An internet explosion has erupted as people from each side of this argument have risen up with sometimes vitriolic opposition to one another. I’m sure that the world looks on at this divisive, unloving behavior as further evidence that this thing called church is a real mess.
Ironically we have just finished a series of messages from the Book of Acts. In our truth quest through Luke’s account of the birth, growth and expansion of the early church, we saw that Acts is an account of God's way of doing things. It is a summary of God’s way. God’s way stands in stark contrast to both sides of this ridiculous Strange Fire argument. One side believes that all things miraculous have been set aside by the supernatural, miracle working God, and the other uses the gifts of the Spirit as toys to play with instead of powerful instruments of ministry given to build up and empower the body of Christ.
And that is the key to this whole issue. The church Jesus is building is the body of Christ, the fullness of God upon the earth (Eph. 1:23). It is a supernatural, miraculous, spiritual expression of Christ through the lives of His followers. Luke’s account of the early church shows us that the church was birthed by the supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit and grew and prospered by that same empowering presence. The church age is the age of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has the assignment of exalting Christ in the lives of believers, of calling forth and securing a bride for the Son. When that bride has fully prepared herself, this age will come to a grand culmination with the coming forth of the Groom to the glory of God.
The church is the body of Christ, not a man made organization ruled from the top down by the ingenuity of clever, eloquent men. The church is an organism infused with the life of God in the Holy Spirit. The church cannot be built by men, no matter how clever and theological they may be. The true church is being built by Jesus Christ and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).
Speaking in tongues seems to be at the center of this absurd debate. Yes, Christians have abused this precious gift to the body of Christ making it appear as a toy for Christians to play with to the amusement of one another. No! The gift was given as a powerful instrument of righteousness to the church which is a supernatural body. A supernatural body sometimes needs a supernatural language to speak forth into this natural realm. It is a sign to all who look on that the origin of the church is heaven and not earth (1 Cor. 14:22). The gift builds up the individual spiritually because it is a spiritual gift, not a human ability (1 Cor. 14:4).
This sign gift was the most obvious manifestation of the Spirit in Luke’s account of the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-8). It bore witness to the heavenly origin of the body of Christ. These heavenly languages said in effect, “What you are witnessing is the birthing of the supernatural expression of the supernatural organism infused with the life of Christ, the One you crucified. He is alive and dwelling in His people today and heaven is unleashed for all to see.”
Gifts of healing were not given so that faith healers could put on a show but so that God could manifest Himself through His body on earth in ways that touch people at their greatest need. Just as Jesus went about healing all who were oppressed by the devil, the church took up where He left off doing the same.
Peter and John, on their way to the temple to pray, saw the lame man at the temple gate. Many of today’s powerless, Holy Spirit-bashing Christians have nothing to offer such men. But Peter had something to offer. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk,” Peter declared as he offered the healing power of Jesus (3:6). Of course the man rose and walked and continued walking and leaping and praising God. We too have this healing to offer because gifts of healings are offered to the body of Christ to continue doing the works of Jesus (1 Cor. 12:9). God has not given us faith healers or “the gift of healing” but “gifts of healings” to be used as He directs by His body. He doesn’t give these gifts to draw attention to men but to glorify Himself in His church.
The early church was not financed with human marketing methods but by the supernatural manifestation of giving in the lives of the saints. This is God’s way. People were selling their properties and giving the proceeds to the church to be used as they had need. No one was needy because the body of Christ is an organism with many parts but one source of life (Acts 4:34, 35). Christ was so real among them that they had no need of material things and so shared what they had with one another. Try that in today’s faithless organized religion! The church is a spiritual organism, not an organization of man. It has many parts but it is a body moved by the life of God (1 Cor. 12:20).
Leadership in the early church expressed in Acts was not organized by men. It was not a top-down manipulation by clergymen dressed in clerical gowns with a presumptuous claim of ordination. The church is a body so the leadership arose from within the body. When servants were needed to minister to the needy widows the body selected Spirit-filled men of wisdom for that task (Acts 6:3). The church chose these men not by some committee in a far off city. The church is a body so its leadership flows from the life of the Head, who is Christ (Eph. 1:22).
When Paul and Barnabas established churches on their first apostolic journey, they did not appoint pastors to exercise control over the people. In fact they appointed no leadership at all until their return trip. Then they recognized men who had matured enough to be designated as elders of the church (14:23). How could they leave these churches without leadership until their return journey? Because the church is a body and leadership arises from the body and does not need to be forced on it from the top down.
I can hear someone saying, “But how can a church survive without leadership?” The Holy Spirit was in control, not religious men with religious ideas. Jesus had said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The spiritual living water does not flow from a religious headquarters somewhere but out of the hearts of the believers. The body of Christ is blessed with the possession of the Holy Spirit who flows out of the spirit of every believer.
Leadership is important when it is composed of mature men led by the Spirit who lead others by example (1 Peter 5:1-3). Leadership is not control. Jesus is in control of the church. He is the Head, the King, and the Master. Leaders in the church are to be those who lead as led by His Holy Spirit. The church is a body with Christ as the Head. Leadership is a gift provided by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:8), not by seminaries or schools emphasizing intellect and preaching ability.
The church is not to be led by clergymen or priests or other dominant men but is declared to be a kingdom of priests, a royal priesthood unto God (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). Every believer is a priest of God with direct access into the presence of God without the need of human mediators (Rom. 5:2; Heb. 4:14-16).
John declared “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things” (1 John 2:27). John is not saying that we don’t need teachers but that we should not be led around and controlled by these teachers but that we have the anointing of the Holy Spirit within us because we are the body of Christ in whom the Anointed One dwells.
Throughout the Book of Acts we see the church functioning as a supernatural organism directed by the Lord. When the serious persecution began the church migrated throughout the entire region as directed by the Holy Spirit. Philip went down to Samaria and preached Christ while also casting out demons and healing the sick (8:5-7). An angel appeared to him and told him to go to Gaza where he shared the Gospel with a man from Ethiopia (8:26-38). Then Philip was supernaturally whisked away by the Spirit and taken to the coastal area where he continued preaching. The Holy Spirit was doing it His way not by the ingenuity of denominational boards and organized programs. The church is a body in which Christ lives and expresses Himself. It was never meant to be an organization with men at the helm.
Paul encounters Christ on the way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there. He encounters the Head of the church who declares, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” (9:5). In saying this Jesus makes it clear that to persecute His church is to persecute Him because His body is His expression on earth.
The Lord tells a man named Ananias to go pray for Paul so that he could be healed and to prophecy over him about his destiny as an apostle for Christ (9:10-18). Throughout Acts the Holy Spirit establishes apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers to equip the church for its ministry to the one another and the world (Acts 9:10; 21:10; 19:6; 20:17, 28; 21:8,9; Eph. 4:11-16). Paul is highlighted by Luke in Acts but there were others including the original twelve who helped establish the church and equip it for its mission as the body of Christ.
These men were gifts from Christ to His body (Eph. 4:11, 12). Their purpose is the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). The ministry is not the function of a clergy class of “ordained” men. No such class existed in the early church. The ministry in Acts and in the New Testament is the work of the church, not a special elite group of clergymen. The church is built up when the saints are allowed and empowered to minister as the Spirit directs (Eph. 4:12). When clergymen take over the church it stops growing and becomes an organization controlled by men. When the equipping ministries are allowed to equip the saints, they function within the body and the body is built up spiritually. This is God’s way.
This building process and growth are to continue throughout the church age. This is proven by Paul’s description of the goal of these gifts: “…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13, 14; ESV).
The word “until” in this passage makes it clear that these supernatural gifts will be necessary until the church reaches its destiny of mature manhood measured by the fullness of Christ. At that time we will stop acting like children and being tossed around by clever preachers who function by human ability. Those who teach the ceasing of miracles and the supernatural provisions of the Spirit are causing the church to stagnate and wallow in its tragic state of immaturity. Those who establish these gifts by human power and administer them by religious compulsion make the opposite mistake and damage the church as well. The church belongs to the Lord and only He can build it and He will do it His way.
Acts and the rest of the Bible describe God’s way but today’s organized church insists on dong things in its own way and by its own power. Anything built by human ability will not withstand the onslaught of the enemy and can never be the fullness of what God has in mind. This present silly controversy only serves to accentuate how far removed American Christianity is from the real thing.
There is so much more that we have learned from Luke’s amazing account of the early church but let us take hold of the most important truth—the church is the body of Christ and He is its Head. Those who think they can build a supernatural organism must rethink their approach and realize that only God can give life and only God can cause it to grow and prosper.
The church is an organism growing by the life of God in the Spirit. The shape it takes is up to the Lord. Its leadership, where we gather, how we gather, the gifts of the Spirit and all that is part of what we call church, is to be expressed by the life within. The problem is that men in trying to control the church have stymied its growth. Now it grows and is shaped by the fallen intellect of men instead of the Holy Spirit.
It is no wonder that a large segment of Christianity believes that the miraculous works of God have ceased. When men took over the work of building the church, God was shoved aside and His miraculous presence has diminished. Some have tried to restore the miraculous through human effort and doctrinal proclamation but that has not worked well either.
Many Christians fear that miracles and the gifts of the Spirit are dangerous because they are so prone to the false Christs and prophets and lying signs and wonders Jesus warned about. Of course anything that God does is prone to counterfeit and deception by the great deceiver Satan. But, it is clear that God’s original expression of the church allowed for combating this concern.
The church was never meant to be a passive audience of people who listen to one man preach and then try to believe and practice what he says. That imbalance in itself sets the stage for error, deception and even heresy. The one-man form of leadership may be the most effective tool of Satan for spreading error.
The original design of the church revealed in Acts and beyond allowed for discernment and accountability. When Jesus promised the church in Matthew 16 He followed up the promise with the declaration, “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). The ekklesia (church) was always meant to be a discerning body of people who determine the will of heaven and bind and loose on earth. Paul told Timothy that the church is “the ground and pillar of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The Head of the church described Himself as the “the way, the truth and the life” and He inhabits the members of His church. Paul tells us that the gathered church is to be “speaking the truth in love” so that it can grow up into Him in all things.
But the next verse in that passage shows how that can be: “…from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). Only as every member is allowed to function and participate does this truth begin to emerge.
This is further verified by Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge.” No one should be allowed to spout off doctrine or prophecy without being held accountable. How many of our pastors are being held accountable by the church for what they say? Paul tells the Thessalonians not to despise prophecies but to “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Many today want to reject prophecies out of fear of their potential for deception instead of allowing them and then allowing the church to test them with God’s word. It is precisely because we have stripped the saints of their participatory privileges in the church gathering that deception is so prevalent.
This Strange Fire controversy has pinpointed a real problem in Christianity. We are still being blown about by every wind of doctrine as Paul warned precisely because we are succumbing to “…the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Eph. 4:14). We are susceptible to these preachers of various human ideas simply because we have left the original design of the church and have adopted one that is ruled from the top down by men instead of from the inside out by the Holy Spirit working through the saints.
The answer lies with a new paradigm that is growing even as this controversy brews. It is a return to the simplicity of the original design of the church as expressed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. I do not recommend a new method of doing church so much as a return to the Head of the church who will grow His body the way He wants if we will allow Him. Let us not continue to grieve the Spirit or quench His ministry today but step out of the way and allow Him to do things the Father’s way.