During my discussion of last week’s “Strange Fire” conference, I mentioned that elements of MacArthur’s critique do have some merit. Most notable in this respect are linked strands of Pentecostalism known as the “Word of Faith” movement and the “prosperity gospel.” The former is often focused on the power of positive confession–speaking forth a reality in faith that God will then bring about (health, blessing, etc.), while the latter asserts that financial blessing is God’s purpose and plan for Christians.
Both theologies promise a lot to those who are in need, and for this reason their teachings have grown in popularity around the world. The problem, of course, is that they put far too much focus on guarantees of blessing and not nearly enough on the inscrutable will of God. The place and purpose of suffering in the Christian life is largely ignored by the fiercest proponents of these teachings, in the process making a significant portion of our faith about what God can do for us in the here and now. Even though Jesus tells us that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45) they choose to focus their attention elsewhere.
Like many Pentecostals, I have serious questions about the legitimacy of these teachings and the dangers inherent in them. Far too often they can set people up for serious disappointment or focus their attention so much of the things of this world that they can be manipulated by unscrupulous ministers looking for more than a little prosperity of their own. At their worst, such teachings can lead to the worship of blessing instead of God.
And yet: both “Word of Faith” and the “prosperity gospel” are distinctly Pentecostal aberrations. They have their roots in the core teachings of the movement, and the line between their danger and Pentecostal reality can be a very thin one. Consider: Pentecostals have always affirmed the power of God to heal in miraculous ways. Not wanting to limit God and deeply aware of God’s ability to do anything, this deeply spiritual worldview means that healing may always be “right around the corner.” Tying the promise of healing to the prophecy of Isaiah that “by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5), Christ’s Atonement is thus seen as sufficient for sin and, in some sense, the results of sin–sickness included. Because God’s provision for God’s people is thus possible in areas that extend beyond just the spiritual, prayers for financial provision are (rightly) not absent from the traditional Pentecostal experience.
There are differences, of course, between these baseline indicators and what happens in prosperity or positive confession teachings, but the seeds are still there. You can see this quite readily in some of standard phrases Pentecostals/Charismatics might use in a church service (many without thinking about what they really mean): “prayer changes things,” or “The Lord blesses those who give” to name just two. This is simply a part of the landscape.
From these ideas it is only a short jump to potentially damaging expressions of Pentecostalism often rightly critiqued. Though many Pentecostals are sure to distinguish orthodox biblical teaching and practice from what they see as the “extreme,” their theological worldview does move in this direction. One scholar has called this excess an over-realized eschatology, or a perspective that understands the ultimate (heavenly) blessings of God as meant to be experienced now. Almost by definition all Pentecostals have a realized eschatology of some sort and do rightly rejoice in the ways that God is active and working in our lives today. This is core tenet of the movement and one of the reasons it has grown so dramatically over the past century. People, especially the poor and oppressed, need God in their present existence. Pentecostalism offers this. But: how to distinguish between the honest power of God in the here and now and a dangerous lapse into overt and/or manipulative focus on worldly gains or guarantees can be tricky work.
I mentioned last week that I believe in the fire of the Spirit at work in Pentecost. I also mentioned that this life-giving fire, like all fire, can also burn. That’s quite true here. Making sure that fire finds itself in the right places and does not escape to burn down the house of our faith is the task to which all those around the world who call themselves Pentecostals are therefore enlisted. Because of this tension at the center of the movement, it is a conversation we will continue to have as long as we draw breath.