Principles of Moral Thought and Action
Written by: Arlene Sanchez WalshOne area where Pentecostals share much ground with their evangelical colleagues is the emphasis both put on piety. For Pentecostals, the principle of moral thought with the most theological weight is that which focuses solely on piety or holiness. What defines moral thought for Pentecostals emanates from the Bible, specifically the work of the apostle Paul-Pentecostals are very Pauline in their outlook on what is moral. The focus on the role of the Holy Spirit's immediate inspiration is also key to Pentecostal ethics. Pentecostals tend to believe that a Spirit-filled person will have the Holy Spirit as his or her internal moral compass for making sound moral and ethical decisions. This has been one reason for the numerous ethical scandals that have plagued Pentecostalism.
Early histories of most Pentecostal denominations show sympathy to pacifist causes. Frank Bartleman (1871-1935), a promoter of the Azusa Street revival, was a pacifist and fierce critic of capitalist excess, viewing the exploitation of workers and excessive materialism as a sin awaiting the wrath of God. Bartleman never developed a moral theology to accommodate his politics; he is, in this regard, emblematic of many early Pentecostal ministers whose quasi-populist sentiments found no theological home in early Pentecostalism. Without theological support for political positions, both the theology and the political positions have changed to suit the circumstances.
Early leaders of the Assemblies of God were deeply conflicted over whether to remain pacifist during World War II, though the denomination was officially pacifist during World War I and many remained pacifist until the Korean War. As the Assemblies began to move toward a deeper eschatological view of current events, some believed that events such as the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Dust Bowl (1930s) signaled the end of the world. The Assemblies of God magazine, the Pentecostal Evangel, began running a column around 1916 called the "Passing and the Permanent" that addressed the events of the time within the schema of biblical prophecy. This reading of history as a spiritual gauge of proximity to the second coming of Jesus did more to alter Pentecostal principles of moral thought and action that any theological instruction.
The piety that has always guided Pentecostal moral theology has not changed over time. Early Pentecostals remained very closely allied with their Holiness counterparts in being suspicious of anything that smacked of worldliness. Looking again at the Pentecostal Evangel, it seems that Pentecostals were very much like many of their Protestant kin who abhorred the wide availability of alcohol during Prohibition, and seemed generally troubled by what they saw as the U.S. capitulating to "worldly" temptations. Throughout the magazine's early run, from 1914-1940, there are countless testimonials of people being healed from drinking and from drug abuse (morphine and other opiates), and generally being delivered from morally vacuous behavior such as too much worldly dancing and other amusements.
Principles of moral thought and action for Pentecostals have broadened out beyond those that offend their sense of piety, though piety is still the moral agent with the most value. While some Pentecostals and other evangelicals saw the slow steady accommodation their churches made to popular culture as scandalous (allowing their people to attend movies, sporting events, watching TV, dancing, listening to non-Christian music), nearly all denominations accepted that accommodation as the price of "doing business" with an American culture enthralled with entertainment.
Broadening the idea of moral thought or theology beyond piety has been a difficult thing to accomplish. Unless there is a specific biblical example demonstrating that the action is acceptable, such as helping widows and orphans, Pentecostals for the most part have not seen the need to expand their moral universe beyond the internal world of people's thoughts and their socially inappropriate behavior. Of course there are examples of Pentecostal churches that undertake acts of community service, and there are numerous churches that work with parachurch organizations like Habitat for Humanity, raise funds for AIDS awareness, and have thriving outreach works to dispossessed peoples in their communities. These examples, though, often are individually driven, and have not been a part of the larger denomination's vision of moral theology. Because this has been the case, Pentecostalism, at least in the American context, has not found wide acceptance for stretching morality beyond the borders of perceived sinful behavior.
One of the most significant shifts in Pentecostalism's character since its inception has been its attitude toward money and possessions. For much of the 20th century Pentecostals considered "conspicuous consumption" a sin. Sometime in the 1970s things changed. Now most Pentecostals think of financial prosperity as God's blessing. Along with that has come a definite dampening of revival fires among Pentecostals and especially singing and preaching about heaven.