Shortly after my conversion to Christ in 2002 in the charismatic movement of the Catholic church, I became affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), a Oneness Pentecostal group that broke away from the Assemblies of God over the New Issue of baptism, which ultimately led to the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity and the upholding of Acts 2:38 as the plan of salvation. In 2003, I officially became part of a UPCI church and started my journey toward knowing more fully Christ. I earned a degree at one of the UPCI-endorsed Bible colleges. I appreciate all that took place in that time—the friends I made and the spiritual and academic foundation that was laid—and how I grew in grace in that time period.
Now, eight years since I became a Christian and toward the end of my MA degree from a well-respected seminary, I am no longer a Oneness Pentecostal. Some have attributed this change to my going to seminary. This is certainly not the case, although seminary has played a role in helping me to broaden my understanding of Christianity, both past and present. Contrary to these claims, a few reasons that I left the UPCI, which I shall briefly detail below, are the result of personal study and long reflection on church history, experience, and Scripture. Seminary gave me the tools and the freedom to study for myself, but it did not make those decisions for me. What follows is, of course, not an exhaustive set of reasons for why I am not a Oneness Pentecostal anymore.
My interest in church history spans the apostolic period to the Chalcedon council. Part of the problem I ran into as a Oneness Pentecostal was the ecumenical declarations against the Oneness doctrine I held. For example, modalism had been condemned. Now, even though I did not hold to a Sabellian-type modalism, the modalism to which I did hold had already been written against by the ante-Nicene Fathers. In short, however the Fathers were describing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it looked nothing like the Oneness view in its various flavors.
In addition to other things, Oneness Pentecostals believe that one must receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues, to be saved. Those Oneness people that I know had a pre-set formula to “pray someone through” to receive the Holy Spirit. Someone would coach the Holy Spirit seeker with a formula that went something like this: (1) pray that God would forgive you; (2) now that He has forgiven you, rejoice and praise God; (3) keep praising God until the feeling begins to overflow within you; (4) as soon as the overflow begins to reach your mouth, let your tongue go. If all of those steps are done correctly, then one will speak in tongues. Most of the time, however, it takes many tries with this formula for the speaker to finally speak in tongues. I am not one to cast doubt on the legitimacy of whether a person speaks in tongues using the formula; I believe that many have. This formula, however, is at odds with my experience (and the experience of the hundreds of others that same day), where I did not need to be coached. When I spoke in tongues for the first time, all I did was stood up and praised God, and He gave me the utterance to speak in other tongues—no coaching, no formula, and no waiting around. What most Oneness Pentecostals would find odd is that I first spoke in tongues at a charismatic Catholic service. To attest to the validity of the work of the Spirit in me that day, I was delivered the day I spoke in tongues from my use of crystal methamphetamines and I worked in the gift of discerning of spirits the very next day.
I believe that speaking in tongues is a good thing. However, I do not believe that if someone has never spoken in tongues then he or she is not saved. Instead, I concur with the major theme of the New Testament that a person who genuinely is filled with and walks in the Spirit is one who loves both God and neighbor. Among those whom I know, there seem to be more who have not spoken in tongues and yet are overcoming sin and exhibiting true, godly love compared to Oneness people I know who have spoken in tongues.
My third point of departure with the Oneness group came through a study of Scripture. While I was at Bible college, I learned of ways to sidestep Scripture passages that dealt with the Son’s preexistence, with the interaction between the Father and the Son, as well as sidestep the language that clearly showed the Holy Spirit as distinct from both the Father and the Son. As I reflect back, I could see that my theology professor’s view of Oneness theology borrowed from much of Trinitarian theology while seemingly presenting these theological nuances as exclusive to Oneness. Although he meant well and sought to further develop Oneness theology, the adoption of ideas from and the lack of proper teaching on Trinitarian theology seems to indicate that even he knew the truth that Trinitarian theology upheld. Even though I have always admired Oneness Pentecostals for their devotion to the oneness of God, such devotion is misguided when it does not line up with Scripture and has been rejected by the ecumenical councils that have defined the Trinitarian position from both Scripture and the broad teaching of the church in the early centuries.
I harbor no ill feelings toward the Oneness Pentecostal movement. Many of my close friends still today are Oneness Pentecostals. I have gratitude for the spiritual tenacity that the Oneness movement possesses because it was at a Oneness Bible college and church that I learned to draw closer to God. Yet, I cannot be a part of a movement that sets itself up having a monopoly on the nature of God, on holiness standards, and on salvation. I am afraid that because the Oneness movement has pushed itself away from the broader church and relies upon its own private Scriptural insights that it has missed the fact that God has called and saved a universal church larger than the Oneness movement to be holy and conformed to the image of the Son.