The Charis in Charisma

So, I have not followed the whole Bentley revival in Florida. I have grown up in the Pentecostal church. I’m not ashamed of that, and I still attend a Pentecostal church where I serve as an elder. I pray regularly for people to be healed. I speak in tongues, and I have felt God’s power in inexplicable ways. I think that as the People of God – the firstfruits of the final new creation (Jas 1:18; Rev 14:4) – we should expect God to work in extraordinary ways in his church. As I grew up in the Pentecostal church, I observed things like the Toronto Vineyard revival and the Brownsville revival. I actually attended the Brownsville revival (at the tail end of its popularity), and I very much felt God’s presence meet me in a profound way. God works through concentrated outpourings of his Holy Spirit at different times in different locations.

I have observed a few things about the work of the Spirit in my own life. One of which has been that the move of God is not necessarily dependent upon the holiness, orthodoxy or the spiritual maturity of the person that is “leading” the revival. Often in Charistmatic/Pentecostal churches a kind of cult-of-personality will develop around someone whom God uses to minister to others – especially those who minister in public, overt, or extraordinary ways. The assumption is usually something like this. “Wow, I really need to go to X’s church or X’s revival because this person has a powerful ministry.” A group forms around this lightning rod of God’s power and a “revival” breaks out. Mr. or Mrs. X then starts publishing books and broadcasting television shows because obviously God is using X, therefore X has something important to say and teach. This does not always happen like this, but I’ve seen it dozens of times.

Anyway, a little Greek is helpful here. Charismatics put an emphasis on the Charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. We expect God to grace us with a little bit of the “already” in the midst of our “not yet,” and he does. One thing to note is that the Charismatic gifts are just that – charisma – a word based on another Greek word, charis – the same word that is translated as “grace” throughout the New Testament. One Greek dictionary (BDAG) defines charisma as “that which is freely and graciously given, favor bestowed, gift”. Just as “grace”/charis is God’s favor poured out upon us in spite of our sin, immaturity or lack of qualification, the charismatic gifts are God’s favor poured out upon the church in spite of our sin, immaturity or lack of qualification. Charisma is no indicator of holiness, maturity, or orthodoxy. Am I saying that Bentley is not holy, mature or orthodox? No. I have not watched enough of the revival or listened to enough of his teaching to judge that fairly. I can say, that the fact that God is possibly working in Lakeland is not an indicator of Bentley’s maturity. To the skeptic I would also say that a lack of maturity or orthodoxy in a “revival” is not an indicator that God is not working there. God works in spite of us as often as he works through us. This is the case whether you’re a revival leader, a pastor or a scholar.

Bill the cat-RevivalistI made mention above to the revival leader as a “lightning rod”. I think that this is a good analogy. A lightning rod stands as a conductive contact point between positively charged clouds and the negatively charged ground. This imbalanced charge is remedied as the charge moves from cloud to land and meets with a charge moving from land to cloud. A lightning rod “draws” the charge. Is the power in the lightning rod? No. Is the charge coming from the lightning rod? No. The imbalanced charge builds up in the clouds and in the ground and the lightning rod is a point of contact. The revival leader is similar. Does he or she have any power? No, but often they stand as a point of contact between a charged audience and a powerful God. The audience is charged with the anticipation that God will work in powerful ways, and God is a benificent and gracious God who gives good gifts to his children. No one says “boy, that’s a powerful lightning rod!” No one says that it is by any extraordinary merit of a hunk of metal that lightning is generated. No, the electricity is part of a much bigger system.

Of course all analogies break down after a while, and I would not tease this out too far! This is God we’re talking about – he does not fit into analogies. One thing that could be teased out of the analogy is that revivals are by their nature “imbalanced” (a partial truth, when I think about it).