In this interview, theologian Frank D Macchia shares his journey as a theologian and a minister. He also shares the short journey of Pentecostal theology and explains the significance of the Global Pentecostal Summit towards its development.
Before Professor Frank Macchia even stepped foot into City Harvest Church, the church had long heard his name. He is the doctoral supervisor (or “doctoral father”) of the church’s senior pastor, Kong Hee—he is guiding Pastor Kong in the PhD programme he is currently undertaking.
Prof Macchia is on the faculty of Vanguard University (VU)—which has a collaborative relationship with CHC—specialising in systematic theology. He was born into an Italian family and grew up in Indiana, USA.
While he was at Bible college, he transferred to Southern California College (currently renamed VU), pursuing an undergraduate degree in religion. He went on to further his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York and received his Master of Divinity. He also pastored in a local church and taught English at an institution, and there he met his wife, Verena. Eventually, he went on to complete his Doctor of Theology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Thereafter, he and Verena returned to the States and subsequently, he became a Theology Professor at VU.
He has served as president of the Society of Pentecostal Studies and for more than a decade as senior editor of Pneuma: The Journal for the Society of Pentecostal Studies. He has also authored numerous books, especially in areas of the Holy Spirit and has made great contributions to Pentecostal theology, particularly in ecumenical theology.
Prof Macchia was in Singapore in November to present a paper titled “From the Atonement to Pentecost: An Exegetical and Theological Reflection” at the Global Pentecostal Summit. City News had the privilege to sit down with him for a chat.
Please tell us how you became a Christian and how you got into theology?
I was privileged to be raised in a Christian home—an Italian, Pentecostal Christian home. My father was a pastor and his brother, my uncle, was his assistant pastor. So, I was raised in a pastor’s home, and we went to church a lot. It was good. I grew up seeing God at work in the context of the congregation, just hearing testimonies of people who were struggling in life to understand the meaning of God through everything that they were going through. Those stories and testimonies had a tremendous impact on me growing up.
During my teen years, I struggled. I went through a rebellious phase and then I rediscovered God in my life in a very powerful way. I remember going to Bible college but before that, my father and I began a late night conversation which lasted all night. I went back to my bed when the sun was dawning and I remember kneeling by my bed and just saying to God, “Take my life, just take my life, I want to stop resisting You in my life.” Because of that, when I got married, my wife and I chose the song “Take My Life And Let It Be” to be sung at our wedding. Those were the words I used that night when I prayed.
Later on, I went to Bible college and while I was there, the Lord encountered me quite dramatically. I remember sitting down at my desk in my dorm room on the first evening there and I read the entire book of Acts in one sitting. When I finished reading it, tears were coming down my face and I opened the shade and looked outside. The sun was setting, and I remember thinking, if I’m going to be a Christian, I want to be one like they (in Acts) were. God was so real to them and I want God to be real in my life too.
That was a turning point. And then it was at college that I fell in love with the study of theology—I knew then I was meant to be a theologian.
But I’ve always sensed it. I remember when I was only 5 years old, waiting for my mom to get me from kindergarten, and it was a winter day. The snow was very thick, and I formed a cross in the snow with my foot. I remember standing in front of it, thinking, “One day, I’m going to find out what that means.” I was only 5 years old. I remember that very vividly and so I guess I always knew that God was going to call me to be a theologian.
When I was in college, God made that calling very clear to me. I did go into the pastorate for about 10 years, but even then, I was reading a lot of theology books and planning to go on to graduate work. And so, I did. I always knew I would.
You are not just a theologian, but also a practitioner. We hear you have been pastoring for many years—please tell us more about it.
I have always felt that theologians need to be involved in the church—it keeps their feet grounded in the community that they are primarily serving. Naturally, the theologian also has an eye towards the world, and the theologian wants to do theology in a way that directs the church to the world and helps the church to understand the questions that are being raised out there. The theologian is concerned about the world, their suffering and their salvation. So the theologian has a worldly direction but still, the theologian’s primary work is in the life of the church, and I don’t know how a person can do that without being involved in the church. Thus, I’ve always taken it upon myself to be involved in the church.
For you, what is the difference between doing academia and pastoring?
When you’re a theologian, you are discussing the big ideas of Christian doctrine, not only in relation to scripture but also in relation to contextual challenges. You deal with issues of culture and even sociology and other disciplines because theology is an academic discipline.
Whereas when you’re pastoring in a church, you really don’t have much opportunity to discuss those kinds of things. The laity usually is not interested in talking about theology on that level. If someone is called to be a theologian but is solely pastoring, they may, in time, come to feel that something is missing. They may feel that they should be part of a conversation that they’re not.
Sometimes, people might seek to become pastor-theologians, so they’ll attend academic conferences and try to have some exposure to conversations on that level. But it’s still not the same thing as working in a faculty, where you have faculty colleagues who are academic scholars in theology and sitting at the lunch table with them, having constant conversations with them.
Pastors don’t have that and so if you’re called to be a theologian and you’re a pastor, my guess is at some point, you’re going to feel something’s missing, and you have to follow that calling. Now there are pastor-theologians who feel called to straddle both areas and they’ll be somewhat involved in the academy—maybe not very intensively, but they’ll have some of that and so they usually become good communicators. They can communicate to the churches what the theologians are saying, and so you’ll get those “bridge” people, but that’s a unique calling in and of itself. But I knew I was called to be a theologian. I knew at some point I would be leaving the pastorate.
Are you currently serving as a pastor right now?
I was for about 10 years in the city of Chicago. I was an urban pastor which I loved tremendously. But for about 20 years throughout the 2000s, I was an assistant pastor of a Chinese Taiwanese congregation in Southern California. I loved it tremendously. But they have just recently moved away and so I decided that I wasn’t going to follow—it’s just too far for us. So, we’re in transition right now.
How do you think being a theologian affects the way you do ministry?
You bring a gift to the congregation. The pastors that I served with, when I functioned as an assistant pastor, were all very humble. They weren’t threatened by me, and of course, I never want to be threatening to anyone, so I always give the pastor I serve the utmost respect publicly and privately. But I did find that I was able, now and again, to give a theologian’s perspective when the church was confronting an issue. The church has always appreciated that and the pastors I’ve worked with have always appreciated that.
Pentecostals have always been accused of being shallow, especially in theology. What are your thoughts about this? You are a Pentecostal, and you are also so passionate about theology. How do we integrate both? We sense that we are at the threshold of something amazing, so what does the future of Pentecostal theology look like to you?
There’s no question that in the early decades of the movement, all the way up to the 1970s, we (the Pentecostals) were always much stronger in the missional and charismatic area in terms of the spiritual life of a congregation. The congregations would empower missions in the world and send forth people into the world to be missionaries. I think that charismatic or missional thrust has always been the strength of the Pentecostal movement. Academic theology in those decades has not been our strength.
But I think that began changing. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s there were some notable Pentecostals who were scholarly, but they weren’t great in number. When I was a graduate student during the 1970s and ’80s, there just wasn’t a lot of Pentecostal scholarship out there for me to have access to. So, I and some others who were going for advanced degrees in theology or biblical studies began to say we’ve got an important role to play. We need to spearhead a new generation of Pentecostal scholarship that doesn’t abandon our former strength but use it instead; because the missional life of the church—the charismatic and missional life of the church—is the home base for theological construction.
By using our former strength, we want to do theology in the service of it so that we can provide abundant resources for future graduates. They wouldn’t be in the position I was in, trying to find something but not finding it.
I would say that the new revolution for Pentecostal scholarship began in the late ’80s, and there was a whole number of us who graduated with our doctorates at that time. We found each other at the Society for Pentecostal Studies in the States. I can remember in those early years—the late ’80s and the early ’90s—a number of us meeting together late into the night in hotel rooms, just talking about what we could do together to be on the bottom floor of a whole new revolution in Pentecostal scholarship. That’s where the Journal of Pentecostal Theology began. I was one of the associate editors of that journal.
I became the editor of Pneuma, which was the journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies in America, the premier research journal for global Pentecostalism. I edited that journal for 10 years and it was my goal to use that as a vehicle for bringing to print a lot of Pentecostal scholarship that was coming out. I’ve received articles from all over the world and I read everything that came across my desk. We began to write books and publish a lot of articles. We weren’t just publishing articles in Pentecostal journals; we were publishing articles in mainstream journals because we thought they had to hear our voices. I would say the ’90s and beyond really was the new renaissance of Pentecostal biblical, historical, and theological scholarship. And now I’m happy to say graduate students in theology among Pentecostals today have a lot of resources to look at. I look at that and say, “Mission accomplished”. I feel privileged to have been on the bottom floor of it.
How do you feel about the Global Pentecostal Summit? What is the significance of this summit for you?
This summit is great, and I love meetings like this. Because you bring people together and maybe people that I haven’t had much opportunity to talk to, and now we can sit down, we can chat, we can give papers and not only bless others but bless one another as well. I love it.
I think what’s happening here with City Harvest hosting, is just a wonderful milestone in the future of Pentecostal scholarship. This is a historic meeting and when people write the history of Pentecostal scholarship and theology. This meeting is going to be part of that history.
I understand you have two beautiful daughters that you adopted from China. Could you share with us how that came about?
This is why we got involved in this Chinese Taiwanese church. It was for the sake of our daughters. We adopted both of them from China when they were just babies from different parts of China and now, they’re all grown up. One’s 29 and one’s 27. They were just toddlers and when we moved to California. One of the reasons why Vanguard (University) was so tempting for me to teach was because of its location in Southern California. We knew that there would be a large Asian community there, which there was. We had no difficulty finding an English-speaking Chinese congregation that we could attach ourselves to and they had a large children’s group. Our daughters fitted in beautifully and the church became like a family to us.
It all worked out beautifully and now my older daughter is married to a Chinese-Indonesian man, and I have a grandchild. My younger daughter is engaged, also to a Chinese, and will be married next June. In family photos, I’m the one who sticks out, so I’ve been sort of adopted into the Asian world.
Finally, what are the biggest challenges and joys of being Pastor Kong’s doctoral supervisor?
Kong Hee is any professor’s dream student and I say that without any exaggeration or hyperbole. He’s got a brilliant mind. He grasps complex concepts very quickly, analyses them and he can come right to what’s really important about them. He asks good questions, so he is someone that any professor would love to have as a doctoral student or master’s student.
I just enjoy dialoguing with him, and I enjoy our Zoom sessions together. I’m going to enjoy being his doctoral mentor because I think that he’s got it. He’s got what it takes to really excel as a doctoral student and then as a scholar. I could see him very much as a kind of pastor-theologian, which he is already becoming. But I could see him flourishing as a kind of pastor-scholar. I can see this next phase in his life really being an opportunity for him to flourish even more than he has. I’m thrilled that he found me and that I have the opportunity to play this role in his life.