Healings, Pentecostals, and Jesus in the public sphere

This post isn’t meant to be adversarial. And I really haven’t thought all that deeply about the issue (unless you count the time it took me to write this). One of my Facebook friends just asked if I was going to write something about this story about some Christian faith healer types, which was on the front page of Queensland’s Sunday paper, the Sunday Mail, last weekend. And my initial reaction was: “no way,” then I thought: “why not?” It’s not often one gets to use two colons in a sentence, so that’s justification enough. But this is an interesting example of some positive, or not quite negative, media coverage of a group of Christians in the media, so it probably gets as close to fitting the bill in these parts as anything else.


Image Credit: The Courier Mail

Sooner or later, if you sit in a pretty narrow segment of the Christian world, someone is going to get a guernsey in the media, as a Christian, who spouts some stuff you don’t agree with, stuff that makes you cringe a little… It happened to protestants everywhere when Cardinal George Pell announced that atheists get into heaven. But when you’re a reformed, evangelical, Presbyterian, you’re sitting in a pretty narrow branch of Australian Christian thought. While 740,000 people identified as Presbyterian in the 2001 census, the 2001 National Church Life Survey suggests (based on their own extrapolation of their data) that there are about 35,000 people in Presbyterian churches on any given Sunday (I know the data is ten years old, but it’s probably actually on the optimistic side to suggest that the number hasn’t changed too much since then). That means you’re four times more likely to own a copy of One Direction’s album, Up All Night, in Australia, than have a similar set of beliefs about Christianity to me. Now there are other comparisons I could make between my understanding of Christian theology with other denominations which might make the stats more favourable. But lets face it. Christianity in Australia is a broad church. And being a pentecostal is not something that stops you loving the Lord Jesus.

That’s a rather long preamble which should help me make this point in a way that is hopefully gracious. I’m not a pentecostal, and I believe my pentecostal brothers and sisters get many things wrong. I wouldn’t be picking this fight, and it’s not a fight, were this story not on the front page of the paper, and then on the television. I realise that my views on faith healings are, in the scheme of Australian (not to mention global) Christianity, at the very least a matter of debate, and perhaps more accurately, they’re idiosyncratic. My views, thanks to my rational, Western, sceptical epistemological framework (a fancy way for describing how I think I know stuff), and my “excluded middle” (seriously, click that link – it’s a thought provoking piece from Tamie), doesn’t leave a lot of room for “miracles” as it is, but when coupled with my theological assumptions about what the Holy Spirit actually does, and what purpose miracles serve in the Bible, and how God works through people who are medically trained (lets call this a case of natural revelation meets God’s providence), I approach claims of supernatural healings with about the same level of enthusiasm as my atheist friends. Which means I do one of those involuntary shivers when I read a story headlined “Teen God squad Culture Shifters’ miracle cure claims” in the local paper. The story is relatively tame and contains a bit of “he says/she says” “objectivity”… and this telling quote which really nails the heart of the problem that healing ministries create for the rest of us:

“Flinders University Department of Theology professor Andrew Dutney said youth could be more attracted to flamboyant religious styles than to mainline churches.

“There are issues of course … for example, if a person is drawn to this group with a promise of healing and then they are not healed,” Professor Dutney said.

“There can be situations where people blame the person themselves for not being healed and say: ‘You don’t have enough faith’ and ‘You have some secret sin’ and that can be extremely damaging.'”

These concerns raised in the paper by a learned professor, coupled with the relatively infamous “why won’t God heal amputees” meme, and the problematic prosperity theology that underpins the idea that every illness is a miracle waiting to happen (rather than a sign that the world is broken as a result of sin, and that sufferings are a part of life in this world), leave me a bit concerned when it comes to my “Jesus should be at the centre of our engagement with the world” trope. I don’t doubt that God can heal people, or that he responds to prayer, I just doubt “healing on demand” with a measurement of success metric that would be the envy of any public health department in the world. The more Christians present healing as an expectation now, in this world, the more the distinction between now, and the new creation is blurred, the greater the disjunct becomes between expectation and reality, which makes the amputee question more rhetorically powerful than it ought to be. The real answer to that question is “why should God heal amputees” – and a robust account of the effect of the fall on our experience of the world.

A word on Pentecostals

Pentecostals simultaneously represent the best and worst of Christian culture. In my humble opinion (but lets face it, posting my opinion on a blog and assuming you’re still reading, 800 words on, is indicative of a problematic definition of humble).

This realisation probably struck me most (recently) when I watched a group of hip young things, who I can only assume were Pentecostal because of how amazingly happy and cool they looked, pray together on a Toowoomba street during Easterfest last weekend. I wasn’t at Easterfest. I was at a cafe. The whole contemporary Christian music scene is something I’ve got (I suspect well documented in the archives of this blog) big problems with. These guys were so fired up for Jesus. It was great seeing them hunker down in the middle of a busy street (admittedly a street mostly filled with Christians) to pray for each other. I wish my cloistered, fuddy-duddy reformed friends would do more stuff like that. Genuine, authentic, spontaneous expressions of joy, hope and faith aren’t really something we do well. The action was inspiring. But sadly, the words were inane. I listened to these prayers babbling on with pop-psychology/spiritual babble about the Spirit anointing these people to do such odd and mundane things. I’m not suggesting that God doesn’t have an interest in the mundane, or that we shouldn’t pray about them (again, read Tamie’s excluded middle post), but rather that we shouldn’t hyper-spiritualise them, and we should potentially understand the Spirit’s primary role, in the life of the believer, has less to do with triviality, and more to do with seeing God glorified, and Christ proclaimed, through us.

The great promise of the reformed charismatic movement is the fusing of the joyful enthusiasm of these pentecostal types with a more robust, and dare I say “intellectually sound” (without sounding patronising) understanding of the work of the Spirit, and the purpose of the Christian life. I’ll still probably never be a charismatic, I’m much too narrow minded for that, but at least I’ll be able to sit on the sidelines and sneer less when my Christian brothers open their mouths.

I’ve got to say, I watched 20 minutes of random clips from Culture Shifters, as well as a couple of “healing” videos, and I was much more impressed with the stuff they do in their gatherings than with the healings. These healings could easily be explained, by the skeptical, as preying on the gullibility of the naive and employing some charm and powers of suggestion. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening – just that if I wanted to provide a non-supernatural (or natural) explanation for what’s going on in those videos, that’s where I’d turn. On the other hand, the Culture Shifters’ gatherings seemed focused on, and faithful to the gospel (though I did flick through a couple of testimonies and sermons without listening to the whole lot), and they were if not all about Jesus, they were at least in the ballpark of making Jesus the big deal, which is hard to do in any personal testimony, and encouraging when it comes to the sermons.

On the Spirit and healing and stuff

My biggest problem with this story in particular, and faith healing in general, is (as with Christian engagement with politics) that Jesus gets pushed to the sidelines as an afterthought. Both in the stories themselves, and in the actions. Now. I’m sure the Culture Shifters guys are excited about Jesus and passionate about sharing the gospel. And no doubt the reporter spent ample time hearing about how these guys are living out their faith in king Jesus, who has the power not just to heal the sick, but to forgive sins. But that’s not in this story, nor is it likely to be the take home message for your average Aussie non-Christian. I don’t want to set up binaries (though the world would be much easier if I had that power) – but wouldn’t it be better for all of us if these young, keen, fresh faced and friendly Christians were walking the aisles of our major shopping centres and talking to people about Jesus, rather than doing the Christian equivalent of a parlour trick (they would no doubt say they are doing both). Assuming it gets an equal reception, the gospel has a much better success rate than a healing, with a better long term prognosis. And as much as we’d like to read ourselves into the gospel narratives as Jesus, or even the disciples, we’re really neither. We’re the people who have the benefits of their sacrifice, their ministry, and 2,000 years of ministry from subsequent faithful brothers and sisters. The idea that we’re to run around healing people at the drop of a prayer is pretty hard to justify, and any passage that is even partly suggestive that this might be something we should pray for or attempt is pretty strongly linked to the proclamation of the gospel as the end to which our activities should be directed. This is true both for Jesus’ ministry, that of the disciples, and the version of the great commission in the disputed ending of Mark…

“15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

And the question to ask those people is why they aren’t handling snakes or drinking poison. And also, why these verses seem to summarise the events in Acts so perfectly – even up to Paul being bitten by a snake.

So my problem, in summary, is this. The Spirit works to unite us to Christ, to sanctify us through repentance and regeneration, to equip us with gifts for the service of the body, and to strengthen us as we proclaim the gospel. Ultimately the Spirit points people to Jesus – making us more like Jesus, helping us encourage our brothers and sisters to be more like Jesus, and helping other people meet Jesus. Sure. Sometimes that may involve a miraculous healing. But miracles are the exception rather than the norm, and suffering, not prosperity and health, is the norm for Christians. The world is broken, temporary fixes are temporary, and if you want to heal people it probably makes more sense to become a doctor, and do that faithfully and in the service of God. So I think it’s actually unhelpful to the cause of the gospel, not just to the Presbyterian understanding of the gospel, to be making waves for “healing people” if you’re not talking about the real work of healing that Jesus accomplished on the cross and getting media attention and claiming a 90% success rate. Especially when you’re promising an outcome that has no Biblical mandate – sickness and disease are the reality this side of the new creation, and it’s a category error to suggest that our job is to make the new creation happen now. It’s great to want to shift the culture now, to change the world. But that isn’t done just by miraculously healing broken hands, it’s done by introducing broken people to Jesus.

That is all.

UPDATE: The guys behind Culture Shift, or rather, the couple behind Culture Shift, has posted a video responding to the media furore surrounding their healing ministry. I find these two pretty compelling. I want to like them. But I also think this video pretty much sums up in words what I’ve tried to express above. There’s something about the emphasis on transformation being about happiness from about the three minute thirty mark that doesn’t quite mesh up with my understanding of the gospel.

Here’s what Grant, the guy in the video says…

“God’s not just healing people of sickness. He’s healing people of broken hearts. He’s healing people from depression. Really this story is about hundreds of young Australians who had lost hope in life but found the love of God and are now transformed and some of the happiest people on earth.”

Now, I don’t disagree with the sentiment, or with these things, but the work of Jesus isn’t front and centre, nor is the heart of our problem. Sin. And how Jesus deals with that. This could easily be the slogan from a self help program.

I do like that they urge people to go to the doctor and not stop taking their medication. There’s lots to like about these guys and enthusiasm they’re bringing to life and to serving Jesus, but like I said before this update, the gospel is about more than healing sickness, broken hearts, and depression – it’s first and foremost about fixing the brokenness that is a result of our rejection of God.

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. His Son. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of the last 8 years working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online.

11 responses to Healings, Pentecostals, and Jesus in the public sphere

  1. I don’t often comment in people’s blogs but this hit a nerve (in a good way). My grandad was a Pentecostal minister back in the day and my grandma spent 50 years of her life in a wheelchair. I grew up with people praying for and believing for a miracle for her. She never got one but died rejoicing in Gods love for her. To this day people still talk about her undying faith and belief in Jesus. Grandma pointed the way to the savior for me and many others. What a miracle! Keep up the great posts :)

  2. I’m not used to being so heartily in agreement with you. The only thing is, I think you were a little too generous to Pentecostals in general.

  3. So, while agreeing generally with the tone, content and conclusions, when do posts such as this should invite the question about why this blog produces such a volume of writing about how people are getting their communication about Jesus wrong in contrast to output focusing on Jesus?

    • Nathan Campbell April 18, 2012 at 10:46 am

      Hi Gary,

      There are some slight wording problems that are preventing me understanding the question. What I think you’re asking is at what point am I practicing what I preach?

      I think the implied criticism in the question would be valid if all I ever did was blog. But that’s not the case. I exist in the real world, and this blog exists, partly, so that I can encourage people to do what I hope that I do do, and what I hope any contribution I make in the sphere of public communication will do. I trust that any preaching, any conversations, and any thoughts I produce from my particular framework are thoughts that are in some way brought captive to Christ… One of the things I’m struggling with at the moment is the identity of this blog. I don’t want it just to be an outlet for this particular type of criticism. I actually find posting the stupid stuff I post cathartic, amusing, and relaxing as well…

      I’d like to think that implicit in any post that says particular things about people not focusing on Jesus is a focus on Jesus too. And in many cases this is actually explicit – so my Q&A post featured that brilliant Jensen video as the antithesis, or antidote, to the Pell show.

      I hope I’ve answered your question. Feel free to fire back.

      • Nathan Campbell April 18, 2012 at 10:47 am

        I’d also say the last paragraph of this post, while engaging with the issue at the heart of the post, also pretty clearly talks a lot about Jesus.

    • Nathan Campbell April 18, 2012 at 11:04 am

      It’s also a question of audience. I assume that most people reading these posts are Christians. And I assume that the tone, and emphasis, of these posts will be helpful to non-Christians, but won’t necessarily do anything other than tell them that I think Christianity is fundamentally about Jesus.

      I’d say my recent posts on abortion and the “pray away the gay” thing actually do talk about Jesus, in the way I’m suggesting other groups should…

      So the conclusion of the abortion post:

      “The other compelling Christian factor in this argument is that the gospel brings a message of wantedness not just to the discarded or “unwanted” child, but to the mother as well. We value people because Jesus valued us. And because God not only implanted his image in humanity, but calls humans to be his people. We’re adopted into his family. We are wanted by God. That’s the essence of a Biblical anthropology, and its a reality which is heightened for the Christian. Which gives us a precedent to follow, and provides a mandate for us to love and seek the unwanted. This, I think, is the most compelling anthropology going round, and it makes sense of life from conception to death. It only really competes with the view put forward by these ethicists – because they’re right. This is the natural outcome of viewing humanity as a fleshy sack of bones and organs. Only these two options have any sense of cohesion.”

      And the pray away the gay post (with a para from the middle first):
      “I’m fairly convinced that Jesus would have been interested in this debate – following Jesus means ditching your previous identity, and submitting your life to him. That’s pretty much the nature of being a Christian. This means submitting one’s sexual identity to his authority.”

      “The idea that Jesus loved sinners, and that we’re all sinners who need Jesus, gets lost if we keeping banging on about particular sins. And we oversimplify life, and politics in a democracy in particular, if talk as if life is a binary case of good and evil. While this may be true – most Christian theology, in most mainstream denominations (I want to say “all”), begin with the foundation that all people – not just those with same sex attraction, or a homosexual identity – are sinful. Life is complex, and messy, and driving slogan laden trucks around in protest about something is always going to be reductionist, hurtful, and interpreted as hateful.”

      So now I’m less and less convinced that the premise of your question is legitimate. Unless I’ve misunderstood it.

      • No, I think you’ve got it.
        And I pretty much pre-assumed the answer you gave, and it’s one of the reasons I read everything you post here.
        And, I also know that a certain amount of this is stream of consciousness/venting/working it out as you go along.
        And we’d both like to think that the people you write about are just like you and me, that our lives are much bigger than our online/media reported presences.

        So, in the content above, or in the other posts you refer to, how much direct mention about Jesus makes the post intrinsically about communicating Jesus in contrast to how much of it is primarily concerned with talking about what other people are doing wrong?

  4. Interesting piece, Nathan. I also enjoyed the ‘excluded middle’ link, and in particular your comment there about “We don’t do it when we listen to a piece of music understanding musical theory” – want to expand on that for aborrowedflame.com ?

  5. I agree about the best and the worst. Pentacostals I know are some of the most eager, enthusiastic, zealous, passionate Christians I know. But they do get mixed up about the message. Surely spiritual healing is more important than physical healing, and more central to the message of Christianity, and yet it usually seems to take a back seat. But the bigger issue is not the Gospel taking a back seat – it’s the Gospel being damaged by (often false) promises of healing, of “happiness”, of financial security etc. When people come to God for these things and don’t get them, they, naturally, reject the Gospel.

    I wonder if your next post will be about the dangers of intellectualism over action in the Presbyterian church?

    • Nathan Campbell April 24, 2012 at 8:55 am

      If and when the Pressies manage to get any media coverage then I will write about them. Until then I’ll sit in my ivory tower and throw my stones at whom I will.

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