1) From a Pentecostal Church to a conservative Reformed Presbyterian Church
For the first 10 months of the year, I attended a small Reformed Presbyterian Church that had just started out. I got to know the people there and had good fellowship with them, but I knew from the start that this would not be a Church I would commit myself to for a long time. I had just left my Pentecostal Church for a traditional Reformed Church and this was a huge change for me, as it would be for anybody. I had not totally thrown out everything charismatic, but I was definitely disillusioned with what I’ve experienced in charismatic Churches. Although the preaching was more biblically centered here than in the charismatic Churches I’ve attended, I still missed a lot of charismatic elements. I loved the freedom of expression during worship. I was also at that time still not a convinced cessationist, though I leaned towards it. So why did I stay for so long in such a Church? I know most of my charismatic friends probably wouldn’t lay foot in such a Church – it would be too “dead” for them. Firstly, I didn’t want to see any more excesses and abuses by going into charismatic Churches. Secondly, I wanted to hear good preaching of the Word. Thirdly, I had been interested for about a year already in Reformed theology and I thought it would be a good experience to try out a Reformed Church. Lastly, I’m never afraid to attend different religious or denominational meetings. I believe this expands my horizons and allows me to experience something different from which I can learn. And I’m always open to this because I know no denomination, tradition or Church has all the truth.
2) The learning continues – Reformation magazines and articles
In my own private time, I continued to read out and study more into Reformation (Reformed/Calvinistic and Lutheran) theology. Michael Horton and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) produced materials that taught me in many ways. I read the magazine they produced – Modern Reformation – where I have learnt so much. I studied more about Justification, Assurance, the Lutheran distinction of Law and Gospel, Theology of the Cross vs. Theology of Glory, Sacraments and Covenants. Through learning all this, I started to change my Reformed thinking in different ways. I became less legalistic in my thinking on Salvation. I started to realize, through Michael Horton and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals writings, that the Lordship Salvation teachings I was taught by a lot of Puritan and modern Reformed teachers was quite extreme and legalistic in certain ways. Till this day, I’m still struggling with the issues of Assurance, Law/Gospel distinction and Lordship Salvationism. I feel that there are certain tensions or paradoxes in these issues. There has been many debates in the history of the Church and this will probably always be something that can never be fully reconciled. I see the tension of law/demands and gospel/grace as one of the more prominent tensions in Scriptures. However, in the end, if I err, I would rather err on the side of God’s grace.
3) Charismatic abuses and hurts
Although in a conservative Reformed Church, I would still attend many charismatic meetings – e.g. nationwide prayer and worship meetings that are mostly attended by charismatics and led by charismatics. I still kept very much in touch with the charismatic Christian world in Singapore. Most of my close friends were still charismatics. And I would also read up on books (e.g. Surprised by the power of the Spirit by Jack Deere) and articles (mainly on the Internet) about charismatism – its pros and cons. I was struggling with the issue of whether the miraculous gifts had ceased or not.
An incident which greatly affected me occurred during the middle of the year. After having left my Pentecostal Church for 6 months, I decided to go back and attend their youth Church camp during June. I wanted to go there to be more open to the Spirit’s move. The camp was held a few days and in the end it turned out to be one of the worst experiences of my life. Many of the Church leaders whom I knew before weren’t very friendly to me. They probably knew I had left the Church since the beginning of the year and that I was very against a lot of charismatic practices. After the first major session, I refused to go forward to be prayed for. I wanted to be cautious as to what was going to happen. I had experienced so much pushing of the past and I didn’t want to experience anything that wasn’t of God. I came to the camp trying to be open, but cautious, and so while everyone went up for the alter call, I stayed behind in my seat. Because of that, I was confronted fiercely by some Church workers who told me that I had to go forward to receive prayer. Soon the pastor also ‘forced’ me to go forward, though I resisted. I didn’t want to cause a stir, but to just sit behind and observe what people were experiencing. But because I was forced to go for prayer, I had no choice but to resist. Noone had the right to force someone to go forward for prayer. And I felt that the Church leaders were taking things too far this time. I was crying at that time and tried to explain that I came to the camp very open and not to criticize anything. But I needed time to observe first before committing myself to anything. One pastor quoted to me a verse out of context – 1 Corinthians 2:14, judging me to be unspiritual. This was all very painful for me and I decided to call my father the next day to inform him that I was going home (the camp site was over 2 hours drive from home). But even that was prevented as I was told I was not allowed to call my parents until I had attended 2 more sessions of meetings! Eventually, I ‘ran away’ after 1 session of meetings and went back home on a taxi. After this incident, no doubt, I wasn’t too impressed with charismatic Churches. I’ve heard so many stories of spiritual abuse and abuse of authority and I never expected myself to be at the end of such abuse.
Please don’t get the wrong idea as to the reason why I’m writing about this incident. I am not doing so because I want to get back at my previous Church – the name of the Church remains unmentioned here! – but only because I believe we all can learn from our mistakes. I recognize that my zeal against some charismatic practices (fueled by books like John MacArthur’s ‘Charismatic Chaos’) was partly to be blamed for the way my Church leaders treated me. The leaders knew that I questioned a lot of things in the Church. I admit I had sinned too in my judgmental views, though I think the leadership should have handled this situation in a more mature way than the abusive and controlling way they did. Anyway, I have written to a leader I was close to in the Church and apologized for any hurts I’ve caused him. And he’s written back and apologized too. I believe that despite our differences, we should still be able to love and accept one another. We are after all one body in Christ. However, I have shared the above because I’ve come across many people who have experienced such abuses or even worse. And I hope to say two things to two different sets of people.
Firstly, to Charismatics (a group I consider myself part of) – there are definitely problems of abuses and extreme teachings within Charismatic Churches. And the first step towards eliminating such problems is to recognize it. We Charismatics should recognize this problem and be careful how we treat our brothers and sisters who may not understand what is going on. Let us not think less of other Christians who don’t accept what we believe. Nor should we judge them as unspiritual! Rather, I think we all can learn to be a bit more humble and gentle in the way we treat our fellow brothers and sisters with whom we disagree. Melinda Fish has some wise words to say to those who want to defend the “Toronto Blessing” (but the following comments should apply to any other doctrines or practices we desire to defend also):
Leaders must be confident they are acting out of obedience to the Lord, yet gentle in their approach to their parishioners. This is no time to display arrogance or imply that anyone reluctant to jump into the river is unspiritual or does not love God.
We Charismatics should remember to take time to explain from the Word what is happening and always be patient to hear what others who disagree with us have to say. Remember, we can always learn from one another so don’t think we are always right. Let us not come across arrogant and proud by thinking that we have all the truth and have nothing to learn from others. Good charismatic Christianity isn’t based on feelings or experiences, but on sound doctrine and the Word of God. By this I don’t mean that everything has to be about the Bible and studying it. No, I think one’s faith should be more than merely rational, intellectual but also be experiential. But whatever experiences we have of God, it always needs to be biblical or based in the Word of God. So while acknowledging that our faith is more than a rational thing, we also need to acknowledge that we ought not to degrade the use of one’s God given mind and reasoning. Again Melinda writes:
Refraining from cynical analysis does not mean we throw out either our brains or our Bible. Bringing the Word of God into the move of the Spirit brings balance. We must have both the Spirit and the Word, for they are in agreement.
And if in the end we still disagree, then let us peacefully and lovingly agree to disagree. We can accept that we have differences yet still rejoice in being friends and fellow children of God.
Secondly, for those who have experienced abuses and have been unhappy with unbiblical and extreme charismatic teachings – don’t throw out Charismatism completely! Many of those I know who have experienced such abuses have left charismatic Christianity completely – and I think that is really sad. As one myself who have come across a lot of really bad teachings and abuses in the name of Charismatism, I want to say that just because one has experienced abuses, one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I could easily have let what I experienced in the Church camp get to me and allow it to make me reject charismatic Christianity completely, but thank God I didn’t. The devil wouldn’t be involved so strongly in influencing Christians into extreme practices in charismatic Churches unless in the first place he realized that there are precious truths in Charismatism. The truth is that there are many positive teachings in charismatic Christianity and that is why we get so much errors too – the devil is at work trying to discredit and bring reproach upon a movement that he knows God is in! What we need to do is not to throw out everything but “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22) Let’s not judge the whole Charismatic movement by extreme cases.
Critics of charismatic practices can also come across harsh and unloving. When I mean unloving, I don’t mean they are unloving because they point out errors of charismatic teachings or practices. I’m all for that. And I do speak against what I perceive to be unbiblical charismatic doctrines and practices too when it’s warranted. There is nothing wrong with speaking the truth, but what is important is to speak the truth in love. Too often, I have failed in speaking the truth in love and I think we know how easy it is to raise our voices and be unkind to others with whom we disagree. I truly welcome criticisms of charismatic teachings and practices. In fact, I think we need more of this because there are a lot of errors to be spoken out against. I say this as one who calls myself a Charismatic. I’m not afraid to speak out against errors within a movement I support. I think this is needed so that the more genuine Charismatism will shine through and bless Christianity. However, I really cannot stand when critics speak in harsh ways, as though Charismatics are their enemies rather than brothers that need gentle correction in certain areas. We should really be gentler in our interactions and criticisms. Melinda Fish writes :
Beloved, can we refrain from using words like false prophet, deception… and demonic in reference to those with whom we disagree? Can we speak gently and humbly to our brothers and sisters, so that we may turn them around rather than provoke them to anger? Can we entertain the possibility that we, too, might be wrong in certain aspects? Can we, as mature Christians, be easily entreated, sympathetic, kind to all and patient when wronged?
4) From a Reformed Presbyterian Church to nowhere
At the time of this camp in June, I was still attending the Reformed Presbyterian Church. However, I left it after 10 months in November. This was partly due to the fact that I was more open to charismatism than this Church was. Most, if not all, of the members were cessationists. And although when I first joined this Church in the beginning of the year I was more inclined towards cessationism because of the widespread abuses in charismatic Churches, I gradually became more open to the charismatism. I was not convinced that cessationism was biblical and believed that God was and is working among Charismatics. I didn’t want to miss out on anything God had for the Church. I longed for a Church that was strong in both Word and Spirit, drawing from the strengths of both the conservative Evangelical and Charismatic worlds and after I left the Reformed Presbyterian Church, I tried various Churches, though never really settling down in any.
5) The start of Reformed-Charismatic Email Discussion List
Early in February this year, I started to join various Christian email discussion lists. I started by joining lists that discussed general Evangelical theology. Most of the people on these lists were Reformed in theology and I soon joined some Reformed theological discussion lists. Slowly, I found and joined some charismatic discussion lists too. All the lists proved very interesting and I’ve learnt a lot from them. One day I read through the introduction of a Presbyterian Pastor – Pastor Bob Vincent. What caught my attention was that Pastor Bob was also charismatic. My pilgrimage from a Pentecostal Church to a Reformed Church and then to nowhere has left in me a desire to see the best of both the Reformed and Charismatic worlds brought together. I knew how hard it was to find a Christian who loved Reformed Theology, and at the same time also a Charismatic in belief and practice. Most Reformed Christians I knew were either ex-Charismatics or anti-Charismatic and almost all were Cessationists. But here was a Presbyterian Pastor who was both Reformed and Charismatic. I contacted him privately through email and soon I asked him if he would be willing to help me set up a Reformed-Charismatic email discussion list. He agreed and on 30th of September 1997, the Reformed-Charismatic Email Discussion List was formed. Since the list started, I’ve been able to fellowship with Christians from all over the world (USA, Canada, UK, Scotland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore) with the same vision of seeing the Reformed and Charismatic worlds brought together. Members include Calvinistic Pentecostals, Charismatic Presbyterians, Vineyardites, PDI members and Charismatic Reconstructionists. Some are laymen, some are pastors and some have specific ministries for the purpose of bringing the best of both worlds together. I have really enjoyed the discussions and debates on the list as they have proved edifying to many others and me. And as I journey through this narrow road bringing together both traditions, I have been pleasantly surprised to receive emails from Christians around the world who have told me that they are excited to find a forum and other resources dedicated to bringing together Reformed and Charismatic things. This is because it’s so rare to find Churches and Christians who appreciate both traditions that many would argue are contradictory to one another (How many times have I heard – “You can’t be Reformed and Charismatic at the same time!” or “Isn’t a Reformed-Charismatic an oxymoron?”) But I believe more and more people are starting to realize the wisdom of drawing from both the Reformed/Evangelical world and the Charismatic/Pentecostal world. (Update: I’ve since left the moderating job to Bob Vincent as my focus has shifted to other areas, although I still lurk on the list. You can check out the Reformed-Charismatic Discussion Group page at Bob’s website or go directly to the its Yahoogroups page to subscribe to the list).