Thoughts on the charismatic movement

The Charismatic Movement is a recent movement of Christians within the church who hold a specific view of spiritual gifts.[1] The faith and prayerfulness of many within this movement is deeply commendable and a great example. Nevertheless, a number of Christian thinkers have strong reservations about some aspects of charismatic thought and practice.[2]

This short paper highlights some of the most central issues, and starts with the assumption shared with those of the Movement, that scripture is the means by which all ideas and experiences are to be tested. It alone is definitely and perfectly inspired by God and so wonderfully able to “thoroughly equip us for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).

For a deeper discussion and interaction with various writers, see my longer paper entitled: “How God speaks today."

Rethinking our expectations of the Spirit.

Then and now.

A key characteristic of the Charismatic Movement is an understandable desire to see God’s church operate as it does in Acts, with signs and wonders accompanying the preaching of the gospel. However, although there is no suggestion in the Bible that God has stopped performing miracles when he so chooses, there is suggestion that we should not expect them with the same prevalence.[11] John explicitly teaches that it is the miracles of Jesus that are to be the basis for faith, saying nothing of any future miracles within the church. And this follows Jesus’ pronouncement that people would have to believe without “seeing” such things (John 20:29-31). In this respect it is noteworthy that miracles are generally spoken of as done by the apostles to provide evidence that they are God’s spokesmen (Acts 2:43, Hebrews 2:3-4, 2 Corinthians 12:12). The Gospels-Acts period was a unique one in which God was establishing his church with Christ as its cornerstone and the apostles as its foundation (Ephesians 2:20). The Bible just doesn’t give us grounds for assuming that every manifestation of the Spirit back then should also be manifested now.

Reading 1 Corinthians 12-14.

We should not therefore assume that the prevalence of the various gifts displayed in the Corinthian church during this period must be displayed to the same extent today. The NT had not yet been compiled, so prophecy in particular was necessary as a means of God communicating the gospel and its implications for the situations the churches faced. Charismatics and non-charismatics agree that this use of prophecy was foundational, and that now we have the NT we should reject any who claim to have received new doctrinal and ethical truth from God (Ephesians 3:4-6 cf. 2:20).[12] Yet having accepted this, we should accept its implications for 1 Corinthians 12-14: Because of this foundational use to prophecy then, prophets are said to be second only to apostles, and prophecy a gift that all should seek (1 Corinthians 12:28, 14:1). However, now that this primary use has ceased, we might expect the status and prevalence of prophecy to have significantly decreased accordingly – just as church history suggests it has.[13] Paul’s letters to Timothy seem to confirm this. They look beyond the apostolic age and stress the teaching of the gospel and its implications, not prophecy, as the leading gift in the church and the one to be eagerly desired (2 Timothy 4:1-5, 1 Timothy 3:1-2).

Consequences, consequences.

Unclear thinking in these areas does have unhelpful consequences. A number can be discerned by reflection on Charismatic practice.

As mentioned, this high expectation of Gospels-Acts manifestations of the Spirit has bred a deep longing to see the Holy Spirit at work in the same way.

(1) At times this has in turn led to an unintentional fabrication of the work of the Spirit as people too quickly claim a Gospels-Acts type encounter. Tales abound not only of claims to healing where there has been no healing at all, but also of things that have been spoken as if from God and even struck home as if from him, but that have proved incredibly damaging or never come to pass.[14] Just consider a common means in which people are encouraged to receive the gift of tongues. They are first told to “start to praise God in any language but English or any other language known to you.” They are then instructed to “believe that what you receive is from God,” and “don’t let anyone tell you that you made it up.”[15] Now I believe tongues to be a gift that many exercise today. But this advice is deeply concerning. Anyone can start speaking in what sounds like an unknown language. There just aren’t grounds for assuming this is tongues even if you have prayed for it, for God does not promise to give this gift, but dispenses it as he alone pleases (1 Corinthians 12:1-11).

(2) One cause of unintentional fabrication, evident in this assumption about tongues, is a tendency to equate anything that seems to be a “spiritual experience” with an experience of the Spirit. This is also seen in a high regard for "impressions" or "pictures," and in speaking highly of the peace known in silent prayer, or of God’s presence in a heightened environment of worship. Now don’t get me wrong, we may be certainly aware of the Spirit’s presence in prayer and worship, but such experiences could also be down to the fact that we are simply feeling peaceful or caught up in a charged atmosphere. The Bible’s teaching is that the only definite evidence of the Spirit is faith and godliness (Romans 8:5-11).[16] Focus on other experiences only too easily leads Christians who do not experience them to doubt that they have “every spiritual blessing,” and those who do to assume that this means they are right with God. We must be clear: Those who truly are Christians lack nothing (Ephesians 1:3-14), whilst those who seem to exercise spiritual gifts and have quite profound spiritual experiences may not be Christians at all (Matthew 7:21-23, Colossians 2:18-19). Indeed, according to the Bible, the “spirit” behind such gifts or experiences could even be the devil himself (2 Thessalonians 2:9).

(3) A result of all this can be a rather formulaic attitude to Christian spirituality out of a desire to replicate the situation where it was thought the Spirit was previously present. Some act as if prayers will only work if said in a certain way. For example, the prayer “Come Holy Spirit” is given huge significance. Yet the prayer “lead me not into temptation” is just as much a prayer for the Holy Spirit in intent, which is probably why Jesus mentioned praying for the Spirit directly after the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-13). Likewise, worship leaders can feel immense pressure to generate atmosphere that engages the feelings because people assume that this is when God is most present. Only too often have I heard someone remark at the Spirit’s presence being lost simply because the musical atmosphere changed! No, the normal way we engage with God is by his Spirit through his word. What this means, is that he uses what he has revealed in scripture to engage our entire inner person – understanding, emotions and will (Nehemiah 8:1-12, Psalm 119). When this occurs in prayer or worship, no matter what the atmosphere, we can be much more confident that we are truly meeting with God.

(4) With this formulaic attitude to Christian spirituality comes at least an implicit sense that non-Charismatic Christians do not have all God has to give. This is seen most clearly by the Charismatic Movement’s use of the term “charismatic” itself. The “charismata” in NT Greek are the gifts of the Spirit in general.[17] Now we are told that every Christian has a gift (1 Corinthians 12). Therefore every Christian, not just those who hold a particular view of the gifts, is a Charismatic. Every Christian has been filled/baptised in the Spirit at conversion (Ephesians 1:13, Galatians 3:14), has experienced the miracle of new birth enabling them to live in godliness (Titus 3:5), and is equipped with whatever gifts for service the Spirit has chosen to give (1 Corinthians 12). Though a subtle consequence, any suggestion of a two-tier Christianity is one of the most serious: First, because it leads those who feel less spiritual to wonder whether they are Christians at all. Second, because these people are then tempted to rely on rules and techniques for being spiritual, rather than Christ, putting their salvation itself in jeopardy. The entire letter of Colossians was written to a church where this was a problem. Paul’s message was simple: Those who are truly converted have fullness in Christ (Colossians 2:9-10). There is nothing they lack (Ephesians 1:3-14). Indeed, in Colossae, it was those who appeared super-spiritual that were actually unspiritual, and even unconverted (Colossians 2:18-19).

(5) I would respectfully suggest that this whole desire to experience Gospels-Acts type manifestations of the Spirit actually leads to a rather narrow view of the Spirit’s work, which diminishes and even dishonours him. The focus ends up being on his seen rather than unseen work, whether the felt presence of God, the miraculous gifts, or falling down, shaking, crying or laughing in the Spirit. Yet the more the attention is drawn to these things, the less is given to the greater works that are the Bible’s focus: How rarely people talk with wonder at the Spirit’s work of re-birth and renewal by which he gives even our faith and urges us to live in godliness (Ephesians 2:1-10, Galatians 5:16-25), his work of illumination without which we are unable to truly understand and accept anything from the Bible (1 Corinthians 2:4-16), and his dispensing of the more ordinary gifts such as administration, encouragement, or hospitality, all of which are “charismata” too (1 Corinthians 12:28, Romans 12:6-8). Here the use of the term “prayer ministry” to refer to praying for the needs of others is telling. The assumption voiced by many is that it is primarily here that the Holy Spirit ministers to people. Yet that is not the case at all. He certainly ministers in response to prayer, but he also ministers as the Bible is being preached, as he convicts people of sin, as he moves them to make a godly decision, as he enables them to serve, and as he comforts them when fearful etc.

(6) Finally, though Charismatic Christians do have a very high regard for the Bible, their emphasis on experience does in practice lead to a prioritising of the authority of experience over the authority of the Bible. First, where a verse strikes home to one’s experience it is often assumed to be from God, even though it is not consistent with the meaning the Spirit intended in causing its writing. A classic example is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you…” etc. Someone may be praying about a career change, experience this verse come to mind and conclude that God is telling them to go for it. But this verse does not intend to say anything about our careers. It is about God’s promise of deliverance of Israel from judgement, and its counterpart for us is his promise of deliverance in the gospel. Letting one’s experience govern in this way effectively changes the Bible’s true meaning, distorting the word of God and enabling us to justify anything through it! Second, and in a similar vein, rather than letting the Bible test the rights and wrongs of one’s experiences, so often it seems, the Charismatic Movement has come from their experiences to the Bible, looking for some justification for them. For example, Charismatic Christians experience strong impressions, assume they are from the Lord, and then label them as "words" or "prophecy." But the "word" of "wisdom" and "knowledge" in 1 Corinthians is most likely the ability to speak out the gospel or the Bible's truth about God. And prophecies throughout scripture are expected to come through a powerful visionary experiences (see my discussion in "how God speaks today"). And in the area of spiritual warfare in particular, all sorts of ideas from demonized homes to generational possession are sanctioned by passages that really don’t speak about them.[18] It is far better to just accept that God has not revealed anything about such things, hold back from making any definite statements about them, and focus on the things he has revealed - the importance of the Bible, faith and prayer – in tackling any bizarre situations we might face. Otherwise we are in danger of all sorts of distractions and superstitions, and in the context of spiritual warfare, we should be all the more discerning lest we are deceived by the great deceiver himself.


If you would consider yourself a Charismatic, I’m sure that what you’ve read has given you much food for thought. Well can I encourage you not to pass over it too quickly? Read it again. Look up the references. Reflect on how your friends talk about the Spirit and the way the Movement does things. See whether the points made above are true.

If you would not call yourself a Charismatic however, can I stress to you that this has been written very much in order to facilitate discussion between brothers and sisters in the family of God. There is no place for a reverse super-spirituality in which Charismatic Christians are ridiculed or looked down upon. On the contrary, I would recommend you ponder their faith, their prayer lives, their passion for Jesus and for evangelism. As you do, I guarantee, given the concerns expressed above, you will still be deeply challenged.

[1] Penteclostalism dates to the early twentieth century, and the Charismatic Movement to the 1960’s. Hollenweger, Walter J. “Preface” in Stremas of renewal: The origins and Early Developmemt of the Charismatic Movement in Great Britain, by Peter Hocken, (Carlisle, Paternoster, 1997), p.vii

[2] For a balanced discussion, see: Are miraculous gifts for today? Four views, ed. Wayne Grudem, (Leicester, IVP, 1996). For a discussion of wider issues, see: Power religion: The selling out of the evangelical church? ed. Michael Scott Horton, (Chicago, Moody Press, 1992)

[3] Definitions given in Huggett, Joyce. Listening to God, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1986), p.128-130

[4] Thistelton, Anthony C. The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The first epistle to the Corinthians, (Carlisle, Paternoster, 2000), p.941-944

[5] The definition argued in Grudem, Wayne. The gift of prophecy in the New Testament and today, (Leiecester, IVP, 1988), p.89

[6] Numbers 12:1-8, 1 Kings 13:18, 2 Kings 1:15, Hebrews 1:1 cf. 2:2, Luke 1:67-79 cf. v5-20, Acts 2:17, 10:9-16, Gal 1:12 cf. Acts 26:12-18, Revelation 1:1-2 cf. 2 Corinthians 12:1, 7, 1 Corinthians 13:12 cf. Numbers 12:6-8.

[7] Some scholars do suggest that prophecies may have come by God simply compelling the prophet to speak, rather than by some prior vision, dream or voice. However, the weight of evidence (above) suggests that if this was ever the case, it was not normative. Moreover, most of these scholars would still say that this was a form of direct revelation in continuity with OT prophecy, which was therefore to be seen as absolutely accurate and authoritative - a far cry from the Charismatic understanding of prophecy today.

[8] For some examples of personal and prophetic visions, see: Pytches, David. Does God speak today? (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989)

[9] Deere, Jack. Surprised by the voice of God, (Eastbourne, Kingsway, 1996), p.154

[10] Jack Deere misses all of these points in his discussion: Ibid, p.151-155

[11] See the gracious discussion by Don Carson: “The purpose of signs and wonders in the New Testament” in Power Religion: The selling out of the evangelical church, ed. Michael Scott Horton, (Chicago, Moody Press, 1992)

[12] For charismatic agreement, see: Watson, David. Discipleship, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), p.149

[13] The charismatic writer Jack Deere can quote only sporadic references: Deere, Jack. Surprised by the voice of God, (Eastbourne, Kingsway, 1996), p.64-78

[14] A number are listed as counterfeit revelations in Pytches, David. Does God speak today? (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989). One refers to a “prophecy” given to a student, telling her that she would never marry. It led her into depression and then suicide.

[15] The advice given in the Alpha course: Gumbel, Nicky. Questions of life, (Eastbourne, Kingsway, 1993), p.147

[16] The classic discussion of this comes from Jonathan Edwards (not the triple-jumper) who documented incredible manifestations during a revival he was much used in: Edwards, Jonathan. Works: Volume 1, (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974), p.234-430. Edwards’ conclusion is that it is “religious affections” resulting in “Christian practice” that are the genuine marks of the Holy Spirit.

[17] Gaffin, Richard B. Perspectives on Pentecost, (Phillipsburg, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979), p.46ff.

[18] For bad examples of this, see: Horrobin, Peter. Healing through deliverance, (Tonbridge, Sovereign World, 2003), p.85-207. He uses the purification of the Temple in 2 Chronicles 29 to justify demonized buildings, and Exodus 20:5 to justify generational possession. Yet neither are evidently about such things. To claim that they are is to claim an insight into their meaning that the Bible just doesn’t give – something that effectively adds to scripture.