Charismatics who sway and wave their arms during congregational singing, or evangelicals who think charismatics swaying and waving are a sign of the Spirit?
I canâ€™t help but wonder after reading David Neffâ€™s wishing happy birthday to the charimsatic movement in his editorial for Christianity Today. He writes:
In April 1960, I was a seventh grader in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, culturally and religiously as distant from Southern California Episcopalians as an American could be. But by 1974, I had a newly minted M.Div. and became pastor of a church near San Diego. There I became friends with Frank Maguire, an Episcopal priest who featured prominently in Dennis Bennett’s autobiographical Nine O’Clock in the Morning.
In 1959, Maguire had invited Bennett to meet members of his parish who were experiencing unusual spiritual phenomena. These folk weren’t doing anything wild and crazy, Maguire told Bennett. They just glowed “like little light bulbs” and were “so loving and ready to help whenever I asked them.” When I met Maguire almost 15 years later, the charismatics I met in his parish still weren’t wild or crazy. And they still had the glow and the love Maguire had told Bennett about.
I had been raised in a sectarian atmosphere, trained to distrust Christianity of any stripe but my own. For me, what made the charismatic renewal remarkable was the ecumenical fellowship it created. American Baptists and Roman Catholics in our community were sharing Communionâ€”even serving Communion at each other’s churchesâ€”until the Catholic bishop put a stop to it. Episcopalians were worshiping with an intensity that undercut all my prejudices against written prayers and prescribed liturgies. Formerly competing religious communities were suddenly open to common ministry and shared worship. This was not the classic liberal ecumenism with its “Doctrine Divides, Service Unites” motto. This ecumenism flowed from recognizing that the Holy Spirit was animating and transforming others.
Some analysts say the mainline charismatic renewal fizzled. It is more accurate to describe it the way Jesus pictured the kingdom of God: like yeast that spreads through bread dough. You can hardly identify it as a movement anymore, but it has changed the way most churches worship. Repetitive choruses and raised hands are now common. Except in pockets of hardcore resistance, the fact that a fellow Christian may praise God in a private prayer language hardly elevates an eyebrow.
What I wonder is how Neff can spot the defect of Doctrine-Divides-Service-Unites ecumenism and not see the error in charismatic understandings of the Holy Spirit, the second helping of blessings, the casual worship, and the disregard for ecclesiastical office (for starters). After all, plenty of Charles Erdmans in the Presbyterian world believed that the Spirit was leading the church to a Doctrine-Divides-Service-Unites form of Protestant unity. So how do you deny the blessing of the Spirit to one form of unity but not the other?
Part of Neffâ€™s response may fall back on doctrine, as in the kind of teachings advocated by charismatics are more true than the ideals propagated by Protestant liberals. I would likely agree. But then once you appeal to one doctrine, donâ€™t a lot of other doctrines kick in, like all the ones that tell me charismatics are in error. And then I conclude â€“ contra Neff â€“ that despite talking about the Spirit a lot do not charismatics do not have special claims on the Spirit.
I think I understand Neffâ€™s regard for charismatics. He displays an important part of the legacy of neo-evangelicalism which is to downplay the negative and accent the positive. Neo-evangelicals believed they needed to do this in order to overcome the bad PR of fundamentalism (i.e., a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry). Neff is trying to be generous and looking for alliances wherever they may be cultivated.
But if doctrine does not unite, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is a part of the churchâ€™s teaching, then shouldnâ€™t Neff be more discerning about the charismatic movement? In fact, if Word and Spirit ordinarily work together, so that the Spirit is alive and well wherever true teaching from the Word is present, then folks like myself who cringe in the presence of swaying and waving, or when reading approving editorials about such worship behavior, may have the Spirit more than the allegedly Spirit-filled charismatics. (Of course, all such claims to the Spirit need to be read in the context of the battle between the flesh and the Spirit that requires most Augustinian readers of Paul to abstain from saying that they are Spirit-filled.)