Institutions that are able to be self-critical, to examine themselves and speak up when they see a lack or an error, are institutions that last. The Pentecostal Church was born out of such a situation: the major Church denominations held a doctrine of cessation that downplayed or ruled out the possibility of God moving in power among his people, and a few people who were willing to follow the truth wherever it might lead submitted themselves to God, even if it meant speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues was just the beginning, though, and people quickly began to experience their relationship with God in new, ancient, ways; they called this the “full gospel” because it included elements that the Church had previously lacked or left out.
The Pentecostal movement blew up in a big way, and led to many offshoots and parallel movements. In this, too, the Pentecostals had to be self-critical; an awful lot of heresy and incorrect practices sprung up under the banner of Pentecostalism, and these had to be moderated or rejected – and they were.
Self-criticism is what separates fundamentalists and extremists from moderate and progressive believers. It allows truth to reign over tradition. It requires humility and the ability to admit that we may be wrong, but it allows us to move forward and pursue truth wherever it leads. After all, all truth is God’s truth. And of course, being self-critical requires that we are self-aware in the first place: we must examine ourselves, our beliefs and actions, and hold them up for comparison to Christ.
What I want to talk about today is not heresy, but in its own way it’s even worse. We Pentecostals, though we claim to preach the “full gospel”, have left some out. It’s not that we wouldn’t affirm these truths, but that we’ve either downplayed them or forgotten them, neglecting to give them adequate representation in our preaching and teaching. What I’m talking about is nothing new; it’s a lack that existed and was criticized in ancient Israel, and in Jesus’ time as well, and we have only perpetuated it. I’m talking about recognizing the physical aspect of human value and salvation.
In ancient Israel, before the fall of Samaria, the people had a great vigour and desire for God. They were zealous in their worship, and wanted God’s presence more than anything else. This sounds an awful lot like Pentecostals. They sought God earnestly, and yet God’s prophets condemned them for neglecting to care for their people. They performed all of the temple sacrifices and rituals, worshiping God with all of their hearts, yet they were condemned for continuing to support an economic and political system that victimized their own people and others. Micah 6:6-8 is a good example of this. Amos says much the same.
In Jesus’ day, Pharisaism was the leading sect of Judaism. They were known for their pious practices: they observed the Law rigorously, and went very far out of their way to avoid sin. The Pentecostal Church claims the Holiness movement as a part of our heritage: we too are deeply concerned about living holy lives – as we should be. Because we avoid legalism, we’re not as “holy” as the Pharisees ever were – we don’t go as far out of our way, creating additional rules and laws, to avoid sin, yet we continue to strive for that ideal of sinlessness. Yet Jesus harshly condemned the Pharisees, not because they created additional rules to avoid sin, but because even in their “holiness” they neglected to care for God’s people. They supported economic and political systems that victimized the people, ran peasants off of their ancestral lands, and concentrated wealth in the hands of the political and religious elites.
It was not that the ancient Jews and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had bad theology: they knew the Law inside and out, and likely would have affirmed everything Jesus and the ancient prophets said – had they not been so strongly accused of failing in it. Likewise, today we Pentecostals (and I can easily add any other Western churches here, especially of the Evangelical varieties) affirm that it is our job to care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the orphan and widow. Somehow, though, it just escapes emphasis in our teaching and implementation in our practices.
Pentecostals are known for our desire for worship and closeness to God, and our desire for personal holiness. These are good things to do, and even good things to be known for, but they things will not save us. And before you say “that’s right, we’re not legalists: we’re saved by grace” I’d like to say yes, we are saved by grace, which means that our level of personal moral holiness and our passionate worship are not salvation issues at all. But we’re neglecting another aspect of salvation: the fact that there are people all around the world who are starving to death, not because they don’t know how to farm but because we subsidize our own farms so heavily that they can’t get a piece of our capitalist market. They’re dying, and they need physical salvation. They’re victims of our political and economic system; we are not only failing to properly address them, but we are complicit in the injustice that’s killing them.
In neglecting the physical, practical aspect of salvation we’ve reduced Christianity to a particular morality with future spiritual consequences. The Pharisees did the exact same thing. We tell the world that they need Jesus in order for them to be saved from their own immorality (which is our notion of personal sin), and are surprised when they don’t want to accept our judgment of them. We’ve confused morality with salvation, and further, we’ve confused morality with justice. We fight to keep statues of the 10 Commandments in courthouses, and argue about “legislating morality”, while our democratic system pays dividends to corporations whose economic policies have inflicted incredible poverty on people at home and around the world. When life becomes bad enough, we promise people that things will be better once they die: we long for escape from this world that God has created for us, and we sell this escape as the “blessed hope” of the Church, to get away before God destroys this evil world. This is the hope we sell, to run away from injustice rather than fixing it.
Jesus didn’t run away from injustice. He died facing it, and in his death exposed it as the injustice it truly was, and his followers were inspired to subvert the unjust system and live the ethic that God demanded from the beginning. We, on the other hand, tend to emphasize personal holiness and passionate worship. I don’t know if we do this because it’s easier, or because we’re vulnerable to the same spirit of religiosity that sidetracked Israel and the Pharisees in their times, but either way we need to stop. Our “full gospel” must be preached – all of it. And maybe if people see us concerned about making a difference in the world rather than holding up an impossible moral standard, the cries of “hypocrite” will be replaced by genuine interest in a God whose care for others is evident in his people.