The Dark Side of Pentecostalism
This is a follow up, an extended footnotes, if you will, to my immediately preceding blog post about Pentecostalism. You should read that first before reading this and certainly before commenting on this post.
In 2006 Pentecostals celebrated what they considered the centennial celebration of the birth of their modern movement with the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. Christian Century magazine asked me to write an article about “the dark side of Pentecostalism” which I did and it was published in CC. It drew fire from such notable scholars as Philip Jenkins and James K. A. Smith, both of who wrote critical letters to the editor.
I still think there is a dark side to Pentecostalism, its “shadow side,” if you will, that Pentecostal leaders need to do more to diminish by shedding light into it. Some have truly done their best to do that, but many have not spoken up as forcefully as I think they should.
So what belongs to the “dark side” of Pentecostalism?
First, let’s be clear about what a “dark side” of a movement means. It does not mean every person within that movement is guilty of everything in what is labeled as its dark side. It means the movement’s flaws, its harmful features. It does not mean those are unique to it; it means they are endemic to it—until they aren’t.
Second, when I talk about Pentecostalism’s dark side I do not mean that other Christian movements don’t also have dark sides. They do. But as a post-Pentecostal who has for most of my life been very well connected with Pentecostalism and studied it much I do think I see the movement’s dark side better than some.
The first aspect of Pentecostalism’s dark side is its tendency to emphasize uncritical loyalty over even constructive criticism. Among Pentecostals almost nothing is worse than pointing out serious problems within the movement, among its leaders, in the pews. I suspect this stems from the early days of the movement when its leaders announced it as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel about the “latter days” (end times). Ever since then, there has been a tendency among Pentecostals to regard the movement as above criticism. But, there is also the natural tendency of a group that perceives itself as marginalized, misunderstood and misrepresented by outsiders to “close ranks” against even constructive criticism from inside or from outside.
The second aspect of Pentecostalism’s dark side is its rampant anti-intellectualism. Yes, there are and have been excellent Pentecostal scholars, but most of them have been driven by Pentecostal leaders out of the movement. Most of them eventually go into exile and teach at non-Pentecostal colleges, universities, and seminaries. Pentecostal scholars in the Society for Pentecostal Studies (and I was at the Society’s first national meeting and have spoken at later, more recent, ones) tell me privately that they are not appreciated by Pentecostal denominational leaders, leading Pentecostal pastors, and Pentecostal evangelists (to say nothing of Pentecostal lay people).
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The third aspect of Pentecostalism’s dark side is its tendency to place “Spirit filled” and “powerfully anointed” preachers, evangelists, “faith healers,” on pedestals above accountability. Eventually most of them fall off their pedestals, but that might have been prevented had they never been put up on them in the first place.
The fourth aspect of Pentecostalism’s dark side is its tendency to emphasize the spiritual over the physical in terms of the Kingdom of God’s “already-ness.” The Kingdom of God is often viewed as present where there is much manifestation of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit and many people being spiritually converted and filled with the Holy Spirit—to the neglect of social justice. For most of its history the Pentecostal movement in the U.S. was obsessed with anti-communism as its main form of social activism. Racial equality was not a major focus of Pentecostalism and, in general, Pentecostals have been complacent about segregation—even among themselves. (One exception was the so-called “Memphis Miracle” where the all-white Pentecostal Fellowship of North America voluntarily disbanded and invited the Church of God in Christ (primarily African-American) to start a new “umbrella group” of Pentecostals.)
The fifth aspect of Pentecostalism’s dark side is its sense of spiritual superiority over other Christians, including fellow evangelicals.
The sixth aspect of Pentecostalism’s dark side is its vulnerability to heresies and fanaticism within the ranks. Even though many Pentecostal denominations have criticized the “Prosperity Gospel” they have not been strong enough when it comes to expelling that false gospel’s proponents from their ranks.
Finally, the seventh aspect of Pentecostalism’s dark side is a tendency on the movement’s part to attract and harbor narcissistic evangelists and pastors who are also often mere charlatans.
Now, admittedly, the mainstream Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) are not as guilty of “the dark side” as is the movement as a whole. But the fact that these “dark aspects” are so pronounced within the movement points to something seriously amiss within it that needs to be addressed very vocally by its leading spokesmen. They need to speak up publicly and vehemently condemning the mostly independent and/or schismatic Pentecostal leaders who scandalize the movement and outsiders looking at it.
Through my uncle who served as a Pentecostal leader for many years, and through my own studies of the movement, and through extremely well-connected Pentecostal scholars and leaders I have known personally, I am aware of very well-known Pentecostal pastors, television evangelists, itinerant evangelists, denominational executives, who have lived and continue to live scandalous lives without being publicly called out about it—by Pentecostal leaders who are, I think, afraid of losing followers who are taken in by these men (and a few women).
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