Spare Parts

Have you come across the word ‘cessationism?” It’s not a word one frequently hears down at the Butchers. It’s the theory that after the initial outbreak of revival and miracles in the Book of Acts, the gifts of the Holy Spirit came to an end with the death of the original Apostles. They did exist in the first century, but then they ‘ceased’ – thus ‘cessationism.’

The theory is based on two arguments, both of which are wrong. First of all, that power ministry completely disappeared shortly after the Book of Acts; which a little digging around in church history books will show to be quite inaccurate. While it may be true that these gifts fell out of widespread use, they never truly disappeared.

The second argument is an incorrect interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:8, where Paul predicts a time when prophecy and tongues will end. Cessationists claims that spiritual gifts were around only until the completed Bible came into being and, once it had, they could all retire to the country. However, a more careful reading of the passage reveals that this cessation will take place at the coming of the Lord, when we see “face to face,” (verse 12). No need for prophecy or healing in heaven.

Of course, the very idea that power diminished by default at the death of the Apostles is ludicrous anyway. Picture the scene: a courageous, young disciple about to lay hands on a sick man and raise him up in the glorious Name of Jesus, only to receive an urgent text message forbidding him to do so, as the last Apostle had just died in Ephesus!

In recent months, I have wondered why the regular use of spiritual gifts went into decline. It was not God’s will; neither can a lack of knowledge be blamed: Paul’s letters were regularly copied and distributed. No, one is left only with the fact that gifts like prophecy, knowledge and tongues were put to the side by human choice. The church, perhaps especially its more institutionalised leaders, sought after other things. We see a hint of this in the New Testament itself as the Thessalonians are warned not to despise prophetic ministry (1 Thessalonians 5:20) a sure sign that this had already begun. The very earliest Pentecostals were mocked (Acts 2:13), while unsaved visitors to Corinthian Community Church thought the congregation to be quite mad (1 Corinthians 14:23). The temptation to think that spiritual gifts just ‘don’t really work’ in church was there from the start.

While we can only speculate what happened in the past, we are capturing modern church history on HD video. I wonder how common the practise of spiritual gifts is in British Pentecostal churches today. I am certainly not wanting to turn the clock back. There is no such thing as the “good old days” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) and I love so much about the current, seeker-aware mentality. But it seems to me that we are potentially at the dawn of a new cessationism. This time, while the belief in charismatic gifts will remain, their practise may well ‘cease’ again.

A few weeks ago, I was concluding the Sunday service, with the smell of coffee wafting in from the back. Suddenly a young man began speaking out in unknown tongues, a sense of urgency in his voice. A young woman quickly followed with an interpretation: “Today is the day to be saved!” would be a summary. Responding to the Spirit, I held a spontaneous Gospel appeal and three precious folks came and joined us at the front. The coffee waited.

True, the misuse and over emphasis of spiritual phenomena should never be permitted. If we have spent six months witnessing to people, and they finally agree to give Sunday morning a try, no-one wants big Bertha falling into their laps, claiming she is drunk in the Spirit. But neither would Paul advocate such behaviour. “Do not forbid,” he cries through the centuries, but “do have order” (1 Corinthians 14:39-40). Surely, the answer for misuse is proper use, not prohibition.

God doesn’t do spare parts. There is something quite alarming about finishing the construction of DIY furniture only to discover that, while you have the seemingly finished product before your eyes, there are still pieces left over – a screw, a piece of wood or metal. “Oh, they must be spare parts,” we say. We don’t need them. But if God has given us spiritual gifts, we must need them, mustn’t we?

Originally published in JOY Magazine, February 2010

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