Article by Gareth Clegg

cha·ris·ma noun

: a gift of grace; a favour which one receives without any merit of his own; the gift of divine grace; the gift of faith, knowledge, holiness, virtue.i

We live in a society that elevates the charismatic. Charisma, as we understand it today, is an exceptional gift or talent that celebrities, artists, movie stars, politicians, and even some of our favourite pastors possess. A tacit quality that transforms them into objects of universal appeal or attraction.

As you might have observed during our latest sermon series, the Corinthian culture exalted this kind of charisma. The allure of originality, creativity, and rhetorical flare that culminates in a cult of personality that rivals our own. It’s magnetic and compelling, and the Christians of Corinth wanted leaders cut from the same cloth. They sought for those who spoke with “words of eloquent wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:17), thinking that the quality of their own successes could be staked upon following the most enigmatic figures. Boasting in the leaders of their choice, they aspired to gain a similar popular loyalty for themselves, becoming puffed up against one another in the process (1 Cor. 4:6). They spurned the Apostle Paul because he refused to take part in their project. He didn’t want the enthusiastic fandom the Corinthians craved for themselves and sought for in their leaders. He knew that all he had, he received (1 Cor. 4:7). He chose instead the way of the cross.

The impulse, as instinctual in Paul’s time as it is now, is to reject an authority to our inner lives. We want individuality and freedom, not tradition, custom, and religion. And so, the uniqueness and originality of persuasive cultural leaders appears to us to promise more. It appeals to our selfish compulsions. These characters are exceptional, extraordinary even, because they transgress what is ordinary; they dare not feel any authority too strongly. They are exemplary to us—deemed worthy of imitation—because charisma brings the seeming possibility of a fuller life.

If you google “charisma,” the various meanings you would find are akin to the description above, but not the definition given at the top of the page. Helpful here is the perceptive social criticism of Phillip Rieff. He shows us, I think, that we must fervently reject this modern definition of charisma and resist its attraction. In his book of the same title, Rieff recognises the emergence of charisma within Judeo-Christian culture.ii Its first expression was in the covenant between God and Israel. It was transferred divinely to the Old Testament prophets and embodied by Jesus of Nazareth. For Rieff, however, charisma is not charm and novelty. Charisma is religious grace and authority; it is in essence revelation. Divine grace, not human originality. Revealed authority, not self-made man. It is the No-imposing voice of covenant and commandment that confronts the Yes-seeking, primal desires of our individualism.

If we accept Rieff’s conclusions, charisma—genuine charisma—describes the gift of grace which establishes the power of divine command so deeply in our soul that we are delivered from our instincts (our flesh). It installs in us a holy fear of transgression, and as we internalize the revelation of God’s word, of covenant and Christ, it stamps our inner lives so deeply that we are changed. Not only can we bear the thought of the evil in ourselves and in the world, we are delivered from it.

A true charismatic mediates this gift with special force. They not only proclaim but recognisably embody charisma. They are an exemplar of submission to Christ and covenant in ways that provoke imitation. They are backward-looking, embracing and intensifying the culture and norms of the Christian faith rather than the burden of personality. The commandments, the life of Christ, the creeds, the fruit of the Spirit; all plainly lay claim to their souls. They are brilliant merely because they are fully governed by revelatory authority of charisma.

Jesus, the first true charismatic, felt this authority strongly. Asked what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus first responds “You know the commandments” (Mark 10:17-19). He did not slight God’s covenant with Israel, but fulfilled the law and the prophets. He not only followed the commandments, he intensified them. When confronted with the temptation to go his own way, he chose the will of the Father over his own. Jesus was charismatic because he fully capable of right-action on the basis of received authority, not personal originality. He was tethered to, and drew his credibility from, God’s previous revelation.

The Apostle Paul, as we have seen, insisted he based his life upon the authority of charisma. Primarily, the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He asserted that only “according to the grace of God given to [him], like a skilled master builder [he] laid a foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10). Paul was a charismatic not because he was an original genius, but instead because his inner life was so completely defined by the imitation of Christ. Like Jesus, only upon the basis of what he received, not originated, could he confidently and carefully lay a foundation.

In this way, Paul holds up his life against the Corinthian’s as an example of true charisma. He yearns for them to embrace the seemingly ridiculous yet liberating reality of Christ crucified—the power and wisdom of God—as he has (1 Cor 1:22-25). He urges the Corinthians to imitate him, insofar as he is yielding himself to God’s revelation in Jesus, reminding them of his “ways in Christ” (1 Cor. 4:14-17). He points not to himself, but to the charismatic authority of that which came before, eager that the sheep of his pasture “may learn by [him] not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6).

This is real charisma. Any pastor worth his salt is ruled by its gracious authority. And is it not the way of the cross? The putting off of one’s carnal desires in submission to Christ and commandment. The humbling of one’s selfish individualism in participation with collective acts of the church. A dependence upon the revelation of God over ones own personality, charm, and what we have now redefined, ‘charisma’. Anything else is just spray-on.

If we wish to follow anyone, it should be those who, being truly charismatic, are ruled by this religious grace and authority. Likewise, the discipleship (striving towards God) of the community of believers cannot advance without a dependent, united submission to the grace they have received. Learning, growing, and teaching one another through the embodiment and imitation of authentic charisma.

It’s why we collectively stand for the reading of Scripture, sit under the preached word, eat the bread, and drink the wine. Its why we submit to our elders, catechise our kids, sing the doxology, and confess the creeds. To be truly charismatic, to be truly an individual, one must be fashioned by an authority deeply installed. Our collective participation in these rites serves only to deepen our individuality, as the revelatory authority of charisma is strengthened in us. We receive the gift of grace over and over through the life of the church.

Man cannot live by inspiration alone, and without charisma, we end up in a bleak world without inner constraints. Modern society has become populated by selfish individuals whose desires are for unmitigated pleasure, progress, and success at the expense of almost all others. Our crumbling families, cultures, and institutions are a testament to such unrestrained instinct and decadence.

We would be prudent to take note of Reiff’s analysis. There is no right-action without revelation, no individual without external authority, and no wisdom without the cross. Be careful who you follow; more presciently, be careful why you follow. Flourishing life occurs only in the imitation of a true charismatic, no more so than in Jesus Christ.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily held by everyone at Christ City Church. 


i Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 132.
ii Phillip Rieff, Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us.