It was a great thrill for me to spend several days of the last week among the men and women of Sovereign Grace Ministries and Covenant Life Church at the WorshipGod06 Conference. Being among these people was an opportunity for me to learn a great deal about worship and to learn how other believers express their worship to God. Sovereign Grace Ministries is often described as being “Reformed Charismatic” but it seems that this may be too simplistic a description. There is far more to this organization than Reformed soteriology and Charismatic expressions of worship.
I know quite a few people are waiting to hear some reflections on this event, so I thought I would offer those today. I offer them as an outsider, one who has worshipped in many different contexts, but never in one quite like this. I will focus on observations on the use of the spiritual gifts as I witnessed them at the conference. It is worth nothing that, with over half of the attendees belonging to churches other than Sovereign Grace churches, many people present were not charismatic in their understanding of the continuing gifts. I was grateful to see that Bob Kauflin and other conference “officials” were careful to be respectful towards the cessationists present and to be deliberate in proving their own credibility as believers and believers who dearly love the Lord and serve under His Lordship and under the authority of Scripture. While many charismatics have gained the reputation of being a group that allows spiritual gifts to supersede Scripture, Sovereign Grace clearly showed itself to be a ministry that places Scripture in its rightful place above and beyond all gifts. In speaking to others after the conference, I was not able to find any, even among the strictest cessationists, who was offended by seeing the continuing gifts being practiced. This speaks of the humility and grace of the organizers of this conference who were deliberately cautious and respectful towards others.
Before I begin, let me make one point clear. While this did not come from Bob Kauflin or from others who stood in front of the assembly, I heard a few statements such as “cessationists do not believe in the spiritual gifts.” This is not strictly true, for cessationists do believe in the spiritual gifts. They are, after all, explicitly and undeniably mentioned in the Bible. Cessationists believe that spiritual gifts are given to all believers and are operational even today. Most would affirm that these gifts should be eagerly identified and sought after. Most would also affirm that the various lists of gifts in Scripture is not exhaustive but points instead towards a great abundance of gifts. Where cessationists differ from continuationists is in their understanding of the miraculous gifts which are generally identified as prophecy, speaking in tongues and working of miracles. Cessationists believe that these gifts were given for a specific purpose at a specific time and that they ceased with the close of the Apostolic era. Thus, while cessationists affirm the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, speaking prophecies and working miracles, they do not believe these gifts to be operational today. My purpose here is not to argue the case, but merely to summarize the belief, so let’s not turn this into an argument on this matter!
So let’s look at how these miraculous gifts manifested themselves at the conference.
While charismatics may be best-known for using the gift of tongues, I did not witness any use of this gift at the conference. Craig Cabannis, one of the speakers at the conference, explained Sovereign Grace Ministries’ perspective on this gift. It can only be used in a public setting when it is deemed appropriate, when a person is available who has the gift of interpretation, and when this person feels that he has an interpretation for this particular utterance. From what I understand, it is quite rare that this happens, and so this gift is seen only sparingly within Sovereign Grace churches. And as I mentioned, I did not witness it last week.
While there may not have been any public uses of the gift of tongues, there were a great deal of prophetic utterances, both in the main sessions and in seminars. If a person felt that he had a prophetic utterance to share with the assembly, he would make his way to the front where a pastor or elder sat with a microphone. The person would share the prophecy with this person who would make a determination whether it seemed genuine and whether it was appropriate to share with the assembly. If he felt it should be heard, he would signal the worship leader who would find an opportunity to allow the person to speak. These utterances were often spoken in the first person. They were sometimes words from the Lord and at others times were images or encouragements. At one point Bob Kauflin mentioned that prophecies were not allowed to include words about dates, mates, correction or direction.
I do believe this was the first time I had witnessed this type of prophecy and made at least one observation. As has often been said by cessationists, this prophecy bore little resemblance to the prophecies of Scripture. There was a humility or even hesitancy in speaking these prophecies which were often preceded by phrases such as “I feel God is saying” or “What I think this means is.” The “thus saith the Lord” statements that typify biblical prophecy were noticeably absent. I suppose this shows what many continuationists insist: that prophecy in our day is different from biblical prophecy in that a person may err in his understanding of a prophecy or his delivery of it. The sinful nature of human beings manifests itself even in prophecy. And, of course, as cessationists will observe, this type of prophecy seems absent from Scripture unless we choose to so interpret (or misinterpret) the prophecies of Agabus. Similarly, the hesitancy to provide prophecies related to dates, mates, correction and direction seem to differ from Scripture as well since these are common themes among the prophets described in the Bible.
I heard much about healing at the conference, but was unable to understand how the spiritual gift of healing was in operation. Typically a person would prophecy that God wished to heal people of a particular condition (such as arthritis, migraine, pain in the lower extremities, and so on) and would ask such people to identify themselves. Those who wished to be healed were soon surrounded by men and women who were asked to lay their hands on them and pray for them. There would then be a time of prayer and prophecy. There were two things in particular that struck me about this. First, I could not see how the spiritual gift of healing was used. The gift of prophecy was clearly in operation in identifying illnesses that God wished to heal, but I did not see anyone acting like the Apostles who laid hands on those who were ill (or even just touched them with their shadow) and instantly healed them of a variety of lifelong, debilitating diseases. These were not slow, gradual healings of inner afflictions such as arthritis, but instantaneous, miraculous healings of people whose bodies were immediately and dramatically transformed so that whole towns immediately understood what had happened. So like the gift of prophecy, I had to understand that the gift of healing, as exercised in these circles, is dramatically different than it was in the times of Scripture unless those who laid hands on the sick were self-identified as having the gift of healing. But I don’t think this was the case.
Second, there is nothing distinctly charismatic about the laying on of hands or annointing with oil and thus with most of what was assumed to be a distinctly charismatic event. I have known people from the most conservative wings of Presbyterianism who practice this and who have seen God extend His healing through such means. My aunt was the recipient of such a blessing and was instantly and permanently cured of alcoholism by the means of the pastor and elders at her church laying their hands on her, annointing her with oil, and praying for her. The difference is that in non-charismatic circles, it will generally only be church officials, elders and pastors (in other words, those with spiritual oversight and authority over a person) who would lay hands on another.
Finally, and I apologize if this seems to be rude or sarcastic, but it was something I observed a couple of times, but I found it odd that an organization that so stresses modesty would encourage the laying on of hands. On a couple of occasions I saw women, and young women in particular, indicate that they sought healing. Both women and men would then come to these people and lay their hands on them. These were not men and women who knew them or were elders at their church, but just other people who decided to lay hands on them. I can’t help but think that this would make me uncomfortable if that were my teenage daughter or my wife. When reconciling teaching on modesty and the practice of laying on of hands there seems to be something of a contradiction: “Don’t let your bra strap show through your blouse, but let me put my hand on it!”
So here’s the rub. Charismatics identify and practice three spiritual gifts that are not practiced by cessationists. Of these gifts, one was not in evidence at the conference, one was spoken of but I did not observe it practiced within the context of a spiritual gift, leaving only one that was practiced, but even then with marked differences to biblical descriptions. But through all things I noted a humility and a subjection to the word of God. I saw the leaders demanding that things but done decently and in good order. I saw that, despite differences in our understanding of the continuing gifts, we hold most things in common.
While Sovereign Grace Ministries may always be known as being both a charismatic ministry, it was clear that this was only a small part of how the organization would identify itself. It is primarily an organization that wishes to worship and celebrate the sovereignty of God as shown in His grace towards sinners. It is an organization that seeks to maintain biblical humility and seeks to serve the body of Christ, not just in word but also in deed. I mentioned to a couple of people at the conference that somehow, while sitting in that church and hearing praises rise to God, I felt a sense of home. I don’t quite know how to describe this or what I even really mean by it, but somehow the environment felt so safe and so familiar, even though this was my first time worshipping at a Sovereign Grace event. I was moved, I was stirred and I was challenged. And best of all, I was led to grow in my understanding of God, my appreciation of God, my love for His people and my ability to bring worship to Him.