iPod Theology: On Gender and God Language

Who buys music anymore?

Since the dawn of Spotify and other music subscription services, purchasing music does not seem to be something many people do much of anymore. When you can pay $9.99 a month for access to unlimited music, it is hard to justify spending that same ten dollars to buy just one album!

Yet, it was not ago when we did exactly that.

Recently, I was reminded of this when I began listening to my old iPod, which currently holds 24 GB of music that I listened to in high school. For nostalgia sake, I put this iPod on ‘shuffle’ and listened to songs I had not heard in years.

As I was listening, one song struck me. It was ‘Counting Blue Cars’ by the alternative rock band, ‘Dishwalla’. As I listened to this song that was released in 1995, I was struck with how relevant the lyrics are to the larger conversation concerning gender and god language happening in the church and culture today. For context, here are some of the song’s lyrics:

We said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God
‘Cause I’d really like to meet her
And ask her why we’re who we are

Tell me all your thoughts on God
‘Cause I’m on my way to see her
So tell me, am I very far
Am I very far now

In case you missed it, this song uses the personal pronoun ‘she’ to refer to God.

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And while this band is not explicitly referring to the God of Christianity, I am finding that today many Christians are beginning to ask whether we can refer to God as ‘she’. Or (we ask ourselves), is God just a ‘he’? Certainly, part of the reason this conversation is emerging is due to the popularization of secular feminism in our culture. Yet, I believe that as Christians, we have our own unique motivations to explore this question.

As a disclaimer, I am a proud, card-carrying egalitarian Christian, who believes that men and women should use their God-given talents in leadership and service regardless of gender in the church and home.[1] And because of this, I believe that gendered language in relation to God does matter. In agreement with Clark Pinnock, I believe finding ways to talk of God in feminine terms affirms ‘the dignity of women and the value of their experience’.[2] Also following Pinnock, I don’t believe in doing this, one must succumb to secular feminism.[3]

In fact, the biblical witness testifies to the fact that using feminine language in relation to God is appropriate. For example, according to the prophet Isaiah, God describes himself as ‘a woman in labor’ crying, groaning and panting (42.14). Isaiah, too, records God saying that he ‘comforts Jerusalem as a mother comforts her child’ (66.13), and as a ‘mother nursing her child’ (49.15).

And the fact that in Scripture God is described in both masculine and feminine terms is not surprising, since God is not gendered. Gender is a created reality, and thus, not apart of the Godhead. Yet, God is personal, and this is precisely why gendered language has been used for God—to communicate that God is not simply an ‘it’!

However, it is important to acknowledge that the scriptural witness reveals God as Father—not mother—and Son, in the incarnation of Jesus—not daughter. This fact has led many within Christianity to assume that God is more ‘male’ than ‘female’. Yet this is not so, since both man and woman were both made equally in the image of God (Gen. 1.26-28). Thus, since it is inappropriate and ‘awkward to use feminine pronouns for Father and Son (for obvious reasons)’, the best way to affirm the femininity of God is to do so in reference to the Spirit. In fact, the Hebrew term for Spirit, ruach, is feminine. Even more importantly, many images of the Spirit that are found in Scripture are feminine as well. For instance, in John 3.5, we are told the Spirit births believers (John 3.5).

Jurgen Moltmann, I believe, says it well:

If believers are “born” again from the Holy Spirit, then the Spirit is “the mother” of God’s children and can in this sense also be termed a “feminine” Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is “the Comforter” (Paraclete), it comforts “as a mother comforts”. In this sense it is the motherly comforter of believers. Linguistically this again brings out the characteristics of the Hebrew expression “Yahweh’s ruach”.[4]

Therefore, as Moltmann points out, it is quite appropriate to talk of the Spirit as a ‘she’. Yet, while referring to the Spirit as ‘she’ is certainly permissible, it is no more theologically accurate than referring to the Spirit as ‘he’, since the Spirit has no sex. This is why we see some New Testament writers using the pronoun ‘he’ for the Spirit. Either is acceptable. So, whether we use the personal pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ to refer to the Spirit, the important thing is that we understand the Spirit as personal. And because the Spirit has no gender, I believe there can be flexibility in whether we use the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ to refer to the Spirit.

My current preference, at this point, is to refer to the Spirit as ‘she’, for doing so calls attention to facets of the Spirit’s work which appear feminine, and thus affirms women being made in the image of God. Certainly, when we talk of the Spirit ‘Giving birth, nourishing, protecting and consoling’, it is quite fitting to understand these as expressions of ‘the Spirit to her children’.[5]

However, no matter what personal pronoun we use for the Spirit, may we all pay tribute to the masculine and feminine aspects of God’s nature and work, for as we do, we locate and celebrate the beauty of the imago dei (image of God) that is in each one of us—both male and female.

[1] For more on this, see CBE’s statement, “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality,” which lays out the biblical rationale for equality, as well as its practical applications in the family and community of believers. https://www.cbeinternational.org/sites/default/files/english_3.pdf

[2] Pinnock, Flame of Love, 238.

[3] Pinnock, Flame of Love, 238; Pinnock, “The Role of the Spirit in Creation”, 48. Further, I want to make a distinction between secular feminism and biblical feminism. For more on this distinction, see one example here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/biblical-feminism

[4] Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 157.

[5] Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 159.

New Publication: Book Review of Chris E.W. Green’s “Sanctifying Interpretation”

I was just alerted that my book review of Chris E.W. Green’s Sanctifying Interpretation, originally published in the online Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association (JEPTA) , has been now been published in the print version of the journal (volume 38, issue 2).

If you would like to read my review of this wonderful monograph, the first 50 people can view it here on the publishers website. There, you should also be able to download the print version PDF.

You can also find a link to the article in the publications section of my website.

The tooth fairy, speaking in tongues, catholicism, and other matters

Do you remember when you lost your first tooth?

I do.

I was prompted to think about this event in my early life just a few days ago when I was sitting beside my oldest daughter, Adelaide (4), at the dentist’s office. We were moments away from having one of her teeth extracted due to a nasty fall she suffered last year. As a result of her chipping her tooth in this tumble, her tooth has been slowly dying over the past year, causing her mild pain and most recently, infection. Due to her dentist’s recommendation, the tooth was extracted, and thankfully it went very well.

But as a result, Adelaide has entered a new time that we all, at one point or another, enter:  the time between our baby teeth and our adult teeth.

Thankfully, the tooth fairy helped bring comfort in this transition by paying Adelaide a visit the other night. When Adelaide woke up, she was ecstatic to see that the tooth fairy had brought her a five-dollar bill, a note, and a ‘gold’ coin!

When I asked Adelaide how she thought the tooth fairy got into our house to exchange her tooth for the gifts, her answer was simple: ‘magic, of course!’ And as I have reflected on Adelaide’s answer to my question, I was struck with the beauty of child innocence and the imaginative and enchanted worldview the comes along with that stage of life.

Today’s society is quite unkind to us as we get older, forcing us to strip off our enchanted worldview for the mechanical worldview of our time. We are asked told to leave behind all forms of naïve ‘superstition’ to embrace the cold, hard ‘facts’ of naturalism.

While some Christian traditions have embraced such a ‘enlightened’ worldview, other traditions born on the margins, such as my own (Pentecostalism), have tended to embrace a more ‘mythical’ worldview (in the words of Rudolph Bultmann) that is found in the New Testament: a world of ‘signs and wonders’. Still, some more established (and respected) Christian traditions such as Catholicism and Orthodoxy still insist upon a worldview that understands God to interact with humans in a very real way, especially in the celebration of the sacraments. For instance, recent Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner insist on understanding the sacraments (Eucharist, Baptism and others) to be primarily occasions for a personal encounter between God and the believer.

So, while baptism is water and Eucharist is bread and wine, these ordinary elements (water, bread, and wine) are also places of encountering Christ through the Spirit. Signs and wonders and sacramental theology, then, like the message of the cross, seems like ‘foolishness’ to those in the world (1 Corinthians 1.18).

And while many Pentecostals would not tend to think of baptism and communion in the same terms as our Catholic brother and sisters, both scholars of Pentecostalism[1] and Pentecostal scholars[2] are pointing out that Pentecostal Christians do carry with them a sacramental or S/spirited worldview, [3] due to their ‘radical openness to God … in the world and the church’.[4] This worldview sees the divine in the human, the invisible in the visible, and the grace of God working through ordinary people and objects. One Pentecostal theologian understands this ‘enchanted’[5] worldview of Pentecostals to be seen in the practice of speaking in tongues, because this serves as an ‘audible medium for realizing the presence of God to empower and heal’[6]. So, by speaking in tongues (and participating in the ‘laying on of hands’, and using anointing oil for physical healing etc.,) Pentecostals expect words and actions to facilitate ‘a dynamic and personal divine/human encounter’.[7]

In other words, many Pentecostals tend to view life with an enchanted worldview.[8] And while one would think this would inhibit Pentecostals to engage meaningfully with science, some theologians within the tradition are becoming known for their robust interactions with science as Pentecostal theologians.[9]

However, despite this, I am beginning to wonder, to use a biblical metaphor, if we like Esau are trading our ‘birthright’ for a modern, naturalistic worldview that will be here-and-gone almost as quickly as Jacob’s stew. In fact, the Pentecostal worldview has much in common with the current postmodern shift happening in our culture. Could it be that Pentecostals (if we can embrace our ‘birthright’) are well situated for ministry to our culture?

Perhaps.

But even more importantly, I would love to see all Christians see themselves – like my daughter – in between ‘times’, so to speak. Just as Adelaide is now in the middle of the time between her baby teeth and her adult teeth, we too are in-between times. For just one example, consider this 1. John 3.2

 Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.

We are children of God now, yet we are awaiting a future time. We are out of the old life, into the new, but still awaiting all the new to be realized. In other words, we are living in-between times.

Yet, there is good news, not only for children who have lost a tooth, but for all Christians.  Because of the uniqueness of this in-between time, ‘enchanted’ things can happen.

The Spirit of God comes unexpectedly to heal the sick, to fall upon water, bread, juice/wine in the context of churchly communion, to woo the sinner, and at times, to even ‘groan’ in prayer for us (Rom. 8.26) … just to name a few.

And as in-between times people, we can expect to meet God in surprising times and in surprising ways. But, we must become like children. Perhaps, this why Christ states that ‘the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like children’. (Matt. 19.14)

So the question for you today is: are you ready to become a child, again?

[1] William Samarin and Walter Hollenweger are just two examples.

[2] Without going into an extended list, see the works of Frank Macchia, Chris E.W. Green, Daniel Albrecht, Wolfgang Vondey, and Dan Tomberlin.

[3] See especially Vondey and Green, “This is That: Reality and Sacramentality in the Pentecostal Worldview”.

[4] James K.A. Smith, Thinking of Tongues, p. 86.

[5] I have borrowed this term from James K.A. Smith.

[6] See Frank Macchia, ‘Tongues as Sign’.

[7] Macchia, ‘Tongues as Sign’, p. 71.

[9] See for instance, Amos Yong, The Spirit of Creation; Yong and Smith, Science and the Spirit.

Do All Dogs Really Go to Heaven?

Any animal lovers out there ever wonder if your furry friend will end up in heavenly paradise with you?

I know I have. I remember watching the 1989 animated classic All Dogs Go to Heaven as a young child filled with hopeful anticipation. Even as an adult today, I still love the idea of hanging out with my beagle, Lola, on the other side. (Anna not so much)

But what does this have to do with today? Well, I was just reminded of this a few minutes ago, when I wrapped up my sermon preparation at Starbucks on Kenneth. I figured before I head home, I would write this brief posting that grew out of my sermon prep.

Tomorrow, I am going to be preaching on Jonah 3–4.4, when Jonah finally fulfills God’s commission to bring a message of repentance to his enemies, and much to Jonah’s disappointment, they repent and God forgives them (more on that tomorrow FWC). But something that is quite interesting in the text, that I unfortunately do not have time to tease out in my sermon tomorrow, is the issue of animal repentance. Yes, you read that correctly…animal repentance.

(A blurry, Polaroid picture my daughter Adelaide (2) took of my dog, Lola, the other day.)

In Jonah 3, we witness the king of Ninevah sending a decree throughout the city commanding repentance from both people and animals as a result of Jonah’s message of judgement. Let’s take a look:

Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city: “No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.” (Jonah 3.7–9)

Did you see that? Animals are called upon to fast and wear garments of mourning. However, despite how strange this may sound, this isn’t the only place we find such a thing happening.

In Joel 1–2, we see something similar. The prophet Joel encouraged a similar cooperation of humans and animals in petitioning God for mercy when he summoned Judah to national repentance. Joel first notes that animals suffered the consequences of Judah’s sin when the curses were given and drought and famine deprived them of their food:

How the cattle moan! The herds mill about because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep are suffering! (Joel 1.18)

Joel then directed God’s attention to the fact that even the animals were even joining in asking for divine mercy. He seemed to think this added weight to Judah’s petition.

Even the wild animals pant for you; the streams of water have dried up and fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness. (Joel 1.20)

Finally, when God announced through Joel that he had accepted Judah’s repentance and had relented from judgement, God addressed the animals directly, promising them relief.

Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures in the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches. (Joel 2.22)

While Joel and Jonah share a lot of similar features (call to repentance, fasting, sackcloth and ashes, the phrase ‘God may change his mind’, and quotations from Exodus 34.6–7), they both portray animals as participants in petitioning for God’s mercy.

The Apostle Paul envisioned something similar in Romans 8.19–22 when talks of the whole creation ‘groaning’ under the curse of the fall.

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8.19–22)

Paul is pretty clear. Just as creation shares in the curse of the fall with humanity, it too will share in the glorious redemption of Christ and the resulting new creation.

So, while it is speculative, I think we can take the Apostle Paul seriously about creation (and by extension, animals) somehow partaking of the redemption that we share in, through Christ. God is clearly not solely concerned about humanity, but has concern for all of his creatures. As Jesus said, He is constantly mindful of even the sparrows (Matt. 6.26; Luke 12.6–7).

So, good news animal lovers — God is an animal lover too. He loves His entire creation. And most importantly as we find out in Jonah, he is ‘a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love’. (Jonah 4.2)

Amen.

When Scripture Troubles and Offends

I’ve read the Bible a lot.

Growing up in a pastor’s home certainly contributed to that. Along with going to church regularly, I also attended Christian schools throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Scripture memorization was not only a part of home and church life, but also school life.

However, it wasn’t until college when I began studying scripture academically that I started to struggle with parts of it.

I started to realize there were some parts of the Bible that were truly hard to understand. I also discovered that there parts of the Bible that also offended me…. deeply.

Then I went to graduate school. Which further enforced to that me that my prior assumption about scripture being neat and tidy was incredibly naive.

Fast forward today. This month I am being installed as the lead pastor at my first church. I have been fortunate enough to serve at two other churches as a staff pastor prior to this appointment. However, today — just as much as ever — I struggle with Scripture.

I am also fortunate enough to be the father of two sweet girls. Since my oldest daughter is now coming up on 3 years old, I am becoming more aware of how much she is a ‘sponge’. Thus, there are things I want to keep her from hearing/watching/experiencing to preserve her young innocence. I have found myself feeling the same way about ‘my’ people — wherever I am pastoring at the time. I want to shelter them from some of the difficulties I have encountered and faced studying scripture over the years.

However, just like any good parent, pastors need to help prepare people how to face and successfully navigate hardships. Sheltering is not the answer. However, this seems to be what pastors so naturally do. I know. I have done it.

Since I have been a staff pastor in the past, my preaching on Sunday mornings has been occasional…a Sunday here-and-there. This occasional preaching obviously does not afford itself to preaching consecutive messages that fit into a ‘series’ of sermons. Because of this, the past few times I had preached, I did something most evangelical/Pentecostal types frown upon: I preached on the lectionary readings.

This was a wonderful experience every time, mostly because it forced me to preach on scripture I would never have chosen. I had to wrestle with scripture outside my ‘pet subjects’ that I love teaching on. I have grown to appreciate this about the lectionary. It forces pastors to have to preach on difficult passages, which creates an opportunity for us to wrestle with tough subjects and confusing passages publicly. It also can humble us. We can let our facade down of being ‘the expert’ on scripture when we readily admit that there are parts of the text we simply do not understand or are hard for us to know what to do with.

This is disciple-making-preaching.

While I will certainly preach through series (actually I am preparing for one as we speak), I think I will regularly consult the lectionary, even if just devotionally. It keeps me humble. It keeps me prayerful. It keeps me reliant upon the Spirit.

When people see pastors wrestle with Scripture, it helps them in their wrestling. I have come to realize that it is in the process of wrestling that I am transformed. Like Jacob wrestled with God — even though I may come out with a limp — I am forever changed. When I commit to the exercise of wrestling with this God-breathed text that is as messy as they come, I am ‘blessed’.

Hear me out…I am not promoting a form of Christian agnosticism in our bible reading. I am merely trying to suggest that scripture reading should be spiritual exercise, not a scientific one. Often, we need the Spirit to breathe on the text for us to make sense of it. As Clark Pinnock stated: ‘Christians should not be seeking the easy way out or making light of real difficulties (in scripture)’.

Ouch.

If we want people to be discipled in their scripture reading we won’t make light of these difficulties.

What we must do, is to teach them to prayerfully consult the Holy Spirit at these times of difficulty and maybe even ‘crises’. As John Wesley says, ‘The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote the Bible but continually inspires those who read it with earnest prayer’. It is the Spirit of God who is the one who ‘leads us into all truth’. He is the one who works on us His fruits — patience, peace, faithfulness and more— as we wrestle.

In the last chapter of the book, Job tells God, ‘Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.’ (42.3) After Job’s humble response and praise to God, ‘The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part.’ (42.12) When we allow God to move us from an intellectual exercise to wonder and awe in our interpretation, we are blessed. Even when we walk away admitting that we know less than we wish… maybe less than we ought.

The Spirit is active, moving, and brooding over the text… He will lead us into all truth, if we are patient.

How the “Left Behind” Series Got It Wrong

It seems that whenever I ask most Christians what their most pressing questions are in relation to their faith, one topic that always comes to the forefront of the conversation are questions related to “life after death” and the “end times”. For those who do not have much background in Christian theology, these topics lie within the scope of what is called “eschatology”, which is the branch of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny God’s creation.

Note above that I was very intentional in my definition of eschatology to include all of “God’s creation”. Many people would have replaced “God’s creation” with humanity or humankind. However, I think that such definitions have lacked an understanding of the breadth of God’s redemptive purposes for all of God’s creation.

In fact, it seems that the most common North American understanding of the “end times” is that God is going to rapture His people out of this world (as a side note the word “rapture” never appears in scripture), and then judge the rest of the world by burning up the whole world, including animals, plant life and everything else God created.

We have a picture that we will be driving cars, and then suddenly we will be shot into the sky , leaving our cars unoccupied and now hurdling towards others, causing great death and pain. Sound familiar?

This expectation and understanding of the end times has been spread throughout America as a result the “Left Behind” series, a misreading of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and through a literal reading (not an apocalyptic reading) of various other scripture passages. In my opinion, however, this is not an accurate picture of what God’s final redemption is going to look like and believe that Scripture taken as a whole offers us a different understanding.

To give a complete, full picture of what this will look like is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I do hope to offer an alternative understanding to God’s final redemptive purposes for His creation, including us, and tell you why this revised understanding is crucial.

First, God’s relationship to humanity is fundamentally vital, yet in isolation from a broader theology of creation, it runs the risk of reducing Christ’s significance to purely human terms and thus failing to take into account the cosmic scope of redemption.[1] For example, in Romans I, Paul declares that eschatological revelation of God’s children have redemptive significance for the whole, nonhuman creation: “ the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.”[2]

Further, Psalms 36:5-6 says,

“Your unfailing love, O Lord, is as vast as the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your justice like the ocean depths.
You care for people and animals alike, O Lord.”

Notice how God’s care encompasses the whole of the created order, with animals mentioned explicitly as the focus of God’s saving activity alongside human beings.[3] Further, elsewhere in Scripture there are promises of “a new heaven and a new earth”[4] in which restoration extends to the nonhuman realm.

Again, there is much more scripture that points to this, but hopefully this sampling reveals that we suffer from an “anthropocentrism” that restricts the scope of God’s love and purposes to humanity. Therefore, it is my contention that we must strip this limiting view off and re-imagine what God’s saving purposes look like for all of God’s creation, with these scripture passages in mind.

Again, I am not downplaying humanity’s role of having “dominion”[5] over all the rest of God’s creatures, but am asserting that with authority comes responsibility… which brings me to why this all matters.

The reality is that whether we realize it or not, our theology influences how we live out our lives in every area of life. For instance, when it comes to this topic, if we suffer from a theology of escapism that tells us that Jesus is going to help us escape out of this world and after we do, it’s all going to burn, why should we take care of God’s earth, animals, plants, etc.? Further, why should even waste our time recycling? Why should even care about the environment at all?

In short, if we understand that God’s redemptive purposes are greater than we can imagine, we will steward what God has given us in a much greater way.

So, this is what “Left Behind” got wrong… well….it’s one of the things that they got wrong; there are others, (in my humble opinion), but that is for another time.

In response, may we together pray the Lord ’s Prayer when considering how to practice our theology when it comes to stewarding what God has given us: “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”[6]… and may we have a hand in that happening…

ARW

___

[1] Ian Mcfarland. From Nothing: A Theology of Creation, ix

[2] Romans 8:21

[3] Ian Mcfarland. From Nothing: A Theology of Creation, ix

[4] Rev. 21:1; cf. Isa. 65:17; 66:22

[5] Genesis 1:26—Note that a more accurate translation would be “to reign” over.

[6] Matthew 6:10

Pentecostals: Can We Stop Trying to be Evangelicals?

This particular post has been brewing in me for quite some time. For a while now, I have been disillusioned with North American pentecostalism, and would like to share some of my thoughts with my fellow “Spirit-Filled” pastors and believers.

In short, I firmly believe that we must begin to reclaim our identity as specifically pentecostal and stop attempting to blend in with the evangelical movement.

Before I get into my reasoning to make such a claim, let me preface my use of the term, “pentecostal”. Like Douglas Jacobsen, I have adopted the nomenclature of “small-p” pentecostalism as a way of honoring the diversity of pentecostal/charismatic theologies while concurrently recognizing important family resemblances and shared sensibilities.[1] So, by “pentecostal” I am not referring to a classical or denominational definition, but rather a family of believers that has constituted 795 million people since 1900.[2] Further, I am not going to make a case that Pentecostals have a different DNA than evangelicals—this has been done by many other scholars—what I aim do is to begin to springboard off of that observation and conviction, one that I strongly share in, and urge current pentecostals to return to our roots, instead of imitating the Israelites in their search to be “like all the other nations” (1 Sam. 8:20).[3]

On January 1, 1901, the first day of the new century, from the Vatican, Pope Leo XIII summoned the Holy Spirit by singing the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” (Come Holy Spirit, Creator Blest) dedicating the twentieth century to the Holy Spirit.[4] That same day on the other side of the world, a group of young students in a Bible school located in Topeka, Kansas under the instruction of Charles Parham, experienced a “Pentecost-like” experience when a young woman, Agnes Ozman, was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in “other tongues”. [5]

Soon, a black student of Parham’s, William Seymour, took this experience and theology to Los Angeles. Soon, the Los Angeles Times would be reporting on the “Azusa Street Revival” started by Seymour and criticizing him for hosting whites, blacks, asians and hispanics all together in one place. At one place, an actual line in Los Angeles Times reads “the color line was washed away in the blood”. Again, remember that these events took place before the Civil Rights Movement.

Further, these events not only served to mark the beginning of what some historians call “the century of the Holy Spirit”, but also served as a prophetic picture of how God would use a mighty move of the Spirit throughout all veins of the Church to further unite and renew His people. This global, ecumenical movement is called pentecostalism.

Although evangelicalism is a wonderful movement that God has used in mighty ways (one major example being Billy Graham), I am not a part of that movement. It isn’t my history…it isn’t my DNA. In a positive sense, I am glad to be able to be able to distance myself from evangelicalism’s fundamentalism. On the other hand, as a pentecostal, I have to deal with the prosperity gospel.

That said, this exposes the fact that no “family” is free of dysfunction. Sure, I can look at other “families” and appreciate their histories, their values, and their accomplishments. However, those families are not my family. In fact, once you look closer at these other families, you will see that they are human, just like your own. They have accomplishments, and they have failures. But at the end of the day, I am still a pentecostal.

In fact, in spite of some of the dysfunction and frankly, embarrassments, I am proud to be a pentecostal. I like the fact that historians show that a black man was the founder of this movement. I like the fact that a woman was the first to speak in tongues. I like the fact that we value scripture, the experiential and emphasize the empowering presence of God in our lives. I like the fact that we are an ecumenical movement as pentecostalism has spread through all veins of the church—Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant etc.

However, in my estimation North American pentecostals are moving away from their distinctive identity and attempting to adopt evangelicalism’s values and strategies. In fact, I often hear pentecostals refer to themselves as evangelicals in order to avoid the “stigma” of being associated with perceived caricatures. Nevertheless, no matter how hard pentecostals try, they are not evangelicals, and I believe if we continue to pretend to be, it will be our demise in North America.

By 2001, there was an estimated 530 million pentecostals worldwide, with most of them being outside of North America. This is impressive considering that in 1901, there was 1 pentecostal and she was located in the United States. Now, 100 years later, we have 530 million and instead of trying to be proud of our heritage and worldwide “success” we are trying to be what we are not.

Consider the following assessment from Harvard professor Harvey Cox:

“As in so many of their practices, it now turns out that in their beliefs about healing the pentecostals were ahead of their time. They were not only ahead of other churches; they were ahead of the medical profession as well. History shows that the norm in most of the cultures of humankind and over most of the millennia has been the complementarity of religion and healing, not their separation…The irony in all this is that just as the medical establishment has finally begun to recognize that there may be some genuine validity in what it had rejected for so many years as fakery and fraud, many middle class pentecostal churches, especially in the United States, have begun soft-pedal healing, as they become more “respectable”. They have become a little uncomfortable about the healings their grandfathers and grandmothers testified to.”[6]

I agree with this honest assessment, and I believe that often pentecostals fail to realize that there is an emerging group of pentecostal pastors, historians, and theologians who desire to reclaim our identity and pastor churches and formulate theologies that are specifically and distinctly pentecostal. Often these same people do not recognize that there are many “respectable” pentecostal theologians, trained at world-class and Ivy League institutions.

Still, this fear of failing to come across “respectable” has neutered our movement in North America. As a whole, we have become a white, middle class *tempered* movement that does white, middle class *tempered* church.

When we are honest with ourselves about our desire to seem respectable, we have to face the fact that this desire and fear comes down to pride, and we must repent.

Let us know remember that we have a distinct identity, and I for one have and will continue to embrace it.

I am a part of the pentecostal family, and I am here to stay. Anyone else with me?

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[1] See Douglas Jacobsen, Thinking in the Spirit: Theologies of the Early Pentecostal Movement, pp. 8-12.

[2] Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit, p. 383.

[3] I owe this insightful scripture reference application to my father and pastor, Brandon Williams.

[4] Jack Hayford and David Moore. The Charismatic Century: The Enduring Impact of the Azusa Street Revival. (New York: Time Warner Book Group, 2006), 1.

[5] Ibid, 1.

[6] Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven, pp. 108-110.

Word, Spirit, Tradition: The Issue of Authority in 2nd Century Christianity

*Below is a discussion board post written for my course at Regent University’s School of Divinity on Early Christianity. This week, we are discussing what the second century deemed authoritative after all of the Apostles died. Some evangelicals today claim that the written word of God we have today (the canon) is the only thing that should have authority over our lives as Christians. However, the generation after the Apostles deemed scripture, tradition and the prophetic to all contain authority. Let’s take a look at how that looked and how it informs the church today. Enjoy*

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As Christianity began to move into the second century, there was a great concern for the faith to have a connection to the apostles. Paul’s letter to Ephesians, for instance, talks about the church as a household built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. We see this in Ephesians 2.19-20. The pastoral letters also deal with the transition to a post-apostolic time with Paul giving final instructions to Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete. Later Clement discusses the continuity with the apostles in 1 Clement 42:“The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits, having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe”.

Additionally, during the second century, Apocryphal writing such as the Acts of Peter, Acts of Paul and Acts of John began to appear. All of these emerging documents in the latter half of second century show a desire to connect themselves to the Apostles, grounding their existence in apostolic authority. Apostolic authority began to be understood during this time as both the oral and written transmission of the teachings of the Apostles. We see this issue of apostolic authority discussed by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis sometime around 130 near Colossae. Papias was a companion of Polycarp and claimed to have learned from John the Apostle. In his discussion of apostolic authority, Papias gives his preference for the “living voice” or oral transmission of Jesus’ teaching, and has a great concern for a historical ordering of events. This is also seen through Papias endorsing and providing crucial information on the status of the four gospels. He gives implicit approval of the gospel accounts and sees them as “memoirs” or “recollections” essential to the teaching of the church. For Papias, it is the oral and written tradition coming together that provides apostolic authority.

This oral and written tradition together made up this “appeal to the rule” that we see not only in Papias but also those such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian. For example, when Tertullian pits Athens over and against Jerusalem, he is not saying that philosophy in general is corrupt. His philosophy and theology have been shaped specifically by the tradition passed along by the transmission of apostolic teaching, which serves as the narrative account of salvation. This story or narrative of salvation serves as the “canon of truth” during this time, and marks the beginnings of canonization. When it comes to the written word, we can observe Papias and Justin of Martyr seeing certain collections of scriptural texts as authoritative. This shows that these second century church leaders see a limited amount of books that are deemed to be authoritative. However, this painted picture of apostolic authority would not be complete without it being put beside this “rule of faith” tradition serving as the narrative of salvation and the Charismatic/prophetic element that is present in the second century.

We are able to see that prophetic authority was functioning in Asia Minor, Syria, and Rome during the second century. For instance, Philip’s prophetic daughters are connected to Hierapolis (Acts 21:9) and John and the “School” of Prophets (Rev. 22) is also located in Asia Minor. The Gospel of Matthew and the Didache also specifically mention the presence itinerant prophets in their writings. In a Syriac context, we are able to observe the Odes of Solomon, written in the second century most likely from Edessa and the Ascension of Isaiah written in the early second century from Bithynia region. In Ode 36.1-3, we are able to specifically see an emphasis on Charismatic revelation and in the Ascension of Isaiah, we are able to see that this tradition wants to retain and recover the role of the prophetic. Lastly, in Rome, the Shepherd of Hermas and its prophetic utterances become yet another example of early, second century authority. All of these examples speak to the Charismatic and prophetic dimension up through the second century until around 150 CE.

Finally, these developments within the second century can speak to twenty-first century Christianity when it comes to what we deem authoritative. For one, this speaks to the issue of Protestantism’s call to “sola scriptura”. Even late second century writers such as Tertullian recognized the importance of tradition that informed his theology. Tertullian is also a good example of a continual emphasis on the charismatic element of Christianity. Although Montanism was condemned later on by the church, these examples above serve to show that even outside Montanism, the prophetic was indeed an integral part of the church and even authoritative in some respect. However, all that to say, although there was not yet a written canon established, Justin Martyr gives the example of holding tradition and the prophetic over and against the written word deemed authoritative. Therefore, today, the church’s tradition and the church’s openness to ongoing prophetic declarations should guide us in our lives, yet should always be tested against Scripture. This, I believe, is the way forward for the twenty-first century church.

Early Church Leadership for a New Generation

It seems that one of the most difficult challenges that churches face today are periods of transition. Anyone who has ever attended a traditional church that is trying to move towards modern styles of worship knows this is true! However, even more difficult than that issue, can be the challenge of transitioning leadership from the first to the second and third generations.  An issue that often comes up in the process is the issue of church leadership structure. Often leaders wonder, what kind of “roles” or “offices” should be in place for effective church leadership? What “roles” or “offices” are biblical?

Turning to scripture and what we know of early Christianity, we find that this pastoral challenge is not only one that every denomination and local congregation faces today, but is also one that early Christianity faced! However, the difference is that within early Christianity the transition occurred amidst a developing structure. Let us look into such developments in order to see if it will shed light onto current considerations for church leadership structure.

We know that  the first generation of leadership rested on those who had been disciples of Christ during his lifetime and were witnesses of his resurrection. According to Wilken, “Authority was yoked to memory” (30). However, eventually missionaries such as Paul took the Gospel beyond Palenstine, established churches and then had to allow the young communities to fend for themselves by establishing local elders to oversee these churches. As a result, early church structure was highly flexible and varied from place to place during the early stages of its development. The Acts of the Apostles and Letter to James suggests that the Jerusalem church and Pauline churches consisted of a fluid group of leaders with roles, including elders (James 5.13-14, Acts 14.23), prophets (Acts 13.1-3), and social leaders (Acts 16:14).

Therefore, there were those who were appointed local leadership, who served the church, there were those who would be classified as charismatic leadership such as itinerant evangelist and prophets, and there were those who were social leaders provided patronage. In the Johannine community, elders continued to rule the local house churches, one example being “John the elder”. In Roman Christianity, elders/presbyters continued to rule local house churches, but in the late first and early second centuries house churches may have gathered together for a central meeting. However, although the structure remained diverse and centered on collegial relations, there were some prominent shifts being played out between 70-117 CE.

Rather than “roles”, it seems that during the latter half of the century, the churches are beginning the designate “offices” of leadership. Clement for example used the terms “presbyter” and “bishop” interchangeably even while arguing that the apostles appointed presbyters and deacons (1 Clement 42-45). This certainly is the situation that the Shepherd of Hermas reports in the early part of the second century. It is clear that the house church to which Hermas belongs was led by a group of presbyters/elders.

Nonetheless, one of major factors that could have played in an important role in further developing the offices of leadership during this time was the tension that often arose between local and itinerant leadership. Charismatic leadership made up of evangelists and prophets often clashed with local leaders over the issue of conflicting teachings. Consequently, it is due to these arising issues and theological deviation that led to a strong affirmation of the role of the bishop by Ignatius of Antioch as the ground of unity among all house churches.

Within Syrian Christianity a move was being made toward the threefold office of bishop presbyter, and deacon. Ignatius is the first example of promoting a threefold structure. We are able to see Ignatius differentiate between the role of bishop and presbyter, making a threefold structure with deacon in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8. Further, even more blatant is the evidence in his Letter to the Magnesians when he calls out these leaders by name: “So, then, I was permitted to see you in the persons of Damas, your godly bishop, your worthy presbyters Bassus and Apollonius, and my fellow servant, the deacon Zotion; may I enjoy his company, because he is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God, and to the presbytery as to the law of Jesus Christ.” (Letter to the Magnesians: 2)

Therefore, it seems that the Johannine and Roman communities held closer to the two offices of bishop/presbyter and deacon and the Syrian communities more to the three offices of bishop, presbyter and deacon (or Ignatius wished it to be that way). These developments are important for the centuries to come, especially in light of the fact that when we get further into the 90’s, Apostolic succession becomes of the utmost importance. According to Clement in his Letter to the Corinthians (42), he reports that during this time the Apostles began to appoint new Elders, Bishops and Deacons to succeed them.

Just as these early Apostles began releasing new leaders to take these churches, many denominations, movements and church pastors are having to do the same.

With this history in mind, how do early Church leadership structures speak to us about passing on new leadership to future generations? Based on this data, I would suggest that there is not a “one size fits all” leadership structure that must be passed on from generation-to-generation. However, in my opinion, there are five essential principles that must be passed on to every generation:

  • First, leadership roles and offices are essential in developing a strong church. Note that although leadership was flexible from place-to-place, it was well established in each church.
  • Secondly, different cultures and environments might require different leadership structures based on the needs of the community.
  • Thirdly, leadership that promotes unity is important. The NT letters and in Ignatius’ case, bishops, helped established unity among churches that could easily have been tossed by the waves of heretical teachings.
  • Fourthly, leadership in the churches must be chosen from mature and able members of the congregation and invested with authority. (1 Timothy 4:14)
  • Lastly, leadership must always submit to “the Great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14), Jesus and must operate and be guided by His word and His Spirit, advancing his mission, not their own.

What else would you add?