Mark and Beverly Roberts' United Pentecostal Church Experience

The follow has been taken from "The Journey Out of the United Pentecostal Church" by Daniel J. Lewis, copyright 1994. See below for further details. Note that the Jackson College of Ministries closed years ago. Nathaniel Urshan is deceased and the current UPCI General Superintendent is David Bernard.

MARK AND BEVERLY ROBERTS, Baltimore, Maryland

[Mark and Beverly Roberts were both reared in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mark's home church was one of the premier congregations in the UPC, Calvary Tabernacle, for many years pastored by Nathaniel Urshan, the current General Superintendent of the UPC. Beverly was reared in a non-UPC oneness Pentecostal church associated with the Apostolic Ministers' Fellowship. Mark and Beverly are both graduates of Indiana University (both with a B.S.), and Beverly also graduated from Indiana Central University (A.S.). They currently are members of Pleasant Hill Chapel, a nondenominational evangelical congregation in the Baltimore area. While Mark did not attend a UPC Bible college, Beverly attended Jackson College of Ministries during the tumultuous years described earlier.]

While many of those who are making the journey out experience a theological evolution which slowly encompasses other issues, my journey, as a layperson, began with the observation of practices which eventually led to a questioning of theology. For Beverly, some of the practical issues were also the impetus to question theological issues more closely.

I was reared in a strictly UPC background. However, my mother, instead of trying to mold me into the strict UPC line, taught me that dedication to God, not dedication to the church, was most important. She spent her own life trying to surpass the holiness of others, and because of this, she taught me that I really should try to please God and find my own way. Since leaving the UPC, I have tried to explain to her that much of my transition is largely a result of her teaching, which as might be expected, is very disconcerting to her. Years ago, she never expected that by telling me to be sure I was right with God, I might travel a different path than the faith and experience she herself had found. When Beverly and I were in the UPC, we tried to live by the rules, for we felt that the Lord would reward us for being faithful and submissive. When we felt that we could no longer be faithful to these strictures, we decided to leave rather than be hypocrites.

Some of the seeds for my journey away from the UPC are probably that I was always somewhat of a loner. Most of my friends at church attended Calvary Christian School (the church school of our church), but I attended public school. I was sort of excluded and in a no man's land, not fully accepted at church and not fully accepted at public school either. At church, my hair was too long; at public school, I did not participate in any extra-curricular activities. Consequently, I learned to solve most of youth's dilemmas on my own, and eventually this was how I came to solve most of my theological dilemmas.

The first dilemma I needed to solve began when I was a sophomore in high school. There seemed to be a great gulf between the universe as it was explained to me in the Sunday night sermons and everything else that I saw around me. The universe I saw at church was simple and understandable, but in the outside world, it did not fit. I saw Christians whom I was told were not really Christians because they were not the right "brand;" I met sinners who were just like Christians.

The second dilemma centered around the notion of good versus evil. The problem arose when I went to church and asked various youth leaders, Bible school students and pastors to explain the various "problems" of the universe, such as, "Why does evil exist?" We had no baseline against which to judge evil or the questions philosophers had been asking for ages. Years later, I discovered that Christians and theologians had struggled with these problems centuries ago. The UPC ministers with whom I attempted to discuss them, however, were blissfully unaware.

The next pivotal event occurred after I went to college. I encountered many Christians of different stripes. It puzzled me that we were not allowed to associate with groups like Jews for Jesus, Campus Crusade for Christ, Billy Graham crusades, and so forth. A liberal arts education dramatically expanded my horizon and world view. One particular night I met several UPC Bible school students and budding evangelists from Apostolic Bible Institute and Jackson College of Ministries. I asked them how they explained the geologic theory of evolution to non-Christians, and what explanation they gave for the layers of fossil strata that can be found in sedimentary rock. They looked at me blankly and responded that they hadn't studied these issues at all. Rather, they had learned about day/age theories. All these things were factors in my eventual transition out of the UPC.

The actual transition began some three or four years after marriage, when I realized that my relationship with my wife was supposed to be similar to the relationship of Christ with the church. As my love grew for my wife, I began to slowly develop an understanding of what God's love might actually be like. At the time, we remained within the UPC, believing that we were mature enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. We also felt that the UPC was still possibly the best fellowship we could have, even though it was imperfect. However, we freely discussed the issues.

When parenthood brought the mantle of responsibility upon me, the disconnections I had experienced earlier began to concern me. Children cannot make the intellectual and spiritual discernments of adults, and the risk of spiritual loss for our child was something neither of us was willing to take. Combined with this concern was questionable youth leadership in our church, along with questionable moral convictions and weak family values.

Thus, our theological evolution began with the observation of Pentecostal practice. Our conclusion was that Pentecostal culture fostered a lack of educational achievement and a low level of Christian maturity. Decision-making and spiritual growth was hindered because of an overdependence on the dictates of leadership. There was a lack of deep biblical teaching. Our own personal Bible studies were more meaty than what we received from leaders at church; consequently, church leaders viewed us as rebellious and difficult to deal with. There was minimal concern for basic Christianity. Lying, gossiping, unethical business transactions, cheating on taxes, both among laypersons as well as in leadership, eventually combined to undermine the theology of the movement. Pentecostalism as an ideal and Pentecostalism in practice were two very different things. This, in turn, led to questions regarding doctrinal issues, such as, the infilling of the Holy Spirit and its effects on real life. How could people speak in tongues and yet be sexually promiscuous? Was it possible for people to speak in tongues and yet not be filled with the Spirit? Was it possible for people to be filled with the Spirit and yet not speak in tongues? These questions led me to much study. I bought books, consulted commentaries, and talked to dozens of people in trying to find my way through Scripture. I concluded that some Christians speak in tongues as evidence that they have the gift of the Spirit and some don't. It is difficult for anyone to judge who does or does not have the Spirit regardless of whether they speak in tongues. Fruit of the Spirit is the best evidence. With the UPC's basic tenet about the Holy Spirit now undermined, the whole theological structure began to crumble, leaving me with a doctrinal pile of blocks that had to be reassembled from the foundation up.

Slowly I began to study church history, and Beverly introduced me to Dan Lewis, who was an enormous help in guiding me through the labyrinth of theological church history. We began looking for a new church about this time, because we concluded that we could no longer stay within the confines of the Pentecostal faith. We found an excellent Evangelical Free Church congregation, which had roots somewhat similar to Pentecostalism, so we felt very comfortable. This church further enhanced my understanding of church history, and I came to understand Christianity as more than just an experience. Church history has come alive to me and affected me in many ways. It led me to question the oneness Pentecostal doctrine of water baptism, which became the last of the big building blocks to fall.

After much study, I arrived at some understanding of the Trinity. I progressed through an odyssey of doctrinal challenges to an actual change in my theology. The epistles of Paul opened up to me salvation by grace through faith and the nature of the Godhead in an amazing and colorful way. This flowering of truth and the biblical injunctions like "be honest with all men" became calls to genuine holiness! Ironically, I now had the freedom to watch television whenever I wanted to,[1] while at the same time the responsibility to turn it off when necessary. At this point, I felt I finally understood God. My relationship with him became an extremely rewarding experience! Now the cross is much more significant, and I am more humble and broken because of my understanding of his cost.

[1] Watching television is disapproved in the UPC, and until recently was quite strictly enforced. In recent years, however, a loophole has been found in that many members of the UPC now have video monitors on which they can watch video tapes (and movies). While television is still officially taboo, the widespread use of VCRs indicates that the letter of the law, more than the spirit of it, has become the norm. Unfortunately, this sort of ethical waffling is to be seen in many areas. The official codes are obeyed as imposed by leaders, but a double standard is not uncommon [Ed.].


"The Journey Out of the United Pentecostal Church" by Daniel J. Lewis may be accessed for free in PDF format here. Much thanks to Dan Lewis for permission to distribute his book.


Posted June 20, 2014

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