“Renewalists”?

The study of religion has an occupational hazard–blink your eyes, and you may miss some new trend.

“Renewalism” is a neologism that is being used in some quarters as a term to refer to both the old school Pentecostals (dating to the early 1900s) and to the various mainline Protestant and Catholic Charismatic movements (of the 1960s and 70s). Old school Pentecostals, like the Assemblies of God, say that speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit; the other movements accept is as a sign, but not necessarily the sign that you must have if you’ve had the experience.

USA Today uses the term, “renewalist,” in an article, “Faith’s Language Barrier?” A Google search shows 2660 links using the term (vs. 3.88 million hits for “Pentecostal,”1.17 million hits for “Charismatic movement,” and 294,000 hits for “Amy Welborn”).

The subject is in the news now because the Southern Baptist Convention will be taking up the question of speaking in tongues at its annual meeting next month.

Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement both figured in my movement towards Catholicism. I checked out the Assemblies of God church while looking around in my first couple of years outside of Adventism. I joined John Michael Talbot’s “Brothers and Sisters of Charity” while in seminary. I attended conferences for priests and deacons at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I had a couple of articles published in New Covenant.

In one of those I wrote:

The dangers that come with a renewal of the Spirit’s gifts are as old as the Christian faith. In the earliest days they appeared in Corinth, a Gentile church that was awash in all the latest fads. The dazzle and excitement of the Spirit’s gifts combined with the zeal of recent conversion for an explosive mix. Some believers used the new life in the Spirit as an excuse for sexual sin. Others used it to neglect the needs of the poor.

Rival factions looked to charismatic “super-apostles” for inspiration and teaching, each of whom justified his position by appealing to the charisms as proof of God’s blessing.

St. Paul’s response was a call to the cross. God’s true power, he said, lies not in that which dazzles the world, but in that which the world ignores. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

It may have been similar circumstances that led the Gospel of John to take its unique approach to the Spirit. John is very careful to emphasize that the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. He records Jesus as saying, for instance, that the Spirit “will not speak on his own, but … will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). As if to underscore this link between the Spirit and Jesus, John doesn’t wait until Pentecost for the Spirit’s descent; Jesus breathes on the disciples Easter night, and they receive the Spirit.

Paul and John not only focus on Jesus, but center their focus on his model of humility and self-denial. John precedes his narrative of the coming Comforter with the story of Jesus kneeling to wash the disciples’ feet. And Jesus says, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Paul warns against rivalry and ambition with a similar appeal to the example of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).

The renewal of the charisms at the turn of this century brought with it a renewal of the Corinthian problems. In the name of the Spirit some have built empires, while others have dispensed snake oil. Others have claimed, “in the Spirit,” that prosperity is available to every faithful Christian–implying that those who are poor or ill have second-rate faith. The cross of Christ exposes such charlatanism for what it is. A prosperity gospel cannot stand alongside the battered and naked figure of the crucified Jesus. Personality cults must collapse in the shadow of this washer of feet.

I was optimistic, though. I felt the Catholic emphasis on the Eucharist and the example of the saints could be a safeguard–and I said that despite knowing of scandals such as that which shook the Mother of God Community and other “covenant communities” in the early 1990s.

But now I’d say: Trust not in subjectivism. Stick to the Word of God, not any emotional experience or any man’s authority. Scripture says of the gift of tongues on Pentecost (Acts 2): “every man heard them speak in his own language.” Paul says, if someone is speaking an unknown language in church and there’s no one to interpret, keep him keep silence (1 Cor. 14:28).