- March 27th, 2010
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I presented this at the Society for Pentecostal Studies conference March 4, 2010 in Minneapolis, as a response to Margaret Poloma’s book “The Assemblies of God: Godly Love and the Revitalization of American Pentecostalism.”
….reading your book about the denomination of my faith heritage provoked many thoughts about the roads, the paths, that the AG at the crossroads can now take, but I will focus only on four that I think will help us know if we’re going to be more or less faithful to Jesus and revitalized by the Spirit.
My context – I am a fourth generation Assembly of God kid from Kansas – my great grandparents and grandparents came into the movement in the 1930s and 40s, my parents were raised in the AG and so was I. Almost every night of my life until I was eighteen years old and left for college, my father would come into my room, kneel down next to my bed, lay his hand on me, and weep and pray for me, our family, the church, and the world. The essence of my father’s theological and practical advice for me, that he has repeated repeatedly my entire life, is “Seek Jesus.” I attended an AG college, an AG seminary, AG summer camps, went on AG mission trips, taught at an AG college for nine years, and I’m still an AG minister.
So I’m responding to Margaret’s sociological study of the AG and trying to listen to my father’s advice to “seek Jesus.”
Regarding the founding of AG – racism was a significant factor in the 350 white ministers leaving the Church of God in Christ to form the AG in 1914.
a. Official AG USA publications need to refer to this openly, with repentance, and with theological explanations of diversity and white privilege.
b. I was a tongue talking racist, that’s part of my testimony. I once was blind but now I see, I now see the reality of white privilege and how deeply prejudiced I was (even though I was in church multiple times a week, youth camp every summer, etc. In fact, I learned many of the racist jokes from my youth group leaders and friends), and I gain nothing from denying that. Honesty, confession, repentance, transformation – these are marks of sanctification and maturity and the AG USA would do wonderfully well to keep its historical sins front and center, and it’s reasons and strategies for addressing them and being healed from them front and center as well. The door for this has been opened by the AG statement against racism, which reads in part:
“The church calls to repentance any and all who have sinned against God by participating in racism through personal thought or action, through church and social structures, or through failure to address the evils of racism.”
“We pray for God to give us the courage to confront the sin of racism where it may be found in our lives, in our churches, in our society structure, and in our world.” We must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in actively rooting out racism and seeking the reconciliation of men and women to God and to each other.
c. Pentecostals testify, so the AG USA should share it’s testimony that it has a sinfully racist past (the origin story should be modified to reflect this), still perhaps struggles with racism and prejudice, and that it’s being delivered as it explores the intricacies of race and ethnicity as a predominantly white denomination founded primarily by white ministers who had left an interracial denomination (COGIC).
2) War – Military Service Article
a. Many of us know that the early AG, and most early Pentecostal denominations, were peace churches and took their stands as conscientious objectors or noncombatants during World War I and even during World War II. They justified this theologically, based on Jesus. They had a christocentric hermeneutic that justified their commitment to loving their enemy.
I should also mention here that “pacifism” does not mean being “passive” and does not necessitate being ‘apolitical.’ Pacifist simply means “peace maker” so laying down one’s sword and supporting nonviolent direct action to attain political goals can certainly go together – Dr. King was a Christian pacifist, but he was certainly not apolitical.
b. As many of you know the AG changed its statement in 1967 to be pro-choice, leaving killing in warfare up to the individual conscience of each Christian. There is a reference to Romans 13, warfare in the OT, but nothing about Jesus. Combatant participation in war could be justified better than the statement currently does, and I think the just war tradition/theory/criteria should be articulated.
c. Therefore, I have a concrete suggestion for the AG at this crossroad between the road of uncritical nationalism and uncritical militarism and the road of thoughtful, reflective, and engaged conversations about these challenging issues.
d. The AG should form a task force that writes well developed rationales for 1) combatant participation, employing just war tradition and written by AG folk who believe that it is justifiable for Christians to kill in warfare, 2) nonviolence, written by AG folk who believe in consistent nonviolence and who could speak theologically and pastorally about conscientious objection and noncombatant service, and 3) Just Peacemaking practices that invite both just war theorists and pacifists to work for peace and justice together to prevent war and reduce violence, which is a goal of just war theory. Just Peacemaking theory is an excellent attempt to move past the age old arguments of “it’s okay to kill” and “Christians should never kill” to working together on the things that make for peace. I recommend Glen Stassen’s book Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of War and Peace.
e. Christian explanations of all three should be present in our curriculum, ‘position statements’, on our website. This would reflect what we officially as a denomination have already affirmed with our participation in the unanimous NAE vote to adopt “For the Health of the Nation.” The NAE, of which the AG is a member, has already stated that each denomination should teach just war, pacifism, and just peacemaking.
a. On page 213 Margaret points out that 11% of AG USA folk do not think that the US should support Israel over the Palestinians in the Middle East. In other words, we should support the Palestinians and the Israelis equally. I think this 11%, this prophetic minority, represents the road that the AG should travel if we are to be as biblically solid, theologically healthy, and Spirit-led as we claim to be.
b. I suggest that AG USA learn from our Palestinian Pentecostal Christian brothers and sisters so that we can read scripture better and become less dispensational and less one-sidedly Zionist. We can love Israel, love Jewish people, and support the existence of the state of Israel while also helping the state of Israel make wiser choices regarding the settlements, the occupation of the West Bank, the wall not being built on the green line, and the implementation of a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.
c. This means that American Pentecostals in general, the AG USA in particular, could put ourselves in humble learner positions and hear the testimonies and prayer requests (the subaltern voices, and theology and experiences) of the Palestinian Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians who have lived under occupation in the ‘Holy Land.’
a. The AG ordains women and has since its inception. George Wood has even defended this position against Southern Baptist and fundamentalist critiques.
b. But we need more intentionality in promoting and empowering women in pastoral and denominational leadership. 28% of AG ministers do not support women serving as senior pastors, 43% do not support women in district or national leadership, and 47% do not support having women on deacon boards. These are serious problems, and as a theologian I would suggest that these attitudes represent less than healthy, less than faithful, and less than ‘pentecostal’ understandings of scripture, gender, and leadership. I think is not the road that the AG should travel on in the future.
c. A way to pave the road for smoother travel into a more faithful future is to intentionally include women in leadership positions in district and national offices, even if there are quotas – not tokenism to fill a slot for political reasons – but intentional reduction of male leadership and increase of female leadership to reflect what the Spirit really would like to happen so the church can be better equipped to fulfill her potential. However, there’s a lot of theological work that has to be done so that men can realize that it’s not their ministry to share any way, it’s not ‘their’ power or their place that they then graciously open up to women. Ministry and leadership are God’s gifts to give, it’s God’s ministry, not men’s.
In conclusion, I think the AG can even now “seek Jesus” and choose roads of life, and pave those roads, and that we can journey forward in confession and truth-telling regarding our racist past so that we can authentically and deeply experience healing and transformation; that we can journey forward by expanding the conversations about war and peacemaking by articulating just war criteria, nonviolence, and just peacemaking practices; that we can best support Israel by also supporting the Palestinians and listening to the voices of that part of our Pentecostal family that has been suppressed; and that we can intentionally work to change the minds of thousands of AG men (and women) who are against women in leadership and intentionally changing the structure of the AG so that women must be included. I believe that this is at least part of what the Spirit is doing today to expand Godly Love.