Charismatic Movement and Baptists

INTRODUCTION

In this paper, I will consider the impact that the charismatic movement has had on Scottish Baptist churches, and see what lessons can be learned for the future. I will focus especially in the way(s) that any coming move of God may be handled by the churches of the denomination and the denominational leadership itself. I will look at the beginnings of the charismatic movement in Scotland, and review briefly the impact of other factors such as ecumenism, John Wimber, Spring Harvest, the Toronto blessing, and Restorationism. I will consider what the charismatic movement actually was and how it should be viewed today, before drawing to a conclusion in which I consider the key areas in which I believe we should plan for the future.

THE SPREADING FIRE

The charismatic movement has, in one way or another, touched Baptist churches across the whole of Scotland; some tried to embrace it, some tried to ignore it, and some tried to defeat it. Along with the genuine movement of the Spirit of God, there were some undoubted excesses, but some Baptists’ responses to the movement likewise produced some excesses, though many indeed recognised that God was at work. The charismatic movement is even today often surrounded by much hype, hysteria and myth; but it began very quietly.

One minister in Motherwell in the early sixties embraced it without realising what was happening to him, and the fever of interest was not long in gripping Baptists, nor the media. In 1962, the Glasgow Sunday Mail and Scottish Daily Express announced with great passion that “a veil of secrecy was clamped down on a Scots church last night after a mysterious new form of worship bordering on the supernatural is being practised.” Newspapers today have long lost an interest in such stories; how times have changed.

The report centred around Brian Casebow, minister of the parish church of St Margaret’s in Netherton, Motherwell, who, while praying one Sunday night, suddenly found himself praying in tongues. As news of the happening spread, special meetings for prayer and for healing were held, and Casebow was invited to speak at the Local Lanarkshire Baptist association fraternal. Following this, he was soon requesting the use of local Baptist church buildings for baptisms by total immersion. A fuller account can be found in McBain’s book, Fire Over The Waters. Baptists were understandably concerned that an ‘outsider’ was making far greater use of Baptist church baptismal tanks than they were themselves! The fire was lit.

McBain said that “It is true to say that Motherwell became a focus for charismatic activity”, and several American visitors came to Motherwell in the course of their visits. Word spread, the fire spread, and the charismatic movement was beginning its journey across Scotland. Central Scotland saw considerable growth in the charismatic movement, though developments elsewhere in Scotland were slower. Nevertheless, what had been set in motion in Lanarkshire would surely touch the nation.

“The greatest single influence on doctrine, practice and behaviour in Scottish Baptist churches over the last decade [70s] or so, however, has been the charismatic renewal movement, particularly with its impact on public worship,” said Balfour. There are very few Scottish Baptist churches whose forms of worship have not been affected by the charismatic movement, whether they were aware of it or not.

Something was certainly needed to combat the decline that was being experienced by the churches, and Scottish Baptists, though by no means alone in their experience of decline, were looking for an answer to it. According to Wright, one key ingredient to combat church decline was renewal – the receiving of new energy from the Spirit of God “who uses the word of God to reveal the emptiness of our present service, because ‘without spiritual renewal we have nothing to give.’” Was the charismatic renewal movement of the 1960s onwards a spiritual renewal that would allow Baptists to have something to give? Perhaps more importantly, would it halt the decline among Scottish Baptist churches?

McBain contends that the charismatic movement has, in the course of three decades, “grown into a distinctive and influential element colouring a large section of the life of the Baptist denomination whether or not particular churches have been actively involved in it.” For all its undoubted excesses, the charismatic movement brought new life to many Baptists, a fact that should not be forgotten. As Balfour stated, “The influence of the charismatic movement is by no means confined to those churches which have consciously taken a particular stance – its vitality has benefited congregations which would not describe themselves as such.”

INFLUENCE

The charismatic movement certainly affected and impacted many Christians across every denomination, and perhaps this was a contributory factor in the continued rise of ecumenism which was further emphasised by what Balfour called the ‘trans-denominational’ charismatic movement. While not welcomed by every Christian, Baptists in particular were taking the opportunity to dialogue with other Christians of different denominations; though this dialogue was, in itself, not free from controversy, as Balfour pointed out.

The rise in popularity of John Wimber and his ‘signs and wonders’ ministry boosted the popularity of the charismatic movement, and, for a while, provided it with some welcome authenticity; people were becoming Christians in large numbers as a result of Wimber’s ministry, and this was surely something every Christian could rejoice in. And they did. For a little while.

The charismatic-based, though carefully-presented, Spring Harvest events also became very popular and carried the charismatic movement into some areas and churches that had not been very involved before. Forms of worship were renewed as a result and new songs and new musical instruments were introduced into Scottish Baptist churches. In many of them the organ fell from grace and took the acoustic piano with it – and guitars, keyboards and even drums (!) were used in the context of praise and worship. Baptist hymn books were replaced by Mission Praise and other later song books, and recordings of the Spring Harvest events introduced new songs to a wider audience.

The ‘Toronto blessing’ spread its way into Scotland as a number of Baptists, among many others, made the trip (pilgrimage?) to Canada to see what all the fuss was about. What came back certainly caused a fuss, as some of the more bizarre aspects of the blessing were manifested in Baptist churches that weren’t even ready for the ordinary manifestations. The Spirit of God was surely in there somewhere, but it was the excesses that grabbed the attention and the headlines, and these excesses were used to justify a refusal to endorse in any way the possibility that God might be at work in Toronto and beyond. Some even attributed it all to the devil.

In the early 1970s, Restorationists were convinced that all other denominations (except their own, though they maintained that they were not a denomination) were finished, and that all Christians would naturally move over to their new churches, which were house churches. Hollenweger asserted that “the House Church movement is the result of a failed attempt at reviving the existing churches and thus will become – not immediately, but in time – another denomination”. Surely the non-denomination did indeed become a denomination that, while charismatic, was in grave danger of becoming merely a sect that was governed by teams of elders who acted with authority but without reference to the church membership itself, who in turn submitted to apostolic leaders outside the church that gave oversight to the leaders and the fellowship. That many Baptist churches adopted house groups as a normal part of church life only ensured that “the challenge of restorationism has remained a far stronger threat to the vitality of the Baptist Union than the message of renewal ever was” according to McBain.

In all of this, it was difficult to tell exactly where the charismatic movement began and ended. If, indeed, it has actually ended. Were some of these things part of the charismatic movement, on the fringes of it, or simply working alongside it? In any event the fire spread across Scottish Baptist churches, and many responded by stocking up on fire extinguishers. Were all these things merely brief manifestations of emotion or lasting works of God? How was the charismatic movement to be seen, understood, and received? Ultimately, how is it to be remembered in Christian history?

CORRECTION

According to McBain, charismatic renewal in and of itself is “a corrective for the whole body of Christ rather than a fresh revelation about its essential nature.” Thus the charismatic movement itself is not the whole Gospel, but rather it re-emphasised some aspects of the Gospel long neglected. Charismatic renewal did not replace or displace anything or everything else in the Gospel, but was added into the experience of the Gospel and caused the Gospel to be a little more complete, a little fuller. Therefore, charismatic renewal must be seen in the context of the whole body of which it is a part, and, though it was perhaps timely, it was not of any greater significance than any other part of the Gospel.

Charismatic renewal was never, is not, and never will be the one missing piece in the jigsaw of church life. It was never, is not, and it never will be the missing link of Christian experience. Such an imbalanced view of charismatic experience leads to Christians who today may rightly be called ‘The Weakest Link’ because they focus entirely on charismatic renewal in experience while ignoring the truth that we are to love God with all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our soul. McBain says that “Supporters of charismatic renewal must never forget the lesson that in the life of the Spirit there are never any short cuts to success.”

Yet, it is certainly true that the charismatic movement was often seen to be an instant solution and a complete answer, rather than simply being the latest corrective from God to the body of Christ that should be received into the whole of what was already known and experienced of God. McBain again: “The real proof of spiritual blessing is in the realm of our characters, our morality and our approachability, not our occasional posture in prayer.”

One essential weakness in the way that charismatic movement was marketed, and it was marketed, was that it was all about doing and not about being. The long-term development of the fruit of the Spirit was ditched in favour of the short-term experience of the gifts of the Spirit; but where was the experienced and mature leadership that could rightly handle these gifts and deal with the Christians who showed the gifts off as if they were the latest decorative fashions?

For Wright, renewal should flow into reformation – for the church should always be being reformed, since “reformation does not happen once but is a continual process.” Reformation is a necessary continual process because “the power of tradition is that cultural factors are slowly added to the church until the point comes where they cause a serious distortion of the basic message we proclaim.”

However, the charismatic renewal did not generally flow into reformation; it did not generally lead to a fruitful development of Christian character; it did not generally bring a greater depth of unity to the body of Christ. Nevertheless, I believe that this is not the fault of the charismatic movement in and of itself, but was an all-too-evident weakness of the unprepared leaders who promoted the movement.

CONCLUSION

I believe that the charismatic movement has had a major impact on Scottish Baptist churches, and I believe that we can learn from it if we are but open to do so and be discerning in our learning. The key to learning from the charismatic movement of the last few decades lies with the church leaders, but the abuses within the charismatic movement have done serious damage to the place and perception of leadership in some Scottish Baptist churches.

Balfour proclaimed that “Renewal has in some instances tended to diminish the place given to the church meeting, and the apparently authoritarian style of leadership sometimes associated with the movement has caused concern to those who believe that all church members should participate in decision-making.” Balfour’s concern strikes a chord with McBain, who said: “The problems of renewal have been accentuated by the way in which we have foolishly yielded territory to a vast number of itinerant experts, mainly from North America but also from Africa and Asia, whose claims for expertise have depended on the greater numerical success attending their ministries in utterly different cultures to our own.” Therefore, as John Greenshields has said plainly: “We need to hear what God is saying – not what the latest evangelical guru is spouting out.” This, surely, is one of the biggest issues to come out of the charismatic movement. 

Let us, therefore, look for the mature leaders that God will raise up in our midst, and not just unthinkingly and undiscerningly adopt leaders from other lands. It will take quite a long time for some Baptist churches to lose their fear of the word ‘leadership’, but good leadership is precisely what the Scottish Baptist churches need in these days.

Furthermore, charismatic renewal and its abuses have produced a generation of thrill-seeking Christians who go from church to church to get the latest and greatest thrill, and consumer Christianity has become a major part of church life – almost without being noticed. “Charismatic renewal has produced far too many instances of avoidable moral error and frequent demonstrations of church-hopping by the religiously dissatisfied” said McBain. But whatever God does in our midst is meant to build character into his people, and they are to be led by Christians of maturity and integrity; for the quality and stature of today’s leaders will determine the quality and stature of church tomorrow, and the impact of the charismatic movement can teach us important lessons here.

While I do believe that character is more important than deeds, it is also true that, used and reacted to properly, deeds can help to shape character. Thus, we need to hold in balance the character that God is forming in us day by day alongside the deeds that he wants to do in us and through us that we might be used in building his character into young and immature Christians, as well as nurturing that character among the mature.

Make no mistake about it, the young and immature need role models who are open to the whole counsel of God.  The early church was mightily used in reaching people through acts of power, and we dismiss such acts in our day at our severe peril. Once again, the key is wise and mature leaders who are sensitive to the Spirit of God, so that, when God next moves in our midst, the impact that it makes can be handled in such a way as to give room to the Spirit of God and bring refreshing and growth to the church. Will it be without controversy? I doubt it!


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bebbington, D, (Editor), The Baptists in Scotland, (Glasgow, Baptist Union of Scotland, 1988)

Greenshields, J, Presidential Address to Baptist Union of Scotland Assembly 2001, The Scottish Baptist Year Book, (Glasgow, Baptist Union of Scotland, 2001)page 81

Hollenweger, W J, ‘The House Church Movement In Great Britain’, The Expository Times, Vol 92 No 2, November 1980, pages 45-47

McBain, D, Fire Over The Waters, (London, Darton, Longman + Todd, 1997)

Wright, N, Challenge To Change, (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1991)