05 The Holy Spirit and the Leadership Structures of the Assemblies of God in Australia

Shane Clifton

Alphacrucis College

The Holy Spirit and the Leadership Structures of the Assemblies of God in Australia.

Shane Clifton

Shane Clifton is the Academic Dean of Southern Cross College, and lecturer in theology. In 2005, Shane graduated with a PhD from ACU National, with his thesis describing and analyzing the developing ecclesiology of the Assemblies of God in Australia, focusing particularly on the transition from congregational structures to the so-called “apostolic” model of church. Shane’s other research interests include the contemplation of biblical hermeneutics and theological method from Pentecostal perspective. He is an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God in Australia and is married with three sons.



While, as Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen observes, “Pentecostals have written surprisingly little on ecclesiology,” [1] it is generally agreed that it is an experiential orientation to the Spirit that defines the Pentecostal church. Our purpose in this paper is to identify this pneumatological ecclesiology in the Assemblies of God in Australia (AGA) and, further, to reflect upon the way in which this has been expressed in the developing leadership structures of the movement during the course of the twentieth century.

Spirit Ecclesiology pre AGA

As Mark Hutchinson observes, the story of Pentecostalism “is far from uni-linear, . . . it is not one thing spreading out, but many mutually-recognisable things coalescing.” [2] It brings together, through the shared experience and theology of the Baptism in the Spirit, the various streams of nineteenth century voluntarist Christianity, described by David Martin as the “unsponsored mobilizations of laissez-faire lay religion, running to and fro between Britain and North America.” [3] The nineteenth century had seen the democratisation of various streams of Protestant Christianity, and these voluntarist movements, such as (earlier) the Methodists and the Baptists and (later), the Brethrens and the Churches of Christ, were characterised by a critique of traditional church structures, a hunger for revival and spiritual experience, a holiness orientation, and an egalitarian culture which facilitated the empowerment of the laity. [4] They were also characterised by a level of fissiparity, resulting from the diversity of spiritual experience and individualistic tendencies, and this, along with a readiness to jettison traditional structures and theologies, generated repeated schism, and led to the proliferation of Christian denominations. Global Pentecostalism was born into this voluntarist environment, with all its attendant strengths and weaknesses, and with the unifying and empowering benefit of a shared experience and theology of the Spirit.

The first Pentecostal assembly in Australia was established on New Year’s Eve 1909, and led by fifty year old grandmother, Sarah Jane Lancaster (it is noteworthy that, prior to 1930, not only was Lancaster the informal leader of Pentecostalism in this country, but over half of the assemblies established prior to 1930 were planted and led by women). [5] Early Australian Pentecostalism had little in the way of structure or doctrine that could identify it as a “church.” Assemblies were structured informally, and there were no ordained ministers. There was no formal connection between assemblies, and no agreed statement of doctrine, a fact that was to become a major issue when some Pentecostal assemblies discovered that Lancaster did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, [6] and was an annihilationist, rejecting traditional views of hell. [7] Lancaster was open to fellowship with people of diverse opinions on these matters. Like many voluntarists, she believed that a shared experience of the Spirit was enough to constitute “the church,” that the church was an “organism not an organisation,” [8] and that unity was possible without so-called divisive doctrine and restrictive structure.

What formed Pentecostal communities, and what held them together, was a shared experience and theology of baptism in the Spirit. As a shared spiritual experience, the baptism in the Spirit acted as the “spontaneous intersubjective base of community,” [9] which created harmony in the midst of a much-divided voluntarist Christianity. Pentecostal communities, while subject to the same forces of social change that categorised voluntarism (i.e. individualism, pragmatism, democracy etc), were able to retain a sense of “movement” that had proven impossible for the fissiparous denominations of nineteenth century voluntarism.

Baptism in the Spirit was also more than simply a shared experience. It was symbolically representative of the Pentecostal identity and worldview and, in this way, functioned at the level of cultural values by enriching self-understanding. The notion of baptism in the Spirit as universally available, and universally empowering for people of all genders, all races, all classes, and all intelligences, was a vital symbol of unity. At the same time, since the Spirit was understood as a sign of the end-times, as facilitating personal holiness, and as empowering for mission, it also acted as a transcendent force for cultural and social change. It was and is the capacity of the experience and symbol of baptism in the Spirit to facilitate balance in the dialectic between social and cultural forces of harmony and change that is the key element that has enabled the Pentecostal movement in Australia and globally to develop as a “movement.” Even when, in the tradition of voluntarist churches everywhere, structural division saw the rise of various Pentecostal “denominations,” Pentecostal identify remained more important than institutional separation. This was to prove significant later in the century when diverse Pentecostal organisations were able to come together under the shared banner of Pentecostalism, forming unifying organisations such as the Australian Pentecostal Ministers Fellowship and, similarly, the Australian Christian Churches.

It can thus be said that the theology and experience of baptism in the Spirit shapes Pentecostal ecclesiology. This is noteworthy because Pentecostals have often conceived of this “baptism” in terms of the individual; as gifting and empowering the believer for service. In fact, however, baptism in the Spirit is experienced in the church for the mission of the church. As Simon Chan observes, this “means the primary focus of Spirit-Baptism is to actualize our communal life,” even if Pentecostalism itself has been hardly aware of this fact. [10]

Of course there is more to Pentecostal ecclesiology than just the baptism in the Spirit. The initial gift of grace that mediated this religious, personal, cultural and social experience and symbol resulted in the formation of Pentecostal communities. In Australia, for the first two decades, these communities were essentially a Faith Missions movement. They were independent of denomination, eschewed ecclesial structures, and existed solely for the purpose of end-times mission. Consequently, people such as Sarah Jane Lancaster initially understood Pentecostalism as an organism not an organisation (or an orgasm), and Good News Hall, and later the AFM, were self-consciously mission groups and not churches. As Lancaster stated categorically (emphasis hers):

THE APOSTOLIC FAITH MISSION is NOT another CHURCH (sic). It is the Assembly of those who, throughout Australasia, are seeking to prove that our Blessed Lord is just the same as He was when He commissioned the disciples to “go into all the world”. [11]

As was common for faith mission movements and for voluntarist Christianity generally, early Australian Pentecostalism held to the ideal of non-doctrinal unity – a unity of the Spirit. [12] It was an ideal which sought to overcome the divisions of protestant Christianity, but which too often simply facilitated new schism. In fact, it was an ideal that early Pentecostalism never realised. Thus, for example, in her trip to Australia sponsored by Good News Hall, Aimee Semple McPherson refused to be associated with Lancaster because of differences in doctrine (Lancaster was an annihiliationist, and did not believe in the Trinity).

Spirit Ecclesiology in the Formation of the AGA

While the experience and symbol of the baptism in the Spirit went some way towards facilitating unity, the social needs of the growing Pentecostal community necessitated further ecclesial developments. These needs included the resolution of doctrinal disputes, the organisation and governance of local congregations, local and national leadership structures, and the effective administration of local and world missionary activity. These social needs called for creative development in the communities cultural values. In a radical departure from previous self-understanding, the movement started to speak of itself as both an “organism” and an “organisation,” and to conceptualise a differentiation between the universal experience of the baptism in the Spirit and particular anointing or gifting for particular functions within the community. This was facilitated by appropriation of the biblical concepts of spiritual gifting and office, especially the fivefold offices of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher.

The transition toward a more structured ecclesiology was not without its tension. As Charles Enticknap lamented in 1935:

How tragic it is that many to-day have lost the vision they had when the glorious fullness of the Holy Spirit came in … Our only hope for continued usefulness as a movement is in keeping alive the spirit of evangelism. The church must give or it will cease to live. When we settle down to hold an Assembly or a number of Assemblies together, and forget the lost on every hand crying out for the bread of life, we have lost the vision of the great purpose of the Lord in the Church’s very existence. [13]

The issue was whether or not “institution” necessarily destroys the charisma. Pentecostal s tended to suspect institutional developments on the grounds that bureaucracy is necessarily opposed to the freedom of the Spirit. [14] At the level of theory there is, similarly, a tendency, utilising Max Weber’s categories of charismatic, traditional and bureaucratic authority and his descriptions of the institutionalisation, to assume that social groups necessarily move from the charismatic to the bureaucratic. The inevitable consequence is understood to be the routinisation of the original charisma and, consequently, institutionalisation is understood to be a necessary evil. As Thomas O’Dea observes, “religion both needs most and suffers most from institutionalization.” [15]

Yet institutions are central to human communities, without which we have rampant individualism. The idea of a “necessary evil” is ontologically problematic, and overlooks the fact that institutional forms provide an efficient means to achieve certain recurrent needs within the community. [16] Since institutionalisation is essential to human community, rather than critique institutionalisation per se, we should seek to identity what is gained and lost in particular instances of institutional development. Far from overriding the original charisma, it may be possible for institutional developments to encourage and enhance the charismatic orientation of the church. As Donald Gee was to argue in 1938:

They (the Apostles in the book of Acts) insured the continuance of the revival by “government.” If I said that in some places they would want to drive me out. But God has opened our eyes to the fact that there is nothing in divine governing to quench the Spirit. God has blessed this movement, as we have recognised the importance of “governments.” 1 Cor. 12:28. I was brought up on the thought that all organisation, all government, is fleshy and carnal. I am so glad that God has opened my eyes to see things better than that. [17]

Gee was commenting particularly in the formation of the AGA in 1937, which formed as a “fellowship of Pentecostal Assemblies in voluntary co-operation, on terms of equality, as self-contained and self-governed Christian Assemblies, uniting for aggressive evangelism, unity, fellowship, order, discipline, and other purposes.” [18] The local church priority and democratic structures for intra-church and inter-church organisation that categorised the formalisation of their fellowship arose in the context of the rise of democratised Christianity and the free-church movement. [19] Described by Joseph Komonchak as an “ascending” view, an ecclesiology from below, free-church ecclesiology begins with the spirit-filled individual believer in the context of the local assembly, recognises the local church as fully church, and only thereafter constructs its inter-church structures. [20]

Obviously, however, the challenge of institutional development was to ensure the pneumatological orientation of the fellowship and its churches. This balance between charisma and institution is described by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen as “charismatic structure,” a church “which is both charismatic and has structure. [21] In the AGA this was achieved, first, by a focus on the local church, second, through democratic structures and, third, in ordaining church leaders rather than priests. Kärkkäinen relates all these dimensions of Pentecostal ecclesiology to the notion of the priesthood of all believers, which he thus locates as a central motif of Pentecostal ecclesiology. [22] From this perspective, local church priority and democratic structures are in place to ensure that the whole community of Spirit-filled believers are given responsibility for the life of the Church. With this in mind, the question that arises is, What is the role and authority of the pastor (if any)? and, What are the consequent implications for our understanding of the nature of the general priesthood?

Obviously the role of the ordained minister arises from the differentiation between the universal experience of the baptism in the Spirit and particular anointing or gifting for specific functions within the community, including the office of pastor. In the first place, the distinction between the pastor and the congregation was purely organisational. All are baptised in the Spirit and gifted by the Spirit, but some are gifted for the function of congregational leadership. Once this first distinction is made, it becomes apparent that the pastor functions and leads, not only organisationally, in the social dimension of the scale of values, but also in the cultural sphere, promoting and helping to maintain the faith and worldview of the congregation, and in the personal sphere, encouraging personal and religious conversion. The pastor’s role is thereby multi-faceted; organisational and practical, cultural, and spiritual.

This latter, spiritual dimension of the pastor’s function incorporates the mediation of the divine to the community. This is a controversial assertion within Pentecostalism, especially since baptism in the Spirit and the priesthood of all believers are generally seen to overcome the need for such mediation. Yet whatever the theory, the narrative of the AGA makes it clear that the pastor was prominent in the mediation of the Spirit to the congregation. This was not only in tongues and interpretation, but also in discerning the voice of the Spirit for the sermon, in praying for healing, in leading people into baptism (both water and Spirit), in ministering at the altar, and in speaking “words of knowledge.” It was the fact of this mediation that led the Apostolic Church, which was set up in opposition to the AGA, to ordain both Apostles and Prophets. From their perspective, the Apostle mediated divine authority and leadership, and the Prophet mediated the insight of the Spirit both personally and corporately.

The AGA rejected these Apostolic Church offices, not only because of the danger of elevating the prophetic to the status of Scripture, but also because of the importance of the principle of the priesthood of all believers, [23] and the related notion of the “prophethood of all believers.” [24] No structure could be established that prevented the congregation from ownership and responsibility for the church, as did the vesting of church government in the Apostle, or that restricted the universal operation of the gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy. What then is the role of the pastor? The answer given by Pentecostals is “leadership.” The pastor leads the way in taking responsibility for church government and, in doing so, encourages the whole congregation to also be responsible for the church and its ministry. The pastor, who is prominent in the operation of the spiritual gifts, leads the way in mediating the divine word to the assembly, and also to the world. This leadership encourages the congregation to minister the spiritual gifts, and speak the prophetic word of God to their particular and diverse contexts, in their own way, within the church and to society in general. All of this might seem to be too much responsibility for any one person, and indeed it is. But leadership is not about the individual performance of tasks and responsibilities. Instead, leadership involves encouraging community responsibility for all the various ministries of the church. In this manner, the leadership role of the pastor does not necessarily contradict the notion of the universal priesthood of all believers. Rather, the pastor as leader encourages universal participation in church life, ministry and mission.

Approaching the same issue from perspective of the congregation we can note that the fact that gifts of the spirit and the ministry of each member of “the body” are diverse and distinct does not deny the universality of the priestly function within the church. All believers share in the worship of the triune God and in ministry to one-another. Neither does this diversity circumvent the universality of the prophetic function within the church and to the “the world.” All believers proclaim in their particular contexts the challenge and good news of the gospel. In Pentecostal churches, the notion of universal baptism in the Spirit makes it possible for every member of the assembly to give messages in tongues, provide interpretations, and speak prophetically. The administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper is also not restricted to the ordained celebrant, and the congregation is invited to participate in the formation of culture and society. But the pastor does play an important leadership role in facilitating, modelling and encouraging these mediations and activities and, consequently, far from contradicting the priesthood and prophethood of all believers, at its best, the office of the pastorate promotes this universality.

Spirit Ecclesiology Recent Ecclesiological Changes

I have thus far focused on the ecclesiology of the AGA as set out in its original constitution. If openness to change can be said to be one of the hallmarks of a pneumatological ecclesiology, then it is not surprising to discover that the AGA has experienced substantial ecclesiological change since its inception in 1937. During the 1970s and 80s the fellowship underwent what was to be its most substantial period of transition, from congregational democratic ecclesiology to pastor led churches. This transition has been described by David Cartledge as the Apostolic Revolution. [25] It has its origins in the charismatic movement, and the rapid growth in the Pentecostal church which accompanied the renewal. Those churches that had incorporated the charismatic message and style had experienced a rapid influx, largely because many charismatics were either forced out, or drifted away from, their traditional churches. Those AGA churches that were prepared to change their ecclesiological culture and structure along with the rapid developments of charismatic renewal found their congregations flooded with newly invigorated charismatic Christians.

There is more, however, to AGA growth than the charismatic renewal alone. The experience of growth led to the active pursuit of growth. The movement’s leaders sought the input of church growth theorists and practitioners from around the world, and they set about transforming their churches to encourage and accommodate expansion. Among other things, a new openness to diversity, coupled with the pragmatism of church growth techniques, gave rise to an emphasis on cultural relevance. This made way for the AGA’s accent on contemporary music, its willingness to embrace youth culture and its adoption of prosperity outlook. It was also to lead to a broader understanding of the Pentecostal mission. For the first time, the AGA began to engage in social ministry, establishing drug and alcohol rehabilitation arms, along with other social welfare programs. Ultimately this search for relevance and influence led to political involvement, and even the recent establishment of the Family First Party, founded by Andrew Evans, and now with representatives in State and National parliaments. [26]

Among the many changes that have resulted, AGA churches have also undergone radical structural development, as churches began to move away from congregational, democratic structures. Cartledge, as a member of the executive responsible for these changes, argues that moves away from democracy caused AGA growth. [27] It is more likely, however, that the increased size and number of churches, resulting from the charismatic renewal and church growth emphasis, necessitated structural change, which, in a circular fashion, then facilitated further church growth. At the local level, congregational government became increasingly cumbersome as churches increased in size. Larger churches, which had come to emphasise the importance of leadership, responded to this situation by vesting governmental authority in the senior pastor and the church board/eldership. Smaller churches, especially new church plants, adopted similar structures in anticipation of future growth.

It is this aspect of the changes in the AGA that has taken on international prominence. Cartledge locates the beginning of this “apostolic revolution” in Australia with the leadership changes of the 1977 conference (which replaced Old style leadership with new apostolic styled leaders – including Andrew Evans, David Cartledge, Reg Klimionok and, later Frank Houston). He accredits this revolution with the empowering of the local church over against centralised bureaucracies. [28] He also applauds the defeat of congregational, “deacon possessed” churches, which he claims are reluctant to embrace change, and thereby inhibit church growth. [29] He endorses the requisite “anointing” of the leadership of the senior pastor, formalised in the establishment of “theocratic” church government, i.e. vesting church authority in God-appointed apostolic leaders. [30] This authority is manifest in the local church, and also in regional, state and national AGA structures, with the mega-church “apostles” taking executive leadership in the movement. For Cartledge, these changes are responsible for the remarkable growth in the AGA during the two and half decades following the “revolution.”

Conclusion and Questions for Reflection

Of course whether or not Cartledge’s assessment is correct requires broader discussion and reflection, and is beyond the scope of this paper. For now it is enough to note that these changes have occurred, and to raise the issues for further discussion. The questions, in summary, might include:


[1] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Church as Charismatic Fellowship: Ecclesiological Reflections from Pentecostal-Roman Catholic Dialogue,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 18 (2001): 100-121 . Ironically, the article entitled ‘Church, Theology of the’ in The New Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements is written by charismatic Catholic theologian Peter Hocken ( Peter D. Hocken, “Church, Theology of the,” The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal Charismatic Movements, ed. Stanley M. Burgess (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002) ).

[2] Mark Hutchinson, “The Power to Grasp,” Unpublished paper, Southern Cross College, Sydney, 2003 .

[3] David Martin, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002) , 5.

[4] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (London: Yale University Press, 1989) , 3-16. See also David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: a History From the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) .

[5] Barry Chant, “The Spirit of Pentecost: Origins and Development of the Pentecostal movement in Australia, 1870-1939,” PhD dissertation, Sydney: Macquarie University, 1999) 523-542.

[6] She argued that God the Father and the Holy Spirit were one, and that Jesus Christ was God’s Son ( Sarah Jane Lancaster, Good News 1:5, January 1913, 17).

[7] Chant, “Spirit of Pentecost,” 235.

[8] Sarah Jane Lancaster, “By One Spirit,” Good News 18, no. 7 (July 1927): 10 .

[9] Robert M. Doran, Theology and the Dialectics of History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990) , 95.

[10] Simon Chan, “Mother Church: Toward a Pentecostal Ecclesiology,” Pneuma 22, no. 2 (2000): 177-208

[11] Sarah Jane Lancaster, “Good News Hall,” Good News 17, no. 10 (October 1926): 10-13 10.

[12] Described by Klaus Fiedler using the seemingly oxymoronic label “individual unity,” this understanding of church unity was understood to be a secret work of the Holy Spirit that overrode the divisions generated by church order and church doctrine, which were thereby rendered superfluous to ecclesiology. See Klaus Fiedler, The Story of Faith Missions (Oxford: Regnum, 1994) , 169-209.

[13] Charles G. Enticknap, “The Supreme Mission of the Church,” Glad Tidings Messenger (April 1935): available online, http://aps.scc.edu.au/library/documents/GTM19350401_07.htm, accessed 7 April 2004 .

[14] So, for example, the first president of the AGA, Charles Enticknap, lamented in 1935, “How tragic it is that many to-day have lost the vision they had when the glorious fullness of the Holy Spirit came in … Our only hope for continued usefulness as a movement is in keeping alive the spirit of evangelism. The church must give or it will cease to live. When we settle down to hold an Assembly or a number of Assemblies together, and forget the lost on every hand crying out for the bread of life, we have lost the vision of the great purpose of the Lord in the Church’s very existence.” Enticknap, “Mission of the Church,” .

[15] Thomas O'Dea, “Five Dilemmas in the Institutionalization of Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1, no. 1 (October 1961): 30-41 , 32.

[16] Neil Ormerod, “The Structure of a Systematic Ecclesiology,” Theological Studies 63 (2002): 3-30 16.

[17] Donald Gee, “Can this Pentecostal Revival be Maintained?,” Glad Tidings Messenger (March 1938): available online at http://aps.scc.edu.au/library/documents/aegtm19380301_03.htm., Accessed December 2002 .

[18] Assemblies of God in Australia, United Constitution, 1943, Available at Pentecostal Heritage Centre, Southern Cross College, Sydney , Article 2(a).

[19] See Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity , Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain .

[20] According to Komonchak, this “ascending vision” is most obviously contrasted with the traditional “descending” vision. Many Catholic and mainline ecclesiologies can be understood as ecclesiologies “from above.” They assume that the universal church is “the Church,” and derive their structures in a top-down manner, from the authority of the risen Christ, vested in the Pope and distributed to Bishops and the priesthood, coming finally to the parish and the so-called laity. This vision of the church is hierarchical, and locates the status of the local congregation by way of its relationship of submission to the centralised authorities of “the Church.” ( Joseph Komonchak, “The Church Universal as the Communion of Local Churches,” Where Does the Church Stand?, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo and Gustovo Gutieriz (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 30-35 ).

[21] Kärkkäinen, “Church as Charismatic Fellowship,” .

[22] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002) , 72; Stephen Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) , 18.; Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church As the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) , 225; David Morgan, “Priesthood and Prophethood: Towards a Healthy Pentecostal Body,” Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 33 (2004): 1-15 .

[23] Leila M. Buchanan, “Uncertain Sounds: Apostolic Church Error,” The Glad Tidings Messenger 1, no. 2 (December 1934): available online, http://evangel.webjournals.org/Issues.asp?index=109, accessed 7 April 2004 ; Greenwood, Charles L., “Testimony presented to congregation of Richmond Temple,” Available at Pentecostal Heritage Centre, Southern Cross College, Sydney, 1967 , 55-56.

[24] Roger Stronstad, The Charismatic Theology of St.Luke (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1984) , 80-81, Kärkkäinen, Ecclesiology , 72.

[25] David Cartledge, The Apostolic Revolution: The Restoration of Apostles and Prophets in the Assemblies of God in Australia (Sydney: Paraclete Institute, 2000) .

[26] See Clifton, “Ecclesiology of the Assemblies of God in Australia,” chapter 5.

[27] Cartledge, Apostolic Revolution , 147-154.

[28] Cartledge, Apostolic Revolution , 143-146.

[29] Cartledge, Apostolic Revolution , 210.

[30] Cartledge, Apostolic Revolution , 229-290.