How Do You Know If a Church Is Charismatic?

[Note: this response was written by Randy when he was pastoring a church in the 1980’s. A church member had asked “Is our church a charismatic church?”] 

The Charismatic movement, as a whole, teaches that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a “second blessing,” an experience that is sometimes simultaneous with conversion, but often subsequent to it. Different charismatics describe this experience as “receiving” or “being filled with” the Holy Spirit. Believers are encouraged to prayerfully (and often emotionally) seek this deeper experience for themselves.

Most charismatic churches view the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues as either always or normally associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The gift of tongues is generally regarded by charismatics as a supernatural ability to speak in a nonhuman “angelic language.” This “language” appears to be an ecstatic repetition of basic syllables. It is often referred to as a “prayer language,” and it is said that Satan cannot understand it. Many, though not all, charismatics believe this sort of “speaking in tongues” is normative to Christian experience, and that all Spirit-filled believers should have and exercise this gift.

My understanding of Scripture is that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not a “second blessing” that is subsequent to conversion, but is itself inseparable from conversion. It is a once-for-all experience that involves one’s permanent identification with Christ and His church:” For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (I Cor. 12:13). All believers, regardless of their level of maturity (even the notoriously immature and often disobedient Christians described in I Corinthians), have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

No one can have Christ without having the Holy Spirit. “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Rom. 8:9). We reject the concept that some believers have the Holy Spirit while others do not.  

While the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a once-for-all experience that takes place at conversion, we believe that the filling of the Holy Spirit properly refers to the moment by moment process of yielding oneself to the Spirit’s control. “Do not get drunk on wine…Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

A person may be filled (controlled) by the Holy Spirit at one moment and not  another. Unlike the baptism and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the filling of the Holy Spirit is not a permanent condition. We therefore do not think that the terms “baptism” and “filling” of the Spirit are interchangeable.

We believe that the gift of tongues as described in the New Testament is a supernatural ability to speak in human languages (not ecstatic utterances) unknown to the speaker, with the primary purpose of revealing God’s power and the gospel message to nonbelievers in their own language.  

The first reference to speaking in tongues is a detailed indication that the speakers spoke in human languages. They “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them…each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, (both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:4-11).

When the gift of tongues is mentioned again in Acts 10 and Acts 19 there is no suggestion that it does not involve speaking in human languages. Though certain verses in 1 Corinthians 12-14 are cited as referring to nonhuman languages or ecstatic utterances, we believe that the passage is best understood throughout as a God-given ability to speak in unfamiliar  human languages, especially to preach the gospel to nonbelievers.  

Tongues is one of many spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament, none of which is intended for every believer. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (I Cor. 12:27-30). Both the Greek language and the context require an emphatic “No” to each of these questions. (Notice too that the gift of tongues is mentioned near the end of this brief list of gifts, which seems to start with an order of priority.)

Neither tongues nor any other gift is particularly identified with the baptism of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:13). No gift, including tongues, is ever regarded in Scripture as being a symbol of spirituality. Furthermore, among all the gifts, tongues is considered of secondary, not primary importance. It is referred to in only six of the 260 chapters of the New Testament, and the great majority of space given to it is devoted to correcting the widespread abuse of the gift at one particular church (I Cor. 12-14).  

While the biblical gift of tongues is legitimate, the one church in which we are told that tongues was prominent was also the most unspiritual church described in the entire New Testament. This does not mean the gift is unspiritual, of course. But it should surely lay to rest once and for all the misconception that having the gift of tongues is a sign of spirituality. Just as someone can have the gift of teaching and be an adulterer, one can have the gift of tongues (or any other gift) and be prideful or guilty of gossip, gluttony, slander or any other sin. Gifts are never a badge of spirituality in Scripture, but are sovereignly distributed my God without reference to the character or purity of the recipient. Hence, gifts can be used for God’s glory and the church’s good, or can be misused to glorify self, divide the body, mislead or manipulate.

Tongues, miracles, and healing are all what are sometimes called “sign gifts”, part of a particular group of spiritual gifts bestowed by God with the purpose of confirming or authenticating the spoken message of the gospel. “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Heb. 2:3,4).

Once the body of writings that we now know as the New Testament was assembled, some argue that there was no more need to validate spoken words by supernatural signs. Every word could be judged in the light of the revealed New Testament. Consequently, our church leaders tend to believe these sign gifts became increasingly less purposeful and prominent in the church.

Historically, there were certain eras in which miraculous events and gifting were more prominent, including the eras of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus and the apostles. God has done and continues to do miracles in all times of human history, but there are certain times and places in which He has chosen to do more than others.  

We want to make clear that we very definitely do believe in the supernatural, the miraculous, and in divine healing. God performs miracles and healings today just as he has throughout history. We have seen Him do this in answer to prayer at our church, including the miraculous healing of a boy with a large brain tumor which “disappeared” after the elders anointed him with oil and prayed over him. On the other hand, we have anointed others with oil and prayed over them when God chose not to heal them. We accept this as His sovereign will.

Should God desire to do so, he is fully free to distribute sign gifts however and to whomever he pleases. Nevertheless, we believe that the particular gifts, given to particular people in order to perform these signs, are less prominent in today’s church, perhaps partially due to the completed New Testament revelation.

Charismatic Christians are generally characterized by their distinctive views of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the gift of tongues, and the miraculous gifts in general. Obviously, our elders tend to view them somewhat differently. Some of our elders are cessationists, believing God no longer gives the sign gifts.

I am personally not a cessationist. But I do think it is reasonable to believe that  God has in this time (and place) reduced the prominence of the sign gifts. I definitely believe that God has distributed sign gifts, healings, visions, and other supernatural works more widely in some cultures than He has in others, including in the western world. When He is penetrating a culture with the gospel, He seems often to do these obviously miraculous works. I have heard many stories to this effect from very credible missionaries and national Christians alike.

If, therefore, we define “charismatic” in a way that maintains God equally and widely distributes the sign gifts in every time and place, and that tongues or any other gift are given to every Spirit-filled Christian, or that some Christians are not baptized by the Holy Spirit, then the answer is clearly “No, we are  not a charismatic church.”

We believe that most of our charismatic brothers and sisters are sincere and committed Christians. I’m convinced we can learn from their emphasis on worship, their boldness in witnessing, and their outspoken faith in God. (Indeed, many of our finest and most Christ-exalting worship songs have been born out of charismatic churches.) While we do disagree with them in some areas, we agree with them in far more. We affirm the same fundamentals of the Faith, and worship the same Lord. We love them, appreciate them, benefit from the strengths they bring to the Body of Christ, enjoy their fellowship, and look forward to spending eternity with them.  

While emphasizing our oneness in Christ, however, we feel compelled to point out what we believe are four major dangers of the charismatic movement as a whole (certainly these are not true of every charismatic Christian or every charismatic church, only of some):

l. The “Doctrine is okay, but my experience is the bottom line” philosophy. Most charismatics affirm belief in the authority of God’s Word. Sometimes, however, they fail to carefully weigh in the balance of Scripture what others and they themselves claim to be spiritual experiences, revelations and miracles. The Bible may be ignored or reinterpreted, and even major issues of doctrine can become subject to compromise.  We think greater care should be taken to interpret personal experience in the light of Scripture, not Scripture in the light of personal experience. “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). If even the apostle Paul’s claims were to be carefully tested by the Scriptures, how much more diligent must we be to test the claims of people today.

2. The “I’m a little better than you” syndrome. There is a sense of pride, even arrogance, that sometimes characterizes those who believe that they have received Holy Spirit baptism and/or the gift of tongues. This appears to generate two classes of Christians, the “haves” and the “have nots.”  Brothers in Christ are divided into two levels of spirituality. The impression is given that those who have not received the “second blessing” are incomplete. They are Christians, perhaps, but not spiritual, not deep, not sanctified. They may be pitied or patronized, and are frequently proselytized by their more “privileged” brethren. Sometimes the result is a sort of spiritual snobbery, a feeling that those who are without a certain gift ( my gift) or a certain experience ( my experience) are just not as good of Christians as I am. (Again, certainly not all charismatics are guilty of such an attitude.)

3. The “Shortcut to spirituality” mentality. ”All I have to do is get baptized by the Spirit, speak in tongues, and let God flow through me.” Sounds great. But whatever happened to the spiritual disciplines, the “holy habits” of diligent Bible study and persistent prayer? What about taking up our crosses daily, enduring under trials, and putting on God’s armor to resist temptation? There are no bypasses, no spiritual “pills” we can pop to become suddenly more mature in Christ. Maturity is a continual process. It is walking up the stairs of the Christian life, not being propelled from the basement to the attic by some sort of spiritual catapult, as is sometimes implied by charismatic teaching. There is no such thing as instant maturity. There are no shortcuts to spirituality.

4. The “Jesus in not enough” heresy. We view this as one of the most subtle and potentially dangerous aspects of some branches of the charismatic movement. We believe that when a person comes to know Christ, provision is made for all of his deepest needs to be met in the Savior alone. Though spiritual growth is a continual process, when a person meets Jesus, his pilgrimage is over. He must walk with Jesus, to be sure, but he does not need more than Jesus.

Unfortunately, after their conversion many Christians begin another pilgrimage. They are made to feel that they do not yet have enough, and they begin searching for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the gift of tongues, and what they think is the deeper, more spiritual life. Though they are very sincere and their thirst for God is admirable, this perpetual striving for more and greater experiences can actually draw them away from Christ. Instead of focusing on the Giver, the seeker tends to focus on the gifts. Instead of drawing near to the Christ he knows, he reaches out for something else that he does not know. The clear implication of all of this is that Christ is not enough. That is, that the resources granted to a believer at his conversion are partial, insufficient, and less than adequate for the deep spiritual life.  

We believe that 2 Peter 1:3 and Ephesians 1:3, as well as the whole weight of the New Testament, clearly indicate that every spiritual necessity is already ours in Christ. Consequently, the great need of the hour is not for believers to seek out new spiritual resources and blessings, but to lay hold of those that are already ours in Christ! “ His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3). We have in Christ all we need to live godly lives. Paul writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). How many spiritual blessings that anyone can have are already available to every Christian in Christ, without some new experience or quest? “Every spiritual blessing.”

Again, we are fully aware that many of our charismatic brothers are not guilty of the four attitudes I have just described. Furthermore, we who are non-charismatic are guilty of other things they are not. For instance, some non-charismatics seem to deny the possibility of current supernatural events almost as readily as atheists do. This is ironic considering the fact that the historic Christian faith is rooted and grounded in the supernatural.

We are simply stating that these attitudes sometimes surface among some charismatic believers, and should be carefully avoided by any Christian, whether charismatic or noncharismatic.

CONCLUSION: While we do not regard ourselves a charismatic church, we do not wish to be known as “anti-charismatic.” We are “anti” the extremes that we believe are biblically indefensible, but most charismatic beliefs and practices are not biblically unorthodox, even those we may disagree with.

We realize that due to different backgrounds and experiences, some of our own members will be somewhat more or somewhat less sympathetic to certain charismatic distinctives. Some may privately exercise what they consider to be the gift of tongues. We do not make a practice of searching for and “snuffing out” divergent opinions on the gifts (and many such opinions exist within our body).

What we do insist upon is a spirit of love and unity, the total sufficiency of Christ, and the final authority of the Scriptures. Regardless of differing views in other areas, we welcome all at our church who love Christ and affirm these basic principles.

We, your pastors and elders, are available to clarify or discuss any of the above statements. Please feel free to call upon us for assistance in this or any other area.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries