Paul includes the “utterance” of wisdom and knowledge among the gifts of the Spirit or charismas (I Corinthians 12: 4-11). Over the years these have been described as just about any kind of direct inspiration- from a person feeling something inside her is saying to take a certain action- to a television preacher claiming he received a “word of knowledge” from God demanding he promise his viewers they will be rewarded a hundredfold if they send seed money to his ministry- to first century prophets channeling God’s words to their congregations.
The inspiration of the Spirit is certainly basic for determining what we accept as God’s Word. However, when we depend on charisma alone, there is no way to determine which charisma is correct if two people claim God gave them contradictory messages. This has become a critical problem in our times for at least four reasons:
1) The radical democracy that permeates all areas of our society regards any standard that could help us make a decision as nothing more than individual opinion. Conflicts can be resolved by polling these opinions and going with the majority, but most Christians appreciate this does not always work in faith matters. God’s Word has seldom won popularity contests. They also find going with the majority can prohibit prophetic preaching, because critics can accuse the prophet of failing to reflect their parishioners’ views.
2) Authority has been replaced by celebrity that emphasizes image rather than substance and feeling rather than reason. The one who can buy the most exposure and speak the loudest and longest too often carries the majority.
3) Restorative Churches, such as the Pentecostal and Free Churches, have become very popular. They claim they return to the first century charisma and admit this means they reject all 2,000 years of tradition as corrupted. Many of their leaders believe their personal opinions represent God’s Word, because he has “anointed” them. Often they feature enthusiasm as tongue speaking that uses the language of the angels, prophecy that channels God’s message in the vernacular, and miracles. Because their celebrity leadership dominates television, our government often uses them to represent the Christian Church.
4) The power of other religions that insist their original inspirational level offers prescriptions for how modern society should operate. Islam and Mormonism resist any evolution from their original leaders and their writings. This position has led to cultural clashes.
The early Church faced very similar problems in regulating charisma. Now as then the question is how to follow Paul’s advice, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good” (I Thessalonians 5: 19- 21). We should not fear the innovations of the Spirit, but we also can not allow inspiration to be a card that trumps everything else. If we do that, we are left with a “what works for me” mentality.
The first century Church used canon, creed, clergy, custom, ceremony, and community in an appropriate balance to regulate charisma. Marlin suggests we add chronology, because we are always struggling with change and continuity. I’ll try to examine all of these in the coming weeks.