Tough questions for charismatics and other evangelicals.

Growing up in west texas in a Southern Baptist church, I cut my spiritual teeth on strong evangelical preaching. I was told that I “must be born again,” and I was as a seven-year-old boy. I was taught (and still believe) that the Bible is authoritative, God-breathed, and true in all its parts, from Genesis to Revelation. I was challenged to be a witness for Christ every day. My hero of faith was (and is) Billy Graham.

During my late teenage years I became actively involved in charismatic renewal. I began to perceive in a new way, both in the Scriptures and through firsthand experience, just how “supernatural” Christianity really is. I discovered the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, mighty miracles, the gifts of the Spirit, the joy of praise, the necessity of prayer, and a new boldness and effectiveness in personal evangelism. I added a new name to my list of heroes of faith—Oral Roberts. I attended and graduated from his school.

Then for seven-and-one-half years I attended a Southern Baptist seminary, earning the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees. It was during those years of intensive training and spiritual growth that I found myself changing in surprising ways. I was painfully aware of the tensions between the two movements (evangelical and charismatic) that had nourished my Christian walk. The more I studied, the more convinced I became that the evangelicals’ biblical critique of the charismatics’ view of Spirit baptism and emphasis on tongues speaking was valid. At the same time, I knew that there was much authenticity to charismatic renewal. I came to regard myself as an “evangelical in theology” and a “charismatic in experience”—an impossible hybrid that caused friends in each group to look askance at me.

Although dialogue and fellowship has increased, awkward differences persist. I am more convinced than ever that each group has something to offer the other. Each group also has some hard questions for the other.

The evangelical’s questions to the charismatic might run as follows: Are you sure you have a solid biblical and theological basis for the baptism in the Holy Spirit (as subsequent to conversion)? Isn’t it more accurate to assert, as Paul does, that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:30)? Doesn’t your categorization of Christians (“Spirit-baptized” and “non-Spirit-baptized”) reflect an unscriptural “haves and have nots” mentality—in many cases an attitude of superiority? Isn’t your message too often a shallow triumphalism that totally lacks a theology of suffering and finds its richest soil in affluent America? Why are you slightly embarrassed, if not totally scandalized, by the testimony of a Joni Eareckson? Don’t you play a little fast and loose with the Scriptures? Are there really as many miracles occurring as you claim?

On the other hand, the charismatic’s challenge to the evangelical might sound something like this: Why are you so nervous about religious experience? Are you really as open to “all the gifts” as you claim? What is the source of your almost irrational fear of tongues speaking? Aren’t you rather condescending toward the charismatic at times? Why is it that the tongues speakers really do see more authentic miracles? Why is it that the tongues speakers have had the greater faith to seize the mass media for Christ? (It was they who built the national Christian networks.) Why is it easier to get charismatics to attend praise or prayer gatherings? Why is the Assemblies of God denomination the fastest-growing church in the U.S.? Why do the Pentecostals lead the way in world missions? Could it be that they truly have tapped into the power to which Jesus referred in Acts 1:8?

Finally, some questions that personally intrigue me: Will there come a day when an out-and-out evangelical—who doesn’t pray in tongues (maybe isn’t even that interested) and believes he was baptized in the Spirit at conversion—can serve as an administrator at a leading charismatic school? Will there come a day when a pastor who is known to be a tongues speaker will be invited to serve a “noncharismatic” evangelical church? When will we charismatics ever get “balanced”? When will we evangelicals ever get “liberated”? Will there ever come a day when our labels will no longer be that useful? How closely must we cling to our “denominational (or nondenominational) distinctives”?

And the one very painful and personal question that still plagues me: Just where does a believer who is an “evangelical in theology” and a “charismatic in experience” fit in the body of Christ? Perhaps only he knows …

Larry Hart is assistant professor of theology and chaplain of the university at Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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