Holding Our Distinctives More Lightly (Pentecostalism As a Case Study)

Holding Our Distinctives More Lightly (Pentecostalism As a Case Study) January 19, 2013

My recent post was about how my spiritual life has been enriched by the distinctive beliefs and practices of many different Christian traditions. Without taking anything I said there back, now I want to talk about how distinctive Christian traditions hold their distinctives, how they treat them and other Christians who do not (or no longer) believe in them.

I’m going to use Pentecostalism as my case study because I’m so familiar with it. And was expelled from the movement because I questioned a distinctive that is not central to the gospel or Christian orthodoxy. And it is a distinctive that I think, like many held by particular Christian traditions, ought to be held more loosely.

Let me begin with a rather simplistic delineation of Christian beliefs in three categories. I have used this rubric in several of my books and many people have told me they find it helpful.

I think most Christians recognize that, among the beliefs they hold, there are three levels of importance. First, there are “dogmas.” (I am not using these category labels in a dictionary way; they are simply my chosen labels for these categories.) Second, there are “doctrines.” (Of course, “doctrine” has many meanings. Here I’m using it in my own way–to label this category.) Third, there are “opinions.”

The category I am labeling “dogmas” includes those beliefs a person holds to be essential to authentic Christianity. (Not necessarily to being “saved.” That’s a whole other subject–whether and to what extent “Christian” and “saved” are identical or overlapping categories. Let’s set that aside for now.) A “dogma,” then, is a belief that cannot be denied by someone who is authentically Christian. (I’m not talking about children or imbeciles. We make exceptions for people who can’t know or understand.) An example that most Christians would agree on is “the deity of Jesus Christ.” The World Council of Churches has, at least in the past, required member denominations to affirm that “Jesus Christ is God and Savior.” Several denominations that want to join the WCC have not been allowed to because they do not affirm that belief as true.

The category I am labeling “doctrine” includes beliefs a person thinks are important but not essential. These are denominational distinctives that, unless they are elevated to the status of dogmas in practice, do not normally interfere with fellowship with other Christians. For example, MOST (not all) Christian denominations would say that views of the millennium and Christ’s return in relation to it are matters of, at most, doctrine and not dogma. Many evangelical denominations have doctrines about Christ’s return in relation to the millennium. Other doctrines have to do with the sacraments, election/predestination, church polity, etc.

Of course, what beliefs belong in which category can differ a great deal. But we TEND to think that, for example, elevating premillennialism to the status of dogma (as some fundamentalists have done) is wrong. When Baptist fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley, for example, elevated premillennialism to a “fundamental of the faith,” that signaled a major shift in fundamentalism–from militant defense of Christian orthodoxy to (as Fuller president Carnell called it) “orthodoxy gone cultic.” It meant, for example, that fundamentalist theologian and leader J. Gresham Machen was not orthodox and maybe not a Christian!

“Opinions” is the label I give to the category of beliefs that may be interesting to debate and advocate but should not be tests of fellowship in any sense–not even within a denomination or individual congregation or Christian organization. Most Christians intuitively put into this category beliefs about such things as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (That was a serious subject of debate in the middle ages because it had to do with the nature of angels and whether they occupy space or not.)

A major point of division among Christians, including evangelicals, is what beliefs properly belong in the “opinion” category and what ones properly belong in the “doctrine” category. Many denominations have doctrines other people think should be held as opinions. I could express that the other way around: Many denominations relegate to the status of opinion beliefs other Christians think should be held as doctrines.

I don’t want to portray these as static categories; the closer you look at them the more “space” there seems to be between them. For example, what happens to “the deity of Jesus Christ” when you ask about whether that is compatible with belief in the Son of God’s self-emptying for the sake of true humanity (i.e., “kenosis” as held by “kenotic Christology”)? Does someone who insists strongly on the deity of Christ as dogma allow someone who believes that, due to kenosis, Jesus was not omniscient or omnipotent during his earthly life? Some Christians would pack a lot more into “the deity of Jesus Christ” than others. Things can get very complicated very quickly. There’s no space or time for that here….

My point is simply that, however, complicated the rubric is when examined closely, MOST Christians recognize that their own and others’  beliefs fall into three general categories of importance. Someone who denies what I consider a dogma and who is educated enough to understand it is not a Christian. Someone who denies what I consider a doctrine may be a Christian but probably should not be a member or at least not a minister of my denomination. Someone who denies what I consider an opinion may be a Christian and a member in good standing (even a minister) of my denomination but, given the right circumstances, I will want to convince him or her of the truth of my belief.

So what about Pentecostalism? I consider it a good case study in how what should be considered opinion has been wrongly elevated to doctrine (and in the case of some Oneness Pentecostals to dogma).

I can’t help but begin with my own story. Hopefully the many years since these events happened have softened my perspective so I’m able now to look at things a bit more objectively (i.e., without emotion).

I grew up in “the thick” of Pentecostalism. But we were “evangelical Pentecostals.” The denomination I grew up in was a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. We were trinitarian Pentecostals (some aren’t). I was taught, as virtually all Pentecostals (what we called “Full Gospel” folks) were then, that a Christian could not be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” “endued with power,” “possess the ‘second blessing’,” unless they spoke in tongues. Speaking in unintelligible (to the person speaking) language as enabled by the Holy Spirit was considered the only “initial, physical evidence” of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” which every Christian needs to live a fulfilled, empowered Christian life of witness and service. Non-Spirit filled Christians maybe saved, but they are not completed (I was taught). We were given all kinds of cliches to express this. For example: “In salvation the Holy Spirit becomes resident but in Spirit baptism the Holy Spirit becomes president.”

Now some other evangelical Christians, especially in the “Holiness movement,” believe as Pentecostals do that Spirit baptism is subsequent to conversion–even if only by a few seconds, but ONLY Pentecostals believe AS DOCTRINE, not mere opinion, that speaking in tongues is the necessary evidence of being Spirit filled or baptized in the Holy Spirit. And some non-Pentecostals believe in and practice tongues speaking. For example, some Vineyard people speak in tongues, but the Vineyard isn’t Pentecostal in the technical sense because they do not teach as doctrine that speaking in tongues is the “initial, physical evidence” of Spirit baptism.

So, the distinctive doctrine that sets Pentecostalism apart from everything else is speaking in tongues as the necessary initial, physical evidence of the second blessing (subsequence) of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Everything else Pentecostals believe they share with some other Christian groups.

I accepted this doctrine without doubt or question until my third year in a Pentecostal college. It was then that I began to have doubts about it. I asked my Bible and theology professors about this and, for the most part, they brushed me off. It was not acceptable then and there to ask question; for the most part we were only to listen and learn. But, having an inquiring mind, I pressed the issue–much to my professors’ and college administrators’ dismay. And to the dismay of many of my family members who were Pentecostal missionaries or pastors or evangelists or administrators. My uncle was president of our denomination for twenty-five years.

What I finally asked was “Where is it clearly stated in Scripture that a person must speak in tongues in order to be baptized in the Holy Spirit?” Of course, I was shown what I already knew–that in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles people spoke in tongues four out of five times when Spirit baptism is mentioned specifically. But what I wanted to know what about that exception. What I pressed on was not whether speaking in tongues is “for today” (I wasn’t tempted toward cessationism) but whether it is an iron clad rule that a person cannot be Spirit filled without speaking tongues.

As I thought about the issue more, I came to the conclusion that basing a doctrine, as opposed to an opinion, on historical events without supporting didactic teaching to nail it down is fallacious. I realized at some point this distinctive Pentecostal doctrine was dividing us from other evangelicals. Not that we couldn’t have fellowship, but many evangelicals didn’t want to have fellowship with us because we were saying they were not Spirit filled and we were actively proselytizing their “sheep.”

During my college years I had many encounters with non-Pentecostal evangelicals. I attended the Tri-State Youth for Christ “rally” in Evanston, Indiana in 1971. There were thousands of Christian young people there, many of them newly minted Christians who called themselves “Jesus Freaks.” Larry Norman sang “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and there were other well-known bands associated with the early days of the Jesus People Movement (e.g., Crimson Bridge). A church in the city where I lived and attended college became the center of the local Jesus People Movement and it wasn’t Pentecostal. The charismatic movement was really taking off and many Pentecostals (including my father) were becoming involved in it. Many charismatics were non-Pentecostals who believed in the gifts of the Holy Spirit but did not necessarily speak in tongues and most of them did not think speaking in tongues was the “initial, physical evidence” of some “second blessing.” They considered it a “prayer language.” My head was beginning to spin because here were manifestly spiritual men and women of God engaging in powerful ministries who did not speak in tongues.

Then Billy Graham’s book The Holy Spirit was published. I don’t know the exact time of its first publication, but it was around the time that I was struggling with this issue. I bought it and read it, looking especially for any mention of speaking in tongues. The only thing I found was his denial of ever having spoken in tongues. He didn’t dismiss it as unimportant. That is, he didn’t take the cessationist line. But he clearly denied ever having spoken in tongues. I had been taught for years that Billy Graham MUST have spoken in tongues and just didn’t want to admit it. How else could he have such a powerful ministry?

Two things happened during my final year of college. A loving professor who I admired very much and who was gentle with me (unlike most) invited the president of our Pentecostal denomination to speak to his class about this subject. The man was not my uncle. My uncle had taken a brief hiatus from serving as president. This man was a major Pentecostal leader who was instrumental in the founding of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America. And he was a very close friend of my parents. I went to class eagerly thinking “Surely he has the answer to my questions. Surely he’ll settle my doubts.” He preached for forty-five minutes on why speaking in tongues is the only, necessary, initial, physical evidence of Spirit baptism. When he finished he asked for questions. My hand shot up. I pointed out that he hadn’t shown us any passage of Scripture that clearly stated the doctrine; he had only shown us what we all already knew–the so-called “pattern” in Acts. He glowered down at me and said with eyes ablaze and jaw clenched “If we didn’t believe it, we wouldn’t be Pentecostals, would we?” My heart sank.

Later I made an appointment with the man which I could do because he was such a close friend of the family. I asked him about Billy Graham and pointed out that Billy Graham said he had never spoken in tongues. His first answer was that maybe he had and didn’t remember it. But I think he realized the absurdity of that as he said it. Finally he said “Well, Billy Graham is the exception.” I was stunned because I had been taught there cannot be “exceptions.” This is a doctrine that admitted no exceptions. I asked him if I could be ordained in the denomination and believe there are exceptions to the doctrine. He didn’t give me a straight answer. So I asked him if someday I could teach at a Pentecostal college such as ours and teach that there are exceptions. He said no. I was shocked, dismayed and disappointed at the lameness of the man’s handling of my questions and concerns.

Eventually, of course, I was “invited” to leave the denomination of my family in which I had had many wonderful experiences. It was like a divorce. I knew my family believed I was backsliding and was praying for me. Years later, as a Baptist, I went to teach theology at Oral Roberts University. That confused my family and their Pentecostal friends! What they didn’t realize was that by then Oral Roberts did not believe speaking in tongues is the initial, physical evidence of Spirit Baptism. And he did not require speaking in tongues for faculty members. He was then a “charismatic United Methodist.” But the faculty represented most denominations including Roman Catholic (the dean of the School of Arts and Science) and Eastern Orthodox (a theology professor).

I came to believe that, lacking clear Scriptural support in the didactic portions of the New Testament, and lacking support in Christian tradition (before 1901), the key Pentecostal doctrine should not be “doctrine” at all but should be, at most, opinion. I had no problem with people who held it as opinion. My problem was with holding onto it as a doctrine–and especially as more and more Pentecostals, including ordained ministers, stopped believing in it. I have met literally scores of ordained Pentecostals over the years who admit to me they do not believe that doctrine but “go along in order to get along.” Some of them are required to sign a card annually re-affirming their belief in the doctrine. They cross their fingers and sign it because they have nowhere else to go and their Pentecostal denomination is their home. I left home rather than pretend.

I believe to this day that Pentecostalism has been a great renewing movement of God’s Spirit. However, it needs to give up its distinctive doctrine and reduce that to opinion. Some Pentecostal denominations are on that path, but most have a long way to go yet.

What I wish is that all denominations held their distinctive doctrines more lightly–especially when they have no or little biblical support or support from Christian tradition. And especially if leaders of those denominations are willing to admit “exceptions” to them (when they are worded so as to exclude exceptions). And perhaps especially when a large number of leading pastors no longer believe in them.

It is not my intention to pick on Pentecostals. I still have dear friends and family members in that movement. I only use it as a case study. Most denominations have something like the Pentecostal distinctive doctrine–a doctrinal belief that isn’t clearly taught in Scripture, or is at least open to other interpretations by Bible-believing Christians, and that tends to divide from other even evangelical Christians. I would put premillennialism and especially pre-trib rapturism in that category. These may not so much cause division from other Christians as force good, faithful members out when they no longer believe in them. I happen to be premillennial, but I don’t think it should have “doctrine” status. I attend a church were it does not. (In fact, I might be the only premillennialist in the entire church!)

I call on all denominations to go through their doctrines and weed out those that 1) have no clear biblical foundation and 2) are historically peculiar in terms of evangelical tradition, and 3) do not really serve any important purpose in terms of strengthening spiritual life. Demote these to opinion status. It doesn’t mean they can’t be taught by pastors and others, but they should not be tests of fellowship.

 

 

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