October 16, 2013

Strange Fire – The African Import of Charismatic Chaos – Conrad Mbewe

by Mike Riccardi

For those who are unable to view the free live stream of the Strange Fire Conference here at Grace Community Church, I thought I would do my best to provide a written summary of the various sessions as they unfold (Session One; Session Two; Session Three). I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, or if I’ll be able to other sessions (check out Tim Challies‘ blog for his coverage) But I thought a little would be better than nothing. It provides us with a helpful opportunity to interact with what is actually being said at the conference. Having said that, the following was transcribed in haste, and so please forgive any typos. I pray it’s a benefit to you.

Strange Fire

What you read in Charismatic Chaos is what we see back in Africa, except Africa is much worse.

I will be doing a brief overview of the Charismatic movement in Africa. It’s something I’ve observed over the past 30 years, and I consider it to be a matter of real concern. This is not simply something I’ve learned about through reading books. It’s what I come across, literally, every day. And so I hope you will therefore bear with me if I get a little emotional. It’s a real concern in my own heart.

Most of what I will go on to paint before you is rather foreign to a Western mindset, but I hope I’ll do the best I can in the little time I have, to make you appreciate our African perspective of things. Given the short time, I’ll be using broad strokes, and so you will have to read further, and as you do I hope you will come to appreciate more of this issue in its detail.

Sanctify Them in the Truth; Your Word is Truth

Turn with me to John 17, not because I’m expounding this text but because I really want us to keep this in mind as we deal with this issue. Because the Charismatic Chaos that I will be pointing out to you would not exist if John 17:17 had been taken seriously. It would not be where it is if we could get back to what Jesus was saying in His high priestly prayer.

They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

This was toward the end of the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is on the eve of being crucified, and so He is wrapping up truths that He has been teaching over a long period. He’s seeking to convince His disciples concerning how they ought to live especially in the light of His absence. And then as it comes to this prayer, He deliberately prays it in the ears of His disciples so that they may remain with something of that which is at the center of His own heart. The glory of God—“glorify Yourself,” He says over and over again. He deals with this reality that there is a time between the first and second coming. But there is an organizing principle that is to be retained at the center of Christianity. And it is this: His Word, God’s Word, is to remain saving and sanctifying His people. And He puts it within His prayer to the Father that this is what He desires.

I would like to suggest to you that it has been a failure to recognize the centrality and the sufficiency of the Word of God that has produced something of what we will look at this evening.

Conservative Pentecostalism Opened the Door

Conrad Mbewe PreachingThere is no doubt that south of the Sahara desert the charismatic movement has flooded the African continent. You can’t miss it. North of the Sahara you have the Islamic north. But the moment you cross that desert, you soon begin to see that this is what has become the most visible form of “Evangelicalism,” and I use quotes deliberately. The phrase “born again” seems to be equated with that form of Christianity. This has come through public address systems, radio, TV, and free literature shipped across the Atlantic—largely from your shores—containing the kind of heresies that have become common diet in the health and wealth charismatic movement. That’s been shipped across over a number of decades. And more recently through broadcasting networks such as TBN, this has become the staple diet of many of God’s people over on our end.

Invariably this has been riding on the back of the old time conservative Pentecostalism, which basically found its way into much of English-speaking Africa in the second half of the last century. That opened the doors. And with respect to what we’re now seeing, this is like a pushing further of that which was being taught previously. The door was opened slightly, and now it has been opened ajar. The Pandora’s Box has been opened.

Why Have These Churches Succeeded So?

Many people invariably ask the question, “Why is it in such a short period of time there has been such an acceptance, multiplication of churches that can be described as I’ll be describing in a minute or two?” The answer that I’ve given in the blog post you’ll find on Grace To You, is basically that this form of Christianity has appealed to the African worldview in terms of its understanding of the spiritual world. Now, I don’t have the time to take you through all that, and I hope you will read that blog post. But what I do need to say is that almost invariably when you look at the outfits for the meetings, the crusades, church services, the messages amount to something like this: “Come and receive your deliverance, your healing, and your breakthrough!”

Now I realize that what I’m saying are but words to you. But there’s a whole world—in my mind as an African—that that describes. For instance, the word “breakthrough,” what it is really saying to the common man where I come from is, “If you’re struggling in your marriage, or struggling to conceive, or struggling to maintain a job, or struggling to be promoted at work, struggling with even ill-health – whatever it is you’re struggling with, despite your prayers, nothing seems to be happening , it is because between you and God there are other layers that need to be dealt with. One of those layers is that of angels and demons. The other layer is that of your ancestral spirits. Until those layers are broken through, you will not get what you want.”

That makes a lot of sense to an African, because that’s the way we have thought for centuries. We don’t doubt the existence of God, but He’s a God far away. He’s a God who has these layers in between. And until we deal with them, he will not hear us or act on our behalf. And that’s really the role—as I’ll be showing you in my next message—that the “man of God” seems to be fulfilling: giving that breakthrough.

Now you quickly realize that that’s not what the Bible teaches. And yet that is the form that the Charismatic movement, that is now clothed in African attire, that is what it has taken on. It’s basically saying the same language that has already been there for centuries in Africa, but now giving it a thin veneer of Bible verses. You can therefore well understand that if men and women are rushing in throngs to the witch doctor’s den, they will rush in throngs to these so-called churches. Because ultimately, it’s the same “power play” they are looking for.

I’ll be quick to say that that was not the initial thinking when the old conservative Pentecostalism crossed over. As I said, I’ve had opportunities to be exposed sufficiently over a period of about 30 years. What is happening today is something that has gone a number of steps further. And the only reason why it should be so, as I’ve already hinted, is because the Word of God is no longer playing the role of governing our thinking and our practice.

It’s not Good News. It’s Bad News.

My concern is this: that when a lot of people look at the full-to-overflowing churches in Africa, the apparent excitement in the churches, they cross back to the U. S. and say, “There’s revival there!” The churches are packed, multiple services, churches multiplying, but I do want to say to you tonight that it is not Good News. It’s bad news. And its’ bad news primarily because of this same text that we looked at earlier. Jesus is God. He is all-powerful. He is the One who can take out of us stony hearts and give to us hearts of flesh. And by His Spirit lead us from one degree of glory to the other. And yet it is this same Jesus who now turns to the Father, and says, “Sanctify them, set them apart, make them holy through the truth! And it is Your Word that is Truth!”

John 17;17 BibleWhen I say that it is bad news, first of all it is because of the absence of the exposition and study of this Book in those sects. 30 years ago you could attend a Pentecostal church, and having survived a certain section that they would call “worship,” the pastor would get into the pulpit and give you some exposition. You may disagree with his interpretations here and there, but you can at least see some effort  at teaching you what this Book is saying. You could go for a mid-week Bible study, and you would sit there and go through a passage of Scripture. You may again disagree with some conclusions, but at least you would see that there is an effort to get to this Book. Those days you would go to university, and people would say, “We were at Bible study.” That phrase is almost completely absent. And I mean it. I cannot remember the last time I mingled with individuals who are participating in these kinds of churches, with deliverance and healing and breakthroughs announced everywhere, I cannot remember the last time one of them said I’m going to bible study or I’m coming from Bible study.

You cannot have spiritual life when this Book is closed. You can’t! What you have are nice platitudes that are being borrowed here and thrown over there and going the opposite direction. We are not the tail but the head. People don’t know where that phrase is coming from. They don’t appreciate the context of that phrase. They just pick it up here and bring it over there, and “Amens!” and “Hallelujahs!” everywhere.

Let me go further. When Jesus speaks of sanctifying them by the truth, and your word is truth, he obviously also has in mind the fact that we are saved through this same truth. That Word of God, preached evangelistically, is what will be used by the Holy Spirit to give life to the dead. The Gospel has consequently also been lost. The message of deliverance, as we saw it earlier, is the common message. And it’s not what you think they are saying.

The Absence of the Gospel

See, the Gospel is about the fact that we have offended our Creator, the Governor of history, the coming Judge of the living and the dead. That we deserve to go to hell because o that. But however, God, who is loving, has given His Son and through Him purchased a full and free redemption, so that we may come to Him, not trying to merit salvation, but in repentance in faith freely receiving that pardon, forgiveness of sins.

That’s hardly ever being heard. And I mean it. Rather, the modern gospel is something like this: There’s about 20 minutes of motivational speaking. And when that is over, it’s now, “What problems have you got? Come to Jesus.” And coming to Jesus basically means come to the front, and then the “man of God” will help you get over it. The result is this: the churches are full of goats in sheepskins.

I do a lot of personal evangelism, and I come across a lot of people who will tell me they go to such-and-such a church and attend a certain international ministry. And when I ask the question whether they’re Christians they say yes. And when I ask how, their testimony is often something like this: “My marriage fell apart. My husband walked out on me. A friend told me that that preacher or that prophet or that Apostle he’s got powerful prayers. And so I began to go to that church. And when I spoke to him he invited me to the overnight prayer meeting. And there he prayed and prayed and prayed. One day, my husband showed up, apologized for what had happened, and so we now go to that church. Praise the Lord.”

That’s supposed to be salvation. The offending of God: absent. The redeeming blood of Christ: absent. The note of repentance, faith, trusting in His complete work: absent! But the claim is: “I’m now a Christian.”

The Absence of Godliness

Invariably it leads to the third point, why I’m calling it bad news. And it’s all again coming from John 17:17. Where the Word of God has closed, and where the Gospel has been lost, invariably the life remains sinful and self-centered. And one of the effects of that has been the loss of true worship. You can’t miss it. There’s no real interest in singing the kind of songs we’ve been singing here. Rather, it is danceable tunes. So even if we’re going to repeat a phrase a thousand times over, and maybe that phrase is something like “We are going,” what matters is that the tune given to the “We are going” is such that we can really dance. That’s not Christianity. And it doesn’t matter how many people may say in the midst of that confusion, “Glory! Glory! Glory!” It is not the glory of God! It’s just little phrases that are being repeated over and over again.

Certainly you can’t miss it, from even the life after that event, after they go home, the scandals, especially the sexual scandals that are accepted in those ranks. One such preacher changed wives three times in one year. And he’s still an “Apostle.”

Obviously, spiritually dead people cannot produce godliness. They can’t produce true God-glorifying worship. It’s impossible! Reverence for God is borne out of hearts that are changed by the Spirit, and the Spirit is not divorced from the Word.

I wish I could say this is just a few churches scattered here and there. I wish I could say that you have to hunt long and hard to find them. But what I’m saying is that this is fast becoming the norm.

It Really Is a Slippery Slope

My question is: Why are Evangelicals on the African continent silent about this? I think it’s simply because this movement is practicing what many Evangelicals claim. And it is this: that the extraordinary revelatory gifts are still operational today. The moment you open that door a little bit, where do you stop? Where?

So the difference seems to simply be that of emphasis. Some are not emphasizing it as much as others. Or perhaps the difference is in levels of success. Others seem to be more successful than others. Or perhaps it’s in terms of one or two scandalous lies, immoral lies that misrepresent others. But largely, these are the people who are in the same pews, who listened to this same opening of the door, they remained behind with the same teaching when their friends decided they were going to push this matter to its logical conclusion.

So if that’s the case, how do you address your friends who’ve reached this level? Without it looking as though you’re just jealous because they’re more “successful” than you? The result has been that the so-called “addressing” of this matter has been simply to point out some individuals whose lives have fallen into scandalous sin. That’s all. But you see: addressing one or two rotten fruits is woefully insufficient, when really all they are doing is taking the matter to its logical conclusion. If God can speak directly through me, and everything depends on the fact that I still think it’s God, independent of the Bible, what’s to stop me from coming up with weird statements? What’s to stop me from telling you that the reason why your marriage is falling apart is because there is some spirit-husband who is really a demon but is sleeping with you? It’s not in the Bible. But the “man of God” is telling you that.

Let me push it further. What is it that’s going to stop you dead in your tracks when I say that the only way to get that spirit-husband out of your life is by me sleeping with you?  The Bible is closed. The Book that says you shall not commit adultery or fornication is closed. And that’s what’s happening. I’m constantly counseling individuals who have come to the end of the road, and have said, “Enough is enough!” “There is something wrong with all this!” And when they tell you what’s been going on it’s disgusting.

I want to repeat: The issue is: What is Christianity? What should we use to describe it and so describe it that we know that it can sail through all the storms of the ages up to the end of history? Here it is: Sanctify by them by the Truth; Your Word is Truth. It must be tied up with teaching God’s Word, understanding God’s Word, applying God’s word to our lives, and to every aspect of life. That’s what the issue is. And that’s where I want to end.

Why Should This Concern You?

Why should it concern you? This story about Africa? The bad news I brought you tonight. Why should it concern you? I wanted to say that you caused the problems, but I won’t. 🙂 Two things, however, and with that I must take my seat.

First of all, Africa’s current population is over a billion people. God is concerned about them. As He said to Jonah, and as He said to Paul, “I have many people in this city.” We ought to be concerned about it because God is concerned about it.

But secondly, Africa is strategically placed to be the next major force in world missions. Imagine if this is what you’re now going to export to the rest of the world. It’s a disaster. Everybody who has the cause of Christ at the center of his heart should surely be concerned about this. I’m glad to see there is a growing Reformed movement on the continent, but it is still very much a trickle. And we need to pray, and do everything we can, to get Christianity back to the Bible.

Before the Reformation, Roman Catholicism threw in a lot of traditions. The rubble was on top of the Scriptures. Liberalism came around after the Reformation, and basically removed the air out of the sails by insisting on this Book not really being divine. I think today it’s that we are not saying it enough that this Book is sufficient. It’s sufficient!

It’s divine, yes. But it’s also sufficient for the purposes for which God has had it written and secured it for our generation.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Daniel King

    I think he should have kept reading until he came to John 17:21 “that they all may be one.” Perhaps he would have realized that his attack on Charismatics was the opposite of what Jesus prayed for. These attacks on other members of the body of Christ do not make us one, instead they separate us.

    • Sarah

      You have either not read or not understood what he’s saying here. False gospels, faith healers and outright frauds are running roughshod over everyone here in Sub-Saharan Africa, taking people captive, stealing their money and condemning their souls. Calling false teachers out is not divisive, it is loving.

      • Sarah

        You should really read Conrad Mbewe’s article that the author cited, “Why is the Charismatic Movement Thriving in Africa.” In it, Mbewe specifies that “I do not refer to the old conservative form of Pentecostalism once represented by the Assemblies of God churches. I have in mind the current extreme form that is mushrooming literally under every shrub and tree in Africa.” It’s a useful and thorough introduction to the topic.

      • Daniel King

        I agree we should call out false teachers. I do not agree that Charismatics are false teachers simply because they believe God is actively moving in the earth today.

        • No one is claiming that they deserve the title “false teacher” because they believe God is actively moving in the earth today. I’m a cessationist, and I believe God is actively moving in the earth today. You would benefit from reading this post, on What Cessationism is Not.

          If you can read the above post an its entirety, ear what Mbewe has witnessed the “gospel” of so many charismatic churches in Africa to be, and say that that is not false teaching, then you’ve been deceived, my friend.

    • Claude Gagne

      Wow, Daniel, you must be another charismatic who thinks this movement is sane, but it is not. It stinks smoke from h… !

    • Eric Dodson

      Someone must state the obvious here…

      Your criticism of Mwebe’s teaching is essentially to say that criticizing the teaching of others promotes disunity…
      If he expresses heartfelt anguish and critique against the charismatic position it is divisive, but if you come on a blog and express your displeasure with his position, that’s okay?

    • Allen

      No, Daniel. These exercises in discernment makes us “more noble” (Acts 17:11) than those following the Pied Piper of Charismatic-mania. Or maybe you include the Benny Hinn types as those in the body of Christ; I’m not sure. Maybe you would like to clarify?

      • Daniel King

        Yes. I am a Benny Hinn type myself. I believe God heals today. I have witnessed God do hundreds of miracles.

        • The single most heart breaking thing I have ever seen under the guise of Christianity is the parade of “unhealed” pused out of the corner they were hidden in well after the crowd was dispersed at a Hinn crusade. If you are a Benny Hinn type you need to repent and believe in the gospel.

          • Daniel King

            God does not heal everyone…but He does heal some. Even Jesus faced this problem when he went to Nazareth. Matt 13:58, “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.”

    • MMJ

      Yeah. Lets all hold hands and sing KumByYah as hundreds of thousands of people are duped by slick, fond of sordid gain, deceitful, theologically ignorant men (and women!) standing on platforms and pulpits all over the world (particular Africa) leading many to hell.

    • Hi Daniel. I’d like to respond in two ways to your comment here.

      One, your comment assumes that such people are “other members of the body of Christ.” Mbewe’s contention, which I believe he supports quite plainly, is that the people he is primarily speaking about are in fact not Christians. With the Bible closed, the Gospel absent, and godliness nowhere to be found, what he is speaking of is not true Christianity.

      Secondly, there are plenty of people who accept the label, “Charismatic,” because they believe the miraculous gifts are operational, but do not cling to the excesses that Conrad described above. For these people who are truly saved, you say that such messages as Conrad’s are an attack, and militates against Christian unity.
      However, Charismatic doctrine is itself the departure from biblical teaching. It’s always struck me as quite sad that when someone is touting bad doctrine and propagating error, it’s always the one who sounds the alarm that’s labeled as divisive. In the New Testament, a factious man was someone who advocated a different doctrine and didn’t agree with the sound words passed down from the Apostles (1Tim 6:3; 2Tim 1:13). The person who calls for the correction of error is not creating disunity, but only drawing attention to the disunity that already exists by virtue of the defection from sound teaching. And the warning that Conrad and the others at the conference are issuing to the Evangelical world is a call for a return to true unity, which is defined by a common commitment to the truth, not a common commitment to never discuss our disagreements in public.

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  • Politiva_com

    I totally agree that the Word is the Truth and bible based Supremacy of Christ and his salvation are the pillars of faith. I disagree that Grace Church is always the arbiter of what biblical truth is.

    • I disagree that Grace Church is always the arbiter of what biblical truth is.

      So do I. So does John MacArthur. Nobody is making the claim that Grace Church is always the arbiter of truth. We’re simply trying to make God’s truth plain to God’s people, you are responsible before God for testing what any teacher or ministry says against the sole infallible rule of faith: the written Word of God.

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