Since mid-March, Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church of Baton Rouge, La., has held multiple church services, in defiance of the federal government’s recommendation not to gather in groups larger than 10 and the Louisiana governor’s order to limit all meetings to fewer than 50.
Government recommendations for social distancing include flexibility for essential businesses such as grocery stores and health-care providers. For Spell, the church is equally essential. He believes that the covid-19 pandemic may usher in the church’s finest hour.
It is unclear what approach Spell will take now that the governor has issued a stay-at-home order limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer.
Spell’s stance reflects elements of a longer history of the Oneness Pentecostal tradition within which his church fits. This faith tradition champions the beliefs and practices of the early church. Along with this commitment to “restorationism,” their method of scriptural interpretation enables some Oneness Pentecostals to stitch together disparate scriptures into post-facto justifications for conclusions based as much on their understanding of politics as their reading of scripture. In this case, Spell’s position reflects a longer history of sectarian groups guarding the church and the restored faith against intrusion by either government or more mainstream forms of Protestantism.
At the turn of the 20th century, a sector of Protestantism known as the Holiness movement birthed modern Pentecostalism, with an emphasis on Holy Spirit baptism as a mark of restoration. Spell represents a conservative faction of Oneness Pentecostalism, which split from the main Pentecostal movement in 1916, because of their belief that baptisms should be performed exclusively in the name of Jesus Christ. They came to reject the idea of the Trinity and of baptizing in the name of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
But for all of Oneness Pentecostalism’s claimed commitment to restorationism, politics has long often encroached on their decisions. Some early leaders, for example, denounced World War I as prideful nationalism and framed it as a diabolically inspired militarism that was prematurely sending millions of young men to hell.
While in the early days, white, African American and Mexican Pentecostals worshiped together, in the looming shadow of Jim Crow, church leaders allowed interracial denominational structures to fragment along racial and ethnic lines in the 1920s and 1930s, justifying this as pragmatic accommodation to law and custom.
The current moment is also not the first time Oneness Pentecostals have found themselves in conflict with authorities when public health interfered with their revival meetings and healing practices. In early 1928 the municipal authorities of Mexicali, Baja California (in Mexico), became alarmed at the “infection node” created by the press of tuberculosis victims — many of them deportees from the United States — seeking healing at the nascent Iglesia de la Fe Apostólica Pentecostés’ annual gathering in one of the city’s agrarian communes. The church welcomed the sick and celebrated scores of healings and baptisms, a mark of apostolic restorationism. The mayor, however, worried more about the spread of the illness and closed the city’s two temples in the name of public health.
The believers complied, but appealed up the political chain of command, first to the military governor and then to Mexico’s president. They insisted on their right to worship freely within proper constitutional bounds, and promised to abide by public health directives. Eventually, after seven years, they prevailed. The resolution of the Mexicali case illuminates how churches have found ways to accommodate governmental directives.
In postwar America, Oneness adherents stayed on the edge of both the Evangelical movement and politics. Many came from humbler origins and they were less inclined to pursue theological and social respectability.
That changed in the 1980s, during the Reagan revolution and the rise of the Christian right. The White House began a targeted courtship of religious conservatives, including Oneness groups, to shore up political support. Various white leaders gained political access, as several clergy were invited to White House briefings through the work of the Office of the Public Liaison. Although some leaders have enlisted as co-combatants in the culture wars, there are still those who eye rapprochement warily.
This relationship, as with the detente between Mexican authorities and the Mexicali church, reflected how over the past century, church and political authorities have found ways to accommodate each other.
Nonetheless, Oneness groups are not, and have never been, monolithic in how they have engaged politics, and we’re seeing that again in how they respond to the coronavirus epidemic. Official directives from the flagship Oneness Pentecostal denominations, including the United Pentecostal Church International, the Apostolic Assembly of the Faith in Christ Jesus (largely Latino) and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (largely African American), have explicitly cited scripture in counseling their diverse constituencies to remain calm and adhere to government directives, including the call not to hold public services. They would rather follow the prophet Jeremiah’s charge to exiles to always seek the well-being (“peace”) of the city in which they reside, for in its well-being they will find their own well-being.
These voices echo a majority consensus and reflect Pentecostals’ penchant for balancing restorationist and pragmatic thrusts. But Spell’s strident insistence on holding church services skews the balance. This may be owing, in part, to his outreach to and advocacy for a relatively disempowered community; his sermons aimed to reassure those in his diverse congregation facing unemployment that God will provide. But other Oneness groups, no less committed to the disempowered, seek better balance between scripture and pragmatic considerations, like public health.
Spell sees the potential for a revival movement — something about which civil authorities care little. Indeed, all he has to do is look to the Mexicali example to see the potential. While the Mexicali pastor and congregation ultimately complied with health directives, the revival continued and established Mexicali as a major bulwark of the movement in Mexico. Today the Iglesia Apostólica de la Fe en Cristo Jesús counts 70 congregations in the Mexicali metropolitan region alone.
But Spell should see another possibility: that covid-19 offers an opportunity to re-create the intimacy of the early Christian church; believers, after all, gathered mostly in homes once they were expelled from synagogues throughout the Roman empire. The early church also spoke of resisting a spirit of fear with three gifts: power, love and a sound mind. But to seize this opportunity believers must use these gifts to protect the well-being of community members, paying sober attention to the developing epidemiological facts on the ground and in the air, while worshiping collectively but remotely.