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The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
Mocking the Spirit
An editorial column from an African news website recently came across my desk. As I read it, I was struck by its blunt honesty and insightfulness. The piece, though penned by a Pentecostal man, is sharply critical of the chaos that characterizes the Charismatic Movement in that part of the world.
After blasting the "bizarre spirit-possession" and "odd ritual practices" of Pentecostalism in a general way, the author focuses on speaking in tongues. Observing a man supposedly filled with the Holy Spirit, he described the frenetic scene with these words:
One sees the man's body forcibly shaking in spasms, with the hands trembling, the voice quivering in such staccato mumblings as: Je-Je-Je-Jee-sus ... Jeee-sus ... Je-Je-Je-Jee-sus ... aassh ... aassh ... ah ... aassh Jee-sus.
Then follows some stuttering tongues-speaking: shlababababa—Jah-Jeey-balika—a syndrome which an American psychologist Peter Brent calls "a born-again fixation," and an observer brands as "a Pentecostal anthem." Only recently a reverend minister of an orthodox church queried, "If the possessed voodoo priest says: 'shiri-bo-bo-bo-boh' in a staccato stammer over his black whisk he holds, and the possessed born-again Christian rattles: 'shla-ba-ba-bah-shlabalika' over his Bible, what can be the difference?"
The rhetorical question is left ringing in the ears of the reader.
The author continues with a stinging exposé of a Pentecostal church service—inviting his readers to "watch some possessed prayerful: some, especially women, begin to hop about on one leg like grasshoppers let loose, and others roll on the floor, overturning benches and chairs. Order and discipline—these have gone to the winds, giving way to rowdy pandemonium, a babble of din." In disbelief, he poses the obvious question: "Can that be the biblical way to serve God?" Again, the rhetorical question remains unanswered.
He then recounts the story of a Pentecostal prayer meeting held just a few weeks earlier, in which a "Spirit-filled" woman fell down in ecstasy and knocked over a boy who was speaking in tongues. After crashing into the pews, the boy got up, nursing a bloody lip, and lamented, "Oh why?" in his own native language.
The incident raises more unanswerable questions. Our author wonders why the "tongue-speaking spirit should, in a split second, leave the bleeding lips and speak in native dialect." But more important, he wants to know, how could the Holy Spirit be responsible for this kind of mayhem? As he puts it, "Indeed, this incident raised the eyebrows of onlookers and anxious visitors: how [was it] that the Holy Spirit in someone should knock down the Holy Spirit in another so [as] to hurt him? Is the Holy Spirit now made to be a pugilist, or dancing boxer like old-time Cassius Clay to give a knockout? All were mystif[ied]." Their bewilderment is understandable. Surely the Spirit of God would not injure one of His own. But that realization forces them into an impossible dilemma: If the Holy Spirit is not behind the hype, then who is?
Though that specific account comes out of Africa, the general description it gives could fit Pentecostal and charismatic congregations in any part of the world. The questions raised by the editorial's author are the questions every believer should ask, especially those who are part of charismatic churches. Why does the modern version of speaking in tongues parallel pagan worship practices? How can a God of order be honored by confusion and disarray? Does the Holy Spirit really cause people to fall down like bowling pins? Why has the Charismatic Movement turned Him into something He is not? And, most important, what happens to people when they realize He's not the one behind the hysteria?
Dishonoring the Spirit
It is deeply ironic that a movement supposedly devoted to honoring and emphasizing the ministry of the Holy Spirit in fact treats Him with such casual contempt and condescension. In practice, charismatics often seem to reduce the Spirit of God to a force or a feeling. Their bizarre practices and their exaggerated claims make Him look like a farce or a fraud. The sovereign glory of His holy person is exchanged repeatedly for the hollow shell of human imagination. The result is a movement whose most visible leaders—televangelists, faith healers, self-proclaimed prophets, and prosperity preachers—boldly claim His name while simultaneously dragging it through the mud.
The number of scams and scandals that continually arise out of the charismatic world is staggering. J. Lee Grady, contributing editor to Charisma magazine, acknowledged in Christianity Today that the charismatic world "has been shaken to its core in recent years by a number of high-profile leaders who have divorced or had moral failures. Many charismatics I know are troubled by this, and they feel it is time for deep introspection, repentance and a rejection of the shallow, celebrity Christianity that has typified much of our movement."
One of the fundamental claims of charismatic teaching is that charismatics are privy to a sanctifying spiritual power not available to every believer. Those who have had a charismatic experience have been baptized with the Spirit, they say—and that supernaturally empowers obedience, fosters holiness, and produces the fruit of the Spirit. If their claims were true, charismatics ought to be producing leaders renowned for Christlikeness rather than flamboyance. Moral failures, financial chicanery, and public scandals would be comparatively rare in their movement.
But charismatics dominate the list of celebrity pastors and televangelists who have brought disgrace on the name of Christ over the past three decades—from Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart to Ted Haggard and Todd Bentley. An entry entitled "List of Scandals Involving Evangelical Christians" on the popular website Wikipedia identified fifty well-known, publicly disgraced church leaders. The article indiscriminately labels the group "evangelical," but at least thirty-five of those listed are from Pentecostal and charismatic backgrounds. A Wikipedia entry may not be authoritative in its use of doctrinal labels, but it serves as an accurate barometer of public perception. When charismatic leaders fail, whether for moral failure or financial impropriety, it is evangelicalism's reputation that gets besmirched. More important, the name of Christ is tarnished and the Spirit of God dishonored.
Bizarre doctrines and behavior have become so commonplace within the Charismatic Movement that they hardly make headlines anymore. Unbiblical practices—like speaking gibberish, falling backward to the floor, laughing uncontrollably, or writhing on the ground—are seen as necessary evidence that the Spirit is moving. YouTube has a seemingly endless collection of charismatic nonsense that is blatantly blasphemous—whole congregations doing the "Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey," people "tokin' the Ghost" (pretending to inhale the Holy Spirit and get high, as if He were an invisible reefer), and women writhing on the floor, miming the process of childbirth. Old-fashioned snake handlers look tame by comparison.
It is all wild nonsense; yet it is unabashedly attributed to the Holy Spirit of God, as if He were the author of confusion and the architect of disorder. Charismatic authors usually describe His presence with expressions like "a jolt of electricity" and "a remarkable tingling, electrifying sensation [that] started to spread over my feet, up my legs, up to my head, through my arms and down to my fingers." Never mind the fact that such descriptions have no precedent in Scripture—and Scripture itself warns us that Satan can do signs and wonders. What if all the tingling, trances, and tremors are actually evidence of demonic activity? That concern is not at all far-fetched, given the dark, outlandish, and turbulent nature of so many of these phenomena.
Even violent assaults have been committed in the Holy Spirit's name. Kenneth Hagin says he punched a woman in the stomach in an attempt to heal her because God told him to do so. Rodney Howard Browne slapped a deaf man so hard he fell to the ground. Benny Hinn regularly has people fall over violently. Sometimes he does this as if by magic, waving his coat or his hand at them. Other times he pushes them backward with considerable force. The fact that an elderly woman was once fatally injured in the process hasn't stopped him from making this a regular feature of his miracle crusades. Unimaginably absurd acts are credited to the Spirit's influence. For example, charismatic evangelist Todd Bentley justifies his brutal healing techniques with claims like this:
I said "God, I prayed for like a hundred crippled people. Not one [got healed]?" He said, "That's because I want you to grab that lady's crippled legs and bang them up and down on the platform like a baseball bat." I walked up and I grabbed her legs and I started going BAM! BAM! I started banging them up and down on the platform. She got healed. And I'm thinking, "Why is not the power of God moving?" He said, "Because you haven't kicked that woman in the face." And there was this older lady worshipping right in front of the platform. And the Holy Spirit spoke to me; the gift of faith came on me. He said "Kick her in the face—with your biker boot!" I inched closer and I went like this. BAM! And just as my boot made contact with her nose she fell under the power of God.
In spite of such outrageous comments, Bentley was hailed by charismatic leaders like Peter Wagner for his part in the 2008 Lakeland Revival. Though his ministry temporarily stalled due to an illicit relationship with a female staff member, Bentley returned to full-time ministry just a short time later—after getting divorced and remarried.
Benny Hinn made headlines in the early 1990s when he threatened to weaponize the Holy Spirit in an attack on his critics. In a lengthy tirade during a Trinity Broadcasting Network Praise-a-Thon, Hinn retorted, "Those who put us down are a bunch of morons.... You know, I've looked for one verse in the Bible, I just can't seem to find it. One verse that says, 'If you don't like 'em, kill 'em.' I really wish I could find it.... Sometimes I wish God would give me a Holy Ghost machine gun—I'll blow your head off!"
Though not as hostile as her husband, Benny's wife, Suzanne, made a media splash of her own several years later when she referenced the Holy Spirit in a particularly graphic and inappropriate way. As she frantically paced back and forth on the stage, Mrs. Hinn declared: "You know what, my engines are revvin' to go. It's revvin' up. How 'bout yours? And if it's not, you know what? If your engine is not revvin' up, you know what you need? You need a Holy Ghost enema right up your rear end! Because God will not tolerate—He will not tolerate anything else." When her antics were later aired on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Hinn's lawyers threatened a defamation lawsuit but to no avail. She had made herself a laughingstock. In reality, the only person whose character was defamed was the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of Fraud
The Charismatic Movement claims to exalt the third member of the Trinity. Truth be told, it has turned Him into a sideshow. It would be bad enough if such blasphemy were confined to the private audience of a local congregation. But the circus of sacrilege is endlessly exported through a global network of print, radio, and television media. As former Pentecostal Kenneth D. Johns explains, "In the past the influence of these hapless leaders has had certain limitations. Their distortion of the Bible message was limited in its dissemination to preaching in the local church, classrooms of a college or a seminary, books, and radio programs. In the last thirty to forty years all of that has changed because of television."
Influenced by TV's most popular preachers, many charismatics treat the sovereign Spirit of God as if He were their slave—a heavenly butler bound to wait on their every command. Their teaching is not substantially different from the New Age poison popularized by the 2006 international best seller The Secret, in which author Rhonda Byrne suggests, "You are the Master of the universe, and the Genie is there to serve you." Charismatic televangelists and celebrity pastors typically preach a similar message. It is a false gospel of material prosperity popularly known as Word of Faith doctrine. If you have enough faith, they claim, you can literally have whatever you say.
In the words of Kenneth Copeland, "As a believer, you have a right to make commands in the name of Jesus. Each time you stand on the Word, you are commanding God to a certain extent." Fred Price urges his followers not to be timid or restrained in what they demand from God: "If you have to say, 'If it be thy will' or 'Thy will be done'—if you have to say that, then you're calling God a fool, because He's the One that told us to ask.... If God's gonna give me what He wants me to have, then it doesn't matter what I ask."
This branch of the Charismatic Movement is by far the largest, most visible, most influential, and fastest-growing category of charismatics. Put simply, Word of Faith teachers represent the current drift of the larger movement. And the doctrine of prosperity they teach has nothing whatsoever to do with the true gospel of Jesus Christ. They are promoting crass superstition blended with false doctrines purloined from assorted Gnostic and metaphysical cults, cloaked in Christian terms and symbols. It is not authentic Christianity.
For the hundreds of millions who embrace Word of Faith theology and the prosperity gospel, "the Holy Spirit is relegated to a quasi-magical power by which success and prosperity are achieved." As one author observed, "The believer is told to use God, whereas the truth of biblical Christianity is just the opposite—God uses the believer. Word of Faith or prosperity theology sees the Holy Spirit as a power to be put to use for whatever the believer wills. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is a Person who enables the believer to do God's will."
Silver-tongued televangelists boldly promise unending health and wealth to all who have enough faith—and more important, to all who send in their money. On program after program, people are urged to "plant a seed" with the promise God will miraculously make them rich in return. It's known as the seed-faith plan, so named by Oral Roberts, the key pioneer in using television to spread charismatic doctrine. Most charismatic televangelists and faith healers use Roberts's seed-faith plan or something similar to manipulate viewers to donate more than they can really afford.
Paul Crouch, founder and chairman of Trinity Broadcasting Network, is one of the doctrine's staunchest defenders. "Plant a significant seed," Crouch wrote in a 2011 TBN fund-raising letter. "Give it fully expecting the glorious return that Jesus promised. One final note: name your seed—'out of debt,' 'job,' 'home,' 'husband,' 'wife'—or whatever you desire from God!" Another letter ended with these words: "I know prices for gas and most everything else is up, but remember Jesus' words: 'Give and it shall be given [unto you].'" The message is anything but subtle. An article in the Los Angeles Times summarized Crouch's approach this way:
Pastor Paul Crouch calls it "God's economy of giving," and here is how it works: People who donate to Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network will reap financial blessings from a grateful God. The more they give TBN, the more he will give them. Being broke or in debt is no excuse not to write a check. In fact, it's an ideal opportunity. For God is especially generous to those who give when they can least afford it. "He'll give you thousands, hundreds of thousands," Crouch told his viewers during a telethon last November. "He'll give millions and billions of dollars."
For Crouch and others at the top of this pyramid scheme, prosperity theology works flawlessly. Viewers send in billions of dollars, and when there is no return on investment, God is the one held liable. Or the people who have sent money are blamed for some defect in their faith when the sought-after miracle never materializes. Disappointment, frustration, poverty, sorrow, anger, and ultimately unbelief are the main fruits of this kind of teaching, but the pleas for money only get more urgent and the false promises grow more exaggerated.
Masked in the language of faith and generosity, the entire charade is a deceptive ruse designed to exploit the greedy and swindle the desperate. It has replaced the Spirit of God with a spirit of fraud. Even so, its message of false hope remains extremely popular, and it's easy to see why: the promise of physical well-being, material riches, and a life of ease appeals to the flesh. It is pure carnality; there's nothing truly spiritual about it.
Excerpted from Strange Fire by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2013 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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