CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A Review of Playing With Holy Fire. By Michael Brown.

Apr 3, 2018

Charisma House, 2018.

Anything that is good and of God will be abused, misused and counterfeited. In addition to the Bible we have two thousand years of church history to make this perfectly clear. Any and all of God’s good gifts to us will be distorted and perverted. That is what keeps our spiritual enemy busy.

This brand new book by Michael Brown documents plenty of these abuses and excesses to be found in the charismatic and Pentecostal side of the church. It is not pretty to behold but it is a necessary story to be told. Early on in the volume he shares his passion and motivation:

I have written these pages with a deep sense of burden, with grief over the lives hurt because of uncorrected errors in our midst, and with pain because of the reproach that has been brought to the name of our Lord. I share His holy jealousy for His bride—in tiny measure, of course, compared with His passion—knowing how deeply He loves His people and how much He appreciates their sincere and simple faith. But there must be discernment with that faith, lest many lives be shipwrecked.

Eight years ago a similar sort of book appeared by another member of this movement. It was a very useful critique of so many of the errors, distortions and abuses found therein. You can see my review of The Holy Spirit is Not For Sale by J. Lee Grady here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/07/02/a-review-of-the-holy-spirit-is-not-for-sale-by-j-lee-grady/

In Brown’s excellent volume we find more such helpful truths. The subtitle of his book is “A Wake-Up Call to the Pentecostal-Charismatic Church”. It also looks at various excesses and abuses that are occurring there. Like Grady, he sure is not calling for us to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but seeks to correct the abuses and get things back in order. Both authors are insiders to the movement.

Needless to say, those who think that all of the Pentecostal and charismatic movement is dangerous and unbiblical will not even be interested in these sorts of books. (Brown deals with the charismatic critics in a postscript.) And to add a personal note, I once was a cessationist but no longer am, so I will run with books like these and seek to benefit from them.

Because Brown has been so very active in this movement since his conversion nearly half a century ago, he is well placed to examine its many pros and cons. He begins by reminding us of the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement in the early 1900s, and how the Holy Spirit has always been an essential player in the Christian’s life and witness.

But as with all of Christendom, abuses and excesses have easily crept in. He especially takes to task gullible believers, superstar leaders, the tendency to dismiss sound theology and doctrine, wild and reckless ‘words from God,’ abusive leadership, sexual immorality, worldly worship, and things like the prosperity gospel.

In one chapter he looks at the vital need for discernment. He even says that “we Charismatics are so gullible.” Of course I know of plenty of gullible non-charismatic Christians as well. But the amount of loony tune silliness that can occur in the Pentecostal world, and the amount of gullibility towards it, can be quite worrying indeed.

The examples are certainly numerous. As Brown writes:

I find it remarkable that there are leaders who were caught in fraudulent activities yet continue to have financially prosperous ministries today, still drawing large audiences and still bringing in enough funds to keep them on TV. One such leader claimed to receive divine revelation about people in the audience, but it turned out that his wife was feeding him information through a hidden earpiece.

He reminds us that there is a big difference between a child-like faith and a brainless lack of discernment. We are to use our minds for the glory of God, and that includes thinking critically about what we see and hear and read. We are not to be deceived nor blown about by every wind of doctrine, but to keep our baloney-detectors ever at the ready.

As but one example, some folks are into the practice of “grave-sucking”. Brown discusses this and then says: “The idea that by lying on a godly person’s gravesite we can suck up his mantle or anointing—what can I say? Such a practice deserves to be ridiculed.”

He concludes this chapter with these words: “Enough with our foolish gullibility. May a spirit of true, mature faith arise, and may we stop acting like little children. It’s time to be men and women of God.” Amen to that.

Consider also the prosperity gospel which Brown has actually criticised in earlier works. He notes how the “prosperity gospel has been joined to the pep-talk gospel, taking us even further from the cross.” The latter “lifts you up and cheers you up and puts a smile on your face without ever calling you to turn from sin, without ever confronting you with the consequences of disobedience, without ever talking about judgment or God’s wrath. That is not the gospel.”

He calls these pep talks and the ‘success in life’ gospel the “Pablum from the pit.” He warns us to avoid them like the plague. He reminds us that persecution, hardship, suffering and tribulations are the norm for New Testament Christianity, not success, riches, a life of ease, and terrific self-esteem.

Some of the material in this book can easily apply to all of Christianity, not just to one stream of it. Consider his chapter on abusive leadership. While we are to show respect for our leaders, they are not to be put on a pedestal, above all assessment and correction. Leaders need to be held accountable as much as anyone else – perhaps even more so.

He offers us a “checklist to help identify abusive leaders”:

• Do they put you under pressure (even with embarrassment or threats) if you don’t unquestioningly follow their lead (or, worst of all, if you contemplate leaving)?
• Are they getting rich off your giving (especially your sacrificial giving)?
• Are they lording it over you rather than leading by example?
• Do they constantly speak about their special gifting, calling, anointing, and authority?
• Do they tell you how privileged you are to have people like them at the helm?
• Are they lone rangers, lacking accountability?
• Are they harsh, mean-spirited, short-tempered, and insulting to any whose allegiance they question?

The corrective to all these abuses and problems is to get much closer to God and much closer to his Word. Brown says we must also be willing to confront and expose error. For too long serious problems have been allowed to go unchecked in the churches.

There is nothing spiritual about allowing grossly unbiblical teachings and practices to go unchallenged and uncorrected. We must call out those who are doing so much harm to the church. And sometimes we have to name and shame them. As Brown reminds us, “The New Testament writers sometimes named names (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:19–20; 2 Tim. 4:14; 3 John 1:9) and sometimes did not (e.g., 2 Pet. 2:1–22; 2 Cor. 11:13–15).”

We will need wisdom and God’s guidance when we seek to stand for biblical truth and expose and correct error in our camp. And the sad truth is, many of the horror stories recounted by Brown are already well known. That is because the secular media is more than happy to expose these scandals, frauds and rip-offs.

And it is also because the church – in this case the charismatic and Pentecostal brand of the church – has not been willing to judge itself, to keep a close account of things, and to do its own house cleaning. Well, enough is enough. Judgement must first begin in the household of God.

Michael Brown does a good job of urging us to do this very thing. Scripture tells us plainly not to “quench the Spirit”. Praise God for the Holy Spirit and his work in our lives today. But the abuse, the counterfeits, and the perversion of the Spirit and his gifts must stop now.

As he writes, “May a fresh awakening spread through our churches—an awakening of maturity and stability, an awakening worthy of the name of the Lord, an awakening worthy of the Spirit. Forward!” Hopefully this book will help us to ensure that some much needed change in fact takes place.

Thank you Dr. Brown for this sober wakeup call.

(Available in Australia at Koorong Books.)

[1418 words]

11 Responses to A Review of Playing With Holy Fire. By Michael Brown.

  • Amen

  • Great Article Bill
    Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar make my skin creep. If they are so strong in their belief in the hereafter – Heaven – why do they put so much money and resources into their homes and cars and jets in this life. A lot cheaper to fly business class than pay for your own jet.
    Best regards, Phil

  • Sadly, this is a natural outcome of the Charismatic Movement. Once you let something other than the Bible be your authority you are doomed to wander away from the Lord and into dark and deceptive avenues where you will find neither what you want nor the stability in Christ you so desperately need.

  • Hi Bill, a really good article on Dr Michael Brown. In a recent Charisma article Dr Brown speaks out against so called “super prophets” selling prophecies for $80.18, and divine protection for $500.00! Several hundred years ago Martin Luther spoke out against the Catholic Church for “selling indulgences”. Sadly nothing has changed. Next trip to Koorong, we’ll buy Dr Brown’s book. Blessings, Kel.

  • “I once was a cessationist but no longer am”
    Bill, have you documented how this occurred somewhere? Sounds interesting.

  • @Mark Rodgers
    The charismatic movement is not about letting something other than the Bible be its authority. It’s more about not trying to tell God that He can’t do something because we don’t believe in it. The cessationists do a good job of imitating the Pharisees who told Jesus he couldn’t be the Messiah. His replies to them should be read by those who deny the working of the Holy Spirit in the present day church. I’ve ordered my copy of Dr Brown’s book, and look forward to reading it.

  • I have enjoyed some articles by Michael Brown quite much here and there. However, I would find him much more believable if he would stay off of places like Sid Roth’s “It’s Supernatural”. Too much snake oil sales for my taste.

  • Students of the word should read Understanding Spiritual Gifts: a verse-by-verse study of 1 Corinthians 12-14 by Robert L Thomas, 1999, Kregel.
    This scholar (now in glory) provides a sound commentary on gifts.

  • My frustration with this book will be that Dr Brown will draw attention to the obvious failures such as prosperity doctrine, diluted Gospel and abusive leadership, yet say nothing about the incredible demonic attack on the Body of Christ at the hands of Bethel, NAR and Catch the Fire, with its unbiblical demonic impartations, false doctrine and New Age and occult practices (and I say this as a charismatic Christian). For all the good points he makes, Dr Brown will sadly bend over backwards to defend all the corruption that stemmed from the so-called Toronto “Blessing”

  • Thanks Cameron. While I am not a cessationist, I of course do not agree with all that happens in the charismatic/Pentecostal world. And I do not necessarily agree with Brown on everything all the time. But since it sounds like you may have not read the book yet, I recommend that you do. I think it has much of value.

Leave a Reply