Note: strictly speaking, the terms Pentecostal and Charismatic are different, but what I write below generally applies to both.
What is Truth?
Charismatics tend to emphasise subjective experience over objective truth – what the Bible says. Whether something feels right, is more important than ensuring that everything is in accord with the Scriptures. Whether a meeting or a talk gives a good feeling or a “spiritual high”, is more important than whether the Scriptures are faithfully proclaimed. They say “I felt the Spirit was present”, or “these people are Spirit anointed”. But we should be asking “What does the Bible say?” That is the important thing.
Charismatics tend to have an over emphasis on spiritual gifts. I am not a cessationist, and of course God can work in any way he likes, but we need to know how God promises to work, not how he might possibly work, or how he works sometimes. In the past God has spoken to people by writing on a wall (Daniel 5), but that doesn’t mean that we should believe everything we see written on walls.
Most of our information about spiritual gifts is from Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth. This was a deeply troubled church, so we must be careful about using them as an example to follow!
The chief end of the Spirit giving gifts is to build the church, not our own ego (1 Corinthians 12:7). They are gifts given by him as he sees fit (1 Corinthians 12:11). They are not something we can demand from him.
Some churches say that a person is not a Christian, or not a “Spirit Filled” Christian, if they do not speak in tongues. If they don’t say these things, they certainly strongly imply it. There is no Biblical warrant for these claims. Romans 8:9 is pretty clear, if you do not have the Spirit, you are not a Christian. To say it the other way around, if you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit. It is not certain that what people today call speaking in tongues is actually the same as what Paul is speaking about in 1 Corinthians. What he is talking about, again, seems to be different to what the believers were doing at Pentecost. Care is required. An overemphasis on speaking in tongues is unhelpful and according to Paul it is only a minor gift (1 Corinthians 14). There are other gifts that we should be more interested in. There may be value for a person who genuinely speaks in tongues, and value for a church when an interpreter is present, but this seems to be a long way from what Charismatic churches do with what they claim is manifestations of this gift. To have sessions where everyone is babbling away to themselves just seems to be designed to puff up, not build up (1 Corinthians 14:33). When someone is praying, for someone else to babble away in the background just makes it more difficult for others to hear what is being prayed and add their “Amen”.
Other Spiritual Gifts and the Scriptures
Charismatic churches often have an emphasis on what they claim is prophecy and words of knowledge. Whether these line up with what Paul is talking about, again is difficult to determine. In any case, prophecy in the New Testament times is a very different thing from Old Testament prophecy. Paul says that what prophets say should be weighed (1 Corinthians 14:29-32), it is not “Thus says the Lord” as per the Old Testament. We do not need more scripture level revelation, we have all we need in Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2) and the New Testament documents that tell us about him (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
How does promise to guide us? Charismatics have an expectation that God will speak to all of us specifically. I have already mentioned the issue with reading walls. God may and does sometimes guide people in all sorts of ways, but he promises that he will always guide all of us through his word. That is our standard for living. There is not a particular plan for our lives that we have to discover and if we are not following it we will destroy our lives or have second best. God is bigger than that. If we follow his word and genuinely make our decisions based on his glory, then he will figure out the rest (Matthew 6:33). We don’t need to be concerned. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what job you take or who you marry, as long as you are following Biblical principles. God is at work for our good (Romans 8:28). The road might not be straight, but he is achieving his good purposes through us.
One particularly concerning idea amongst some charismatics is that since we now have the Spirit, we no longer need the Bible, or at least don’t need it as much. This is extremely dangerous. We need to test the spirits against the Bible, not leave it behind (1 John 4:1).
Charismatics often have a “name it and claim it” mentality towards healing and related miracles. But God is not someone we can control. We can, and should, come humbly before him with our requests, but we cannot demand anything of him. What Jesus achieved on the cross was the forgiveness of sins, not our physical healing. Sure he demonstrated his power to forgive sins by healing people (e.g. Mark 2:1-12), but that wasn’t the end point. Even Paul had a thorn in the flesh (whatever that was) that wasn’t removed, and he had to leave Trophimus in Miletus because he was sick (2 Timothy 4:20). If Paul couldn’t heal everything, we shouldn’t expect to either.
The Victorious Life
Related to the ideas on healing is the common Charismatic expectation that all Christians should live a victorious life with no troubles. Jesus told us that in this life we will have troubles (John 16:33), Jesus had troubles, and Paul certainly did (2 Corinthians 6:3-10; 11:23-27). Why should we expect anything different? Our aim is not to amass wealth in this world, but in the next. It is in the new heavens and new earth that we will receive all the promises, not on this earth. Certainly Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10b), but what is a full life? Living our lives in the way that our Creator intended is going to be the most satisfying life we can possibly have, and it will yield much fruit for the kingdom, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be easy.
The interpretation of the book of Job is a good litmus test on this subject. We are clearly told that Job was a righteous man (Job 1:1, 22; 2:10b), and God sent testing times on him. Many Charismatics can’t cope with this idea and insist on saying that Job must have been sinful in some way, but this is not what the Bible says.
Along with this view that the Christian life should be victorious is a tendency to not mention our ongoing sinfulness and constant need to repent and work hard on our holiness. Some consider that we shouldn’t have to work hard if the Spirit is in us, but that is not what Paul says (Philippians 3:12-14).
The role of God in salvation / Predestination
Charismatics tend to be Arminian, that is, they over emphasise man’s free will, and under emphasise God’s sovereignty in everything that happens. We can only come to Christ as the Holy Spirit works in us, we do not contribute anything to our salvation (Matthew 11:27; Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 Corinthians 2:14). There is nothing we add.
To use an illustration, we are like a paralysed man at the bottom of a well – totally helpless. The rescuers come down the well and tie a rope around us and haul us out. That is what Jesus has done for us. We contribute nothing, and it is all to the glory of God.
After all, if God is not totally in control of everything that happens, then why bother praying to him?
This is the standard eschatalogical view amongst Charismatics. It is a new invention, only having been around for about 200 years. It arises from taking Old Testament prophecies too literalistically, rather than taking them the way that the New Testament understands them. I have dealt with this in more detail elsewhere.
Role of women
Charismatics typically allow women to preach to mixed congregations. It is true they are not unique in this, but this is against Biblical instructions, as I have dealt with in more detail elsewhere.
I know I do not write this is a vacuum, so I should note that I do not think that local Charismatic churches are guilty of the worst excesses that I mention above. Our differences are secondary in nature. If I wrote an article titled “Why I am not a liberal”, the differences would be of primary importance, but that is not the presenting issue amongst people to whom I minister, hence the need for this article.
I should also add that there are many things that are positive in Charismatic churches. Many are filled with genuine believers who are honestly seeking to submit to God’s word and put others to shame in their zeal for living holy lives and spreading the Gospel.