By Pam Dewey and Norman Edwards
During his lifetime, Herbert W. Armstrong made it very clear to the loyal members of his Worldwide Church of God that they were not to study the literature of any other church groups, nor listen to radio or television programs by any other teachers. While this was certainly helpful in keeping church members from accepting false teachings outside the organization, it surely also limited their opportunity to compare WCG teachings with other doctrinal points of view. In most cases, members just blindly accepted what Armstrong claimed other teachers and groups believed and taught. The only time most members ever went into a Christian bookstore was to buy a Bible or a Biblical reference work.
This isolation from any outside influences, inside a "hothouse environment" where everyone ostensibly believed the exact same thing on every imaginable doctrine, kept alive a certain sense of security in the members. They rarely ever had problems evaluating any "different" teachings that they might be exposed to—as they were seldom exposed to any! And thus, few developed any knowledge of the good teachings of other groups—nor the ability to use the Bible to show where other groups were teaching error.
Since Mr. Armstrong’s death and the crumbling of the organizational unity of the WCG, many former members have had difficulty wading through the somewhat confusing religious world outside the confining walls of their former church. If they belonged to a particular denomination before becoming WCG members, they may know just a little bit about that group. (This is not surprising, as the average member of any "Christian church" does not know much about his or her church‘s official doctrine.) But beyond that, many WCG members knew little about the history of religion from the time of Christ to this day—apart from their knowledge of the Bible and their experience in their group(s).
Much has happened between Christ’s birth and today. To give a two-paragraph summary of Church history: Christ died about 30 A.D., and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and most of Israel 40 years later. For the next two centuries, historic records are sparse, and those that we have indicate a lot of confusion. Diverse doctrinal beliefs abounded. It is not possible to find a clear-cut group that was the continuation of the first century church, the beginning of the Catholic church, or the beginning of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Various councils in the 300s A.D. finally establish the Roman Catholic Church, though there were always independent believers who opposed her. The Eastern Orthodox churches gradually split from the Roman Catholic Church, the split being complete by 1054 A.D.
During the 1300’s and 1400’s many individuals within the Catholic Church tried to reform it—to reduce corruption and tranlate Bibles for the "common people" to read. With the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s and the invention of the printing press, many people began to study the Bible and many new groups formed, large and small. Literally thousands of teachers began speaking and writing on almost every imaginable Bible topic. For centuries, there have been many groups teaching personal repentance, baptism, and obedience to Christ and the Bible Also, there have been groups expecting the literal return of Christ and prophesying it from the Scriptures. In various ways, Bible teachers have predicted the soon, powerful, obvious intervention of God in individual lives as well as world affairs. Many of these teachers mostly borrow from other teachers—creating religious trends and fads. But others spend great amounts of time studying the Bible and really seeking God.
Sorting It All Out
When a person has spent most or all of their life reading the teachings of one or a few closely-related groups, taking a look at the great amount of truth and error available from the religious marketplace can be somewhat perplexing. It is easy to find oneself tossed to and fro by new teachers bringing new doctrines via their newsletters, magazines, tapes or broadcasts.
One such source of "new" teachings that are making inroads around the edges of independent Sabbatarian COG circles is the so-called "Charismatic movement". "Charismatic" means many different things to different people. Like the Sabbatarian "Church of God" groups, there are many different subgroups and leaders in the Charismatic movement, some of which cooperate with each other, and some of which denounce each other as "false teachers". Nearly all of these groups believe in baptism, speaking in tongues, gifts of the spirit, and direct guidance from Christ in each individual’s life. All of these things are taught in the Bible in some way. The problems begin when these groups insist that true believers must display certain outward signs—signs that the Bible does not clearly mandate. So some members may "fake" the gift, or receive a counterfeit "gift" from another spirit. Secondly, some Charismatics add doctrines not found in the Bible at all.
We at Servants’ News believe that some Charismatic ideas could become as much a divisive force in COG circles as the calendar and Hebrew Names disputes of recent years. We have noted an increase in material coming into our office promoting some aspect related to this movement, and we have seen more and more questions and comments and discussions on Sabbatarian Internet forums regarding Charismatic themes. Reading Charismatic literature is not completely bad as there may be things we can learn from them. But we must not swallow it all: hook, line, sinker, and biblical error. Thus we would like to provide our readers with a brief overview of this movement, and point out some teachings related to it which we feel may be cause for concern to sincere Bible students.
Charismatic and Pentecostal
The Greek word "charisma", meaning "gift" is the root of the words used in the New Testament passages by Paul about the "spiritual gifts" available to Christians, as outlined in 1 Corinthians. Although some of these gifts, such as a "word of knowledge", might appear to merely be an enhancement of someone’s natural abilities, a number of these gifts appear particularly "supernatural", such as "speaking in tongues". Although it is obvious from the scripture that all of these gifts were in operation in the early church, history shows that the more "supernatural" manifestations ceased from public view very early in the development of what finally became known as "Christianity". And even those gifts which might be considered less "showy" such as the "gift of wisdom" seemed to be eventually reserved to a "clergy class" and unavailable to the average Christian.
Over the intervening centuries, there have been times when small groups of people banded themselves together outside the "accepted" religious hierarchies and sought to return to a more "Biblical" model of interaction. This frequently included seeking a return of those "gifts of the Spirit". Most such movements ran their course and faded soon after the death of the founders of the movement.
During the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, interest in this question of "spiritual gifts" arose in many quarters again. Because these gifts were said in the scriptures to have been first sent to the Church on the day of Pentecost, it was common to speak of these gifts as the "Pentecostal gifts". In 1900 AD, in Topeka, Kansas, a teacher named Charles Parham encouraged his group of Bible students to study the scriptures to see what might be unmistakable evidence that someone had the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit". The group determined that it would be the ability to "speak in an unknown tongue". And thereafter they determined to seek this experience. Within a few months, over half of the group had what they considered a "Pentecostal experience" and spoke in what they assumed were "Biblical" tongues. This was the beginning of the modern "Pentecostal movement". It spread from there to a group that began meeting in a building on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Dubbed in later years the "Azusa Street Revival", these meetings were to be the source of enthusiastic "evangelizers" who took the message of the "Pentecostal experience" around the world.
For the next several decades, the movement grew, but was largely confined to the "lower classes" in America and elsewhere. The kind of emotional displays of weeping, shouting, loud music—and loud preaching—that characterized most Pentecostal meetings were considered undignified in most "polite society". Yet the movement continued to grow, and by the 1950s had several organized denominations in its ranks, such as the Assemblies of God. At that point, however, a number of long-time members had begun to decide that the formally-organized Pentecostal denominations had lost their "first love" and their "fire" and had become spiritually dead, or at least spiritually bankrupt. And thus began an independent Pentecostal movement, with more radical evangelists promoting ever more radical "new truth". With no denominational "boards" to please, independent speakers like Oral Roberts were free to build up their own little empires.
A succession of "new truth" movements swept through the independent Pentecostal circles. First came the "Healing Revivals" headed by faith healers such as Roberts. Then came the "Latter Rain" movement, which emphasized that the "five fold ministry" of the early church ("Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers") needed to be restored to the church. Since evangelists, pastors and teachers had been around all along, the real issue was restoring the Biblical "offices" of apostle and prophet. As you might expect, a number of men stepped forward—and continue to step forward today—to claim those offices.
Another movement begun in the 40s which is also a major force in the Charismatic movement of today. It is usually referred to as the "Word-Faith" movement. Also called "Positive Confession", it is sometimes called by a more popular slang phrase—"Name it and Claim it". Teachers in this branch of the Pentecostal world began to emphasize that Christians should never suffer from illness or poverty, that the Bible promises health and wealth to all who believe. And the way to appropriate that wealth is through the "power of the tongue" to "confess" the believer’s faith in what he determines to be the Biblical promises of God. This becomes, in the teachings of many in this movement, a "legally binding" requirement for God to act. And thus, in their perspective, God Himself is controlled by the power of the human tongue when it speaks words of "faith"!
Such teachers warn their students to never pray prayers of petition to God with the conclusion "If it be Your will, Father". For that would indicate you haven’t studied your Bible well enough to know all of His promises. If you know the promises, they insist, you know His will at any moment, and need only speak that word. Anything less is evidence you lack faith in His promises. They also insist that their students should never "pray the problem", but rather "pray the solution". Speaking to God about your problems is tantamount, in their eyes, to not believing that God will take care of your problem immediately if you will only "pray the solution" exactly as you find it in the Bible.
This, of course, makes no sense in the light of many of the Psalms/Prayers of David, who frequently elaborated his problems to God. David surely spoke words of confidence in God’s ultimate goodness, and in His ability to rescue David. But David certainly spent quite a bit of time in discussing with God the exact nature of his dilemmas and suffering. It would seem that these teachers have changed prayer from intimate conversation with our Father to a sterile legal arrangement with a distant benefactor. Even Christ prayed: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will" (Mark 14:36).
In 1951, the Pentecostal movement took its first real step toward becoming "mainstream" in America. A millionaire dairy farmer named Demos Shakarian founded in that year an organization he called the "Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship Inter national" (FGBMFI). His vision was to take Pentecostal doctrines to mainline churches by reaching out socially to their members through business luncheons, prayer breakfasts and the like in more socially upscale settings.
And in 1960, the Pentecostal experience jumped to the mainline churches when an Episcopal pastor, Dennis Bennett, in California claimed to have received the gift of tongues. He shared his newfound experience with his congregation and his peers in the Episcopal church. There was much enthusiasm—and much resistance. He resigned from his position at his church, and accepted a position with an Episcopal church in Seattle, which for a decade was a center for the spread of this new movement throughout mainstream churches around the world.
By 1966 there were active Roman Catholic Charismatics, and in 1974 thirty thousand of them gathered at Notre Dame for a convention. And by 1970 there were practicing Pentecostals inside almost every major denomination in America, from Baptists to Lutherans.
Not wanting to be mistaken for old-time Pentecostals, a new word was coined to describe this new wave of activity—"Charismatic". This was based, of course, on the Greek word for "gift" mentioned above.
Signs and Wonders
All of these various strains of Pentecostal and Charismatic teaching, along with others too numerous to cover in a short article, have combined in one "river" which has led to the current crop of radical Charismatic teachers. In recent years, some of these teachers have begun referring to this latest manifestation of the Charismatic movement as "The Third Wave" of revival. The first wave was represented by the old-time Pentecostals going back to Azusa Street. The second wave was represented by the healing revivals of the 1940s and 50s. The defining characteristic of the Third Wave is a belief that God is now restoring "signs and wonders"—miracles—to the Church at a level never before experienced since the first century.
In fact, modern Charismatic prophets such as Rick Joyner are predicting that the miracles of this generation will far outstrip those of the first century. He boasts that the Apostles of Jesus’ time will come up in the resurrection and be more eager to meet modern apostles than we will be to meet Peter, James and John—for modern Christians will far surpass them in miracle power. Charismatic Christian believers can expect, according to Joyner, to soon have people laid out in their driveways, waiting for the resident Christian to come out and walk past them so that they may be healed by his shadow. This doctrine of the restoration of miraculous powers is also referred to at times by the title "Power Evangelism". Proponents of this claim that such displays are absolutely necessary to call attention to the Gospel in a world that is jaded.
Lure of Charismatic Teachings
What is it about such a movement that would appeal to some Sabbatarians with a background in the WCG?
1. Some look back on their COG church experiences as drab, dull and boring. Charismatic services are flashy, exciting and invigorating. The music is more emotionally satisfying and uplifting for many than what they have been used to. And whether the "miracles" are real or not, it can be inspiring to be among others so greatly anticipating such great works from our Father in Heaven.
2. Some may have gone through most of their lives with a feeling that, even though they have been faithful to God, He has been a "distant father". They may recall few or no dramatic answers to their prayers or feelings of intimacy with their Father. This is not surprising in the light of hierarchical teaching that anything really important that Christ does will be done from the "top down"—Christ will work through the apostle(s) who will tell the high-ranking ministry who will tell the local ministry who will tell the members. The "closest to God" that some can recall feeling has been when they were hearing a sermon by a man who felt "close to God". By contrast, the Charismatic "Word-Faith" teachers explain that every person can have a powerful relationship with God—as long as they know the right "rules" for prayer. Because the COG groups had a heavy emphasis on law, their members might take to the concept that "God has set laws for prayer which He will not disobey". Radical Charismatic teachers essentially say: "Just sign up for the ‘new improved’ prayer formula, and your answer from God is guaranteed!"
3. The approach of Herbert Armstrong, particularly up through the 1960s, of regularly revealing "new truth" to his flock on a variety of topics, and his constant hype about the possibility of the Tribulation beginning soon, was, for some, a real "high". It kept them constantly looking to hear "some new thing". With the demise of the WCG, most of that "anticipation" has been gone for a long time. The Charismatic movement promises "new truth" regularly. In fact, there are now many "modern prophets" who get dreams, visions, and direct words from God regularly. And they are more than willing to hype everyone else about them—for the price of their latest book!
Holy Laughter & Heavenly Dentistry
There have been unusual manifestations at Charismatic/Pentecostal meetings since the days of Azusa Street. People have spoken what sounds to many outsiders like gibberish, some have fallen over in trances during church services, others have had unusual body movements such as twitching, shaking and writhing. But these have usually been scattered manifestations. In the past decade or so they have intensified and localized, and been joined by even stranger manifestations.
At a church near the Toronto, Ontario airport, a new explosion of the unusual took off in 1994. Strange supernatural manifestations became common at revival meetings including people allegedly "under the influence" of the Holy Spirit barking like dogs, roaring like lions and pawing the ground like bulls. This has come to be known as the "Toronto Blessing". A similar common manifestation is called "Holy Laughter", where people begin laughing uncontrollably, sometimes for hours, with no provocation.
There was a time, even in Pentecostal circles, when such manifestations would have been considered demon possession, and the leadership at such meetings would have "cast out the demon". But for whatever reason this time, those involved decided that these unusual activities were signs of a "Great Move of God", manifesting His presence by inducing these uncontrollable actions in participants. The revival that started then continues to this day, with meetings six nights a week. People have come from all over the world by the tens of thousands to "Catch the Fire" of what is happening there and take it back to their home churches. Related revivals have thus sprung up in a variety of places across America, notably Brownsville, Florida. And similar manifestations have become common in other countries, particularly Great Britain.
Although we realize this whole business may sound ludicrous to some of our readers, we are aware that there have been many with a Sabbatarian background who have been looking toward this and other manifestations of the Charismatic movement for guidance and inspiration. The hunger for a "fresh move of God" is just so great that some seem to abandon critical thinking skills and their Biblical foundation to dive headlong into this "new wave", desiring to surf it to its crest!
In recent weeks we have seen reports, spread by other long-time Sabbatarians, of what some have dubbed "Heavenly Dentistry". It is alleged that, at Charismatic healing revivals in a number of places around the world, God has been in the business of "filling" decayed teeth with gold fillings, or even putting gold crowns on teeth! At some of the same meetings, it is alleged that people discover "gold dust" on their skin or in their hair. Supposedly, at one Baptist church in South America after such a meeting, enough gold dust was "swept off the floor" to gather up and sell to pay for the hall! All these manifestations are taken as proof that God is present in power to bless the meeting. The doctrines preached or the character of the preachers is often of little or no consequence. For these groups, manifestations or powerful feelings are what counts.
We have no doubt that God intended all of His gifts to be available to His people. We do not doubt that God could (and may well before the return of Christ) restore even the more "supernatural" of the gifts to active operation among believers on a wide scale. Our concern is that the current Charismatic movement, by the fruits of its doctrinal teachings and the questionable nature of the "miracles" offered as "proof" that God is moving, does not appear to be a legitimate move of God through the Holy Spirit.
It rather appears to be a counterfeit that is being perpetrated on many sincere people. Many in its ranks have even touted it as "the" route to unity among all who call themselves Christian—including Roman Catholics. It has been said that in Charismatic circles, experience is far more important that knowledge or doctrine. That is, if one’s experience seems to be contradicted by scripture, the answer is not to question one’s experience, but to rethink the scripture to bring it into line with experience. Thus in some Charismatic circles, if "speaking in tongues" is offered as the main proof that someone has the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, then whenever someone speaks in tongues, they must be accepted as a brother or sister in Christ—no matter what outlandish or abominable things they may believe or practice.
Significant Good With the Bad
Even though we believe many of the miracles, signs, and doctrines in Charismatic groups are not from God, we cannot say that nothing worthwhile is accomplished among them. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 point out serious errors, but Christ still credits them for what they have right. If a person has been living a sinful life, realizes they are in trouble, turns to a Charismatic broadcast or service, repents of their sin and commits themself to study the Bible and then lives by it, they have begun a good thing. Some present day Sabbatarians first became interested in the Bible from Charismatic teachers. Some firmly believe that they have received real healings at their services—before they understood the Sabbath. If God worked with those of us in the WCG in spite of its errors, He certainly can work with someone seeking Him, but who only knows to go to a Charismatic service. Leaders can be false, even though the brethren are true (Rev 2:2).
While some Charismatic groups are as hierarchical as the WCG was, others are a great example of shared ministry, where each of the brethren are responsible for using their gifts. Some brethren teach, some encourage, some counsel, some take care of the physical needs of others, some take care of their buildings, etc. Some Charismatic teachers, such as Gene Edwards, have done a good job of showing how traditional "church services" come from Catholic origins, not the Bible.
Music in Charismatic congregations is also a mixture of good and bad. Some songs are lively, heartfelt expressions of Scripture texts set to music. They seem to capture the joy and the "loud noise" of which David speaks in his Psalms. Other Charismatic songs are expositions of their unbiblical theology—often very repetitious, designed to mesmerize the audience into feeling like they are "in the presence of God".
All Charismatic groups teach that God works directly through each of his believers. While they may have leaders that claim to be prophets or apostles with a very special relationship with God, members still expect individual members to be directly led and guided by Him in their daily life. This was not taught as much in Church of God groups.
The secret in dealing with these groups is to neither join them nor completely ignore them, but to:
Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (1Ths 5:21).
That is not always easy to do. Teachers can sound spiritual and sincere, but inside be calculating and phony. Small independent groups may have more Bible truth than large groups which are more concerned with paying their big bills and "keeping the numbers up". Unfortunately, very few books or congregations invite you to "learn what you can and then move on". Most try to get you to completely commit to their way. Obviously, if studying Charismatic literature or attending Charismatic services causes you to depart from Bible truth, you should not do it!
But there are things that a mature believer can learn from them. Also, being familiar with their practices and terminology will be very useful in serving the many people who leave Charismatic groups having found their "miracles" phony and their promises empty. Some Charismatics have contacted Sabbatarian groups seeking Bible truth, but have not stayed because:
1. Sabbatarians treated them like they were unconverted.
2. Sabbatarians were more interested in showing them where they were wrong than in welcoming them and simply teaching good things from the Bible.
3. The Charismatics were so used to services based on 1 Corinthians 14:26 that they could not accept "a few bland songs, announcements and the playing of a tape" as a legitimate worship service.
4. The Charismatics were shocked by the truths taught by Sabbatarians and would not accept them even though they were in the Bible.
There is little Sabbatarians could or should do about the last point, but there is a lot we could do about the first three.
There is both good and bad in Charismatic teaching. People who go after the good without any knowledge of the bad are likely to get caught up in some of the error. This article was titled "Charismatic Static", because the Charismatic movement claims to have great power from God when in most cases it does not. It is like so much static on the radio—it is of little value and prevents people from hearing the real thing.
Christ did promise his followers that they would do greater works than He did (John 14:12). But pretending to do these greater works when one is not, or promising specific followers that they will do great works when God has made no such promise, is only so much "Charismatic Static". False miracles and teachings only help to convince the skeptics that there are no true miracles and teachings.
On the other hand, if we want to "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear" (1Pet 3:15), we need to be able to give a defense to people who are of Charismatic background, Protestant background, or no religious background. If Sabbatarians only talk about the Bible with other Sabbatarians, they may not learn as much or help as much as they potentially could.
Statements like this sometimes frustrate believers causing them to say, "Where is the group that has all the truth—I want to fellowship with them!" The answer is found Ephesians 2:19-22 which shows that all believers are collectively being built into the temple of God. How was the original stone temple built?
And the temple, when it was being built, was built with stone finished at the quarry, so that no hammer or chisel or any iron tool was heard in the temple while it was being built (1 Kings 6:7).
Other scriptures show that the materials for the temple came from a great many places. We can find no historic church with the same doctrines continually for the last 1900 years. God is building His Church from many different sources—around the world and throughout history. He is finishing His products where they are—in their quarry (quarries can often look ugly). Each one is different, but when He assembles His believers together, they will fit perfectly.
If we occasionally bump into other rough stones while we are still in our quarry—we do not have to judge whether they will be a part of His final building or not. We only need to ask our Father if we should be helping them or if they should be helping us. We can probably help some people from a Charismatic background, and we can probably learn from them as well—once we know how to avoid the "Charismatic Static".
Bibliography: Information for this article was in part gathered from the following books, as well as a wide variety of Internet websites:
Charismatic Chaos by James MacArthur © 1992, Zondervan
Holy Laughter & The Toronto Blessing by James Beverley © 1995 Zondervan
The New Charismatics by Michael Moriarty © 1992 Zondervan