This is a blog post that I recently realised I have been writing in the back of my head for the past 6 months or so. From dozens of conversations with people and epiphanies in the shower, all of which I thought were unrelated, I’ve realised that a lot of the thoughts I’ve been thinking lately can be more or less unified under the topic of misconceptions Christians hold about the Holy Spirit, his gifts, and his interactions with us. So here are 13 myths that I think (many) Christians believe and should start unbelieving about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
While this is partly a cathartic rant unloading all the ways everybody but me is wrong, actually, I hope much of what’s written here is a liberating and empowering encouragement to people to, as Paul says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” (1 Corinthians 14:1), with even a few practical ways that we can actually do that, all towards a vision to use these gifts to build up the church and see real change in our lives. Much of what I say here we can all agree on, while every reader, from every denomination and theological persuasion, will probably find something to disagree with.
1. Equating the gifts of the spirit with the Holy Spirit himself
I’m kicking things off with this one because it was encountering this myth in a recent conversation that got me frustrated enough to write this thing in the first place. You see, this is something that we charismatics say a lot, and I wonder if we realise what we are saying – where we use the term “the Holy Spirit,” to refer specifically for some reason to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It’ll just be a passing comment where someone will say, “It’s so sad how those traditional Christian folk don’t believe in the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Unlike them, we believe the Holy Spirit is present in the Church today,” or, “What a shame that so many Christians miss out on the Holy Spirit.” And we’ll talk about how the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s were the long awaited return of the Holy Spirit to the Church. We’ll even put on services at church with a focus on healing and prophecy, and we’ll call them “Holy Spirit” nights.
There is a gigantic problem with this way of speaking, and it is that it equates the gifts of the Spirit with the Holy Spirit himself. Or more specifically it implies that the Holy Spirit’s sole function in the Church is to give people “spiritual gifts”. The reality is that the Holy Spirit does a lot more than give us spiritual gifts. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Holy Spirit has far more important things to do than give us spiritual gifts, such that by far the majority of the roles the Holy Spirit plays in the lives of Christians are things that every Christian believes in, whether they’re charismatic or not.
First of all, it is impossible to be a Christian without having the Holy Spirit living within you (Rom 8:9-11, 1 Cor 6:19). To say that someone doesn’t have the Holy Spirit is to say that they are not a Christian at all. So let’s be careful with what we say. Further, to put it bluntly, the Holy Spirit is the one who actually does the dirty work, on the ground, of actually saving us (Titus 3:5-7, John 3:5, Romans 8:15). The Spirit is also the one who empowers us to believe and say that Jesus is Lord – according to Paul, without the Spirit it is impossible for us to do this (1 Cor 12:3). The Spirit is also the one who sanctifies us and empowers us to die to sin and live in obedience to the Father. There’s a reason our good works are referred to as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26, Romans 8:13). I could go on listing all the other nifty things the Holy Spirit has been involved in, from creating the universe to raising Jesus from the dead, but we’d be here all day. Hopefully by now you can see that restricting the Holy Spirit’s resume to “spiritual gift giver,” really fails to give him enough credit, which is ironic when the people who talk like this claim to be the ones who like the Holy Spirit more than other kinds of Christians.
When we talk about prophecy, tongues, healing, and other spiritual gifts, we are talking about something much more specific than the entire person of the Trinity that is the Holy Spirit. We are talking about one of the many things the Holy Spirit does. And so when it comes to charismatics (who believe in the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit) vs cessationists (who believe these gifts ended with the first generation of Christians), both of these camps believe in the reality and power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. In fact charismatics and cessationists agree on far more about the Holy Spirit than they disagree on. Also, I know we mean well, but it’s kind of nonsensical to talk about “Holy Spirit nights” at church. Every church service in the history of church services has had the full involvement and cooperation of the Holy Spirit, without which nobody would be saved, nobody would be edified, and Christ would not have been proclaimed or worshiped. And as for the “return” of the Holy Spirit to the Church in the Pentecostal revivals… If the Holy Spirit ever actually left the Church, the Church would cease to exist.
2. Equating the gifts of the Spirit with… weirdness
I am very thankful that the modern Pentecostal Church in the past decade or so has been awakening to the fact that being Spirit-led does not have to mean being weird and creepy. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says that a person who is operating in a gift of the Spirit – be it prophecy or a word of knowledge or healing – is supposed to leave their personality at the door, along with all normal social customs, and enter into some mindless trance, or roll around on the ground, or speak in a tone that scares young children away or, even worse, scares newcomers in the church away. In fact, Paul’s main concern in talking about gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 14 (namely, here, tongues) is with scaring newcomers away. He is conscious of this. And he tells the Corinthians to control their gifts in a way that enables them to interact with the community helpfully and edifyingly. Much of what we Pentecostals have often assumed spiritual activity needs to look like has actually just been weird and unusual behaviour that lacks relational intelligence and fails to engage people with warmth, empathy, and approachability. But this behaviour is nothing but the presentation of the gift; it is completely dispensable to the actual substance of the gift operation that is going on. So yes, let’s prophesy, but also let’s do that in a way that is relationally sensitive to the needs of the person in front of us. What we need is gifts of the Spirit, and wisdom. We need to hold 1 Corinthians in one hand and Proverbs in the other.
There’s a very nifty verse in 1 Corinthians 14:32, where Paul says, “The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” What he’s saying is that the person who is exercising the gift of prophecy has control over how they do it. It’s not the case that once the Holy Spirit tells you something he takes over and you have to speak right now. No, Paul is saying you can wait your turn. The normal rules of community and social engagement and relationships still apply. The Holy Spirit has given you a word; how you deliver it is on you. If you deliver it in a way that’s weird, or rude, or impatient, or insensitive, or just crazy and scary, that’s not the Holy Spirit’s fault; it’s yours, because the spirit of the prophet is subject to you. You don’t need to have some special authoritative-sounding voice; you don’t have to stop being you; and you don’t have to suspend the friendship you have with this person and momentarily forget that you were just playing Mortal Kombat with them a few hours ago. You can just talk how you would talk to someone in literally any other conversation.
God is a God of relationship, and when you’re partnering with his Spirit, he doesn’t want you to suddenly forget everything you know about interpersonal relationships. All of God’s ethical principles and teachings in the Bible are centred ultimately around the promotion and facilitation of healthy, vibrant, flourishing relationships between people living in a loving community. The people who are most in-tune with the Holy Spirit should be the most approachable, most relatable, most inviting, most comforting people to be around.
3. Saying that the operation of the gifts of the Spirit can’t ever look weird
Then there’s the other side. Let’s not get so reactionary in our charismatic theology that we say the Holy Spirit will never ask us to do something weird. That would be human arrogance. The real problem with the way many Pentecostal churches used to do things was not that they sometimes did weird things in the name of the Holy Spirit. The problem was that they were chasing the weird. They were equating that weirdness with all work of the Holy Spirit and making it into a requirement, a necessary evidence that the Spirit is at work. In reality the weirdness was peripheral; it wasn’t the substance of the operation of the gift. But let’s not kid ourselves: God gets people to do some pretty weird and ridiculous stuff at various times in the Bible. Jesus healed a guy from blindness by first spitting in some dirt. And I rest my case.
Old school Pentecostals were putting God in a box by saying it had to be weird. Let’s not also box God by saying it can never be weird. God does whatever he wants, and we’d better be willing to go along with him.
And let’s face it. Speaking in tongues is just weird. And I for one am all for it.
4. If it came from my own understanding, it didn’t come from God
A standalone essay could and should be written on this. This is a really important, fundamental thing we all need to understand about prophecy. It is a common myth that because genuine prophecy comes from revelation of the Holy Spirit, the mind and the understanding cannot be engaged in the process. This isn’t true. And it’s part of a broader misconception many modern Christians have of a dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the human. For example, a sub-Christian view of the inspiration of Scripture is that Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, and Paul all switched off their minds and closed their eyes when they were writing scripture, and simply penned words that were dictated to them directly by God. That is the Muslim view of the Qur’an; it is not the historical Christian view of the Bible. Christians have always believed and taught that God worked through the rational processes, the thoughts, the questions, the arguments, and the relationships that the Biblical authors were involved in to produce the inspired Scriptures. When Luke wrote his Gospel, he researched it meticulously, he interviewed eyewitnesses, he used his mind to understand what happened and to organise it into a coherent narrative. When Paul wrote Romans he used his superlative knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and his sharp mind to make arguments to convince people of his ideas. And it should not be doubted that Isaiah would have put great creative and literary effort into producing the poetic masterpiece that bears his name. None of this means that God didn’t inspire these writings. It means that God often works through very human processes. It means revelation is not incompatible with reason and understanding.
When it comes to prophecy in the Church, (although prophecy of this kind does not hold the status of Scripture) we can say a similar thing. Sometimes God will drop words into the prophet’s spirit that seem to make no sense, and the prophet must obediently pass them on to the hearer. But very often God will work through a prophet’s mind and thoughts, and the relationship they have with the other person, to lead them to say something that isn’t completely out of the blue, that isn’t beyond the limits of reason; it’s not something beyond what they could have known themselves, and it isn’t out of keeping with the prophet’s personality. The word they share is as much the product of the mind and personality of the prophet, and as much a product of the love they share with that person, as it is a product of divine revelation – not the Spirit interrupting our thoughts, but partnering with them.
This is why I believe any Christian can prophesy. You can start today. While a lot of more gifted prophets will be able to tell someone specific things about their past, present and future, most prophecy is simply speaking words of faith, life, and encouragement to people. When I try to prophesy to people, I ask myself, “What does faith say into their situation? What does love say? What does encouragement say? What would I say to this person if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is for them and with them?” And the great thing is, God has already revealed to all of us the answers to all of these questions. Spoiler alert: they’re in the Bible. All we have to do is speak Biblical truth into people’s lives, trusting that God will use it for his purposes. Because as long as we are speaking Biblical truth, it’s impossible not to be speaking from revelation.
And how do we know whether someone is prophesying to us through direct divine revelation or just from their own Godly wisdom? The answer is, what does it matter, as long as what they’re saying is Biblical and edifying? Other than that, the only thing I can say is, when I’m trying to prophesy, I tend to be able to tell that something is probably from the Holy Spirit because it is a little more brilliant than I’m usually capable of, it has more faith than I can usually muster, and it believes in and loves people more than I usually do. It is as if for a moment God has opened my eyes and gifted me with a heightened sense of love and faith and vision for another person’s life, and everything I’m saying I believe to my core. It’s beyond me, but it’s still me – the best of me, the Christ in me.
5. Prophecy has to be a monologue
When someone is prophesying to you, can you stop them and ask a question? Or can you even wait until the end and ask them to clarify something? The way we think about and practise prophecy sometimes excludes such conversational possibilities, because we think it has to be a monologue, it has to be eloquent, energetic, emotionally resonant, even authoritative. Partly because we believe the above myth, which I just debunked, that prophecy can’t be the product of our understanding, we don’t feel like we can converse with someone as they are prophesying to us. We can’t tell them what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. We can’t ask them to explain anything. Why would we if everything they’re saying dropped out of the sky as a revelation that bypassed their actual mind? Prophecy is an activity during which we temporarily stop being ourselves and act purely as a mouthpiece for heaven, and after which we get on with our normal conversations, our normal relationships.
What if prophecy was just part of our normal life, our normal conversations, our normal relationships? See, I believe prophecy can take place in a conversation over coffee. Lately I’ve been really getting into the idea of what I like to call “relational prophecy”. It’s an act of prophecy that is not a suspension of our relationship but a continuation of it. It’s where your conversations with your fellow believers are so full of life and encouragement and faith that it’s hard to tell where the normal conversation ends and the prophecy begins, or where fun ends and the “fellowship” begins. It’s where you’re just talking about life and part of the continuity of that conversation is that you build the other person up with something you believe God wants them to know. And then you keep talking and they ask you a question about what you said, and you explain what you meant, and you find the words, and it takes a bit of back and forth but you get there.
Some of the best words of prophecy I’ve been at the receiving end of have been like this. They’ve just been over coffee. Or they’ve been during a worship time in a church service where my friend has come up to me with a word, and then asked me what I thought, and then said more things, and then said, “Hey I’ve got more to say but let’s just keep worshiping for now and we’ll talk more later.” And so often the richest nuggets of gold have been not the first thing that got said, but the thing that got said several layers down the rabbit hole of questions and answers.
It’s not that monologue prophecy is bad. It’s fantastic. Just like how sermons are fantastic, and they’re monologues. But sermons aren’t the only form of Christian encouragement; they’re a part of it. Monologue prophecy in church isn’t the only form of prophecy. It’s a part of it. I just think there’s more available.
6. Prophecy has to be instantaneous
For some reason we tend to think that prophecy has to take place on the spot. That at the moment you’re called upon to prophesy to someone, if that word doesn’t come to you within a couple of minutes, then that’s it, game over. You missed it. Why the expiry date?
Why not mull over it for a couple of days? Not everybody is fast. And as long as the situation into which it was suggested that you prophesy wasn’t so momentary that a prophetic word would no longer be relevant after a few days, there is nothing stopping you from taking out your phone, sending a message, and sharing the thought that dropped into your spirit about them later that week. What a shame it would be if we deprived people of encouraging prophetic words because we had created artificial countdown timer on every opportunity for prophecy. You didn’t miss the moment. If God put that word on your heart, then be bold. Create another moment.
I know that I’m slow. One time I was at a weekend away with a group of friends and we finished the night sitting in a circle, singing worship songs, prophesying and encouraging each other. There was one friend who talked about a situation that I really felt for. My heart went out to her but I didn’t know what to say. That night, as I was driving home, a word suddenly hit me that I overwhelmingly felt was from God. The moment had passed, but who cares? I knew it would encourage her. And so I just texted it to her. Another time I was also driving (maybe that’s where I hear from God) and I got a word for someone that was just dynamite, and hit me right between the eyes. I felt so strongly that this was something God wanted to say to that person; the problem was it was pretty sensitive, and I wasn’t sure I had enough relational capital with them to say it. Then I forgot about it for a couple of weeks. Then I remembered it. Then I asked God for a sign just to confirm that he really wanted me to share it. Then he gave me two or three of them. Then I waited a few more days and finally sent a carefully crafted, sensitively worded Facebook message. And we all lived happily ever after.
The point is, prophecy can take time – for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes we need a bit of time before a word comes to us. Maybe we hear God better when we’ve gotten away from all those people at church. Maybe we think we might have a word but we need to wait and go over it a few times before we know that it sits right in our spirit. Or maybe we have a word but we need time to figure out the wisest, most loving, most encouraging manner – and setting – in which to deliver that word. And maybe we have a word but we reckon that word needs to come in the form of a poem, and so we want to labour over that poem until it is just right. Isn’t that what Isaiah and Jeremiah did for Israel?
The most gifted prophets might be fast all the time. But if we’re not there yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t participate. Just because it doesn’t take place on the spot doesn’t mean it’s not prophecy.
7. The Holy Spirit cannot coexist with event planning and preparation
Sometimes we make a God out of our service structure. We become so committed to how a church service needs to run that we’re unable or unwilling to respond to the needs that make themselves known to us mid-service – or the requests that the Holy Spirit makes of us mid-service. So let’s not do that. Let’s not be so rigidly committed to the plans we have made that God can’t come in and do something surprising and miraculous. Because we don’t know the future, and things might happen that we didn’t know about when we made our plans.
But none of this means that the Holy Spirit can’t generally coexist with or work through a well planned event or church service. The exact opposite is true. The Bible says that God is a god of order; not of chaos (1 Cor 14:33). In fact in that same chapter where Paul says that, he is explicitly talking about church services, where he is telling people to do things in an orderly, rational manner. Planning church services well respects people’s time because it enables them to know when they should be where. Preparing sermons and music well values people because it involves putting work and effort into ensuring that the people in the congregation will be benefited by the contents of the service. So we should be humble with our plans and structures, and open to the Spirit taking us in a different direction to answer a need that arises in the service, but there is no Biblical reason to think that this ought to be the norm for church organisation any more than it should be the norm for airport organisation – airport managers don’t know the future either, and anything could happen, but I really hope they have a plan to start with.
An extreme (though not entirely nonexistent) form of this unhealthy dichotomy would be the ministry model of “We don’t plan any services, prepare any sermons, or write any songs. We just listen to what the Spirit wants to do at every moment.” The problem with this is that one of two things will result. Either you will have bad, directionless, boring, unedifying church services with incoherent sermons and really terrible music. Or, in rare cases, someone will actually pull it off, all the while thinking that they are being supernaturally empowered to create these amazing services with spirit-breathed songs and sermons, when actually what they have is a group of incredibly naturally gifted people who can improvise sermons and melodies and lyrics with prodigious flair. This is a great thing for them, but it becomes a problem when they claim that their success is due to a close connection with the Holy Spirit and therefore every church needs to be like theirs. When that happens, other church leaders think they are missing some important aspect of their actual relationship with God, when really they’re just not as talented as that church.
A less extreme and more prevalent example of this is where we often think that a person praying upfront at church should have no time to prepare and should be spurting out a completely spontaneous prayer – because that is more “from the heart” or more “in-tune with the Spirit.” It’s not that there’s no truth to that at all, but 1) It can be just as much “from the heart” for someone to spend time meditating and preparing a prayer to bring before God on behalf of the assembly of his people, and one might argue that “winging it” actually devalues the act, and 2) We mustn’t be blind to the fact that what we might consider to be the Spirit’s prompting of a person to say the right thing could just be talent. When a person is able to get up in front of hundreds of people and utter a spontaneous prayer that is passionate, relevant, well structured and theologically balanced, we mustn’t underestimate the amount of skill, natural gifting, and years of practice that have gone into that. What we attribute to a person’s sensitivity to the Spirit’s prompting is often just a competence they have at public speaking. This isn’t in any way to say that the prayer isn’t genuine. In fact quite the opposite: I’m trying to say that the Spirit’s work is fully compatible with skill and hard work.
My point is that speaking in front of hundreds of people is an incredibly hard thing to do, and while the Holy Spirit can undoubtedly empower otherwise incompetent people to do this, natural gifting and practice are often the more prominent influence. And when we create a culture in which people are systematically called upon to improvise a public prayer, we are likely to select for and promote people who happen to be good at oratorical improvisation. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, as long as we are aware of what we are doing. Let’s not trick ourselves into creating a culture in which people who happen to be naturally competent at public speaking wind up being assumed to have a special connection to the Holy Spirit.
8. The Holy Spirit does his best work in a single moment at a church meeting or camp
Now, I fully believe that God can change someone’s life in an instant. Someone can rock up to church a drug-addicted contract killer, and then have an encounter with Jesus that turns their entire life upside down, never to go back to those sinful ways again. But I think at some point we have to admit that that’s not the only – or the usual – way that God works. You see, how many of us have been in that church meeting, that summer camp, prayed that prayer, had that encounter with the Holy Spirit, run down to that altar, and declared that we will never do that thing again, only to find that, if not within days, within weeks we are back to our old habits. I know I have, far too many times.
You know how I believe God works most of the time? Through practical changes in our day-to-day lives. God works through intentional adjustments to our habits, intentional changes in our environment, and – most of all – through Godly, healthy relationships. Instead of acknowledging this, we often make two mistakes. The first is that we don’t give the Holy Spirit credit where it’s due. We only give God credit for life change that happens suddenly as a result of powerful moments in church, and we fail to credit him for the change he brings to us gradually through our relationships and all the other factors that surround us in our daily lives, each of which the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in. That’s the Holy Spirit too. It’s not spectacular, it’s very gradual and incremental, it may not even look miraculous, but it is so, so powerful, and it is change that lasts.
The second is that we place unreasonably high expectations on the efficacy of alter call moments at church, and then we beat ourselves up when we haven’t seen the change we hoped for, asking ourselves all kinds of questions about whether our prayers were genuine. But our prayers usually are genuine. We just need to cooperate with them. See, I’m not saying that prayer in church services isn’t important, or that we should stop doing it. Absolutely not. But we need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. We need to cooperate with our own prayers. Too many of us are going in for the knee surgery but not doing the physio. We’re taking the antibiotics to fight infection from a stab wound, but we still haven’t taken the knife out of our back. That’s exactly what we do when we pray for healing and breakthrough without also making necessary adjustments to our behaviour, environment, and relationships. We need to do both. We should do the former without neglecting the latter.
9. If God wanted me to have the gift he would just give it to me
Stepping away from picking on our charismatic brothers and sisters and turning to those of a more cessationist persuasion… I’ve heard many a skeptic of the spiritual gifts say that these gifts aren’t for them because if God wanted them to have it, he would have just given it to them by now. We shouldn’t have to strive for it or jump through a set of hoops or go through a set of rituals to attain these spiritual gifts. After all, God is generous and wants us to have every good thing.
On one level that seems to make sense, and yet, here we go again setting up a dichotomy between God working and us working. “If it’s a gift, then I don’t have to work for it,” and yet we know that our sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit even though we have to “Work out our faith with fear and trembling.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God just handed gifts of prophecy, words of knowledge, healing and miracles, like they were Fast and Furious movies? But apparently he doesn’t. Instead, what we see is that in communities where people don’t pursue the spiritual gifts, they don’t come, while in all the communities where people actively pursue these things, they come and often in abundance.
Why does Paul say to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts”? It must be because a) they are very valuable, and b) they don’t just come naturally or spontaneously. Why would he think we need to desire them earnestly if they were easy to attain? Again, God can give them to us spontaneously, but more often we need to seek them, work at and refine them, and even step out in faith and practice them before we’re sure we’ve got them. Why not just give them out more liberally? Well maybe it’s because these gifts exist to for the purpose of building up the body of Christ. They’re not toys to be played with for their own sake. And so perhaps God wants to give them to those who desperately want to use them to serve their community.
That’s why I suspect that the best way to attain the gifts is to set about working to achieve all the things that the gifts were given to help us achieve, while asking for God’s help. If you want to prophesy, get to speaking words of encouragement, edification and comfort to people around you. If you want words of wisdom, seek wisdom everywhere it is already available. If you want the gift of tongues, have yourself a rich prayer life until you’ve run out of your own words. If you want the gift of healing, spend more time helping the sick around you, and then find sick people who aren’t around you and choose to be around them, and help, however you can. Then trust that God will give you the means you need to achieve your ends.
10. The continuation of prophecy contradicts the sufficiency of Scripture
This is another myth from our cessationist siblings, which is that if we allow for prophecy (people speaking from direct divine revelation) in the modern, post-apostolic Church, then we’re saying that the Bible isn’t sufficient, or worse – we’re opening the gates to Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or any other cult that wants to add to the canon of Scripture. If God has already spoken in the Bible, what could prophecy possibly be any good for other than to create new, and therefore almost certainly heretical, doctrines?
This argument isn’t anything a clear, Biblical understanding of prophecy can’t fix. First of all, God doesn’t contradict himself. So if someone claims to be speaking for God but is saying something contrary to what the Bible teaches, then they’re not speaking for God. Not only is that logical, it’s also given to us directly in the Bible, first from Moses in Deuteronomy 13, where the Israelites are given very easy to follow instructions to distinguish false prophets from real ones after Moses is no longer with them (they basically come down to “follow other Gods” = bad, “follow YHWH” = good), and then this happens all over again in the New Testament where, repeatedly, false teachers and prophets are warned about and we are basically told, if they worship Christ, good; if they curse Christ, bad. And if you’ve still got 1 Corinthians 14 open, Paul says in v29 that the church is to weigh what the prophets say. Presumably he meant that we weigh it against Scripture and against the Gospel that the Apostles were teaching. As long as the Biblical principles of prophecy are followed, Mormonism is impossible.
And the second thing to say to this is about the nature of prophecy and what it actually is as compared to scripture. Prophecy doesn’t add to scripture any more than a sermon does. And we like sermons, don’t we? We want to keep those – sermons didn’t cease after the Apostolic age. Prophecy in the contemporary church doesn’t bear the same ontology as Scripture, just like all the instances of prophecy in the Corinthian church that Paul encouraged to happen never made it into Scripture. Scripture is not the sum total of everything God has ever said through human mouths. Scripture is a lot more specific and focussed in its purpose than that. Prophecy exists to reinforce Scripture by encouraging people within the framework of the Biblical worldview, exhorting them to remain in the faith, and continue to trust Jesus. If that should occasionally involve telling people what they had for breakfast earlier that morning so that they know God is speaking, then God can do what he wants. Prophecy is never meant to replace Scripture, so prophecy is not a threat to Scripture.
11. We should approach prophecy with carefulness because of the danger of theological error
Now it’s not that theological error in prophecy isn’t a real possibility or danger; it’s just that people who emphasise that fact are usually in the churches that are least in danger of it. It’s a matter of emphasis. The phrase “we need to approach prophecy with carefulness” (where “carefulness” usually means hesitancy and “approach” means don’t go anywhere near) usually comes from the mouth of someone at a church that hears solid Biblical teaching and expository preaching every week and puts people through a course on Christian doctrine before they baptise them. In a church like that the last thing we are about to see is people running amok with excessive prophecies that are full of theological novelty and error. They’re not in danger of too much prophecy at the expense of doctrinal order and control. What they’re in danger of is rejecting the gift that God is giving them for building up the church.
In churches like that, no one is prophesying. They do not need to be told to be careful about prophecy. They need to be told, repeatedly and with urgency, to start prophesying, otherwise they never will. In that church, it will take an enormous amount of prodding and pushing and encouraging before anyone even attempts to start prophesying; it will take people going out of their way to do something they find uncomfortable and unnatural. There are churches that need to be told to be more wary of heresy among their congregation members who prophesy. But not that church. In a church where everyone knows their theology really well, and nobody was hoping or planning to prophesy on a given Sunday morning, telling them to be careful of prophecy will only solidify and justify their comfortable indifference to it.
If you’re a cessationist who, for other reasons, doesn’t believe prophecy is a gift that should be practiced today, then you can own that as your reason to be wary of prophecy. But if you’re theologically a continuationist, you believe at least theoretically that prophecy is a gift given to the contemporary Church, and you have any interest in seeing this gift in action in your own community, then I would personally suggest doing away with any statements about being careful of it. Your people are probably the last people that need to hear it.
12. The gift of tongues is a necessary evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit
I thank God that I speak in tongues. I find it incredibly strange and, to be honest, not really in line with my personality, but I’m thankful for the tool God has given me to edify myself and to pray prayers beyond what my mind is capable of praying, and I try to maintain a practice of doing so. But I don’t see anything in the Bible that says it’s a necessary part of Christian life, or a necessary sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Putting aside the question of what baptism in the Holy Spirit is, let’s just say for the moment that the traditional Pentecostal doctrines regarding tongues and baptism in the Holy Spirit would say that baptism in the Holy Spirit is a precursor to operating in the gifts of the Spirit, and living the full life of Christian service, and that speaking in tongues is a necessary accompaniment – and therefore evidence – of baptism in the Holy Spirit. I don’t want to get into whether or not baptism in the Holy Spirit is a definite, momentary, post-conversion event, but what I will say is that I see no Biblical reason to think that speaking in tongues is a necessary part of the full Christian life. I see no reason to think that before a Christian can prophesy, heal, evangelise, or go into the ministry they must first demonstrate the gift of speaking in tongues.
Perhaps this means I can’t really call myself a Pentecostal (since the necessity of tongues is a traditional Pentecostal doctrine), but it’s just where I’m at. Not only do I find that it lacks Biblical support, I also find it lacks experiential support. There simply are people who heal, prophesy, and evangelise and don’t speak in tongues, or who find the gift of tongues later in their life. Speaking in tongues is common in the Bible, particularly in Luke’s account of the early church (Acts). It’s a powerful gift for praying prayers beyond our understanding, and a powerful sign of the reversal of the division of languages at the Tower of Babel. But its commonness, while described historically in the New Testament, is never interpreted by the New Testament as being prescriptive for us. Likewise, there may have been movements in post-Bible history where God has spontaneously given the gift of tongues to everyone in that movement. I don’t doubt it. But that was for that time and that place. God has his reasons for doing these things, which we don’t know. To claim that the reason God did it for them is because it is his intention to do so with all the Church is to claim to know things about the mind and ways of God beyond what he has told us himself. I don’t think the Bible ever tells us to expect that everyone who is saved will speak in tongues, nor to expect that everyone who is baptised in the Holy Spirit will speak in tongues. It is not a necessary sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in someone. All I know it is a spiritual gift that we should earnestly desire.
13. Tears are a necessary evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit
If I may be so bold as to say, in the modern Pentecostal church we’ve let go of the necessity of the spiritual gift of tongues, and replaced it with a necessity of the spiritual gift of crying. We often talk and act as if whenever God does something to us, we should cry. Sometimes I hear people telling a story of an encounter they had with God where the meat of it is, “…and then I felt God’s presence completely overwhelm me and I just burst into tears.” And sometimes I find myself thinking, “That’s cool that God made you cry… Did he do anything else?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. God is awesome and mighty and to be in his presence can be overwhelming and when he acts or speaks it can be incredibly powerful such that the only natural response is an overflow of emotion that results in tears. Sometimes we cry because we are just amazed by God’s goodness and grace in the face of our profound unworthiness; sometimes we cry because the part of us that God is speaking into has a deep wound, and facing it brings up old pains that are hard and scary to deal with. I love that we have a God who is there to speak into these parts of us, who made us to be emotional beings that feel deeply. It’s just that I have come to realise that this is only a part of the Christian life. It is one flavour in a smorgasbord of different things God wants to do with us.
My point is that sometimes for God to speak to us is a spellbinding experience that almost devastates us with his power and love. It’s like God is performing heart surgery on us. It’s the suspenseful, emotional scene in the movie that arrests all our attention. But there are other times when God is speaking to us and it’s more like we’re just catching up over lunch. He asks how we’re going with this or that relationship. He says things like, “Are you sure you wanna do that thing?” And we say, “Yeah, good point, maybe I won’t do that.” “Maybe I will apologise to that person.” “Maybe it’s time to reassess my finances and give more.” And it’s not cinematic; it’s not earth-shatteringly emotional. You don’t necessarily feel much in the moment at all. But you’re changing, and so it is powerful.
See, sometimes the only question we ask to discern whether we had an encounter with God is whether it was an intensely emotional experience. But in reality, sometimes we have an incredibly emotional experience in a church service, and a week later we haven’t really changed. That’s not to undercut the reality of those experiences necessarily – it could be that the effects of that “heart surgery” are to be seen months or years down the track. But ultimately it’s the changing that matters. And God can change us through highly dramatic encounters, but he can also change us through relaxed, bit-by-bit, chilled-out conversation. If we think the only times God has any effective encounter with us are the times that we cry, then we will start chasing the tears, rather than the change. God is the God of our whole person. Including our emotions, but so much more than our emotions. And I’m not worried about us being excessively emotional so much as us being insufficiently holistic. There is so much more of you that God wants to speak into. Not every medical problem requires surgery, and not every change in your life requires a dramatic scene in church. In fact, the more “lunches” we have with God, maybe the less frequent “heart surgery” will need to be.