We live in a world in which labels are very important, a trip to the grocery store will make this clear. Virtually every item in the store has a label on it. The label tells us such things as the brand name, the volume or serving size, and other relevant information about the product. Based on this information we can determine if this is the product we want or not. If the truth be told and some items were not labeled we would not know whether we were buying fruit juice or a cleaning agent!
Products are not the only things that are labeled. People are, at times, labeled too. Sometimes people are labeled by others and at other times people label themselves. One area of life in which a person may label him or herself is with regard to their faith (or lack of it). For example, a person might say “I’m an atheist,” another might say “I’m an agnostic,” a third might say “I’m a Pentecostal.” We know what the atheist means, he or she does not believe in God. We also know what the agnostic means, they are not sure what they believe. But what does it mean when someone says “I’m a Pentecostal”? This statement is open to a number of different interpretations, let me explain.
When someone says “I’m Pentecostal” it could mean that their family comes from this church tradition. That is, their parents, grandparents, or other significant family members were Pentecostals. This is the faith of choice of those that they are closest too. This is not something unique to people who have families that have a history in the Pentecostal church. Many people today identify themselves with a particular religious movement or denomination. Some say this because they want to be seen as people who have faith. However, some who identify themselves in this way may not actually be Christians, or, in the case I am addressing, actually be involved in a Pentecostal church. It just happens to be the faith that their family had, and they were born into that family.
Another person may identify themselves as a Pentecostal and it can mean something different. It may mean that they are a Christian who attends a Pentecostal church. The church might be affiliated with one of the major Pentecostal denominations, such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, or it could be an independent Pentecostal Church. This person is connected to a local church and they are in some sense participating in it. At the very least they are attending the church once a week. If other services are available they may be attending those too. It is also possible that they may be involved in ministry, serving in some capacity in the church.
A third person may say they are Pentecostal and mean that they are theologically Pentecostal. As a Christian they believe in the distinctive doctrine of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. They also believe that there is a physical sign that accompanies this experience. This sign is speaking in tongues, such as we find in a number of texts in the book of Acts. Believing Pentecostal doctrine doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a person actually has the experience. This should not be taken as a derogatory statement; they may desire it but they have not as yet received it. Many who are in ministry know that sometimes there is a delay before a person receives. There are several possible reasons for this. This was my experience, it was a number of years before I received. A person’s acceptance of Pentecostal theology is a major plus, if they believe it is a biblical teaching they will press on in order to receive it.
Lastly, a person may say “I’m Pentecostal” and mean that they are a Christian who is experientially Pentecostal. That is, they have been filled with the Holy Spirit and do speak in tongues. They may have received as the apostles and Cornelius and his household did with no one laying hands on them (Acts 2 & 10). Or they may have received when someone did laid hands on them as when Peter and John ministered to the Samaritans or when Paul ministered to the Ephesians (Acts 8 & 19). They may have received when they were in a group or when they were alone. However it happened, they received. This person may, or may not, actually attend a Pentecostal church. There are many people in the world who are Pentecostal in experience who do not actually attend a church that is denominationally Pentecostal.
This brief survey shows that the Pentecostal label can mean different things. A person can be historically, denominationally, theologically, or experientially Pentecostal. These all indicate different levels of acceptance or involvement. Some peoples’ experience may involve more than one of these categories. For example, a person might be theologically and experientially Pentecostal. Someone else might be denominationally, theologically, and experientially Pentecostal. It is also possible that a person’s experience could include all four categories.
The most important aspect of being Pentecostal is being Pentecostal in experience. This involves speaking in tongues, such as we find in the book of Acts. But being Pentecostal involves more than that. The Baptism in the Holy Spirit is intended to give us power to be witnesses for Jesus, we have that on the highest authority, Jesus himself said that (Acts 1:8). Speaking to others about Jesus is very important (Matt. 24:14; Mark 16:15) and it is something that every Pentecostal believer should do. Let us equally display this evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. May God help us to walk in the fullness of the power that He intended when He poured out His Spirit upon us as His sons and daughters. It will help change the world.
About the Author
John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including the Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.