The Pentecostal Circus
He called himself Apostle. And many a Sunday morning was punctuated with the skronk-skronk of a saxophone as he blew his rendition of "Amazing Grace."
He was a young man, and he'd recently gotten out of prison, where he had some kind of conversion. We were young and idealistic and not a little na�ve ourselves, and we did our best to nurture his gifts. One day a friend of ours, a former pastor, came by the church and said, "That young man needs to be discipled."
True enough. And we tried. Our pastor tried. The problem: How do you disciple a man who calls himself Apostle? The answer: You don't.
His fatal character flaw -- the inability to receive correction -- is obvious to me today. It wasn't so much at the time, and the "apostle" eventually wandered away from the church, disappointed that we lacked the spiritual discernment to embrace his calling. I'm told he's pastoring a church somewhere in Dallas today.
Then there was the wiry, high-strung guy with the impressive intellect who'd preach for two hours straight. At his best, he'd hold you in rapt attention. He strolled in off the street, looking for a receptive pulpit. Once again, he found a body of Pentecostal believers who were willing to journey with him as God shaped his gift.
Now this man was separated from his wife and kids, and once he got settled in the church, he decided to attempt to patch things up at home. Nothing wrong with that. I remember well when his wife came down from another state to join him at a motel. She was a lovely woman, but you could tell she was weary of his game. He had a fiery temper, she let us know, and in the past he had abused her. Still, she harbored just a little hope that Jesus had really worked a change in his life this time.
Two days later, she traveled back home, never to be seen by us again. I guess he hadn't changed.
He too would wander away from the church. The discipline of following Jesus Christ, of dying daily to one's selfish desires, was too much of a grind for him. He'd rather just preach.
Oh, and there were more individuals like this. If you've been involved in a Pentecostal church for any length of time, you probably have stories of your own. There was the "prophet" and his toothless "fiancee" (who appeared to be a neighborhood prostitute), whose eyes literally rolled in the back of his head while he delivered a "word" to our pastor and his wife one Sunday morning.
And how can I forget the extremely short life span of the "international fellowship?" Several Pentecostal preachers expressed a desire to be under the oversight of my pastor. Fine; I can provide oversight, he said. Then he mentioned that the pastors must submit to an accountability structure, and that under the fellowship's charter they could be removed from their positions if they were found to be guilty of moral turpitude.
That day marked the end of the international fellowship. The pastors were no longer interested.
Among Pentecostals, with whom I've fellowshipped for 17 years, I have seen the very best and the very worst evangelical Christianity has to offer. I'm not quite sure why we seem to have such a monopoly on the extremes, but for the individuals I know who were instantly delivered of drug addictions, alcoholism and serious illnesses through the power of the Holy Spirit, there were also the freaks and flakes who thought they deserved pulpit time to showcase their dubious gifts and messages. And I mustn't neglect to mention the innumerable "shakers and fakers" who made public displays of themselves during services by hollering, yelping, jerking and even trying to throw a punch at someone -- all at wholly inappropriate times, and all under the guise of being "moved" by the Holy Spirit.
Along with stellar men and women of God, individuals with extraordinary spiritual gifts and time-tested character such as Pastor Jack Hayford, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Myles Munroe and John and Lisa Bevere, you have folks like Robert Tilton, Bishop Terry Hornbuckle, the "Black Widow" and Pastor Sherman Allen.
What is wrong with us Pentecostals?
I know this question will probably invite a few lengthy missives from cessationists. These are evangelicals who believe that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit -- speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing and so on -- faded away after the Apostolic Age (the years of the early Christian church recorded in the book of Acts). Just so you know, I have more than a passing acquaintance with cessationism. My husband is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the best-known centers of cessationist thinking in the evangelical world. My husband entered DTS as a Pentecostal and emerged as a Pentecostal. While he and I have great respect for Dallas Seminary and its outstanding faculty, we are not persuaded that the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased. Not at all. As even a couple faculty members suggested to my husband, the basis for cessationism rests on just a few scrawny verses and something seminarians are taught to avoid: arguing from the absence of something in Scripture, in this case, the relative scarcity of charismatic gifts and miracles in the latter part of Acts.
If you're of the cessationist persuasion, let's just agree to disagree.
I'm not going to delve too deeply into the Scriptural arguments used to discredit Pentecostalism as a whole. Us holy rollers aren't going anywhere. We are, in fact, the face and the future of Christianity, judging by statistical trends.
But we have got some big-time problems.
I know from my own observation that sexual immorality is widespread among Pentecostal clergy, and in many cases no church governance structure exists to do anything about it. Church leadership is frequently passed down in families as though salvation is acquired through DNA.
Prosperity teaching -- which, when taught responsibly, can extract people from the mire of poverty mindsets -- has degenerated into unabashed greed and charlatanism, with preachers shilling for multilevel marketing schemes that will never benefit the vast majority of the peons who buy into their promises of easy money.
Well-known ministers flaunt the trappings of wealth while Pentecostalism draws in more and more of the desperately poor in the developing world, and believers follow Jesus Christ in jeopardy of their lives in hideously repressive places such as Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and Pakistan while we believe God for a tricked-out Crossfire.
Pentecostalism evolved from the Holiness movement that swept Britain and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Holiness preachers taught that a believer who is radically submitted to Jesus Christ can experience a "second work" of God's grace that will give him or her consistent victory over sin. This second work came to be known as "total sanctification," and it was a watershed event in a believer's walk with Jesus Christ. The fathers of the Pentecostal movement -- William J. Seymour, Charles Harrison Mason, Frank Bartleman and others -- were adherents of holiness teaching before they received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and its evidence, speaking in tongues. An emphasis on personal piety, in fact, is one of the things that defines Pentecostals, along with the baptism of the Holy Spirit and tongues.
I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit myself at 25. I'd made a pledge to surrender everything I knew to Jesus Christ, and the only thing I could think to do was get water-baptized. (I'd never been baptized as a child.) I hadn't been involved in Pentecostal churches, but I'd heard of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and asked God to give it to me. I wasn't sure what the result would be.
I was pulling off my wet baptismal gown in a church basement when, for the first time in my life, I experienced joy. I instantly distinguished it from happiness, which derives from pleasant circumstances. Joy comes from deep within; it has nothing to do with external events. I'd never known anything like it in my life.
With that baptism of the Holy Spirit comes a tender conscience. I'd been numb to certain moral compromises in my life before that day. All of that changed.
Many Pentecostals will tell you a very similar personal story.
There was a time when all Pentecostals preached a high standard of holiness. Sure, there were frauds -- drunks and debauchers who pretended to be one thing and were found to be another. In the South, especially, the concept of the double life has a storied existence, evidenced by the plantation masters who proudly occupied the family bench in church on Sunday and ravished slave girls on Monday.
But in the Pentecostal churches, among the brothers and sisters, where few had earthly riches and social status was of no account, sin was an enemy for which there would be no quarter. Sinners had but one place in church: on the mourners' bench. Jesus, after all, came to free us from the bondage of sin, and Pentecostals took him at his word.
In recent years, though, I have seen a type of church emerge that has many of the bells and whistles of Pentecostalism, such as prophetic "words" from God, exuberant worship and high-octane preaching, but there is no standard of holiness. I call these people post-holiness Pentecostals -- rollers without the holy.
In place of preaching against sin, the leaders exalt their status as "prophets" and teach that their followers have no right to question them. If they do, they're branded "Jezebels" with "rebellious spirits" who've become instruments of Satan to bring down God's anointed. None of this has a speck of Biblical support, but even one's right to examine teaching through the lens of Scripture is discounted. When these leaders end up in grievous sin, members are shamed into believing that their only recourse is to shut themselves in the private prayer closet and beg for God to speak to their leader.
Which, by the way, I'm sure God has already done, many times over. If the Holy Spirit lives inside of us, we are continually made aware of our own sin.
I've never figured out how these leaders and their followers get around Paul's command to "expel the immoral brother," or his warning not even to eat with someone who calls himself a brother and involves himself in sexual immorality, or his counsel that we have a duty to judge those in the church. I'll guarantee that you'll never hear in these churches the testimony of Jude, who foresaw a day when the church would be dominated by "...godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord."
Look around you: We are living in that day.
The recent scandals among Pentecostals have shaken me. I struggle to understand how people who've come into contact with the very presence of God through worship, who've seen the power of the Holy Spirit at work in miraculous ways, can get involved in such craziness. --Julie Lyons
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.