Criteria and information for the assessment
of the "Toronto Blessing". / Lecture by Dr. Andrea Strübind 00, 2001-06-15
Andrea Strübind Th.D., aged 33, is the pastor of a Free Evangelical (Baptist)
congregation in Munich. Until 1995 she was section head with responsibility for the Free Churches in
the Ökumenisch-Missionarisches Institut Berlin [Ecumenical Missionary Institute of Berlin], a part
of the Ökumenischer Rat Berlin [Ecumenical Council of Berlin], the Berlin ACK. The present text is
based on her lecture for the meeting of the Bundesleitung des Bundes Evangelisch-Freikirchlicher
Gemeinden (Baptisten) BEFG [Governing Body of the Federation of Free Evangelical Congregations
(Baptists)] in February 1995.
(By kind permission of the author, this contribution has been taken from the websitehttps://www.religio.de/Dialog/296/296s18.html.)
"He who goes beyond the doctrine of Christ and does not abide in it does not
have God; he who abides in the doctrine, he has both the Father and the Son." (2 Jn:9)
Since the beginning of 1994 exceptional phenomena have been occurring in charismatic
religious services, which have been grouped together under the label of the "Toronto Blessing",
after a congregation in Toronto that until the beginning of 1996 belonged to the Vineyard Movement,
in the context of which these signs first made themselves known.
A further branch of this "awakening" derives from the neocharismatic movement in Argentina. The influential charismatic preachers Benny Hinn (US), Claudio Freidzon (Argentina) and Rodney Howard Browne (South Africa) and are seen as precursors of the Toronto Blessing. Hinn, Browne and Joyce Meyer (US) are advocates of "Word of Faith Theology" Heresies of the Word Faith Movement, which is seen as controversial even in charismatic circles.
The starting point was the transmission of this Blessing to the founder of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in St. Louis, Randy Clark (USA), who is said to have been touched by the Spirit on the occasion of the preaching of a South African evangelist, in the course of which unusual manifestations occurred. He took this "Blessing" with him and passed it on to his own congregation, and from there it spread to other congregations as well.
The congregation in Toronto developed in the following years into a veritable place of pilgrimage for thousands of charismatic ministers and pastors, who there received an "anointing" which they were then able to pass on to their own congregations. In the Federal Republic, too, there are groups of co-workers and pastors making the trip to Canada every week.
After being "transmitted" by a married couple, both of them pastors in London, the phenomena of the Toronto Blessing began to appear in Europe as well. The Holy Trinity Brompton Congregation became another center of dissemination. In certain congregations in our part of the world as well, the effects of the Toronto Blessing are being experienced in the context of worship services, by means of the laying on of hands by the ministers.
In Berlin, for example, when Freidzon visited the Gemeinde auf dem Weg [Congregation on the Way] (Wolfhard Margies), the same phenomena occurred through his intervention. At the "Xund ’94" congress in Berne, which was intended to focus on healing, John Wimber demonstrated the effect of the Blessing on certain individual participants, by asking them to stand up, whereupon the specific phenomena of the Blessing were seen in them, with those affected falling to the ground.
In the Basileia Gemeinde of Berne, another center for the Toronto Blessing, when the congregation leaders returned from Toronto the phenomena occurred on such a massive scale that the service had to be abandoned, and the collaborators were unable to work in the following week as a result of the physical effects they experienced. There are other centers in Frankfurt am Main and Lüdenscheid.
In November 1994, 40 representatives of charismatic organizations and congregations signed a declaration at a meeting in Niedenstein near Kassel, stating that they took the Toronto Blessing to be the work of the Holy Spirit. Among the signatories, as well as certain controversial representatives of the neocharismatic movement – such as Wolfhard Margies ("Gemeinde auf dem Weg" [Congregation on the Way] ), Berthold Becker ("Fürbitte für Deutschland" ["Intercession for Germany"]) and Walter Heidenreich ("Jesusmarsch" ["March for Jesus"]) – was also Heiner Christian Rust (Pastor of a Free Evangelical congregation in Hanover).
The number of German congregations in which the phenomena of the Toronto Blessing have occurred is at present estimated to be between 200 and 400. On 1 and 2 December 1994, 400 pastors and co-workers attended a meeting in the Christliches Zentrum [Christian Center] in Frankfurt, the Blessing being the topic of discussion. The organizers of the event expected a multiplication of the phenomenon from those attending the event, seeing that the effects could be "passed on" to their various congregations. In this connection reference was made to similar knock-on effects in Great Britain.
o Fits of laughing and weeping
o Utterance of vehement sounds (roars, cries, growls, groans)
o Convulsive twitching and trembling of the whole body
o Falling to the ground ("resting in the Spirit")
o Trance-like state of consciousness (some resemblance with
o Jumping and dancing
o Overheated body temperature
o Paralysis of specific parts of the body
o Rolling on the ground
According to the statements of those who were affected by it in Toronto, the Toronto
Blessing is received from ministers who have traveled there for the purpose, and either "imported"
by them into their own congregation or else communicated or transmitted by traveling members of the
Vineyard Movement. Some ministers tell us that the Blessing is so infectious that it has been
communicated even against the will of the one who "carries" it.
Prayer and the laying on of hands are therefore not necessary conditions for the receipt of the Blessing. The mere presence of those who have already received the Blessing, of those who have attended services where the characteristic phenomena occur and their testimonies are sufficient to pass on the Blessing to others. Even non-Christians who are present at religious services may show the signs of the Toronto Blessing.
These manifestations occur during the service, perhaps during singing, prayer, the giving of a blessing or in a period of quiet. The effects are also experienced outside religious services. Even newspaper articles on the subject of the Toronto Blessing have been said to have triggered the same reactions. As a rule, however, the Blessing is dispensed in a particular part of the worship service, shortly before the close, in the context of intercession for the individual participants.
The pastor or the minister and other co-workers walk about the room for a rather lengthy giving of the Blessing (in Toronto, 2-3 hours), praying for those present without interruption. Combined with the laying on of hands, or with touching of the participants, prayers are said that they will be filled with the Holy Spirit, that the power may be redoubled and the effect of the Blessing increased. No specific prayer requests are made.
The dramatic choreography of mass events presents a different picture. Here we find the prayers are more rapid and more pressing, being carried on by many co-workers, at times coupled with quasi-fanning hand movements, shouting at the participants and subjecting them to the suggestive influence of group pressure (as some of them later openly admitted).
The phenomena occurring are as a rule understood by those affected, and by the
theologians who are involved, as encounters with the Spirit of God. Thus we are told that the
experiences led to a new love for Christ and His congregation, an increased esteem for the Bible and
a new joy in prayer. People are said to have been healed and purified, both physically and in their
souls. Pastoral processes have been seemingly intensified and accelerated.
Well-known ministers speak of how they have experienced a "romantic relationship" with Christ. A new and mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit is said to be taking place in these assemblies. A time of restoration and strengthening of the congregation of Jesus is said to have dawned. The new intensity and prevalence of these experiences with the Holy Spirit are pointed to as prominent features.
These are connected with the doctrine which teaches that the faithful should be "watered" times and again with the Holy Spirit. On the basis of visions that have been had by prominent ministers, these events are understood as a sign of the beginning of an awakening, seen in the perspective of the Last Days; also as a new epoch in the history of salvation, as a new and different manner of divine working, as the age of the Holy Spirit.
In Toronto itself, the Blessing is understood as a first wave of God’s operation, a wave of refreshment for the Christians. Thereby believers are meant to be prepared and strengthened for further salvationist events. In the next phase, then, signs and wonders are to take place, to convert those who have ceased to walk with Christ. Finally the time would dawn in which great numbers of people would be brought to faith in Christ. The Toronto Blessing is not yet to be described as an awakening, but as a kind of "refreshment movement" that is to mobilize the congregations for the awakening that still lies before them.
As a particular "mission strategy" of God’s, the Toronto Blessing reflects yet another possible interpretation. It is said that only by special effects can God reach human beings impressed by the Spirit of Enlightenment. So the Blessing is taken as the sign of a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There is some expectation of an awakening in which children, above all, will be seized by the Holy Spirit, as has been – supposedly – foreseen in prophetic visions.
God is said to be setting out on a new path for the manifestation of his works. Not being seized by the Spirit, that is, the lack of phenomena, can easily be taken as a sign of the heart being insufficiently open to God. If the demonstrations of those affected are often felt to be ridiculous by those taking part in religious services, the explanation is given that God has a sense of humor and, perhaps for that reason, thinks up these comical ways of behaving. At the same time the Blessing is taken to be a shibboleth on God’s part, by the help of which He can test whether the believer is willing to be made a fool for God’s sake.
Among the few biblical passages that are mentioned by the movement’s adherents in
order to legitimize the phenomena, we find the following: the prophet Daniel’s encounter with God,
when he falls upon his face (Dan 10,9. 11. 16-19), Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus (Acts
9,1-9), John’s experience in Revelation (Rev 1,17) and Saul’s ecstatic experience of the Holy
Spirit (1Sam 19). These are taken to prove that an encounter with God can lead to the loss of
Such manifestations, however, did not appear in the form of mass phenomena in New Testament religious services. The Pentecost event is also understood as a prototype of the effects of the Blessing. At that time bystanders supposed the apostles who had been seized by the Holy Spirit were "drunk". In this same biblical passage, though, the miracle of the tongues is described, as a result of which the pilgrims who had traveled to Jerusalem for the festival heard the apostles speaking in their own language, whereas the locals interpreted what was happening rather more dismissively.
It was through the preaching of the apostles, and not through any external phenomena, that many people came to believe. No loss of physical control is mentioned in connection with Pentecost. A further proof is instanced in statements from Jesus’ farewell discourses. Here Jesus announces further revelations of the Spirit relating to the history of salvation (Jn 16:12-14). He is thought here to have meant a new working of the Holy Spirit that would go beyond those workings of the Spirit that are attested in the Bible. 1) Convulsions of "laughter" are explained by reference to 1Pet 1:8 ("You have not seen Him, and yet love Him... so you will greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory").
The interest shown in the Toronto Blessing is controversial for the churches and the
Free Evangelical congregations, and it is necessary here to pay close attention to the testimony of
the Scriptures as a whole. Specifically in the context of this investigation, I hold this to be a
particularly important premise. For it cannot be a question here of the religious spirit prevailing
at the present time, nor is it at issue whether, as a matter of fact, the final awakening has now
(at last) found a foothold in the churches and Free Evangelical congregations as well.
Our task is rather to examine whether the Toronto Blessing and the associated external phenomena, including their supposed internal effects, conform to biblical tradition, and whether they can be hermeneutically and objectively derived from relevant utterances of the Old and New Testaments.
Only the Holy Scriptures, not the experiences, longings and feelings of individuals, can be taken as a criterion for the testing of spirits. Every working of the Spirit that is attested must be placed in clear analogical relationship with the revealed Word of God. But we find in the Bible, in connection with the Holy Spirit, no mention of crowds falling to the ground, of bestial noises, cries, laughter or the loss of self-control.
Encounters with God where those who are involved fall to the ground – generally in a reaction of reverence or fear – remain, in comparison with the entirety of the biblical tradition, isolated instances. There are no reports of entire groups within the early Christian congregation being seized by this kind of behavior. When the physical reaction of prophets and apostles is described, their show of reverence for God’s holiness is clearly the thing that stands in the foreground. There is no mention of special feelings of happiness or experiences of inner peace; far more it is the experience of fear, and of one’s own sinfulness, that predominates (Isa 6,1ff).
In connection with events relating to public worship, the Toronto phenomena are not evidenced in a single passage (even Acts 2 may not be called on in support of such phenomena).
In view of these facts, adherents of the "Blessing Movement" assert that the Holy Spirit is nowadays entering areas that purport to transcend the Bible. The majority of ministers admit openly that biblical authority is being exceeded here. On the other hand one finds efforts, on the basis of (frequently dubious) concatenations of biblical passages, to root the Toronto phenomena in the Bible.
Proskinesis (throwing oneself down) before the Holiness of God (cf. Eze 3,23; Mt 17,6) is carelessly equivalated with "resting in the Spirit" – an interpretation that cannot possibly be convincing. The falling down of Jesus’ opponents (Jn 18,6) and the revelation accounts in the histories of the patriarchs, are also forcibly reinterpreted in the light of the experiences mentioned above.
If all the biblical passages in which the word "joy" occurs are listed in order to provide a biblical foundation for the convulsive laughter that is a consequence of the Toronto Blessing, this betrays exegetical naivety. The same goes for the strenuous work with the concordance under the index entry "trembling". The reference to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), who knows a time for laughter (Ecc 3,4) and so is taken to provide support for these peculiar laughter fits, points to the theological incompetence of certain ministers. This goes as far as the speculative assertion, even, that God may be just as "emotional" as the human beings who are created in His likeness (a conclusion no more valid than the assertion that God is fallible because human beings, as sinners, are made in His image!)
The postulate that God works differently today from the ways attested in Scripture seems to me to be the decisive point of risk, seeing that this theological point-switching panders to willful subjectivity. The reference to Jn 16, 12-14, where Jesus is said to foretell to the disciples a further manner of working of the Spirit, going beyond the revelation of Scripture, is furthermore a patent misinterpretation. 2)
Jesus is speaking, in this connection, not of extraordinary effects of the Spirit, but of verbal communications relating to God’s plan of salvation, which after his Ascension are to be revealed and made known by the Spirit. (The allusion to the "many more things" to be revealed is a patent admission of indifference in hermeneutical matters).
With the assertion that the Holy Spirit is now entering spheres that transcend what is given us in the Bible, that a new manner of the Spirit’s working is now being experienced that is not attested by the Bible, the bedrock of Protestant faith is being lost, just as it is through the abandonment of the Word spoken to us "from without" (extra nos), which is now replaced by the mere force of inner personal conviction. At the same time, the significance of the Holy Scriptures as a basis for doctrine, life and service is being called in question.
The multiplicity of New Testament reports on the Holy Spirit are united on one
point: that the Spirit, by contrast with the powers of this world (1Cor 12:2), leads to freedom,
rather than to new compulsions. The loss of self-control is absolutely not a sign of the working of
the Holy Spirit – on the contrary (1Cor 14:32f).
A well attested fruit of the Spirit is rather self-control (Gal 5:22; 2Pet 1:6). "Rational" gifts, like sound judgment and recognition of the will of God, are given particular prominence in the Bible (Rom 12:2; Col 1:9f. – cf. Isa 11:1-6). He who prays to receive the Spirit prays at the same time for the spirit of discipline (2Tim 1:7). We are repeatedly enjoined to be sober, to examine ourselves and to practice self-control (Acts 26:25; Rom 12:3; 1Tim 2:9; 2:15; 3:2; Tit 1:8; 2:2-6.12; 1Pet 4:7).
A new and unheard-of experience of the Spirit is by no means necessary to convince the Christian that he has been filled with the Holy Spirit. He who acknowledges Christ, in him already dwells the fullness of Christ by His Spirit (Gal 2:20). Looking at the overall testimony of the Scriptures we can see that the Holy Spirit works as the bringer of joy, certainly, but not of an ecstatic loss of inhibitions.
The effects of the Toronto Blessing, on the other hand, lead to a loss of self-control. Under the impression of these phenomena, people are to some extent no longer able to get up (against their will) or to put a stop to their convulsive laughter. The risk of manipulation and of fixation on individual ministers who are able to "set the Spirit free" is obvious.
These enthusiastic phenomena tend to make the individual insecure, to reduce him to childishness, rather than contributing to his spiritual maturity. The fundamental effects of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, can be summed up in the triad of 1Cor 13: faith, love and hope. The Spirit works faith, opens God’s Word to us and so leads us to the knowledge of God (1Cor 2:4f; Eph 1:13-14; Gal 3:14). The Spirit fills us with love for God, for His congregation and for our neighbor (Rom 5:5).
The Spirit gives us hope of the future of redemption (Rom 8:11). This hope that the Spirit gives us applies both to the individual life and to the universal creation. The ambivalent "fruits" of the Toronto Blessing require to be measured against these effects of the Spirit as they are attested in the New Testament.
Paul’s lengthy observations on the use of the gifts of the Spirit in public worship, and his reserved attitude to ecstatic phenomena, have been repeatedly analyzed (cf. 1Cor 12.14). The apostle calls for decency and propriety in religious services (1Cor 14:40). The impression given to non-Christians of what goes on in religious services is very important to Paul (1Cor 14:23). Not wanting his mission to give any cause of offence, he champions an orderly and astonishingly "reasonable" form of service, in opposition to the extreme charismatics of his day. For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace (1Cor 14:33.40).
Paul refuses to recognize ecstatic experiences as having central significance either for the development of the congregation or for the inward faith of the individual (1Cor 12). In a sense of missionary responsibility, likewise, he warns against the danger of overemphasizing such ecstatic phenomena (1Cor 14).
In reports that have been published about the Toronto Blessing, and in other
statements emanating from the neocharismatic movement (cf. "March for Jesus"), we find much talk
to the effect that we are on the brink of a new and mighty outpouring of the Spirit, and that the
individual Christian needs repeatedly to be "watered" with the Holy Spirit afresh. The New
Testament, however, sees in Jesus Christ the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies on the "bearer
of the Spirit".
Likewise, it identifies the promised outpouring of the Spirit on all humanity with the events of Pentecost. Through Jesus Christ and his work of reconciliation, the Holy Spirit comes to all who believe in Him. All members of the congregation of Jesus Christ therefore have a share in the fullness of the Spirit’s presence. The gifts of the Spirit are not to be seen, in this connection, as grades showing varying participation in the Spirit, but as varying characteristics of the same Spirit (1Cor 12:4).
The phenomena of the Toronto Blessing cannot then be described as a new manner of being filled with the Spirit, which is lacking in other members of the congregation. There is no indication in the New Testament of a novel and new-fangled outpouring of the Spirit in the Last Days which would transcend the event of Pentecost. The Bible anticipates for the Last Days rather a worldwide falling away from faith and seduction. There are explicit warnings against false prophecy and false signs, spurious miracles and bringers of salvation (Mt 7:15-23; Mt 24:4-14; 2The 2:9-12; Rev 13; 1Jn 4:1. 6; 2Cor 11).
The working of the Holy Spirit is understood in the New Testament (and the Old
Testament as well) pre-eminently as an event that strengthens community. The Spirit brings it about
that the believer belongs to Christ and becomes a member of his body (Rom 8,14). For the union
effected by the Spirit between the members of the congregation and Christ, and between each other,
all differences of sex, origin, nation, race and social class have been superseded (Gal 3:28).
Laying emphasis on special gifts of the Spirit, or on a special "anointing", can put the unity of the congregation at risk, once an elite mentality and the idea of spiritual grades begin to operate. This risk, latently present in the days of the early church, was one against which the apostles at that time made a resolute stand. The Toronto Blessing, at the present time, is rather sowing seeds of confusion and conflict among Christians, and strengthening tendencies towards schism and aloofness.
The treatment of "opponents" or critics of the Toronto Blessing, as testified in the media, calls for notice here. In some cases they have been deliberately marginalized and forced out of the congregation. The prophetic threats of death reported in the press (B. Bahr, Singen) are a disturbing development, in view of the analogy to Islamic fundamentalism they suggest.
The pastoral problems are equally evident. Those who, in spite of their best efforts, have not experienced these manifestations suffer disappointment. In addition, the risk of elitist thinking ("spiritual arrogance") developing among those who have been "blessed" is not to be dismissed out of hand. By contrast with the testimony of the New Testament, the supposed "effects of the Spirit" seen in the Toronto Blessing do not lead to community but to isolation.
The individual believer experiences an extraordinary moment of transcendence which sets him apart from other Christians and members of the congregation. The Toronto Blessing, then, is not an experience of community, nor does it strengthen community feelings, but rather promotes on the whole the "spiritual development" of the individual.
Paul criticizes the overvaluation of ecstatic gifts in the Corinthian congregation, which serve only for the edification of individuals, pointing out that the effects of the Spirit constantly aim at the at the edification of the whole congregation. Alongside devotion to Christ, the most important criterion of the working of the Holy Spirit is that it should not call in question but rather strengthen "the union" of all with Christ and of all believers with each other (W. Joest).
Theologians and sociologists are agreed that our society today shows an increasing
demand for transcendental experiences as a means for giving the assurance of faith. They have
diagnosed a clear assimilation of the neocharismatic movement to trends found in religion’s
The phenomena that are occurring suggest the forms of expression that were seen in the early Awakening Movement of the 19th century, but also recall the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement. So the phenomena in themselves are not new: what is new is that they should occur on such a massive and uncontrolled scale, being no longer held in check by the responsible ministers but actually being seen, even in the most extreme forms, as a special "Blessing". In the Awakening Movement, however, such phenomena never became an integral and ritualized element of religious services.
They were not seen as a regular experience of the Spirit. Reputed representatives of the Awakening Movement did not deliberately integrate these phenomena in their mission plan or their preparations for public gatherings, so as to avoid encouraging the risks – of which they were fully aware – of schism, elite thinking and theological deviation.
We find in connection with the Toronto Blessing a view rooted in cultic thinking –
the view that God’s Spirit or presence is tied to a specific location. This way of thinking goes
with the need to experience God in visible and tangible form at specially blessed locations, on the
basis of a transmission of the Blessing and the associated authority.
The widely disseminated report to the effect that the Toronto Blessing is being passed on, at special locations – as if it were actually a "kind of infection" – by ministers who have been specially blessed for this purpose, makes the encounter with the Holy Spirit into a quasi-magical happening, which contradicts what is said in the Bible of the free working of the Spirit. Particularly problematic are the effects on non-Christians, as well as those produced by the media (e.g. newspaper reports on the Toronto Blessing).
Similar experiences of being overwhelmed, and of making contact with divine power
through loss of control over one’s own body and mind, are found in other religions and therapies
as well. The interchangeability of the phenomena should recommend caution. Ecstasy and enthusiasm
are, in the critical judgment of the Bible, invariably polyvalent. Only on the basis of theological
interpretation can these phenomena be understood to be the workings of the Holy Spirit.
It is a question whether what we have here is really an encounter with God, or rather an encounter with the individual’s own subconscious (Reinhard Hempelmann). In religious services and at congresses even the ministers, who for the most part emphasize the inward effects, cannot deny the fascination of the external manifestations. It is a difficult matter, going beyond the feelings currently experienced by the individual, to demonstrate the long-term "fruits of the Spirit" that are involved.
Healings, which should not occupy a central place, may likewise only be attested after some time has passed. Moreover, the Toronto Blessing is not always, for those affected by it, an experience of joy and enrichment. Pastors report that those seeking their help also report negative experiences, anxieties (sleep disturbance, depression) and insecurity in their faith as a result of the external manifestations.
Doctors and psychologists (stress and hypnosis research) bring "rational"
interpretations to their study of the ecstatic phenomena of the neocharismatic movement, and these
call for very serious consideration. Let me briefly mention here one such medical assessment. In
stress situations, what are known as endorphins are released in the human body.
These "drugs" produced by the individual’s own body have an effect similar to that of opiates, so that they may also lead to loss of bodily control. These biochemical processes can be triggered by suggestion as it works on the feelings. The same physical and psychic phenomena can be found in other religions, therapies and cults as well.
In the light of researches carried out to date, the examination of the testimony of
the Scriptures as a whole and of the effects on the community of the Christian congregations, it is
in my view not possible to see the Toronto Blessing as a working of the Holy Spirit.
(See also Discourse 70: "The Spread of the
1) This interpretation of the
Johannine Paraclete shows affinities with the doctrine of the 2nd century AD Montanists,
who were considered heretical by the early church. Phenomenologically as well, the neocharismatic
movement is in many respects very similar (cf. note 2).
2) Cf. statements made by H. C. Rust in DIE GEMEINDE [THE CONGREGATION] 46/1994, p. 6, which show an approximation to the views of the Montanists (cf. note 1): "In this word it may be possible to find biblical support for the view that there are modes of working of the Holy Spirit of which the Holy Scriptures give us only rudimentary (sic!) reports, but which today are coming to be more widely disseminated."