CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

The 2007 International Conference
June 7-9, 2007
Bordeaux, France
Globalization, Immigration, and Change in Religious Movements

The Pentecostal movement and ecumenism of the Spirit

by Alessandro IOVINO (Graduate Student, Università Federico II, Napoli)

A paper presented at the 2007 International Conference, Bordeaux, France. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

The Pentecostal movement is the world’s largest Revival group in the history of Christianity.  The key concept of Baptism of the Holy Spirit is a common factor which brings together all Pentecostals regardless of internal divisions.  Baptism is a prime requisite and an indispensable spiritual experience to receive the might of God and to perform the mission of the “Gospel witnesses” all over the world.  The Pentecostal movement is in rapid growth all over the world.  Based on the current growth rate and statistics, by the end of 2025 the Pentecostals should account for 50% of Christians in the world (cfr. M. INTROVIGNE-P.ZOCCATELLI, Enciclopedia delle Religioni[1], Elledici, Turin, Italy 2001 – page 217).

The rapid expansion of the Pentecostal phenomenon can be explained by world believers’ ever-increasing desire for deeper spirituality and a need for a direct and personal relationship with God.  People want to cast off the austerity of formal religions and practise the creed and charisms of the Holy Spirit with other believers in established communities, thus fulfilling the promises of God in a concrete manner.  The aim of the Pentecostal movement, whilst renewing and sustaining the principles of the Reformation (salvation obtained sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura), is to completely personify the teachings of Jesus Christ…..   “and the poor have good tidings preached to them” (Matthew 11:5).  Proof of this, and I have seen it with my own eyes, is offered by the startling growth of the Pentecostal movement in the Southern hemisphere, in the underprivileged African countries and Southern America, as well as in many areas of Southern India.

The rapid growth of the Pentecostal movement in Italy too has been one of the spin-off effects of a staunch commitment to the scriptures and the other reasons listed above. Pentecostalism reached Italy in 1908 through the words and the preaching of Giacomo Lombardi, an emigrant returned from the United States. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and with an unflagging desire to evangelise and preach the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, the numerous men of faith spread the message during Fascist rule in the face of peril, risking first repression and then persecution. Afterwards, as the new Italian Republic came into existence, they were constantly thwarted by the policies of the powers to be of the ruling Catholic party and further damaged by a Ministerial Memorandum (the Buffarini-Guidi Memorandum of April 9th 1935) – a surviving vestige of the Fascist Regime.  The Memorandum was addressed to the Prefects all over Italy and instructed them to contend and prohibit all that was held to be “religious practices detrimental to social order and damaging to the Physical and Psychological health of the race”.  Only when the Memorandum was formally invalidated in court on the 16th April 1955 did discrimination and persecution of the Pentecostals come to a halt. 

The Italian Pentecostal situation can be summarised as follows:-  the Evangelical Christian Churches of the “Assemblies of God in Italy” is the most famous group and the third largest organised religion in Italy (after the Catholic Church and Jehovah’s witnesses); it has more than one thousand churches and one hundred and forty thousand members.  In 1988, the churches collectively reached and drew up an agreement with the Italian Government, which was subsequently transformed into an enforceable law n. 517/1988  in compliance with paragraph 8 of the Republican Constitution  Apart from the “Assemblies of God” in Italy there is a group of Free Pentecostal Churches and branching out from this, the “Federation of the Pentecostal Church” was set up in 1999 – this federation officially liaises with the Italian Waldensian, Methodist and Baptist churches.  The Italian Pentecostal movement will be celebrating one hundred year’s of history in 2008, following in the footsteps of the world Pentecostal movement.

Now that we have been over this brief summary of the worldwide Pentecostal movement and the one in Italy, where I come from and of which I have direct experience of the Pentecostal movement , what I really want to do is to look into the phenomenon of Ecumenism as compared to the Pentecostal movement.

As from the middle of the twentieth century, the number of ecumenical encounters between the various Christian churches steps up, underlining a need for unity: this goal is much hankered after centuries of rift between them: first the split of the Western Church from the Eastern Church, then the Reformation of the 16th century and finally the birth of numerous denominations within traditional Protestantism. The representatives and the spiritual leaders of most of the main Christian denominations have increased and promoted the number of ecumenical encounters lately. In my opinion, though, this is not a response to a real spiritual need for unity amongst believers, but rather a reaction to a social-political trend of our times.  Quite often a globalised social, political and economical civilisation has been sought out and pursued in an exasperated and forced fashion and this has inevitably led to various ecclesiastical authorities to search for a globalised religion  through an ecumenical discourse.  So as not to be in contrast with these political and social tendencies of our times, many Christian denominations have wished to continue seeking out political ecumenism, neglecting what the real goal and action plan of the Christian Churches should be: the sphere of the Spirit.

It is in no way my intention to disparage the remarkable efforts and progress made in terms of interdenominational exchange of ideas, respect and mutual acquaintance in what I might define summit ecumenism.   I fully realise that this brings the various components of the different religions closer and increases their spirit of collaboration. Nevertheless, this process should not be allowed to become a driving goal and an end to itself. It should simply be another way to fulfil the spiritual needs of believers.  Communication, comparison and respect are fundamental values and there is no doubt about this.  However, bearing in mind the theological principles upon which the Pentecostal Church has been built, one cannot help but  wonder: how “ecumenical” a Pentecostal can be?

Something which has always characterised all Protestant religions born of the 16th Century Reformation, their guiding light and the bedrock for their very existence is their acceptance of the unabridged Bible completely as being the Word inspired by God and therefore, only this can be a true guiding star for believers to base their behaviour on and the only means to afford sanctuary for a correct doctrine.  In view of this, and with particular reference to the Pentecostals, they have promised to stay true to the teachings: “…..for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).  In the Holy Bible, there is a strong inclination and impetus for Christian unity in Jesus Christ.  Naturally, taking into account the theological principles of the Pentecostals, this unity cannot be held to the detriment of faith in Jesus Christ, sole Saviour and Lord.  This does not mean that there should not be interdenominational dialogue, but it is crucial for the Pentecostals from a doctrinal and theological point of view that no compromise be made in reaching political ecumenism as this could lay on the line the teachings of the Holy Bible.  Those who call themselves Christians,( i.e. followers of Christ) cannot barter, change, amend or twist their creed and faith in the name of institutional ecumenism.

In the letters of the Apostle Paul, the call for unity is constant  “….united in love….”.  (Colossians 2:2) and again “I appeal to you …..that you may be perfectly united” (1 Cor. 1:10).

The Christian Pentecostal World with the help of its representatives must change direction and promote the ecumenism of the Spirit which seeks out and obeys the summons of the Holy Spirit to reach true unity (therefore, universality).  The attention and the interest of the various ecclesiastic authorities must be tuned into the spiritual needs of the Church, keeping safe the healthy and unique biblical principles upon which Christianity is founded.  Moreover, the Pentecostals gather and observe with full conviction of faith and as the Apostle Paul appeals “….make every effort to keep the Unity of the Spirit…” (Ephesians 4:3).  In the hope that “….we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God …attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ…” (Ephesians. 4:13).

[1] The Encyclopedia of Religions