Archive for the ‘United Pentecostal Church’ Category

For Oneness Pentecostals, the Christian life is a holy calling, reflective of the nature & character of the One Who has called.  For us, the Church is neither fully immersed nor fully engaged in larger culture.  For us, the Church is separate, set apart, sanctified, counter-cultural, existing as an alternative society that is in the world, but not of the world.  For us, the command to “Be holy, for I am holy” is just as much a part of the call of God today as it has ever been.  It is then incumbent on us as both the inheritors of the Holiness Tradition, and those who view God as first and foremost holy, to ensure that we embrace the holiness ethic with all our hearts & lives.

For us, the Holiness Ethic is a worldview based on the idea that God is Ultimately Other.  He is Not-Us.  This is the root of God’s command, “Be holy, for I am holy.”  The Holiness Ethic finds its taproot in God’s Otherness, God’s separateness.  And as God is Other, as God is Separate, so we are called to be other, to be separate.

Those who embrace the Holiness Ethic seek to understand how God expressed His “otherness” to humankind, and then apply that understanding to the entire scope of human life-experience.  In this manner, God’s holiness becomes the measure of how we as Christians understand and engage grand ideas of politics, economics, & justice (criminal, civil, social, and economic).  God’s holiness also becomes the governing principle of how we engage relationships, creation, and our career.  The Holiness Ethic becomes the guide to how we approach all aspects of daily living, the filter through which our thinking passes, and the measure by which we estimate what is good and true.  The Holiness Ethic forms our entire approach to life.

Once we accept the notion that the root of the Christian idea of holiness is that God is Other, we move to the stage of trying to assess just how God is “other”.  Fundamentally, God’s “otherness” is expressed by the values that He has declared are His own.  Discovering what those values are is critical to the Holiness Ethic, because if God’s “otherness” is expressed by His values, then for all intents and purposes, personal holiness eventually becomes a matter of living out God’s values in the world. So, the Holiness Ethic is about living out what God has identified by His own commitment as the most important values for His People to live by.

Now that we have some idea why we emphasize the things we do regarding personal holiness, let’s try to be candid about some of the effects our traditional emphasis may have…both positive and negative.

One of the positive effects of our traditional emphasis on personal holiness includes the realization that being in relationship with the Holy God will have profound impact on the realities of life.  Another is the understanding that since we represent the Holy God in a sinful world, we are fundamentally counter-cultural. Our Christian distinctiveness should set us apart.  Finally, another positive is the knowledge that sanctity is ultimately practical; sanctification is not merely theological and spiritual. It works itself out in how Christians behave and how they present.

But there are also negatives effects…negatives that include an easy slide from sanctified living to legalism.  Of course, we recognize that legalism is not the insistence that Christians behave and present distinctively.  Legalism is, however, an emphasis on the letter of such laws, while ignoring their intent or spirit.  Further, legalism is reflected in the tendency of some to make issues of practical sanctity salvific. In other words; if one isn’t living in accordance with them, one is probably not saved.  (This is always a puzzler, knowing how greatly these concepts may vary from region to region.)  Another negative effect of our traditional emphasis is the adoption of a critical and judgmental spirit…which even though we understand doesn’t have to be present, those of us who are experienced in such matters know how often it usually is.  A final negative effect, and perhaps the most dangerous, would be the tendency to continually expand the “list” of prohibitions to include things that are not Biblical, or are based on very questionable Biblical exegesis.

So, while the understanding that God is holy and calls us to be holy people is of undeniable significance, and while appreciating that a holy life most certainly will work itself out in practical matters, we must also be very careful not to add to the great pressure of an already counter-cultural life a list of codes that are based on a leader’s feelings, and things that will not pass Scriptural muster.  Every prohibition or code should be required to come under the scrutiny of sound exegetical practice.  Not only should we ask, “What did the apostles say?”, but we should also ask, “Why did they say it?”

Finally, it’s important to realize that, at the core, holiness is about living out God’s values…about demonstrating in practical ways what God considers important.  One can easily lose track of this when one begins to think that holiness “is all about me…about what I do, about how I feel, about what I want, and how it makes me better.”  Instead, the adoption of a holiness ethic calls for us first to consider holiness and sanctification from God’s point of view.

Though many North American Oneness Pentecostals like to think of our movement as having suddenly been born on earth from heaven with no earthly theological antecedents, little could be further from the truth.  Historically, the organized efforts of the Oneness Movement in North America have their roots in early trinitarian Pentecostal organizations, most notably the Assemblies of God.  Further, the Pentecostal movement in North America has it’s theological roots primarily in the Holiness Movement of the 19th century.

The Holiness Movement was itself a loose association of denominations and mission organizations that arose primarily in the latter half of the 19th century.  They were Methodist in theology, but held certain distinctive beliefs that formed the core of their emphasis.  While they shared with Methodism belief in a “second work of grace”, they were distinctive in their emphasis on how this experience would result in sanctified living.

They believed that aspects of God’s Law were pertinent, and expected their members to follow strict behavioral rules.  Among these strict rules were equally strict & modest dress codes.  Among those strict dress codes were prohibitions on makeup, jewelry, sleeves above the elbows, and the wearing of pants by women.  Women were also expected to have long hair.

The point of this very brief & necessarily simplistic examination of the history of the Oneness Pentecostal movement is to help you understand why many Oneness denominations have traditionally placed such emphasis on “personal holiness”.  We didn’t invent this emphasis; we’re simply a contemporary expression of it. From Methodism, to the Holiness Movement, to trinitarian Pentecostals, to us…  Turns out we’re not that original after all.

Holiness is a touchy subject in most of our churches.  We feel conflicted because on the one hand most of our ministers and congregations don’t really want to focus on it specifically…not very much, anyway.  (Though sometimes we bow to denominational pressure to do so.)  On the other hand, God’s call for us to be holy people is Scripturally undeniable.  This conflict arises in no small part because of the way we’ve defined & applied “holiness” in our movement, and now in the minds of most Oneness Pentecostal people the very word is fraught with tension.  This is the tension that exists between our awareness of God’s call, and our frustration with the traditional Oneness Pentecostal approach to it.

In spite of this tension, or perhaps even because of it, it’s more important than ever before for us to know what a “holiness ethic” is and why it’s important.  It’s important for us to grasp what having a holiness ethic might mean for us and our interactions with the world.  This understanding is important because God is holy, and because He has called us to be holy people.  A holiness ethic is important because our appreciation of God’s nature and calling must transcend a narrow, culturally delineated application of holiness.

But everything starts somewhere.  Every idea has a root, and ground from which it grew.  The Oneness Pentecostal movement’s focus on a particular view of “holiness” is not original with us nor unique to us.  The concept we generally embrace as “holiness” is an inherited one, and has been shared by other movements both previous to ours and contemporary with ours.  Having a basic understanding of how this particular heritage came to us would help us grasp the current focus…even while maintaining reservations about it.  Understanding where we are from and how we got to where we are now is important in order for us to truly appreciate where we are going.

Next; a brief history of the Oneness Pentecostal movement.

Starting Monday, May 9, I’ll be publishing excerpts from a series of lectures I’ve recently given on The Holiness Ethic.  Obviously, as excerpts, they’ll be limited in scope; the meat being reserved for those faithful students who endure my teaching.  Still, there may be enough in them to stimulate your thinking.

So, God being willing, we’ll “see” you Monday!

So, everything we’ve posted now brings us full circle to the definition of a bubble; it’s a self-reinforcing cycle of beliefs and practices.  In our bubble we’re comfortable, and feel safe, because we’re surrounded by people who are like us, who talk like us, and define reality like us.  Pentecostal people, using Pentecostal language, espousing a Pentecostal worldview; it’s a Pentecostal bubble.  It’s nice, to be sure.  But we’ll not fulfill our Commission from inside the bubble.

It’s hard for us.  We live in this tension between wanting to be utterly distinctive from the world, while still somehow reaching the world.  There’s always a struggle to strike the right balance between being utterly out of touch and incapable of communicating, or being utterly worldly.

An example of this would the conservative Mennonites on one extreme with the liberal evangelical congregations on the other.  The Mennonites are very distinctive in their appearance, putting us to shame by their “standards”.  They do their best to engage and participate in society as they can, yet seem to look odd, out of place, and awkward.  In spite of their sincerity and commitment, their movement is essentially unattractive…and is not growing.  On the other end of the spectrum are those evangelical mega-churches in which there is very little to distinguish them from “the world”, in appearance, practice, or philosophy.  Yet, their churches are full.  One extreme is utterly unattractive and cannot grow, while the other is utterly worldly and bulges at the seams.

We find ourselves in a dynamic that tries to operate between these two extremes.  We want to be distinctive to a degree, and at the same time adopt the methodologies that evangelicals use to great success.  We want to be distinctive and attractive, insular yet welcoming, different…yet charmingly so.  Only time will tell if we’ll be successful, because it’s incredibly difficult to be both in the bubble and out of the bubble at the same time.

Thanks for reading!

Element Three- Redefined Reality

Through the isolation of our lives and the adoption of specialized language, we begin the process of redefining reality.  Nothing is as it seemed before.  What was once a sleepless night is now “torment”.  What was once a low day or a bout of depression is now “oppression”.  What was once an argument with a family member is now an “attack”.  We define people by their saved-ness or lost-ness.  We qualify believers by our definition of what it means to be “apostolic”.  People we knew and loved and freely accepted into our lives before are now defined by their sin; they are drunkards, they are sexually immoral.

And even more radically, we alter our sense of reality by the application of our particular mores and taboos, both Scriptural and traditional, to a frightening degree.  So, we can’t comfortably speak of television unless we do so in a completely negative sense…even though it’s likely that the vast majority of all UPC homes have them.  Our television taboo redefines reality for us to such an extent that any acknowledgment of television is couched in a slew of disclaimers.  And this in 2016.

We also redefine reality by refusing to speak of or acknowledge things, that while true, don’t portray us in the most positive light.  So, we’ll not broach the subject of depression among pastors’ spouses because it contradicts our Pentecostal reality.  We can’t acknowledge that one of the reasons we place such emphasis on evangelism is to balance the outflow of those leaving the church.  We won’t acknowledge this because it is offensive to our Pentecostal reality.  We can’t acknowledge the incredible loss of UPCI youth…and that those losses occur regardless of youth programs or the conservatism of congregations.  And we refuse to acknowledge it because it offends our sense of Pentecostal reality.

We’ll do this…redefine reality…until all that we really acknowledge as significant, true, and valuable are those things that reinforce our beliefs and practices.

Tomorrow…wrapping it up.

In this post we move on to the second element of the Pentecostal Bubble…

Element Two- Language

The second element of our bubble consists of our eventual adoption and use of a particular form of language that no one else except the initiated will understand.  Consider this; when most of us begin our discipleship, we step into a world we know nothing about, hearing things we don’t grasp, using language we don’t understand.  At first it’s jarring…disorienting.  But as time passes and we’re immersed in that language, we grow to understand and use it ourselves.  Finally, we forget how jarring and strange it seemed to us, and we speak in that “code” all the time.

Eventually, Pentecostal-speak will begin to overflow into our conversation with those of “the world” because it’s now our language of life.  This is especially likely to occur among those who are in ministry and are supported by that ministry.  Church & ministry life become for us a cultural enclave that we never really leave, and we can grow to find difficult to have a meaningful conversation with someone who isn’t part of that enclave.

While every social and professional group will have a language of specialization, the extreme we take this to actually serves to interrupt communication with those who need to hear our message most.  For example; in conversation with “the world” we’ll find ourselves using theological terms instead of plain English.  So, we’ll say “repentance” instead of “change your mind”.  We’ll say “remission” instead of “forgiveness”.  And we’ll say “Holy Ghost” instead of “God’s Spirit”.  These are simple, and perhaps rather silly, examples…but whatever the example, the longer we’re “saved” the less able we seem to be to express God’s truth in any other language than Pentecostalese.

And the message becomes garbled because we’re speaking the language of the bubble.

Tomorrow; Element Three of the Pentecostal Bubble.

It’s been two years…TWO YEARS…since I’ve posted any thoughts of any kind.  It’s not that I’ve not had thoughts of any kind, it’s just I’ve not been at all sure they were worth posting. 😉  But here I am again, flinging words into cyberspace, wondering if after two years anyone still follows or reads these posts.  And instead of my usually wordy-wordy posts that violate the cardinal rule of the blog-o-sphere that “shorter is better”, I’ll try to keep in mind the old saw that “brevity is the soul of wit.”

Now, introducing “The Pentecostal Bubble”.

The bubble…a self-reinforcing cycle of beliefs and practices that’s protective, that’s comforting.  Every distinctive group at some point forms a bubble, whether intending to or not.  Upper class white people from Westchester have their own bubble, and it’s their world.  They live in certain neighborhoods in mansions, make high six and seven figure salaries, send their kids to private schools, who graduate and attend Ivy League universities.  They drive BMW’s or Lexus, and talk about yachts and horses on the golf course.  It’s their bubble.  It’s their world.

Pentecostals have a bubble; a self-reinforcing cycle of beliefs and practices.  And like all bubbles, our particular bubble seems to consist of three main elements, and those elements all connect and feed off one another.  Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be posting thoughts about the three elements of our “Pentecostal Bubble”.  I hope you take a few moments to read them.

And to think.

Azusa; Template for Societal Change

At Azusa Street, the dynamic work of the Spirit provided a God-ordained template for radical societal change.  American society was divided along race, gender, and social lines…but when God poured out His Spirit, all of those lines began to blur at the Azusa Street Mission.  A black pastor led a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation of men and women, rich and poor, in one of the greatest revivals the world had ever seen.  How the world identified you didn’t matter, for a spiritual peoples’ movement had been born.  All could walk together, worship together, learn together, and work together.  It was radical.  It was revolutionary.  It was God’s design for humanity being re-birthed in His Church.  Even the first attempts at organization in the fledgling Pentecostal movement were interracial, open to the anointed ministries of all races and both genders.

But it didn’t last long.

In a matter of a few short years cultural and societal pressure splintered the movement into white, black, and Hispanic organizations, and we reverted to type…isolated from each other, suspicious of each other, even denigrating each other.  It seems especially sad that there was no large scale effort to tear down the barriers between us until the political and social climate had changed, and the nation at large began to shift.  Instead of leading change in our culture, we were led by the culture…a sad state of affairs that continues to be the norm.

Defining “Race”

But what is “race”?  How do we define the concept of race?  The definition is significant because how we popularly and culturally define “race” influences our understanding of Scripture.  We know that ideas evolve and develop, and that definitions change over time.  It only stands to reason that the ideas and definitions that we absorb from our current cultural context will be applied to the Bible.  But reasonable or no, it can lead to an inaccurate view of Biblical teaching.

Our definitions of “race” and “racism” had their origins in post-enlightenment Europe, and developed more fully as a direct result of the European and North American slave trade.  For the first time in the recorded history of humanity, human beings were enslaved because of the colour of their skin.  This hateful crime naturally added to the continued evolution of the idea that some groups of people were inferior to other groups of people.  While this idea was prevalent in all European colonial powers, the development of this concept reached a level in Britain and North America previously unknown in the world.  Whites were simply superior in European colonial eyes to all whose skin was a different colour.

The pain and injustice this idea has caused can never be measured.  Sadly, American society continues to be afflicted with its fallout.  While we have endeavoured to right wrongs by legislation, we are as a society as divided as ever.  Legislation cannot erase the corrupting influence of racism.  Legislation cannot sooth bitterness and cannot remedy hate.  The idea of racism has been marginalized and demonized, and everyone professes to believe that racism is evil.  Yet, the politics of race is more dominant than ever before.

To the Church

There is a message from the Word of God to the Church regarding this issue, and that message is, “No barriers!  No divisions!”  Our natural, philosophical, political, and culturally defined distinctions do not exist in Christ!  And it is tragic…even devastating…when we not only allow these divisions in the body, but encourage them.

When we allow and even encourage these barriers and distinctions in the Body of Christ, we are denying redemption, and the whole work of the Cross is made of no effect!  One of the greatest evidences of conversion in the early church was that in Christ all were one, all were equal, all were free, and all were loved.  The world may have identified Omnesimus as a slave, but Paul called him a brother.  The world may have identified Timothy as a Greek¸ but Paul said, “He’s my son!”  The world may have identified the lady of 3rd John as only a woman, but John called her chosen.  We dare not allow the barriers destroyed by the cross to be reestablished.  We dare not allow new divisions, other divisions, to be built up.

The Church must not allow itself to be divided or influenced by the world’s idea of race.  Establishing churches and ministries along racial and cultural lines is no more acceptable to God than establishing churches along the lines of gender or citizenship.  “Men only in this church!”  “Only Americans or legal immigrants in our congregation, thank you!”  Allowing and encouraging racial divisions is as ridiculous as having a First United Pentecostal Church of the Upper Middle Class…working poor need not attend!

The answer to racism in the Church begins with repentance, with the Apostolic Church on her knees, crying out to God, asking Him to forgive her for turning her back on the work He began.  The answer begins with the Church on her knees seeking God’s forgiveness for bowing to the pressure of an ungodly society to separate and segregate.  The answer begins with us in humility seeking God’s forgiveness for our failure to be the light and lead the way.