The Monthly sledges Pentecostalism (again)

Scott Morrison’s Pentecostalism keeps attracting media interest and in the recent Monthly, it continued to be viewed as weird and alarming.

“Does a belief in the End Times inform Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfire crisis?” asks academic James Boyce in a new profile of the PM’s policy on climate change. Boyce sees the PM as a mix of pragmatic politician and “fervent” Pentecostal. “His complacent response to a burning continent has seen an increasing recognition that there may be a strong link between his personal beliefs and political actions, and that his Pentecostalism may be having some impact on climate policy.”

Boyce’s theory is that Pentecostalism is a “distinctive religion [that] stands outside the tradition of evangelical Western Christianity.” That’s an interesting theory to investigate – for example, Pentecostalism fits within the most common definition of evangelicalism (known as the Bebbington quadrilateral) – but The Monthly article focusses on one particular doctrine, the return of Christ.

Morrison goes to Horizon church in southern Sydney, part of Australia’s largest Pentecostal network, the 1,000-church-strong Australian Christian Churches (ACC). The doctrinal basis of the ACC includes an ‘End Times’ clause: “We believe in the premillennial, imminent and personal return of our Lord Jesus Christ to gather his people to himself. Having this glorious hope and earnest expectation, we purify ourselves, even as he is pure, so that we may be ready to meet him when he comes.”

“While there are many ways Pentecostals understand premillennialism, it does not necessarily lead to a disrespect for the environment.”

In common with all orthodox Christians, the ACC is affirming that Jesus will return to earth, and the need for us to get ready. The distinctive is the term “premillennial” which is the belief that Jesus will reign on the earth for 1,000 years. It is usually associated with the idea of tribulation, a terrible time on Earth before Christ returns, and sometimes with complicated prophetic timelines.

“For Pentecostals, the hope of Christ’s return does propel them to outreach, to want to share the good news of Jesus – to evangelise. But it also propels them to care for others, which includes caring for the Earth,” says Jacqui Grey, Dean of Theology at Alphacrucis College, the national college of Australian Christian Churches. “While there are many ways Pentecostals understand premillennialism, it does not necessarily lead to a disrespect for the environment.”

In any case, Grey point out premillennialism is a doctrine that is hardly spoken about these days in modern Pentecostal churches. “It is not a topic that is really integrated into the messages in the church. The way it is expressed within Pentecostalism is a care to reach out to others. Because the time is short, we need to share the message of Christ to the world. It brings a sense of urgency.”

“But in terms of discussion of end times and eschatology [the doctrine of ‘the future’], to be honest, it is not a topic that is raised within a contemporary church setting.”

Boyce attempts to draw a wedge between what he says Pentecostal believe and climate change.

Grey sees modern Pentecostalism as having left behind the “left behind” premillennialism since the 1980s.

Tara Condradt, Lead Pastor of Sanctuary church in Joondalup, Western Australia, finds it hard to think of a locally-written song sung by many Pentecostals that describe premillennialism. “If there was any Hillsong ones, they would be older,” she tells Eternity. “There are a few current Bethel ones we avoid.”

Boyce attempts to draw a wedge between what he says Pentecostal believe and climate change. “The reality of global heating means that Pentecostal theology about the forthcoming return of Christ to gather his people, judge others and set up his reign on Earth is no longer an interesting eccentricity but a dangerous heresy,” Boyce writes.

“It is the responsibility of mainstream church leaders and theologians to challenge this understanding of the End Times and provide much-needed support to the brave Pentecostals who are questioning it from within.” But Australia’s mainstream protestantism is evangelical, unlike the US, where the “mainline” is liberal or progressive.

While the idea of Christ reigning on earth is a premillennial idea, his return is simply orthodox Christian doctrine. While acknowledging this, Boyce writes: “Like the Christians of the first Pentecost who inspire them, Pentecostals actively look forward to Christ’s imminent return.”  This is true of Pentecostals, but all Christians who take the Bible seriously should live as though Jesus could return tonight.

Yet the possibility of climate change catastrophe is not inconsistent with premillennial doctrine, or Christianity in general. (This is not to say that all Christians accept – or should accept – anthropogenic global warming. Many don’t. And not simply premillenialists.)

One of the terrible predictions in the Book of Revelation is intense heat. “The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire.They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.” (Revelation 16:8–9 NIV)

Depending on how you interpret Revelation, that sort of thing can be happening now in the time before the return of Christ.

By contrast, Boyce attempts to drive a wedge between Christianity and anthropogenic global warming. “The fate of human beings and the future of creation will not be determined by the burning of fossil fuels but by Christ when he remakes heaven and Earth.”

One prediction of Earth becoming four degrees warmer is its population will be reduced to only one billion – but even this is not inconsistent with the promise of Christ’s return, whether part of a premillenial scheme or not. That is because great catastrophes short of the ending of the world is not ruled out by the Bible. In fact we are told to expect them.

The return of Christ is held by most Australian churches, from Catholic to Pentecostal. When Boyce appeals to a “mainstream” that allegedly differs from the Pentecostals who “actively look forward to Christ’s imminent return”, it becomes clear he is reading Australian Christianity through a foreign lens, almost as if he applies US criteria.

Boyce’s confusion is made clear in a curious juxtaposition. After describing the ACC’s premillennialism, he immediately notes: “The End Times was also the theme of the most recent Katoomba Easter Convention, an annual and highly influential evangelical retreat.” KCC is concerned with the return of Christ, and our need to be prepared, absolutely. The organisers of the KCC event told Eternity that the need for Christians to be spurred to reaching the world for Christ us the reason for the topic. At this point they agree with pentecostals. But KCC are certainly not premillennial.

Premillennialism has largely disappeared in Australia outside of Pentecostalism. A century ago, it was a major preoccupation of most evangelical churches, along with temperance.

Are Pentecostals less vocal on climate change than other evangelicals? They share the tension expressed by Anglican Michael Jensen on the With All Due Respect podcast that evangelism – winning people to Christ – should be the church’s priority.

But history – just to take white Australian history – shows that Christians have taken part in national emergencies, with evangelism occurring in the midst of war and depression. In the middle of disaster, Christians have always called others to Christ.

Are Pentecostals less engaged on social issues? The ACC and other branches of Pentecostalism certainly have came from a quietist tradition. That’s because it once was a small movement, with a largely working class base.

But the emergence of Pentecostalism as a mass movement, whether C3, Hillsong or ACC, have given this branch of Christianity a new prominence. The emergence of ministries like the anti-slavery movement A21, led by Australian Pentecostal Christine Caine, shows that as it grows, modern Australian Pentecostalism gets active (like other Christian groups before it).

So, Boyce has a point. But only for the next five minutes.

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