Daring to Explore the Possibilities of Pentecostal Sacramentalism

by Phillip Webb
8th June 2018


Communion, Lord’s Supper, Eucharist; how does your church refer to this Christian meal? How often does your congregation celebrate it? And when they do celebrate, who officiates the ‘ceremony’? Your answer to these questions may betray a specific theological bias, whether that emphasis has been intentionally developed or uncritically assumed. There are no hard and fast rules governing Pentecostal Eucharistic practices, and this is in itself worth considering. As I began to read about the Eucharist, I stumbled across a word that I, as a Pentecostal, had never properly engaged: sacramentalism. When I first began studying my PhD, it was not my intention to explore sacramentalism in any form, least of all within Pentecostalism. Truth be told, I’m not sure I could have given an adequate definition of what exactly was meant by sacramentalism. And if you’re a Pentecostal, the odds are high that you can’t either. Should I have hazarded a guess, I would have associated sacramentalism with dry forms of religion found in aged and dying churches, with little significance for the contemporary world. To my surprise, nothing could have been further from the truth. But what exactly are sacraments and sacramentalism, and how does the Eucharist, as sacramental, have any relevance for the Pentecostal Church? To these questions we now turn.


Background information

Although it is not the goal of this paper to develop a detailed history of Eucharistic theological debates stemming from the Reformation, some basic information on two significant and related issues arising prior to and during the Reformation is insightful for understanding how we arrived at this juncture. The first concerned the role of the Eucharist; did it, as the Catholic Church seemed to have taught, mediate divine grace to the recipient through simply repeating the rites? Or was the faith of the recipient the essential pre-requisite? The Catholic term ex opere operato – meaning, ‘from the work worked’ – was taken by the Reformers to mean that the correct ministration of sacrament lead to automatic impartation of grace, a view they sought to correct. The Reformation emphasised the faith of the recipient over the rites of the priest.

The second issue concerned what happened to the bread and wine during communion. Roman Catholicism confesses the doctrine of transubstantiation, in which, following Aristotelian philosophy, the substance of the bread and wine is changed into body and blood, while the accidents, the appearance, remains the same. Reformation leader, Martin Luther, desiring to maintain the Catholic view of real presence, developed the doctrine of consubstantiation, arguing that the bread and wine remain what they are, but are spiritually joined with the body and blood of Christ. John Calvin argued that although Christ is present spiritually, no transformation, in whole or in part, occurs to the bread and wine. Each of these views are sacramental. Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, resisted sacramentalism and instead taught memorialism, that is, communion is merely a symbolic representation, or memorial, of the death of Christ, and which is typically referred to as the Lord’s Supper as opposed to Eucharist. In Zwingli’s view, communion is not a sacrament, but an ordinance, an instruction of the Lord to be obeyed. Zwingli’s views, in this matter, have long been accepted in evangelical doctrine, as well as within Pentecostalism.

My formative years were spent in a Baptist Church within an evangelical tradition, where communion was practiced once per month, and children discouraged from participation. The emphasis of the meal was firmly placed upon the sacrificial and atoning work of Jesus Christ upon the cross. When I was finally old enough to join in, I would ensure I had confessed all my sins, those known and those hidden, so as not to eat and drink judgment on myself, as per 1 Corinthians 11:27. Great stress was placed upon remembering the finished work of Christ and ensuring I participated in this memorial meal in a worthy manner. The NSW Baptist Churches website refers to communion as “an ordinance [which] … commemorates and declares our thanks.”[i] My transition to Pentecostalism at age 17 was easy and natural, and I found no conflict between the communion practices of my Baptist upbringing, and those followed by my new Assembly of God family. My experience is consistent with the doctrinal statement of the Australian Christian Churches, which speaks of the Lord’s Supper being a memorial.[ii]

However, if truth be told, the memorialism of communion never truly sat right with me. Why did I need to eat bread and drink grape juice in order to remember the saving work of Christ? If it is simply a memorial meal, why were the emblems necessary? And did this trite version of Jesus’ Last Supper truly capture the heart of the message? I wasn’t convinced our communion practices, as expressed through Zwingli’s memorialism, was truly the best method of practicing communion. As I began to research this topic, I discovered that a small yet growing number of Pentecostal theologians have begun to challenge this idea of ordinance and memorialism, and have been using the language of sacrament in the process.


Sacramentalism and Sacrament

With this brief overview of the theological history and in consideration of my personal faith-journey to this point, a discussion  on what exactly is meant by ‘sacrament’ or ‘sacramentalism’ is needed. Each sacramental tradition will emphasise different points, so the definition that follows will be broad enough to encompass these diverse positions without placing too fine of a point. Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich has suggested,

“The largest sense of the term [sacramental] denotes everything in which the Spiritual Presence has been experienced; in a narrower sense, it denotes particular objects and acts in which a Spiritual community experiences the Spiritual Presence , and in the narrowest sense, it merely refers to some “great” sacraments in the performance of which the Spiritual Community actualizes itself.”[iii]

Sacramentalism, then, is the ways in which the presence of Christ is experienced through the Holy Spirit within the Church community. This presence of Christ is most keenly observed through participation in the ‘great sacraments’, which, for the purposes of this paper refers to the Eucharistic meal. The bread and wine are the physical points through which Christ may be most intimately experienced. Catholic theologian, Eduard Schillebeeckx defines, “a sacrament … [as] a sign which really and actually bestows the grace it signifies.”[iv] In the case of the Eucharist, it is Christ that is signified, his broken body and shed blood, therefore participation in the meal actually bestows the grace that came through the cross. James F. White, offers further insight. He explains, “By sacramentality we mean the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible.”[v] Based upon the explanations given above, we may say that sacramentalism is the understanding that we can encounter God in Christ through the Spirit and that this encounter is mediated through physical objects. But when we speak of sacraments, we refer to the specific objects through which this encounter of the Holy Spirit is experienced.

Based upon this definition of sacramentalism and sacrament I believe it highly unlikely that many Pentecostals would shout ‘Amen,’ or clap their hands in affirmation. Yet, I suspect this reluctance is more a matter of terminology than of theological disagreement. Let me explain by way of illustration: although Pentecostal practices may differ around the world, there is a general belief among Pentecostals that God can and does touch people’s lives through physical objects. It may be anointing the sick with oil, laying on of hands to impart a spiritual gift, or praying over a handkerchief to be taken to the seriously ill. Pentecostals may differ in their opinion about just how God’s power is mediated to the receiver, but few would disagree that an actual experience with the Holy Spirit can and does occur. Taking this as a Pentecostal given, why then would Pentecostals feel that the Holy Spirit could not and would not really touch people’s lives when they receive the bread and the wine by faith? Any such disagreement seems to me to be more a matter of tradition, of suspicion, and of unfamiliar language, than of any well-reasoned theological belief. Based upon the definitions given above, it is not hard to imagine that Pentecostalism does in fact exhibit sacramental beliefs and practices, even if those beliefs and practices have not been recognised or labeled as such.


An overview of Pentecostal sacramental reflection

Since the early 1990’s, Pentecostal theologians have begun to explore the possibility that Pentecostalism may be sacramental. These suggestions can be found in the writings of such notable theologians as John Thomas,[vi] Frank Macchia,[vii] Simon Chan,[viii] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, [ix] Kenneth Archer,[x] James Smith,[xi] Daniel Tomberlin,[xii] Amos Yong,[xiii] Wolfgang Vondey and Chris Green.[xiv] Some have been tentative in their proposals of sacramentalism, while others have developed a robust sacramental vision, though it must be admitted, these at times seem to betray their personal denominational biases.

Thomas and Macchia have focused on specific Christian rites as a sacrament, such as the foot-washing narrative of John 13 or speaking in tongues as a sacramental sign, while others, such as Vondey and Green, have spoken of Pentecostalism being sacramental in a broad sense, where all Pentecostal activities may be a nexus of Holy Spirit activity. In keeping with his commitment to the five-fold gospel, Kenneth Archer seeks to expand the number of sacraments to five, one sacrament for each  ministry of Christ, but at the opposite end Simon Chan and others emphasise the Eucharist as the locus of Pentecostal spirituality.

As can be seen from this brief overview of the literature, there is not yet a consensus amongst Pentecostal theologians as to how exactly Pentecostalism is sacramental, or of the role of the sacraments, specifically the Eucharist. However, amidst the differing foci of these sacramental theologies, a common commitment can be seen to experiencing Christ through the Spirit, especially within the Eucharist. As well, the sacramental language demonstrates a common commitment amongst Pentecostal theologians to understand Pentecostalism within the larger family of Christian spirituality.


Personal reflections

While I doubt that I’ve brought unequivocal conviction to my point of view, I hope through this paper to have at least opened the reader’s imagination to the possibility of there being such a thing as Pentecostal sacramentalism. Pentecostalism has always emphasised the real presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, who is alive and active, most notably through Spirit baptism, accompanied by tongues speech, and the operation of the various charismata (spiritual gifts) in the church. Though they wouldn’t typically use this terminology, Pentecostals do participate in sacramental practices, such as laying on of hands and anointing with oil, in the sense that sacramentalism is encountering God in Christ through the Spirit, with this encounter being mediated through physical objects. In this regard, I affirm that Pentecostalism is and always has been a sacramental tradition, in a broad sense of what it means to be sacramental.

Yet it is insufficient to simply label Pentecostalism as sacramental without identifying how Pentecostal sacraments act as sacraments; which, in the case of this paper, we refer to the Eucharist meal. The evangelical and traditional Pentecostal affirmation of Zwingli’s memorialist approach to the Lord’s Supper is at odds with Pentecostal spirituality, which I have argued in this paper is a sacramental spirituality. While it is appropriate to remember Christ’s sacrifice with the elements of bread and wine, Pentecostal spirituality should not stop at this point. To do so is to rob the Eucharist of its sacramental potential. In the same way that the Spirit imparts healing through anointing oil, and bestows spiritual gifts with the laying on of hands, so too a mediation of grace may flow through the Eucharistic elements to the believer who participates in the meal. In agreement with James Smith, the Eucharist is a ‘microcosm’ of the whole of Christian worship; that is, it communicates the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as speaking to the eternal Christian hope. It is this ‘microcosm’ that sets the Eucharist apart from other sacramental encounters, for this sacrament truly captures and conveys the heart of the Christian message.

Does this mean that Pentecostals should include the Eucharist as central to all of their worship? In disagreement with Chan and Kärkkäinen, I would not necessarily suggest this. Yet I would suggest that whenever the Eucharist is celebrated by a Pentecostal community, it would be fitting for the participants to do so with full anticipation of experiencing the pneumatologically present Christ. Although a robust theology of Pentecostal sacramentality and a Pentecostal Eucharist is yet to be developed in great detail, I believe the work to date of Pentecostal theologians in this regard is a welcome step in the right direction. I affirm that Pentecostal spirituality is a sacramental spirituality, and for Pentecostal persons who already have an expectation of encountering the Spirit in other facets of Pentecostal worship, such expectancy may rightly be amplified in the celebration of the Eucharist. Anything less would be to deny something essential of the Pentecostal identity and Pentecostal self-understanding. Imagine the opportunities for encounter should pastors and leaders encourage Pentecostal worshippers to expect a real encounter with Christ through the Spirit when they participate in communion, that microcosm of the whole of the Christian faith. Dare we explore the possibilities?


About the author:

Phillip Webb is an ordained ACC minister. He and his wife, Rachel, are Senior Pastors of Connect Church Australia, an innovative and contemporary bi-lingual English-Mandarin congregation in the Southern Sydney suburb of Hurstville. Phil is especially interested in cross-cultural ministry and contextual theology. He is presently studying a PhD through Alphacrucis College, exploring Pentecostal sacramentalism as embodied in the Eucharistic worship of ACC churches.


[i] NSW ACT Baptist Beliefs, https://nswactbaptists.org.au/who-we-are/beliefs/ (accessed April 2nd, 2018).

[ii] ACC Doctrinal Basis, https://www.acc.org.au/about-us/doctrinal-basis/ (accessed April 2nd, 2018).

[iii] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume III (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), 121.

[iv] Eduard Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament (London: Sheed and Ward Ltd, 1963), 88.

[v] James F. White, The Sacraments in Protestant Faith and Practice (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 13.

[vi] John Christopher Thomas, Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community (Sheffield: ASOT Press, 1991).

[vii] Frank Macchia, ‘Tongues as a Sign: Towards a Sacramental Understanding of Pentecostal Experience’, Pneuma 15.1 (Spring 1993), pp. 61-76.

[viii] Simon Chan, Pentecostal Theology and the Christian Spiritual Tradition (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000).

[ix] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Toward a Pneumatological Theology: Pentecostals and Ecumenical Perspectives on Ecclesiology, Soteriology, and Theology of Mission (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2002).

[x] Kenneth J. Archer, ‘Nourishment for our Journey: The Pentecostal Via Salutis and Sacramental Ordinances,’ Journal of Pentecostal Theology October 1 (2004), 79-96.

[xi] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: MI, Baker Academic, 2009), 197.

[xii] Daniel Tomberlin, Pentecostal Sacraments: Encountering God at the Altar (Cleveland, TN: Pentecostal Theological Seminary, 2010).

[xiii] Amos Yong, Jonathan A. Anderson, Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity (Waco: TX, Baylor University Press, 2014), 159.

[xiv] Wolfgang Vondey & Chris W. Green, ‘Between This and That: Reality and Sacramentality in the Pentecostal Worldview,’ Journal of Pentecostal Theology, 19 (2010), 243-264.