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Empowerment and Deliverance in Pentecostal and Liberation Theologies

Updated June 27, 2021
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Empowerment and Deliverance in Pentecostal and Liberation Theologies essay

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While themes of empowerment and deliverance can be found throughout Christian theology, it is clear that they hold a unique place within Pentecostalism and the Theology of Liberation, two traditions that emphasize both the spiritual and material nature of salvation. From the earliest days of the Pentecostal movement, adherents celebrated a sense of personal and spiritual empowerment, while also voicing their experience of having been delivered from old ways of life.

In similar fashion though utilizing different vocabulary, Liberation Theology emphasizes personal and corporate empowerment on multiple levels, coupled with progression towards deliverance (liberation) from individual sin and structural oppression. Pentecostal scholar, Miroslav Volf indicated that the materiality of salvation which is often seen as linked to Liberation Theology “is not a marginal theme but an essential constituent,” of Pentecostal Theology (Volf 1989, 448). For both traditions, empowerment and deliverance are simultaneously individual and corporate, while also being personal and spiritual.

Additionally, while God facilitates this deliverance through the gift of His son, and empowers believers by means of the Holy Spirit, both Pentecostalism and Liberation Theology articulate the cooperative praxis of Christians as a response to, and committed effort toward, their ultimate outcome. While Pentecostal and Liberation Theology are often viewed as being at odds with one another, there are in fact various points of commonality, two of these being related to empowerment and deliverance or liberation.

Within the Pentecostal tradition empowerment is directly connected to the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Salvation serves as a turning point in the life of the believer, a surrender to the reign of the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to bring about within history. Further, Spirit empowerment makes it possible for the believer to engage in activities that are indicative of the reign of the kingdom, which is redemptive and marked by righteousness, peace, justice, freedom, heeling, and love.

This empowerment was prophesied by Joel in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28-29), and subsequently quoted by the Apostle Peter in the New Testament. “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2: 17-18).

Pentecostals emphasize the gifts or charisms of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8-10 1Pet. 4:10-11) along with their availability to all who seek and expect, with no distinction being made between young or old, male or female, and in an inclusive manner not constrained by race, ethnicity, or class. This lends towards the empowerment of groups that have been historically marginalized, delivering/liberating them from the bondage historically experienced due to their location on the margins of society. Women, along with people of color, and those experiencing poverty on various levels are empowered and encouraged to participate in ministry at every level even if their particular church does not support such engagement.

The coupling of deliverance through salvation and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit compels Pentecostals to engage more intentionally in worship, propels them in their efforts to witness, and emboldens them to engage in transformative actions which can lead to more just societies. This is demonstrated by the ever growing community of international faith based NGOs, parachurch organizations, and the praxis of local congregations who reach beyond the four walls of their church.

As women and men find new freedom in relationship with Christ, they also share experiences of having been delivered from such things as alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography, violence against women, and gambling. Additionally, Pentecostals also anticipate the experience of deliverance from demonic forces. Ultimately, deliverance must be understood as both personal, and spiritual, while being partially realized in the present, with ultimate fulfillment in the eschatological future.

While some have observed that the liberating effect of salvation, along with the subsequent empowerment of the Spirit leads Pentecostals to retreat from society, and focus on the future fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, a growing consensus is that this is far from the truth. Instead of being retreatist and other worldly, Pentecostals are increasingly displaying various forms of engagement in the here and now, and not only in ways that are exclusive to Pentecostal communities.

This highlights another important aspect of empowerment and deliverance within the tradition, that being the corporate nature of the movement. While salvation is often thought of in solely personal, that is, individual ways, it cannot be overlooked that salvation also leads individuals into new group dynamics, such as participation in the life of a church community. While some of these communities may be retreatist and other worldly, Donald E. Miller, and Tetsunao Yamamori coined the phrase “progressive Pentecostal” as a designation for those Pentecostals who are socially engaged.

Such social engagement can be seen as a mechanism of solidarity with those who find themselves on the fringes of society, often excluded, marginalized, and in need of the same deliverance and empowerment experienced and expressed within these Pentecostal communities. This has led some to write of Pentecostalism as a movement “potentially capable of generating social change” (Petersen 1993, 40). An outcome that highlights the depth and breadth of empowerment and deliverance/liberation.

Emerging from the experience of the poor in Latin America, Liberation Theology shares in the themes of empowerment and deliverance, though electing the use of the term liberation in its place. Developed by a group of Roman Catholic priests born in Latin America, and educated in Europe, Liberation Theology utilizes a sociological tool kit that is sometimes influenced by Marxist social theory, yet emphasizes the primacy of faith while pointing out the inequities that exist within human history, all without accepting the full scope of Marxist ideology.

The notions of deliverance and liberation are then connected to Liberation Theology’s preferential “option for the poor,” observed within scripture as well as Marxist notions of class struggle. Although these themes are generally focused on their corporate realization, it must not be assumed that empowerment and liberation are not also experienced on an individual level.

Making use of the work of Paulo Freire, Gustavo Gutiérrez links empowerment and liberation to the process of concientización which leads to praxis. In Liberation Theology then, the poor are understood as desiring to be the “protagonists of their own liberation” (Gutiérrez 1988, 174). They are empowered to read their own socio-historical reality, identify their location within it, and act in ways and with the intention of affecting change. While this approach to empowerment and liberation may seem humanistic, it is in fact rooted in the activity of the Holy Spirit.

In the words of liberation theologians “everything that works for salvation and liberation in the world is also inspired by the Holy Spirit” (Comblin 1989, 71). Although full liberation can only be realized in the eschaton, all forms of liberation experienced within human history are perceived as steps along the way towards complete liberation which is the culmination of salvation. Additionally, the “Holy Spirit is the present realization of the kingdom of God,” and serves as the impetus for all forms of liberation, bother material and spiritual (Comblin 1989, 44). Just as in Pentecostalism, the Kingdom of God is experienced both in the present and the eschatological future.

Empowerment is an outcome of the work of the Spirit in human history, motivating the oppressed to engage in actions leading to social change. It is also discovered in the actions of solidarity taken on behalf of the poor by members of the dominant classes. In a dynamic way, this empowerment is both uplifting and humbling. Actions of solidary praxis bring about the liberation of all involved, allowing the poor and oppressed to experience new found freedoms, and liberating participants within the dominant social groups from their assumed positions of authority. In the case of Liberation Theology, empowerment and liberation are desired and sought after in the present, while also being anticipated in the future. It recognizes that human history is limited in terms of what might be achieved, but never fails to hope for, even demand new forms of liberation.

As with Pentecostalism, the Reign of the Kingdom of God is central to its expression of empowerment and liberation. By means of antagonistic vocabulary, Liberation theology communicates the breaking in of the Reign of God within human history. Speaking of it as a rupture, causing upheaval and a realignment of the status quo. The Reign of God is universal, impacting all of humanity, properly aligning the human experience with the characteristics and qualities associated with the rule of God.

This leads to the exposure of individual as well as social sin, from which humanity needs to be liberated. The Reign of God is often set in contrast to the anti-Reign, characterized by those qualities of human history which are contrary to the Reign of God, and from which all of humanity needs to be liberated (Ellacuría and Sobrino 1993). Accordingly, empowerment is discovered as one begins to live within the Reign of God, joining in the solidary praxis of all others who submit themselves to this Reign.

Most importantly, total liberation, also understood as integral liberation, is multidimensional. It is at once understood as “economic liberation, social liberation, political liberation, liberation of the human being from all manner of servitude, liberation from sin, and communion with God as the ultimate basis of a human community of brothers and sisters (Gutiérrez 1983, 144). Once again, empowerment and liberation are to be partially experienced within human history, and fully realized in the eschatological future.

Empowerment and deliverance hold a significant place within Pentecostalism and the Theology of Liberation. While it is sometimes perceived that Liberation Theology emphasizes the immanence of God as portrayed in God’s bottom up activity of establishing His Reign within human history, and Pentecostalism emphasizes the transcendence of God anticipating the benefits afforded the believer in the eternal future, both traditions share the common understanding that empowerment and deliverance/liberation have already and not yet implications (Volf 1989). Participants in both traditions acknowledge the empowerment of the Spirit, which leads to solidarity, motivates efforts towards the realization of the Reign or Kingdom of God within human history, and establishes hope in the eschatological future.

God is always the source and horizon of this hope. Delivering/liberating by means of the birth, death, and resurrection of His Son, empowering through the gift of His Spirit, and motivation believers to engage in solidary praxis. This is demonstrated by the life and activities of Base Ecclesial Communities associated with Liberation Theology, as well as local Pentecostal congregations, both of which seek to empower members within their local communities, implement social programs to meet basic human needs, and leverage social collateral to affect structural transformation.

Additional Readings

  1. Comblin José. The Holy Spirit and Liberation. Theology and Liberation Series. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989.
  2. Dempster, Murray W, Byron D Klaus, and Douglas Petersen, eds. Called and Empowered: Pentecostal Perspectives on Global Mission. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991.
  3. Ellacuría, Ignacio, and Jon Sobrino, eds. Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993.
  4. Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988.
  5. Gutiérrez, Gustavo. The Power of the Poor in History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983.
  6. Miller, Donald E, and Tetsunao Yamamori. Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
  7. Petersen, Douglas. Not By Might Nor By Power: A Pentecostal Theology of Social Concern in Latin America. Irvine, CA: Regnum, 1996.
  8. Robeck, Cecil M, and Amos Yong, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism. Cambridge Companions to Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  9. Volf, Miroslav. “Materiality of Salvation: An Investigation in the Soteriologies of Liberation and Pentecostal Theologies.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 26, no. 3 (Summer, 1989): 447-467.
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