From the Inspiration of the Spirit to the Institution of the Church:
Pentecost 2008

For Sunday May 11, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Acts 2:1–21 or Numbers 11:24–30
           Psalm 104:24–35
           1 Corinthians 12:3–13; or Acts 2:1–21
           John 20:19–23 or 7:37–39

Marionite icon.
Marionite icon.

           Jesus promised a kingdom, goes the joke, but what we got was the church.

           The feast of Pentecost, celebrated this week by Christians around the world, marks the birth of the church. After Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is the most important celebration of the Christian calendar. The term comes from the Greek word pentekostos, meaning fiftieth, from which one of the most important feasts in the Jewish calendar derives its name. Fifty days after Passover, Jews celebrated the "Feast of Harvest" (Exodus 23:16) or "Feast of Weeks" (Leviticus 23:15–21). Centuries later, after their exile to Babylon, Pentecost became one of the great pilgrimage feasts of Judaism, when Diaspora Jews returned to Jerusalem to worship.

           Luke describes the first "Christian" Pentecost when "God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5) clogged the streets of Jerusalem. On the day of Pentecost the Spirit of God descended upon the first followers of Jesus. Luke compares it to "the blowing of a violent wind" and "tongues of fire." By the end of the day, and despite the mockery of some critics, three thousand people joined the Jesus movement after Peter summarized their message (2:41). But compared to what happened in the coming years and decades, that was small potatoes, only the beginning of the world's first fully globalized institution.

           Luke repeatedly inserts summaries of the numeric growth and geographic expansion of the newborn church. The movement quickly burgeoned to over 5,000 "men" (Acts 4:4). In Acts 6:7 he describes how “the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” Then a few pages later he says that "the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (9:31). As Paul and Barnabas ministered in Antioch, "the word of the Lord spread through the whole region" (13:49).

           Luke's story ends with the apostle Paul imprisoned in Rome, where tradition says he was martyred — but not before he had trekked 10,000 miles across Asia Minor spreading the good news about Jesus and planting churches. In its first decades the early church fulfilled what Jesus had promised, that the presence of the Spirit meant witnessing with power — “in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Today, about a third of the world identifies itself as Christian, and no religion can claim more adherents.

           But Pentecost not only birthed the church; it began a bureaucracy. Across the centuries, man made institutions became the wine skins for Spirit led inspirations, and therein lies both the wit and the wisdom in the joke about the difference between God's vibrant kingdom and moribund human churches.

           It's easy to criticize the church as a deeply flawed organization, but the institutionalization of the Jesus movement was both inevitable and necessary. Nothing happens without Spirit-inspired people, but nothing lasts without institutions. How should they organize 5,000 new converts? What was its main message? What constituted proper worship and why? Could Gentiles join what was initially a Jewish movement, and if they did should they observe the Mosaic traditions? Who would lead and why? How broad or narrow were its boundaries? What were reasonable procedures and protocols for feeding widows, collecting money for famine relief, sending out missionaries like Paul and Barnabas, or adjudicating disputes? In short, where was the Spirit of God blowing, where was His fire burning, and how could you be sure?

           These and many other questions required that the movement of the Spirit become an organization of people. In his study of early Pentecostal Christians and American culture called Heaven Below (Harvard, 2001), the Duke historian Grant Wacker explores how such a wildly enthusiast, anti-intellectual, counter cultural and divisive movement could not only survive but flourish. Wacker says that early American Pentecostals did two things extremely well. They encouraged the primitive impulse of a deeply felt relationship with God, and then they devised pragmatic ways to “bottle the lightening” without “stilling the fire or cracking the vessel.”

Coptic icon.
Coptic icon.

           From those first tongues of fire described by Luke until today, from small beginnings as a vibrant movement to ecclesiastical institutions that two billion Christians call home, that has been the perennial challenge — how do we facilitate the Spirit's fire without shattering the bottle or extinguishing the flame? By the early second century when the church began to observe Pentecost as a Christian celebration, a controversy erupted about how to answer this question.

           Around the year 150 AD, a prophet named Montanus forced the institution of the church to grapple with the inspiration of the Spirit. As the prevalence and intensity of dreams, signs, wonders, and miracles gradually waned in the decades after the apostles, as "apocalyptic vision became less vivid and the church's polity more rigid" (Pelikan), Christians wondered: Was this God's will? Or maybe it was a consequence of the church becoming more bureaucratic? Wasn't it an embarrassment that the powerful manifestations of the Spirit seemed less frequent?

           Montanus believed that the decline in the Spirit's manifestations resulted from the church's moral laxity in matters like divorce and fasting. He wasn't satisfied with the mere theoretical possibility of the presence and power of the Spirit, or with other suggestions about how the Spirit might manifest Himself. For him the proof was very much in the pudding. He claimed to have received direct revelations from the Spirit, and at time his comments even implied that he was the incarnation of the Spirit. The sect named after him, Montanism, was thus characterized by fanatical zeal, rigorous asceticism, and an excessive pre-occupation with supernatural manifestations of the Spirit. Two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, accompanied Montanus and similarly claimed direct communications with the Spirit.

           The most famous Montanist was the great African theologian Tertullian, who lived in Carthage (modern Tunisia). He once complained about "the church of a lot of bishops." Writing in the early third century, Tertullian gives us a snap shot of the movement: "We have among us now a sister who has been granted gifts of revelations, which she experiences in church during the Sunday services through ecstatic vision in the Spirit. . . . And after the people have been dismissed at the end of the service it is her custom to relate to us what she has seen."

           More mainstream church authorities responded to Montanism in two ways. The historian Eusebius employed derision. He scorned those who "rave in a kind of ecstatic trance." He dismissed their "bastard utterances" as the "demented, absurd and irresponsible sayings" of a "presumptuous spirit." The Montanists, he said, "babble in a jargon" that is "contrary to the custom of the church which had been handed down by tradition from the earliest times." According to that tradition, the Spirit of God speaks clearly, sufficiently, and reliably enough through three means — the canon of Scripture, the creeds of the councils, and the clergy of the church.

           Hippolytus, a contemporary of Tertullian who was martyred in Rome in 235, resorted to denial. He taught that miraculous visions and direct communications from the Spirit ended with the Revelation of John. He said that, in effect, the Spirit worked differently now than in the apostolic days. In the words of the Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, in contrast to Montanus, just as Hippolytus "pushed the time of the second coming into the future, so he pushed the time of prophecy into the past." For Hippolytus, the work of the Spirit was now "a difference not only of degree but also fundamentally of kind" (Pelikan).

Orthodox icon.
Orthodox icon.

           Although the institutional church recognizes the Spirit's voice primarily in its historical creeds, its Biblical canon, and its apostolic clergy, "in the experiences of monks and friars, of mystics and seers, the Montanist heresy has carried on a sort of unofficial existence" (Pelikan). The Spirit of God who hovered over all creation (Genesis 1:2) still blows when, where and how He pleases (John 3:8). Two thousand Pentecost celebrations later we should heed Paul's advice: "do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21).

For further reflection

* How do you discern authentic movements of the Spirit?
* How do we discern spurious claims of the Spirit's presence?
* Can you identify examples of each?
* What do you think 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21 means?

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3)