Mark 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. Those who have struggled with shame will be able to especially relate to what Mark shares.

MARK ROBERTS, Nashville, Tennessee

[Mark Roberts, not to be confused with the previous contributor by the same name, grew up in a UPC church in southern California. He came to Jackson College of Ministries in the late 1970s as a student, and eventually joined the staff there. While there, he married Carol Crosser, another student at JCM. Mark attempted to remain at the college after other faculty had left in 1981, but when he refused to renounce his friendship with some who had left, he was fired. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at Mississippi College, his Master of Arts in rhetoric at The Ohio State University, and is near completion of a doctoral program in New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University. He currently works as an editor for the Thomas Nelson Publishing Company in Nashville.]

It has been ten years since I let my General License lapse with the UPC and made the journey out. I did not leave the UPC because it did not preach the gospel or because people did not experience the grace of God in its churches. Rather, I left because the gospel was increasingly supplemented by out-of-balance emphases and demands, most of which were deduced from overvaluing the role of human effort in pleasing God--the old problem of works-merited righteousness. It is the same as the Galatian error in the New Testament: the grace of God is frustrated by zeal that is truly religious, but finally fleshly, and huge portions of the body of Christ are not "discerned" (cf. 1 Co. 11:29). Their true identity is denied, because, in the judgment of the UPC, these folks have not fully obeyed the gospel. At the same time, many wonderful, godly people belong to the UPC, and many others continue to meet Christ in life-changing ways within its churches. Perhaps the tension between all these realities helps account for the mixed emotions I experienced and the tentative steps I took in leaving that denomination. It is not the case that everything is wrong with the UPC; however, what is wrong with it is fundamental, and once I concluded that what was wrong was systematically so, and not likely to be corrected, I knew it was time to leave.

Exactly when I began the journey out is hard to say. I remember various incidents from my youth that chipped away at the foundations of the core beliefs, such as, discussions with Trinitarian believers on topics of the Godhead and water baptism. In these discussions, I took the position that I was talking with persons who needed to come to salvation in Christ. Yet the more we talked, the more I began to realize that I was fellowshipping with other genuine believers. If I was able to hear anything the Spirit said to me, I heard his witness that these people, also, were among those adopted within the Beloved. To have insisted that Trinitarian friends needed to be rebaptized would have been nothing more than the childish demand that "you do it my way." They, too, believed fully in Christ's deity and acknowledged that only through him does God forgive and pour out his Spirit. They practiced "calling on the name of the Lord" as part of their daily life of faith. Could I insist, with conviction, that God counted such faith in Christ for nothing unless it was expressed precisely through one baptismal formula? Did new covenant grace and faith boil down to a linguistic exactitude?

In retrospect, such discussions were within the larger church, not between the true church and heretics. The discussion was between different parts of the church, and ironically, we were fulfilling part of the UPC statement of fundamental doctrine: we were "keeping the unity of the Spirit while coming to the unity of the faith." At the same time, it seemed to me that the UPC core distinctives could not be proved exclusively true from any consistent approach to interpreting the Scripture. They were defensible as one way in which faith in Christ could be expressed, but they could not discredit all other expressions of faith.

While Carol's and my exit from the UPC over the gospel occurred several years later, the mainspring that would eventually launch us into a new orbit was already being wound. Many later encounters with trinitarian believers, wrestlings with Scripture, the Spirit, related studies, and interactions as a student and faculty member at Bible college each would wind the spring a click tighter.

The journey out was not easy for us. Identifying and rejecting the schismatic, anti-grace character of the UPC system was easy enough, at least in retrospect, but transforming that conclusion into a spiritual decision and then into action has been neither easy nor smooth, and in fact, it is still ongoing. Emotionally, Carol and I have swung between exhilaration and anguish, delight and depression. Initially, there were the rude jolts of being fired from JCM and the feeling of becoming persona non grata within the UPC in Mississippi. There followed the somewhat hard scrabble existence of a new baby, minimum wage jobs, long hours to finish a B.A., the expected but still painful distancing of local UPC friends and acquaintances (with some outstanding exceptions), and the acrid taste, for the first time in my life, of The Fog--depression, dull, lingering, smothering. Yet, there was hope and grace sufficient, for what else prodded us onward and pointed us forward?

Only recently have I been able to map the twisted landscape in which I then lived. I have been envious, frankly, of the way others came out about the same time we did, but apparently without the intense and seemingly unresolvable internal struggle we experienced. It was easy enough to mentally affirm that my direction was right, but my guts screamed their opposition and drilled me with a constant litany of condemnation: "You're deceived. You think you're really learning something, studying Greek and all that; but you're just trying to find an easy way apart from the straight and narrow, apart from the truth. Face it, you're deeply flawed with evil that has finally come out in rebellion. You've left the TRUTH and know exactly what lies ahead for all who do that. After all, just who are you to think that you could know about the Gospel and truth any better than these leaders?"

For all those whose experience has been similar, you know that amidst such internal conflict, no new biblical or theological information in and of itself is helpful. Your mind already assents to information that contradicts what your guts grumble to you. You are in bondage, needing some kind of intervention to liberate you. Part of your bondage includes not being able to trust your own judgment in matters of significance. You wish to affirm your spiritual-intellectual judgment and carry it out, but the riot from your emotional chambers below disables you. Perhaps not too far from what Paul meant, you cry out, "O wretched man that I am!"

For me, deliverance from that bondage has come through naming it and exposing it for what it is, a writhing, serpentine knot of falsehoods about who I am. It has also come with recognizing that I had a false identity for God. It was some years later, in the spiritually healing community of the evangelical charismatic church, that liberation first came. We were blessed with a warm relational climate in this church. I was serving on staff there, and in a staff meeting, as I was sharing my internal struggle, two colleagues, a man and a woman, handed me the key to my freedom when they introduced me to my jailer, Shame.

I had not known that my sense of being deeply flawed was an almost textbook descriptor of shame, nor had I known that shame also produces internal division with deep feelings of unavoidable failure, unworthiness and false guilt. Shame rejects one's own best judgment. Additionally, shame produces unstable relationships with authority figures. Due to one's deep sense of unworthiness, authorities represent danger because one fears their ability to harm. Either one seeks intense approval and affection by enmeshing oneself with the authority or one resorts to primal fight or flight. There is little middle ground for healthy dialogue and no room for both genuine agreement and respectful disagreement.

It would be wrong to blame the UPC for my basic experience of shame; its source lies elsewhere. However, I cannot overlook how the beliefs and practices of this movement often colluded with my damaged emotions. Shaming was regularly used in the UPC as a motivator. (Who can forget the twelve-week revival in which the evangelist constantly belittled, berated, and threatened the Jackson congregation in order to create the mass emotion he wanted, apparently with the pastor's blessing. Carol and I have never felt more publicly violated than during that time of mandatory attendance for all JCM staff and students.) Grace was twisted into performance-based acceptance. Leaders discouraged the development of laypersons' own spiritual judgment, insisting that they only depend on and obey "God's man" in matters of almost every level of significance or triviality. The emotional and the spiritual were equated, resulting in amazing capacities for intense emotion on cue. Looking good was so important, both in matters of dress and observable behavior, that honesty about one's opinions, feelings, affections and struggles was not only lonely, but dangerous.

I do not think I could have found the help I needed within the UPC. My damaged emotions mixed easily with toxic faith to produce a spiritual and emotional epoxy that cemented me in my internal conflict for years, even after I had left. Today, however, after months of spiritual healing that helped me truly believe and appropriate the truth of who I am in Christ, I experience more joy of living than I can remember in years. This effect is not lost on my family or service in ministry. To God be the glory!

The chief other challenge of the journey out has been that of finding a new church home--not so much a local church home, but a denominational one. With the convictions and preferences we carried with us, I have not felt free to pursue ministerial credentials with the denominations we have so far considered. Lately, however, we have joined Global Christian Ministries, a somewhat informal association of ministers and ministries, among whom are many former UPC folks. While GCM is not a full-fledged church or denomination, it is working hard to provide various ministry resources and opportunities for fellowship, all of which we appreciate. Perhaps we are finding a new home. But this part of the journey out is costly. We lose the family of our spiritual birth, and that is a loss hard to put into words. I wish we had never had to come out, but we felt we had to in order to freely celebrate the gospel of grace and rightly discern the Lord's body, which we believe is not and has never been limited to oneness, tongues-speaking believers. Today we remain part of the Spirit-renewal movement, contending for the one faith of the church, expressed diversely in all her catholic, evangelical and pentecostal glory. We have become aware that we are pilgrims, looking for and journeying toward the city of God, from which we shall never want to come out.

"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


August 23, 1997
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