Charismatics, Headaches and Healings

CharismaticWorship

Examining the role of divine healing in charismatic churches and the urgency to review, modify, or abandon this as a staged event.

If you attend almost any charismatic church meeting, you are sure to hear about supernatural healings. They are usually abstract ones such as headaches banished, a sore back relieved, a short leg lengthened, and many other unusual conditions cured. The majority cannot be scientifically proven because of the vague symptoms, but the person feels better. There are seldom any that can be empirically proven.

The practice of divine healings is typical of a charismatic liturgical experience. The charismatic movement, originally birthed from mainline denominations in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the 1960s, was originally assigned to those people deeply connected with the pentecostal wave but still attended their traditional churches. They were part of a theological influence that erupted through the continent emphasizing a mystic union with God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, subsequent speaking in tongues and an emphasis on the supernatural.

Those imbued with the pentecostal wave and still attending their Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist and other mainline churches tried to bring their spiritual awakening to their traditional brethren, but it did not succeed. The result was that many of these people voluntarily left or were forced out. As a consequence, these people formed their independent churches. One of their attributes, apart from their emphasis on the supernatural, is the autonomous nature and avoidance of denominational or sectarian features. Because of this, there is a wide range of expressions and practices within the charismatic movement. There is no key leader, church, or theologian that represents them. Dialogue and cooperation exist between these independent churches, but no desire to form a hierarchical structure.

One may think that the charismatic movement is a small slice of the religious pie, but this is not the case. It is one of the fastest growing segments of the christian faith in the world. In the United States alone, the Barna Group states that four out of every ten independent churches are charismatic based, and 46% of those who attend a protestant meeting are Charismatic. (1)https://www.barna.org/barna-update/congregations/52-is-american-christianity-turning-Charismatic#.Vc1JVB_iubk

Divine healings is part of the charismatic emphasis on the supernatural and the mystic christian life. It is an important part of their religious identity.

Problems with exhibitions of divine healings

However, there are serious problems with the mystic rite that the charismatic movement must address.

First of all, the public exhibition of divine healings strengthen public sentiment that those practising are radicalized religious fanatics. It scares the general populace more than attracts. This healing practice, which is perceived as a staged act rather than fact by most members of the public, also further alienates the christian faith from being a regular participant in public social dialogue.

Secondly, the staged process of divine healing undermines the credibility of the message. I don’t know how many times I have had public discussions where the faith discussion is quickly shut down because they think the whole church thing is a fraudulent process that is for the elderly, the mentally weak, or those who are easily deceived. They usually quote faith healers they have seen on television, the radio, or in print magazines to back up their refusal to discuss any matters of the christian faith.

This leads to a serious concern. Unless the various branches of the protestant churches seriously confront the problems of perceived fraud and lack of accountability in the practice of divine healing, then a serious public relations problem exists. The lack of discipline may lead to a tipping point; some abuse relating to divine intervention will spark the already existent anti-church sentiment and will set a precedent for government intervention. As a result, this will send a very bad message that the church, which is supposed to pursue and encourage moral excellence, is an institution that cannot govern itself, nor be considered reputable. Whose fault is that? Is it a war on the church or is it a backlash the church has created for itself?

The historic problem of supernaturalism

This is not the first time in history that an overemphasis on the supernatural within the christian community has caused problems.

Both Origen in the second and John Chrysostom in the fourth-century touched on it. They agreed that very few pious people would ever achieve the status of producing miracles.(2)Origen, Against Celsus. As found in The Writings of Origen. Translated by the Rev. Frederick Crombie. Vol. II. Origen Contra Celsum. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1872. Pg. 426. For Chrysostom see the footnote below Chrysostom especially did not want to attach miracles to the Christian identity. He felt that superstition and magic would be an obstacle to personal growth. He also stated that there was a certain danger of pride with those who were miracle workers and very much de-emphasized such a ministry because of this.(3) Homily on Matthew 9:32 See also: Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues which covers Chrysostom’s beliefs regarding miracles.

Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century dwelt deeply on the topic of miracles and formulated the definition into various degrees. He cautions against improperly assigning a natural phenomenon as a miracle. One example he used was an eclipse. To the astronomer, it is part of a routine pattern, but to the thirteenth-century layman, it was out of the natural order and, therefore, a miracle. Aquinas simply assigns this as a wondrous event.

He describes miracles as something out of the natural order of nature, such as the sea temporarily parting so that people can walk through it. The more the event goes against the laws of nature, the greater the miracle. The healing of a blind person, paralysis, etc., are actions that nature cannot do, and, therefore, are categorically a miracle. Another kind of miracle is where God intervenes where nature could have done the same thing such as curing a fever, or bringing on rain. He deems these as a lesser miracle.(4)Thomas Aquinas. Contra Gentils. 101 “On Miracles.” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#101

One must realize that Aquinas lived in an era where mystic christianity was in a heightened stature. He realized there was a fundamental problem and clearly wrote out basic principles for defining a miracle. Although his work is almost 800 years old, it still surpasses what the present charismatic community has in place today for defining a miracle – which is nothing.

The eighteenth-century English philosopher, David Hume, among others, noted that superstition and adherence to mysticism were too strong a social constant in his society. It permeated all the theaters of decision making. From this perspective he produced this powerful sweeping statement.

The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events.(5)David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Reprinted from the posthumous edition of 1777 with introduction, comparative tables of contents, and analytical index by L.A. Selby-Bigge. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9662/9662-h/9662-h.htm

He further added that miracles should not justify a system of faith.(6)IBID Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Miracles used to rationalize a charismatic church or christianity as an authentic representation of religion instead of reason delegitimizes such movements within the Canadian social mosaic. Any religious leadership that uses miracles to promote their brand may have short term gain by preaching to the choir, but in the long term, the public will be further disassociated.

Nor are most Charismatics aware that they are simply reinventing the wheel. The topic of divine healings, mysticism, and the supernatural were a central core of European society for centuries. It dominated the political and social landscape. William Lecky, in his book, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, described the circumstances in the 17th to 18th centuries as this:

Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed it head to an earnest worshipper.(7)William Lecky. History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1888. Pg. 157

He saw no difference in the attitudes of either the Protestants or the Catholics on the subject.

The improper application of miracles and the supernatural was one of the factors that forced a social revolution that regaled against any perceived spiritual intervention. The desupernaturalizing also had another important factor. It deprived Church of their authority and transferred it to a new entity. As a consequence, it enabled society to establish a new set of laws, selection processes for civic leaders, systems of government, and a different framework for scientific exploration. This correction was an overreaction that downgraded the realm of miracles and supernatural into the place of myth; a piece of history that should remind present day charismatics to tread carefully.

There is also a theological and common sense problem. If a church has regular weekly healing meetings based on the premise that miracles will happen, then this means they have the ability to suspend the laws of nature for an hour or two every week. Such a proposition displays a predictable pattern of health recovery and, therefore, a normal procedure. Such a custom is not consistent with what constitutes a miracle. A miracle is something that cannot be controlled or predicted in any way. This is not a realistic premise to encourage or practice.

Building a proper framework

Miracles do happen but the definition should be purposely narrow and only be declared when something occurs that is obviously outside the laws of regular nature. The cure for a common cold, or a back feeling better are too subjective. An amputated arm that grew back, or somebody clinically defined as dead and then suddenly brought back to life while someone was praying over the coffin are miracles are of substance. However, I have never seen anything like this happen.

It is important that churches who emphasize faith healing have a clear policy in place. An independent third party must empirically prove any miracle. Therefore, meetings that encourage divine healings should state that only a health care professional declares whether a miracle has happened.

It would be difficult to ascribe something as spontaneous healing with many ailments. Diabetes, most cancers, multiple sclerosis, or many other afflictions are all conditions that can be tricky to declare healed. Some can heal through natural means or can even go in remission. They can hide for long periods of time and then surprisingly reappear. These states can lead to a false hope and potentially to a premature death because a sick person who believes that a divine intervention has occurred may fail to take prescribed therapies or refuse medical treatment.

All healings and miracles should be listed according to Aquinas’ system: wonders of nature, greater miracles and lesser miracles.

Some would counter that the positive affirmation of community prayer heals a broken spirit and can alleviate emotional suffering. This then can cross over into the bodily realm and help those with heightened sensitivities to physical pain.

Many divine healing services succeed in encouraging people by instilling a sense of hope. Hope is hard to grasp for those who continually struggle due to a physical malady, lack financial means for the most elementary of provisions such as medications, dental work, food, or employment, or hurting through a divorce, death, or many other reasons. These are situations where many have quietly given up on life and live in the shadows. Many testimonies in healing services attest to overcoming such obstacles and finding the experience as a place for a new kick-start in life.

The psychological help and inspiration of a divine hope appears to be a great argument for divine healing services. However, these aren’t miracles. They are words of encouragement. They are a divine wonder.

These last two arguments gloss over the serious trust broken by faith healers and ignores the ominous task of rebuilding it. Until the various branches of the protestant movement seriously address this subject, the Good News will remain stagnant or even regress in the hearts of the majority of North Americans.

charlesasullivan

charlesasullivan

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.
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One thought on “Charismatics, Headaches and Healings

  1. As one who has been privileged to actually see a “miracle” happen I feel compelled to make a few comments. Space and time will not permit me to go into the details of my actually witnessing a miracle. It matters not to me whether anyone ever believes me or not; I simply have to give my testimony to having seen a real divine miracle. I have also have seen many miraculous healings that have been medically verified including one with my wife where we have test results showing that she had mitral valve prolapse and one later showing she does not have mitral valve prolapse. This condition can only be corrected by surgery or by God. She never had surgery. So I am personally confident that God does indeed perform miracles and miraculous healings.

    This being said, I do agree that unfortunately there are charlatans in the ranks of the church and also many who so want to see the miraculous that they stretch truth and credibility to the breaking point and in doing so serve neither the Christian witness nor God’s purposes. Therefore many in the church would rather take a position avoiding the subject or relegating it to theological suppositions that support the idea that God can do miracles but we really don’t expect to see any. Toward the end of the second century we see the church fathers take on this attitude because while church history and scripture gave witness to miracles the experience of the church did not witness miracles. Throughout history there have been isolated times and places where the miraculous occurred but these reports were few and far between and it was all too easy for them to be dismissed as the over enthusiasm of exuberant believers from the ranks of the common people but those of the intellectual class knew that these were simply folk superstitions. As a modern example I was once in a presentation by the head of the Theology department of Princeton. He was explaining to the group how all the miracles in the Bible were simply psychosomatic and resulted merely from the power of suggestion and belief. After the lecture I shared my miracle story with this person who looked at me and said, “well that couldn’t have been psychosomatic.” To which I respond, ” no and neither were the ones in the Bible.”

    My background is in Biblical studies with studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I concentrate on early Christianity and the Hebraic background to Christianity. I have worked in academic settings for years and have seen the majority of academics to be on the side of those like the professor from Princeton. Their experience is in an academic setting in the world of ideas and theories. Most are agnostic and a few atheist. They don’t believe in miracles and have never seen one nor do they ever expect to see one as they don’t believe they exist. On the flip side, I also have worked as a pastor and I have experienced many people who think that they should leave their brain at the door when they enter a church. Faith all too often means what one believes and when one wants to believe something strongly enough they sometimes create their own reality devoid of our commonly shared reality. This furthers those who wish to distance themselves from the charismatic and divine healing elements is the church.

    To all this I say. There is a real God who really exists and who really does miracles. He does not do miracles to entertain or merely to show He can. He doesn’t need to prove Himself to anyone. That will become self evident in time. He sometimes does miracles to proclaim His authority or to give witness to His servants. Jesus instructed His disciples to go and heal the sick. Elijah was given the keys of rain and told Ahab that it would not rain until he said so. But these instances are when God has made someone His agent and empowered him to be His witness and to speak on His behalf. This is not something you can manipulate at your own choosing or for your own glory. We do not see these things as often as we wish because we don’t give ourselves wholly to God to used by Him as He wishes.

    However, the church at large is commanded to pray for the sick and to help the poor. We are taught to pray that God’s will be on earth as in heaven. There is no sickness nor poverty in heaven so we have all authority to pray for this to occur on earth. I object to the idea that the modern charismatic churches “stage” miracles. And that they use healings and miracles to draw people into their meetings as if this were something wrong or heretical. The statement was made in the article that, “Any religious leadership that uses miracles to promote their brand may have short term gain by preaching to the choir, but in the long term, the public will be further disassociated.” This statement is in conflict with the saying of Jesus,

    “John 10:37 If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me;
    John 10:38 but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.”

    Jesus did miraculous works to promote His mission and to give witness that He was sent by God. To say that His followers can not do the same is contrary to Jesus own words.

    “John 14:11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.
    John 14:12 ¶ “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.”

    So it is convenient for academics to stay away from the miraculous because it seems nonsensical and for those who believe that God can but doesn’t to avoid the topic because it is messy and fraught with problems. But, and it’s a big but, God is the same forever and He calls His disciples to exemplify His will and His kingdom and to so walk with God that we can bring His miraculous power into ordinary lives to bring healing, deliverance, restoration and even life from the dead and to bring the power of the extraordinary into the ordinary. If we are convinced that God doesn’t do that anymore then we deny His eternal claim and if we are convinced that God could but doesn’t do miracles then we will never pray for them and never try and certainly will never see them manifest. Personally I would rather try and fail than to never try at all.

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