Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Pentecostal Myth

In my life, I have run the gamut of churches and denominations. Most of my ‘time’ has been spent on the Pentecostal side of God’s house. At one end, it is a place of strictness and even choking ‘holiness’. While on the other end, there is gross immorality and a spotlight on great men who have fallen victim to their own human frailty. In this corner of the church, there is every good and bad element and all points in between....the highest highs and the lowest lows so very little consistency. John Wesley, the ancestor of all Pentecostalism, I am sure is not very pleased with the way it has turned out – what was an encounter with Christ – what he called a heartwarming took on a life of its own and became the Pentecostal Movement that we know today. If you study Pentecostalism historically, there is a general pattern to many of its ‘branches’:

1> The beginning-one leader comes with a revelation on the scriptures that none other has seen in the church terrestrial. The line of men that have done so is what Dickens would call a ‘ponderous chain’. We can go back to the Cane Ridge Camp meetings and start there and move forward to the likes of Dowie, Tomlinson, Parham, Seymour, McAlister, McPherson, Hawtin, Watts, Prince, Mumford, Cain and lastly Wagner. This list pretty much spans all the 200 years of the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition.

2> There are spiritual pyrotechnics to the point of awe and these garner a following. It is usually not the Cross preached but the fleshing out of the revelation that they have received. This leads to further refinement of the ‘revelation’ and a codex for that group. Members morph from curiosity seekers to zealots for the cause.

3> The group begins to separate itself from the nominal church because of the ‘true revelation’ that they alone have received and the gifts and demonstrations of the power of the ‘spirit’ warrant their gravitating to the leader who has brought the revelation. The position of this individual becomes vaunted and in the end, the eternal fate of the believer rests on their allegiance or rejection of this person or at least their teachings.

4> The ‘End Time’ message is preached. It is the end of the world and only these within the ‘ark’ of the movement will be safe. All others are left adrift in the coming flood. The preaching of the imminent coming of the Lord breeds fear of the outside world and galvanizes them to the leader and the doctrines. What arises in the mentality ‘We are the only ones’.

5> The leader dies or commits moral failure and the group disperses into oblivion.

What is my proof? How many of the names above did you know? Perhaps one? Most are long dead and so are their movements for the most part. Here is the stark truth. I would venture to say that any Dysfunctional Religious Group (DRG) will fit in the pattern of the above. More importantly, Pentecostalism has for the most part historically been the main seed bed for such movements, this is a historical fact. If you don’t believe me, do your own research.

Why does this happen in the Pentecostal World? There are several reasons:

1> Lack of scholarship – for the most part, Pentecostalism has had no real Theological giants over its entire span. While there might be a few well educated, the point is there are no Barths, Spurgeons, Wesleys, Pinks, Chestersons, Lightfoots, Luthers, Calvins, Tyndalls, Ockhams, Melancthons, Erasmuses, Augustines, Cyprians, Origens, Tertullians, Ignatiuses or Chyrsostoms. Men who were scholars of languages of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and the like – the languages of the ancient church. What can be compared here are mountains of works that formed the basic fortresses of the church that have made it unassailable regarding the true fundamentals of the faith. The above constructed much through HARD WORK and a life time of study to ensure their words inscribed and embodied a full and clear reflection of the scriptures . There was no ‘revelation’ that came as blinding insight and was fleshed into reality. It was through hard work, discipline, suffering for their integrity and extreme effort that the revelation came and that my friends is why it has endured. In many movements, revelation of the teachings was key and if you didn’t have ‘it’, you were not yet mature…you were not ‘converted’. While there were and are many in these groups who tout to be scholars of the ‘Word’, there is a real sense of ‘flatness’ to their literal interpretations that do not appreciate the full body of the scriptures in terms of the root language in which it had been written, the historicity of the passages, its context and the balance of inclusion and analysis of other perspectives from the likes of the men above mentioned in this point. Nope, their revelation was enough.

2> Experience driven theology – What can be said of Pentecostalism is that much of it is experienced based. That is to ones who have a background in it, the episodes of the Spirit that they have personally experienced are a license for their truth. Much is made about the Spirit Baptism (and it should be but not) as an experience. Yet a teaching that causes one to separate themselves from the rest of the church is taking the point too far. To be honest, few I have known ever plumbed the depths of the word baptism deep enough to gain a proper perspective on exactly what it is. I do not have the time here to go into all of it but let me just say, the idea that some have been baptized in the spirit while others await it is a little confusing to me given that Christ on the day of Pentecost gave the Spirit to all the church not just some of them -- I think there are just bad definitions and understanding regarding this subject in general - especially in Pentecostalism and the 'children' it has spawned. Frankly, because of the lack of scholarship and the experience based theology most Pentecostals I have encountered and those I have studied about possess, there is little beyond their religious experience. In fact, because they have indeed experienced something, there is little they remain open to concerning any modification of their theology. One final point on this: if an experience can not be proven out by the scriptures, the experience itself must be scrutinized but not invalidated. What has happened, has happened but what has occurred needs to be totally reconciled with the scriptures.

3> The ‘Lost’ Truths – We live in a time of ‘restoration’ and I use that word quite loosely here. For most Pentecostals there is an under-lying premise that somehow the church had ‘lost its way’ and God in His mercy is restoring truth. This is a fundamental position of the current popular movements in the church at large today and in its recent history (e.g. Latter Rain, Charismatic Movement, Discipleship Movement, Prophetic Movement, Apostolic Movement – the last four mentioned are direct descendants from Latter Rain). Ironically, the word of God in its current form has been preserved through two millennia and good scholarship has proven that the text we read today is what it was when penned. In a very basic sense, the word of truth has always been with us. It has been the standard bearer that brought the church back to center. Friends, it is never revelation that brings the truth it is the reverse: truth brings revelation – just ask Martin Luther when you get to heaven. Through the throes of his journey and the extreme desperation of trying to ‘work’ his way to salvation, a blinding light struck him in the midst of his despair. Luther was a biblical scholar (Doctorate in Theology) and constantly wrestled with a fear of hell, God’s wrath and was haunted by his own security of his eternal fate. He immersed himself in the study of the New Testament –especially the writings of Paul the Apostle. In this great and desperate struggle, the light of Eph 3:28 broke-this was the chrysalis of the Protestant Reformation. Friends, it was pouring over the scriptures for truth not proof-texting that made light break and produced balanced teaching. Frankly, there are no lost truths, just bad teaching that is produced by lack of study effort. I have personally experienced this type of revelation and it is a rare and beautiful thing; it is allowing yourself to be flayed open as the scriptures provide the answer. It does not come quickly in a night, a fortnight, a week or a month. These types of revelations are produced over years and with a constant application of biblical study and spiritual elbow grease. A friend of mine is a chess player. In his grief over a lost mother, he poured himself into the game. As he relayed it to me, the more he played and studied the classic strategies of the masters, what were once individual movements and discrete strategies became an integrated symphony of movement…as he relayed it to me…’I saw the entire board at once and I began to weep’. My God, that is what revelation is to me and the kind I want…the question is am I willing to work for it? Sad to say, in Pentecostalism this is a rare thing.

4> The ‘Moses’ Syndrome – If we historically look at Pentecostalism in all its facets, nooks and crannies, one thing becomes clear. It is the leader who takes on almost a divine quality. This is its dangerous side. This is when the gifts one possesses become a license for their theology. God’s gifts to them become their authority when gifts in general are what they are – gifts. Just look at the past, how many people has God used who were extremely gifted but whose lives fell out of order? There are many names we could list here that I am sure you would know. Moreover, the megalomania starts to set in. The leader becomes a mouthpiece for God and they become the standard bearer of the truth. Eventually, they are seen as the representative of God to their followers – this is by definition an ancient term known as the ‘Vicar of Christ’ – that is Christ Himself is represented by the individual – ask a Catholic after confession, they know all about it. From there, the slope becomes very slippery and the actual presence of Christ becomes melded with that individual. The people begin to look upon that person as something more than they need to. This is how what was once perhaps an effective weapon for God becomes the brazen serpent that people begin to worship instead of the true God. There is a rogue’s gallery in church history that is as I said before ponderous.

5> Lack of Accountability – once a group breaks off, there is little to keep them in check. Once the ‘Moses’ moniker is applied, the movement becomes ego-centric and all evolves around one person’s interpretation and perspective. The whole focus at that point is to leverage the difference between people ‘in’ the group and people ‘outside’ the group. Walls go up and it is not realized that they are not walls for protection but walls for retention. There is a way in but no way out…and the leaders run amok. People in such places have only one protection as they have always had – their Bible and the Spirit of God.

Here is the haunting part. Dysfunctional Religious Groups fall into this same pattern. They are true to their genetic make up that they inherited from their parents – yet in a mongrel sort of way.

The Pentecostal Myth enumerated:

The myth is found in the basic premise of Pentecostalism itself and originates with its grandfather John Wesley. From his Aldersgate experience, the whole landscape of Pentecostalism was sketched out. How? The major ‘break’ with other streams of faith up to that point was that Wesley had the premise of ‘residual sin’ within the life of the believer. This residual sin required a ‘second blessing’ , a heartwarming, a ‘double cure’. In time, this would spur his followers on to such doctrines that sourced in this second experience he originated. The double cure became a practicum of exercises in abstaining from various ‘worldly activities’ such as chewing gum, tobacco, hemlines and even having a prosperous career. Once the ‘double cure’ was experienced by the believer, the basic premise was to embrace godly things and eschewing ungodly ones (what was godly and ungodly depended on which crowd you ran with). In this practice of holiness, the person would reflect the life for Christ and gain true holiness and so spiritual reward. This brought on ascetic behavior within the church to the extreme – Frank Bartleman is a good example in his chronicle of the Azusa Street Revival of 1906. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit became a license for both men and women to live above the accountability of others (McPherson, Mumford, Cain, Bakker and others) . We in this side of the last century saw moral failure in practically every arm of Pentecostalism. From the die-hard Pentecostal to the Casual Charismatic leader they preached a message of holiness and presented themselves as examples by disdaining the sin that they secretly practiced the most – ironic isn’t it? Some recovered by repenting and others did not. So in a crystallized sentence what is the Myth? It is the belief that the Cross of Christ is not enough for the believer to receive spiritual gifts, blessings and full and total deliverance from sin but requires an additional ‘work’. This work can be personal exercise of what they believe to be ‘spiritual disciplines’ but the result is the same- the devolution of pure faith into pharisaic religion and practices.

What is the remedy?

How do we dispel the Pentecostal Myth?

1> We allow our experiences to be questioned, especially if they reinforce the doctrinal position we hold.

2> We embrace the fact that the church does not appear as our doctrinal position might construct and it never will because it never has. Our view of the church is myopic and so we must be open to other points of view –as long as they are biblical.

3> We understand that any of the 5 reasons above when present are most likely due to either ignorance or spiritual laziness. We must not allow ourselves to be passive in our service to Christ but wielding our weapons with skill.

4> We acknowledge giftedness is not more than it is and it is not spiritual maturity nor is it a divine confirmation on the doctrinal positions we might hold…it has never been that…just look at the Corinthian church.

I personally believe in all the gifts of the Spirit being active and we need all of them but I am not going to say that they are more than what they were designed to be and they will never overshadow the person and work of Christ on the Cross.

Future Directions-Where the Church is Headed

I don’t need to be a prophet to predict the end result of Pentecostal Myth once dispelled. Once people have been taken advantage enough and been used up enough, they will hear the voice of the Shepherd to return to His fold. See Ezekiel Chapter 34. It is a commentary on where we are today. His sheep will hear His voice and He will put them under shepherds who are not hirelings. If these are in the denominational system I do not know and frankly do not care, that is His business. There is a coming movement that is not based on spiritual experiences, spiritual gifts and new revelations but the true Revelation of Jesus Himself- this is the true Pentecost. This will cause us all to fall down out of our doctrinal positions and theology and embrace the person of Christ not as we have been taught Him but as He truly is. We will cry as Isaiah the prophet did ‘ Woe is me a man of unclean lips among an unclean people’. And we will come out to Jesus who still is waiting for us to put away our toys and spiritual amusements and think as men and women – no longer peering through a glass darkly but face to face. Having honesty about our true worthlessness and that it is only His goodness and mercy that will allow any of us to make it in—we are accepted. We will be a people with no confidence in ourselves but a high degree of confidence in Who has saved us. The gifts we exercise are to free the bound and captive not gain personal spiritual experiences. We agree with the Enemy of our souls we are worthless and we each have an Achilles heel regarding some area of weakness in our lives but it is that which drives us to Christ and silences the mouth of the accuser. It is because we agree with him that we will never be good enough and that in itself is the sound he cannot stand – it is the song of the redeemed; once his slaves now free, once bound by the religious spirit now freed – now that is truly ‘heartwarming’.