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Compassion Rooted in the Gospel That Transforms

By Byron D. Klaus

The reality of human tragedies now occurring cannot be avoided by refusing to acknowledge their significant impact on so much of the world. Statistics indicate that by 2005, 16 million children in Africa will have been orphaned by AIDS. Some 35,000 children die daily from preventable diseases usually related to inadequate clean water and sanitation. A massive sex industry preys on the poor of the non-Western world where parents sell children into prostitution just to be able to survive themselves. As individuals, our heart may break at the prospect of millions of people starving to death in Ethiopia in the next year, yet our corporate response as Pentecostal Christians requires more than sympathy or even empathy. The challenge of a response that is meaningful and biblically rooted requires honest and thorough awareness of our history as Pentecostals and our place in the larger framework of American Christianity.

Our Historical Focus

From its inception, the Assemblies of God has committed itself to the "greatest evangelization the world has ever seen." We have been motivated to "work ... while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work" (John 9:4, KJV), because we believe in the soon return of Jesus Christ. The empowerment of the baptism in the Holy Spirit and a belief that Jesus’ return was soon has historically motivated the Assemblies of God to mission efforts centered on planting indigenous churches.

Early Pentecostals clearly stated this focal point. In 1920, J. Roswell Flower wrote in the Pentecostal Evangel, "The Pentecostal commission is to witness, witness, WITNESS. ... It is so easy to be turned aside to do work which is very good in itself, but which is short of the Pentecostal standard."

Sidebar

Alice Luce, an early Assemblies of God missions strategist, summarizes the Pentecostal focal point: "When we go forth to preach the full gospel, are we going to expect an experience like that of denominational missionaries or should we look for signs to follow?"1

It is very clear that Pentecostal efforts to reach the world were focused on evangelization that plants churches in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is also understandable historically why this ministry foci was so poignant. The 19th century had been what historians called the "Christian Century." The 19th century saw the modern missions movement gain momentum and flourish. However, this great missionary effort had grown in the context of colonial empires worldwide. A central part of missionary efforts worldwide was the "civilizing" of people as part of the process of "Christianizing" people. Thus, formal structures like building schools and hospitals were part and parcel of 19th-century missionary efforts.

When Luce gave her perspective about what we should expect from the preaching of the "full gospel," she was clearly referring to the replacement of 19th-century "civilizing and structure building" strategies for a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit with signs and wonders to accomplish the task. Pentecostals affirmed a "radical strategy" for mission efforts that the Christian century had minimized. The late J. Philip Hogan stated the case for indigenous church planning: "The crucible of experience teaches these days that the final and only really successful unit of world evangelism is the church. Squarely on the shoulder of the church rests the commission and responsibility of world evangelization. Any expenditure that does not have as its final objective the building of a witnessing church cannot be God’s best for this hour."2

This statement by Hogan summarizes a position formed not only in the sovereign move of God’s Spirit, but also in the larger framework of American Christianity. The late 19th century was a period of time when European religious thought penetrated the church in the United States. What has become known as the "modernist/fundamentalist" debate was waged. Core Christian beliefs like the authority of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, vicarious atonement, and the resurrection of Christ were undermined by the influence of European scholarship. As a result of this debate, lines were drawn between those Christians who wanted to focus on winning souls and those who affirmed a social gospel that valued social change and reform as the focus of Christian ministry efforts. A huge breach in American Christianity was forming and the breaking point was personified in the Scopes Monkey Trial that took place in Tennessee in 1925. The "modernist" position is personified in the defense lawyer Clarence Darrow whose rhetoric and defense of evolution being taught in public schools was clearly presented. The "fundamentalist" position was argued by William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraska populist, whose courtroom presentation sounds much like a Billy Sunday evangelistic meeting. The nation’s attention was riveted on this trial because it personified the nation’s religious allegiances and highlights the evangelism versus social action/gospel bifurcation as a unique American experience. The Scopes Trial solidified the considerable opinion lines within American Christianity, and it wasn’t until 1947 when Carl F.H. Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalismthat Bible-believing Christians were challenged to reconsider the broadest implications of the gospel.

An Honest Appraisal

So what does this brief history lesson mean for the Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal church at large? First, we must acknowledge our mission focus was forged in the middle of a corrective that God sovereignly gives to the Church. A "radical strategy" that relies on Holy Spirit power is necessary to energize worldwide evangelization. The 20th century testifies to what historians would certainly acknowledge as the "Pentecostal Century." In 1900, only 5 percent of the world’s Christians were non-Western. Today over two-thirds of the world’s Christians are non-Western.3 By any calculation the Pentecostal strategy Alice Luce spoke of has been effective.

We must also acknowledge that our Pentecostal "radical strategy" was forged in the middle of a larger debate waged in American Christianity while Pentecostalism was in its earliest stages. That modernist-fundamentalist debate resulted in the split between strategies of evangelism and social action. Because our doctrinal allegiances were with orthodox Christianity it is understandable that the Assemblies of God would place its emphasis on priorities of sound doctrine and the salvation of people through Spirit-empowered evangelistic effort as a primary focus.

However, to suggest that those committed to world evangelization have been remiss in their compassion for these persons caught in the tragedies of poverty and injustice would be historically inaccurate. Following the American Civil War a huge shift from a rural to urban society began to occur. Accompanied by massive immigration from Western and Northern Europe, industrialization of the economy and massive immigration produced the grimmest of urban realities. Following the pattern of England’s Salvation Army, evangelistic ministries invaded the slums of American cities and provided relief for the social tragedies that were the realities of that day. Homes to help the alcoholic, the prostitute, and those suffering from tuberculosis were built. Sunday Schools that served the needs of children where parents worked 7 days a week in factories were one of the most stabilizing factors of this era.4

One of the early influences on the Assemblies of God was A.B. Simpson and his Christian and Missionary Alliance. Simpson not only influenced Pentecostals with his message of the Four-Fold Gospel, but also served to highlight the connection between aggressive evangelism, affirmation of divine healing, and the soon return of Jesus Christ. For Simpson, these biblical foundations were necessarily connected to the care for the social needs of the masses he encountered in the large cities of eastern United States. In 1893, Simpson articulated his unique blend of evangelism and "ministries of compassion" when he said, "There is room not only for the worship of God, the teaching of sacred truth, and the evangelization of the lost, but also for every phase of practical philanthropy and usefulness. These may be, in perfect keeping with the simple ardor and dignity of the church of God, the past aggressive work for the masses and the evident welcome for every class of sinful men; the ministry of healing for the sick and suffering administered in the name of Jesus, the most complete provision for charitable relief, workshops for the unemployed, homes for the orphaned, shelters for the helpless, refuges for the inebriates, the father and the helpless. And there is no work that will be more glorifying to God than a church that will embrace just such features and completeness."5

Early Pentecostals also exemplified the priorities of A.B. Simpson in their ministries. Many of the first Pentecostal missionaries were single women called to missions in the fervor of the Holiness movement of the late 19th century. Minnie Abrams was one such lady who served in India. Her encounter with the baptism in the Holy Spirit led her to write a pamphlet called "The Baptism of the Holy Ghost and Fire" that led to the Holy Spirit emphasis gaining root in Chile. Until her death, Abrams’ work combined ministry to widows and orphans with evangelizing unreached groups.

Lillian Trasher served her entire adult life in Egypt among the widows and orphans of that land. In her nearly 50 years of ministry at the Assiout Orphanage, she was committed to winning the lost and ministering compassionately to thousands. Florence Steidel cared for the lepers in Liberia. Combining evangelism, compassion, and economic empowerment ministries Steidel established one of the most effective ministries of compassion in the history of the Assemblies of God. The ministry of George and Carrie Judd Montgomery combined healing ministries with evangelism and service to orphans and a rescue home for girls.6 The more recent examples of this blending of soul and the body are exemplified in the efforts in Calcutta by Mark and Huldah Buntain and the considerable impact of Latin America ChildCare founded by John and Lois Bueno.

However, questions still remain about where the emphasis of the Assemblies of God should be placed. Our historical commitment to world evangelism has been clearly at the center of our mission and ministry efforts globally. Yet, there are obvious examples of Pentecostals who choose not to get caught in the historic American bifurcation between evangelism and social concern. Such an honest acknowledgment must take into account the huge global challenges that are facing us in just the next decade.

The sovereign Lord of the harvest shaped a powerful corrective to the 19th-century missionary movement by igniting a Pentecostal revival that yielded the growth of Christianity in the 20th century that was unprecedented. In the face of famine, the aids epidemic, economic methods, war, and violence what might the Lord of the harvest have to say to a Pentecostal church to continue ministry in greater effectiveness?

The empowerment of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is truly the sole source of hope and the possibility of meaningful life to so many in the non-Western world. We should listen carefully to Pentecostal brothers and sisters whose understanding of the empowerment present in the baptism in the Holy Spirit has been refined in the middle of tragedy, poverty, injustice, and life at the margins. An Assemblies of God scholar from Puerto Rico, Eldin Villafañe speaks succinctly: "The baptism in the Spirit is rightfully seen as empowerment for service impacting the believer deeply by giving him/her a tremendous boldness, a heightened sense of personal holiness, and a new sense of self worth and personal power. The Pentecostal church has the spiritual resources to face spiritual power encounters of our soul struggles. If the object of the baptism in the Spirit is the ongoing mission of the Messiah, then the challenge which remains for Pentecostals is to catch the broader prophetic and vocational role of the baptism in the Holy Spirit."7 Simply put, Villafañe is affirming that the baptism in the Holy Spirit can be relied on for empowerment in the most trying of circumstances. Regardless of the level of need or obstacle to hope we can rely on the power of the Spirit to be present in sufficient measure as to demonstrate the dramatic reign of the King of kings and Lord of lords over all challenges.

A Pentecostal from India speaks from his context where the empowerment of the Holy Spirit must be adequate for that context where huge social problems are the reality of the day. He says, "In the power of the Holy Ghost man becomes confident of building for himself a just society, that is humane, peaceful and righteous. If we want to win India for Christ, we have to girdle ourselves and get ready for the struggle. Let us fight for the marginalized, the ostracized, the untouchable, the prostitute and her customer, the child whose childhood has been robbed. The need of the day is socially active Christians who will accept the challenge of the gauntlet thrown upon us by the forces of the world."8

We can see that Pentecostals carry varying perspectives on the social dimensions of ministry. Could it be that the insights of these brothers and sisters might be a prophetic voice to we Americans?

Foundations For Navigating 21st-century Challenges

Pentecostals have always looked to the Bible for clear understanding of their spiritual experience and authoritative foundation for ministry efforts. The gospel is eminently personal, because each person must have an encounter with God and choose to accept or reject Him. But when the gospel transforms an individual there are implications that are social. Every human being is part of a social situation, and the Bible makes clear that it is impossible to love God while hating those close by (1 John 4:20,21). A personal transformation due to the gospel has social results because God’s saving grace is extended to humanity in a social situation, not apart from it. To recognize this connectedness within the gospel is not a "social gospel." It is the power of Jesus Christ to abundantly pardon and save to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25).

There are also some areas where we must be careful to understand more fully our affirmation about the relationship between the biblical theme of the kingdom of God and our understanding of endtime (eschatology). Croatian Pentecostal Peter Kuzmic provides insight into these thematic tensions. Kuzmic notes that evangelicals (including Pentecostals) have an inherent tendency to oversimplify complex issues, including teachings of Jesus on the kingdom of God. Kuzmic cautions us not to allow the present and the future to get separated. While we live between the "already fulfilled" and the "not yet completed," the first coming of Jesus is the decisive event of the gospel’s teaching. In Jesus Christ, the future has begun and the end is not in doubt. With the establishment of the Church as the place where the Spirit dwells, the victory of Christ has established the visible picture of what it means to be redeemed and live as redeemed people in an unredeemed world (2 Corinthians 5:17–20). Kuzmic cautions us that postponing the significance of the Sermon on the Mount and other segments of the New Testament implications for moral living exerts a cleavage between the fullest power of the gospel and its present usefulness. Quoting Argentine evangelical scholar René Padilla, Kuzmic argues "in the light of the biblical teaching there is no place for our ’other worldliness’ that does not result in the Christian’s commitment to his neighbor, rooted in the gospel. There is no place for statistics on how many souls die without Christ every minute, if they do not take into account how many of those who die, die victims of hunger. There is no place for evangelism that, as it goes by the man who was assaulted by thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, sees in him only a soul that must be saved and ignores the man."9

Our view of the future impacts the way we live in the present. Christ’s kingdom severely critiques our present state of affairs in the world and calls a redeemed people to give a visible glimpse to what the future may look like. Rather than look at the issue of compassion and the gospel with fear that our historical evangelistic commitment may be neutralized, I would look at this discussion with anticipation that our effectiveness to minister the gospel could be enhanced. Pressing global needs and obvious breakdown in our own society calls us to humbly come before our Lord with a desire to sharpen our efforts. Critical questions form on the horizon. Will attention to social concerns dampen our evangelism? Can evangelism be continually effective without attention to present social dilemmas people are facing? The question of antiquity voiced by Cain is still poignant: "Am I my brother’s keeper?" (Genesis 4:9). Does Christian prosperity call us to greater Christian responsibility for our fellow human beings worldwide? Should/can faith-based organizations stay true to their ministry calling and the guidelines of the government organizations from which they receive funding? Just as our Pentecostal pioneers faced critical questions 100 years ago as to how the Pentecostal dynamic of Spirit baptism, ministry in the power of the Spirit, and the urgency of the hour impacted world evangelization, so we must humbly and critically address our current context with serious theological reflection.

We enter the necessary reevaluation with a notable advantage. The significant growth of the Assemblies of God worldwide has seen a large portion of that increase take place among the most destitute and vulnerable of the two-thirds world. We have truly been a church of the poor, among the poor, and our local churches worldwide have been a massive network of grassroots efforts caring for the needs of people in their local contexts. The Assemblies of God has not shunned responsibility to the poor. The late J. Philip Hogan succinctly stated our position:

"We (have) invested millions of dollars and devoted countless lives to feed starving people, clothe poor people, shelter homeless people, educate children, train disadvantaged adults, and provide medical care for the physically ill of all ages. We have always generously responded to the pleas of foreign nations after natural disasters — hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. As the director of this Fellowship’s overseas efforts, I want the world to know that the reason we do these things is because Jesus Christ did them. The reason we love people is because Jesus Christ loved them. We have no other motive than that. Our relief efforts are inseparable from our gospel witness."10

As we participate in this time of refinement the sage wisdom of the venerable Melvin Hodges is worth our consideration. Arguably the most celebrated missiologist in Assemblies of God , he is usually associated with the planting and development of indigenous churches. However, Hodges, who lived and worked in the middle of poverty and peasant revolts in Central America, reflected deeply upon social concerns when he said, "Christians by their very nature love righteousness and hate iniquity. They will therefore, be championing every just cause and endeavoring to show good will to all men." Hodges was fond of saying, "People are not souls with ears."

In A Theology of the Church and Its Mission, Hodges lays out his guideline rules for social concern. A synopsis of those guidelines would include the following:

  1. We must manifest the love of God and help, as we are able, those around us. God expects us to give productive manifestations of the love of God.
  2. The local church is the center of all ministry to social concern.
  3. Any program of social concern must point people to the central message of redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ.
  4. Our ministry to social needs should never arouse unacceptable or legalistic expectations in the people being served.
  5. We should be sure our ministry is reaching real needs. We should not enter into wasteful competition with secular agencies.
  6. We should minister so as to help people help themselves.
  7. We should remember only those things done for the redemption of humanity will stand for eternity.

A succinct declaration by Hodges on social concern was, "It is evident that evangelicals do have concern for the whole man. Nevertheless, the spiritual need of men is given primary importance as this opens the way to all else. Evangelicals consider their task to be communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ both by proclamation and by deed, thus letting their ’light so shine’ that men see their good works and be drawn to Christ (Matthew 5:16)."11

Assemblies of God missiologist Doug Petersen has used his work among the poor in Latin America to write a seminal volume entitled Not By Might Nor By Power. He suggests that any person who participates in ministry of compassion must have a relationship with Jesus Christ, which is a radically transforming encounter that brings a person under the single-minded focus of God’s rule. This radical spiritual overthrow that takes place thrusts a person into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit to take responsible participation on behalf of the poor through a local community of believers. The baptism in the Holy Spirit provides an act of God’s grace where a person is equipped to evangelize and introduce righteousness as a consequence of an encounter with God. The social context Pentecostal believers find themselves in does not define the needs to be addressed; it is rather a point of insertion where the transforming power of the gospel is given visibility by a Pentecostal community, by Spirit-empowered witness, and Spirit-empowered action that testifies to the eternal, life-changing gospel of our risen Lord. The heartache of suffering people cannot be avoided. But could it be that we are facing an open door of opportunity to present to those left by the roadside of life the wonderful transforming message of Jesus Christ? If we will live out the fullest implications of the Kingdom under whose reign we live — in Word deed, and sign — we could continue to see the greatest evangelization this world has ever seen.12


Byron D. Klaus, D.Min., is president of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.

Endnotes

  1. "Missions, Overseas (North America)" in Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, Stan Burgess and Gary McGee, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishers, 1988), 621.

  2. Everett Wilson, Strategy of the Spirit: J. Philip Hogan and the Growth of the Assemblies of God Worldwide: 1960-1990 (Oxford: Regnum Books, 1997), 50.

  3. See the yearly statistical analysis in the January 2003 issue of International Bulletin for Missionary Research.

  4. See Norris Magnuson, Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work 1865-1920 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977).

  5. Daniel Evearitt, Body and Soul: Evangelism and the Social Concern of A.B. Simpson (Camp Hill, Penn.: Christian Publications, 1994), 5.

  6. See entries in Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements for "Abrams," "Trasher," "Steidel," and "Montgomery."

  7. Eldin Villafañe, "The Contours of a Pentecostal Social Ethic: A North American Hispanic Perspective," in Transformation, Vol. II, No. 1 (January/March 1994), 9.

  8. Gary McGee, "Assemblies of God Missiology by the 1990’s: A Pilgrimage of Change and Continuity since 1914," 21st Meeting of the Society of Pentecostal Studies, Southeastern College, 1991.

  9. Peter Kuzmic, "Eschatology and Ethics: Evangelical Views and Attitudes" in Mission as Transformation. Samuel and Sugden, eds. (Oxford: Regnum Books, 1999), 134–165.

  10. Division of Foreign Missions Annual Report, 1986.

  11. Melvin Hodges, A Theology of the Church and Its Mission (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1977), 103–105.

  12. See Douglas Petersen, Not By Might Nor By Power: A Pentecostal Theology of Social Concern (Oxford: Regnum Books, 1996).

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