The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada has set up a Theological Study Commission (described here, near the bottom of the page). The first-fruits of this commission have arrived. Masters Pentecostal Seminary has released a series of six papers that can be downloaded here. The stated intent of these papers is to “provoke thought and discussion”, not to layout the PAOC’s official position on these matters.
I’ve read the papers and they’re quite interesting. I thought I’d do my part to further the discussion by calling out and responding to the papers with some thoughts and questions of my own. Six papers (+ one appendix) = six posts. Here we go:
Pentecostal Identity—A Pastoral Perspective
by Peter Cusick and Brandon Malo
Cusick and Malo anonymously surveyed PAOC pastors on a variety of issues surrounding our pentecostal identity (the raw data can be found here). The paper begins with bit of history about Pentecostal identity before diving into the results of the survey.
The Historic Identity of Pentecostals
- Resorationism: Early pentecostals believed that their faith was a return to the sort of faith active in the book of Acts.
- Latter Rain: Early pentecostals believed that the outpouring of the Spirit which launched our movement was, in fact, the prophesied latter rain which would energize the remnant of believers before the imminent return of Jesus.
- Mission: The purpose of Spirit Baptism in early pentecostal identity was to empower the saints to evangelize.
Cusick and Malo offer the following comments on Pentecostal identity:
- How often can we say, “we’re being restored” before actually being restored?
- Jesus hasn’t returned yet. Therefore our understanding of latter rain means one of two things: 1) It’s still raining, just not quite as heavily as before, or 2) the revival that jump-started our movement wasn’t the latter rain.
- Must we continue as a revival movement to be true to our identity?
- How important will the baptism of the Spirit (along with initial evidence) be for fourth generation Pentecostals?
Cusick and Malo conclude on an ominous note: “remove the identity of the early pentecostals and you lose the movement.”
Here are some of my thoughts on the matter:
- To continue in the belief that our movement (and only ours) is the restoration of book-of-Acts style faith sounds horribly arrogant.
- I often hear long-time congregants yearn to return to the faith and praxis of the early church. I remind them that every church letter in the New Testament was written to a church in trouble (with the possible exception of Ephesians, a church which was criticized elsewhere). Why would we want to move backwards? I’ll take my congregation here in Bracebridge over Paul’s people in Corinth any day.
- The constant cry for the sort of revivalism that marked the start of our movement becomes wearisome. As rightly noted, the baptism of the Spirit was intended to strengthen the church for mission. I would rather go out in mission and trust the Spirit than wait for another empowering revival. (The cynical side of me observes that I’ve never in my lifetime witnessed a “revival” that hasn’t split the church and done more damage than good.)
Survey Says . . .
Here we’ll look at the four major survey questions. It’s important to note (as admitted by Cusick and Malo) that a survey of 91 out of 1,008 senior pastors is telling, but ultimately inconclusive.
- “What phrases would best describe the current emphasis of your church?” The most frequent response was “strong biblical teaching”. “Investing in mission” came in second. “Encounters with the Holy Spirit” was down the list in 8th place (out of 10 choices). I think this is an encouraging sign. It suggests to me that the overall witness of scripture is more important to us than one part of it. It also shows that we’re living the spirit-filled life by investing in mission.
- “How would you rank the importance of the following to your affiliation with the PAOC?” Three answers are virtually tied for first place. What’s interesting is the significant lack of emphasis on “visionary inspiration on a national level”. We’re an independent bunch of churches!
- “What theological direction would you like to see the PAOC take moving forward?” There’s a decisive answer here: “greater emphasis on our existing theological distinctives.” While some suggest that we should revise our distinctives, the thought of adding to them or removing them is virtually off the table.
- “As a pastor, which of the following best describe what it means for your church to be Pentecostal?” Ah, here we’ll find out what our identity really is: “emphasis on the empowerment of the Holy Spirit for daily living,” followed by “focus on serving those in need and reaching the lost in your community”. That makes me proud to be a pentecostal. Unfortunately, the desire to “be in relationship with other like-minded churches” was the least chosen response. I thought one of the hallmarks of Spirit-baptism was unity. Could it be that we’re reacting to our formative years of denominational rejection by keeping to ourselves now?
I like how Cusick and Malo ended their paper:
One concerned pastor asks what he sees as the key question: “How are we going to define what being a Christian Pentecostal in a PAOC church is?” And perhaps within a few minutes of his or her question being sent away, seeking an answer, another pastor suggests an alternative path: “Let’s focus on what it means to be a Christian instead.”
Navel-gazing makes me nervous. It’s important to know who we are as a fellowship, but let’s never confuse that with our true identity as part of the global church, hidden with Christ in God. I know the purpose of the Theological Study Commission is to establish our identity, which is found in our distinctives. Distinctives only make sense, however, within the context of essentials.