The Great Irony of Pentecostalism

I identify with a Pentecostal denomination. And like with all denominations there is the Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. One thing I love about Pentecostalism is that its practice of the body is about an integrated whole- the mind, the body, the bits and bobs of our being, that are distinct yes but in no way separate or inherently against each other, but exist in an integrated ebb and flow. So we lift our hands, or move around, or lay hands. Because humans are a holistic being, and as such so is our faith. Humans are not just minds, and neither are we just our emotions, and neither are we just our bones and muscles- we are a whole human being. But here’s the great irony: Pentecostal theology still downplays the physical body because we say “it’s all about the Spirit”, because -when we say that phrase- we are saying it with a particular (false) understanding of the Spirit’s view of the physical world. When we say “it’s all about the Spirit” we think scripture means that the Spirit is anti-body or anti-material. But that’s not what the Bible means when it emphasises the Spirit. And so we move around with our bodies, but then- with our distorted theology- we divide out our bodily movement, and our emotions, and our spirit into categories that- in some ways- we believe go against each other. And when we Pente’s do this, it then turns around and distorts our good practice. All of a sudden things like candles, and smells, and nature, and food, and sex, are “bad” because they are physical and not (As the way a lot of people define “Spiritual”…) Spiritual enough. And that’s why it’s ironic. We are the movers and the groovers, the ones who lay hands, and yet we have such a low view of the physical world because it’s not- within our understanding of the term “spiritual”- spiritual enough.  


Now the scary thing is, is that it is exactly the false teaching that existed in the early church that Paul goes up against. The teachings of the greek stoics- who said the body and the physical world was “evil”- was what Paul was calling false teaching. And Paul, in response, said that the physical world was good and was going to be renewed (A physical world!) and that we will have physical resurrected bodies- like Jesus’- to inhabit this new world in. When Paul uses the language of “flesh” vs “Spirit” he is not saying “Physical” vs “Immaterial” but is saying “A world currently driven by corruption” vs “A world empowered by the very Spirit of God”. As a way of analogy, if you think of a boat, we are not talking about what the boat is made out of (“Is it metal or timber?”) but what it’s powered by (“Is it powered by oars or electricity?”). That’s what Paul is on about (And a side note- when Paul says in 1 Cor. 15 that we will have a “Spiritual body” he is saying the same thing- not that we have a non-physical body, but that we will have a body empowered and made new by the Spirit…I.e. A Spiritual body).


Now all of this isn’t just a theological rant with no pastoral implications.  It is a serious problem that we downplay the physical. Think about it. For example, with this wrong view of the Spirit, we stop having conversations about sex because it’s “dirty” (Even though God made sex!), because (In this way of defining “Spiritual”) it’s a body thing and our bodies are “bad” because they are not “Spiritual”. Gah! We as the church should be leading the way in these conversations in a world so distorted. And it’s not just the sex. That’s just one example. We start to roll our eyes at things like baptism, and foot washing, and communion because those things are physical things. Or we downplay feeding the homeless, or looking after creation, or taking medicine seriously because they are “just” physical things in a world that we will escape from one day. Oh, and let’s not care about our “secular” work because it’s not our “Spiritual” work….Sigh. And this also works in reverse as well: If it’s all about the “Spiritual” (As the way a lot of people define “Spiritual”) then why not do what we want with our bodies? Why not sleep around, or abuse our bodies- after all “it’s only the Spiritual things that matter”. Oh man the list goes on. Oh how we desperately need to see that God’s Kingdom is about the rule & reign of God over the whole world, whereby His Spirit is about shaking the world up, not about escaping it into an immaterial la la land. And seeing that “Spirit” doesn’t always equate to “immaterial”. Rather, Spiritual is more about the orientation & direction of the God who is making all things new. So when one feeds the homeless, that can be a spiritual task. Or when one makes love to their spouse in a way that honours and serves the other to the glory of God, that can be a Spiritual task.  It’s this Spirit that shakes and wakes us up to view everything differently (Our psychology, our physical world, our work, our relationships, our priorities, the dehumanising systems we support…Everything!) and get us moving & living in a new direction towards New Creation. Jesus rose again from the dead…In a physical body. (Need we say more?!). Every action, everything- in the sense of its effects- Is Spiritual. 


And in terms of very specific church service practice- as someone who affiliates with a Pentecostal denomination- I find it ironic that Pentecostalism isn’t more liturgical. That might sound strange to start with, but think about it. We pentes are all about movement and grove! We are the dancers, the movers, the shakers, the one who lay hands on people. So why on Earth don’t we have more emphasis on the physical elements of Eucharist? Or the intentional actions of foot washing, or baptism? Or take seriously our surroundings and how we set up for church? Or notions of creating sacred space? Why are we against candles, and sights, and smells and say that it’s all to “ritualistic”? Certainly these things can be done in wrong ways, and certainly, it can be done in weird legalistic ways. But I am not talking about its distortions here (Which there are many!), but the inherent practice of taking the physical seriously in church services as a way to awaken people to the reality of God. And so I think Its the great irony of Pentecostalism- that we are moving & grooving people (which is physical movement) but then in our theology downplay the physical to the point that it’s somehow bad. It makes no sense.

May we see that the Spirit is for the physical world, but as the physical world renewed by The Spirit Himself (Herself?) as it’s all heading towards New Creation, with a physical Jesus on the throne, and may that inform our present lives as we live and move in this world, empowered and inspired by God’s Spirit.  

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