Is The Church Today Charismatic?


Donald Macleod



One of the saddest features of Christian history has been the way that the great epithets applied to the church have been debased to the point where they have become terms of opprobrium. To many people the word orthodox suggests at once something dead, formal and sterile. To many others, the word catholic serves only to ignite the fires of bigotry. More recently, the word charismatic has suffered a similar fate. Because one group of believers has claimed it as exclusively their own, others have renounced it altogether and even come to equate 'going charismatic with' going to the Devil.

But this debasing of our ecclesiastical currency is surely misguided. Every authentic church must be orthodox, catholic and charismatic. Orthodoxy is no more than profession of the truth. Catholicity means that we belong to the one church; Christ has only one. And to be charismatic means simply that we depend for our survival on the graces of the Holy Spirit.

In the present climate, this last is peculiarly important. It would be utterly tragic to react to Pentecostal excesses by losing sight of the fact that the church is charismatic in its very nature. It cannot exist without being charismatic. The word must be used, of course, in its biblical sense. It does not mean the possession of a magnetic charm or a dominating personality or outstanding natural gifts. Nor does it mean speaking in tongues, engaging in disco-type worship and emphasizing spontaneity at the expense of order. To say that the church is charismatic is to say that it possesses spiritual gifts and that it depends on these gifts for its effectiveness. How can a church possibly renounce all claims to such a status? It is made up of spiritual people. It constitutes a spiritual temple. Its members do not comprise the wise, the mighty and the noble but the unlearned, the weak and the ordinary. They can serve one another – and the wider community – only in the power of the Spirit, conferring on them a great variety of spiritual gifts. Some of these – the revelatory gifts – have ceased. But the vast majority of them remain: wisdom, knowledge, teaching, counseling, government, leadership, serving, comforting, exhorting, liberality, administration. These are as vital to the church today as to the believers of the first century.


Charismatic ministry

The charismatic nature of the church is most immediately obvious in connection with its office-bearers. Every ecclesiastical functionary is first and foremost a spiritually gifted man. This is perfectly clear even with regard to the Old Testament church. The prophets, the kings, the judges, the priests – all were charismatic figures. The position in the New Testament is the same. Apostleship was a grace, a charis (Rom. 1:5). The other offices are similarly conceived. They were not related to natural ability or to professional training but to the endowments of the Spirit. The teacher had to be 'apt to teach'. The pastor had to have the gift of government. Even those who served tables had to be full of the Spirit.

Sadly the church did not long retain this vision and alternative views of the Christian ministry soon prevailed. The most widespread of these was the sacerdotal, which saw the minister primarily as a priest with quasi magical powers. The responsibilities of such a man centered on the sacraments. In the Communion service he transformed the bread and wine into the whole body, soul and divinity of the Son of God, offered them to God as a propitiatory sacrifice and distributed them to the faithful as their spiritual nourishment. In the service of baptism he administered a rite which automatically and invariably regenerated the recipient. Such a man was not a charismatic. He was a Christian witch-doctor.

Presbyterianism, for the most part, escaped this particular distortion. Instead it faced the danger of an unbiblical professionalism. The view tended to prevail that any respectable man of ordinary intelligence could be turned into a minister by proper university training. Furthermore, a man could survive in the ministry by paying proper attention to the ordinary elements of professionalism: careful attention to consumer expectations, diligence in his homework and punctuality in his appointments. The traditional models of such professionalism were the teacher and the doctor. More recently, especially in America, ministers have seen themselves as managerial executives. The vestry has become a boardroom and the church has been run according to the best business methods. The trappings may be different, but the principle is the same as often prevailed in Scotland – the "lad-oí-pairts" graduating via a schoolmastership to the pastorate of a respectable congregation.

Both of these concepts – the sacerdotal and the professional – involved a betrayal of the New Testament vision. In the apostolic church, the ministry was not remotely sacerdotal. Indeed, the paucity of references to the sacraments is quite astonishing and their relative unimportance is given formal expression in 1 Cor. 1:17, 'Christ sent me not to baptise, but to preach the gospel'. Nor was the apostolic ministry remotely professional. Apart from Paul, the outstanding figures of the New Testament had little formal education. They were charismatics.

This implied several different factors.

First, the prerequisite for office was the possession of spiritual gifts. This is self-evident with regard to the revelatory offices. No amount of education, experience or common sense could turn a man into an apostle or a prophet. The same was true, however, in other areas. It was not formal training that made a teacher. Training was not unimportant (2 Tim. 2: 2). But it was more fundamental that a man be 'apt to teach' (didaktikos). This implied two other gifts: the gift of knowledge and the gift of communication. These were not matters of mere book-learning (although this was not to be despised: Paul had his parchments). They were – and are – a matter of spiritual insight. The charismatic teacher so sees the truth that he loves it. Furthermore, he sees it in its practical bearings and in its pastoral relevance. His gift is not mere knowledge of the truth but skill in applying it to the needs of the people of God so that they are comforted, admonished and inspired.

The communication skills of the Christian preacher are equally charismatic. They are not identical with those of the professional journalist, politician or advertiser. In fact, in 1 Cor. 2: 4, Paul disowns these. Spiritual communication is marked not by its dazzling professionalism but by caring, honesty and boldness.

The same principle can be extended into other areas of Christian ministry. In the church, leadership is not a matter of natural gifts. It is a matter of spiritual wisdom, vision and courage. Those who possess it may be men of great natural diffidence and timidity. But their weakness is counterbalanced by the fact that they wait on the Lord. In the same way, New Testament pastors faced with the pressures of counseling could claim little knowledge of psychology and psychiatry. Nor had they any clinical training. But they had charismata. They had the wisdom that came from above. They had the leading of the Spirit. They had a God-given ability to learn the lessons of experience and to apply biblical principles of conduct. To all such men, knowledge of the basic principles of psychiatry might be a very welcome bonus. But no degree of academic competence can ever compensate for the absence of the pastoral gift itself.

Second, within the framework of a charismatic concept of ministry the possibility of success and effectiveness lies only in the Holy Spirit. This is one of the most humbling things in the whole range of the church's experience. Neither natural ability nor academic training nor personal diligence can guarantee effectiveness. The Gospel must come in word (1 Thess. 1:5). But if it comes in word only, it is useless. It must come in the demonstration and power of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2: 4) and be preached with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven (1 Pet. 1: 2). The message must be from the Spirit. The words must be from the Spirit ('words which the Holy Spirit teachest'). The impact must be from the Spirit ('whose heart the Lord opened'). Without this concurrent action of the Spirit we are helpless, even when preaching to Christians. And, to our chagrin, we can never guarantee, manage or command His concurrence. Even in revival situations, every single instance of blessing is a sovereign gift resulting from the loving discretion of God. This is why all programmes for church growth – the ecclesiastical equivalent of 'management by objectives' – are virtually blasphemous. Such a practice is tantamount to dictating to God the precise number of miracles of grace we expect Him to perform. So far as real and abiding blessing is concerned, we remain totally dependent on the ebb and flow of divine power.

Third, the obligations and the pit-falls of Christian ministry are those relating to a charismatic situation. We need, like Peter at Pentecost, to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We need to stir up (or fan into flame) the gift of God which is in us. We must avoid grieving or quenching the Spirit. We must even live in holy dread of what is always the ultimate possibility – that God will withdraw His Spirit from Saul and His strength from Samson. Sadly, the fact of such a divine withdrawal may often be obscured from the church and from the individual himself. But whether conscious of it or not he will be left with only the empty shell of office. All the glory, all the power and all the usefulness have departed. He is a cumberer of the ground.


Charismatic worship

The charismatic nature of the church is also apparent in Christian worship. This is already indicated in the Lord's statement to the woman of Samaria in John 4: 24, 'God is a Spirit and they that worship him must worship in spirit and in truth'. Both orthodoxy and liturgical propriety are highly desirable. But they are not enough. Worship must be in the Spirit. It is possible only for a spiritual man, and only in so far as at the very moment of our approach we are filled with the Spirit of God.

Unfortunately, however, we tend to seek this charismatic quality in the wrong direction. Worship is not charismatic simply because it includes guitars, choruses, clapping and dancing. Nor is it charismatic because it is spontaneous, exuberant and enjoyable. We cannot afford to base our worship on the pleasure-principle. That would only be to exchange one form of hedonism for another. Charismatic worship should be marked by biblical control. The Spirit will not prompt and stimulate us in a way that contradicts what He has revealed in Scripture. Equally, charismatic worship will be marked by self-control. The spirits of the prophets will be subject to the prophets. Biblical worship is not an ecstatic experience in which men lose all awareness of themselves, the world and God. It retains its sense of the holiness of God (Is. 6: 3) as One august, transcendent and intimidating. Our confidence in approaching Him derives not from the presumption of over-familiarity but from His own invitation. We come with devoutness and humility because we come self-critically. The lips with which we worship are unclean; and so are the lips of those who worship with us (Is. 6: 5).

The charismatic quality of Christian worship is most evident in connection with preaching, which as we have seen, can never be a merely formal, professional or academic exercise. It is very doubtful whether preaching thus conceived can be fully rehearsed. Indeed, the practice of reading sermons looks suspiciously like an attempt to take the dependence out of preaching and reduce it to something manageable. In authentic preaching there is always an element of anxiety (ungst) – a fear and trembling arising from the dread that the Spirit will not keep us and that we shall be left floundering in our own ineptitude. Charismatic preaching depends on a man's being full of the Spirit. The boldness is the Spirit's. The wisdom is the Spirit's. Above all, the power is the Spirit's. He gives the message cogency, pricking the conscience, causing men to tremble, overriding their prejudices, winning the consent of their intellects and opening their hearts to Christ. In the absence of these factors, our oratory and passion, our logic and profundity, have no more hope of success than a farmer sowing seed on the motorway.

The charismatic quality of worship is also evident in prayer. We must pray in the Spirit (Eph. 6: 18ff.). He must teach us what to pray for (Rom. 8: 26), because we are poor judges of our own needs and even poorer judges of what God has made available to us. He it is also who instructs us how to pray – with groanings – and perseverance, but also with boldness and adventurousness. Nor should we overlook the further fact that where prayer is charismatic – where it is from the Spirit – it will comprehend the whole church. It is not concerned only with its own needs or those of its own immediate circles. Every Lord's Day, charismatic worship will pray for 'all saints' – all those throughout the world who profess the true faith.

The charismatic character of worship is equally clear in connection with our praise. The songs we sing are to be spiritual (Eph. 5:19). So is the way we sing them. This is not a question merely of enthusiasm. Spiritual singing cannot be equated simplistically with hearty singing. We must sing with the understanding. We cannot sing the de profundis of Ps. 130 with the same verve as we sing such great anthems as Ps. 100 and Ps. 24. There are songs of joy and songs of grief, songs for muted accents and songs for thunderous acclamation. In charismatic worship, the volume and the tempo will be as varied as the truths we sing and the moods we express. But the volume and tempo relate only to externals. The real glory of charismatic worship lies deeper. We make melody from our hearts – a melody which results from the Spirit's filling us (Eph. 5:18) and a melody which is quite independent of our circumstances. The charismatic worshipper gives thanks always and in all things (Eph. 5: 20).


Every believer a charismatic

Finally, the everyday life of every believer is charismatic. He has been baptised and filled with the Spirit. Following on from this, every believer has charismata with which he is expected to serve the body of Christ. All do not have the same gifts, either as to number or as to eminence. God distributes to each according to His sovereign will. But none can regard himself as useless or redundant. Each member has a meaningful role within the body of Christ. Without his contribution, the body is impoverished – it depends on what every part supplies when it is working properly. The contribution of some members may be a matter of public acclaim. But the others should not feel discouraged. The organism needs their help, their liberality, their compassion, their encouragement, their intercession, their private counsel or whatever else it is that God has conferred on them for the sake of the body.

Conversely, every member needs the charismata of all the others. Not even the most honourable can say to any of the rest, 'I have no need of you' (1 Cor. 12: 21). We must all be locked into the body, in living contact with the Head and sustained by its bloodstream. This is something that Christian leaders should take special pains to remember. We are sometimes dreadfully isolated, with the result that we not only cease to understand the other members but deprive ourselves of the countless little services which they have to offer. We, too, need encouragement, rebuke, company and the down-to-earth word that demolishes humbug and pretentiousness. To pretend to selfsufficiency, emotionally and otherwise, is to risk warping our own personalities and ending up in foul spiritual deformity.

It is also part of our charismatic status that each Christian is splendidly endowed to meet the exigencies of his own existence. These can be demanding enough - the sufferings of the present time, the wiles of the Devil, the perplexities of decision-making and the uncompromising demands of the Christian ethic. To reflect on the difficulties is to risk paralysis. But we do not face these things with our own limited resources. We are united to Christ. We are filled with His Spirit. We are irrigated and refreshed by the floods of His grace (1 Cor. 12:13). Our potential is not to be measured in terms of our personal character and heredity, our self-discipline, education and upbringing. We are charismatic figures of unlimited potential. Maybe by disposition and temperament we are weak and inadequate. But as charismatics, waiting upon the Lord, we renew our strength. We mount up, with wings, as eagles. We run and are not weary. We walk and are not faint (Is. 40: 31). We have it in us to be more than conquerors – hyper-conquerors – and may even say with Paul: 'I can do all things in the One who is strengthening me' (Phil. 4:13). Such a man can endure any pain, bear any burden, climb any mountain, overcome any foe.

But there is something greater still: The Christianís character is charismatic. That character is well defined in Gal. 5: 22ff., where all the virtues and attributes of a Christian are described as 'the fruit of the Spirit'. It is worth noting that fruit is in the singular. The works (plural) of the flesh are manifold and discordant. The fruit of the Spirit is unitary – a cluster of graces linked together indissolubly. Where any of them exists, all of them exist. The fruit is not love or joy or peace but love and joy and peace and faithfulness and all the others. More important, these qualities are the fruit of the Spirit – not of education or environment or culture or ideology. The Christian cannot be explained from below. The whole secret of his life is that he is spiritual – not in some instances, but in all; not occasionally, but habitually. What he is follows organically from the indwelling of the Spirit. It develops out of the implanted seed of God. It is the fruit of our being rooted in Christ.

Among other things, this is of enormous importance for our self-image. We may be mere Christians, relatively unimportant members of the Body. But we are not ordinary. We are in the highest degree extraordinary. We belong to the world to come (Heb. 6:5). We have already tasted its gifts and experienced its power. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God. They are capable therefore of rising as high as their source, to a level of excellence and nobility otherwise undreamt of.

The Spirit of Promise. Donald Macleod. Christian Focus Publications. 1986, pages 39-48.