Charismatic or Reformed – memories from my university days
I went to Queen Mary College (part of London University) in order to “read chemistry”, upon leaving school in 1970. I would like to share some memories I had as a young, keen Christian, which strangely resonate today, mindful of the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes – that there is nothing new under the sun, and noting Murphy’s Law – that often things are not what they seem.
Prior to going to QMC, there were two major spiritual influences on my life. Firstly, upon becoming a Christian after being converted at a summer camp, as a fifteen-year-old, I became part of a Plymouth Brethren (Open section, middle of the road) assembly, which I continued with when I returned to my town (city) some years later, and until the work closed some eight years ago. One characteristic of PB assemblies back then was the emphasis that was placed on adhering to sound doctrine and, to such an extent, they were suspicious of any group that was not PB. Another was, just prior to going to my college, I participated in an Operation Mobilisation summer crusade in France and that sparked my missionary interest (that continues to this day) and it helped me see the importance of radical discipleship and the need to be hungry for God.
One surprise I got when joining QMC was, after I decided to go along to a Christian Union meeting, I discovered most of its leaders were Anglicans, but were of the sort I could join with for prayer, Bible study and evangelistic outreach. They even got me attending the two standout Evangelical Anglican preaching houses of that time: St. Helens, led by Dick Lucas and Ian Barclay, and All Souls, led by John Stott and Michael Baughan. These Anglican CU members would have been labelled as Evangelical, as opposed to Liberal or Anglo-Catholic, of which many existed on the college campus. Many joined an alternative Christian group led by its Anglican chaplain, a youthful Rev. Malcolm Johnson. Malcolm (a nice, friendly man, who was well liked) and his unsound, theologically speaking, views were a shock to the system and was a good example of what my PB mentors had warned me against. Moreover, he thought gay was ok; something I did not expect. In fact, in later years I found he was a prime mover in the LBGT movement in the CofE. And while all this was sufficient reason to steer clear of Malcolm (who had once in one of our few exchanges encouraged me in my Bible study) and the chaplaincy, I found later he also did a lot for the homeless and helping the victims of AIDS.
Relevant to this article, I also went along to meetings of the London University Christian Union (LIFCU), which covered London colleges and teaching hospitals. There I met more Christians not from my PB tribe and some I regarded as spiritually heavyweight insofar they were the sort who would become true movers and shakers, of the sound variety, in the church in years to come. At the time, there were two spiritual movements that had come to the fore in recent years and, in years to come, were to gain momentum: (not Pentecostal) Charismatic and (Puritan leaning) Reformed. LIFCU had speakers from both camps, often well known, such as Arthur Wallis (Charismatic) and Ian Murray (Reformed). When I discussed this with Tom Chung, the LIFCU President, his response was we needed the Spirit and the Word. With two notable exceptions, my PB leaders were anti charismatic (they did not go along with the Baptism in the Spirit or Speaking in Tongues) and while sharing with Reformed types their love of the Bible and sound doctrine, their views on ecclesiology and eschatology differed. Interestingly, (as I recall) Tom was a member of All Souls, which was not particularly Charismatic or Reformed. But John Stott was well into community involvement and social action, which was something I don’t recall emphasized by Charismatic, Reformed or Brethren then. While John Stott and Malcolm Johnson were probably poles apart theologically, they saw something few other Christians then saw. I reckon, when it came to community activism, they would have been pretty close.
Back to “nothing new under the sun”, while we look across the whole church spectrum today, and see many seemingly irreconcilable differences, it has ever been thus. The differences then and now are the type of issues that divide. If there is a positive I can take from my university days, it is that real Christians from different theological stables not only got along but respected each other and enjoyed real fellowship. I write not just as an old man reminiscing about things I think were significant that went on during my university days but as is often the case there are lessons to learn. I belong to a church these days that is neither pro nor anti Charismatic but does have strong Reformed roots. Our full time, paid elder, comes from a Charismatic background, but nowadays is Reformed leaning. We have recently had an influx of new Christians, who are not fully aware of the issues that got Charismatic and Reformed types worked up in bygone days (and without the related baggage and entrenched positions) but are simply keen to know and serve God better.
My point is the same as Tom’s point to me 50 years ago; we need the Spirit and the Word and we can be both Charismatic and Reformed, and come to that, Brethren, as we preach the old-fashioned Gospel and promote every member ministry. Also, 50 years on, I note the overly dogmatic positions of some Charismatics and Reformed: they are right and the other is wrong. For example, some Charismatics have taken up unbiblical positions and some Reformed have said the sign gifts of the Spirit are not for today. Furthermore, like MJ and JS, we must take social justice matters seriously. The challenge, as always, is getting the right balance.
I end with a true story that is relevant to the situation we are in now, especially my church. When I was in my last year at school, not long before starting university, two people invited me to a special meeting at the church I now attend. One was a school mate, who happened to be the son of the Pastor at that time. The other was one of the two pro-Charismatic members of my PB assembly (he would later become a leader of the Charismatic movement in my town). The preacher was Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones, seen by many as the de facto leader of the Reformed movement at that time. Yet, as we see, he was also respected by many Charismatics, especially taking into account what he preached about, some of which I remember to this day and include above highlights from the passage in the Bible that he preached about. The question of whether there are true prophets operating today is one that I have addressed in my writings, e.g. “Prophets of the Bible – the Second Edition”. As I reflect on what I raised here and some of what I am seeing happening now, I am inclined to the view the Doctor had given a word of prophecy to my church. While besides me no-one else that are part of the church today was around at the church then, it is one we do well to weigh.
One thing my university experience taught me is that no Christian individual or group had complete understanding or a monopoly on truth, and most, if not all, had something of merit to offer, and we all need to be humble before God. My experience with different groups since then has only gone to reinforce that view. It was around then I discovered the wisdom contained in the Book of Ecclesiastes, some of which I began with. As we end, let’s evaluate our priorities and consider the whole duty of man. Rather than get daunted because of the alternative approaches to spirituality, let’s focus, as unprofitable servants, on being faithful and looking unto Jesus.
One thought on “Charismatic or Reformed – memories from university”
Thank you for your sharing.Generaaly I agree with you.I ad similare spiritual experiences. At first I began to study liberal theology. Because I wanted to be trained in more biblical school, I trab=nsferred to a school of reformed tradition. But I was disappointed with many theologians who organize and interpret the Bible with their arbitrary selection. Especially I did not like those theologians who rationalize their denial of women leadership and gifts of the Holy Spirit in the name of the Bible. I believe that the Bible, properly translated and interpreted with the whole text and context, is trustworthy. But pietism makes me realize that the Christian life is not just an intellectal recognition about Jesus but a living relation of the whole person including intellect, emotion, and will with Jesus Christ. Pentecostalism makes me desire sincerely the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit now and here. May God’s peace be with you!