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Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches and Ecumenism: An Interview with Mel Robeck

 

Divisions between the people of God have been taking place for centuries. In earlier days, hard lines were drawn and those who didn’t agree with the majority were excommunicated as “heretics.” In more recent times, the designation “heretic” has come under increasing fire. In 1960 it was difficult to imagine that certain “heretics” at the time of the Reformation might be “rehabilitated” by the Roman Catholic Church any time soon. But just five years later, the Second Vatican Council had published its “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” that acknowledged that at the time of the Reformation, schism took place because “Men of both sides were to blame” (Unitatis Redintegratio 1.3).

At the beginning of the 21st Century, few Pentecostal or charismatic leaders possess the level of training in church history that is necessary to enable them to interact meaningfully with what appears in many ecumenical documents.

As a result of such admissions, today the hymns even of Martin Luther can be found in modern Roman Catholic hymnals. The point is, many things have taken place within the ecumenical world since the mid-20th Century, and Pentecostals and Charismatics could find themselves in a position that they did not believe possible if they would sit down at a table and talk. Many of the divisions to which we are party are not divisions of our own making or even of our own choosing. I was reared in the home of Assemblies of God ministers. That means that by virtue of my inheritance, it could be argued that I stand “over against” those who are not part of the Assemblies of God, or who are not part of the Pentecostal Tradition. One of the questions that I needed to settle for myself was whether I was satisfied with that position. Was it really necessary for me to take the divisions of my forebears as my own, or was it possible to resolve some of the reasons for division that my forebears viewed as essential to their spiritual well being? Did I have to embrace their enemies as my enemies? Or were there events that had taken place subsequent to the original division that might make it possible for that division to be placed into a new perspective, perhaps even annulled? Could reconciliation really take place?

It is with this as background that I have come to view any attempt to move toward a kind of ecumenical dialogue that may extend the possibility to develop a reconciled history to be worth our investment. The recent Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith that the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church made together is, thus, an important witness to the essential oneness of those traditions. Revisiting our reasons for separation from one another, or the reason for our coming into existence, learning how to express those reasons or concerns in language that can ultimately be embraced by the other, allowing them to interact with our challenges to them, and allowing them to challenge us at places that trouble them—all of these actions—are worthy of pursuit. It is, first and foremost, these things that have been the focus of most modern ecumenical dialogues. It is my hope that more of these actions will take place, and that Pentecostals and Charismatics will be willing and able to support them.

 

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Category: Ministry, Winter 2003

About the Author: Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., Ph.D. (Fuller Theological Seminary), is Senior Professor of Church History and Ecumenics and Special Assistant to the President for Ecumenical Relations at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God who has served at the seminary since 1974. His work on the Azusa Street revival is well known. His ecumenical work, since 1984, is highly respected around the world by Christian leaders outside the Pentecostal Movement. He continues to serve as a bridge between Pentecostalism and the larger church world, leading international dialogues, participating in ecumenical consultations, and working on and writing about church-dividing issues. He appears regularly on the AmericanReligious.org Town Hall weekly telecast. He co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism (Cambridge, 2014) with Amos Yong, The Azusa Street Revival and Its Legacy (Wipf & Stock, 2009) with Harold D. Hunter, and The Suffering Body: Responding to the Persecution of Christians (Paternoster, 2006) with Harold D. Hunter. He is also the author of The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (Thomas Nelson, 2006 and 2017) and Prophecy in Carthage: Perpetua, Tertullian, and Cyprian (Pilgrim, 1992). Faculty page

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