SBC Life Articles

The Charismatic Movement: Cause for Celebration or Concern?

The rise of the Charismatic movement is one of the most remarkable developments of the twentieth century. From modest beginnings in the Azusa Street revival, the modern-day Charismatic movement has been transformed into the fastest-growing segment of Christianity in America and throughout much of the world. Some experts estimate that the movement includes almost a half-billion adherents worldwide.

The Charismatic movement now spans much of the globe, incorporating traditional Pentecostals, the Assemblies of God, the Vineyard movement, and new-wave phenomena including purported "prophets" and "apostles." Central to the movement is the claim that a new visitation of the Holy Spirit has brought back the apostolic gifts and manifestations of the New Testament. With an emphasis on a "second blessing" after conversion, the movement is calling all Christians to "catch the wave."

Charismatic preachers and ministries dominate religious television in many parts of the country. Amazingly enough, the Charismatic influence has reached even into the most traditional denominations, including the Episcopalians in the United States and Anglicans throughout the world. A Roman Catholic Charismatic movement has thrived since the 1970s. More recently, questions of Charismatic influence within the Southern Baptist Convention have been raised.

Is the Charismatic movement a new wave of the Holy Spirit? How should Christians evaluate the movement, its practices, and its teachings? Help has come in the form of SpiritWorks, a new book by well-known pastor Jerry Vines.

Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, is one of Southern Baptists' most respected pastors. A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Vines is known for biblical preaching and thoughtful engagement with contemporary issues. SpiritWorks represents the product of his intensive study of Charismatic phenomena.

Dividing the Charismatic movement into three stages or "waves," Vines traces its development through Pentecostalism (classical beginnings in the early century), to ecumenism (interdenominational Charismatic ministries), and eventually to evangelism (the attempt to introduce "signs and wonders" into all churches). He then turns to consider the teachings and practices of the movement from a biblical perspective.

Vines writes as a pastor, and his pastoral concern is evident in the approach he takes in the book. He credits the Charismatic movement with evangelistic concern for common persons and those of all races: "Their openness to all people shames many mainline denominations." He acknowledges that the majority of Charismatics affirm the inerrancy and authority of the Bible and hold to many basic Christian doctrines.

Nevertheless, he rightly points to the emphasis on feelings and experience as the Achilles heel of the Charismatic approach to doctrine and discipleship. "It is vital for Christians to approach the Bible as the final source of authority. There is a tendency today to elevate one's personal experience above truth as revealed in the Bible. Our culture tends to place trust in man's feelings as the prominent feature in making decisions about truth. Our feeling-oriented society wants to go by how it feels about a matter in determining what the truth of a matter is."

Taking an informed biblical perspective, Vines points to the fundamental truth that the Holy Spirit always exalts Jesus Christ, and never draws center stage in the biblical revelation. Fully divine, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, and many evangelicals err by a lack of recognition of the Holy Spirit's ministry to the church. But the Charismatic movement is based upon an unbiblical presentation of the Spirit's continuing empowerment of the church.

Vines addressed the gifts of the Spirit in SpiritLife, which should be seen as a companion volume to SpiritWorks. "For too long the Christian community neglected these gifts and failed to show their importance to the body of Christ." Yet, these gifts should be understood in a biblical context, he warns: "Don't place these gifts in the forefront of Christian experience."

What about the teachings of contemporary Charismatic leaders? Vines takes on the teachings of figures such as Kenneth Hagin, Rodney Howard-Browne, Benny Hinn, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Copeland, among others. What about the Charismatic manifestations? Vines evaluates Charismatic phenomena ranging from speaking in tongues to territorial spirit warfare, and presents a biblical analysis.

In a succession of chapters, Vines reviews current Charismatic practices and beliefs. His method is to describe the practice, survey the Bible for its teachings on the subject, and then present a biblical evaluation. His method is honest and straightforward, and his careful study of the biblical evidence is evident.

Charismatic and non-Charismatic evangelicals are divided on the issue of Spirit baptism. Vines insists that both groups believe in the gift of the Holy Spirit to the believer. But the Charismatics believe in a "baptism of the Spirit" as a second blessing or experience subsequent to salvation. Vines counters that the Bible teaches no such experience. "Spirit baptism happens to all believers. It takes place at the moment of salvation, not at some later time."

Vines is a cessationist. That is, he believes that the so-called sign gifts of the New Testament were limited to the apostolic age. In their context, these signs authenticated the message of the Apostles and pointed to the supremacy of Christ. Such signs as speaking in tongues were limited to that time and to the special authority of the Apostles – designated by Christ Himself.

If such a position seems extreme today, it must nonetheless be recognized as the consensus of evangelicals prior to the emergence of the Charismatic movement in this century. As B. B. Warfield, one of the great evangelical stalwarts of our century taught, the sign gifts "were part of the credentials of the Apostles as the authoritative agents of God in founding the church. Their function thus confined them to distinctly the Apostolic church, and they necessarily passed away with it."

On the matter of a special "anointing," Vines counters the Charismatic claims of special empowerments and physical manifestations. He exposes the practice of "slaying in the Spirit" as profoundly unbiblical. The bizarre practices associated with the Toronto Vineyard Church and the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, Florida are addressed head-on, and revealed to have no biblical basis. As Vines comments, "Nothing in the Old Testament or New Testament even comes close to the mass falling out, laughter, or 'glued to the floor' experiences reported today."

On the matter of "power evangelism," Vines notes that the focus of these ministries is too often on the "signs and wonders" rather than on the gospel of Christ. The real power is the salvation of a sinner – not the manifestation of signs or supposed miracles.

Vines dares to tread where few have gone before when he considers the controversial belief in territorial spirits and spirit warfare. He affirms the reality of demons and the importance of prayer in the Christian life. But he demonstrates that the Charismatics have gone far beyond the Bible's teachings in their understanding of territorial spirits and their claims of demonic warfare. Whereas some Charismatics claim to know the names of demons and to detect demonic presence and activity within geographical areas, Vines warns that it "is possible to get so focussed on the dark side that one diminishes the person and power of the Lord Jesus Christ."

Many Christians have been confused by the word-faith movement, with its practices of "positive confession" and its focus on a prosperity gospel. The "name it and claim it" teachings distort the gospel and imply that God is at the believer's beck and call. Furthermore, the teachings force believers to doubt their very salvation when their "claimed" healings or riches do not materialize. In this to even further extremes, some teachers call upon their followers to deny reality, and even to decline medical treatment.

SpiritWorks will be welcomed by all those looking for a careful and biblical analysis of contemporary Charismatic beliefs and practices. Vines is not out to ridicule the beliefs of other Christians, but to reveal the unbiblical nature of their practices.

The greatest strength of the book is its consistent affirmation of the evangelical doctrine of Scripture. Vines underlines the necessity of rejecting any claims to a post-biblical revelation on par with the canon of Scripture, and he insists upon the priority of biblical authority over personal experience. The Bible is the authoritative corrective to Charismatic excesses and errors.

The Charismatic movement cannot be ignored. Its influence in contemporary church life is remarkable and growing, and, because of its need for promoting emotional energy, it is constantly producing new manifestations. For those seeking to understand the movement and its teachings, SpiritWorks is a fine place to start.



Slain in the Spirit

The following is an excerpt from a sermon by Jerry Spencer.

Are those who have this experience more spiritually successful and closer to God?

How does this help in daily Christian living?

If it is God's power, why do people have to catch you? If it's His power, couldn't He suspend you in air and let you down easy?

When God says so much about our being alert, to wake up, to stand in power with God's armor, why would He want us to pass out?

If it's of God, why doesn't every Christian have this experience as a normal occurrence, especially if it helps those who experience it so dramatically and instantaneously? How have the majority of truly Spirit-filled Christian leaders throughout history managed to function without this experience?

Given the omnipotence of Almighty God, the freedom, intelligence, and limitless power of the Holy Spirit, and given the fact that He lives in the Christian, why would He choose to come from the outside through the touching, hitting, throwing, shouting, commanding, or blowing of a third party for the purpose of slaying one of His own in whom He is already at home?

The basic, fundamental, bottom-line question is this: Is it biblical? Was it practiced and taught by the Lord Jesus Christ? What does the Bible say about being "slain in the Spirit?"

The answer is … Being "slain in the spirit" in never mentioned in the Bible.

Jerry Spencer is pastor of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Dothan, Ala.

    About the Author

  • R. Albert Mohler, Jr.