THE TORONTO BLESSING: THE MARKETING OF GOD
Some reflections on the
Rodney Howard-Browne crusade. Is he Cultic Mesmerist
A LAUGHING REVIVAL?
In early 1994 a church near Toronto Airport in Canada, experienced laughing, weeping even roaring like lions among its congregation which belongs to the Vineyard Fellowship of charismatic churches associated with John Wimber. This experience, since dubbed ‘the Toronto blessing’ is regarded by its supporters as a time of refreshing and renewal and as a prelude to mighty revival. The pastor of the Toronto church had himself received an “anointing” through a South African evangelist, Rodney Howard-Browne (born 1961) who had moved to the USA in 1987, and ministered to him in 1993. Some thousands of pastors have since visited Toronto and the phenomena has spread around the globe. In Melbourne churches as diverse as Anglican and Reformed have been affected. The AOG and other Pentecostal groups promote it (see Australian Evangel, May 1995).
The story of the rise and spread of this teaching is found in several recent books, the following being the ones I have read: Dave Roberts, The Toronto Blessing (Kingsway, 189 pages), Guy Chevreau, Catch the Fire (Marshall Pickering, xii + 228 pages), Patrick Dixon, Signs of Revival, Kingsway 349 pages) Mike Fearon, A Breath of Fresh Air (Eagle, viii + 258 pages).
Roberts and Fearon are British Christian journalists in sympathy with the movement. The books by them show a measure of concern about aspects of the movement and Howard-Browne in particular, but do not delve deeply nor follow through the logic of some of their concerns. Chevreau is a Baptist pastor from Toronto who has accepted the movement as from God. He has expertise in church history and one third of his book traces experiences in the times of revival associated with the name of Jonathan Edwards with a view to showing that what is now happening is parallel. Dixon is a well regarded medical doctor who spends a quarter of his book giving a history of ’emotional faith’. Interestingly, he refers to the ‘big revival’ in the Scottish Hebrides in 1949 led by Duncan Campbell (p.185) which would be far differently assessed by the evangelical preachers of the Free Church of Scotland. He also discusses medical perspectives and includes a useful 35 page appendix written by Bill Jackson of the Vineyard in mid 1994.
Howard-Browne was in Australia during May and I took the opportunity of attending a meeting in the Melbourne Entertainment Centre on Monday afternoon of 22 May with another member of my congregation who had also attended a Sunday morning service at Richmond Assembly of God (the sponsors of the visit) the previous day. I would say that about 3,300 were present including many Pentecostal pastors, and the large majority were of Pentecostal and charismatic persuasion with a wide age range represented. The meeting lasted 2 hours and included 30 minutes of singing to begin with (at high volume and repetitive in the modern fashion), 30 minutes of Howard-Browne’s message, 30 minutes from an American lady, Paula White, blessed through Howard-Browne, who claimed 50,000 converts in Los Angeles within three months, mainly children in marginalised areas. [There was reference to competitions in which one could win a bike, and to giving away 200,000 toy/sweet filled Easter eggs which makes me wonder a little about these converts.] Most of the rest of the time was spent in the lady laying hands on a large number who came forward to receive power, and who experienced prostration as a result. Only a couple of cases of (hysterical) laughter occurred. However, at the packed healing session on Wednesday night, attended by another friend, it was pandemonium among the about 7,000 present.
While proponents think Holy Ghost fire, joy and power is being poured afresh on God’s people, the meeting was a disappointment and a cause of distress to us. It was evident that many longed to see the power of God released in their lives. Pentecostals are encouraged to see this evidenced in physical manifestations and the people were ready to accept what occurred, the more especially after the hype associated with the anecdotal account of her work given by Mrs White: it must have made most pastors feel pretty powerless and it was not surprising that so many came forward.
Howard-Browne has a background in the Faith Movement associated with Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland, and was assistant pastor in a vast Rhema Church in Johannesburg belonging to this stream before moving to the USA. These men are much closer to New Age concepts than to Christianity and are in fact quite positively heretical on such fundamental teaching as the Trinity, the person of Christ and the nature of faith. Howard-Browne did not say anything out of the way in Pentecostal circles on Monday and, while he may or may not agree with the Hagin/Copeland concepts that charismatic writer D. R. McConnell has ably documented in A Different Gospel (Hendrickson 1988, xix + 195 pages), he has not criticised his friend either. In May 1993 Howard-Browne engaged in what can only be described as a slapstick comedy routine with Copeland which was climaxed by Howard-Browne being rendered prostrate by Copeland. If it wasn’t so blasphemous it would be a simply ludicrous performance. I have seen the video myself and Fearon refers to it in his book (p.122). Fearon thinks the association with Copeland ‘unwise’ but does not doubt that he was seeing ‘genuine spiritual activity at work’ – a lack of discernment common in the literature.
Howard-Browne has written several books although they are not very substantial in size or content. Flowing in the Holy Ghost (1991, vii + 109 pages) and The Touch of God (ix + 169 pages) are the main ones. There is nothing the average Pentecostal would balk at in them although one wonders about the following incident: “When I went to pray for a dear brother sitting to the left of me, he stood up and hugged me. Then he told me that he had died several years ago and had left his body for a time and was caught up into glory. He said he knew what was happening [in the meeting] was real because he had witnessed that same presence of the Holy Ghost – the glory of God – when he crossed over to the other side” – The Touch of God, page 101.
The same credulity applies widely. The Morwell AOG Church bulletin (2 April 1995) reports that a man and his dog fell to the footpath under the power of God when walking past Northside AOG. But is this really of the Holy Spirit? The Melbourne Herald-Sun for 21 May 1995 (p.8 of Encore Supplement) has a brief article about Sir William Keys’ treatment for cancer at the hands of a Buddhist healer in Beijing, and you would think he was describing the symptoms typical at Howard-Brown meetings (including the desire to laugh). As Don Prout has said, ‘This is a solemn reminder that there are other explanations beside the touch of God for the unusual manifestations.’
Howard-Browne, as I heard him, is a simple and quite slow speaker who paces up and down as he talks. He is a master of one-liners that get cheers but they do not always work well on reflection. Some pastors are ‘not fishers of men but keepers of the aquarium’ he said to applause, yet pastors are to feed and care for the people. He can be very critical of people in charismatic churches who fake or misuse the supernatural gifts. He can also be very critical of more traditional Christians, the word ‘hate’ being used in reference to them at the Sunday meeting, to applause. He didn’t raise his voice all that much, but he used it to great effect.
Howard-Browne does not represent anything particularly new. The message I heard was classic Pentecostalism with less Scripture than most. The reading and the text was Acts 1:8 (one verse) and the argument was that power was promised, that tongues was not the be all and end all some thought, great revival was near at hand, the little lady from America had believed God and found it come to pass, we needed rebuke for our lack of success – ‘some of you need to give up your theology because it doesn’t work’ – and so, after the hype from Mrs White, it was not surprising that large numbers came forward to receive the anointing evidenced by prostration.
One must thank Howard-Browne for highlighting the failure of Pentecostalism to deliver, and the consequent need to be repeatedly hyped up but his leading of the churches even further down the path of subjectivism is a most disturbing trend for the future of vital godliness. Assuredly the Spirit is being grieved.
A BRIEF ASSESSMENT
Even if we grant that God may restore extraordinary gifts to the church, when we measure what is offered today against the Scripture we find but a pale reflection of the original:
a. the claimed spiritual gifts
(1) The other human languages of Pentecost become a kind of utterance that is not in general recognisable as human language. (2) The Bible teaches that edification accrues to the speaker in tongues in every case but to the audience only if interpreted, thereby showing that the speaker always knew the meaning; but today the speaker in tongues does not know what he says. Hence we see that edification is redefined as a feeling or emotion and substituted for the intelligent engagement of the mind with the word of God under the blessing of the Spirit. (3) Prophecy today is subject to imperfection, while healings, in so far as they are established, are generally of the functional-disorder type which we would expect to be affected by religious change. We do not need to say that God does not heal today but we do need to reject a healing doctrine built on faulty foundations. (4) Scripture is plain that not all believers had the extraordinary gifts in NT times. (5) Belief is stretched beyond all reason in the recounting and explanation of current phenomena. I’m afraid the world can see more clearly than those who are professedly children of light.
b. two stage theology
The assumption is that one first becomes a believer and then receives power for witness as a second step. Thus Howard-Browne claims to have been converted at age 5 and baptised in the Spirit at age 8. But the Scriptures are explicit that whoever believes will have as it were a fountain of living water within him; whoever believes is born of the Spirit; that by Spirit-baptism we are all brought into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13); and that the experience of transition from old to new in the case of the apostles is not normative. In short, those born of God are not deformed at birth.
Rather than a crisis second stage, every believer needs to go on being filled with the Spirit, that is, he needs to grow in grace and in knowledge, and this is to be reflected in growing maturity, particularly in relationships (Eph 5:19ff). The hunger for God is met not by the promise of a second empowering stage in Christian experience but by exposure to the word of God and growing discovery of the riches that every believer, even the simplest, has in Christ. The Spirit does not lead us beyond Christ but to Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. When we find the Pearl of Great Price we are not called to lay it aside because there is something bigger and better.
c. attention on self
In practice, charismatic teaching puts man at the centre. Its thought is really that self-fulfilment and happiness are our right or are at least to be expected. God exists for man not man for God. The Monday meeting, which had special reference to pastors, did not involve preaching about Christ and indeed, there was virtually no prayer, and virtually no reverence for God in the Biblical sense. The focus was very much in the line of self-empowerment, and converting the world. And of course the idea of a short-cut to be instantly on fire for God is not far away.
d. natural not spiritual
The charismatic teaching seeks to satisfy hunger for God’s presence by the crumb of physical manifestations. It does not attempt to plumb the depths of the significance of the cross but stresses simplicity in presenting the Gospel. Usually Arminian in theology, there is a decisionist mentality which gives little room in practice for the Spirit at the point of conversion. Howard-Browne teaches a literal transference of an anointing, as literal as the ex opere operato theory of medieval Catholicism. While stressing God does the work, it is inevitable that ‘gifted’ individuals become key factors and attain a certain ‘guru’ status.
These models of ‘anointed’ preachers become a measure of one’s own inadequacy. Like some at Corinth in Paul’s day, they are so rich and so full (even though they assure you they are humble) that one can only imagine their devotees often feel crushed and failures. The desire for empowerment increases, the hope of some undeniable demonstration rises, yet it is a treadmill one can never safely get off – unless one falls back into the arms of Christ. As the energy drains away, as the hype wears off, what did the prostration achieve, what did the laughter amount to? Some believers will press on encouraged in witness because of what they consider to be a sign of God’s presence; others will end up disillusioned. Assuredly Protestantism, so called, needs a Reformation for it is fast reverting to paganism.
e. the witness of history
In undoubted movements of the Spirit in earlier times the physical manifestations occurred as people experienced conviction of sin and/or religious emotion, and this is perfectly natural. The wise preachers downplayed the significance of these things and put all the emphasis on the spiritual conviction issuing in a changed life. Today there is not much emphasis on repentance in the Biblical sense, while the physical manifestations are actually encouraged and regarded as likely proofs of God’s presence in blessing. In short, Iain Murray is right to state in his generous review of Chevreau’s book in The Banner of Truth, March 1995: “When weighed in the balance of history, and still more important in the balance of Scripture, there is too much in Pentecostalism which positively encourages the temporary and illusory.”