By: Garrett Best
Robert Richardson believed that the Holy Spirit was absolutely essential for the mission and identity of the church. The Spirit of God is gifted to every believer and empowers them for ministry by his indwelling presence. The doctrine of the Spirit is not something that we can avoid simply because the subject involves confusion and mystery. After a discussion of many of the passages that teach about the outpouring and indwelling of the Spirit, Richardson said:
To profess a religion devoid of the Spirit of Christ, is to have “a form of godliness without the power thereof,” and to substitute sheer rationalism, or its religious equivalent, Socinianism, for the Christianity of the Bible. (pg. 127)
In my own experience, it’s not that Churches of Christ do not believe in the Holy Spirit. We do. We believe in the Holy Spirit and most even affirm that the Holy Spirit indwells the Christian literally. We teach that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism. Although we affirm it, that affirmation rarely plays any real or active part in our daily spiritual formation. Is it even possible to talk about “spirit-ual” formation without talking about the Holy Spirit? In the Churches of Christ I have been associated with, I rarely have heard language in our corporate assemblies that invites God’s empowering Spirit into the life of the church. You wouldn’t know that we are filled with the Spirit while we sing (Eph. 5:18-19) or that the Spirit is interceding for us in prayer (Rom. 8:26-27; Jude 20). I do routinely hear the Spirit mentioned at the baptism of a believer. We baptize “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. We acknowledge that our new life in Christ begins with the Spirit at baptism, but unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the Spirits role in our life ceases there.
I realize I have just painted in broad strokes and that is rarely advisable. Some of you might be saying, “Those sentiments do not reflect my own experience. The Spirit has played a large part in my spiritual transformation.” Good for you! But, I imagine that for many readers in Churches of Christ, the Holy Spirit was like that uncle at the family reunion that you knew was there but you hoped you didn’t have to talk to because you never knew what he was going to say or do. The only anecdotal evidence I can provide is my own experience as a Christian which has been, until recently, largely devoid of an active view of the Spirit.
Richardson believed that the Holy Spirit was essential for the life of the church. He also believed that the Restoration Movement could not be successful without God’s Spirit. There is no power to restore primitive Christianity without that source of power which enabled the primitive church to thrive and grow in the first few centuries after Christ. He said:
How few professors of religion seem to realize the nature of the struggle in which they are engaged! How vain the hope of the restoration of the primitive power of the gospel, until the primitive Spirit can be regained through the simple faith and obedience of apostolic times! (pg. 205)
It’s hard to read Acts and not see the importance of the Holy Spirit for the church. The Holy Spirit took 120 scared, confused disciples and inaugurated the Christian church. Without the outpouring of the Spirit to Cornelius in Acts 10, the Apostles never could have imagined the Gentiles would be invited as equal heirs to the faith. The Holy Spirit guided the apostles on their missionary journeys and supplied their preaching with boldness.
It is unimaginable to conceive of the success of the early church without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Richardson reminds us that it is equally unimaginable to conceive of the success of the modern church without the empowerment of the Spirit. If Churches of Christ are to chart a successful way forward, I believe it must start with a recovery of a strong and living theology of the Holy Spirit.