Ask a Pentecostal...(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

As expected, our friend Jonathan Martin responded to your questions for “Ask a Pentecostal” with incredible wisdom, grace, and insight. This is definitely one of the best installments of our interview series yet! 

Jonathan is third-generation Pentecostal preacher and the founder of Renovatus: A Church for People Under Renovationin Charlotte, North Carolina and Fort Mill, South Carolina. Jonathan sees himself as a bridge figure  between seemingly conflicting Christian traditions, both the product of southern campmeeting services and Duke University.  As a 33-year old pastor, he embodies the concerns of a younger generation of leaders. But as a product of a parsonage himself, he often jokes that church life has “aged him in dog years,” giving him a deep respect and appreciation for the Church’s history and tradition.  

Jonathan lives in Charlotte with his wife of 12 years, Amanda, and a 10-pound shih tzu named Cybil. He is the author of the forthcoming book Prototype from Tyndale House. Be sure to check out his blog here.  



From Rhea: Do you use the terms Pentecostal and charismatic interchangeably? Why or why not? In a nutshell, what do you think it means to be a Pentecostal?

Rather than a lengthy description of phenomena associated with Pentecostalism, first and foremost, I would say this: to be Pentecostal is to be a Christ-like witness empowered by the Spirit.  This always has to be the baseline.  If being Pentecostal is primarily about believing in a handful of supernatural gifts or experiences, those gifts and experiences will be detached from a larger understanding of Christian mission and thus distorted.  

Pentecostals are not fundamentalists who speak in tongues.  Pentecostal spirituality is a distinct way of being in the world with God, a distinct understanding of the kingdom of God.  Pentecostals are people with an apocalyptic sense of urgency, because they believe the Holy Spirit is empowering the Church in dynamic ways in preparation for the return of Christ.  But we are not just a people anticipating the consummation of the kingdom, we are participating in the kingdom already being established on the earth.  This apocalyptic expectation is hardly a pie-in-the-sky, detached, other-worldly escapism.  Pentecost is about the Spirit falling to the earth to particular people in particular places—and where the Spirit touches ground, the kingdom does too.  

It’s not surprising that when Pentecostal power is at work in communities, it brings disruption, for this is the future reign of God breaking into the present.  There is no racial division because that’s not the way of God’s future.  There are no gender barriers because male and female, slave and free only made sense before the terror of Pentecost disrupted everything.  Now sons and daughters alike prophesy, whomever the Spirit chooses to use.  It’s not surprising that Pentecostal communities have brought justice to the poor and oppressed—that’s the future breaking into the present.  Neither is it surprising that there are accounts of divine healing—as it was in the early church, this is only a foretaste of the wholeness that is coming when creation is restored.  Neither is it surprising that there is speaking in tongues, because this is eschatological speech—this is future talk.  In the account of the tower of Babel, language divided the human race.  No wonder, then, that Pentecostals needed new language—it’s a marker of a future where one language of adoration covers the earth.  

People aren’t Pentecostal just because they speak in tongues, they are Pentecostal because the trajectory of their entire lives has been re-oriented by the power of the Spirit.  As Steven J. Land contends in his landmark Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom, “There may be Pentecostal-like experiences, but Pentecostal spirituality is another matter.”  
So you can see how Pentecostal spirituality is not garden variety evangelicalism with spiritual gifts clumsily added in an eccliesial game of pin-the-tail-on-the- donkey.  It’s a whole way of life, a whole perspective on being the church in the world, a whole vision of being human.  It’s unsurprising that early Pentecostals were marginalized within the broader church when the future started crashing into their present.  As it was on Mt. Sinai and as it was on the day of Pentecost, the presence of God is cataclysmic, violent and disruptive.  In the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s (most notably at Azuza Street), people of different ethnicities were worshipping together, women were preaching, poor and marginalized people were being empowered.  On the day of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit was first marked by “violent rushing wind.”  Once again, the disruption of Pentecost was sweeping the Church.  

I’m aware that sounds idealistic.  Naturally, wherever there is an authentic move of God, there will be people who “confuse the spectacular for the wonderful.”  There will be carnality and confusion and conflict.  We can’t expect a contemporary move of God to be any more tidy than it was for the early Church.  There were church conflicts in the book of Acts; there were abuses of spiritual gifts at the church of Corinth.  But none of that mitigates the fact that Pentecostals bear witness to something very real and very powerful that has happened to them, even while the implications of this newfound power has to be worked out in broken human vessels.  

While Pentecostals and Charismatics are naturally lumped together because of their similarities, the terms are not interchangeable.  Classical Pentecostals trace their origins back to revivals of the early 1900’s (from Azuza Street to rural North Carolina and Tennessee).  The Assemblies of God, Church of God, Church of God in Christ, Foursquare, and Pentecostal Holiness bodies are all classical Pentecostal denominations.  The Charismatic movement was a spiritual renewal that took place within existing Christian communities, from Catholics to mainline Protestants.  Beginning largely in the 1960’s, people from diverse corners of Christian tradition began to experience New Testament signs and wonders like healing and prophesy and speaking in tongues—and even the expressive nature of Pentecostal worship within established institutional churches.  Today, the term Charismatic is sometimes used more broadly to identify Christians who testify to the Pentecostal experience but are simply not part of one of the classical Pentecostal denominations.  

I think Pentecostals should understand the unique contours of their tradition and embrace the distinctions that go along with it.  But I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is given merely to validate or set apart one particular part of the Church over and against another—there is a very real way that the entire church is Pentecostal.  The outpouring on the day of Pentecost is the birthday of the whole Church; the power of the Spirit is the birthright of the whole Church.  The culture of Pentecostal churches may be unique, but the substance of Pentecostal spirituality—wherein the lame are healed, and sons and daughters prophesy, and peace and justice come to the marginalized—is not for a sect.  Those aren’t the marks of a denomination; those are the marks of the kingdom, and they are available to all who call Jesus Lord.  

From Trisha:  I read your recent post, "The Pentecostal Elephant in the Middle of the Room." I thought it was interesting when you said that you see the Pentecostal movement as no more Protestant than it is Catholic. I guess I've always seen Pentecostalism as a charismatic form of evangelicalism. Can you explain what makes it unique/separate from Protestantism?  

The Protestant tradition as a whole, in reaction to perceived abuses, downplayed virtually all mystical aspects of the Christian life—there was little if any room for miracles/supernatural gifts of the Spirit.  The Pentecostal movement has a prominent place for mystical experiences in the life of the Church.  As Land notes, Protestants have historically emphasized salvation as forensic, legal justification, whereas Pentecostals, in line with their Wesleyan roots, have emphasized sanctification/transformation.  

The role of Scripture and the relationship of Spirit to Scripture is also very different in Pentecostal tradition.  I don’t think you could have a higher view of Scripture than what you find among Pentecostals, where the Bible is understood (in the words of my friend Dr. Cheryl Johns) not as an encyclopedia or fact book but the mystical, supernatural Word of God.  But it’s a long way from Sola Scriptura.  There is no way within Pentecostal tradition to even make sense of a phrase like “Scripture alone.”  For Pentecostals, Scripture has no power detached from a dynamic, lively, interactive relationship with the Spirit who breathed upon it. 

In many ways, the Pentecostal movement (and the Wesleyan tradition that underwrites it) has more similarities to the Eastern church rather than the Western church in its Protestant or Catholic forms.  As it is in the Eastern Christian tradition, there is a greater emphasis on the role of the Spirit from the ground floor of Pentecostal theology, whereas in Western traditions, pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) can be a bit of an afterthought.  Pentecostals also are more Eastern than Western in that, as it was for John Wesley, there is an emphasis on sin as a sickness that needs to be healed, as opposed to just a legal problem to be dealt with in judicial terms.  

From Eric: Many people associate Pentecostalism with some (shall we say) excessive but very visible aspects the movement, e.g. people barking like dogs "in the spirit," faith-healing charlatans, snake-handlers, and televangelists of dubious repute. How do you deal with this stereotyping, especially for people who might have concerns about your church or assume that everything to do with Pentecostalism is like that?

That’s an interesting question, especially since both of our current worship experiences take place in spaces that have a bit of local infamy.  Our Little Rock Road location historically had one of the worst examples for our city of Pentecostal ministry imaginable, and our Fort Mill services are in The Broadcast Group, which is still known to many in our region as the former Jim and Tammy Bakker studio!  But while we deal with Pentecostal stereotypes some at Renovatus, it’s honestly pretty minimal.  That’s probably because, even though we are very comfortable with our Pentecostal identity as a congregation, we don’t wear it (or our denominational badge) on our lapels.  

I think our church is deeply Pentecostal in practice, but doesn’t have a lot of the cultural markers that people associate with Southern Pentecostalism.  When we call people down to receive prayer for healing or to be anointed with oil, for example, we are very low key about it.  We don’t get overly demonstrative in those settings.  Our worship is appropriately emotional and expressive, but never out of control.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with being demonstrative and have a deep love and respect for some of my wilder brethren, but it’s really important to me that people can have deep, experiential encounters of the presence of God without being alienated by some of the cultural baggage we have in the South.  Our church recites the apostles creed and/or the Lord’s prayer every Sunday morning and does frequent communion, which is far more likely to be suspect to people who share my classical Pentecostal background!  

From Shane: Pentecostals have a reputation for being anti-intellectual. What role does the life of the mind play in Pentecostal spirituality? What could Christians who primarily approach their faith cerebrally learn from Christians who approach faith more experientially?

Given our characteristic concerns that faith is always grounded in experiential reality, there is an understandable anti-intellectual bent in some Pentecostal communities—especially toward those of us who have been to “cemeteries” (I mean, seminaries!)  I think some of that suspicion has been well-founded, insofar that Pentecostalism began as a movement from the margins, from outside the walls of the academy and institutional religion.  The Pentecostal movement has, in fact, been a critique against the idea that authority and power is derived merely from ecclesial titles or academic degrees, and I think that’s necessary. 

That said, I don’t think there is anything implicit in Pentecostal tradition that necessitates anti-intellectualism per se.  I do think that some of those sentiments probably correspond to Pentecostals becoming cozier with their fundamentalist counterparts after the early years of the movement (ironic, since Pentecostals experienced the most rejection from fundamentalists).  At any rate, as more and more Pentecostals have done formal theological training, those attitudes have changed substantially.  

I don’t see any reason for tension between head and heart in Pentecostal spirituality, and every reason why life in the Spirit should be radically integrated.  In her great book Pentecostal Formation: A Pedagogy Among the Oppressed, Dr. Cheryl Johns uses the Hebrew word yada as the basis for the Pentecostal understanding of “knowing” God.  Yada is a “knowing more by the heart than by the mind, a knowing that arises not by standing back from in order to look at, but by active and intentional engagement in lived experience.”  Significantly, yada was used as a euphemism for love making and the past participle of yada used for a good friend or confidant.  This is not just a Pentecostal understanding of what it is to know God, but a biblical one.  It is not truly possible to love God without loving Him with “all your mind” and “all your heart.”  

At Renovatus, we have a document we really live by called the Renovatus manifesto.  It doesn’t replace the apostles’ creed as a doctrinal statement (which we confess every week), but it is very much what we believe is particular to our call as a community.  One of those statements is “We will practice the liturgy and the primal shout: We will incite worship that engages both intellect and emotion, believing that the head and heart are to be integrated and not divorced.”  I think embracing diverse aspects of liturgy and the shout ensures that both head and heart are nurtured.  

We have another statement that says: “We will reach out without dumbing down (I borrowed that phrase brazenly from Marva Dawn): We will challenge you to think hard about God, Church and culture.  We will not treat you like a consumer, but as a co-conspirator in the re-imagining of the world.”  I once saw a bumper-sticker that said “If you won’t pray at my school, I won’t think at your church.”  In our Pentecostal church, you won’t last long if you aren’t willing to think, because we take the business of being the church very seriously—and that requires deep, sustained reflection.  Caesars and empires do everything than can to keep people from thinking, and in our culture I see challenging people to think deeply about their faith to be an act of resistance. At Renovatus, we attempt to model an integration of head and heart, belief and action.  

From James:  I know Pentecostals who are dogmatic about God speaking to them.  The thing is, God appears to tell different people different things, so I wonder if God actually is speaking to them.  What are your thoughts on God speaking to people?  How can one avoid abuses that come from that claim?

Here’s the truthful answer: on one hand, the idea that God speaks dynamically through Christian community has been the thing that I’ve most cherished about my Pentecostal tradition.  Some of the most powerful, life-altering moments of my life have come through the gift of brothers and sisters speaking to me on God’s behalf.  The idea that anyone in the Church can be a vessel for divine speech is especially beautiful to me.  

It is also extremely dangerous.  And alternately, some of my worst experiences within Pentecostal tradition have been through people running amuck giving out “words.”  We have had to step into situations pastorally on a couple of occasions where we felt like individuals within our community gave words that were manipulative or misleading.  I have had a number of personal “prophecies” delivered over me that could have been faith shattering.  My wife and I have been married for over 12 years without children (another story for another time).  I have literally lost count of the people who have spoken over us that we would have a baby within some kind of a specific time frame.  That’s a sore spot for me. 

But here is what it comes down to: you cannot create space for the real without creating space for the immature and even the fake.  I think it’s fascinating that in the context of lengthy instructions on how to ensure that tongues and interpretations operate in an orderly way in I Corinthians 12-14, Paul comes back around to say “Forbid not to speak in tongues.”  Because the most natural response to abuse of a gift is not to use the gift at all.  And for as deeply Pentecostal as I am, as a pastor now I completely understand this instinct.  There are moments in the heat of that kind of pastoral correction where you would just as soon (where I would just as soon!) shut the whole enterprise down.  But ultimately, you have to ask yourself the question: is it worth shutting down the authentic voice of God in an attempt to root out the fake?  I think the risks of that are far greater.  

So like many Pentecostals, I do share a strong belief that we can hear God speak to us.  But I also believe there are some necessary safeguards.  We have an elder couple in our church, Jim and Mims Driscoll, who teach a class for us on “Receiving and Giving Revelation.”  They have had a lot of experience counseling/training/rehabilitating misguided “prophetic” people.  One of the things I love most about their approach is that they stress, over and over again, that the primary function of speaking God’s heart in Christian community is to share His love.  While it is possible that a corrective or instructive word could be given, this will not usually be the case.  Usually, when God speaks to His bride, He speaks with tenderness.  Prophecy or words of knowledge in the Church should be a direct extension of the love of God.  The Driscolls counsel people that words should not generally be given in private—but normally with 2 or 3 others present so there is some accountability.  This simple practice circumvents a world of problems.  

For my part, I have become quite suspicious of the kind of “word” where somebody gives instruction to go and sell your house or get a different job or go on the mission field or make some radical life change.  If such a word confirmed something an individual already sensed God saying to them, that would be one thing.  But I am not likely to change course completely on something just because of an alleged prophetic utterance.  I’ve seen that go wrong too many times.  Because I do believe so strongly that each of us has the capacity to hear and discern the voice of God, I just don’t think that much weight is typically going to land entirely on another person.  

From Marty: A friend of mine grew up in a Pentecostal church and told me the story of the pressure to speak in tongues. Apparently in that church he couldn't be fully accepted until he had the Spirit and was able to demonstrate that verbally. So as a kid, he would go home and practice when no one was listening. He was successful at some point and everyone was happy. Now as an adult and part of a different tradition, he still has that skill and is quite convincing, but it is a skill he developed an not something else. My guess is that my friend's childhood impression is not quite where the tradition is at. So what does it mean to "speak in tongues"?

I sighed when I read this, as stories like these are still painful for me to hear (even though I know plenty of them).  The doctrine of Spirit baptism with accompanying speaking in tongues has been the lynch pin of the Pentecostal movement, and I never want to minimize that.  But all too often, tongues are treated as some sort of merit badge, and that is unfortunate.  I think many people who sincerely want to operate within that gift are unable to, precisely because too much pressure is put on the experience.  Instead of “you may kiss the bride,” it can feel like a chore or something to check off on some sort of list.  As Jack Hayford stated so well years ago, there is a fundamental beauty to spiritual language that is often lost when people put too much pressure and/or hype around the experience.  

Like most Pentecostals, I believe that speaking in tongues is first and foremost a prayer language, a language of adoration and worship and intercession, between us and God.  In the context of public worship, a tongue that is given in the assembly (not in a corporate time of prayer or worship) should be interpreted by someone with that gift for the edification of the church.  If there is no interpreter, Paul says the person should “speak quietly to God.”  While I strongly believe in the interpretation of tongues, and even in the capacity of someone to speak in a foreign natural tongue they have not been taught (a la Acts 2), that experience is far less common than that of tongues as a prayer language.  

From Sara: Many experiences I have had with members of Pentecostal churches and their leadership believe and teach that the Catholic church (and other liturgical Protestant denominations) are not Christian churches. What is your view?  If you agree, where are you getting your information from?  If you disagree, how are you challenging this stereotype?

I absolutely consider Catholic and mainline Protestant churches to be Christian churches.  As I mentioned earlier, at Renovatus we recite the Apostles’ Creed weekly, so it is ever before us that we are part of “the holy catholic church.”  (Though I end up having to explain in the South frequently that we mean “one universal Church comprised of all who call Jesus Lord,” which of course includes Catholics but does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church explicitly.)  

Now to be truthful, in the churches  where I grew up, traveling prophecy preachers and teachers taught us that the Catholic church was the whore of Babylon and that the Pope would be the antichrist!  As I got older, I rejected not only that notion but the entire dispensational eschatology on which those ideas are based (I will save my rant for later on why dispensational in any form should have no place in Pentecostal churches).

In terms of challenging the stereotype, I can tell you that my primary focus with my ThM at Duke was in Catholic Moral Theology.  I published a piece in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology a few years ago called “Spirit, Apocalypse and Ethics: Reading Catholic Moral Theology as a Pentecostal.”  I don’t know exactly where this fits in with my current day job and writing obligations, but I would love to do a PhD at some point that articulates a constructive Pentecostal approach to ethics in dialogue with Catholic moral theology, as I think there are significant connections.  While Pentecostals have significant differences from Catholicism, we do have our own quirky catholicity mediated through our Wesleyan roots.  While John Wesley was not Catholic, the Methodist/holiness movement that later gave rise to Pentecostalism certainly had tendencies more in line with Catholicism than the magisterial reformers, and I’d like to explore those further.  

From Charity: I went to a pentecostal church as a teenager and two things I noticed was that prophesy and casting out demons were big to-do's. I was always afraid of having a demon, and afraid someone was going to prophesy something bad about me. Now, I realize not all pentecostal churches are the same, just as no two churches are the same, but I wonder what you believe is appropriate for keeping order within the church. I understand the importance of letting the Holy Spirit work, but when does this become a dangerous thing that could allow people not really under the influence of the spirit to hurt and manipulate others?

Anything that is powerful is dangerous, and power that legitimately comes from God is especially volatile.  Both testaments are full of examples of people who have legitimate gifts but misuse the power.  Combustible things are always going to happen when you mix genuine spiritual authority with broken human vessels, so structure and order are absolutely critical.  As I referenced earlier, we have a number of safeguards for these practices at our church.  

I do believe that there is a force of evil in the world that is greater than the sum of its parts, and that in the normal course of life in the kingdom, real resistance will be encountered.  So I do believe there are times and places where demonic influences must be confronted.  But I am also highly suspicious at this point of the over preoccupation with spiritual warfare that has become common in many Pentecostal/Charismatic churches.  I find a lot of the “demon-busters” rhetoric to be overblown and in some cases destructive.  On a pastoral level, I’ve had to deal with individuals within our community who have kind of jumped the shark with all of that.  I like to remind people that, first and foremost, submission to God IS resistance to the evil one.  Most of the time that will be enough.  

I also lived in dread that certain evangelists would “call me out”—um, especially when I was going through puberty!  At this point in my life, I am so convinced of the tenderness of the Father’s heart that in those times when a public “word” is given from a person who understands the function of these gifts in the body of Christ, edification will be the aim.  

From Matthew: Thanks for coming Jonathan!  Let's assume that I was to come to your church with no knowledge of Pentecostal church tradition.  I know I want to follow Christ, and I have heard great things about your church--what books do you recommend I read?  What passage of Scripture do you recommend I dwell on?  What conversation do you give to introduce me to Pentecostal faith?

I know I referenced it already, but Steven J. Land’s Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdomreally is the definitive work for me on the nature and character of Pentecostalism, and certainly the resource that has most shaped me.  The more recent Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism is the World’s Fastest Growing Faith by Paul Alexander is a more accessible introduction.  Rather that recommending particular “Pentecostal texts,” I would suggest a close reading of the Book of Acts on the whole.  Acts frames the work of the Spirit in the broader context of Christian mission in precisely the same way Pentecostals do today.  Thus there is not a sense of Pentecostal experiences as isolated or disconnected events, but deeply connected to the broader story of the kingdom of God advancing in the world.  

From James:  I'd like for you to interact with the issue of healing.  If God heals today, why are there so many people who are sick?  Do you believe it's due to lack of faith?

There is no way I can do justice to this issue here, but this is my short take: as it was in the ministry of the incarnate Son of God, healing serves as a sign of the wholeness yet to come when “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.” Sickness and disease is a reality of a fallen world, but never part of God’s intention for the creation.  

I do not by any means think that people are generally not healed because of a lack of faith.  I see the “word of faith” notion in some Charismatic circles (that all who have adequate faith will be healed and all who are not healed have inadequate faith) to be a destructive caricature of the doctrine of divine healing.  In these systems, God is no longer the object of faith—faith is the object of faith.  That’s a disastrous move.  

I have seen many people healed, I have seen many people pray and fast and seek God and not be healed.  Ultimately, the question of why some are healed and others are not is beyond my pay grade. There is great mystery to this, and I cannot attempt to resolve the tension prematurely.


If you were as impressed with these responses as I was, please consider jumping over to Jonathan’s blogand subscribing, so you can learn more! 

Check out the rest of our interview series here.

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