As a result of reading a lot of literature from other religious traditions than my own, I have become aware of various doctrinal disputes that exist in other religious traditions apart from my own, and among these various disputes is the issue of Cessationism. To put it briefly, cessationism is the belief that the various gifts of the spirit have ceased for now, even though they were present in the past and may be present in the future. As one might imagine, this particular issue is of considerable importance in charismatic traditions which focus a great deal of attention on the way that one’s faith is shown through the manifestation of the gifts of the spirit. Obviously, the belief that the gifts of the Spirit have even temporarily ceased would be a major attack on the legitimacy of a worldview of those who viewed the obvious gifts as being absolutely essential in living one’s faith. Without being very dogmatic about the subject, at least to the extent of some, I do wonder if a belief in cessationism is often a way of simply trying to avoid some very difficult questions about why it is that the Spirit does not always appear to be very active in many congregations and institutions, and to provide a way for ministers to avoid having to discuss the way that they may not necessarily appreciate the acting of spirits in their congregations, especially where spiritual discernment about what kind of spirit is active may be limited.
There are several issues that must be addressed here. For one, we should note that there is no argument that the Holy Spirit was active among believers at the very beginning of the Church of God–one need only read Acts or 1 Corinthians to see how the working of the Spirit was a matter of importance in the growth as well as the discipline of the early Church of God. There is also no doubt among Christians that there will be a time at the end, however that is defined, where the Spirit will become more active in believers in a widespread way, based on Joel 2. The question is, what happens now? There is also another question involved here, as I noted earlier, in that even where it is possible to recognize manifestations of spiritual activity, one must discern what sort of spiritual activity it is, since not all spiritual activity is godly. And so we are placed in a situation where there are some people who wish for themselves to be seen as particularly spiritual and where a great many people, especially those in institutional power, are at best ambivalent if not hostile about contemporary activity of the spirit and the purposes to which it is turned.
There is one thing that one must remember, after all, and that is the way that Spiritual power in the Church of God relates to institutional control as far as the biblical record is concerned. In the early Church of God recorded during the New Testament, precisely the period that has the most verified spiritual activity is also precisely the period where that spiritual activity is most closely related to the institutional authorities of the Church. The speaking in tongues and miracles of healings and people handling snakes without being harmed and all of that happened particularly strongly with and around the early leaders of the Church, like Peter and Paul and their immediate associates. It was the twelve who were presiding over Pentecost services when the Holy Spirit came upon the crowd that was assembled. It was Peter and Paul who were released from chains through divine workings. It was both Peter and Paul who were present at the moments when speaking in tongues demonstrated God’s offer of salvation to various groups of people. The workings of the Spirit did not seek to overturn the existing authority of the Church of God, but instead to confirm that God was indeed working with those who had been trained by Christ and anointed by God (and by the Church) to evangelize and act on behalf of the institutional church.
That is something that must be remembered. The record in the Old Testament is far more similar to the situation that appears in the contemporary Church. During the Old Testament, God raised up prophets (those who raised themselves up did not fare nearly so well) during times when the institutional priesthood and the civil leadership of the monarchy were not doing very well and society itself had lapsed into rejection of God’s ways and various syncretistic and corrupt patterns of behavior, which is certainly the case at present. These prophets had a tense relationship with the priesthood, often, as well as with civil authorities, because they demonstrated God’s unhappiness with the status quo, with the urgency of calls to repent on a societal level, and with God’s displeasure with corrupt institutions which were not doing their jobs. In our day and age, if God is going to raise up prophets to demonstrate the power of His Spirit and to call upon society to repent or to face judgment, that call to repentance is far likely to come from an outsider source, similar to that we find in cases like Amos, Jeremiah, and others whose prophetic words and warnings were confirmed but whose message was a call for institutional and civil authority to repent and turn to God as much as for society as a whole.
And that is a much less pleasant message to hear. While it is easy for us to think that we would have been cheering on the prophets of old whose powerful messages have been recorded in our Bibles, we have to remember that we may not have been as in touch with God and the workings of His Spirit as we might hope. We may be people whose lives and reputation and honor are so tied up in offices and in corrupt institutions that the call of a godly prophet to repent will not receive an attaboy from us but instead a sense of fury that we were not the ones called upon to deliver the warning message and that, moreover, the one(s) whom God sent have rebuke in mind for us. This is not always an easy thing for us to take. We must also remember that when God raises up prophets in times like ours, He does not do so to make them institutional authorities or those who flatter those who are in positions of authority, but rather He gives them an unpalatable message to both church and state that often makes such prophets the targets or even the martyrs of existing religious and civil authorities. If we want glory and power, the prophetic call of the Spirit is not something to seek. We had certainly not better insert ourselves into prophecies or prophetic offices that God has not called us to. But if God does call us, then it is our responsibility to say, “Here I am Lord, do with me what You will, and give me what I need to accomplish Your will so long as I have life and breath.” For we will need all the help that God can give us in such evil days as our own.