spirit would not glorify himself; neither would he be “funny” and “silly” like a blue cartoon genie.
Rather the Lord said of the Spirit: “He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you“. The Holy Spirit’s work, says the Lord, would be to convict the world of unrighteousness and unbelief, and teach people about judgement.
When Christ is glorified and righteousness, repentance and judgement are declared, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is truly at work. For the Spirit does not direct men to himself, but always to the Son. The Son, in turn, points men to the Father via himself.
In charismatic circles, this divine order is entirely turned on its head. For what do charismatics emphasise and preach? They emphasise the Person of the Holy Spirit. Which Person of the Trinity receives the most attention in their gatherings, their literature, prophecies, and activities? The Holy Spirit. Which Person of the Trinity is glorified and exalted, called upon, and attributed power and strength? The Holy Spirit.
You do not end up at charismatic worship when you seek Christ and him crucified above all. You do not end up with charismatic worship when you repent of the world and the values and attitudes that are invisibly infused into it – the narcissism, self-indulgence, self-seeking, desire for prominence and power, the emotionalism that triumphs over many minds.
And you will never end up as a charismatic if you see yourself honestly and without affectation, as an unimportant servant of Christ who is privileged to have any calling at all. If you are desirous to be the smallest in the kingdom of heaven – to be a vessel that is emptier and lowlier so that it might be more at the disposal of Christ – then you will never succumb to the thirst for power and glamour; for razzmatazz and the spiritual sensationalism of the charismatic movement.
St. Paul in the discharge of his ministry teaches us the remedy against all degraded religion that would exalt the self:
“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Therefore, let us make it our aim to excel in regarding ourselves as “nothing” but servants. Like St. Paul, we ought to strive to be ever more empty of self-regard and increasingly “small in our own eyes” so that we will not fall victim to the devil’s schemes. We know he tempts men with multiple forms of pride, and there is no pride as dangerous and subtle as religious pride.
As servants, let us humbly enthrone Christ on the highest pinnacle of our regard and affections. Let us flee from any desire for spiritual status or prominence. Let us forsake the noisy and revolutionary; the worldly and novel and experimental; and let us set our hearts to follow the Shepherd on the path of righteousness. “My sheep hear my voice,” the Lord said, “and they follow me… they will not follow a stranger for they do not know the voice of strangers“.
Indeed, true Christians do follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. We look to the unchanging Father for our guidance, and we find our strength and hope in the unparalleled majesty of the Son of the Living God “who is the same yesterday, today, and forever“. Follow him.