Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Toronto II and the Third Wave

Todd Bentley is an extensively pierced and tattooed (God told him to do it) thirty-two-year-old Canadian evangelist who is leading the latest, third, wave of revival. His ministry is seen as part of an unfolding plan for the ‘last-days’. It seems that ‘God is doing a new thing’ all over again and we are all, once more, invited to be ‘in the blessing’. While many see nothing but blessing and God in this and similar moves and some others see wheat among the weeds, still others are deeply concerned and fear trouble ahead. There is a very good commentary on recent events on the Reachout Trust web site. This article addresses my own concerns about this latest so-called move of the Spirit.

I became a Christian, with my wife, in 1987 in a church that was very much at the centre of ‘New Church Revival’ thinking and was there for eleven years. Coming from a conservative background I found the worship, freedom of expression and sense of expectation in that church thrilling. We ‘Marched for Jesus’, learned the latest worship songs and expressed our faith with exuberance and it was an uplifting time.

These were people who, back in the late sixties and into the seventies, had come from a very conservative (largely Brethren) church background and had determined to experience the life they had been learning about, some of them since childhood, but that they didn’t see in the churches at that time. They found that life and what they found is what we came into all those years later and it was refreshing and good but...

I recall sitting in a church meeting and thinking that if the next person to stand up to speak says, ‘when I was in Toronto’, just as everyone had before them, I am leaving this church and not coming back. They did, I did and that was the end of that. It was all so mindless, meaningless and incredibly self-regarding. I didn’t even need to have the theology to explain why; it seemed so obvious to me that this was just silly. Where had it gone wrong?

Having left we moved back into more conservative churches and, while not as thrilling and exciting, found there a refreshing and nourishing diet of regular and in-depth Bible study. We also met many others either ‘retreating’ into traditional churches or altogether un-churched people licking their wounds from the disappointments of their Charismatic Church experience.

In light of this latest, Toronto II, phenomenon I have reflected on those days and thought that perhaps my frustrations are the polar opposite of those of my friends of that generation who so valiantly sought the life of the Spirit. Where a generation of Christians yearned for the experience of what they were studying in dry tomes I, and many like me, long for a sensible and biblical apologetic for the experiences urged on us now. There is an interesting passage in Stephen Mansfield’s biography of Derek Prince that goes some way to expressing how many see it:

“When a teacher like Derek surveyed the Charismatic scene in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s, there was much to celebrate but also a good deal to prompt concern. Many Charismatics had overreacted to their former mainline churches and had discarded from their belief system anything that smacked of tradition, organization or the very idea of doctrine. What little systematic truth survived, often did so in horribly misshapen form...Doctrinal extremes, spiritual excesses and social chaos often prevailed” (Derek Prince, A Teacher for our Time, pub.DPM, 2005)

Of course, many others would see things differently; insist that God is doing wonderful and faith-inspiring things. But I find people exhausted and confused by all the trends, initiatives and programmes that seem to follow on from each other, each designed it seems to compensate for the shortcomings of those that have gone before and, of course, this time it’s the real thing to which all previous ‘moves’ were a precursor (and I have to say, in all-too-many case previous failings are blamed on the failure of Christians to be faithful to the vision). As someone involved in working with the cults and coming from that background I have to say that it is all so very familiar.

I don’t doubt that those New Church leaders achieved a great deal all those years ago but I observe that their generation (amongst whom I count many good friends) has produced in turn further generations that all-too-easily cast aside what they have for the next new thing as though there was no such thing as tried and tested ways. In this way what was seen as a necessity for that first generation has become customary for subsequent ones. Instead of change designed to get them to a better place with God it seems to be change in order to accommodate the latest thing. There is much talk of making the gospel ‘relevant’ but it seems to me that, in contextualising the gospel for this generation, we are decontextualising it from its moorings in history, in Scripture and in God.

This generation of leaders has become more interested in the success of the latest initiative than in the health of souls and guarding the deposit of faith. All-too-often church serves the programme rather than the other way around and those who question are regarded as spoiling it for everyone else - as though we were one homogenous whole whose needs are easily met with one size fits all solutions.

I have wondered, when I look at my ex-Brethren/New Church friends in leadership, what they see when they look out on the church they have created. I am aware that in many cases they see the outworking of what they learned in the Brethren and yearned to put into practice, concluding that much at least is well with the world. But they look through the lens of what they learned back then and there is the irony because, sadly, they are often passing on the experience without the theology that has served them so well. Where once we saw a generation of believers, soundly grounded in Scripture and determined to make real what they were reading, step out ‘in faith’ to make it real, now we see a generation of believers who, lacking that sound biblical base, go back into the Scripture to proof-text what they are experiencing and doing a pretty poor job of it.

I’ve no doubt that this is not everyone’s experience everywhere, or everyone’s interpretation of events, but it is a lot more than a local phenomenon and raises a lot of concerns for many people. There is a decided lack of discernment as the more bizarre factions of the church seem to be moving into and even becoming the mainstream and, because of the emphasis on experience and deemphasising of Scripture, this is ‘allowed’ if not condoned. I have struggled, as many do, with the imperfect nature of church with its denominations, streams and schisms and I have largely come to understand the nature of a ‘work in progress’. My church experience is reasonably broad and I do not regard myself a pedant nor do I insist upon some strict doctrinal interpretation for everything. On the contrary, I understand about weeds and wheat and have found this teaching refreshingly encouraging coming, as I do, from an impossibly strict and ultimately shallow cult background.

However, I am currently writing a series of short Bible studies following the letters to the churches in Asia Minor (Rev.1-3) and notable is the emphasis on discernment. The Church in Ephesus is commended for hating the practices of the Nicolaitans; believers in Smyrna warned against those who say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan; Pergamum commended for faithfulness but challenged for tolerating error and false teaching etc. I see a decided lack of such discernment, made an imperative in Scripture, operating today in the Charismatic church and, if any charge can be brought it’s the one brought against Pergamum, “You remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me...Nevertheless I have a few things against you: you have people there who hold to the teaching of...” You can put your own ‘Charismatic excess’ in here.

I suppose I feel it is the duty of those who led the charge to experimental Christianity all those years ago to warn clearly and soundly against the excesses and errors into which Charismaticism so easily falls. It is all well and good to speak of wheat and weeds and insist that revival is always messy but right now the church can’t see the wheat for the weeds and too many leaders are insisting that weeds are actually wheat if only everyone would just see it.

Meanwhile I am aware of a decline in ordinary pastoral care and a sense that if everyone could just have some experience or another then everything would be fine. Church becomes an event, like Pentecost, instead of the growing family of believers described in Acts 2:42-47 and Christianity a circus in which we are all performers instead of a community of saints. I heard someone just recently, someone who is meant to be at the centre of this latest ‘wave’, declare that he doesn’t go back into the world because it’s ‘boring’. Now I know we can all say silly things if we allow ourselves to get off the message but there was no ‘message’ as he led everyone to believe that God blessed people to keep them from being bored. The clear implication intended or not, is that if you are bored you are not right with God.

I am currently learning to not feel guilty because I live in a world where God is not constantly knocking at my heart, begging me to let him in – he is already ‘in’; continually performing wonders to convince me of something - I am so very convinced; shouting all day to get my attention – we are working on the paying attention thing together. At the same time I am praying that God will keep me open to those times when he does want to especially reveal himself and speak to my heart. I don’t want to be without him for a moment but neither do I wish to be so self-absorbed as to insist he reassures me with every step I take. Toddlers constantly seek the reassurance of mummy’s hand; when children grow we pray they will walk unaided according to the ways they have learned. I am learning that God does do new things but he also, and more usually, speaks in old ways, familiar ways and sometimes makes us stretch our faith muscles in walking apparently unaided. Yet he is not far from any of us and ‘knowing’ that and being content in it is true faith it seems to me.

Unfortunately, we seem to be living in an age where Christians have Bibles for about every purpose except reading, see God’s purpose in the timing of a traffic light and can’t stand the idea that anything that happens in their lives could possibly be ordinary and circumstantial. We all seem to be craving significance and Christian celebrity and we have all seen enough of that to know it so often ends in tears. Many Christians I know seem to harbour a sneaking suspicion that they are missing out on something somewhere, if only they could get to where the blessing is, or get the right speaker to bring it to them. I am still in that place of wonder where I constantly marvel that “he died for me, he gave himself for me!” I ‘catch myself’ reading the Bible and that throws me into paroxysms of wonder as well. How did I ever get to that place where I read the Bible – and understand and love it!?

Some might say I am still in the foothills but I consider these rather precipitous heights and wonder if people have simply forgotten how to look and appreciate the considerable vistas of a grace that saves and keeps us. That said, I continue to climb, knowing there is more, the nature of which we can’t think or imagine at the moment. A pastor friend wrote of his own experiences when he shared with me his concerns about these latest developments:

“I know myself when I was into the whole subjective inner experience thing I felt sorry for those who were objective and sadly viewed them as less spiritual. My faith was more based on speaking in tongues than on Jesus;' because I could speak in tongues I was saved, because I felt a warm fuzzy I was saved. What was it that rescued me? A) Partly it was liberal theology. I knew liberal theology was wrong, and I needed to defend myself against it, so I decided to study the Reformation. "Sola Scriptura" was their battle cry and not I have had a warm feeling this morning in prayers.' B) This led me to conclude that every vision, picture, and message directly from the Lord, must be backed up from scripture.

As soon as I would get a picture from Jesus I ask for a scripture reference, if there was no reference to scripture then the picture was from my imagination. For the last seven years all pictures, visions, words of prophecy have stopped, as I had no scripture warranty to say such revelations. Everything began to be looked at through the lens of scripture. Because I once put such confidence in tongues I no longer speak in tongues. I am saved by the blessed trinity, and my prayer life improved as I learnt what it is to struggle in prayer and to pray with understanding.

Moving through the transaction of subjective to objective was hard, scary and threatening and often I wondered if God had left me as experiences stopped. But this is where faith in Jesus comes in; we walk by faith and not by sight. As Christians it is very hard to say we are wrong, especially in our walk with the Lord. It’s almost like we have the truth and therefore we cannot be wrong. My hardest obstacle was pride to overcome, because if I was wrong then Jesus was wrong. And being wrong made me mad. Returning to the Scriptures and faith in Jesus saved me from the new super spirituality.”

He doesn’t withdraw from spiritual experience. His testimony of his involvement in ministry in Africa is eloquent enough witness of his openness to spiritual gifting and God's immanence. Rather, he calls for a balance:

“I do think pastors and Christians need to look at the whole area of spiritual balance; balance between word and Spirit, discipline and freedom, Zeal and wisdom, spiritual warfare and rest, etc. We are prone to extremes because of our sinful nature if we are to be mature Christians we must have spiritual balance to become mature in Christ. If we move into spiritual balance and maturity much of the rubbish we see I think would disappear.”

The current secular understanding of faith is that it is something that is fed by ignorance and held to against the evidence and it is this understanding that is all-too-often being reinforced by revivalist preachers. However, saving faith and keeping faith are consistent with knowledge and a clear understanding of ideas. Indeed, faith can be defined in three steps; intellectual understanding, emotional approval and personal decision. Christians are not asked to emotionally and personally commit to a message that is intellectually inadequate and, contrary to popular lore, the Bible makes frequent appeals to our intellectual processes and to evidences and ideas that challenge our thinking.

Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Ro.10:17). The call to faith, the message, is based on real events, evidenced by historical verities and eye-witness reports. Paul wrote to the Galatians, who had strayed from the pure message he had preached, “Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Christ was portrayed as crucified” (Gal.3:1). There was an empty tomb, living witnesses, names, dates, places, and an historical and Scriptural provenance all of which could be known intellectually. That word ‘bewitched’ is, I think, telling.

Of course, facts and ideas alone do not make saving faith. Even the demons have a firm grasp of the facts and a very good idea of God (James 2:19). These are attested to by creation; by God’s acting in history in choosing a people for himself, giving the law and then fulfilling it in Christ; by the life, crucifixion, burial and resurrection of His Son; by the establishment of his church on the testimony of living witnesses and in the work of the Holy Spirit; all these together challenge us to give emotional consent to the truth. This realisation of the truth, in turn, challenges us to make a personal commitment. Of course truth is revealed to the heart by the Spirit, but it is the intellect that conveys to the heart the facts and ideas to which the Spirit testifies. If there are no facts and ideas there is nothing to know and think about, and nothing to which we can reasonably commit ourselves. “That felt good” is not a sufficiently compelling reason for life-changing decisions.

It might be argued that conversion and subsequent Christian experience is seldom so neat a process, personal commitment following on from emotional approval based on intellectual understanding. However, whether ours is a crisis experience or a process nevertheless intellectual content is always a substantial part of conversion and, I would argue, of subsequent Christian living. Many come to faith out of an instinctive realisation of a need for and a seeking after God. They experience a call to follow only afterwards seeking intellectual order to what they have come to believe. Nevertheless, the Bible still challenges us to deal with known facts and intellectually established truth.

Many Christians today consider it a virtue to believe in the absence of intellectual content and ask people to give emotional consent to what cannot be intellectually verified, indeed is intellectually implausible, and to make a personal commitment on the basis of emotional subjectivity based on ‘experiences’. This kind of non-thinking leads to a form of Gnosticism where the claims of ‘prophets’ are rendered invulnerable to criticism from outside by the fact that the prophet has had certain experiences and impressions.

In an essay entitled Theology and the Church: Divorce or Remarriage? (In “The Wages of Spin”, pub. Mentor, 2004) Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, makes an impassioned appeal to the church and the Christian academy to understand and complement each other’s work, lamenting the fact that too many believers put knowledge and experience in opposition to one another. Our faith has a basis in the real world around us, can stand close intellectual scrutiny, and is intellectually compelling as well as spiritually challenging. That cannot be said of much of modern charismatic experience and some Christians are, not unreasonably, asking, “What should I ‘think’ about this" while many revivalist leaders insist that the experience should be sufficient.

Of course, this all sounds rather virtuous, giving yourself over to whatever God has for you and receiving spiritual impressions, with your hands outstretched and your face to heaven. Those who question this idea are often challenged with irrational questions like, “Don’t you believe God can heal you/speak to you/do something new?” To which, of course, the answer is yes, he can, but that is not the point at all and these weasel words don't help. The question we should be addressing is, “Does God work in this way?” The Berean spirit (Acts 17) tells us that we are not to be satisfied with having a good impression of either the message or the messenger. No less an authority than the apostle Paul was put to intellectually rigorous testing by the Bereans “to see if what Paul said was true” and they were commended for it!

All this leaves us facing the real danger of retreating to those pre-New Church days when, apparently, no one sought or expected God to be immediately present by his Spirit, everything done strictly ‘by the book’. God forbid! However, neither should we be so complacent as to give untried and untested spirits place in our churches just because someone claims to have experienced a journey to the Third Heaven, been to the mountain top or demonstrated some fancy spiritual footwork. Of all the gifts celebrated in today’s evangelical charismatic churches, discernment is the one most urgently needed now; for our sake and for future generations.

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