Chapter 1: Pentecostalism, Theology and Social Ethics, by Bernardo L. Campos M.

In the Power of the Spirit
by Dennis A. Smith and B.F. Gutierrez (eds.)

Chapter 1: Pentecostalism, Theology and Social Ethics, by Bernardo L. Campos M.

Note: Bernardo L. Campos is a pastor and director of the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (affiliated with the Association of Autonomous Pentecostal Churches). He is also director of the Peruvian Institute of Religious Studies (IPER). He received his bachelor's degree in theology from the Superior Institute of Theological Studies. He is a writer and lecturer on Pentecostalism and a specialist on several religious groups indigenous to Latin America. This chapter first appeared in In the Power of the Spirit, edited by Benjamin F. Gutierrez & Dennis A. Smith, published in 1996 by PC(USA)WMD AIPRAL/CELEP, pp. 41-50.


No one today doubts that the Pentecostal movement is one of the most significant religious experiences of the century. This fact has been recognized by Catholics, Protestants and innumerable social scientists. It is both a social-religious phenomenon and an alternative movement in the life and mission of the Christian church.

We begin with the premise that Pentecostalism is above all a religious movement and not a "denomination" or a "religious organization." Although there are religious communities within both Protestantism and Catholicism that call themselves "Pentecostal" or "charismatic," it is its character as movement that produces Pentecostalism's visible fruits.

The present political situation in Latin America has generated so much heated debate about the Church, the "sects," and religious freedom that it has become necessary to take a closer look at the existing religious scene, including Pentecostalism, if we are to build a coherent theological overview of the region capable of generating serious ecumenical dialogue.

I realize that the title of this article may raise a few eyebrows. Its diverse and complex origins, social make-up, religious practices and beliefs, not to mention ethical idiosyncrasies, will lead some to doubt whether Pentecostalism acts "in the power of the Spirit." Nevertheless, I will present four arguments for why the Pentecostal movement can be understood as a sign of the power of God's Spirit moving in the church.

I. A spiritual movement

Methodologically, any sociological consideration of religious movements or identities must begin by taking into account the considered views of its own practitioners, filtered, of course, through the lens provided by academic discipline and through the perspective of a particular investigator.

According to Pentecostal believers themselves, Pentecostalism is neither a simple socio-religious phenomenon, nor a mere product of the political-religious expansionism of North American capital.[1] For believers, Pentecostalism is the result of God's action through the Holy Spirit which erupted on Pentecost in the first century of Christian history (Acts 2-4; Luke 24:49; Joel 2:27-32) and extended from East to West.[2]

As a movement, Pentecostalism transcends denominational categories and presents itself as God acting in particular ways within Christianity. From a theological point of view, Pentecostalism is a personal experience of the divine. As a religious experience, it represents a ritualized prolongation of the original Pentecostal event (Acts 2, 10, 19) that expresses the essence of Christianity with an intense spirituality that recalls the life of the early Christians. It serves as a foundational myth.

As a spiritual movement, Pentecostalism is a builder of identities. To be "Pentecostal," just as to be "Catholic" or "Protestant," is a way of being in society.[3] Pentecostalism assumes different forms, according to the social, cultural and religious background or the class identity of the practitioners. As a spiritual movement, Pentecostalism has neither class, ideological, territorial, nor confessional boundaries. It can penetrate antagonistic social classes as well as conflicting historical processes. In Europe, for example, the Pentecostal movement has resisted secularization, the historical process by which societies liberated themselves from the control of the church and from closed metaphysical systems.[4] European Pentecostalism is known for its unbounded religious experiences and the creation of alternatives to traditional religious practices. In Latin America, where religious belief continues to be so deeply rooted and where secularization has been relegated to the realm of social protest,[5] the Pentecostal movement has had great social impact and now threatens the religious hegemony of Roman Catholicism. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example, some local Pentecostals have been used by U.S. neo-conservative and fundamentalist groups to escalate and/or control the political tensions of the region. Often ideological battles are carried out under the guise of religious conflict. What is really at stake is the defense of social identities, political power, and the attempted consolidation of old and new hegemonies.

All spiritualities are ways of living out one's faith in history. They depend on at least five different factors: 1) the believer's religious tradition; 2) one's utopia or model for the future; 3) one's level of sensitivity to or consciousness of social reality; 4) one's ability to discern between good and evil; and 5) the symbolic substratum which influences one's choices on the road to building an identity.

Pentecostal spirituality is the everyday faith experience of real communities whose very identity is wrapped up in the Pentecost. In Latin America, these communities' daily experience is born of crisis, the product of a long process of economic, political and cultural domination; however, this same crisis is perceived as the starting point of a process of hopeful transformation.

The fundamental difference between this and other spiritualities engendered by the crisis is the way it uses Jesus' spiritual journey to the Father as the model for building a synthesis between Christian principles and everyday existence. This synthesis incorporates the ways in which a community lives out its faith, as well as the spiritual principles that regulate its conduct and impose a particular style on its religious identity. The core of Pentecostalism is Pentecost. The Pentecostal community gives itself legitimacy by identifying its religious practice as a prolongation of the experiences described in Acts 2 and other passages.

The failure to consider Pentecostal spirituality and its theological perspectives would deform any hermeneutic of Pentecostalism. For this reason, most sociological attempts to interpret Pentecostalism fail to comprehend Pentecostalism's ability to give meaning to life, bestow social identity on the hopeless, give power to the weak, and even provide ideological legitimation to the upper classes. Sociological interpretations usually fail to appreciate the meaning of a community's religious experience to the community itself For example, it is impossible to understand Pentecostal growth without exploring the doctrine of sanctification,[6] which is the motor of its aggressive evangelism.


A protest movement

The Wesleyan inheritance

A number of studies deem that the "Wesleyan revival," which led to the founding of Methodist and other sanctificationist denominations in England in the 17th century, is the immediate forebear of modern Pentecostalism.[7] This thesis contends that Pentecostalism emerged in the "holiness circles" in the United States that derived from English pietism.

As soon as the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification (the doctrine that explains the process of Christian perfection) was relaxed, a renewed Holiness Movement emerged that would take the name "Pentecostal." In the decade between 1895 and 1905 a number of new denominations consecrated themselves to the principles of Holiness.[8] What set these apart from the traditional holiness communities was their emphasis on the doctrine of the sanctified life resulting from a special "Baptism of the Spirit."

Radical religious behavior

American Methodists differed from 17th Century English Methodists by substituting individualism for social ethics and philanthropy for millennarianism.[9] According to Richard Niebuhr, the Wesley brothers, founders of the Wesleyan movement, replaced the concept of the Reign of God with the symbol of heaven and saw sin as laxity and individual vice, not as oppression or social breakdown.[10]

With the building of North American society and the gradual transformation of certain "sects" into "denominations," the individualistic, philanthropic, and sentimental ethic common to Methodists came to dominate the middle-class Protestant churches of the United States. In contrast, Pentecostalism grew out of a deepening religious and spiritual experience that abandoned philanthropy and came to wholly identify this world with sin. However, Pentecostals did not abandon the individualism they had inherited from missionary societies.

Though the theories of contemporary sociologists of religion draw upon Max Weber's thesis about the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, they reject social and economic determinism. They usually describe Pentecostalism as a response to social anomie[11] and a religious response to the processes of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization in Latin America (see E. Willems, Christian Lalive d'Epinay, P.F. Camargo, M. Marzal, and Bryan Wilson, among others).

For others, Pentecostalism is the religious expression of a certain social and economic ethic. Sociologists of religion such as the Brazilian Francisco Cartaxo Rolim and the Swiss Jean-Pierre Bastian describe Pentecostalism as the religion of the disadvantaged resulting from the social relations and ideology imposed by capitalism.[12]

In most cases, Pentecostalism provides a way for people to give meaning to reality and to organize their daily conduct.

Pentecostalism is a "symbolic system," as are the various Catholicisms, historical Protestantisms, socialisms and populisms. For the oppressed, Pentecostalism provides a satisfying religious alternative to the trauma induced by conquest and colonization, historical processes that manipulated existing manifestations of the sacred to rend the social fabric.[13]

As a form of a "social protest" and utopia, the Pentecostal movement recalls movements such as the Taki Onqoy of 16th century Peru (Huamanga 1560-1570).[14] Both are apocalyptic movements, based on the idea of the world ending in great upheaval, although the followers of Taki Onqoy went beyond the religious sphere to promote a Messianic campaign of revenge against the European invaders. Pentecostals also hold that they are God's chosen people led by charismatic leaders with divine authority. To this they add a clear rejection of this world. This apocalyptic vision, combined with an ideology of sanctification, mobilizes believers and has led Pentecostalism to adopt an ethic of separation from the world, often calling the faithful to spurn social change.

Nevertheless, the dire poverty in Latin America and the prevailing international system (globalization, neo-liberalism, etc.) have forced Pentecostal communities to face reality. In Peru and other countries on the continent, Pentecostals are beginning to participate actively in civil society, embracing forms of political participation and social action they had formerly rejected.

This rejection of the world, which takes the form of rigid personal ethics (no drinking, no smoking, no dancing, keeping oneself pure, etc.), and the creation of "substitute societies" are Pentecostal responses to having been marginalized by the dominant religious institutions and by the economic and political elites. Today's Pentecostals have achieved a new level of maturity. Increasingly, they desire to become the subjects of their own history and are casting their lot with the new forces that are emerging in our societies.

While Pentecostalism can be seen as a religious expression of the popular unrest produced by our current social crisis-- as Matos Mar has pointed out in the case of Peru[15] --this is not the whole story. The rapid expansion of informal economies and grassroot, sometimes radical, political and religious organizations, are common to all societies undergoing transition and crisis. Whenever social chaos reigns, there is room for religious explosions of the Pentecostal ilk.

III. A popular movement

There are few statistics that can capture the dizzying demographic growth of Pentecostals. According to David Stoll, "a third of the population in Latin America will be Protestant in the next century, as compared to 10% or 12% now."[16] Pentecostals make up 70% of all Brazilian Protestants; in Chile they are 17% of the population; in the Bahamas, 10%; in Peru, Pentecostals make up 70% of the Protestants who in turn make up 7% of the population of 22 million. Considering the historic dominance of Catholicism in Latin America, these are significant percentages[17] Academics calculate that 25% of the population of three Central American countries (El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala) will be Pentecostal by the year 2000. Pentecostalism has established such deep roots so quickly in Latin American society that many are beginning to ask whether official Protestantism and Catholicism will survive the region. [18]

Just as base ecclesial communities (known by the Spanish acronym, "CEBs") are authentic popular churches, so are Pentecostal churches authentic. Both find their support among the popular classes, and in both people become agents of social change through their religious activity.

Several characteristics of Pentecostalism could have a profound impact on the social transformation of South America. These are: 1) an autonomous financial structure that is independent of America, Europe, and Asia; 2) a liturgy in which expressions of Latin American popular religiosity take precedence over Christian traditions rooted in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin culture; 3) a community experience that incorporates the faithful into a community, affirms their individual worth, and permits them to play a role in society; and, 4) an organic solidarity with the less favored sectors of society.

Pentecostalism is the only branch of Protestantism rooted in Latin American "popular religiosity."[19] Witness, for example, the new movement that I call "iso-Pentecostalism" in that it takes its image from Pentecostalism but has a different form of organization. Antonio Gouvea Mendonça in Brazil calls it the "movement of the divine cure." "Iso-Pentecostalism" does away with ecclesiastical organization, teaching of the Bible, the participation of the faithful in worship, even hymnals, in order to focus exclusively on healing, and the sale of "healing objects," quite common in popular Afro-Brazilian religiosity, whence it comes. (See discussion of "third Pentecostal wave" and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Silveira Campos, pp. 77-81.)***

Accordingly, the introduction, presence and expansion of Pentecostalism in Latin America should be understood in the context of popular culture and the history of the region's social and cultural movements.

IV. A movement of social change

The rapid multiplication of new religious groups with charismatic tendencies cannot be explained merely by a favorable social environment. These groups also generate social change, albeit indirectly, exerting their influence from within the social structure and the ideological superstructure.[20]

In the present religious configuration in Latin America, Pentecostalism has a two-sided relationship with civil society. On the one hand, it opposes "official" religions such as Roman Catholicism and historical Protestantism, while at the same time interacting with corporativist states, many of which are undergoing fundamental change, such as Nicaragua and Chile in the 1970s.[21]

Struggles continue on two fronts. Some groups strive to achieve new hegemonies, others strive to consolidate the old ones. On either front what is at stake are the existing and emerging political institutions that use religion to promote quite contradictory programs and aspirations. Ideological conflict is frequently expressed through religious battles, but the stakes are usually political.

At the symbolic level, Pentecostalism is clearly similar to both political and religious Messianic movements. These are the symbolic sources of a new society which can resist the "collapse of hope" despite crushing defeats such as in Nicaragua, where Christians and Sandinistas tried to create a new society. Such groups can resist the aimlessness produced by the end of utopias suffered after the "collapse" of socialism.

For common folks, at stake are not just ideologies and political utopias--which they have little time for anyway--but their own subsistence in extreme situations where even their basic necessities are unmet.

The true roots of modern Pentecostalism go back to 15th- and 16th- century Europe. There, Pentecostal communities that were excluded from Luther's, Calvin's, and Zwingli's Reformation constituted a popular front known today as the "Radical Reformation." Differing from the Lutherans due to their religious practice and rural origins, they fought and died for a series of demands denied them by the nobles. The apocalyptic vision of history and the Messianic charisma of Thomas Müzer, a leader of this revolutionary movement, clearly marked the later Pentecostal movement.[22]

In Latin American Pentecostalism, one discovers the reflection of indigenous movements and waves of immigrants in search of new identities. It is surprising to note the case of Chile, for example, where the growth of Pentecostalism and socialism paralleled one another chronologically,[23] even employing similar tactics, though without forming any explicit alliance. On the contrary, Pentecostalism became a client of the State, legitimizing the State before civil society.

Some interpreters of the Peruvian religious scene have hypothesized a probable relation of mutual influence between the emerging religious groups and a new kind of capitalism that recalls Weber's thesis on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Weber emphasized the general attitudes inherent in the character of each religion (in this case, the ethics of Calvinism) which influence economic activities and motivations. Though religious principles may not have a direct effect on economic behavior, they can lend religious and ideological legitimacy to new motivations, activities, and institutions.

Thus Weber postulated that the Puritan ethic of austerity and the denial of worldly pleasures had generated the beginnings of the capitalist spirit. He made it clear that ideas exercise an autonomous influence on the process of social evolution. For Weber, the key elements of the Calvinist ethic were "asceticism" and a "vocation" for work as a rational activity.

While Weber's thesis may apply to certain branches of European and North American Protestantism, it doesn't work for Latin American Protestantism. It works even less for Pentecostalism, given its mainly proletariat composition, its "eschatological urgency,"[24] and the volatile character of contemporary international capitalism.

Thus, Pentecostalism has not been a major player in the development of a new grassroots capitalism, except in the sense that Pentecostal believers are consumers and an available labor force. In my opinion, the reasons for this are: 1) mysticism rather than asceticism predominates among the Pentecostals; 2) splurging rather than saving is the cultural model, given that subsistence-level salaries make saving impossible and because the goods purchased with one's salary come to represent one's personal worth ("fetishization"); 3) work is not considered a divine vocation. Thus, Weber's thesis hardly applies. In these circumstances it would be more likely to posit a relationship between Pentecostal ethics and the spirit of socialism, or any system other than capitalism.

The transforming power of Pentecostalism resides not in the coherence of its doctrine, but in its flexibility and its capacity to give expression to new social practices in the defining moments of a society in transition. Christian Lalive d'Epinay has observed that in the time of Allende's Chile, Pentecostalism suffered the mutilation of its practices and doctrine.[25] The same was observed ten years later by Jean-Pierre Bastian in Nicaragua[26] and can be seen today in 1990s Peru.

Final words

Pentecostalism was born in the heat of a historical struggle, both real and symbolic, against Catholicism, official Protestantism, and political dogmatism. It has proven its capacity to generate symbols powerful enough to sustain hope for the working classes and a sense of national identity. Those who fight against Pentecostalism, whether they are politicians or clergy, do so because they fear competition for influence in civil society or because they realize that Pentecostalism represents an alternative to the present political order.

As for the question of whether Pentecostals will choose to become active players in civil society or politics, the obvious answer is both. Nevertheless, it is within civil society that Pentecostalism will make a key contribution to deciding the future of the region's social system. Past participation in the political sphere, minimal as it may have been, makes it clear that now is not the time to swell the ranks of the political class without first having participated in grassroots community organizations. Active participation in the newly emerging civil society is a historic opportunity that must not be wasted. This is possible today precisely because the Spirit continues to make all things new.

In sum, Pentecostalism is a spiritual movement resulting from the loss of holiness in our world; it is a movement of symbolic protest in a society that denies fulfillment and participation to the dispossessed; it is a grassroots movement born of traditional cultures struggling to cope with massive change; and it is a movement capable of being a channel for social change and of offering hope for a better world.

Pentecostalism is not only a historic embodiment of Christianity, it is an expression of universal spirituality rooted in the resurrected Christ of Pentecost. Today's challenge is not to Pentecostalize the church so that it might grow, but rather to renew the church spiritually in the light of the universal experience of Pentecost, seeking the unity of the church and of all humanity, for whom Christ died and was resurrected.



[1]The Pentecostals reject this conspiracy theory and consider it a crassly politicized interpretation of their theology.

[2]Pentecost is the founding event of the Pentecostal experience. The movement's name, organizational inspiration, and missionary vocation all derive from the word Pentecost.

[3]Carlos Rodríguez Brandão, "Ser Católico: Dimensões Brasileiras. Um Estudo sobre a atribução da identidade através da religião," América Indígena Vol. XLV, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec., 1985): pp. 691-722.

[4] Harvey Cox, The Secular City, New York, NY: MacMillan, 1965.

[5] José Miguel Bonino, "La Piedad Popular en América Latina," Cristianismo y Sociedad, XIV, No. 47, 1976: pp. 39-48.

[6] Bryan Wilson has correctly noted that the doctrine of sanctification provides the basis for sectarianism and for the enthusiastic propagation of this religious group that throws itself into spiritual conquest and tries to liberate sinful hearts from the clutch of Satan and guide the sinful to the path of holiness. Cf. Bryan Wilson, Sociología de las sectas religiosas, (Madrid: Guadarrama, 1970), 57ss.

[7] Walter Hollenweger, El Pentecostalismo: Historia y Doctrinas, (Buenos Aires: La Aurora, 1976) p. 7; Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism. (Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury, 1987), pp. 115-141.

[8] A history of the Holiness Movement and its relation to Pentecostalism can be found in Donald W. Dayton, op. cit.

[9] The belief in a period of one thousand years of peace on earth (literal or symbolic) in which Christ and his church will govern the world.

[10] Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, (Magnolia, Mass: Peter Smith Publisher, 1920), p. 65.

[11]The loss of traditional morals, leading to a crisis of values and norms in a determined social formation. Frequently associated with rapid social change.

[12] F. Cartaxo Rolim, Pentecostais no Brasil. Uma Interpretação do Protestantismo Brasileiro. (Rio de Janeiro: Vozes); Jean-Pierre Bastian, Breve historia del Protestantismo en Améica Latina, (México: CUPSA, 1986); Gamaliel Lugo, "Etica social pentecostal: santidad comprometida," C. Alvarez, ed., op. cit: pp. 101-122.

[13] Bernardo L. Campos, Religión y Liberación del Pueblo. (Lima: CEPS, 1989).

[14] See Steve Stern, "El Taki Onqoy y Ia Sociedad Andina" (Huamanga, Siglo XVI), Allpanchis, Vol VXI, No 19 (1982) pp. 49-77; Marco Curatola, "Mito y Milenarismo en los Andes: Del Taki Onqoy a Inkarri," Allpanchis, Vol X, (1977) pp. 65-92.

[15] José Matos Mar, Desborde popular y crisis del Estado. El Nuevo rostro del Perú en la década de 1980, (Lima: CONCYTEC, n.d).

[16] According to a cable from EFE (Washington, April 17, 1990) published in El Comercio on 4/17/90. Due to the organization and internal structure of Peruvian Pentecostalism, and the vitality of both traditional and popular Catholicism, the growth of Peruvian Pentecostalism has lagged behind that of Brazil and Chile.

[17] See Ivan Vallier, Catolicismo, Control Social y Modernsización en América Latina, (Buenos Aires: Amorrortu Editores, 1970), p. 17 and footnote.

[18] Remember the polemic that was set off by the treatment J.C. Mariátegui gave to religion in his Ensayos de la realidad Peruana. (Lima: Amauta, 1975) (fifth essay) and also the discipline imposed on Leonardo Boff in Brazil for his statements regarding ecclesiogenesis, the church which is born of the people, and the theology of liberation.

[19] Orlando Costas, "La Misión y el Crecimiento Numérico de la Iglesia: Hacia una misiología de las masas y minorías," CELEP, Ensayos Ocasionales, 1976, p. 13.

[20] Otto Maduro, Religión y Conflicto Social, (Mexico: Centro de Estudios Ecuménicos - Centro de Reflexión Teológica, 1980) pp. 165-206; 1. Vallier, loc. cit.

[21] Some Pentecostal churches in Europe receive financial support from the State. Although this is not the case in Latin America, the support that General Pinochet gave to the Evangelical Church of Chile is well-documented.

[22] See Rosemary Radford Reuther, El Reino de los extremistas. La experiencia occidental del la esperanza mesiánica, (Buenos Aires: La Aurora, 1971); Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961); George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962).

[23] An observation made by Christian Lalive d'Epinay, El Refugio de las Masas. Estudio Sociológico de Protestantismo Chileno, (Santiago: El Pacfíco, 1968), p. 276.

[24] Growing out of the belief in the imminent arrival of the Reign of God.

[25] Christian Lalive d'Epinay, "Regimes Politiques et Millénarismo dans une Societé dépendante. Reflection á propos du Pentecostisme au Chili," Actes de la 15ème Conférence Internationale de Sociologie Religieuse, Verise, 1979.

[26] Jean-Pierre Bastian, Cristianismo y Sociedad, 1986, pp. 52-53.