The Work of the Holy Spirit 3
The belief and practice of a continuationist church leader. This is the third of four articles on the subject of the work of the Holy Spirit as part of our All in the Family series.
The aim of the All in the Family series is to explore the breadth of belief and practice that exists amongst FIEC churches on matters that our Doctrinal Basis doesn't touch on and yet are important in church life.
For each subject we ask a variety of church leaders to respond to the same questions, with an emphasis on seeing how belief shapes practice in a local church.
In this collection on the work of the Holy Spirit, we have one cessationist paper and then three pastors whose understanding sits on the spectrum of continuationist views. These are:
- cessationism – Bill James
- continuationism – John James
- continuationism – John Risbridger (this article)
- continuationism – Greg Haslam
You can download a combined PDF of the four papers above.
Name: John Risbridger
Church: Above Bar Church has been on the high street of Southampton for well over a century. We are a multi-generational church seeking to nurture an authentic community of disciples who treasure Christ above all else and who are therefore Bible-centred, God-dependent and mission-focused. We are deeply committed to expository Bible teaching and have a growing heart to bless our city through serving its most vulnerable citizens and making the gospel known as widely as we can.
Our church is glad to welcome people from many different nationalities, socio-economic contexts and church backgrounds. There is inevitably a spectrum of views therefore on areas of controversy among evangelicals and a commitment to handle our differences with grace and generosity. I am glad to serve in a church where people work and worship happily together with a wide variety of views on these questions – even within our Leadership Team.
The same would be true in the Keswick Convention which I serve as the Chair. The views expressed below therefore should be taken only as my personal views (some of them tentatively held, others more firmly) and not as the official positions either of Above Bar or of Keswick Ministries.
1) Do you believe that the miraculous gifts were the “signs of the apostles” and therefore confined to the apostolic era? Why?
I am inclined to believe that 2 Cor 12:12 gives insight into Paul’s own views on the things that mark an apostle (rather than simply quoting back Corinthian criteria) and I do therefore think that ‘signs, wonders and miracles’ are to be included among the marks of an apostle. I am less convinced that we can deduce from this that such signs were confined to the ‘apostolic era’. A number of reasons come to mind:
- To say that these marks are necessary for apostleship says nothing either way about whether others may also evidence them (even if to a lesser degree). If Paul is arguing that they are necessary for apostleship, it doesn’t follow that he regards them as sufficient for apostleship (and therefore that anyone who exercises them must by definition be an apostle). It is simply flawed logic to argue that way.
- It is clear from Acts 8 that some who were not recognized as apostles did manifest supernatural gifts. 1 Corinthians 12 seems to reinforce this, since they are included in the lists of gifts for the general building up of the church, with no suggestion that they are limited to apostles.
- I am increasingly asking whether ‘apostleship’ has a completely fixed meaning in the NT in any case. Ephesians 4 has apostles (plural) given to the church by Christ after his ascension. It seems very unlikely that this is only Paul and Matthias, but may well reflect a continuing ministry of gospel-shaped church planting and nurturing of leaders. If so we may not be on safe ground to assume that, in 2 Cor 12, Paul is thinking only of apostles who minister before the closure of the canon.
- The reports of miraculous manifestations in pioneer missionary situations are, to my mind, too widespread to be readily dismissed.
Finally, to say that signs and wonders are signs of the apostles is not to say that they are only signs of the apostles. They are clearly signs of the Kingdom and signs of the Messiah too! It seems to me that Heb 2:4 sees them not only as signs of an apostolic era but as signs of the apostolic message too – the message we ourselves proclaim!
2) Does your church pray for sick people to be healed? How is this done? Do you expect healing to take place?
We do pray for sick people to be healed. We do this regularly for many folk within our church prayer meetings, for example. The elders also engage in prayer for healing, modelled as closely as we can on James 5, when this is requested. We believe that the emphasis in James is for the sick person to initiate this. Such times of prayer are preceded by an explanation of what we are doing and include moments for confession of sin, opportunities for verses of scriptures to be spoken into the person’s life, extended prayer for the person (and often their spouse if they are married), laying on of hands and anointing with oil. We are clear that the oil has no supernatural properties but symbolizes our expectation that the person is being set aside for the particular blessing of God, ministered by the Holy Spirit, as we pray for them.
We expect God to work in such times of prayer and they are simply beautiful times of deep fellowship, which people always appreciate hugely. Some people have got better physically after such times of prayer – occasionally in a way that has seemed quite remarkable. Some have died not so long afterwards. Invariably people’s lives have been deeply touched by the presence of God and the love of his people. We encourage folk to expect God to be at work, but alert them to the fact that his ways are higher than ours and that the way he works may be very different to what we expect or hope for. We don’t believe that healing is there for us to name and claim and regard this as a cruel doctrine which has too often compounded the suffering of dear Christian people.
3) What do you understand by the gift of prophecy? Is it practiced in your church? In what way?
Carson (Showing the Spirit) has convinced me that, in both Testaments, prophecy is broad in its reference, encompassing binding canonical revelation (which I understand to be completed! – e.g. the writing OT prophets and the book of Revelation) at one end of the spectrum, right the way through to something much more immediate and localized in its scope (e.g. the OT schools of the prophets, the kind of prophecy described in Acts 21).
I am increasingly unpersuaded by Grudem’s insistence that the definition of prophecy must be restricted to ‘spontaneously given’ revelation. That prophecy can and should include this is evident from 1 Cor 14:30; that it must be spontaneous (and that this is therefore definitive for prophecy) is not at all clear to me. Indeed, I find it almost inconceivable that Paul would choose, as his great ‘example gift’ of the word ministry that edifies the church, a category that doesn’t include the careful, thoughtful exposition and application of scripture into the life of the church!
I therefore tend to a broad definition of prophecy that is simply ‘speaking the word of God’. In our church this is primarily done through systematic expository preaching (which, to be preaching, must be applied to the life of the church through prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit). Alongside this, however, we welcome a more spontaneous ministry in which particular scriptures are shared which are believed to be pertinent to the life of the church or of an individual and we explicitly invite such contributions in some of our prayer meetings. I have occasionally been very blessed by the sharing of other specific words and pictures, and believe there is a place in the prophetic ministry for this (Acts 21 again), but I would always urge careful testing by scripture and would be unhappy to make such words binding on the conscience of a believer.
4) What do you understand by the gift of “tongues”? Is it manifested today? If so how and when?
I believe that the gift of tongues is a God-given ‘language’ for prayer, since tongues are addressed to God (1 Cor 14:2). Carson (Showing the Spirit) has argued convincingly that the definition of ‘language’ need not be restricted to identifiable human languages. I do not see any reason to doubt that it is manifested today (the burden of proof is surely on the cessationists), nor any reason to think that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t give this gift fairly widely to the people of God (1 Cor 14:5). However, I don’t believe that all Christians can claim this gift (1 Cor 12:28), nor do I believe it should be seen as ‘the initial physical evidence’ of spiritual fullness. Indeed, I think 1 Cor 12-14 is probably written to counter an ‘overheated’ estimation of the importance of the gift of tongues as a marker for spiritual maturity.
I ‘do not forbid speaking in tongues’ – indeed, having seen how some believers have been so richly blessed in private prayer through this gift, I want gently to encourage its use in that context. However, while I’m not sure I can prove it, my sense is that Paul’s instructions for handling tongues in the public assembly are more concessionary than normative – i.e. he isn’t saying that we should expect or encourage tongues in church gatherings, but giving instructions about the disciplines that should apply should this happen.
We have never had a public tongue given in a church service at Above Bar Church. If we did we would wait for interpretation and encourage the weighing of that interpretation. I would expect such an interpretation to sound more like a prayer to God than an instruction from him. I have, on one occasion in another church, been significantly helped by the interpretation of a tongue, though not entirely happy with the way it was handled.
5) What are the clearest evidences of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of your church?
The gospel coming with regenerating, life-transforming power into peoples’ lives, bringing conviction of sin, joyful embracing of the work of Christ, assurance of adoption, progressive holiness, overflowing thankfulness and active commitment to mission. We see all this to some measure but we long to see it more! 1 Thess 1 would be the model. The sense of ‘every member ministry’ where we expect to give and receive God’s grace through the exercise of each other’s gifts (not just the preacher’s gift!). The sense of congregational worship (including preaching) as a supernatural event, not a mere lecture or a tired formality.
6) What would you say to Christians who believe that in theory all the gifts are available today and yet do not expect to see them manifested in their church?
If I’m honest I’m probably in that category and so I welcome the challenge of the question! The temptation for me is to organize the life of the church so as to create a platform for ‘my ministry’, so that I have plenty of control and can stay well within my comfort zone! I think it’s excellent, therefore, that we should encourage one another to have higher expectations that God may do the unexpected! However, I’m not so convinced that the NT lists of gifts are intended as exhaustive. They seem to me more ad hoc and situationally determined. I wouldn’t be at all troubled by the thought that different missional contexts may require the giving of different spiritual gifts and I am confident that the Holy Spirit has more than sufficient creativity to meet each situation (e.g. creative gifts for internet evangelism in the contemporary world).
For me the big issue is not to ‘audit’ whether all the gifts are being used (let’s face it, those who talk most about this are often not talking about all the gifts in any case but only three or four!), but (1) to encourage a view of the church in which a wide range of gifts are expected, valued, developed and given space to operate; (2) to encourage each believer to discover and use whatever gifts the Lord has given (e.g. 1 Pet 4:10ff); (3) to be open to a God who may surprise us (1 Thess 5:19ff) and (4) to practice the NT disciplines in the using of NT gifts (especially the discipline of weighing, testing, etc.).
7) How do you handle differences of opinion on spiritual gifts within church leadership, within church membership and in your relationship with other churches?
Some years ago I was asked to give a review for a re-print of John Stott’s Baptism and Fullness (it wasn’t reprinted in the end). Reading the book again left me thinking (a) that he had largely won the argument on the baptism/fullness question (many charismatics are no longer wedded to the idea of a subsequent baptism of the Spirit) but that he had largely lost the argument on the gifts (which has simply moved in directions he hadn’t foreseen with the input of Grudem, Carson, Fee, Deere, Turner, etc.).
Much though I admire the spirituality of some of those who testify to some kind of second ‘baptism’ experience, I still cannot see it biblically and can’t shake the concern that the language is inevitably divisive (even though not always intended as such). However, when it comes to the gifts, my experience has been when they are taught alongside the New Testament disciplines for their use; and when people are encouraged to use them in a way which invites testing rather than as a form of spiritual bullying; and when we combine prayer for healing with a robust conviction of the sovereignty of God; and when, in relation to tongues, the emphasis is on personal prayer rather than the assembly, this whole area doesn’t have to be as divisive as it can first seem.
Biblical teaching on the relevant passages that is clear in its position, whilst being generous to those who disagree, has been very important in Above Bar Church. Within this I have always tried to identify the extensive areas of agreement that exist on spiritual gifts (and more widely on the work of the Spirit) so as to show that we can disagree agreeably on the areas where opinions differ. Willow Creek’s Network Course, with its emphasis on the broad range of NT gifts rather than just a few controversial ones, has helped people get spiritual gifts out of the ‘slightly freaky’ box in their mind and into a box with rather more familiar categories, which makes the whole conversation easier and more inclusive.
- Don Carson, Showing the Spirit (Baker Academic, 1996)
- Wayne Grudem (Ed.), Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? (Zondervan, 1996)
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994)
- Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence (Baker Academic, 2009)
- Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary) (William B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2013)