Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"An Honest Conversation" - EMA Assembly 2010 - Part 2

Last week (I think) I posted the first half of a Panel Discussion held at the EMA Assembly in London this year - present were Terry Virgo, Hugh Palmer, Vaughan Roberts, John Coles and Liam Goligher. The first half of the discussion focused around what the leaders DID agree on. The second half moves into what they DON'T agree and gets interesting!

Vaughan Roberts (V.R): Thank you Liam – over to you John.

John Coles (J.C): I was hoping to hear the wisdom of the other people because I am at a bit of a loss to know what the other reasons were. We obviously have so much in common here. The roots of many of us are the same – my own spiritual history is much the same as Hugh’s. We were working in Scripture Union camps together in the summer holidays at the same time – I went on one of Dick Lucas’s original reading parties and my background was with 2 curacies in conservative evangelical churches. I was appointed to be a vicar of a liberal, middle of the road church. It was in that context that I felt the way I presented the gospel at that stage didn’t actually have power to lead people to Christ.

So I was propelled into saying “God there must be more than this to get these people converted” – it was a real longing to see the lost saved that made me pray for a greater empowering of the Spirit because obviously that is what the Spirit comes for. When I began to get my eyes opened to the wider, charismatic/Pentecostal world and church and instead of seeing the church through the blinkers of my own training up to that point then I realised there was a lot more beyond my own experience up until that point. The more I learned the more I realised I have to learn now. God is bigger than any of us understand in part. We are all life-long learners and should be willing to learn from all sources that God is doing all around the world.

Take for example the Anglican church and the issues of morality and sexuality – we praise God for the orthodox church in Asia and Africa. Now some people heard me talk about what I was learning and feared that I was rejecting what I had learned before. So sometimes what we are saying – that is all that people think we are saying. Rather than we are saying – this, AND all this! So I sadly found myself being distanced from some people in friendship. I was going to other conferences to learn the new things I wanted to learn which was always on the basis of what I had already learned rather than in order to reject what I had already learned. I think by and large gatherings like this gather one group of people and gatherings at New Wine gather other groups of people learning other things at other stages in their lives. At times we have got to get together and realise what we DO have in common. This is why I think this is a very healthy thing what we are doing – and it is a real privilege for me to be here today.

V.R: I would love to hear the historical perspective of Hugh and Terry in a moment but I wonder if we could broaden it out – so far the emphasis has been on what we hold in common. And it may be that you feel it was accidental but I suspect behind it are some fairly important differences as well as other things we should never have divided on. So as you continue on the historical issue, are there big differences and if so what are they that we should never have divided on? We will start with you Hugh.

H.P: Yes – ‘historical perspective’ is one of those big words isn’t it and I am I not sure I have got a broad enough perspective for that but personally, coming just after Liam had invented rock music *laughter*, university days as John said – there were folk who thought of themselves as charismatic. Speaking in tongues was a big thing in those days but we were all involved in the same Christian union and same gospel business. At some point down the line there came a point where our differences became more important to us than the things we had in common. It may have been conscious or it may have been unconscious. I remember in my first curacy a guy coming up to me who would have been charismatic if you like and he said; “Well of course you would say that wouldn’t you because you are an evangelical”. I said; “Well you are as well aren’t you?”. He said; “No, no I’m a charismatic”.

It was the first time I had heard someone define themselves as charismatic over and above being evangelical. Before we had been evangelical and some were charismatic and others weren’t. Many of the folk when I was up in Norwich – and the trouble with these labels is that they are stereotypical and static but let me just use them as shorthand and say I mean nothing more than that. They come from Brethren backgrounds and had been well drilled in the Scriptures.

Somewhere in their mid-teens it had all gone a bit dry and the new life and fervour and passion that they had got was linked with their experience of receiving the Spirit and their theology of it. I remember as they enthusiastically gathered and talked to disciples and students what struck me was that they were living this experience on the 15 years of the bedrock of Bible teaching they had got. They were teaching the thing that had captured their hearts at the moment and I said; “You do realise what you are passing on is actually different from what you have got for that very reason – you have just taken the very top layer and removed the other”. Again I remember sitting with a charismatic friend hearing a teacher explain why baptism in the Spirit wasn’t a second experience and so on and he went through Acts and so on and I remember my friend saying; “Well I can buy all of that – but are you going to leave people sitting complacently in their chairs?”. The danger of the conservative side was that we taught the Spirit in terms of what the Spirit was not and what we shouldn’t believe and shouldn’t think. Then you end up in different streams and groups and we don’t meet each other and rub shoulders and we don’t test each other at all and now we don’t know whether we are people who don’t know each other and have some differences or whether we have different gospels that are coming out.

V.R: I would love to hear you Terry on the historical perspective as you will have as good an insight as any but I would also love to hear about where are the differences we differ on?

Terry Virgo (T.V): I think probably down through the centuries there have been differences that have driven quite hard wedges into the body of Christ. For instance the issue of Anabaptists in terms of harsh and judgemental decisions which we now look back in a very different light as the years have slipped by and I celebrate days like this and the friendships that we have come to experience certainly on this platform and reflected out across the room. Divisions do come not necessarily always through theological difference through quick reactions, quick caricaturing (if you think that you must be that – or you were seen with him the other day and he definitely thinks that).

So that runs ahead of you in quite a dangerous way. I was first invited many years ago to speak at a conference called Spring Harvest and you had to tick on a form whether you were charismatic or reformed. And I ticked “charismatic” AND “reformed”! *laughter*. And I would feel before God that I am a “conservative evangelical” – and I have never identified that. I know some people would say I am charismatic and not an evangelical. I have never identified with that and have always felt horrified by that. I would say my desire is to conserve biblical Christianity. In that sense “conservative”. Some people read “conservative” as “cautious” – what do I mean “conservative”? Do I mean English caution? Or do I mean conserving what the Bible says? So to pick up Vaughan’s last words – where do we differ and where do our differences lie, I would say I am personally trying to conserve Biblical Christianity as far as is possible in the 21st century with its downloading and jet planes.

I feel one of my greatest fears would be a doctrine of “cessationism” – that the Christianity of the Bible is different to a Christianity of today.

So for many of us – how and when we receive the Spirit would be a debate point we can spend some time on. But we all very generously want to feel we are experiencing something of God’s fullness. But are we also saying we want that to result in Biblical Christianity in the sense that there was power evident, supernatural things happened? That’s what Biblical Christianity was – are we saying we think that should be something different today? Are we saying that the sort of thing that happened through the apostles and the New Testament church continues today? Men like Stephen and Philip and the way they preached the gospel and the gospel advanced included that supernatural element or are we saying that was an empowering to get the gospel “started”? That would be held by some and they would say there are seasons. I know that for myself I feel I am a conservative evangelical – I want to conserve what I feel is in the Bible which would include what the Bible speaks of – which would include supernatural elements in the Bible.

Never seeing that in opposition to Biblical exposition, the teaching of the Word, building lives on Biblical revelation but moving on with the empowering aspects. I personally feel I guess within the UK now and its complete loss of Christian foundation we are more back to the kind of culture that Paul and the apostles invaded – where there is nothing you can draw from. When Billy Graham came to England in the 50s and 60s he could almost be like an Old Testament prophet and say “Come back to the truth that you actually know”. You can’t do that anymore and I think it is more like Paul’s day where the Gospel came not in word only but power – which I think was attesting signs. I think globally the advance of the gospel which is taking place in many other maybe southern hemisphere nations are seeing phenomenal break through.

I have just been reading in your bookshop here a book I haven’t seen before – the “Journals of John Tsung” – I have read about him before and he is an evangelist with phenomenal signs and wonders that took place through his ministry that led to vast numbers of people being converted. I would feel that is biblical Christianity and I would like to conserve it. So for me that is “conservative evangelicalism”.

V.R: You have mentioned two things and spent a bit longer on signs and wonders and we will come back to that. You have also raised the question of how and when the Holy Spirit comes. I guess going back 30 or 40 years that was the major point of division. The whole question of “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and some then changed the terminology but still expected some kind of second blessing. The inevitable question there – are there two types of Christian and that ended up being a cause of division up and down the land. Do you want to say a bit more about your own view on that Terry and then we will hear from others? Because I think clearly this has been a significant point of difference.

T.V: I think to say “two kinds of Christian” is very much oversimplifying our whole breadth of Christian experience. There may be those who have been plunged into water and there may be those who have been sprinkled. There may be those who say they have had a “sanctification experience” like Keswick used to teach – I didn’t. So all sorts of divisions and I would say to say there are two kinds of Christian is a very great oversimplification and I certainly wouldn’t live with that or accept that. To me how you receive the Spirit – and we could certainly spend a long time talking about that! – I feel personally in the New Testament there was a “coming upon” of the Spirit. The great Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that the teaching that says you have experienced everything at the new birth – that doctrine is the greatest reason for the quenching of the Holy Spirit over the last half a century. He felt very strongly about that. I think there is an argument for that. I feel the coming “upon” of the Holy Spirit which I see in the New Testament. For example when Jesus said to the disciples; “Wait till the Spirit comes upon you” – they knew what that meant. They had their Old Testaments – they knew of men like Gideon and men like Samson. People we have been hearing about who were suddenly “empowered”.

V.R: If I may just come in – would you see that “coming upon” as an infilling for a particular task that might happen on a number of occasions or would you expect for the unbeliever who has come to Christ and been forgiven, that there would be then a moment when the Holy Spirit comes in a significant moment unlike the extra fillings for particular tasks?

T.V: I would not feel it was for a particular task in the New Testament. No.

V.R: Thank you – Liam, any reaction on this particular issue which clearly has been a cause of difference?

L.G: And it still is! My view is that when someone is baptised into Christ by the Holy Spirit they receive the Holy Spirit and the progress we make in our Christian life is that more and more of our lives are captivated by, controlled by, empowered by and enabled by the Holy Spirit as we respond to the Word of God, as we grow in our relationship with God, as we pray. I personally think that some of us do not expect anything from God. By that I do not mean great experiences but I am saying that some of us do not expect that God will make a difference to us. Even though intellectually we do believe that the Bible can change a person, we experientially do not expect any change in ourselves.

We go to church on Sunday and we expect that the preacher will say something that will draw from us the “aha! I hadn’t seen that before!”. That is about as far as our expectation from church is concerned. That there will be a little insight into how that text will link with this. We will hear a good talk and go away feeling that the Bible was adequately taught and handled but without any expectation that anything will change in me or in the lives of unconverted people who may be there. So for me without having to create any unbiblical process – it seems to me that just living under the Word of God, if that word is (as we heard this morning from John Piper) Spirit and life then one would expect the Word of God would be changing people and that Christ would be encountering people through His Word and that we would have the expectation of things happening in our lives. I would say that a lot of signs and wonders are tied to the roles of the apostles and the early church – they were authenticating the ministry but I would expect that there are things that happen in ordinary Christians lives which are analogous to (not the same as) things you would find in Scripture and I would expect that to be happening. So the kind of things you (to John Coles) described – that happens! To me that happens quite frequently in Christians lives!

This kind of things happens! I believe in the ministry of angels – we believe in the ministry of angels! Do we think that there are things happening in our lives that are so unusual that there must have been the involvement of angels? Do we believe in the providence of God? Well the providence of God incorporates my dream life – it incorporates every area! Do I think the providence of God could stir me to have a dream that encourages me to prayer about something because there is something coming up? I would say we don’t need to use biblical categories in an unbiblical way and I hope that’s not disrespectful to those who hold a different view – I would simply expect in a living relationship with the Lord.

V.R: Thank you – we are beginning to merge these two areas. So John, any reflection on what’s called the “2nd blessing” or on the signs and wonders and then we will come to Hugh.

J.C: I think the word “expectation” is an important word here. When the Holy Spirit gives birth to a new Christian what are the possibilities for that new Christian and what do we as teachers teach are the possibilities? The possibilities are probably far beyond what any of us have yet realised – because God is able to do more than we ask, think or imagine. So the issue is am I letting the Holy Spirit lead me into all that God says and dreams and becomes possible for me? And then am I teaching others to expect more than I or we have yet experienced of Him? Or am I saying “Don’t expect”.

So when I prayed the prayer to receive Christ into my life at the age of 17 and a half – I was told; “Don’t expect to feel any different”. I imagine quite a lot of people here were told that. You didn’t therefore feel any different because you shut down that expectation.

Now project a number of years on and here am I now for the first time in my life in a charismatic meeting and there are some “words of knowledge” whereby the speaker’s team sense that God is saying there are people in the room with particular needs and they are going to pray for those people. And one of them describes a rash I have on my hand which I have just developed in the previous week between the base of the 1st finger and the thumb on my left hand – exactly where my problem was. I found myself at the front of the meeting being prayed for in front of everyone a few moments later. They didn’t tell me they were about to use me as a guinea pig because I had never been to one of these charismatic meetings before – I didn’t know that was the trap door I was about to fall through. As they began to pray for me someone in the gathering collapsed on the floor and the person praying for me stopped and immediately began to pray for this person as if they were having a heart attack. I interrupted him and said; “No they are not having a heart attack – they are just being set free”.

This person had been a student member at the church where I had done one of my curacies and had come to me during that time and had talked to me about the ministry of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit and whether this was normative Christianity today. I said to them; “I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole – don’t expect that thing today, it’s not normal and it’s not necessary”. As a result that person had shut down all that side of their spiritual life for the next four years. In this meeting when they saw me – myself being set free from that lack of expectation and experience they themselves were also being set free from the chains I put around them which basically said; “Don’t expect to have this kind of New Testament Christianity”. So coming back to expectation what are we teaching as possible for 20th century Christians today?

It is not a question of “have I been filled? – did I have a great wow experience in the past that immediately lead to the use of any of the supernatural gifts (1 Cor 12)” and whether or not that was synonymous with when I was converted. The question is – whether NOW I am being filled with the Spirit so NOW I am living a life with an equal expectation of a supernatural interventionist God as they did in the New Testament?

And am I teaching that to the people I am pastoring and teaching such that – for instance – and this is where the rubber meets the road such as characteristic of charismatic or conservative evangelical church and the way we use the terms. By the way I really love Terry’s way of describing “conservative” as “conserving”! How then do we do evangelism? Do we go and knock on doors and say “Can I talk to you about Jesus?” or do we (a la Luke 10) go and knock on doors and say; “Is anyone sick so I can pray for you?”. And the consequence of the expectation I have been speaking to you about is that every Christian can do the latter and not just the former! Going and blessing a house with peace and saying “Can I pray for anyone that’s sick” – will also open the doors which leads to evangelism and ultimately a relationship with Jesus Christ.

V.R: Thank you John. Hugh?

H.P: If you don’t have the Spirit of Christ then you don’t belong to Christ Paul says. I have been confronted before by people who tell me I might be Christian but I haven’t received the Spirit and I need that before I can be properly Christian – and my answer to that is, look you can tell me I’m not a Christian but don’t tell me I am a Christian but don’t have the Spirit. I can’t be in that sort of weird no-man’s land – it doesn’t seem to be a biblical one. To say there is some kind of necessary thing I need over and above – I struggle with hugely. I must be able to say that at one end but commands like “Go on being filled with the Spirit” have no place in my mindset, my heart-set, my expectation. It seems to me the danger of the label can be that we have just got a box.

And if you have got a label then everything I have in that box is where you are, whereas it seems to me that there is much more of a spectrum – so you can take things whether it is tongues or healings. Actually expectation is an important word – so is there the expectation that all this is mandatory which I would raise huge question marks by in the New Testament. So it seems to me that those are some of the labels we have got to grapple with and it doesn’t always help us. I suspect we may have people at the far ends on some points and even we may be at the far ends on some of these points.

V.R: On one particular issue in light of what John has just said – in your evangelistic programme at All Souls, if you are not knocking on doors and offering healing are you in some ways being sub-biblical? How would you respond to some of the things John has been saying about signs and wonders? Are you missing out on something that should be normative? Because I take it that isn’t the way you do evangelism?

H.P: We may do it differently from you Vaughan! (*laughter*). I am not convinced as I read through the New Testament that remains normative. Which is not the same thing as saying I shouldn’t expect it ever. As I read on there are all kinds of illustrations around Jesus and the Gospels and the early church and certainly those signs and wonders and miracle works certainly should be seen at least as endorsing the revelation of the Apostles but as I read on in the New Testament and the letters and so on, there seems to me to be significantly less emphasis that way and as I read them less expectation that is the normative thing. I don’t find Timothy being expected to. Now we can say well it was just so obvious that he didn’t have to say it. I am not convinced by that. Nor am I trying to say that is the only expectation for those miracles in the New Testament –

But I would want an expectation level that doesn’t have it as normative and mandatory without reducing it to; “Oh it can’t and won’t happen so if I hear of a healing then there must be something manipulative about it”.

V.R: We are running out of time and I just sense we have touched on some huge issues – which was always going to happen. We are talking briefly but it may be that you are really frustrated and something hasn’t been said that you really wanted saying or a false impression has been given. Where then do we go from here – what are the on-going challenges for us? Can we work together? Can’t we? What should we be saying to one another? So it’s an opportunity really to say what you want as we draw to a close.

T.V: I think it will be when I’ve gone out of the door that is when I will think; “Oh I should have said that!”. I honestly celebrate the relational developments that have made this possible. They have not always been there. 20 years ago there was a lot of hostility which I feel is not present now. And it has been a joy to celebrate common ground – evangelically common ground speaking at conferences. This last Sunday I was speaking in Croydon and I understand there were 21 churches represented there and I did something similar in Aberdeen and Dundee – right across the city. Things like New Word Alive have been a great, great joy to stand on the same platform with people who would have different ways of doing local church and I really celebrate that. I would urge that we hear one another through and that we are sure we understood what was being said and I am sure we can be in danger of highlighting something. When we got started people made all sorts of accusatory comments which people in our ranks thought; “Why did they say that?

That’s not what we are at all!”. I think those days have gone. I thank God so much for that. I think there is a genuine appreciation and celebration of other people’s success – I genuinely believe that – we praise God for people who do church differently to us, the success they are enjoying, and the breakthroughs that they see. I think there’s a lot of borrowing from one another that is quite fascinating. Earlier on John Coles spoke about our worship songs flowing over. We have the great privilege of having Stuart Townend and Nathan Fellingham in our local church. It was great to be invited to speak at Keswick and virtually every song that came before I preached was written in my home church. I thought; “Well this is lovely!”. That we can enjoy comradeship – it’s a delight and I would encouragement that more and more – hearing one another through. Yes so maybe we do differ on our expectation of the supernatural which is the thing we just came to an end on. I think we would say we live in the “Now but not yet” – we do live in the limitations of that whole eschatological overlap that we will not see everything break through yet but our levels of expectation – yes I know I want my levels to be pushed through.

V.R: Time is running out so let’s keep it fairly prompt. Liam?

L.G: There’s a sense of which if you have been listening very carefully you will have noticed that everyone is a cessationist up to a degree. The question is of degree really. There is nothing we are saying that what is happening in our churches is actually exactly what happened in Acts. We are not seeing what happened in Acts as an actual reality. If anyone said that I think we are diminishing what is going on in Acts in terms of the quality/quantity of the signs and wonders that are going on there. Many of my charismatic friends are quick to say; “Well it’s not quite the same – we have apostles today but they are not quite the same”. My own view is that the remaining issue is the issue of revelation and continuing revelation. That is the heart of the thing and I would want to emphasise.

I would want to say that prophecy and tongues have to be taken together as revelatory things and that revelation is complete in Christ and He is the final Word and that gets into the Bible and we have it. Now having said that I believe the Holy Spirit acts along and through the Word – that He uses it in ways and with power in our lives and in ways that are not always as tied down as we would like them to be. I don’t think the unusual is normal. But I do think the unusual happens. Certain things are not normative in the church – the normal means of grace are the way God normally works. But absolutely if we believe in the sovereignty of God – we have to say that things will happen that are extraordinary. We pray for healing in our church! The elders pray for healing regularly.

V.R: I am going to have to stop you there Liam – time is very short. John and then Hugh?

J.C: Our nation needs Jesus – how do people come to faith in Jesus? He said; “Believe Me because of what I am saying but if you cannot believe Me because of what I am saying, believe Me because of the works I am doing”. How do people come to faith? Some will come to faith through their minds. Hearing, reasoning and responding. Some will come through other felt needs being met. I think that is the issue of the words being preceded by the works. From my experience when the two happen together we are seeing a wider cross-section of our community coming to Christ as a result of both those two things. What’s the implication of this? For local mission some churches may well emphasise the Word. Some may more emphasise the works and felt need evangelism. Let’s just rejoice that they are complimentary that more may come to faith in Jesus because without them – they are lost. That is what we are going for friends – that the lost may be saved. That hell may be plundered and heaven populated. People can come through the Word or through the works – they did in Jesus day and let’s make sure they are still coming. If another church emphasises the Word or the works in a way that we are not, instead of criticising let’s firstly commend and give God’s blessing on each other’s churches – and as in Oxford let’s try to work together as much as we can.

V.R: Thank you John.

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