A good theologian once drew me a diagram of the progress of Christian doctrine and Christian history from the apostles to our day. He drew a rather jagged line, with offshoots and branches coming off it. He explained, “The line from the apostles to us today is not a straight one. It includes many errors, corrections, over-corrections and responses to those over-corrections. The line of orthodoxy therefore is never a perfectly straight line of descent, it is as jagged as all the movements away from and back towards orthodoxy. Along the way, there are genuine departures from the faith: actual heresies that veer off far from the faith: those are the far-flung branches breaking off from the jagged line. It’s important to distinguish when something is a true departure from the faith, or when it is a reaction within orthodoxy needing its own correction.”
The same line could be drawn for worship. Christian worship over the centuries has been the same jagged line of errors, corrections, reactions, overreactions and so forth. These have included controversies such as the use of musical instruments, the singing of psalms only or hymns and psalms, the question of ministerial robes, the presence of images in the meeting place, and several other disputes. Sometimes there have been genuine worship heresies: the worship of Mary as an intercessor, or the Mass as the body and blood of Christ available for the expiation of sins.
Where does Pentecostalism fall on these jagged lines? On the theological side, Pentecostalism’s errors are serious, though not fatal. That is, erroneous teaching on the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts represent significant deviations in the whole body of orthodox Christian doctrine, but they do not constitute a denial of the gospel. (That is, unless a proponent articulates them so, as in the man who says you must speak in tongues to be saved, or experience a baptism of the Spirit to be truly regenerate.) As long as Pentecostals profess the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, they remain brothers and sisters in Christ. However, errors are seldom stable things. They have trajectories, and the general trajectories of Pentecostal errors in the last century have been bad fruit: the Prosperity Gospel, the Toronto Blessing, and all the extremes that have accompanied those. A good tree brings forth good fruit, and so on.
Pentecostal worship is not quite as simple, for it has been unruly and unbiblical right out of the gate. Birthed in the heady revivalism of the American frontier, it has remained committed to novelty, spontaneity and extemporaneity as marks of “fresh wind” or the true leading of the Holy Spirit. While leaders of “conservative Pentecostalism” speak out against the excesses in charasimaticism, one can’t help feeling that this is like the owner of a tavern complaining that his patrons are making a racket once outside his respectable establishment. What the parents do in moderation, the children do in excess. If Pentecostal worship was decent and in order from the get-go, its proponents should have no problem with how it is developed by the next generation. But instead, the tree has borne fruit in keeping with its nature. Worship that was never regulated by the clear prescriptions of God’s Word has license to innovate, and to innovate as wildly as the ecstatic worship demands. What began in 1900 as errors in understanding the apostolic sign gifts have become full-blown heterodox worship: people barking like dogs, uncontrolled laughter and weeping, or other acts that look far more like demons making sport of people than of Christian worship.
But it is not these heresies that flame out and explode in a few years that deserve our guarded attention. Their very wackiness makes them easily detectable to most. The greater concern is those non-charismatic churches that have adjusted the rudder of their ship ever so slightly in the direction of the charismatic flavour of worship. A 2-degree course change is barely noticeable in the short term. But it begins to become felt after a few years, noticeable after ten, clear after fifteen, and permanent after twenty. The longer the distance you travel, the greater that minor course correction begins to affect your location relative to orthodoxy and orthopathy. What begins as slightly modified liturgy becomes an altered feel fo corporate worship. Often enough, this begins to change the approach to ministry itself. Explosive numerical growth pushes leaders to consider dropping those denominational labels that alienate, and rename (read: rebrand) the church. Before long, the church’s more detailed confession of faith is abridged to help seekers feel less threatened. Finally, doctrines that were formerly preached against or denied by the church’s original statement of faith now have a home in the church’s now “broader orthodoxy”. In this scenario, it is not a change in doctrine that changes the worship. It is a subtle drift in worship that eventually changes the doctrine.
It would be consoling to say that such a scenario is a strange anomaly and that such things hardly ever happen to orthodox, biblical churches. But most of us, without even racking our brains, can name several churches that travelled precisely along the path I’ve described. Once again, the prescient words of Charles Hodge in 1829: “Whenever a change occurs in the religious opinions of a community, it is always preceded by a change in their religious feelings. The natural expression of the feelings of true piety is the doctrines of the Bible. As long as these feelings are retained, these doctrines will be retained; but should they be lost, the doctrines are either held for form sake or rejected, according to circumstance; and if the feelings again be called into life, the doctrines return as a matter of course.”
Evangelical worship has, for the most part, embraced the “religious feelings” of Pentecostalism. Not surprisingly, charismatic doctrine has begun to capture the theological minds of those who were formerly cessationists. It remains to be seen how much longer those churches that claim to be non-charismatic in doctrine will remain that way, if they persist in embracing the passions and sentiments of Pentecostal worship.