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Summer 2012, Vol. 9

From Fear to Love: The Path toward Christian UnityAdapted from an AGTS Special Evening Chapel Lecture, March 20, 2012

Cecil M. Robeck, Jr.
Fuller Theological Seminary,
Professor of Church History and Ecumenics and
Director of the David J. DuPlessis Center for Christian Spirituality

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1 John 4:16-21

Thank you! It is good to be with you tonight. A number of you I know and recognize. It is always good to be among old friends and new acquaintances. Thank you, Byron, for your introduction. Byron Klaus, Johan Mostert, and I go back a long way.

I want to begin by reading from 1 John 4:16-21. There are a number of passages I could have called upon, such as John 17:21 where Jesus prays to the Father about making all of His followers one so that the world would believe that God had sent Him. That is a profound statement to which the Ecumenical Movement often appeals, but we Pentecostals typically spiritualize it. It is not something that we look at as referring to a tangible, visible reality – that we are one with anybody else. In 1 John 4:16-21, we have another important reference:

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world, we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.” You cannot get much more pointed than that; yet we do not always love our sisters or our brothers. They are not like us. They do not look like us, they do not sound like us; they do not worship the way we worship. In fact, they worship in ways that we wish they did not. We talk about them, mostly behind their backs. We have our stereotypes; we understand what we think they believe and do. We often say that what they believe is not orthodox or what they do it is not what they are supposed to do.

These Are Our Brothers and Sisters

I want to back up and suggest that the reason this is such an important passage for us to consider is that it follows on what Jesus said in John’s Gospel: we are in relationship to all those who name the name of Jesus Christ, whether we like it or not.

I have four brothers, and we do not always get along. Our lifestyles and our lives are completely different from one another. Sometimes we argue. Sometimes our arguments run deep, but they are my brothers.  Don’t you dare attack them! There is both love there and responsibility for one another.
Think back to the book of Genesis and the story of Cain and Abel. God asked Cain a question: “Where is Abel?” Cain responds with his own question: “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” God responded, “Yes, if you listen carefully his blood is crying out from the ground and you are responsible for his death.”

Think about the young lawyer who comes to Jesus and asks, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  And Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 22:36-40).

We are responsible for one another, but if you look at our language, our politics, the way that we vote, how we talk about other churches, the ways we confront one another on controversial issues—you can see what we are willing to do to get our own way. Often, our approach is to put our brother or our sister down. Now, I have not always loved all of my brothers and sisters. In fact, I still have a hard time loving some of them, but God has, in fact, taken me a long way from where I began. I am still learning.  It is difficult, but it is necessary that we try, because whether we like it or not, we are responsible for one another. We are responsible to love them—something that is not always easily done!

This text does not tell us that other people are responsible to love us. God has to speak to them through this text as well. My responsibility is to love my brothers and sisters in Christ, and they have taught me a lot through the years.

The lesson I learned of loving these people did not come from the Assemblies of God. It did not come from my local pastors or congregation. I have been in the AG all of my life; my grandparents and parents were pastors. We have not always loved our sisters and brothers.

Less than a decade ago, we had Bylaws that said, “The Assemblies of God disapproves of ministers or churches participating in any of the modern ecumenical organizations…in such a manner as to promote…” their agenda. We gave our reasons: Their theology is inadequate. They substitute social justice for evangelism. They are moving us to that “great world superchurch that will culminate in the religious Babylon of Revelation 17 and 18.” But these things simply are not true! They are not true!

The World Council of Churches, for instance, requires all member churches to subscribe to the confession that “Jesus Christ is both God and Savior according to the Scriptures, and therefore [we] seek to fulfill together [our] common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Is that such a difficult confession for us to admit?

When we give an altar call, what do we typically ask people to do? “Believe in your heart, and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord.” If they do that, what do we say? “You have been saved – born again.”  Yet when we look at other churches, our tendency is to say, “They cannot really be Christians because they do this or they do that. They worship Mary, [which they do not do]. They worship the saints, [which they do not do]. They pray the rosary,” [which we don’t do].  They worship artistic renderings of God [which I have heard said of icons] or idols [images]. We expect them to abandon such practices, to become just like us.  They must change.  It is because we do not understand what they are doing that we can make such judgments and have such expectations.

My Journey into Ecumenism

I did not plan to be an ecumenist. It was clear that God had called me into ministry, though I was unclear on what it was to which I had been called. When I was in college, there were people in my congregation who said to me, “We believe you have a teaching gift, and we think that you ought to pursue that as the calling of God.” I had never thought of that! I enrolled in Bethany Bible College and quickly I found that I loved it! It was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do. When I thought about the possibility of teaching in one of our colleges, I realized that I would have to go to graduate school. So, I went to Fuller. It was the only option I really had. There were a lot of seminaries at that time that would not accept Pentecostals. I had friends who recommended Fuller to me, so that is where I went. It was a wonderful time for me.

Toward the end of my MDiv program, I was invited to teach at Southern California College (now Vanguard University). I taught New Testament and Greek and I loved it! I thought, “This is what I want to do.”

About 1975, I joined the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS). It brought a group of about 75 scholars together.  In 1979, we met at Valley Forge. An intense argument rose there—almost to the point of a fist fight—between some of the older scholars and some of the younger scholars. The older scholars said, “We have worked very hard to be good and faithful scholars within our churches.  Our leaders have not always treated us fairly because they do not understand academia   If you are going to be part of this Society, you need to be safe, and you need to do your work the way we have done ours.”

Some of the younger scholars responded by demeaning the work of the older scholars and contending that, “…time is on our side. This is going to be our Society.  You aren’t going to be around forever, and we will do our work however we wish.”

Voices were raised.  Names were called. Members of both groups became so angry with one another that they almost threw fists. And it grieved me; so, I began to pray. I prayed, “Lord, you have to settle this. We have so few Pentecostal scholars, and here we are, half of our membership cutting the other half down. We are destroying one another instead of doing something for the Kingdom.”

Then, in 1982 I was elected president of the Society, and right away I turned to the Lord for wisdom.  I told Him, “I do not know what you are going to do, but this division is what I want to address in my presidential address. I want to talk to our membership about what they are doing to one another. I want to be a bridge. I want to break down the wall of division between them.” That was my prayer, and I prayed it for nine months.

One night, in the middle of the night, the Lord woke me. I saw Him standing at the end of my bed, and He said, “Mel, I want you to talk about ecumenism.”
I said, “Lord, I can’t do that. I do not know anything about the subject. I have never had a course in ecumenism. I do not really have any ecumenical experience—except for my relationship with students with whom I work at Fuller.”   I knew that they were from other denominations, they were all Evangelical, and they were Christians, but I responded “Lord I can’t do that.” And I went back to sleep.

He woke me up again, the same night, standing at the end of my bed, and said it again, “Mel, I want you to talk about ecumenism.”

I said, “Lord, I can’t do that. Don’t you know about the AG bylaws? I will be defrocked if I do that! I can’t do that!”

And I went back to sleep. He woke me up again, and He did not change His words. “Mel, I want you to talk about ecumenism.”

At that point, I began to listen and to think about what it was that my church had taught me. It was a valuable lesson. The AG taught me that when the Lord asks you to do something, you had better do it! You do not ask how high you are supposed to jump; you simply jump. If you cannot do that, you are in big trouble! And then I thought, “I do not have the right to call myself a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ if I do not do what Jesus Christ has asked me to do.”

So, I said, “Ok,” I responded, “I will do that on one condition.” The only condition I set down for Him was that He would take care of me and my family.
In a way, that is not very much, and I can tell you tonight that He has never let me down—never! There were people in the AG who criticized me for a long time. I have walked a very long and lonely walk at times. I have taken a lot of anonymous phone calls and received a lot of nasty, anonymous letters. My face appears in a Web site called the Anti-Christ’s Family Photo Album. I had people in Springfield working to get me defrocked. I was required to stand before the Executive Presbytery at one point and tell them my story. But God is gracious and, in spite of that bylaw, they voted to sustain me.

They told me, “We do not understand why God would call you do this, and we do not understand what it is you really do, but we trust you, and we believe that we see God’s hand in this.”

Now the morning after receiving this vision, I wondered, “What should I do?” I went to my office to figure out how I was going to address this topic at the Society for Pentecostal Studies.  I wondered how it fit with my concern for unity within the SPS. I thought, “Where do I go? How do I begin?” Obviously, the AG spoke negatively about ecumenism in our bylaws. So I wondered, “What else fits in here?” Then I thought—obviously— the topic of “unity” does. So, I went back to our earliest newspapers, tracts, pamphlets, sermons, et cetera, back to Charles Parham looking for that term.  He wrote, “God has anointed me to be the apostle of unity….” He believed that he would bring all the churches together through this Pentecostal Movement.  I had never heard that before.

Then I read The Apostolic Faith published by the Azusa Street Mission, and I realized that in every issue, it proclaimed, “We stand for Christian unity everywhere.” I thought, “I have never heard that either!” All I had ever heard was that the work toward unity was bad. These people who work for unity are really working for the Antichrist. And I wondered, “How did we get from the place where we saw the Pentecostal Movement as a source of Christian unity—a response and an answer to the disunity in the Church—to where we are today, in which “unity” is potentially a work of Antichrist?

As I traced out that history, I came to realize several things. We Pentecostals had always wanted somebody to believe in us, to accept our witness, to take us seriously. The first people who did so were Evangelicals in the United States, and in 1941 they invited us to be part of the National Association of the Evangelicals (NAE). Nobody else had ever paid any positive attention to us before, and when we became part of the NAE, they told us that their enemies had to become our enemies. Keep in mind that many of these Evangelicals had come out of churches that had become liberal over time. There were good reasons for why many of them had split, but that was not our history. That was not why we were Pentecostal. I thought that reason for losing our vision of unity was very sad.

And then, of course, there was David du Plessis and the arguments that he had with Thomas Zimmerman, our General Superintendent. Brother Zimmerman was representing the institution of the Assemblies of God, and David was a prophetic character who kept raising the possibility that the Spirit was moving dynamically not only within the institution but perhaps more forcefully outside the Assemblies of God, in the Charismatic Renewal, in the World Council of Churches, in the Catholic Church and the like. His call was, “Wake up, Assemblies of God!”

About 1960, Thomas Zimmerman became not only our General Superintendent and the Chair of the Pentecostal World Conference, but also the President of the National Association of Evangelicals.  And the Evangelicals had been listening to David du Plessis and his comments that affirmed the World Council of Churches.  It made them nervous.  Some of them began to say to Brother Zimmerman, “You must straighten that guy out.” And that’s how we got the bylaw on ecumenism; it was intended to stop David du Plessis and anybody else who would align with him. So, again, I thought that it was a very sad story.

Still I wondered, “How can I use this story in obedience to God, and address my concern for the division in the SPS?” And I thought, “Maybe I can tell them about the things I believe that Pentecostals have to offer to the larger Church.” The Charismatic Renewal was already present, and there were places we could help them.  As I thought about it further, I figured that there were also things, if we were humble enough, that the rest of the Church could give to us as well?

I watch younger people today and realize that they are hungry for any sense of tradition, the liturgy of the ancient church, the art of the ancient church, the icons, even the statues that appear in some churches, and so forth. We could draw from these symbols of spirituality in contemporary life and enrich our lives along with the others. We do not have to be like them. We do not have to do exactly the same things. We are free in the Spirit, but the Spirit has the ability to transform all kinds of things. This concept began to change my heart and my life. So, I held that idea out to the SPS, and it was out of obedience to that vision, that call in the middle of the night, that I became an ecumenist.  Still I did not know it.
Donald Dayton was sitting in the audience at the time. Unbeknownst to me, he sent a copy of my address to the National Council of Churches. Brother Jeffrey Gros, FSC, who was at that time the Director of the Commission on Faith and Order of the NCC, sent it on to the World Council of Churches and to the Vatican… and I started getting invitations. Those who contacted me said things like, “It sounds like you’re a Pentecostal that we can talk to. You sound sane! You sound like you would like to hear from us. We’d certainly like to hear from you. We cannot get anybody else to talk with us!

That is how it happened. It was so simple. All I did was walk through the door that the Lord had opened up. Of course, according to the Bylaws in the Assemblies of God, there was a fine line between obedience and trouble. So I called my district superintendent, William Vickery, and asked for his advice.  I told him, “This is what happened to me. I cannot explain my circumstances in any other way.”

HE responded with, “Brother Robeck, there has to be a way. If God has called you to do this, there has to be a way.” So he called Springfield and talked with Thomas Zimmerman.

The next day Brother Vickery called back and told me that Brother Zimmerman said, “Okay, let Mel do this, provided he follows certain rules. First, never surprise us.” That’s a good rule in any job. Never surprise your superior. The second rule was “Never misrepresent yourself.” To this day, I do not represent the Assemblies of God.  I tell all the people with whom I talk that I represent Pentecostalism with integrity and from the heart of the tradition out of which I come. I’m going to be a very Pentecostal person in your midst, and I will argue the line that my General Superintendent would argue or that the President of AGTS would argue or that a Pentecostal pastor might argue.” That is my position. I have never hedged on that commitment and I have never compromised or done anything that I thought would embarrass or harm the Assemblies of God. I have purposely stayed below the radar.
I began this work with a great deal of fear, but ultimately, “perfect love drives out fear.” Fear keeps us from loving the other, and fear is based largely in ignorance. And we are ignorant of the other largely because we do not spend time with them.

Crossing Borders, Bridging Gaps

Now, I am not suggesting that you run out and spend the rest of your time while you are at AGTS going to other churches.  That is not my point. My point is that if you are going to be a loving Pentecostal who takes the rest of the Church seriously, you need to learn about these other churches; you need to be tempted by these other churches, and you need to be honest with these churches. The best ecumenists in the world are people who are tempted to become something else because they understand the inside workings of the other in such a way that they recognize the validity and the truth that is pressed there, just as we do in our own tradition. That is a hard lesson to learn. It takes time, effort, and energy. It means Church History is extremely important.

We also need to study theology in a disciplined way because our theologies vary, and we do not always use the same words in the same ways.  Part of our task of understanding and loving our brothers and sisters in these other traditions is for us to try to figure out how we can cross those borders—how we can bridge those gaps in our understanding. That means we must spend time together.

I was first invited by David du Plessis to join him in the Catholic-Pentecostal dialogues—the international dialogue that has continued since 1972. I have been involved in that dialogue since 1985 and have served as its co-chair since 1992.

Next came a group called the Secretaries of the Christian World Communions (CWC) which included such people as the General Secretaries of groups like the Baptist World Alliance, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Methodist World Council, the Lutheran World Federation. There are about twenty different groups that belong to this group. They had been writing to the Pentecostal World Fellowship for years, inviting its General Secretary to join them.  They had never even received a response turning them down.  All they did was spend 3-4 days a year discussing common concerns, updating one other on what is going on in the various traditions.  Finally, they asked the Catholic Church to make a personal appeal to me. The Catholics said, “Look they really want you. They need somebody to explain Pentecostalism to them. They want some Pentecostal with whom they can speak.” So I joined them and I have been with them for twenty years. It is the most informative annual seminar I could attend anywhere, and it is global in its breadth.

Once I joined the CWCs, it opened the door to other dialogues.  Dialogue with the World Alliance [now Communion] of Reformed Churches came first. Dr. Milan Opočenský, the Reformed General Secretary, asked me for a dialogue.  I responded with, “Why would you want to talk to us?”

“We are all Christians,” he maintained. “We ought to get to know one another. We are brothers and sisters.”

I told him that this argument would never sell in Springfield, Missouri. You must give me something tangible here. Help me.”

So he went away and came back a year later. “I’ve got it,” he said. In South Korea, we have a problem. There are Presbyterians and Pentecostals, and they do not get along. The Presbyterians think you Pentecostals are heretics. Is there not some way we can help them to understand one another?”

So we worked together for five years and took the dialogue to Seoul. Peace was made between the Presbyterians and the Assemblies of God in Seoul, and the Assemblies of God joined the Korean National Council of Churches. Today, the President of that organization is an Assemblies of God minister.
Next came the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. “We like what we see in the Reformed dialogue,” he said. “Would you be willing to open up something similar with us?”  I asked him, “What would you like to discuss?” 

The answer came back, “In the Lutheran World Federation we have this church in Ethiopia. It is called the Ethiopian Evangelical Mekane Yesus Church. About ten years ago it was running 300,000 people. Today, it is 6 million strong. But they speak in tongues, and dance in the Spirit, and fall on the floor. They do things like you do. Could you help us to understand them?” I thought that could be a worthwhile conversation.

So we worked five years on “Experiencing God” in worship, in the Word, in the sacraments, in the service, and we wrote up a report. The Lutheran World Federation is now studying that and saying, “We want to have further discussions.”

A year ago, Neville Callam, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance,came to me and volunteered, “I think Baptists and Pentecostals have a lot in common. I think we ought to talk.”

I said, “Well, Neville, what would you like to talk about?”

He said, “Truth be told, Baptists aren’t fully Trinitarian. We let the Holy Spirit go a long time ago, and we need to become more Trinitarian. I think you folks have a point there from which we could learn. Could you help us better to understand the person and the work of the Holy Spirit?” That sounded like a pretty good issue to me.

That is the way ecumenism works. It works through personal relationships. It works through listening to one another. It works through working on the issues that are important to the various people that are there and you do not have to apologize for who you are. Just be yourself.

Moving from Fear to Love

So it moves from fear to love, which is what John tells us in this text. Fear keeps us apart. Fear is detrimental. In my estimation, fear is based upon ignorance. We are afraid of them because we do not know who they are. The lack of education within Pentecostal circles, even among Pentecostal leaders hurts us all. This is a generalization, but our leaders do not have the same level of education that other Christian leaders have. As a result, we fear them. This is why seminary is so important for our leaders. You are here, God is forming you as leaders, and you are part of the leadership team. He’s putting together.

What I want to say to you tonight is simply this: Listen to the Lord when He says, “Fear not!” The most often quoted commandment in all of Scripture is two words long: “Fear not.” Abraham heard it. Joshua heard it. Gideon heard it. Mary heard it. There are perhaps a hundred individuals who were told, “Fear not.” Why should we not fear? “I am with you,” says the Lord. Doing away with our fears opens up possibilities that we could not have imagined. When I went to Fuller Seminary as a student, my wife Patsy and I would both bear witness that neither of us had any idea where God would take us.

I was granted eight audiences with Pope John Paul II. On one occasion he invited me to lead the congregation in prayer. On another, I was asked to lead the congregation in the Nicene Creed. He invited me to share the platform with him several times between 2000 and his death. When Pope Benedict XVI was installed, I was invited to sit on the platform fifteen feet from the altar. And when he preached, he took a line from one of John Pauls’ major addresses to young people. He said, “Young people, give your lives to Jesus Christ. Do not be afraid!” Those were his exact words. “Do not be afraid! He is not going to take anything away from you and, in fact, he will fill your life with all kinds of things.” That was his promise in his inaugural address.

This past October, Pope Benedict invited me to travel with him to Assisi, to pray with him, and talk with him about peace for the world. He invited me to sit at his table and eat a meal with him. I have been with presidents, ambassadors, diplomats, and top leaders of the Church around the world. I have sat in the monastery where the Ecumenical Patriarch works, all because the Lord woke me up in the middle of the night and said, “I want you to talk about ecumenism.” I am not creative enough to have imagined where that call would take me, but I have overcome my fear. My fear was that I would get into trouble, or be defrocked. But my fear is now gone—whether it is growth or age, I do not know!

The fact is, the Lord has been faithful to me. Now I call upon you to be faithful to Him. Fear not! And may the Lord bless you!

Updated: Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM