Dipolar Christianity

9 01 2012

For those who weren’t paying attention, over the years the Christian faith has largely split into two camps, the highly charismatic, and the cessationists.  It used to be that we identified ourselves along the lines of protestant and Catholic, but in places where that battle has come to a truce, more or less, we’ve come to divide ourselves along the line distinguishing ourselves between those who expect God to work miracles every day and those who think that all miracles died with Jesus and failed to rise again.  Unbelievers like the first group, because they’re easy to mock, and they like the second group, because that form of Christianity is so dead that it poses no real threat to secular normalcy.

Before the old protestant-Catholic battle, there was the Catholic-orthodox conflagration.  Before that, it was the Christian versus the Jew.  With the earliest split, the Jews were the persecutors, and the conflict ended when a third party, Rome, trampled all over Judea and made the Jewish divine privilege look like a bankrupt gentleman’s club.  Then the Catholics split from the Eastern Orthodox, and the Catholics became the persecutors during the crusades.  Then the protestants split from the Catholics, and the Catholics were still the persecutors.  We can thank Napoleon for confining the Vatican to a tiny little plot of apolitical territory.  Since that emasculation, we’ve only found our nemesis in the Anglican Church (the other papacy), which persecuted people as power in England shifted back and forth between the Catholics and the Anglicans between the times of Henry the Eighth and Queen Elisabeth, and the Episcopalians (the other Anglican church), which brought us the glorious Salem witch trials.  Are we done yet?

One would think that we could be done with dividing ourselves into fundamental opposition.  Here, in the United States, the Catholic church has no power to persecute.  The Orthodox barely exist.  The Jews control the media (just kidding).  Actually, Jewishness has lost its cultural identity to such an extent these days, that they could hardly be considered a social force at all, anymore.  These should be the golden days of Christendom, but we apparently seem addicted to culling the herd and refining our social set to the true faith.

On the one hand, we have the Vineyard, the Assemblies of God, the Foursquare Church, etc., along with some really wild charismatic offshoots, doing their best to promote glossolalia, prophecy and miraculous healing.  On the other hand, we have all of the old-school mainstream churches such as the Methodists, Wesleyan and the Northern Baptists taking the tamest and safest route to faith, which is to say that God ignores you until you die (until he kills you), and then suddenly he becomes your benefactor and your very best friend, ushering you into Heaven.

If I had no clue which were true, I would have to say that I would rather be a Charismatic and be wrong than be a cessationist and be wrong.  I would rather live with the hope and faith that God still intervenes in our lives and performs encouraging miracles along the way, even if I’m wrong, than believe that Christ abandoned us when he ascended into Heaven, and be wrong.  At least, if I’m a charismatic, I have hope.  If I’m a cessationist, then I lean upon the arm of an apathetic God.  I would least want to be a cessationist and be right.

If nothing else, at least the charismatics have the guts to stick their necks out and make themselves an easy target.  The other extreme believes in little more for this life than does the unbeliever.  It’s easy to say that we can expect nothing miraculous until after the grave, because it can never be tested or verified.  This is really just a lame excuse for faith.  The faith of the believer approximates the faith of the unbeliever, and that’s nothing to live by.

On the other hand, because the charismatics do stick their necks out and stand for the miraculous, the result is that we’ve had a lot of rolling heads over the years.  We have the miraculous speaking of other languages (glossolalia), and those languages often don’t exist, and often, just based on what’s being articulated, the person could hardly be speaking more than repetitive gibberish, anyway.  We have notorious cases of miraculous “healing” that did little more than prevent the victim from seeking conventional medicine, even to the point of death.  We’ve had outrageous preachers who blaspheme, distort and self-aggrandize.  In short, charisma has come to be synonymous with sensationalism.

The truth of the matter is that in a side-by-side comparison, the charismatic movement will always provide plenty more fodder for debunking.  They get it wrong and they blunder several times a day, globally.  The cessationists never prove wrong, because they never stand for anything.  Claims can’t be false if they’re never made.  The positive assertion is always the riskiest assertion.  The skeptic’s position is the easy one, in all respects.  It’s always easier to sit back and poke holes in the opponent’s claims than to stand up and make a positive assertion about anything.  Ambitious people fail more often than the lazy, because they try more often.  Professional sportsmen fail more often than the armchair quarterback, because they play more often.  Hence, charismatics make fools of themselves, and the cessationists do not.

If we take the Bible at its word, then miracles do still happen.  It’s exactly as the charismatics say, but it is not necessarily as often, or under the same circumstances.  Of a thousand prophecies, one may actually be true.  Of a hundred-thousand speakings of an angelic language, maybe one is genuine and useful for teaching a person of the gospel.  All it takes is one example of a genuine miracle, and the cessationist is proven wrong.  He is not proven right every time the charismatic offering comes to naught.

Personally, I understand both sides, and I respect both to a great degree.  One is hopeful, and the other is rational.  One runs blindly, and the other convinces himself that he sees nothing.  I would love to see both sides in the same church, waiting patiently and expectantly for the move of the Holy Spirit, not daring to make it happen by their own will, and not daring to condemn it out of hand.

My brother, a charismatic preacher, once asked me if my church was the kind where the Holy Spirit moved, or whether it was one that didn’t believe in the work of God.  I said, “Neither one.”  Then he asked me if it was the kind that believed in the work of the Holy Spirit, but was essentially dead, waiting around for something that never happened.  He believed it to be the saddest kind of church.  Oh, but it was not that at all.  It was the most honest kind of church.  It was the kind that refused to prevent the work of the Spirit either by faking it or by dismissing it before it even happened.  It was a church that remained on the verge of something big.

What the church needs today is not a hyper-rational sect of witch-hunters tearing down the charismatic movement.  It would be better to die young than to discourage and dismay the body of Christ, first.  What the church needs is not a three-ring-circus miracle roadshow, condemning the cessationists for their lack of faith.  The only thing worse than a lack of miracles is disillusioning believers through exposed farce.  Personally, I would love to see more miracles in the church, today, but I want it to be real, and nothing less.

What we really don’t need is another religious split, but that’s what we might get if we don’t treat each other with gentleness and respect, not for having perfect theology, but for being a child of God.

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