With charismatic gifts and miracles come abuse. It’s just like every other aspect of church life: Christians are still sinful, fleshly people, prone to use the things of God to forward their own agendas. In 2004, Nigerian authorities saw abuses within prominent television ministries in their country and moved to shut them down. What should we think about the high incidence of the miraculous in African countries? Should we dismiss it all as charlatanry? Or is God really doing physical miracles there?
Christian History Corner: Do Nigerian Miracle Ministries Discredit the Faith?
The spiritual dynamism of West African Christianity is now well known even in the West. Do credulity-stretching, highly publicized miracles discredit what God is doing in that region?
By Chris Armstrong
Recently Nigeria’s National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) issued a ban on the television broadcasting of miracles—specifically, those not “provable and believable” (though the NBC failed to provide guidelines for establishing proof). The ban is aimed at the many Pentecostal ministries in that country who air video of healing miracles to draw people to their meetings and to Christ.
My response to this sort of “news of the miraculous” in Africa is mixed. First, I get a small thrill—a little, inner voice saying “Yay!”—when I am reminded of how powerfully God has touched that continent, so that miracles of healing would become standard television fare. Second, I share in the skepticism that suspects some charismatic ministers broadcast such events—without adequately checking the genuineness of the “miracles”—to aggrandize their ministries and gain followers. Third, I am angry (with, I hope, a holy sort of anger) that the Devil continues, as he always has, to discredit by any means possible the work of the Holy Spirit—in this case, through exploiting the base motives of some leaders.
No longer among my reactions, however, is a desire to dismiss all of African Christianity as shallow and unbiblical. Though I once did lean toward this opinion, I have moved away from it as I have learned more about the progress of the faith on that continent during the past century.
The twin lions of African Christianity
West Africa’s two most distinctive, fast-growing indigenous religious movements are, first, the “prophetic independent churches” that began to appear after World War I, and second, the charismatic and Pentecostal churches that sprang up in the 1970s. Both are growing with stunning rapidity. And both are rooted in the belief that a personal Devil and demons are at work in Africa—especially through African traditional religion; that prayer is the key to all problems in this world; and that God continues to heal and deliver people today as in the day of the apostles.
These movements draw deeply from the African assumption—also strong in traditional religion—that the spiritual world is real and that it constantly impinges on the material world. In our Issue 79: The African Apostles, Dr. Ogbu Kalu of McCormick Theological Seminary compares this assumption to the modern, Word-centered beliefs of the early Western missionaries:
“The missionaries read the Bible through the lenses of the Protestant emphasis on Word over Spirit and the Enlightenment desacralization of the universe.
“The Africans, on the other hand, read the Bible through their own traditionally ‘charismatic’ worldview: they knew there were spirits in the sky, the water, the land, and the ancestral worlds. Only, now, they proclaimed the power of Jesus over these other powers.
“For example, when confronted with illness, the Africans read their Bibles and came up with a straightforward belief in healing. They were used to seeing illness and health as spiritual matters. They had always accepted witchcraft as the source of illness.”
This supernaturalist belief results in a “wild side” of these groups that is very hard for Westerners (and especially non-charismatic Westerners) either to understand or to credit as legitimate. See, for example, the profiles from our Africa issue of several founders and leaders from West Africa’s “Aladura”—Christian groups in the prophetic independent church stream.
An equally spirit- and prayer-focused, but slightly less indigenous movement followed, beginning a scant three decades ago. These are the Pentecostal and charismatic churches—West African churches with roots and ties in Western Pentecostalism, but almost entirely indigenous in leadership and style.
The West African charismatic movement has been growing like a flash fire since it emerged in the 1970s from such sources as house churches birthed by college ministries (e.g. the Student Christian Movement, Scripture Union, and Campus Christian Fellowship). Like the West African prophetic churches, the Pentecostal/charismatics believe in healing and miracles. They also share the prophetic churches’ astounding growth rates, contributing to the almost total Christianization of some countries during the 20th century.
Unlike the semi-literate founders and leaders of the prophetic churches, the leaders of the charismatics tend to be educated and fully literate. They also focus more on tracts and other literature than (as the prophetic churches do) on “prayer tangibles”— items like staffs, crosses, gourds, and so forth. Finally, the newer groups are also fond of crusades, revivals, and other open-air meetings, choosing them over the smaller-group, more communal style of most prophetic groups.
A shadow on the land
Not all Africans accept the highly supernaturalist style of these groups. Especially those African churches with stronger links to Western mainstream churches are at odds with the newcomers. So one African journalist—a Christian—refers to that continent’s “war between the Orthodoxes and the Pentecostalists.” Sadly, another source of this division is that in their quest for personal holiness, many of the charismatic churches have practiced a kind of exclusivism and elitism that too easily writes mainstream Christians out of the Kingdom. This is of course also a familiar story line in the history of Western evangelicalism—and Western missions.
More troubling still are the prosperity preaching, get-rich-quick schemes, and outright scams that have been associated with Nigerian charismatic Christians. All of this is real matter for concern. The continuing scandal of African and Western ministers abusing their power over the faithful masses for personal gain—and preaching messages that tickle the ear—is not just a p.r. problem. It is a matter having grave eternal consequences—and evidence enough, for that matter, that the Africans’ belief in demonic influence is an accurate one!
But we must step carefully before we use the abuses of a few—or even many—Christian leaders to discredit all miracles or belittle the power of prayer. Criticisms of evangelistic “miracle ministries” remind me of a story that is told (perhaps apocryphally) about St. Francis of Assisi. Francis went to the pope of his day to present his simple monastic rule, hoping to get his “friars minor” approved as an official monastic order of the church. The pope, reading the short, Biblical rule, found it idealistic and impracticable. “It’ll never work,” he said, in effect. At which juncture, the story goes, one of his cardinals leaned over to whisper a reminder that Francis’s rule was made up almost entirely of the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “This,” said the cardinal, “is only what Jesus told us to do!”
Well, Jesus told us what to expect from prayer, just as he told us, in his Sermon on the Mount, how to live. Of course, the Biblical promises about the power of prayer can seem as impossible to our limited human perspective as the injunctions of that sermon. But there they are in our Bibles. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they questioned him about the nature of his ministry—and theirs: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12-13).
Jesus also warned that the “wheat would grow up with the tares” in the Christian body. And it would only get worse as the end neared: “False Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect” (Mark 13:22). The early Christians took this warning to heart. Their church manual, the Didache, gave a clear guideline for discerning whether a would-be apostle of Christ who entered your town was a true or a false apostle: “If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.”
It is written
The real question is this: Does God intend to bless and rescue people in the physical realm and in historical time (that is, not just in a far-off afterlife)? Is it inadmissible selfishness and hubris to think so?
Granted, it is easy for us to fall off into the seductive doctrine that says God will always enable the obedient Christian to “live large” both in ministry and in daily life. The “prosperity gospellers” need to remember Paul’s testimony (in Philippians 4:11-12) that he had learned the fine art of being contented in trials and sufferings as well as in fat times. And it is clear that many thousands of Africans are struggling with some version of the doctrine of God the Cash Machine.
But how are we to interpret John 15:7—”If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you”? In our Africa issue, Dr. Kalu makes clear how African Christians have interpreted such words:
“Africans appropriated Christian teaching on prosperity and poverty not because they were gulled by televangelists, but because the televangelists were addressing a deep vein in the indigenous worldview.
“Africans have always known poverty as a dire threat, and they have attempted to explain and deal with it from a religious rather than a secular economic perspective. When they read in their Bibles promises of spiritual power that can deal with issues of wealth and prosperity and protect people from the devastating effects of poverty, then these elements became dominant in their theology.”
Do African believers sometimes go too far in their assumptions about what the Bible teaches on wealth and poverty, or on healing? This may be. But do we, in reaction to fraudulent miracles and shady motives, give up on the Hebrew earthiness of Jewish religion—which was Jesus’ religion—that sees God as intimately engaged in his beloved people’s lives, saving them in battle, providing them with food, healing their illnesses? Do we turn instead to the airy realm of Greek abstractions about soteriology and eschatology? Is the former an illegitimate thing called “folk religion,” while only the latter is the legitimate, properly theological “high religion” of Scripture?
It seems to me that at the very least, while we’re thinking about their “speck” of “hyper-belief,” we should consider the Enlightenment “log” still in our own eye. I have to watch carefully my reaction to reports of African Christianity—my tendency to lean back onto my old assumption that here is a faith “a mile wide and an inch deep.” I’m afraid there is in this assumption more than a little of the modern intellectual snobbery that squeezes God until he is too small to do anything, or bounces him up into a high heaven where he is too remote to reach down and change our circumstances, as well as our hearts, when we pray.
When I think of the amazing work of the Spirit—and the counteracting work of the Devil—in modern-day Africa, I am reminded of church historian Richard Lovelace’s comment when asked a decade ago about the Toronto Airport Vineyard revival, which featured such fringe phenomena as worshippers barking like dogs and roaring like lions. First, Dr. Lovelace recognized that in the Great Awakening and in many other incidences of wide-spread revival, physical phenomena have accompanied the work of the Holy Spirit. Then, tellingly, he added: “But it is in the Devil’s interest to make Christians look weird.” Where any element of a revival can be exploited to discredit the faith, the Devil will exploit it.
But any real or imagined imbalance in the African church’s approaches to God’s action in the physical world should not lead us to conclude that God has ceased to work miracles today—or even that he does not frequently answer his children’s prayers for all kinds of aid, both spiritual and material. This negative conclusion looks dangerously like the sin of unbelief.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History & Biography, a Christianity Today sister publication. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church’s past, is available at ChristianHistory.net.
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