ADVANCING BEYOND TRADITION

I observed something as a boy growing up in a godly home. Christians in our area seldom broke away from the religious traditions in which they were reared and indoctrinated. Methodists remained within their enclave; Baptists, theirs; Presbyterians, theirs; Pentecostals, theirs and so on. Occasionally, some of the Protestant churches would unite and sponsor a well-known preacher to come and conduct a revival meeting. I don’t remember our Pentecostal church ever participating in a multi-denominational evangelistic endeavor. Only once can I recall having contact with another church group. As a twelve year old I attended Vacation Bible School at a Methodist church.

Loyalty to religious traditions has been a powerful force for spiritual stagnation within the church. Whenever the church has progressed in its knowledge of truth and righteousness someone has had to be a Martin Luther and lead in breaking free from the binding power of erroneous tradition. This bondage to religious tradition has been within the Church since its beginning at Pentecost. The original disciples were so bound by their adherence to certain rules and practices of Jewish tradition that the gospel was withheld from the Gentiles for nearly a decade. Jesus’ own ministry came under attack because he did not honor many Jewish religious traditions that had developed over the centuries. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his day for substituting their traditions for the word of God. His words take on fresh relevance today as competing religious traditions strive to win adherents. Hear Jesus’ words:
“YOU HAVE A FINE WAY OF SETTING ASIDE THE COMMANDS OF GOD IN ORDER TO OBSERVE
YOUR OWN TRADITIONS!…THUS YOU NULLIFY THE WORD OF GOD BY THE MANY TRADITIONS
YOU HAND DOWN.” Mark 7:9, 13

Of course, there are good religious traditions as well as bad. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church: “THEREFORE, BROTHERS, STAND FAST, AND HOLD THE TRADITIONS WHICH YOU HAVE BEEN TAUGHT, WHETHER BY WORD OR EPISTLE.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) The words and letters of the apostle Paul were inspired by the Holy Spirit and became incorporated in our New Testament as inspired scripture. How does one identify a trustworthy religious tradition from the unacceptable? There is an immutable principle which we can apply that is extracted from Jesus’ own words. EVERY TRADITION MUST BE TESTED BY ITS CLEAR ADHERENCE TO THE CONTEXT OF SCRIPTURE.

Isolated proof texts are used extensively by those who propagate unbiblical religious traditions. Then, relying heavily on quotes from different “experts” and various illogical assumptions, they attempt to “prove” their unscriptural position.

We Pentecostals were taught, in keeping with our tradition, that we were elite members of God’s family. How so? Because all our leaders and many members were baptized in the Holy Spirit. We were assured this was not true of the leaders and members of other Christian groups. How could we be sure others were not filled with the Holy Spirit? Because, according to our dogmatic Pentecostal tradition, the baptism in the Holy Spirit must always be physically evidenced by initially speaking in tongues. Since other churches dismissed this teaching as unscriptural, ipso facto, none were baptized in the Spirit.

I went through a period of teen-age rebellion and tried to run from God by entering military service. God pursued me and I surrendered to his love as a young airman stationed at Randolph Field, Texas in 1948. Jesus graciously but powerfully led me to entrust him with my life and future. I asked him to empower me to live victoriously for him by filling me with the Holy Spirit. He wonderfully granted my request. Someone may ask, “Did you speak in tongues?” Yes, I did. I had been so indoctrinated into the Pentecostal tradition I likely would not have believed I had experienced Spirit baptism without tongues. It would never have entered my mind to objectively research scripture for another purpose for tongues than the one our tradition insisted on. That would come years later. Jesus is very patient with those who genuinely seek truth.

During the next twenty years I completed college; served as youth leader in a large Assemblies of God church (Calvary Temple) in Denver; served two more years in military service during the Korean War era; graduated from Denver seminary; planted a new Assemblies of God church in Granby, Colorado while in seminary and served as pastor for nearly five years until called into U.S. Navy as a Chaplain (1960); was selected to attend Princeton Seminary by U.S. Navy 1967-68 and awarded a postgraduate degree in theology; ministered nine years aboard ship and on shore, including a tour in Vietnam (1968-69), proclaiming the gospel to marines and sailors. All the while stoutly defending the tradition of my church that there is no valid baptism in the Holy Spirit unless accompanied and evidenced by supernaturally speaking in other tongues.

As I matured in the Lord I learned to extract truth from scripture as a result of diligent research on my own. As I searched scripture, I could find no biblical basis for my church’s dogmatic tradition concerning tongues and Spirit baptism. Also, during those twenty years, I had encountered Christians who displayed more of the power of the Holy Spirit than I did…and they didn’t speak in tongues. These facts, and the unbiblical abuses I had observed among some Pentecostals, led me to begin to question my inherited tradition on tongues.

It was difficult for me to confront and acknowledge the doubts about my tradition that were developing. A couple of things accounted for this. (1) It is never easy to break free from a religious tradition that is steeped in family lore and history. (2) I knew there might be a severe penalty that would result. I would likely be dismissed from the Assemblies of God, the denomination which provided ecclesiastical endorsement for my service as a Navy Chaplain. Without this endorsement the Navy would release me, and my career as a Chaplain would end. I continued to wrestle with my conscience about whether or not I should reveal the doubts my study of scripture had produced.

While in Vietnam I was serving with Marines and Navy Corpsmen who were facing death every time they engaged the enemy. I would pray for them as they embarked aboard the helicopters that were lifting them into combat. From time to time I would have occasion to go in-country but my assigned battle station during combat operations was on the flight deck. I was one of the first to greet the wounded when these same choppers returned them to the ship.

God used the uncertainty of life while I served in Vietnam to stir my conscience about being open and forthright with my church regarding tongues and Spirit baptism. I didn’t want to stand before my Maker knowing I had not been honest with my church. I vowed that when I returned home I would confess I could no longer affirm our denominational tradition about speaking in tongues that I had held and supported for twenty years.

My ship returned to San Diego in July, 1969. I followed through on my promise to God and submitted a written statement expressing why I could no longer agree to our tradition on Spirit baptism. I attached this statement to my annual credential renewal questionnaire that all Assemblies of God ministers are required to submit to national headquarters via their home District. The Rocky Mountain District where I had been ordained eleven years previously was still my home District. I knew the officials and was sure they would recommend my immediate dismissal. I was right. How God protected me and my ministry is another story which I may share at another time. Even things thought bad result in producing good when Jesus controls your helm.

Please note: I have never questioned the reality or validity of the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. I have been blessed with this gift. There are multitudes of godly, Spirit filled Pentecostals. Their experience of speaking in tongues is clearly described in scripture as one of the supernatural gifts assigned to the Church. What I vigorously contest is the purpose God gave to this gift which accompanied the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Acts 2:4, the favorite proof text of Pentecostals, tells WHAT happened but not WHY. The Jewish pilgrims from across the Roman Empire wanted to know the reason their native languages were being supernaturally spoken by unschooled Galileans. Their question was, ‘What does this mean?’ Peter didn’t know but he was sure there must be an answer in scripture concerning the purpose for these supernaturally spoken languages. Sure enough, the Holy Spirit brought to his mind a prophecy from the Old Testament (The only Bible available) Joel explained the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost as signaling a new, revolutionary era God was introducing (the “last days”) to all humanity. The prophet declared the supernatural tongues at Pentecost symbolized all the languages, nations and people groups of the world to which the good news must be proclaimed. (Spirit poured out on ALL humanity…WHOEVER calls on the Lord will be saved). After Pentecost Judaism was no longer the door by which one must enter God’s kingdom. Jesus, the Messiah, through his sacrificial death and resurrection has become the door by which all may enter. WHOSOEVER will may come. That is the gospel and it is forever symbolized by all the national languages spoken at Pentecost and subsequently.

Hallelujah! What a motivating symbol for world-wide evangelism. What a unifying symbol that binds all language groups together in Christ. Evangelism and unity, both symbolized by the supernaturally spoken languages at Pentecost! To rigidly and dogmatically assert that no Christian ever experiences being filled with the Holy Spirit unless this experience is physically evidenced and accompanied by speaking in tongues, I am firmly convinced, is not true and has no basis in the context of scripture nor in the history of Christianity.

This tradition has led to needless division within the body of Christ and numerous abuses within Pentecostalism. I have seen the division it has produced between other Evangelicals. I have seen the caste system it has fomented within Pentecostal churches themselves. Those who speak in tongues are often viewed, subtle though it may be, as spiritually superior. Spiritual pride results as in Corinth. I have seen the bizarre, unbiblical behavior that is tolerated lest one “quench the Spirit”.

The gift of speaking in tongues introduced at Pentecost had a far more noble purpose revealed by Old Testament prophets Joel and Isaiah. But it took another forty years after I saw from scripture what tongues were not, i.e. evidence of Spirit baptism, before I clearly discerned their divine purposes. Such is the holding power of religious tradition. When I finally saw what the prophets had predicted
concerning the purpose of tongues at Pentecost, it was a gloriously liberating experience for me. I will likely describe more of my journey that freed me from my bondage to religious tradition in future blogs. Better yet, for a more comprehensive statement, you can read my book PENTECOST REKINDLED. Check it out on my web site: Pentecost Revisited.

Until next time, meditate on this brief admonition from Paul:

“DO NOT PUT OUT THE SPIRIT’S FIRE; DO NOT TREAT PROPHECIES WITH CONTEMPT. TEST EVERYTHING. HOLD ON TO THE GOOD.” 1st Thessalonians 5:19-21

Chaplain Glenn Brown

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