Continuationism – What is it? What do continuationists believe?
Continuationism and cessationism are two opposing views about spiritual gifts. Paul enumerates the gifts in the book of 1 Corinthians: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues. There are also apostles, teachers, helpers, and administrators mentioned (1 Corinthians 12:7–11, 28). In Romans Paul mentions the gifts of prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, and mercy (Romans 12:6–8). These gifts are given by the Holy Spirit, as He sees fit, for the building up of the church (1 Corinthians 12:4–6). The difference between the continuationist and the cessationist has to do with beliefs about which gifts are given to the modern church.
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It is the belief of continuationists that all the spiritual gifts mentioned in the book of Acts, including the miraculous sign gifts (healing, tongues, miracles, prophecy) "continue" after the canon of Scripture has closed. The opposite of this view is cessationism, the belief that sign gifts "ceased" after the closing of the canon. Cessationists believe that the miraculous spiritual gifts mentioned in the Gospels and Acts were given to the believers for only a short time to boost the growth of the Christian church and confirm the legitimacy of the apostles' teaching. Now that the Scriptures have been written, the sign gifts are no longer necessary.
A continuationist is a person who believes that the sign gifts are still given today; that God never ceased to give believers the power to heal, to do miracles, and to speak in tongues. A cessationist believes that sign gifts have ceased, but the other gifts (preaching, teaching, wisdom, faith, etc.) are still around. Both views have proponents that take things to the extreme–cessationists who believe that God grants no spiritual gifts to the church whatsoever, or continuationists who believe that a person's salvation is questionable without the presence of the sign gifts in their life. Neither of these views is biblical; both are unbiblical extrapolations.
Second Corinthians 12:12 says, "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works." Cessationists believe, based on this verse, that the sign gifts were given to the apostles to show that their authority, and their message, was from God. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the rest of the church would experience the sign gifts. Continuationists argue that Paul meant for other believers, for the church at large, to experience the sign gifts, when he said: "I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy" (1 Corinthians 14:5). The Bible does record instances of people who were not apostles performing miraculous signs. Among them are Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Philip (Acts 8:6–7). This seems supportive of continuationism, but it is not definitive.
Speaking in tongues is one of the most sensitive points between continuationists and cessationists. Cessationists argue that the gift of tongues was given so that the gospel could be spread to those who spoke other languages. This is consistent with God's global love, and also it makes good sense out of the need for someone to "interpret" (1 Corinthians 12:30; 14:13, 27–28). Cessationists point out, based on this understanding of tongues, that if the gift of tongues was still accessible to the church today, missionaries would not need to go through years of language study to give the gospel to other nations. Continuationists argue that speaking in tongues is a prayer language that doesn't have to be limited to human beings, and is primarily for the purpose of worship. They cite Paul's statement, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1). In other words, speaking a prayer language to God means nothing if your heart has no love for God or for other people. There is an unfortunate tendency for this specific gift to be abused and misused for the purpose of hype, and the misuse of tongues has been associated with demonic activity and emotional hysteria. Still, none of this is conclusive evidence that the gift of tongues cannot be given, or used properly.
The same is true of all the sign gifts. Sign gifts, just like preaching and teaching, are often abused, fabricated or mocked by evil men. That does not mean they do not exist, or have no proper place in the church. Perhaps in some areas of the world, for God's purpose, in order to spread the gospel in places that have no Bibles, or to lend validity to the message of His servants, the sign gifts are given. In closed countries, like North Korea, for example, this could be happening and we would have no knowledge of it. The "man on the desert island" who has never heard of God has perhaps indeed heard of God through some miracle or sign. Just because we do not see these gifts occurring in Western churches, or because the majority of what we do see is hype and hysteria, does not mean that the gifts have conclusively ceased.
Whether we lean towards cessationism or continuationism, we should be careful to use wisdom and not add to, or take away from, Scripture for the sake of making an argument or debunking the opposite view. God encourages us to unity as believers (Ephesians 4:3; 1 Peter 3:8), rather than discord, and while the disregard of perfectly clear biblical truth cannot be tolerated, there are some issues that are a bit less clear. In those cases, we should be as careful as possible to stick to the Bible and not insert our opinion where God has left a question mark.
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