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The Spirit-Filled Church

by Tim O'Hearn

Why aren’t more churches spirit-filled; they seem more like country clubs? Churches of Christ (Catholic Churches, Baptist Churches, other churches) are not full gospel churches because they are not spirit-filled. It seems that everybody wants to be in a spirit-filled church, and think that theirs is but other people’s churches are not. What does it mean to be a spirit-filled church, according to the Bible? Before we can answer that, perhaps the question should be what is not part of being a spirit-filled church?

Filled with whose spirit?

It is possible to be a spirit-filled church, and not be filled with God’s spirit. Sometimes it is a case of being filled with the devil. More often than not, the spirit that fills some churches is that of the people themselves.

It seems that many people who say that other congregations are not spirit-filled are those that believe they possess the miraculous gifts of the spirit. Paul’s arguments notwithstanding, some people believe that if you don’t have one of the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12-14, you don’t have the spirit. More specifically, some would argue that if you do not have the gift of speaking in tongues you do not have the spirit. This is just not so.

Great emphasis is put on speaking in tongues. Because it was such a visible gift, even the Corinthian church apparently put undue emphasis on that one gift. That abuse was one of the principal reasons Paul wrote that section of his first letter to the Corinthians. He even argues that the gift of speaking in tongues is the least important of the spiritual gifts. “Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor 14:19)

Besides this emphasis that one’s own gift is the most important, what passes for speaking in tongues today is often evidence more of the individual’s spirit than the Holy Spirit. Much of what is claimed as speaking in tongues does not conform to scripture.

In the New Testament, speaking in tongue (languages) was invariably speaking in a known human language not learned in the normal way by the speaker. Thus a person who had no knowledge of Parthian, for instance, could speak to a Parthian. There is no clear scripture that would indicate that the gift included non-human speech, particularly as there would be no reason for a person to speak with anyone who was not human. (That, of course, excepts God, with whom we do speak, but who also presumably needs no translator.) On the other hand, most speaking in tongues practiced today is unintelligible by any human, and is sometimes called the “speech of angels,” based on 1 Corinthians 13:1. Some claim to speak in an “unknown” tongue, although that word is not in the text of the scriptures and was supplied by the translators of the King James Version. Most of the time the speakers don’t even claim that it is a human language. Therefore, they are presuming to have a gift that was not one of those listed by Paul or described in Acts. The gift they claim is a personal, not a spiritual gift. (Note also that in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul referred to the “languages of men and angels.” Grammatically, he is saying that the angels speak human languages.)

Speaking in tongues as practiced today is not a Christian phenomenon. How can someone insist that someone else is not spiritual because they don’t practice a phenomenon common to many religions? What passes as speaking in tongues today existed in Plato’s day. Moreover, it can be found among the Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Australian aboriginals, and many Native American cultures, whether as a religious practice or as part of the culture. If so, how does one distinguish between the tongues speaking that is from God and the identical practice that is not? It cannot be done linguistically. Linguists have demonstrated that all of these people speak using syllables from their own languages or languages they have learned. The common conclusion of linguists and psychologists alike is that this kind of speaking in tongues can be learned by anybody in a culture where it is expected of them. In other words, the speaking in tongues practiced by some churches today is a natural phenomenon resulting from peer expectations; it is not from the Spirit but from themselves.

More importantly, the scriptures themselves indicate that the spiritual gifts would end shortly after the New Testament was written. Paul said that prophecies, tongues (as in the miraculous gift), and miraculous knowledge would end “when that which is complete has come.” (1 Cor 13:10) That this would be some time before the final judgement is clear because it would be before faith and hope ceased. Those will endure until faith is swallowed up in knowledge and hope is realized. So tongues and the other miraculous gifts would end sometime before that.

We can put a more definite timeframe on the end of the spiritual gifts than that. Phillip was a spirit-filled man who could perform the miraculous. There was one thing he could not do, however. He could not pass on those gifts to other people.

And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 8:18-19)

The only people who could pass on the ability to perform these gifts were the apostles, and presumably the household of Cornelius. If we have to have the spiritual gifts to be a spirit-filled church, then there has to be a two-thousand-year-old apostle running around somewhere, sneaking up on people and laying his hands on them to give them the gifts. Even the apostle John debunked the idea that he would live that long.

Actions speak louder

The other criterion many people seem to hold for a spirit-filled church is that the members of that church act like they are spirit-filled. On the face of it, this is a valid criterion. On the other hand, their definition of acting like it is arbitrary and unrelated to scripture. People have been accused of not being spirit-filled because they do not raise their hands, sway, or clap their hands. While there may be nothing wrong with any of these things, they are evidences of emotion rather than evidences of the Spirit.

The wave is a ridiculous practice among fans of American football in which one section of the audience stands and raises their hands, then sits when the next section follows suit. This is not evidence that football audiences are spirit-filled; it is evidence of boredom. (You generally don’t see this happen in much faster sports such as baseball, hockey, or what we Americans call soccer.) Clapping hands to the music is common during European figure skating competitions. All it proves is that the audience likes the rhythmic music, and maybe the skater.

Being filled with emotion is not the same as being filled with the Spirit. Emotion naturally flows from being spirit-filled, but being spirit-filled has nothing to do with emotion. Then what does it mean if a church is spirit-filled?

Spirit-filled churches

There is no such thing as a spirit-filled church. Instead, there are churches that are full of spirit-filled people. Can we really make such a distinction? Yes! Peter told the first believers on Shavuos, “Repent and be immersed, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and your church will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) NO! He said the new Christians would receive the Spirit. Any church that consists of people that God has added to his church is spirit-filled because it is filled with spirit-filled people. Regardless of how they act in the assembly, it is Christians that make a church spirit-filled or not. They can sit there, looking dour as a Puritan, and it will still be a church of spirit-filled people. Similarly, a church that has an active assembly, with clapping and up-beat music and shouting, may consist entirely of people who have never repented or been immersed and it will not have a Spirit-filled person in the house. What makes a spirit-filled church? Only Christians; nothing more nor less than Christians.

So what makes a spirit-filled Christian? Only the word of God. I have read web pages and heard sermons that make all sorts of claims about the Bible, but when you look or listen closely you won’t find a single reference to actual scripture. They don’t quote scripture; they don’t give references to where something is found in scripture. They leave out the Spirit entirely. Perhaps that is because they forget, or never knew, what Paul said about the Spirit. “And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which [Spirit] is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17) The Spirit is the word of God. Any church where the Bible is neither used, mentioned, or studied is a church that is not spirit-filled. Conversely, any church in which the Bible is an important part of its existence is a spirit-filled church. Any church in which the members read the Bible, and, more importantly, live the Bible is a spirit-filled church.

That is all that is required. Faith and obedience. Trust and obey. Be saved and walk in newness of life. A spirit-filled church is just that, Spirit filled. It is the Spirit filling the church, or the members of the church, on the inside that counts. It is not externals like gifts or emotional reaction that determines if a church is spirit-filled. It is God and his word.

The Holy Spirit is internal to the members of the church. He may be seen by how the people live, not how they worship. To determine whether a church is spirit-filled you have to see into the lives of the church members. Don’t ever let anybody say you are not spirit-filled based solely on externals.