“Without agreeing with tongues, we can say that among God-centered charismatics, there are important movements astir. No doctrine of Scripture is more neglected than that of the Holy Spirit. Our emphasis, however, must be God-centered, not man-centered. All humanism is occultistic. The development of faith and life among theocentric charismatics is one of the most promising aspects of 20th century Christianity. Its potentialities are very great.”1
~ R. J. Rushdoony
Just a few years after Rushdoony penned these words, financial and sexual scandal rocked the ranks of Charismatics as a small host of television evangelists were exposed for rape, fraud, lying, and soliciting prostitutes. Suddenly, the world knew the names of Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Larry Lea, and Robert Tilton. Almost immediately the revenue from donations dropped dramatically, and it would be several years before parachurch organizations would regain their financial footing.
Despite these dramatic examples of scandal, the modern Charismatic movement continued its unprecedented growth. A movement once scorned as “holy rollers” became both a social and political force with one leader reaching for the White House (Pat Robertson) and others acquiring numerous positions of influence within the lobbying apparatus of the Religious Right.
In 2005, Time magazine listed Rev. Ted Haggard as one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America. Until recently, Haggard was the senior pastor of a 14,000-member Charismatic mega-church (New Life) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He made the list in Time magazine because in 2003 he was elected as head of the sixty-five-year-old, 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, one of the most politically powerful Christian groups in America.
Ted Haggard, along with James Dobson, led the charge in opposing gay marriage with Haggard teaching that homosexuality was clearly condemned in the Scriptures. There was just one problem. Ted Haggard himself was a homosexual, and a male prostitute exposed Haggard for his hypocrisy revealing a three-year, monthly, paid relationship with Haggard who had been using the alias “Art” to hide his identity.
It took less than a week, after his exposure, for Haggard to cease his public denials and admit to both homosexuality and drug use. Yet the Haggard revelation is barely a blip on the radar in comparison to the earlier scandals of the late eighties. The church and the general public are becoming more tolerant of Christian sin and scandal.
Despite its enormous population, the Charismatic movement continues to struggle with scandal, materialism, and abuse of power. Yet within its numbers are multitudes of faithful men and women who have placed God at the center (theocentric), and this group, in my opinion, holds the Biblical solutions to one of the world’s largest Christian communities.
The Rise of Charismatics
Charismaticism has its roots in fundamental Pentecostalism. It was in 1901 that Agnes Ozman first spoke in tongues at the Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas, but Pentecostalism really gained traction during the Azusa Street Revivals in Los Angeles in 1906. By 1965, there were roughly 50,000,000 Pentecostals throughout the world. That’s a growth rate of 780,000+ per year. Twenty-two years later the Pentecostal movement was surpassing 217,000,000. This represented a yearly growth rate of nearly 10,000,000.
The numbers multiplied exceedingly as the Charismatic movement began in the late 1950s. The simplest definition is that Charismatic equated to mainstream denominations engaging in the Pentecostal experience of Holy Spirit baptism and the accompanying spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Here is a hundred-year chart of the exponential growth of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement:
1901 – 40 members
1945 – 16,000,000
1955 – 27,000,000
1965 – 50,000,000
1975 – 96,000,000
1985 – 247,000,000
1990 – 372,000,000
1995 – 460,000,000
2000 – 550,000,000 members2
Maybe I’m just a simpleton, but is this not the most significant Christian revival/movement since the Reformation? The early American awakenings are but a faint moment in comparison. Again, despite the scandals, abuses, and wrong doctrines, the movement grows unabated as it streams into the new millennium.
The Basic Makeup
Charismatic Christians now comprise the largest Protestant body in the world. However, this can be easily challenged because Charismatics are found in virtually every Christian denomination known. As a movement, it is the largest, but as a denomination, it is ill defined.
At present, Catholicism remains the largest Christian body with a total of 1.086 billion as of 2005. Charismatics represent more than half that amount. And with the growth rate of Charismatics, they will likely exceed Catholics in number despite the fact that millions of Catholics fill their ranks. It is a serious mistake to dismiss Charismatics as was done a few decades ago. They are a permanent fixture in church history.
Outside of the isolated branches of Pentecostal denominations (e.g., Assemblies of God, Church of God, United Pentecostal, etc.) and the Charismatics sprinkled throughout the myriad of denominations, the Charismatic community is a decentralized body of predominantly independent churches and parachurch organizations. In addition, there is the abundance of media consisting of some of the largest television networks in the world (e.g., Trinity Broadcasting Network, CBN, Daystar, Sky Angel, Inspiration Network, Word Network) along with countless radio stations, magazines, publishers, musicians, etc. This essentially makes the movement a sizable and powerful subculture.
Reconstructionists and Charismatics
Rushdoony had little interaction with the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement until the late seventies when Christian Reconstruction began its “great invasion” into the ranks of the Charismatic community. It actually wasn’t a planned invasion. Like other groups, Charismatics discovered the writings of Christian Reconstruction and quickly sought out thinkers like Rushdoony. By the mid-eighties, thousands of Charismatics, including me, were reading Reconstructionist literature.
Rushdoony cultivated personal relationships with a few noteworthy Charismatics during the 1980s such as Dennis Peacocke, Bob Mumford, Bob Weiner, and Joseph McAuliffe—as you might recall, McAuliffe wrote a regular column in the Chalcedon Report for a number of years. The strong political and activist stream of the 1980s mixed with this new community of Charismatics to create a more socially influential movement. Out of this came national leaders such as Pat Robertson. From then on, the Religious Right would retain a strong Charismatic element within its membership.
As I mentioned, I was a part of the initial harvest from the Charismatic community, and I’ve watched closely the influence of Christian Reconstruction on Charismatics. Although the general dominionist stream within Charismatic churches came from Christian Reconstruction, the majority of Charismatics hardly resemble anything close to Christian Reconstruction. They remain predominantly Arminian in their soteriology, antinomian in their ethics, and evidentialist in their apologetics.
The Charismatic movement still suffers from its doctrinal weaknesses. Would the Charismatics have experienced so much embarrassment from their leaders were they thoroughly ingrained in such doctrines as total depravity and the abiding validity of God’s law? Reformed doctrine wars against egotism. Presbyterianism serves as a stopgap to one-man rule. Theonomy stifles the alleged promptings of the Spirit that lead Christians into the most dubious ethical decisions; e.g., “God told me to leave my wife.” And presuppositionalism demolishes the idea of neutrality that leaves millions of Christian children in public schools and equal numbers of adults living compartmentalized lives.
In short, it’s not so much the Charismatic doctrine of the Holy Spirit that creates its problems. It’s their doctrines of God, man, soteriology, and ethics that cause the greater damage. Their emphasis upon the Holy Spirit is beneficial and still needed. Rushdoony understood this.
The Changing Face of Charismatics
Despite the more obvious errors of mainstream Charismaticism, Rushdoony still viewed theocentric Charismatics as “one of the most promising aspects” of modern Christianity; “its potentialities are very great.” Has this dynamic potential dissipated? It’s difficult to determine because nearly three decades removed from Rushdoony’s assessment, the Charismatic movement bears a much different visage.
The modern mega-church, along with the widespread influence of evangelicals like Rick Warren, is blurring the lines between Charismatic and mainstream churches. This is creating a fair amount of cross migration with Charismatics filling large evangelical churches and vice-versa. Much of this is due to the evangelical pastors adapting Charismatic ecclesiastical praxes. It’s not uncommon now for the First Baptist Church of any community to have a contemporary worship service filled with younger faces and raised hands. Adding to the confusion is the name changing. For example, a “First Presbyterian Church” may now be a “Sonlight Community Church.”
The newer generic brand of neo-charismaticism is absorbing the next generation of Charismatics. The old-school Charismatics of the Word of Faith movement may experience the same decline as the Jesus movement of the early seventies. Emphases like “marketplace ministry” are replacing the older concepts of the “prosperity gospel.” This doesn’t mean that faith and prosperity are no longer believed. Rather, more sophisticated approaches to blending the financial with gospel preaching are leading many Charismatics away from a self-indulgent approach to personal economics. This is a good thing.
However, the obvious holes remain in the dam. The doctrines of God, salvation, ethics, church government, and eschatology are still non-reformed. Therefore, the Charismatic community remains a significant—maybe the most significant—mission field for Christian Reconstruction and the Reformed faith.
Reaching the Charismatics is both simple and difficult. It is simple in that most Charismatics are dogmatically committed to the idea of Sola Scriptura, and they are usually open to new ideas (i.e., they are not creedalists). However, Charismatics are difficult to reach because they have endured decades of ridicule and criticism from their Protestant brethren.
Is there a solution? I think so. The best representatives to work with the massive Charismatic community are the theocentric Charismatics that Rushdoony describes. Those Charismatics who are grounded in the tenets of the Reformed faith and can explicate with empathy the Biblical doctrines should be the ambassadors to this community. Charismatics are likely to listen to those of their own “tribe” and not the critic who thinks tongues are “of the devil.”
Charismatics will continue to suffer at the hands of their leaders and institutions because of the absence of sound doctrine among so many of its adherents. New leadership is needed to help steer this burgeoning community onto the solid foundations of the Reformed faith and the law of God. The Charismatic movement is set to be the largest Christian community of shared belief in the world. Over the years Chalcedon has influenced a great many Charismatics, and there is no reason why we cannot continue to do so.
Rushdoony put aside the issue of glossolalia (“tongue-speaking”) because the point is moot. Tongues are not the sum total of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We simply cannot go back to the first century to settle the debate on the nature of tongues. But we also cannot question the necessity and validity of the power of the Holy Spirit and His abiding presence in our lives and churches. The Holy Spirit is very real and very active in time and history. The Reformed community must understand that combating the dark forces set against the advancing Kingdom will require more than theology. It will necessitate great faith in both the Spirit and Word to undo the machinations of wickedness, thwart the threats of tyranny, and convert the nations to the glorious gospel.
1. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law Vol. II (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982), 160.
2. Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 281.