The phenomena in this important book will likely provoke several different responses. (For a detailed review, go to www.globalchinacenter.org.)
On the one hand, we can find much to admire in the spread of a message that creates vibrant, faith-filled Christian communities around the world.
In contrast to so much traditional Christianity, Pentecostals and charismatics have expected God to do great works in our time, just as he did in the days of Christ and the Apostles. Accordingly, they pray for healing and are not surprised when God grants their requests. When they encounter people possessed by demons, they cast out the evil spirits. Their belief in the resurrection, ascension, and present ministry of Christ through the Holy Spirit creates a sense of joy that shows up in vibrant, lively worship. Lay people have been prominent since the Azuza Street Revival, and still play leading roles in churches and para-church organizations. Their relative “youth” as a movement fosters an openness to change, innovation, and forward movement.
From the beginning, Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity (P/CC ) has impelled zealous messengers of their version of the gospel into new places. Even now, they are known for their zeal and enthusiasm. Some believers have found personal renewal through the gift of speaking in unknown tongues. Others have, apparently, seen God lead through words of prophecy.
In these and other ways, P/CC has challenged the traditional churches around the world, often bringing renewal. No one can deny the impact of new worship forms, especially contemporary music, upon multitudes of non-P/C churches.
On the other hand, critics have found fault with both the basic tenets and some of the practices of P/CC.
The “Baptism with/in the Holy Spirit”
Fundamental to Pentecostal – though not all charismatic - Christians is the belief that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a distinct, post-conversion experience, the evidence for which is speaking in an unknown tongue.
At first glance, this doctrine has some surface plausibility, for several accounts in Acts do connect the baptism with the Spirit and speaking with tongues of some sort. In every case, however, we may question whether these “tongues” were the ecstatic utterances that modern Pentecostals claim is a definite sign of the baptism with the Spirit.
The 120 believers in Acts 2 praised God in known human languages. Cornelius and his household may have spoken in Aramaic rather than Greek or Latin, their native tongue. The disciples in Ephesus, likewise, were not necessarily giving ecstatic utterances in a language unknown to everyone. Indeed, Acts 2:4, which clearly defines “tongues” as existing languages, may provide the ruling interpretation for all the other instances of “tongues” in Acts.
More crucially, the usual interpretation of the baptism with the Spirit as a post-conversion experience founders on the rocks of a number of passages in the New Testament, especially the narratives of the conversion of Cornelius and other sin his household in Acts 10 and 11, where various terms define the meaning of the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (11:16): having the Spirit “fall upon” one (10:44; 11:15); “the gift of the Holy Spirit” being “poured out” (10:45); receiving the Holy Spirit (10:47); receiving the word of God (11:1); being saved (11:14); receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit from God (11:17; being granted “repentance unto life” by God (11:18).
Most importantly, Peter says that all this is exactly what happened to him and the others at Pentecost “when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ” 10:47; 11:17). These two chapters alone, along with many other passages in the New Testament, show that “the baptism with the Holy Spirit” refers to the initial experience of salvation that comes with true repentance and faith.
In other words, Pentecostal insistence on the baptism with the Spirit as a post-conversion experience evidenced by speaking with tongues cannot be supported from a careful study of the New Testament.
“Being filled with the Spirit”
Both Pentecostals and charismatics tend to associate “being filled with the Spirit” with speaking in tongues. Generally, they describe a “spirit-filled” person as one who has experienced speaking in an unknown tongue.
This conviction, also, finds little affirmation in the New Testament.
It is true that the 120 were “filled with the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost. In all other passages where the same word (Greek pimplemi) is used, however, there is no mention of speaking with tongues. Furthermore, those passages that describe someone as “full of the Spirit” employ another Greek word (pleroO), that refers to an ongoing lifestyle of faith and obedience to God. In none of these is there any reference to speaking in an unknown tongue.
The expectation that all “Spirit-filled” believers will speak in tongues
P/C teachers have engaged in some pretty ingenious exegesis to show that all Spirit-filled” Christians will speak in tongues. Some, for example, distinguish between a “sign” gift of tongues and a “prayer language.” These efforts would seem to run directly contrary to Paul’s rhetorical question, “Do all speak with tongues?” where the Greek expects a negative answer.
Throughout that chapter, Paul argues vigorously and clearly that “there are diversities of gifts,” and that the Spirit distributes these “to each one individually as He wills.” Furthermore, this was written on the assumption that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”
It is true that the apostle says, “I wish you all spoke with tongues.” He also says, however, “I wish that all men were even as I myself,” referring to his single state. I am not aware of any P/C teacher who holds that all Christians should be celibate.
“Word of knowledge”
Among P/C Christians, Paul’s mention of the “gift of knowledge” (1 Corinthians 11: 12:) is usually taken to mean some specific knowledge of a condition – such as an illness – with details that no one else could know. In fact, however, if you study the use of “knowledge” as a gift in 1 Corinthians, you will see that it always refers to knowledge of doctrine, God, the will of God, the mystery of the gospel, and such things. In all of Paul’s letters, there is no instance of “knowledge” meaning awareness of some physical or spiritual condition unknown to others.
What P/C Christians term “word of knowledge,” therefore, should probably be more properly called “prophecy.” That would fit what we know of prophecy from both the Old and New Testaments.
“Discernment of spirits”
“Discernment of spirits,” likewise, is usually taken to mean “discernment of evil spirits” among P/C Christians. Though that particular understanding cannot be ruled out, we know from other contexts that “discernment of spirits” may also refer to the “spirit” behind a “prophecy” or other utterance that may be false and, indeed, issue from Satan. The main emphasis is upon truth and error, not the presence of possession of someone by an evil spirit.
Healing for all
Other problematic beliefs among some P/C Christians include the idea that God does want not anyone to be sick and that a “prayer of faith” will always bring healing. P/C theology finds backing for this in Matthew 8:17, where Isaiah 53:4 is quoted to explain why Jesus could heal illnesses, and again in 1 Peter 2:21-25. They conclude that “healing is in the Atonement” just like forgiveness and that faith will bring certain healing just as it brings assured forgiveness.
Again, while plausible on the surface, this understanding cannot bear closer analysis. In 1 Peter, for example, the focus clearly falls upon spiritual healing, for Jesus is the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls. Even the Matthew passage only shows why Jesus’ bearing our sins and the illnesses that result would logically lead to his healing ministry. By no means can it be made to teach that healing will always follow faith today.
“Sings and wonders”
Almost universally, P/CC stresses the miraculous elements of the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles, and maintains that miracles will always accompany the preaching of the gospel and ordinary Christian living in our time.
Personally, I believe that God still “supplies the Spirit” and “works miracles among” those with faith.I am not a cessationist.”
On the other hand, miracles, by definition, are extraordinary. God does not usually employ what we would call supernatural means to demonstrate his power and his love. Even the Vineyard movement, surely a place where God’s power to heal is fully believed, reported on a survey they took some years ago that only about 5% of those prayed for received immediate or miraculous healing. That is still a pretty impressive percentage, and I personally have seen God answer prayers for healing in ways that can only be described as miraculous.
To expect the extraordinary to be ordinary, however, and to ascribe all failures to be healed as the result of a lack of faith in either the person praying or the one for whom prayer is offered – as is all too often the case – has never been considered biblical.
Other common practices
Closely related to, and sometimes following from, convictions like those mentioned above have often led to distinctive practices. These include:
“Name it and claim it” – or, God on demand
Some P/C believers go so far as to say that if we utter a “word of faith,” God must respond with the action we want. To be fair, we must admit that these constitute a minority among P/C Christians, but they are a large and vocal minority, with a substantial media presence around the world.
Casting out a “spirit of X”
When present with someone who has a persistent problem with a “besetting sin,” many P/C practitioners will proceed to “cast out a spirit of” whatever is plaguing the person – perhaps lust, pornography, alcoholism, rage, fear, weakness, etc., etc.
Though sometimes this procedure appears to work, it reflects a very narrow and shallow understanding of the Christian life and of sin. In the New Testament, these sinful desires and bondages are usually addressed by exhortations to engage in new habits and “means of grace” that will lead to spiritual growth, moral freedom, and what is generally called “sanctification.” The failure of most of the supposed casting out of a “spirit of X” points to a failure to use the Bible’s teaching on discipleship.
“Spiritual warfare” no longer characterizes the vocabulary of P/CC. Evangelicals use these terms, too.
The problem is that the only real reference to waging spiritual warfare is found in Ephesians 6:10-20. In that passage, there is no reference to casting out evil spirits. Rather, Paul sums up his previous call for unity in the church by exhorting believers to stand against all the wiles of the devil, who seeks to keep us from unity with God and with other Christians.
I do not deny the reality of demons or the power that Christians have to cast them out in clear cases of demon possession. Nor do I doubt the pertinence of Jesus’ ministry of exorcism for Christians today. I do question much of the complex and detailed edifice of “spiritual warfare” teaching that seems to have little connection with the Bible.
Unison speaking in tongues
Paul’s commands in 1 Corinthians 14:23, 26-28 would seem to prohibit (1) speaking in an unknown tongue without immediate interpretation, and (2) speaking in tongues all at once.
Lifting up hands during praise songs
This may be the signature practice among Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, and one that has spilled over into non P/C churches. The Bible does contain a few examples and one teaching about lifting up one’s hands in prayer (see Nehemiah 8:6; Psalm 28:2; Lamentations 2:19; 1 Timothy 2:8) or blessing (Luke 24:50). Two things deserve notice here: 1. These passages total only five. 2. There is no mention anywhere that I know of to lifting up hands in praise during singing.
Now, hardly anyone could object to such a practice. It does not seem to violate any clear biblical command or principle. I do it myself sometimes.
But for something with so little biblical warrant to become the distinguishing mark of charismatic worship does seem a bit . . . well, maybe a bit . . .
Weak exegesis and a relative ignorance of the Bible
That brings me to a major problem that many have with P/CC. The origin of Pentecostalism among less well-educated people might have accounted for the early mistakes in exegesis, but that is no excuse more than one hundred years later.
P/CC often receives criticism for weak exegesis, ignorance of the Bible as a whole, and general ignoring of the Scriptures in favor of experience. Even from the studies of the pro-P/CC scholars who contributed to this book, one sees an almost general reliance on various sorts of experience, many of which have become new traditions, rather than upon careful study of the Bible.
Relying on subjective guidance for decisions
In particular, a tendency to make decisions based upon a word of “prophecy” rather than carefully searching relevant Scriptures or pondering godly counsel, though not entirely without biblical precedent (see Acts11:27-30; 13:1-3; 20:22-23; 21:4, 10-14 – though in the last case Paul disregarded the warnings of the prophet), can lead one into major mistakes.
Absence of preaching and teaching about the Cross of Christ and its implications for Christians
In all the descriptions of P/C preaching and teaching in this volume, I found not one single reference to the Cross of Jesus Christ, redemption through his blood, or a life of self-denial and taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus.
To be fair, one leader of the local church of Nanyang Prefecture said, “The servant must suffer when walking in the way of belief. None can escape the punishment of God if he/she is not serious.” (209) The context shows, however, that the suffering referred to avoiding God’s discipline, not a day-by-day putting to death the evil deeds of the body mentioned in Paul (see Romans 8:13).
Much more importantly, all the researchers reinforced the common impression that P/CC proclaims a message of “come to Jesus and be healed and freed from demons; come to Jesus and be blessed with prosperity and happiness!” Occasionally, one reads about a call to repentance, especially in the Nanyang Prefecture churches, which were influenced by the revival movement sparked by Jonathan Goforth in the early 20th century. Overall, however, P/CC emphasizes speaking in tongues, healing, signs and wonders, and vibrant worship under the (assumed) influence of the Holy Spirit.
In short, the Holy Spirit has replaced Jesus Christ as the center of P/CC, and what some would call a “theology of glory” has replaced a “theology of the cross.”
“Baptized” popular religion?
More than one researcher commented on the similarities between Chinese P/CC and traditional folk religions.
In particular, the “utilitarian” nature of traditional Chinese religion shows up prominently, as noted above, in the very physical and practical benefits that P/CC offers to believers.
After observing P/CC, more than one Chinese person has asked me, “So, what is the difference between believing in Jesus and going to the local temple to gain some benefit from a god?”
A shallow understanding of conversion and the Christian life
That leads to a feature of P/CC that it shares in common with much evangelical and fundamentalist belief and practice: A very shallow understanding of what it means to “believe” in Jesus and become a Christian.
In these circles, one needs merely to “say a prayer to receive Christ,” indicating a willingness to experience his love, in order to be assured of eternal An improper use of John 1:13, Romans 10:9, and Revelation3:20, in connection with a misunderstanding of John 1:13, is deployed to assert that all you have to do is “invite Jesus into your life as your personal Lord and Savior,” and you are automatically “saved.”
With such a shallow understanding of conversion, saving faith, becoming a Christian, and being born again, no wonder that millions of people who thought they were Christians and “born again” feel frustrated by consistently unanswered prayer, powerlessness in the face of temptation, a lack of interest in the Scriptures or understanding of God’s Word, no sense of intimacy with God as Father, and little peace or joy! No wonder, also, that when they receive the Holy Spirit for the first time they are filled with joy and gratitude and find new life and peace. When they are told that this is the “baptism with the Holy Spirit,” that in face may be the case, in the biblical sense of the term as explained at the beginning of this paper. The only problem is that this ‘baptism” does not necessarily have anything to do with speaking in tongues, and it is not a second experience distinct from true regeneration, conversion, and saving faith.
Conclusion: Chinese Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity
Applied to Chinese P/CC, these observations make sense of several phenomena:
Nominal Christians are brought into a real relationship with God by the work of the Holy Spirit. Naturally, they respond with joy and exuberant worship.
Some true believers find new joy and spiritual vitality as the Holy Spirit fills them and works miracles among them.
Non-believers hear that Jesus is more powerful than their traditional gods, and find that he can grant healing, freedom from demons, and other tangible benefits, so they become “Christians.”
Millions of “Christians” leave the church through the “back door” when their prayers for material or physical blessings go unanswered. Jesus has “failed” them.
Millions more attend church, enjoy vibrant worship, sometimes experience healing or exorcism, perhaps even speak in tongues, but have little power over sin. Their lives look about the same as those of people around them.
Mega-churches that feature the latest media technology attract thousands of young people to a religion that offers emotional release, a sense of belonging in a cold and competitive world, and earthly benefits of all sorts. How long will they remain in the church, and how many will grow into mature Christians?
More conservative and traditional Christians criticize P/CC for emotional excesses, false miracles, including spurious speaking in tongues, superficial teaching, wrong emphases, and even heresy.
Meanwhile, real heresies and sects proliferate in a climate of biblical ignorance and an absence of teaching about the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as summarized, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed.
Outsiders rejoice to hear that there is a great revival going on in China, and are only too ready to believe that there are 100 million “Christians” there. Some say that China will be the largest “Christian” country in the world before long.
G. Wright Doyle