Ramblings on My Church’s Small Group and the Holy Spirit

My church has small groups during the fall and the spring.  This fall, we are going through Robert Morris’ The God I Never Knew: How Real Friendship with the Holy Spirit Can Change Your Life.  In the past, the church’s small groups have gone through Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

I decided to go to the 10 a.m. group because I like morning meetings better than evening meetings.  Once I find a job, I may have to stop attending, depending on my hours.  But, in the meantime, I will keep on going.

I do stand out in the group.  I am the only male there.  I am also the youngest.  The group has mothers, elderly people, and soon-to-be retirees.  I hope that my presence there does not make anyone uncomfortable.  Although my presence there is probably unusual, the group has been welcoming to me.

I like the practical wisdom that I see in the group, as older people share their experiences with younger people.  People were talking last week about the grieving process after losing a loved one.

One member of the group was talking about doing church service projects with a couple of people, and those people recently “left us.”  That is a sad reminder of the reality of death.  People are with us, doing things, and then they are not.

We did not get that deeply into theology last week, but we did talk some about it.  Robert Morris, the author of the book we are reading, tells about his pastor, who told him to beware of people who talk about the Holy Spirit.  Morris was saying that a lot of Christians are reticent about the Holy Spirit, for a variety of reasons.

That made me think about how my own church background handled the Holy Spirit.  The church in which I was raised was non-Trinitarian.  It thought that God the Father and God the Son were God but that the Holy Spirit was not.  It saw the Holy Spirit as God’s power rather than as a person within the Godhead.

You would think that the church of my upbringing would not talk much about the Holy Spirit.  Morris himself argues that the Holy Spirit is a person, apparently seeing the view that the Holy Spirit is God’s impersonal power as part of the problem.  Actually, though, the church of my upbringing talked a lot about the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit opened people’s minds to God’s truth and dwelt inside of believers, enabling them to live righteous lives, if the believers yielded to it.  The person giving the opening prayer would ask for God’s Holy Spirit to be present in the congregation, helping the speaker in his speaking and the congregation in its listening.  God, through God’s power (or spirit), could do these things, the church of my upbringing reasoned.

There is a lot more that I could say about the church of my upbringing and its attitude towards the Holy Spirit.  It is rather difficult for me to determine whether it was cessationist in its stance on the spiritual gifts, or continuationist.  (Cessationists believe that things like tongues and healings ceased after the New Testament and now we should rely on the Bible for our information about God.  Continuationists think that such gifts have continued to exist, and that God can speak to people today.)  There were elements of both.  It did not believe in speaking in tongues and mocked Pentecostals and charismatics.  But it did believe that God spoke to its leaders, in some capacity.  Cessationist John MacArthur criticized the founder of the movement in Charismatic Chaos, pointing to him as an example of what can happen if one does not embrace cessationism.

Why did the church of my upbringing talk about the Holy Spirit?  I could ask “Why not?” The Holy Spirit is significant in the Bible, after all.  But I also think that many people there believed that their eyes were opened to the truth by the Holy Spirit.  That church believed a lot of things that the world does not believe in, things that are in the Bible yet not talked about that much in the outside world, even within Christendom.  How could people become aware of these things, instead of being unaware of them, like most people?  Their answer was that their minds had been opened by the Holy Spirit.  God had called them out of the world!  That was the only way to explain it!

(Note: This is not to suggest that I regard the teachings of the church of my upbringing as truth, but I can understand how people can consider them to be such.)

Back to the United Methodist Church that I currently attend, and its small group.  One of the facilitators was asking how we saw the Holy Spirit.  “He is inside of us,” one person said.  “I always believed that Christ was inside of me, but I guess that is the same as the Holy Spirit being inside of me,” another facilitator said.  Then someone said that our conscience can be the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us.

That actually raises a profound question.  I would not say that our conscience is the Holy Spirit inside of us.  Believers have the Holy Spirit, but everyone has a conscience.  That said, they are similar, in that both guide and instruct people about what is right and wrong.  From a Christian standpoint, I would say that the Holy Spirit gives people the power to do what their conscience demands, and perhaps also that the Holy Spirit elevates or enhances the conscience.  Whether I truly and personally believe that, I do not know.  There are Christians who struggle with moral weakness, and there are non-Christians who are good people.  I know that I seek strength from the Holy Spirit, but that does not make me morally perfect, not by a long shot.

I recently read a book, God, Please Rewire My MADFATS, which was about how people can essentially reprogram their brain in a positive direction.  From a Christian standpoint, one can ask: If I can reprogram my brain naturally so that it is positive, what role does God need to play?  The author did believe that the Holy Spirit was important, however: that we walk in victory through the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit is what makes us truly love other people, in a self-sacrificial sense.  What we naturally have can only take us so far, the author seemed to be suggesting, so there does need to be supernatural intervention for us to live a godly, righteous life.

I’ll stop here.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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