Charisma and Evil

One of the new challenges for voters in America is to know what to think about a politician who has abused sexually in the past. The numbers of these appear to be increasing. Christian politicians also who have become heroes to their ultra-right constituency for solidly opposing gay marriage, abortion and other offences against family values seem to be as guilty as the rest. One reaction to this dilemma has become increasingly popular. This is to declare that the moral failings of a politician are of no importance as long as they support God’s work. When the supporter is talking about God’s work in this context, it nearly always has to do with issues of sexuality. If the politician says the right things about sex, then he can be voted for whatever seedy activities lie in his past. The political agenda of the Christian Right has little interest in such things as justice, racism and support for the poor. The God of the alt-right and Donald Trump has little in common with the God of the Bible; the alt-right God is one who looks after the successful and the rich.

This topic of leadership and past evil actions is also something to be negotiated in church circles. I have been recently reading a biography of Frank Houston. He is the father of Brian Houston of Hillsong fame in Australia. The Frank Houston story is written by his wife and like many Pentecostal/charismatic biographies it is full of stories of wonder, spontaneous insights and healings. I read this biography against the background of knowing that Frank would be eventually outed as a paedophile with acknowledged offences against young men and boys. Obviously, there was no mention of any such failing in his hagiography. We are given the impression that God was working through him and in him at every point in his ministry. When he approached somebody with a problem, God would often speak to him directly and give him the solution to whatever was the issue.

Alongside the story of the elder Houston, I have been re-reading the accounts of the many people who suffered at the hands of Michael Reid at Peniel. In contrast to these accounts of his staggering abuse of power, I have also been watching the videos on You Tube which talk about the divinely authorised ministry of this ‘man of God’. Once again there are stories of healings, wonderful events and acts of great power. Reid himself often used to say to people that these same happenings were an indication that God himself had handed over authority for him to rule the church as he saw fit.

Two apparently divinely blessed ministries and two examples of criminal abuses of power. How does one make sense of such a contrast and remain a Christian? Are we to say that God used these two leaders in spite of their flawed personalities? Would that not lead us to be saying that we can ignore the evil on account to the blessings that flowed apparently from these ministries? This would seem to be the argument which is being used currently in the States by conservative pastors when offering their support to the notorious Ray Moore. It is an argument that does not convince me. I am still left looking for another way of dealing with this conundrum.

I do not claim to be able to answer this question to my own satisfaction. But I would start by saying that it may be necessary to look afresh at the phenomena of Charismatic and Pentecostal renewal. Should we not be far more analytical about what is going on in these Spirit-filled events? Should we not find some new ways of characterising what some people wish to call Acts of God? Might they not be simply examples of crowd hysteria? The church seems to be in danger of wanting to see these moments of crowd excitement as being crucial to its future. Crowd froth and superficial emotion do not seem to be good foundations for a solid expression of church life. Frank Houston and Michael Reid, as well as many others, discovered that they were able to manipulate crowds and pack church buildings. Simultaneously they were learning techniques which would in another context be described as paranormal or psychic. My own understanding of the strange phenomena which take place when there is endless loud rhythmic music is fairly mundane. It is not difficult for leaders and led to enter trance states where strange things can happen. I personally try to keep abreast of what might be happening in these scenarios but I detect little or no interest elsewhere to have a discussion able to critique these large congregations. The powers that be applaud full churches and the sound of joyful exuberance in a church building. Nobody wants to ask any further questions.

Frank Houston and Michael Reid, now both disgraced in the eyes of their respective churches, flourished because what they did and what they said came apparently from God and thus was beyond contradiction. Evil was permitted to flourish because nobody at the time dared to ask any questions. ‘Success’ trumped all other criteria including truth. Thus, many suffered because the church was so bad at scrutinising what was done in its name. In this way evil was allowed to coexist with apparently successful ministries. If this same mistake continues to be made in future, then it will progressively undermine the integrity of many of our churches in a serious way. American politics has been weakened for ever because an increasing number of people refuse to question the immoral antics of those who stand in the places of power. Let us pray that this will not happen in the churches of our nation.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

9 thoughts on “Charisma and Evil

  1. Thanks Stephen, great blog. Scripture is full of people who were serious sinners but went on to be used by God nevertheless such as Paul and Moses. David was a rotten apple after God had promoted him to leadership of his people. I believe in a second chance, but it needs to follow true repentance and change of life. I don’t like the current media position which is once a culprit, always a culprit. But equally, Jesus was dead against hypocrisy where we present ourselves as good and are in fact bad.
    I think we all need to learn to keep our antennae up. It’s not easy. I was taken in by someone who had a reputation for being gifted in casting out demons, but who on closer knowledge turned out to be anything but a role model.

  2. It is a constant amazement to me that this blind faith in an individual leader can be so commonplace these days.
    It is also my conviction that ‘Safeguarding” is not working. There are questions that should have been asked many years ago about the activity of Charismatic leaders and celebrity priests like Trevor Dering. I never witnessed one healing, but, the hysteria of the theatre somehow got me to lie that I did!
    As a Follower of these types of Charismatic leaders in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I would say that hysteria was often the controlling dimension.

    The right wing leaders in America are also are making it increasingly difficult for people (Like Me and others) to give an honest opinion.
    For example, I cannot reconcile homosexual marriage to scripture or tradition but, if I exercise that opinion I am right wing homophobic, there simply is no liberty or oxygen to have such a view. Do I matter to this type of discussion or am I just another mouth that needs to be shut?

    Very sad that the right to two way conversation is dying (If not dead)

  3. Another good piece, Stephen. This topic has been exercising me for several decades, and especially since my spell at St. Michael-le-Belfrey when Wimber was the height of fashion there. I would agree that sometimes it is mass hysteria in action, and I have witnessed some dramatic instances of it.

    Another factor is the use of what would medically be termed hypnosis – this was explained to me by a consultant neurologist who was a member of our congregation. She would occasionally take patients to a healing service if she felt their problem was psychosomatic and they had reached the point where they were willing to let go of it. The healing techniques Wimber taught were those of hypnosis. Typically ‘healings’ produced this way last only weeks or months, and then the sufferer lapses.

    Nevertheless I have seen a few genuine miracles – which usually happened quietly and without fuss. And some people do genuinely encounter God in these settings; after all God is eager for us to meet him and can be less fussy about the means than we would be. Unfortunately a lot of damage is caused as well.

    I think there is a deep human need for heroes, and that’s why we go for charismatic personalities. Sadly they are usually deeply flawed; the charisma is a product of some deep needs and gaps in their psychological makeup. Safer to go for saints and historical figures, I think.

  4. Thanks Janet. Interesting. Something arises for me from your final sentence.
    Usually, the only access we have to saints and historical figures is through what a third party has written about them. Even in the case of the diaries, say of John Wesley, these have generally been edited by somebody, and I am aware of one instance where the charismatic phenomena at his meetings such as people shaking uncontrollably, crying out and falling down had been edited out.
    This editorial process takes place in the media reporting on something today.
    There is no reason why a report by a third party should be accurate or inaccurate beyond the integrity of its author. Where back to truthfulness again, again! Also, being an eye witness is a great thing.
    There is a similar situation to this in archaeology. One sometimes reads statements like, “archaeology has proved that…” but reflection shows this ought to read, “an archaeologist/ archaeologists have suggested that,” which of course is rather different.
    There’s a nice way of demonstrating this. If a bored teenaged tourist kicks a stone at Masada and uncovers a Coke tin, does that prove that the Romans invented Coke? By no means – it could have been invented by the Babylonians. Fun!
    So let’s all report things as straight as we can.

    1. David, I agree about the truthfulness of reporting. The lives of many saints were written long after they died, and some have to be taken with a hefty dose of salt.

      What I meant to say was that, given the human need for heroes and heroines., it’s safer to admire someone who’s dead. Even if their story is bogus, they’re not going to abuse their power over you or get you involved in a nasty cult.

  5. Good point.
    Don’t be too hard on John Wimber. He died twenty years ago last week. What I got from him and particularly David Pytches was that Jesus told his followers to heal and deliver, and then that is passed on down to the future disciples in Matthew 28 verse 20, so I take it as part of my calling. So I will go on laying hands on even if dont see any results as an act of obedience. I deliberately keep it low key, and I keep words to a minimum in line with Ecclesiastes five.
    As far as I know some have had improvement, but at least nobody has got worse. I also find it fun.

    1. David, I was not criticising the healing ministry in general, but Wimber’s technique in particular. It is medically classed as hypnosis, and I believe that was deliberate on Wimber’s part. I went to his Managing Change conference, and it was clear that much of what he did that looked spontaneous and Spirit-led was actually carefully planned and manipulated.

      If you keep your healing prayers quiet and use few words, you probably won’t fall into Wimber’s error. I like the prayer the Iona Community use at healing services: ‘God deliver you from all that harms you.’

  6. It’s not just about abuse and bullying. Church people do have a habit of thinking that if a parish priest for example is a fine preacher, or great at visiting, it doesn’t matter that they are always taking time off and lying to the Archdeacon about what they do in the parish. If you look at it another way, the guy who broke into your house and took your new smart tv is still a thief, even if he is good to his wife and children. Human beings are crazy mixed up kids for the most part. We’re none of us all good or all bad.

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