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THEOLOGY

Empowered Evangelicals

By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
Theologian

During the summer of 1996, I received a copy of a book entitled Empowered Evangelicals with the subtitle Bringing Together the Best of the Evangelical and Charismatic Worlds (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1995). The book title immediately caught my attention, for I am convinced of the importance of such an enterprise.

The book is dedicated to John Wimber, International Director of the Association of Vineyard Churches, and the foreword written by J. I. Packer, professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver. The authors are Rich Nathan and Ken Wilson, both pastors of Vineyard churches.

In the Authors' Preface the basic thesis is set forth: "Christianity would be much stronger and more biblical if the best emphases of conservative evangelicalism were combined with the best emphases of Pentecostalism." The word "synthesis" is also used- -"a synthesis of the best of the conservative evangelical and charismatic worlds."

There is some clarification at the outset about the word "evangelical." Since Pentecostals generally are evangelicals (six characteristics of evangelicalism are listed, all of which Pentecostals likewise affirm), the authors stress that they are speaking of "conservative evangelicalism" which "generally refers to that portion of evangelicalism that is noncharismatic [italics theirs]." As representative of such evangelicalism, the authors mention the names of Billy Graham, Carl Henry, John Stott, and J. I. Packer, seminaries such as Trinity Evangelical, Gordon-Conwell, and Fuller, and the journal Christianity Today. The concern of their book is to bridge the gap between such conservative evangelicalism and Pentecostalism.

Next, the authors point out, a shift has been occurring in some conservative evangelical circles in a more Pentecostal direction. They "have adopted certain Pentecostal practices such as healing the sick, casting out demons, and receiving prophetic revelations." However, the authors add, "Many of these people (we are among them) believe that the so-called 'baptism in the Holy Spirit' happens at conversion...and that tongues is simply one of many spiritual gifts and not the only evidence of a particular spiritual experience." Such conservative evangelicals, therefore, do not view themselves as Pentecostals or charismatics.

Over the past decade, the authors say, these people have been called "New Wave" Christians. This title was introduced by C. Peter Wagner, professor at Fuller, because "in the American experience, the practice of certain spiritual gifts moved from the Pentecostal denominations (first wave), to the charismatic movement (second wave), to conservative evangelical churches (third wave)." The authors, while confirming Wagner's "groundbreaking work," have coined the expression "Empowered Evangelicals" because "three waves or two hundred waves hardly does justice to the Holy Spirit's continuing activity." This term is more expressive for our time.

Despite some obvious difficulties in using the term "Empowered Evangelicals" ("Are Billy Graham or John Stott unempowered? Of course not!"), the authors have chosen it "because we wanted to capture the emphases of the two worlds described in this book. Pentecostals and charismatics have historically emphasized power, thus the word "empowered." Conservative evangelicals have historically been concerned with the evangel- -the "good news of salvation"- -hence "Empowered Evangelicals."

Finally, in the Preface, the authors say, "If more churches choose, as a result of reading this book, to focus on preaching the evangel and couple that preaching with the practices of healing, prophecy, and intimate worship, we feel that God has answered our prayers."

Now a few comments before proceeding further. As I said at the outset, I am likewise much concerned about bringing together "the best" of both worlds, the evangelical and the Pentecostal. So I am grateful for the attempt made in Empowered Evangelicals to accomplish this.

What struck me in reading the Preface was the focus on such practices as healing and deliverance, and how some conservative evangelicals have "adopted" them. The "practice" of these gifts now happens not only among Pentecostals and charismatics but also in many conservative circles. It is important to note, as earlier mentioned, that the authors see no need for a "so-called baptism in the Spirit," for this "happens at conversion," and since evangelicals have already experienced this, the proper concern can be the practice of spiritual gifts. The conservative evangelical who moves in such practices is an "empowered evangelical."

But now the question must be raised, what has happened to "the best" in Pentecostalism? Despite the authors' concern for the best of both worlds, the Pentecostal would reply that his world comes off rather poorly. Any valid integration between conservative evangelicals and Pentecostals should begin with the best that both have to offer. For Pentecostalism, from its beginning, it has been stress on "baptism in the Holy Spirit" The best is not viewed as certain charismatic practices which many conservative evangelicals are now willing to accept or claim to practice, but an original Pentecostal experience. From the Pentecostal perspective, "the empowered evangelical" is one who is, in addition to conversion, "baptized in the Holy Spirit," with the normal accompaniment of speaking in tongues.

The synthesis suggested by the authors is clearly in the area of certain spiritual gifts, especially healing and deliverance. The implication is that if conservative evangelicals would lay aside their long held opposition to the gifts and begin to recognize and practice them, and if Pentecostals would give up their long held view about" baptism in the Spirit" and focus instead on the gifts, genuine synthesis could occur. Pentecostal evangelicals and empowered evangelicals would then share a common witness!

A further word: I find the expression "empowered evangelicals" to be ambiguous. If, as the authors say, they are simply evangelicals practicing such gifts as healing and deliverance, why use the word "empowered"? It both implies, as they admit, that "noncharismatic" persons such as Billy Graham and John Stott are not empowered (which they vehemently deny!), and that they have had a special empowering experience (which Pentecostals claim). But since they express opposition to what Pentecostals affirm, it is hard to know what "empowering" means. The authors say that they have chosen the two terms "power" and "evangel," to capture the two main emphases in Pentecostalism and conservative evangelicalism. However, the Pentecostal would respond that the evangelical who denies "baptism in the Spirit" has no way of bringing together the Pentecostal and evangelical worlds.

Now leaving the Preface, I will comment on two chapters: 1- -"Looking for the Best of Both Worlds" by Rich Nathan; 2- -"Receiving the Spirit: An Empowered Evangelical View" by Ken Wilson. There are many significant things said in all eleven chapters, but I believe the most critical matters are discussed in these two.

Rich Nathan, in chapter 1, "Looking for the Best of Both Worlds," describes his "spiritual journey" in which he writes: "I ultimately chose to straddle the conservative evangelical and charismatic worlds...I zigzagged back and forth...before finding my place."

The spiritual journey began with his conversion during college days: "I was filled with joy and with a sense of God's presence. I knew I was born again!" Next, in a paragraph entitled "The heavens open in California," Nathan describes how "a few months later" influenced by the book They Speak with Other Tongues (John Sherrill, the author), he had "a clear desire to receive the spiritual gift of tongues." He earnestly prayed for this to occur: "Then it seemed to me that the heavens opened, and I felt something like electricity go through my body. I began, without effort, to speak in a language I had not previously learned."

Soon, however, Nathan, was on his way to becoming a conservative evangelical. First, Nathan accepted the Pentecostal view of baptism in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in other tongues only to have this view "dismantled" at an InterVarsity meeting by the faculty advisor. The advisor showed biblically, Nathan writes, that there was only one baptism (Eph. 4:5), that every Christian is Spirit baptized (1 Cor. 12:13), and also gave a "more convincing interpretation" of Acts than Nathan had understood. Nathan was totally convinced, and "for the next several years my Christianity took on a very different look." Second, Nathan began to read Christian literature and theology, "particularly from a Reformed perspective." However, "none of my mentors put me in touch with Christianity's mystical tradition. Nor did I ever read anything by a serious charismatic or Pentecostal writer [italics mine]." Increasingly, Nathan adds, "The bulk of my Christian life was consumed with a growing conservative evangelical perspective...mainly concerned with sound biblical teaching, seeing people converted, personal discipleship...reading and discussing but not necessarily 'doing' or 'experiencing Christianity.'" As such a conservative evangelical, Nathan continued for several years.

Next, there came "a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit...nearly a dozen years from the time 'the heavens opened' for me in California. Then the shape of my Christianity changed...at a Christian conference." The speaker, after a Bible study, "prayed very simply, 'Holy Spirit, come.'" One man began to "shake violently...a few men began to cry. Others fell down....Then without warning, I began to feel a heavy weight pressing down upon my head." A friend, sensing my situation, spoke: "Rich, why are you resisting the Holy Spirit so violently?" Then Rich adds: "I broke! I began to cry...despite my early intimacy with the Holy Spirit's presence, I had lost my ability to appreciate and respond to his presence."

Now it became for Nathan a matter of "putting the pieces together." Prior to that event Nathan writes: "I simply had no place for any experience or for any understating of the spiritual gifts in the rest of my theology." He adds, "My early experience of the gift of tongues was thoroughly unintegrated into the rest of my Christian life." As Nathan sought to put the pieces together, he found "a new model." In an important paragraph Nathan writes: "While I was in the process of reevaluating my Christianity, I believe that God allowed me to meet John Wimber of Vineyard Ministries International to provide me with a new model of conservative evangelicalism."

This "new model," says Nathan, included all the fundamentals of Christian faith and the priority of evangelism and world missions "without the Pentecostal add-ons of a necessary second baptism in the Holy Spirit or speaking in tongues as the doorway to an experience of other spiritual gifts." Thus it is a new model of conservative evangelicalism without "Pentecostal add-ons," in which spiritual gifts are recognized and practiced.

Here I must express a concern, first, about Nathan's personal putting it all together. Has he succeeded? For example, as noted, he writes that his early experience of the gift of tongues was "thoroughly unintegrated" in his life. At the time the experience was as if "the heavens opened" (twice declared) and "something like electricity" went through his body. Now he refers to tongues almost negatively, as belonging to "add-on" Pentecostalism, and surely as no doorway to an experience of other spiritual gifts. But does not Nathan's own experience suggest that speaking in tongues was something like a doorway ("the heavens opened"!) to his later "encounter" with the Holy Spirit in which he "broke" under the realization that he had been "violently" resisting the Holy Spirit. I would suggest that Nathan's speaking in tongues was precisely his entry point to his later experience of the Holy Spirit. I am afraid that speaking in tongues for Nathan is still "thoroughly unintegrated." Indeed, Nathan makes no further references to tongues- -after his "add-on" statement- -in the remainder of the chapter. How then do they fit in? What relevance does his early experience have to his later? Nathan seems to be moving in the direction of tongues as only one of the spiritual gifts (perhaps "the least of the gifts," as Ken Wilson says later) rather than an initial aspect of the heavens being "opened."

Let me suggest how Nathan could better put it all together. First, there was his conversion. Second he later spoke in tongues. If speaking in tongues is an accompanying sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit (as in Acts 2:4), Nathan was at that time baptized in the Holy Spirit. "The heavens opened"* sounds not unlike "suddenly a sound came from heaven" (Acts 2:2), and initiated the disciples into further ministry. Not understanding that he had had a Pentecostal type experience that particularly relates to ministry, Nathan has his own priorities backward when he speaks of "the priority of evangelism and world missions without the Pentecostal add-ons...." The Pentecostal experience is no add-on but is the priority to such mission and evangelism.

As I read Nathan, what happened to him over the years was a kind of closing of the heavens as he moved through InterVarsity meetings and Reformed theology into conservative evangelicalism. He came to believe that what happened when he spoke in tongues was irrelevant to his later experience of spiritual gifts. Tongues now rather than a sign of an original spiritual breakthrough are spoken against. Nathan still lacks, it would seem, integration of his spiritual experience.

At the end of this chapter Nathan speaks of people who are "looking for the best of the conservative evangelical world and the best of the charismatic Pentecostal world." Then he adds: "They want conservative evangelical theology in the main, but they also want certain charismatic experiences and practices. They want evangelism to be a priority and they want that evangelism fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit." These "they want" statements are revealing in that the chapter has climaxed with the focus on the first- -evangelical theology and charismatic experiences- -with little mention of the second- -evangelism fueled by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in regard to the latter Nathan expresses so much opposition to Pentecostal understanding that the focus is thrown back on the first, namely "certain charismatic experiences and practices."

I am afraid that despite Nathan's "Looking for the Best of Both Worlds" he has stumbled on the Pentecostal side. I would suggest that further reflection on his own experience would help to bring it all together. The "pieces," I believe, are all there. Further, if Nathan reclaims what he years ago gave up, he can have the best of both worlds, Pentecostal and conservative evangelical. May it so happen!

Now we turn to chapter 9, written by Ken Wilson entitled "Receiving the Holy Spirit: an Empowered Evangelical View." It may be significant that the title contains no reference to a Pentecostal view.

The author writes: "Shortly after my conversion in 1971, I (Ken) naively inquired about this business of receiving the Holy Spirit." He got several answers (classical Pentecostal, Jesus movement, Catholic charismatic). Then Wilson asks, "What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit? What relationship does this have to being born again?"

Wilson first explores the Pentecostal view of Spirit baptism which holds that "sometime after a person comes to having faith in Christ (conversion, the new birth), he or she should seek to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. The sign of Spirit baptism...is speaking with other tongues." Wilson rejects this viewpoint, based largely on the Book of Acts, and declares from a conservative evangelical stance that "doctrinal positions should not be reached by narrative portions of the Scripture alone" and "that the experience of the church on the day of Pentecost was in some sense at least, a nonrepeatable experience." Rather, "from a conservative evangelical perspective...receiving the Holy Spirit is what happens when we are born anew....We wouldn't be alive in Christ if we hadn't received the Spirit."

Here I must object: if the serious intention of the book is to provide an integration of the best in Pentecostalism and conservative evangelicalism, this is not integration but rather denial of the basic Pentecostal position. One may or may not agree with the Pentecostal viewpoint, but there is no integration when it is simply discounted. The only proper way to proceed with integration is to seek to relate the Pentecostal position of Spirit baptism to the evangelical emphasis on the new birth. How do they fit together? Moreover, without quickly disowning the Book of Acts (narrative), it would surely be wiser to give attention also to what is said there about "receiving the Spirit." Several passages in Acts at least raise some question about too readily identifying this with new birth. Further, is being "alive in Christ" the result of Spirit reception, or is it the presupposition?

The proper understanding, Wilson adds, is not "a baptism in the Spirit necessarily distinct from the new birth, necessarily signified by speaking in tongues; but a lifetime of subsequent and ongoing fillings with the Spirit," The Pentecostal is certain to ask: "When and how did the original 'filling' begin?" It is interesting that Wilson immediately asks, "What does the experience of people like D. L. Moody, Charles Finney, A. B. Simpson, and others lead us to expect?" Later Wilson speaks of D. L. Moody's experience of "being filled with the Spirit years after his conversion." This surely was an experience "distinct from the new birth." There is no record that Moody spoke in tongues, but that is not the basic issue. The critical question presses: Is there an additional experience beyond conversion, whether called baptism in the Spirit or filled with the Holy Spirit? If there is such- -as Pentecostals (plus D. L. Moody et al) affirm- -does not any serious attempt at integration begin there rather than with a truncated view of Pentecostalism? It is interesting that Wilson, having just quoted Moody, says: "Whether we call it a 'baptism in the Spirit,' or an experience of being 'filled with the Spirit,' the point is the same: we need the power of the Spirit for ministry." Ah, I submit, there is the place to begin integration!

Again, on the matter of new birth, Wilson refers to it as "an event with many dimensions." "The charismatic understanding of 'baptism in the Spirit' as a distinct event could also be viewed as yet another dimension of the new birth, if in fact the new birth is a multidimensional event." This somewhat ambivalent statement about "another dimension" does however have the merit of slightly opening the door to the Pentecostal emphasis on baptism in the Spirit as a distinct event. Further exploration of the "multidimensional" could be a significant way to give some credit to the Pentecostal side in an ongoing dialogue with conservative evangelicalism.

It is clear that Wilson recognizes, as does the Pentecostal, the need for a special empowering experience. He writes, "As conservative evangelicals, convinced of the world's need for good news, we should be the first in line to be filled with the Spirit's power." Wilson thereafter speaks of his personally asking a Lutheran pastor "to pray with me to be filled with the Spirit." Then Wilson adds, "How we refer to the experience of being empowered by the Spirit for ministry (as a baptism in the Spirit, or being filled with the Spirit) is quite secondary. What we need is the glorious gospel message coupled with the Spirit's power in our preaching of it."

This last statement is really amazing in light of Wilson's earlier inveighing against the expression "baptism in the Spirit" (recall also the preface- -"the so-called baptism in the Holy Spirit"). What difference is there here from the basic Pentecostal position? What Wilson now says about "the experience of being empowered by the Spirit for ministry" surely points to an experience beyond conversion.

I would urge that at this point Wilson is finally describing what an "Empowered Evangelical" truly is. He is one who has an "experience of being empowered by the Spirit for ministry." The "new model" (recall Nathan) that does not include a special act of Spirit empowering is actually a model that is quite limited in its scope. It is only conservative evangelicalism with the added aspect of functioning in certain spiritual gifts- -but no more than that. We may indeed be grateful for "Third Wave" affirmation of these practices, but the question must be critically raised about the power base. Is it adequate without being "filled" ("baptized") with the Holy Spirit?

Finally, on the matter of tongues, Wilson first suggests an openness of conservative evangelicals to "the gift of tongues": "While a conservative evangelical view of the Spirit doesn't accept the charismatic teaching of tongues as the sign of Spirit baptism, the experience of charismatics should open conservative evangelicals to the possibility and value of this, 'the least of the gifts.'" One may be grateful for Wilson's guarded ("the least of the gifts") recognition of the validity of tongues- -unlike many conservative evangelicals- -it is far too negative about the charismatic viewpoint. Indeed Wilson, a few pages later, writes: "The narrative portions of the Book of Acts refer to new believers speaking in tongues as they are filled with the Spirit. While there is not adequate biblical testimony to establish the Pentecostal doctrine of Spirit baptism signified by speaking in tongues it does suggest that people may well speak in tongues as they are filled with the Spirit." Although at first Wilson verbally denies "the Pentecostal doctrine," he almost embraces it by the end of the sentence! If tongues is not "the sign," is it not at least "a sign" often occurring as people are "filled with the Spirit"? Wilson seems to be saying this- -and if such is the case, he is very close to Pentecostal understanding. The question Wilson (and many other conservative evangelicals) might raise is simply this: Why do people often speak in tongues "as they are filled with the Holy Spirit"? Is it not possible that there is some kind of dynamic connected between the two? If "the heavens" are "opened" (to use Nathan's language), signifying an extraordinary breaking in of the Holy Spirit, would not something like tongues be an extraordinary accompaniment?

The critical question that emerges in this book relates to "Empowered." If there is some difference between "a conservative evangelical" and "an empowered evangelical," what is it? Is he simply a person who embraces and functions in such practices as healing and deliverance? Incidentally, if the word "empowered" is identified with what all believers have- -that is, by virtue of the new birth they have the power of Christ operating within- -then "Empowered Evangelicals" is a tautology. But Nathan and Wilson surely mean more than a resident power. In this I agree with them: the word "empowered" can surely have additional meaning. The problem is that of consistently appreciating what the fuller significance is, and experiencing its reality.

Actually, despite their verbal protestations against "so-called baptism in the Holy Spirit," they both seem to want to embrace it. If this is done, I believe a true process of integration can begin.

Footnote:

* It is interesting that Nathan uses the exact language of Mark 1:10- -"the heavens opened," referring to Jesus' own empowerment by the Holy Spirit in preparation for ministry.

 

Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

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