Thursday, August 02, 2007

Assembly of God/Evangelicalism: Identity?

Some of you might know that there is change brewing in the Assemblies of God, and that there are a lot of people, especially younger ministers, who are wrestling with what it means to be part of this denomination. One blog in particular, FutureAG, is acting as a clearinghouse for discussion and comment as well as prayer. I am very appreciative for this effort, and applaud its demeanor as being part of the AG and part of the effort to lead the denomination into further health in the future.

Many of the issues faced by the AG right now are also of larger concern to evangelicals. One post in particular, Identity Crisis, strikes one of those chords. As evangelicalism sways like a tree in cultural winds, what defines our roots? What keeps us in place and keeps us united in common cause? In addition to the thoughts in that post, I would like to throw some of my thoughts on the table as well.

One of the primary concerns for the AG is what is known as its “doctrinal distinctive”: speaking in tongues. From time to time this doctrine has been emphasized to the detriment and maybe even the exclusion of the other, more universally orthodox, doctrines. Paul notes:

“The truth is that the key to the Pentecostal movement was never tongues but a passionate pursuit of God for an empowering work of the Spirit to carry forth the Great Commission of Jesus.

Meanwhile, as we held tightly to our distinctive doctrine, we gave up many of the things that really made early Pentecostalism special. Our distinctive doctrine became all that defined us and the real character, contribution, and impact of the movement was lost.”

I think it is true that an overemphasis on a single doctrine has hindered us by narrowing our vision too much. What would, in my opinion, broaden our vision is a much deeper emphasis on the core doctrines and theological development available to Pentecostals. Theological work, when done correctly, broadens the vision of a denomination or a movement and sinks roots that stand the test of time. Documents like the Westminster Confession and the Nicene Creed have acted as solid foundations for millions of believers over nearly, well, thousands of years. And as cultures come and go, those theological works have proved up to the task of handling any one of them. I am not sure we have that kind of body of work behind the AG just yet.

In my view, the primary mistake in the trajectory of the AG has been in trying to rekindle feeling and emotions as a foundation for our present and future growth and in identifying our denomination too closely with that particular kind of spirituality. We may have, from time to time, mistaken the sovereign move of the Holy Spirit in the form of revival with emotionalism. Emotionalism is a poor foundation for anything, and hoping to control the Holy Spirit or recapture “what was” just doesn’t work.

Paul also notes:

“If the AG is going to continue to grow in the future, we need a paradigm that can better reflect the unique qualities of our past -- qualities that could better fit a post-modern paradigm than a modern one.”

I am not sure exactly what that would entail—qualities that fit better in a postmodern paradigm than a modern one. But I would add the caveat that we need to think critically and thoroughly about the philosophy of postmodernism before we dine with that devil.

Paul finishes his thoughtful post with a string of questions:

“What do you think? What is it that truly defines us? Why are we in this fellowship with each other?”

The very fact that these questions should be taken seriously betrays our need as a movement to strengthen the foundations upon which we call ourselves a fellowship.


The Gyrovague said...

I pray along with you and the AG that you will find your moorings and re anchor yourselves there for growth. The AG church is a great group of churches, and I do not want to see another denomination break up because of differences in opinion or Theological differences.

Take Care

Phil Steiger said...

Agreed. That is why I like what I am reading and hearing so far--many who want to think through our identity are doing it "from within" and not calling for schism.

OPM said...

While I agree that the AG's distinctive doctrine of "tongues" may have (at times)been over-emphasized -- I know that at other times the AG churches have swung too far away from their Pentecostal roots. It seems to me that there might need to be a "balance" (another AG word tossed around from time to time).

I do feel too much emphasis on "Spirit" over "Word" can lead to excess and too much "Word" without "Spirit" can lead to elitism. What the church (or the AG per the the convo) needs is "passionate depth". I note the Dallas Willard is one of the links from your site -- his style in his thoughtful book "The Divine Conspiracy" illustrates this well. Here is an intellectual genuis who seems to me to be Spirit-filled -- now, that's a good mix!

As far as "tongues" go -- Paul said he spoke in tongues more than everyone else -- Jude, the half-brother of Christ said that we build up our most holy faith when we pray in the Holy Spirit (tongues -- if the AG are correct in their interpretation). And Paul said in Eph. 6:18 we should be "praying the Spirit."

I think the real issue here is -- is the spiritual man as important as the natural man. Much of the preaching going on in the (so-called) "emergent" church addresses the five senses and the material world (not a bad thing in and of itself) -- but little is said about what I would call the sixth sense -- the spiritual man. If this is the AG quandary -- and I'm told by AG pastor and District Official friends it is -- then I would say to both sides -- tread softly. On the one hand we have an "earthy Jesus" and on the other hand "an other-worldly Jesus. (Fully God - Fully Man).

In throw "tongues" out -- or to over-emphasize "tongues" -- I suppose both carry with them their dangers.

Glad I could muddy the waters in this discussion...

God Bless.

J said...

I'm not sure I'll add anything particularly useful here as this is more of a critique rather than a solution, but one of the things which is causing the identity obfuscation of the AoG is the joining with so many downright non-Christian groups "in" the church today.

I've heard people talk about their AG church having "faith healers" come in to teach obviously false doctrines, even having one being caught doing fake healing and cell phone prophecy. Likewise, joining in fellowship with spiritual (as opposed to Christian) churches, and a general alignment with a number of 'health and wealth' preachers and their very shaky Christianity.

I haven't seen these personally as I have a very excellent AoG church which I attend, but I've talked with enough people who are in those types of churches, that I believe it's more than the occasional bad apple in the denomination.

One of the things which I admire about the AG church is the acceptance and fellowship extended to fellow Christians even though doctrines and practices differ. This may be starting to be extended too far, and thus diffusing the identity of what the AoG denomination stands for. Sort of the idea that those who are for everything, are really for nothing.

Where to draw the line in who we should consider fellow Christians and those who are following a false 'Christ' is a question which is probably beyond me, but it's something that needs to be carefully considered by the denomination as a whole.

Rich Tatum said...


I thought I'd let you guys know I blogged on this yesterday, in case you're interested:

Resignation Speculation and the Leadership Change

Hope you don't mind.