Why I Am No Longer a Charismatic
I recently read two excellent books, Fr. Timothy Cremeens’ history of charismatic renewal in the Orthodox Church entitled Marginalized Voices, and Julia Duin’s account of the rise and fall of a prominent episcopal charismatic church in Houston, entitled Days of Fire and Glory. I had a personal interest in these histories of charismatic renewal, since that movement was the matrix in which I first came to faith in Christ. It was at a large charismatic gathering in Toronto called “Catacombs”, led by Merv and Merla Watson, that I first learned what the presence of God felt like, and first began to trust holy Tradition. (This latter was a slower process, and consisted back then in acknowledging that the Bible was to be trusted more than my own private opinions. Baby steps I know, but everyone has to start somewhere.) Though some of my dear friends still remain part of that renewal/ Pentecostal movement, I have moved on and no longer speak in tongues or prophesy. I would like to suggest a few reasons why, because it involves more than merely one man’s autobiography. The critique of charismatic renewal might help others sort out and separate the spurious from the authentic. It might even lead one home to Orthodoxy, as did me.
I suppose I must begin with full disclosure of the obvious, namely that my experience of charismatic renewal is decades’ old, and that my critique may no longer fully apply to what is currently occurring in charismatic circles. But many of our converts at St. Herman’s church where I am privileged to pastor come directly from such circles, and they report that though much has changed, much remains the same. Specifically, there are fewer tongues and prophecies, and the praise band, just forming in my day, has become an institutionalized liturgical fixture. The underlying spirituality of Pentecostalism, however, remains unchanged, and it is that spirituality that is the problem—and the focus of this meditation. If what follows does not describe your own experience of renewal, glory to God.
First of all, the newness of the Pentecostal movement (going back past the present charismatic renewal into the Holiness movements of nineteenth century Methodism) meant that its founders privileged the concept of novelty. “God is doing a new thing!” became their watchword. The idea was that after long centuries of spiritual lethargy and deadness, God was at last moving in power among His sleepy and sleeping churches to wake them up and restore what they had lost. The newness of the movement therefore, far from counting against its authenticity, counted for it, and became a mark of its genuineness and grounds for boasting. Given their belief that the Bible predicted such a final outpouring of the Spirit in the last days, the newness of the experiences and of the attendant theology testified that we were now indeed in the End Times. (Thus all Pentecostal revivalism had a strong element of chiliasm and a conviction that the Second Coming was near at hand.)
This privileging of novelty quickly became a hunger for novelty, for novelty is fleeting by definition. What was the Newest Thing, and “what God is doing now”, after a few months became yesterday’s news, and one quickly looked for something else, something even newer, the next phase in God’s ongoing programme of restoration, something even more radical and exciting.
This had the immediate effect of short-circuiting one’s spiritual discernment, so that one became unable to distinguish the genuine from the spurious—or even from the seriously whacky and pathological. How else to explain the growth of such things as “the Toronto blessing” (named for its presence at the Toronto Airport Church) with people falling down, laughing uncontrollably, and barking like dogs? (See inset.) One came to expect God would do something new and different every year or so—and wanted Him to do it. One was therefore primed to accept the appearance of such experiential novelties, even if they did appear to be bizarre. The fact that the appearance of such things had no precedent in the church’s history did not count against its genuineness. Rather, it counted for it, for “God was doing a new thing”, as expected. It does not take much imagination to see how such a lack of discernment could lead to cultish behaviour, self-deception, and vulnerability to charlatans quick to take advantage—all of which things littered the charismatic landscape.
The lack of discernment was furthered by the absence of objective criteria with which to judge new doctrine and phenomena. All they had was the Bible, which is not self-interpreting, and so was of no use when read within this culture of novelty. Little wonder that the movement soon became characterized by diversity and plagued by extremism.
Secondly, the movement expected that maturity and spiritual growth would come effortlessly and quickly. The practice of laying hands upon a person and praying for them to receive the Holy Spirit (usually with evidence of speaking in tongues) became the paradigm for meeting all spiritual need. Just as one was expected to receive the Holy Spirit/ gift of tongues simply through a few minutes of prayer, so it was expected that all spiritual problems could be solved similarly through such prayer and laying on of hands. Answers and resolution were expected immediately and without long sustained effort. (The Pentecostal precedent of “tarrying meetings”, which involved long and fervent services of prayer as a preparation for receiving the Spirit/ gift of tongues, was forgotten or set aside.) All that was required now for an instant answer was faith—not fasting or a disciplined life of prayer and Scripture reading and participation in the church’s sacramental life, and certainly not professional therapy—just faith. All problems could be instantly resolved by having someone or a group of people gather around, lay claim to the Lord’s promised blessing, and pray with faith.
Suggesting that all of one’s problems could not be solved in this way was condemned as showing a lack of faith. Such acts of faith (sometimes existentially indistinguishable from exertions of will-power) were regarded as a shortcut to maturity. That is, spiritual growth was not regarded as slow and incremental, but as swift and dramatic. A life of discipline and long faithfulness, though of course admired and recommended, were no longer required for spiritual growth and maturity. One could solve one’s problems and reach the next stage of growth merely by receiving such prayer.
Consistent with this, people who were new to the Christian faith often functioned as pastors and leaders. All that was required to lead a home prayer group, for example, and function pastorally was the ability to speak in tongues. The length of time one had been a Christian was more or less irrelevant, 1 Timothy 3:6 notwithstanding. This was a problem, and resulted in much disappointment and even in pastoral catastrophe, because (sadly) there are no real shortcuts to maturity, and no substitute for a sustained life of discipline. Such a life of slow discipline may not be exciting, but it is essential for real spiritual growth.
Thirdly, the movement fostered an expectation that God would constantly be “at work” in a person’s life, manifesting Himself in life’s mundane details. It is the last bit that is problematic. Of course God works in a believer’s life, but He does not usually manifest Himself visibly in its mundane daily details. But because Pentecostalism is built on a foundation of identifying divine action with visible and exciting things (such as tongues, prophecies, miracles, and outward manifestations), and because it is built upon the expectation that God’s action in our life comes apart from the necessity of long discipline, one is primed to see God’s visible hand in the mundane details. Thus one hears such casual phrases from those in Pentecostalism as “God was speaking to me the other day”, and of how God found them a parking space in a crowded parking lot.
God’s presence in one’s life, it is believed, will necessarily involve His visible intervention in such ways. The idea that God does not routinely speak casually to a believer throughout the day, has no interest in finding them a parking spot, and that His presence is usually subtle and unseen, is not a welcome one. This means that the charismatic often endows an ordinary experience with an extraordinary significance it do not possess. In other words, it involves self-deception. God did not actually say that to you, and did not actually find you that parking space. What you heard casually in your mind was not God’s voice, but just your own imagination. And the sudden finding of the parking spot was not divine providence, but just happy dumb luck such as everyone sometimes experiences. The expectation that God will show Himself casually and often in one’s day results in putting such minor self-deception at the center of one’s life. It may be comforting to imagine that “He walks with me and He talks with me”, but that does not make it true.
Finally, the movement consistently identified emotion with the action of the Holy Spirit. Charismatic services are calculated to produce emotional response, which is the whole point of the praise band. There is nothing wrong with emotion, and emotional release is often necessary (which is why people make a lot of noise at concerts and sports events). But the emotion generated by praise bands at worship services should not be mistaken for the presence or action of the Holy Spirit. If it is so identified, certain problems quickly arise.
That is because every emotional high is followed and balanced by an emotional low. C.S. Lewis referred to this human phenomenon as “the law of undulation”, and the ebb and flow of emotion is part of how we stay healthy emotionally. If we decide to resist the emotional low which inevitably follows an emotional high because we identify the latter with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and if we continue to pump up our emotions artificially, it is certain to result in an emotional crash and burnout. It will also result in our dependence upon emotion, and our consequent inability to mature, because spiritual growth only occurs during times of emotional low and dryness. It is when we do not feel like praying, reading Scripture, fasting, or going to church and do these things anyway that we begin to grow. Maintaining an artificially-induced emotional high (mislabelled as and confused with the work of the Holy Spirit) is a barrier to real growth. The excitement felt by the work of the praise band is like eating cotton candy: it tastes wonderful and produces a sugar rush, but if it forms our main and steady diet, it will eventually make us sick. I found within charismatic renewal a confusion of emotionalism with the presence of the Holy Spirit and often an inability to distinguish between the two.
There were many good things which I experienced within the charismatic movement—things such as a love for Scripture, a hunger for God, an openness to growth and transformation, and a determination to exalt Jesus as Lord. But ultimately the problems mentioned above drove me to the conclusion that the movement was too flawed in its foundation to offer a long-term place of safety and growth. St. Paul wrote that love must be augmented by knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1:9f). It was this lack of spiritual discernment in the movement that ultimately disqualified it for me as a place to call home. I remain grateful to God for the good I found there. I am even more grateful to Him that I moved on.