Strange Fire in the Churches of Christ

This is not the post you think it is.

The Internet has been buzzing about John MacArthur's Strange Fire conference and the angst he has created with Reformed leaders, like Mark Driscoll, who are Charismatic.

This isn't a post about that conflict. To be honest, and to reveal just how little I know about and pay attention to Reformed Christianity, I had no idea who John MacArthur was before this brouhaha. I do recall seeing his name on the spines of books in bookstores, but I've never read anything he'd written or watched any sermons of his. But apparently he's a pretty big deal in Reformed circles.

And he's also a cessationist, which is what I want to talk about. Because my tradition, the Churches of Christ, is also cessationist. This is the view of the Holy Spirit that I grew up with.

To catch everyone up, cessationism is the view that the miraculous workings of the Holy Spirit ceased (thus the label "cessationism") after the apostolic era, generally the first century of the church. There are many aspects to this view but a few common ideas appear a lot. I'd like to mention the ideas that dominated in the Churches of Christ when I was growing up and how these ideas shaped how we viewed the bible and the activity of God in the world.

The central idea had to do with the relationship between the charismatic gifts and the bible.

Cessationists often argue that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were necessary during the apostolic era because there was no New Testament on hand. Thus, direction for the church had to be given through direct divine intervention, mainly through the apostles, but if one of those guys weren't on hand then through the members of the church exercising things like the charismatic gift of prophecy.

However, once the bible had been "completed," it is argued, there was no longer any need for the charismatic gifts. The bible, rather than prophetic utterances, would guide and correct faith and practice. Evangelistic persuasion would no longer require miraculous displays but be rooted in the proclamation of the gospel, using the bible to convict the heart and mind of sin.

Basically, the bible displaced the charismatic gifts.

Where did this idea come from? When I was growing up this argument was made by an appeal to 1 Corinthians 13:
1 Corinthians 13.8-10 (NASV)
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
The gifts will cease when "the perfect" comes. So what's "the perfect"? Well, any cogent exegesis of this passage would say that love is this perfection. That love is the gift that pushes all other gifts to the side. That's Paul's whole point in verses 1-3: if you have all this supernatural power but don't have love it profits you nothing.

But that's not what I was taught growing up. I was taught that "the perfect" was the bible. That when the bible came the charismatic gifts would cease.

This interpretation was supported by other passages that identified the activity of the Holy Spirit with the bible. For example, passages like this were used to defend a bibliocentric--nay, a biblioexclusive--vision of spiritual warfare:
Ephesians 6.16-17
In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
It was pointed out that the only offensive weapon for spiritual warfare mentioned in this text was "the word of God," which is also the "sword of the Spirit." Thus, it was argued, the way the Holy Spirit "does battle" with demonic and satanic forces is through proper use of the bible. If you want to call upon the Spirit pick up the bible, "the sword of the Spirit." The prime example of this was Jesus's own battle with Satan in the desert temptations. In each instance Jesus resists the Devil by quoting Scripture.

All of this, you can imagine, had a very deflationary effect on any robust charismatic vision of spiritual warfare. The battle with evil became about exchanging bible verses.

Spirituality was reduced to cognition, memory and rational argumentation.

Charismatic Christians, we were told, would object to all this, they would decry limiting and restricting the activity of the Holy Spirit to bible study. But we had a great proof text for them:
Hebrews 4:12
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
The Spirit working through the bible wasn't a dry academic exercise. The bible was alive and active. The bible cut deep.

In short, even all the dynamic language of God's activity in the world was located in the bible. To suggest that the Holy Spirit was somehow constrained or limited by the bible was deemed to be a lack of faith. See Hebrews 4.12.

All this added up to a couple of big conclusions.

To be spiritual was to be biblical.

To engage in spiritual warfare was to quote Scripture.

And perhaps most importantly of all, the only way God acted in your life and in the world was through the study and use of the bible.

And thus, the Holy Spirit became the bible.

That's a sketch of cessationist teaching in the Churches of Christ. But things have changed a lot over the last few decades. In the late '80s and early '90s a mild charismatic wave rolled over the Churches of Christ. No one began to speak in tongues or anything, but there was a growing realization that God was doing things in the world beyond our memory verses. Prayer and worship, in response, became more emotive and hands began to be raised.

Still, it's pretty mild stuff given our cessationist roots. I actually like where we are right now. Still very rational and generally suspicious of charismatic excess, but open to being interrupted by God and confessional about treating the bible in idolatrous ways.

And a final note, given that Halloween is upon us. 

You could tell in the '80s and '90s when the Churches of Christ starting thinking that spiritual warfare might, well, be spiritual (rather than biblical) warfare. It was when we stopped having Haunted Houses in our churches. I remember these well as a kid, putting on a Haunted House in the basement of our church. But those Haunted Houses are thing of the past.

The world has become increasingly enchanted for the Churches of Christ.

And, thus, a little more spooky.

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21 thoughts on “Strange Fire in the Churches of Christ”

  1. I would agree. We are definitly "tilting" towards a better view of the Spirit and how the Spirit moves in and among us. I would suggest that our past teachings arose out of the 19th century view of the 'modern' era, where everything has a rational explanation (which there is nothing wrong with that!) and also in reaction to the spiritualism movement of that 19th century. Think of Halloween and Arthur Doyle and seances and you get the idea. Of course, the coc overreacted and tried to eliminate any Holy Spirit talk. It is good that we've "re-discovered" the spirit. Let's keep it balanced. The Spirit still works in us today, but I'd sure like to learn Spainish the easy way.

  2. Of strong mainline COC heritage how I identify with what you are calling cessation. I preached it just as you describe it here. A tiny yet great turning point. I will share my observation of this topic now at age 69.

  3. Your interpretation of 1st Corinthians 13 where "love" is that which is perfect is the only one that makes sense to me anymore although its almost impossible to find commentary to support it. I wonder why that is? Any ideas?

  4. In my small group last night, this came up in our discussion. I'm very encouraged by the sensitivity to the Holy Spirit we're seeking, and the willingness to be interrupted by God to do what He needs us to do. Thanks again for all the time, work, and edification you give us in your blog, Richard.

  5. John 16:12-14 has another interesting thought on this topic. Jesus says the Spirit will "guide you into all truth". This revelation which the Spirit is to "make known" certainly includes later new testament writings, but might also extend beyond them. For example, neither Jesus nor the NT writers ever teach abolishing slavery. It seems to me that the Spirit has led us to do so -- going beyond Scripture's direct teaching -- in line with this passage. Might there be other areas in which we can see post-canonnical revelation? This is a question I would love to hear Richard comment on.

  6. Steve if I may take a stab at this before Richard does. I think the first thing to acknowledge is that when we hear the word "slavery" we automatically refer to our own historical context of the world and let's face it American slavery was evil and has left lasting scars in our society. But when I read scripture's commentary on slavery I see an overall message that does not endorse American slavery but an understanding that as humans some would be more powerful than others and how God expected that relationship to play out. Taking this understanding of slavery and applying it to even today we practice a form of slavery everyday in our society with employment. I agree to provide X services for Y persons and in exchange Y persons providing me Z rewards that help sustain my life. And most people would not choose of their own free will to prove service X if reward Z was not a part of the package. So for me this isn't a matter of post-canonnical revelation (which to me suggests something new added to scripture) but rather a matter of discernment and understanding of scripture.

  7. Very good post and a great explanation as to why it's so difficult for change to come around many issues including sexuality, women's roles, and many other things. When the Bible is worshiped and idolized and is considered the only way to experience God/Holy Spirit's revelation, then close-mindedness to anything outside of scripture is the result.

  8. I hear your point, and certainly the NT instructions to slaves and masters can be applied to employment practices. But Paul understood the Roman practice of slavery well -- free persons captured in war from conquered populations were forced to work in jobs and locations which they did not choose. They were "owned" and could be traded as property. This is exactly the aspect of American slavery which we have come to see as immoral and incompatible with Christian living. The Bible does not call one person owning another immoral. The Spirit has led us to see that it is, moving beyond biblical revelation in that regard. I am keenly aware of the slippery slope this kind of logic suggests. Is there no limit to ways the Spirit could "add to" the knowledge we have in Scripture? As I see it, there is no question that He has indeed done so, in this area and others we could think of. (Even the fully developed doctrine of the Trinity is post-cannonical.) I suspect the fear of where this path might lead is part of the rationale behind the cessationist point of view. We feel safer when we can say the Bible is the end of all revelation. Only trouble is, we can't (at least don't) actually live within those boundaries.

  9. The book that has informed my thinking on this is Luke Timothy Johnson's Scripture and Discernment. The case he makes is founded upon the events recounted in Acts 10 and 15, the Spirit pouring out on the Gentiles and the way that experience altered the way the Jewish Christians read the OT, especially the covenantal texts associated with circumcision. You could argue that Paul's entire theological corpus (Romans especially) was a huge hermeneutical effort to get the Gentiles--in light of the work of the Spirit--into the Abrahamic covenant.

    Basically, the book of Romans is what happens--hermeneutically speaking--when the Spirit blows your Bible up.

    So, if we take that as normative--as something the church has to do from time to time in light of the Spirit blowing where it will--then, yes, I think we have permission to bind and loose in response to the Spirit.

  10. I'd love to see you work up a whole post suggesting areas where something similar may be happening in our time.

  11. I don't have many 1 Corinthians commentaries on my shelf to check this. I can see a commentary saying that "spiritual maturity" or "spiritual completeness" is the basic understanding of "the perfect." I'd just say that the entire chapter points to love being the focus of that maturity/completeness.

  12. There are a few examples of where people are making the case that something like the Acts 10/15 thing was/is going on. Beyond slavery, in his book Johnson discusses women, same-sex marriage and possessions.

  13. Richard, I've enjoyed reading your viewpoints for a long time and so thankful for your take on so many topics. Hope my question doesn't drag things a little off this topic but also hoping you might consider a separate post on the issue of what is meant by 'the Word of God'. I always thought that phrase was referring to Jesus? For example Hebrews 4:12, I thought was about Jesus / the Spirit of Christ judging us. Does the Greek differ depending on the verse the phrase is used in?

  14. I don't know if it's a Greek thing. I think it's mainly a hermeneutical move based on John 1, the "logos" or "Word" being identified with Jesus. Once you make that connection--logos = Word = Jesus--then you can plug "Jesus" into any instance of the "Word of God" found in Scripture (like you did with Hebrews 4.12). And, for the most part, I think that's a pretty good hermeneutical impulse. But it could be pushed too far as any given writer might not have Johannine theology in mind when they use the phrase "Word of God." So, for example, in the NIV the w in "word of God" is lower case, not "Word of God," suggesting that the NIV thinks "word of God" in this instance is more akin to "Scripture" than "Jesus."

  15. May I flip the argument around: the effect of the cessationist movement is to make the Bible become God. I think it would be fair to say that we have been taught to worship the bible, in effect making the bible into a idol. Is this problematic for anyone else?

    I've also been struck in the last few years how Jesus' approach to scripture is so radically different than the common conservative view of scripture. Jesus never lets scripture define or limit him. Instead he often subverts it ("you have heard it said, but I say to you ..."). Now many Christians use scripture to limit and define God.

  16. Just or the record, I think the word for "word" in Hebrews 4:12 is not "logos" at all, making the connection to John 1 just a bit weaker.

  17. I'm not agreeing fully with the cessationist movement here but I think to clarify their position might help your second point. Cessationist only believe that divine inspiration stopped once the complete formation of the bible was done, New Testament and all. They would have no problem agreeing that Jesus never let scripture define or limit him, in fact I think they would whole heartedly agree saying that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill. I think that many Christians (including myself) are hesitant to use extra-biblical sources for inspiration because we've seen instances when they have been abused to do harm.

  18. I think it was William Webb in Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis who proposed the idea of "redemptive flow" of scripture. From memory much of the book is an attempt at a programmatic hermeneutic to help distinguish between cultural and normative teaching in scripture. But the thrust of his argument is that we can locate something of a trajectory of scripture that, with discernment, might allow us to arrive at positions on a variety of issues that were perhaps addressed, resolved, or expressly promoted in scripture. Perhaps it might be of use or interest to you.

  19. "Basically, the book of Romans is what happens--hermeneutically speaking--when the Spirit blows your Bible up."

    Best Beck Bible quote ever! Love it.

  20. Great article, Richard! Brilliant clarity, true humility and (dare I say it) I felt the Spirit as I read. Sending love from England.

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