18 June 2021

Continuationism. Because the miracles never stopped.

CONTINUATIONIST kən.tɪn.jʊ'eɪ.ʃən.ɪst adjective. Believes the Holy Spirit’s gifts (particularly tongues and prophecy) continued from bible times to the present day.

Honestly I’m not a fan of the term continuationist, because the default setting for Christianity is—and should be!—the Holy Spirit is living, active, and still doing as he did among the ancient Christians.

As prophesied by the prophet Joel in the fifth century BC, and fulfilled 24 May 33 on the first Christian Pentecost:

Joel 2.28-29 NKJV
28 “And it shall come to pass afterward
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions.
29 And also on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”

Before the church age, the Spirit’s power was only poured out like this to prophets. But now every Christian has the Spirit within us, and therefore he can empower Jesus’s church with supernatural gifts as necessary—miracles, signs, healing, exorcisms, and speaking in tongues. These gifts are often necessary in this hurting world, which needs to learn God is here, loves us, and wants to save us.

But not every Christian believes this. Cessationists insist God turned off the miracles less than a century after he pouring out his Spirit upon his church. Gone within two generations. Not because of a massive doubt problem among his followers (although certain cessationists believe this too), but because they figure miracles are no longer needed now that we have a bible. And back this faithless idea with various out-of-context scriptures.

To their minds, cessationists feel they’re right to believe God has depowered and abandoned his people, He 13.5 with nothing to keep us going but our beliefs and our bibles. That those of us who insist miracles continued—whom they granted the label “continuationist”—are delusional, deceived by devils which trick us with mighty acts of power. ’Cause somehow their supernatural abilities never got turned off, yet ours has.

Does this make any sense to you? ’Cause it does to cessationists. To their minds, they’re the norm, and continuationists are weirdos. Even though we continuationists outnumber ’em by more than four to one. Seriously.

And even though cessationist churches are full of people who don’t actually believe in cessationism. Because they’ve seen stuff. Miraculous stuff. Stuff which makes ’em describe themselves as “soft cessationists”—they grudgingly admit God permits some miracles to take place once in a while, under certain circumstances. But not so often that they get uncomfortable—and not in continuationist churches, ’cause they’re pretty sure we continuationists are too wayward for God to legitimately work among us.

Basically there’s a lot of pride and denial going on among cessationists. But enough about them; their unbelief will just frustrate you. Let’s stick to normal Christians, who know God interacts with his kids on a regular basis. ’Cause we’ve seen him do it.

Continuationism is the norm.

I grew up in cessationist churches, so I can totally understand why such Christians are entirely sure their beliefs are the norm. It’s what they’re told. They’re encouraged to shun God-experiences, and be wary of any Christians who claim otherwise, and this self-censorship means they’re really unlikely to hear testimonies about God’s miraculous power. Even though it’s really easy to find such testimonies on the internet. And in continuationist churches. And in the bible.

The New Testament was clearly written by people who experienced God’s power, 1Jn 1.1-3 and were still experiencing God’s power. And it was clearly written to people whom the apostles expected would continue acting in God’s power. Ep 6.10 Pretty sure they’d be horrified at the idea of God turning the miracles off after they’d gone to such trouble to teach their miracle-based congregations to pursue supernatural gifts; prophecy in particular. 1Co 14.1

The NT’s books and letters were preserved by Christians who clearly saw no need to edit out the passages which instruct us on how to perform miracles: What to do, what not to do, the requirement to do ’em with the Spirit’s fruit, particularly to do ’em in love. In fact, y’know the chapter on love, which people keep quoting at weddings?

1 Corinthians 13.4-7 NKJV
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Paul and Sosthenes wrote it to instruct the church of Corinth on how to do miracles.

1 Corinthians 12.31 - 13.2 NKJV
31 But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

Ancient Christians had loads of miracle stories. So’d the medieval Christians. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have long traditions of miracles. It was considered a given that once indwelt by the Spirit, we Christians would actually do stuff in the Spirit’s mighty power to further God’s kingdom. And if we don’t, it means one of four possibilities:

  1. BAD TIMING. Sometimes it’s just the wrong time to act, so the Spirit won’t empower miracles. Sometimes he’ll say why, sometimes not.
  2. BAD MOTIVES. Certain Christians wanna perform a miracle for all the wrong reasons, so the Spirit won’t play along. Again, sometimes he’ll say why, sometimes not. Especially when it’s kinda obvious we’re in the wrong.
  3. LACK OF FAITH. The Spirit is totally willing and able, but we don’t believe or don’t ask, or the recipient likewise isn’t so sure, and the Spirit really wants us to get on board before he does anything.
  4. LACK OF ENDORSEMENT. The Spirit doesn’t wanna work through this particular Christian. This might not even be a Christian, and the Spirit doesn’t wanna empower someone who might lead people astray.

These four explanations actually came up a lot. Still do. More than they should.

And not every Christian is gonna react properly to the Spirit’s hesitancy. Some of us will correctly take the next step of asking the Spirit what’s the problem, accept his correction, repent where necessary—then do the miracle.

Others will blame everybody but ourselves. And yep, this is how cessationism still gets its start: Christians demand a miracle, don’t get it, refuse to accept the idea we might be the problem, and leap to the conclusion God isn’t in the miracle business anymore.

And when such people claim to believe in the bible, they seek “biblical” defenses for this faithless, godless worldview. Cessationists will quote plenty of verses to back themselves up. But let’s get real: They don’t believe, won’t believe, and will accept any evidence, no matter how iffy, for why they shouldn’t believe. And we shouldn’t either.

Many a cessationist will point to some of the ridiculous behavior you’ll find in certain continuationist churches. Namely the charismatic churches; namely those charismatic churches which want miracles to happen so bad, they’re willing to overlook way too many bad behaviors. Cessationists immediately point to the bad behaviors: “Exactly how does that bring glory to God?” Should the Holy Spirit really be empowering sinners and heretics? I mean, God has standards, doesn’t he? We sure do.

But I remind you the reason there are entire chapters of 1 Corinthians instructing the people to follow standards if we’re gonna do miracles, is because the Corinthians weren’t following standards. Yet it seemed the Holy Spirit was empowering miracles and prophecy and tongues among them regardless. God will use unworthy, broken vessels to get stuff done; he’s nowhere near as particular as we are, and way more gracious than we are. Yeah, those folks still need to straighten up and fly right, but it doesn’t mean the Spirit’s not miraculously empowering them. That’s our standard, not God’s.

Pentecostals and charismatics.

Whenever cessationists talk about (or rant against) continuationists, they’re usually talking about fellow Evangelicals. They’ve largely given up on the Orthodox and Catholics, who’ve always been continuationist.

There have been continuationists throughout Evangelical history, as various Protestants have shared prophecies and miraculous testimonies. Some of ’em, like the Quakers and early Methodists, were hugely influential in American history. But cessationists tend to zero in on three Evangelical movements which cropped up in the 20th century.

PENTECOSTALISM. Properly it began in the late 1800s, as a backlash against Darbyism’s particular strain of cessationism. Certain Evangelicals looked at the usual explanations for why God turned off the miracles, found them senseless, and asked the Holy Spirit to show them whether he’d done any such thing. He responded by empowering them to speak in Pentecost-style tongues.

The movement took off after a significant Wales revival in 1904, and a California revival in 1906. All Pentecostal denominations point back to these 1900–15 revivals as the beginning of the movement.

But when these new Pentecostals returned to their home churches with the good news—God hasn’t abandoned his people!—they were quickly kicked out of their churches as heretic. Not because they taught any actual heresy; it was entirely because their churches had decided cessationism is orthodoxy, and straight-up forbade tongues and prophecy. The excommunicated Pentecostals were obligated to either go independent, to join existing churches which accepted Pentecostalism (like the Christian and Missionary Alliance, or Methodist Holiness churches), or form new Pentecostal denominations like the Apostolic Church (UK), Apostolic Faith Church, Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), the Foursquare Gospel Church, and the Pentecostal Holiness Church.

Four distinctive beliefs set Pentecostals apart from other Evangelicals:

  1. SUPERNATURAL GIFTS. Everything the apostles listed in 1 Corinthians 12—and then some!—can be done in the present day through the Spirit’s power.
  2. BELIEFS ON BAPTISM OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Specifically that it’s not the same thing as when the Spirit comes to indwell us: It’s another event, one which can happen simultaneously, but often happens later. And specifically that when it happens, we speak in tongues like the apostles did at Pentecost. ’Cause tongues is God’s sign that Spirit baptism is happening.
  3. SANCTIFICATION. Likewise when the Spirit comes to indwell us, he doesn’t make us spontaneously produce good fruit. Instead it’s a lifelong process of transformation. One in which we and he work together, and we oughta see such growth in practicing Christians.
  4. EGALITARIANISM. Like Joel said, God poured out his Spirit on his sons and daughters. Pentecostals concluded women are therefore priests, same as men: They’ve been empowered by God himself, and shouldn’t be hindered from ministering, pastoring, and preaching same as men. It’s a view sexists still find scandalous, but there’s biblical precedent for it—and plenty of evidence the “complementarian” view is more based on sexism and a chauvinistic tradition, than bible.

I should add: In the 1910s, certain Pentecostals began to teach that God isn’t a trinity, and that Spirit baptism isn’t just available, but is mandatory if you wanna be saved. These folks are called “Oneness Pentecostals,” and are heretic. They have a bad habit of slipping into orthodox Pentecostal churches and trying to worm into leadership, so keep an eye out for ’em.

CHARISMATICS. This used to be the word people used, instead of “continuationist,” to describe a Christian who believes God’s still in the miracle business. (Ergo every Pentecostal is charismatic, but not every Charismatic is Pentecostal.)

But there are actually three movements called “charismatic.” They’re not the same movement, nor (apart from the Holy Spirit) do they share the same origin. Sometimes they’re called “first wave” and “second wave,” and the third group is lumped in with the second group. I used to signify them by when their movements roughly started—1950s charismatics, 1970s charismatics, and 1980s charismatics—but I’ve switched to the following labels ’cause they make more sense:

MAINLINE CHARISMATICS. The first charismatic movement, then called “the Charismatic Renewal,” took place in mainline and traditional churches. Some of these churches, like the Episcopalians and Baptists, were historically continuationist, but time and faithlessness had led a lot of their leaders to adopt cessationist attitudes. They were never officially cessationist, but functionally that’s how they behaved.

In the 1950s, a number of their leaders began to ask why this was, and seek the Holy Spirit. He responded by giving ’em Pentecostal-style God-experiences. They’d speak in tongues, prophesy, cure the sick, and perform mighty acts with the Spirit’s power. But unlike the Pentecostal revivals of the ’00s, the denominations didn’t drive out their newly-empowered members. To their credit, they recognized this as something the Spirit was actually doing.

They didn’t adopt Pentecostal beliefs, though. They’re not sure speaking in tongues is the only sign of Spirit baptism. They have their own views about sanctification and egalitarianism. They’re not so sure about every supernatural gift. But generally they make room for the Spirit to do his thing among them, and perform miracles as he sees fit.

COUNTERCULTURE CHARISMATICS. The second charismatic movmement, sometimes called the “Jesus People movement,” was when the Baby Boomers discovered Jesus in the 1970s. But rather than practice their parents’ form of Christianity—which they were pretty sure was distorted, corrupt, and so boring—they sought to create their own churches, and practice it “Jesus’s way”… however that looked. (Often it looked a whole lot like a hippie church. Stands to reason; hippies started those churches.)

Sometimes the movement had the eager support of the pastors of existing churches, who recognized this was a massive opportunity to reach young people, and transformed their churches appropriately. Other times an eager young person would start a church on their own, and it’d grow. History has repeated this model a number of times since: In the 1990s there were a number of “Generation X” churches, where that generation did the same as the Boomers, and stepped away from their parents’ old-timey church model to do things their way. In the 2010s and today we see a lot of “Millennial” churches doing the very same thing. No doubt the trend will continue with every new generation. Good.

But what makes this a charismatic movement is the expectation the Spirit would accompany these new churches with God-experiences and miracles and prophecy. At the very least, people would learn to hear the Spirit’s voice and follow him. Some churches would lean more Pentecostal-style than others, but all of them allow for miracles, tongues, and curing the sick.

NEW APOSTOLIC CHARISMATICS. The third crop originated about the same time, and has some overlap with the counterculture charismatics and the Pentecostals. Apostolic charismatics focus more on the fact they’re founded by apostles whom Jesus specifically tasked to lead this ministry, and Jesus confirms this appointment by empowering ’em with prophecy and miracles.

These are the charismatics we tend to hear most of the complaints about. Their emphasis on doing things their own way, supposedly because God put ’em in charge and we’re not to question the Lord’s anointed—has produced a lot of bad behavior and abuse, or at least created the conditions in which a lot of evil might happen. You see questionable leadership structures, few accountability structures, questionable educational backgrounds, few consequences for false prophecy, and way too much simony and prosperity-gospel thinking among them.

Plus “charismania”: Charismatics who come up with some novel, and sometimes downright bizarre, teachings about God. Charismatics who insist their teachings oughta be followed as if they’re scripture—yet claim they’re good Protestants; that they’d never put their teachings on the same level as the scriptures, even though functionally it’s kinda what they’re doing. Charismatics who make you wonder if we really shouldn’t go back to stoning false prophets to death.

Of course as far as the cessationists are concerned, we’re all going to hell.

Everybody else.

Obviously Pentecostals and charismatics are far from the only continuationists in Christendom. Most churches never did accept cessationist beliefs. After all, they still read their bibles. Ain’t nothing in there to indicate God ever turned off the miracles. And plenty of Christians have had a God-experience or two, which confirm God hasn’t ceased a thing.

A number of continuationist churches have even adopted certain Pentecostal and charismatic practices. Visit a Roman Catholic charismatic prayer meeting sometime, and you can’t tell the difference between it and any Pentecostal worship service. (Well, other than the robed friars and nuns in attendance.) Same music. Same enthusiasm. Same Holy Spirit, of course.

Now, if most of your Christian experiences have been cold and dead because you’ve been hanging out with cessationists all this time, this fact may be news to you. (You may even doubt it’s true. I’ve met a few people who were stunned to discover four out of five Christians are continuationist. They thought they were the minority!) It’s because cessationists get pretty loud and angry about their beliefs… and their anger should probably be the red flag which warns you there’s something seriously wrong with them.

Stands to reason: If they’re resisting the supernatural, they’re resisting the Holy Spirit. They’re resisting his fruit. What else would they have but anger, fear, divisiveness, and other works of the flesh? Steer clear of any such people, whether they’re cessationist or continuationist. Their anger means you can’t trust their teachings.

So feel free to doubt them, and check the scriptures for yourselves. Ask the Holy Spirit for insight. And be prepared, ’cause he tends to just straight-up give people a God-experience. It’s much faster and far more convincing. And fruitful: Your doubts and fears will be gone. It really takes a load off.