Disillusioned with Pentecostalism

I was saved in 1969 when a colleague where I was employed told me about Jesus.  In my new life as a Christian, I was totally new to the Christian world, having lived only as an unbeliever in an unbelieving world up to this time.  It was only a matter of a few weeks in this new, Christian way of life, before I encountered my first Pentecostal Christian.  His name was Peter, a young man my own age, and I met him at our Anglican church after the worship service.  I remember greeting him with the usual “How are you?”; to which he replied “Praising the Lord, brother, praising the Lord!”  He was also sporting a black eye, and he told me that he had been in the pub the night before, witnessing to the drinkers.  One of them had punched him in the face; hence, his shiner.  But he was rejoicing because he had been punched for Jesus; and as he told me this, he had an angelic look on his face which, to me, was rather comical, despite the fact that he was serious.  I also admired him for his courage in facing a pub full of drunken Aussie beer swillers.

At that time (the 1970’s), the churches were still the same as they had always been, but there was a growing swell of agitation from many quarters to modernise the Church.  The Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church began a revision of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Charismatic Renewal was also under way; there was even a Healing Service held every week in the Anglican cathedral which was headed by its canon, a Charismatic Christian.  And the mainstream denominations were riddled with liberals and Freemasons.

The difference between Charismatic and Pentecostal, I was later told, was that while they were both distinguished by having experienced the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, the Pentecostals were those people who had separated from the mainstream denominations, with a large part of their focus on healing; whereas, the Charismatics’ agenda was to remain in their churches and denominations so that they could bring about change from within.  However, that difference doesn’t seem to exist anymore as the Charismatics’ strategy has been so successful that nearly the whole of evangelicalism has been influenced both in theology and worship; so the two terms are now probably used interchangeably. 

I don’t think anybody outside the Charismatic movement at that time would have dreamt how influential it would become.  But the timing was perfect because people were getting restless due to the tired old worship services, the sameness and repetitiveness of the liturgy, the same old hymns, and the general “deadness” of church worship, preaching, and church life generally, as many saw the situation.  “Charismania” quickly permeated the whole church.  As the hippy drug culture spread amongst the youth, the “Jesus Movement”, itself a Charismatic movement, also spread, countering the drug culture, becoming a sub-culture itself, and bringing huge numbers of young people into salvation and the churches.  But it wasn’t limited to youth, for many adults were seeking and receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit, their lives being radically changed as they experienced once again the joy of salvation and freedom in worship; or, in other instances unconverted members of liberal and Freemason controlled churches were brought under the sound of the gospel and were born again by the Holy Spirit.

The numbers of Charismatics within mainstream churches grew rapidly, and they started gathering together as groups of Christians having in common the experience of the baptism of the Spirit, worshipping together on Sunday afternoons in rented buildings.  These meetings offered excitement, joy, and passion, in a setting where they could exercise their new-found ability to speak in tongues, sing in the Spirit, dance in worship, and express other manifestations of the Spirit.  There also appeared a large body of new songs to sing in worship, using the words of the King James Bible set to catchy tunes entitled “Scripture in Song”; and Christians from traditional churches were moving en masse to these Charismatic groups to be baptized in the Spirit and share in the joy and freedom of worship.  Even the mainstream churches started using their songs.  This was the scene in Sydney where I lived, but the same thing seemed to be happening throughout Western Christianity.  Not only had the Charismatics produced “Scripture in Song”, they also produced the “Logos International Study Bible” emphasising the Holy Spirit, published by a Pentecostal publisher called Logos, to give biblical credence to their practices; it was the first of its kind, as far as I knew.   

The movement seemed harmless to most people at the time, but many of the Sunday afternoon worship groups formed independent churches, and the mainstream churches started losing members to them.  Over the next decade or two, some of them joined traditional Pentecostal denominations, such as Assemblies of God and Foursquare Gospel Church, while others formed their own denominations or remained as independent churches.  Many of these independent church groups which attach themselves to the larger Pentecostal denominations or groups change their allegiance and attachment frequently; and even in the country town where I live, it’s hard to keep up with them.  The local telephone directory, although updated each year, is often out of date when it comes to the frequent changes of these small Charismatic churches which constantly change their name and allegiance.  Other Charismatic churches, mushroom-like, seem to appear overnight, and within a few months they’ve disappeared.

But not many saw that the movement was a kind of Trojan horse in whose belly were hidden Satan’s forces, ready to destroy the Church and the Gospel once the Horse had been brought safely behind the protective walls of the Church.  It was the planting of the weeds among the wheat, deceiving unsuspecting Christians (Matt 13:24-30).

Suspicious Practices

When something new happens within Christianity, particularly if it’s a new movement, it can be difficult to discern if it’s right or not; and if it doesn’t seem to be contrary to Scripture, we can only test it by its fruit.  And some of the fruit of the Charismatic movement was decidedly dodgy.

A “second” blessing

For example, an event billed as a “Holy Spirit seminar” at a large Anglican church in Sydney was attended by hundreds of keen young Christians eager to get more of God and, like me, were also there to meet their possible future spouse.  As it turns out I did my meet my future wife there.  During the seminar she’d been speaking to a young man who told her he was learning to speak in tongues.  She got into discussion with him and asked if he knew Jesus as his own personal Lord and Saviour.  He admitted he didn’t, saying, “Well, no, I haven’t got to that stage yet”

At about the same time an acquaintance of mine whom I knew wasn’t a Christian, was walking past a city church one evening, and it was noisy.  Curious, he asked a young man who was standing at the door what was happening.  The young man told him it was a church meeting and asked him if he wanted to speak in tongues.  My friend told him that he didn’t believe in God.  The young man said: “That doesn’t matter.  Would you like to speak in tongues?”  My friend said “Sure.  Why not?  I’ll give anything a go”.  So the young man laid hands on my friend’s head, who then started speaking in strange syllables, which the young man told him was “tongues”.  My friend laughingly told me about it but his life was never changed and he had no interest in becoming a Christian.

The question that naturally comes to mind for both these examples is, if the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a second blessing given to God’s people for spiritual power, how can it be received before the infinitely more important and vital first blessing of salvation which brings forgiveness of sin, peace with God and holiness of life?  Isn’t this a tell-tale sign that receiving the “second blessing” before the first indicates that it is counterfeit, an experience with “gifts” that are not of the Holy Spirit but an unclean spirit?  Paul writes of the coming antichrist: “whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thess 2:9-10). 

Counterfeit signs

While I’m not claiming that this passage refers to the situation outlined above, I quote it here to demonstrate that Satan can counterfeit the miracles and signs of the Holy Spirit (see also Exod ch 7 and 8, where Pharaoh’s magicians were able to duplicate the miracles of the staff being turned to a snake, the river being turned to blood, and the plague of frogs.  Also, 1 Kings 22:17-23 and 2 Thess 2:8-12 reveal that there are lying spirits sent to deceive), and therefore we should be careful in the way we regard the miraculous and the extraordinary in the churches.  We cannot simply accept that everything spiritual or miraculous is of God, because it isn’t. 

Fake healing

The only healings I heard about in those days were so-called “leg lengthening”.  It’s strange how, when many people went forward for prayer at Charismatic healing meetings, the people who got healed unknowingly had one leg shorter than the other.  There must have an epidemic of people with one short leg back then.  Why didn’t God heal other more serious illnesses and afflictions instead of lengthening legs of people who didn’t even know they had a short leg until the “healer” told them so?

Even in those heady early days there were some flaky things going on within Pentecostalism and the little Charismatic groups.  A bright young man from my suburban Anglican church was a medical student; he and his parents used to attend one of the Charismatic groups on Sunday afternoons.  About half-way through his studies, “God” told him to stop his studies and do some kind of ministry (I forget what it was).  This failed and, providentially, he was able to get back into medicine again.  I heard that on another occasion when he was with some Charismatic friends, his watch had stopped, so they all laid hands on it and prayed for it.

Another example was when my fiancée and I were at a small local church one Friday evening at some kind of youth programme.  A young teenage woman who was afflicted with epilepsy had recently been to a Charismatic healing meeting where she had hands laid on her to be healed.  She glowingly testified at our meeting that she had been prayed for, so she had decided to stop her medication and trust God for her healing.  While I’m not against a person praying for healing and trusting that God will do so, it does need to be done under medical supervision.  Youthful idealism, while it does have a positive place in life and in Christianity, is not faith; and I hope that this bright young woman received some wiser counsel from her parents and doctor when they discovered what she was thinking.

At our regular church, the majority were Charismatic Christians; in fact, the senior minister had recently been baptised in the Spirit and was promoting it in this large Anglican city church, the same one which had hosted the “Holy Spirit Seminar”.  There was a faithful, godly, older man in the congregation who had cerebral palsy; he went forward for healing at every opportunity but all to no avail.  The Charismatics there told him he wasn’t getting healed because he didn’t have enough faith.  However it wasn’t his lack of faith in Jesus that was the problem – he had plenty of faith – it was the lack of the Spirit of God in their healing ministry.  This poor, dear man was so discouraged by the consistent denial of his prayers for healing and the persistent accusations of his lack of faith that he just stopped coming to church.  I don’t know what happened to him after that.  But I’m surprised he wasn’t told he had a short leg so that they could heal that for him.

Hillsong

I’ve been to Hillsong Church a few times and I’ve always been disillusioned.  A lot of the songs are great and Brian Houston’s sermons are OK and he’s given some encouraging teaching in them, so I thought it would be good to visit and get a blessing.  I used to watch his TV show on Sundays after I broke from the Presbyterian church/cult I’d been “imprisoned” in for many years and I found Brian and other Pentecostal televangelists’ messages a breath of fresh air.  It was a big thing for me to do this because I had to go against years of brainwashing which had boxed me into a tiny church world and church culture.  I also had to travel halfway across Sydney to get there and I’m not familiar enough with the roads and suburbs to navigate there, especially at night.  But I made it.  When I arrived the first time by myself (I’d already been there a year or two before with the guys from a Baptist church in Newcastle – more of this later) I drove into the carpark which is so big that it needs traffic directors.  I parked down near the bottom end and started on my way to the building.  I was overawed by the size of the place and as I got near the building there were streams of people all heading towards it from every direction.  I asked a teenage girl who was with a bunch of other teens where the entrance is.  I noticed that the majority of people were young.

When inside I found a seat and there were some people in front of me chatting; in fact, there were small groups of people all around me, likewise chatting.  Soon Darlene Zchech and the band were on the stage.  Darlene seemed disconnected from the audience, which seemed vast (I wouldn’t call it a congregation); it was as if she would rather have been somewhere else and now she was just going through the motions…..and nobody seemed to be listening or singing except a bunch at the back of the building; it was weird.  To make it worse and to my surprise and annoyance, the people around me continued their conversations – I couldn’t believe it.  And they did this through the whole meeting.

The preacher was also hopeless – the talk (I won’t dignify it by calling it a sermon) was like an in-house subject that only he and Brian Houston and their “circle of mates” in the hierarchy understood; he was directing everything to Brian Houston; and for me, instead of getting the word of God, it felt like I was a distinct outsider.  I’ve only ever felt like that at Hillsong – never anywhere else.  And this happened on each of the three occasions I was at Hillsong.

On the first occasion I was at Hillsong, I was with a bunch of guys from a Baptist church in Newcastle, about 3 hours north of Sydney.  It was my first visit to Hillsong and I was looking forward to it….I was still recovering from my years in the cult and at that time, Pentecostalism held out so much promise for me.  We were going to Hillsong for their Men’s Convention.  We’d been as a group to the men’s conventions held at Christian City Church (now C3) in Sydney and I was very impressed with them; the talks and workshops were good and the care taken of the men was wonderful – we were well fed and every care was taken for our comfort and well-being while so that we could focus on the teaching and not be distracted.  So I had high hopes for our time at Hillsong….but I was greatly disappointed – with everything.

From the opening song, which appeared to me no different to a rock concert, with smoke swirling out onto the stage, the lead singer shabbily dressed in torn denim (yes, I know this is the culture of young churches, and no, I’m not a wowser or killjoy – but I do have standards for the worship of God, and this did not meet those standards).  I couldn’t understand the words of the song and if I didn’t already know I was in Hillsong church, I wouldn’t have known this was meant to be Christian.  God didn’t seem to be there – it seemed all of the flesh.  I don’t mind modern songs, and the bible tells us to make a joyful noise to the Lord; but I couldn’t make such joyful noise here – it was just a self-indulgent concert for the musos to strut their stuff.

The teaching was done by various leaders from Hillsong, one of them being from the Ukraine, but most of them seemed to be cosying up to Brian Houston (it is definitely his church); and it felt like the speakers were talking over the heads of the audience to the Hillsong hierarchy.  It really felt like the convention was being held for the benefit of the assembled Hillsong leaders on the stage and the whole, vast audience was simply listening in; it was like they were each patting the others on the back, making private jokes, and so on.

And at lunch-time the men were told they could go across the road to the shopping mall to get some food.  However, the mall was very small, it was late on Saturday afternoon, and therefore the few shops which sold food were getting ready to shut for the day.  And the poor customers in the mall looked startled as hundreds of hungry, noisy men converged on the mall and filled it up.  It was an absolute shambles and Hillsong had made not the slightest provision for these men, many of whom, like us, had travelled a long time to get here….they just went hungry. 

Spiritual Gifts in Pentecostal Churches

The “baptism of the Spirit” received by Pentecostals does not resemble that in the New Testament, which was given for power in witnessing.  There is no mention in the NT of what Pentecostals refer to as “slaying in the Spirit” when they pray for Holy Spirit baptism.  The “tongues” spoken by Pentecostals are gibberish, whereas the NT gift of tongues was known languages (Acts 1:4-11).  Pentecostal prophecies are often just generalities which can be applied to any person at any time.  For example, a pastor from one church gave the same prophecy I’ve heard in many churches; that the person they prophecy over is going to be a great man/woman of God, and they’re going to do great things for the kingdom.  Pentecostal “words of wisdom” and “words of knowledge” also seem to be standard fare in their churches, that Jesus is swimming in the river and he wants the recipient of these “words” to jump in the river and play.  And neither do Pentecostal miracles of healing resemble what happened in the NT.  While people were healed when Peter’s shadow passed over them as he walked by (Acts 5:15), or when they had been given handkerchiefs touched by Paul (Acts 19:12), the norm for healing was stated by James: “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (Jas 5:14-15).

One of the lecturers who taught me NT Greek had, on occasions, visited Pentecostal churches here and there to test them to see if they could interpret “tongues”.  He would say Psalm 23 in Hebrew or the Lord’s Prayer in NT Greek, and the “interpretation” would be irrelevant and meaningless gibberish, having nothing that even remotely resembled the Hebrew or Greek he had spoken.

But I don’t think these spiritual gifts are as frequent or matter of course as we’re sometimes led to believe.  If you’ve ever watched Marilyn Hickey’s TV show you’ll be told that for a donation of so much you’ll receive a vial of oil that has been blessed by some of the well-known Pentecostal leaders, and with it you’ll be able to perform miracles.  Of course, if you try it out and there is no miracle (and I’d be surprised if there was), it’s not the oil that’s at fault, it’s your lack of faith.

And if you take Joyce Meyer seriously you’ll be having conversations with God on a face to (invisible) face at any time of day.  She’s always saying “I said to God…..God said to me……”, and she seems to have great old conversations with him (but who is she really talking to?).  God doesn’t usually talk to us directly; he used to, but ever since the fall of Man into sin, he speaks to us through a mediator, who is none other than Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5).  However, I’m not limiting God.  He is sovereign and he can and does deal directly with his people when he sovereignly chooses to and when they need him to. 

I’ve come across too many people who have been given wrong expectations of God through the teaching of Pentecostal Christians, and when he doesn’t do what they expect him to do they get angry, stop going to church, and fall away from him in disillusionment.  But God remains serenely above all our pettiness.  We can’t manipulate God; we can’t box him into a corner where he has to answer according to our will; we can’t “step out in faith” and box ourselves into a corner so that he has to show himself in the way we want him to and rescue us from our folly or save us from embarrassment.  Too often we think of God as our fairy godmother who will grant us three wishes; or as a genie who must fulfil our every command and wish.  But God is not like that.  He is God.  He is the potter, we are the clay. He is sovereign over all creation: “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Rev 19:6).  When he answers our prayers, it is because of his grace and kindness; he answers according to his will; and he answers for our good.  How often have we asked for something that, whether we knew it at the time or not, would have ultimately been bad for us?

“God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.  Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you” (Jas 4:6-8).

www.sovereignjesus.net