One of the final steps towards completing my seminary degree included documenting my theological opinions on various doctrinal themes–the authority of Scripture, the person and work of Christ, eschatology, etc. I presented these views to a committee of seminary professors as a requirement for graduation. It was a helpful assignment. I had labored for three years through the intricacies of Greek exegesis; I had dug deep into the annals of church history; I had explored modern theology from various Christian traditions, so it was helpful to locate myself in this theological jungle. In addressing the subject of the Holy Spirit, I expressed my belief in the Spirit as “the believer’s paraclete”, the Christian’s helper. When asked why I expressed my understanding of the Spirit in terms of the individual’s helper and not the helper for the entire church, I offered a half-hearted smiled and said, “Well the church is a collection of individuals, right?” I had no better explanation. I wish I had known better then. I think I know better now.
I am the product of a culture thoroughly steeped in rugged individualism. An uncritical, culturally-conditioned look of the work of the Spirit in the world will undoubtedly focus on what the Holy Spirit is doing in isolated individuals. Reading the Scripture through the modern lens of individualism was the very mistake I made as a young seminarian. Such an attempt to see the Spirit at work in individuals will cause us to miss the Spirit’s work in the life of the church. The work of God’s Spirit is to supply life to the body of Christ, which is God’s church. If Acts chapter 2 is a paradigm (and I would argue it is, in one sense, paradigmatic), it is not a paradigm of how individuals know they have received the Spirit, but an on-going paradigm of God’s intent to pour out the Spirit of truth where the church is gathered together in unity.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven the sound like a mighty rushing wind…and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1,2,4 ESV).
The church is not merely a gathering of the baptized to be scattered in the world. The church is a gathering of the baptized energized with the Spirit and then given to the world. The paradigm we see in Acts 2 is the unity of those gathered. They were gathered “together in one place” and it was they (plural) who were filled with the Spirit and enabled with the ability to speak in languages they did not know. To make this inaugural pentecostal event a strict pattern for individuals to have private mystical encounters with the Spirit is to miss the proverbial forest for the trees. The focus of Acts 2 is not on what God is doing in individuals, but what God is doing to launch his church. The miracle of glossolalia was not a sensational magic trick whereby God would wow the crowds with his pizzazz. Rather it was a sign pointing to the work of his pentecostal Spirit to bring the reign of the God of Israel to all the nations of the world.
So what is this pentecostal Spirit doing in the world? This Spirit, God’s Spirit, is working in harmony with what Jesus is doing — building God’s church. I understand some people get disillusioned with the church. I have encounter more than one person who has become disillusioned with the local church. They can no longer live in the tension between the church’s call to be an expression of the kingdom of God in the earth with the innumerable deficiencies and failures within the church. So they begin to look to other organizations where they can invest their energy, effort, time, and money, and all along they reject the church, the institution, the “organized religion,” the community of people where their faith was first nurtured. On occasion I have seen the disillusioned leave the church and affiliate with some kind of nonprofit organization or parachurch ministry.
There is a role for the parachurch organization. The local church is not able to do everything, especially local churches of the nondenominational variety, like the ones I have served. We should esteem the value of the parachurch ministry, but I remember what I heard Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center for Housing, once said: “The parachurch organization is the servant of the church.” Can the winds of God’s pentecostal Spirit blow through nonprofit organizations, parachurch ministries, and those outside the faith who desire to work for the things that make for peace? Certainly. We cannot lock away the Spirit of God in our buildings of wood and brick anymore than we can lock away the wind, but if I am going to find the Holy Spirit in his creative, germinating power, I look to the church.
I have given my life to serve the church, but I am not only a servant, I am a participant. I have seen God’s Spirit at work and I have taste the presence of the Spirit in the context of the community of faith and my love for the church has only increased. I am no longer interested (or satisfied) with private religious experiences. I would trade every life-changing encounter with Spirit I have had personally, if I thought it would help build the church. I understand what Paul must have been feeling when writing to the hyper-charismatic church in Corinth he chose these words: “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church….I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:12, 18, 19). I am deeply thankful for the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition for reminding the greater Body of Christ of the freedom and presence of God’s Spirit, including the on-going expression of spiritual gifts. The expression of these gifts should be used to serve and unite the church. Where the church is united, there the pentecostal Spirit of God is at work. Where the church is fighting, building walls of hostility and division, the Spirit dissipates.
We work therefore to increase the unity of the church, so we can be recipients of God’s Spirit to be about the Father’s work in the world.