In my time studying AG doctrine I have had many conversations with people about how I feel about AG eschatology. Usually people are asking about my work because they are uncomfortable with some particular point of AG doctrine that they would like to see changed. The more one is exposed to education and differing point of views, the more that ministers want to see doctrinal positions develop or change to keep up with theological development. For instance, there are some who would argue for the need for a different eschatological position than the AG’s historic premillennial and dispensational position. As a student of theology, I understand that there other positions out there that would perhaps fit our theological orientation better. I understand the desire to see doctrine develop, but I also think it is important to better understand what WAS and IS before we can properly discuss what SHOULD BE. Let me explain.
What WAS the AG position? This is the question that historians like myself are trying to answer. This is what my dissertation is dealing with. I am attempting to understand where the doctrines came from, who influenced them and what has been the historic position. But history makes no judgement on what was. It is simply is telling the story. In my opinion, very few people understand nuances of the actual historical position of the AG on eschatology. Many times people have criticized the position without really understanding how it came about. First you must know what it was before you can begin to understand what it is.
What IS the AG position? This is the role the denomination plays. Every group has the right to define its doctrinal position. For the AG, Statement of Fundamental Truths has defined the beliefs of this fellowship. There may be some who are not comfortable with where the AG stands on various issues (such as eschatology or initial evidence) and are interested in seeing these positions change. But how realistic is that expectation? Changing official doctrine of an established denomination is not an easy task. The AG must have an official position that it upholds and they also must defend that position in order to maintain unity. Even if George Wood personally felt like aspects of AG doctrine needed to change (and I am not saying he does), his personal convictions would not change the position. No one person has the right to define the fellowship. General Superintendent E. S. Williams said in the Introduction of PC Nelson’s Bible Doctrines (1936), “It is not the prerogative of any one person infallibly to interpret for the entire General Council its doctrinal declaration… Neither can a lone individual, though elected to office in the General Council, (can) speak infallibly for the entire Council Fellowship in endorsing the work of one person who seeks to interpret the meaning of the Fundamental Truths adopted by the body.”
What SHOULD be the AG position? This is an altogether different question and it is answered differently by different people. The historian does not necessarily have an answer; it is what it was. The denomination does have an answer; it is what it is. The theologian on the other hand can answer it differently. The theologian’s job is to reflect on what it could be. They can explore the breadth of theological reflection and weigh out the positions in order to find out if there is a better way. For example, there are scholars who are saying that there are ways in which AG eschatology can be more ‘Pentecostal’ in its orientation. This process of imagining what it could be and even what should be is what theologians do.
This is where many ministers get frustrated. The more educated ministers are the more they are interested in this reflective process. But they are expecting the denomination to act like a college of theologians. The denomination is not built to do this kind of theological reflection. Denominations are built to proclaim and to preserve doctrine. At the same time, denominations get frustrated with theologians. They expect theologians to fulfill a dogmatic role of defending the positions of the church. But that is not what they are designed to do. The theologian’s task is to explore the possibilities and suggest changes that could be made or developed. (For a great example of this discussion see Richard Dresslehaus, ‘What Can The Academy Do For The Church’ AJPS 3.2 (2000), pp. 319-323).
Remembering that the way doctrine is discussed is different in each of these realms can help in aiding the conversation within a theological community without making enemies of the various parties. It can also help ministers understand why things don’t change as easily as perhaps we think we should. It can also help the denomination to avoid being suspicious of the academy. We have to work together. The more cooperation and understanding there is between these theological and ecclesiastical institutions the more possibility there is for development of AG doctrine.
“Sometimes people forget that a Pastor is human.” E.S. Williams, 1930.
Being a pastor in this day and age is a huge challenge. Yet at the same time, it is comforting to discover that the demands on pastors haven’t changed much in 100 years.
AG Superintendant E.S. Williams
In my studies this week I came across an article by E. S. Williams called “What A Pastor Cannot Do.” Williams served as general superintendent for the Assemblies of God for two decades (1929-1949). Before coming to the General Council, Williams was a successful pastor. The article he wrote in 1930 addressed the unrealistic expectations that the people of the church often place on them. Even back in Williams days, pastors were expected to do and be everything for the church. He says,
Too many in our churches require that the pastor have all the faith. Some expect him to trust for his salary whether they contribute to his support or not; expect him to pray them well, even when sick; to accomplish every other requirement of faith: and if he fails, (or if they think he fails) they do not blame themselves but put the blame on him, seeming to think he can do the impossible. No my brethren, there is a limit to the pastor’s faith as well as to yours.
I also was very relieved to read that the stress of building and growing the church was felt by pastors a century ago as well. As Williams points out, the pastor today is often expected to be the promoter, evangelizer and church growth strategy expert. He says;
The pastor cannot do our personal work for us. We go to church and hope for a crowd…that is, we go if the weather is fair. And if the crowd is not there we think our need is a pastor whose pulpit ability will draw them in. How much have we done toward trying to interest the people? Many during the entire week have not invited one soul. What the church needs is live, wide-awake, believing, praying men and women who will become personal workers, going out into the highways and the hedges, giving forth the gospel, inviting people in.
How true is his observations even today? Even his comment about the weather is so true! How much have we relied upon the pulpit to be the sole mechanism of building the church? How much do we still lay the responsibility for evangelizing and inviting people at the feet of the pastor?
When I read this article I just had to smile. I find it comforting to know that church matters haven’t changed all that much. The same issues we deal with today they dealt with in 1930. Williams couldn’t be more right. It takes more than a good pastor for a church fulfill its calling. A pastor cannot do it alone. But we can do it together!
If you would like to read E.S. Williams entire article in the March 8, 1930 Pentecostal Evangel, you can read it here on page 6-7.
The political season is in full swing. Our nation is going to the polls over the next few weeks. I don’t engage much in politics so I have nothing to say about the current political season other than I don’t really enjoy it. It seems to bring out the worst in people, especially the candidates. But more so I feel like more and more I am realizing that I am part of a different kingdom. My only thought is that whoever is elected, I have a duty to pray for them.
E. S. Williams, General Superintendant 1929-1949
It is interesting to me that every generation deals with the topic of Christians and politics. In my research this week I came across an article in the Pentecostal Evangel by the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in 1939, Ernest S. Williams. Williams served as the GS for 20 years and many years before that in other leadership roles. He was a member of the first generation of Pentecostals and an early member of the AG. He was saved in the holiness church and later filled with the Spirit at Azusa. His steady leadership proved to be just with the AG needed as second generation pentecostal believers and churches began to grow and thrive in our society. He was the first to author a text on Systematic Theology for the AG in 1953. He championed the growth of the educational system and finished his career as a professor at Central Bible Institute.
In 1939, while WW-II was beginning to take shape in Europe, America was deciding whether or not to elect F.D. Roosevelt for a third term. I can imagine people were saying that the outcome of the election was extremely important. Williams reminds Christians as that a citizen of the US, we have a duty to do our best to exercise our right to vote. Yet, Williams took to the Evangel to offer its readers some advice:
“The question arises, how far shall we go seeking to guide our Government on an even keel? Shall we forsake a positive Christian ministry for lobbies, and efforts for social betterment? Shall the Church leave its place in the Kingdom of God to dabble in the affairs of men? To do so would prove it to be a feeble failure.”
Williams reminds us that Jesus did not get pulled into the political arguments of his day. Williams comments, “He had come neither to represent the Roman government nor the decadent commonwealth of Israel, but the Kingdom of God.” As we as Christians look at our political climate, may we remember the same admonition. We are not representatives of political parties, we represent the Kingdom. Our influence on our world is not national or political, it is spiritual. That is our realm of expertise. As Williams concludes;
“May we continue to exalt the principles of His glorious Kingdom by presenting Christ as the only answer to individual need and to the world’s present national, and international, problems. If we believe in the separation of church and state then let the Church abide in its own and useful sphere of getting men to God and showing forth the excellencies of God’s Kingdom.”
Seventy years later, another election is at hand and people once again will choose sides. Hopefully we will all keep in mind, that for believers in Jesus Christ, our side should always be the Kingdom of God.
If you would like to read E. S. William’s article in full you can by clinking the link below. (Thanks to the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center for preserving these documents)
“The Christian and Politics” Pentecostal Evangel 1939 page 2.