As our church has been steeped in learning about the Spiritual gifts in the past few weeks, I don’t want you to be unaware of the major camps and terms involved in the Spiritual gifts debate. Churches who do not talk about these things tend to demonize other churches whom they don’t fall in line with. Since a bit of this debate lies in a grey area Scripturally (meaning that any application of the text is going to include some “I think”s), we need to realize that most of the people in each of these camps exist along a spectrum within the Christian faith—if they disagree with you in this area, that does not make them unbelievers.
If You’re a Christian, You’re a Charismatic
First of all, let’s start with the definition of charismatic. The word most generally means one who believes that God gives gifts of grace through his Spirit to his people for the church. This includes gifts of administration, mercy, helps, etc. All true Christians are charismatic. If you believe that God has given your pastor a gift of preaching through his Holy Spirit, you’re a charismatic. Surprise!
But I realize that’s not how we use the term today. It has been taken lately to mean a church or person who is involved in the radical practice of the sign/miraculous gifts like tongues and healing (I’ll refer to these as sign gifts from now on). It’s a term for a certain camp. The problem, though, is that when we don’t understand what these groups believe, our tendency is to think they are heretical. But really, the different camps that I will describe are four different ways that Christians align themselves in terms of what they think about the sign gifts. Again, this is not a test of whether someone is a Christian. There are true, bible-believing Christians in each one of these.
What Are the Positions?
The four groups are actually subgroups of two major camps: Cessationism and Continuationism. Cessationism is the belief that the sign gifts (prophecy, tongues, miracles, healing) have ceased in some sense, and Continuationism is the belief that they continue through today. So, let’s break them down, and I think you’ll see that the positions are closer than we realize.
1. Strong Cessationism
Strong Cessationism teaches that the gifts of prophecy, tongues, healing, and miracles have ceased. Full stop. Usually, if the strong cessationist is desiring to be biblically faithful, they define the gifts narrowly as being exactly the gifts given during the time of the apostles (Surprisingly, some continuationists agree with this). Prophecy that is direct revelation from God and equal in authority to Scripture has ceased. Healings in terms of someone touching someone and saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ, be healed” and then instantaneous healing happening has ceased. Miracles have ceased in the same way, in that there is no individual given the gift of being able to do a miracle at will through the Spirit. Tongues has ceased because it was simply a sign of the power of God that was given for a time confirming the truth of the gospel message
The strong cessationist does not deny the power of God or of prayer. They would say that we still see healings and miracles in our day, but they aren’t gifts, rather, answers to prayer.
The weakness of the position: (1) There isn’t any strong biblical support for a cessation of sign gifts. Many proponents defend this position by pointing to “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 and saying that it refers to the completion of the Bible. That’s a possible interpretation, but it’s not probable. It seems to be clearly referring to the second coming of Christ. (2) There are many people around the world practicing these gifts and seeing these gifts. The strong cessationist must either declare that these practices are either purely human or demonic.
2. Moderate Cessationism
This position shares a lot with its strong version but is more open to the idea that sign gifts may exist in some capacity on the frontier lines of mission, as God continues to provide miracles in order to confirm the truth of the gospel in places that have never heard it. Also, a moderate cessationist might also believe that a gift of healing might be given to a believer in a moment and not have it again, but they would deny that anyone is a healer anymore. Also, in terms of prophecy, a moderate cessationist agrees that the Holy Spirit may lead someone to pray for someone or may give them a word of wisdom for someone else, but they would not refer to this as prophecy.
The weakness of the position: Along with #1 under strong cessationism, the moderate cessationist, if not careful, can be very skeptical of the sign gifts being practiced in an evangelized context like America. This promotes a tension that can lead to unhealthy relationships and divisions with believers who disagree.
3. Moderate Continuationism (“Charismatic with a Seat Belt”)
The moderate continuationist is driven by the desire to acquire all that God has for the church, and if the Bible says to seek the gifts (even the sign gifts) and never mentions them ceasing, then they want to pursue them in obedience. But, they would affirm that the gifts must be sought and practiced according to Scripture. Tongues must be practiced orderly; prophecy needs to be tested. Moderate continuationists tend to think that the gifts have changed character somewhat since the apostolic period, especially prophecy. Prophecy no longer shares “true word from God” status—unless it is an accurate exposition of Scripture. It is something that the person receiving it could be wrong about, so they would teach that it is best for someone who thinks they have a prophecy to say, “I think God gave me this for you, but I’m not sure. Let’s wait and see.” Also, a gift of a healing or a miracle might look like one person praying and God answering that one prayer, but it is doubtful whether someone could be a healer or a miracle-worker today.
The weakness of the position: (1) It is a difficult argument to say that the Bible instructs us to change our definition of these gifts as they manifested themselves in the New Testament era. This is an argument that is largely based on experience and not the text itself. But if a moderate continuationist concedes this point, it seems as if they must become a moderate cessationist or a full charismatic. (2) Church history attests to the fact that as early as the A.D. 200s, the orthodox writers were referring to a waning of the sign gifts and, within a hundred years, adopting a form of Cessationism.
4. Openly Charismatic
A charismatic church (as the word is used now) is open to the sign gifts and open to their still continuing, even in the way we see them manifest in the New Testament. Prophets, healers, miracle-workers, etc. are still with us; what God desires is for the church to seek them and to practice them. Many of these churches often encourage the practicing of the gifts through, for example, saying at any moment what you think God is saying to you, whether it is right or wrong. That’s practicing prophecy. Those who are seen as being able to continually prophesy true things are considered prophets and given much authority in the church.
These churches often invite traveling healers and such to come into their midst. Tongues are spoken freely in worship services. This type of church tends to be more popular in non-western countries.
The weakness of the position: (1) If a charismatic church gets away from biblical orderliness and testing prophecies, they become breeding ground for false prophets and cult leaders. The New Testament warns that false prophets will come who can do signs and wonders. (2) This type of church throughout history has often found itself teaching heretical doctrine. This is why the church moved away from the sign gifts very early on in history as the heretical Montanist and gnostic movements were practicing the sign gifts. Many see this as an over-correction by the early church.
As we can see, these groups fall along a spectrum that gets a bit more irrational as we get towards the ends. Over the past few weeks, Pastor Andrew has guided the church in the direction of Moderate Continuationism. There is still some room for disagreement, but we must realize that in certain senses, these positions are a lot closer than we might have thought. Our differences do not have to create division if we see that each position has weaknesses and allow that to humble us. We all desire intimacy and understanding; let us seek that through the leading of the Spirit and the leading of our pastors.
-Alex Nolette (Equip Coordinator/Community Groups)