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.