a companion piece to Theological Face-palm

Over the last week or so, I have had the privilege of joining an editorial team working on Bill Jackson’s newest book on church history.For those who don’t know Bill Jackson, he’s the author of The Quest for the Radical Middle: A History of the Vineyard, and to say he has a passion for church history would be an understatement of biblical proportions.

But this is neither a book review, nor directly about anything Bill Jackson wrote.

Reading Jackson’s manuscript — as I supplied edits, suggestions and push-back (constructive critique) — simply got me thinking about church history (which I’m also fascinated by), and particularly how we view “moves of the Holy Spirit” throughout history. And about our tendency to practice “selective hearing” when it comes to the historical data.

There have always been (at least) two prevalent approaches to studying the Holy Spirit in church history.

One side, popularized by cessationist thinkers — probably the most vociferous and relentless example would be John F. MacArthur’s The Charismatics (1978), Charismatic Chaos (1992), and Strange Fire (2013) — sees the historical data as proof that any new “move of the Spirit” is a fraud. Their theology predisposes them to discount any contrary evidence, and they can tend towards a theological version of “la-la-la, I can’t heeeeaar yooou….” (usually employing words that sound best when delivered with a contemptuous harrumph)
And the other approach sees anything that even remotely resembles the Day of Pentecost as proof positive that the Holy Spirit was at work. Their need to prove that the Holy Spirit of Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” predisposes them to gloss over, or simply ignore a lot of problems. And they, too, can tend towards a theological version of “la-la-la, I can’t heeeear yooou…” (usually employing words that sound best when delivered with a gleeful smirk of dismissal)

In historical hindsight, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that during virtually every recorded “revival”, there were abuses, excesses, moral failures, and usually (if not always) really, really bad theology — sometimes called “false teaching” — that were as prevalent as any spiritual gifts, physical manifestations, and reports of healing.

Cessationists point to the problems, excesses, and false teachings as proof that any so-called move of the Holy Spirit was, in fact, a fraud. (Which, conveniently, reinforces their cessationist worldview.) Their answer to the historical evidence is: “Yes, but…” Yes, it may have looked like a move of the Spirit, but the bad fruit clearly demonstrates that it wasn’t.

Continuationists put a greater emphasis on the power of God — the healings, the prophetic words, the passion for worship — as proof that these moves of the Spirit were genuine. Their answer to the historical evidence is also: “Yes, but…” Yes, there were excesses, abuses, and false teachings, but the good fruit clearly demonstrates that it was a genuine revival/move of the Spirit.

I’d like to suggest that we ditch the “Yes, BUT…”, and embrace “Yes, AND…”

Yes, there appeared to be evidence of a mighty move of the Spirit. Yes, there were spiritual gifts in evidence. Yes, there were physical manifestations as the Spirit touched people. Yes, there were healings. Yes, people hungry for more of the Spirit flocked to the meetings. Yes, prayer and worship were vibrant expressions. Yes, a lot of people came to Jesus.

AND there were problems:

  • emotions ran wild, and were encouraged to do so
  • an elitist attitude began to grow in those who “got it”
  • legitimate concerns were ignored; anyone who voiced a concern was mocked/condemned
  • biblical discernment went out the window; God was “doing a new thing”, after all
  • leaders who went off the deep end into immorality or apocalyptic authoritarianism could not be questioned
  • false teachings inevitably came in as the Enemy sowed tares, and lack of discernment enabled it to thrive and spread
The biggest, “Yes, AND…”, in any current and future moves of the Spirit, needs to be:Yes, the Holy Spirit is on the move, AND we will be on our guard for the inevitable attempts of the Enemy to bring in excesses, abuses, and false teachings to derail what God may be doing. We will practice biblical discernment and not give ground to the Enemy by turning off our brains.We will use the sieve of the Bible as our guide — it will strain out the lumps, and allow the Holy Spirit to flow.