Let me begin this article by asking you a question, don’t worry, this isn’t a test and you don’t need to respond out loud, not least because I probably won’t hear you, given that your reading this on a computer miles away, your spoken declaration of an answer will therefore be futile! So anyway, the question; How often (if you’re a Christian) have you been asked by a ‘stranger Christian’ (that is, one who you haven’t met before) what church you go to? If you choose to answer this question, you might then be asked ‘What type of church do you go to?’ One might then go onto ask ‘Is it a ‘word’ church or a ‘spirit’ church?’ Or they may put it another way, ‘are you a ‘conservative’ Christian or charismatic Christian’? Now straight away I realise that not all that call themselves conservatives or charismatics will indeed equate these to being word and spirit Christians respectively; yet despite this I believe this can quite often be the case. Thus this article will attempt to discuss the conservative and charismatic terms, their usefulness in describing our Christian experience and thirdly, whether (as quite often seems to be the case) the experience of the word (that is, the scripture of the Bible) and the experience of the spirit (that is, the Holy Spirit, the person sent by Jesus to operate within us when we repent and believe) should be treated as two separate entities, and indeed two separate ‘experiences.’
Indeed, this separation of the word and spirit will form a central pillar of this article. It is my belief that the very action of separating them is a mistake, and that in order to experience God, both the word and spirit should be treated as one entity, that is, one cannot work without the other. If this is true then this will inevitably influence our church experience, and it should make us question when and how the Holy Spirit is at work. To go into more detail, how often is it that when we attend a church service we listen to a sermon and then are asked to ‘respond’ or ‘allow in’ the Holy Spirit. Yet if we look at the words of the Bible, then we can see that we should be looking to experience God (that is, gain an understanding of God’s will for our lives) while we study the Bible’s words. That is the Holy Spirit doesn’t wait until we are sufficiently ‘moved’ by a worship song until he acts, but is at work helping us understand the words of the Bible when we come to study it, either individually or collectively as a small group or church congregation.
John 6 v 63: It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
1 Corinthians 2 v 13-14: And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
If this is true, the Bible is no longer a dry and boring text that only dry and boring people use, and a method used to limit the power of the spirit. Indeed if we take the verses used here to heart, we can hopefully begin to see that the Holy Spirit makes the Bible completely relevant and revelatory to our lives. The word and spirit then come together. This then flies in the face of the accusation that the Bible limits the power of the Holy Spirit. I shall expand on this point below.
Some appear to argue that the Bible is an excellent source of knowledge and wisdom (which it is) but that something else is needed if we to truly experience God and his true power. That is to say, some purport that the Bible ALONE isn’t enough to truly experience God, and that we must have a unique ‘spiritual’ experience to almost validate what we have heard in the Bible. And again, the Bible has something to say about this, and importantly it does so on a number of occasions. I will mention two instances here. The first is in 2 Timothy 3:15 and 16, where Paul tells us:
‘And how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’.
How often have we been worried that we need something else ‘special’ to really do the will of God or experience him? If you’re anything like me then this worry is a relatively familiar one. Yet this declaration that the Bible (with the help of the spirit) is sufficient for EVERY GOOD WORK is greatly encouraging, it tells us that the Bible and the Bible alone is enough for us. This of course isn’t to say that we don’t need to apply the Bible at all or that we don’t need the Holy Spirit to help us understand the Bible or to help us apply it. But in saying all this we can see that basing our experience of God on the Bible is key to us experiencing God full stop. Nothing else, no extra spiritual experience or no extra ‘word’ from anyone else is required. This point is further supported by Ephesians 6 v 17, which tells us that the spirit does indeed work in this way.
‘And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’.
Yet again, this tells us that if we really want to experience God, then it is the word (or the Bible) to which we should be looking.
Following on from all of what has been said so far, we now need to ask ourselves two things, one, how do we experience God and know that our experience of him is authentic and two, how can we be sure that everything the Holy Spirit wants to communicate to us can be found in the Bible? I believe both of these questions go together. 1 Corinthians 2 tells for example in v.10 that ‘
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
In v.12 Paul goes onto explain that
‘Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.’
That is, God revealed his COMPLETE will to for them (the apostles) to write down. Verse 13 then tells us how this was done
‘And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.’
This then goes a great deal to explain why the word is so important and if we then skip back a little to John 14:25 -26 we can see how the Holy Spirit himself enables the apostles to remember ALL things, and it is this same Holy Spirit that works within us when we read these very words to understand them and apply them to our lives.
‘These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’
And how do we know that the words of Jesus and the apostles are ALONE the complete word of God? John 16:7-12 explains that
‘Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.’
This is heartening in that based on these verses, we can be sure that the Bible contains all that we need to grow in our Christian faith and that when we do study it, the Holy Spirit will be there with us helping us in this growth.
Let us then draw breath. In terms of application, and going back to the original questions posed at the beginning of the article, I hope one can see how asking whether one is in a ‘word church’ or ‘spirit church’ or whether one is conservative and charismatic can sometimes be unhelpful in that in asking these questions we can divide two fundamental truths of the Christian life when in fact they are not supposed to be separate at all. Furthermore, (and I myself have been guilty of this) one can see how this unhelpful man made separation can potentially drive wedges between Christians, in that we can make assumptions like ‘oh you’re a happy clappy wacky Christian’ or ‘you’re a boring and dull Christian’. Of course, this does not mean we shouldn’t enquire of other people’s Christian lives, nor that we shouldn’t challenge one another out of love when we feel someone is doing something that may be hindering their faith; I just doubt whether the best way to do these things is to ask them whether they are ‘Conservative’ ‘Charismatic’ ‘word Christians’ or ‘spiritual Christians.’
Thus, if the above does have a degree of truth to it then I would like to challenge us to answer the two questions posed at the beginning of the article differently perhaps to the way we may have done in the past. Why not for instance when someone does ask us whether we go to a word church or a spirit church, simply say ‘both’, for this is the model of church the Bible clearly advocates. And if this is the model of church and Christian experience the Bible advocates, and if we are fortunate enough that this is our experience of church, and it does practice what the Bible says on this issue (the word being the sword of the spirit etc.) then I see nothing wrong with saying ‘I go to a biblical church.’ If anything, it may lead to an interesting and fruitful conversation on what exactly you mean when you say you go a biblical church and what exactly you mean by that, but more than that it will hopefully tell your new found acquaintance that we should be neither word OR spirit but both word AND spirit.
And it is this point that I think it is worth focussing on in the conclusion, that is, the great thing about both the word and the spirit is that they are inextricably linked, and for the reasons already discussed, this means we can experience God in a true and real way through his word. This is an exciting truth and one which transforms words of the Bible from being boring, old and archaic to being relevant, real and the way in which the Holy Spirit communicates the truth of the Bible’s words and its relevance to us today.