Opinion By David Kowalski
People being “slain in the Spirit” (also known as “falling under the power) is a controversial phenomenon. Observers are often quite understandably offended when they see this kind of falling in questionable, television ministries, in which it seems the most powerful forces at work are crowd dynamics and the power of suggestion.
I have seen this phenomenon on television and first hand, and I consider most of what I have seen to be questionable. I still think, though, that a brief look at related history and Scripture provides some useful balance to our perspective on people’s falling under a sense of God’s power.
The term “slain in the Spirit” comes from the Second Great Awakening during which scores of people would, during church and camp meetings, fall to the ground under a tremendous sense of the Spirit’s power. Observers described the scene as similar to a battlefield in which men had been slain. Many leaders such as Peter Cartwright described this in their writings.
The phenomenon itself did not begin with the Second Great Awakening, however. It was also common in the First Great Awakening and is recorded in the writings of people such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. Jonathan Edwards described this falling (In his work Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God) as people simply being overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence.
Scriptural support for falling under the Spirit’s power is often asserted to be found in the following passages:
In unison when the trumpeters and the singers were to make themselves heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praised the Lord saying, “He indeed is good for His lovingkindness is everlasting,” then the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, 14 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God. (2 Chronicles 5:13-14 NASB)
Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. (Matthew 28:1-4 NASB)
As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6 NASB)
I think, however, that we go too far when we claim a specific parallel between the Scripture above and the phenomenon we have come to call being “slain in the Spirit.” It seems to me that the most one can say from these passages is that the glorious presence of God made manifest can be an overwhelming experience for us, frail creatures. Still, I think it is not too much of a leap to consider this a principle which may apply to someone losing bodily strength when exposed to a profound sense of God’s presence. Edwards seemed to share this conviction and he witnessed the phenomenon on occasions:
It is a stumbling to some that religious affections should seem to be so powerful, or that they should be so violent (as they express it) in some persons; they are therefore ready to doubt whether it can be the Spirit of God, or whether this vehemence be not rather a sign of the operation of an evil spirit. But why should such a doubt arise from no other ground than this? What is represented in Scripture, as more powerful in its effects, than the Spirit of God? 1
Besides those who are overcome with conviction and distress, I have seen many of late, who have had their bodily strength taken away with a sense of the glorious excellency of the Redeemer. 2
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is easy to counterfeit with the power of suggestion or excitement. The participants in the Toronto “outpouring” for example, were instructed by worship leaders to lie on the floor and “soak.” When a Christian is lost in the moment during a church service, and a preacher tilts their head back or otherwise causes their center of gravity to shift, the person may fall into the waiting arms of “catchers” without being irresistibly overwhelmed by the Spirit.
I preached at one church where people had fallen all over the front of the sanctuary during a time of prayer in the service. When it came time to preach I commented that those lying on the ground would not bother us and that I was going to go ahead and preach. All of the people on the ground immediately got up. They were obviously not overwhelmed by God’s power to the point of losing bodily strength. Falling to the ground was for them more of a learned response to any significant sense of God’s presence.
I maintain, as did Edwards, that such things as people falling under the power is not to be considered a mark of superior spirituality and it is not necessarily a mark of false spirituality. I think the phenomenon is not unscriptural but neither do I think Scripture tells us to look for, seek, or emphasize the experience. I question the genuine nature of the falling seen in some ministries today, but this does not mean God cannot so make His power known as to make a person lose bodily strength, as noted by Edwards:
A work is not to be judged by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength. The influence persons are under, is not to be judged of one way or the other, by such effects on the body; and the reason is, because the Scripture nowhere gives us any such rule. We cannot conclude that persons are under the influence of the true Spirit because we see such effects upon their bodies, because this is not given as a mark of the true Spirit; nor on the other hand, have we any reason to conclude, from any such outward appearances, that persons are not under the influence of the spirit of God, because there is no rule of Scripture given us to judge of Spirits by, that does either expressly or indirectly exclude such effects on the body, nor does reason exclude them. 3
John Wesley also saw this phenomenon quite frequently throughout his ministry:
Many of those that heard began to call upon God with strong cries and tears. Some sunk down, and there remained no strength in them; others exceedingly trembled and quaked: some were torn with a kind of convulsive motion in every part of their bodies, and that so violently, that often four or five persons could not hold one of them… I immediately prayed that God would not suffer those who were weak to be offended. 4
I had an opportunity to talk with him [George Whitefield] of those outward signs which had so often accompanied the inward work of God. I found his objections were chiefly founded on gross misrepresentations of matters of fact. But the next day he had an opportunity of informing himself better; for no sooner had he begun (in the application of his sermon) to invite all sinners to believe in Christ, than four persons sunk down close to him, almost in the same moment. One of them lay without either sense or motion; a second trembled exceedingly; the third had strong convulsions all over his body, but made no noise unless by groans; the fourth, equally convulsed, called upon God, with strong cries and tears. From this time, I trust, we shall all suffer God to carry on His own work in the way that pleaseth Him. 5
We should always “test all things,” even when it relates to “bodily effects” such as people falling, and I believe we should never see such things as a mark of spiritual superiority. Nevertheless, to say as some have, that these things are always carnal or demonic is to presume, I think, more than we should.
Such a posture places man-made boundaries around what God might possibly do and it casts aspersions on the revivalists most Christians respect. My position is to neither fight nor promote the phenomenon. I’ll let God be God, but I will never go down to the floor just because of crowd dynamics or someone pushing on my head.
This drawing was made for an 18th century publication by William Hogarth, which ridiculed the ministry of George Whitefield. Prominently featured is a woman who has fallen due to an experience of God’s power (mere emotionalism in Hogarth’s mind). Whitefield saw this happen many times, such as on July 11, 1742. Whitefield spoke to a crowd of around 20,000 people in Scotland that day and during the service “people wept over their sins and some fell prostrate.”
© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.