Strange Fire: Pentecostalism as Cure for the Reformation

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an October 2017 series of posts on the Reformation and Protestantism written by O&H authors and guest writers marking the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Articles are written by Orthodox Christians and discuss not just the Reformation as a historical event but also the spiritual heritage that descended from it.

By all observations and measures the Pentecostal Movement is the fastest growing expression of Christianity in the world. Some estimates set the number of Pentecostals at over 279 million adherents worldwide, making Pentecostalism, arguably, a Fourth kind of Christianity behind Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism.

But there is no denying that the Pentecostal movement would have been impossible without the Protestant Reformation. The several “restorationist” movements that exploded in America and England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries all had one thing in common: to recapture or restore the “power” or “holiness” of the “original” Christian Church.

I contend that the growth of Pentecostalism, and the less strident Charismatic movement (starting in the late 1950’s), is a result of a theological poverty in Western Christianity that can be seen as early as the “filioque” controversy and the unintended theological consequences that followed. The emphasis of the West on rationalism and the weak and sometimes bizarre forms of mysticism that developed in the West gave rise to both the over reaction and sad necessity of the Reformation which then gave rise to the even more rationalistic movements of Calvinism and legalistic piety of the 1st and 2nd so-called “Great Awakenings.” All of this led to the subsequent Holiness movements of the 19th century along with the multiplying of Christian “denominations” on the American continent, and eventually led to the outbreak of the Pentecostal Movement at the turn of the 20th century.

Currently there are over 700 denominations that would be considered Pentecostal or Charismatic. As a side note, most American MegaChurches are heavily influenced by the Charismatic Movement. And even the “worship wars” in Evangelical denominations have all but been decided in favor of the more emotional and “experiential” influence on music and worship “styles” of the Pentecostal Movement here in the United States and other English speaking countries.

As with many “restorationist” movements in Christianity, Pentecostalism is also a uniquely American phenomenon that has now spread worldwide, and is growing fastest in the Third World. Pentecostalism started among the “lower” classes of American society. Interestingly enough, Pentecostalism was also quite racially integrated in its early days, with black and white Pentecostals worshiping together and spreading the movement together. This situation didn’t last long and eventually the Movement segregated along racial lines to reflect the segregation of American society as a whole. Also fascinating was the strong pacifist attitude among early Pentecostals. While many Pentecostal young men did go into the military, registering as a “conscientious objector” was the norm. This emphasis on pacifism flowed naturally from the theology of the Pentecostals as they emphasized the indwelling Holy Spirit bringing a radical new society based on peace.

The “spirit filled” believer was changed from his old way of life to a new life that even changed the way he talked. “Speaking in tongues” (glossolalia), miracles of healing, visions, prophecies, boisterous worship with emotional music and, yes, even rolling on the floor (where do you think “holy roller” came from?) were the marks of the Pentecostal movement.

Such enthusiasm wasn’t unique to Pentecostalism, since similar emotional outbursts were common in the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings in American history. These experiences still exist to one degree or another in many parts of the Movement to this day. Unmoored from the wisdom of the timeless Church, these religious experiences were increasingly “intoxicating” and addictive.

But the Movement wouldn’t stay an American phenomena long. Building on the network of contacts on their Holiness Movement roots, Pentecostals quickly spread through the English speaking world among the downtrodden and the poor. Pentecostalism is decidedly a movement born “on the wrong side of the tracks.”

Add to this the Protestant emphasis on missions and the eschatological theology dominant among Pentecostalism (Dispensationalism and an immanent return of Jesus), and you have thousands of Pentecostal missionaries willing to go all over the world to “spread the word!” And they certainly did. Most American Pentecostal denominations today are larger outside the borders of the US than inside.

Dr. Vinson Synan, former Dean of the Divinity School at Regent University in Virginia and long time historian of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, commented on the explosive growth of the Pentecostal Movement across the increasingly Christian Southern hemisphere by saying that those who want to deal with Christians will not be able to ignore the Pentecostals, since they are on track to become the predominant expression of the Christian faith in this growing part of the world.

The human longing that gave birth to the Pentecostal Movement is not bad in and of itself. The fundamental and basic hunger that is addressed by Pentecostalism is a desire for intimacy with the Uncreated God. This is good and God-given. We were meant for intimacy with God.

But the theological poverty that was the atmosphere of the birth of Pentecostalism guaranteed that the very good desire would be quickly corrupted by weak theological support and a practical and total disconnection from the history of the Christian Faith. And the movement bears this out. All one has to do is turn on religious TV to discover both old and new heresies finding fertile ground in the hearts of ungrounded and disconnected Pentecostal believers.

One of the earliest heresies was the so-called “Oneness” heresy concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. Once again, the weak theological grounding of theologies concerning the Trinity produced the natural over reaction of some in the young Pentecostal movement. This led to some receiving a “revelation” of the oneness of the Godhead. They began to teach a form of “modalism” and insisted that God is not a trinity of Persons, but only one Person – Jesus. Beginning with the “new issue” of baptism only in the name of Jesus in the very early days of the Pentecostal movement, these often sincere and fervent believers, cut off as they were from the wise theology of centuries of Christian theology, made it up as they went along.

One might have hoped that, as the movement matured, it would outgrow the excesses of its past, but the Oneness Pentecostals actually make up a third of all the Pentecostals in the world today.

But weak theology on the doctrine of the Trinity is not the only “strange fire” that burns in the fields of Pentecostalism. The so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” the hyper-individualism that seems to reign within the movement and all its offshoots, the emotionalism that leads to nothing more than religious sentimentalism, and even the weakness of dependence on ecstatic experiences all feed a notion of faith as an addiction rather than a sober lifestyle of peace.

Reading this you may wonder if I see any good in my former Pentecostal roots. I am, after all, a son of the Pentecostal Movement, and a former pastor in that tradition. You may be surprised to read that I consider Pentecostalism the greatest hope for Western Christianity to correct the theological mistakes of its past. I am convinced that Pentecostalism is God’s gift to the West to draw Western Christianity back to a more ancient and healthier theological experience with God and a truly catholic embrace of mystery. Pentecostalism is, after all, the poor man’s mysticism, and, as I said above, a clear cry for intimacy with God.

I am indebted to my Pentecostal roots for fanning the flames of this desire for intimacy with God in my own heart and for an experience in Christian community I cherish to this day. It eventually led me home to the Orthodox Church where, instead of burning my spiritual house down with “wild fire”, I found a wise “fireplace” for the fire kindled in my heart by my Pentecostal upbringing. Thank you, Brother Holder and Open Bible Tabernacle. I shall be in your debt forever.

Western Christianity had to birth the Pentecostal movement if it was ever going to escape the sterile and clinical approach to the mystery of the Christian faith that was such an easy slander to be hurled at the various mainline Protestant denominations.

We struggle in our modern day with the exponential multiplication of Christian denominations and movements flowing from the Reformation, which all seem to desire to take seriously and fulfill this God-given hunger for intimacy with God and joy in this life and the next. So, we Orthodox Christians must find a way to see how God has given us a tremendous opportunity to help these sincere and spiritually hungry seekers to find the “fireplace” for their zeal and their unbridled passion, even if that passion is for God!

The stories of shipwrecked lives as a consequence of the undisciplined “fire” of the Pentecostal Movement would fill a library. Most Pentecostals hit that place in their lives when all the experiences start to feel hollow. As with any intoxication, the “high” has to always increase to keep the feeling of euphoria alive. Many either come to think of themselves as “just not good enough” to “feel” God with them anymore, or they abandon the faith altogether, looking for a “new drug” that will satisfy them. These spiritual refugees deserve our attention and love. After all, we claim to have the fullness of the faith and all the spiritual food anyone would ever need.

But the only remedy for the spiritual sicknesses that pervades Pentecostalism is a return to, or perhaps a discovery for the first time, of the wisdom of the undivided Church. This must include rigorous theological work that takes seriously the truth that we cannot truly understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to His Church today unless we are willing to hear what He has said to His Church in the past. The foolish behavior of making final choices about deep theological truths before we have gathered all the relevant theological evidence has produced too many spiritual casualties to be allowed to continue. And the “embarrassment of riches” that Orthodoxy possesses only means we Orthodox will be without excuse when we are asked by Jesus, “Why didn’t you feed these hungry people?”

Pentecostalism is not going away. Christians from the more ancient traditions of the Church had better become well acquainted with this religious movement, because societies are increasingly affected by these religious phenomena. Even our own modern society has, at the very least, embraced this perpetual adolescent mentality that makes Pentecostalism so very attractive even to many of our own Orthodox youth!

Pentecostals must abandon the prideful notion that their movement dropped out of heaven completely disconnected from the historical realities around them. The shallow “me and Jesus got our own thing going” mentality will never lead to anything more than a perpetual spiritual kindergarten. In the end, Pentecostalism may find itself increasingly dissimilar from Christianity if it can’t find a way to reconnect with a timeless Christianity preserved in the Church.

The non-Pentecostals of the Reformation would also do well to examine why this movement is so prevalent in their theological context. Why does the Pentecostal Movement flourish where Western theology dominates? My contention is that this reality is God’s way of drawing prideful humans back to mystery and transrational intimacy. We need this check on our arrogance and delusional self sufficiency to ever be courageous enough to return to the healthy mystery of the undivided Church.

If the children of the Reformation can see Pentecostalism as the “gift” that it is for them, they may just discover what was the foundational deficiency that drove the Reformation in the first place!

For me, Orthodoxy is the natural home for Pentecostals and Charismatics. It is here in the wise “fireplace” of the timeless Church, the Body of Christ, that I find the healthy and mature “Way” of living that fosters both an intimacy with God and an honest and healing humility that keeps me forever focused on Jesus Christ. It turns out that what my Pentecostal past told me I should have with God is truly possible within the timeless rhythm of the Orthodox Way.

Finally, as history shows, the Church eventually comes to grip with theological truths in the face of heretical threats. May the blessed and live-giving Holy Spirit give courage to the hearts of His people to pass on a robust and healthy Christian faith to future generations. The souls of precious and God-loved persons are at stake here.

To my Pentecostal and Charismatic friends: Come Home!

12 comments:

  1. Fr. Barnabas, I concur. Almost 25 years ago I came home to the Church out of a new age school of self awareness, Arica Institute. I was raised in a nominally Christian home, first Presbyterian then Episcopal, but left the Christianity because I found no spiritual depth in any of the western expressions. I spent the first 20 years of my life going back and forth between various Western denominations and Arica, finding over and over again, no spiritual depth in the churches and no Christ in Arica. In Orthodoxy, I can have my cake and eat it, too!

  2. Thank you for this, Father. As a former Pentecostal, your article is both comforting and convicting.

    I do have one thought/concern/question:
    I recall hearing Kevin Allen comment that Orthodox christians were by-and-large the wealthiest christians over all in America. As you mention in your article, and as is the reality today, pentecostalism has the largest percentage of impoverished christians in the United States, and perhaps even the world. In my own context, this is definitely the case. Even a light perusal of the New Testament reveals that God intends for his church to be for the poor and the down trodden. What can orthodox christians learn from pentecostals with regard to bringing in the poor and downtrodden of our own society?

    Thanks!

  3. Thank you Father Well said indeed. Though not my own protestant heritage, the pentecostal and charismatic families I’ve worked with in financial services areas have been a generous and refreshing delight. If a modern man can be judged by how willing he is to honor God with his $wallet$, there is a ripe though modest mission field of serious seeking disciples here to help find the Church. Lord have mercy.

  4. Thank you Father for such a loving article. As one who grew up in the Pentecostal faith, attended a Pentecostal college, and tried to live the roller coaster ride of faith, you certainly gave me pause to be thankful rather than bitter about my decades struggle to find Christ. I’m thankful for the orthodox parish that took me in and spiritually brought healing to me. I’ve found the faith and fullness they seek in the orthodox church.

  5. I was raised in Oneness, Holiness Pentecostalism. In many ways I think it prepared me for Orthodoxy because of concepts we were taught such as sanctification (theosis) being achieved over time through spiritual disciplines. Those disciplines were quite Orthodox in many ways and not very Protestant. I’m referring to practices such as fasting, foot washing, and modesty of dress. It was a natural reaction to the spiritual poverty of the West. But now thank God we have access to Holy Orthodoxy here.

  6. Right on, Fr. Barnabas. The first Orthodox priest I ever met was my Florida neighbor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou (memory eternal), well versed in the operation and power of the Holy Spirit and founder of the Brotherhood of St. Symeon the New Theologian. So, all the pieces to the puzzle are there. The Orthodox have, without question, both the theology and tradition of the Spirit-filled Church Militant. The Charismatic Renewal Movement (CRM) contains the seeds it its Praxis. Put the two together properly, Orthodoxis and Orthopraxis, and watch out!

  7. Thank you, Fr. Barnabas. As a fellow former charismatic, I always appreciate criticism of the movement from those who have been part of it. I can usually tell when someone criticizes it from the outside since there are usually innumerable stereotypes, exaggerations, and misunderstandings.

  8. You speak truth Father. I thin you have a very valid point about the founding and purpose of Pentecostalism but sadly my experience with many of them reminds me of a saying my father used: “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink.” So many have inquired and then rejected the answers they have received. Yes, I have seen those that are burned out convert but Pentecostalism does, as you say, appeal to the individualism that grips our culture and that is very hard to overcome either by us or by them themselves.

  9. Hey Father Barnabas! Pentecostal pastor here. I would just like to throw out there that some, but not all, of your presuppositions about my side of the faith really don’t ring true to me.

    Many modern Pentecostals (I’m part of the Assemblies of God) are more focused on activity based around the mission (IE: Great Commission) of the church than we are about the emotional experience of the Holy Spirit. Word of Faith is strongly discouraged at a denominational level in my circles and being oneness would get you defrocked. In a short article you have to paint with a broad brush to be sure, but almost none of the issues you mention are present in my church.

    One of this things I say each week is that, “We are empowered by the Spirit for mission.” Like the Orthodox we believe that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the world today pointing people to Jesus. I think this is holding in with what the early church fathers believed and taught. “Wretched men indeed who . . . set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church. . . . We must conclude that these men cannot admit the Apostle Paul either. For in his Epistle to the Corinthians, he speaks expressly of prophetical gifts, and recognizes men and women prophesying in the Church.” From Irenaeus, Against Heresies.

    Thank you for the article. A lot to think about and process!

    1. I agree with Erik (I am also an Assemblies of God minister).

      While working on my MA in Theological Studies at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, my church history professor taught us about the similarities in some aspects between EO hesychastic prayer and the Pentecostal practice of praying in tongues. He also mentioned that once, on an airplane flight, he met an EO scholar who was working on a book on the Holy Spirit, and this priest/scholar was using books by several A/G scholars as sources in his research.

      All that to say, your experience in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles may have been lacking in deep theological reflection. But there are many of us who take the theological enterprise very seriously, pursuing, in the phrase my seminary uses, “Knowledge on Fire.”

      1. Thanks Brian.
        And I agree that the movement has grown up, especially among the AofG. By the way, my teenage years were spent in the AofG in Orlando.

        And while I am convinced my Pentecostal and Evangelical (I pastored a church I founded that described our church as “An Evangelical Church with Charismatic Distinctives!”) background actually prepared me to become Orthodox, I actually needed the “fireplace” of Orthodoxy to tame the “fire” that was so easily wild in my Pentecostal past.

        While “Knowledge with Fire” is a really great phrase and good image, I would suggest, again, that there is insufficient theological depth, simply due to the historical disconnect and the missing ontological and incarnational connection with the timeless Church, to insure the healthy passing of a robust life of Faith from generation to generation. Just my impressions.

    2. Dear Pastor Erik,

      Thanks for reading and responding to the article. I will freely admit that the Pentecostal movement has “grown up” in many places. The problem lies in the theological underpinning that lacks the ability to “insure” a stability across generations.

      And the emphasis on mission is laudable and quite healing for we Pentecostals needing the sobriety of mission to tame our self centered tendencies. But again, the question is begged what exactly are we converting people to? To divorce a devotion to Christ from His Body, the Church, only invites a disconnect that feeds the “monster” of a too small theology.

      I have such respect and love for my Pentecostal past, especially to the men who “fathered” me as my own earthly father was absent, but I had to struggle with the “undiscovered country” of my faith tradition: A truly Catholic Ecclesiology that affirmed and supported a robust Christology that kept the miracle of the Incarnation going from generation to generation.

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