The Convergence of Word and Spirit at Bridgeway2
[The following is a selection taken from a sermon I preached yesterday at Bridgeway, Sunday, August 18, 2013.]
Most are probably unaware of this, but I frequently speak with people who are new to Bridgeway and I hear one of three observations. Almost all of them are somewhat surprised by what they encounter and experience here. It certainly wasn’t what they expected.
First of all, there are those who have come to Bridgeway because they are desperately hungry for the truth of God’s Word. They have spent considerable time in a church, or perhaps several churches, where the focus was either entirely on charismatic gifts or where Scripture was treated like a diving board. Let me explain.
In these churches the Bible was read aloud by the preacher and held in high regard. It’s inspiration and authority were affirmed and you knew you were in a church that wouldn’t permit anything that was explicitly contrary to Scripture. But when it came down to the preaching and teaching in that church, the speaker typically used the Bible as a diving board from which to jump off into the pool of his own ideas. He would read the text and perhaps refer to it here and there during the course of his message. But no effort was made to actually explain what God was saying to us through the biblical author. The sermon eventually ended up as some version of pop psychology or relational dynamics or coping skils that sounded vaguely Christian.
The bottom line is that the Bible simply didn’t factor into the message as its controlling authority.
Many that I’ve spoken with are greatly refreshed that here at Bridgeway we make it our aim that the point of every sermon is the point of whatever text we are reading. We do this because we honestly believe that God encounters us in his Word; God speaks to us in his Word; God draws near to us in his Word. God didn’t simply speak 2,000 years ago. The written Word of God is still very much alive and speaks today with no less force and life-changing power than it did when it was first received.
But those who love Bridgeway for our approach to Scripture are somewhat nervous when the music begins and they watch as people freely and joyfully express their love for Jesus Christ. They’re not used to such open and unashamed expressions of delight and gratitude, especially when those expressions become physical! Seeing someone actually move when they sing is unsettling to them. And seeing someone dance is downright traumatic!
And you wonder to yourself, and say to me, “How can you believe in the authority of Scripture and preach it with such detail and depth at the same time you permit and even encourage people to be free and expressive when they worship God? I’ve never seen those go hand in hand. And what makes it even more difficult for me is when you pray for the sick as if you really thought God might heal them and when you give room on occasion for so-called prophetic words to be given. What kind of nut-house did I walk into?”
Second, there are those who come to me equally baffled by our commitment to verse-by-verse teaching of God’s Word. You are the ones who’ve been stuck in a church that for all practical purposes reduced the Christian life to theological accuracy. Christian maturity and godliness, in such churches, is defined solely in terms of being doctrinally sound.
What drew you to Bridgeway was someone who told you that in this church we genuinely believe in the person and power of the Holy Spirit; that we not only affirm the validity of all spiritual gifts today but we actually do what we can to facilitate their practice; that we aren’t afraid of our affections and feelings but believe that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Your struggle isn’t that people are openly expressive in worship or that some speak in tongues or that we pray expectantly for the sick or that we are sensitive to the spontaneous prompting of the Spirit and are willing to interrupt the order of service to follow his leading. What eats away in your soul is that we move so effortlessly and unapologetically from such vibrant charismatic expressions of spiritual life into the depths of biblical truth and challenging biblical doctrines.
I’ve actually had conversations with a few who say something like: “Sam, aren’t you afraid that your preaching style will quench the Holy Spirit? Aren’t you concerned that people will leave here with swelled heads and shrunken hearts? Do you really believe you can have a vibrant and intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit at the same time you dig so deeply and intensely into the Bible?” Well, in point of fact, I don’t believe it is possible to have a vibrant relationship with the Spirit unless you dig deeply into God’s Word.
Many who’ve come to Bridgeway in the last 3-4 years fall into one of those two camps and you’re still more than a little suspicious about this place. You still wonder whether or not it’s possible to be so radically committed to both the principles of God’s Word and the power of God’s Spirit, to both head and heart, to both ideas and intimacy, to both facts and feelings, to both order and spontaneity, to both doctrine and experience.
I said there were three observations I typically hear from new people here at Bridgeway. The third comes from that person who often approaches me with tears in their eyes and expressions of gratitude in their hearts that what they didn’t think even existed actually does: namely, a local church that isn’t afraid of the Holy Spirit or of rigorous doctrinal dialogue; a church that refuses to let one trump the other; a church that highlights the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners and encourages its people to earnestly desire and seek after the full range of spiritual gifts.
None of this is meant to suggest that Bridgeway is perfect. We all know that isn’t true, and sad to say, never will be. We’ll be the perfect church as soon as we weed out from our midst all imperfect people. Which means we’ll never be a perfect church because I’m staying!
Some are wondering if this is the local church for you and your family. There are many pastors who will be less than forthright about their church for fear that such honesty will drive people away. So they portray their church in whatever descriptive categories they think the person wants to hear. That’s not going to happen here. So let me be perfectly honest: No, we aren’t the local church for some of you. If you are looking for a doctrinally orthodox church that is afraid of the supernatural, Bridgeway probably isn’t for you. You will probably never feel comfortable here. Or if you are looking for a charismatic church that gives only token attention to the truths of God’s Word, Bridgeway probably isn’t for you.
Perhaps the best way to explain my point is by looking at what we say in our Welcome to Bridgeway booklet about Our Commitment to the Convergence of Word and Spirit. Following a reference to our statement of faith in which we affirm both the authority of Scripture and the validity of all spiritual gifts today, we say this:
“You may be surprised to discover that there are a good number of Christians who say you can’t believe both. If you truly embrace the authority and finality and sufficiency of Scripture, so they say, you can’t believe that the Holy Spirit still bestows gifts such as prophecy and tongues and word of knowledge and discerning of spirits. If you are the kind of Christian, so they say, who enjoys digging deeply into God’s Word and thinking deeply about biblical truth, you can’t be open to the possibility of miracles and healing and prophetic revelation.
That is why people will often walk into Bridgeway and are shocked by what they discover. They discover that we are very serious about the written Word of God, that we teach it and preach it and live under its authority, and govern our lives, both individually and as a church body, according to its principles. The shock comes when they also discover that we are free and exuberant in worship and that we expect the Lord to speak to us prophetically and to work among us through all the spiritual gifts described in the Bible. They are shocked and wonder how it is that a church can maintain its sanity when we both preach the Bible verse-by-verse and then at the close of our services pray for the sick to be healed and for God to reveal himself to us through words of knowledge and prophecy.
Most Christians expect us eventually to move in the direction of one of these two emphases to the exclusion of the other. Given enough time, so they say, either our emphasis on the Bible will quench the Holy Spirit, or our openness to the supernatural and spiritual gifts will lure us away from God’s Word into the land of sensationalism and subjectivity.
You can’t be wholly and sincerely and thoroughly committed both to the Word and to the Spirit, or so they say. In response the question might be posed: What makes us think that God has given us the option of choosing one over the other? Where in God’s Word does it ever suggest, much less teach, that Christians should ever think that being grounded in Scripture quenches the Spirit, or being open to the Spirit undermines the authority of the Bible?
Put simply, Bridgeway is wholly committed to the convergence of both Word and Spirit, not simply as a theological statement but as a way of life and ministry. Our aim in all that we do, whether in corporate assembly, community group gatherings, discipleship, or missional outreach, is to serve in accordance with the Word of God through the power of the Spirit of God.”
A few asked me if our zeal for spiritual gifts means that the Word of God would no longer be central and controlling in our church.
No, it means no such thing. So let’s ask and answer this question: What does it mean for the Word of God to be central and controlling in the life of the individual Christian and the local church? It means not only that you believe everything the Word teaches but also that you practice everything the Word commands. For some of you, keeping the Word central means nothing more than explaining it accurately week in and week out. Be assured we will do that. But keeping the Word central also means actually doing what the Word of God teaches and commands.
Let me ask you a simple and I think obvious question: Where is it that we are taught about the spiritual gift of prophecy? Where is it that we are commanded to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy? Where is it that we are commanded not to quench the Holy Spirit by despising prophetic utterances? Where is it that we are commanded not to forbid speaking in tongues? Where is it that we are commanded to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we might be healed?
Is it not in the Word of God?! If you want to keep the Word of God central and controlling you have to respond appropriately to everything that Word tells you regarding spiritual gifts like prophecy.
You can’t keep the Word central simply by saying, “Oh, 1 Corinthians 12-14 and 1 Thessalonians 5 and Romans 12 and 1 Timothy 1 talk about prophecy. That’s nice. We’ll believe that. But God forbid that we should ever actually pray for the gift of prophecy and exercise it as the Word of God teaches. Oh no. We’ll declare it, but we won’t do it.” I’m sorry, my friend, but that is not keeping the Word central. That is disobedience, pure and simple.
Allow me to give you one illustration.
John Wimber, who died in 1997, led a colorful life, although it isn’t my purpose here to provide a biographical history. John came to be known for many things, having been, before his conversion, an early member of the group known as the Righteous Brothers (I think John played both sax and keyboard and did a bit of drumming); as well as briefly serving on the faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary where he taught a famous course on signs, wonders, and church growth. But his fame is from his long tenure as leader of the Association of Vineyard Churches and his role as senior pastor of the Anaheim Vineyard in California.
I first met John in 1993 when he visited our church in Kansas City where I was serving on pastoral staff. I didn’t agree with John on all points of theology, and he wasn’t in the least hesitant to challenge me on a few issues where he thought I had gone astray. But our friendship and mutual respect were rock solid.
I don’t know if I read it in one of his books or heard him say it in a sermon (probably both), but one of the things that has stuck with me these many years was this comment: “I would rather pray for 100 people, even if only one gets healed, than not to pray for any and none gets healed.” Or again, “I’ll live with 99 failures for the sake of only one success!” In point of fact, even if not even one gets healed, John would faithfully pray for everyone. His life and ministry were not governed by results but by what he believed he was commanded to do in the Bible.
John will be remembered for many things, one of which was his unrelenting commitment to “doin’ the stuff,” as he often put it. As John told the story, he and Carol visited a church early in his spiritual journey, immediately after he had spent considerable time reading the gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Following the service, John approached the pastor and asked him:
“So, when do we do the stuff?”
“The ‘stuff’,” said the pastor. “What’s the ‘stuff’?”
“You know,” John replied, “the stuff in the Bible, like healing the sick and casting out demons. The stuff!”
“Oh,” replied the pastor. “We don’t do the stuff. We believe they did it back in biblical days, but we don’t do it today.”
With a rather confused look on his face, John could only say: “And I gave up drugs for this?”
Let me conclude with this. There is something all of us need to recognize and embrace if we are going to make this work. What we are seeking to accomplish at Bridgeway runs directly counter to human nature. It is contrary to our most basic instincts and intuition to aim for a harmonious convergence of Word and Spirit. Human nature always prefers one over the other because it is easier, more comfortable, more predictable, and doesn’t require much effort.
Think about it. To live and serve and minister with a 100% commitment to both doctrine and experience, both head and heart, both theological accuracy and affections that are on fire for God, both freedom and order, just seems impossible. That’s what sin has done to us. It has caused a divorce in our thinking between the marriage of the two. Sin always leads us to embrace one virtue to the exclusion of the other. Sin always leads us to focus on one truth while demonizing another.
The fact is, it’s easier and more comfortable just to abandon yourself to spiritual experience without having to worry about whether or not its biblical. Or it’s easier and more comfortable and definitely more predictable to focus exclusively on theological accuracy and shut off the possibility of an encounter with the supernatural. But God hasn’t called us to do what is easy and comfortable and predictable. He’s called us to be biblical.
My point is that you will probably always feel a little nervous at Bridgeway. Some of you will be nervous because of our consistent emphasis on biblical and theological accuracy. Others of you will be nervous because of our openness to the Spirit and to spontaneous expressions of spiritual gifts. It would feel easier and more comfortable and even safer if we just gave in and said:
“OK, Bridgeway is going to be a traditional evangelical Bible church that devotes all its energy to doctrine.” Or,
“Bridgeway is going to be entirely charismatic and go hard after supernatural experience and the exercise of spiritual gifts.”
Yes, it would be easier to embrace one of those two visions as a local church, but the Bible simply won’t let us do it.