The Charisma of the Age: An Orthodox critique of the Charismatic Movement

The modern world is not just secular. It is also the result of a great religious formation. Although I have argued elsewhere that even the secular world is “religious” in a broad sense, and I hold to it, at current I am using “secular” and “religious” in their classical juxtaposition. One of the most prominent influences on the American religious mind, and subsequently the “West,” will be examined in this piece and subsequent ones. This movement brought about a radical paradigm shift; starting in the Protestant world, it has influenced even the monolith of Rome. Even much of what may be called the “secular mindset” is but the result of this religious movement. 

It is undeniable, whether one is an Atheist, a Theist, a Protestant, a Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, that the mentalities of what is generally called the Evangelical Pentecostal-Charismatic movement have had a substantial effect on the modern area of the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus, to understand, at least in basic, the overwhelming novel influence which this movement has had on Christian – used in a very generic manner – thought and praxis is vital to understanding one of the prominent contours of the modern world and where it is today.

I am a former Evangelical Charismatic. I was raised in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, where my dad was a minister for a time. As a young boy, I remember running around the offices of the Anaheim Vineyard. I remember goofing around with John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard). I grew up in a “prophetic, charismatic” environment. Lonnie Frisbee, Bob Jones, Paul Cain, etc. (all purported “prophets”). Some of them I knew fairly well because of my dad’s position as a minister (keep in mind this was the time of my childhood and adolescence).1 If these names mean nothing to you, don’t worry about it. Suffice for you, the reader, to know that back in the day these were big names in their circles. My generation was constantly told that we would change the world for Jesus. It all seemed pretty exciting at the time. I spent three years in the mission field, in Kharkov, Ukraine (where I met my wife). From there I went to Brownsville Revival School of Ministry (BRSM), located at an Assemblies of God church in Brownsville, Florida. I was part of the “pioneer class.” The school was centered around what was called “The Brownsville Revival.” Manifestations? Check. Speaking in tongues? Check. “Slain in the Spirit?” Check. “Prophetic” words? Check. Dreams? Check. Visions? Check. Anyway, you get the point. My faith was a very Pentecostal and Charismatic one (for now, I am using those words in a general way, I will define them in a more specified manner through the course of this article). Shortly after I graduated from BRSM, and while in the midst of pursuing Protestant Ministry, the discovery of the Orthodox Church delightfully sidetracked me. But that is another story.

I went from an environment that valued “spontaneity in the Spirit” to liturgical worship and tradition. It seemed like two different worlds. I had a lot to process. My focus at present is to offer some of the examinations and conclusions that I have worked through and arrived at, in the hope that some may gain benefit from them (I have been Orthodox for over 16 years now).

Charismatic

I will focus primarily on history, method, and underlying meaning. I will strive to avoid polemics, but in such an endeavor it will be difficult to evade entirely. Let me state from the start: my goal is to address systems. I leave all persons to the judgment of God. Nonetheless, we are called to test, discern, and pass judgment, as St. John says, Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are of God (1 Jn. 4:1). Moreover, there are concrete Christian standards by which to make such judgments, and they are not subjective. Thus, it is vital to understand, identify, and evaluate the origins and roots of the modern Charismatic movement.

Towards an understanding of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement

The Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has penetrated almost every sector of modern Christendom. From Baptists to Roman Catholics. Only in the Orthodox Church has it not found a firm place to grow, although it has tried to find a foothold. Christianity Today states, “A 2011 Pew Forum study showed that almost 305,000,000 people worldwide … (are) part of the charismatic movement.”2 The mindset that the movement embraces has influenced much of the modern Protestant mind. In the following, I will briefly overview the historical roots of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement (referred to as P/C movement from here on for the sake of brevity). Ah, history. For many a modern it is not too horribly important, we do love to exist in our ahistorical virtual world. Nonetheless, we arrived where we are today by very distinct paths. To begin to understand the modern “Pentecostal” experience, we must examine its roots and paths.

Before we delve into history we must understand a particular principle that drives much of modern Protestantism, most of all those sectors formed by the P/C movement. Of late this mind has been called “Emerging Church” (it also has other names such as – Restorationism, Kingdom Theology, Third Wave, etc.; although there may exist surface differences, the underlying essence and foundation of these philosophies are the same). I have before me notes from my BRSM days (yes, I am one of those people that save school notes), which present a basic sketch of the general Emerging Church philosophy.

It goes as follows: between the year 311AD and 1300AD is simply the word “Darkness” (from 33AD to 311AD the church was said to be operating in its original “power”). That is, the Church went into a time of captivity and darkness. 1300AD is labeled “Refreshing Starts,” during this period such figures as John Huss, John Wycliffe, and others are considered the pioneers of refreshment. 1500AD – “Grace,” clearly this refers to what is known as the Protestant Reformation. 1700AD – “Personal holiness and conversion.” 1800AD – “Prayer and Evangelism.” 1900AD – “Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” 1950AD – “Charismatic.” Late 1900’s – “Combine them all!” The note below the diagram reads, “God is building, adding and adding, God is restoring His Church!” And with a note of surprised delight its comments, “In the 1950s and after charismatic gifts began to flow even in traditional churches.”

As one may already perceive, the clear conclusion is that the Church (using that word very loosely) was lost to darkness, but eventually, God stepped in and overthrew the “traditions of men” to reestablish His work. The clear implication is that most of the Church’s work between roughly 300-1500AD was not of God. I remember it being explained through the analogy of a puzzle: the pieces were lost and scattered but they are slowly being put back together, and the result will be the restoration of the full picture – a great move of God in “signs and wonders.” The notes read, “We can expect a last surge to parallel (or even surpass) the first.” That is, there will be an “outpouring” which may even surpass that of Acts.

There is not a substantial value for tradition (or actual history) in this mindset. Tradition, such a paradigm commonly holds, was the death of the early Church. It became the human supplement to the original power and freedom in the “Spirit” which was originally at work in the early Church but subsequently lost. This mindset ignores the many positive references to tradition in the Scripture (for example, 2 Thess 2:15) and rather elevates subjective experiences to the level of dogma. This helps in part to explain why there exist thousands of varying protestant groups.

Emerging Church” philosophy is a type of “Christian” Spiritual Evolution. It is, I would venture, influenced more by the Western European philosophy of Progress, which was developed during the “Enlightenment,” than by anything in the Scripture. Almost everything old is bad or out of date, the new is what we need! It is a christianized (if even possible) ubermensch. People, the church, are progressing toward the spiritual “superman.” Currently, I will not wander into the Scriptures that Emerging Church adherents use to substantiate their claims. I may address this later on. The focus at hand is historical formation.

The P/C movement did not take place in a vacuum. It certainly could be traced back to the “Revival Holiness” movements of the 1800’s in American, and further. It manifested DNA that has been in Protestantism since its inception in the 1500s. I will not follow that stream at present but will focus on the visible birth of the P/C  movement at the turn of the 20th century. Two key figures will be surveyed: Charles Parham, who is called “the father of Pentecost,” and William Seymour, who is considered “the catalyst of Pentecost.” Clearly, numerous other individuals were involved in the movement, but for the sake of expediency I have narrowed it down to two of the most prominent.

Parham

Charles Parham

Mr. Parham began his ministry in the healing “revivals” of the late 1800s. As with many of his time, he professed to have a deep hunger for God, and a profound desire to see the power of God. Like other figures of that period, he became disillusioned with “denominationalism.” (It is an interesting side-note that similar sentiments were expressed by both Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is not to directly equate these three men, Mr. Parham clearly never outright denied the Divinity of Christ as did the latter two. But the reader should note that there existed a spirit of discontentment with “denominationalism” in the 1800s, and many figures arose claiming to restore “true” Christianity. All three of these men professed to be seeking a new and special coming of Christ and His Kingdom; each one claimed to have a unique revelation.) Mr. Parham states, ” … Feeling the narrowness of sectarian churchism, I was often in conflict with the higher authorities, which eventually resulted in open rupture; and I left denominationalism forever, though suffering bitter persecution at the hands of the church … Oh, the narrowness of many who call themselves the Lord’s own!” (Liardon, Robert. God’s Generals, Albury Publishing, 1996. p. 115.) Through subsequent experiences, he became convinced that “there still remained a great outpouring of power for the Christians who are to close this age” (Ibid, p. 117).

Parham eventually opens his own Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, and later another in Houston, Texas. At one point he gave his students an assignment to diligently study the Scriptures (with a focus on the book of Acts) for evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. After three days, the account goes, all the students (forty in all) came to the same conclusion: the common manifestation of baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. Fixated on this manifestation, they resolved to pray until they received the gift of tongues. A student by the name of Agnes Ozman is reportedly the first to receive the gift. Accounts say that she spoke in Chinese. In the very early records of the P/C movement tongues are stated as being in some known earthly language. Mr. Parham says that he received the gift of the Swedish tongue. I will not address here the gift of tongues and the Orthodox understanding of it, but it should be taken into account that the very early P/C movement did not claim to be speaking in unintelligible babble, but, as we will see, it soon turned into that very thing. Another striking point is that this “outpouring” takes place right at the start of the 20th century, which will be a century of unparalleled change and world upheaval. ( St. John of Kronstadt’s prophecy helps an Orthodox Christian understand many of the events of the 20th and 21st century, found here – https://www.imdleo.gr/diaf/files/english/St_John_Kron/st_john_vision.html )

Parham then began to preach “the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of tongues.” His teaching is the foundation for the Pentecostal doctrine of tongues as the initial sign of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Such a doctrine was unheard of in Christianity before this time. Although isolated instances of “speaking in tongues” were recorded within Protestantism before Mr. Parham’s movement, his movement is responsible for its growth and even explosion in the Protestant world and beyound.

Many phenomenal stories and accounts surround the life of Mr. Parham. He sincerely saw himself as restoring the apostolic faith, “Now that they [apostolic faith tents] are generally accepted, I simply take my place among the brethren …” (Ibid. 128). Like many other Protestant leaders before him, he was sure that God had chosen and entrusted him with a unique task. He was willing to write off his opponents as narrow-minded and opposed to the will of God (as he proclaimed it). Ironically, in his professed desire to escape the confines of “denominationalism,” he created a new denominator: Pentecostalism. Thereby perpetuating the very fracturing that he allegedly wished to heal. Mr. Parham claimed that his authority was derived from the Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit. Like most Protestants, he subscribed to “Sola Scriptura” (the teaching that the Bible alone is necessary for establishing Christian Faith). But, as most of Protestant history shows, there was significant disagreement on what the Bible supposedly simply and clearly proclaimed. It was not so clear and simple after all. Pentecostalism would have an ever-evolving body of various teachings, many times contradicting each other. Accusations of sexual immorality plagued the end of Mr. Parham’s ministry.

Seymour

William J. Seymour

Mr. Seymour was an African American Baptist minister turned holiness preacher who also professed dissatisfaction with the Christianity of his day and sought a deeper experience. He had wandered through a few denominations before he stumbled upon Mr. Parham’s meetings in Houston, Texas. He attended Parham’s school in Houston. Due to the segregation of the times, Mr. Seymour was not able to sit in the classroom; instead, he listened to the lectures from the hallway. One writer states, “Though Seymour did not embrace every doctrine that Parham taught, he did embrace the truth of Parham’s doctrine concerning Pentecost. He soon developed his own theology from it” ( my emphasis. Ibid. p. 143).

In 1906, Seymour made his way to Los Angeles, California, where he took a pastorate job. He immediately began to preach his newly found doctrine of speaking in tongues. As with the group in Topeka, Seymour and company spent hours seeking the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” At some point, a Mr. Lee began speaking in tongues, followed by others. People ran around purportedly prophesying and preaching; others claimed miraculous healings.

The group eventually found a building at 312 Azusa Street, and thus to this day it is frequently referred to as the “Azusa Street Revival.” The meetings are described as “unique:” the seating was arranged so that the participants faced one another. The music was impromptu, no hymn books were used, the meetings had no program, leaving everything to the “direction of the Spirit.” When the group thought that someone was not speaking from the “Spirit,” they would begin to wail and sob. In a publication called The Apostolic Faith, “Seymour announced his intention to restore ‘the faith once delivered’ …” (Ibid. p. 154). As with Parham, the implication is obvious: the Apostolic Faith had been lost, and these men were chosen to restore it. At Azusa Street the alleged manifestations of the “Spirit” quickly began to take on unnatural symptoms: tongues became unintelligible babble, called a “prayer language;” participants also howled, writhed, shook, wailed, were seized by fits and spasms, and so forth. Asuza Street is the fount of most manifestations that are common today in the P/C movement, and almost every Pentecostal denomination, whether directly or indirectly, can trace their founding to the participants of Azusa (Ibid. p. 163).

Very quickly the move of the “Spirit” that was to unite all true believers began to fragment into rival factions. At some point, Mr. Parham traveled to the Azusa Mission, and there he relates in horror what he found, “I hurried to Los Angeles, and to my utter surprise and astonishment I found conditions even worse than I anticipated … manifestations of the flesh, spiritualistic controls, saw people practicing hypnotism at the altar over candidates seeking baptism, though many were receiving the real baptism … I found hypnotic influences, familiar-spirit influences, spiritualistic influences, mesomeric influences, and all kinds of spells, spasms, falling into trances, etc.” (Ibid. 157,158). He also reproached it as “spiritual power prostituted.” At least Mr. Parham had the sense to understand, “The Holy Spirit does nothing that is unnatural or unseemingly, and any strained exertion of body, mind or voice is not the work of the Holy Spirit, but of some familiar spirit, or other influence. The Holy Spirit never leads us beyond the point of self-control or the control of others, while familiar spirits of fanaticism lead us both beyond self-control and the power to help others” (Ibid. p. 158). The “father of speaking in tongues” himself denounced the work at Azusa.

One would think this to be a crushing blow to Seymour and followers, but it was not. Seymour merely banned Parham from the meetings stating, “Mr. Parham … is not the leader of this movement of Azusa Mission. We thought of having him to be our leader and so stated in our paper (The Apostolic Faith), before waiting on the Lord. We can be rather hasty, especially when we are very young in the power of the Holy Spirit …” Apparently, Seymour implies that he has now surpassed Parham in an understanding of the “Power of the Spirit.” The Azusa Mission disregarded Parham’s criticisms and claimed to have outgrown his immature thoughts. As with ensuing groups, they saw themselves as much more enlightened and filled with the “Holy Spirit,” and thus were under no obligation to obey “men.” Such a claim, of course, only becomes a convenient cover for pride and arrogance, which are always present in such “moves of the Holy Spirit.” Any said leader is more in tune with the “Spirit” than those before. In Orthodoxy, this is called prelest.

Most of the more stable and classic Evangelical ministers of the time denounced the movement: “G. Campbell Morgan, a highly respected evangelical preacher, called the Pentecostal movement ‘the last vomit of Satan,’ while R. A. Torrey claimed that it was ’emphatically not of God, and [was] founded by a Sodomite.’ In his book, Holiness, the False and the True, Harry Ironside in 1912 denounced the movement as ‘disgusting . . . delusions and insanities’ and accused their meetings as causing ‘a heavy toll of lunacy and infidelity.’”3

These fiercely denounced subjective experiences are the central bedrock of “theology” for the P/C movement.

The “Pentecostal” experience began in a way that would be somewhat acceptable to a sector of Protestants, but once it gained traction, it quick revealed its true nature: one that was unveiled at Azusa. Unaccountability, bizarre manifestations, and such things, all found a happy home under the excuse of “the Spirit is leading me.” Such “freedom” is irresistible.

The Azusa Mission quickly fell into distension. Seymour’s various “disciples” rose up to claim a deeper “experience of the Spirit,” much as Seymour had done with Parham. Seymour ended his days with a shell of a movement after consecutive splits and fractures only about twenty people remained with him at the original Azusa Mission.

Charismatic movement

The Charismatic movement approximately marks the point when “Pentecostal” philosophy and style began to surface in “Mainline” denominations. It is vital to understand that the Charismatic movement in all its variety is a direct descendant of the Pentecostal movement. Before the Charismatic movement “Pentecostals” were considered “fringe groups” by many Protestant denominations.

Most sources consider Mr. Dennis Bennett as the vanguard of the charismatic movement. He was an Episcopal minister in Van Nuys, CA. In 1960 he claimed to have experienced the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Due to the conflict that this created in his congregation, he resigned and took another Episcopal church in Seattle, WA., named St. Luke’s. This community became a center point in the early charismatic movement. “In a sense, Pentecostalism was entering the mainline (the Episcopal Church, no less) and this was news. This began the mainstreaming of continualist practices (like speaking in tongues, praying for healing, etc.) that were primarily found in Pentecostal churches that, up until now, were often on the fringe of Protestantism.”4  Facilitated by this movement, Pentecostalism quickly spread through “Mainline” Protestantism, and it did not stop there. It even made its way into the Roman Catholic Church (where there are estimated to be around 115 million Charismatics). “Though much of the belief and practice of the Charismatic Movement came directly from the Pentecostals who had been around for nearly sixty years, the mainline churches who embraced such belief avoided the ‘Pentecostal’ label for both cultural and theological reasons.”5

This new ‘Charismatic’ movement quickly spread to other mainline denominations and, by the mid-’60s … The movement’s visibility and networks were further strengthened by the success of the Pentecostal-leaning “Jesus People” movement among American youth in the late ’60s and ’70s. In the 1980s, a vigorous, independent network of Charismatic churches and organizations (at times described as the “Third Wave”) emerged, including churches such as the Vineyard Christian Fellowship.”6

Thus, the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements are indeed one cohesive movement. These novel and fringe movements have, through various means, become one of the most influential mindsets as the thought and philosophy of what is generally called “Evangelical Charismatic” has come to be one of the most dominant features of modern Protestantism.

As we move forward, an important question to ask is: did the ancient and early Church deal with any phenomenon similar to the P/C movement? The answer is yes. I will investigate that movement in a subsequent post.

1My Father, Mother, and my two siblings have since converted to Holy Orthodoxy. My Father is currently a priest.

5Ibid.

3 thoughts on “The Charisma of the Age: An Orthodox critique of the Charismatic Movement

  1. Pingback: A New Charisma in the Early Church – The Inkless Pen

  2. Pingback: Is Christ Faithless? Examining Protestant Ecclesiology – The Inkless Pen

  3. Pingback: A Last Days Great Revival …? – The Inkless Pen

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