What is a “Word and Spirit” Church?
But what does it mean? Obviously, at one level, it’s simply intended to state that the church believes in the Bible, and believes in the work of the Holy Spirit. But so does every evangelical church; you never meet an evangelical who says they don’t believe in the Bible, or the work of the Holy Spirit. So the phrase must mean more than that, or we would simply self-identify as evangelicals.
At another level, it implies not just believing in the Word and the Spirit, but holding them in an appropriate balance. Historically, so it goes, there have always been Word churches who don’t allow the Holy Spirit to move, and Spirit churches who barely open their Bibles. In such a context, the phrase “Word and Spirit” is shorthand for “we’ve got the balance right.” It means the speaker perceives other Christians to tend towards either the stodgy and unspiritual, or the flaky and unbiblical, and regards their church as in the happy middle. One problem with this, of course, is that virtually all Christians regard themselves as having the correct balance between unspiritual flakiness and unscriptural stodginess. You don’t often meet people who regard themselves as insufficiently biblical or Spirit-led: a cessationist Presbyterian like Carl Trueman would insist that their ministry was utterly dependent on the work of the Spirit, and a Pentecostal like Bill Johnson would insist that their ministry was utterly grounded in the Word of God. But I imagine that for Trueman, Johnson would be insufficiently biblical, and for Johnson, Trueman would be insufficiently spiritual. So all across evangelicalism, there are probably people who feel that their balance is right, and that they are true Word and Spirit Christians - and to quote The Incredibles again, if everyone’s a Word and Spirit Christian, then no one is.
The bigger problem with using the phrase this way is that it implies the Word and the Spirit are in tension, such that they have to be held in balance in the first place. It conjures up the image of a seesaw, whereby it is possible to be thoroughly spiritual and unbiblical at one end, or thoroughly biblical and unspiritual on the other, with the implied ideal being sitting in the middle: not that spiritual, and not that biblical. But the problem with cessationism is not that it is too biblical, but that it is not biblical enough, particularly in its interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (cue cheers from the charismatics in the gallery). And the problem with word-of-faith Pentecostalism is not that it is too spiritual, but that it is not spiritual enough, particularly in its application of 1 Corinthians 2-4 (cue surprised murmurs and extended concordance-rummaging from the charismatics in the gallery). The Word and the Spirit are not at opposite points on a spectrum; one cannot be truly spiritual without being truly biblical, and vice versa. So if the phrase “Word and Spirit” means that, then we should probably stop using it.
To be worth using, then, the phrase “Word and Spirit” needs clarity. And my suggestion is that, as it no doubt does for many people who use it, it should function as shorthand for two convictions that are by no means universally shared, but which probably characterise most people who self-identify this way. Word: we are committed to the absolute authority and accuracy of Scripture, even where it flies in the face of ecclesial tradition, contemporary culture or intellectual fashion. And Spirit: we are committed to experiencing (and not merely believing in) the presence and power of the Holy Spirit today, eagerly desiring spiritual gifts and especially prophecy, taking the book of Acts as a vision of what church life can be rather than a record of what it once was, and pursuing the baptism in and filling with the Holy Spirit. If that’s what being “Word and Spirit” meant - effectively, being inerrantist and charismatic - then it would tell whomever you were speaking to an awful lot about your church, or your life, and as such would be a very useful phrase. Without explaining this, though, I suspect many people might think it meant something else.
The downside with it, of course, is that it strongly implies to everyone else that they are not Word and Spirit, even when they believe they are: it suggests to cessationists that they are not sufficiently Spirit-based, and to errantists that they are not sufficiently Word-based. (Some of our less ecumenically minded readers will not see this as a downside at all - yah boo sucks to the fluffy liberals and starchy legalists, etc - but I’ll continue to refer to it as a problem anyway.) This is a problem with all sorts of labels, though; the label “evangelical” implies that Roman Catholics don’t believe the gospel, “Catholic” implies that Protestants don’t represent the universal church, “Baptist” implies that paedobaptists don’t actually baptise people, “Orthodox” implies everyone else is heterodox, and so on. If you choose your own label, then you’re likely to make it a summary of what you believe is distinctive about you, and hence wrong with everyone else. The only alternative is to get your label chosen for you by other people (Christians, Anabaptists, Methodists), in which case they might pick something you really don’t like, or express it in terms of geography (Church of England etc) or church government structures (episcopal, Presbyterian, congregational), which might make your defining feature sound rather mundane. In that context, referring to yourself as a Word and Spirit Christian - assuming people understand what it means, of course - probably isn’t that bad.
But I still don’t think it’s a very useful term, or at least not today. (Twenty years ago, it probably had a lot more value, because it was making the deliberate and even slightly polemical point that you can be charismatic without being unbiblical). The reason for this is that although it is clarifying on one side, in that noncharismatics will know that the label doesn’t apply to them, it is not at all clarifying on the other side, since virtually every charismatic I have come across believes in the Bible, and none of them think they are using it wrongly, but many of them probably are. So although the term is supposed to mean, we’re charismatic, but we’re not loopy or unbiblical like those guys over there, it actually gets used by charismatics of all stripes, none of whom think they’re loopy or unbiblical, but some of whom are fiercely anti-intellectual, bumper sticker theologising, anti-sacramental individualists who think they are being biblical, but often aren’t. Which effectively reduces its meaning to, we’re charismatic, which means that a bunch of us are loopy and unbiblical, but none of us think we are. And that’s not the best label.
Presumably, that’s why many in the family of churches I’m a part of have talked more recently in terms of being Reformed and Charismatic, or even Reformed, Charismatic and Missional, despite the hostages to fortune that language presents. Apparently, the choice is between an accurate label that’s vague, and a clear and specific label that’s inaccurate. Maybe I’ll just stick with “Newfrontiers”.