To my ‘Peter Pan’ charismatic brethren (Part 2)

“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days, God says,
    “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.”’”
(Acts 2:14-18)

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” (1 Corinthians 14:39-40)

In my last post I digressed into some broader issues and never really got started speaking directly to my charismatic brethren. So I guess you can call the two posts 1 Charismatics and 2 Charismatics. It’s not like it’s never been done before. (And for the record, and White House advance teams, it’s Second, not Two, Charismatics.)

It’s hiding in plain sight, but the church at Corinth was charismatic. There’s teaching about the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12), practical guidance for using those gifts in public meetings (1 Cor 14), and stern correction about ministry gifts designed for the benefit of the whole body, which, when misunderstood, can divide it along personality and individual ministry lines (1 Cor 1-4).

That’s not all, of course. There are all kinds of issues Paul addresses, underscoring the perhaps counterintuitive fact that a gifted (“you do not lack any spiritual gift”) and adequately taught church (“enriched in knowledge”)—those were his words in 1 Cor 1:5-7—can have a boatload of problems, which you might ordinarily associate with a lack of gifts and teaching.

But people have always struggled to understand and come to terms with the sovereign operations of the Holy Spirit. Critics (including disaffected charismatics) have been trying to figure out what’s going on, and looking askance at it, since Peter and company were accused of being drunks when the Spirit of God descended on them at Pentecost.

If heavy snow melt and extraordinary rains combined to swell the Potomac River until it finally overflowed its banks, it wouldn’t just soak the ground and everything on it with churning, muddy water. It would also deposit old tires, Wal Mart shopping carts, Clinton-era laptops and Blackberries and enough recyclable aluminum cans onto the ground to nudge the median local income up a few dollars.

We then have a source problem (an abundance of water) and a contamination problem (miscellaneous detritus submerged in the water). You can’t really blame the river for what people contribute to its unpleasant contents.

When it comes to the church there is something similar. There is an abundant source (the Spirit “poured out”) and a potential contamination problem because of where it’s poured out (“on all people,” NIV; “on all flesh,” ESV).

We are corruptible, weak (“the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”), prone to revert to the worldly or merely human. “Mere men,” Paul says, are the type of person who says, “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” (1 Cor 3:4).

For some people, a garish wig and false eyelashes that look like the lobes of a Venus fly-trap are all the flesh they need to see to effectively quench the Spirit. Others talk about 3 or 4 bad experiences they had with charismatics. I can see your 3 or 4 bad experiences and raise you a hundred or so from my years in the charismatic church.

And so could Paul. Look how long the two letters to the Corinthian church are. Read carefully the kinds of problems he had to sort out: people practically stepping over each other to prophesy, oblivious even to the basic mechanics of communicating in a public meeting. How can anyone be edified—the purpose of the gifts—when more than one person is speaking, making it impossible even to hear the words?

How can competing ministries serve to build up the church when it sets one group of jealous followers against another, causing divisions that tear it down? What’s really at work here? “Taking pride in one man over another,” Paul said (1 Cor 4:6).

What does pride have to do with a gift from the Spirit of God? “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (4:7). “You do not lack any spiritual gift,” Paul declared (1:7). But did they forget who the Source was?

It’s easy to look at all these problems and just throw up your hands in frustration. Whole denominations have essentially outlawed the manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit, and others have so circumscribed them that they look nothing like the way they operated in the early church. It’s easy to rationalize their suspension; if they don’t operate they can’t disrupt or corrupt. Out of sight, out of mind (and out of trouble).

“When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26). Not in any church I’ve been in, including the one I consider the best in my experience.

There are logistical issues in implementing this verse that stem from the fact that 1st-century house churches were not buildings that accommodated scores or hundreds to worship together as churches do today. There were even logistical issues in these smaller gatherings in that day that Paul addressed to ensure that “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor 14:40).

But why didn’t Paul just shut down the whole enterprise? Wouldn’t that have been easier? That’s what some churches have essentially done today. The New Testament would have been significantly shorter without the problem child Corinthians.

I think there are a couple of reasons. First, as you can see woven through his teaching in these letters, it wasn’t his house to re-design. The church of Jesus Christ—anywhere, not just in Corinth—is not an episode of The Property Brothers to make over according to our tastes and desires.

No one—and Paul certainly knew he could not—can slam the door in the face of the Holy Spirit, any more than you can lie to the Holy Spirit to inflate the appearance of your generosity (Ananias and Sapphira) or buy the ability to impart the Holy Spirit (Simon the sorcerer). “You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God,” Peter said (Acts 8:21). This is not just any house; this is God’s dwelling place.

Second, remove the operation of the Spirit and the kingdom of heaven pancakes to become a purely human institution. It survives on institutional inertia. Its glue is the tacit agreement to accept lower standards as the best we can do, nothing more.

Jesus preached about a kingdom that was impossible for anyone not sanctified or empowered by the Holy Spirit to realize. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that . . . but love your enemies, do good to them and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Lk 6:32,35).  

Out of his remarkable breadth and the stores of grace that he drew from, Paul was not willing to let God’s house be occupied by “mere men.” Neither should we.

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