Sterling Hammett's United Pentecostal Church Experience

I only skimmed the surface with the following history. My story with the UPC really starts before I was born. No my parents weren't in the UPC and I wasn't born into it. Actually, my uncle has been a UPC pastor for over 40 years. He pastors in Florida which is where my parents moved to in 1997 when I was 14 years old. My uncle came from a bad home life and it was getting involved with a Pentecostal church when he was a teenager that he claims changed his life's trajectory. He wasn't introduced to the UPC, however, until he attended college. In the years following his conversion to Oneness Pentecostalism he worked hard to convince his family they needed, not just Jesus, but his version of Jesus as all others were doomed to a lake of fire.

My dad was his younger brother. I won't go into much detail but to say that my dad has had problems with the law often. My uncle, though he has genuinely tried to help my dad, I don't think the doctrines and standards of the UPC helped my father find Jesus at all. Anything from cigarettes to rock music was seen by my uncle as unrepentant sins and really focused my father's attention on fixing habits to obtain Gods grace. Don't get me wrong, there were things that my father needed to change but ridicules things like the music you enjoy has little to no impact on actually being in God's grace and it's just legalistic.

I am starting my story with this because I feel that the curse of UPC-ism really hits the family dynamic more than just an individual's story. My whole family could be living a much better life and be in the faith had it not been for the pernicious, yet subtle, false doctrines of the UPC.

Moving to Florida was influenced by my uncle's desire to have any in his family saved the UPC way. My uncle didn't have ill intentions and genuinely believes the UPC message is the only saving message. My father, to this day, maintains that he wanted us to move to Florida to get in Christ and be saved according to his brother's teaching.

At the time I was a nerdy, backward, poor kid from a broken home. We arrived over summer and I went to church camp in Ocala, Florida. While being in my uncle's church a few weeks made me feel acceptance I had never known before, camp was different. I remember still being mostly ostracized and treated pretty much the same as in school being both backward and poor except from a few from my own church. Of course, my uncle's first UPC experience was the same by his own testimony, so I felt that what I needed to focus on was getting the Holy Ghost with speaking in tongues. It is still amazing to me that other youth who wouldn't touch me with a ten foot pole outside of the sanctuary were willing to pray with me all night to get the Holy Ghost with speaking in tongues. While I don't deny the experience, I have learned that it is not a requirement to be a Christian. It was probably the feeling of temporary acceptance that brought me into the fold. And now that I think about it that's what brings many into false doctrines.

After returning from camp and starting the 8th grade in Florida, I had developed an intense desire to study the Bible, to understand what I felt and experienced. I read the Bible continuously and lots of UPC publications. I really struggled with Oneness because of what I was reading in the Bible. It didn't make sense to me how if Jesus is God the Father, then why he talked about God the Father as distinct from himself, especially in the Gospel of John or what was written in Paul's epistles. From UPC literature, I read about the "key" to this conundrum and I think that is when I became somewhat fanatical. It seemed like a deep Bible secret that almost no one gets and that only Oneness Pentecostals understand.

Of course my immediate desire was to reach the world with this message; especially other Christians who were baptized wrong and believed in the Trinity. I didn't understand that I needed to actually study the doctrine of the Trinity through Trinitarian sources and not just by reading what Oneness writers said about the Trinity. I had been deceived by the straw man arguments presented in Oneness books.

Through high school I would debate, argue, and discuss with many Christians, including many pastors of different denominations. When I talk to Oneness Pentecostals now, I get a taste of how it must have been to talk to me during those years. Annoying would probably be the best word to describe it. It would be annoying trying to convince someone that you are their brother in Christ, even though they think you will be going to hell.

Though I was fanatical, there was one part that never really took hold and that is the UPC standards. My uncle is a fairly conservative pastor. No facial hair, uncut hair on women, long skirts and long sleeves on women. Also the no TV thing was big, in fact my uncle referred to their TV as a "monitor". This was probably to get around the rule about not having a TV in your home if you are a licensed minister. But the standards weren't important to me. By that I mean I had no desire to ever enforce them on someone, though I didn't wear shorts (in Florida!) or go to the movies.

During this time my father had been arrested and had gotten out of jail again. By the time I was 18, my parents had separated and I was helping my mom financially so she could attend college. I began to get somewhat disenfranchised with the church, but not to the point to considering changing my belief in the UPC dogma. A lot of it was because I felt that it would be rebellious to God to even think that way. I lived with my uncle awhile after all my siblings moved in with my mom and there wasn't a lot of room. Two of my siblings refused to go to church because of the separation of my parents and even though I still agree that my mom leaving my dad was a chance for our family to heal, my uncles' harsh words about him makes it doubtful that my siblings will ever darken the doors of any church again.

The years 18-21 were tumultuous for me. I had to give up my desire of going to University of Florida (I was accepted after I got my High School diploma) because I was helping my mom and couldn't abandon my family. University was going to be my escape from poverty and a chance to finally be on my own. While this doesn't deal with the UPC issues, it is worthwhile thinking about how a church, any church, will affect you through the ups and downs of life. In churches that preach a prosperity or semi-prosperity message, it is crushing to your faith to see your wheels just spinning in life. By semi-prosperity, I mean the feeling that God will reward you financially or physically for making 'right' choices and curse you for making incorrect choices. This exists to some extent in every church, but in most UPC churches it is elevated to the level of spiritual abuse. For example, I was attending a community college nearby and working 40-60 hours a week during a good part of this period. There was no opening window of heaven and I certainly wasn't receiving the desires of my heart at the time (father saved, going to UF, siblings coming to church, etc.), even though I was working hard, witnessing, giving, attending church, being obedient, etc.

This was an incredibly jaded way to enter adulthood. I was trying so hard to please God and it seemed he was only taking tally of my mistakes. It peeled back my fanaticism like an onion and I wanted to do things I previously swore I would never do, after all failing God once is failing God for all time under the law and that is all I had really known. Sure it wasn't the Law of Moses exactly, but all laws are similar in religion and it was certainly not grace and truth.

When I turned 20, I felt as if my whole life was meaningless. I wanted to do something to make a difference, so with the war in Iraq looming I decided to join the Navy. My plan was to be a SEAL as are probably about one third of the new recruits to the Navy (LOL). I had to wait almost a year for boot camp, and that year found me only Oneness Pentecostal in doctrinal beliefs only. I was no longer worried about inviting people to church or anything like that. I wanted to live life to the fullest, and stepping into the Navy with that attitude started a chain of events that would keep me from being serious about church for years. I still claim that time as UPC time, because intellectually I only affirmed the UPC belief system but nothing really mattered as far as trying to make God pleased; I owed too much.

Without getting into too much detail, I was married within a year of getting in the Navy to a girl I had met in my uncle's church right before I left for boot camp. I had been training to become EOD when I got in trouble for getting married (yes, that was the exact reason they told me at the board) and I was sent out to a ship in Mayport, Florida. Shortly after getting there, we found an UPC church and with six months my wife was back in the UPC completely. Being on a Navy vessel is challenging to anyone and my hat goes off to those who serve on them over and over. I quickly found that there wasn't ever going to be a big enough 'revival' where I was going to be renewed to my earlier fanaticism. Drinking, partying, cussing, and generally anything I could get away with was my life style. Being at work ridiculous amounts of time, and begging to use my leave I had earned, began to irk me especially since the pastor of the church we went to seemed to be constantly vacationing. I didn't go to church a lot, but it seemed to equal the frequency that the pastor attended his own church. They didn't really care about reaching out to the poor and downtrodden either and, in fact, the church seemed to only cater to the upper middle class. If one thing could have helped me snap out of my hell raising, it would have been hearing about some good actually being done and not just the country club lifestyle.

Of course, I can't say the church was all bad. They pretty much blow off all of the UPC standards and do what they want. It was the liberal church in the area, after all. The skirts seemed mandatory, but honestly it would have been better to just allow pants because any skirt was appropriate (I mean any). This church, being completely different than my uncle's church, also confused me because my uncle was strict on the standards of holiness. Typically, the guys that were very obedient and religious would say very cruel things about young ladies who wore a skirt too tight or a shirt too low (at my uncle's church). But at this new church, it was all good or at least I never heard 'whore' and 'slut' being thrown around freely. Though I wasn't big on the standards, this did confuse me because if these standards were somehow guided by the Spirit, then did the Spirit change his mind from place to place? Was it a different God? Beards are disobedience one place and not another?

I couldn't even begin to think about these questions because of the tidal wave of sin in my own life, however. But the spiritual pinball going on in my soul from 21 to 27 was devastating. I am still trying to recover from it and I don't know if I ever will. If a parent really wants to help this not happen to their kid(s), then they will stay away from spiritually abusive systems. You may not find a perfect church, but find one that won't fill young people full of spiritual delusion, so even if they walk away from Jesus one day they know they can, even easier, and just turn back and immediately be accepted. Not by a church family, necessarily, but to God.

I was pursing Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) training in the Navy and in 2007 I was transferred to EOD School at Eglin AFB. This put us close to my uncle's church and we were attending there again after we moved, even though it was a long drive (45 min-1hr). It didn't take long for the peer pressure at my uncle's church to transform my wife's standards to the stricter type that he preaches. Of course they welcome you no matter what you wear for the first service or two, but after you start going the pressure will start mounting to change your way of life. It's deceptive because it really feels like it's a spiritual 'conviction' but it's really peer pressure. There was never a dress code for a New Testament believer but there was for Pharisees. There never was a giving requirement for the New Testament believer but there was for Pharisees. Most of the doctrine I used to believe can be approached this way, which is exactly what the difference between law and grace is but I will get into this later.

Moving forward with my story, I 'got back in church' during this time. There was a service with a guest preacher that actually presented a drop of grace to me and it made me feel like approaching God again was possible. I was also influenced by my uncle's extreme outreach efforts to poor communities and prisons. I do wish my uncle could grasp the fullness of grace because, as far as I know, he is the only pastor in the UPC who isn't just about building his own little kingdom, but is pursing being a Matthew 25 believer. Yes, a lot of those UPC ministers talk a good message when it comes to being a servant, but my uncle does it for real. This will be important to my story later.

My Navy training lasted from 2007 to 2009 and it was still a graceless system I was in, so the brief return to the church life wasn't to last. In 2009, we were stationed in Virginia and started attending a church that is pastored by one of the best know names in the UPC, Cunningham. I was always against big name-ism, as are many who come from stricter (and smaller) UPC associated churches. This is because the biggest churches in the UPC only get there through not hammering the goofy holiness standards every week. This is also why, IMO, that when the UPC decided to advertise on TV, that it split the church. The conservative pastors have little to no tolerance to those that preach a softer message; those pastors don't even approach their own congregations with humility. It's their way or the highway.

At our new church, we immediately noticed that the holiness standards were generally ignored, except the skirts and the uncut hair. Sports were not only watched on cable networks but were talked about as much as a normal person would talk about them. Why would this be an issue? Because the UPC Manual talks about avoiding ALL worldly amusements, right next to where it says that a woman shouldn't cut her hair. I had gotten into arguments with my cousin in Florida over the cut hair thing. I didn't enforce it on my wife and didn't believe it because it's not taught in the Bible. My wife was pressured into conforming to that standard. At our new church, I felt that men could do whatever they wanted, but women still had the burden of following the rules.

Being influenced by helping out poor communities at my uncle's church, I wanted to continue to serve God by doing the same in Virginia. I presented the idea to the pastor, which just put us in the position of leading such an effort. Without a lot of volunteers, we started going into the nearby projects, bringing goodie bags for kids and inviting people to church. I thought the pastor would take an active role in the endeavor at some point, but sadly this never happened. Working extremely hard to get people to come to this guy's church and he didn't even want to make token appearances bothered me. In fact, the only events that this pastor was interested in taking part in, were events that he was either directly or indirectly honored. Like Jesus said "they like to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and sit in places of honor". But this was just the beginning of the things I started to see that ultimately lead my family and me out of the bondage of Oneness Pentecostalism.

As I started to see that the church we were going to existed to serve the senior pastor, I really started disconnecting to my desire to do things for the church. I couldn't just buy into the doing it unto God delusion, because bringing people to church wasn't really about them getting closer to God. Bringing people to church was about reporting a higher attendance number and worse. The first thing I took issue with wasn't financial. During the summer they have a men's prayer breakfast about once a month. I liked to help out serving food and along with that there were instructions on how much to give people, like two sausage patties or two strips of bacon, etc. The line was normally long, but if there was any left after folks had gone through, then people could get seconds. What was disconcerting to me was the fact that the senior pastor would waltz in late, always have a special table reserved, and some under pastor would cut the line and insist on taking a large amount of food to the senior pastor. This was literally what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 23 and other places where he made clear that this was the behavior of the Pharisees.

Of course, that may seem trivial and I did look at it that way for a time. However, it added to what I saw in the pastor's personal life of having people chauffeur him around, wait on him, pamper him, drive hours if he had forgotten something at his house when he went to the camp grounds, etc. I wondered how a man that put himself out there as some great leader, couldn't seem to do the most basic things in life. He preached often about how a young minister was supposed to mow his pastor's lawn, wash his car, etc. My uncle would not let himself be waited on hand and foot, but he is an exception in the UPC (and he has no problem talking about women as sluts because of what they wear). The pastor in Jacksonville, like I mentioned before, was all about vacations, getaways, and cruises. I realized that these pastors love their narcissism and often practiced nepotism. But that still wasn't enough to peel me from the false doctrines of oneness Pentecostalism.

The beginning of the end really started with false prophets. We had one so-called prophet come with his family of bluegrass musicians to our church in Virginia right before I went on deployment to Iraq. This guy was a fraud. That really made me question what was going on in church as opposed to a fake guy preaching a real message; I realized that a fake guy would, in fact, be preaching fake messages. The schism came on deployment. I was watching some of the services online, in which a different (false) prophet was having a long revival. This guy did the fake healing thing, like healing folks of cancer they didn't know they had and other ridiculous things that reasonable people shouldn't believe. This false prophet isn't licensed with the UPC anymore due to past indiscretions, but he is widely regarded as a great fund raiser.

In fact, that is why he started preaching a lot at the church in Chesapeake. The senior pastor desires to be a pastor of 1,000s and have a large sanctuary, no doubt with the accompanying large salary it would bring. (I haven't mentioned the ridiculous amount of spending his family does on clothes, shoes, apple products, etc.) The false prophet was brought in to encourage tithing and giving over and above that. He wiped tithing envelops on his head, promised favor of God to those that gave, took out cancers and sicknesses that people didn't know they had, said he always needed a prophets' offering (never heard of that, I thought the spiritual gifts were free), and I could probably write a book on all the false teaching this guy brought. The fact that the poor people that I had brought to church were attending these services, and being told lies, tore me to pieces. To this day, I wonder if I caused children to go without food because I had invited their family to that church. I couldn't blindly believe this crap (most PG word I can use right now) anymore. I started studying, and being isolated (in Iraq) from the weekly brain washing at an UPC church by deployment, allowed me to study unbiased because I didn't have the emotional deception every Sunday. I wasn't scared to call this guy a false prophet in a war zone, having a job of working with IEDs. Why fear a false teaching? Why fear a fake god of these false teacher's own imagination?

When I came back from deployment, I had changed how I thought about church. I stopped all giving to the church on deployment, and being back I wasn't going to drive the van or anything until I figured out what was going on. In the next few months being home, I noticed that my wife was different. She had done a lot for the church when I was gone and was really upset about how I felt toward it. I took some time off to visit family in Florida, and while we were down there something shocking happened. My wife received a random text from the pastor's wife and went pale. I thought it was just a misunderstanding (it was a fairly insulting quote) and told her to clarify if it was just a group text. No clarification came. I would learn months and years later about the hell my wife was put through at the hands of this witch. I tried to speak to the pastor about this text and the false prophet that he had preaching. The response was underwhelming.

In the years since then, I couldn't stand going to that church. Every service I made it to, it seems like there was a request for money. Not just tithes and offerings, mind you, but $10,000 for this, $50,000 for that. They were always asking for special offerings. I also did something for the first time ever, I was actually critical of the preaching. This is a big no-no in a UPC church. Sure they encourage Bible study and say they are in line with the Bible, but simply quoting half a verse or verses out of context, is not teaching what is in the Bible.

I know to anyone who has attended an UPC church for a length of time, they have heard not to "talk about the pastor" or a similar idea. The truth is, that if anyone claims to be speaking for God in your life, you must be 100% skeptical toward that person. Other religions are based on a hierarchy, but Christianity is not. Jesus made this clear when he washed his disciple's feet and said that they needed to understand this concept. I know what a hierarchy is; I was in the military for almost ten years. When UPC pastors make what they do seem like a hierarchical placement, in which God has put them, they show their true colors. They only seek to be a lord over God's heritage.

It took years to come to these and other realizations. It also took time missing lots of church to break free of the mind control through thought suggestion and emotion. It is extremely hard to see this when you get at least three doses of control a week (Sunday and Wednesday), plus conferences and other meetings. I slowly began to see the light. Every ignorant thing the pastor said, every obvious contradiction to scripture, everyone that literally worships this pastor, made clear to me what was going on.

But I couldn't pull my wife away and I still believed the UPC soteriology some. I understand why there seemed to be so many divorces in my uncle's church and other UPC churches. Women are taught to submit to their pastor and this submission becomes a tidal struggle in a marriage, when the husband either refuses to be UPC or doesn't match his wife's passion for the UPC teachings. I even feel some good men have had their wives stolen from them by this cultist group. I know for me, I couldn't reason with my wife about leaving the church. There were many services where, when we had gotten in the car to go home, my wife said "that was an awesome message" and the only response I could give was "that man is an idiot and is wrong because...," but it didn't matter how much Bible I could show her that he took out of context or the times he contradicted what he had said before. Of course, the conversations didn't start like this, but after two to three years that is what they had turned into.

Two things worked in our favor for leaving the UPC. First, we had our first son, which gave my wife less time to be controlled by the church. Second, my wife has many friends outside the UPC and this gave her an alternative support group for what was to come. On this note, I have noticed that once the UPC sucks you in, you have less and less people to associate with on the outside. You don't have close friends really, you have acquaintances. I feel for the women who only have the UPC fellowship and nobody on the outside, because they are basically stuck in that cult. Leaving would result in losing everyone close to them.

The final straw was in February and March of 2014. My wife could no longer maintain her long hair with the birth of our second son. She was just too busy being a mom and her devotion to family was more important than having uncut hair. Of course, I had never agreed with it, but didn't force the issue. She made her own decision. Of course, the pastor wasn't happy and only answered her question, of why it was necessary to have uncut hair, with a paper by David Bernard. The paper was neither scholarly or true and didn't stand up to critical Greek, historical, or theological scrutiny.

In the next few weeks I went with my wife to church and there were a few things said that made me decide to take a stand. First, the pastor preached on stewardship and during that message, not only mentioned that he wanted a Lexus, but after he had said it was good not to use credit cards, within five minutes he was asking people to give with their credit to be blessed. I kid you not. Next, a Wednesday night service message by his son-in-law, showed me that I had been allowing these jokers to abuse me and my family for too long. This was said: "[the pastor, i.e. my daddy] is the man of the house [church], you better listen to him..." I was done; the only man of the house in the Bible for a Christian is Jesus. I was worshiping an anti-Christ. It was like what Paul had said to the Corinthians "you allow them to take all you have, they slap you in the face and you like it!" (2 Cor. 11:20).

I began to express what I felt on Facebook about tithes and other abuses by these guys. I argued with my cousin and even got a public post from my uncle likening me to Kora. This showed me that all UPC preachers share a common thread, they are frauds. They live in a world of fantasy, dominated by their nepotism and narcissism. Jesus' words to the Pharisees in Matt 23 ring true for the "apostolic" preacher man. How many women have they thrown to the ground, stones in hands? How many poor, widowed women have they robbed? What about the families that their own "preference (standard) teachings" have torn apart? What more do you have to know about these frauds when you learn that leaving them, in their minds, is leaving God?

Posted October 26, 2014


August 23, 1997
Copyright © 1997-2016 by Lois E. Gibson
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