Spirit_Rest_of_Us_FINAL.indd[This short series of three posts are excerpts from my book A Spirit for the Rest of Us. I am convinced that churches of Christ must rethink our understanding of and interaction with the Holy Spirit. Without a vibrant relationship with a living, indwelling Spirit, we are left with little more than our Bibles and self-discipline for becoming the people God wants us to be. That is not a very hopeful scenario in my thinking. So perhaps the time has come for us to think through the subject of the Spirit once again. These articles are an attempt to trace out how and why our theology of the Spirit developed as it did and represent chapters 17-19 (the closing chapters) of the book. Your comments would be appreciated.]

How did we ever come to such a pass?

Even a casual review of biblical texts must convince us our view of the Spirit has less to do with careful exposition than with other factors. It is difficult to see how any objective look at those texts that touch on the Spirit in the New Testament could have resulted in a theology and practice so devoid of a living Spirit today. Our positions on the Spirit have required textual bending and twisting to an exegetical breaking point. Whole sections of the Bible have been consigned to a dusty past, describing an active Spirit back then but having little relevance or application to Christian living today. We have scrubbed our vocabulary clean of the very terms (transformation, spiritual power, sanctification by the Spirit, life in the Spirit, etc.) that should constitute our most precious spiritual bequest, and advocated notions (such as obedience, self-control, doctrinal correctness, discipline) that—in a vacuum of Spirit—are anemic at best and offer little beyond moral bootstrapping.

There is more going on with our attitudes about the Spirit than simply what the Bible has to say on the matter. But for a movement that has prided itself on its strict Biblicism, the “more going on” is particularly painful to face, involving (as it does) reasons that have more to do with sociology, philosophy, and history-of-religion than with honest examination of biblical texts.

An Off-the-leash Spirit

The “more” begins with an embarrassment at our founding. Born from an emotional womb, revivalistic in our first breaths, bawling with all the hungers of the Second Great Awakening, the children of the American Restoration Movement tottered briefly on the brink of a charismatic cliff. The Cane Ridge Revival (as just one example) was marked by ecstatic seizures, jerking dances, and incoherent barking. Barton W. Stone and his disciples—always open to and, indeed, insistent on a personal and indwelling Spirit—were allowing the nascent alliance to move in dangerously subjective directions. How could a movement coalesce around the standard of God’s Word and the practices of the early church, how could leadership arise to shape and mold and guide that movement, when any and every adherent could claim an intimate communion with and direct guidance by the Holy Spirit of God?

Into the breach stepped Alexander Campbell. Profoundly shaken by what he witnessed at Cane Ridge, he determined to provide his followers with a viable alternative to charismatic chaos—rigorous rationalism. The key to life with God, the key to a unified and orderly Restoration, was the strict application of logic and reason to the words of Scripture and the exacting implementation of those words to church and life. Only a commitment to a reasonable faith could unite us around a single standard (the Bible) and a shared understanding of what that Bible said. There was no room in Campbell’s theology for emotions, experiences, urges, inner influences, transforming powers, comforting presences, or signs. Such things were subjective and destabilizing. They threatened the preeminent role of Scripture in the church. They threatened the rational base on which Campbell intended to build his church. Hence, there was no room in his theology for a Holy Spirit who would not stay to heel.

Campbell reached out and pulled us back from the brink. In doing so, he taught us to repent of our subjective leanings, distrust any belief nursed on feelings, embrace the purer path of propositions and precedents, and wed ourselves to a form of religion that, if uninspired,[1] was at least sensible.

This deep suspicion of emotionalism and an off-the-leash Spirit was reinforced by acquaintance with a movement roughly contemporaneous with our own—the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. Where we stepped back from the brink, they jumped over with both feet. Baptism of the Holy Spirit. The “second blessing.” Tongues as a sign and proof of salvation. Modern day prophecy and revelation. Healings. Snakes and poisons.

Everything we saw in our Pentecostal neighbors (at least, everything we were willing to look at) smacked of the uncontrolled, ripe-for-abuse, shallow, showy, sensational, spiritual free-for-all we knew would break out if Spirit were ever unchained from Word. We took one look at them and were not only deeply alarmed … we were deeply repulsed. If that was what “Spirit-led” meant, we determined to run as quickly as possible in the opposite direction.

A Textual Tension

Given these “more” factors (our commitment to a rational faith and the perceived lack thereof in others), we were then forced to face a troubling tension at the very foundation of our restoration efforts. The goal of our movement was to “restore” the New Testament church. We believed the key to pleasing God and changing the world and ushering in the Millennium was to recreate first century Christianity with all its pristine beauty in our own time. We were obsessed with the practices, habits, worship, governance, and teachings of the church we found in the pages of the New Testament.

But, frankly, the early church itself had an “irrational” component that reminded us uncomfortably of our Pentecostal neighbors. It’s hard to imagine the church of Acts without the sovereign and active Spirit blowing around in mysterious and unpredictable ways. It’s difficult to think about the church in Jerusalem or Corinth without the Spirit speaking and healing and gifting and (even) striking people dead. Could we restore the first century church without restoring the first century Spirit?

This tension and the questions it raised became especially evident when we turned in our Bibles to the writings of Luke and Paul. We loved these inspired writers, embracing them as our true mentors in the faith. We took their writings as our primary Scriptural authority. Acts and Paul’s epistles became our canon-within-a-canon. Luke and Paul set the foundations and laid the parameters for our understanding of church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, polity, worship, conduct, and witness.

We depended on their writings to show us the way. The Gospels were good, but sadly lacking in the pragmatics of ecclesiastical conduct. John’s Revelation? Well …. But Acts! Paul’s letters! Now there were ideas you could wrap your Millennial Harbinger around!

These two writers were so eminently rational, so easily replicable. Their depiction of the first century church seemed so elegant to us … so perspicuous. A single pattern. A clear description of acceptable worship. An unambiguous guide to organization and collective action.

Until it came to their teaching about the Holy Spirit! Suddenly, things weren’t simple at all. Anointings of fire. Prophecy. Tongues and wonders. The Spirit pouring out and falling on and filling up. Visions. Healings. Paul set apart by the Spirit (Ac 13:2), prevented by the Spirit (Ac 16:7), warned by the Spirit (Ac 20:23), compelled by the Spirit (Ac 20:22). Churches saved by the Spirit (Tit 3:5), led by the Spirit (Ro 8:14), empowered by the Spirit (Ro 15:13), taught by the Spirit (1Co 2:13), indwelt by the Spirit (1Co 6:19), gifted by the Spirit (1Co 12:11), united by the Spirit (Eph 4:3), praying in the Spirit (Eph 6:18), worshiping by the Spirit (Php 3:3), enjoying the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).

The Spirit described by Luke and Paul posed a significant challenge to our Lockean faith. He confused our conclusions on baptism (“Is baptism in water or Spirit?”—Ac 1:5; “Wadda ya mean the Spirit fell on them before they were baptized?”—Ac 10:47). He chose church leaders without congregational consultation or vote (e.g., Ac 13:4). He disrupted orderly assemblies (with tongues, prophecies, and other inconvenient interruptions—1Co 14). He challenged our understandings of the nature of worship. (Does “worship” consist of acts we perform or spiritual and emotional responses to God that only the Spirit can prompt? See Php 3:3 and John 4:24.) He required a vocabulary we were not comfortable with—groaning and grieving, filling up and pouring out, anointing, discerning, prophecy and tongues, power from on high. He disciplined members and granted gifts and gave fruit—all in completely sovereign and uncontrolled ways.

Such a Spirit in the New Testament church made us nervous. All that clear, clean teaching about congregational autonomy and the plurality of elders and five acts of worship—muddied, complicated, confused by opening the ecclesiastical door to the Spirit, blowing where He pleased, without a word about where He came from or where He was going!

How could we restore the New Testament church when it contained such a large dose of this unpredictable Spirit? Was it even possible to re-create New Testament Christianity without becoming a little Pentecostal ourselves?

Somewhere beneath the layers of logic and syllogism, questions like these lurked, monsters threatening to rise up and swallow us whole. Wasn’t there something illegitimate about restoring first century ecclesiology without restoring first century pneumatology? Wasn’t something missing in our passion for religious forms divorced from any interest in the source of religious power? Wasn’t there a fundamental fracture in a logic that clarified church names or organizational structures but spoke not at all to the essential spiritual dynamic that accounted for early Christians turning the world upside down?

A Subject Too Hot to Handle

Addressing such questions was, in the end, more frightening to us than the thought of living without the Spirit. To take seriously the possibility that the Spirit might still be at work (in believers, the church, and the world) meant stepping out on a slippery slope. It meant there was more going on between ourselves and God than could be squeezed out of the King James Bible. It meant Scripture knowledge and correct hermeneutic were not enough. It meant God had other ways and means available for pursuing his purposes than a leather-bound book and our careful attention to textual details.

And if that were so, where might it lead us? Where would it all end?

It would end, we were told, in charismatic chaos. Slide down the slope of the Spirit and we would wind up handling snakes and laying in aisles. We’d have to deal with tongues-speaking and utterances claiming to be prophetic. We’d be faced with modern revelations that contradicted or “added to” Scripture. Our people would become more interested in wonders than in Word. Open the Spirit box, we were warned, and every ill imaginable would be unleashed in our churches.

These dire consequences (and the apocalyptic pronouncements of their certain occurrence should we start down the Spirit path) were sufficient to frighten most of us away from the subject entirely. Better no Spirit than that Spirit. Better a Spirit confined to a book than a Spirit running wild in the church.

Only it hasn’t proved to be better at all. Veering away from one ditch, we drove hard and fast into another. And the result has been spiritual devastation. No, we’re not having church wars over how to interpret tongues or discern prophecies. No, we’re not arguing over healing gifts or what constitutes a “message of wisdom.” But the deal we made for avoiding such controversies is a Faustian bargain, a Pyrrhic victory.

For our take on the Spirit did not simply settle the troublesome issue of modern miracles; it effectively amputated from our faith and practice the whole sphere of the mystical. By chaining the Spirit to the Bible, by insisting that it was only through the Bible that we experienced the Spirit’s influence, by eschewing any communion with the Spirit that did not come by means of the five senses and through the interpretive medium of the mind, we exchanged the supernaturalism of the first century church for a form of empiricism more attuned to our Enlightenment era. We explained the work of God—in Christians, the church, and the world—in rational, non-mystical terms. And we cut ourselves off from some of the most important teachings and encouraging promises that God has made to those who love him.

Skewed Reading

In order to justify our single-minded resort to rationality, our distrust of the subjective, and our discomfort with the miraculous and the mysterious, we had to learn to read Scripture in a particular way. We—who claimed to read the Bible without any lenses, who taught that the plain meaning of Scripture could be plainly understood by those who came to Scripture without agenda or bias—exempted ourselves from this general rule when it came to the Holy Spirit. The New Testament witness had to be filtered and sanitized and “corrected” on this subject. We needed a remedial overlay whenever the Bible talked about the Spirit.

The first of these lenses (as we’ve already noted) involved an historical overlay that permitted us to filter out any reference to the miraculous. Because miracles ceased after the Apostolic Age (an assumption we imported into our reading of Scripture), any reference to the miraculous must have only historical significance. It cannot apply to later believers.

In particular, we read all the New Testament promises about supernatural matters as promises directed to the first generation of Christians, not to those who came later. The promise that certain signs would accompany those who believed (Mk 16:17-18)? Just for the Twelve, not for us. The promise that disciples would be baptized in the Holy Spirit (Ac 11:16)? Just for the few, not for the many. The receiving of, being filled up with, the Holy Spirit (Ac 1:8)? Only for the earliest Christians, not the rest of us. The promise of a personal, indwelling Spirit who gave gifts (1Co 12)? Just for those living in the first few decades of the church’s life, not forever and not for us.

The second lens we brought to the reading of Scripture was a philosophical overlay that filtered out any suggestion that the subjective, non-rational, and mysterious played a substantive role in modern faith. Nursed on Lockean epistemology, true children of Enlightenment thinking, our forefathers brought to faith a significant bias against things which could not be quantified, measured, catalogued, and strictly defined. According to them, we gain knowledge through the five senses and in no other way. Communication is possible only through words, not through feelings or urges or nebulous promptings. God works on our lives using natural and rational means: he reveals his will to us (through the Bible) … we read his Word … we obey his Word … we experience certain consequences that reinforce our confidence in the truth of his Word … our habits and attitudes and emotions are changed slowly, incrementally, and naturally as a result.

The suggestion that the Spirit might work in other ways simply did not fit into our philosophical framework. Which posed a problem since the Bible gave ample testimony of the Spirit doing just that! The Spirit called and commissioned, confirmed and controlled.[2] The Spirit encouraged and helped and led and ministered.[3] The Spirit transformed and sanctified and washed. [4] The Spirit instructed and revealed and spoke and convicted. [5] His gifts included far more than the merely miraculous: life,[6] boldness,[7] freedom,[8] hope,[9] joy,[10] peace,[11] love,[12] strength,[13] and wisdom.[14] Scripture everywhere testified to an indwelling Spirit, actively and directly engaged in the lives of disciples, using ways and means that were mysterious and defied explanation.

So strong was our philosophical bias, however, that we could not permit the Spirit to work in such subjective, mysterious ways today. And so, once again, we pulled out the history trump card—with its clear line carved between then and now—and consigned to a distant past all those verses that spoke of the Spirit’s mysterious work. The Spirit worked miraculously—back then. The Spirit worked mysteriously—back then. But not now. Miracles have ceased. The mysterious has given way to the rational. God now limits himself to nouns and verbs and the slow wearing of their constant drip on the hard soil of our hearts.

The third lens we brought to the reading of Scripture was an experiential overlay that used our current experience of God to filter out any possibility of an alternative experience of God. If we heard no inner voice, saw no visions, felt no urges or convictions, experienced no supernatural encouragement or wisdom or transformative power, then such things must not exist for Christians today. We became the yardstick, our experience of God became the rule, by which authentic Christian experience would be measured.

Pragmatically (and oh so ironically), this meant that our present religious experience was permitted to define what Scripture meant rather than allowing Scripture to define our religious experience! Did Scripture promise the Spirit would indwell us? We had no evidence of such a presence, alive and bubbling within us, so the promise could not be for disciples today. Did Scripture promise encouragement, control, and leading from this Spirit? We heard no voice, felt no guiding hand or disciplining presence, so the promise could not be for modern Christians. Was the promise made that the Spirit would testify to the world about Jesus, convict the world of its sin, and draw lost people back to God? We didn’t see the Spirit still doing that, so we concluded the promise must have been directed only to a prior age.

The alternative, of course, was to use the plain language of Scripture to measure our experience of God. If the promise was of an indwelling Spirit, we could have launched ourselves on a determined campaign, an impassioned quest, to experience what had been promised. If the Spirit’s encouragement, control, and leading were proffered, we could have reached for fresh ways to invite his powerful presence into our lives. If Jesus made a promise that the Spirit would continue to be active in the world, pursuing God’s purposes in ways that would remain largely mysterious and inexplicable to us, we could have developed eyes (and attitude!) that would permit us to see evidence of God’s Spirit at work in the world.

The simple alternative to bending Scripture to fit our experience of faith was to bend ourselves and our experience to the testimony of Scripture. But that would require a degree of flexibility, uncertainty, and humility too many of us found difficult. Reading Scripture through the lens of ourselves was much easier.

The historical lens gave us a way to read the Bible’s promises of supernatural power without flinching or embarrassment. The philosophical lens demanded that we explain away any Bible teaching that bordered on the subjective or mysterious. The experiential lens gave us a powerful tool for measuring the Bible by ourselves rather than ourselves by the Bible. Armed with these three lenses, we managed to read the Spirit right out of the Bible altogether.

Theological Losses

Obedient to these lenses, we threw out the baby with the bath water. No troublesome miracles. But also no empowering, indwelling, enthusing Spirit. No means of communing with God except through the words of Scripture. And no means of God communing with us—directly, mysteriously—except through the middle-man of the Bible.

In this odd way (and largely, I think, unintentionally), we evolved into a sub-species of Deist.[15] God wound up the church—having gifted it with his Son and the cross—but then left it to find its own way, using its own reasoning, and limited to its own power. Jesus ascended to his Father—after gifting his disciples with his teachings and example—but left nothing else behind for his followers except a temporary experience of the Spirit to jump-start the church. The Spirit lived in the earliest disciples—miraculously, mysteriously—but then withdrew from any direct contact with believers after gifting them with the pattern for life and faith exemplified in the first century church and the witness of the New Testament.

What, then, is left for followers of Jesus today? We have the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. We have the example of the early church. We have Scripture. What we do not have is a God who intervenes in the world to accomplish his purposes by any means other than the Bible and believers. What we do not have is the presence of Jesus—actual, literal, and tangible—accompanying us on our journey and assisting us in our mission. What we do not have is an indwelling Spirit, moving mysteriously in the church and in disciples, working directly on our hearts and minds.

These conclusions about the Spirit have led to a series of profound theological losses. It is not simply that we have forgotten how to talk about the Holy Spirit. There are implications of our Spirit-less world-view that go far beyond our peculiar positions on the Spirit himself.

Our deafness to the Spirit has infected our views on transformation—we are changed not by a surgical Spirit but by learning, obedience, and self-improvement. It has misshaped our understanding of sanctification—not a progressive work of a powerful Spirit but the result of discipline, moral fine-tuning, and successive approximations to a biblical ideal. It has undermined our security as believers—rather than being “sealed” with the Spirit, we are left dangling in the uncertainties of our fitful obedience and incomplete understanding. It has caused us to question the efficacy of prayer—if God works only through Scripture, and never through the miraculous or the mysterious, why ask him to intervene in our lives?

This blinkering to the Spirit has radically impacted our experience of church. People who do not appreciate that they have been “baptized by one Spirit into one body” and were “all given the one Spirit to drink” (1Co 12:13) must necessarily have a diminished view of what membership and unity really mean. Harmony in the church is founded (for us) on shared beliefs and practices, not in the ongoing work of the Spirit (yet see Eph 4:3-6). (In this way, division among us has become an unpleasant by-product of the quest for faithfulness, not an offense against God’s Spirit.) Worship is reduced to proper practice rather than a transcendent experience fueled by a living Spirit. The notion that the church incarnates God makes sense only if the Spirit is living in the church;[16] without the Spirit indwelling the church, the notion of incarnation becomes foolishness at best and blasphemy at worst, resulting in a greatly depreciated view of the body of Christ.[17] Leadership devolves to good character and judgment (and successful business practices) rather than the calling of God and the gifting of God’s Spirit.[18]

Most of all, our conclusions on the Spirit have led to an effective loss of some of the most powerful passages in Scripture. Because we are no longer gifted by the Spirit, Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 12 (with its majestic themes of gifts for “the common good” and the unity of the body and the need for mutual respect and deference) are muted. Romans 8 (which trumpets the Spirit’s help and leading and intercession; life in the Spirit; a mind controlled by the Spirit) is either overlooked entirely, demoted to an affirmation of negatives (“Don’t be controlled by the sinful nature” … “Don’t give up hope”), or (worse) reread with “the Word” replacing every reference to “the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3 celebrates the work of the Spirit in writing on human hearts and making ministers competent and granting life, freedom, transformation, and glory … when was the last time you heard a sermon on this great chapter? It’s hard to teach from Galatians 5 without considering the Spirit’s equipping and leading and fruit; so we don’t teach from it … or we teach around the Spirit’s active work and demote the fruit of the Spirit to a list of characteristics that should mark the mature. John’s admonitions (in 1 John 4) about testing the spirits and recognizing God’s Spirit and being assured by the presence of the Spirit; his confidence that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world;” his conviction that the Spirit empowers our confession of Christ and our love of one another—these are themes rarely sounded in our Spirit-deaf fellowship.

Yet, it is precisely at these points of loss that we feel the greatest yearning. We are thankful for God’s Son and God’s Word and the example of the first church. But, increasingly, we feel the need for a God who actively intervenes in our world and in our lives. We are hungry to experience the presence of Jesus in tangible, comforting ways. The mysterious, even the miraculous, do not frighten us as they once did. We want dramatic transformation and radical sanctification and lasting security—not just the pale substitutes on which our forefathers subsisted for so long. We crave communion with God in prayer, a conversation that lets us speak to and hear from our Father. We are eager for a recovery of “church” that allows the Spirit to unify and direct and empower our feeble communities. And we are weary of the “gaps” that have developed in our reading of Scripture—the loss of all those teachings that appear in too close proximity to the Spirit and, thus, have been ruled out of bounds: gifts for the common good … life in the Spirit … the competence and transformation that comes from above … the Spirit’s fruit … the Spirit’s love … the Spirit’s assurance.

There is (among many in our fellowship) a growing sense that we have constructed a religious house with every amenity except power. We have the furnishings of faith but lack an essential dynamic that makes faith work. We wonder why the transformative, empowering, healing, maturing effects of faith are so rarely and so weakly experienced in our churches. We suspect that, in leaving out a credible doctrine of the Spirit, we’ve left off the essential power source that makes this house a functional home.

If you are one of that number, if you too long for a recovery of the Spirit’s present work, I assure you there is a Spirit available for “the rest of us” … a Spirit who can deliver today what was promised so long ago. All we need is a way to find him … a valid, reliable, trustworthy way to reach into Scripture and find access to the Spirit whom God has prepared for those who love him.

First Article in this series

Next Article in this series

[1]   In the literal sense of without (“un-“) an indwelling Spirit (“inspirited”)

[2]   Acts 2:38-39; 13:2; 16:6-10; 20:28; Romans 8:28; 8:6-9; 9:1; Ephesians 4:4

[3]   Acts 9:31; Romans 8: 14, 26; 12:8; 1 Corinthians 14:3, 31; 2 Corinthians 3:8; Galatians 5:18; Philippians 1:19; 2 Timothy 1:14

[4]   Romans 8:4; 12:2; 14:17; 15:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 3:3; 5:5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:2

[5]   John 14:26; 16:13; Acts 1:2; 7:55; 8:29; 13:2; 1 Corinthians 2:10-14; Ephesians 1:7; 3:5; 6:17; 1 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 9:8; Revelation 2:7

[6]   Romans 1:4; 8:2, 6, 11, 13; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Galatians 4:29; 6:8; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:18

[7]   Acts 4:31; 6:10

[8]   Romans 7:6; 8:2; 2 Corinthians 3:17

[9]   Romans 15:13

[10]  Romans 14:17; 15:13; Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6

[11]  Romans 8:26; 14:17; 15:13; Galatians 5:22

[12]  Romans 5:5; 15:30; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Galatians 5:22; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 1:8

[13]  Acts 9:31; Ephesians 3:6

[14]  Acts 6:10; 15:28; 1 Corinthians 7:40; Ephesians 1:17

[15]  Deists typically accept the existence of God and his creative work at the foundations of the world, but reject supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) and tend to assert that God does not interfere with human life and the laws of the universe.

[16]  1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21-22

[17]  Read the howls that greeted the publication of Shelly and Harris’ Second Incarnation to get a sense of where many in our movement stand on the issue of the Spirit indwelling the church.

[18]  Acts 13:2; 20:28; Romans 12:8