Archive - July, 2009

If the shoe fits…

Randomly I bought a book a few weeks ago called Signs & Wonders: Why Pentecostalism is the World’s Fastest Growing Faith by Paul Alexander. Not sure what the initial appeal was, but I bought it, read it, and have been thinking about it…. The book is written by a fourth generation AG pentecostal who disowned his denomination, went to seminary to become a pastor, and later returned to the pentecostal church. The foreword is written by an ELCA Lutheran who doesn’t believe in the tenets of Pentecostalism, and the author’s writing style is taking more from a sociologist’s perspective than a pastor’s.

Some interesting statistics: there are over 38,000 Christian denominations and few denominations have converts from other denominations. Pentecostalism, however, has millions. In fact, Pentecostals make up one-third of the world’s population. I don’t know about you, but coming from my anti-pentecostal upbringing I had no clue that there were that many of “those crazy people around”.

With chapters on miracles, worship, speaking in tongues, prosperity, storytelling, spiritual warfare, prophecy, and hope/joy/emotion…. Alexander details why Pentecostalism is so appealing. I love the fact that he has insiders knowledge of and a fairly objective angle on the traditions of Pentecostalism. Personally, I feel that his analysis is spot on, and I would have loved to have read this book several years ago before I was introduced to the world of Pentecostalism.

Two major things that I took away from Alexander were a refresher course in the roots of Pentecost and another evaluation of semantics and definitions. It is easy to forget that the concept of Pentecost predates the Acts church. Pentecost is a Jewish celebration that takes place on the fiftieth day after passover. Shavuot, as it is known in Judaism, is a feast of thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest. Also, “In the Talmud, Shavuot is called Atseret (stop) as the festival was considered to be the conclusion of Passover. According to this view, Jews gained their freedom from Pharaoh on Passover, but they were only truly free on Shavuot when they accepted the Torah and became servants to God.” During this festival, people remember the day that the Isrealites committed themselves to the law and celebrate the Torah as well.

When the Holy Spirit comes in the book of Acts, Peter and his companions were celebrating the day of Pentecost. They were celebrating their commitment to their God and His commandments… and as they were celebrating, they received the Helper that Jesus had promised them. Of all places, comes through with a succinct description of this event’s significance: ” The Book of Acts continues to record the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit that began on Pentecost. Once again we see the Old Testament revealing a shadow of the things to come through Christ! After Moses went up to Mount Sinai, the Word of God was given to the Israelites at Shavuot. When the Jews accepted the Torah, they became servants of God. Similarly, after Jesus went up to heaven, the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. When the disciples received the gift, they became witnesses for Christ. Jews celebrated a joyous harvest on Shavuot, and the church celebrated a harvest of newborn souls on Pentecost.”

Reexamining its origins Pentecost definitely brought a new light to the significance of Pentecost. Or at least, I think it does. Coming from a church upbringing that only mentioned Pentecost once a year on the liturgical holiday and only explained the significance once a lifetime during confirmation class… the reminder of the Biblical roots definitely deepens my perspective.

The second thing that stuck with me from the book was the distinction between charismatic and pentecostal. Alexander reveals that 18% of Americans consider themselves charismatic, that’s 54 million people in the US that consider themselves charismatic, but not pentecostal. I would be one of them. What exactly makes the distinction? Personally, I say charismatic because I do not want to be associated with a denominational doctrine – for the same reason, people say reformed rather than Calvinist.

Charismatics exist because Pentecostals- for better or worse- are their own sect of people.
Alexander reveals that Charismatics are people who speak in tongues, but remain in traditionally non-pentecostal mainstream churches. He also notes that most charismatics are closet charismatics and do not share their beliefs with their communities of faith. Some over flaunt their spirituality and most are misunderstood by outsiders… so tongue-talking people become rather taboo in our society. People are disowned by families and their churches because they partake in this “heretical practice” that just so happens to be Biblical. Alexander writes: ” Admitting that you pray in tongues is kind of like being gay and coming out of the closet: some people take great pride in it and flaunt it, others think it’s best just to keep it quiet, and others try to find respectful ways to be who they truly are and live honestly with others who are different. I could hear someone mistakenly identified as a Pentecostal quickly respond, “No, no. I don’t speak in tongues [or prophecy or pray for healing or *insert pentecostal practice here*] – not that there’s anything wrong with that”(45).

Semantics and definition. So am I charismatic or pentecostal or both? Well, I come from a non-pentecostal background, I speak in tongues, I fully believe and support all the tenets of classical Pentecostalism (the chapter topics mentioned before), and I … am not pentecostal? Immediate response generally is: No, I am not *shudders at the thought*. I’ll admit the charismatic because it has little definition and commitment.. charismatics can live in their closets. Being pentecostal publically labels you as being a crazy person who believes in unconventional movements of the Spirit of God. If youadmit that you are pentecostal people might label you as someone affiliated with a renewalist movement or one of those pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God. People are going to think that you want to start teaching them about Baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues and prophesying over their lives or praying for spiritual warfare… or…

I’m going to stop tpying now. If you know me, you got my point. The shoe fits.. so might as well wear it, right?

Challenging doctrine…refining Truth.

One of the most surprising parts of my job has been the free time I get once or twice a week to read while the group is doing self-led activities. Going through my reading list of Christian non fiction and spending more quality time with the Bible… I am learning more than I can comprehend. My viewpoints are being tested, my understanding deepened, my knowledge expanded… and I love it because our minds were meant to be tested and purified and stretched.

I recently finished a book called They Shall Expel Demons. I had been reading it for awhile, slowly chewing on the information chapter by chapter… and to be honest, I may have to read it two more times just to get a grasp on the material. Some of the author’s ideas are extra-biblical and have been dismissed in my mind… but most of his statements are well supported with scripture. While the book is largely about spiritual warfare and demons, what I have been contemplating since reading it has less to do with the demonic and more to do with reformed doctrinal beliefs.

While I still consider myself reformed in theology (see this article for an explanation of the basics of reformed theology), I struggle with some of the tenets of the distinctive five points of reformed theology as based on the teachings of Calvin. TULIP- total depravity of man, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and preservation of saints. I could write multiple blogs on things that I do not understand, but I believe so strongly in the sovereignty of God that nothing makes sense but the reformed explanations.

Of the five points, the P tends to be the most difficult one for me. Growing up my mom was perhaps the strongest influence in my spiritual formation. She led me to Christ, she taught me to pray, she told me of how Jesus and His angels had visited and protected her… and now, I look into her eyes, I look at her life and I see a lost soul. There is no way that she knows God. Reformed tenets tell me that she either never did or she will repent and turn back to Him because the saints always persevere. I pray that the latter is true, but I still have my doubts…

One passage of that book read: “In 1 Timothy 4:1 Paul’s warning is urgent: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons”. Paul speaks here about people who, through yielding to the influence of demons, “depart from the faith”. Obviously they could not depart from the faith unless they had been in the faith. As Christians they had apparently opened themselves up to deceiving spirits and consequently turned away from their faith in Christ” (p 148-149). In other scriptures, the Bible talks about holding brothers- as in fellow believers- accountable so that they will not sin or fall away. Why does the Bible describe them as being in the faith, as brothers if they are not truly God’s people? And, if they are truly of the faith how can they fall away if the saints persevere?

I’m caught in semantics, but with the Bible wording is so important. What is a saint? Paraphrasing my Bible dictionary, a saint is one of God’s people who is being made holy, continually rejoicing in God, continually praying, continually working for God… it has an ongoing connotation, one indicating a process of sanctification, of being refined to be more holy…

What about those who turn away? Those who seemed to have a real encounter with God and then fall back to sin and into deception. Those who will cry “Lord, Lord”, and Jesus will respond “I don’t know you”. Who determines the sheep and the goats, and can a sheep become a goat? Can you begin the process of becoming holy and then fall off the track?

Firmly believing that salvation is a process, I believe that you can fall off track mid course, but I don’t believe that true sheep can become goats. Professing faith does not been that you have crossed the point of no return- it is a continual day by day choice. If each day, you commit fully to God… I believe that you will persevere. I think there comes a point where you cannot deny God and you will never turn from Him because you have seen His glory and you know that nothing else can compare. I don’t believe that God will let go of His children… though I have seen so many people fall away. People who seem legit, and it breaks my heart. Part of me believes that they will come back because God will not let them go, but part of me remains confused and frustrated…. who is responsible for the falling away of those who seemingly begin, but quit the race? The person who fails to continue or God who allows them to give up? My reformed mind tells me that people who fall away permanently were never destined to continue. If they were never meant to continue, why would God reveal himself to them- give them a glimpse of His glory knowing that they will turn away? The Bible definitely says that some professing believers will turn away… so they either lied completely or began the race and failed to finish. So many questions are racing through my mind especially since this theological doctrine is extremely close to my heart…

Nothing I find in scripture fully answers my questions, and there is nothing to refute the perseverance of saints tenet in scripture that cannot be explained through its context. I guess this is another topic area where I am humbled by knowing that God is God, and I am not. I do not have the capacity to understand, but I long to be wiser and more knowledgeable… so I am praying for truth and revelation… but until then, I’ll continue to chew on it…