By Mike Ivaska
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. – 1 Corinthians 1:10
Is Christ divided? – 1 Corinthians 1:13a
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:4-6
Sometimes labels are helpful. For example, imagine how difficult it would be to find what you needed in a grocery store if none of the packaging gave any indication what was inside. Or consider, what if the packaging contained lengthy descriptions of the contents instead of simply saying, “flour” or “Cheerios”? Who would want to purchase “Fluid squeezed from cow, originally intended for the feeding of young calves, now mechanized and bottled in large quantities for human consumption, white-ish in color“? I, personally, would rather buy “milk.”
At the same time, labels can be divisive. This has especially been true in the church. Historically, when Christianity was a culturally dominant force in America, it mattered significantly if one was Presbyterian or Methodist, Baptist or Roman Catholic. One’s religious label opened, or closed, doors of opportunity. While some people converted to Christ, others converted from one form of Christianity to another. Seminaries had professors of “polemical theology” whose entire job was to show how their version of Christianity was more true to the Bible than other versions of Christianity and to pick apart competing forms of the faith. I remember my good friend, a German-born Lutheran pastor, who marveled that American Christians seemed so uncommitted to any particular tradition. Some of my friend’s criticism was valid – pointing out the shallowness and consumer mentality of much American Christianity, “what’s in it for me?” But some of this reflects the changed landscape in our culture in more recent times. American Christians are more likely to pick a church based on its stance toward the Bible than the name on the door, for example, or for its ability to provide helpful programs for teens or children. This is particularly true among evangelical Christians who have had a history of being ousted from traditional denominations and going out to start their own churches, denominations, and schools. For the last few decades, being non-denominational has generally been considered a strength.
When God called Nichole and I back to VICC as an associate pastoral couple, I had to wrestle with how I felt about the classical Pentecostal doctrine of Spirit baptism. God had baptized me in his Holy Spirit in my early twenties, an experienced evidenced for me by speaking in tongues (that is, I received my “prayer language”). Throughout my twenties, as I grew in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, I went back and forth on the experience. Sometimes I considered it to have been a real experience. Other times I doubted and wondered if it was just a psychological/emotional response to ideas that had been suggested to me. By the time I became the youth pastor at VICC many years ago, I had concluded the experience was real and my “prayer language” was a real gift given to me by God to build me up spiritually (1 Corinthians 14:4). But I wasn’t sure the idea of a second work of grace (called “the baptism in the Holy Spirit”) could really be defended from Scripture. After all, clearly God works in one person’s life one way and another’s in another way. Perhaps my experience was for me but not for others.
When I resigned from VICC to go to school, I left the question of Pentecostal theology behind me. But, as I said, when God called us back to VICC, the doctrine of Spirit baptism became of central importance once again. If God was grooming me to take over the lead position of the church, I would need to get my credentials with the denomination and would have to sign my name on the dotted line, so to speak. At that time, I preferred to call myself “charismatic” (meaning I believed in the “charismatic” gifts of the Holy Spirit) or “continuationist” (meaning I believed the gifts of the Holy Spirit “continued” after the time of the early church). I was shy about calling myself “Pentecostal.” I even preferred the term “Spirit-filled,” though admittedly that term seemed to imply that other Christians did not have the Holy Spirit and I adamantly did not want to say that.
My journey has been a long one, but here are three conclusions I have come to that have helped me not only become comfortable calling myself Pentecostal, but to embrace the term.
1. After much study, I have concluded the Pentecostal reading of Acts is the correct one.
Traditionally, Christians have approached the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts as somewhat of a conundrum.
For those traditions that tie the reception of the Holy Spirit to water baptism, the book of Acts poses a challenge to their theology by showing some Christians who had never received specifically Christian baptism receive the Spirit (the apostolic community of Acts 2, who would have received pre-Christian baptism like that of John the Baptist, even if at the hands of Jesus’ followers), some after water baptism (the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19 who were re-baptized with a Christian baptism before receiving the Spirit), and some before water baptism (the Gentiles in Acts 10 who received the Spirit while listening to a sermon).
For those traditions (including most evangelicals) who believe the reception of the Spirit in Acts is regeneration (being “born again”), the ability to believe in Jesus without the internal work of Spirit among both the Samaritans of Acts 8 and the apostles themselves in Acts 1 creates massive problems. It opens the door to people being able to believe in Jesus without being born again, and that is not a comforting doctrine.
But if one approaches the ministry of the Spirit in Acts as a prophetic anointing then these problems disappear (though, admittedly, other challenges remain). God had promised through the prophet Joel that one day all God’s people would be prophets (Acts 2:16-21). If Luke’s purpose in writing Acts is in part to record the ongoing fulfillment of this promise, then this means there is a biblical precedent for believing there is a reception of the Holy Spirit that is distinct from conversion. The process (or event) of being “born again” is often an invisible one. It happens when a person believes the good news, which may or may not be immediately obvious to the individual or the community. But the prophetic empowerment of God’s people, if it follows the pattern of prophetic empowerment in the Old Testament, will be something visible, audible, and potentially disturbing. This is what seems to be happening in the book of Acts, and this is what Pentecostals say the Spirit wants to do today.
2. Labels provide a good “shorthand” description, and good attitudes can overcome bad press
Just as I would not want someone who is Eastern Orthodox or Presbyterian to avoid understanding themselves as such, so for myself I find it helpful at times to call myself Pentecostal. It identifies me with my “tribe,” it offers a shorthand description of my theology for someone who wonders where I am coming from, and it gives me a sense of identity. The days of shapeless, distinctive-free “big tent” evangelicalism are quickly coming to an end and people (both Christian and non) want something to sink their teeth into. Movements that are strong on Bible, strong on their theology, and know who they are are the ones that are surviving in our culture. Groups that move more and more in the direction of vagueness and “anything goes” are decaying and will one day disappear when it no longer serves any purpose to call oneself “Christian” but not want it to cost anything socially.
That being said, the term Pentecostal carries a lot of baggage. In my experience, being a good example is the best way to counter bad examples. As with being a Christian, so with being a Pentecostal Christian.
3. Historically, being Pentecostal meant being Christ, Bible, and gospel centered
The early Pentecostals believed in what they called the “full gospel” or the “fivefold (sometimes fourfold) gospel.” This gospel was centered entirely on Jesus. In spite of the Pentecostals’ reputation for being focused on the Holy Spirit, they were actually quite focused on Jesus. The fivefold gospel can be summarized as, “Jesus is Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, Spirit-Baptizer, and Soon Coming King.” The early Pentecostals saw everything in the Christian life as being mediated though Jesus, even the work of the Holy Spirit.
The early Pentecostals were also highly committed to the authority of the Bible. They were even fundamentalistic in their commitment to the centrality and infallibility of the written Scriptures. Pentecostal New Testament scholar Robert Menzies has even shown that the big difference between classical Pentecostalism and later charismatic movements is the Pentecostals’ emphasis on Spirit-empowered proclamation. That is, the work of the Spirit among Pentecostals is primarily seen as empowerment to share the good news of Jesus. Miracles, healing, and other signs are subservient to the one, central purposes of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. That is something I can get behind.
As I said at the beginning, sometimes labels are helpful. Other times, they are not. When used as a way of separating myself from other believers in Jesus, labels are probably not being used in service of the One Lord of his One church. But when used as shorthand for one’s theological position or as a way of naming my experience of Christ, maybe labels can be helpful after all. I am a Christian who believes in the experience of Spirit-baptism and that all the spiritual gifts in the New Testament are available today for those who seek them or for whom God chooses to grant them. I believe the work of the Spirit should bring focus to Jesus and not to ourselves (or even necessarily to the Spirit!). I wholeheartedly commit myself to the unique authority of the Bible, and I believe the most important task of the church is to speak the good news of Jesus Christ to a broken and lost world. And that is why I am happy to call myself a Pentecostal.