The Tie That Binds
Cautionary Remarks on the Ecumenical Tendencies of the Assemblies of God
by Matthew Shaw
As we near the close of a millennium, the watchful Church cannot fail to be sensitized with the anticipation of Jesus Christ's imminent return. As ancient prophecies are coming to complete fruition, the framework for the anti-christ's unholy world order is now being made ready. Nearly everyone seems to be aware of the growing notions of globalism, informed and evidenced by such traversing wonders as instant and worldwide communication and the conglomeration of once-sovereign nations into an increasingly singular entity under the guise of world peace. However, the Scripture prophetically describes not only a worldwide governmental power but a strong and complimentary, universal religious body guided by the spirit of antichrist that will engulf all mankind wielding a strange combination of the supernatural and the deceitful. This article will examine the rising infrastructure of this futuristic Church-entity as evidenced by the historical developments within Christendom and the role of Pentecostal/Charismatics in advancing its construction.
The Ecumenical Movement has for decades worked toward Christian union. Initially rejected by conservative and fundamental churches, the movement was finally joined by the unlikely Pentecostal 'old-timer,' Rev. David DuPlessis. Acting unofficially, DuPlessis penetrated the World Council of Churches (WCC) attending all six meetings of the body from Amsterdam (1948) to Vancouver (1983). He also became increasingly involved in establishing and maintaining a Pentecostal/Roman Catholic dialogue; working alongside Benedictine monk, Fr Kilian McDonnell, the two served as cochairs of the first ten sessions of the dialogue (1972-82). As a result of his early ecumenical work, which met with the disdain of many of his Pentecostal contemporaries, DuPlessis lost his ministerial credentials with the Assemblies of God in 1962. He was, however, able to retain official church membership at his home church (First Assembly of God, Oakland, CA).
This condition persisted until 1980, when the organisation reinstated DuPlessis's license under the direction of General Superintendent Thomas Zimmerman, who was himself active on the ecumenical scape (Burgess & McGee, 250-4). Perhaps David DuPlessis's appeal to the growing number of neo-Pentecostals was his own non-exclusive approach to the experience. DuPlessis rearticulated many common, Pentecostalcatechetical points with new meanings, arguing that gifts of healing were given to the sick and not the praying ministry and that tongues/interpretation was an unscriptural description of the phenomenon, which he explained as tongues followed by prophecy. In his typical non-traditionalism, DuPlessis urged neo-Pentecostals and Charismatics to remain within their established communities of faith. He believed emphatically in the 'ecumenity of the Holy Spirit' (Burgess & McGee 250-4).
The work and commitment of DuPlessis laid a basic framework for parallel and growing ecumenism within the AG. Members of the organisation distinguished themselves early on in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement as supporters. An upstart charismatic group formed at Notre Dame University (South Bend, IN) directed by Fr Edward O'Connor sought and received the help and encouragement of Ray Bullard, a local AG deacon, and other AG laity and ministry (Burgess & McGee, 114). These isolated cell groups became watershed for spreading the renewal within the Roman Church and redefining the parameters of Classical Pentecostal acceptance.
Later, Karl Strader, an influential pastor of Carpenter's Home Church Assemblies of God (Lakeland, FL) also began convention in 1980 consisting of representatives of charismatic renewal, outside of the Classical Pentecostal traditions. Those attending the 'Idea Exchanges' included Catholics who had entered the movement (Burgess & McGee, 833).
At the helm of the Assemblies of God, Thomas Zimmerman, General Superintendent from 1959-1985, also represented the denomination in ecumenical endeavours. Admittedly uncomfortable with the term 'Classical Pentecostal,' describing the term as 'moldy,' Zimmerman preferred to characterise the AG as a charismatic church (Frame, 45). His involvement in several interdenominational bodies and projects such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization are capped by his open unity with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal during the historical Kansas City 1977 Convention held at the Arrowhead Stadium. The convention promoted the unity of believers, and the infamous prophecy that has informed subsequent meetings was issued: 'Mourn and weep for the Body of My Son is broken' (Burgess & McGee, 515).
This conference was followed by the successive North American Congresses on the Holy Spirit and World Evangelization with extensive participation of AG leaders and ministers including DuPlessis, Superintendent Zimmerman, Marilyn Hickey, Benny Hinn and, more recently, present General Superintendent Thomas Trask (Burgess and McGee, 641 & 'Catholics and Protestants Celebrate . . .' ). These conferences are ecumenical extravaganzas promoting charismatic unity despite doctrinal distinctives. Vinson Synan, a representative of the conservative Pentecostal Holiness Church, says of the conference: 'The Holy Spirit wants to break down walls between Catholics and Protestants . . . The Holy Spirit empowers Christians to trust each other despite their differences.' Jack Hayford, pastor of the Church on the Way, says ecumenical relationships can form a 'meltdown of ideologies.' It is, according to Hayford, the nature of the Holy Spirit 'to blend and to bond without sacrificing uniqueness and individuality' ('Catholics and Protestants Celebrate . . .' ) Speakers at the most recent conferences included prominent Catholic priest, Raineiro Cantalamessa; TBN broadcaster, Paul Crouch; Assemblies of God General Superintendent, Thomas Trask; and representatives of the Church of God in Christ, Bishops Gilbert Patterson and Ithiel Clemmons.
The Assemblies of God has acclimatised itself to doctrinal diversity. Its spawning and continued support of CCR has expanded it vision of brotherhood. Once isolated by its theology on the Holy Spirit, mainstream Pentecostalism (the AG and her doctrinal sisters) have opened themselves in the name of unity to many strange influences and unfortunate admissions. In May 1994, leading Roman Catholic and Evangelical representatives forged the historic document Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. This manifesto outlines a detailed plan of action for Catholics and Evangelicals to search out common ground in an effort to rectify former division and move toward a 'fuller realization of our unity in the body of Christ' (ECT, 16). Several passages in the agreement leave no doubt concerning the end goal of participants--complete unity. In fact, they realise that they are 'brothers and sisters in Christ' despite their practical differences (ECT 15,18). In so doing, they have laid aside once deep and fundamental distinctions in order to acknowledge a shared salvation.
This inter-tolerance has caused affirmants to condemn efforts to seek converts by 'proselytizing or "sheep stealing"' among one another's communities of faith (ECT, 21). The impact of this document cannot be fully understood without looking at the diversity of those who have endorsed it, including Cardinal John J. O'Conner (R.C.); Rev Pat Robertson, a leading Charismatic/Pentecostal tele-evangelist; Dr Bill Bright, Campus Crusade for Christ, as well as representatives from such traditionally unecumenical organisations as the Church of the Nazarene and the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr Jesse Miranda participated unofficially as a member of the Assemblies of God. His uncensored presence and participation in the endeavour is in keeping, however, with the practical, ecumenical work and vision of the AG and its leadership.
The Assemblies of God was once an organisation which clearly defined its doctrinal positions, rejecting various doctrines which emerged within Pentecostal ranks. Their rigid, Trinitarian stance divided the organisation as Oneness doctrine surfaced. The '16 Fundamental Truths' still contain a condemnatory clause reflected in the Council's position on the issue:
Wherefore, it is a transgression of the Doctrine of Christ to say that Jesus Christ derived the title Son of God, solely from the fact of the incarnation, or because of His relation to the economy of redemption. Therefore, to deny that the Father is a real and eternal Father, and that the Son is a real and eternal Son, is a denial of the distinction and relationship in the Being of God; a denial of the Father, and the Son; and a displacement of the truth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. (Revised 1983 General Council, Assemblies of God)
As a result, the Assemblies lost over 1/4 of its constituency. Similar withdrawal followed the AG's rejection of the popular Latter Rain Movement lead by Prophet William Branham. Finally, in 1980, the General Council produced a position paper denouncing the Positive Confession Movement as aberrant and excessive application of basic, Scriptural principles.
These historic and well-defined positions would seem to be binding and concensual within the Assemblies of God. Though the organisation has maintained its distinction and isolation from Oneness Pentecostals, recent developments which have a strong basis in the renewal/revival movement suggest a realignment of the AG with her estranged Word of Faith and Latter Rain schismatics.
In the initial wave of the renewal, the Toronto Blessing emerged, uniting believers in the quest for a new anointing, penetrating virtually every mainline denomination and gaining momentum within the Assemblies of God. The Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (TACF) became the mecca of Christian leadership and laity seeking a blessing which, Toronto officially claims, is 'transferable anointing' (Doucet). Toronto's official publication, Spread the Fire Magazine, has printed several articles propagating doctrinal tolerance rather than exclusive, creedal allegiance:
This renewing is such a great joy because it brings not only freshness, but continuity . . . The present renewal is not meant to lead us to created the one perfect denomination. When Jesus prayed, 'may they be brought to complete unity . . .', He was not asking for one denomination, one evangelistic method, or one creedal formula that everyone could espouse . . . Let us stop embracing our Christian brothers with the right arm of theological persuasion and the left arm of methodological strategy, finding that our arms just don't fit around most people! Let us reach out with the right arm of responsibility and the arm of submission . . .
Continuing, the author demonstrates Christian unity based on monolithic affirmations:
I seem to be bonded more closely to some believers than others . . . because we have a similar or complimentary anointing and we are co-workers in the Kingdom (Wiseman, 'Relationship . . .')
John Arnott, pastor of TACF articulates this ecumenical mission of the Toronto Blessing: 'We will network the body of Christ across ministries and denominations. There will be an exchange of ideas at every level, and renewal ministries will have the advantage of a credible and powerful support group to back them up (Lear & Doucet, 'From Division . . .'). Obviously, TACF perceives itself as a superstructure uniting renewal movements.
The phenomenon of 'holy laughter', which became the hallmark of these meetings, was introduced by leading evangelists, Rodney Howard-Browne of South Africa and Randy Clark of St. Louis. These men, along with the leadership of TACF, became apologists for the movement and form an ever-expanding worldwide circuit.
Howard-Browne, one of the most controversial proto-evangelists, carelessly epitheting himself 'God's bartender', made important strides into the ranks of mainstream Pentecostalism. In 1993, Karl Strader, pastor of the large AG Carpenter's Home Church, scheduled a week-long revival with him that lasted for over a month as thousands attended the meetings, including Richard Roberts of Oral Roberts' University, who endorses the movement (Riss). Strader personally telephoned Marilyn Hickey and Charles and Frances Hunter (authors based at John Osteen's Word of Faith Church in Texas). Both were later affected by the revival, the Hunters eventually joining the circuit and becoming instrumental in the movement in England (Riss).
Some of Howard-Browne's most controversial connections were with prominent Word of Faith preachers. Other studies have brought to light the errors of Word of Faith doctrines including the notions of creative positive and negative confessions, the prosperity gospel and aberrant teachings concerning the atonement of Christ. Assemblies of God supporters of RHB's ministry consistently ignored his associations within the Positive Confession Movement. Invited to ORU after the Strader meetings, Howard-Browne 'blessed' an excess of 4,000 faculty and students who, for the most part, were slain in hallways and campus lawns. Classes were reportedly cancelled for two days for Howard-Browne's meetings (Riss).
At Kenneth Copeland's Church, Howard-Browne not only demonstrated his solidarity with the Word of Faith preacher but engaged in a very questionable 'prophetic' dialogue in which he and Copeland conducted a conversation in tongues with obvious (supposed) comprehension (Riss). This gross display of excess went apparently unremarked by many within the Assemblies of God who continued to endorse and peruse Howard-Browne's ministry.
In Jacksonville, Florida, Howard-Browne issued a 'prophecy' that re-inforces the ecumenical thrust of his charismatic movement, extending it beyond the confines of traditional and doctrinally-established Pentecostalism:
For if the Pentecostals will not receive it, the wind of God shall blow upon the Catholics and upon the Methodists and upon the Baptists. And a whole new seed shall be raised up and a whole new harvest shall be reached amongst many that even now do not know my power and do not know my glory . . . For the move of God shall not be limited amongst the Pentecostals and the Charismatics, but shall go out amongst many of the Evangelicals, and then many of those that are not any church affiliation at this time. (Riss)
This 'prophecy' obviously articulates the reservations of some Pentecostals who were not embracing the movement and also serves as a provocation to lay aside any questions or skepticism in the interest of not missing God's 'new direction' for His Church, a tactic that is sustained in the contemporary movements as represented by Toronto and Brownsville. Succinctly, if Classical Pentecostals were not going to be left behind, they had to enter this doctrinally unstable and characteristically ecumenical environment connected by a shared charismatic experience. Consequently, many within the Assemblies of God plunged headlong into the 'river', looking to the renewal movement as a revitalising force within Christianity.
The Pensacola Outpouring emerged out of this movement, beginning at Brownsville Assembly of God and effecting many churches within the greater organisation. The outpouring began, according to Pastor John Kilpatrick, on Father's Day 1995. Initially hailed by many within the Assembles of God as a restoration of Pentecost to Pentecostalism, fondly recalling their roots in the great Pentecostal revival of Azusa Street; overt connections existing between Brownsville and Toronto dissipate the restorationist vision and reveal the 'transfer' of the Toronto Blessing to Pensacola, where it thrives alongside other interdenominational renewal centres.
Although some leaders of the revival have gone to great pains to distinguish Brownsville from the Toronto Blessing, the revival is ultimately rooted in the Toronto movement and acknowledges the Toronto Blessing as a 'sovereign move of God.' In fact, John Kilpatrick's wife, Brenda, attended meetings in Toronto. Cathy Wood, a member of Brownsville Assembly of God and unofficial reporter on the revival writes:
Our pastor's wife went to Toronto in February or March of 1994, I don't remember when for sure, but when she got back . . [sic] without even telling of any of the manifestations she had seen . . [sic] a few started that very Sunday she returned. She came back healed of things . .[sic] so changed that Pastor was jealous of the refreshing touch God had given her! Happy but jealous! (Wood, 'Letters')
Wood also states that Lindell Cooley, the acclaimed worship leader of Brownsville, also took a trip to Toronto just prior to the outbreak of revival.
Evangelist Steve Hill was also profoundly influenced by the Toronto satellite, Holy Trinity Brompton. In an interview, Hill claims that he went to the Anglican church with a 'very critical spirit.' However, after receiving prayer from Vicar Sandy Miller, Evangelist Hill states: ' . . . it was over. I mean, I went down under the power of the Holy Spirit' (goodnews.mag.org/hill.htm)
In another interview, Hill demonstrates his unity and solidarity with Toronto and its renewal affiliates. Asked to comment on the 'common denominator' between Toronto, London (Holy Trinity) and Brownsville, Hill replies:
Well, I love John and Carol Arnot [sic]. I love Sandy Miller. I love what God is doing all over the world. I believe that's a sovereign move of God. I've been to both places. I've received a wonderful refreshing in Holy Trinity. And I've been to Toronto. I've had Carol Arnot [sic] pray for me up there. John wasn't there that night. I love what's going on. But you're dealing with different areas of the world . . . And so neither one is separated, okay, it's just all part of the Body of Christ . . . You know, John Arnot [sic] is reaching people that would never come here. And, of course, there is a lot of mixture also. I've sent many, many people up to the Vineyard to the airport Christian Center. (Walker, 'Interview with Steve . . .')
Sealing the undeniable relationship between the Toronto Blessing and Brownsville, Steve Hill candidly admits: 'we've received a lot from the Toronto church . . . we model a lot of what is going on here from them' (Walker, 'Interview with Steve . . .')
John Arnott visited Brownsville in February 1996. Cathy Wood reported on the service:
Pastor [Kilpatrick] was walking down the aisle and said 'My goodness, John Arnott, . .[sic] I didn't know you were here.' At that point, he introduced him and tow of his friends to us all and brought them to the platform . . [sic] Bro. Arnott shared just a few words on what brought renewal to Toronto after he was asked to.
Sensationalising her tone, Wood continues:
I saw after a while that Pastor Arnott was praying too on the other side of the building. It was like watching TV because it was hard to sink in that he was really here. There was such a mob around him that usually all I could see was his face (he is tall) and his hands on their heads. I think what blessed me the most is not that HE is anything but that GOD is everything and what started in Toronto . . [sic] really is HERE too. We so appreciate Bro. Arnott for being open to God because thats [sic] where Mrs. Kilpatrick went . . [sic] to his church in Toronto and the impartation (anointing) did truly follow her home to us! (Wood, 'Letters')
Obviously, there is a mutual affirmation of unity of purpose and basis between the two movements, and by extension, an ecumenical embrace that supercedes the doctrinal divisions, incorporating all who receive the renewal as part of the Body of Christ.
Dr Michael Brown, on staff at Brownsville, recognises a thrust toward unity within the renewal movement. In an article presenting the synoptic chronology of 20th century revival, Brown references the general hunger for renewal, citing movements on college campuses and among Christian men (referring, undoubtedly, to the ecumenical hodgepodge Promise Keepers) noting that 'there were increasing signs of reconciliations and unity . . . transcending denominational bounds' (Brown, 'Revival in . . . ).
Not only has virtually ever denomination been represented and impacted by the 1,720,000 visitors reported to date, but Brownsville takes special, regulatory care to be inclusive, careful not to offend visitors who are not part of the charismatic-Pentecostal tradition. Cathy Wood's remarks are a valuable, albeit unofficial, indication of how Brownsville Assembly of God strategically presents itself to outsiders. Wood candidly admits that it is a violation of Prayer Team protocol to speak in tongues during their altar ministry. This is directly related, according to Wood, to their desire not to push pentecostalism:
We have stressed over and over that this is not an AOG revival . .[sic] Some people have preconceived notions about tongues or are suspicious that we may be trying to put our 'religion' on them so we made the rule to just love on them and lead them to Jesus. (Wood, 'Letters')
Wood even reports that some have allegedly been supernaturally 'shielded' from tongues.
The ban on tongues is systematically enforced even on location. Wood catalogues prayer violations by non-Brownsville Prayer Team members at a Birmingham, Alabama crusade. Among these violations, which include praying without catchers and casting out demons, is speaking in tongues. Prayer Team members were warned again concerning observing Prayer Team rules. The following night, Cathy Wood and a senior Prayer Team member from Brownsville monitored the altar workers who were to be issued 2 warnings before having their badges removed (Wood, 'Letters').
Brenda Kilpatrick has also demonstrated a degree of ecumenical unity participating in ultra-charismatic meetings in England alongside Ken and Lois Gott, leaders of the Toronto-Blessed Revival Now! Ministries (formerly Sunderland Christian Centre). Participants included many Anglican priests and laity. The mission was headed up by Rev Cleddie Keith of Florence, Kentucky, where his Assemblies of God church has been involved in renewal for nearly two years. Pastor Keith displays a gross ecumenicality, sporting links to various Toronto Blessing sites, including Randy Clark's page and information on Rodney Howard-Browne. His site also includes a tell-tale and unqualified remark reminiscent of the 'Manifest Sons of God' theology once rejected by the Assemblies of God as part of the Latter Rain Movement: 'It might be revival if the Spirit helps our weakness and our groaning and travail surpasses the groaning and travail of our world that awaits the manifestation of the Sons of God' (Cleddie, members.aol.com/cleddie/renewal1.htm).
The Assemblies of God, and renewalists specifically, are also drifting back to the once-estranged Word of Faith movement. Benny Hinn, an arch-ecumenist who recently resigned from the organisation after a media expose, openly propagates many Word of Faith doctrines including positive/creative confession and the reproduced deity of the born-again believer ('little gods'). In addition, Hinn has also followed after far-stretched 'revelations' from the Scriptures, including the nine-personed Godhead (each person being trichotomous) and the superhumanity of Adam who could, according to Hinn, fly and perform other such feats before the Fall.
Other Assemblies of God favourites include David (Paul) Yonggi Cho, who 'prophesied' the beginning of the Pensacola revival. Pastor Cho, pastor of the world's largest congregation and General Superintendent of the Korean Assemblies of God, is also distinctly Word of Faith in his teaching. Cho teaches that the Spirit-filled believer can actually create the presence of God: 'You create the presence of Jesus with your mouth . . . He is bound by your lips and by your words' (Cho 83). In keeping with Oriental mysticism, Cho also teaches a process of visualisation and actualisation (often termed 'incubation' in his work) by which the believer imagines the positive end of his circumstance and is able to realise this end through positive confession and prayer (Cho 44).
A cursory glance at recent itineraries of leading Pentecostal/Charismatic and Word of Faith preachers is sufficient evidence of the cross-pollination of the two camps. There is substantial evidence of mutual acceptance and unity. Rev Jesse Duplantis, a popular Word of Faith evangelist, has been and will be preaching at several Assemblies of God churches and events including services at Campmeeting '97 (First Assembly of God, North Little Rock, AK) and at Casa View Assembly of God (Dallas, TX), as well as Evangel Temple (Canada).
The International Charismatic Bible Ministries Conference held at Oral Roberts' University included a Pentecostal/Charismatic/Word of Faith line up including: Oral, Richard and Lindsay Roberts, Benny Hinn, Jesse Duplantis, Charles Blake, Jerry Savelle, Paul Crouch, Tommy Barnett (AG), Creflo Dollar, Marilyn Hickey (AG), John Hagee, Myles Munroe and Joyce Meyer. Participating at the Living Word Convention held at the Word of Faith International Christian Centre were Keith Butler, Kenneth Hagin, Jr., Mack Timberlake, Phillip Goudeaux and popular Assemblies of God evangelist, R.W. Shambach (International Gospel Services). Certainly, these are working in unity despite official denunciation of the Word of Faith Movement.
These examples of ecumenity within the Assemblies of God illustrate the dangerous strides made by the organisation in the name of Christian unity. As doctrinal positions are downplayed and ignored by leading figures within the organisation and as an increased vision of a mainstream voice within the Christian renewal community replace doctrinal distinctions and stalwart reservations, a deep, centrifugal force is threatening the delicate union of many within the Assemblies. There is a marked polarisation within the Assemblies of God as 'pro' and 'con' camps form around the renewal movement, with Brownsville at the critical centre of the controversy.
Many on the periphery are pulling the organisation toward inclusivity as they move increasingly within circles that would have been considered unfriendly to Classical Pentecostals not long ago. Their new-found friendships have served, in many ways, to break down barriers of 'stereotype,' and there is a waging war against those who possess the pejoratively applied 'religious spirit.' The efforts of ecumenists masquerading as conservative Pentecostals are monumental and will undoubtedly continue to face difficulties, but underlying their labours is a fundamental belief in the unity of Christians who will accept the renewal of the Holy Spirit. The charismatic call to complete unity disregards doctrine, traditions and even Scripture; while appealing to Christ's prayer for the oneness of believers, they forge a false unity that admits dangerous deceptions and is informing the persuasions of a new generation of Pentecostals willing to forsake some of their foundational principles in order to remain a competitive and viable force within Christianity.
Unfortunately, the credibility of the Assemblies of God is at stake in this movement. Questions are being raised concerning the commitment of the organisation to past doctrines and positions, and answers are not plentiful. Official responses from the top echelons of the organisation are non-committal at best, never delineating a clear plan of action. While there exists no official position on the more contemporary renewal movements (Toronto and Brownsville), General Superintendent Thomas Trask speaks positively of Brownsville and has himself attended. Also, the official organ of the Assemblies of God, The Pentecostal Evangel, favourably reports on the revival and advertises Brownsville literature. The future and direction of the Assemblies of God remains, however, unanticipated as the renewal continues to expand, dividing churches and enlarging its parameters of brotherly fellowship.
The ecumenical movement has finally, it would seem, found a 'common
denominator' that is explicity Pneumocentric and is ossifying renewal-minded
Christians into a superstructure that will exceed and transverse doctrinal
barriers to join hands as the comprehensive and potentially apostate 'Body of
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