Heather Tomlinson shares a short explainer about charismatic gifts of the Spirit and cessationism, following a recent Unbelievable? debate 

The question of whether God ‘speaks’ today – or how he does it – deeply divides the Protestant evangelical Church. Yes, at present there are huge disagreements over gender, sexuality and fashionable preoccupations like that. But for a purely theological disagreement that is of interest to the ordinary believer, I’d argue that the question of how the Holy Spirit acts and guides is the cause of the biggest schism in evangelicalism at present. 


Charismatic or Reformed 

If you’re not familiar with this dispute, on one side are what are called ‘charismatic’ churches, who emphasise that the Holy Spirit can speak to believers clearly through dramatic means such as an audible voice, dreams, prophesies, visions or any of our senses – or just a bit of a ‘nudge’. They draw such ideas from scripture, arguing that this kind of dialogue was possible in the earliest days of the Church in the book of Acts, so why not now? 

Charismatic renewal grew significantly in popularity during the 20th Century. It’s this kind of Christianity that is growing rapidly throughout the world in places such as Africa, China and South America. 

On the other hand, are the churches that are ‘Reformed’ in theology, which means they take their guidance from the beliefs and leaders of the Reformation in the 1500s. They usually argue that God does speak today, but only through scripture and through careful preaching that exegetes from the Bible alone. They say the Bible is sufficient: ‘Sola Scriptura’. (It’s worth pointing out that many evangelicals consider themselves to be both charismatic and Reformed – New Frontiers, for example. So the word ‘cessationist’ is often used to distinguish the Reformed folk who are sceptical of charismatic attitudes.)


Read more:

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Does God speak today through dreams, visions & prophecy?

Are the gifts of the Spirit still in operation?

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In practice the two groups of churches look very different. Since the 1970s, charismatic churches were full of young people and they were definitely the hip n’ happening place to be – witness the new film ‘Jesus Revolution’ for the beginning of this trend. Reformed churches were then a little outdated. However, the recent movement dubbed ‘Young, restless and Reformed’ has brought stylish graphic design and young folk flocking to cessationist churches, too. They’ve both given the Church’s image an upgrade. 

However young and trendy the people in the pews may be, what happens during a church service is very different. In a charismatic service on a quiet day you’re likely to see a lot of emotion: hands in the air, maybe a bit of dancing, long emotive worship music, for example. But if you attend on a wild day, you can see people talking in tongues, falling down all over the place, running around waving flags and all sorts.

A Reformed church is much more stately, with doctrinally Reformed hymns, a lot of preaching, and considerably less emotion. 

Cessationist and charismatic 

The two groups can be very critical of each other. For example, John MacArthur, the don of the cessationist church movement, wrote a book and put on a conference called ‘Strange Fire’ that basically said charismatics are completely wrong, even that they conduct “counterfeit worship”. I’ve sat in a lot of charismatic services where those who don’t believe in the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – as charismatic ideas of dreams, prophesies and so on are known – are said to be dry, boring, missing out, even not actually saved. 

It was therefore very refreshing to listen to Premier Unbelievable’s recent debate between a cessationist – Jim Osman – and a charismatic – Tania Harris – that was notable for its good naturedness. If only all theological debates could be conducted in such a positive and agreeable manner. It was so respectful, humble and kind that I believe God must be working in both their lives, because it is rare to see. 

It was also interesting to hear how much they did agree on. Osman described a real sense of God’s presence and guidance through scripture, which certainly sounds like a living faith, with Harris nodding along in agreement. 

Osman warned how easily charismatics can misinterpret God’s ‘voice’ and how dangerous it is – and Harris agreed that it can be manipulated or misused, and that accountability within a church is needed. 


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A lot is down to differing language. Whereas Harris says God “speaks”, Osman says the Holy Spirit “works” or “illumines” or “convicts”. But Harris’s understanding of ‘speaks’ is a lot broader than language – it is communication in any form. There seems to be at least some crossover here, where they are using different language to describe what is actually the same thing. 

Yet they’re both clear that they do disagree profoundly, though they’re kind about each other’s literature on the subject. Tania Harris wrote a book entitled ‘God conversations’ while Jim Osman wrote along almost opposite lines: ‘God doesn’t whisper’. 

There are many other differences. Jim’s church Kootenai Church has a 1,681-word doctrinal statement, each sentence with a corresponding Bible reference. These beliefs include 6-day creationism, complementarianism (the belief that women shouldn’t lead ministries) and a literal rapture. Tania Harris’s ministry tours all the Christian networks that Jim would never attend, such as Elim and New Wine. Therefore, their differences in belief in how God communicates are more subtle than I’d have predicted.

Our relationships with God are deeply personal – and this debate has the potential to be deeply hurtful. After all, if Tania is right that God can speak to us today – Jim has a huge hole in his relationship with God. But if Jim is right, then Tania is deeply deceived and potentially dangerously so. Not many things could be more intimate than how we relate to God, nor more important than how we understand the Bible and discern truth.

Yet their discussion seems to me to be modelling what is truly evidence of Jesus’s guidance and presence – respect, kindness and helpful discussion. This seems to me to be an excellent way to go about finding the truth.

Watch Tania Harris and Jim Osman discuss this issue further on Unbelievable?


Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist. You can find her on twitter @HeatherTomli or through her blog http://www.heathert.org