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Pentecost Sunday prompted me to reflect again in my personal relationship with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
One of my first recollections dealing seriously and painfully with this doctrine happened in the 1970s when I was in my mid-teens. I was in the living room of my grandparents’ house surrounded by aunts, uncles, great-aunts, grandparents, and cousins. I come from what used to be a large Baptist family, one that was caught in the “second wave of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement” (Peter Wagner), and that marked the lives of many families, churches, and denominations around the world.
At the time of this incident, a good number of my relatives had joined the Charismatic movement. I remember observing a heated discussion among family members. In fact, at times I feared that the men were going to get physical. The discussion was centered on spirituality, the Holy Spirit, biblical knowledge and, ironically, love.
Does it sound familiar? It does! Years later I realized that it seemed like a story taken from the first letter to the Corinthians. One segment attempting to put down the other one by claiming higher levels of spirituality and knowledge.
I decided to leave this doctrine alone!
It represented too much trouble, conflict, division and pain. In addition to these issues, in my Baptist world, if you wanted to be a good, accepted Baptist, you had to affirm that prophecies had ceased and tongues were stilled (1 Corinthians 13:8b). Of course, my charismatic relatives strongly disagreed!
The understanding and use of special/miraculous gifts (miracles, speaking in tongues, and exorcisms) was not the only issue, although it was a major one. By looking at Baptist history, it is clear to me, that at least in many Latin American countries, and among many Latino/a Baptists in the United States, their Baptist identity was defined antithetically. The 19th century was marked by a strong anti-Catholicism, and the 20th century continued with the same anti-Catholic sentiment plus a strong anti-Pentecostal/Charismatic one.
Basically, this meant a rejection of many of the beliefs and practices that these two groups espoused. Whatever Catholics and Pentecostals/Charismatics did, we (Baptists) did not. This brought many implications for Baptists’ lives.
Regarding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, it affected Baptist views on special/miraculous gifts, worship, women in ministry, and most importantly, it produced a distancing from the Holy Spirit (at least the doctrine), as well as from other Christians who thought and acted differently than us.
Despite my decision to stay away from this doctrine, as an unresolved issue it came back again and again.
Ten or 12 years later (1988) after the incident in my grandparents’ house, I was assigned to read in seminary Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, as my primary systematic theology textbook. Coming from my particular background, I found it very refreshing that a Baptist theologian would be willing to write about the miraculous gifts in a solid, responsible, respectful, and biblical way.
I found a good sense of peace with Erickson, and left the issue alone again.
Fast-forward 12 more years (2000); I started to teach theology in my current institution. To my surprise, I discovered that a significant number of my theology students came from Hispanic Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, while the other group came mainly from traditional Hispanic Baptist churches. The issue returned again, as I had to lecture every year in a meaningful way for both sides, and as I was challenged to foster a respectful, productive dialogue between these two very different groups.
However, I must confess that this topic was still painful for me. Every year I opened (and I still do) my lecture on the Holy Spirit’s doctrine with my experience in my grandparent’s living room, and the subsequent division that happened in my church.
Fast-forward nine more years (2009); I became convinced that I needed to find some resolution to my own issues with this doctrine. Instead of continuing running away, I decided to purposely dive into this doctrine’s study. What was the best way to do it? Teach a semester class on the Holy Spirit. Having students from Pentecostal/Charismatic and Baptist backgrounds, it was a challenge to find a text book that could speak to both, and that could foster peaceful and respectful relations among them.
I was so grateful when I discovered Michael Green’s I Believe in the Holy Spirit. When I read in his introduction that he wrote this book because he had experienced the respectful co-existence of charismatic and non-charismatic Christians, and that the fundamental conviction of his book is that “the Holy Spirit longs to unite”(p. 8), I knew that this was the right book.
I have taught this advanced theology seminar several times, and each one has been an excellent, healing experience. By praising and reprimanding both sides, Michael Green has challenged me and my students to deal with misuses of language and concepts that have created conflict, and has inspired us to respectfully find common ground and language to truly “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3, NIV).
This unity in the Spirit is vital for the church as the universal body of Christ that extends throughout denominations. Jesus emphasized in his priestly prayer that believers need to be in unity, so that the world may believe in him (John 17:20-23). This passage seems to indicate that unity is a requirement for effective evangelism. It comes as no surprise that evil powers move the earthly universal church to fight all the time. In this way, we are distracted with our conflicts, instead of fully investing our energy in the work of God’s Reign.
Alluding to unity and love within the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12-14), Millard Erickson challenges Christians to instead of seeking a particular gift, to seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and to live according to the Spirit’s fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, Galatians 5:22-23). Once we truly live in this way, the Holy Spirit will reveal/give us the particular gift/s intended for us (Christian Theology, pp. 881-882).
Accordingly, any of the Spirit’s gifts, without the Spirit’s fruit, especially love, is worthless.
This part of my story introduces challenges in a particular facet of the unity that the Holy Spirit longs to bring. What particular challenges are you experiencing regarding unity in your Christian walk?
Whatever you are facing, the biblical call is clear: “Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3, ESV). Is the Apostle Paul talking to all Christians, including you and me? Yes, he is! Wherever we are positioned in our lives and ministries, unity must be a priority … so that the world may believe in Jesus. Amen!