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Pursuing Presence, Not Signs: Balancing Pentecostal Experience with Biblical Teaching

 

The emergence of modern Pentecostalism has been characterized in part by its “restorationist impulse,”1 an impulse which has led many of its adherents to seek the restoration of the attributes of the early New Testament Church. Among these attributes are the gifts of the Holy Spirit described in Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. These gifts are significant to Pentecostals not for their own sake but for their mission as “a people called and empowered (Acts 1:8) to be fellow workers with Christ in His redemptive mission.”2

Before going further, it is important for me to share that I also believe in the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. But too often the ministry of the Holy Spirit is neglected in favor of an all-out-pursuit of personal “miraculous” experiences. I cannot dispute the importance of individual experiences with God in the life of the believer; indeed, such experiences have resulted in the salvation of many, and the explosive growth for Pentecostalism globally. But the primary role of the Holy Spirit is to bear witness to the Word of God, as Christ stated: “the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about me” (Jn 15:26).

Presently, the experiential nature of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements has contributed to their engagement of a dangerous perspective which accords practically the same weight to spiritual or miraculous experiences as to the Word of God. This paper will discuss the implications of this experiential paradigm for current Pentecostal praxis with respect to revivals, evangelistic crusades and other missiological functions.

The Experiential Paradigm

It is the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 that has most profoundly influenced the development of modern Pentecostalism. The baptism in the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or charismata, are central to Pentecostal self-identity and operate as major differentiators between Pentecostal and Charismatic groups and the rest of Christendom. An unintended side effect of this belief in spiritual gifts and American cultural influences is the emergence of a more experiential Christianity,3 which I will refer to as the “experiential paradigm.” This paradigm is problematic for two major reasons. First, it fractures the relationship between the Word of God and the Spirit of God, by attempting to evaluate spiritual matters independently of the Word. Secondly, it allows personal spiritual experience to become quasi-authoritative, effectively rendering it equal to the Word of God.

Too often the ministry of the Holy Spirit is neglected in favor of an all-out-pursuit of personal “miraculous” experiences.

Other factors contribute to this experiential paradigm, and the presence of these factors requires, as a practical matter, that miraculous events be subjected to verification. Andrew Walker describes these as: (i) the conflation of behavioral phenomena in large crowds with the work of the Holy Spirit, (ii) the “star” ministerial system, (iii) the presence of entertainers and others who perform for crowds, and (iv) the removal of a sense of sacredness and awe from the miraculous.4

Walker notes that large groups often experience behavioral phenomena which may “feel” like the work of the Holy Spirit, as when musicians and actors describe “the energy from the crowd” at a concert or other large-scale event. Another phenomena is that large crowds often draw performers and other entertainers, which could lead to spiritual counterfeits or excesses. An example of this might be the person who desires to become an actor but suddenly feels “called” to ministry because they feel certain that God has “destined them for the spotlight.” Closely related to this is the “star” system of Charismatic leadership in which individuals with considerable personal charisma are afforded undue deference by Christian believers on the basis of personality—a sort of spiritual popularity contest, if you will. Walker’s final phenomena is the lack of awe that these miraculous events seem to inspire toward God. Not only do these miracles generally not result in the glorification of God, they often serve to diminish the public perception of God to those who do not already know Him.

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2009

About the Author: Jessica Faye Carter, J.D. (Duke University), M.Div. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is a lawyer, entrepreneur, and nationally-recognized expert on cultural and gender diversity. She is the author of Troubling Her: A Biblical Defense of Women in Ministry (Purple Girl, 2010), Double Outsiders: How Women of Color Can Succeed in Corporate America (JIST Works, 2007), and “Known and Yet Unknown: Women of Color and the Assemblies of God.” LinkedIn. Twitter. http://jessicafayecarter.com

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