Any visit to my parents’ house requires the customary penance to be done: reading all the Christian press that they subscribe to. October’s Christianity carried an article which questioned whether the Emerging Church was lacking the Spirit. Their much-used stock graphic of an arid desert pretty much summarized the tone that Chris Simmons – a Vineyard pastor from Brighton – took. It’s a depressing read.
Jason Clark has helpfully posted a PDF of the article, written a reply to Christianity, and looks like he is also hosting a conference around the issues this Saturday. All of which has catalyzed me to get some thoughts down about this vital issue over the course of a few posts….
Chris’ article worries me on a number of levels. Firstly, he writes that “it was frightening and horrifying to see that Jesus was much bigger and more powerful that I had thought” and goes on to criticize the other speakers at the event he was at who “spoke eloquently but then just left the platform”. He then describes how he sees power manifestations – healings, exorcisms etc. as not only central to his ‘conversion’, but a required part of normal Christian life.
His argument appears to run like this: power manifestations are evidence of the Spirit; without the manifestations the Spirit is not there.
I find this not only deeply troubling as an argument, but deeply insulting too. In what power and in whose name does Chris think Christians in the Emerging Church are working? If he really thinks it is being done outside of the Spirit this is a very serious indictment indeed… One that would appear, in what I am assuming to be the fairly standard Vineyard theology, to condemn us to a very unfortunate fate.
Confusingly, he ends his piece by saying:
“In the UK church let’s keep loving the church in all its diversity… Let’s pray that we can identify with our converts in the UK as the apostle Paul did with his 2000 years ago with the words, ‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?’”
I totally agree with the diversity angle – but don’t really see it reflected in his argument, which appears to present a very one-dimensional view of the Spirit. Not a wrong dimension necessarily. But only affirming one.
Secondly, Chris seems to be equating observation of the law with “mental ascent, a journey of faith with more questions than answers” – in other words, doubt, questioning and uncertainty. We should simply ‘believe what we hear’, a conclusion that deeply troubles me when connected back to his opening statements about how he as a pastor is constantly being hassled “by people with some new idea, usually to do with something called emergent.” A precis of the piece thus seems to read:
Power manifestations are the true test of whether something is ‘of the Spirit.’ If you are going to doubt this, you are falling into ‘observing the law.’ The right thing to do? Just believe what you hear from me.
I have to feel sorry for those in his church who have come up to him with these new ideas. I hope they have not really been re-buffed in this way, and don’t doubt that he would have been pastorally sensitive. What worries me is the underlying message that the leader is right and there is no other way.
So what should we do? If we are not experiencing power manifestations is the journey we are exploring not ‘of God’? Ought we simply ‘believe what we’ve heard’?
I want to propose that we need to radically re-imagine our language of the Spirit. It is unfortunate that the charismatic wing of the Church have hijacked the concept of the Spirit and taken it hostage to the power-evangelism agenda… It seems that one cannot talk about the gifts of the Spirit without it being taken as meaning healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy etc.
This, I believe is a real shame, for the concept of gift, as I’ve explored in the book, is an incredible rich one. And it’s this I want to explore in the next post.