Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Day I Made Some "Charismatic" Friends

I've been rather tardy on my report from the one-day seminar I attended a couple Saturdays ago at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Covenant Life is best known for its former pastor, C.J. Mahaney, and its current pastor, Josh Harris, both of whom are respected authors and teachers. Covenant Life is more or less the "mother church" for Sovereign Grace Ministries, a fellowship of churches that call themselves "Reformed charismatics."

This seminar
was about "the pathway to pastoral ministry in Sovereign Grace churches." I am not on that pathway, but I have appreciated Harris' writing and Mahaney's speaking. Since it was a great opportunity to get together with some friends who would be attending and some others in the area who would not, as well as learn more about this group with the curious way of describing themselves, I drove up with three friends from North Carolina.

I'm not exactly sure what I expected. Given their charismatic leanings, I expected some passionate communication and some rather subjective discussions of divining God's will and call. Given their Reformed leanings, I expected some sound teaching from Scripture. I had not reconciled that juxtaposition in my mind as I entered the day.

Almost immediately, I was floored. In my life I cannot remember teaching from Scripture on the call to ministry (a term that I do not prefer, but one that they did employ) that was as thoroughly biblical. It was precisely the opposite of the subjectivity I anticipated. Their description of the internal "sense" of calling was essentially equated with the desire to the office in 1 Timothy 3:1. More importantly, they painstakingly defined this sense as merely the starting point toward pastoral ministry. They argued that the internal sense of call must be confirmed by the demonstration of character that is consistent with the office and a recognition of giftedness by the pastors of the church. Some direct quotes from the notes include:
View your sense of call not as an authoritative event, but as an invitation to begin the process of evaluation, testing, and preparation.

An internal "sense" ≠ an authoritative call

The "internal call" is not merely a subjective sense, but a comprehensive work of grace in a man's life that qualifies him for ministry.
The overwhelming bulk of the teaching focused on the nature and purposes of the One who calls, the gospel mission of the church, the paradox of ambition and the pitfalls associated with it, and the priority of character in pastoral ministry.

Some observations were inescapable to me. First, not all "charismatics" are cut out of the same cloth. I'm tempted to think of this fellowship of churches as "wannabe charismatics." Second, despite some differences that we should not ignore, I believe Baptist do have some important lessons to learn from these friends. C.J. Mahaney wrote a book called Humility. I haven't read it yet on printed pages, but I think I read it already in the lives of the men he has discipled. They taught me that humility is not just having a low view of myself in contrast to a high view of God. It also includes recognizing the work of grace that God is doing in the lives of believers around me, particularly in ways that surpass what has yet taken place in my heart. The men leading this seminar demonstrated that kind of humility to me. And humility is only one lesson. I could take far more space to talk about community, discipleship, and admonition.

Finally, many Baptists are more subjective than these charismatics. I see this as a substantial problem. If a young person says he's been called, it seems that we often take this as a Baptist "word of knowledge," offering very little guidance or counsel in the form of church leaders working with him to discern his giftedness and character. Bible majors in Christian colleges and sometimes seminary degrees, as well, are viewed as professional tracks for individuals to pursue independently. We minimize the value and necessity of communities of believers recognizing willing, qualified individuals in their midst and calling them out to prepare for and enter vocational service. I have heard others call this subjective approach to decision-making "the new liberalism." It is simply a more insidious, albeit perhaps unintentional, way of divorcing ourselves from the authority of the revealed Word of God.


Dan Burrell said...

Thanks for posting this...I found it thought-provoking. I always enjoy your site.

Ben said...

Thanks, Dan. I really do appreciate the encouragement.

Paul said...


As an intern at Capitol Hill Baptist Church I had the opportunity to spend all of last Tuesday at Covenant Life. Mark Dever did 4 sessions on evangelism for their Pastor's College. There were over 100 guys taking the week long class; many of them were senior Pastors at Sovereign Grace churches.

We got a guided tour of the place complete with full access to CJ and Harris' office! Jeff (the head of their Pastor's College) sat down with us all and we were able to ask him questions about their churches and how they approach training Pastors. Like you, I was very impressed with the thought, care and seriousness with which they approach the call to ministry.

Based on the time I had there to observe and talk with various Sovereign Grace guys I agree completely with your assessment. It is a thrill to see a group of men who are utterly consumed with and driven by the Gospel of Christ which is the fountain head of their distinct humility.

Chris said...

Thanks for your post.

How often have we seen the damage from guys who just feel called and go out and start a church. How much better would it have been for these to have the backing and recommendation of seasoned leaders.

Do you know if they will make audio available for download?

Ben said...


I don't recall anyone mentioning anything about audio. Maybe I've forgotten.


It seems that the respect and appreciation was mutual: Carolyn McCulley's report from the evangelism conference you attended.

Carolyn McCulley said...

Gentlemen, I'm honored that anyone would even be aware of my blog, much less what I wrote about the evangelism conference. Thanks for the kind link! I'm not sure if the audio of either conference will be made available, but perhaps you'll be interested in reading one of our Perspectives publications, titled "Am I Called?" You can download it for free from I trust you'll find that helpful.

Ben said...


I am likewise honored that you would visit us here. Thanks for the link and also for your ministry. Although the second half of your blog title does not apply to me, the ideas you have been advocating have been challenging to me. (I'll avoid the term "teaching" so we don't get accused of egalitarian heresy. And I would put a smiley face here, but CJ might not like it.) I thought your chapter in the recent collaborative effort was one of the most helpful in the entire work.