The Problem with Charismatic Churches

Earlier today, I did some gardening. I love gardening because it lends a certain clarity to my thoughts. As I pulled weeds and rearranged a flower bed, I meditated on the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, in which Jesus illustrates the different ways the gospel is received among hearers:

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away” (verses 3-5).

He goes on to talk about the seed that fell among thorns and the seed that fell on good soil. Afterwards, he explains the parable to his disciples:

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (verses 19-21).

I believe that part about rocky soil describes many charismatic churches today.

I was raised in the charismatic faith. It’s a denomination that celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (see Acts 2) and emphasizes operating in the gifts of the Spirit. Worship is often characterized by enthusiastic singing, dancing, and the raising of hands.  All of that certainly makes church exciting.

However, I’ve watched far too many people get burned out in these churches and completely forfeit their faith as a result. The modern charismatic church is riddled with problems that, I believe, make them more susceptible to heresies and deception than other denominations. I say this not as a bitter critic, but as one who is honestly concerned. It’s time these problems were addressed–and for good reason!

Problem 1: Misunderstanding and Abuse of Biblical Authority

From my experience, charismatic churches seem to prefer strong personalities in the pulpit. They want their pastors and evangelists to be loud and proud about their faith. They usually want someone with a strong, uncompromising vision to lead their congregations. After all, isn’t that what everyone wants in a leader? Someone with conviction?

Yes. And on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, too much emphasis on authority often leads to authoritarianism. Pastors too easily slip into a mentality of “it’s my way or the highway.” Teachers discourage believers from asking even innocent questions about doctrines that the church has declared set in stone. People are told that questioning the pastor’s motives or teachings shows disregard for God’s authority (taking Psalm 105:15 out of context), since He is the one who placed the pastor over the congregation. Skepticism in any form is viewed as an outright threat to faith and a sin. Those who can’t fall in line with this kind of “authority” either feel pressured to leave or are kicked out. With no one available or willing to challenge vague or questionable teachings, heresies easily slip in and mislead believers.

This view of authority is not Biblical in any way. According to scripture, believers have both the right and the obligation to examine any doctrine that is placed over them and to confront teachers when they are clearly in error. The Bible says,

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22)

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. […] Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith. (Titus 1:10-11, 13)

The writer of Acts, in fact, favorably mentions believers who took time to check the Apostle Paul’s teachings against the Word of God (Acts 17:10-12).

The best commentary I’ve ever read on Godly authority can be found here. I won’t try to rephrase the whole argument because I wouldn’t do it justice, but this is it in essence:

“When Jesus taught about authority, He said one thing clearly: It’s not about exercising authority. The great one is a servant. The greatest one is a slave” (Eric Pazdziora). In short, godly leadership is marked by humility and servanthood, not authoritarianism and titles.

Problem 2: Associating Spirituality with Spiritual Enthusiasm and Manifestations

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these statements in charismatic churches: “If you don’t speak in tongues, you don’t have the Holy Spirit” (‘initial evidence’ doctrine derived from Acts). “If you don’t raise your hands or jump around during worship, you aren’t passionate about Christ” (misinterpreting Revelation 3:16-17). “If you prayed for something and didn’t receive it, it’s because you didn’t have enough faith” (a stretch of John 14:13-14 and Matthew 18:19).

I won’t go into detail in this post about why these statements are wrong. Each of these is worthy of a separate post, which I will provide in the future. However, they do illustrate just how much emphasis charismatic believers place on enthusiasm and manifestations of the Spirit. Asked to be filled with the Spirit but didn’t speak in tongues? Perhaps you just didn’t want it bad enough. Grandma didn’t get healed when you prayed? Perhaps you didn’t believe she could be healed.

Many charismatic believers are always seeking outward signs to confirm one’s faith. If the signs don’t manifest, they question the strength of one’s relationship to God. The amount of judgment and scrutiny felt by less expressive believers can be emotionally crippling. Some go as far as to fake prophesying or speaking in tongues just to fit in at a charismatic church. And I can tell you from experience that a person can dance around an altar with a heart full of sin.

What those of the sign-seeking crowd forget is that the fruit of the Spirit defines the true believer, not the gifts. True, the Bible does say that “these signs shall follow them that believe” (Mark 16:17-18), but such signs can also be performed by false prophets to lead people astray (Matthew 24:24). Even the Antichrist and his prophet will perform miracles to deceive believers (Revelation 13:11-14)! If charismatics are always seeking signs to confirm one’s spirituality, how will they recognize the ultimate deception when it arrives?

Problem 3: Associating Wealth and Health with God’s Favor

Many charismatics point to stories in the Bible that “prove” God blesses the spiritually pure with supernatural health, wealth and protection. Abraham. Solomon. Joseph. Daniel. Job. An obscure little fellow in 1 Chronicles named Jabez. These were mighty believers who said and did the right things and were rewarded in turn with lots of money, property, and goats. Therefore, you can always tell who is rocking the prayer time by how much comfort and blessing they have.

By this standard, even Jesus wouldn’t be considered very spiritual by some charismatics. The disciples weren’t rich, either. In fact, only a handful of the Bible’s believers were ever mentioned as having significant wealth and ease. Does that mean everyone else was less faithful to the gospel? I think not.

In the Old Testament, those who rebelled against God were sometimes struck with debilitating diseases or personal tragedies. This has led many Christians to believe that any time a person experiences sickness or hardship, he or she is being punished for some kind of sin. In making this assumption, they completely ignore scripture–ironically, the same scripture that talks about Job.

Job experienced the ultimate hardship just to test his faith. His livestock was raided. His servants were murdered. All 10 of his children, whom he loved, perished in a windstorm. Soon after, his entire body broke out in boils. He was left penniless, sick and sitting in ashes. And the Bible says,

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing (Job 1:22).

Sometimes, bad things happen to faithful people. And according to Job 1:12, those bad things come not from God, but from Satan. What’s really astonishing is that Job’s friends–like a bunch of proper fundamentalists–show up in Job’s misery to ask him what he might have done to anger God, which earns them a tongue-lashing from the Almighty himself (Job 42:7-8). Do we learn nothing from scripture?

This “health and wealth” doctrine is riddled with folly, which will be fully outlined in a future post, I promise! However, the biggest problem is that it causes many believers to hesitate to help those in need–even when that person is a brother or sister in Christ–because they assume the needy are in error and are receiving their just desserts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in churches that will collect an offering for a traveling minister or a deacon’s child enrolling in ministry school, but not for a member who has lost her job and can’t pay the mortgage. The jobless believer only gets a prayer for God to miraculously provide the funds. Hello! Why do we need a miracle when the provision is already on hand?!

The second-biggest problem with this doctrine is just what the parable of the sower describes: As soon as believers meet with hardship, their faith withers. If you thought you were doing all the right things to get a blessing but got only sickness and poverty instead, wouldn’t you feel cheated? Of course! The church needs to tell the whole truth of what it is to follow Christ, not mislead believers with empty promises of life on Easy Street.

Problem 4: Over-Emphasizing the Appearance of Good

Christians love to look good. And they have ample motivation to do so. The Christian’s life is the ultimate example to the unbeliever. If Jesus is the answer to a destructive, empty lifestyle, why would a believer want or need to engage in the world’s activities–like wearing nose rings or watching rated R films? They wouldn’t, of course. They would want to stand apart as much as possible. So the theory goes, anyway.

Much of my time in church as a child was learning all about how I could avoid the appearance of evil. Don’t stand near the gossip magazines at the grocery store. Don’t wear shorts above knee length. Don’t cut your hair too short (or people might think you’re a lesbian). No piercings or tattoos. Some makeup and jewelry is ok, but not too much. No drinking or smoking. No secular music. No swimming with the opposite sex. Only courting or group dates. Exude the joy of the Lord. Say “amen” and “hallelujah” a lot and offer to pray with people in public. And absolutely no swearing. The list of rules and expectations was staggering.

When I was about 9 years old, I walked into church with a sour look on my face. A visiting minister asked me what was wrong. I said, “I’m in a bad mood.” His response? “Christians don’t have moods. They are always joyful and content.” I looked at him as if he had just sprouted an extra head. I thought, “Well, someone should go inform my mother, because she’s been in three different ones just today.”

There are scriptures that speak of avoiding evil. And that might include passing on gossip magazines or staying away from nightclubs. But what Jesus defined as worldly didn’t involve Internet chat rooms, trips to the beach, or electric guitars. He was primarily concerned with the condition of men’s hearts. And Jesus himself hardly worried about his own appearance in the eyes of others. After all, he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes!

Again, the problem here involves focusing too much on the wrong thing. Some of the cleanest, sweetest-smelling, most arbitrary rule-abiding believers can be up to their eyeballs in secret sins. Avoiding the movie theater doesn’t make one person more holy or faithful than another. In fact, the Bible says,

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. […] Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence [emphasis added]. (Colossians 2:16-17,20-23).

I can honestly say that in all my years in charismatic churches, I have NOT ONCE heard this verse in Colossians taught from the pulpit. I think that’s very telling.

I came across a striking revelation in a Facebook post recently: Satan doesn’t give believers a blatant choice between good and evil. He gives them a choice between good and the appearance of good. How true!

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had appearing good down to a science. They fasted and prayed and otherwise adhered to every letter of the Judaic Law. However, Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs,which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). The Pharisees weren’t exactly hanging around the local brothel or carousing in bars. So what made them sinful? Feeding their pride. Withholding justice and mercy from others. Burdening believers with extra rules. Living large on the tithes and offerings brought into the temple. Sound familiar?

Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). I’m still looking for the command that says I can’t enjoy a nice cigar every now and then.

In Summation… 

All these problems can be summed up in one phrase: A lack of discipleship. Charismatic churches are often so focused on seeking signs, looking godly, adhering to authority figures and following rules that they forget to instill in themselves and in new believers the basic truths of what Jesus taught. Believers must be grounded in scripture if their faith is to survive in these last days. Seeing manifestations of the Spirit is wonderful. But I think we can afford a little time away from the altar to honestly explore the scriptures. That is the “good ground” Jesus speaks of in Matthew 13.

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2 responses to “The Problem with Charismatic Churches

  1. Yes, yes, and yes…to all of it. There are a few Pentecostal/Charismatic teachers that are giving me hope, though. One in particular is Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church in Charlotte.

    Another passage that I have never heard preached on is actually out of Acts. It’s Acts 2:42-47. I’ve heard snippets taught from that verse, but not in context. It’s too (wait for it) revolutionary to our material-driven churches, I think.