As a teenager growing up in a small rural holiness Pentecostal church, there were not a lot of opportunities for interactions with the world. This was an intentional strategy to protect young people, such as myself, from the evils of the larger culture. Part of that strategy was a youth group, designed to entertain young people on weekends, and to educate them to the doctrinal distinctives of our small Pentecostal group. The youth group also provided a safe place to make friendships with people that believed as you did and served as a pool from which potential spouses could be discovered. Often, however, these good intentions resulted in unintended consequences. Because the larger culture was made to be taboo, for many teens in my youth group, the world actually became much more attractive. And because in our church there was no category for someone attempting to figure out what they believe and why, many young people would simply leave the faith all together. For some this resulted in lives of addiction and trouble, not because they walked away from the Pentecostal faith, but because our faith was “all or nothing” with no room for anything in between. In the minds of many, if one was not “in” church then one had to be “out” -way out of the church.
For instance, in our church facial hair on men was prohibited, because it resembled the countercultural hippie movement of the sixties. Our church was part of a denomination formed from the merger of two Pentecostal groups in 1945, and the new organization was wedded to the clothing and cultural styles of that era ever since, with little evolution. Because of the prohibition of facial hair on men, I remember one young man who left the church because he chose to grow a mustache. As a result, he was shunned by the church, and even though he loved Jesus and many people in the church, he genuinely felt he could not return without being ostracized. I wonder how different that young man’s life may have been had he been loved and accepted?
The burden of this young man was nothing compared to what women in our church had to endure, but it illustrates how ridiculous and misguided our good intentions often become. I remember that one year, our youth group had an essay contest. We were given the prompt to write on our “holiness” distinctives. This was a nomenclature in our group, that rarely pointed us to the holiness of God, and most always pointed us to the dress and behavior codes that governed our lives. One young lady wrote on the prohibition of women cutting their hair, a doctrine developed almost exclusively from the obscure passage in 1 Corinthians 11. In her essay she lamented the fact that young ladies were walking the halls of her high school with ungodly hair that had been cut. In my memory the line “Doth not nature itself teach you it is a shame” was repeated over and over again, oozing with all the judgmental apocalyptic overtones of the book of Revelation. We rejoiced at her commitment and clapped in endorsement as we reveled in our self-righteousness.
I chose to write on “holiness of attitude.” I don’t remember winning. But I do remember my brother-in-law, a godly man, and a hippie convert to Pentecostalism, praising my essay for examining a lesser understood aspect of what it means to be “holy.” I could always count on him for understanding a marginalized perspective.
These formative events of my life can be easily dismissed as my misunderstanding what my church was teaching. Others might grant that I did experience these things and it was long ago, and doesn’t matter, everyone has moved on. But I often revisit those primal thoughts I had about a “holiness of attitude,” and I wonder as I survey what my religious heritage has become, has much of anything really changed? Sure, I don’t think facial hair is a big deal anymore in most Pentecostal circles. I think a lot of women probably cut their hair and wear makeup in many of the churches I grew up in. I know that the prohibition against having a television and certainly watching television has all but disappeared. Everyone follows sports now and goes to stadiums to cheer on their favorite teams. And generally, I think most of these changes in my former church are good ones. But what about the attitude?
Often there is an attitude that is associated with dogmatism, that isn’t specific to Pentecostalism, but I see it manifested in these groups, perhaps based on my previous associations. The attitude is exhibited on social media and in a million conversations every day that exalt a particular church over another, a particular style of worship over another, and a particular feeling over another. For all my love for my heritage of Pentecostalism, we have unintentionally perhaps, communicated to the world that there is a hierarchy of spiritual experiences. This communicates to those who do not experience those particular spiritual distinctives, that they are somehow less than Christian. Generally speaking, Pentecostalism, specifically my stream of Apostolic Pentecostals, has created a world where Christians are Varsity and Jr. Varsity at best, and Christian and not, at worst.
An attitude of elitism that isn’t reflective of Christ who came to serve and love all, and reserved His harshest of rebukes for those who considered themselves religious elites. Rather, we should embrace the words of Philippians 2:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.