Finding Cracks in the Walls of Ecclesiological Separation

Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
Palestinian men seeking access to Jerusalem at a checkpoint in August 2012. Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

JERUSALEM — When I wrote my memoir after finishing 17 years as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, I titled it Unexpected Destinations. Today I’m certainly arriving at one of them: “Empower21,” in Jerusalem. It’s a global gathering of Pentecostals, calling them together to celebrate Pentecost at its birthplace. The organizers, led by Billy Wilson, President of Oral Roberts University, and George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, expect 10,000 to gather here.

In one way, there’s every reason for me not to come. First, I’m not a Pentecostal. I’ll admit to enjoying Hillsong’s music and having a warm place in my heart for Pentecostalism’s vibrant and enthusiastic spirituality, compared to the more orderly and restrained style of my Reformed family. But being one person among 10,000 who doesn’t automatically raise his hands during four days of worship feels strange.

Then it’s the combination of some Pentecostals and Israeli politics that makes me theologically nervous. While a paragraph is too short to sort out my views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but long enough to get me in trouble, I’ll try. Ever since I worked with Senator Mark O. Hatfield, and he took a trip to Israel/Palestine that included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp, I’ve had deep political empathy for Palestinians — initially disposed of their lands, now living under an occupation that has lasted nearly five decades, and viewed as illegal by most of the international community. At the same time, I recognize that the singular, intense focus by Israelis on the security of the State of Israel is not just about its political right to exist in the midst of its hostile neighbors. It reflects a deep-seated emotional commitment to the survival of the Jewish people through a protected homeland.

On the ride from the Tel Aviv Airport to Jerusalem, at one point the highway is walled off on both sides. My driver says, “That’s Jerusalem ahead. And Palestine on each side.” It’s a microcosm of the “Occupied Territories,” now riddled with Jewish settlements that make its map look like a piece of Swiss cheese instead of a long hoped for Palestinian State. It’s my third visit here, and each time, simply looking at the present geographical reality, and the endlessly winding separation wall, convinces me that this tragic situation cannot be sustained.

That’s why I’ve always found “evangelical Zionism” to be so troubling. That’s the belief, found in many evangelical and Pentecostal circles, that the whole extended area of Israel, including the occupied territories and all of Jerusalem, belongs to modern State of Israel through some kind of a divine right — end of story. I simply don’t read my Bible as drawing the political boundaries of modern states. And I’ve listened often to Palestinian Christian friends share what they feel when others impose such a biblical interpretation upon their destiny.

Yet, this journey to Jerusalem is not to engage these questions, even though checkpoints and security always remind one of such realities. Rather, I’ve come to learn more, relate, worship, and share with the global Pentecostal community. And that is a precious and wonderful gift.

Since modern Pentecostalism began with the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 — although Pentecostal historians will point to other outbreaks of revival as well — the Pentecostal community has held large global gatherings and conferences. Empower21 is one of those, coming out of the 100th Anniversary of Azusa Street celebrated in Los Angeles in 2006. And the growing, explosive nature of global Pentecostalism is well represented.

That’s why I am here. One out of four Christians today is Pentecostal or charismatic, which means one of every 12 persons living today practices a Pentecostal form of Christian faith. This, along with the astonishing growth of Christianity in Africa, are the two dominant narratives shaping world Christianity today. Further, the gulf between the older, historic churches, located largely in the global North, and the younger, emerging churches in the global South, often fueled by Pentecostal fire, constitutes the most serious division in the worldwide Body of Christ today.

One can also frame this as the divide between the global Pentecostal community, and the worldwide ecumenical movement. Each lives in virtual isolation from the other, and both suffer as a result. I call it ecclesiological apartheid, with its own endless, winding walls of separation. And these walls need to come down, for the sake of God’s love for the world.

It’s become my passion, in whatever small ways, to make some cracks in these walls. Just like the Israeli checkpoints one must pass through to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we have our own theological checkpoints. We want to scrutinize another’s creeds, or practices, or politics, or ethics, or sacraments before deciding whether they are worthy of passing through a wall, simply to be in fellowship — and maybe, someday, to even enjoy a meal together. I’m as troubled by this as I am by the physical wall here separating Israelis from Palestinians.

We’ve got to overcome these divisions in Christ’s body, not as a project, or a strategy, but because it’s sin. It’s an affront to God. And it inhibits the work of God’s Spirit, first poured out here in Jerusalem on those from all parts of the world, creating a unity that propelled mission and began to heal the world.

So, in fact, I love being here. My hands will even get above my shoulders. I’m encountering old friends and making many new ones. And I spent my first afternoon with Pentecostal scholars from Africa. What a treasure.

Rev. Prince Guneratnum, President of the Pentecostal World Fellowship, and a close friend through the Global Christian Forum, invited me here as an ecumenical guest. How grateful I am to him. Vibrant worship with powerful speakers, but then followed by countless workshops will mark these days. The program book lists 147 persons who are speaking or leading a wide variety of opportunities to learn and share. And I’ll, in turn, reflect on what I experience, and where I discover more cracks in those walls.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church . For 17 years he served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and has long been active in ecumenical initiatives such as the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together. He’s been associated with the ministry of Sojourners for 40 years.

Image: Palestinian men seeking access to Jerusalem at a checkpoint at Bethlehem, West Bank in August 2012. Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

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