Strange Fire and Churches of Christ


“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” -C.S. Lewis

Maybe you’ve noticed that over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk around charismatic vs. not charismatic protestant Christians. Some people held a conference, and John MacArthur wrote a book about it. Mark Driscoll even showed up at the conference and started giving away his newest book and just confused everyone.

But what caught my eye is what these non-Charismatics called the conference.

They called it, “Strange Fire”

Which may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me. Because growing up in the Restoration Movement, that is a reference to an obscure little story in Leviticus that no other branch in Christian tradition really paid attention to.

It’s the story of Nadab and Abihu, some of the first priests in the Torah. It’s 10 little verses that end with God smiting Nadab and Abihu because they offered “Strange” or “Unauthorized Fire.”

When I heard the name of the conference it felt…reassuring. I thought, “Hey, we’re not the only ones who misread the Bible after all!”

And let’s call that’s what it is.

To name this conference that, is a way of misreading the Bible. I don’t care where you go from there, but if you start with that story as your metaphor, you will have a  bad view of God when you’re reading the Bible.[1]

Trust me on this.

But when I saw in Christianity Today, that Mark Noll actually compares this new anti-charismatic movement to Restorationist I had two thoughts, “Christianity Today knows about us?” and then as I read the comparison I realized “Yes, they know us well.”

Here’s what they said:

“Perhaps the major flaw of the book is more attitudinal than methodological. In claiming to see things so clearly–so black and white–MacArthur falls into a restorationist mindset, identified by historian Mark Noll as “intellectual overconfidence, sectarian delusion, and a stunningly naive confidence in the power of humans to extract themselves from the influences of history…”

Apparently Mark grew up in my church.

Now I love Churches of Christ, and the Restoration Movement, I’m not just saying that. I  really do. And I’m glad to be a part of Protestant Christianity…except for this one tiny slice of it. We protest…a lot…and often.

We love to argue and parse words and ideas, and I love the idea about Sola-Scriptura, but like Mark Noll hinted at, Sola Scriptura is naïve if you don’t acknowledge that you are a person culturally conditioned to read the Bible in certain ways and ask certain questions (one that the Bible might not be trying to address) and not ask the questions the Bible is trying to answer.

I get the Cessasionist argument, and I really respect John McArthur, his writings and ministry have blessed me. I love Joni Erickson Tada (who spoke at the conference) and I very much understand why someone who has endured the suffering of both physical limitations, and the suffering of spiritual bullies who might say, “If you just had enough faith…”

But I believe I’ve heard the voice of God, and I’ve prayed for people who I believe have been healed, and several who haven’t.  But I didn’t always think this way.

The problem for me started about 9 years ago, when I went to Sri Lanka to do Tsunami relief. We were with a small gathering of Christians there, and a blind woman came up to get prayed for, and God opened her eyes.

I’ve got a bachelors and a graduate degree in Bible, and I immediately said to myself, “I know seven reasons why that cant happen.”

But as I started to think about it, I realized that the reasons I knew that this couldn’t happen had nothing to do with the Bible. It had everything to do with the philosophy and ideology I was reading the Bible through.

The problem was I had been using the Bible, to be right, to make a living. I was standing on it, but the Bible is telling about a world that we are supposed to inhabit.

And in that world anything can happen.

Because God is in it.

As an aside, there is a reason that Charismatic Chrsitianity is spreading all through the third world. Last week, a few Christians and I were having a bible study with a Muslim man from Sierre Leon when we got to one of the excoricisms in the Gospel of Mark. I told him, that none of us at the table had ever seen anything like a demon possession, and maybe he could speak more to the issue.

So he started talking about the Witch doctor in his village. How he could point at a goat and kill it with his voodoo, and about how he put spells on people making them go crazy.

When my friend read the Gospel of Mark, he was glad to see that demons obeyed Jesus. Because he knew what a demon was in a way that we don’t.

My friend sure hopes God hasn’t ceased working in the world, because he knows first hand that evil hasn’t.

Anytime we start having a conversation about God that only works in certain parts of the world (the wealthiest, most educated and the most access to medicinal resources) we are going to miss large parts of the Gospel.

Love and Elitism

The real problem that I believe MacArthur is trying to address is the division that has happened around the way we talk about the Holy Spirit and God’s activity in the world. I spend a lot of time with some Charismatic brothers and sisters, and I understand the critique.

It’s very possible to think that you’ve arrived at a place superior than others because of your spiritual experience, or what you’ve sensed God work through you to heal or prophesy. It’s very easy to fall in love with the gifts more than the Giver.

I’ve also been around Cessationalists enough to know that this isn’t just a “Charismatic problem” Knowledge, after all, does puff up.

And it is ironic, that the main verse in the Bible that Cessationalist and Charismatics argue about is in Paul’s magnificent chapter of what Christian love looks like.

And that context matters just as much as anything else in this conversation. Christian love defers to one other, it esteems one another, it doesn’t accumulate priviledge and status when God gives you gifts like healing or preaching or the gift of knowledge.

Christian love shouldn’t crash someone’s conference or take away someone’s books and then tweet about it.

In fact, I believe that for these two groups to be able to reconcile and apologize and humble themselves before the other, that would be a miracle. Perhaps the best kind of miracle.

I Can’t Only Imagine

It seems to me that the way most Christians talk about God in the world today is either that God is something like magic (good for the occasional miracle, if you just pray the right prayers, believe the right way etc.) or we are Deist’s (the idea that God created the Universe, wound it up like a top, and stepped away.) The universe is either empty of God, or God is someone we can control.

This is a problem.

I was talking to an Anglican priest friend last week about this, and his answer was so good I think it might be helpful here.

He said something like, the main problem really isn’t what we think it is. The real problem is that we’ve lost our imagination.

There is a fundamental difference between a Catholic Christian’s imagination and a Protestant Christian’s imagination.  In Catholicism, the whole world in enchanted, God is closer than we are to ourselves, and the entire Creation is dripping with the Glory of God.

So back to us Protestants, both the Charismatics and the Cessationists are basically talking with the same limited imagination. We believe that either God punches a whole in the roof of the world and tinkers in from time to time in order to heal our Aunt’s cancer or give me a better parking space…or we believe that He doesn’t do that.

But both are operating from a posture that fundamentally believes God is somewhere else.aslan3

This is why we use language like, “And then God showed up.” As if there are places in the world where God wasn’t!

And don’t think for a second I’m trying to ignore the Bible. I’m just trying to start reading it better. Think about how the Psalms talk about Creation, the mountains clap for joy, and the rivers sing!

According to the Bible the whole earth is enchanted!

And the danger of having conversations like this, is that we strip God out of the world He made and we do it, not by using the Bible, but coming from an “Enlightenment Worldview” that has very little to do with imagination, and very much to do with scientific reductionism of the Good world that God created and still inhabits.

Think about the words we use in this argument. It’s words like Natural vs. Supernatural. Where did we get those words from? It’s not Scripture, so if we are going to have this conversation then lets at least admit that it’s not Sola Scriptura we are arguing with.

We are humans, located in certain places and ideologies.

And God help us if we make boxes so tight that God can’t help us.

The Catholic (think Pre-Enlightenment) imagination is rich and filled with different ways of talking about reality. It is what Tolkien and Lewis drew from to tell about the Enchanted world of God.

I’ve spoken in tongues, because all Art is speaking in tongues, I’ve seen God heal people, and I see God sustain the Billion miracles everyday that hold our intricate hearts beating just because of His creative word. I’ve seen babies born and people sacrifice their lives, I’ve seen people healed in “normal” ways like through doctors at hospitals and people healed in unusual ones.

Am I a Charismatic or a Cessasionist? Neither. Because I think both of those stories are two small to contain God.

I believe Aslan is on the move.

The Fire of God is real, the world is ablaze with it.

And when Christians are unable to see that, I think that’s strange.

[1] Rabbinical tradition teaches that this story in Leviticus isn’t about them disobeying or misunderstanding God, it’s about them not revering Him. The very next verse after this story is a prohibition against drinking while performing priestly duties, so the Rabbi’s have said that was Nadab and Abihu’s sin.

About jonathanstorment

My family and I love reading, traveling, daddy/daughter dates, playing hide and seek, good music, and long meals with friends. We still miss LOST, and all four of us have Superman uniforms. We are passionate about bringing Heaven to Earth and want to follow Jesus while repainting discipleship for those around us. We are followers of Jesus and I preach at the Highland Church of Christ. We participate in something called A Restoration Movement, and we've come to realize that might be larger than we thought.

21 thoughts on “Strange Fire and Churches of Christ

  1. Dear brother, thank you so much for saying this!
    Be prepared for opposition from those who cannot see past the end of their noses as they look down upon those who differ with them. God bless!

  2. The God of Abraham hasn’t changed. He’s the same now as he always has been. He still moves through his creation. We just need to see it, embrace it, and experience it.

  3. Jonathan this is outstanding! Both challenging and approachable. I nearly jumped out of my chair by the end! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. Jonathan, Thank you so much for writing this. It’s something our churches desperately need to re-evaluate and consider with open hearts. We need people who will press us and make us ask ourselves the difficult questions we’ve avoided for the past several decades.

  5. I always felt similarly about Nadab and Abihu… I heard “strange fire” a lot, too, in my youth… It seemed Nadab and Abihu’s hearts were bent on their own desires, and their interest was in performing their duties not as they been directed, rather in a way that was most efficient and enjoyable for themselves. Every time you find or can infer a focus on self in scripture, it doesn’t usually turn out well for the person. Was just reading about Absalom this morning…another good example. I’m always called the crazy eccentric, enigmatic because I see those things from contemporary divisiveness to the personal desires of Nadab and Abihu and immediately see (shhh…the evil one) at work.

    1. James, those were good instincts. Growing up, I wish I would have interpreted that passage that way too. It seems to me that if you read that story isolated from the rest of the Bible, or even it’s immediate context, you can start to view the God of the Bible as something like Zeus.

  6. But you took away the cofC argument for doing everything perfectly. This is more evidence of why verses should not be read out of context.

  7. Dude, I don’t often enjoy blogs…and don’t tend to read them…but this is really, really good. Thanks. Aaron Metcalf

  8. Right on Jonathan! Thanks for speaking out. I am so grateful to be part of a congregation like Highland where God is real, and a preacher can preach the real truth. Love you Brother, and the rest of your family too…(Charles)

  9. I tried posting with my account and it wouldn’t let me???? So I am posting as a guest.

    Well, the reason I am here…reading this blog…has to do with the plethora of blogs that get posted on fb. The friend who posted it always throws out good thoughts that challenge my theology and has sent me your direction many times. I will say that I totally agree with you on a few things… like approaching the Word with a clean slate and not some preconceived idea or teaching we (as humans) grew up with AND the excellent point that God and the Spirit are alive and working miracles continually. Another concept I agree with you on is that you are neither a Charismatic or a Cessationist. YES!!! They are too “small” and fail to account for God’s will at any point in time. I have visited a few “churches of Christ” where the Spirit of Christ was not evident. On that note, I hope the Spirit of Christ is displayed in my following thoughts/questions here since it seems everyone else is praising this post which I perceive as confusing and sometimes contradictory (yes, I researched the Strange Fire conference because I had not heard any of that and then reread your post… like 7 times).

    YES…both sides can, and have, felt their experience or knowledge is superior and become prideful. However, just because one has knowledge does not beget error OR pride. In this context, I do not understand how you can state that “Art” is a tongue according to scripture??? It seems to cheapen the gift of tongues and their purpose. Maybe a different kind of gift… but tongue??? Is this based on experience or knowledge? I would love to hear why you think that!

    You attach yourself with the Protestants??? I was on both sides of that coin and would echo what you proclaimed about the previous point… I am NEITHER! Yes, there has been some “reactionary” teaching in the cofC and it needs to be corrected; and you touch on one of these topics concerning the Spirit. However, do not deceive yourself in thinking we are Protestant… we have not… I have not protested anything. I desire to be a disciple of Christ and His doctrine only and be led by His Spirit…. and yes, His Spirit works outside of the Word… but to what degree?? I would love to hear more details about your experience in Sri Lanka (and I bet others would ;)). However, It confuses me and is problematic when you make a bold proclamation that “you believe” God has spoken to you, you have healed “sometimes”, and a women received her sight without giving more information. Are you “reacting” to this in like manner that many in the cofC have with the Spirit, but in the opposite direction?

    To sum up, it seems this all starts with Nadab and Abihu. I don’t understand why you think “we” are misreading this and someone else is too? What were you taught in “your” church?

    Thank you for allowing me to post and if you would rather respond in an email format I would love to be challenged more by your thoughts. I am curious if I am the only one who is perplexed after reading this?????

  10. I like your word the cessationists. They have made the argument that the ‘perfect’ in 1 Cor. 13.10 is the New Testament (or new law), which was done in reaction to the charismatics who claimed that they had those gifts (and would have them until Christ came back).
    Both interpretations are incorrect and neither fit with the context. The entire context is about the supremacy of love. There is no mention of law, and the references to prophecy is used to explain its relative inadequacy and incompleteness in comparison to the perfectness of love.
    This was a church that had ‘all knowledge’ (1 Cor 1.5), and at this time did not truly understand the significance of love. For a church that is so full of boasting and arrogance, Paul decides to equate love to the grown-up (or mature) thing to do, while also equating ‘not love’ to childishness (1 Cor. 13.11).
    The next verse talks about how they currently ‘see in a mirror dimly (which is literally ‘in a riddle’). John repeats this same notion about seeing face to face our Creator, and contextually, John regards ‘following God’s commandments’ as loving others (1 John 3.23,24; 4.7,11-21; 5.2,3)
    Why else would he reiterate the supremacy of love in verse 13? Love is the ‘perfect’ or highest standard.

  11. The Bible was not written so that we could justify ourselves. That is a self serving motive. I imagine that if Paul were here today and saw us using his letters to justify ourselves, he would be sorely disappointed..

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