When Word Meets Spirit: Some Thoughts on Convergence2
The conflict between the so-called Word and Spirit camps is not one supported by either God’s Word or the Holy Spirit. I’m shocked by how often Christians forget that it is the written Word of God that encourages us to pursue spiritual gifts and commands us never to forbid speaking in tongues, while it is the Spirit of God who is responsible, by inspiration, for every theological truth that the Bible affirms.
This division is not one that the Bible would ever endorse. It comes, instead, from the odd mixture of both fear and caricature. Those who live in the so-called Word camp have taken offense (sometimes for justifiable reasons) at the fanatical extremes of certain charismatics whose ministry style has become untethered from the biblical text. Some who live in the so-called Spirit camp have suffered greatly from the cynical and at times judgmental disdain of those who use the Bible as a weapon against anything with which they disagree.
The caricatures that each has of the other hasn’t helped. Those in the Word camp are convinced that charismatics prefer the present-tense voice of God to hearing what he has already said in Scripture. And charismatics accuse their cessationist friends of being overly cerebral and believing in a trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures.
But there are genuine signs throughout the professing Christian world of a glorious convergence between Word and Spirit. Of course, both sides would passionately insist that they have never contributed to the disturbing gap that we so often see in local churches. Word camp folk wholeheartedly affirm the person and power of the Spirit (although often with a skeptical eye on practices they consider extra-biblical or the exercise of tongues and prophecy). And Spirit camp people insist that they love the Word and are committed to obeying all that it says (notwithstanding the handful who tend to wander outside the boundaries of biblical truth to justify bizarre spiritual experiences).
The fact is that nowhere in the Bible are we told to be afraid of our affections or to consider the mind as our enemy. Nowhere are we warned about objective theological truth as if it might preclude a vibrant relationship of intimacy and joy with Jesus. The Spirit inspired the Word. The Word speaks frequently of the Spirit.
The conflict and convergence between the Word and Spirit movements can be best explained through a hypothetical story.
When Jenny first walked into Bridgeway Church, she was ecstatic with what she saw and heard. Having been raised for most of her Christian life in an independent charismatic church, she immediately connected with the atmosphere and energy of worship. Her heart leapt for joy when she saw several women dancing, as she herself loved to express her love for Jesus in more physically expressive ways. The shouts of gratitude and adoration, as well as a multitude of elevated hands, made her feel right at home. Jenny knew she had found the right spiritual family when the time of singing was briefly interrupted so that those who needed physical healing could receive prayer from others. And when a man and a woman came to the platform with words of knowledge, her eyes filled with tears of joy.
But it was something of a jolt to her heart when there followed a forty-five minute, verse-by-verse exposition of a passage from Colossians. Everyone around her opened their Bibles and listened attentively to a rigorously theological explanation and application of Paul’s letter.
“Does he do this every Sunday,” she asked the lady sitting next to her?
“Yes. Today is the 8th week in Colossians. I think he’ll eventually preach about 25 times from the book.”
Then the lady handed Jenny a single-spaced, six-page manuscript. “He gives us his notes every week. Here. This may help you follow along.”
Jenny suddenly became fearful. After the service, she spoke with the lady next to her: “Aren’t you afraid of quenching the Spirit. I’m concerned that placing so much emphasis on the Bible and its doctrines may turn you into a Pharisee. I’m not against truth, but I feel so much more comfortable when the Spirit’s power is the focus of what we do.”
Jerry’s reaction was similar to Jenny’s, but in the opposite direction. He had just moved to town and was looking for what he called a “Bible church” like the one he had attended for the past fifteen years. The sounds and sights of worship unnerved him. He’d never seen anyone waving a banner in a church service, and the exuberant shouts of joy and raised hands struck him as more like a Barnum & Bailey three-ring circus than a Sunday church service. Just as he was preparing to walk out, everyone sat down as the Word of God was opened, reverently read, carefully explained, and passionately applied.
“Huh,” he thought to himself, “this is weird. How can they do that?”
Both Jenny and Jerry loved Jesus. They loved the local church. But Bridgeway was something they had never seen or heard of before. That such an approach to Christianity could even exist was nothing short of a shock to the system.
Why this reaction on the part of two faithful, sincere believers in Jesus? How can two people who both love the Lord find themselves on seemingly opposite sides of a great spiritual chasm? And does it have to be this way? Is this sort of disagreement and discomfort unavoidable, or is there a solution that will make both Jenny and Jerry more comfortable with our approach to a Sunday gathering?
Let’s extend this illustration on the assumption that Jenny and Jerry are single and suddenly find themselves in something of a dating relationship. If marriage should follow, are they doomed to divorce? I could imagine one of their conversations going something like this:
Jerry: “I really enjoy your company Jenny, but you come across as a bit squishy when it comes to the Bible. You say you believe everything in it is true, but you seem to spend more time praying in tongues than listening to good teaching. When I attempted to get you to join with me in a home Bible study on Romans, you said your schedule was full. One night each week you participate in a ministry devoted to healing prayer, while yet another is given to discovery of one’s spiritual gifts.”
Jenny: “Yeah, I know. But everything you invite me to is so theologically heavy. The people in that Romans bible study are critical of anyone who disagrees with them. Their prayers are weak and low on faith and so peppered with, ‘If it be your will’ that I wonder if they really believe God will do anything of a miraculous nature when we ask him. The only time you talk about the Holy Spirit is when it pertains to sanctification. Aren’t you afraid of quenching his work?”
As Jerry and Jenny go deeper in their personal relationship, they discover that the chasm which separates them and their understanding of Christianity is far wider than they first imagined. Jenny is far more inclined to seek fellowship with believers who share her experience of the Spirit’s power while Jerry has a much more meticulous and rigorous litmus test that focuses almost entirely on doctrinal accuracy. Jenny loves contemporary worship and its emphasis on intimacy with God and the immediate experience of God’s presence. Jerry cringes when he hears the word “Bethel” and is enriched by the principles found in the lyrics of ancient hymns.
After leaving Bridgeway one Sunday, Jenny was trembling and tearful. “Did you feel God’s presence today? Was your heart warmed by the worship as mine was?”
“Well, not exactly,” Jerry replied. “God is omnipresent, so it really doesn’t matter what I ‘feel.’ It only matters that I know he’s everywhere. And the sermon is what really hit home. God’s written Word is where I connect. By the way,” Jerry continued, “my back was hurting so badly that I couldn’t stand long during the singing. I hope I didn’t embarrass you. I guess it’s just my cross to bear.”
“But why didn’t you go down front and let the prayer team intercede for you? They’ve seen tremendous success and I talked to a lady last week whose arthritic knee was completely healed.”
“Hmm. I’m open to being healed, if it is God’s will. But to be honest, I sort of think he’s trying to purify my heart by using my physical affliction. I’m learning to depend on him for everything these days. And I’m not even sure that he does that sort of thing anymore, at least not on a regular basis.”
“Yeah, but James says that we don’t have because we don’t ask (James 4:2). Why would you passively embrace suffering when he later tells us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another so that we may be healed (James 5:16)?”
By this time Jerry and Jenny are beginning to think their relationship is doomed from the start. Jenny warns Jerry about the dangers of intellectualism, while Jerry speaks with equal concern about Jenny’s penchant for emotionalism.
Fortunately for Jenny and Jerry, a good friend boldly steps in to help close the gap that seems to divide them.
“Hey, you two. How did either of you ever get the idea that you could play off Word and Spirit against each other? What made you think that God has given us a choice: either that you love the Word and hold the Spirit at arm’s length or that you embrace the Spirit and treat the Word with some measure of neglect? Don’t you remember what those two men on the Emmaus road said about Jesus, that he ‘was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people?’ (Luke 24:19). God has wedded his Word to the Spirit and no man should ever seek to put them asunder!”
The scenario that I’ve portrayed for you is not as uncommon as you might think. People who are oriented toward the Word of God often view those who emphasize the Spirit of God as being weak in the head, while the latter view the former as being hard of heart. Can Christians genuinely embrace both the functional authority of Scripture and the supernatural work of the Spirit by means of the many gifts he has bestowed? Is it possible for a person to affirm the sufficiency of the Bible while earnestly desiring spiritual gifts, especially prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1)? Must a person give up insisting on doctrinal precision in order to pray fervently and in faith for the sick to be healed? Must we rein in our affections in order to honor our minds?
Spiritual Convergence Insufficiency
There is a common vision disorder known as Convergence Insufficiency (CI) that illustrates the problem many have with Word and Spirit. People with CI have difficulty seeing things clearly that are near to them. One eye tends to drift outward when reading or doing close work, often leading to double vision. The problem can lead to headaches, eye strain, blurred vision, and difficulty concentrating.
“Spiritual Convergence Insufficiency” occurs when a Christian is unable to focus on both Word and Spirit. Their sight of one is blurred while all energy and emphasis are given to the other. But Scripture insists on the convergence of Word and Spirit in our lives. We need to “see” both clearly and to labor in God’s grace so that neither is neglected or allowed to trump the other. Spiritual comprehension and clear-sighted understanding of God’s will require that we embrace the functional authority of Scripture while earnestly desiring and pursuing all spiritual gifts. In the absence of either, our sight is distorted and our spiritual priorities are blurred.
There are countless texts in the NT that remind us of the inseparable unity between Word and Spirit. Galatians 3:1-5 comes immediately to mind. Paul asks the believers in Galatia this question: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” We who are charismatic in faith and practice love the first half of that verse. God generously supplies the Spirit to us and works miracles among us. His power is precious and his gifts are glorious.
But by what means or through what mechanism does this occur? It isn’t in response to our good deeds or works. It is only when we “hear” the truth of God’s Word and respond in “faith” to it. Without the Word of truth that we hear and believe, there is no supply of the Spirit, no miracles. And without the abundant gift of the Spirit in his various manifestations and ministries, we would never understand the Word or find the energy to obey its commands. To sever the two, to impose a divorce between them, is worse than dangerous; it is spiritually lethal.
Luke tells us that when Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel at Iconium, God “bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3). The miracles of healing and deliverance authenticated the truth of the Word. The Word of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ is here again tethered to the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. And when Paul preached the absolute, transcendent, eternal word of truth in Corinth he did so “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). The gospel came to the Thessalonians “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).
I am increasingly encouraged as I see the emergence of convergence in our day. Those who have held firmly to the foundational integrity of God’s written Word are overcoming their fear of the Spirit and his miraculous gifts. And those who have passionately pursued spiritual gifts are determined to root their practice in the principles of holy Scripture.
The urgent need of the church in the twenty-first century is followers of Jesus who are committed to the centrality and functional authority of the Bible, on the one hand, and effective, Christ-exalting operation of all spiritual gifts on the other; people who are gospel-centered and intolerant of manipulative excess and self-serving fanaticism, on the one hand, and delight in speaking in tongues, praying for the sick, and prophesying to the edification, encouragement, and consolation of other believers, on the other.
I’m talking about Christians who are intellectually exhilarated by complex biblical truths yet unafraid to give public expression to deep emotional delight and heart-felt affection for Jesus; theologically sophisticated followers of Christ who are hungry for the revelatory gifts of the Spirit while always subject to the final authority of the written text of Scripture.
My prayer today is for men and women who are passionate to see God work in supernatural, life-changing ways in his people, who long to pray with success for the sick and see them healed, who are persuaded that the truth of God’s Word, through the power of God’s Spirit, is what saves and sanctifies (John 17:17), and who will, in love, “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
I wish I could tell you that Jerry and Jenny got married, but it wasn’t to be. However, I’m happy to announce that the marriage of Word and Spirit is always God’s will for all God’s people, in every local church. May we all commit that we not put asunder what God has joined together!
[A somewhat shorter version of this article was first published in Charisma magazine, October 2018.]