All You Need to Know About the Assemblies of God

A primer for Palin watchers and others.

Rich Tatum |

“She is a longtime member of the Assemblies of God. That’s all you need to know.”

That’s how political blogger Andrew Sullivan recently summarized Governor Sarah Palin’s faith background.

But entertain the crazy thought that some people might want to know more. What would we learn from the media about the Assemblies of God?

It’s “the evangelical experience on steroids,” “where sitting is an option but clapping is not,” where beliefs “stray a bit from the mainstream” and which “mainstream Christians don’t understand.” There’s the usual report of tongues, faith-healing, and “end times” — threateningly caricaturized as “a violent upheaval that … will deliver Jesus Christ’s second coming.” Combine “holy laughter, divine dancing, silver tooth fillings turning into gold, [and] the regeneration of a large intestine,” and you see why Palin’s childhood faith has been “deemed irrelevant by the liberal intelligentsia because it is regarded as fundamentalist and … irrational.”

Then again, news accounts of “rational faith” have been rather scarce.

The first wave

About one in four Christian believers worldwide are Pentecostal or charismatic, and the percentage is increasing daily. The World Christian Database says 8.7 percent of the world’s population is part of this “renewalist” group. The AG is one of the most prominent Pentecostal groups, it’s only a part of the movement. An AG study from 2006 found 60 million adherents in more than 300,000 churches worldwide. About 2.8 million of these are in the U.S.

The renewalist movement in the U.S. is often divided into three historical “waves.” The first wave began in 1901, resulting in the “classical” Pentecostal denominations, including the Assemblies of God. The second (“charismatic”) wave began around 1960, and the third (“neocharismatic”) wave around 1980. While there are doctrinal and practical differences between the various Pentecostal and charismatic believers, what is common to all is the conviction that the Holy Spirit is personally active, immanent, and works through believers by giving gifts (charisms) for ministry, evangelism, and holiness.

While some scholars have traced a thread of Pentecostal and charismatic expressions throughout church history, the modern renewal began with the “touch felt around the world” on January 1, 1901, when students of Charles Fox Parham were “baptized in the Spirit” and spoke in tongues after studying the Bible to prove or deny the validity of such an experience. The fledgling movement found its tipping point at the Azusa Street Revival, led by a former student of Parham’s, William Joseph Seymour. This California revival, from 1906 to 1909, is widely considered the true genesis of Pentecostalism and has been called ” America ‘s most successful spiritual export.”

The first Pentecostal denomination to form (in 1907) was the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), led by Charles H. Mason. The body that became the AG formed in 1914.

What do they believe?

Today, the Assemblies of God is generally considered orthodox with beliefs common to many denominations — excepting mainstream cessationist groups. George Barna reports that among the 12 largest denominations, Assemblies of God adherents tend to have the highest “overall purity of … biblical perspectives.” They are more likely to be born again, to be “absolutely committed” to faith, to hold a high view of Scripture, to believe in a literal heaven and hell, to believe that Jesus was sinless, to believe that God created the universe, are more likely to pray, and are more likely to share the gospel with unbelievers.

Assemblies of God adherents are evangelical, believing in the need for personal salvation and the call to evangelize. They have a high view of biblical authority and believe in the literal death and resurrection of Jesus. They are Arminian, believing that God-given free will is compatible with divine sovereignty. They believe that salvation is by grace and unmerited but is conditional on faith and on accepting the sacrifice and lordship of Jesus — and therefore, one can willfully fall from grace. They are thoroughly Trinitarian, rejecting the modalism as expressed in the Oneness or “Jesus’ Name”-only Pentecostal movement (e.g., the United Pentecostal Church).

Their essential doctrines are expressed in creedal form in their “Sixteen Fundamental Truths,” and expanded on in a variety of position papers available online. Their four core doctrines are a belief in salvation, divine healing, Jesus’ imminent “second coming” (along with the rapture, tribulation, and the millennial reign of Christ), and that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is a divine gift freely available to all believers.

This baptism is the core “distinctive doctrine” of the Assemblies of God, defined as a work of grace and an experience subsequent to and distinct from conversion (and not required for salvation), accompanied by the “initial physical evidence” of speaking in other tongues. This experience empowers believers for Christian witness, service, and holiness. Distinct from water-immersion baptism, Pentecostals see Spirit baptism as an immersion in the power, person, and experience of the Holy Spirit, and locate it biblically as promised in Joel 2:28-29, Mark 1:8, and John 16:5-16; made normative in Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4-5; modeled in Acts 2:1-4; and universally extended as a gift to all believers in Acts 2:38-39.

Not just TV preachers

In addition to media-whipped anomalies such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Benny Hinn (all former Assemblies of God ministers), other AG churchgoers have gained national attention, including singer-songwriter Sara Groves, former U.S. Representatives Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) and Linda Smith (R-Wash.), and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

And, of course, Sarah Palin.

But while Palin may well have been “a longtime member of the Assemblies of God,” she has not regularly attended an AG church since 2002. And a lot can change in six years.

Rich Tatum is a freelance writer who attends an AG church and blogs at TatumWeb.com/blog/.

Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today.

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