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PresbyCostal Social Engagement

I grew up in the Pentecostal church and served in ordained Pentecostal ministry. As a result, Pentecostalism profoundly shapes my understanding of how God continues to work today in ways I cannot possibly comprehend. That said, I am now convictionally Reformed and Presbyterian (It’s a long story). In the end, my wife and I often joke that we will forever be presbycostal. I might not be Pentecostal in my pneumatology, but when it comes to the belief that the Spirit is actively moving in ways I cannot fully understand, control, or categorize, count me in.

That said, on this journey between two theological streams, often viewed as two ends of a spectrum, I see how much overlap there can be on issues of social engagement. Of course, there are pockets of both traditions that have marginalized social engagement as something unbecoming of the church or have engaged socially in idolatrous ways (e.g., advocacy for racist or xenophobic ideas and policies). However, as with numerous categories of theology, Reformed and Pentecostal pneumatology have much to learn from one another.

A complete treatment of pneumatological reflection from Pentecostal and Reformed perspectives deserves far greater treatment than is possible here. However, particular emphases tend to be unique to each tradition that I find vitally crucial to faithful social engagement. In particular, I want to consider why both the Pentecostal notion of power encounters and the Reformed commitment to the cultural mandate are helpful as we pursue social engagement. As we look at society and culture, recognizing our need for power encounters and our commitment to our cultural mandate provides a balance between an overly negative or positive view of culture. This balance can lead to faithful witness, especially in pursuits of justice.

Power Encounters

Within Pentecostal pneumatology and missiology is the expectation of power encounters. In short, power encounters are the expected intersection of believers––believers indwelled by the Spirit––with demonic forces. With these encounters, by the power of the Spirit of Christ, demonic powers are exercised and cast out of those they possess. In sum, power encounters are a way of describing exorcism and deliverance from demonic forces.

As I describe these kinds of encounters and the expectation of encounters with demons, I can feel my Reformed sisters and brothers getting uncomfortable. Why? For many, they have a good and right concern about an overemphasis of demonic influences. In my Pentecostal days, we often joked about how easy it could be to see demons around every corner or blame every cough, bad day, or sound system glitch on demonic activity. And to be fair, an overemphasis on demonic activity has absolutely created scenarios that were anti-intellectual, anti-science, or that led to manipulative abuse.

That said, being cautious about overemphasizing demonic activity is not the same as, frankly, the cognitivism and intellectualizing of the Reformed faith that too often replaced our sensitivities to evil forces at work. There is nothing particularly non-Reformed, in recognizing the presence and influence of such evil forces. In fact, it could be argued that one of the most lacking aspects of the current expression of the Reformed tradition (I say current because there is a history of sensitivity to demonic forces in the Reformed tradition) is the recognition of very real evil forces present in the workings of the world and that the Holy Spirit empowers Christians to confront those forces.

With that in mind, if we, for a moment, assume there are demonic forces at work in the world, how might that reality shape our understanding of social engagement, justice work, and the role of the church?

Eldin Villafañe develops a Hispanic Pentecostal social ethic in his must-read, The Liberating Spirit. In the following statements, Villafañe critiques Pentecostal individualism but, in doing so, also addresses the need for us all to take the effect of evil forces on our systems and structures seriously. Consider these gems from Villafañe,

The tendency of many…is to see the struggle too individualistically and not see the spiritual warfare must correspond with the geography of evil––the sinful and evil structures of society. The Hispanic Pentecostal Church must see itself not as a locus for personal liberation, but also as a locus for social liberation…The church's mission includes engaging in power encounters with sinful and evil structures. (200-201)

While it is true that Pentecostalism has been recognized as a powerful force in evangelism, world missions, church growth, and spirituality, it is equally true that their services and prophetic voice against sinful social structures and on behalf of social justice have been missing. (202)

The baptism of the Spirit in Hispanic Pentecostalism is rightfully seen as empowerment for service, impacting the believer deeply––giving him/her tremendous boldness, a heightened sense of personal Holiness, and a new sense of self-worth and personal power…the Hispanic Pentecostal church has the spiritual resources to face the spiritual power encounters of our social struggles. (204)

In other words, for Pentecostal brothers and sisters, there is a need to leverage the belief in the Spirit’s empowerment not only for the individual but also against the spiritual forces at work in our systems and structures. While Villafañe is reminding Pentecostals of this reality, the Reformed desperately need such reminders.

I wonder if, for too long, we, the Reformed, have allowed the disenchantment of the Enlightenment to pervade our theology and, as a result, functionally remove our experience of the Spirit’s power against demonic forces. I wonder if we need a re-enchantment of this world that takes seriously the spiritual forces set against us and then, by the empowerment of the Spirit of Christ, confront those powers with boldness. And as we again embrace this experience, allow that experience to lead us to see systems––systems we all still allow––of oppression, injustice, marginalization, and inequality for what they are: demonic. And as a result, for those of us desiring to work for justice, equality, and the dignity of all people, we can then approach that work with proper expectations. Like Pentecostals going into the world expecting to have power encounters, so can we approach our work with the assumption there will be demonic forces set against us.

This does not mean we need to exercise demons from our government, institutions, and culture. I do not see our work as combatants against culture and society. In fact, as I will consider below, my Reformed, and particularly neo-Calvinistic leanings, give me frameworks for how we should participate fully in our society's development. But, as we do, we must also recognize we truly do wrestle against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

But the above represents the costal side of being PresbyCostal. What might the Presby have to offer to social engagement. Amongst many contributions, one is undoubtedly our conviction of the cultural mandate.

Cultural Mandate

(Before I begin, please know that while I am referring to my Presby side, I will speak about the Reformed tradition more broadly. Yes, I know not all those in the Reformed tradition are Presbyterian!)

The development of oppression, unjust, and marginalizing systems and structures need not be seen solely as under the influence of demonic forces. And as a result, the changing of those systems need not be viewed solely through that lens either. Instead, we have a creational mandate to join the Spirit’s work in cultural development, not as a combatant against culture, but as co-laborer in culture. By the power of the Spirit––the same Spirit that empowers us in power encounters––we can fully engage in the development of culture and view it as a creational good.

A commitment to our cultural mandate means, amongst many things, that the world was created with potential and that we are capable of subduing and cultivating the earth. Furthermore, and to the main point, the cultural mandate must be seen as a category of our pneumatology. The same Spirit who hovered over the waters and established creation is the same Spirit who continues a preserving work in His creation and empowers us to cultivate.

In his book, The Spirit of Public Theology, Vince E. Bacote argues this point and the necessity of seeing the development of history pneumatologically. He notes,

The relationship between creation and history is important because it provides a way to speak of the significance of acts on the divinely created biophysical order while keeping it distinct from a discussion of creation as the product of divine causality. Here is the link: by virtue of the Spirit’s preserving activity in creation, history becomes possible and hence the opportunity to steward the created order by means such as cultural development in political involvement…. When one understands creation is the biophysical order, the created order is considered to be something that was conceived with development in mind. In other words, the cultural mandate reflects an implicit understanding that the entire biophysical order was created in a state of potential, ready for the long process of development. (18)

To reflect adequately on the Spirit's cosmic work, it is necessary to reflect on and encourage approaches to pneumatology that bring to light the fullness of the Spirit's work. (20)

I could not agree more with that final statement. We need to “reflect adequately on the Spirit's cosmic work” so we might realize the “fullness of the Spirit's work.” As I mentioned above, one aspect of the Spirit’s work involves confrontation with demonic forces involved in the development of oppressive and unjust systems, but another aspect of the Spirit’s work is the preserving of creation and the empowerment of Christians “to steward the created order by means such as cultural development…” Not to mention the Spirit's role in our union with Christ, thus bringing us from death to life!


The summation of my PresbyCostal convictions (At least in regards to social engagement. I have a lot more to say about the overlap concerning experiential faith) is simply that we need a robust pneumatology that takes the role of evil forces––forces set against us––in our social engagement. Not approaching such work as a spiritual battle hamstrings our work before we’ve even started.

But lest we approach such work pessimistically or with a negative view of culture and society, we also need the encouragement of the cultural mandate. We can embrace our calling to go into creation and labor alongside other image-bearers––whether they are Christians or not––and cultivate the world in ways that reflect the righteousness and justice of God.


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