In the second chapter of his book, Authentic Fire, Dr. Michael Brown addresses the charge that charismatic and Pentecostal Christians never police their own ranks. He acknowledges that there are many, many terrible things done in the name of the Holy Spirit, especially by leaders on so-called “Christian” TV, [AF, 13]. He also acknowledges that virtually all of the abuses seen on TV take place in charismatic circles and that is inexcusable [AF, 38]. But such outlandish things do not represent the core of the charismatic movement and they certainly have not gone without severe criticism from charismatic leaders.
In order to prove his point, Brown lists a number of leading men from within Pentecostal and charismatic churches who have decried for years those terrible abuses propagated by TV preachers. For instance, David Wilkerson, Gordon Fee, Jim Cymbala, John Wimber, Lee Grady, Jack Hayford, and Derek Prince. All of those men have been extremely vocal critics against the prosperity Gospel, the fund raising manipulation, and wild behavior that characterizes much of what is called “Christian TV.”
Brown then goes on to highlight a good number of books that he has written addressing those serious problems. Many of them were published years before MacArthur wrote Charismatic Chaos, and decades before Strange Fire, so he is just woefully misinformed when he says no one has spoken out against those abuses.
Brown then provides a testimony of his own involvement with the Brownsville revival that took place in the 1990s. He notes how there have been many critics of the revival who in his opinion are honestly ignorant of what happened there. Where as those critics claim there were bizarre, out of control happenings regularly taking place, the focus of the revival was sinners being saved and people spurred on to holy living. Brown even provides an extended footnote that answers a lot of the recent criticisms against Brownsville and the fact it is currently a church on the verge of financial ruin [AF, 46-47, fn. 44].
He wraps up the chapter reemphasizing how he recognizes the embarrassing, inexcusable manipulation that is passed off as the work of the “Holy Spirit.” But he reminds readers that such things are the fringe of the charismatic movement, not the norm, and that Christians cannot afford to miss God’s visitation again today during this critical time in our world [AF, 42]
Analysis and Review
I’ll begin by confessing that I find it difficult to take Dr. Brown’s claims from this chapter seriously in light of the recent series of interviews he did with Benny Hinn for his “This Is Your Day!” TV program. Even though the interviews primarily centered around Jewish evangelism and never got into Authentic Fire related conversation, the fact that he would cozy up to the one man who is the living, walking embodiment of all those extreme fringes Brown claims he has criticized over the years is absolutely stupefying.
Making matters worse for him is how Brown reacted to his detractors in the hours after he announced the interviews on social media. He feigned innocence as to who Hinn really was (which is suspect), saying that he “had heard things” about him, but because he doesn’t watch “Christian TV” he didn’t really know. His naivete is hard to believe, as Justin Peters wrote in review of the entire episode.
In fairness to Brown, he has given his explanation as to how the interview came about, but I still thought his reasons were troubling, especially his dismissiveness regarding the well-documented false teaching and prophecies that are the center piece of Hinn’s so-called ministry. As much as he may want to paint his interaction with Hinn as an opportunity to maybe confront him about these problems (as if he has never been confronted about them before) and present the Gospel to his vast audience of millions, I believe he completely refuted his key thesis outlined in this chapter.
However, with that stated, let me jump into my review anyways and offer a few observations.
Dumbing Down Error
This second chapter echos a broad complaint against John MacArthur and the Strange Fire conference in general. That being: what MacArthur identifies as frightening and bizarre behavior among charismatics does not fairly represent what charismatics really believe and practice. MacArthur is cherry-picking the low hanging fruit that any God-fearing, Bible-loving charismatic would agree is rotten.
In order to explain why charismatic and Pentecostal generally do not talk more of those problems, Brown writes, “….the reason they don’t feel the need to address the latest abusive service on Christian TV is because it is not part of their world or the world of most (or all) of their congregants,” [AF, 16].
So in other words, the phenomena that MacArthur criticizes is not at all a part of the mainstream of charismatic and Pentecostal practice. Take for example snake-handling. There are churches who practice it who may be “Pentecostal,” but snake-handling is not anything most Pentecostals experience and so they have no need to confront it as error. Additionally, most charismatics and Pentecostal churches do not involve themselves with the kind of manipulative “seed faith” financial fund raising that is typical of televangelists, so it is just patently false to lump the majority of charismatics into one big pile.
Now most people reading my review here are asking themselves, “Is he for real?” How exactly can Brown be so deaf and blind to the ubiquitous You Tube videos that show countless people flopping around on the floor at a Pentecostal crusade, or screaming like a banshee when a babbling evangelist touches him? And they are major charismatic personalities that reach thousands, if not millions, of charismatic worshipers.
Additionally, I have dozens of personal friends and acquaintances who came out of Pentecostal and charismatic backgrounds. They testify to the bizarre behavior that was regularly witnessed in their churches every week. Furthermore, those massive “crusades” take place in basketball arenas. Folks have to be coming from somewhere and those televangelists have to be getting their millions from somebody.
The Anointing of the Holy Ghost?
I think the primary reason for this disconnect has to do with the fact that what non-charismatics like John MacArthur see as frighteningly, weird behavior manifested in the name of the Spirit, Michael Brown (and by extension, mainline charismatics) consider to be just the normal workings of the Spirit in revival. Brown writes,
The fact is, while the Word does tell us to judge doctrine and conduct, it does not tell us to judge styles of worship (slow songs; fast songs’ choirs; hymns; contemporary tunes; spontaneous singing; dancing; clapping; shouting; raising hands; liturgy; silence; etc) or responses to the Spirit (weeping in sorrow; laughing for joy; shaking; trembling; falling; going into trances; etc), [AF, 35].
Whereas a non-charismatic like MacArthur would view strange manifestations such as violent “shaking” and “going into trances” attributed to the Holy Spirit as ungodly blasphemy that in no way represents biblical Christianity, Brown does not. When he is shown videos of people doing strange things, he doesn’t immediately conclude that they are loopy people doing loopy things all in the name of being anointed by the Spirit. It could really be God at work in revival so he doesn’t want to discount a real move of God. Non-charismatics are left baffled as to why he would draw that conclusion.
Why does he, or any Pentecostal/charismatic for that matter, believe a woman violently whipping her head around in a frenzied manner is the Holy Spirit’s anointing? Or a person convulsing and dry heaving over and over as if he has been gripped by an epileptic seizure is a physical response to the power of the Spirit of God? Does he believe that is how prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah normally delivered their messages? And before anyone says, “But what about Ezekiel? He did weird stuff.” But does Ezekiel’s most unique and unusual ministry represent the norm for the average Christian’s experience with God? Those are the concerns that are at the heart of MacArthur’s criticisms of charismatic worship.
Brown seems content to limit abusive manipulation in the name of God only to the shenanigans perpetrated by con-artist televangelists who fleece viewers for money. “Con-artist televangelists” is apparently a category I guess most charismatics and non-charismatics can agree is bad. But again, those con-artist televangelists have to be getting their money from somewhere. Who is it that supports them and why?
MacArthur’s concerns, however, go beyond what is displayed on television to what drives charismatic and Pentecostal thinking. He believes, and contrary to Brown’s assertion that we are not called to judge the legitimacy of those manifestations, that such behaviors do not represent the work of the Holy Spirit by any stretch of the imagination. To insist that they do is the blasphemy to which he speaks.
A biblical understanding of the Spirit’s anointing and power is sobriety of life, a sound mind, and the bearing out of the fruit of the Spirit, in which self-control is numbered among them, (2 Timothy 1:7, Galatians 5:22-23). Rolling about the floor, flailing about, laughing uncontrollably, falling down all over the auditorium, shaking in the fashion of having a seizure (all things that happened at the Brownsville revival) does not demonstrate the work of the Spirit. It is fleshly carnality. That is the point of contention between MacArthur and Brown and charismatics and non-charismatics. Non-charismatics, I believe, rightly say such “manifestations” are a mockery of God, where as charismatics think it is the work of God. However, the two views cannot be correct.
Who Let the Dogs In?
Now Brown goes on in this chapter insisting that if outlandish behavior were to manifest itself at services where he was ministering, he’d be the first to offer a rebuke. He complains, however, that it is unfair for him to be held responsible for “manifestations” he has never witnessed.
For example he writes that he has never seen people “barking like dogs,”
Of course I do renounce “barking in the Spirit,” but why in the world should I spend my time rebuking a chimera? Why even bring attention to it? It would be like asking me why I’m not renouncing snake handling services – except that those services are far more common than services in which people bark like dogs, [AF, 40]
He then goes on to cite, ironically, Benny Hinn, who has allegedly renounced the “barking” phenomena as devilish, [AF, 41]
I’m a bit suspicious of his claim here. Charismatics “barking like dogs” is likened to a mythical, non-existent monster? I haven’t scoured the entire internet, but just doing a quick internet search I came across this video. Plus we have this recent report out of Africa about people eating grass under the anointing of the Spirit (video here). Not quite “barking in the spirit” but certainly animal like.
Tony Miano recounts his testimony starting out in a charismatic church loosely affiliated with the Anaheim Vineyard where the late John Wimber pastored. According to him, folks from his church attended a conference at Anaheim Vineyard and returned to report the “extraordinary move of the Spirit” and one of those “moves” was people “barking like dogs.” Keep in mind that Brown identifies Wimber as one of those charismatics who allegedly speaks out against such abuses of the Spirit.
It is also a matter of historical record that the phenomena of animal noises (as well as other strange manifestations) were prevalent among the frontier camp meetings as early as Cane Ridge in Kentucky in 1801. Pentecostal historian, Vinson Synan writes in his history on the holiness and Pentecostal traditions,
Peter Cartwright reported that in one service he saw 500 “jerking” at once. The unconverted were as subject to the “jerks” as were the saints. One minister reported that, “the wicked are much more afraid of it than of small pox or the yellow fever.” After “praying through” some would crawl on all fours and bark like dogs, thus “treeing the devil” [The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition, 12].
Paul Conkin, who has written a definitive account of the Cane Ridge camp meeting, records that along with other odd experiences many people,
Under conviction, individuals seemed deliberately to debase themselves by assuming a doglike posture and growling and barking for hours. Several visitors observed numerous people acting like dogs. Even McNemar deplored this most degrading behavior, and attributed it to a reluctance to dance in worship [Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost, 130].
But let’s grant Brown’s contention. That people “barking in the spirit” is as rare as a chupacabra sighting as he puts it, and charismatic critics are exaggerating non-existent happenings as a means to mock charismatic worship. Given his view that the Word of God does not call us to judge styles of worship or responses to the Spirit, why exactly would he renounce someone “barking in the Spirit”? What makes “barking in the spirit” an unacceptable response to the Spirit but going into trances, laughing uncontrollably, and shaking violently are acceptable? The inconsistency here is frustrating.
Theological Abuse and False Prophecies
Because Brown (and charismatics in general) is open to outlandish manifestations as being a regular function of healthy, Christian spirituality, he is dismissive of other criticisms against charismatic theology and practice that MacArthur has raised. While it is certainly commendable that men like David Wilkerson, John Wimber, Derek Prince, and even Michael Brown himself, have spoken out against spiritual abuses, especially manipulative fund raising in the name of “giving your all” to Jesus, what is also troubling is those same men promote theological error that can be just as equally abusive. Even if their error is not on the same level as the manipulative, con-artist TV preachers they rebuke, it certainly should disqualify them from any influential Christian ministry.
Let me highlight a couple of examples of what I mean.
Brown lists the late David Wilkerson as an outspoken Pentecostal critic of spiritual abuse that has taken place within Pentecostal and charismatic churches. That’s all well and good, but Wilkerson is also notorious for giving a number of false prophecies over the years. His prophecies generally focus upon apocalyptic hysteria like cataclysmic earthquakes shaking America, cities being on fire, tanks rolling through the streets, hundreds of thousands of people running for their lives.
One blogger notes a connection between an alleged vision Wilkerson had in 1974 of Japan and the tsunami that took place there in 2011. Another writer sees stark similarities to Wilkerson’s 1992 prophecy about coming apocalyptic doom and another one he gave in 2010 with almost the exact same theme even naming New York once again as a focal point of the disaster. To date, none of the events he prophesied have come to pass. At least with any specificity. Even secular people know Japan’s location is prone to earthquakes and ravaging tsunamis so there isn’t anything particularly prophetic about that.
Regrettably, Brown’s response to those false prophecies, along with most mainstream charismatics, is “oh well.” In fact, Brown would probably bristle at the notion of calling Wilkerson’s prophecies “false” because that would imply he wasn’t a Christian.
But no one is questioning the man’s salvation. We have grave concerns that he stands before an audience of people claiming to have a direct revelation from God about the future that never, ever comes to pass. Consistently claiming God is showing a guy events about the future, as far back as 1974, and none of them ever come to pass raises serious questions about the credibility of the man to lead a church.
Yet this glaring shortcoming on Wilkerson’s part is passed over without comment because charismatics have an unbiblical, watered-down, second-tier view of prophecy propped up by so-called charismatic “academics” like Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms, who by the way, contributes an appendix for Brown’s book on the very subject of fallible prophecies. There really aren’t “false” prophets, but fallible prophets who mean-well who may get things wrong a lot.
Brown also notes Jack Hayford and Derek Prince as outspoken critics of charismatic abuses. Yet both men are heavily involved with promoting deliverance style ministries that are designed to identify demonic strongholds in believers’ lives and help them get free from the power of the devil. Hayford’s church began Cleansing Stream Ministries with the purpose of counseling Christians about the demonic influences they need to clean out of their lives.
I happen to know people who have gone through their program, and the experiences they had were downright disturbing. One gal told how she was directed to shout at the demons in her life and after a prolonged time of repetitive singing, tongue speaking, and all the other trappings of a charismatic experience, she began growling (again with the animal noises) and her leader was telling her that it was the demons coming out of her. Looking back on the experience, she says now that it was just her being caught up in the atmosphere of the place and responding in the way she was expected to by the group.
Anecdotal story, I know. I bet there are positive testimonies. But deliverance ministries teach Christians theological error about the power of the devil, true spiritual warfare, and Christian sanctification. The methods they employ to help people deal with sin issues lead to no good, as well as a spiritually unhealthy fixation on the demonic that is used to absolve the Christian of any responsibility for their sinful habits. In other cases deliverance ministries can lead to pastoral abuse. See here, and here to read examples of what I mean.
Regrettably, a lot of what is talked about in this chapter displays the appalling lack of discernment and the accommodation of bad teaching that non-charismatics like MacArthur find alarming.
In his hurry to defend his charismatic friends from what he perceives as unfair associations, Brown gives his readers the impression that MacArthur is saying all charismatics are like Benny Hinn and infamous grandma kicking revivalist, Todd Bentley. But the larger point we should take away from Strange Fire is to ask, “what sort of thinking about Christianity leads a person to believe God is speaking through men like Benny Hinn and Todd Bentley?”
It is easy to say someone like John “tokin’ the ghost” Crowder represents the “extreme fringe, of the extreme fringe” [AF, 47] and he is no more relevant to mainstream charismatics than Fred Phelp’s and his “God Hates Fags” cult is relevant to all Southern Baptists. However, the reality is that John Crowder has taken his Sloshfest on a world tour and does his drunken glory bit to sold out crowds of hundreds of thousands of young people, who are, sad to say, charismatic.
I’ll be blunt and say I believe Dr. Brown is wildly out of touch with the goings on in his own movement. And regrettably, I would imagine he embraces much of what non-charismatics believe is disastrous theology and practice. Sure, he may give vague rebukes against certain odd things within charismatic churches, though I wonder by what standard he judges something to be “odd” and “unbiblical.” But what he claims is the extreme fringe in charismaticism is honestly the mainstream. It is he who is the fringe.