A post for my Pentecostal friends and family…
It was 1906
People in Topeka and Los Angeles were looking for… something.
What they found at the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles – tongue-speaking, ecstatic experiences, alleged prophesying and divine healing – gave birth to the modern Pentecostal movement.
[The Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission, Azusa Street, Los Angeles, circa 1907.]
It was 1979
I was 16, and I was looking for… something.
For the previous two years I had been becoming more and more aware of what some call the “God-shaped hole” in my soul. I had also recently learned what God’s “peg” was: the gospel.
My father and the pastor of the Pentecostal church we had begun attending told me the good news that God sent His only Son, Jesus, to rescue me by bearing the punishment for sin I deserved, so that I could receive pardon and eternal life through faith in Him. It wasn’t quite in those terms, but it was clear enough for me to understand. I refused and resisted at first, playing a game of cat and mouse with God. But eventually, as C. S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy, I discovered that I was the mouse, and having exhausted myself, surrendered to the Divine cat.
It was 1999
I was 36, and I was praying for people who were looking for… something.
I was a Pentecostal pastor, who alongside another pastor and a visiting evangelist, was laying on hands and praying for people who were crowding around the platform (Pentecostals call it “the altar”) after a rousing sermon and invitation that covered pretty much any possible spiritual or felt need the people had.
These people were sincere. Most, if not all, were Christians. Some wanted healing. Some wanted an answer to a specific prayer. Some wanted a greater sense of God’s presence in their lives. Some wanted freedom from sinful habits.
All were caught up in the swelling emotions of the crowd, the music, and the fervent, clamorous prayer.
And I, as I was laying hands on someone — I forget the face, the need, the gender — I thought to myself,
“You hypocrite! You know this emotion-driven form of religion is not what these people need, and yet here you are promoting it.”
It’s now 2012
I am 49, and no longer a Pentecostal pastor. I am a Christian lay person who identifies with the historic Reformed stream of faith. The more I studied the Bible, theology, and Church history, I found myself unwilling to embrace the modern Pentecostal stream of Christianity, even though it was that stream that introduced me to Jesus way back in ’79.
I’d like to tell you why because, frankly, I want to encourage every Pentecostal Christian to reconsider whether the modern Pentecostal stream flows as close to the ancient biblical river as it should.
To keep this tolerably short, I’ll just tell you where I stand today, and offer no defense. I’ll simply lay my cards on the table honestly, and I hope, with humility, as an offer of food for thought.
(btw – If you couldn’t care less about theological discussions you might want to stop here. Sorry.)
I have become convinced that…
1. Pentecostalism is on the wrong side of the Bible in the Arminian vs. Calvinist debate, a huge issue which impacts our understanding of God, freedom, sin, grace and salvation.
2. Pentecostalism wrongly sacrifices sound interpretation and application of biblical doctrine in favor of spiritual experiences. Officially many Pentecostals would deny this charge. But in practice, a person’s experience always seems to trump doctrine, so as to avoid “grieving the Spirit.”
3. Pentecostalism has been historically, and continues to be, an anti-intellectual movement, devaluing the development of Biblical thinking, and holding suspect the study of theology as a critical element of faithful Christian ministry. Most would deny this as well, but it’s the reality in the pew.
4. Pentecostalism wrongly promotes emotion-driven, crisis events to foster spiritual growth (e.g. “Revivals” and “Altar Calls” like the one I described above) instead of God’s regular (i.e. prescribed) means of grace: regular prayer, regular study and hearing of Scripture, and regular reception of the sacraments.
5. Despite claiming to preach “all the gospel,” Pentecostalism ends up distorting the gospel. It lacks biblical discernment because it eschews theological study. As a result, it perpetually falls victim to the fad-doctrines and false teachings of the latest charismatic personalities: prosperity teaching, word-faith, positive thinking, anti-trinitarianism, etc. Blown about by every wind of doctrine, the average Pentecostal will believe anything delivered with sizzle and style because biblical and theological training/catechism were never part of their spiritual growth plan.
6. The Pentecostal understanding of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit and speaking with other tongues is wrong. The familiar phrase from Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel…,” (Acts 2:16) referring to the miraculous events of that day is borrowed by modern Pentecostals to substantiate tongue-speaking today. But, I now believe today’s “this” is definitely not the ancient “that.”
7. Pentecostalism misunderstands the relation of the New Testament to the Old Testament. As a result, they are susceptible to modern theological errors like belief in a pre-tribulation rapture of the Church, an exclusively futurist reading of the book of Revelation, and a dispensational view of Israel’s role in God’s eternal plan.
And that’s the theological side of my departure from Pentecostalism story. As Martin Luther said to his examiners, “Here I stand. So help me God.”
Are you uncomfortable with the Pentecostal version of Christianity?
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