Charisms and the Methodist approach to Christian Ministry

Recent ecumenical dialogue has turned to the theology of charisms as a way of building a common approach to Christian ministry.  As the landmark text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) puts it:

the Holy Spirit bestows on the community diverse and complementary gifts. These are for the common good of the whole people and are manifested in acts of service within the community and to the world. They may be gifts of communicating the gospel in word and deed, gifts of healing, gifts of praying, gifts of teaching and learning, gifts of serving, gifts of guiding and following, gifts of inspiration and vision. All members are called to discover, with the help of the community, the gifts they have received and to use them for the building up of the Church and for the service of the world to which the Church is sent (§M5).

The benefit of this approach is that it both a) grounds Christian ministry in the activity of God (because the Spirit gives the gifts which enable the various ministries) and b) grounds the theology of ordained ministry in the broader context of the ministry of the whole people of God (since the gifts are given to all, and therefore all are given a vocation to ministry).

I would argue that this consensus that has emerged regarding the theology of ministry comports well with the approach to ministry that has been practised in the Methodist tradition throughout its history.  This approach involved candidates proceeding through various orders of ministry, beginning at the local level, depending on the evidence of their gifts as seen by the community of faith. The early Methodist tradition followed a “bottom-up” pattern of discerning gifts for ministry, in which “local preachers” were chosen to assist in preaching and teaching the gospel in one location, and local preachers who showed evidence of gifts chosen to serve as “helpers.” “Assistants” were chosen from among the helpers, to assist Wesley in the oversight of a given circuit of Methodist Societies (hence their title was changed to “Superintendent” after Wesley’s death).   That was the basic track to what would later become ordination.  Beyond that, there were other important roles, such as that of the class leader, who basically acted as a pastor and spiritual director to the members of their neighbourhood small group.

This bottom-up approach to ministry makes particular sense when considered from the perspective of oversight.  Charisms are not self-authenticating, and they need to be discerned in the context of Christian community.  Each charism is interdependent, and in a sense is limited by the other charisms, like the parts of the body are interdependent and limited by their relation with other parts of the body.  Among the gifts is the gift of oversight, and those who have this particular charism are called to help others in the community discern and faithfully exercise their own gifts.

All of this best takes place in the local Christian context, where people know each other and can see each one living out their gifts in the context of the body of Christ.  So, first and foremost, the discernment of a call to any kind of ministry, including the role of pastor or teacher, should begin at the grassroots level.

Now, the fact of the matter is that the Methodist approach to ministry did not develop on the basis of an extended theological reflection on the gifts of the Spirit.  It was not even the result of thoughtful planning.  Rather it emerged, as Henry Rack says, through “a series of accidents and improvisations” (Reasonable Enthusiast, 237).  Wesley improvised the order of his movement in response to the needs of the time, believing that matters of church order were subservient to the church’s mission:

“What is the end of all ecclesiastical order?  Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God?  And to build them up in his fear and love?  Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is nothing worth” (Letter to “John Smith,” June 25, 1746, in The Works of John Wesley, 26:206). 

In spite of Wesley’s “improvisational” approach, I would argue that the process that emerged is in fact quite consistent with a New Testament approach to gifts and ministries, and with the ecumenical consensus on these issues that has emerged in the past few decades.  Perhaps this was one of the ways in which divine providence was shaping the Methodist movement during its early years.

Remembering Margaret O’Gara

I was saddened to hear that Professor Margaret O’Gara passed away yesterday after a two year battle with cancer.  Margaret was a long-serving professor of theology at St. Michael’s College, with a distinguished record of research, publication, teaching, and service to the church. She will be remembered by many, including myself, as a great theological mentor.

When I began my doctoral studies in September of 2007, I found out that Margaret was on my supervisory committee.  My committee met without her, however, and I didn’t actually come into contact with her until I enrolled in her class “Breakthroughs and Barriers in Ecumenical Dialogue” in January of 2008.   I was somewhat unsure if I should take the class.  The course description looked good, and I was already convinced of the importance of doing theology ecumenically.  But I suppose I carried with me some of that typical evangelical reticence towards ecumenism.  One evangelical colleague even advised me that I should not take the course.  However, I was very glad that I did, because the course material, along with Margaret’s own teaching, played a significant role in shaping the direction of my dissertation.  In fact, I appreciated the course so much that I signed up for another in September of that year, “Ecumenical Dialogue on Authority.”

I was raised in a tradition that has a very strong sense of denominational identity.  Even more than that, The Salvation Army claims to have a distinctive mission within the broader Christian church.  I believe to this day that The Salvation Army does have a special vocation within the church, but I have pushed back against some of the ways that this has been explained and conceived in Salvationist thinking.  I think that Salvationist identity sometimes morphs itself into a prideful triumphalism, wherein The Salvation Army is seen as something “other than” or “more than” the church.  For this reason, I had, before studying ecumenical dialogue, begun to see all claims to a unique denominational identity and mission as problematic and divisive.

Margaret’s approach to ecumenical dialogue was to conceive of it as a “gift exchange.”  This idea was not unique to her – she drew it out of magisterial sources in her own Catholic tradition –  but she was able to express it in a way that brought helpful conceptual clarity to the process of ecumenical dialogue.  She literally wrote the book on the subject (see The Ecumenical Gift Exchange).  Her expertise on ecumenical dialogue was developed out of decades of participation in national and international bilateral dialogues, which included work with Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, the Disciples of Christ, and evangelicals.

When we began the class, she introduced the idea of the gift exchange, and asked us to introduce ourselves by sharing a) one gift which our church tradition could share with others and b) one gift we would like to receive from another tradition.  I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that both courses I took from Margaret were living examples of this exchange of gifts, as the students, drawn from a variety of church traditions, not only shared from the gifts of our own traditions, but studied the various gift exchanges that have taken place through the ecumenical dialogues of the past fifty years.

The idea of “gifts” found within different traditions is, ultimately, what led me to my dissertation topic of ecclesial charisms, though my argument proceeds along quite different grounds from Margaret’s conceptualization of the process of ecumenical dialogue.  I am looking at a more specific question about a particular kind of gifts (charisms) and how these might expressed corporately in ecclesial bodies of various kinds.  The specific idea of using the language of “charisms” in this regard comes not from the ecumenical dialogues we studied in those classes (though it is occasionally treated there), but rather from the Catholic theology of religious life (religious orders and societies in the church), which I am applying more generally and ecumenically to “movements” in the church.   Indeed, part of my argument is that the language of “charisms” should not be applied across the board to all of the various “gifts” found in our traditions (and shared in ecumenical relationships), but more specifically to personal gifts of grace which carry a vocational obligation.

Nevertheless, in spite of the differences, my dissertation on ecclesial charisms may not have existed if not for Margaret’s work on the gift exchange of ecumenical dialogue.  Not only that, but Margaret also provided a great deal of personal guidance and encouragement for the project.  She helped me work through the ideas as I was conceiving the topic, and also played a pivotal role in shaping my comprehensive exams, which formed the background for my work.  For example, it was Margaret who suggested that my second comprehensive exam should be on reform movements before the reformation – an idea I never would have thought of, but which gave me a wonderful historical perspective on various movements of reform and renewal, and how they  related to the established church.

I suppose, if it wasn’t for Margaret, I also might not have applied to work with the Commission on Faith and Witness at the Canadian Council of Churches.  I worked there throughout 2010 and 2011, and was able to experience the joys and frustrations of ecumenical dialogue for myself.  This only confirmed much of what I had already learned from Margaret in the classroom.  One of the highlights of my two years there was a three-person panel I helped organize for the November 2010 Governing Board meetings, entitled “Ecumenical Dialogue as a Gift Exchange.”  Margaret was one of the presenters.

There is much more that could be said, and I am sure that others, who knew Margaret much better than I did, will offer fitting tributes to her life and work.  I am just one of the many people she influenced.  I am truly thankful that, through God’s providence, I was able to benefit from Margaret’s wonderful gifts as a theologian.

Can charisms change? Insights from the examples of William Booth and Isaac Hecker

My research on the charism of William Booth and Isaac Hecker is raising some interesting questions in relation to the relative permanence or provisionality of charisms.   Are charisms a permanent endowment given to a person, or can they change, or even come and go, depending on the specific situations faced by the church in various times and places?

The issue is particularly important as it relates the charisms of ordained ministry, because traditions with a “high” view of ordination often believe it bestows a permanent character on the ordained person.

The report on Ministry from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (1973) provides an example of this kind of thinking:

In this sacramental act, the gift of God is bestowed upon the ministers, with the promise of divine grace for their work and for their sanctification; the ministry of Christ is presented to them as a model for their own; and the Spirit seals those whom he has chosen and consecrated. just as Christ has united the church inseparably with himself, and as God calls all the faithful to life-long discipleship so the gifts and calling of God to the ministers are irrevocable. For this reason, ordination is unrepeatable in both our Churches (#15).

On the other hand, Miroslav Volf, in his After our Likeness, while not discounting the possibility of lifelong charisms, suggests that charisms may come and go:

In contrast to calling, charismata in the theological sense of a combination of calling and endowment for a specific ministry in church and world are not “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Various charismata can replace one another over time, something implied by the interactional model of their bestowal.  Over the history of the congregation and of its individual members, the charismata with which these members serve in the congregation can also change; certain charismata come to the fore at certain times, while others become unimportant (either for the congregation itself of for the bearers of these charismata). This does not mean that the divine calling and endowment for a certain ministry cannot be a lifelong affair; but it is not necessarily such.  In any case, there is no correlation between the permanence of a particular charism and its divine origin.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of life, adn the Spirit’s gifts are accordingly as varied as is ecclesial life itself (233).

William Booth and Isaac Hecker are interesting case studies in relation to this question, because both experienced what could be called a “broadening” of their respective vocations.

For Booth, the broadening related to his theology of redemption.  This is the development traced in Roger Green’s War on Two Fronts, in which Booth’s understanding of redemption expanded to include efforts at social reform.   Whereas early in his ministry Booth was strictly a revivalist who engaged in some social ministry as a means to and end (the end being evangelism), by 1890 he had come to see efforts at social reform as part of the church’s mission.  Booth came to see salvation as social as well as personal, and therefore solidified and extended the mission of The Salvation Army to include organized efforts at social redemption.

Does this shift in missional thinking and practice signify a change in Booth’s personal charism, or did his charism remain the same, while he gained a broader understanding of its vocational direction?   The answer, of course, depends on how Booth’s charism prior to 1890 is understood.   Was his ministry to the poor and marginalized an essential aspect of his charism, or did he simply have the charism of an evangelist?  Is it possible to have a charism of “evangelist to the marginalized”?

I’m working these questions through right now, but I’m leaning toward suggesting that it wasn’t Booth’s charism that changed, but simply his understanding of where that gift ought to take him and the ways he ought to exercise it in his own context.   If salvation includes the social as well as the spiritual, then being an evangelist ought to include social action, since the good news of the gospel itself has social implications.

For Isaac Hecker, the change came in terms of the scope of his personal mission.   At the time of the founding of the Paulist Fathers (1858), Hecker was captivated by a strong belief that he should be a missionary to America.  He felt that his experience as a native-born American, his acquaintance with the culture, desires, and values of the American people, and his familiarity with a class of Americans who were already on a spiritual quest had placed him in a unique position to reach out to the American people as a Catholic evangelist.  This required, he believed, the founding of a religious society that was specifically adapted to the American culture, since the established religious orders were all of European origin, and thus unsuited to the task of reaching Americans.

Starting in the 1870s, however, Hecker began to broaden his vision, and now felt that the Paulists should not confine themselves to America, but should expand into Europe.  This was supported by his view of America’s providential place in the world – he felt that the American culture, and the experiences of the Catholic Church in America, would provide the solutions for the Church’s troubles in Europe.   He thought the Paulists should take what they had learned in America and come to the aid of the European Church.

Writing in 1875 along these lines, Hecker seems to suggest something like a “provisionality of charisms”:

One may be engaged in a good work, but of an inferior order, more on the circumference; but as it is a good work, and he sees no better, he should act where he is and be contented. Suppose, however, it is given to a soul the light to see a good of a much higher order, more essential, more efficacious, more general, more universal, including the former; and this light draws him from the former, all his interest as such in it has expired, and he lives in this higher and more universal light; can he do no otherwise than follow it? (The Paulist Vocation, Revised and Expanded Edition, p. 96)

As with Booth, I’m not entirely sure where to come down on this issue.  Hecker clearly believed his vocation, and that of the Paulists, had expanded – does this imply a change of charism?  Again, I’m leaning toward the idea that his personal charism did not change; rather his sense of vocation was expanded, based on his growing familiarity with the challenges facing the Church in Europe.

What is an Institution?

I’m thinking through the relationship between institution and charism right now, and one of the more frustrating aspects of the debate is the lack of consensus regarding the meaning of the word “institution.”

Some authors don’t bother to define the term at all, but seem to assume a certain common sense understanding of institution.  My problem with this is that the “common sense” understanding of institution in our contemporary context is typically very negative.  People today are very skeptical of institutions of all kinds, and religious institutions are no exception.   While I’m aware that some institutions can be terribly repressive, twisted, and dangerous, I don’t think these tendencies are inherent in institutions per se.

Then there are some who do take the time to define institution in such a way that it tends toward a negative characterization, because they frame institutions primarily as agents of control and coercion.

Gotthold Hasenhüttl was an influential voice in the mid twentieth century, cited authoritatively by people like Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff (who were, in turn, very influential at the popular level).  Hasenhüttl defines institutions as follows:

“An institution is a changeable, but permanent, product of purposive social role behaviour which subjects the individual to obligations, gives him formal authority and possesses legal sanctions.” [from “The Church as Institution,” in The Church as Institution (New York: Herder and Herder, 1974), 15]

He goes on to describe institutions as “instruments of power,” and calls upon the church to reinvent itself and work towards “the institutionalization of freedom [from] domination (an-archy)” (17-18).

In Boff, this translates to a playing off of “the institution” versus “the community,” arguing that the former must serve the latter:

“We refer to the organization of this community with its hierarchy, sacred powers, dogmas, rites, canons, and traditions…The institution does not exist for itself but in service to the community of faith.” [Church, Charism and Power, 48]

I think these definitions of institution are too narrow.   Institutions aren’t simply agents of control with formal laws and coercive power. They exist on a continuum which is much broader and more ambiguous than these perspectives imply.

In this broader understanding, which takes its inspiration primarily from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, institutions are simply stable patterns of social interaction. They could be huge governmental agencies or international businesses, but they could also be a recurring encounter between two persons.   All social interactions are subject to habituation, and when interactions between persons are habituated over time they become institutionalized – that is, they become stable patterns of social interaction.

Berger and Luckmann’s definition is as follows:

“Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution.” [The Social Construction of Reality, 54]

There are, of course, many nuances to their account which I won’t address here, and some of them may not sit well some Christians.   But their insights have been taken up and incorporated into some theological accounts of ecclesial institutions, such as Miroslav Volf’s After our Likeness, and George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.

The point of adopting this perspective is to underscore the fact that social life is inescapably institutional, and therefore the Christian life (because it is inherently social) is inescapably institutional.

“The essential sociality of salvation implies the essential institutionality of the church. The question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution it is.” Volf, After Our Likeness, 235.

In other words, there never was and never will be a “non-institutional” church.   The fact that the church has certain institutional features does not mean that it has compromised or fallen from a primitive state of charismatic freedom.   From a Christian perspective, rather, ecclesial institutions are no threat to true personhood and freedom, but are divinely-ordered means of grace through which our true personhood and freedom is restored through incorporation into the body of Christ. Christian fellowship, worship, ministry, sacraments, and the proclamation of the word are institutions which confront us as a verbum externum. This point is brought out well by Lindbeck in his comparison of religion to a cultural-linguistic system:

“To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.  A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or of preconceptual experience.” Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 34.

Ecclesial institutions are stable patterns of human interaction in the church through which the Spirit calls us to be conformed to Christ. They are certainly open to abuse and distortion, but this is not because they are institutions, but because they are patterns of interaction among people who are redeemed by Christ, but who continue to struggle with sin.

Ecclesial homelessness

Some comments here from Stanley Hauerwas on “ecclesial homelessness,” an increasingly familiar situation for many people today.   What he means by describing himself as “ecclesially homeless” is that he isn’t clearly rooted in one particular Christian tradition.   As he says here, he considers himself to be a Methodist.  But, as he accounts in his memoir, he has attended a variety of churches over the years, including a Catholic church while he taught at Notre Dame, and the Anglican church where he worships today (and where his wife, a Methodist pastor, serves on the pastoral staff).   Here are his thoughts, from a Christianity Today interview last Fall:

I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don’t know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that’s true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don’t think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.

Hauerwas seems to suggest here that being Methodist doesn’t necessarily mean worshiping in a Methodist Church.   He can, as he says, live faithful to the charisms of his Methodist identity while being a communicant at Holy Family.

There are many today who find themselves in similar situations.  I personally know of Methodists worshiping at Presbyterian churches, Mennonites at Anglican churches, and Lutherans at Reformed churches.   I myself continue to identify as a Salvationist, though I presently worship at a Free Methodist church.

The lines of denominational demarcation are getting blurrier, but what does it all mean?  Are we entering a post-denominational landscape?  Do people even care about traditional differences of doctrine, worship, and polity, which were so divisive in the past?

With Hauerwas, I think this new situation has some ecumenical promise, although I also worry that it is due, at least in part, to cynical apathy regarding any kind of formal institutions.    The promising thing is that walls are coming down, and people are willing to worship, fellowship, and serve with people from another denominational background without thinking much about it.  In this sense, people on the ground are actually way ahead of their denominational institutions, which often remain relatively isolated.

The danger, of course, is that there are some real historical disagreements which should be aired out and discussed, rather than ignored through an easy ecumenism which treats differences as unimportant.

There’s something more to Hauerwas’ comment here, though, as it relates to the whole idea of ecclesial charisms.  He presumes that a Christian person can live out the charisms of one historic tradition while being part of a community that is based in another tradition (hence his status as a Methodist communicant in an Anglican parish).   I’m not sure how much he has thought about this, but it seems he presumes (as I am arguing in my dissertation) that charisms are personal, even when they are identified with a community like Methodism.

That is, properly speaking, the Methodist charisms are not borne by the Methodist community as a whole, but by the persons who call themselves Methodist.  The communal aspects of Methodism might encourage and cultivate those charisms, but at the end of the day, persons are the bearers of the diverse vocational charismata.

In that sense, it should be quite possible for a person to exercise one ecclesial charism in a context which is not normally identified with that charism.  Actually, I would say that this would make more sense than isolating large numbers of people with a particular charism from other parts of the church!

This is also why Methodism was intended in Wesley’s day to exist as a leaven in the Church of England, not as an independent church.   Though the Methodists were to have their own gatherings, which came in various forms, they were to remain within the church, worshiping alongside others in the C of E on Sundays, where the gifts that they brought could excite a renewal among the established structures.

This all might seem pretty far removed from the contemporary issue of “ecclesial homelessness,” but I think there could be a connection, and the changing denominational landscape of the twenty-first century just might make such a vision of the church more plausible than it was in the previous century.

Notes on Spirit and Institution in the Church


How are we to describe the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions? Is it Spirit against institution?  Spirit in tension with institution?  Spirit enlivening institution?  Spirit in institution?  Some combination of these?  I’m wrestling through this question right now in my dissertation, and was blessed to have an opportunity to lecture on the topic last week at Wycliffe.  The following thoughts are taken from my my lecture notes.

The church is necessarily institutional.  An institution is simply a stable set of social relations practiced among an identifiable group of people.  In order for the church to persist in time and “take up space” in history, it must be institutional.  We must beware the cultural baggage we bring to the term “institution.”  We live in a time of extreme skepticism regarding social institutions.  We as Christians have been formed in a society which encourages us to believe the myth that we should, as autonomous individuals, resist all institutional authority.  This is, of course, impossible and impracticable.

We must avoid the errors of triumphalism and spiritualism.  A triumphalist church presumes upon the Spirit’s presence and blessing, identifying the church with the Spirit.  A spiritualist church denigrates the institutional reality of the church in favour of a disembodied “spiritual” church.

The Spirit and ecclesial institutions must be distinguished but not opposed, just as nature and grace must be distinguished but not opposed. As nature is the milieu of God’s gracious action, so also human institutions are the milieu for God’s pneumatic / charismatic action.

We cannot identify the Spirit with ecclesial institutions. The Spirit stands over and against ecclesial institutions, as Christ stands over and against the church as its Lord and judge.

We cannot oppose the Spirit to ecclesial institutions. There is no “non-institutional” place where the Spirit is “really” at work in people’s lives.  Ecclesial institutions are not the enemy of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit condescends to work in human institutions, as “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).

The church can never presume upon the Spirit, but must always humbly call upon the Spirit, trusting in the promises of Christ (John 14:15ff) and the Father (Acts 1:4). The institutions in themselves are not endued with power; yet we know that Christ has promised the Spirit to the church, and we know that the church cannot avoid an institutional existence.

While ultimately the Spirit is not dependent upon institution, in the concrete life of the church in history, the two are inextricably interrelated (because the church is institutional in all aspects of its life).

As with human agents, the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions is not a zero-sum competitive game; the Spirit is the creator and animator of the Church’s institutions in such a way that they remain truly human institutions, while their institutional character is taken up and elevated into something more than a human institution – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God.

In this way, all ecclesial institutions are charismatic. Just as humans were created in such a way that we cannot reach our divinely-ordered telos without divine grace, so the church as a visible, institutional reality is created in such a way that it cannot be what it has been created to be without concrete bestowal of grace.

Nevertheless, the gifts of the Spirit, which preserve, uphold, and elevate the Church’s institutional life are no guarantee of her faithfulness; the Spirit is not merely a stamp of approval, or a “divine positive energy”, but a divine Person, who carries out judgment  and brings conviction of sin (John 16:8-11), as well as giving life.

Because ecclesial institutions are truly human, they are caught up in the web of sin. Therefore the institutional character of the church can also be turned into something which it is not intended to be; it can become corrupted (and it often is).

In other words, the Spirit’s presence will include acts of both mercy and judgment, wrought in the historical life of the Church.  We can trust that the Spirit will be among us, but that should encourage a sure trust and confidence in God, and a humble watchfulness on our own part (rather than presumption on our part).

All the more reason to embrace the reformation call for a church which is reformed and always reforming. A constant repentance – an institutional turning away from sin and toward God – should mark the church’s corporate life.


Pentecost as a Firstfruits Festival

The Pauline teaching on charisms comes, canonically speaking, after the story of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, which occupies a key place in the biblical narrative, marking the fulfilment of the promise given by Christ (Acts 1:8, Luke 12:2; John 14-16), and harkening back explicitly to the prophesied eschatological outpouring of the Spirit in Joel 2:28-32.  Pentecost signifies the dawning of the age of the church, a new era in which the Spirit’s gifts, previously limited to particular people and situations, are distributed liberally to all the people of God, young and old, male and female, slave and free.

Lest one take this Lukan theme of “fullness” in too far, the canonical significance of the feast of Pentecost as an Israelite festival must not be forgotten.  I am indebted to Howard Snyder for pointing out the significance of Pentecost as a feast of first fruits.  You can find his discussion of this theme in his chapter on “The Pentecostal Renewal of the Church” in the forthcoming book, Yes in Christ: Wesleyan Reflections on Gospel, Mission, and Culture, Tyndale Studies in Wesleyan History and Theology 2 (Toronto: Clements Academic, 2011). Pentecost, or the Festival of Weeks, was one of the three great festivals in Israelite worship, coming between Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, and in Jesus day it remained one of the three festivals which included pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Pentecost concluded the Feast of Weeks, which began with a day for the offering of first fruits on the first Sabbath after Passover (Lev. 23:10-11), and ended fifty days later, with what came to be known as the primary celebration of firstfruits (Num. 28:26, Lev. 23:17).  Firstfruits were offered both as a thanksgiving for the faithfulness of God in the past, a celebration of God’s provision in the present, and as a promising sign of the future harvest which was to come.

While the New Testament writers do not explicitly link Pentecost with a harvest of first fruits, it is difficult not to see the significance of interpreting it as such.  First of all, there is the important eschatological harvest imagery which runs throughout the New Testament, and is particularly strong in the teaching of Christ concerning the final judgment.

Secondly, though the Feast of Weeks per se does not feature prominently in the New Testament, the concept of firstfruits is used a number of times. Paul refers to the resurrection of Christ itself as the first fruits of the coming general resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23. In Romans 8 he speaks of Christians having “the first fruits of the Spirit” (8:23) and thus joining with all creation in groaning for the fullness of the coming bodily redemption.  James 1:18 identifies those who have experienced the new birth as “a kind of first fruits” of God’s creatures, and Revelation 14:4 identifies the 144,000 as those who “have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and for the Lamb.”

Finally, recalling the Johannine identification of the cross with the feast of Passover (John 13:1), Pentecost, as the first fruits festival which caps off fifty days of firstfruits celebration, evokes a sense of anticipatory harvest, looking toward the final reaping which is to come at the eschaton.  Christ’s resurrection, then, coming on the first Sunday after Passover, is the initial offering of first fruits, to be followed by the main celebration of firstfruits on the day of Pentecost fifty days later, when the firstfruits of the new creation are harvested in the outpouring of the Spirit.  As Ephraim Radner notes, the traditional Jewish understanding of this time in their liturgical calendar was that the fifty days in the Feast of Weeks marked the wanderings of the people in the desert, and the day of Pentecost was seen as the entry into the promised land, “where all that is enjoyed is given by God” (Leviticus, 247).

We see in Pentecost, the culmination of the Feast of Weeks, the celebration of the first fruits of the great and wonderful day of the Lord, prophesied in Joel 2:28-30.  The outpouring of the Spirit, then, on this day of first fruits, should be seen, not as a complete “fullness” of the Spirit, but as an anticipatory offering of young fruit which is to mature and yield a much greater harvest in the promised future.  The pneumatic firstfruits of Pentecost are a proleptic anticipation of the complete fulfillment of Joel 2, in which the Church experiences in itself the outpouring upon “all flesh,” which is to come, at the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (Joel 2:28, 31).

It is important to stress, then, that the charisms, as first fruits of the Spirit, are not to be seen merely as divine acts of “mercy” and “life,” bestowing blessings upon their recipients, but also as anticipatory acts of “judgment.”  This is consistent with Jesus own description of the work of the Spirit as convicting the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment – each of which finds its meaning in the saving work of Christ (John 16:8-12).  Divine mercy and judgment cannot be separated from one another, and this two-sided character of the Spirit’s work as seen in the Church in history ought to be a fundamental theme in the theology of charisms. For if the Spirit participates in God’s acts of judgment as well as God’s acts of mercy, then the Church, as people among whom the kingdom is already breaking in to the present age by the Spirit’s work, will manifest the eschatological judgment just as surely as they will manifest eschatological life and renewal. Judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter. 4:7).

Charisms and sanctification

A classic question in the theology of charisms focuses on the relationship between spiritual gifts and sanctification. Are the charismata sanctifying gifts of grace?  In the history of interpretation, this question arises from Thomas Aquinas, who classified charisms as gratiae gratis datae (gratuitously given graces), as distinct from gratia gratum faciens – sanctifying grace. For Thomas, sanctifying grace effects our participation in the divine nature and brings us to union with God, gratuitous graces are ordered to sanctifying grace, in that they are given to enable others to receive sanctifying grace. This is summarized well by Serge-Thomas Bonino:

Sanctifying grace (or grace gratum faciens) is a created participation in the divine nature, as much at the level of being as of acting.  It brings about one’s union with the last end, which is God.  Graces gratuitously given (gratis datae) – or charisms – are given to some so that they may dispose others to receive sanctifying grace…Charisms are thus wholly ordered to sanctifying grace (from “Charisms, Forms, and States of Life (IIa IIae, qq. 171-189),” in The Ethics of Aquinas (Washington  D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 341).

The charisms, then, “pertain especially to certain men” (Summa Theologica, 2a 2ae, q. 171, prologue). Since they are given “for the utility of the Church,” their purpose is not to unite the soul of the bearer of the charism with God, hence they can exist “without goodness of conduct” – evidence that they are not sanctifying.

For prophecy like other gratuitous graces is given for the good of the Church, according to 1 Cor. 12:7, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit”; and is not directly intended to unite man’s affections to God, which is the purpose of charity. Therefore prophecy can be without a good life, as regards the first root of this goodness (ST 2a 2ae q. 172, a. 4).

Karl Rahner suggests that this distinction, while not completely inappropriate in some cases, is foreign to Paul, who does not differentiate between gratuitous and sanctifying grace, but “only envisages the case where the charismata both sanctify the recipient and redound to the benefit of the whole Body of Christ simultaneously and reciprocally” (Rahner, The Dynamic Element in the Church, 55). Rahner rightly suggests that anyone truly fulfilling their function in the body of Christ must be doing so as the result of the Spirit’s sanctifying work, and that such service will surely further one’s sanctification.

For how else could one truly sanctify oneself except by unselfish service to others in the one Body of Christ by the power of the Spirit?  And how could one fail to be sanctified if one faithfully takes up and fulfils one’s real and true function in the body of Christ? (The Dynamic Element in the Church, 55).

In connection with this question, Gabriel Murphy makes the obvious point that the charismatic, as “a member of that Church which is built up by the Holy Spirit through the influence of His gifts,” will surely participate in the fruits of those gifts, even though the charisms “are not given primarily for the sanctification of the receiver, but rather for the good of his neighbour.” (Murphy, Charisms and Church Renewal, 56).

There are specific New Testament texts which lend support to the notion that charisms are not sanctifying gifts, in that they indicate the exercise of extraordinary gifts by those who are not in Christ. Chief among them, cited by Thomas, would be Matthew 7:22-23:

On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

We might also look to the question of discernment addressed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, noting that there would be no need for such a test if charismatic gifts were only given to the sanctified. For Rahner and Murphy, such cases should be treated as the exception, rather than the rule.

However, James Dunn raises some important questions about the potentially divisive character of charismata, notably, that in Corinth,

far from expressing the unity of the Spirit, charismatic phenomena in Corinth had in actual fact expressed lack of love, lack of faith, lack of hope; far from building up the Corinthian community, charismata constituted one of its chief threats (Jesus and the Spirit, 267).

Indeed, the attention that Paul gives to charisms in 1 Corinthians 12-14 indicates the extent of the challenge that proper exercise of these gifts was posing of the church in Corinth at that time.  While some might object that anything which destroys unity is necessarily not a genuine charism, Dunn points out that Paul does not question the genuineness of the Corinthian charisms, but rather notes the dangers inherent in the charismatic phenomena when exercised without love.

Paul does not dispute that the Corinthians experienced genuine charismata, including prophecy, faith, giving. But even genuine charismata of the most striking nature when exercised without love made for strife within the community and stunted the growth of the body (Jesus and the Spirit, 271).

The apparent immaturity of the Corinthian Christians, coupled with the fact that Paul treats their charisms as genuine, underlines the point that, while we might expect charisms, properly exercised, to be sanctifying, even genuine charisms provide no guarantee of sanctification.  Therefore, charisms should be taken as  potentially, but not necessarily sanctifying.  This has important implications for the recognition of ecclesial charisms: a claim to a charism by a particular group within the church should not be treated as equivalent to a claim to sanctity on the part of that group. 

Ladd’s chart of charisms

Ladd put together this handy chart comparing the ordering of charisms in five separate New Testament lists – three from 1 Corinthians 12, one from Romans and one from Ephesians.

From George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Revised Edition, edited by Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmands, 1993), 579-580.

1 Cor 12:28 1 Cor 12:29-30 1 Cor 12:8-10 Rom 12:6-8 Eph 4:4
1 Apostle 1 1 1
2 Prophet 2 2 5 1 2
3 Discernment of spirits 6
4 Teacher 3 3 3 4
5 Word of wisdom-knowledge 1
6 Evangelists 3
7 Exhorters 4
8 Faith 2
9 Miracles 4 4 4
10 Healings 5 5 3
11 Tongues 8 6 7
12 Interpretation 7 8
13 Ministry 2
14 Administration 7
15 Rulers 6
16 Helpers 6
17 Mercy 7
18 Giving 5

The interesting thing, which I hadn’t noticed before, is that apostle is almost always mentioned first, followed by prophet and teacher, with the exception of Ephesians 4 which puts evangelist before teacher.   The list in 1 Cor. 12:8-10 is altogether different  from the other two lists, and the reason is because it comes in the context of Paul’s discussion of the “extraordinary” gifts which the Corinthians seemed so interested in.

I’m not suggesting Paul was sketching out some sort of hierarchy here, but it does not seem random that his normal ordering was apostle-prophet-teacher.

How does this apply in the post-apostolic church?

Well, I would suggest that, for us, the apostles and prophets continue to exercise authority in the church through the witness of scripture.  After all, it was common in the ancient church to refer to the scriptures as the witness of the apostles and prophets.   This is an entirely fitting description of the Bible for a Christian, since the New Testament is our record of the apostolic witness – the first-hand accounts of the people who knew Jesus – and the Old Testament is understood as characterized throughout by its prophetic anticipation of the coming of Jesus – even in books which are not explicitly called “prophetic.”   Of course, there is scriptural warrant for this, in the fact that both Moses and David are called prophets (Deut. 34:10 and 2 Sam. 23:1-2).

Therefore it would seem that the office of teacher remains a pre-eminent gift for the church, so long as it is remembered that it is less important than the apostles and prophets, that is, the scriptures.   The gift of teaching comes under the greater authority of the apostles and prophets, and derives its authority from them.  This fits with one of Paul’s main criteria for assessing the relative importance of charisms – do they build up the church (hence his prioritization of prophecy over tongues in1 Cor. 14:1-5).  It also lines up nicely with the description of scripture’s role in 2 Tim. 3:16-17:All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Am I suggesting there are no apostles and prophets in the church today?  I would definitely say there are no apostles.  Though one could go back to the root meaning of the word and argue that apostle simply means “sent one,” therefore allowing that there are similar functions in the contemporary church, the scriptural concept can’t be understood simply on the basis of a breakdown of the Greek word.   The Christian apostles are those who knew Jesus in person and were commissioned by the resurrected Christ to be witnesses to his resurrection.  Of course this is extended to Paul, as the “one abnormally born” (1 Cor. 15:8).

With prophets I am willing to consider a bit more leeway, though I would still maintain that the word should be used sparingly, and also with a clear differentiation between scriptural prophets and contemporary prophets.  I do not doubt that there are persons whom God chooses to use as his mouthpiece today, giving them special insight into the times in which we live.  However, all such prophecy must be tested against the canonical prophetic witness of scripture, and that is the difference between prophets in the age of the Church and the prophets of scripture.  Even in Paul’s day, his message was that prophets needed to be tested and placed under authority (1 Cor. 14:29).  Today we have the benefit of the established canon of the apostles and prophets as our standard for such testing.

Methodism as religious society-become-church

Continuing on the theme I posted last week: In the quote below, Albert Outler reflects on the origins of Methodism as a religious society, with a view to the way this has evolved in Methodist history.  As with many such renewal movements, Methodism became a sort of hybrid of “movement” and “church,” and its peculiar structures, practices, and culture reflect this inherited tension.  While the tension can be fruitful, it sometimes produces a certain amount of confusion regarding the nature of the movement-church, both for the membership of the movement-church and for their fellow Christians.

It is interesting that this text comes from the same time as the Rupp essay on Wesley as prophet.  In the wake of Vatican II, there was great optimism regarding the possibilities of visible Christian union.  Both Rupp and Outler are keen to stress Wesley’s insistence on Methodism’s ecclesial location as a movement within the Church of England, raised up in “extraordinary” circumstances to meet a particular need.   From the perspective of “ecclesial charisms,” the vocation to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” through the “irregular” ministry of lay preachers could be seen as the particular Methodist charism.

What happens when the specialized movement takes on the character of a “church”?  The original charism and vocation cannot help but be hampered, because the Methodists are now focused on doing all the things that the church does, rather than the specific vocation around which they were formed.  The church at large also suffers the impoverishment of being cut off from the ministry of those with the particular Methodist charism.   Again, with Rupp, he wants to stress that Wesley only broke with the Church of England because it was necessary for the provision of the mission of the Church in America.

Here is the quote, from That the World May Believe: a study of Christian unity and what it means for Methodists (New York: Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, 1966), pp. 59-63.

Methodism is a religious society that became a church without the complete loss of its character as a religious society.  Methodists are not always mindful – and many non-Methodists are not even aware –  of this dual inheritance from both the Catholic and Protestant traditions in the Christian community, an experiment in the fusion of “justification by faith alone” with a disciplined ethic of “faith working by love.”  The history of this society-become-church is often confusing both to ourselves and to our neighbours.  We are usually reckoned among the pietists – but no typically pietist group ever had anything like our General Rules and Discipline.  We classify ourselves as Protestants, but none of the classical traditions of continental Protestantism had anything like the Wesleyan ideal of “Christian perfection” and the Wesleyan concept of evangelical morality.   And yet, if the quintessential formula for ecumenism is something like “consensus in faith, community in worship, unity in mission,” then it would be true to say that Methodism has been ecumenical from the beginning.  John Wesley was a rebel and a church reformer, a critic of the standing order, and a rude disturber of the false peace of Zion.  Because he was convinced that the regular ministries of the Church of England were failing in their mission to the nation, he felt authorized by the Holy Spirit to raise up an irregular ministry of gospel proclamation and to organize a network of religious societies in England, Wales, Ireland – and later, America.  To these he gave a distinctive set of “General Rules,” a peculiar pattern of organization (classes, bands, etc.), a novel principle of lay-leadership, and a communal ethos that marked off the Methodists from the Non-conformists as well as from the “High Churchmen.”

Despite all this, Wesley was no separatist. He never lifted a finger to overthrow the power structure of the Established Church nor even to invade it.  The Methodists were ill-treated, but Wesley held them in the church and kept them loyal to the sacraments.  The Anglican bishops reacted in varying degrees of distaste and bafflement, but they wisely refrained from any resort to formal excommunication in dealing with these Wesleyan irregulars.

This self-image of an evangelical order within an inclusive church was not effaced even when the Methodist societies developed into separate churches with sacramental ministries of their own.   Thus we learned – or might have learned – that wide diversity within an inclusive fellowship is not only tolerable but can actually be a vital service to the cause of authentic unity.  The early Methodists deliberately retained their distinct ties with the ancient and universal community but, quite as deliberately, they insisted on their freedom in Christian mission and nurture.  Wesley had no qualms in his use of laymen as preachers in the Revival and as leaders of the societies.  At the same time, he refused, on principle, to allow these laymen to administer the sacraments which were available in the Church of England.  He even forbade Methodist preaching services to be scheduled in competition with “church hours.”  Given the violent and divisive spirit of the age, this uneasy maintenance of the Methodist societies within the unity of “Mother Church” is one of the most remarkable incidents in Protestant church history.  When, however, the American Revolution had deprived the Methodists in the new republic of any ordained ministry for the sacraments, Wesley proceeded – by his ordinations of Richard Whatcoat, Thomas Vasey, and Thomas Coke – to remedy this defect himself rather than to approve the pattern of sectarian self-ordination by laymen begun by Philip Gatch and others at the Fluvanna Conference of 1779.

Where was Outler going with this?  His phrase at the start of the last paragraph is telling, where he speaks of Methodist “self-image” as that of “an evangelical order within an inclusive church.”   I believe Outler longed for this to be recaptured in some way, although he was clear that this would be costly: “We are, or ought to be, willing to risk our life as a separate church and to face death as a denomination in the sure and lively hope of our resurrection in the true community of the whole people of God” (p. 75).