I have heard early Pentecostalism described as an experience in search of a theology. Today, I fear that many Reformed continuationists have a theology in search of an experience. They have an orthodoxy in search of an orthopraxy. The belief is there, but the practice isn’t. They might theoretically believe in the continuation of the revelatory gifts. But they are hesitant to pursue them for fear of the messiness involved in this pursuit.
If that resonates with you—as it did in the past with me—this article is for you.
A Discernment Blogger’s Dream
To be sure, the practice of the gifts is often odd and a bit messy. Yet consider the way God deals with the messiness of the revelatory gifts among the Corinthians. He does not try to eliminate the possibility of making mistakes. Instead, he provides an organizational framework (1 Cor. 14:26–33) and the internal motivation for pursuing and practicing the gifts out of love (1 Cor. 13:1) and to build up the body (1 Cor. 14:12).
I have heard many theoretical continuationists express their concern that an intentional pursuit of the revelatory gifts within the gathered church will inevitably lead to chaos. Some cite 1 Corinthians 14:33: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” But notice the context. Immediately before writing this phrase, Paul lays out how the Corinthian Christians were to pursue and practice the revelatory gifts (vv. 26–33). So, what constitutes the peace Paul refers to in verse 33? Paul gives us the answer: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:39–40).
The peace Paul seeks is, at least partially, the absence of confusion. Yet confusion is not avoided by neglecting the gifts, according to Paul. Confusion is to be avoided while we eagerly pursue and openly practice revelatory spiritual gifts. What are the “things” to be done “decently” and “in order”? They are, at the very least, the things Paul has just mentioned in verse 39: the gifts of prophecy and tongues.
Our pursuit of the revelatory gifts is often lackluster because it is driven more by ominous and inappropriate caveats than by wise eagerness. But we must not approach our Father’s gifts with apprehensive fear.
Fearing Superficial Weirdness
A couple of weeks ago, a godly and well-respected woman stood in front of the gathered church and declared, “I think the Lord has given me a picture of a woman in a kitchen. She has four children, two boys and two girls. In the picture, this woman was holding an orange or coral favorite utensil and crying out, ‘God, if you are real, help me!’ If this is you, I would love to pray for you after service.”
There is no way around the surface-level strangeness and seeming randomness of this declaration. This word was superficially weird. Everyone in the congregation that day would acknowledge this.
Still, we must remember that superficial weirdness does not equal wrongness. In fact, it may very well be the will of God. The Bible is filled with the superficially weird.
Spitting in dirt and rubbing a muddy mixture in the eyes of a blind man is superficially strange (John 9:6–7). Telling an obviously lame man to stand and walk is odd (John 5:8–9). Asking a seemingly random Samaritan woman at a well for a drink is both culturally strange and outwardly arbitrary (John 4:7–9). Telling her the undisclosed details of her romantic life is stranger still (John 4:16–19).
Such superficially weird ministry is not limited to the earthly ministry of the incarnate Son. The New Testament is replete with examples of the apostles and other Christians ministering in superficially weird ways. This does not mean superficially weird ministry should not be done “decently and in order.” However, we must not confuse superficial weirdness with indecency or a lack of order.
We must not confuse superficial weirdness with indecency or a lack of order.
Thus, the question becomes: How does the gathered church test ministry moments that claim to be revelatory and are superficially weird?
We test them in light of the concrete governing clarity of Scripture and in light of discernible accuracy. This was the case with the “orange utensil” prophetic word. First, there was nothing about the word that violated or stood opposed to Scripture. Thus, we asked the congregation to weigh this word in light of their lives. We invited people to pray after the prophetic word. This word had discernible personal accuracy to a lady in the congregation that day. This woman received prayer from another member of the body of Christ—and this act of divinely arranged ministry built up both parts of the body.
I am so grateful that both the woman who courageously gave this word and the congregation that tested it looked past its superficial weirdness.
Don’t Despise What Delights God
We must not despise or fear the Spirit working through broken vessels. In an evangelical culture that seems to thrive on discernment blogs and failure porn, we must not give in to the sinful inertia of fear.
A screaming preacher in Seattle should not make you afraid to preach with authority, and a group of charismatic leaders on stage with a wizard’s staff should not make you afraid to pursue the gifts. We do not avoid gifts because of their abuses, and we do not fail to obey God because of what we perceive to be the inherent dangers of his commands. Any fear that causes you to retreat from God’s design is not from him.
We do not avoid gifts because of their abuses, and we do not fail to obey God because of what we perceive to be the inherent dangers of his commands.
We must be humbly aware of our depravity and propensity to pretend God’s good gifts originated from us. We must consistently ask ourselves, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). We must be on guard against abuse of a legitimate gift and of those who pretend to have a gift.
However, awareness of our propensity to sin egregiously on the path of obedience must never keep us from the road. We must never forget what is ours in Christ. We are those who have the Word of God and the Spirit of God. We are called to test preaching and prophetic words (1 Thess. 5:21), not to avoid or despise them (1 Thess. 5:19–20).
Standing Behind the Wheel
How do we move past the fear of superficial weirdness and the idolatry of idealism? How do we pastor our people into an earnest pursuit of the revelatory gifts?
My pastor, Sam Storms, often says, “The number one rule for many evangelicals is: ‘Do not do at all what others do poorly.’” Regarding the pursuit of spiritual gifts, the easiest thing to do is nothing. It requires no courage to shut everything down. Likewise, it requires no courage to let charismania take place. It does take courage to accept the inherent messiness of life together in the Spirit.
It takes no courage to keep the boat tied to the dock, or to watch safely from the shoreline while the boat is tossed by waves. It takes courage to stand behind the rudder.
By God’s grace, that is where I want to stand.