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What Is Pentecostalism? What Do Pentecostals Believe?

What Is Pentecostalism? What Do Pentecostals Believe? October 29, 2016

What Is Pentecostalism? What Do Pentecostals Believe?

These questions—“What is Pentecostalism?” and “What do Pentecostals believe about…?” are often asked—of me and others. In my case it is because I happen to be an evangelical Protestant theologian and church historian with Pentecostal roots. I do not consider myself Pentecostal anymore; I have been unapologetically Baptist for most of my life. However, increasingly, as I have become “comfortable in my own skin,” so to speak, I have opened up to my students and others about my Pentecostal roots and the fact that I am not ashamed of them. And, even though I left Pentecostalism many years ago, I have maintained a lively interest in Pentecostalism both as a movement and a theological-spiritual ethos.

In brief, the modern Pentecostal movement began in the first decade of the twentieth century even though it had older roots. Its roots have been explored much by, for example, Wesleyan scholar Donald Dayton and members of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. I could recommend numerous books about Pentecostal history and theology, but I will here mention only two. A virtual encyclopedia of Pentecostal history and theology is The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal by Pentecostal scholar Vinson Synan (Thomas Nelson, 2001). A fascinating and even engrossing book about worldwide Pentecostalism by a non-Pentecostal scholar is Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century by Harvey Cox (Addison-Wesley, 1995).

Most scholars of Pentecostalism date its modern beginning to either 1901 or 1906. In 1901 a Holiness evangelist and Bible Institute founder in Kansas began to teach and preach that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the New Testament—including speaking in tongues (“glossolalia”)—are for Christians today. Charles Parham also taught that speaking in tongues is the “initial physical evidence” of the “infilling of the Holy Spirit”—an already well-known and widely experienced “second blessing” after conversion. In 1906 a revival broke out in a Holiness mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. The leader of that revival was African-American evangelist William Seymour. Like Parham, Seymour taught speaking in tongues and other supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit as signs of a “latter day” (just before the return of Christ) “outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

To make a long story short, numerous already existing Holiness churches and ministries across the world adopted the new Pentecostal emphasis on the continuing relevance and even importance of the New Testament spiritual gifts including prophecy and speaking in tongues. Most of these churches (and some others including some Scandinavian Pietists) already believed in and experienced the so-called “second blessing” of the infilling of the Holy Spirit (sometimes erroneously called “baptism of the Holy Spirit”) and divine healing.

During the first half of the twentieth century Pentecostalism remained a sub-movement within American fundamentalism and revivalism, but it spawned numerous new denominations including most notably the Assemblies of God. (The predominantly African-American Church of God in Christ already existed as a Holiness denomination and adopted Pentecostalism, thus claiming to be the oldest of all the Pentecostal denominations.) Today, in 2016, there are about twenty-five major Pentecostal denominations in the U.S. and many more throughout the world. Some scholars claim that it is the fastest-growing form of Christianity especially in the “Global South”—South America, Africa and Asia. Some estimates claim that there are about 100 million Pentecostals in the world. But, of course, much depends on how “Pentecostalism” is defined.

There are two main approaches to defining “Pentecostalism”—broad and narrow. The narrow definition focuses on the distinctive doctrine of classical Pentecostalism stemming from the revivals marked by speaking in tongues in the first decade of the 20th century. According to that approach, “Pentecostalism” is belief that speaking in tongues is the initial, physical evidence of the infilling of the Holy Spirit which is subsequent to conversion. Nearly all who believe that happen to be conservative, evangelical Protestants in the pietist-revivalist tradition.

Some such “classical Pentecostals,” however, do not believe in the Trinity; they are known as “Oneness Pentecostals” or “Jesus Only” Pentecostals. Their largest organization in the U.S. is the United Pentecostal Church, but most of their congregations use the word “Apostolic.” These non-Trinitarian Pentecostals are a tiny minority among classical Pentecostals and are usually kept “at arms’ length” by the majority (such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ).

The second main approach to defining “Pentecostalism,” the broad one, includes in that category all Christians who believe in and practice the supernatural “gifts of utterance” such as speaking in tongues and prophecy—whether or not they adhere to the distinctive doctrine of classical Pentecostalism about speaking in tongues as the “initial, physical evidence” of the infilling of the Holy Spirit. This includes millions of so-called “neo-Pentecostal” and “charismatic” Christians—a very broad and diverse spiritual renewal movement that began in the 1960s and was at first rejected by classical Pentecostals.

Nobody knows how many Pentecostals of either the narrow or the broad categories live in the United States or the world. As I said earlier, some scholars estimate there are about 100 million “Pentecostals” in the world, but that may be using the broad definition. My own estimate about the U.S. is that there may be between five and ten million Pentecostals in the narrow definition, but I would not even venture a guess about how many there are in the broad definition. There is no way to count them because they include many individuals who quietly speak in tongues as their “private prayer language” within their so-called “mainline” churches.

Lest this turn into a book, I would like now to focus on the one doctrine and practice most people associate with Pentecostalism—speaking in tongues.

First, I want to set aside now and forever (here) the sociologists of religion’s concern with whether speaking in tongues—“glossolalia”—is unique to Christianity. Here I bracket that question out and set it aside; my one and only concern here is with what Pentecostals believe about speaking in tongues.

Second, I admit that Pentecostals are somewhat diverse in their theology, so I will be dealing here with an “ideal type” that my own experience and study leads me to believe is the majority Pentecostal belief about speaking in tongues—especially among Pentecostals in the narrow sense above (viz., classical Pentecostalism such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ).

Third, absolutely essential to understanding Pentecostal belief about speaking in tongues is Pentecostals’ distinction between two types of it. Some tongues speech is real human language unknown to the speaker but possibly understood by someone else. This is what was manifest at Pentecost and reported in Acts 2. Other tongues speech is “heavenly language,” “tongues of angels,” “groanings that cannot be uttered.” This is not intelligible (to humans) speech. It is the Holy Spirit praying through a person to God. Some call it “prayer language.” Pentecostals base this distinction on a harmonizing of Acts and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as well as their own experiences.

Fourth, absolutely essential to understanding Pentecostal belief about speaking in tongues is another distinction common among Pentecostals. Some speaking in tongues is for the edification of the gathered church—whether in a traditional worship service or in a small group. This event of speaking in tongues must always be interpreted in the common language of the people gathered. When it happens, Pentecostals wait for someone with the gift of interpretation of tongues to deliver the interpretation (not translation) in the language of the people gathered. This is barely distinguishable, in terms of purpose, from prophecy (in Pentecostal theology). Prophecy is the same thing without the speaking in tongues, although a prophetic message may also happen between individuals—one giving to the other a “message from the Lord.” Classical Pentecostals always have emphasized, at their best, that these messages must be subjected to discernment as to whether their content is truly from God.

Some speaking in tongues is simply for the edification of the individual and a divine gift for prayer when the individual does not know what to pray for. This kind of speaking in tongues is the “prayer language” kind and is bestowed by God at the moment of the already saved person’s experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit the purpose of which is “enduement with power” for holy living and supernatural service to God. It is the “initial, physical evidence” of the infilling of the Spirit. After that, the Spirit-filled person may speak in tongues frequently or only occasionally but has that gift. He or she may not, however, have the gift of public speaking in tongues for the edification of the gathered people of God. That is a separate type of speaking in tongues.

Now, there is more one could say about Pentecostalism, of course, but to explain it fully one would have to write a book. I wrote this primarily for students who ask me about Pentecostalism and especially about speaking in tongues.

As a footnote here let me explain briefly the kind of Pentecostalism I grew up in which was, I believe, “mainstream,” classical Pentecostalism. (Later, as a young adult, I also became briefly involved with the charismatic movement, neo-Pentecostalism, but left both behind when I became Baptist. I remain a “continuationist,” however, which means not a cessationist with regard to the gifts of the Holy Spirit.)

In the Pentecostalism I experienced as a child and youth, speaking in tongues was not allowed in the public worship of the church at all unless someone was simply “overcome” with a message and spoke in tongues, without interrupting (so some time was usually allowed for it to happen), in which case that person or someone else in the congregation was expected to deliver the interpretation. In prayer meetings, however, everyone could speak in tongues at the same time, exercising their prayer languages to God. Most of the time, anyway, there was no tongues speaking in the Sunday morning worship services. Speaking in tongues was common in the Sunday evening services especially during the post-worship “altar service” where people gathered at the front of the sanctuary to pray together. There was also always a “prayer room” somewhere in the church building where people gathered before the Sunday evening service and often after it to pray. Often they prayed for and with a fellow Pentecostal who was “tarrying for the infilling of the Holy Spirit.” Our Sunday morning worship services were little different from any Holiness-type Sunday morning worship service. It was not exactly scripted, but the pastor had certain hymns already selected and a sermon prepared. Sunday evening worship was far less scripted and included “testimony time” where people could speak out to the congregation about what God was “doing in their lives” or give a brief “exhortation.” Wednesday evening was a gathering for Bible study and prayer with the pastor often calling on individuals to pray for “prayer requests” of the people. This was totally unscripted except that the Bible study itself may have been somewhat prepared.

Also in the Pentecostalism I grew up in all Pentecostals had occasional (perhaps twice yearly) “protracted revivals” which meant worship every evening for at least a week. But Pentecostals were not alone in this custom; our spiritual cousins the Nazarenes, for example, also did this and my family often attended those. The main difference was that the Nazarenes did not speak in tongues. When I was a child (1950s) and before, however, they did believe in supernatural divine healing of the sick (not as guaranteed but as a possibility through prayer) and very emotional worship especially in revival meetings that sometimes included “running” (individuals feeling especially “blessed” running up and down the aisles of the church or outdoor “tabernacle” or tent and sometimes shouting “Praise God! Hallelujah!” as they ran). We felt a real kinship with the Nazarenes then and I always wondered why I was being told they could not really be “filled with the Spirit” because they didn’t speak in tongues. They certainly seemed to me to be filled with the Spirit!

I will say this about growing up in classical Pentecostalism: it was interesting. My brother and I never resisted going to church because you never knew what was going to happen—especially on Sunday nights and during “revival meetings.” Literally, I kid not, we talked between ourselves about whether perhaps “Sister Jones” would “dance in the Spirit” that evening during worship. It happened sometimes and nobody paid any special attention. In fact, my great-grandmother, who was very Pentecostal always danced (it looked more like a kind of ecstatic “shuffling around”) when she attended our church on Sunday evenings. During a song or during a time of “prayer and praise” between songs (for example) she would stand and dance around a little with her arms lifted up in the air and her face looking down and you could tell she was in a kind of ecstatic state. But, for the most part, some people noticed it but it did not interrupt anything or draw any special attention to her (except for my brother and me and maybe some of the other children and young people). In fact, that may have been because most of the congregants had their eyes closed, their faces turned up toward heaven, their hands lifted up and were either singing or praying. That was Sunday evening at our Pentecostal church which also included a lot of energetic music and preaching always ending with an “altar call” to come forward or to the prayer room to be prayed for or with—for salvation, healing or the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Our Sunday evening services were better attended than our Sunday morning services and lasted very long. As a child I always brought a pillow to church on Sunday evening and slept on a back pew as the post-service praying went on and on often until midnight. More than once large families left one of their children in church as they went home after Sunday evening worship. The child was always sleeping on a pew—like I did—and they simply didn’t notice he or she was not in the car. (These were usually large families; it never happened to me or my brother as we were our parents’ only children and so not easy to miss!) My father, the pastor of the church, would get a call at home about an hour after everyone went home from the distraught parents and have to go back to the church to open the door and let them retrieve their still sleeping child.

Pentecostalism has changed a lot over the years. We, in the 1950s and before, were what one scholar called “the disinherited.” We were almost all poor and lacked higher education (except some Bible college education for those becoming pastors). We considered (and preached that) “conspicuous consumption” (materialism) was a sin and that disposable income ought always to be “given to missions.” But we were not “holy rollers” in the popular sense. We knew some Pentecostals churches that were that or at least fit that stereotype of excessive emotion that we considered manipulated and artificial. Such Pentecostal churches were labeled (by us ) “Latter Reign”—a movement that arose among North American Pentecostals in the 1940s and 1950s and brought with it “manifestations” such as rotted teeth filled with gold (in response to an evangelist’s prayer) and beliefs such as “the manifest sons of God” who were believed to be modern apostles with supernatural powers of (for example) being transported through time and space by God. We had our “brushes” with “those other Pentecostals” but considered them our “crazy cousins”—like the snake handlers in the Appalachian Mountains.

We were well aware that other evangelical Christians (and we certainly considered ourselves evangelicals in the historical-theological sense [as opposed to the contemporary political sense]) were “saved.” When they died they would go to heaven. But we thought they “had a form of godliness but lacked the power thereof.”

So people ask me why I left Pentecostalism. Well, eventually it came down to my attending a pietist, evangelical  (but not fundamentalist) Baptist seminary and noticing that many of them were definitely Spirit-filled but did not speak in tongues. I had begun to wonder about that even as a child with regard to our Nazarene friends. I came to disbelieve in the key classical Pentecostal doctrine of speaking in tongues as the necessary “initial physical evidence” of the infilling of the Holy Spirit. I was the first “Pentecostal boy” in my Pentecostal milieu to go to seminary. That, I was told by my spiritual mentors, was a waste of time. After Bible College I was supposed to go directly into ministry. Seminary was called “cemetery” by my Pentecostal mentors. It was where real Christianity went to die. Then, when I let it be known that I no longer believed a person had to speak in tongues to be filled with the Holy Spirit I was “invited” to leave my Pentecostal denomination and when I approached certain other ones for possible admission their doors closed firmly in my face (viz., the Assemblies of God). There was also my dawning awareness that anti-intellectualism was part of Pentecostalism’s DNA. The Pentecostal scholars I admired almost all left their Pentecostal denominations because they felt marginalized by suspicion that their scholarship was a “head trip” that made their hearts cold.

Today much has changed among some Pentecostals—especially within classical denominations such as the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) and the Assemblies of God. The denomination I grew up in changed its Statement of Faith a few years ago so that it no longer says speaking in tongues is necessary for being Spirit filled. There are many wonderful Pentecostal scholars of biblical studies and theology embedded within Pentecostalism, not being “shown the door,” so to speak, but the changes came too late for me. I love being an evangelical, moderate (not fundamentalist) Baptist. The one thing I miss from my Pentecostal (we called ourselves “Full Gospel”—others called us “Pentecostal”) upbringing is the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion especially in the singing. In my experience, Baptists just don’t know how to do that (with the possible exception of African-American Baptists). I also miss hearing my beloved fellow Christians (now mostly Baptists in my context) say things like “You know, I was praying the other day and God spoke to me and told me….” I haven’t heard that since I left Pentecostalism. I believe God still speaks to individuals today—not with new doctrines or anything that contradicts Scripture but with clear words of encouragement, conviction, guidance and comfort. I find that the Baptists I associate with believe that but rarely, if ever, talk about it. I don’t know why. There is among us a deep, deep fear of “fanaticism” that drives us away from any sort of religious “enthusiasm.” I regret that.

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