I grew up in various pentecostal churches, each providing a unique flare and flavor of the Spirit––some were more “progressive,” offering diverse voices from the pulpit and church leadership while others were rather “conservative.”
At one church, for instance, the pastor spent an entire sermon outlining the evils of chewing gum and wearing shorts. Unfortunately, that Sunday night I was wearing shorts and perhaps even chewing gum. During the sermon, I vividly remember the pastor staring directly at me, making sure I knew who this message was for. If you’re looking for a way to encourage the youngsters in your church, don’t forget to publicly excoriate them, suggesting that they are agents of satan. To be fair, Jesus did specifically address wearing shorts: “Love your neighbor [in pants] as yourself [in pants]” (Greek is tricky).
The uniting force behind all these different pentecostal churches, though, was the notion that Christians are under attack. We are, in fact, surrounded by countless enemies, each bent on destroying us.
And Ephesians 6:11 was the rally cry:
“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”
When you head to school or work, remember that the enemy is hiding around every corner so be alert. Be suspicious of everyone and everything to ensure that the fight is not lost.
This theological ideology was arguably the most pronounced “truth” told to me growing up. Not only was it regularly evoked at church but it was also reinforced every morning when my mother had my sisters and I recite each piece of armor before we arrived at school. We needed to gear up before entering the battle awaiting us.
While pentecostals often cite “spiritual powers” as the real enemy, we all too easily project those forces onto actual people, turning them into the true enemy. And the fear of the threatening “other” continues to animate much of Pentecostalism.
Consequently, we pentecostals regularly blame those responsible for “secularism,” “liberalism,” “immorality,” and a whole host of other external ills for the decline of the Church. The Church used to be strong, the argument goes, back when a particular version of Christianity dominated society, allowing us to pray openly in school and say whatever we wanted without concern for being “politically correct.”
Now, however, threats abound so be ever vigilant because we are indeed surrounded by the enemy.
When we describe the world from this angle, we create stark divisions between “us” and “them.” Unsurprisingly, we are always the victim of their hatred. We’re just trying to make the world a better place while their primary aim is the destruction of everything good.
That constructed narrative, then, invites Christians to respond from a place of perceived holiness. Jesus, after all, was also opposed on all sides.
And do we ever respond. There is good reason why so many people outside the Church describe Christians as condemning. The constant message is that those LGBTQ people, immigrants, Muslims, and feminists need to be stopped! The faithful need to oppose them and their evil message from all sides to ensure God’s love is maintained. We must rebuke them to assure that they know how awful they are; otherwise they will never change. “We” need to tell “them” that they’re sinners.
An interesting, though tragic, thing occurs when we adopt this ideology: we invert the paradigm. In other words, while we preach about how we are surrounded by the enemy, in reality, we are aggressively encircling others.
What makes this particularly egregious is that we often choose the most vulnerable and oppressed populations to viciously attack, which has sadly been a tactic used by Christians in the U.S. since the founding of the American colonies. Those people are evil (savages) and we need to liberate (eradicate) them.
The image is accurate. Unfortunately, it is Christians who are closing in on those defined as sinners.
The Apostle Paul instructs the church at Corinth regarding those who believers should never judge:
For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside.
1 Corinthians 5:12-13
The job of the Christian is unambiguous: love God and neighbor. The clear thing to avoid is to judge “others.” Yet, Paul does call on the church to lovingly judge those within the Church, encouraging one another toward greater compassion for all through the power of the Spirit.
But it is so very easy and tempting to just blame others. We even find this deflection-onto-others method in the first sin account described in Genesis 3. Apparently a natural human tendency is to avoid self-reflection and consequently self-correction by simply condemning an-other.
But self-reflect and self-correct we must. We must allow the Spirit to convict us of our sin of condemning others for our own failures. In this case, our failure to love like Jesus.
We should remember that Paul’s letters were written to regional churches. His direct words were meant to correct and encourage believers as they sought to live out an ethic of Godly love.
In a follow-up letter to the church in Corinth, Paul adds,
Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.
2 Corinthians 7:9-10
Condemning “others” is completely absent from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Our fight is not against those outside the Church.
Indeed, the hope of the world is found in the unconstrained, fully embracing, controversial, provocative, offensive love of God that welcomes all exactly as they are.
The reason the Church has declined in the U.S. is not because of outside threats but rather because we have traded love for power, acceptance for condemnation, and peace for aggression. So we pray…
We repent for our sin of blaming others for our inability to love like Jesus. We repent for alienating “others.” We repent for spreading hatred. And we repent for our unwillingness to allow the Spirit to change us. We thank you, oh God, for your grace and mercy and we ask that you transform our hearts. May we be carriers of your outrageous grace, mercy, and love to the world from this point forward. Amen.
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.