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October 17, 2013Missiology

Continualist Christians: An Overview

An overview and brief history of the Pentecostal / Charismatic / Third Wave Movements.
Continualist Christians: An Overview
Image: HTB Church / flickr

I'm thankful today for my many faithful friends in the continualist movement, represented by Pentecostals, charismatics, and Third Wave Christians around the world. Their impact is widespread—depending on how you count, up to half a billion Christians in the world are connected with those three continualist traditions.

Much discussion is taking place on this movement—some helpful, some not. Regardless of your view, it is good to understand a movement before evaluating it. As such, I thought it might be helpful to share a bit of information about the movement to, I hope, make a better conversation. I'm not a scholar of such movements, but perhaps my (too long) article will be of some help.

Continualists make up a grouping of those who believe that spiritual gifts, particuarly the sign gifts, continued (hence, continualists). Continualists generally include Pentecostal, charismatic, and Third Wave believers (all described below in this article). They are to be contrasted to cessastionists who think such gifts have ceased (with some variation as to which gifts have ceased).

Continualist is a broad term, but often easier than listing the three main groups (Pentecostal, charismatic, Third Wave) that make up the continualist stream. Continualists believe the sign gifts have continued, but the most evident continualists actually practice those gifts (not just hold to the hypothetical existence of the sign gifts). You can also be a non-practicing continualist, believing in, but not practicing the sign gifts regularly.

Regardless of your view, it is good to understand a movement before evaluating it

Continualists come in three streams that observers use to help explain the movement, and it is indeed quite a movement. In fact, it is the fastest-growing movement in the history of world Christianity.

I am thankful for my faithful continualist friends who are reaching the world for Jesus while we are talking about them from the vantage point of the declining U.S. church.

The continualist movement is rapidly growing and like all rapidly growing movements, it has excesses—big ones. We saw similar results in the Second Great Awakening—many genuine conversions, but also many aberrations and sects were birthed in that movement.

For example, in regard to continualism, I recently wrote on the growth of evangelicalism in Brazil, which is decidedly Pentecostal, but I also mentioned the danger of Neo-Pentecostalism, which is virtually a shamanist expression of prosperity and charlatanism. (The Pentecostals leaders in Brazil are concerned and speak out about Neo-Pentecostalism and its dangers, and I will write more on this again.)

Those aberrations can be shocking—much like they were in the Second Great Awakening. That's why I am encouraged when I see leaders like Lee Grady speaking up on some of the dangers of such heretical and carnal expressions—Grady and others do so not as professional critics, but rather as respected insiders to the movement, and they explain the challenges well.

Also, it is quite appropriate for informed outsiders to critique a movement. You can tell such critiques are approproriate when reasonable people inside the movement being criticized actually recognize their movement in the criticism, even if they don't agree with the critique.

However, it is helpful to consider a movement accurately before looking at its extremes. It is easy to paint such movements with a broad brush, but people of integrity don't do such things. We should never compare the worst of someone else's movement with the best of our own. For example, Westboro Baptist is not the best representation of Baptists in the same way that Robert Tilton is not the best representation of continualists.

Instead, a little history might help us to understand the movement and not just caricature it.

We should never compare the worst of someone else's movement with the best of our own.

To understand continualism, you have to understand three movements in continualist history: the Pentecostals, the charismatics, and the Third Wavers. All of these launched within the last century and now impact over 400 million people worldwide.

Pentecostal Beginnings

Twentieth Century Pentecostalism is rooted in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening and the Holiness Revival in America during the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. Such movements emphasized both spiritual and renewal, and eventually, supernatural experiences as a regular part of Christian living.

The growth of this particular theology and practice in America in the 1800s paved the way for the birth of the Pentecostal movement, which is traced to Charles Parham and a few Bible school students in Topeka at the beginning of the last century. Parham gave the students a single assignment: study the Bible and find the evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit. Based on Acts 2, they concluded that speaking in tongues was the evidence of the Spirit's infilling.

Several years later in 1906, another of Parham's students, William Joseph Seymour, led the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles. It was from the Azusa Street Mission that Pentecostalism began to gain worldwide attention. For over three years, under Seymour's leadership, Azusa Street conducted three services a day, seven days a week. (Parham is not a major player after this for several reasons—not all good.)

For the first half of the twentieth century, Pentecostal belief and practice remained separate from mainstream denominational religion forming its own denominations like the Assemblies of God (the largest Pentecostal denomination), The Church of God in Christ, and many others. Today, such Pentecostal denominations are key parts of the National Association of Evangelicals, working with other evangelicals for worldwide impact.

However, that Pentecostal impact was not yet done.

Charismatics in the Mainlines

On Easter Sunday 1960, Dennis Bennett, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal in Van Nuys, CA revealed to his parish that he had experienced what he described as a second baptism of the Spirit, accompanied by speaking in tongues.

He soon resigned his position in some conflict, but the charismatic renewal was already taking hold in Mainline Protestant churches, and even found its way into the Roman Catholic Church. The influence of Pentecostalism became a movement that revived many struggling historic churches.

As one example of that influence, the Charismatic Movement is a major influence in British Anglicanism so much that they are a significant part of the Anglican Church in Great Britain, with Holy Trinity Brompton being the most influential church. The current Archbishop of Canterbury is a charismatic evangelical—who speaks in tongues—and is connected to Holy Trinity Brompton.

This time period in religious history is known as the Second Wave, the First Wave being the birth of Pentecostalism at the turn of the century.

Third Wave

Even though Pentecostals are much more closely related theologically to Evangelical churches than Mainline Protestants, the Mainline churches were the first to integrate Pentecostal theology and practice into their churches. In fact, most evangelical churches rejected Pentecostalism until the mid-1980s, when the Third Wave began to have its impact. (Later, many charismatics would leave their Mainline churches—particularly as Mainline Protestantism moved left—and they would form independent charismatic churches.)

John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement, and missionary and Fuller Seminary professor C. Peter Wagner are widely regarded as the catalysts for the Third Wave, though I would certainly include Chuck Smith in that list. Within Third Wave churches there is an emphasis placed on signs and wonders, and a particular emphasis on all people, not just the leadership, being able to express the charismatic gifts.

Because of the influence of Wimber (who came out of the Jesus Movement) and Wagner (who was a missiologist) these churches produced a distinct belief that the power of the Spirit that produced signs and wonders was actually for the purpose of evangelism and Kingdom impact, not just personal holiness. They believed in the power of the Spirit for the miraculous, but did not see the necessaity of a second experience called the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Yet, continualism and the Third Wave can, in a sense, refer to all the people who believe the gifts have continued, which appears to be a growing category as cessationism does not have the influence it once did.

The Beliefs

Pentecostals tended to believe in personal holiness and practicing Full Gospel faith, which is accomplished through the work of the Spirit. To understand Pentecostalism, you have to also understand the Holiness movement that preceded and undergirded much of it. Pentecostals from a Holiness background still, to this day, often debate things like wearing makeup and generally don't drink alchohol (like their Wesleyan cousins).

Sanctification, in the view of some Pentecostals, particuarly from the Holiness wing, includes a "second blessing"—a subsequent baptism of the Spirit. They believe that justification (payment for sin and removal of guilt) comes at conversion by way of the Holy Spirit, in whom the believer is baptized. Sanctification, however, requires a second baptism, which they contend should be sought fervently by believers and goes on in the power of the Spirit. For other Pentecostals (and charismatics) it is not directly related to sanctification, but to power and filling.

For those Pentecostals, they do see the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second experience of grace, but not compeltely related to sanctification (as early Pentecostal / Holiness groups did). (See the video below for an insider's explanation.)

Regardless, the majority of Pentecostals generally hold that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is a seperate experience of grace and the evidence of the baptism of the Spirit is speaking in tongues (called "initial physical evidence"). As such, the second blessing is an important part of Pentecostal faith. Those already identified as being baptized in the Spirit are often involved in praying over and encouraging new believers to be filled with the Spirit and speak in tongues. (Note my reference to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit here from my time at James River Assembly of God.)

Having been Baptized in the Spirit, Pentecostals believe that enjoying Full Gospel faith means exercising walking in the Spirit's power, often engaging in charismatic gifts, particularly a continued practice of tongues-speaking and divine healing. Pentecostals, being rooted or influenced from a Wesleyan / Holiness background, also tend to reject the doctrine of eternal security, a doctrine central to many Mainline and Evangelical denominations. (A small group of Reformed Pentecostals is growing, but not very large.)

Charismatics hold many of the same beliefs, but not to the extent of Pentecostals. For instance, they often believe it is possible to receive the baptism of the Spirit and not speak in tongues. They teach that believers can continually "get more" of the Spirit through continual filling of the Spirit (which Pentecostals do as well, just not as emphasized). They also tend to be more open and inclusive doctrinally than Pentecostals, hence their ability to influence churches across a broad swath of Protestantism and even into Roman Catholicism.

Third Wavers do not generally self-identify as either Pentecostal or charismatic, but arose in the same manner as the earlier movements—as a renewal and revival movement. This movement began inside Evangelical churches, though, and emphasizes the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer just as Pentecostal and charismatic churches do.

In a sense, you can be a continualist and not be a part of either of these three movements and, I believe, that is quite common. Simply put, as people look to the Bible and to history, even when they are functinally cessationist, they often end up with a continualist (but generally inactive) view of the gifts and the miraculous. These, too, are continualists, but less identified with the other movements.

The Gifts

These three movements are not the same—they have both doctrinal and practical differences that cannot be glossed over. However, their influence and impact are undeniable. Before the advent of these movements, most churches held to a cessationist theology. However, cessationism is in decline and continualism is on the rise.

This can be seen in the growth of global movements, but also increasingly in seminaries and among next generation leaders. The fact is, global evangelicalism is largely continualist. North American evangelicalism is less so, but the next generation appears to be moving away from cessationism.

Most people I encounter believe in some form of sign gifts at work today, but they are simply not sure how to apply them.

Note: the decline of cessationist influence is just my observation—I have no statistical research on this one—but I just do not see as many cessationists as before. I don't see it as common in seminaries or in scholarly commentaries. Most people I encounter believe in some form of sign gifts at work today, but they are simply not sure how to apply them.

Thus, it seems like a lot of young pastors are what I call "aspirational charismatics." They believe in all the gifts, aspire to see them at work, but have not actualized that reality in their own lives and churches. Continualists are actualized charismatics. They don't just believe in the sign gifts, they practice them.

I'll share more on this in the coming days, but I thought some facts might help current conversations about the continualist movement.

If you'd like to read more, which is a better idea than reading a blog post (even mine at 1800 words!), here's one that is friendly to the movement.

If you'd like to see a key leader in the Assemblies of God explain Pentecostalism and tongues (the Assemblies of God are Pentecostal but generally not charismatic), watch this interview I did for The Exchange:

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Christianity Today

Continualist Christians: An Overview