In defense of my ‘Peter Pan’ charismatic brethren

“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” (1 Corinthians 14:39)

No matter how you slice it, my previous posts on my “Peter Pan” charismatic brethren (here and here) are going to be judged, prima facie, as sour grapes, bad blood, or the kind of resentment expressed by someone who just bought a used car 1000 miles ago that now needs a new transmission.

And that would be just from the “Peter Pan” reference in the title. The subtitle of the J.M. Barrie book is “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.”

But would you want to be compared to that? What about “Do unto others”?

No, of course I wouldn’t want to be called a spiritual Peter Pan. The way to avoid that is don’t behave in such a way that invites that comparison.

Do you think Peter appreciated his attempts to dissuade Jesus from suffering described as originating from Satan? Would you rather that Jesus never went to the cross for the sake of not hurting Peter’s feelings?

Maybe Paul later regretted calling the Corinthians “mere infants” and “still worldly” (1 Cor 3:1). I doubt it. But even if he did, he’s so many million printed copies of the New Testament too late it’s a moot point.

But previous criticisms aside, I am no cessationist. It took me about five years to reach that conclusion from the time I became a believer. That was about 10-12 years from the first lightning strike of that “charismatic renewal,” as it used to be characterized.

Through a glass darkly, through a revelation powerfully. In hindsight, the way “the renewal” was presented to me through a local church seminar had a lot of faults. But I think you have to remember that the body of teaching that was being re-introduced to the church was either, at best, unfamiliar or completely foreign to teaching on the church that many Christians had received. We’re talking centuries of being dormant, for the most part.

This is just my considered opinion, but I believe the widespread, sometimes controversial and indisputably dramatic manifestations of the Spirit were a revelation like the two I described in previous posts (here and here), just on a very large scale. I called them free samples to explain their operation and significance in my personal life. Another metaphor might be test drive.

At the end of a test drive in a car, the car is no more yours than it was when you first walked past it on the lot. It’s just a try out. But as anyone knows, you can read all the specs you want about engine size and configuration, standard equipment and onboard options, but none of those mean much until you get in and drive.

I say test drive because even in churches that have been reliably charismatic in doctrine in more recent years there has been a waning demonstration of the gifts of the Spirit. They haven’t abandoned the doctrinal basis, so what’s going on?

Gifts are gifts, but as Paul had to correct the Corinthians about disorder, an over eagerness to display the gifts that caused confusion, and, in general, a lack of love associated with their spiritual giftedness (hence 1 Cor 13), this can cause the Spirit of God to withhold their distribution as problems are worked out.

There is no point to, or more importantly, no edifying effect from, their use among persistently worldly, immature or out-of-control believers. As Paul said, it amounts to noise, sounding like a “resounding gong” or “clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Who needs that?

We’ve seen the gifts demonstrated, so we know now how they can work. Perhaps a fuller, more permanent restoration of them awaits the maturing of the saints.

And again, they’re gifts. We do not “order up” or “pull down” their manifestation at will. Regardless of the gift or gifts, their recipient or the time or place of their manifestation, “all these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Cor 12:11). It’s as true in the 21st as it was in the 1st century.

Baby, I can drive Dad’s car. Where I grew up in rural western New York, there’s a stage between adolescence and young adulthood known as “too old to escape ridicule if you still ride a bicycle” and “Hillary had his Everest but now I have my driver’s license.”

It was, to everyone, understandably exciting to experience this quantum leap in social independence, and it made the new driver feel somehow much more powerful and part of a select group. When you reach my age, you just laugh at these youthful delusions about driving, but you can’t deny you had them.

When I got my license, I instantly became the most solicitous son in a 20-mile radius. Need something from the store? I’ll get it. Give my sister a ride to her friend’s house? Even that social taboo couldn’t withstand the sheer exhilaration of being able to drive—for just about any reason.

Today, it’s just a tool, a way to get to work. And not much else since the pandemic. But the gold has lost its luster.

When many people were introduced to the charismatic renewal, they had a similar reaction. Speaking in tongues was—well, it was Spirit-empowered! No longer did man have to live by Wonder Bread faith alone; he could live by the gifts of the Spirit.

I had a classmate from Hopkins who chucked half his library of Christian books if they didn’t have at least a broad tolerance of charismatic Christianity. I knew others who made extravagant claims about what being “baptized in the Spirit” did for their lives, some of them kind of silly. But then I thought driving was my magic carpet ride once I got my license. That was pretty silly, too.

Today, and I am being completely honest and unashamed about admitting it, I speak in tongues about as often as I use my umbrella. I certainly don’t forbid it, I don’t think it needs to be kept in the attic like your strange uncle, but I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all of spiritual life, either. Put it in perspective, like being able to drive.

‘Anointed’ and appointed. “Anointed” was to the charismatic renewal what “OMG” and “awesome” are to contemporary communication: needing change as badly as your pillowcases by Labor Day. It was the all-purpose, Oprah Book Club, Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for ministers, ministry, worship music and the assorted smaller instances of Spirit-led ministry that happened in Bible studies, prayer groups and interludes between worship choruses.

As you would expect, some of it was genuine if a bit rough around the edges, some of it was about as edifying as the little strip in the fortune cookie and some of it was pure nonsense trying to masquerade as “prophetic ministry” because that’s what the big boys drive.

But can I be excused for sheer gratitude for hearing a prophetic word spoken over me that left me nearly speechless, in wonder at the depths of the Spirit’s knowledge of me, and encouraged me to keep up the good fight? Compared to typed bulletins and responsive readings that sounded more like the reading of a will, this was–well, anointed.

Do a study sometime in Paul’s letters and count up the references, direct and indirect, to scheming false brethren, defective teaching and all the other threats to effective, orthodox ministry to the body of Christ. Has anything changed?

Are there still “evildoers and impostors going from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived”? (2 Tim 3:13) Of course there are. Counterfeits are attracted to the real thing precisely because of its value. Paul corrected their errors or delegated to others to deal with it. He wasn’t under the illusion that they would someday disappear “when completeness comes” (1 Cor 13:10).

I still think many charismatics need to grow up. Sorry if that hurts anyone’s feelings, but it’s true. But what the Spirit has done in recent years is not the problem; it’s the flesh that gets in the way.

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