Christians in evangelical, mainline and charismatic circles often deride and reject the goodness of Christian faith when it looks different than their own. Dr. Michael Brown, a Stream contributor, author, and seminary teacher, has seen this happen for decades.
Brown, who earned his Ph.D. from New York University, has served for years as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and other schools of theology. He often speaks frankly on social and religious issues. Two weeks ago, Brown was invited to the White House with 100 other Christian leaders to take part in “listening sessions” with Cabinet members and high-ranking staff.
Brown has recently sought to break down the divides between mainstream evangelicals and charismatics, who believe physical miracles and spiritual manifestations such as speaking in tongues still happen today. Charismatic Christians are back in the press with the release of The Rise of Network Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2017).
According to Brown, a recent Christianity Today interview with the two authors of the book makes claims about charismatic leaders and churches that are “bizarre, inaccurate, and exaggerated.” Brown responded to similar claims two years ago in his book Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire (Creation House, 2015).
Brown granted a phone interview from his ministry office in Charlotte, N.C.
From your decades of ministry in many circles, what is your perspective on the divide between charismatic and other evangelical Christians?
Dr. Michael Brown: First, our common goals remain the same: to know the Lord, and to make the Lord known. When I work in both circles, which I do extensively, I don’t have to change my attitude, approach or burden. I find essential harmony.
I do find in charismatic circles that there tends to be less backsliding from fundamental biblical principles, because there tends to be a bit more literalism and not as much reliance on liberal higher education. I also find there to be more looseness and doctrinal deviance in charismatic circles, that’s the other side of it. There can be more freedom, and with that more weakness, more gullibility.
In charismatic circles, we absolutely believe in the present power of God to set people free. As the gospel travels around the world, the great amount of growth in the church worldwide is largely in charismatic circles because of the power of God changing lives.
What I find is there are often misperceptions from the outside looking in, and because of that things are sometimes misunderstood.
This new book groups together various leaders into a movement the authors call “Independent Network Charismatics” (INC), perhaps similar to how some figures were packaged as the “New Apostolic Reformation” (NAR) years ago. Are these terms helpful labels for Christians to use?
Dr. Brown: No, they’re very unhelpful because they’re misleading and they give a certain impression that is not true.
Some of my friends were part of what’s been called the New Apostolic Reformation, though I never was formally part of it or worked under Peter Wagner. I respected some of the things those leaders were doing, and differed with others. But all this online hearsay about “what the “NAR’ is doing,” the vast majority of it is completely foreign to me and has nothing to do with the men I know.
To now come up with this new thing, as if there’s a formal networking — as opposed to, brothers who love the Lord who often work together with certain common views — it’s very misleading.
As one who has been in these circles for years, I can’t remember hearing believers saying, ‘This is my apostle.’ The average person who goes to IHOP-KC, for example, does not look at Mike Bickle as ‘He’s my apostle.’ They just see themselves as part of the Body of Christ.
What I hear all the time is, ‘This is my pastor,’ or ‘I’m Southern Baptist.’ I hear people in denominations identifying with their group or pastor far more than I hear people in these movements identifying with [particular leaders].
Some of the things said about this alleged group are simply false. For instance, “post-millennial optimism” — Mike Bickle has a pre-millennial view of the end times, meaning we will not see the kingdom of God fully established until Jesus returns. Again, the generalizations are unhelpful and inaccurate.
From the outside, people look at it as some type of nefarious movement. But if you actually spend time with the people and hear their hearts, it’s just mainstream gospel.
The authors seem to accuse Christians of wanting to ‘take dominion’ in culture and society. According to what you’ve seen, are these concerns valid?
Dr. Brown: Any such concerns are, to my knowledge, greatly exaggerated.
These ideas [are] normally put on us from the outside — when I say us, I mean those who believe the church is supposed to impact the world around us. Their claim is that the church is going to ‘take dominion’ over all areas of society: over the arts, business, and so on.
Some people believe that. No one that I’ve worked closely with over the years has believed that to my knowledge, and I know many of the [accused] leaders. What many of us do believe is that the gospel is supposed to impact culture.
The idea of ‘seven mountains’ was something that came to Bill Bright and Loren Cunningham at the same time [in 1975], two leaders highly respected by most of the church. The culture has seven key areas, and the church should have an impact on every single one of them.
I believe we should have a positive impact in the schools, the arts, and so on — to be salt and light in the midst of a corrupt world, as seen through church history. The same gospel that upended slavery from the Western world is the same gospel we hope will upend abortion.
How’s it going to happen? Through preaching the gospel, through revival, through winning the lost, and through influencing people with ideas of life. We don’t believe we’re going to take over, and we certainly don’t believe in any forceful imposition of our views on others — rather, through the gospel we believe society can be impacted.
Critics point to the danger of some charismatic leaders not having a higher authority to whom they report. How can churches safeguard against abuses?
Dr. Brown: Being part of a denomination does not guarantee that you’ll be guarded against deception; it just means you’re going to have common beliefs. Whole denominations have denied the inerrancy of Scripture, the resurrection of Jesus, and various other core doctrines.
Moreover, it doesn’t guarantee that there’s accountability. You can have all kinds of scandals, as famous denominational leaders have fallen into sin. Certainly, in charismatic circles, because of large numbers of independent churches, because of the emphasis on the anointing or on the minister, there can be the potential for abusive leadership.
For churches who need that structure, the Assemblies of God and other charismatic networks exist as well.
The book implies that teachers such as Mike Bickle and Bill Johnson practice “non-standard” methods of interpreting Scripture. How would you characterize the value charismatic pastors place on the Bible?
Dr. Brown: Mike Bickle is a serious student of the Word of God. Obviously, I haven’t heard everything he has taught, but he is devoted to Scripture. He and I have had in-depth discussion of Scriptural exegesis.
I don’t know that he differs from any other pastor who studies Scripture and seeks to understand what the original languages say. I can’t comment as much on Bill Johnson’s teaching; clearly he loves the Word of God and is a student of it also.
Sometimes in charismatic circles, our leaders have lacked solid training in biblical exegesis. Some have found meanings in the text that aren’t truly valid. Yet I’ve seen that in non-charismatic churches as well. For example, to me, it’s a massive scriptural error to deny the gifts and power of the Spirit for today. That flies against the whole testimony of the New Testament, yet there are whole denominations that hold to that.
We need each other in the Body, the charismatics and evangelicals. Some of the world’s most revered biblical scholars, people like Craig Keener and Gordon Fee, are charismatics. Certainly we need to step up our work in Scripture, but fine teachers are found in the charismatic movement worldwide.
Do you see charismatic believers forsaking weekly church gatherings?
Dr. Brown: On average, charismatics meet more often than other Christians. Mike Bickle does extensive series going through the books of the Bible at great length. When I’ve spoken with him, we’ve done six or seven meetings in a weekend to pack in the maximum Scripture, then we have questions-and-answers to follow it up.
If there’s a place that’s going to ask me to preach for an hour, it’s going to be at a charismatic service. I preached in the largest megachurch in Europe, which is charismatic, and they asked me to teach two hours every time I spoke.
It may be true, in some circles, that people are coming for a healing meeting and are a little anxious during the message — but the caricature in the article about Bill Johnson, that after 25 minutes people are getting restless? I preached at Bethel, I spoke at their school. I preached full messages and everybody was with me the whole time, they weren’t waiting for some “power display.”
The next claim I’ll quote straight from the CT interview: “They don’t have an idea of what it takes to reduce poverty or curb international conflict. None of that is even on their radar.” Are major global aid and outreach projects being led by “Spirit-filled” believers?
Dr. Brown: These are bizarre generalizations that strike me as unhelpful.
Graduates of our ministry school, which is direct fruit of the Brownsville revival, started a missions organization called FIRE International which is working with people around the world. We’ve got folks in northern Iraq right now who’ve been there for years serving refugees. One of our young women is in Nigeria, not far from Boko Haram, educating the poorest of the poor children.
One of my closest friends in India, a man named Yesupadam, has planted over 7,000 churches. He was raised an untouchable, an alcoholic, atheist communist when Jesus appeared to him in his early twenties. He became radically saved, started churches in other parts of the world, and was once stoned for preaching the gospel.
His group Love-n-Care Ministries is operating in unreached tribal regions. They’re recognized by the government because of the significance of their work in India. They house orphans and educate children. They’ve built hospitals. They have programs to teach trades to disabled young people so they do not have to beg on the streets.
Everyone whom I know and work closely with against human trafficking, in the pro-life movement, and trying to reach the unreached — they’re all charismatic. Lou Engle, a close friend of Mike Bickle and Ché Ahn, was the point man to help birth Bound4LIFE International. The grads of our ministry school are working against human trafficking in America, Germany and the Philippines. I could go on and on.
So these claims are bizarre — even the mention of the prosperity gospel. Take Mike Bickle and IHOP: they practice sacrificial living and sacrificial giving. They live in simplicity for the sake of the gospel.
If someone has a valid criticism and they couch it correctly, you will find people with open ears to hear it — because no movement, group, or individual is perfect. But when things are so inaccurate, mischaracterized and exaggerated, then how can you address something when it’s not being presented fairly?
Some express unease about “extreme” experiences of the supernatural such as physical healings and words of knowledge, as seen at the prayer rally Azusa Now last spring. How can these signs be judged as consistent with the Bible?
Dr. Brown: First thing, according to the Bible, we should expect them. If we are not seeing healings, prophetic words and supernatural freedom, we should wonder, What’s wrong with our gospel? Because it’s not the gospel of the New Testament.
Without question, cessationism cannot be sustained scripturally and I’ll debate that with any biblical scholar or theologian in the world at any time.
We should expect to see these things. How do you evaluate them? Like anything else. If someone is prayed for in the name of Jesus, that was sick and crippled and they’re now healed, praising God — the devil didn’t do that. The flesh didn’t do that.
There’s nothing extreme here; this is what should be expected wherever the gospel is preached. Experts have told us that’s how the gospel is spreading through most of the world: through the gospel being preached with signs, wonders and miracles, as has been the pattern in New Testament times and at different times in church history.
To judge any movement that claims to be a revival movement, I’d use Jonathan Edwards’ principles from the Great Awakening in the 1700’s. Remember, that had its share of critics as well.
We simply look for this: is the Jesus of the Bible being glorified? Is He being glorified in the preaching? Are people being drawn to Him? Are people now falling in love with the Word of God and submitting to the authority of Scripture? Are they turning from sin in repentance? Do they have a burden to reach a lost and dying world?
If those things are happening, it’s a work of the Holy Spirit. Satan can’t do that, and the flesh can’t do that.
One of the authors’ insights is that certain Christian leaders use the internet and social media to great effect. How has this played out in your own ministry?
Dr. Brown: We seek to exploit these tools for the gospel. Wherever I am, I can broadcast. If I can get a good enough signal on my cell phone, instead of preaching to people in a small leaders meeting in India, I can now speak to the entire world.
We use it day and night, posting memes and interacting with people. At home one night, I may think: I’ve got some things on my heart. I’ll sit down and do an hour live on Facebook, field dozens of questions posted, and by the time it’s over we’ve reached a quarter-million people in this live, interactive way. It’s an incredible opportunity that can be totally exploited for the gospel.
We’ll put a YouTube video up dealing with Islam questions, the next thing Muslims are weighing in; now Christians can interact with Muslims that they never would have met. I’ll put up a video debating a rabbi, the next thing orthodox Jews are protesting it, disagreeing with me, and now other believers are interacting with them.
I could do ministry literally 24/7, and reach millions of people every day, without leaving my house — without anything more than a computer or cell phone. It’s an incredible time to be alive.
The popular narrative we hear is that many evangelicals have been pawns in a tragic political drama playing out on the world stage. What is the role of the church in today’s partisan atmosphere?
Dr. Brown: The church has to be its own party in that regard. The church can’t be all Democrat or all Republican. The church can’t put all its apples in the White House or Congress. We have to be a voice for God. We pray for the government, and to the extent the government listens to our concerns, we take advantage of that.
If we have a government that cares about religious liberties, the needy, and the unborn, that’s important. If the government goes the wrong way, we speak a voice of correction and rebuke with respect and honor for the government. If the government does the right thing, we encourage them.
In any event, we pray for the salvation of government leaders. We recognize that politics is part of life, so in our democratic republic, we vote accordingly. Whether we should endorse candidates or not is debatable. But the error is when we put our trust in a party or a politician.
It’s an error because they’re just people, and the government cannot do what the church is called to do. Whatever positive impact the Moral Majority had, a lot of that was compromised when it just became an appendage of the Republican Party. So that’s where we have to be careful.
A freelance writer and editor, Josh M. Shepherd has served on staff at Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation, Bound4LIFE International, and two Congressional offices. His articles have appeared in media outlets including The Federalist, The Daily Signal, Charisma News, The Stream and Christian Headlines, where he serves as a contributor. He earned a degree in Business Marketing from the University of Colorado. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C., area.