Well it’s been about a month since the Strange Fire conference ended and as expected, the conference was met with strong polarizing opinions. It doesn’t take long to do a google search and read about the public perception of the conference. I don’t plan to add anything new to the discussion that has already occurred, but I wanted to give my own thoughts about the conference.
Form Your Own Opinion
Before I read any of the comments associated with the conference, I made sure to actually listen to all of the sermons and breakout sessions myself. The first thing that I noticed was that people seemed to form their opinion based upon blogs from other people. There were certain phrases that were repeated on multiple different blogs. For instance, the first immediate comment that came from continuationists was that MacArthur was not making the proper distinctions among Charismatics and threw everyone in the same category. Perhaps that would have been a valid opinion if you only listen to one or two sermons. Listening to the whole conference, it was clear when the speakers were addressing the heretical side of the Charismatics (see Justin Peters’ lectures on the Word-Faith movement) or the Reformed charismatics (see Steve Lawson’s sermons) or the mainstream Charismatics in other countries (see Conrad Mbewe’s sermons). So for those who haven’t listened to the conference, I think it’s important not to form your opinions from others until you have sat down and listened to the conference. I think you might be surprised at what you will hear. That leads me to my second point…
Fringe or Majority?
One of the largest criticisms of the conference was that the speakers were addressing a small fringe of the Charismatic movement and have generalized it to the entire movement. Such a criticism makes me wonder whether or not many heard the sermons from Conrad Mbewe. I’m curious if many American Christians have heard of the types of stories that are described by Conrad. In doing a Youtube search for conference videos, I noticed that many more people heard MacArthur’s sermons rather than Conrad’s sermons. Moreover, virtually no one voted a “dislike” for Conrad’s sermons on Youtube. I wonder if this reflects a sentiment that many American Christians may not like to admit, namely, the revival of Christianity in Africa made not be genuine. Instead of it being a situation of tares among wheat, perhaps it’s more like wheat among tears. If Conrad is correct in his perception of African Charismatic Christianity, then there are two basic conclusions: (1) the fringe elements of the Charismatic movement are exporting their theology much better than the conservative Charismatics or (2) our perception of Charismaticism as Americans is significantly distorted.
Speaking from personal experience, what most of the critics were discussing as the fringe was commonplace in college. How many of us remember our college classmates talking about IHOP? To those of us who went to HBCUs, how many of us remember hearing that we needed to “flow in the prophetic”? How many of us remember hearing the phrase “revelation knowledge” and pursued new “revelation knowledge”? How many of us remember entire worship services where people spoke in tongues without any mention of a translator? How many of us remember people getting “slain in the Spirit” multiple times? How many of us remember when Prophet ______ came in to town and we did whatever was necessary for us to receive our word of the Lord? How many of us remember the prophetic utterances of pastors that were frequently wrong and unbiblical? If the Kansas City prophets are considered a fringe element within Charismaticism, then there are thousands of college students who would be fringe Christians. This leads to my third point…
Unified Condemnation of Heresy
The best part of the conference was to hear a unified, vocal, and clear denunciation of Word-Faith teachers. There have been numerous Charismatics who have given open criticism to these teachers, but in one sense, this was the first conference that I’ve heard of that has given a unified denunciation against the teachers. The Word-Faith teachers were addressed specifically during Justin Peters’ lectures on the Word-Faith movement. If you didn’t listen to those lectures, I suggest that you do because it demonstrates that the Word-Faith movement isn’t just a minor error, but rather it is heresy that should be condemned.
In his first sermon, John MacArthur made a very interesting point about the American church’s response to various heresy. When various groups present an aberrant view of Christ (i.e., unitarians, Mormonism, Jehovah’s witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals), the mainline denominations have stood up with a unified voice to call it heresy and to clearly articulate an orthodox Christology. When various theologians present an aberrant view of the Father, such as those who affirmed open theism, mainline denominations stood up with a unified voice to call it heresy and to clearly articulate orthodoxy. However, when groups have presented heretical view of the working of the Holy Spirit, the denunciation hasn’t been as unified; rather it’s been scattered on various different blogs at various different times. It has been my desire for church leaders to stand up and to anathematize the Word-Faith movement. To be honest, heretics were condemned for much lesser things than what the Word-Faith movement teaches. I think it’s time to unanimously condemned this heresy publicly and in written form and name the ministers who have propagated such heresy. I think this conference was a good first step in that process.
The True Ministry of the Spirit
For the sake of full disclosure, I consider myself a cessationist in the classic sense of the term. I will also say that it’s a term that I don’t like because it’s a negative term. It doesn’t say anything about what I believe about the work of the Holy Spirit, but it only says what I don’t believe. I think that this gives the impression that I believe in the Trinity as “Father, Son, and Holy Bible” or that I believe that the Holy Spirit is dead in the world today or that I’m a rationalist who doesn’t believe in supernaturalism. All of these are false statements of me and of most cessationists. I affirm that the Holy Spirit is very much active in the world in manifold ways. Because it appears that the continuationist view of the charismatic gifts are becoming the popular view today, I think it’s important for those who consciously carry the label cessationist need to be able to explain what it means clearly. For this, I would recommend Tom Pennington’s sermon and Nathan Busenitz’s two lectures (here and here) on the modern Charismatic gifts.
In my view, what was missing from the conference were sessions devoted to the true work of the Holy Spirit. It’s one thing to say what you are against, but it’s another thing to present a positive demonstration of our views. As cessationists, we rejoice in the work of the Holy Spirit in creation, regeneration, illumination, adoption, assurance, sanctification, prayer, worship, etc. I believe that it would have been helpful to preach on these essential workings of the Holy Spirit.
Open but Cautious?
My last observation addresses a crowd of people who do not want to commit to any particular position. At this point, I agree with Thabiti Anyabwile’s assessment
First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody if wrong. Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of Christian life. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t. Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s going to have a material impact on who we can actually worship with. All of that being said, this is not an issue to be indifferent about or to be ambivalent towards. You may not reach a dogmatic position, but you must make a decision. To say that you are open but cautious is a statement of indecision. There is too much at stake in your local church and too much at stake for the global church, for the future of missions, etc.
This is a great opportunity to spend time, digging into the scriptures to study the matter. Take the time to read the relevant commentaries and make sure that you read the primary sources. Take the time to go through the conference lectures and sermons so that you may ask the relevant questions. Listen to the debate between Sam Waldron and Michael Brown. Read Strange Fire and Authentic Fire. At some point, you must come to a conclusion because a proper view of the Holy Spirit affects much of our Christian devotion.