Last week I returned from a three day retreat with fellow interns at CAP to find that the Christian corner of the internet was ablaze with the roaring bushfire of debate. Needless to say, I was rubbing my hands together with no small amount of glee. Some people hate it when Christians argue; I take a differing view: what is the measure of man but (in part) his ability to hold or appreciate an intelligent discussion or debate? All Christians do not hold the same views - what's the point in pretending otherwise? Arguments in Christian circles are a golden opportunity to show grace and love in an arena known for mis-representation and, in the case of the internet, putrid bile. It doesn't always happen, and I know I struggle in this area, but that is our ideal to strive towards.
The cause of the great internet debate was the Strange Fire conference held by John MacArthur's church in the US. To understand why it promoted such an outpouring of internet blog posts and discussion it is sufficient to quote from the description on the Strange Fire website (apologies for American spellings):
"The sons of Aaron…offered strange fire before the LORD…and fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them.
Imagine, if you will, the great tower of the charismatic church (I'm using church in it's broadest, most wide context) and then taking a huge hammer and giving the foundations a mighty whack. This is not side issue stuff but rather gets into the heart and core of the Charismatic movement. As such it's easy to understand why so many people have reacted so strongly against this conference. It is an attack on their very identity as Charismatic Christians.
This is, I think, one of the main successes of the Strange Fire conference. As a challenge and attack on charismatic theology and thinking it forces the charismatic side of the church to re-assess their doctrine and practice. This is no bad thing. From my own experience, being challenged at CU by charismatic thinking (i.e. the reverse of the conference), it forced me to really delve into the Bible and ask myself "why do I believe that?"
Debate is healthy, sure it can be done in an unhealthy manner, but by in large it sharpens and hones our thinking. If all the Strange Fire conference becomes is a grinding stone for charismatic thinking then it has in some measure been successful. It has certainly sparked off discussion in charismatic circles and represents a healthy challenge from one side of the church to the other.
Case in point: I haven't heard a single conference speech yet but I must have read over ten thousand words on the conference from my idle blog trawling. Each day a new blog post crops up for my attention and here I am adding to the great musing of the internet. (I do plan to watch it all in full when I have the time).
The other point to make is that the Strange Fire conference was not primarily concerned with the Pipers, Grudems or even the Driscolls of the charismatic movement. No, it was concerned with the mainstream movement. The false gospel parade in all it's wretched display. The tele-evangelists who reach more than 100 million people, the charismatic movement in Africa where your preacher becomes a substitute for your witch doctor and the health, wealth, prosperity brigade whose lies corrupt millions.
A blogger commenting on MacArthurs' opening speech said:
"However, many of the most prominent, influential, adored and spotlighted leaders in the movement are heretical and do not know God. For this reason, no movement has done more damage to the church. There may be 14 million Mormons, but there are 500 million Charismatics. In too many cases, the movement has proved to be a Trojan horse for destructive delusion at best, and damning error at worst. Welcomed with open arms by evangelical trend-surfers and accommodaters, the troops pour out, take over, and erect an idol in the City of God. They offer the world what it already wants with a sprinkling of "Spirit"-dust. The world pours into the professing church unconverted, and the damage is done."
If you think this is overly harsh then you will be delighted to hear that MacArthur referred to the Charismatic movement as "spiritual AIDS" that lowers the church's ability to fight off heresy. The main error Christians make here it that we think, in our little Christian world, that the Pipers, Grudems and Driscolls are the most influential charismatics out there. And maybe in our little Christian bubble they are. But an assessment of the bigger picture reveals that the most popular charismatic teachers and preachers are all heretical. To put it another way: all the Charismatics I know personally fall into the category of sane, bible believing, Christ believing, individuals with whom I will agree with much on. These people are a distinct minority to the Charismatic movement as a whole. Ironically, the whacko "fringe" of the Charismatic movement outnumbers those in the sane and sensible section!
There is much more to be said as to why the Charismatic movement allows so much error and what fosters this lack of discernment. These are topics for another time. It has been interesting that such a conference comes at a time when I am very much exposed to Charismatic culture, more so than I got at CU - it makes all the issues under discussion more real, more necessary to engage with. I get a first hand experience of the outworking of a Charismatic culture and it will be very interesting to see how much of what is said at the conference resonates with that experience. I must add here that this culture firmly represents the sane and sensible side of the Charismatic movement yet even so which criticisms will hit home and which will not? Expect further comment on this very issue.
I leave you with the following thought: the Holy Spirit is in the business of making us more like Christ. In fact, Jesus Christ knew the fullest measure of the Holy Spirit. So in the words of MacArthur: "When did Jesus ever bark like a dog? When did Jesus ever laugh uncontrollably for hours on end for no reason? When did Jesus ever moo, fall down and lose control, roll around and foam and quiver, or babble incoherently?"