My previous blog post about charismatic theology and miracles among the early Anabaptists became very popular, it’s already one of the most wildly read posts this year! So since you obviously like that stuff I want to share an excerpt from another great article, A Pentecostal Drawn to Anabaptism, by Richard Gillingham:
Why I was drawn to Anabaptism
In the history of Classical Pentecostalism, particularly through reading the late Walter Hollenweger’s excellent book Pentecostalism, I found a narrative in which my experience could be placed, interpreted and one of which I could be proud. What then of my relationship with Anabaptism? In conversations with others it is clear that the primary means of attraction to the Anabaptist Network is relational, but in my case this was not so. My interest in Anabaptism was as a consequence of re-reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus after researching the theology of Stanley Hauerwas in my postgraduate work.
In my reading it was clear that Anabaptism, like Pentecostalism, is strongly apocalyptic. I think this similarity is a key reason for my attraction to the Anabaptist vision (more on that later). Reading their respective histories some of the similarities between Pentecostalism and Anabaptism are striking. For example:
A Charismatic view of the Church
Pentecostalism is well known for its emphasis on the spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of tongues. While Anabaptism, especially in its early history, certainly had similar manifestations this is not what I mean by calling both churches charismatic. Rather, both have a very strong emphasis on every-member ministry in the Church. Early Pentecostals regularly claimed that Pentecostalism had no earthly leaders. Both traditions assert that every member of the Church has been gifted for a unique ministry. The historian Augustus Cerillo writes that the ‘central element in Pentecostal ideology was its belief in the church as a Holy Spirit-created egalitarian community in which all the walls of separation produced by racial, ethnic, gender, and class differences would be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ’ (Pentecostal Currents, 237-238).
A Peace Church
Pentecostalism’s approach to violence has demonstrated a monumental U-turn of which many a politician could be proud. In 1917 Stanley Frodsham, General Secretary of the Assemblies of God in the USA, could write: ‘From the very beginning, the movement has been characterized by Quaker principles. The laws of the Kingdom, laid down by our elder brother, Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, have been unqualifiedly adopted, consequently the movement has found itself opposed to the spilling of blood of any man … Every branch of the movement, whether in the United States, Canada, Great Britain or Germany, has held to this principle’ (cited in Blumhofer, Restoring the Vision, 147).
The reason for their pacifism was sometimes a negative one; the argument going something like this: the imminent (pre-millennial) return of Christ is to be preceded by ‘wars and rumours of war’; to oppose violence with violence would paradoxically be to oppose the purposes of God. However, this is hardly any different to the early Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman’s pacifism or the view of some recent Old Order Anabaptists. Like Anabaptists, there were also more sophisticated pacifists, such as the British Pentecostal Donald Gee.
Pacifism in Pentecostalism has (to my knowledge) all but disappeared. The status of dynamic ecclesiology is a slightly more ambiguous but there is a tendency to deem successful Pentecostal Churches that inhibit the idea (in practice) and present a slick production in which attendees are passive customers of a professional production.
Historic and Contemporary Pentecostalism
In his book A Generous Orthodoxy Brian McLaren describes as one of seven different understanding of Jesus his encounter with the ‘Pentecostal Jesus’. He writes that ‘the Pentecostal Jesus [is] up close, present, and dramatically involved in daily life…the Pentecostal Jesus also saves by his powerful presence in this present moment’ (50). Without doubt this emphasis on the living presence of the resurrected Jesus is a strength of the movement. However, it also bears with it problems. The Pentecostal Jesus’ relationship can have an excessively individualistic feel, in which the worshipper is engaged in an intense relationship with the divine but the worshipping community is peripheral. One Pentecostal scholar (Jean-Daniel Pluss) has recently suggested that the rapid growth of Pentecostalism is in fact a globalization of individualism. More accurately it is a globalization of a wholly vertical relationship with God, which is often divorced from the wider social context. Rather than offering a witness to the unseen reign of God in what is a predominately individualistic and consumerist society, Pentecostalism can have tend to baptise such trends in Christian vocabulary – thereby acting as a disincentive to social change. Tragically, this is probably why the Reagan administration (via the CIA) invested heavily in Chilean Pentecostalism –to try to undercut the ‘dangerous’ challenge of Liberation Theology; with Pentecostalism’s apocalyptic theology and emphasis on the imminent return of Jesus. From this perspective, any time spent on social transformation is, in the words of Robert Beckford, ‘a waste of precious prayer time’.
Such an approach is not representative of some of Pentecostalism’s own history. Elsewhere Beckford, a British Black Pentecostal, has suggested that the glossolalia (gift of tongues) of Asuza Street was not just a signifier of Holy Spirit baptism but also a signifier of a commitment to ‘radical social transformation’. In claiming continuity with the early Church (as evidenced in Acts 2) the Pentecostals were also confirming their continuity with the egalitarianism the apostolic Acts church exhibited. Following William Seymour’s lead, Pentecostals affirmed that ‘one could not have tongues and continue with forms of social discrimination’. The subsequent history of Pentecostalism makes it painfully clear that this is inaccurate (the movement has been plagued by racism). However, as Beckford (6) says in concluding his argument: ‘If every…Pentecostal Church in Britain viewed tongues as a language of social engagement rather than just a supra-rational ecstatic experience, what spiritual power would be unleashed in Britain‘s urban centres!
I do not want this article to be read as an attack on Pentecostals. Whilst I certainly think there are failings, they are outnumbered by its strengths. Instead I suggest that Pentecostalism has a revolutionary and liberating history that in many ways has significant congruence with the Anabaptist vision. I view Anabaptism and Pentecostalism as co-heirs of the same radical tradition.