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From Whence I Came: Pentecostalism
The subject line is how I began my deconversion process from fundamentalist Christianity -- it was the title of my introduction post at the Ex-Pentecostal.org forums, As my starting point for this blog, I would like to tell the story of my departure from Christianity. I was raised in a different Christianity than are most people, and to better explain my deconversion, an explanation of what I deconverted from is in order. My parents converted to Pentecostalism when they started their family. The church they began attending was started by the Home Missions department of the United Pentecostal Church International. While its theological differences with mainline Christianity and even Pentecostalism are numerous, the defining difference between the UPCI and other Christian organizations is its denial of the Trinity.
The UPCI is a fundamentalist organization, holding to the idea that the Christian Bible is The Word of God and is automatically inerrant. Anything that disagrees with the Bible is automatically wrong -- including philosophies and ideas arrived at through the use of reason. Humanity literally fell from grace through Adam’s sin, and throughout our history God has attempted to reach us through various dispensations. For whatever reason, after God flooded the entire world, he chose Abraham and his kin to be his Chosen People. To protect the Hebrews from their sinful nature, God made a covenant with Moses and established the Law. The Hebrews’ history is a history of transgression and repentance. After hundreds of years, God gives up on the Hebrews temporarily. After a few blank pages in the Bible are turned, we come to the New Testament. This is where Pentecostalism begins to depart from mainstream Christianity. God overcomes Mary, wraps part of himself in flesh, and dwells among men for 33.5 years. His name is Jesus, of course, and after healing people and annoying the hell out of the Pharisees, he is executed by the Romans, only to come back to life a couple of days later. (Where people get “three” days I don’t know: Jesus wasn’t killed until Friday afternoon, and he was resurrected Sunday morning. That’s barely two days, put together: Friday afternoon & evening, Saturday, and Sunday morning.)
Jesus hangs around earth for 40 days, then catches a celestial tow to Heaven from the Mount of Olives. Here is where mainstream Christianity stops: people “accept Jesus into their hearts”, pray the sinner’s prayer, and do their best to live like good people from then on. Pentecostalism is just getting started. Before zipping off to Heaven, Jesus tells his followers to tarry in Jerusalem until they’re endued with power from on high. “About” 120 of them do, and they meet in the Upper Room. There they await the promise and seek God. God fills all of them with the Holy Ghost, and they speak in tongues. Peter goes outside and establishes the Pentecostal Plan of Salvation:
“Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” If you, the reader, have not done this then you are damned to Hell. Pentecostalism is rather exclusive. Repentance is pretty obvious: the convert recognizes that they are a sinner, says they are sorry, asks for forgiveness, and promises to live godly with God’s help. I should add that God has to CALL you to repentance: you can’t just repent on your own accord. After this comes baptism. The convert is dunked into a tub of water in Jesus’ name (titles do not suffice), putting their sins “under the blood”. When they come up out of the water, ideally they should be speaking in tongues. This means that God has filled them with his spirit, which they call the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is the coup de grace in killing the flesh. Without it, no one can enter Heaven. This process is supposed to mirror Jesus’ own experiences. As he died in the flesh, the convert dies to his fleshly nature by repenting. As Jesus was buried (well, stuck in a cave), the convert is “buried” under water. As Jesus rose from the dead, the convert is “born again” . This is salvation -- but it doesn’t end there. I’ve never met a “once-saved, always-saved” Pentecostal. Now that the convert is a saint, he or she must maintain their salvation -- lest they lose it.
Maintaining salvation means following all of the rules. Go to church as often as you can, give tithes and offering, and witness to people. Pray nightly. Pentecostals don’t just witness to the atheists and the Buddhists: they witness to the Methodists and Calvinists, too. Unless a Christian has “spoken in tongues” to prove they have God living inside of them, they are not saved. If “Hell is other people”, Heaven will be Heaven by virtue of the lack of people. Time and time again, I’m told that the Holy Ghost is a gentleman. God “doesn’t force himself” on you. Like a gentleman, God is very selective about whom he associates with, holding those who are in his good graces to a certain standard. So it is with Pentecostals.
Pentecostals are commanded to “be ye separate”. Having the Holy Ghost inside of someone means that they should embody holiness. They are to live holy and dress holy. Dressing holy means adhering to a dress code, or “standard”. Much of this is codified, but some is left to the local pastor’s discretion. Some examples of each: all women are expected to wear dresses and leave their hair uncut. However, wearing jewelry or having facial hair is up to the pastor’s discretion. “Standards” don’t apply to the convert’s body: they apply to the convert’s life, as they are to be holy. Apostolics (as they call themselves, and so I will call them so not to confuse them with other Pentecostals/charismatics) are to be careful about who they associate with and where they go. Some of these prohibitive standards (like banning movie-going) are Apostolic traditions, respected in nearly every church. Other standards are again left up to the pastor’s discretion and “personal convictions” (like going to bowling allies and ball games). The major prohibitive standard in my life was a ban on television sets.
Pentecostals (Apostolic or otherwise) have two practices that may be unfamiliar to the mainstream Christian. The first is their very active praise and worship services. First to explain what praise and worship mean to the Apostolic. They are expected of the saint. Praise is essentially thanking God for his blessings: Apostolics thank God for healing their headache, waking them up in the morning, and giving them a safe trip to church. This is like burning incense in the old testament: it gets God’s attention. Worship is revering God for who he is: telling him how wonderful he is, how mighty he is, how holy he is. This is where the saint “entertains the spirit of God” once he’s come down and “moves”. To the objective mind, it seems humorously absurd that the all-that-is would need or want worship. I think that the reason these practices are required is because they serve to remind the Apostolic about how much they depend on the God, and by extension the church. These practices remind the active saint that they are not mighty or holy; that they are worthless, deserving of nothing better than eternal hellfire if not for God’s grace. These practices are not passive practices; as I’ve said they’re very active. Praise and worship involve at the very least singing/speaking aloud and lifting the hands. Pentecostals are known as the “Holy-Rollers”. This is not an exaggeration: they really do roll on the floors. They scream, buck, dance, and jump. They stagger into walls, potted plants, and slow people. Overwhelmed by emotion, people often collapse onto the floor. At the end of a “good” service, the pews are out of line from people backing into them. There may be scattered hair accessories (from the ladies) on the floor. There are often people sitting by themselves, weeping. Don't be suprised if the preacher removes his coat, tie, and shirt in the process of a sermon. I have witnessed preachers throwing potted plants at the audience. An Apostolic/Pentecostal service is not a place for someone who is offended by excessive emotionalism. There is no part of an Pentecostal service free from noise.
The second practice is that of faith healing. Apostolics believe they are filled with God’s spirit, and have the power to raise the dead, heal the sick, and so on. Corporate prayer for needs always features in the Apostolic worship service, and is usually one of the lengthier portions. Saints come to the front and the pastor, his hands wet with olive oil, touches their forehead and prays for them. There is nothing too trivial to pray over. Another practice is that of “prayer cloths”; small bits of clothing are anointed with the oil and then taken to whoever needs a blessing. Another belief is that sometimes God speaks directly to the congregation through tongues. First someone speaks loudly in tongues, then God gives the tongues.
Considering the inherent difficulties in obtaining and maintaining Apostolic salvation; get the feeling that there aren’t going to be too terribly many people in Heaven? Hell, on the other hand, will be filled to the brim with people who cured polio, fought the Nazis, and made life on Earth better for those who came after them. The Left Behind books would have played out quite differently using the Apostolic method of salvation. Can you imagine someone standing in an execution line realizing that they were wrong and asking the Antichrist for a large tub of water and a preacher? I have always liked comparing Apostolic salvation to the idea of having a coat-and-tie rule at a homeless shelter.
For a number of reasons, the Pentecostal church is very intrusive. The isolation from general society forces Apostolics to depend on their local church for everything. The power given the pastor over the affairs of saints’ lives and the absolute obedience they are commanded to give him makes the pastor a very powerful figure, sometimes resulting in a cult of personality. His opinionated commandments, supposedly given to him by God, override personal opinion and reason. If he is wrong, the pastor says, then God will judge him. The saints are rewarded for obedience -- not questioning. (This lends itself well to corruption and abuse of power, as you can imagine.) Church dominates life: it IS life for the Apostolic, saved or otherwise. Everything is fixed around the idea of church. Every gift you have is god-given, and God expects you to use it for his purpose. The preachers say that we are slaves to either Satan or Jesus, and choosing between the two of them is our purpose in this mortal life. We were told that our bodies and lives were not our own -- that they had been bought with a price, despite having never been up for sale by us.
I don’t know if it’s possible to express how intrusive religion was. Oneness Pentecostalism is a very demanding faith, so taxing on time and energy that if it were pursued you would hardly have time for any other endeavors. But because they salvation is so fragile a gift, they don’t mind the sacrifices. They truly don’t want to go to movies; why risk losing salvation considering the consequences? God may not call you back to repent, and if you can’t repent of your sin you’ll burn in Hell forever. If, however, you obeyed all of the rules and believed in God with everything you had, you could make it. You could enjoy spending hours at church dancing and listening to a preacher scream at you, followed by supper at Shoney’s. It is possible to find hope and purpose in this system -- and for the rare few that do, they know it’s the Only Way.
What, though, of the people who cannot find hope and purpose? What if they never feel drawn to repentance? What happens when they are forced to obey all of the rules and receive no rewards? What happens if the Only Way doesn’t work? Then religion became nothing but a burden, and the God of heaven an ever-present, nagging bully. The threats of Hell and the Rapture haunt everything, taxing the unsaved person’s ability to enjoy anything. How was it that I, raised in this system from the time I was a baby, walked away from it? How was I able to overcome the brainwashing (to be frank) and question boldly even the existence of a God, as Thomas Jefferson recommended? Read on.