Charismatics, spiritual gifts and the mushy middle

Holy SpiritThis post links in a totally unplanned way from the exegetical discussion of NT gifts to the contemporary question of how the heck what is described so routinely in the NT is to be ‘applied’ to contemporary church life.

I’ve been aware but pretty uninterested in the internet kerfuffle started by John McArthur’s Strange Fire conference.

However, it has sparked a couple of interesting reflections on this side of the Atlantic – in Britain anyway if not in Ireland. Both are by ‘Reformed charismatics’ – which in itself is an interesting combination.

Steve Holmes has a typically thoughtful piece on what defines a charismatic – and it is NOT primarily what one believes about the continuation of the charismata. Rather it is this

In my experience, it is certain practices: a practice of worship that focuses on and aims towards an experienced encounter with God; a practice of pastoral care that sees one-on-one extempore prayer ministry as fairly central; a practice of liturgy that is expectant of, and welcoming to, unplanned interventions; a practice of ministry that assumes the involvement of a significant number of lay people, some acknowledged to be more skilled/effective in certain areas than the pastor herself; and a ‘crisis’ spirituality which expects a series of defining moments that will lead to step-changes in Christian experience/discipleship …

All of which is to say that I suspect that an engagement between ‘charismatic’ and ‘cessationist’ evangelicals which is attentive to the lived reality of faith will turn less on confessions of belief about supernatural gifts, and more on debates about the place of spontaneity in worship, and about the effectiveness of crisis moments in sanctification and about the right ways to work out vocation.

I was happily a member of a charismatic Baptist church in England for some years and I think this sounds sounds right. Being ‘charismatic’ there was more about a style or ethos around worship, prayer, immediacy of the presennce of God in ministry and so on than it was about how exactly some spiritual gifts were (or were not) practiced.

But if you think ‘evangelical’ is hard to pin down, this  also highlights just how slippery the term ‘charismatic’ is.  Holmes’ description is pretty subjective stuff.

I also read the team written Think Theology blog. Andrew Wilson, New Frontiers pastor and excellent blogger (even if he has yet to see the light on women in ministry) has a comprehensive and thoughtful post here.

What struck me reading it was his 5th point and the phrase (borrowed from Tim Keller) the ‘mushy middle’.  The mushy middle is an abstract form of charismatic belief. Those who in theory believe in in the continuation of all the gifts today but in practice are pretty well indistingushable from cessationists.

Would someone like John Stott, with his ‘open but cautious’ view have fitted here I wonder?

The mushy middle sees NO exegetical and theological reason NOT to believe in the continuation of all the gifts described in the NT, but neither do they see any great reason to upset the status quo by getting all hot and bothered about the actual practice of those gifts. For, to be blunt, they could be more trouble than they are worth. There are more important priorities. If they show up fine, but let sleeping dogs lie if not.

In contrast, Wilson argues, “So anyone who believes the miraculous gifts continue should, to be biblically consistent (let alone loving towards others in their church), pursue them.”

I’ll be honest here and say the term ‘abstract charismatic’ probably describes me pretty well. While I’m not fully persuaded by his argument (will come back to this in another post) what he says is challenging and thought-provoking.

How about you?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

2 thoughts on “Charismatics, spiritual gifts and the mushy middle

  1. I agree that Holmes makes a valid point. I also struggle in seeing how doctrine matters at all if it’s not a part of church life, or of our lives as believers. Somehow those evangelicals will want to handle all of that scripture, or possibly they avoid it. Strange interpretations, i say, such as equating the prophecy of the New Testament with preaching the word.

    At our church our Pastor jack is working through a series on 1 Corinthians (we are of the denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church). I can’t at all speak for Jack, but I see our denomination as open, but likely overall, cautious. We have a “charismatic” influence in our church (I in small measure, included), and Jack and Sharon, married, and our pastors are open to that. It will be interesting to see where Jack goes when we get to chapters 12 to 14. He has been a bit burnt, like many of us, by the triumphalist Pentecostals. We’ll see.

    Change is hard, very hard. And real change has to come from God. But what does it look like can be the question. Maybe the answer is a church in which those things are in operation, but in a way somehow that leaves room for other ways of worship, in the freedom of the Spirit. Not clear I know on this last point, but thinking out loud. And tired of either/or scenarios in churches.

  2. Hello Ted. I like the ethos (or aim) you describe in the last paragraph and agree on the inadequacy of an either/or perspective.

    Seems to me that much of the either/or debate is driven by a dualistic view of the gifts. Only some are really ‘supernatural’. Yet even talk of the ‘miraculous gifts’ (as opposed to non-miraculous) has an inherent dualism.

    Yet the language of the NT is simply that of gifts graciously given by God – without distinctions among the various ones described.

    This leads me to a rejection of cessationism – and at the same time to say that the ‘weaker’ or apparently more ‘natural’ gifts are just as much ‘spiritual gifts’ as healing and prophecy. Holding that together is counter-intuitative (at least for me).

    All of which is a long way round to saying that more is needed than a theoretical affirmation of the continuation of gifts. There needs to be good teaching (to counter all sorts of built in assumptions and misunderstandings), developing an ethos of openness in worship; a prayerful expectancy to meet with God; a lot of grace and humility; all with a clear focus on building up the body. Blessings on your pastor as he tackles all this!

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