Romans 8:14-17 brings us into the heart of the message of Pentecost; the Holy Spirit transforms and empowers believers as they experience the joy of being in the presence of a living God. Paul identifies the children of God as those who live by the Spirit (v14) after admonishing (v12-13) us to follow the Holy Spirit’s direction instead of human desires alone if we want life instead of death. He refers to the concept of adoption (v15) to depict our relationship with God. Adoption brought a radical change. One left behind the social position of the old life and gained the status of the new father while coming under his absolute authority. Paul closes by emphasizing our unity with God (v17). We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. We share with him both in suffering and glory. Three Greek compound words reinforce the point that we are united with Christ.
At the beginning of the twentieth century some Christians expected to encounter the Pentecostal power of the Holy Spirit as described in Romans 8. In 1895, organizers of the Church of Nazarene declared: “We seek the simplicity and the Pentecostal power of the primitive New Testament Church.” In 1898, Martin Wells Knapp wrote Lightning Bolts from Pentecostal Skies expecting God to act in his world. Yet the meaning of Pentecost soon became a contested issue. The Azusa Street Revival began in April 1906 with meetings less than a mile from Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene. Within a few months it became clear that these two movements differed over how, and for what purpose, the Holy Spirit would be manifest in the life of a believer. The central point of conflict became the Azusa claim that “speaking in tongues” was the evidence of one’s baptism with the Holy Spirit because it undermined the Nazarene narrative of Pentecost that the disciples experienced entire sanctification through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The new Pentecostals expected signs and wonders while Nazarenes, similar to Paul, anticipated a moral transformation of believers whose daily life would be led by the Holy Spirit.
One hundred years ago Christians celebrated Pentecost on June 11, 1916. Both Methodists and Nazarenes wrote on the meaning of Pentecost. In the June 1 Christian Advocate, members of the Methodist Episcopal Church read “Pentecost and the Church of the Twentieth Century.” Perhaps the Methodist writer indirectly countered Pentecostalism when he wrote that the message of Pentecost should not focus on the tongues of fire or the sound of the wind, but on the power of the Holy Spirit manifest in the lives of his people. On the cover of the June 7 Herald of Holiness Nazarenes read the personal account of the Methodist Daniel Steele’s experience of entire sanctification. When they opened the magazine, they would have found nine articles connecting the baptism of the Holy Spirit with entire sanctification. While contemporary Nazarenes might focus more on human consecration, these early Nazarenes viewed entire sanctification as something done by God. Both Methodists and Nazarene writers agreed with Paul that the power of the Holy Spirit transformed them and the presence of a living God made them feel joy.
What does it mean to be led by the Holy Spirit? Does it make any difference how one understands Pentecost? A comparison of the Methodist Episcopal Church with the Church of the Nazarene on the role of women in the church reveals how much difference the answer to these questions might make. In the 19th century Methodist women like Phoebe Palmer and Francis Willard argued for the right of women to be ordained; however, the decision for women to be ordained in the MEC did not occur until 1956. In 1916, the Christian Advocate of June 8 and June 15 did celebrate the 37 women who served the Methodist Episcopal Church as lay delegates to the General Conference. The article detailed the contributions of the women delegates and alluded to some of the limited expectations placed upon them because of their gender.
The same 1895 Nazarene document claiming the Pentecostal power of the primitive New Testament Church also contained general rule 7: “We recognize the equal right of both men and women to all offices of the church including the ministry.” Writing two years later in The Ideal Pentecostal Church, Seth Rees made the direct connection between the outpouring at Pentecost and the calling of daughters as well as sons into the ministry. The call of the Holy Spirit meant that the church should not deny its women places of ministry. So, within a span of seven months beginning in July 1902, General Superintendent P.F. Bresee ordained two women pastors as Nazarene elders. By the teens the difference between Methodist and Nazarene churches became clear. While a 1916 pulpit series in the Christian Advocate contained no sermons by women, a similar series in the Herald of Holiness in the 1920s included the sermons of three Nazarene women ministers. In 1919 the Herald of Holiness carried a similar article about the women delegates in its General Assembly with the main difference that the Nazarene women were primarily ministerial delegates who served as pastors and evangelists. Nazarenes ordained women because their understanding of Pentecost made men and women equal. Both claimed being led by the Holy Spirit into ministry, so the church validated their call by ordaining them. In the 1920s one could regularly see the pictures of women as Nazarene pastors and co-pastors in the Herald of Holiness; however, by the 1930s and 1940s conditions had changed. Women expressed feeling alone and unsupported. What happened? Nazarene theology had not changed.
One possible explanation goes back to the early years of the denomination when Bresee failed to appoint any of the gifted women pastors to be a district superintendent, a trend that continued for the next century. So, when Nazarene and American culture became less supportive of women as ministers the failure to have any women district superintendents made it seem natural for men to present only men candidates as pastors. As the denomination looked to be more like society, they followed the cultural model of having men in leadership positions. Nazarenes forgot their heritage of women ministers and women struggled with the frustrations of not being able to fulfill their calling by the Holy Spirit.
The belief that women can hold any ministry position becomes eroded if they are never selected to fill positions of leadership. While Pentecost provides good theological rationale for ordaining women as elders, our actions may unintentionally create a climate that makes it difficult for women to hear the call of the Holy Spirit and for the church to accept women ministers. People without prejudice promote discrimination simply by not doing anything proactive and do not realize that their failure to act fosters discrimination and hinders the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, how might the church produce a climate conducive to hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit? Regarding the issue of women in ministry one important key is visibility. Many women in my current ministry classes have shared they decided they had a call only after they saw another woman preach. When I attend a church I look to see who is on the platform, who are ushers and who serves communion. I hope to see both men and women. The absence of women in leadership positions leads some to assume that they should not be in those positions. Imagine what conclusions young girls and boys draw about whom the Holy Spirit calls to ministry and leadership in their local church. What they observe speaks louder than what they hear us or the Holy Spirit say.
Similar points could also be made relative to racial harmony. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit created unity among believers as they shared all things together. Unity with one another will not happen unless we take concrete action to get to know people of diverse backgrounds. Scripture affirms that Christians should not be divided over issues of race or gender. Yet, both Methodists and Nazarenes employed segregated districts in their history. And the Pentecostal movement, while born in an atmosphere of racial diversity, has sometimes split along racial lines. Prevailing culture rather than the Holy Spirit has too often shaped our vision and policy.
Pentecost provides the opportunity for us to think about whether God works in our world. The message of Pentecost tests whether we actually believe that all become united in Christ regardless of gender or race and confronts us with what it practically means to be led by the Holy Spirit. We might listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit to hear what steps we should take to show people how the world would look if shaped by Pentecost. In the process we might just discover the joy of being in the presence of a living Christ as we share both in Christ’s suffering and glory.