Walk on, walk on
What you’ve got they can’t deny it
Can’t sell it, or buy it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight
– from Walk On by U2
Sometimes you come to a point in life where you must make a decision. It is a hard choice because it demands that you break from your past in hopes of embracing your future. Often, the future is unknown, but you do know that if you stay where you are now you won’t get where you need to be.
Several years ago as a college student it became evident that the Christian sect with which I was associated had some misguided teachings. These were the Oneness Pentecostals (learn more here). While not everyone in this group thinks that their’s is the only true Christianity, most people that I knew would say this. I began to ask myself how this could be true. Why did so many Christians deny the very basics that were so essential to be authentic followers of Christ. After a couple of years of study it slowly became evident that it was not all “those Christians” that were wrong. We were the ones who had reinvented the whole religion in our own image.
Let me provide a disclaimer from the very beginning. I am not writing this post and the next few in order to try to apologetically disprove Oneness Pentecostal dogma. In fact, I will be ignoring comments that try to bait me into such debates. I have written plenty elsewhere saying openly why I disagree with their teachings.
Likewise, I have no illusions that these posts will “convert” anyone. I have met some people who have told me that my story gave them the strength to leave, but I know that there are many others whom I have failed to convince, including some family. If you are happy where you are as a Oneness Pentecostal, or if you are needing to be “convinced”, then this is a dead end.
Finally, I don’t think that you must leave Oneness Pentecostalism to know Christ. I admit that I do think this movement, in general, impacts people’s view of the Christian God negatively. At times it can be heretical, almost always sectarian, and sometimes cultic. Others have morphed their local churches here and there to the point that if I said that the whole group was corrupt it would be an over-generalization. I’ve met good Christians who are part of Oneness Pentecostal congregations.
Nevertheless, sometimes people must leave their tribe to better understand Christ. This is true of some Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Southern Baptist, Methodist, other Pentecostals, and even evangelical churches. It is not as if I think one of these groups has such a monopoly on Christian doctrine that to leave their circles would be to apostate (though I do know some within these groups would claim that very thing). So if you are a Oneness Pentecostal reading this, while I think your movement as a whole has much more wrong with it than these aforementioned groups (e.g. you deny cardinal doctrines like the Trinity, you often openly seek to disrupt the unity of the global church, et al.), it is not true that I think your group is the only one with serious systemic problems that sometimes isolate, abuse, and mislead Christians. All our tribes have these types in our midst, even small, local independent assemblies.
There is a type of person to whom I am writing. You are a Oneness Pentecostal who either doubts this whole Christian religion or you are beginning to wonder why your group has become so isolated from everyone else. I have been there. I have been this person. You are fairly sure you do not believe what comes from the pulpit on Sunday, but it has been your whole life for some time now. If you leave it is more than just changing churches. You will lose friends. You will fracture relationships with some family. You will be told by some that you are no longer a Christian. And after all of that you now have to try to fit back into broader Christian circles feeling a bit out of place. If this is you then these post will be for you.
I don’t expect you to comment. In fact, I assume that most of the people who will be helped by this will read silently, because you are not able to tell people around you about your doubts. That is fine, I don’t need to know you are reading. I am glad your there though.
So as you read from the shadows let me preview what I have to say to you as a former Oneness Pentecostal who exited the movement only to find that the Christian God is very gracious and that surprisingly other Christians can be very kind, loving, and welcoming (though be warned, there are some real jerks out there). I will cover the following:
– Prayerfully begin your journey: After being told for many years that only those who baptized in “Jesus name” and who has spoken in tongues could be saved it was scary to realize I did not believe this. I didn’t see it in Scripture. I didn’t see it in the traditions of the church as far back as they go. Yet I knew that I had been fed a very black-and-white, in-and-out worldview. What if I was wrong and the Oneness Pentecostals were right? Would I lead people away from God by denying their teachings? While it is silly to think now it was serious at that moment. I made up my mind to engage my quest with one unprovable premise: God is graciously good. I prayed that the Spirit would guide me and that I would receive strength to go where my discoveries led even if it resulted in backlash. It did, but it was worth it, and God has proven to be beautiful in mercy.
– Study for yourself: You are allowed to read the Scriptures. You are allowed to read the writings of other Christians. Even if your pastor claims that your group has it all figured out this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek to confirm it. If you study and you come to the conclusion that Oneness Pentecostalism is still the closest thing to authentic Christianity I will strongly disagree, but I will respect you. If you fear saying anything that differs from the canon of David K. Bernard then I challenge you to use your one life to seek Christ for yourself.
– Engage the church: I have seen something that I call the Yo-Yo Effect that happens to many Oneness Pentecostals seeking to leave. First, they have been told that their Christianity is the only Christianity. Second, they realize they (A) cannot live up to the rules and regulations and/or (B) that it is so odd that every other Christian group has strayed so far. I have seen friends throw in the towel, go into a world of sex, drugs, and every other immorality, and then, when the guilt comes, they go to the only church they have known. Sadly, it is the same cycle. They can’t get past the nagging doubts so they return once again to a destructive lifestyle. Some don’t go this far but they linger agnostically without any church family or conviction about truth of any kind. There is one way to avoid this: see if other Christians are as bad as you have been told!
– Reform cautiously: Some jump out of the pan and into the fire. Some leave one form of dogmatism that they had not fully believed for another group’s dogma. Our impulse is to “belong” so we decide that if we are no longer Oneness Pentecostals we will be “Reformed” or “Baptist” or “Catholic”. If you join one of these tribes that is fine as long as you don’t blindly and impatiently run from one “us-against-them” group into another. It is OK to take days, weeks, months, and years to learn what you believe and why you believe it.
– Anti-nomianism is not the answer: It is too easy to say, “Wait, so as a woman it is OK for me to wear pants?” only to begin asking oneself if all the other moral imperatives were misguided as well. While legalism can be deadly the response is not one huge pendulum swing to moral lawlessness (i.e. anti-nomianism). There are some Christian values that are biblical and worth living. Don’t do something you regret with your new found freedom.
– Protect your heart: Let me tell you what the easiest response to your former Oneness Pentecostalism could become: bitterness. It is so hard not to be bitter when you feel like you have been controlled, duped, mislead, or even abused. If you do leave you will hear stories that will cause old emotions to rise within you. It will make you angry. If you’re like me you will probably cuss a bit about it. When all is said and done ask the Spirit to help you pray for others. This is the beginning of experiencing some freedom in Christ. I am still in the process.
Tomorrow I will begin unpacking these points and I hope to be done in a week or two. Thank you for reading. I pray that somehow my own journey will be encouraging as you embark on your own.
Good stuff, Brian. I have never attended a Oneness congregation so I am not very knowledgeable of their beliefs, but if they are so off the path that you’re writing a series on it then I pray it impacts hearts. You have touched on some big truths in the post. First, many people leave one dogma for another. This is very much like addiction that goes untouched. My cousin goes to rehab for one addiction and then picks up a different addiction to counter the other which inevitably ends him back in rehab. In the same way, I think people play “religious rehab” and go from one shotty belief to the next due to rash thinking.
The other point you brought up was about the Yo-Yo effect. As previously mentioned I have never been inside of a Oneness church nor have I truly researched their beliefs, but I can testify that in the Assemblies of God congregations that I attended and helped with years ago, the same Yo-Yo effect occurred. Maybe the Yo-Yo effect occurs more often within Pentecostal denominations? I often beat myself up regarding spiritual gifts and not performing them and being told that I did not have true, saving faith or lacked the faith for the Holy Spirit to move. I am not speaking bad about charismata because I am a continuationist, but I wonder if the Yo-Yo effect that is seen in many is more prevalent in Pentecostal denominations due to the large influence of speaking in tongues as “initial evidence.”
Nevertheless, great post and I look forward to the next.
@Ryan: I think there is a particular version of the Yo-Yo Effect that is characteristic of the broader Pentecostal movement. It does include the awkward relationship to charismatic gifting. I am also a continuationist, but I don’t kick myself if I don’t speak in tongues often. If I do experience the Spirit in one of these ways it is either for my edification or someone else, not to test the status of my Christianity.
That being said I think other groups have similar Yo-Yo Effects. I have talked to former Catholics, Orthodox, Baptist, et al., and it usually has to do with some “badge” of belonging that they no longer wear which has upset people near and dear to them. These people say hurtful things and use scare tactics so that one feels they must “return or burn”.
I feel an Identification is essential for this post, so firstly, I am a oneness pentecostal. Fortunately for me though, I was raised as an independent from an organization that I know that Brian is speaking of me. It’s unfortunate for me that some of my fellow (or former fellow believers) had never been given the liberty to come out of their circles to experience other groups of Oneness Pentecostals because this may have stayed some of the misnomers and bitterness that a global organization may bring to its adherents.
But let me temper my previous statements with this: I was very legalistic, short-sighted, and willingly unimformed; I know enjoy the writings of a former (though I don’t think you can be a total “former”) oneness pentecostal (since pentecostalism is an experience and oneness is a doctirnal viewpoint.) I have now embraced the emcompassing power of God and His ability to receive all unto Himself without have to discard my doctirnal beliefs, experience, or previous way of living – due to other oneness pentecostal preachers who have preached the greatness of God.
So, my comment to this blog is not to offset Brian’s steps “out of oneness pentecostalism” but to provide an “in” view of someone who baptizes believers in Jesus Name, encourages believers to seek for the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues, promotes a life of separation with an outward expression of an inward conviction, and believes in God revealed in Jesus. But, is not disillusioned with the greatness of God to use people outside of oneness pentecostalism to promote the gospel message. So to those that feel the need to leave, I want to encourage you to disattach what’s man-made that may be causing your thoughts because, as Ryan suggests, Trinitarian groups also have elements that will make you struggle. Finally, instead of “exiting” I think we need to “enter” into the grandness of God to receive all and the inability of man to know all.
Brian – I appreciate your honestly and heart here. While your experience is out of a certain movement there is great truth here for those in others movements asking similar questions. Thanks for taking this on.
@Jonathan: Thank you for the kind words. I hope some people find that it assists them in their own journey.
Sorry for all the typos – using my phone and I don’t know how to scroll back to proof read. 🙂
@Lemuel: No worries, I misspell things all the time. I always have to reread my posts two or three times to catch all the typos! It is common.
As to your comment, yes, there are Oneness Pentecostal individuals and churches that are not like the stereotype. I tend to call them “step-down” churches with “transitioning” Oneness Pentecostals.
That being said, it should be obvious that I see the doctrine as erroneous as well so I am not going to recommend merely finding one of these churches. I’d rather that they did than stay where they are. I’d be even more excited to hear that they came to find that God has given them a big, global, historical family who will welcome them and that the doctrinal divisions promoted by all kinds of Oneness Pentecostals exists mostly due to misrepresenting what other Christians believe and what certain passages of Scripture say.
Thank you, Brian! I’m looking forward to reading the upcoming posts. It’s striking to me to see the glaring similarities between your experience in leaving the OP sect, and ours in leaving an abusive (Trinitarian-dispensational-“disciple-making”-bible) church 15 years ago. A painful exodus, complete with rejection and censure from our alleged friends, and a prolonged period of re-evaluation and healing. It seems there is a wide, wide variety in such groups–including the degree of abuse/mistreatment/elitism that they practice and preach…but some very consistent attributes, too! Again, thanks, brother!
@Ken: As Jonathan noted above it is apparent that these types of abuses occur in other groups with all kinds of doctrinal views. While I think the doctrinal errors of the Oneness movement are more serious than those of many other groups (not all, e.g. Mormons), there is no doubt that they share traits with sectarian groups that are merely intrinsic characteristics of sects. I hope this series helps people realize there is freedom in Christ on the other side.
Carry on, Brian … You’re doing great!
@Daniel: Thank you!
I am a hospital chaplain. I had a Oneness Pentecostal patient tell me that Trinitarianism is evil. I listened politely and then he asked if he could pray for me; I said sure. He prayed that, now that I know the truth, my decision was on my head and may God damn me to hell if I didn’t accept the truth. Nice. My return prayer – silently in my head – was that this patient would be delivered from his fear and know the love of God.
@Pam: This is exactly the sort of prayer that many of them need. There is often a deep “fear of God” that doesn’t match the biblical injunction, but is rather simply the result of an approach where hell is hung over their heads as well. Imagine if you thought people could go to hell for wearing make-up, or for going to the movie theater in disobedience to their pastor, or for belief in the Trinity? As you can probably deduct, there is little assurance for oneself.
Brian: I grew up in a small, marginal fear-based Trinitarian denomination. Some people also believe that it fits the criterion of “cult”. I know fear when I see it.
I am eager to read your posts on this topic. I was never part of an OP church, but I have experienced similar situations and emotions, just with other groups that I have been associated with. Thanks for this; it is an extraordinarily difficult thing to go through.
@Pam: It is an obvious posture, isn’t it?
@Brian: There do seem to be many groups that maintain control through the same manipulative maneuvers. While I am aiming particularly at those who share my own experience with a particular group I do hope it helps those who have broader similarities.
Also, Pt. 2 is available now: https://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/a-guide-to-exiting-from-oneness-pentecostalism-pt-2/
A story I know oh-so well… Finally getting around to reading your mini-series 🙂
The yo-yo effect is right on the money. Of course, one’s maturity before Christ will be exposed openly and vulnerably during such a transaction as well. In OP, it was easy to “blend in” and look like you were maturing in Christ.
@James: Very true, there tends to be a culture that says if you are doing those things that are distinctive of the movement other areas will be overlooked because you are on our “team”.
I am a Oneness Apostolic and have studied on my own to find that this is very biblical. Christianity should have an effect on one’s lifestyle. How can people “convert” to Christianity and still dress and act as they used to? The definition of Christian is “Christ-like” or to be like Christ. I would say that a large portion (60%-80%) of Christian do NOT strive to be “Christ-like”. I live in the religious capital of the world (Tulsa, OK), where we have roughly one church for every 85 people. Tulsa has thousands upon thousands of churches. I see “Christians” on a daily basis and I know what I am talking about. People focus so much on the love of God that they seem to forget that God is also a God of judgement. I do really appreciate people that honestly strive to understand and be more like God.
It is disrespectful to Jehovah and the Holy Spirit in my opinion. Pray to the Father in the name of the Son.
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