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
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 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
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
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
He further added that miracles should not justify a system of faith.6 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
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.
- 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
- Homily on Matthew 9:32 See also: Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues which covers Chrysostom’s beliefs regarding miracles.
- Thomas Aquinas. Contra Gentils. 101 “On Miracles.” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#101
- 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
- IBID Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
- 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