A Study on Issues Related to the
Phenomenon Called “Being Slain in the Spirit” or
Falling Before the Lord
Some denominations practice a phenomenon called “being slain in the spirit.” Others prefer to call this simply falling before the Lord. It is practiced widely in some circles of Christianity and in others is completely discouraged.
Where Jesus Christ is preached and believed in, affection and unity as fellow believers is important. Unity must allow for some diversity. All Christians seek to follow the One Christ, though we do so in different ways. We each must contend with our personal experiences, our historical and cultural backgrounds, the needs and influences of the world around us, and the distinctions of our own Christian denominations. Some of my closest and most enduring Christian friends have been Charismatics, and I consider them my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
However, careful Bible study will reveal that the practice of being “slain in the spirit” is on very shaky ground biblically and, in that sense, is a dangerous addition to the faith that can lead to abuse and to over-emphases in areas where the Bible says little or is completely silent, which in the end will lead to a neglect of the truth. This brief response is to give biblical and historical data to help understand what is truly of the Lord and what is reasonably questionable by sincere Christians who wish to test the spirits (1 John 4:1).
An Historical Precedent
During the Great Awakening of America (1720-1760) God used George Whitefield to bring thousands to faith in Christ and to bring churches back from the spiritual dryness and legalism which had begun to sink into the American Puritan experience. As Whitefield preached, the Lord brought people under great conviction and often in meetings, people wept emotionally, some people’s knees knocked together, others went into hysterical fits, and some also fainted, as well as others jumping and shouting and causing quite a ruckus. Whitefield had never encouraged these dramatic displays which had broken out at his meetings, and had taken steps to address the concerns of pastors. The issue was how to identify that which was truly spiritual and of the Spirit of God and that which was simply emotional expression. It was not that easy to resolve.
The majority of those who sincerely received Christ did not respond like this, rather it was only a few, but the sight was memorable for those who saw it. Following Whitefield’s departure from America, there arose a man by the name of James Davenport, a preacher who encouraged these dramatic displays. He also went around to various towns preaching evangelistic sermons under which many were converted. Many of the devout pastors of that time, notably Jonathan Edwards, grew concerned that Davenport was drifting into error. They were, however, hesitant to say very much publicly because they did not want to quench the Spirit, and preferred instead to deal with the matter quietly.
Davenport, however, began to claim to have had visions, as in Joel 2 and Habakkuk 2:3, and took to denouncing other ministers, without examination or hesitation, to be lost. He began to claim a God-given authority. His meetings were characterized by emotional displays that by comparison made Whitefield’s meetings seem tame. Davenport interpreted the faintings and dramatic displays as indications of a genuine movement of the Spirit. They were seen as not only acts that could be tolerated by others, but signs of a greater work of the Spirit in the lives of those who acted in such a way, than those who did not.
The concern of Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Parsons and others grew and they finally felt compelled to address the extremism, but they were careful not to discourage what was the genuine work of the Spirit. Several pamphlets were written to encourage people to test the spirits (1 John 4:1-5), giving guidelines on how to distinguish between what was truly of God and what were man-made or human created excesses. There were, of course, others who condemned all of this as extremism, and discounted the entire movement, even Whitefield’s meetings.
Davenport eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped preaching. Later, 1743, he realized his error and wrote a pamphlet entitled Confessions and Retractions publicly apologizing for his fanaticism. Great harm, however, was done to the Great Awakening and many people moved away from the truly spiritual and emphasized dramatic emotional experiences.
Many, but not all, of the great movements of God’s Spirit in the history of the Church have been accompanied by emotional displays which sometimes did damage to the genuine work of God. Extremism is often the word used to describe these. Perhaps this is a poor choice of a word because we can never be too devout, nor too committed, nor too open to the Spirit of God. In the Great Awakening, and the Second Great Awakening (1800-1840), especially in the American frontier, there were some dramatic displays, but only by a few individuals. In the Layman’s Prayer Revival of New York City (1858), by contrast, was not known for these outbursts but rather by a calm and deeply felt return to the faith.
However, another issue that is often present in these “extreme” movements is that of authority. Davenport was typical of this phenomenon. He claimed a special vision or ability or position was given him by God. To disagree or oppose him was to oppose God. This certainly contrasts with what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit’s role to lead us into the truth of God (John 14:26). And it contradicts when we read in Acts about the noble character of the people of Berea, who examined the scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11). And to this day, this pattern continues, that the more given to dramatic displays a movement is, the more likely it is that the leaders will claim some authority, some even taking the titles of “prophets” and some even “apostles.”
Falling before the Lord in the Old Testament
Our sole authority and guide for understanding the ways the Lord moves and works is the word of God. Although something may be a characteristic of a certain revival and even found among some great movements of the Spirit, our ultimate guide is the Bible. This fact keeps us safe from being deceived and going in the wrong directions, or emphasizing the wrong things. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we will let the Bible be our guide or follow the new teachings of new “apostles.”
The spiritual side of human life is very closely connected to our emotions. This is as it should be; thank God that we can believe in Him with our hearts and rejoice in our salvation. Our faith in Christ and our forgiveness through him evokes in us an emotional response. But emotions should be identified as emotions, and not assumed to always be the same as the Spirit’s movement in our life. 1 John 4:1 instructs us not to believe every spirit but to test the spirits to see if they are of God. Here is what we can surmise from the Old Testament.
Several verses mention someone falling before the Lord. There is a pattern which is established which indicates that they did not lose consciousness or faint, rather they volitionally bowed down before the Lord in worship, placing themselves prostrate. Some of these passages are the following:
o Genesis 17:3, Abram fell facedown
o Deut 16:4, Moses fell facedown
o Deut 9:18-29, Moses fell prostrate and prayed
o Joshua 5:14, “Joshua fell… in reverence”
o Judges 13:26, Samson’s parents fell face down
In all of these experiences above, it is clear that what was being represented was falling before the Lord in worship, humility, and awe. It is not suggested in these and many other passages that the individuals lost consciousness. Notice that invariably it is emphasized that they fell face down, as is common throughout the Old Testament. Not to make light of it, but if this was what is today being represented as “being slain in the spirit” and these Old Testament believers lost consciousness and fell face down, we would have had a lot of bloody noses and black-eyes, as well as broken chins and loose teeth, mentioned in the Bible.
Two people falling down, and most of these passages use the same Hebrew word naphal, who were injured were Goliath (1 Samuel 17:49, he fell face down after being struck with the stone) and Eli (1 Samuel 4:18, he fell back and broke his neck). This leads us to conclude that the word naphal was used in a very broad fashion much like we use the word fall. We need the context to conclude if it was an accident or volitional.
The broad use of the word in describing spiritual experiences suggests a conscious falling down in worship and awe. In every Old Testament experience with one possible exception (Daniel) consciousness was not only present but it was an indispensable part of the experience for the individual or people realized some great truth and worshipped God. Other uses include the following.
o 1 Samuel 20:4, David fell on his face three times before Jonathan
o 1 Kings 18:39, people fell face down and cried out, “The Lord — He is God!”
o 1 Chronicles 21:16, people fell face down in prayer but they had the presence of mind to don sackcloth first.
o Ezekiel 1:28, Ezekiel fell face down but could still hear. It does not follow that he passed out or fainted as he fell.
Daniel’s experience (Daniel 10:7-9) was a unique experience in the Old Testament. It was similar to Ezekiel’s experiences in some ways but was different in that he testified that he had no strength, he turned deathly pale and fell into a deep sleep, face down. (Note the consistency in the Old Testament on this issue, that the people always fell face down before the Lord, never, not even once, face up.) Daniel had just seen a vision of an angelic messenger. God, it would seem, caused a deep sleep to come upon him and in that condition spoke to him about the future events that would shape the world.
What are we to surmise out of the Old Testament experience? First, that people fell before the Lord for two basic reasons: (1) God initiated an encounter, an angel appeared to them (Samson’s parents, Ezekiel, and Daniel), or a revelation was made clear through miraculous signs (the Israelites on Mt Carmel); (2) people searched God out because they felt the judgment of God upon themselves or upon others, or they sought out the Lord for other personal reasons. (In each of these situations we should acknowledge that God was really the One Who moved people to search Him out, so in that sense they also were initiated by God.)
Secondly, without exception, falling before the Lord was always face down, never falling back or falling face up. This alone should indicate for us that there was not a loss of consciousness, rather an act showing obeisance and respect.
Thirdly, only did Daniel seem to lose consciousness. But Daniel was a prophet and, since this experience stands alone in the Old Testament, it was not even normal for a prophet to lose consciousness.
Falling before the Lord in the New Testament
In Jesus’ earthly ministry many fell at his feet: a demoniac, a rich young ruler, and many devout people. From these examples, we can conclude that falling before the feet of Jesus, though a physical indication of respect, was not necessarily an indication of inner commitment to his Lordship. The word most often used in the New Testament for falling is the Greek word pipto which means to fall, to fall upon, or to light upon. Again, as with the Hebrew naphal, the word pipto is broad in its meaning and we require the context to understand. John 11:32 describes Mary falling at the feet of Jesus in her grief over the death of her brother Lazarus, but she spoke to the Lord. In fact, in all of the instances where someone fell at Jesus feet, there is not one that would suggest a loss of consciousness.
John 18:6 is a passage that is sometimes used to describe people falling before the Lord. It is an amazing event in biblical history where the soldiers came to arrest Jesus on the night of his betrayal. When Jesus said, “I am he,” identifying himself for the arrest, the soldiers fell to the ground. Without any apparent pause, Jesus asked them again, “Who do you want?” We can at least surmise that they did not lose consciousness, neither did they have any outward spiritual change since they arrested Jesus immediately after that. Whether their falling was out of a mystical and awesome experience that occured when Jesus said, literally, “I am,” which is the name of God, or whether they simply fell back in a defensive position expecting a fight, we cannot know. But we are certain of these things: they did not lose consciousness; they were not converted; the Apostles never explained it.
Two peculiar experiences in the book of Acts which involve the use of the word pipto are Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and Eutychus (Acts 20:9). In these experiences Ananias and Sapphira fell down because they were dead and Eutychus died because he fell down from a considerable height. It helps us see the broad meaning attached to the word pipto.
Other passages which also depict a falling before the Lord include the following.
o 1 Corinthians 14:25, “fall down and worship God, exclaiming,” indicates not a loss of consciousness but a conviction of the truth. Someone who faints will be unable to worship or exclaim. It helps us to see the Old Testament pattern of falling before the Lord, which Paul had in mind. When he said fall down and worship, he undoubtedly envisioned this voluntary, conscious falling before the Lord, face down, which we see in the Old Testament.
o Acts 9:4, 22:7, Saul (Paul) fell to the ground at the vision of the resurrected Christ while on the road to Damascus. Acts 26:14 he states, “we all fell to the ground.” No where is it suggested that Saul lost consciousness.
o Acts 16:29, the Philippian jailer fell before Paul and Silas but could still speak and asked questions.
o Revelation 1:17, John fell at the sight of the resurrected Christ as a dead man.
There are only a few passages in the Bible which suggest that there might have been a loss of consciousness in a moment of heightened spiritual experience. Three of them are: Daniel’s experience (Daniel 8:15-27) , Peter’s experience (Acts 10:9-16), and John’s experience (Revelation 1:17). In these experiences, all three have to do with significant revelations from God. Daniel and John were used of God to write about the future. Peter’s experience was resolving the issue of Gentile conversion. All three of these men we would recognize as having been used of God’s Spirit to write parts of the Old or New Testament. We would call them prophets. It is interesting to note that these three experiences dealt with things in which a human being would not have the ability in his own reason to see God’s perspective. Our natural reasoning leads us to remain fixed in our own prejudices about people and future events. God’s revelation, in these situations, was so contrary to human reason, that He seems to have suspended or severely limited their thought processes for the benefit of receiving His revelation.
To take these experiences and thereby suggest that they are normative for today would be to do what the Bible did not. It was not even normative for a prophet. Never did the apostles recommend the experience nor even describe people falling before the Lord. In all of the great revivals of the book of Acts, no such incident occurred. (cf Acts 2:1-42, 46, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 9:35; 11:20,21; 12:24; 14:1; 19:17-20)
The Influence of Culture and Personality
Another factor to understanding why these phenomena are attractive to some and not to others is the different personalities and cultural background of people. Some cultures emphasize the content of the message, others emphasize the context in which the message is delivered. But in every culture, some individuals due to their personalities will be more attracted to one or the other.
Let me describe these as possible extreme positions:
o The Content-driven Church: The people and cultures that value the content of the message focus on the specific words that are spoken. Usually they prefer a fairly simple form of worship, where the music is simple and the words of the songs are filled with deep meaning. The sermon they prefer to be theologically correct with a limited about of emotion, or the sermon will be read as a manuscript form.
o The Context-driven Church: The people and cultures that value the context focus more on the feeling and aura of the meeting. They are not as concerned with the deep theological correctness of the words of the songs, so much as the musical presentation and the beauty of the music. The sermon is valued for the emotional connection the speaker makes with the crowd and the inspiration they receive from the sermon itself.
Which is right and which is wrong? Really neither one is, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. As I mentioned above, these different preferences are based more on personality and cultural backgrounds than on personal choice. We worship where it tends to suit our preferences, and in a way that fits who we are. I believe most churches will seek a middle ground, where the truth is honored but people are able to express themselves emotionally. A sermon should do more than merely engage people intellectually, or even doctrinally, but should also engage them emotionally, practically, ethically, and in terms of devotion and their walk with God. Life is not merely an intellectual experience – it involves emotional moments as well – and the best worship experiences acknowledge this and provide a balance.
But both of these have their dangers. The content-driven church has the danger of becoming irrelevant to the world, too steeped in their own learning, and even too cold for the heart-felt desires among some of its members for expressions of joy and happiness in the Lord. The context-driven church faces the danger of forsaking the truth for singing and preaching that touches people merely on an emotional level. The context-driven church is the one more likely to adopt the practice of “being slain in the spirit.”
In this short study I have sought to examine biblically the issue of falling before the Lord or “being slain in the spirit.” As I have stated in my introduction, my concern is that practices such as this will detract us from the pure and simple spirituality which is presented in the Bible. My concern as a pastor is not that this may occasionally happen, but that it is sometimes taught as an experience that all should aspire to have.
This issue, however, rarely stands alone. Often, when one thing is over emphasized, other minor teachings, or sometimes clear fabrications, are also given improper priority and prominence. The misinterpretation or improper emphasis on a relatively obscure or unclear teaching will often lead to a neglect of the more clear and weighty matters of the Bible. This may lead to a renewed legalism where, instead of obedience to laws being required, certain experiences are looked upon as normative or desirable. Whenever the church seeks an experience rather than seeking the Lord, a false, emotional spirituality is likely to flourish.
As with the Davenport experience, these practices seem to lend themselves to an overuse of “prophetic authority”. The practices which we see today seem to emphasize this “pastoral authority” or “special anointing,” and often power is claimed by individual ministers which belonged only to the Apostles. As with sacramentalism, which requires a sarcedotalism to sustain it, a type of sacramentalism of experience with a corresponding sarcedotalism is represented here, which depends more on hearing the right preacher, being in the right meeting, or being physically touched in the right way, than it depends upon the biblical message and the Holy Spirit.
The practice today is typically like this. An “altar call” or “invitation” is given and individuals come forward. Among those who come forward will be some who will faint or fall down. Most of these fall backward as opposed to falling face down in the biblical pattern. In many groups, this happens when a minister touches the individual, or looks at them holding out his hand. Sometimes these individuals will faint when the leader blows upon them. These individuals lay there for some time, it appears to vary from 1 minute to 15 minutes or sometimes longer, then awake.
It has been my practice to offer invitations after preaching. I have been in many great meetings where the Spirit of the Lord was obviously present and moving and many people responded to the message. It has rarely occurred in my preaching that someone fainted or passed out, but when it has, I have always felt that it was a display which disrupted the sincere from responding. It called attention to the individual who swooned or fainted and distracted from the call to believe in Christ.
Being “slain in the spirit” or “falling before the Lord”, where someone loses consciousness falls back to the ground or lays there, is a practice that is not founded upon the New Testament experience. It was not practiced in any of the churches in the New Testament. It was not introduced by Jesus nor by the Apostles, and certainly not encouraged by them. Not once in the Book of Acts is there any mention of it. The practice as we commonly see it today has no biblical precedent. It obviously suggests a heightened emotionalism and sensationalism that may falsely represent itself as truly spiritual and because of this it has potential to harm believers and the church. It influences Christians to seek an experience instead of seeking the Lord. It lends itself to the abuse of power in church leadership. As any addition to the New Testament faith is bound to do, it detracts from the Gospel and the need for personal faith in Christ. It confuses young Christians who may seek such an experience out of ignorance, and can rob them of the assurance of their salvation. It may falsely assure someone of a right relationship with Christ, when sins are yet unconfessed but yet “fainting” has been experienced.
Bowing or kneeling before the Lord in conscious prayer, laying prostrate in awe of His majesty and power, emotionally responding to the beauty of forgiveness, begging His mercy as we confess our sins, being overwhelmed by our sinfulness and His holiness, rejoicing in His grace, being still and quiet before the Lord as we listen to His Spirit move in our minds, being broken by His awesomeness, laying prostrate in recognition of His holiness and in submission to His will — these are recommendable practices. I would encourage all Christians and churches to emphasize these and to avoid becoming entangled in the false.
Jonathan Edwards noted five signs based on 1 John 4, to show when God is at work. First, God is at work when a person’s esteem for the true Jesus is raised. Secondly, God is at work when Satan’s kingdom is attacked. Thirdly, God is at work when the people come to love the Scripture more. Fourthly, God is at work when men are led away from falsehood into truth. Fifthly, God is at work when there is an increase in love for God and for man. Such a movement, if it is of God, should leave upon our lives these attributes.
In Peter’s experience, there is no mention of “falling”. The English phrase in the NIV “fell into a trance” is a good translation because it is the way it would be commonly stated. The Greek, however, says nothing about falling. The phrase is egeneto ep’ auton ekstasis which literaly means “a state of ecstasy (trance) came over him”. Paul also spoke of a trance experience in Acts 22:17. The phrase is genesthai me en ekstasei and could be translated “became in a state of trance”. Whether Peter and Paul fell, remained standing, knelt, sat, or laid down is sheer conjecture. It is quite logical to assume that Peter was laying down prostrate in prayer at the time of the trance, and that Paul stood praying with arms raised up in the air, as was the common way for devout Jews to pray in the temple. But, Paul could have been kneeling and Peter standing — we don’t know. The position of their body was so insignificant to the story that it was never explained. The Bible does not elaborate in other experiences of a trance-like state, such as Isaiah 6. Some experiences, often explained as trance-like states of mind, on close examination reveal no mentioning of a trance: Exodus 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:11.
Some individuals in the Bible who had some type of trance experience, or some type of experience where they fell down incoherent were not godly people: Balaam, Num. 24:4,16; Demoniac, Mark 9:18. This trance like state of mind was common among the pagan religions of Canaan as it is today among many non-Christian religions throughout the world. See 1 Samuel 28:12; 1 Kings 18:28-29. In describing the pagan religion of the Canaanites, John Bright in A History of Israel, wrote: “Important in Canaanite myth was the death and resurrection of Ba’al, which corresponded to the annual death and resurrection of nature. As the myth was reenacted in mimetic ritual, the forces of nature were thought to be reactivated, and the desired fertility in soil, beast, and man thereby secured. As in all such religions, numerous debasing practices, including sacred prostitution, homosexuality, and various orgiastic rites, were prevalent. It was the sort of religion with which Israel, however much she might borrow of the culture of Canaan, could never with good conscience make peace” (page 117). This historical background helps us understand the significance of separation in beliefs and worship styles. See Deuteronomy 13:12-18; 2 Cor. 6:15-18; Acts 16:16-18. Compare Luke 8:29 and 8:35. Trance-like states of mind and orgiastic emotional experiences are commonly found in pagan religions.