There has been much discussion about John MacArthur’s recent Strange Fire conference. I must confess that I have not read MacArthur’s speeches from this conference and so I can not respond in detail. I have read elsewhere that MacArthur compared Pentecostals to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But since I don’t have those resources in front of me, I will not respond to MacArthur’s view specifically. Instead, I would like to respond to the view held by some that the charismatic movement is a heresy.
The first thing that must be done is define the charismatic movement. Charismatics can include classical Pentecostals, prosperity gospel, Vineyard, Toronto blessing, charismatic Catholics/Anglicans/Baptists, etc. Each of these groups are very different and one group should not be judged by the other. I define charismatics as those who not only believe that spiritual gifts are for today but those who emphasize them in regular use. I don’t see anything particularly controversial with this. To teach healing or speaking in tongues cannot be heretical as those were parts of the early church as described in Acts and Paul’s letters.
The question of course is whether or not such gifts are still active today. That is a valid question. While I believe they are, I respect those who disagree. What I would argue is that such questions are not in the area of heresy but belong with discussions about modes of baptism and of church government. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that ongoing beliefs in charismatic gifts should be considered heresy.
For some, the dangers of the charismatic movement go beyond the practice of charismatic gifts. There are other theological issues at stake as well. This is where we have to be careful about what type of charismatic group we are talking about. I attended the Toronto blessing years ago when it was at its height and I sometimes (but not always) saw things that concerned me. But if you visited the Pentecostal church where I was baptized, not only would you not be concerned about theological error, you likely would not even know it was Pentecostal. Many Pentecostal churches today are little different from generic evangelical churches. I am very concerned about the prosperity gospel, and find that it is rife with theological error. But many Pentecostal/Vineyard churches are just as concerned about the prosperity gospel.
A heretical movement is not a group that does things in a different way or has a style you are uncomfortable with. You must go deeper. What do they say about the Trinity? What do they say about the incarnation? What do they say about the nature of salvation (grace vs works)? Use of charismatic gifts is not an issue of orthodoxy or heresy.
Are there dangers in the charismatic movement? Sure. I saw people attempt to manufacture charismatic gifts. I saw faith healers with really bad theology. I saw some very sloppy biblical interpretation. But I have seen dangerous things in other groups as well. A Baptist can slide into error just as easily as a Pentecostal can. It is not a charismatic problem, it is a human problem.