Pentecostalism grew due to the work of enthusiastic believers, spreading the message of God’s liberating Spirit around their communities and world. At its core, Pentecostalism is evangelical, professing salvation through Jesus alone. So what are pentecostals to do with other religions?
Pentecostal history has mostly been oppositional to other religions. Reading missionaries’ letters shows that different religious traditions were often labeled as “evil,” “heathen,” and “superstitious,” among many other similar derisive titles.
Pentecostals today are not much different. It’s not unusual to find in a sermon or plastered on social media some derogatory comment aimed at someone from another faith background. In our post-9/11 world, this is most often directed at Muslims from all walks of life.
Yet if Jesus is the only way, the argument goes, then that must mean that the plethora of other options are fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, if pentecostals are the carriers of the Spirit then they must be at the fore of God’s truth. Consequently, if a pentecostal has strong feelings against someone from a different religious or cultural background then the assumption is that the feeling is Spirit-instigated and Spirit-filled.
This appears to be simple enough logic, but I’d like us to at least consider the subject matter a bit more closely.
The most obvious place to start is in the general notion of “Pentecostalism.” What exactly is it? What is “Pentecostal” that isn’t “Evangelical” or “Wesleyan” or “Baptist”? What differentiates this Christian community from everyone else?
Unsurprisingly, every pentecostal seems to have an opinion on the subject, but they vary wildly.
Did you know that the “Pentecostal” tent is extraordinarily big and diverse? For example, although some scholars and practitioners want to reduce the movement, “Pentecostalism” includes “Pentecostal denominations” (AG, Church of God, etc.) and Charismatic Mainline Churches and Charismatic Catholic Churches and many Non-Denominational Churches.
What’s even more interesting is that even within the very, very narrow category of “Pentecostal denominations,” there is extreme diversity.
Some Pentecostal denominations ordain women fully, while others somehow don’t (COG, COGIC, etc.). Some maintain strict Holiness practices while others don’t. But more “problematic” to the notion of “pure” Pentecostalism is that some Pentecostal denominations believe in the Trinity while others do not, professing instead a Oneness theology. Thus, there isn’t even unity within Pentecostal denominations about who God is.
In other words, even when zooming in on one tiny aspect of Pentecostalism, we are still left with the difficult task of locating a “pure” expression that we can then measure against the many other religions.
Within this same theme, it’s helpful to remember that early pentecostals like those at the Azusa Street Mission, were decried by fellow Christians for promoting superstitious and evil practices that opposed the faith. Still today you can find many supposedly God-fearing Christians deride Pentecostalism as blasphemy against God (see John MacArthur).
Remarkably, there are also those within the Pentecostal movement who are joining the chorus that opposes certain versions of Pentecostalism. Some Pentecostal scholars trained in “Western” institutions are spending their publication efforts worrying about whether or not pentecostals outside their small part of the world are practicing Pentecostalism correctly.
Oh how quickly we forget our own history! Once ridiculed by other Christians for destroying the Church, these Pentecostal scholars are now pointing at their sisters and brothers around the world, calling them “syncretists” and vilifying their message as “Prosperity Gospel.”
Tragically, these denouncements are tinged with racist overtones, as most of those who criticize come out the “West” while those being criticized make their home in Asia and Africa. Just when “Western” Pentecostalism has finally gained political clout (see Paula White among many others), believers within the movement that threaten this newfound position are forced out in order to maintain political power.
The myth of a “pure” Pentecostalism is spurious at best and destructive at worst. Nevertheless, one must construct “purity,” however arbitrary that construction might be, in order to combat the “other” (i.e., the “impure”).
Yet, when the imaginary idea of “purity” is removed, an honest conversation can begin to take place. For example, if we believe that the Spirit permeates ALL of creation then where is the Spirit in other religions? That is a challenging question but one that nonetheless must be explored.
This is the portion of the discussion when the author forces all religions into the faith she or he professes, in this case Pentecostalism. That is not my goal with these final short comments, though. In fact, my goal is not to resolve the issue but rather invite us to ask questions and patiently listen to the Spirit for answers.
What I’ve learned while practicing interreligious dialogue is that it is healthy and important to examine both similarities and differences between religions, unthreatened by another who my faith unequivocally and unflinchingly declares is fearfully and wonderfully made by God.
The important and necessary thing for pentecostals to do is allow these significant questions to confront our preconceptions about God, aware that we might be limiting what God is doing because we’ve predetermined what God is able to do. Thus, we should ask questions:
Do I understand what Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. really believe? Have I looked at their texts and talked to people within these traditions?
What assumptions have I allowed to cloud my judgment about other religions?
How do I understand the Spirit’s activity in the world? Is the Spirit everywhere, and if so, what does that mean for other religions?
What Bible verses are guiding me on this subject? Have I really investigated these passages or have I just accepted an initial opinion that is rooted in my preconceived ideas?
How has the Church interacted with different religions historically? While it’s important to follow the Church of the West, have I traced the Church of the East or even the Church in the global South?
What might I learn from different religious traditions that could strengthen my Christian faith?
The questions that we could ask are endless, but perhaps this start can guide us as we reconsider our faith in light of the many religions around the world.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.