I don't care what you say the Bible means on this point," a student once said to me. "I know from experience that it isn't that way!" Though sincere, this misguided declaration simply demonstrates the ongoing need for believers to recognize how biblical truths surpass the human experience in authority.
Scripture alone is "God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be ... equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NIV).
Since biblical times, conflicts over correct teaching have separated believers or even led to their departure from the faith. Satan's temptation to Eve began with "Did God really say ... ?"
In the New Testament, Paul alerted Timothy to teachers of "false doctrines," characterized by "an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction." They had rejected the "sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "godly teaching" (1 Tim. 6:3-5).
CHALLENGES FOR TEACHERS
Controversies over scriptural statements still trouble believers today. The post-modern culture in which Christians find themselves casts doubts on whether any absolute meaning can be attached to a text of the Bible. A verse may suggest one thing to you, while another person may propose an equally valid but different interpretation.
From another angle, certain authors in the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition have employed "revelation knowledge" to interpret Scripture, masking a thinly veiled twisting of verses to fit pet teachings. Ignoring basic rules for interpreting the Bible has sometimes led to personal opinions becoming dogmas for others to follow.
Proper biblical interpretation begins with the recognition that Holy Scripture is the yardstick for faith and practice. This means that the Bible always ranks above expositions of its contents, written and oral teachings that Martin Luther placed in the category of "tradition."
Tradition includes creeds, notes in annotated Bibles, commentaries, systematic theologies, popular books on the Christian life, Sunday-school quarterlies, and sermons--as well as the pronouncements of contemporary apostles and prophets.
Interestingly, the Greek word for "heresy" (hairesis) ranges in meaning from an "opinion" or "school of thought" ("the party [hairesis] of the Sadducees" [see Acts 5:17]), to "the distortion of Christian belief and practice." ("They will secretly introduce destructive heresies [haireseis], even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them" [2 Pet. 2:1].)
Heresies vexed early Christianity and prompted the gathering of church councils to resolve them.
Troublesome teachings in the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition have usually emerged from three dynamics: an overly zealous restorationism, the absorption of wrong cultural values and heretical ideas in the marketplace that contest historic Christian beliefs.
RESTORING NEW TESTAMENT PRACTICES
The Pentecostal movement burst on the scene at the turn of the 20th century, filled with an unbounded confidence that the "last days" outpouring of the Holy Spirit would restore the power of the New Testament church.
Spirit-filled believers could now speedily evangelize the world. Baptism in the Holy Spirit, prayer for the sick, power to cast out demons and the reappearance of the gifts of the Spirit all came in the package that had been foretold by the prophet Joel (see 2:28-29). A few enthusiasts claimed to be divinely commissioned new "apostles."
At the Topeka, Kansas, revival in 1901 Charles Parham and his students believed that God had conferred on them the languages of the world to expedite missionary evangelism, just as they believed it had happened on the day of Pentecost.
Five years later in Los Angeles, participants at the Azusa Street revival testified to the same, and initially refused to use musical instruments and hymnals in their attempt to emulate the "pure" worship of the early church. But, most importantly, the "Apostolic Faith" with its baptism and gifts of the Spirit had been restored.
Nonetheless, this restorationist upsurge often left the "saints"--as early Pentecostals referred to themselves--wondering if there were more things to be restored. Pentecostal pioneer Howard Goss was recalled by his wife, Ethel, in The Winds of God: The Story of the Early Pentecostal Movement (1901-1914) in the Life of Howard A. Goss. In the book, he is recalled as saying, "Walking in the light of God's revelation was considered the guarantee of unbroken fellowship with God."
As a result, preachers felt great pressure to "dig up a new slant on some Scripture, or get some new revelation to his heart every so often." Indeed, "one who did not propagate it, defend it, and let it be known that if necessary he was prepared to lay down his life for it" could only be considered "slow, dull, and unspiritual," Goss says.
In this zealous atmosphere, anyone courageous enough to start a Bible institute faced a storm of criticism. It was feared that formal education might short-circuit the power of the Holy Spirit by intellectualizing the faith. With the Holy Spirit as the revealer of new truths, who needed a diploma?
Consequently, many evangelists and pastors with little or no education found themselves ill-prepared to lead congregations to maturity and disciple new believers. Despite the establishment of training schools, Pentecostals and independent charismatics have paid a horrific price for minimizing the value of ministerial education.
Beginning in 1913, a new "restored" teaching, derived from the Jesus-centered piety of early Pentecostalism, divided the faithful. Rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity of God in three persons, advocates replaced it with only one person in the Godhead: Jesus Christ. A valid water baptism, therefore, had to be done in the name of Jesus (see Acts 2:38).
For many "Jesus Name" or "Oneness" Pentecostals, salvation and Spirit baptism were the same, with the saints expected to be speaking in tongues when they came out of the waters of baptism, despite the lack of any example of this happening in the book of Acts.
With this teaching--purportedly the last dynamic of New Testament Christianity to be restored--they revived a heresy labeled modal Monarchianism (God revealed Himself in three "modes": Father, Son and Holy Spirit), which an ancient church council had condemned.
With the coming of the "New Order of the Latter Rain" revival movement in 1948, proponents pushed for more restorations: the impartation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands; the divine bestowal of unlearned human languages for missionary evangelism that early Pentecostals had touted; and the "manifestation of the sons of God"--the "overcomers"--a mighty end-time army of victorious, faith-filled believers who would overcome sickness and not die in this life.
Later in the century, more new teachings appeared, among them, the belief that Christians can be possessed by demons; that the spiritual realm has been organized around "territorial demons," which require "binding" (see Matt. 18:18) before effective evangelism can commence; and that Christians can and should converse with angels.
Apart from the Oneness doctrine of the Godhead, none of these teachings amounts to "heresy" in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, they have all generated elitism and disunity, producing a similar kind of "party" spirit that had wounded the congregation at Corinth (see 1Cor. 1:10-12).
While every revival movement in the history of Christianity has produced some measure of discord, with each one claiming new insights and calling for reform--renewal always causes friction with those satisfied with the status quo--the words of Jesus summon the "renewed" to exhibit humility in relationships: "'A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another'" (John 13:34-35).
BOWING TO THE CULTURE
Like other Christians around the world, Pentecostals and charismatics are products of their respective cultures. In North America, Pentecostals benefited from the social and economic lift after World War II.
The doctrine of divine healing, which had originally promised immediate physical healing through the prayer of faith, became enlarged to include material prosperity. Faith healing evangelists, who had taught that the atonement of Christ guaranteed spiritual and physical blessing, now claimed that with sufficient faith believers could get their fair share of the American dream.
The customary greeting in 3 John 2 (KJV), "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth," became loaded with more guarantees of cash and comforts than John could have imagined.
This new "truth"--luckily discovered within the context of the robust American economy with its seemingly boundless opportunities for financial gain--prompted faith teachers to re-examine such passages as John 16:23 where Jesus says, "'I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.'"
Some proposed that the human tongue could function as a "creative force," meaning that whatever a person "confessed" they would "possess." While the encouragement to exercise greater faith for Christian living has undoubtedly born fruit, the practical application frequently inspired the faithful to "claim" higher salaries, expensive homes, better cars, and, in some cases, to ignore medical attention.
Late in life, Kenneth E. Hagin Sr. wisely tried to slam the brakes on the excesses with his book The Midas Touch.
The eagerness to define God's "blessings" by the consumer values of American culture pushed into the background the "kingdom values" taught by Jesus (see Matt. 6:19-21). For some, the path to blessing as defined by God has intersected with the four-lane boulevard of human greed.
It has further distorted the nature of the Christian world mission. Exporting the "health and wealth" gospel has made little sense in cultures plagued by hunger, poverty, and economic and political oppression. Still, this points to a larger issue that prosperous Christians everywhere must face: whether their prophetic witness against materialism and exploitation measures up to that of Jesus.
HERESIES STILL MATTER
The Pentecostal/charismatic tradition has never been without severe critics. Charges of heresy, false doctrine and fanaticism circulated widely in the early years. By the middle of the 20th century, these accusations diminished as Pentecostals joined forces with other evangelical Christians.
Oneness Pentecostals, however, remained sidelined due to their view of the Godhead, though they remained firmly Pentecostal and evangelical in other doctrines. Contrary to the charges of recent "heresy hunters" and "cult watchers," they do not serve a different God or profess something other than salvation as a gift of grace. Ironically, Oneness Pentecostals speak about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit as much as their Trinitarian siblings.
This is not to suggest that their views of the Godhead and water baptism stand without need of correction or lack insight. The relationship of the "persons" within the Trinity ultimately remains a mystery that will always press the limitations of human reasoning.
Recent discussions on the theological border between Oneness and Trinitarian Pentecostals at the annual meetings of the Society for Pentecostal Studies have been beneficial, breaking down stereotypical views of each other's positions and building bridges of understanding.
Unfortunately, the revival of another ancient heresy imperils the very nature of evangelism. The doctrine of the "reconciliation of all things," a form of universalism asserting that all will eventually be redeemed through Christ, first became prominent through the teachings of the second-century church father Origen.
Condemned as heresy by an ancient church council, it has resurfaced at different times. While all have sinned, its proponents say, punishment has a remedial purpose even after death. For those unconverted during their lifetimes, salvation will come after an unspecified period of purification in a form of purgatory. In this way, all of humankind will ultimately be saved.
Notwithstanding the appeal of this scenario, Jesus pronounced that the unrepentant would face "eternal punishment" in contrast to the righteous who would enjoy "eternal life" (Matt. 25:46).
In writing to the Thessalonians about the coming judgment at Jesus' return, Paul warned that "those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus ... will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power" (2 Thess. 1:8-9).
The clarity of these verses trumps any interpretation based on wishful thinking about the fate of the spiritually lost. Biblical Christian mission is rooted in the certainty of the gospel, life after death, the forthcoming judgment of all peoples, and the everlasting duration of heaven and hell.
The famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody said it well: "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel ... God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, 'Moody, save all you can.'"
THE CROWN OF TEACHING
At the beginning of a new century, the Pentecostal/charismatic community needs skilled teachers who can successfully address the intellectual and spiritual issues of the day, refute harmful teachings and detect the pitfalls of the prevailing culture.
This form of servanthood to Christ represents a "gift" of the risen Christ to the church. Paul listed teachers, along with apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors, as gifts who "prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching" (Eph. 4:12-14).
Over the course of Christian history, the church has counted among its greatest heroes, teachers and scholars (for example, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Wesley) who have enriched believers with their spiritual insights and passed them on to succeeding generations.
As gifts to the church--whether ordained in the traditional sense or not--they should excel at "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15).
After weeks spent discipling converts at Thessalonica, Paul expressed to them the aspiration of Christian teachers past and present: "For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy" (1 Thess. 2:19-20).
A Dose of Truth
For centuries key doctrines have been taught through the medium of church music.
The Church's One Foundation," penned hymn writer Samuel Stone, "is Jesus Christ her Lord." Since New Testament times, Christians have confessed in word and song that God revealed Himself through the incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ (see 1 John 4:2-3).
Luther reminds believers that salvation originated with God who is a "bulwark never failing" in "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
Jesus is the "wisdom from on high" that lights "our dark sky" like a "lantern to our footsteps," according to William How in "O Word of God Incarnate." In its witness to Christ, the Bible represents the infallible Word of God in written form.
The ancient Christian litany, "Agnus Dei" ("Lamb of God") sung at the celebration of the Lord's Supper, speaks of the atoning death of Christ, "'who takes away the sin of the world'" (John 1:29).
Centuries later, the Methodist songbird Charles Wesley expressed his wonder at this profound mystery in "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?": "Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me" (see Rom. 5:8-19).
Christians have also rejoiced in the resurrection of Christ because, as the apostle Paul said, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile" (1 Cor. 15:17). The waters of baptism show the believer's identification with the Savior's death and resurrection.
That the good news is available to all becomes quickly apparent in "Whosoever Will" by Philip Bliss who helped in the evangelistic campaigns of Dwight L. Moody: "'Tis a loving Father calls the wanderer home: 'Whosoever will may come'" (see Rom. 10:13).
When Fanny Crosby wrote: "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!" she described the comfort that the Holy Spirit brings with the gift of salvation (see Eph. 1:13-14). Now sung in both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, it testifies to the spiritual communion that brothers and sisters can share beyond ecclesiastical walls (see Luke 9:49-50).
"All Christly souls are one in Him throughout the whole wide earth," added John Oxenham in the hymn "In Christ There Is No East or West."
Holiness writers drew the attention of the church world to the vital ministry of the Holy Spirit with such songs as "The Comforter Has Come" by Francis Bottome and "Pentecostal Power" by Charlotte Homer. The charismatic movement has transformed worship with psalm-singing and contemporary songs that have nourished "Pentecostal" renewal in churches from China and England to Swaziland and Brazil.
In their daily lives, Christians individually and collectively should be "changed from glory into glory," declared Charles Wesley in "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling."
Lest anyone miss the point about the church's mission, H. Ernest Nichol described the gospel as "a story of peace and light" (Matt. 28:19-20) in "We've a Story to Tell to the Nations."
At the end of the age, we shall be changed "In the Twinkling of an Eye" in the words of Paul (see 1 Cor. 15:52) and Crosby's song, and be with the Lord forevermore.
But until that day, "O how we yearn, come back again, Jesus return," composed Jack Hayford in "Come and Be King."
Gary B. McGee, Ph.D., is professor of church history and Pentecostal studies at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. His latest book, People of the Spirit: The Assemblies of God, is soon to be released by Gospel Publishing House (www.gph.com).