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The Spirit and the Prophetic Church, Part 2, by Antipas L. Harris

A Historical Interpretation

Over the last one hundred years, scholars like Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone and Cornell West, in a variety of ways, have applied a hermeneutic of suspicion to the evolved traditions to which they belong. They questioned the “thing” that “church” had become in their experience. They argued that the God of the Bible cares about ordinary people often overlooked in society. Yet, they critiqued the church for being apathetical in the face of human suffering. During the Pentecostal consultation at the 2008 Annual American Academy of Religion meeting in Chicago, James Cone challenged the Pentecostals on this issue. There remains more work to be done putting these scholars in dialogue with the Pentecostal Movement. From its inception, the Azusa Street Pentecostal movement was a moving of the Spirit that attracted people from every echelon of society. A gift of Pentecost has been its affinity towards healing among the broken and hurting—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Yet, mainstream Christianity remained subject to Rauschenbusch’s critique.

Only the power of God can restore a nation and the spirit of a nation.

Moreover, in the early 20th century, Lutheran pastor, Walter Rauschenbusch struggled to apply theological paradigms to the urban context of New York City after graduating from seminary. Subscribing to what he called “Social Gospel,” Rauschenbusch spent lots of ink copiously writing out new insights for doing theology. His experience caring for and ministering with the people of the depraved city challenged his theological approaches to ministry. He discerned God working among them in a way that seemed antithetical to theology as taught by European schools that subscribed to top-down paradigms for ministry. His love for people in their needs challenged Rauschenbusch to revisit scripture. This time, he reread scripture in light of lived experiences in the city. His interpretation of scripture was profoundly altered. A greater emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in theology is missing in Rauschenbusch’s work.48 There is room for more research, locating Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel within a renewal perspective. The Pentecostal theologian likens Rauschenbusch’s theological process to a “wrestling of the Spirit.” Perhaps, a pneumatological or renewal interpretation of Rauschenbusch’s “Social Gospel” reveals that in his experience with God, God is working in the city because God cares about the city.

It should be suitably noted that biblical Christians were much more ecumenical than today. When the leadership of the local church reported to Paul that there were inklings of division among the Corinthian Christians, Paul wrote to remind them of their divine call to unity. He wrote, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (I Corinthians 1:10). Two thousand years later, King observes a church that seems to have lost a unified concept of identity in Christ and a unified purpose within community. To borrow words from Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, “We must recognize the signs of the times and participate skillfully in the work of ecumenism.”49

In his 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, “There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” Civil Rights and social justice advocate Father Richard Neuhaus rightly asserts, “We must patiently and faithfully continue the hard ecumenical work of striving for unity in faith, sacraments and ministry.”50 During the 1950s and 1960s, the success of the Civil Rights Movement in fighting segregation and economic injustice among sanitation workers of the South were won through a certain level of ecumenical efforts among thousands of Christians from all denominational backgrounds.

A unified Body of Christ empowered by the Spirit provides the transformational agency necessary to realize the Good News in urban communities.

The odds that were against African Americans were overcome by the strength of ecumenical social ministry. Even today, the leader of an ecumenical ministry is the only pastor to have a memorial on the National Mall in the nation’s Capitol. I often refer to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday celebration as a federally recognized Pastor’s Appreciation Day. Americans appreciate the leadership of a minister who understood ecumenical “Practical” Theology rooted in a gospel of love and unity.51 Speculations and polemics against Trinitarian or Oneness Churches, questions of whether or not Catholics are really Christians and other denominational dissentions were minimized by the unified stride towards freedom. King’s pragmatic ecumenical message is expressed in his ability to organize a large number of African Americans and some Anglo Americans ecumenically and then to mobilize them towards a day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last!’” Freedom is lifted up in the strength of ecumenical unity that transforms communities and the world forever.

When urban churches move beyond ecumenical discussions about unity to pragmatic ecumenism, they are poised for liberating the urban communities from their blight. Boston University School of Theology professors Bryan Stone and Claire Wolfteich note that three-quarters of all congregations in the United States have some level of outreach to help people in economic need, particularly urban congregations.52 The challenge is that urban churches are often isolated based on denominational affiliation or because they are independent. As in the Cradock community of Portsmouth, there are often five or more churches in a one-mile radius—a Baptist church, a Methodist church, a Presbyterian church, a Catholic church, and an Episcopal church. They limit their collaborations to their own denominations, though their peers are in other towns and cities. Thus, each church’s efforts (if any) tend to be isolated from the other neighborhood churches.

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Category: Ministry, Pneuma Review, Summer 2013

About the Author: Antipas L. Harris, D.Min. (Boston University), S.T.M. (Yale University Divinity School), M.Div. (Emory University), was appointed as the founding dean of the Urban Renewal Center in Norfolk, Virginia in the Spring of 2017. He is the Criminal Justice System Director for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), president of the Global Institute for Empowerment & Leadership Development, known as GIELD, and he serves as the Director of TheUrbanCircle.Net, a relational network of urban ministries and churches. He has additional experience as an educator, academic lecturer, itinerant preacher, pastor, youth director, motivational speaker, and Christian musician. He is the author of Holy Spirit, Holy Living: A Practical Theology of Holiness for Twenty-first Century Churches (Wipf & Stock, 2013) and Unstoppable Success: 7 Ways to Flourish in Your Boundless Potential (High Bridge Books, 2014). AntipasHarris.com | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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