On Being an Ecumenical Pentecostal

Jonathan Martin leads the liars, dreamers, and misfits of Renovatus: A Church for People Under Renovation, in Charlotte, NC, where he lives with his wife Amanda. Pastor Jonathan will be sharing at the Praxis Conference about how resourcing Tradition has been deeply formative in their church community.

“…that they may be one, as we are one.”  That’s what Jesus prayed in John 17.  The unity of the Church was critical to Jesus, so I figure it should be critical to me.  So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the one holy catholic church in its Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal and Eastern Orthodox forms.  All who trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus and proclaim Him as Lord comprise one global family.

This does not mean that I can say that I am “just” a follower of Jesus, of course.  There is no such thing as a context-less Christian.  Every believer participates in the global Church through a particular church in a particular place with particular emphases and a particular tradition (including the tradition of those who despise tradition).  For me that means I’m a Pentecostal Christian, and part of a denomination called the Church of God (Cleveland, TN)—in shorthand, I am a hillbilly Pentecostal.  Being non-denominational or calling myself “just a Christian” would not make me any less of particular Christian in a particular place in a particular tradition.  I don’t think God is so much calling Christians to leave their respective traditions so much as to recognize their temporal, ephemeral nature.  We should, generally speaking, embrace our respective Christian traditions/denominations, just have the good sense to recognize this isn’t what God had in mind and it won’t last long.  In this spirit, we can stay true to the people who marked us but hopefully be humble about it.

Pentecostals of all people should care a lot about the unity of the Church, because we are shaped primarily by the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the Church on the day of Pentecost.  The empowering presence of the Holy Spirit is of course the birthright of the whole Church though, and the day of Pentecost is the birthday of the whole Church.  By no means was the Spirit given to validate or set apart one sect of Christian tradition from the rest of the body of Christ, which is where Pentecostals have often gone wrong.  We have distinctive gifts within our tradition we should embrace, but we must do so always aware that the Spirit is given for the unity of the Church and not its division.

The day of Pentecost is the reversal of the curse of Babel; the tongues of Pentecost are the language that unites rather than the language that divides.  Hence it is problematic when Pentecostals create too radical of a distinction between tongues speakers and non-tongues speakers, or turn supernatural phenomena into merit badges.  The task of the Pentecostal tradition is to help the whole Church to discover the ways she is Pentecostal, to help her claim her own native Pentecostalism, not to stand in judgment over her.  A schismatic Pentecostal is a walking contradiction.

My own sense is that the only hope for the unity of the Church is a return to the centrality of the table.  It is the Eucharistic meal that unites us, not just symbolically but actually.  The Lord’s Supper is the sacramental celebration that lies at the heart of Catholic tradition, Lutheran justification, Wesleyan transformation and Pentecostal power.  Christians need not share a common understanding of the nature of communion in order to be united by it.  We need not understand how communion works in order for it to mystically re-member us every time we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It would take nothing less than the body and blood of Jesus Himself to put the bride of Christ back together again, His backwards but beautiful Humpty Dumpty.

There are many reasons I find myself challenging Christians of all traditions to return to the centrality of the table, as we do weekly at our church.  It anchors us experientially in the presence of Christ, for whatever else is different about our respective traditions.  It delivers us from the tyranny of personality (even for those as large as my own) when it is the Lord’s Supper that is the climax of every Christian celebration.  But beyond all of this, it reassembles the Church.  Every time we come to the table, we participate in the prayer of John 17 in our unity, not only within our local Church but within our global one.