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TB: 25 years later

No, I did not have tuberculosis 25 years ago. There was a different TB then, a widely used acronym for the Toronto Blessing. It’s hard to believe that it really was 25 years ago, but I remember as if it were yesterday when I got the phone call telling me about the phenomenon.

I was working in my office at Heritage Seminary, then in London, when I got the call from a former student then serving on the pastoral staff at Bramalea Baptist Church. He told me that there was talk of a revival happening in the Toronto area that involved very unusual manifestations of the Holy Spirit. The experience had begun at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Christian Fellowship, and it was spreading far and wide.

The story in a nutshell: The Airport church hosted a guest preacher, Randy Clark, a former Baptist who had migrated to the Vineyard Movement, and when he preached and invited people to come forward for prayer ministry, amazing things began to happen. Some people “rested in the Spirit,” lying in what looked like a comatose state; others “trembled in the Spirit,” their body shaking for a prolonged time; and others experienced what might have been the signature blessing, “laughing in the Spirit.” The wife of a pastor whom I knew from my doctoral studies laughed almost continuously for a whole day.

Randy Clarke stayed on for some time, and the church began holding meetings six nights per week, which lasted for more than a year. Eventually the church was released from the Vineyard denomination, and ultimately the name was changed to Catch the Fire. Now the ministry has expanded to the international Partners in Harvest list of 418 churches, and the TB has been in some sense organized as a fellowship of charismatic churches.

The TB spread rapidly to other churches in the Toronto area, including several in my Baptist tribe. A group of probably 40-50 Baptist pastors and church leaders met at Bramalea Baptist Church one evening to hear Randy Clarke explain what was happening and seek to discern how to respond. Randy told us the story of what was happening, and he also invited people to come forward for prayer if they wished.

As I recall, about a dozen people went forward, and he prayed for each one, with added commentary for us who were observing. Most of the people responded in some physical way, most resting or shaking on the floor (“carpet time,” as it was called). He prayed for one woman who gave no physical response, and his commentary was that this was just fine, because it was the inner work of the Spirit that mattered. But then he added, “I will probably come back and pray for her again.” And there lies one of the major problems with the TB: in spite of claims that the physical manifestations were not the real point, the practice said otherwise.

Books could be written on the TB, and in fact they were, some positive and some negative. From the little that I have recounted here, it should be obvious why there might be serious concern about the phenomenon. Although there may be limited biblical examples of some of the experiences, the emphasis on a long list of bizarre manifestations and the assumption that God probably wanted to create them in every believer cannot be supported.

Nevertheless, I think it is clearly true that God did meet many people in a powerful way, and I knew several of them personally. One Baptist pastor experienced the “holy laughter” for at least half an hour, and he bore witness to a new joy in ministry. He told me that he did not assume that others needed to have the experience, but he said that he had been so discouraged in ministry that he hadn’t laughed in two years, and he believed that was why God’s work of renewal in him took that form. So in the end, I had to conclude that God did respond graciously to many believers who were seeking him sincerely, but in spite of the context more than because of it.

Would God really do a powerful work of grace in a context that includes some doctrinal confusion? Think about the letters to the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira in Revelation 2. The risen Christ calls both churches to repent of their tolerance of false teachers among them, but he also commends both churches for their perseverance in faith, sometimes in the face of martyrdom.

In my own life, I look back to the work of sanctification that God was doing in my youth, even though my church was seriously legalistic and excessively focused on a list of taboos. The fact is that if God is going to do any powerful work in our churches, he will do it in imperfect churches that are sometimes confused. That in no way minimizes the importance of using sound doctrine to interpret our experience, but it does remind us that God’s grace is not bound by our confusion.


Originally published on Heritage’s blog and reused with permission from the author.