For my first couple of posts, I thought I’d provide some background as to where I came from, how I found myself in the United Pentecostal Church and some of the things that eventually prompted me to leave. While posting may provide me with some catharsis, it is also my hope that possibly those who may find themselves in the UPC or other similar organization and who may be experiencing some of the same things that I experienced may find some help in getting to a better place, wherever that may be for them. It would be my prayer that the better place would be a better place in God, more at rest and satisfied in him. I’m just a layman who has spent 25 years in the UPC but found a way out and brought my family with me.
I was raised Roman Catholic, attended church with my family while growing up and also went regularly to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes where one learns about the Roman Catholic faith and the sacraments – baptism, confession, receiving the Eucharist, and so on. As a teenager, the next step in my making my way through the sacraments was to be Confirmed. As a part of the Confirmation process, I was expected to write a letter to the priest at the local parish answering some questions concerning who God was to me and what he meant to me. I never wrote that letter and was never Confirmed. I am sure that a part of my refusing to do so was out of a certain degree of teenage rebelliousness. But there was a part of me that also genuinely felt unable to provide an honest answer as to those questions – who was God and what he meant to me at that point in my life. I recall sitting at the small desk in my bedroom and the assignment tacked to a cork board that hung next to the desk and contemplating the fact that I didn’t know how to answer the questions being posed.
When I was 17, I worked at a local ice cream stand and there I met a nice girl who was a waitress at the restaurant. I also met her husband who was the youth pastor of a local church. She asked if I would visit one Sunday morning to see some special event she was participating in at the church. I agreed and that Sunday I went off looking for this church that was nestled among some neighborhood homes in the city. I probably drove by the church three or four times unable to find it. I stopped for some gas and despite thinking I was about 30 minutes late for church, I felt compelled to go back and look one more time for this church. Possibly I felt obligated to find my there as I had said I would be there – possibly something else was at work.
I drove back up the street one more time and found the church as there were some people standing outside on the front steps. I parked and walked over, asking if I was late. As it happened, it was the last Sunday of October (back when daylight savings ended on the last Sunday of October) and so I was actually about 30 minutes early for church.
As you likely have guessed, the church I visited that morning was a United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) – the largest of the Oneness Pentecostal (OP) organizations in the country. The people were very friendly and what stood out to me was the enthusiastic manner in which they sang songs and worshipped.
I began attending youth services and I believe the night I truly repented and gave my life to Christ was during one of these youth services. The youth pastor gave a lesson on prayer – I recall being somewhat awestruck at the idea that I could communicate directly with God, that he knew who I was and that he was interested in having a relationship with me. While my Roman Catholic upbringing and experience was rooted in what seemed to me to be merely tradition and ritual, my new experience seemed to have me rooted more in the primitive church where one could be in relationship with a real and living God who knew me. Later I was baptized and went through the various steps that one does within OP.
Not long thereafter, I moved away for college but continued to attend another UPC church. It was in that church that I found a very heavy emphasis on holiness standards. Men wore long pants, three quarter length sleeves and kept their hair cut short. The women had uncut hair, no make-up, no jewelry, and long skirts. I had an African-American friend who once had a haircut with a line cut in to represent a part in his hair. Seemingly no big deal to me but I recall hearing the pastor from the pulpit tell the congregation that unless God has given you a part in your hair, you shouldn’t be cutting one in. While I believe in the concept of church discipline as outlined in the New Testament, in this environment, one would be “sat down” from participating in the choir or being a worship leader or other role for infractions of “standards.”
This is the brand of OP that is extremely conservative, focused on holiness standards and various rules put in place by the leadership with the expectation that you would be obedient to the leadership. Obedience to the pastor was required in all these areas. I personally experienced and know of many others who were told by the pastor who they should (or in most cases, who they should not) fellowship with. Of course, if you are told that you should not associated with a particular person it was for your own good and protection and for the good of the other person as well.
Interracial relationships were frowned upon. When my wife and I were still dating, I recall sitting on the back pew while at the church for morning prayer and was told by the pastor’s wife that it would be best if we didn’t date as interracial relationships were problematic. My wife is part Hispanic and I am white.
At the time, I simply chalked up such comments to the fact that these individuals were more elderly southerners. Of course, the common refrain in the church was that “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” and “touch not my anointed and do my prophets no harm.” Further, you must “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” Thus, one is told that he must obey the pastor on all points for he will give an account before God concerning us and he wants to be in a position to say nothing but good concerning us. The pastor had the role of mediator between me and God – he was going to report to God on my behavior and the extent to which I was an obedient Christian.
You might question why would someone stay in a church such as this? The fact of the matter is that many don’t – they move on, which is what I did. Not that I left the UPC – I simply moved away for school again. I found myself in a church that was much less legalistic yet over time found itself having much more in common with the word of faith and your traditional charismatic movements.
I spent over 25 years in the UPC and 20 of those years in a church where the ministry was affiliated with the UPC but the church itself was not. Even while in the very strict, legalistic setting I had come to question many aspects of the teaching of the church with respect to legalism around holiness standards and what I had clearly recognized as emotional manipulation. I was disturbed by the control through fear that the leadership had exhibited. As a younger person who genuinely loved God and wanted to please God, it was difficult to wade through that environment. On the one hand, I clearly recognized that individuals engaged in manipulation through fear of hell and rebellion and demands for obedience. Yet, on the other hand, I was concerned whether I was in rebellion to God by even entertaining the thoughts that these men were using fear to control people. All I wanted was to please God.
When I found myself in an environment where the ministry did not exert such manipulation, I found myself free to examine some questions that had been bothering me. I felt free to strongly disagree with the legalistic approach of the UPC to holiness standards and not experience tremendous guilt for having such thoughts – and even sharing them with the pastor. Nevertheless, I continued to find myself troubled with respect to the UPC but still thought to myself, “Where else are you going to go?” At the center of the matter, I still believed that it was all about Acts 2:38 – I might be unhappy with the organization but they are the only ones with teaching the truth with respect to baptism in Jesus’ name and the oneness of God. I became spiritually lethargic and felt resigned for some time – frankly for many years. It came to the point where all I could simply do was fall on my knees and seriously look to God for some answers, which he graciously provided.