Heresy, Bad Taste, or Capitalist Adventure: Is it Still Pentecostalism?

If an animal could describe the Pentecostal movement, it would be the tribble, a cute furry fictional animal, well-known to Star Trek fans. Tribbles, the story had it, were born pregnant, reproduced at a staggering rate, and ate everything in sight: if the ravenous creatures hadn’t eaten a store of poisoned grain, they would have destroyed the Enterprise. To follow the analogy, Pentecostalism and certain segments of the movement (namely, the “Prosperity Gospel” and the “New Apostolic Movements”) have mutated like tribbles, choking off their Pentecostal origins, multiplying to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish the broader Pentecostal movement and historic churches from the mutants.

Perhaps it is odd to equate a movement with a sci-fi creature, but the multiplication of the Pentecostal movement and its “mutations” have reached a point where some clarification and reevaluation of the broader movement is needed; especially in light of the shifting belief systems that each offshoot has engendered. From the calls to investigate Prosperity ministers Creflo Dollar and Paula White, to Sarah Palin’s New Apostolic Reformation movement connections, Pentecostalism and its progeny (Charismatic, Third Wave, Full Gospel and non-denominational churches) have multiplied so rapidly that it is difficult to discern what the original movement is and where the offshoots are.

The Trouble with Pentecostalism

Consider, for example, the fact that most people do not know that Joel Osteen’s father, John Osteen, was originally a Southern Baptist-turned-Charismatic-turned-Word of Faith (the old name for Prosperity Gospel). There is a reason why Joel Osteen can teach “Your best Life now”—he’s a word of Faith/Prosperity guy, with toned-down rhetoric to appeal to a broader audience.

Genealogy is important. So, in order to help you understand which tribble you might encounter, let me offer a brief primer on Pentecostalism and its two primary mutations: Prosperity Gospel and the New Apostolic Movement.

The Pentecostal movement has been defined in historical, theological, and sociological terms; but to understand its mutations, focusing on Pentecostal practices is key. Pentecostal emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which can also function as a religious practice, are outlined in various New Testament Texts (including I Corinthians 12:8-10, I Corinthians 12:28, and Romans 12:3-8). These gifts/practices include healings, exorcism, speaking and interpretation of tongues, words of wisdom, and prophetic utterances. Speaking in tongues, or glossolialia, has been considered the primary practice of Pentecostals.

Today, despite the occasional outbursts of televangelists, a substantial number of Pentecostals do not engage in the practice, as evidenced by the Pew survey on Pentecostalism in 2007. Instead, practices of healing, faith, and exorcism have gained primacy among the “spiritual gifts.” As a result, the long-term emergence and strength of Prosperity Gospel and the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) rests on the elevation and promotion of these practices above all others. The deviations then, are important to understand how Pentecostalism is being reshaped and redefined.

Prosperity Gospel

The Prosperity Gospel has had several names throughout its history, including the “Health and Wealth Gospel” and the “Word of Faith”. The movement’s Pentecostal antecedents arise out of the healing movements of the 19th century. Early Pentecostals, believing in healing through their use of the foundational scriptures and the imminent return of Christ, laid on hands and prayed for healing.

These original teachings on healing were appropriated by many Pentecostal churches and evangelists; but for some, the teachings of E. W. Kenyon on the Word of Faith, and an emphasis on “faith,” became more important emphases in ministries and churches. This emphasis on the power of faith asserted that Christ’s atonement for sins on the cross included healing: if faith was applied appropriately, whatever a believer prayed for that was in God’s will would occur.

In the late 1940s , Kenneth Hagin (sometimes called the father of the Word of Faith Movement) focused in on principles of ”faith,” and the right of believers to be healed. Hagin, alongside evangelists like Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, and others, began to teach either about healing or “health and wealth,” and how to appropriate these through the proper application of “The Word of Faith.”

The focus was an almost fanatical belief in speaking and living the word of faith in line with scripture. These teachings became foundational for many in the movement, including Hagin’s protégés Kenneth Copeland, Frederick K. C. Price, and John Osteen. Many mainline Pentecostals embraced these teachings and attended Copeland and Hagin meetings, which also attracted Charismatics in mainline denominations. These movements, now named “Prosperity Gospel,” garnered more participants and visibility in the 1990s, with the advent of larger non-denominational churches linked to these ministries and the explosion of full gospel churches led by leaders like Paul Morton (who linked with other leaders with Pentecostal backgrounds like T. D. Jakes).

The new generation of prosperity preachers, Creflo Dollar, Paula White, Joel Osteen, and a host of other ‘luminaries’ took the humble Health and Wealth Gospel to another level. Rather than focus on audience healings and testimonies, the leaders themselves became advertisements for the movement; highlighting their expensive cars, airplanes, homes, and perfectly-toned bodies as a way to show their parishioners and followers across the world that prosperity was the way.

Any association with established denominational oversight or organizational affiliation was broken in order to keep issues of accountability out of the hands of outsiders, and within the ministry only. Even with the scrutiny of Senator Grassley (whose attention to the financial misdealings of a group of televangelists brought them notoriety as the “Grassley Six”), these leaders have managed—in the depths of a worldwide recession—to hold on to followers in their home churches and satellite churches around the country and the world.

New Apostolic Reformation

The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), on the other hand, has been able to operate somewhat out of the general public’s purview, save for the work of writers at Talk To Action, who have chronicled the changes and escalations in the movement. The NAR roots are also firmly within the boundaries of the historic Pentecostal movement. Foundational to NAR beliefs are spiritual warfare and dominion over social ills. These beliefs were influenced in part by two English authors, Smith Wigglesworth and Jessie Penn Lewis, who wrote extensively on spiritual warfare, and were read avidly by some early Pentecostals.

Their books, still in print today, focused on demonic possession, deliverance, and powerful spiritual encounters. In the 1940s the movement that would give these beliefs further impetus was the Latter Rain Movement, which arose out of revivals in Canada. Focusing on extraordinary outpourings of the Holy Spirit, with spectacular spiritual manifestations, believers and leaders in the movement like William Branham believed these manifestations would usher in the second coming of Christ. The movement also caused splits within several Pentecostal denominations, most notably the Assemblies of God. Unlike the Word of Faith movement, the Latter Rain Movement and its subsequent iterations relied on “extra” revelation outside of the Bible, given to a special group of leaders that God had appointed.

The focus on “apostolic” leadership would reappear in the Shepherding moment of the 1970s, a movement that quickly died after several scandals in leadership. Not long after, in the early 1980s, the star of C. Peter Wagner began to ascend in what was then called the School of World Mission at Fuller Seminary. Wagner, who for a time taught at Fuller Seminary alongside other “power encounter” teachers John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard denomination) and Charles Kraft, began there to hone his ideas about spiritual mapping, spiritual warfare, and power encounters. Leaving the seminary in the early 1990s to establish a ministry in Colorado Springs, Wagner began to build his empire, founding the NAR in 2001.

The 21st century, for Wagner, is the beginning of the “Second Apostolic Age.” Those in the NAR believe that in order to bring about the coming of Christ, Apostles must be recognized, and the government should be run by Christians in order to cleanse the world for Christ’s coming. Power encounters such as exorcisms must be done to cleanse not only people, but cities and communities; and those who participate in this will also lead in the new Reformation.

Pentecostalism: What Is It Now?

All of this activity points to one conclusion: whatever Pentecostalism started out to be is not what it is now.

True, many denominations and faith traditions change over time, but what is interesting about Pentecostalism is the movement’s ability to morph from its basic antecedents into a plethora of new movements; all with the basics of Pentecostal teachings at their core.

The diversity of the movement begs the question, what really is “Pentecostal” and what isn’t? Are these manifestations of Prosperity Gospel and New Apostolic Reformation heresy, bad taste, or simply capitalist adventures for those in leadership?

For a movement that started out with a millennial orientation, it has certainly become enamored with the world, and remaining powerful within it in every way. Whatever these new tribbles of Prosperity and Apostolic leadership are, it is time to pay them even closer attention, before they overrun the ship entirely.