Charismatic Renewal: 10 Strengths and Weaknesses
It seems everyone has an opinion on what is known as the charismatic movement. I’m no exception. But in this article I want to focus on what I perceive to be both its strengths and weaknesses. In a subsequent post I’ll comment on what I think is most needed in the charismatic world for it to move forward to the glory of God.
(1) The charismatic tradition has done well in emphasizing the role of authentic experience in Christian living. Charismatics are to be applauded for bringing a more holistic approach to our relationship with God. In doing so, the dualism between body and spirit, as well as between the affective and cognitive dimensions, has been overcome. On the other hand, this has led at times to a de-emphasis on the mind (even a “demonizing” of it) and a failure to appreciate the necessity of a rigorous intellectual engagement with the faith.
(2) The charismatic renewal has also contributed greatly to a biblical egalitarianism in terms of the distribution of spiritual gifts and the breaking down of socio-economic and educational barriers that tended to reinforce the older distinctions between clergy and laity (I think immediately of John Wimber’s emphasis on “every-member-ministry” in which all believers are called and gifted to “do the stuff!”). On the other hand, one can also see the emergence of an unbiblical egalitarianism that fails to acknowledge the complementary but differing roles and levels of authority that God has ordained for men and women.
(3) Whereas much of mainstream evangelicalism can become mired in an under-realized eschatology that breeds defeatism, passive acquiescence to the status quo, and a loss of the joy that comes with experiencing the power and privilege of what we already have in Christ, the charismatic tradition can be guilty of an over-realized eschatology that breeds naïve triumphalism, presumptuous prayer, and an unrealistic expectation of spiritual and physical blessings that are not yet God’s purpose to bestow. Thus, whereas evangelical cessationists fail to recognize and act upon the authority that is already ours in Christ, evangelical continuationists fail to acknowledge how a theology of weakness can serve the greater glory of God.
Mark Cartledge (Encountering the Spirit, 2006) puts it this way: “With the emphasis on power and the immediacy of the transcendent within the immanent, the charismatic tradition can err on the side of expecting too much now” (135). Thus “the power of the resurrection can eclipse the weakness of the cross . . . [and] success and celebrity status can be sought as signs of power and blessing rather than a commitment to suffering and weakness in the ordinary of everyday life” (135).
The essence of charismatic triumphalism is the belief that the overt and consummate victories that we will experience only in the age to come are available to us now. By all means rejoice that we have authority over demonic spirits (cf. Luke 10:17-20), that we have been blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3) and have been “raised” up with Christ and are “seated” together “with him” (Eph. 2:6). We who believe “that Jesus is the Son of God” have “overcome” the world (1 John 5:5). And Jesus himself promises great and glorious rewards “to the one who conquers” now (Rev. 2:7, 11, 12; etc.).
Where many often go astray is in their claim that such truths necessarily entail visible and irreversible victories in the present that result in a life free from persecution, suffering, or demonic assault. It’s the notion that since I’m a “child of the King” I have a right to live in financial prosperity and complete physical health, free from that “groaning” under the lingering curse of the fall which Paul appears to indicate will continue until the return of Christ (cf. Romans 8:18-25).
The nature of what I call “toxic triumphalism” is nowhere better seen than in 2 Corinthians 13:1-4. There Paul writes:
“This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them – since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:1-4).
D. A. Carson explains: “They were so sub-Christian in their thinking that Christlike gentleness and meekness meant little to them. They preferred manifestations of power, however exploitative and arbitrary they might be (11:20). Paul's gentleness they therefore misjudged as weakness, preferring the triumphalistic pushiness of the false apostles. Paul responds by saying that if it is power they want to see as the absolute criterion of genuine apostolicity, they may get more than they bargained for: he may be forced to display the power of the resurrected Christ, speaking through him in the thunderous tones of punishment, another version perhaps of the judgment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira” (Showing the Spirit, 174).
Paul’s point is that his life and especially his relationship to the Corinthians mirror that of Christ. Jesus, says Paul, was the supreme embodiment and example of both weakness (in his crucifixion) and strength (in his resurrection and exaltation). Jesus was “obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8b) and refused to retaliate or react against his accusers (Mt. 26:52, 67-68; 27:11-14, 27-31; 1 Peter 2:23). Herein was his “weakness” as well as the public demonstration of his essential mortality. But unlike us, he did not remain in weakness but came to life again through the resurrection “power of God” (v. 4a).
Yes, says Paul, I am weak, as Jesus was, a weakness you’ve despised and used to undermine my credibility. But “in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (v. 4b). The phrase “we will live with him” is not, as most triumphalists would prefer, a reference to the final resurrection and our hope of living in Christ’s presence in the age to come. Rather “Paul is speaking of his imminent visit to Corinth when, in unison with Christ and with God’s power, he would act decisively and vigorously against unrepentant evildoers within the congregation” (Murray Harris, 2 Corinthians, 916).
(4) Charismatics are to be applauded for their focus on the OT and its narrative portrayal of the immediacy of God in the lives of his people, primarily as expressed in signs, wonders, and prophetic revelation. But they often fall into the trap of applying old covenant models for ministry and leadership to people living under the new covenant. Even more egregious is the tendency to elevate old covenant types and shadows while failing to recognize their antitypical fulfillment in Jesus in the new covenant.
(5) The charismatic tradition has awakened the evangelical world to the reality of spiritual warfare and to the authority of the believer over all the power of the enemy. However, in their zeal to do justice to the presence and activity of the demonic, there has been a tendency to demonize the flesh. That is to say, if secular scientists are guilty of looking for a genetic or bio-chemical cause for all human misbehavior, some forms of charismatic hyper-spirituality look for a demonic explanation. The result is that sins of the flesh are reduced to “spirits” of lust, nicotine, envy, homosexuality, alcoholism, etc. Similarly, among charismatics “the category of creation or nature can be lost in a worldview that sees reality in the dichotomous terms of light and darkness, or the spiritual kingdom of God versus the spiritual kingdom of Satan. This cosmological dualism can fuel spiritual warfare, but it also misses the important category of creation as good but fallen” (Cartledge, 135).
(6) Although the charismatic renewal is responsible to some degree for bringing to light the reality of the spiritual realm in a world dominated by scientific naturalism, it is also at times guilty of a modern form of Gnosticism. This hyper-spirituality has led to a neglect of the routine disciplines of Christian living and the ordinary means of grace, a failure to appreciate the presence of God in natural processes, and a loss of appreciation for the beauty and value of the material creation.
(7) Charismatics are to be applauded for their emphasis on spiritual gifts, especially that of prophecy and the reality that God still speaks. Sadly, though, this gift has often been turned into a crystal ball for routine daily decision making. And notwithstanding their protests to the contrary, charismatics are somewhat inclined to elevate the spoken word of God over the written word of canonical Scripture.
(8) The charismatic renewal has rightly brought to our attention the reality and importance of multiple post-conversion encounters with the Holy Spirit. These experiences can serve to impart spiritual gifts, empower believers for ministry and witness, and enhance and deepen our intimacy with the Father. But they can also be distorted by becoming “badges” of spiritual superiority. The desire (which can all too often degenerate into an unhealthy craving) for fresh encounters with the Spirit can easily be used as an excuse for the neglect of healthy involvement in a local church, all the while the believer moves from conference to conference, from revival to revival, ostensibly in search of the next “great move of God.”
(9) Whereas the charismatic tradition is correct in insisting that the apostolic gift is in some way still valid for the church today, it has given unhealthy credence to an effort by some to restructure local church leadership on a foundation other than that of the Elder / Deacon pattern so clearly endorsed in the NT epistles.
(10) Whereas charismatics have rightly turned our attention to the importance of revival and power encounters with the Spirit that often lead to deliverance, healing, and renewed fellowship with God, they have also drawn unbiblical connections between physical manifestations and spiritual maturity, as if the presence of the former is a clear sign of the latter.
In the next post I’ll focus on some suggestions for how charismatic renewal might be a blessing to the broader body of Christ in the years ahead.