February 2, 2012

Suing the Spirit?

by Nathan Busenitz

The Holy Spirit gets blamed for a lot of bizarre human behavior within the broader Pentecostal and Charismatic movements — barking, jumping, dipping, rolling, laughing, and of course, falling over during church services.

I was reminded of that sad reality recently when I came across this article from ABC News, explaining that a charismatic church was being sued because a bystander got hurt when a church member was slain in the Spirit.

Here’s how that article began:

A parishioner at the Disciple Fellowship Christian Church in East St. Louis, Ill., claims the spirit moved another worshiper so much during service that she caused others to tumble over backwards into her, causing injuries. Now she’s suing the church for damages.

The report goes on to explain that, because of the spiritual nature of “being touched” by the Holy Spirit, lawyers are going to have a tough time proving negligence on the part of the slain church member. Yet, the plaintiff is undeterred. She wants the church to pay for her medical bills.

Of course, if this church had not promoted such an unbiblical practice in the first place, all of this nonsense would have simply been avoided.

So, what are we to think about being slain in the Spirit? Since ABC News brought the practice to my attention this week, I thought it might be helpful to share a few thoughts.

The Biblical Teaching

The actual term “slain in the Spirit” is never used in Scripture. Some charismatics admit that the practice has no Scriptural backing, but rather that it arose out of the Methodist camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. Others disagree—appealing to various Scriptures for support and arguing that the experience should be judged on the basis of its supposed fruit.

Possible biblical intimations are drawn from a number of passages. Here are ten of the leading candidates:

1. In Genesis 15:12 Abram falls into a deep sleep as God makes a covenant with Himself.

2. In 1 Samuel 19:23–24, Saul, while pursuing David, begins prophesying and lays down for a day and a night.

3. In Ezekiel 1:28 and 3:23, Ezekiel falls face down when confronted with the glory of the Lord.

4. In Daniel 8:17 and 10:9, Daniel falls face down when met by the angel Gabriel.

5. In Matthew 17:6, Peter, James, and John fall prostrate at the Transfiguration.

6. In John 18:6, the soldiers arresting Jesus fall flat when He says, “I Am.”

7. In Acts 9:4, Paul, on the road to Damascus, falls down when confronted by the risen Jesus.  This event is recounted by Paul in Acts 26:14.

8. In Acts 10:10, Peter falls into a trance on the rooftop before meeting Cornelius’ men.

9. In 2 Corinthians 12:1–4, Paul tells of a vision of paradise which he is privileged to see.

10. In Revelation 1:10, 17, the Apostle John falls flat at the feet of Jesus.

A careful look at these verses, however, indicates that they do not support the contemporary practice of slaying people in the Spirit.

Here are a few observations from the biblical data:

1. The absence of a middle man (as is common in pentecostal and charismatic practice). None of the Scriptural proof-texts depict an intermediary human involved in the “slaying.” It is always God (or an angel from God — Daniel 8, 10) who, because of His glory, causes men to fall on their face. The only human involved in biblically “slaying” anyone else was Christ, yet His dual nature (as God in human flesh) makes Him the exception, not the rule.

2. The “slain” remain conscious. In all but three of the above instances, the people were cognizant the entire time. For example, although Paul’s conversion experience in Acts 9 involved falling down, he remained alert and awake, even conversing with Christ.  This general pattern runs contrary to the unconscious ecstasy of the modern charismatic experience.

3. The spiritual condition of the “slain.” Quite clearly, God’s Word depicts both  believers and unbelievers as those who are “slain.” Thus, charismatics cannot assert that the experience is a mark of true Christianity. For that matter, the soldiers who arrested Christ were in the process of sinning when they were knocked down.

4. Its absence from the lists of spiritual gifts. Conspicuously, the “gift” of slaying in the Spirit is never included in any list of gifts in the New Testament nor is anyone ever presented as possessing such a gift. Despite the modern hubbub, there is no record that any early church leader had the ability to knock people over by the power of the Spirit. Surely, such a vital Christian experience would warrant direct Biblical mention.

5. The nature of the “slaying.” Although a minor point, the “slain” in Scripture fell forward (when the direction of their fall is recorded), rather than flat on their backs. Hence, the idea of a “catcher” standing behind a person to ensure their safety is foreign to the Biblical texts.

6. Its anti-Christian nature. The lack of control that accompanies being “slain in the Spirit” is actually more characteristic of paganism than true Christianity. Galatians 5:22-23 says that the fruit of the Spirit includes self-control (cf. 1 Cor. 14:32), while 1 Corinthians 14:40 prescribes orderly congregational worship. First Peter 1:13 commands believers to gird their minds for action (not to bypass their minds in ectasy); and Ephesians 5:18 reports that the fruit of being filled with the spirit is content-filled singing and Christ-honoring relationships (not falling like a dead man to the ground).

What is Really Happening?

Despite the dearth of Biblical evidence, some pentecostal/charismatic pastors still claim to be able to slay people in the Spirit.  A well-known proponent of this view is Benny Hinn.

That people fall over at Hinn’s services cannot be questioned. What can be questioned, however, is what force lies behind the phenomenon. The answer is certainly not the Holy Spirit—since He promotes both orderly worship and individual self-control.

Then what “spirit” is involved? Several answers seem possible.

1. The power of human emotional “spirit.” Some, such as G. Richard Fisher, believe that part of Hinn’s “slaying” success comes from the emotional expectations of the audience. In other words, because they have seen others “slain in the Spirit,” because they have great respect for Mr. Hinn, and because their emotions are worked up, they willingly fall when Hinn “throws” the Spirit in their direction. Moreover, the peer-pressure stemming from the majority around them persuades any dissenters to fall in line with the rest of the group. (Pentecostal soteriology adds to this pressure because Spirit-baptism and Spirit-filling are wrongly associated with things like speaking in tongues and being slain.)

2. The power of the leader’s “spirit.” Fisher, furthermore, points out that the influence of Mr. Hinn, himself, as a respected Christian leader (as perceived by those in the audience), encourages people to comply. In other words, because Mr. Hinn speaks for God, he must possess divinely-given power. Thus, his audiences, deeply wanting to experience such power, gladly “go with the flow” when “slain in the Spirit.” In such cases, being “slain in the Spirit” is nothing more than an experiential delusion made possible by Hinn’s ability to manipulate a crowd.

3. The power of demonic “spirit.” To what extent demonic power is involved in the process is impossible to know. However, being “slain” closely resembles certain elements of the occult — a realm highly influenced by the demonic. Furthermore, false teaching is defined in Scripture as the “doctrine of demons,” especially when it obscures or distracts from the truth of the gospel (1 Tim 4:1). In any case, “being slain in the Spirit” looks a lot more like the fruit of sinful flesh, than the fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Gal 5:19-23).

Conclusion

Because it is never condoned in Scripture but actually runs contrary to it (by promoting mindless and disruptive behavior), the modern practice of “being slain in the Spirit” ought to be avoided.

But, just in case being unbiblical isn’t enough … we can now add another reason for staying away from the practice.

If you fall and hit someone, you might get sued.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Great article brother. I just taught on the Person and Work of the Spirit last night, and was reminded of how silent and Christ-exulting the Spirit’s ministry is. A far cry from what we see where this type of confusion reigns.

    • Hey clint you mean there is no BOOM SHAKALAKA like on christian television? 😉

  • Thanks! Coming from a Charismatic background, I am grateful for God’s grace in teaching me the truth of Scripture. I actually wrote an article on the Holy Spirit as defined by Scripture, coming to the same conclusion as brother Clint below!

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      “I actually wrote an article on the Holy Spirit as defined by Scripture, coming to the same conclusion as brother Clint below!”

      Is your article online and available for reading? Can you provide a link to it?

  • Paul

    Have you ever heard of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming)? It’s the type of thing that people like Tony Robbins use to turn what would be otherwise normal people into rabid, crazy acting mobs. The power of the mob mentality can’t be overlooked.

    Being “slain in the Spirit” is pure foolishness. It is now the requisite evidence that God has been in a place.

    I agree with your points above in terms of “What is really happening”.

  • Guest

    Great article, one over looked satirical point:

    Couldn’t she just demand a visit from Benny to… umm… fix her without the use of a doctor? Oh wait…

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  • I agree with your write-up on the biblical issue with being slain in the spirit. What this story shows, however, is an indication of how parts of the church are as well as how society is in general. You covered the spiritual part, so I’ll cover the societal part: Ours is such a litigious society that a person can go to a service, where presumably they expected this sort of “outpouring” and yet sue when it doesn’t work out for him/her. How stupid is that?

  • Lisa

    Love this article! As a teenager I was a member of one of these churches that practiced being ‘slain in the Spirit’ at every oppurtunity (and many more bizarre things). Everytime it was my turn to get prayed for nothing would happen to me, I was left standing while my friends and family were lying beside me. Having no idea at the time that this wasn’t of God, I would go home and pray, asking God why he wasn’t ‘touching’ me. Thankfully the Lord took me and others out of that and into a sound biblical church. Since then they have all admitted they where all being ‘slain’ because that was just what you where meant to do.

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