Thursday, May 28, 2009


It’s Pentecost, and I’m thinking about my late teacher, Frank Stagg, who wrote a book some years ago in response to what he perceived to be a crisis in Baptist life precipitated by an elitist group with a mind toward imposing their piety on everyone else. The crisis was glossalalia (Greek for “speaking in tongues”) and the book was titled The Holy Spirit Today. In the book (and I’m going from memory here; I gave my considerable theological library to the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies when I retired), Frank distinguished between two different manifestations of the Spirit – one he termed “Pentecostal” and the other “Corinthian.” The former was consistent with and characterized by the movement of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise, descended upon the Church to empower them to be Jesus’ witnesses “…in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This Pentecostal movement of the Spirit was characterized by its outward momentum: it was centrifugal, other-oriented, inclusive, unifying, self-abnegating, and constructive. He contrasted this Pentecostal expression of the Spirit with what he called “Corinthian” spirituality which, in contrast to the Pentecostal, was centripetal, dispersive, self-aggrandizing, manipulative, coercive, and destructive. The church at Corinth, you will recall, was fragmented and divided largely due to the influence of a group of self-styled “spiritual elitists” who believed that their expression of the Spirit (glossalalia) was the only legitimate expression of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and they insisted on coercing everyone to conform to their perspective and practice. It proved so destructive that Paul had to devote three whole chapters of his Letter (1 Cor. 12-14) to quell the controversy, essentially arguing that when it comes to the presence of the Spirit, there is no “one size fits all” piety that can be coerced on everyone, and that no single preference or practice should be set up as a “litmus test” for spirituality. Frank concluded that the contemporary practice of glossalalia in Baptist life was more “Corinthian” than “Pentecostal” and was, therefore, counterproductive.

Well, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. There is a new practice of piety among the spiritual elitists in the church that has all the earmarks of “Corinthian spirituality.” I speak of the popular practice of raising one’s hands in worship, especially (almost exclusively!) during the singing of praise choruses in contemporary worship services. This practice was, until recently, confined to the so-called Pentecostal denominations. But lately, due to the pervasive influence of the so-called “praise and worship movement,” it has become equally ensconced in Baptist piety as well. “Bapticostals” some have taken to calling themselves, and the question is, “Is this practice “Pentecostal” or “Corinthian?”

Well, you tell me. Is it centrifugal, other-oriented, inclusive, unifying, self-abnegating, and constructive, or is it centripetal, dispersive, self-aggrandizing, manipulative, coercive, and fragmenting? Are you made to feel somehow “less spiritual” when everybody around you is raising their hands and you’re not? Turn it around: Do you look around to see who’s not raising their hands? And here’s the clincher: Do you ever raise your hands in praise to God when the Scripture is being read or when the sermon is being preached or when (gasp!) the offering is being received, or is it only when you’re being whipped into an emotional frenzy by a praise chorus? And finally, do you ever raise your hands in praise to God when you’re alone and no one is watching?

Pentecostal or Corinthian? You decide.


Jimmy Britt said...

Hi Dr. Stacy, I love your posts! I'm a big fan! I'm a GWU Div School graduate (M.Christopher White School of Divinity). I just love your style and your way of saying things.

I pastor a church and we do have folks who will raise their hands during worship, as do I from time to time. I'm examining now why I do it. I totally get your point. But I have to say, the Baptist Church I grew up in - and so many where I've preached and even at GWU - are just so boring and without "spirit" (or is it Spirit?). I do question at times in my own church if some of the "hand raising" is authentic or not. But I also wonder if it is worse to be Corinthian Spirit filled or not at all.

I hate all of the "middle of the road" talk these days. But it does seem to me that their ought to be middle ground on this. I'm not trying to say we should be a little right and a little wrong to have the middle. I'm just saying that in our Baptist churches there must be a livelier expression (more Spirit filled) than what I am seeing.

Thank you again for your blog. I constantly check it for posts just like this one.


R. Wayne Stacy said...

Hi Jimmy. Good to hear from you again.

It's not the act of raising hands to which I object; it's when it becomes a litmus test of piety by means of which to manipulate and coerce others into conforming to someone else's idea and image of "spiritual" that it, in fact, becomes "Corinthian" and, therefore, counterproductive and divisive.

Pax Christi,


D said...

Great to have you as part of CC Blogs. Look forward to reading your work. Welcome!

Anonymous said...

Bapticostal... I am glad hear that other people use that term. I just wanted to welcome you to the CC Blogs fellowship.

In response to this post, I would ask why not both? It doenst seem that they have to be mutually exclusive.

Anonymous said...

Ha, I just realized how unclear my last comment was. When I said how about both, I meant that while the Corinthian church had its problems, as you mentioned, it was still a congregation of the saints. I think that we can take ill-conceived and wrongheaded spirituality and work to correct it as Paul did. We can point to the good aspects, such as a desire for the gifts, while also condemning the negative aspects like pride. We can use the imperfections of people to point them to their need for Christ.