Controversy is nothing new for the Vineyard. For the past ten years or more, the rapidly growing movement and its “signs and wonders” teaching has been the focus of questions and condemnations. But persistent attacks on the church network—including several recently published critiques—have prompted Vineyard leader John Wimber to break a self-imposed silence and begin responding to the critics.

Wimber, pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California, has consistently refused to answer what he described as “unjust criticism of my teaching and the Vineyard.” In a 1988 issue of Equipping the Saints, published by the Vineyard, Wimber explained his position by citing scriptural teaching (such as Matt. 18:15–17), his Quaker background, and a prophetic word that in 1977 directed him to “turn the other cheek.”

But in a coming issue of Equipping the Saints, Wimber writes, “I recently changed my thinking about this important matter.” “I now sense the Lord saying that defending and clarifying my message in a loving and respectful way against unjust criticism is critical for the well being of people who are confused by the attacks.… The frequency and intensity of the attacks have greatly increased in recent years, which has added to people’s confusion and increased the need for responding.”

One of the recent volleys aimed at the Vineyard came in a ten-part series of articles in the Baptist General Conference (BGC) publication The Standard. The movement also gets unfavorable treatment in sociologist Ron Enroth’s soon-to-be-released book Churches That Abuse (Zondervan). Bible scholars D. A. Carson and James Boice examine Vineyard theology in two chapters of Moody Press’s Power Religion, scheduled for a June release.

By far, the harshest attack comes from California pastor and author John MacArthur, who devotes a chapter in his book Charismatic Chaos (Zondervan) to the Vineyard. He charges that the movement is essentially unbiblical and that it is “rolling like a destructive tsunami, leaving chaos and confusion in its wake.”

Modern-Day Miracles?

At the heart of the dispute is the extent to which the church today should expect miraculous answers to prayer, particularly in connection with the proclamation of the gospel. The Vineyard emphasizes the capacity of miracles to aid in the task of spreading the gospel. Critics, however, fault the belief for a variety of reasons.

Kansas City ‘Prophet’ Disciplined

Vineyard leaders took strong steps recently to discipline well-known “prophet” Bob Jones (CT, Jan. 14, 1991, p. 18), after Jones admitted to “sexual misconduct (not adultery)” with two women. Jones (no relation to the founding family of Bob Jones University in South Carolina) also confessed to using his ministry position to manipulate the women and in divisive and slanderous activities in the church.

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A detailed, six-page time line of Jones’s fall and subsequent disciplining process was sent to church leaders and Christian media worldwide in early December 1991. “We, the national Vineyard leadership, believe that the rebuke of a leader discovered sinning should be published at a level commensurate with his visibility and ministry,” explained John Wimber in an accompanying letter.

As part of the disciplinary process, Jones is not allowed to come to church meetings for at least six months, to do any form of ministry, or to have contact with any member of the church not formally appointed to meet and visit with him and his wife. Ten families in the church were appointed to visit the Joneses regularly and help facilitate their restoration. Vineyard leadership also is supporting the Joneses through regular counseling, visits by the Kansas City Metro Vineyard leadership, and monetary contributions.

Metro pastor David Ravenhill told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that the restoration process may take two years or more. He said Jones probably will no longer affiliate with the Metro Vineyard. Leaders also detailed plans for counseling and caring for the two women involved.

“I believe in praying for the sick, and I believe that God heals today,” says pastor John Armstrong, author of The Standard’s articles. “What I question is whether these healings belong in the category of the signs and wonders of Jesus.”

Wimber does not deny an often different understanding of the Holy Spirit from that of his critics. But he affirms the inerrancy of Scripture and its foundational role in the Vineyard. What has prompted him to action, he says, is the misrepresentation and inaccuracy contained in much of the criticism. He has re-examined the Scriptures and is now convinced that “there are occasions that warrant—even require—a public response.”

Wimber told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that his only planned response thus far is to publish and distribute booklets that clarify Vineyard teaching and practice. Rather than broadcast his rebuttals widely, he will concentrate on specific issues and individual critics. He has not read The Standard articles or Charismatic Chaos. In fact, one of his primary complaints is that he is seldom approached by his critics to discuss their concerns. But other Vineyard leaders have been in direct contact with the authors, he said, and hope to open further discussion.

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The Standard’s articles prompted Vineyard member Kevin Springer to file a complaint against the magazine with the Evangelical Press Association (EPA). Wayne Grudem, a theology professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, prepared a lengthy response to the critical series. He alleges it contained “outright misrepresentations of facts,” and that The Standard refused to print even a one-page response, in violation of the EPA code of ethics.

“Unguarded Statements”

Vineyard leaders acknowledge that the movement has at times deserved criticism. Jack Deere, a former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and now a Vineyard minister, says “unguarded statements” in Wimber’s book Power Evangelism “strongly implied” that conversions to Christ associated with signs and wonders are superior. But he said Wimber will distance himself from that view in a revised edition of the book.

Springer, who is editor of Equipping the Saints and coauthor with Wimber of Power Evangelism and Power Healing, acknowledges that there have been problems in some Vineyard churches surrounding abuses of “words of knowledge.” He attributes them to the movement’s youth, adding that he believes leaders have dealt appropriately with cases of authority gone awry.

Critic Armstrong does acknowledge that the Vineyard has a better track record than other similar groups in dealing with abuses of authority. But he says he has grown weary of the Vineyard citing its youth to justify poor theology and questionable practices. And he complains that Vineyard leaders, including Deere, continue to make public statements that are difficult to reconcile with traditional expressions of Christian belief as set forth in the Vineyard’s own statement of faith.

Whether the war of printed words will influence relations between the Vineyard and its critics remains to be seen. But those who have listened closely to the exchanges would very likely agree that bridging the gulf between the two will probably take a miracle.

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