Over the past month, I’ve both requested help from the Pentecostal readers of this blog for assistance with my paper for the Society for Pentecostal Studies, and then posted that paper in several parts. All the while, I kept under wraps the controversy that surrounded my invitation to that group. I did so out of respect for my hosts.
But first, some background.
The Society for Pentecostal Studies began in 1970 and is an organization of scholars dedicated to providing a forum of discussion for all academic disciplines as a spiritual service to the kingdom of God. The purpose of the society is to stimulate, encourage, recognize, and publicize the work of Pentecostal and charismatic scholars; to study the implications of Pentecostal theology in relation to other academic disciplines, seeking a Pentecostal world-and-life view; and to support fully, to the extent appropriate for an academic society, the statement of purposes of the World Pentecostal Fellowship.
This last line will come into play later.
As often happens in academic guilds, the 2010 program was set prior to the 2009 meeting in Eugene, Oregon, and it was announced at that meeting. I was initially invited by Kimberly Alexander (PDF) on February 6, 2009. She told me that the 2010 conference was to be held at North Central University in the Twin Cities, and that the theme was to be “New Voices, New Visions: The Future and Hope of Pentecostal Theology.” She asked if I would address what the emerging church movement and Pentecostalism could learn from one another. I happily and readily accepted her invitation, and thought nothing of it…
…Until I heard from Kim again a few months later, when she informed me that my invitation had caused quite a kerfuffle. George Wood, the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God had caught wind of my invitation, and had emailed the Executive Director of SPS to express his dismay. In Wood’s opinion, inviting me to address this scholarly society was on par with asking someone who publicly advocates adultery, abortion, or bestiality. My advocacy of legal same sex marriage disqualified me from being an appropriate partner in conversation for Pentecostal scholars.
Over several months, many emails were exchanged (most of which I have not seen), and several conference calls convened. Wood attempted to get me disinvited from the conference, going so far as to threaten that any Assemblies of God-affiliated scholar would be told not to attend if I were allowed to speak (a threat that was not realized). A (temporary?) reapproachment was ultimately reached between SPS and the AG, in what Sanchez-Walsh calls “a conference call that was basically a shakedown of the leadership of the SPS.”
But then, North Central University turned up the heat, threatening to scuttle the entire conference if I was allowed to speak on their campus. I was assured by Kim that, in the name of academic freedom and integrity, the conference would be moved to a hotel nearby, even though SPS had no idea how they would pay for a relocation. NCU circulated the following statement:
Position of the NCU Executive Committee of the Board Regarding the Society of Pentecostal Studies and Tony Jones
- We, the Board of NCU, affirm our stand against the position taken by Tony Jones and express our extreme displeasure and disappointment with SPS for allowing a speaker with these expressed views to be featured at their conference;
- We are displeased with the insensitivity of SPS to our stated position on homosexuality which is consistent with our Pentecostal values;
- We will not host an SPS conference in the future if SPS does not change its process and values in the selection of speakers;
- We affirm that we will not allow Tony Jones to be a participant in any events on the NCU campus during the scheduled event in March 2010;
- We are opposed to homosexuality in any form. That this is consistent with our biblical world view, and that of mainstream Pentecostal theology and practice;
- We urge the leadership of SPS to take corrective action in the future to avoid this kind of division among Pentecostals;
- We urge SPS to promote the values of the World Pentecostal Fellowship.
The problems with this statement are manifold. First, both NCU and the AG knew of my invitation for months before starting to protest. Second, NCU at first stated that they would not act as censors, even though they were unhappy with the invitation extended to me. Third, SPS had decided to hold my plenary session off campus many months earlier, at some expense to them, and in sensitivity to NCU. And fourth, neither the AG nor NCU had ever before raised any objections to any speaker at SPS in years past, including some that are several clicks to my left.
In the end, it mattered not if another scholar present thought that a person is saved via the sacraments (which a couple of the Catholics priests present might contend) or that glossolalia is really a psychological hiccup. What mattered was that I’d violated the current shibboleth among evangelicals: What we do with the gays.
I commend the scholars in SPS for taking a stand for academic independence (particularly Kim Alexander, who had no idea the hot water she’d stepped in when she invited me), and I commend Arlene Sánchez-Walsh for resigning in December when she felt, according to her RD post, that she could no longer serve in the leadership of a society that had been compromised by the pressures of a confessional group.
But the problem for SPS, it seems, is that final line of their “About” statement:
…and to support fully, to the extent appropriate for an academic society, the statement of purposes of the World Pentecostal Fellowship.
With that statement, SPS is no longer a strictly academic gathering of the scholars of (and in) Pentecostalism, but is also committed to advancing the theological agenda of a confessional group. While I can find nothing on the World Pentecostal Fellowship website that refers to WPF “values,” they do have a purpose statement, under which there is a lengthy statement of faith, wherein one reads,
The optimum environment for society is the family. In observing not only life, but the quality of life of each individual, we understand the optimum environment for the growth, nurture, and well-being of each member of society is the biblical model of the family. This comprises one man and one woman as husband and wife, (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-9; Ephesians 5:22-25,28) married in accordance with law and biblical guidelines, an includes all the offspring of such a couple, whether biological or adopted (Psalms 127:3; James 1:27; Leviticus 14:29). The extended family is comprised of those relatives of blood and marriage resulting from the lawful union of a man and woman (Lev. 25:25; Numbers 27:6-11; Judges 18:19; Acts 10:2,11-14, 16:31,32). The family is the foundational social institution for the maintenance of an ordered society.
I guess that’s pretty clear (although I don’t know if they’ve read much of the Bible if they think that the biblical form of a family is a monogamous, nuclear family).
In her post, Sánchez-Walsh charges that SPS is not a true academic society, but an echo chamber in which confessionally committed scholars read papers to one another. In response, she has formed a new group, GloPent-Americas (Global Pentecostalisms in the Americas), that will meet in November, “for a reasoned conversation about all those things we could never talk about in the SPS echo chamber: sexuality, race, gender, politics, hegemony.”
Personally, I don’t think that SPS is a lost cause, but I do think that in order to achieve academic freedom, they will have to sever themselves from the theological commitments of the WPF.
The larger issue, I think, is how the tables have turned. Pentecostals, once (and sometimes still) kept out of groups of “orthodox” Christians because of their particularity (speaking in tongues), are now setting themselves up as the gatekeepers. With this context, I reprint here the final stanzas of my SPS paper:
Fourth, and finally, I think that the emergent movement might serve as the conscience of Pentecostalism. I know that it hasn’t always been easy to be Pentecostal over the past century. Often, Pentecostals have been misunderstood, caricatured, and even sinned against by the rest of the Christian church. I imagine, for instance, that it’s harder to get tenure at a public university if you speak in tongues. And I bet it’s harder to get elected to political office. I know that recently, the Southern Baptist Convention has attempted to purge itself of Pentecostals. And it doesn’t take much time in Google to discover that the very elements of faith that you consider spiritual gifts, others within Christendom regard as marks of the devil.
To me, this kind of behavior among fellow Christians borders on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. I take Jesus’ admonition against blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12 extremely seriously, as should all Christians. So much so, that I think our default response to novel movements within the church should be that they are of God, not that they are diabolical. Because if we get it wrong – if we point to something that is the work of the Spirit and instead claim that it’s the work of the devil – well, I don’t need to tell you that kind of mistake comes with consequences.
And yet, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding my invitation, it doesn’t take long for those who were once excluded to become the new gatekeepers. In only a century, the tables have turned, insofar as some from outside this group, self-appointed “theology police” it seems, attempted to interfere with the academic discourse fostered by SPS. It’s just ironic to me that it wasn’t so very long ago that the “tongue-talking holy rollers” would have been the ones moved off campus. In other words, don’t forget your roots, and don’t forget what the experience of being the outsider, the misunderstood one.