Why I Am No Longer a Charismatic

I recently read two excellent books, Fr. Timothy Cremeens’ history of charismatic renewal in the Orthodox Church entitled Marginalized Voices, and Julia Duin’s account of the rise and fall of a prominent episcopal charismatic church in Houston, entitled Days of Fire and Glory. I had a personal interest in these histories of charismatic renewal, since that movement was the matrix in which I first came to faith in Christ. It was at a large charismatic gathering in Toronto called “Catacombs”, led by Merv and Merla Watson, that I first learned what the presence of God felt like, and first began to trust holy Tradition. (This latter was a slower process, and consisted back then in acknowledging that the Bible was to be trusted more than my own private opinions. Baby steps I know, but everyone has to start somewhere.) Though some of my dear friends still remain part of that renewal/ Pentecostal movement, I have moved on and no longer speak in tongues or prophesy. I would like to suggest a few reasons why, because it involves more than merely one man’s autobiography. The critique of charismatic renewal might help others sort out and separate the spurious from the authentic. It might even lead one home to Orthodoxy, as did me.

I suppose I must begin with full disclosure of the obvious, namely that my experience of charismatic renewal is decades’ old, and that my critique may no longer fully apply to what is currently occurring in charismatic circles. But many of our converts at St. Herman’s church where I am privileged to pastor come directly from such circles, and they report that though much has changed, much remains the same. Specifically, there are fewer tongues and prophecies, and the praise band, just forming in my day, has become an institutionalized liturgical fixture. The underlying spirituality of Pentecostalism, however, remains unchanged, and it is that spirituality that is the problem—and the focus of this meditation. If what follows does not describe your own experience of renewal, glory to God.

First of all, the newness of the Pentecostal movement (going back past the present charismatic renewal into the Holiness movements of nineteenth century Methodism) meant that its founders privileged the concept of novelty. “God is doing a new thing!” became their watchword. The idea was that after long centuries of spiritual lethargy and deadness, God was at last moving in power among His sleepy and sleeping churches to wake them up and restore what they had lost. The newness of the movement therefore, far from counting against its authenticity, counted for it, and became a mark of its genuineness and grounds for boasting. Given their belief that the Bible predicted such a final outpouring of the Spirit in the last days, the newness of the experiences and of the attendant theology testified that we were now indeed in the End Times. (Thus all Pentecostal revivalism had a strong element of chiliasm and a conviction that the Second Coming was near at hand.)

This privileging of novelty quickly became a hunger for novelty, for novelty is fleeting by definition. What was the Newest Thing, and “what God is doing now”, after a few months became yesterday’s news, and one quickly looked for something else, something even newer, the next phase in God’s ongoing programme of restoration, something even more radical and exciting.

This had the immediate effect of short-circuiting one’s spiritual discernment, so that one became unable to distinguish the genuine from the spurious—or even from the seriously whacky and pathological. How else to explain the growth of such things as “the Toronto blessing” (named for its presence at the Toronto Airport Church) with people falling down, laughing uncontrollably, and barking like dogs? (See inset.) One came to expect God would do something new and different every year or so—and wanted Him to do it. One was therefore primed to accept the appearance of such experiential novelties, even if they did appear to be bizarre. The fact that the appearance of such things had no precedent in the church’s history did not count against its genuineness. Rather, it counted for it, for “God was doing a new thing”, as expected. It does not take much imagination to see how such a lack of discernment could lead to cultish behaviour, self-deception, and vulnerability to charlatans quick to take advantage—all of which things littered the charismatic landscape.

The lack of discernment was furthered by the absence of objective criteria with which to judge new doctrine and phenomena. All they had was the Bible, which is not self-interpreting, and so was of no use when read within this culture of novelty. Little wonder that the movement soon became characterized by diversity and plagued by extremism.

Secondly, the movement expected that maturity and spiritual growth would come effortlessly and quickly. The practice of laying hands upon a person and praying for them to receive the Holy Spirit (usually with evidence of speaking in tongues) became the paradigm for meeting all spiritual need. Just as one was expected to receive the Holy Spirit/ gift of tongues simply through a few minutes of prayer, so it was expected that all spiritual problems could be solved similarly through such prayer and laying on of hands. Answers and resolution were expected immediately and without long sustained effort. (The Pentecostal precedent of “tarrying meetings”, which involved long and fervent services of prayer as a preparation for receiving the Spirit/ gift of tongues, was forgotten or set aside.) All that was required now for an instant answer was faith—not fasting or a disciplined life of prayer and Scripture reading and participation in the church’s sacramental life, and certainly not professional therapy—just faith. All problems could be instantly resolved by having someone or a group of people gather around, lay claim to the Lord’s promised blessing, and pray with faith.

Suggesting that all of one’s problems could not be solved in this way was condemned as showing a lack of faith. Such acts of faith (sometimes existentially indistinguishable from exertions of will-power) were regarded as a shortcut to maturity. That is, spiritual growth was not regarded as slow and incremental, but as swift and dramatic. A life of discipline and long faithfulness, though of course admired and recommended, were no longer required for spiritual growth and maturity. One could solve one’s problems and reach the next stage of growth merely by receiving such prayer.

Consistent with this, people who were new to the Christian faith often functioned as pastors and leaders. All that was required to lead a home prayer group, for example, and function pastorally was the ability to speak in tongues. The length of time one had been a Christian was more or less irrelevant, 1 Timothy 3:6 notwithstanding. This was a problem, and resulted in much disappointment and even in pastoral catastrophe, because (sadly) there are no real shortcuts to maturity, and no substitute for a sustained life of discipline. Such a life of slow discipline may not be exciting, but it is essential for real spiritual growth.

Thirdly, the movement fostered an expectation that God would constantly be “at work” in a person’s life, manifesting Himself in life’s mundane details. It is the last bit that is problematic. Of course God works in a believer’s life, but He does not usually manifest Himself visibly in its mundane daily details. But because Pentecostalism is built on a foundation of identifying divine action with visible and exciting things (such as tongues, prophecies, miracles, and outward manifestations), and because it is built upon the expectation that God’s action in our life comes apart from the necessity of long discipline, one is primed to see God’s visible hand in the mundane details. Thus one hears such casual phrases from those in Pentecostalism as “God was speaking to me the other day”, and of how God found them a parking space in a crowded parking lot.

God’s presence in one’s life, it is believed, will necessarily involve His visible intervention in such ways. The idea that God does not routinely speak casually to a believer throughout the day, has no interest in finding them a parking spot, and that His presence is usually subtle and unseen, is not a welcome one. This means that the charismatic often endows an ordinary experience with an extraordinary significance it do not possess. In other words, it involves self-deception. God did not actually say that to you, and did not actually find you that parking space. What you heard casually in your mind was not God’s voice, but just your own imagination. And the sudden finding of the parking spot was not divine providence, but just happy dumb luck such as everyone sometimes experiences. The expectation that God will show Himself casually and often in one’s day results in putting such minor self-deception at the center of one’s life. It may be comforting to imagine that “He walks with me and He talks with me”, but that does not make it true.

Finally, the movement consistently identified emotion with the action of the Holy Spirit. Charismatic services are calculated to produce emotional response, which is the whole point of the praise band. There is nothing wrong with emotion, and emotional release is often necessary (which is why people make a lot of noise at concerts and sports events). But the emotion generated by praise bands at worship services should not be mistaken for the presence or action of the Holy Spirit. If it is so identified, certain problems quickly arise.

That is because every emotional high is followed and balanced by an emotional low. C.S. Lewis referred to this human phenomenon as “the law of undulation”, and the ebb and flow of emotion is part of how we stay healthy emotionally. If we decide to resist the emotional low which inevitably follows an emotional high because we identify the latter with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and if we continue to pump up our emotions artificially, it is certain to result in an emotional crash and burnout. It will also result in our dependence upon emotion, and our consequent inability to mature, because spiritual growth only occurs during times of emotional low and dryness. It is when we do not feel like praying, reading Scripture, fasting, or going to church and do these things anyway that we begin to grow. Maintaining an artificially-induced emotional high (mislabelled as and confused with the work of the Holy Spirit) is a barrier to real growth. The excitement felt by the work of the praise band is like eating cotton candy: it tastes wonderful and produces a sugar rush, but if it forms our main and steady diet, it will eventually make us sick. I found within charismatic renewal a confusion of emotionalism with the presence of the Holy Spirit and often an inability to distinguish between the two.

There were many good things which I experienced within the charismatic movement—things such as a love for Scripture, a hunger for God, an openness to growth and transformation, and a determination to exalt Jesus as Lord. But ultimately the problems mentioned above drove me to the conclusion that the movement was too flawed in its foundation to offer a long-term place of safety and growth. St. Paul wrote that love must be augmented by knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1:9f). It was this lack of spiritual discernment in the movement that ultimately disqualified it for me as a place to call home. I remain grateful to God for the good I found there. I am even more grateful to Him that I moved on.

Next: Pentecostal Orthodoxy


  1. Dear Fr. Lawrence:

    “God is doing a new thing” – that pretty much sums it up for me. When I hear those words today I run in the other direction, but for many years I accepted that premise, having worked at a Pentecostal Bible school for quite some time. The school was deeply impacted by the “Toronto Blessing” movement that you described, and that is when my questioning of Pentecostalism began. Orthodoxy was presented to me as a viable option a few years later, and nine years after that, a wild revivalist working in Lakeland, Florida in 2008 (and the Bible school’s seeming willingness to accept this ministry as having the Holy Spirit within it) was the last straw. In this I saw the lack of discernment that you mentioned – it was part of the school’s mission statement that it would pursue any fresh movements of the Holy Spirit, so they were pretty much duty-bound to at least be open to it. The movement in general seems too willing to accept any otherwise unexplainable “signs and wonders” as being God-born.

    As for Pentecostalism’s barriers to real growth, I would include the tendency of believers in that circle to “prophecy” over one other, indicating that they possess a “great ministry” and have a special calling from God. I wonder if these ministries and callings ever pan out, or if they only serve to keep the believer narcissistically concentrated on their own importance in “the Kingdom.”

    There is so much more I could say, but I’ll leave that to the experts. As I still have some connection with that world – along with some family members happily ensconce therein – I’m duty-bound to agree that there is some good in the Pentecostal movement, and that I myself was helped along the way. Thank you for articulating so well, and in such concise fashion, its pitfalls.

  2. I have always found the “God is doing a new thing” aspect puzzling. Even a cursory acquaintance with Church history shows that phenomena such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc. have perhaps ebbed and flowed but certainly never vanished since the First Century — whether associated with heretics such as the Montanists, or with saints! Some relatives of mine who became Charismatic Catholics in the 1970s seemed to be aware (and proud) of this continuity, but Protestant Pentecostals in my experience tend to dismiss it. This would make sense if they dismissed only charismatic manifestations during the “Great Apostasy”, but they seem equally uninterested in their antecedents in the Radical Reformation, Quakerism, 18th Century Methodism, etc. Do the Orthodox Charismatics mentioned in the first sentence of your blog see themselves as part of a long tradition, or as doing something novel? I remember seeing a pamphlet by a Greek priest with charismatic views which quoted at length from St. Symeon the New Theologian, but I have forgotten what the point was.

  3. Thank you Father for this article as I have been thinking about the gift of tongues lately. I’m on the road to Orthodoxy and completely relate to what you have written. I just wonder though, speaking in tongues is through out the book of Acts, we know it’s biblical, so what does Orthodoxy say about it?
    Was it just for then? Many of us converts spoke/speak in tongues… what do we do with it and why do/did we have this gift? I’d just like to come to terms with all this and it can be difficult. Thank you

    1. I have not come across a standard Orthodox position on speaking in tongues. In general Orthodoxy is reluctant to pronounce on what happens outside its own boundaries, but is content to leave such things with God. Speaking personally, I am unsure whether my own speaking in tongues was genuine or not. I suspect it was not, but am happy to wait until I reach the Kingdom to find out for sure. Often it is okay to simply say, “I don’t know” and to leave it at that.

      1. Thank you. I sat in a back room at a charismatic church with four people around me baptizing me in the holy spirit. Reading scripture and yelling at me to speak in tongues, nothing happened, they gave me a certificate with my baptism date…I thought to myself what a farce, thank you again.

  4. Father Farley,
    With all due respect, you have contradicted yourself in this column. It led you to Christ, and inculcated in you a love for Christ. Is that not a work of God? Also, you have neglected to mention there are millions of serious, sober minded, mature, committed Charismatic Christians. I certainly think Father Eusebius Stephanou would disagree with many of your points, for he had great praise for and was a member of the Charismatic Renewal Movement. I think you threw out the baby with the bath water. Quite frankly, I find it quite sad because the Charismatic Renewal was the greatest move of God in the twentieth century.

    1. It is simplistic to say that because many good things can be found in a movement that it is beyond criticism. The charismatic movement has done much harm as well as much good. Also, the charismatic movement I experienced in the early 70s was very different from the charismatic movement of today. The “Toronto blessing” (so-called) wherein people fall down and laugh uncontrollably would have been denounced as clearly demonic by the charismatics of the 70s.

  5. My experience was similar to yours, Father- “There were many good things which I experienced within the charismatic movement—things such as a love for Scripture, a hunger for God, an openness to growth and transformation, and a determination to exalt Jesus as Lord.” The groups I was in saw themselves as part of the Christian tradition of the New Testament. However, there were temptations to the wayward mindsets so well mentioned in all the comments above. The evil one is always ready to corrupt the best practices of Christianity. That’s why, it is so necessary for a Charismatic group to be well-grounded with mature leadership and practices. Sometimes I miss the experience of feeling “one with God and my brothers and sisters, that joyful slice of heaven.” However, that’s been replaced by a faith that may experience that joyful oneness in prayer, but doesn’t require it or desire it to be chased after. I will not give the Charismatic movement blanket approval, nor will I give it blanket disapproval.

  6. Thank you for the excellent article. I also came to faith through a Charismatic church, specifically a Foursquare church, which offered the Alpha course. I am grateful to my former Charismatic family, and indeed still love them. But after beginning to read the Bible and with much prayer, I left the church, knowing that something was just not right with being slain in the spirit, the crazy manifestations, the “Toronto Blessing,” etc. It was also quite a while ago, so I don’t know everything that is still happening in Charismatic churches, but understand it is still a problem.

    More prayer and seeking followed, and I came to the realization that the fundamental problem with many Charismatic spiritual practices is that they are occult. As such they are forbidden to Christians, and they open up the human spirit to the demonic realm. That is why Charismatics suffer so badly from spiritual attacks.

    I wrote a book, called True to His Ways: Purity & Safety in Christian Spiritual Practice, and defined occult, so people can recognize what it means. My book was also the first to make the link between kundalini yoga and Charismatic practices. For example, being slain in the spirit is the same as “shaktipat” in kundalini yoga, and soaking in the spirit is the same as “samadhi.” The manifestations (trembling, laughing, weeping, etc.,) are called “kriyas” in yoga. There is more, but if anyone is interested, there is information about my book at https://baruchhousepublishing.com/true-to-his-ways/ . I tried to be very understanding, because I understand the deception.

    1. Thank you Ruth. I just ordered your timely book. I was raised a Catholic and in my twenties, found my faith again in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I was a part of it for almost 50 years and even part of a covenant charismatic community which is near my home. I was one of the people who highlighted the abusive shepherding practices at the community (which has been corrected) and have kept some distance from the community on and off for years. Most of my acquaintances are still in the community including my husband but I have been removing myself especially since I have been studying orthodoxy. Having been in the New Age movement prior to my involvement in the renewal, I think I will very much find many answers in your book since I am unfortunately familiar with these practices. I just Wish I could sit down for a nice cup of tea with you and further discuss this but I am grateful for your book resource.

  7. I was led to Christ in a bar on the Ohio State University campus by a couple of new Baptist converts that used a “Four Spiritual Laws Booklet” by Campus Crusade for Christ. They were part of the band that was playing that night (did I mention they were brand new converts?). It was spring of 1972. They were gone the next day and a week or so later I happened on a teens drug rehab ministry that was very legalistic Pentecostal that taught the need to be resaved every time you slipped. As a brand new baby Christian I was willing to not lean on my own understanding so I was very easily molded into their fashion. They taught me how to speak in tongues by repeating several words real fast until they became unintelligible babble at which time I received copious group approval for receiving the Holy Spirit. I moved in and within a few months the preacher dumped his family and ministry and ran off with my fiance’. Knowing I’d never be able to live up to a perfect life and just realizing from their doctrine that I would never be good enough, I turned away from the church. Still loved Christ but wandered for two years. My takeaway on the tongues issue which I still use in the closet at times is that it’s a way to express the inexpressible. It’s kind of like songs that use nonsensical words like shuwop, shuwop, doobie, doobie, doobie or fa, la, la, la, la, la, la la – every time you sing or hum you have different emotions / experiences that can be expressed through those nonsensical variables. I would be most reluctant to stand in front of a group and repeat my version of tongues because of the way it was forced upon me. As times become so much more dangerous I want to make sure I’m standing firmly on the Rock of my salvation. Basically, of late, I guess I’m trying to do a spiritual house cleaning. Appreciated your article. Blessings upon thee!

    His, Bob Green

  8. Thank you for this comment Father, my mother is growing quite radical in her expression of charismatic teaching, and it honestly feels quite narcissistic. She has reframed all her negative childhood emotions to prove that “she has a special relationship with God”. At her own grandmother’s wake we were praying and she said she had to force the Holy Spirit to “not force her to speak in tongues”. I have heard some of her Encounter school sessions and they are filled with “God tells me this”, “God tells me that” over and over again. One time, she believes God even returned her lost phone to her hotel room. Everything you described here is a manifestation of what I see in her, and I worry that, while it may not be heretical, it is forming a sort of self-importance. I have struggled with my faith in the advent of her charismatic revelation, but have ultimately come to the conclusion that I am not “unworthy” of God’s love just because I do not express faith the way she does.

    I am unsure what will come of all of this, but, for lack of better terms, there is a mild cult mentality that I view forming within her, and I am not sure how to discuss the issue because I have been met with harsh criticism, claiming that I know nothing because I have not “studied theology” and that I do not know “real teaching” and that “the broader Catholic church is asleep to the wonders of the renewal”, so therefore, I must be as well.

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