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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal

Symbolism

Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Pentecostal iconography is similar to traditional Christian symbols.  Unique to Pentecostalism, and heavily influenced by Holiness roots, are a variety of dress codes, which for clergy symbolize authority, and for lay people symbolize piety and modesty.

Symbols, if they appear at all in Pentecostalism, appear mostly in worship services, where biblical references to flags, banners, and dancing have been updated to reflect the growth of deliverance ministries.  Pentecostals adhere to many of the traditional symbols of Christianity.  The cross, fire, doves, water, and oil are among the many biblical symbols they have adopted.  The iconography of the Holy Spirit, like some other branches of Protestantism, is focused on the tongues of fire image from Acts and the dove.  The fire image is especially interesting since fire is one of the supernatural occurrences reported at many revivals. For example, one of the most famous iconic pictures of noted healing evangelist William Branham (1909-1965) is a photograph in which Branham is pictured with what appears to be a halo of fire around his head. Branham, a healer and a prophet, was among the select Pentecostals whose reputation allowed them to be associated with iconography, not unlike Catholic or Orthodox saints.  

Another bit of traditional iconography that has seeped into Pentecostalism exists only among the African American churches, which allow liturgical dress for their clergy.  These clergy usually dress in robes and stoles, and some use collars and crosses.  While this overtly liturgical dress is reserved for clergy, a more implicit but nevertheless symbolic dress for Pentecostals are the varied dress codes that most, if not all, denominations require of their members.  Dress codes symbolize modesty, uniformity, and piety.  In some Holiness-inspired denominations, men and women are forbidden from wearing jewelry and are generally forbidden from any type of ostentatious clothing, especially clothing viewed as immodest.  

Pentecostals, like many other evangelicals, follow the iconoclastic sentiments of their Reformation precursors, preferring to meet in churches with little or no overt symbolism other than a cross and the occasional tongue of fire or dove symbol.  If there are certain biblical verses that form the core of a denomination's message, those verses may be placed on a wall. There may be a denominational banner or flag along with the other flags, such as the American flag and-at multicultural churches-flags from representative countries.  Banners may be used in church during worship, and can symbolize a myriad of things in Pentecostal churches.  

Banners used in church, especially banners of certain colors, symbolize things the particular ministry wishes to emphasize; if the church wishes to focus on deliverance ministry, for instance, the banner may have God symbolized as the Lion of Judah, and the banner may be draped over a person during prayer time to symbolize a victory over the demonic influence and a breaking of that influence.  For churches wishing to emphasize healing, banners that have anointing oil symbolically running over the sides demonstrate this.  These banners, or smaller versions of them, are draped over the person seeking healing. Larger banners and flags are also used in public professions of faith, when Pentecostals engage in prayer walks around particular buildings, or at certain events that either they support or are opposed to (flags symbolizing the Lion of Judah at an anti-gang rally in Los Angeles, or flags imprinted with certain Bible verses outside Planned Parenthood offices).
 
Historically, Pentecostals like Aimee McPherson have used banners and flags to express public professions of faith.  These banners are also used to add a different dimension to worship; in particular, dance ministries will often use these flags as an integral part of worship. Dance has always been a part of Pentecostal worship; dancing in the Spirit has been one of the more controversial practices, since it is uncontrollable and often displays more sensuality than Pentecostals are comfortable with.  Because it is a Holy Spirit-inspired practice, however, dancing cannot be forbidden, and so it becomes part of a liturgical practice, complete with costumes and accoutrements such as tambourines and banners, which serve to create the appropriate distance between the sacred and secular art form.

 
     
     
     
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