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.



"Thank you, but I fear many millennials I know would disagree. :)"

Thank God for Mormons
"I didn't say the collective unconscious is unanalyzable. I said it is unobservable. May I ..."

Is Absolute Refusal to Contemplate the ..."
"I'm not very excited; I will miss teaching very much. But I sort of look ..."

Thank God for Mormons
"Please don't lump me in with that American conservative seminary professor. My complaint is that ..."

Thank God for Mormons

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • gingoro

    Very well said Roger! I have been thinking along the same lines for quite a while.

  • John Metz

    Roger, thanks for another enlightening post.
    I initially began this comment with a recital of the denominations that trace back to the Azusa Street revival and their differences on tongues & Spirit baptism but realized this was not your point. You merely used tongues and the baptism of the Spirit as an example of how we can elevate non-essential teachings (doctrines and opinions) to the level of things essential to the Christian faith (dogmas). There are tons of other things that can be so elevated! And insistence on non-essential matters can produce division, as history testifies. I especially liked your brief comments on our common belief in the deity of Christ as a ‘dogma’ versus differences that can arise from interpretation of the details of this essential belief.
    Some of the current debates among Christians could use a dose of this post!

  • Dustin Payne

    Well said. I had a similar experience growing up in Pentecostalism, and I’ve noticed a denominational shift that has occurred in order to deal with this particular doctrine issue in the form of non-denominational “spirit-filled” churches. They have simply moved the doctrine of speaking in tongues to that of an opinion, which has subsequently triggered more yet another avenue in which Pentecostalism continues to spread.

    • I actually attend a non-denominational “Spirit filled” church like the one mentioned above. I appreciate that the doctrine of speaking in tongues has been moved to an opinion for the most part in my church. It seems to me that at least in my area of southwest Missouri, Pentecostal churches are becoming much more accepting of people who disagree with that opinion.

      • rogereolson

        I question whether a church that does not require belief in speaking in tongues as the initial physical evidence of the infilling of the Holy Spirit for candidates for ordination is classically Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal. Many churches have distinctives they do not require of mere members. I always look to what is required for ordination, licensure or ministerial credentials.

        • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

          I often wonder how, or even whether, Gordon Fee maintains his AG credentials, given the number of “Foundational Truths” he has directly questioned or even challenged in print or in recorded sermons.

          • rogereolson

            I don’t know Fee personally. But I have heard from his former colleagues that he felt marginalized by his denomination because of his doubts about some of its key doctrines. I do not know that Fee does/did this (I don’t know anything about his present status), but I have known numerous intelligent and faithful Pentecostal ministers and scholars over the years who found some way to sign the annual reaffirmation of key doctrines including “initial, physical evidence” while doubting it.

  • Steve Rogers

    Well said, Roger. I had similar conversations with the same denominational president (not your uncle). He vigorously objected to a proposal my region brought to the national floor to soften the initial evidence language. His closing argument was our denomination will be kicked out of the PFNA (Pentecostal Fellowship of North America) if we do this. Anyway, they have moved on and so have I. Hopefully, all our affinity groups will be faithful in weeding out mere opinions that masquerade as dogmas and doctrine that have more to do with tribalism than truth.

    • rogereolson

      If I’m not mistaken, you were instrumental in bringing about such a change in that denomination’s statement of faith. As I recall, it doesn’t go as far as I would wish, but it might have made it possible for me to remain. No sure that would have been a good thing, though, as there are other issues.

  • Craig Wright

    I remember back in the 70s, in a discussion with members of the Four Square church where my in-laws attended, about the topic of tongues. I mentioned that Billy Graham did not speak in tongues, and their answer was,”But think of how much better of a Christian he could be if he did.” Obviously, absurd, and another example of how I have used Billy Graham as a prototype (from your previous article on defining evangelicals).
    Another consideration is a church’s stance on social issues, such as homosexuality. Is this opinion or doctrine?

    • rogereolson

      Just for the sake of clarity, I would distinguish between “homosexuality” as an issue of personal ethics and “homosexuality” as an issue of social ethics. For example, a person or church might believe that homosexual practice is sin (personal ethics) but argue that homosexuals should be able to marry or enter into civil unions (social ethics). To be sure, the issues overlap and the line between “personal” and “social” ethics is sometimes indistinct. But I can also imagine that a person (or church) might believe and teach that homosexual practice (two persons of the same gender engaging in sex) is not always sin while simultaneously believing and teaching that “gay marriage” is a step too far in terms of changing social arrangements. (I don’t know of any such church, but I have met individuals who so separated the issues.) Usually these ethical stances are not put in the category of “doctrine” but made matters of church polity and practice by denominational resolutions.

      • Roger, can you expand just a bit on the difference between denominational polity issues and matters of doctrine?

        • rogereolson

          Certainly church polity can be doctrinal. What I was thinking of with that distinction is denominational fine tuning of polity. For example, a denomination decides to include bishops from another denomination in all its ordinations (in order to achieve apostolic succession). Yes, that implies something going on doctrinally, but such a decision is usually considered something other than “doctrine.” A person might disagree with it and yet agree with all the historic doctrines of the denomination. Some years ago an evangelical denomination decided not to ordain women anymore. Is that a doctrine? I prefer to keep “doctrine” in the realm of beliefs about Scripture, God, salvation, etc.

  • K Gray

    I have long thought that “distictives” are often things which a new Christian does not need to learn early on, and would not necessarily be included in a “one hour to live” scenario ( that is, if we had a chance to talk to someone with one hour to live, what would we tell him/her about God, Christ, life, death, sin and salvation? What is the ‘good news’?). Of course, most of us will live longer than that and need to get along and serve God the church and in the world. But more and more of us find freedom in service where distinctives are least valued, including nondenominational churches and

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Thank you for your story. It brought back my own struggle with tongues that I wrestled with during my late teens and early twenties. You and Dr. Don Alexander were a tremendous help to me in sorting out the issues. I’m very sorry that you were “invited” to leave the denomination, your heritage – in my story, I only lost a girlfriend.
    It gives me some pause in my new church (Ev Free) in expressing some of my non-standard Christian thoughts. I’d rather not be invited to leave, now that we’ve made some friends and gotten ourselves in the directory.

    • rogereolson

      One thing I’ve always admired about the EvFree denomination (my grandparents’ spiritual home) is its holding to the motto “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” and keeping the “essentials” category relatively unpopulated.

  • Jenny Bell

    Dr. Olson,

    I wonder whether you have the time/interest in discussing somewhat of a side note, namely, what makes something a dogma and whether you think the Christian church may be “too dogmatic” with regard to the Trinity & Deity of Christ?? (or if you have any idea when you might compose the blog you alluded to [( …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.)]

    To be completely candid, as I write this, I am quietly and intensely struggling with the doctrine of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ. I recently discovered “christian monotheism” and have been blown away by the plausibility of their arguments (I had never even stopped to consider what “unitarianism” actually meant and always just chalked them all up as liberal universalists!) Add to that the fact that I’d already come to view the Trinity as a non-essential for salvation, and my recent enlightenment with regards to the apparent atrocious history of the church in defining its orthodoxy (particularly notable considering I’d always had the impression that these were such godly guys and the issues were so unanimously decided upon (i.e. that Arius was so obviously the heretic and whatnot)). And I’m left terrified of becoming an apostate and wondering if I’m the only one who has struggled with this…

    One specific question I do have, I’ve never understood the emphasis placed on the tradition of the church fathers. I understand that it’s logical that if truth is knowable and desirable then its likely to be found among the majority, but since the church at large has been wrong many times in the past, how can we be confident of their conclusions?

    And back to the topic of your post, would you agree that the proper level category of a belief should directly correlate with its clarity in Scripture?

    I apologize for breaking normal “blog etiquette” with my personal comments, but as I am in somewhat of a desperate place, and as I respect the amount of thoughtfulness you put into your positions, I figured it couldn’t hurt to at least see whether you have any thoughts to share.

    Jenny Bell

    P.S. I discovered and have been following your blog since around the time of the “Rob Bell debate,” though I don’t read all of your posts and many are much beyond me, I respect and concur with a lot of the ones I do read and understand. I don’t think I’ve ever commented before, but I thought about it once, so I can’t remember if I did or not (Did I tell you my theory on why people spell your name wrong? I think its because they see your middle initial “E” but don’t register fully that it’s a middle initial because they are reading so quickly. Thus, they remember that there’s an E but don’t remember where so they misspell your last name– that’s my theory at least).

    • rogereolson

      That’s an interesting and plausible explanation of why many people spell my name “Olsen” rather than “Olson.” I’ve always puzzled over this since “Olson” is a much more common spelling of the name (at least in the U.S.). The reason I put “E.” in my signature and on my books and articles is to distinguish myself from several Roger Olsons I’ve encountered (if only indirectly) who were scoundrels. I once spoke at a church whose immediately previous pastor was “Roger Olson” and was in prison for defrauding church members. They declined to put my name on the church sign announcing my talk. I fully understood. “Roger Olson” is an extremely common name in some parts of the country, so I have to distinguish myself from others.

      I addressed your questions in The Mosaic of Christian Belief. I’ll be briefer here. One reason I believe in the Trinity is that, having read the second century church fathers (some of who knew the apostles) and Celsus, a major Roman opponent of Christianity, I am certain second century Christians were robustly trinitarian. They may not have figured out all the “ins” and “outs” of the doctrine, but Celsus, for example, ridicules them for believing in “three gods” and worshiping a “man as God.” I take second century church father Irenaeus very seriously because he was tutored in the Christian faith by Polycarp who was tutored in the Christian faith by John, the Apostle and disciple of Jesus. The claim that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented under Constantine in the fourth century (made by some people, not necessarily you) is utter nonsense. While the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, there is no way to make sense of all the Bible says about God without the idea of Trinity. Triunity IS “Christian monotheism.” I find most God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians who reject the Trinity simply don’t understand the doctrine. Please read The Trinity, a book I co-authored with Christopher Hall (published by Eerdmans).

      • Jenny Bell

        thanks a million dr. olson!
        so, am I correct in presuming you wouldn’t automatically condemn all Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, and Christian Monotheists (Biblical Unitarians) to Hell then?

        • Jenny Bell

          never mind. I found the other post. Thanks again!

        • rogereolson

          That is God’s business and none of mine (thank God!).

  • MF

    Great thoughts and I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.

    I know its not really the main point you’re making, but I do wonder whether Pentecostalism outside of North America is somewhat less rigid with regards to initial evidence… my experience in NZ would be of quite a diversity on this issue among churches that would consider themselves to be Pentecostal. I guess it does depend on the definition of Pentecostalism one uses – and certainly those who are historically connected to Classical Pentecostalism in Nth America/Azusa Street do seem more emphatic about initial evidence.

    • rogereolson

      I think the word “Pentecostal” has been stretched by sociologists especially to include most “Renewalist” Christian movements, especially those that believe in contemporary miracles and the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues. I resist stretching the term to cover too much. To me, the distinctive doctrine that makes a church Pentecostal is the initial, physical evidence doctrine. There are other churches (e.g., “Third Wave”) that believe in and practice tongues and prophecy, etc., but that do not teach the initial, physical evidence doctrine. I don’t categorize them as classically Pentecostal. Now, if enough Pentecostals change on this, I will have to revise my definition.

      • MF

        Yes – and in that stretching “Classical Pentecostals” are often defined as a subset of a broader definition of ‘Pentecostalism’ that includes Charismatics, Third Wave, Renewalists etc. In the numbers that are thrown around advocating the growth of Pentecostalism worldwide, Classical Pentecostals are a diminishing percentage of that figure. My experience is that younger Pentecostals coming through the church are far less committed to the initial evidence doctrine, but still self-identify as Pentecostals – so perhaps we will see a changing definition over time.

        • rogereolson

          Yes, the definition is changing–with sociologists of religion leading the way. But, as a theologian, I am reluctant to follow the sociologists whenever they redefine something (e.g., fundamentalism as all religious anti-modernism).

  • Your post is thought-provoking. It seems to me that most of us “mellow” as we get older. Although a friend once told me “mellow” is close to “rotten.” We begin to think through our views on some, and maybe many, subjects, and come to realize that our dogmatism is not always necessary and good. Many years ago, I heard an elderly fundamental Baptist leader say that as he got older he no longer had all the answers like he once did. He was still committed, as he should have been, to his beliefs, but seemed to have gotten more tolerant of the views of others on non-fundamental issues, the result being he no longer had to fight about them. All that said, let me quote something from your post: You wrote,”That’s a whole other subject–whether and to what extent ‘Christian’ and ‘saved’ are identical or overlapping categories.” Dr. Olson, I can’t see a distinction in the Scriptures between those who were Christians and those who were saved. If you were one, you were the other.

    • rogereolson

      Somewhere in the archives is a lengthy (as is my usual approach) post about that distinction. I don’t recall the title of it, though. I hope you can find it. In brief (these things are very difficult to express “in brief”)–a God-fearer who was saved by Abrahamic faith at the time of Christ and who never heard of Jesus was surely not “unsaved” by Jesus’ death on the cross.

      • Jenny Bell

        i think this is it? (why is it so hard to find stuff on your blog?)

        from your posts in general i understand that you have a heart to move evangelicals towards a greater “salvific generosity.” (this is one of the reasons i respect you).

        but like the commenter above (though maybe from the opposite end) I wonder if the terms salvation and christian should be more connected??? does the Christian church need to be more generous in terms of salvation AND likewise more generous in terms of its orthodoxy?? as I seriously and openly examine the case of the biblical unitarians, I am continually humbled and challenged and confused and honestly afraid. Is my fear more a legitimate fear of misinterpreting scripture or more a consequence of stingy orthodoxy??

        this is why I asked whether you thought the level category of distinctive (dogma, doctrine, opinion) should directly correlate with its clarity in Scripture.

        Of course, here I have in mind specifically the doctrines of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ… Are they really as clear as we like to think?? (My apologies for again taking liberties and steering the conversation off topic, but as I am no theologian, no Greek scholar, and no church historian, I am yearning for feedback from the Christian community and people more knowledgeable than I (yes I am initiating conversations with people in my life, but much of the time I still feel alone and impatient for more). Consider how biblical unitarians (it seems this term is preferable to “christian monotheists” but i understand they go by both) understand Phil 2, for example:
        From Professor of Greek at Moody Bible Institute, Kenneth S. Wuest, himself a Trinitarian, we learn that in Koine Greek the word morphe had come to refer to “a station in life, a position one holds, one’s rank. And that is an approximation of morphe in this context [Philippians 2]” (The Practical Use of the Greek New Testament, p. 84). How can we be sure that morphe in Philippians 2:6 means “station in life [status], rank, position,” and not “inherent nature,” as some translators or commentators would interpret the Greek word (see NIV on Philippians 2:6, for example)? Here we appeal to the immediate context to help us understand how Paul is using the word. In verse 7 he says that Christ took the “form,” the morphe, of a servant — literally, of a slave. What does this mean? Does morphe suggest that a servant has some kind of “inherent nature” that would constitute him a slave, or does it not rather imply that servanthood is, per se, a matter of “status, rank, or position”? One’s position as a servant is either a matter of choice or a matter of circumstances. We cannot see, therefore, that the context supports any other meaning for morphe than that which deals with one’s rank or status. Christ’s status as God is contrasted with His status as a servant. To translate or to understand morphe as “inherent nature” in Philippians 2, then, clearly does not fit the way it is used in this context.


        I’d very much appreciate any intelligent feedback or counter-resource suggestions from anyone.

        Dr. Olson, I *really* appreciate how you engage with your readers on your blog. I don’t think there are many “famous” people who would do likewise.

        • rogereolson

          Am I “famous?” Gee. I don’t think of myself that way. There are so many books that explain why and how Scripture declares the deity of Christ and the Trinity. Where does one begin? Because I’m primarily a historical theologian I don’t keep a lot of apologetics books on my shelves. One evangelical apologist who I think has done a credible job in this regard is Robert Bowman. Amazon him.

          • Jenny Bell

            Thanks Again!

  • Roger
    Thanks for a great article. I grew up Church of God (Cleveland Tn.). I graduated from Lee University in 1993. I became a dedicated christian when I was 15 and received the Holy Spirit baptism. I struggled early on to believe that tongues was the “only physical initial evidence”. I was open about my questions while at Lee. I struggled with the entire culture of pentecostalism throughout my mid 20s to mid 30s. I went through a divorce and a few years of faithlessness.
    While in the army (I retired in 2009), I met a United Methodist chaplain that loved me and showed me Jesus’ love, and a reality of the Holy Spirit that I never experienced growing up. Today I have recently finished my M.A. in religion/Ethics and am now working on finishing my M.Div. I am particularly drawn to the Wesleyan understanding of the Holy Spirit. It is liberating and I am so excited to be part of a church that is christ centered, it values the ministry of the HS, and it allows for open discussion of the HS. In the UMC, I have several friends who have the charismatic/pentecostal experience while not having to buy into the dogma/doctrine.

    • rogereolson

      Many, numerous, Pentecostals have fled into the UMC or have become Baptists (my story). I predict this would not happen (as much) if mainline, classical Pentecostal denominations would drop some of their distinctive from “doctrine” to “opinion” status.

      • I think that you are right. I attended a CBF church for a couple of years as well but the Wesleyan/Methodist understanding of the HS and of sacramental theology resonated with me. I have friends in the CBF and also in the Disciples of Christ as well. This semester I am taking a class on the Holiness, Pentecostal, charismatic movement at United Theological Seminary. I am really excited about it. One of my charismatic UMC pastor friends says that we are pentecostals with a small p, and a seat belt. I love your work and spirit……

  • D Saltzman

    Good article. I always enjoy reading your blog. I’ve been a Foursquare pastor for about thirty-five years. As you know Foursquare considers itself to be a Pentecostal denomination. As far as I can remember, going back to the mid 70’s, though I was taught that Paul taught a value in speaking in tongues, I was not taught that it was definitely the initial evidence of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. I was taught that though some scriptures gave tongues as an initial evidence, that nowhere did the scriptures state that tongues was the initial evidence. Nor did any scriptures state that it wasn’t the initial evidence. I was taught, therefore, that it was a matter of opinion regarding a view that tongues were or weren’t the initial evidence of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. BUT – as I said before, I was taught that Paul taught a value in speaking in tongues and therefore we should teach that value also.

    • rogereolson

      That’s good. But I have two questions. First, what does the ICFG’s statement of faith say? My three volume set of denominational statements of faith is at my office. I’ll try to remember to look up the ICFG’s when I’m there. Second, were you applying for ordination? Often some doctrinal distinctives are only raised as issues for those seeking ordination. I’m sure you can be a member of most classical Pentecostal denominations and never hear the “initial, physical evidence” doctrine expressed. (In fact, I know that’s the case as I know people who grew up through high school in classical Pentecostal churches and never heard it. I had to prove to them that it’s the official doctrine of their church’s denomination. Many of them have left Pentecostalism because they felt somewhat betrayed (that their pastors never told them about this doctrine) and didn’t believe in the doctrine and wanted to be ordained as ministers. They have usually (without any help from me) become Baptists or Methodists. My habit has been to encourage young Pentecostals to find a way to stay, if possible. Change will come from within, certainly not from outside.

      • D Saltzman

        I went to the Foursquare website and this is their statement: Baptism with the Holy Spirit –
        We believe that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is an experience that follows salvation. All believers have God’s Spirit within them. Holy Spirit baptism empowers believers to exalt Jesus, to live lives of holiness, and to be witnesses of God’s saving grace. We believe that those who experience Holy Spirit baptism today will experience it in the same manner that believers experienced it in the early church; in other words, we believe that they will speak in tongues—languages that are not known to them (Acts 1: 5, 8; 2:4).

        This sure sounds like tongues as initial evidence – but what I was taught back in the 70’s and have experienced consistently since then is what I previously stated – you can’t prove scripturally that tongues is or isn’t the initial evidence of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. My experience – I was graduating from a Foursquare bible college and being appointed to a church as an assistant pastor. As such I could not apply for ordination at that time, but rather an international license. When it came to the issue of tongues I stated that when the initial evidence is stated in Acts tongues is listed as an evidence but (1) the Bible doesn’t specifically say that tongues was/is the initial evidence, and (2) the Bible doesn’t state what evidence there was for every occasion when a person was baptized with the Holy Spirit – e.g. Acts 8. (3) I reaffirmed what Paul said concerning the benefit of speaking in tongues. My beliefs were stated as being sufficient. Since then I’ve heard the president of Foursquare himself state that tongues as an initial evidence cannot be definitely proved or disproved from scripture. So – do I believe in a Baptism with the Holy Spirit? Yes. Do I believe there is a benefit in speaking in tongues? Yes. Do I believe tongues is the initial evidence? Bible doesn’t say so. Do I believe that a mistake is made when we make the Baptism with the Holy Spirit is synonymous with tongues? Yes. The goal isn’t tongues. It is Spirit filled living for Christ Jesus. Do I believe that in reality many Pentecostals or Charismatics who have spoken in tongues show no real evidence of a Spirit filled life? Yes. Do I think tongue should be minimized? No. Paul encouraged it – but even more he encouraged us to live lives rooted in Christ Jesus – doing everything for Christ, by Christ – e.g. Col 3:17.

        • rogereolson

          I think many Pentecostals are moving in that direction. May their tribe increase. One particularly large Pentecostal denomination still requires ordained ministers to sign an annual re-affirmation of tongues as initial evidence, however.

  • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

    Just out of curiosity, would you be more amenable to an “initial evidence” doctrine that, based on both Acts 2 and Acts 19, included “prophesying” as an alternative to tongues-speaking, where “prophesying” did not necessarily imply bellowing, “Thus saith the LORD…!”

    • rogereolson

      I prefer not to have any “initial, physical evidence” doctrine but rely on the fruit of the Spirit as evidence. I don’t believe in basing a doctrine (test of fellowship) on patterns perceived in the Book of Acts.

  • Fascinating post. I have mixed feelings about your proposal. I was raised in the Pentecostal church (A/G) and, at age 17, had an intense spiritual experience while praying privately. The intense ecstasy I felt in God’s presence was amazing. And I did speak in tongues. Since that experience I’ve never had significant doubts about what happened to me — I believe the experience was genuine. As I’ve studied since then I’ve been convinced that there is a strong case to be made for subsequence (on this point I was in agreement with the Wesleyan Bible college and Seminary I attended). But, I must admit, the case for speaking in tongues as *the* initial physical evidence is weak. Yet, I’m of the opinion that it is true nonetheless.

    That being said, I wonder how denominational churches could put into practice your suggestion that they move their distinctives into the third tier category. I think the biggest obstacle might be psychological. How does a group retain its identity without majoring on what makes it unique?

    Perhaps the future will encourage something like what you envision. Perhaps authentic Christianity will become such a rare thing in the USA that Christian denominations will be distinct enough by being simply Christian.

  • Patrick Oelund

    Good article, but I would like to know, do you speak in tongues? Or, did you have these thoughts because you never spoke in tongues?

    • rogereolson

      How is that relevant to what I wrote?

  • Peter

    Thanks for your helpful post, Roger. As a teacher at a Pentecostal Bible College I help students wrestle through denominational distinctives. I try to place our Spirit baptism + initial evidence distinctive in the realm of denominational doctrine, identifying that it is not universally held by the church. In your words, not dogma. Nevertheless, of course, adherence is required for our denomination’s credential holders. I appreciate you sharing your unfortunate experience with a Pentecostal leader less than willing to at least dialogue with your legitimate questions. One of my goals is to create an open atmosphere for questions, while balancing this with denominational expectations — no easy task at times. 🙂

    ​In wrestling through these issues myself, and putting aside personal spiritual experience for the moment, I’ve become more convinced about a link in Lukan literature between tongues and Spirit baptism. I prefer the term “sign” to “initial evidence,” and using sign I speak to my students about tongues being the privileged sign in Acts that points to the meaning of Spirit baptism for the church. No other sign quite does this in the same way (i.e., no other spiritual gift quite captures the meaning of why the Spirit empowered the church on the day of Pentecost). Rather that tongues being a receipt of sorts for an experience I’ve had, there is a more profound and robust theological link between Spirit baptism and tongues. I’ve been helped along the way by contemporary Pentecostal theologians, like Frank Macchia, Amos Yong, Simon Chan, and Samuel Solivan, among a growing number of others, willing to draw out deeper theological significance to tongues than simply an indicator of personal experience. In my own work, interestingly, I’ve noticed a growing reliance on George Lindbeck’s doctrinal theory among Pentecostals (including some mentioned above), which I think allows them to locate denominational confessions (e.g., initial evidence) as falling within a particular sub-cultural-linguistic framework, and this works out practically to help them remove this from universally confessed Christian dogma.

    ​Anyway, I’ve been following your blogs for a while now, and continually am impressed with the insight you bring to so many issues. Blessings.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you.

  • Dennis Robinson

    Your article puzzles me. I agree with the basic idea of treating beliefs as dogma, doctrine, and opinion. However, the item you chose to identify as “what should be considered opinion has been wrongly elevated to doctrine (namely Pentecostalism – initial evidence).” I have been in the Church of God, Cleveland, TN since 1971. I was saved in January of 1971 and received Holy Spirit baptism in February of the same year with the evidence of speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gave the utterance. It is my firm belief that the doctrine of initial evidence for Holy Spirit baptism is soundly taught in scripture. Consider the following:
    On the Day of Pentecost the scriptures are clear that those persons who were baptized with the Holy Spirit spoke in tongues (Acts 2:4) at the time they were filled. In Acts 10:44-48 where Peter is speaking at Cornelius’ house and the Spirit fell upon those who heard the word, it is evident that those who received Spirit baptism spoke in tongues. In verse 46 scripture is plain that they of the circumcision who accompanied Peter to Cornelius’ house knew that those persons had been baptized in the Holy Spirit. And how did they know? “For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.” It is also evident from the scriptures that this baptism was identified with the same thing that occurred on the Day of Pentecost for Peter directly identifies this in Acts 10:48 and Acts 11:4-18. The scripture tells us specifically that the reason they knew that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit baptism was because they heard them speaking with tongues. That sounds pretty plain to me. If that is the way they knew the Holy Spirit baptism had been received, why is it so difficult for us to assume the same? Gifts of the Spirit may be evidenced in anyone’s life who is a truly born again Christian. But Holy Spirit baptism is not the same as being born again. Spirit baptism is power for service. This is the baptism that Jesus tells His disciples that is coming (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4-8), this is the baptism they received (Acts 2:4), this is the baptism those in Acts 10 received and this is the baptism that all of the other examples in Acts 2, 8, 19 received. Gifts of the Spirit that cannot be manifested unless one has been baptized with the Holy Spirit and speaks in tongues are at least: an utterance in tongues –KJV “divers kinds of tongues,” a message in tongues and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 14:13, 27-28). There are a lot of people who speak in tongues today, but it is not the Spirit of God giving the utterance. At Pentecost and in Acts 10 it was simply the Spirit fell and manifested. Today many are trying to produce the same results by prompting or promoting tongues by teaching people “how to receive the Holy Spirit.” The persons in Acts 2 and 8, 10, and 19 did not need anyone to explain to them “how” to receive. They simply received. In my opinion we have too many who have not received Spirit baptism and that is why the Church is becoming increasingly more powerless. To deny what the scriptures plainly teach in Acts 2, 10, 11 is opening the door for more powerlessness, more who “say” they have Holy Spirit baptism and power, but they do not.

    • rogereolson

      Whether it is “soundly taught in Scripture” is not the issue. If someone tells me it is (and I grew up believing that), I will then ask them about its status. There are many things I believe are “soundly taught in Scripture” such as premillennialism that I would not make a test of fellowship.