Three Reflections on the Strange Fire Conference (Timothy Raymond)
So a funny thing happened to me last week. I was going about my normal pastoral duties when suddenly I was laid low by the flu. I’ll spare you the humiliating details, but the benefit of it was that I was able to sit in an easy-chair and watch several messages from the recent Strange Fire conference held at Grace Community Church. From all that I saw, it was an outstanding conference which, ironically, seems to have been really blessed by God’s Spirit. Regardless of your take on the cessation of the Apostolic Gifts, I’d encourage you to listen to as many of the sessions as possible (they don’t call Conrad Mbewe the “Spurgeon of Africa” for nothing!), or better yet, read the accompanying book, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship.
In reflecting back upon Strange Fire, I thought I’d chronicle a few reflections, for whatever they may be worth. Though I am a convinced and happy cessationist, I’ll try to enumerate points here which both my cessationist and continuist brethren should heartily agree:
First, all evangelical Christians should unite in decrying the excesses and abuses found within the larger Charismatic movement, especially in impoverished contexts. One of the more helpful things this conference did for me was to enable me to see how Americans perceive the Charismatic movement somewhat differently from much of the rest of the world, due in no small part to our economic prosperity. We look at someone like Benny Hinn as more of a silly carnival huckster than a true theological threat because Americans, in general, are already healthy, wealthy, and comfortable. But imagine you’re a poverty-line goat farmer living in a concrete-block shed in Africa whose wife and daughter are dying from AIDS. And then imagine you somehow come across some teaching from Mr. Hinn which promises you divine healing and financial blessing if you’ll simply send in your monthly gift to his ministry, which happens to be nearly everything you make from a month of goat farming. Under those circumstances, Mr. Hinn isn’t a silly carnival huckster; he’s a viper as dangerous as any Tetzel of old. This is how evangelical Christians of all persuasions must begin to think and speak of the abuses of the larger Charismatic movement, which apparently characterize a sizable majority of the worldwide movement.
Second, the cessation/continuation of the Apostolic Gifts is not Adiaphora. For quite some time now it’s been fashionable to view disagreement over the continuation (or lack thereof) of the Apostolic Gifts as a matter indifferent, in the category sometimes called “Adiaphora,” things about which gospel-believing Christians can agree to disagree with little significant consequence. Disagreement in this area is sometimes likened to disagreement over the identities of Gog and Magog. I’m convinced that that approach is neither wise nor biblical nor helpful. If apostolic gifts still exist, they should be fully employed in the life of the church today; if they’ve ceased, they should not be practiced. Your stance on this issue impacts questions of guidance, the nature of the Holy Spirit’s ministry, what you do and don’t do in corporate worship, the role of the mind in communion with God, the interpretation of large chunks of the New Testament, as well as dozens of other important ministry-related matters. I’m of the persuasion that pastors and churches simply cannot remain undecided on this matter. Instead of being in the same category as disagreeing over the identities of Gog and Magog, the debate over the cessation/continuation of the apostolic gifts is far more similar to the egalitarian/complementarian debate. The Strange Fire conference was a helpful reminder of this.
Third, the exegetical/theological case for the cessation of the apostolic gifts does exist, is substantial, and ought to be thoughtfully considered. The reason I write this point is because I’ve often heard that the case for cessationism essentially doesn’t exist and that cessationists are simply “afraid of the Holy Spirit.” “Cessationists have blind faith in tradition”; “Anybody reading the book of Acts would never become a cessationist”; “There’s more biblical evidence for unicorns than there is for the cessation of the Apostolic gifts”; or perhaps worst of all, “Cessationists simply want a God they can control, a God they can put in a box.” Statements such as these are untrue and unfair. Even if you believe in the full-range of apostolic gifts, you must acknowledge that there is a substantial exegetical and theological case for the cessation of the gifts, a case which many find persuasive. If you’re looking for an example of this, see Tom Pennington’s message from the conference (session 6), which, in my opinion, was the best brief defense of cessationism I’ve ever heard. At the end of the day, you may not find the case persuasive, but let us respectfully disagree with each other and engage in theological analysis and exegesis, not name-calling.
Again, these are simply three reflections I had on the Strange Fire conference. Did you watch any of the sessions? If so, what were your thoughts and reactions? Leave them in the comments below and let’s have a respectful Christian discussion.
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.