Last year while editing a book that dealt with the so-called “Toronto Blessing,” I made a pilgrimage to the Anaheim Vineyard to see the laughter and other phenomena firsthand. The Anaheim Vineyard is the church John Wimber pastors, and it is the original Vineyard congregation. Since the book I was editing was completely critical of the laughter, I wanted to be sure in my own mind that the criticisms were not exaggerated or unfair in any way. Three friends accompanied me on my visit—Lance, Doug, and Matt.
Lance and I had visited the Vineyard together a couple of times before, but the church had since relocated into a new facility. The new building was impressive, and we found our way to the main auditorium. We arrived a bit late, so the service was already underway.
I chose a seat on the other side of the auditorium from my friends; I wanted to record my own observations without being distracted, and we all thought our impressions would be more objective if we observed separately and compared notes after the fact.
The first thing I noticed were the dancing girls. The last time I visited the Vineyard, there had been no dance team. But now there were eight or twelve girls in flowing, gossamer gowns, and they danced around the aisles during all the musical numbers. Their moves were carefully choreographed, and the girls split up in groups of about four and moved around the auditorium as the music played. I had read about “liturgical dance,” but had never actually seen it firsthand. I felt it was frankly more distracting than edifying.
And I couldn’t help noticing a slightly overweight woman in a corner by herself, attempting to imitate the dancers’ moves. I felt sorry for her. She was more than a little clumsy and obviously not part of the “official” dancing group. After two or three musical numbers, she was dripping with perspiration but undaunted.
Because of John Wimber’s failing health, another pastor gave the message that evening. This was the gist of his appeal to the congregation:
In a moment I’m going to call down the Holy Spirit. Things like you’ve never seen will begin to happen. People will laugh. Some will shake and quiver. Others may make strange animal noises. Don’t be alarmed by anything you see; it’s just the Holy Spirit working in His own special way. We don’t put limits on how God can and cannot work. He may even surprise us with something new tonight. So no matter what you see happen, don’t be alarmed.
And above all, don’t try to rationally evaluate the things you will see. God isn’t trying to reach your mind; He wants to reach your heart. Analyzing spiritual phenomena through the grid of human logic or religious presuppositions is the quickest way to quench what the Spirit is doing. Subjecting the revival to doctrinal tests is the surest way to put out the fire. Don’t try to find reasonable explanations for what is happening; just turn your heart loose and let the Spirit flow through your emotions. Only then can the Spirit have His way in your life.
A woman from the church staff led in prayer and said, “Holy Spirit, we give You permission to be who You want to be in our midst. We refuse to critique with our minds the work that You want to do in our hearts. We refuse to subject Your work to our little doctrinal tests.”
When the signal was given for “ministry time” to begin, people flooded to the front to be prayed for by the ministry team. The rest of the service was entirely chaotic
Among the things we witnessed were these:
- Several people were “pogoing in the spirit” (jumping up and down).
- Three women were lying on the floor, rather indelicately going through imaginary birth pangs, while a male minister stood over them, shouting “Birth it! Birth it!”
- Four teenage girls lay tangled together on the floor, experiencing some sort of shared convulsions.
- An overweight and unkempt man ran around the perimeter of the floor, waving his arms and flinging sweat.
- The lone woman dance-team wannabe was still in the corner, seemingly oblivious to all around her, still going through her crude ballet-like motions.
- Various people wept, laughed, ran around the room, barked like dogs, and roared like wild animals.
After about a half hour of this chaos my friends and I met at the front of the auditorium. For another fifteen minutes or so we quietly observed at close range the “ministry” that was taking place, then left.
Lance, Matt, Doug, and I spent the entire trip back home (about 90 minutes) comparing impressions. All of us were shocked and appalled. One thing we all had noticed was that the entire evening had a decidedly anti-intellectual thrust to it.
I don’t mean that bookish types were not made to feel welcome. By “anti-intellectual,” I mean that the phenomena, the dancing girls, the music, the prayer, and every aspect of the evening was meant to play to the emotions and downplay the intellect. Even the sermon was a full-scale assault on the idea that our minds can be of any use whatsoever in discerning truth.
“Park your doctrine at the door, and get into the feeling of this,” seemed to be what every voice we heard was trying to tell us. “The Lord cannot do what He wants in your life if you insist on analyzing it with your mind. Truth is not important, experience is. Holiness is a feeling.”
But doesn’t this anti-intellectual, anti-doctrinal attitude actually work against true sanctification? After all, here’s how Jesus prayed for His people: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”
Paul wrote, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
In other words, the objective truth of God’s Word—and sound doctrine based on the Word, knowable only with the mind—cannot hinder what the Holy Spirit wants to do in our midst. On the contrary, biblical truth is the very instrument He uses to accomplish our sanctification!
But what we heard at the Anaheim Vineyard actually portrayed God as irrational, anti-intellectual, against doctrine, and not the least bit concerned for objective truth. This is at the very heart of the error that makes the “Toronto Blessing” so destructive to true holiness.
What I’m suggesting is that the problem with the “Toronto Blessing” is not simply that Scripture is silent about many of the bizarre phenomena that are touted. That is certainly a serious problem, but the real truth is far worse: The whole movement is epistemologically antithetical to Scripture. So-called “drunkenness in the Spirit” is actually the polar opposite of the biblical means of sanctification. By encouraging people to tune out intellectually and let their emotions run wild, this movement is rather plainly in conflict with the Word of God. On this matter Scripture speaks with absolute clarity: “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33).
Yet what I witnessed during my visit to the Vineyard was absolute bedlam. (Indeed, this has been true every time I have visited an evening service at the Vineyard, though there seems to be a much more quiet atmosphere on Sunday mornings.)
Read the context of 1 Corinthians 14:33—especially verse 23: “If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?” (NASB).
But isn’t what we’re seeing today in the “Toronto Blessing” far worse than the scenario Paul was condemning? Why are so many so eager to defend this movement?
Sadly, as the church continues her slide into doctrinal ignorance and biblical illiteracy, we may actually be approaching a time of spiritual languor that rivals those dark days before the Protestant Reformation. How can anyone who loves the Word of God believe that this signals true revival?