Surprise: The African Church Is Not Very Charismatic
John MacArthur still doesn't like the charismatic movement.
The past decade or two have seen a rapprochement of sorts between American Christians who emphasize charismatic gifts—like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and the working of miracles—and those who believe those gifts ended in the early church. Especially in the Reformed and Calvinist world, groups like The Gospel Coalition have openly attempted to bridge the two groups (as well as to draw in softer "continuationists"—those who believe the charismatic gifts continue today, but don't identify with the charismatic movement). Meanwhile, as Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God have become more mainstream, they have debated how strongly to emphasize speaking in tongues and Holy Spirit baptism.
MacArthur, an influential author, pastor, and seminary president, has never wavered from his teaching that the charismatic movement is wrong. But he hasn't emphasized his critique as much as he did when publishing The Charismatics (1978) and its 1993 followup, Charismatic Chaos. Today he is reigniting his criticisms with the launch of a book and a three-day conference, both called Strange Fire.
MacArthur said his "concern about the charismatic movement" has escalated in recent years as more mainstream evangelicals have joined the charismatic ranks.
Speakers including Joni Eareckson Tada and R. C. Sproul will join MacArthur to discuss the "true, biblical ministry of the Holy Spirit"—and to refute what MacArthur calls blasphemy.
Delivering the keynote address tonight is Conrad Mbewe, a Zambian pastor who is becoming increasingly prominent in American Reformed circles. He delivered a plenary address at the 2011 Gospel Coalition conference, joining Albert Mohler, Tim Keller, and Matt Chandler. And he was hailed by the group as "the African Spurgeon."
He's also emerging as one of the leading voices criticizing the dramatic rise of Pentecostal and charismatic churches in Africa.
"We need to sound the warning that this is not Christianity," he wrote in a post for MacArthur's Grace to You blog.
While Mbewe may seem rare as a prominent African Christian critic of Pentecostalism, he represents a challenge to the widespread Western assumption that African Christianity is uniformly characterized by Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
In fact, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians are a statistical minority on the continent.
A visible third
It's true that charismatic churches in Africa have been growing at a rapid rate, but they're not the only ones doing so. For example, the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), the largest Protestant denomination in Nigeria, with over 6,000 churches and 2.5 million adult members, is decidedly not charismatic.
Other non-charismatic churches are also growing in Africa and will stay the majority for some time, say researchers. In the Atlas of Global Christianity, Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross estimate that only 33 percent of African Christians are "renewalists" (their term for charismatic, Pentecostal, or otherwise "Spirit-empowered" churches). They divide African renewalists into three groups:
- Denominational Pentecostals (including Assemblies of God): 19% of all African renewalists
- Mainline denominational charismatics (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, and so on): 27% of all African renewalists