By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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
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
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
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.
* 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,
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