Another "Thinkpiece" on Signs and Wonders

by John C. Darrow (c. January 1987, in response to another paper)

Recently, the issue of spiritual gifts has become of more concern within the Mennonite Brethren churches. This concern has been expressed in a recent Southern District Faith and Life Commission paper entitled "'Thinkpiece' on 'Power Evangelism'". Churches have even split over this issue.

Spiritual gifts came to prominence with the rise of the Pentecostal movement at the turn of the century. Many Christians at that time were quite concerned about living lives pleasing to God, expressed in terms of holiness. Many sought "deeper experiences" with the Lord, but desired some explicit sign of having received such an experience. Due to its repeated mention in Acts in connection with the baptism or filling of the Holy Spirit, some decided that the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues was such a sign. This, then, was the distinctive teaching of the Pentecostal movement, although by no means its primary emphasis.

In the 1960's, a similar movement known as the Charismatic movement began. This movement, too, emphasized spiritual gifts as valid for today's Christians, but often without the Pentecostal insistence that speaking in tongues was the necessary sign of being filled with God's Spirit. This movement was perplexing to many old-line Pentecostals, because those in this movement stayed in their mainline churches and retained their mainline church theologies, while Pentecostal churches on the whole held to solidly Fundamentalist or Evangelical theology.

The modern "Power Evangelism" emphasis has its roots in evangelism classes taught at Fuller Theological Seminary. Several years ago, students in these classes from Third World countries pointed out the role that Biblical "signs and wonders" had had in effective evangelism in their countries. Further study, both of Third World evangelism and of the Bible, led to the course "Signs and Wonders Today", popularly known by its course number, MC 510. The course was taught for years at Fuller, and led to many people preaching the gospel "with signs following."

One of the key people in this course, John Wimber, is also the founder of Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which emphasizes this type of evangelism. The Fuller course has now been temporarily shelved after some faculty members objected to miracles actually happening "in an academic setting," rather than in "the local church." (I think this reveals a defective doctrine of the church. As a children's song says, "the church is not a building ... the church is a people.") An important point is that the emphasis in this movement is NOT on "signs and wonders" per se, but on evangelism.

Churches with an emphasis on spiritual gifts have often been criticized for the flaky people found in them, as if somehow such an emphasis drives people over the edge. Dr. Gordon Fee, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Pentecostal, tells of a dear brother known as "Aaoouuu" Harris. When Brother Harris thought of the blessings Christ had brought, he would let out a loud joyful cry of "Aaoouuu...". Gordon found it hard to invite his friends to church with him, because, as he later put it, "every church had one."

I believe that the peculiar people in Pentecostal churches are there precisely because these churches have not been afraid to minister to the outcasts in society. People who would, either subtly or blatantly, be made unwelcome in most other churches, are welcomed and ministered to. But these churches do not consist exclusively of oddballs. One anti- Pentecostal writer tells of about a dozen people he believes to have had genuine "Pentecostal" experiences with the Holy Spirit, based on his observations of their lives for over a decade. In a footnote, he then says that he now believes one of these people to not be genuine, because, when another person was at a spiritual low point, he suggested that this "Baptism in the Holy Spirit" might be what was needed. I am impressed that this was the only thing he could find to criticize in this other person's life in this span of time, and that he had others without even that much to criticize. What a testimony these people must have had!

Underlying the entire discussion is our view of spiritual gifts. I will attempt to set forth a positive Biblical view of these gifts and their purposes.

Several lists of spiritual gifts are given in scripture. Ephesians 4:7-13 lists the ministries of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers as gifts to the church. These ministries tend to be relatively non-controversial, with the exception of the question of whether there are apostles today, and if so, what this office is. Romans 12:6-8 lists gifts, apparently as continuing abilities, of prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, generosity, leadership, and showing mercy. Again, there is little controversy here.

Controversy arises over the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 through 14. Here are listed manifestations of the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. I believe that the reference to manifestations of these gifts refers to their spontaneous nature, arising in gatherings of the church AS THEY ARE NEEDED. This, combined with the clearly supernatural nature of these gifts, may be partly why the controversy exists.

Another major reason for controversy is the apparent use of these gifts by people not manifesting the fruit of the Spirit - basic Christian maturity. When these gifts become a source of pride, or are counterfeited (perhaps unconsciously) to win a point over someone else, there is definitely something wrong! That is why scripture calls for a careful weighing (1 Cor. 14:29) of what is said. I also believe the gifts of discernment of spirits and of the words of wisdom and knowledge are essential here. (As I understand these gifts, the Holy Spirit reveals counterfeit gifts, both supernatural and psychological, and provides wisdom in knowing how to deal with the situation. In my experience, this usually involved supernatural insight on someone's part to know the right approach which would reveal the problem to all those present, including the "offender", who was thereby gently corrected.)

An underlying problem is often that of misdirected zeal. People raised without any exposure to the "charismatic" dimension of life who then discover a more vibrant, exciting relationship with Jesus Christ often swallow hook, line, and sinker everything their new teachers are saying. In their zeal, they forget to test each and every teaching by the written word of God (2 Tim. 2:15; Acts 17:11; 2 Tim. 3:16) and thus accept the eccentricities, idiosyncrasies, and even heresies that may accompany the truths being taught regarding the Holy Spirit and His work. Their zeal to communicate these discoveries to others may also convey an attitude of pride or of superiority.

In some cases, even the Biblical rules in 1 Corinthians, such as no speaking in tongues aloud in the church unless an interpretation is also given, are not followed. However, in my experience growing up in a "Biblically Pentecostal" church, I never saw this violated. (I sometimes heard the phrase "the sane branch of the Pentecostals.") Later, when I entered college and visited other groups, I did occasionally encounter such violations.

To those experiencing spiritual gifts, a reminder is in order! Such gifts are not self-authenticating. That is, an experience of a spiritual gift does not in and of itself indicate God's approval of the person's life and teaching, or even of the genuineness of the gift itself. After all, to use one example, speaking in tongues is found among many non-Christian groups, such as Satanists, Mormons, some Moslems, and Greek mystery religions. Yet, despite these and other counterfeits, this gift remains a genuinely Biblical gift, with both public and private application. Publicly, with the companion gift of interpretation, this gift edifies, or spiritually strengthens and prepares, the church (1 Cor. 14:5). Privately, it edifies the individual Christian (1 Cor. 14:4).

What is the Biblical significance of these gifts? It is significant that in all the passages mentioned, UNITY IS EMPHASIZED. Our gifts do differ, and the 1 Corinthians passage emphasizes both that ALL these gifts are necessary (none are to be excluded, 1 Cor. 12:21-6), and that no one gift is THE gift (1 Cor. 12:14-20). Over and over, Scripture emphasizes that these gifts are to edify, or spiritually strengthen, the church ("for the common good", 1 Cor. 12:7). In some instances, a gift may spiritually edify the individual believer, as in silently speaking in tongues when no interpreter is present (1 Cor. 14:4,28).

One way these gifts may edify the church is by guidance through particular circumstances. This was the case with prophecies by Agabus in Acts 11:28 and Acts 21:10. The gifts may also "strengthen, encourage, and comfort" (1 Cor. 14:3). They may be for "instruction and encouragement" (1 Cor. 14:31). They are also simply to "do good" (Lk. 6:9). And, "wonders and miraculous signs" may be part of effective evangelism, as in Acts 2:42-47, Acts 4:30, Acts 5:12-16, Acts 8:12-13, and other instances. In all these cases, these gifts are for the glory of God.

Are these gifts valid for today? At some point, when "perfection comes" (1 Cor. 13:10) and we "know as we are known" (1 Cor. 13:12), the gifts will cease. I believe this refers to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Until then, these gifts are valid, and are a valuable part of church life.

The overriding question concerning any "new" teaching, including this one, should not be "Have we done it this way?", but "Is it Biblical?". The attitude on both sides certainly should be one that seeks unity, but a unity based on following the teachings of Scripture, and not merely a "Don't rock the boat" unity. The cautions of Scripture against new teachings (e.g. 2 Tim. 3:14) are directed to those who had been taught what we recognize as the Scriptures, not to those simply following traditions. Scripture is to be normative for us, not experience or the lack of experience! (When the Bible uses the word tradition in a positive manner, as in 2 Thess. 2:15 and 2 Thess. 3:6, it speaks of the teachings of the early church, not practices built up by years of "here's how we do this.")

Spiritual gifts, even the spectacular ones, are some of the tools God has provided for His people. The historic Anabaptist emphasis on serious discipleship, on following Jesus by living as suffering servants, is another. The Mennonite Brethren contribute a strong submission to Scripture. Other bodies have their special strengths to add. Let's make sure we avail ourselves of all that God provides for His church as we proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, that we may finally hear His "Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of the LORD."