We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, February 11, 2013

In the Spirit—and Liberal

Anugrah Kumar's recent editorial, "How Should a Reformed Pastor Be Charismatic?" raises important questions for liberal pastors and moderately not conservative churches, namely the role of the Holy Spirit in vital church life and how we perceive that role. Kumar's editorial reports and reflects on a speech given by a pastor from the U.K., Tope Koleoso, who opened his speech with the claim that church leaders should "understand and exercise the gifts of the Holy Spirit while shunning fanaticism." He then raised the question, "why would anyone who is Bible-believing, Christ-centered and theology-loving be hesitant, cautious or resistant to the Holy Spirit?" Koleoso wants pastors and churches to engage in faith-healing, teach the power of the Holy Spirit, deliver people from "demonic forces," and rely more explicitly on the power of the Spirit. He cited the example of the early church, which "did not know discipleship that was apart from the filling of the Holy Spirit." He concluded that it does not matter what faith tradition a pastor comes from; pastors and churches need "to be filled with the Holy Spirit daily."

To be filled by the Holy Spirit, Koleoso claimed, "means to be restored to the initial intention so that you once again have the relation and resources." It is an ongoing process that puts God at the center of things. In the Spirit, one longs for God's presence as the one central concern of ministry and preaching. And when pastors and churches are filled by the Spirit and long for God, "things begin to happen … [God] begins to speak to the people … give gifts to them … the gifts begin to come forth … the word of knowledge, the word of wisdom, prophecy, tongues, interpretation, gifts of healing, gift of faith."

Protestant church culture in America today is heavily influenced by the evangelical and charismatic/pentecostal wing(s) of American Protestantism.  That influence has a dark side for those of us who are not part of that wing.  But it also has its beneficial side, if only we have the wit to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Among other things, evangelicals and pentecostals have brought the Holy Spirit into prominence, and they are correct when they insist that a church cannot be healthy without the Spirit.  In mainline churches, we may not engage in faith-healing of physical ailments or speak in tongues, but it still takes the work of the Spirit to infuse our worship with life, small groups with enthusiasm, and individuals with spiritual healing.  It takes the Spirit to turn conflict into reconciliation.  It takes the Spirit, frankly, to restore healthy vibrancy to declining mainline churches.

Whether interpreted literally or liberally, the Spirit still can speak through the Bible—inspire it.  The work of the Spirit is not limited by our theologies.  The Spirit persistently lurks in mainline sanctuaries as much as it does in pentecostal ones and tugs at liberal hearts as insistently as it does evangelical ones.  The story of the early churches in Acts is the story of the Spirit at work among those churches.  Our story can be and should be but another chapter in that same tale of the Spirit.  The thing is liberal-ish preachers and moderately not conservative churches need to begin to focus on the theme of the Spirit and even go so far as to pray for its manifest (rather than latent) presence.  And things do happen.  Amen.