One of the important points of emphasis in Scripture is the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, it is also a point of contention in many churches. What should we think about pursuing the fullness of the Holy Spirit? How do the gifts of the Spirit, including the miraculous ones, operate today? What about the demonic? How do we, as church leaders, handle these topics?
I have had the privilege of planting and then subsequently serving as the lead minister/pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (outside Nashville, beside the Harpeth River) for the last twenty-six years. Since our earliest days, we developed a position and then brief position papers that have served us well with these questions up to the present. It has allowed people from very different backgrounds to serve together in our church community. Our posture has developed nuance but has continued to guide us down the messy middle of actively seeking the fullness of the Holy Spirit, while being very careful to ground our approach in God’s Word.
I am sharing our position paper on the gifts of the Holy Spirit with you because this topic is an important one and I hope that our experience can provide helpful guidance for other leaders and churches. Please note that this is an example of just one church’s position on these important (but not essential) matters. Other churches in the Renew network will have different positions—some will be more cessationistic (they do not expect miracles) and others will be more Pentecostal (they expect miracles). By choice, we at RENEW.org have a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but we do not have a definitive statement or position on the matters addressed in this post.
“I am sharing our position paper on the gifts of the Spirit with you because this topic is an important one and I hope that our experience can provide helpful guidance for other leaders and churches.”
I hope the posture our church developed is helpful to you as you seek what the Bible teaches. Perhaps our approach can serve as one model to help you wrestle with these questions in your context. My one goal is that wherever you land on these questions, your process will be guided by Scripture.
A Seeking, but Discerning Approach
In the early church, after conversion and the laying on of the apostles’ hands, a significant number of Christians in the Bible were able to exercise miraculous spiritual gifts, such as speaking in foreign tongues, interpreting tongues, healing, and predicting the future (see 1 Corinthians 12–14). These miraculous gifts helped establish and confirm the Christian faith. When unbelievers saw miraculous healings or heard some people suddenly speak about the things of God in a foreign language which they had not previously known, it drew attention to the validity of the Christian message. Signs and wonders of this type caused many to become Christians. Yet once Christianity was established and the apostles died out, these types of gifts became less and less common (Hebrews 2:3-4).
In the Bible there was also a clear link between these miraculous gifts, the unique first-century ministry of the apostles, and those people upon which the apostles laid their hands (Romans 15:15-19; 2 Corinthians 12:12). Because of this linkage, many believe that these gifts were not given to the church for all time—they were just given to Christians in the first century. There is an ongoing debate about this among Renew churches because others believe that the miraculous gifts are for the church of today and are available.
Factually, miraculous gifts have been rare in the ancient, pre-modern world and throughout history in mainstream Christianity, which has emphasized objective biblical doctrine. Often claims about miraculous gifts have been proven to be false and some have also been associated with heresy.
Gifts of the Spirit: “These miraculous gifts helped establish and confirm the Christian faith.”
Still, there seems to be no strong biblical basis by which we can completely rule them out or categorically deny the experience of these gifts as being available in our day. Countless Christians claim to be richly blessed by them—if not through public experience, through private personal prayer time. And contrary to what some say, there is nothing in the Bible that says God will stop giving people these miraculous abilities. (Most scholars do not believe that 1 Corinthians 13 teaches that they will pass away when the canon is complete.) We must be careful not to restrict God or lack faith in his miraculous abilities.
Yet again, given what has been learned in history and from the abuses in the Pentecostal, Charismatic, or Third Wave movements in our day, it is also wise to be cautious in these matters. Too many people attribute things to God that may not be from God. We want to be people who seek all that God has for us, but to also be cautious and carefully examine all practices in the light of what the Bible teaches.
The following four points summarize a “seeking, but discerning” approach to this topic which encourages us to seek God, to be objective, grounded in the lessons of history, and open, all at the same time.
1. Seek God and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9-13).
Christians should not seek God only with a rational and cognitive approach, at the expense of a deeply personal relationship. We should seek to be close to God in all things. Some Christians have tended to deny the emotional and intuitive parts of the Christian life. We need all that God wants to give us, and as we seek him, we should be open to how he might be present with us to help us in fresh ways, while maintaining a balance with biblical and rational thinking.
2. A Christ-like life of love—not speaking in tongues—is the strongest validation of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible makes it clear that sacrificial love is the clearest validation of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:1-4; 2 Corinthians 3:16-17; Galatians 5:16-25). All other experiential manifestations of the Spirit—including the miraculous ability to speak in tongues, prophecy, and healing should be understood as peripheral issues, compared to how we trust Christ, live, and love in our daily lives (Matthew 7:21-23).
“The Bible makes it clear that sacrificial love is the clearest validation of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.”
3. Test everything by the Word of God and rational thought.
The study of miraculous gifts should be done with the leaders of a local congregation. In this way the leaders can ensure that there can be a careful examination of the scriptural basis of all things (2 Timothy 3:16-4:5). For example, according to biblical teaching, if someone believes he or she can speak in tongues, it should not be allowed in church unless there is an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14: 27-28). And prophecy is to be tested and evaluated by Scripture and Christian leaders before being accepted (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21; 1 John 4:1; and 1 Corinthians 14: 29). Consequently, people should be free to privately speak in tongues. But when we decide to allow people to speak in tongues in a gathering, we should insist on having an interpreter and objective evaluation, as 1 Corinthians teaches.
4. Pursue God from and for your heart.
We must encourage all Christians to pursue a deep, personal, and abiding intimacy with the Holy Spirit. We want to be led by, filled by, and walk in the Spirit. Our yearning should be for God’s presence and the habits of prayer, Bible study, fasting, meditation, etc. We should seek to be in touch with God through his Holy Spirit on a daily basis.
A good way to think about miraculous gifts, then, is to pursue the fullness of the spiritual life and be open to all that the Spirit of God is doing, while being grounded in Scripture, history, and critical evaluation.
Gifts of the Spirit: “A good way to think about miraculous gifts, is to pursue the fullness of the spiritual life and be open to all that the Spirit of God is doing, while being grounded in Scripture, history, and critical evaluation.”
This approach does not answer every question. On the one hand, it subjects all spiritual experiences to a careful evaluation. Yet, on the other hand, it encourages us to seek surprising new movements of God in our lives every day. Our “seeking, but discerning” approach seeks to avoid extremes.
To get very practical and to show you how our church handles these matters in our congregational context, here is how we handle three practical implications of our approach.
Prayer and Fasting
- Annual Prayer-Fast – We seek to be a church grounded in prayer and fasting. Annually, we start each January with each person committed to 14 to 21 days of fasting and prayer as a church. We use books like Prayer and Fasting (click here for Prayer and Fasting). To experience effectiveness in helping as many as possible to join with us, we have a sermon series centered on fasting and prayer. We give people several options for the kind of fast they might choose (skip one meal a day, two meals a day, etc.). We have small group discussions on the teaching, and a devotional guide to encourage everyone on a daily basis (click here for group discussion guide). We close the fast with a celebration, where we share how it brought us closer to God.
- Weekly Prayer-Fast – We take each Tuesday as a recommended day for everyone in our church to fast and pray. We typically direct this prayer time through our Small Groups (8-15 people) and Transformation Groups (3-5 people) so we can focus on the needs of people who are involved in discipling relationships. We also send out an email to the whole church, each week, with a prayer-focus point.
Gifts of the Spirit: “We seek to be a church grounded in prayer and fasting.”
- Weekly Elder Prayer Meeting – One of the most enjoyable habits that we have developed is a prayer call on Zoom every week at 6 a.m. for our elders. We pray through all the specific prayer requests of people in the church and other important topics to the elders. We now find that we meet less for business meetings and our unity has become extremely strong.
It is also important to know that our elders also regularly meet with the sick and anyone who asks to anoint them with oil and pray over them, as James 5:13-16 describes.
- Weekly Prayer Encounter – We have two deacons (a husband and wife team) who lead, often with elders and staff, a ‘Prayer Encounter’ every Tuesday so that anyone can come to the church building for prayer. We typically have 15 to 25 people show up for the one-hour prayer meeting and we hear amazing stories of how God moves.
- Time in the Word – We also strongly encourage everyone to have time in God’s Word (reading or listening to it), in prayer, and in worship (praise), on a daily basis.
There are additional ways that we seek to be a people who “pray continually,” but I hope this summary gives you a good idea of the culture we are seeking to develop.
“We strongly encourage everyone to have time in God’s Word (reading or listening to it), in prayer, and in worship (praise), on a daily basis.”
Few areas of theology within the church have caused more division than the subject of spiritual gifts. Some people in our church believe all of the spiritual gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14 are for today. Others believe some of the gifts are for today. There are those who believe none of these gifts are for today. You can see the potential for division.
In light of these positions (all of which can find support from Bible-believing Christians), we have developed the following posture as a church.
The non-negotiables for our church:
- We do not believe that this subject constitutes a salvation issue.
- You can believe some of the gifts are for today and turn out to be wrong and still be saved.
- You can believe that all of the gifts are for today and turn out to be wrong and still be saved.
- You can believe that none of the gifts are for today and turn out to be wrong and still be saved.
Gifts of the Spirit: “Few areas of theology within the church have caused more division than the subject of spiritual gifts.”
It is especially important for those who believe that the gifts are present today to remember that the Spirit of God does not work contrary to the Word of God. The following are Scripture references that need to guide any church where the gifts of tongues and prophecy are encouraged and used:
- If someone speaks in a tongue, it is to be one speaker at a time (1 Corinthians 14:27, 33, 40).
- There must be an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:28).
- There must be one who discerns whether it comes from God (1 Corinthians 14:28-33; 1 John 4:1).
- If it is a personal prayer language, the best place to pray is at home (Matthew 6:6).
- All the gifts must be used to edify the church, not the individual (1 Corinthians 14:4-5, 26).
- No one has all the gifts, but the church is to be a body (1 Corinthians 12:27-30).
As for our church, we encourage the following unifying behaviors at the church:
- Because this is a non-salvation area of contention between believers, we will not encourage tongues in any of the gatherings of the church.
- We will not allow the discussion of a non-salvation issue like this to come up in a divisive way or to destroy the Lord’s work.
- We do believe God does miracles and answers prayer and, through the work of the Holy Spirit, empowers us to serve him and do good works.
“It is especially important for those who believe that the gifts are present today to remember that the Spirit of God does not work contrary to the Word of God.”
Again, please keep in mind that this is the posture of just one church (not the definitive RENEW.org stance). I encourage your church leadership to dig into Scripture about these matters and let Scripture guide you to your church’s posture.
In pursuing what the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit, we have also had to grapple with the whole teaching on the spiritual world. The Bible teaches that demons are real, and I believe many people experience their presence in various ways today. Our elders spent six months studying how to handle the question of the demonic and its influence on us today. We then came up with the following position for our church.
The Demonic Today
We believe demons are real. The elders of our church treat the steps to freedom from demons (that have been developed by experts like Neil Anderson) and the casting out of demons as a personal element of the faith (instead of an essential or important element; for more on these three categories, click here). Some in the church leadership believe (with conviction) that this practice is vital, and they use the steps and help cast out demons as part of their personal ministry in the church today—while others do not believe (with conviction) that this is a practice for today. The following points summarize how we handle this personal element of our faith (which is a disputable matter according to Romans 14:1–15:8, and which we sometimes call a “third bucket” issue).
- Those who practice the steps to freedom and casting out of demons will not seek out people from whom to cast out demons. They do not go looking for them, but they are free to utilize this practice with those they are counseling, helping, discipling, and those who express interest (including when they get a referral from someone else).
- All steps to freedom or deliverance/exorcism practices are to be in step with the teachings and principles made explicit in the Word of God (conscientious effort is made to carefully explain these principles, when asked).
- We will accept one another, even in leadership, who differ on this difficult topic, just as Christ accepted each of us in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:8).
“We will accept one another, even in leadership, who differ on this difficult topic, just as Christ accepted each of us.”
At our church, we encourage these unifying behaviors:
- Because this is an area of conscientious differences between believers, we will not actively promote the casting out of demons as a unique or separate ministry of the church, but rather it will be part of the ministry tools some freely use (including those in leadership).
- When public classes on this topic are taught (as they have been in the past), this position paper will be covered, to ensure that all attending know that at our church this is a personal or “third bucket” issue.
- We will not allow the discussion of a non-salvation issue like this to be talked about in a divisive way or to destroy the Lord’s work (by those on either side of this issue).
- We will seek to uphold the principles of Romans 14:1-15:8 to the best of our ability on this matter, recognizing that for some of us, it is a matter of deep conviction personally (as was the case in Romans 14:1ff).
I hope that it helps you to read this article. My goal is not to tell people what they should do, but rather to encourage you to seek a relationship with the Holy Spirit that both honors the Holy Spirit and protects the practice of pursuing the Holy Spirit from ways that do not honor God and are contrary to Scripture.
Most importantly, I want you to walk closely and joyfully with God every day.