Members of the Baptist World Alliance and the Pentecostal World Fellowship will meet this coming August in Quito, Ecuador, for a series of ecumenical conversations to begin asking what it may mean for Baptists and Pentecostals to walk together in step with the Holy Spirit. So why should Baptists and Pentecostals talk to each other? What can we learn from one another?
By Curtis Freeman
In the church where I grew up, we used to sing with great fervor: “Lord send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!” I never was quite sure what that song was about. I suspected it had more to do with the old-time gospel than with Pentecostal power. But one thing was clear: We were Baptists, not Pentecostals. We had Jesus. They had the Holy Spirit.
Some of us Baptists were probably not too unlike the disciples Paul met in Ephesus, who replied when he asked them if they had received the Spirit, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2). Our suspicion suggests that we didn’t really grasp that a Trinitarian understanding of God meant that God is Father, Son and Spirit.
But truth be told, the real division between Baptists and Pentecostals back then was more about class than theology: We Baptists proudly viewed ourselves as upwardly mobile, and we perceived Pentecostals as folks from the other side of the tracks.
When the Azusa Street revival broke out in Los Angeles in the spring of 1906, one local Baptist pastor denounced it as “a disgusting amalgamation of voudou superstition and Caucasian insanity.”
Joseph Smale, pastor of First Baptist Church in Los Angeles, was one of the few Baptist participants. Failing to persuade the congregation to receive the Pentecostal revival, he was forced to resign.
Waves of Azusa reverberated across the country as far away as eastern North Carolina, where the preaching of Gaston Barnabas Cashwell led to the formation of the Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church. But on the whole, the Pentecostal revival had little influence among white Baptists in the South.
Among black Baptists it was a different story. Charles Harrison Mason led a movement in Mississippi, Arkansas and western Tennessee to break with the Baptists and form the Church of God in Christ. Large numbers of African Americans across the South left the Baptists to join Pentecostal groups like the United Holy Church and the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas.
Ripples from subsequent waves of the Holy Spirit continued to be felt in Baptist life. The charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in both an increased awareness and a lingering wariness of the Holy Spirit among Baptists.
At present, churches are struggling to come to terms with the so-called third wave of the Spirit that is introducing new forms of praise and worship into established patterns of Baptist experience.
The old suspicion of Pentecostalism has dissipated, though it has not altogether disappeared. In 2006 the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention approved a policy excluding candidates who speak in tongues or have a private prayer language from appointment as missionaries.
Some U.S. Baptists have formed Pentecostal enclaves within their denomination, like Holy Spirit Renewal Ministries (formerly the American Baptist Charismatic Fellowship) or the Fullness movement among Southern Baptists. Others have founded new denominations like the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.
The Pentecostal waves have also affected the global Baptist family, and with each successive wave comes a new controversy.
In some countries like Argentina and Brazil there are two separate Baptist denominations: one charismatic and another non-charismatic. In the post-Soviet era, Baptists and Pentecostals, who were once forced together into a common denominational body, have split again into separate unions, though they continue to live out the struggles and tensions of their history of strained relationships.
But the truth of the matter is that Baptists and Pentecostals share much in common. One might even argue that for all practical purposes Pentecostals are simply a branch of Baptists with a foreign-language requirement.
Like Baptists, Pentecostals practice a lived theology of born-again conversionism, believers’ baptism by immersion and world missions and evangelization. Even the historic division on the gifts of the Spirit as the line between Baptists and Pentecostals doesn’t hold anymore. The Assemblies of God, which defines itself as a denomination of Christians who are baptized in the Spirit and speak in tongues, reports that only half of its members say they speak in tongues. And more and more the theology and worship of Baptists is being Pentecostalized. We’re not all Bapticostals, but the boundaries between us that once were so solid have become much more permeable.
I can’t speak for Pentecostals, but some of us Baptists are so Jesus-centered in our theology and worship that we hardly know what to make of the Holy Spirit. If the Pentecostals can help us to get more Spirit-focused and, as a consequence, more Trinitarian, then it would be well worth the time and effort. And given the growing number of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Renewalist Christians worldwide, these conversations are crucial for the unity of the Church (John 17:21) and greater participation in the mission of God (Matthew 28:19-20).
In this Pentecost season, pray Veni, Sancte Spiritus. Or if it feels more natural, join again in singing, “Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!”
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