To the Spirit of the Church

I have lived much like a man under house arrest since moving here, staying close to my apartment and a few other approved locations. I don’t regret it. My emotional chemistry is volatile and warrants careful observation before testing on new substances. Though I have felt a want of social interaction since even before moving, actually for about two years, I also felt convicted that what I had was adequate and what I wanted was unseasonable. I prayed for a door to open to more, but I did not attempt to knock down the doors to obvious ways of increasing society.

The season has changed. Rather than a suddenly wide-open, irresistable opportunity, the situation is not noticeably any different than when I came here. Surrounding me are cheap prefab doors with unconvincing faux wood prints and baubly handles. Eager to fling one open and start adventuring in the great beyond, I hesititate because they are all alike in their lack of appeal.

I liked the little Baptist Bible study I was going to on the campus of the state university. It’s only about 45 minutes away, I could still go there. But I left that even before I left school, and though I have long entertained notions of returning, it is evident to me that that group is now in my past. There’s no special reason why. It’s just over, and going back would be like trying to return to carefree childhood. My responsibility now lies elsewhere.

That idea of responsibility is crucial to my intentions as I step through this door. We are not given time on this earth merely to live our lives in the space most convenient for us. Each of us ought to be helping others press on toward the goal of Christ-likeness, of showing Christ, as nothing glorifies God more than Christ revealed. This does not mean that every day we must say the name “Jesus” to at least one other person. God can use times of isolation to prepare us for His work. Even if we live our lives meeting very few people, as let us say perhaps a frontier family in the American West might have done, or some other backwater, we may still have touched exactly as many people as God intended. The point of my idea of responsibility is to distinguish from preference. We have a responsibility to share our lives with more than just those whose company we enjoy.

I’d like to find among the sea of humanity a clique of people who are my complementary opposite, compatible yet different, so that I can learn and be entertained by them, and they can listen with admiration when I speak in my turn. But this is not what I expect I will find, or that I should. I mean not only to look for people, but also to recognize the people who are already in front of me.

David B. is one such person. He’s my next-door neighbor and the apartment superintendent. He’s not very good at mental acrobatics and he’s even worse at listening raptly when I talk. Consequently I sometimes find him irritating. But there he is, popping up at all sorts of inconvenient times when I am very busy carrying out that routine life I so despise, and he’s unquestionably ready to engage me in social discourse. Checkmate, eh? I got what I wanted, just not what I wanted. So to speak.

I hope it is clear that I am criticizing my reception of David and not the man himself. I think I understand David’s personality pretty well, and I don’t begrudge him. He’s one of those types who knows most of the town and can usually tell you more than you want to know about any given person in town. If he can’t, he’ll have remedied the omission by the next time you see him.

With no clear favorites in the church options I could see, I invited David over to help give me the lay of the land. I started by asking about a church I noticed in the phone book lacking a denominational moniker, called “Church on the hill.” In my experience most churches without denominational manifestos really aren’t sure what it means to be a Christian, besides staying on the Light side of the Force. One of the other non-aligned churches in the area puts out radio spots which talk about God, faith, and caring, three things that are a part of Christianity and almost every other philosophy out there. Not having been to that church personally I don’t know for sure that it is this way, but that kind of theme is an indicator of a church like a marital counselor who is on his third or fourth marriage. He may know a lot about marriage in general and in the abstract, but understanding and meeting the personal demands of marriage evidently escape such a man. Likewise churches who find the principle of goodness in God usually don’t understand what it is to strive with God as a person, albeit a supernatural person.

But as for the church on the hill that I asked about, I did not get so far as to inquire about the present reality of a living God, because it seems that all the pastors of that church have been involved in scandals with women. Such a thing could happen in a thriving church–no sin is impossible for a saint–but it falls far short of being a recommendation.

I told David that although I had no problem with singing and worship and testimony and that sort of stuff, I felt that the foundation of a good fellowship was studying the the Bible This got him in mind of the Bible school in the area, some school of a more sensational branch of Christianity. Not scandalous, not sensational in terms of polygamy or anything like that, but exotic enough that they generally advised some part of their doctrine not be discussed too carelessly with the outsiders. Some bit of their thinking on the rapture or the millenium, something eschatological like that. It is always a bad sign when you don’t want to share your entire doctrine.

Eventually I inquired specifically about the Baptists, since Baptists seem most likely to have a stated theology free of anything I disagree with out of hand. There is the matter of the whole organization of the church, but that is frequently assumed and not stated, and anyway that’s common to the lot. But David considers Baptists to disbelieve the Bible due to their extreme skepticism of the Pentecostal manifestations of the Holy Spirit that David prefers. Although I knew this was a major point of difference between Baptists and the Charismatic movement in general, I didn’t realize that the Charismatics had taken the disagreement on that particular point as rejection of the Bible entire.

Most of the time David talked about one or two, or maybe three churches (it was hard for me to keep track) which were somehow different, but all seemed to have this in common: as a regular part of their meetings, the congregants would “experience” the Holy Spirit. I use the discrediting quotes because it goes outside my understanding of the Holy Spirit to experience Him, any more than I experience David B. Certainly I have experiences with him-with David B and with the Holy Spirit. Also I would not completely reject the use of “experience” as a sufficient verb with reference to the Holy Spirit. As an incoporeal Person, it may be hard to describe interaction with the Spirit in tangible terms. But to routinely experience the Holy Spirit suggests to my mind a substance to be used at will, not a Person.

Some of these experiences include falling down (being “slain in the Spirit,” which I consider an ominous term), trembling, and quasi-levitation (tipping without falling). Those are observable by others. Individual experiences include seeing portals to heaven and feeling a deep sense of peace and joy.

None of these things convince me of the presence of the Holy Spirit. If I were to think of some example of being slain in the Spirit from the Biblical text, the quickest thing to my mind is Annanias and Sapphira who died–simply and literally died–when the Holy Spirit demonstrated for the benefit of the church that He knows the truth of each person’s life.

I also believe that there can be other spirits or spiritual causes for these experiences. Evil can appear as good in more ways than just visible or physical. African trance-dancers and other sorts of mystics find a power either within themselve or without to pass beyond what we consider human limits.

But it is not enough to say that there are evil spirits, so anything spiritual is evil. I will be very wary of ecstatic experiences, especially when they are available more or less on demand, but I will not conclude that they are from an evil source unless I see a more telling sign. Denial and affliction would be common indicators; prolonged fasting, self-flagellation, cutting, exertion, suffocation, and anything which deliberately uses strain on the body to initiate a spiritual experience is demonic. Immoral indulgence in sexual practices is even more clearly inspired of Satan, although this usually occurs backstage, among those bound more closely to the cult. But then suppression of the teaching or practices of the inner circle is in general another infamous mark of a demonic cult. Some of the organizations most wonderful and beautiful to the eye show their darker side in intense and exaggerated forms of shunning, much like the Catholic church once reasoned that there was no way to get people out of its church without also helping them out of this mortal life.

Some of the anecdotes I heard I am sure already were fraud, like the person who demonstrated the genuine presence of the Holy Spirit by conveniently stuffing it in a lady’s handbag. Again, this is hardly the treatment one gives a Person, and very much what magicians have always done with magical forces. It may not be a voodoo doll precisely, but it has the same general character.

When all is said and done, I do not find myself with sufficient cause to reject the entire Pentecostal movement as a spiritual fraud. I think some of the people participating in these experiences have rightly concluded that the doctrinal churches they were attending had people and Bibles in them and nothing else. I think my preference for doctrinal churches, and wariness of Charismatic churches, is partly an expression of my preference to measure and define the things that will affect my life. True, a lot of the details and terms of the Charismatic movement have very thin Biblical backing, but where they have their experinces and terms we have our concepts and terms. Where in the Bible itself is the importance of hermeneutics, etymology, soteriology, eschatology ever spelled out? Most famously, where is the Trinity spelled out? I find all of this terminology helpful enzymes for breaking away bits of the Bible to digest, but they are not essentially more Biblical than the experiences of the Charismatics.

But I am not really interested in making excuses for the Charismatic movement. The point of my attempt to blur the lines is remove false cause for dismissing the entire spectrum of Charismatic experiences. I don’t find them convincingly Biblical or God-inspired. Neither to I find convincing or edifying a whole myriad of the ways God has first convicted some Christians of His presence and power and love, nor the ways He has then taught them or encouraged them. I am bemused by David’s immense satisfaction in the surpluss of toasters or couches or fans he has received when he was praying for one such item. But truthfully, I recognize a quiet kind of provision in the succession of second-hand couches that have made their way through our rough-and-tumble living room, not always before they were the couch equivalent of a dessicated corpse but always unexpectedly.

It is not just the material needs of His childern that God meets. If there are people out there who are genuinely encouraged of God’s presence, personal concern, and absolute ability by experiencing trembling and unconscious speech, it is not my place to take that from them just because I consider it unseemly. I will not be any more shy to call an experience demonic that I am to call a doctrine heresy, and I won’t issue a general condemnation of the way other people feel God any more than of how they understand God.

But the difference between feeling and understanding is the reason I will never personally prefer Charismatic churches or regard them very highly. If they have left churches of empty knowledge, they have not bettered themselves by joining churches of empty experience. These experience teach us nothing about God, and give us nothing to share with others, except his base existence and perhaps His general disposition. I know personally that sometimes this is worth more to an individual than any kind of conceptual understanding. I have felt the reassurance of God. But I have come back to where I began: there is more for our lives than our own experiences. A developing understanding of God feeds also the understanding of the natural world, of people and their behavior in personal, social, and national matters. Sometimes a sense of understanding what God is doing is more comfort than knowing He is there.

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
Because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
Hosea 4:6