The Toronto Phenomenon (Part 1 of 2)
Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Ph.D.
This article is the first of a two-part series on the so-called Toronto Phenomenon. We offer this article because it is an excellent example of applying the Sufficiency of Scripture -- a distinctive of CTS to a modern religious movement.
I have been asked, both verbally in public as well as in many letters, if I believe that the Toronto Phenomenon is truly a work of God. Frankly, that so many believers even need to ask this question shows how far the evangelical world has moved from the Word of God. How easily this departure has led to being "tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. It has been my observation that over the last 10-15 years, more and more believers are becoming biblically illiterate; such illiteracy leads to seeking new spiritual experiences, no matter where they may come from, and to a lack of knowledge of Scripture to evaluate these experiences biblically. The church has, indeed, entered a sad state and one author's book, Christianity in Crisis, is very aptly named.
Is This a Charismatic vs. Non-Charismatic Issue?
I know that there are those who will read this editorial and, as a result, will cut off any and all support they have been giving to Ariel Ministries or Chafer Theological Seminary. In this sense, then, it is neither to my, Ariel's, nor CTSs, advantage for me to write this article, and it would be more profitable either to stay neutral or to stay silent. But I would disobey my calling as a teacher of the Word, and would betray my gift of teaching, if I kept silent in the face of such a terrible deception and delusion being propounded upon the Christian world today.
Before dealing with the issue, I think another point must be clarified. When I receive criticism to my criticisms of the Toronto Phenomenon by its supporters, one common notion is that the only reason I must be opposed to it is because I am not "Spirit-filled," or "Pentecostal," or "Charismatic." True, I am neither Pentecostal or Charismatic in the way these terms have been defined, though I believe I am Spirit-filled in the way the Bible defines the term. However, I refuse to allow this to become a Charismatic/Pentecostal vs. non-Pentecostals/non-Charismatic issue. The fact is that this has divided far more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches than it has divided other kinds. I have in my possession a large file of criticisms of the Toronto Phenomenon. About half of the criticisms come from non-Charismatic/non-Pentecostal sources, but at least half if not more come from Pentecostal/Charismatic sources.
In fact, two acquaintances of mine who are Charismatic, and have been within the Charismatic movement for many years, have written to me stating that they had attended a Toronto-style meeting at a Southern California church, and the guest speaker was the pastor of the Toronto Vineyard. They pointed out that the many things they saw in these meetings -- things that are now declared to be evidences of being Spirit-filled and divine supernatural acts from God -- were in previous times considered demonic. And those doing these things, such as laughing uncontrollably or making animal sounds, would have been considered demonized; in fact, these two acquaintances formerly cast demons out of such people. What was once considered demonic has now become normative in certain circles.
Again, all of this shows that we are not dealing with the Pentecostal-Charismatic and/or non-Pentecostal/non-Charismatic issue. This is an issue which has divided the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement in and of itself. I want to make it clear that this is not an issue of difference between Pentecostal/Charismatics and non-Pentecostals/non-Charismatics, as the issue of tongues might be (even though that, too, may be questionable). Here, we deal with an issue that has divided the Pentecostal/Charismatic church itself more than any other group outside that circle. So, I refuse to allow anyone to excuse this with a simple wave of the hand and "You are only saying it because you are not Charismatic." The documented criticisms of the Toronto Phenomenon clearly falsify that kind of elementary dismissal.
As further evidence, while I was writing this very paper, the Association of Vineyard Fellowships, founded by John Wimber, expelled the Airport Vineyard Fellowship of Toronto from its association for "going over the edge" in encouraging people to "bark like dogs, swoon to the floor and laugh uncontrollably during services." So now this movement has even caused a split within the Vineyard Movement itself. While it is good to see that even the Vineyard Movement has a boundary they will not cross, their own criticisms of the phenomenon are based on a weak foundation. The Vineyard Movement has based their own teachings and doctrine largely on experience and not on the written Word of God. The question, then, is: On what grounds can the Vineyard Movement claim authenticity based on experience while the Toronto Phenomenon cannot? The Vineyard Fellowship itself is on very weak ground in their expulsion of the Toronto Vineyard. After all, this is only one group's experiences as over against anothers.
I have recently received reports from Jewish believers I know in Israel. The leader and founder of the Toronto Vineyard, who has been promoting this phenomenon, was invited by a group in Israel to come and promote this new phenomenon in Israel. He arrived on the same day as Yitzak Rabin was assassinated. Rather than doing the right thing and canceling the meetings, the promoters chose to continue as planned. That created a tragic contradictory scene. The whole country was literally in shock and in mourning for their slain leader. And here were a group of believers spending their time in uncontrollable laughter. Even if I allowed my experience to be a criteria for determining truth, this, alone, would have finalized in my mind the tragic error and ungodly origins of this phenomenon. It made some of my friends sick to have observed this. In my case, it made me sick only to hear about it. This should show how far away from the will of the Lord this whole experience is. But, again, the final criteria must be the Word of God.
The proper way of determining truth is to go to the Word of God first and not rely on other peoples' experiences. Furthermore, the Bible must be our final and only authority on all matters of both faith (what we believe) and practice (actions and experiences, etc.). Unfortunately, what has happened in recent years is that a new experience or phenomenon breaks out in some part of the church, and then people simply try to find verses to justify the activity rather than being willing to admit that the experience -- no matter how wonderful or supernatural it felt -- was simply not of God. A good example of this tactic is seen in some of the events surrounding the Toronto Phenomenon.
The Characteristics of the Toronto Phenomenon
What are some of the characteristics of this Toronto Phenomenon? It includes uncontrollable laughter, referred to by its adherents as "holy laughter," which is often accompanied by falling backwards toward the ground. I have not seen where the laughter is, itself, defended by Scripture, but the falling back is often defended on the basis that when Jesus said, "I am," those who came to arrest him fell backward. They also make references to people like Daniel who, when faced with the presence of something supernatural, would fall to the ground. However, that is not quite in keeping with what is happening with the Toronto Phenomenon. For example, in terms of people who were truly in God's presence and were so overawed that they fell to the ground, they always fell forward and not backward. As for the Roman soldiers, that was not a blessing, but a judgment, and these were not believers, but unbelievers; barely a few hours later, these soldiers who fell backward were nailing Jesus to the cross. Clearly, they were not being blessed by any "slaying of the spirit" phenomenon.
Another characteristic of the Toronto Phenomenon is people making animal noises and acting like animals. The two most common such behaviors, so far, have been barking like a dog and roaring like a lion. In one case, it has been reported that someone was "swimming in the spirit" as he was lying on his belly and making like a fish. What scriptural justification do people make for this?
Some pull verses out of context that speak of God roaring like a lion. There are two problems with using verses of this nature: First of all, the Scriptures never say that God will make His own people roar like lions and act like animals; second, in those passages that view God as roaring like a lion, it is always in preparation for judgment, and not blessing. The roaring is against unbelievers. It is never said that He causes believers to roar like lions, or bark like dogs (I am beginning to wonder if someday in a mixed congregation of Jewish and Gentile believers, the Jews will be "mooing like cows" and the Gentiles will be "oinking like pigs"?). Another passage I have seen defenders use to try to justify the animal actions is Daniel four, where God made Nebuchadnezzar act like an ox. Here, again, this was not a blessing for Nebuchadnezzar, but a judgment on an unbeliever who saw himself as a god.
In other words, if you judge by way of Scripture, people acting like animals is not a sign of any divine blessing from God; on the contrary, if God is involved at all in such an event, it is a sign of judgment. The fact is that God is not involved at all. Satan is probably involved to a great measure (he, too, is symbolized by a lion in 1 Peter 5:8-9) and, for most people on the lay level who are involved, they have become self-deceived and deceived by false teachers and have become victims of mass hysteria and mesmerism.
The most relevant passage to all this is found in Numbers 22, where God made Balaam's donkey speak like a man. Now, this is a true work of God, something Toronto will never be able to duplicate.
That is pretty well the extent of the biblical evidence people have tried to use to defend the various practices, and anyone with even a small measure of biblical literacy should already be able to see through the fallacy of it all.
Most proponents defend the practice not on the basis of Scripture, but on the basis of their own experience. The most common evidence is that it makes them feel happy and joyful, though this does not take into account that any kind of emotional release of this nature will make one feel better. Even unbelievers can have this same experience. Furthermore, Satan would not be a very good deceiver if he made you feel bad, would he? Satan can give people joyful and happy experiences, and doing so would be in his best interest if that -- rather than the Word of God -- becomes the final authority for determining spiritual truth.
I read an article by a woman who had the experience of making animal sounds. She tried to defend the practice, and her conclusion was that God's intention is to strip His ministers and His people of "their dignity," just as Jesus was stripped of His dignity on the cross. It may be true that man stripped Jesus of His dignity on the cross, but that is hardly a base for deducing that God will strip His people of their dignity. On the contrary, God will certainly do what He must to strip people of their pride and humble them, but He will never strip them of their dignity in light of the fact that man still has the image of God in him. Another man wrote to me and said that what he sees is that God is now "taking back His church." How people making animal noises and uncontrolled laughter could possibly be construed as evidence that God "is taking back His church" is certainly a point beyond belief.
What should be noted, both in the woman's defense ("God is stripping His people of their dignity") and the man's ("God is taking back His church"), is that both are extremely subjective in their deductions. If you ask them a simple question: "On what basis do you say that this is what God is doing with all these animal sounds and actions?" they can only grow more subjective still. When I answered the man's letter, I pointed out to him that after defending all this with so many words, he never cited one Scripture to defend the practice. And that is the way it is with virtually all the defenders, who continually and dangerously prioritize experience over God's Word.
The Holy Scriptures: The Only Authority to Validate Biblical