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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Year-End Perspectives

To begin, 2013 has been an interesting year, one of ups and downs.   But, it is also the third year of these articles, and as I get ready to enter a fourth there is a lot to talk about regarding the past year, and as a wrap-up I wanted to do just that.

1.  Graduate School

At the end of August, I completed my first year of graduate school at Southeastern University, but the story gets complicated at that point.  My experiences over the past year led me to some important decisions, and 2013 was a watershed year in that regard.

Being at SEU for graduate studies was nothing new - I got my BA from there back in 1996.  However, much has changed about the campus since I got my undergraduate degree, and it was like landing on a different planet upon returning.  Back when I was an undergrad, Southeastern was called simply Southeastern College, and at that time it was the second-largest educational institution affilliated with the Assemblies of God denomination.  Also, back then it was still solidly Pentecostal and fairly conservative, although even then some things began to change.  However, upon returning there for graduate studies last year, I was in a continual state of culture-shock at what had transpired in less than 16 years after I had gotten my Bachelor's.  A few years back Southeastern gained the status of university and renamed itself accordingly, but with that change came a change in leadership, faculty, etc.  Many of the newer faculty in the Religion Department there, I am shocked to say, are advancing an agenda that is out of whack with the spiritual heritage of the school itself, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by other alumni and even some current students.  There is more social activism, and also a tendency among the current faculty to Pentecostalize some outright heretical people (Jurgen Moltmann, James Cone, and other modern "theologians," for instance), although what they are really accomplishing is secularizing themselves.  The mentality of many of these professors is personified in the theologies of people such as Jurgen Moltmann, who interpret Christianity as a sort of "breaking in of the kingdom" into the physical (Moltmann terms this "Theology of Hope") and therefore the danger exists of turning Christianity into a panentheistic system of "God being in all."  Therefore, all of a sudden, the mentality of Christian ministry changes to that of an an "agent of uplift" who embraces the secular to see the sacred rather than transforming the souls of men through the message of salvation of Christ as embodied in the Cross.  So, now, all other religions, and indeed secularism, become "good" because all theology has become relative to the whims of changing culture - note that word change, as it denotes a "good thing" to such people.  Although such mentalities are lofty and noble, they are in the end exercises in futility because they are not in accord with Scripture nor with the teachings of the Church throughout the ages.  The eminent late Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann addresses this when he notes that these futile attempts to overcome secularism by embracing it (al a Moltmann) are in reality a surrender to secularism (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World {Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2004} p. 109).  And, the way Schmemann defines secularism is thus - a negation of worship (p. 118).  Southeastern University is a picture of this as it currently stands - in the past, when there was more of an emphasis on worship (by that, I don't mean a singing of happy-clappy songs to a bad rock band, but rather true devotion to God in all areas of life), the spiritual climate was more vibrant.  Indeed, in Southeastern's past there were many life-transforming revivals on that campus that touched the hearts of students and faculty alike; many older alumni testify quite fondly of that.  In recent years though, a spiritual revival has evaded that campus, as the once-anticipated campus-wide revival meetings every year have been replaced by these droning, boring "Leadership Forums" that consist of well-known businessmen and politicians (and the occasional Emergent Church guru) spending a week reciting mission statements and telling people how to sequence all the bells and whistles to "attract" people to their churches, etc.  Altar services have now been replaced with Six Signa certificates, in other words.  Seeing all of this happen made me face a hard reality that I needed to leave this campus, and thanks to godly counsel from my Archbishop, I withdrew at the end of August and now will be continuing my education elsewhere, which I will briefly address.

A couple of weeks ago, I received some joyful news that I was accepted into the Master of Theological Studies program at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and my financial aid was awarded so that I can begin studies in January by Distance Education.  Looking at the curricula of Franciscan, it is quite refreshing to see that there is still a school out there still faithful to the teachings of the the Church and the Holy Scriptures, and is truly spiritually vibrant.  I anticipate graduating from the program in the summer of 2015, provided all goes smoothly, and the good news is that I can do almost all of it from the comfort of my own office, save six credits I have to do in-residence at Steubenville in the coming year.  I will be on occasion posting my progress, as it will be keeping me busy for some time.

2.  ACC Diocesan Synod 2013

Another major event in our lives this year came when this past January our parish chose me to be the voting delegate to our Synod in Athens, GA.  It was an honor I gladly accepted, and indeed, the Synod was life-changing for me.  We were up there from May 1-3 of this year, and the Synod itself was held at St. Stephen Pro-Cathedral in Athens, a beautiful church just south of town.  I will talk some about the experience, as well as share some observations.

St. Stephen Pro-Cathedral, Athens, GA
 
 

The magnificent pipe organ at St. Stephens
 
The altar


 


 

The Synod started off with a very beautiful sung High Mass at the church itself that morning we arrived, and the worship was beautiful with the magnificent pipe organ.  Later, as a delegate of the House of Laity, I was also required to give a short report for our parish, which I was able to do without any problem.  One interesting aspect of the Synod was the visiting bishop from the Diocese of New Granada (in Columbia and all South America), Bishop German.  Although the Bishop could not speak a word of English, he nonetheless was a pleasure to meet, as he is a man of sincere humility and godliness, and as a spiritual leader he is not afraid to get his hands dirty by doing construction, etc., when the need arises for it.  According to some other delegates to Synod, he also was having a well-deserved vacation and was having a blast visiting much of the US.  I look forward to seeing more of him in subsequent Synods.
 
Bishop German (left) of the New Granada Diocese, and Archbishop Haverland (right), Primate of the ACC.
 
The Synod had a good attendance, with many delegates from all of the 26 or so parishes, and it was actually neat to get to meet and know a lot of the clergy and laity of our Diocese.  Another surprise came later though - it turns out that a former professor at the Baptist college in Graceville, FL, where Barb and I met has become part of the ACC too!  Dr. Patrick Malone used to teach music years ago, and if memory serves me, Barb actually sang in one of his campus choirs.  In recent years, Dr. Malone began serving as organist at St. Andrews in Tallahassee, and soon felt led of God to become part of the ACC.  At present, he is pursuing studies at Nashotah House Seminary in order to prepare for Holy Orders, as he feels led to be a priest.  Somehow, although he was at Synod, I missed crossing paths with him, but now I know to look out for him at the next one.  
 
There was a serious note at the Synod as the Archbishop addressed some concerns and challenges we as the ACC face now and in the future.  The good news is that the ACC is pretty stable, both financially and membership-wise as well, and many new people are infusing the ACC with new life as they are coming in from other church traditions - many former Roman Catholics for instance, as well as former Evangelicals and Pentecostals like myself.  Up until fairly recently, as a matter of fact, the ACC was made up of a core membership of aging dissidents who had left the Episcopal Church in the 1970's over theological liberalism creeping into the Church, and up until 2005 or so the ACC was rather stagnant spiritually.  Archbishop Haverland has been a huge blessing to the ACC, and he does truly have vision for the Church, but like a good shepherd and father over his people, he also has concerns, and valid ones too.  Two major challenges to the ACC's growth have happened in the past several years that have impacted directly.  The first occurred a few years ago, when a number of conservative bishops pulled out of the Episcopal Church after the latter consecrated an openly gay (and non-celibate) "bishop" by the name of Gene Robinson.  Many of these disaffected Episcopalians sought out (and received) the covering of several Anglican bishops in what is called the "Southern Cone" (mainly African nations such as Nigeria and Rwanda, but also India and Latin America as well).  These new Anglican fellowships eventually consolidated into what is now called the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and are often called as a movement the "Anglican Realignment."  Although for the most part theologically conservative, the Realignment bishops still by and large will ordain women to the clerical orders and also use the 1979 BCP, both points of contention with the ACC and our sister groups, which resulted from a 1977 split with the Episcopal Church over similar issues and are known as the "Anglican Continuum."  Archbishop Haverland, upon addressing the Synod, noted that the presence now of the ACNA may draw away potential membership from the ACC, and he has appropriated addressed it in a joint statement with two other Continuing prelates, Archbishop Grundorf of the Anglican Province of America (APA) and Archbishop Marsh of the Anglican Church in America (ACA).  The statement by these and other Continuing Church bishops can be found on our ACC webpage at http://www.anglicancatholic.org/speeches-and-correspondence?class=greenlink.   

The second issue of note was of fairly recent origin and involved a measure by the Roman Catholic Church called Anglicanorum Coetibus, which essentially provides for clergy of various Anglican communions to be fully received into the Roman Catholic Church.  The impetus for this actually started around 2008 or so, and many Continuing Churchmen opted to "swim the Tiber," which in turn had a very adverse effect on many Anglican jurisdictions.  This has borne some good fruit, however, in that the once-fragmented Continuum is now working more closely together - there are talks now about intercommunion among the ACC, APA, and ACA, which would be welcomed by many of us.  Not much about this was addressed at Synod, but Archbishop Haverland does have a published statement if you wish to read it at http://www.anglicancatholic.org/a-response-to-anglicanorum-coetibus?class=greenlink.

All-in-all, the Synod was a good experience for us, and it affirmed that the ACC is now my permanent church home.  I would not have it any other way either, as the ACC has great people, both clergy and laity, and we also have a godly Archbishop who is sensitive both to the voice of the Holy Spirit and to the needs of those he shepherds.  Thanks be to God for Archbishop Mark Haverland, and may he have a long and fruitful tenure as our Prelate.  


3.  Writing Projects
 
In the past year, I have gotten a lot of updated information regarding several previous articles I have written, in particular my "Highways and Hedges" series I began work on in 2012.  In particular there are some liturgical/sacramental Churches I have updated information on, and I will share here.
The first is the now-extant Catholic Apostolic Church at Davis (CA), which at one time was served by the late Australian-born Mor Elijah Coady (1928-2010).  Mor Elijah was hard to research until I found his birth name, Ronald Coady, and when I searched that out I received a wealth of information about his legacy and ministry.  It turns out that there is a website (http://www.harvestfieldsministries.com/bishop-ron-coady---bish.php) that commemorates his memory, and included on it are a number of his recorded sermons which can be freely downloaded.  I plan on doing just that and saving them to audio discs later in the coming year.  The story of his Davis, CA-based church can be found at the original "Highways and Hedges" article I authored in 2012.

Mor Elijah (Bishop Ronald Coady) (1928-2010)

Along the same lines, and dealing with content in the same earlier article, I was also able to find a picture of Bishop Stephen Kochones' church,  the American Orthodox Catholic Church, at 801 Walnut Street in Pasadena, CA.  Here it is:
 
The American Orthodox Catholic Church, Pasadena, CA (Bishop Stephen Kochones)
 
Perhaps the richest discovery though, as well as the most recent, was some valuable information I finally was able to access concerning Archbishop John Marion Stanley's Orthodox Church of the East.  A few weeks previous, I managed to find the phone number in Washington for Archbishop Stanley, and had a very lengthy but enjoyable conversation with his wife, Miss Sara.   Miss Sara is a very sweet lady, articulate and sharp for 86 years, and she provided a lot of good information for me regarding her husband's ministry.  Archbishop Stanley is still very much alive, at age 91, and resides at a veterans home on Vashon Island, WA.  Miss Sara informed me that recently a new bishop was consecrated, Bishop Stan Smith in Daly City, CA, to succeed Archbishop Stanley, and I was able to access a phone number and website for Bishop Stan and also had an informative conversation with him the following day.  Both Bishop Stan and Miss Sara Stanley shared in rich detail the remarkable spiritual legacy of Archbishop Stanley - for instance, as I already knew, Archbishop Stanley was a charismatic some years before the official Charismatic Renewal movement took off, and he was a close friend and associate of the late Demos Shakarian, who founded the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship (of which Archbishop Stanley was also one of the earliest participants).  The Archbishop was also briefly the only married Roman Catholic bishop in modern times for a brief period, as well as being an active member of the Hospitalier Knights.  So much more could be said about this great man of God's legacy, but I will wait until some printed material about his life and ministry becomes available, a project his wife and daughter are embarking on now.  
 
Archbishop John Marion Stanley today
 
Miss Sara Stanley, Archbishop Stanley's wife
 
Bishop Stan Smith, current prelate of the OCE
 
All-in-all, getting to talk to and know these great individuals has been a blessing in itself, and if you wish to find out more about the Orthodox Church of the East, Bishop Stan does have a good website which contains contact information - it is at  http://bishopstan.weebly.com/ - this page also includes some good downloadable audio and video teachings by the Bishop as well that may be of interest, some of which I hope to copy to disc for my library later.   As a side business, Bishop Stan also markets a line of original barbecue sauces and rubs (he is an avid barbecue conoisseur) as well as chocolate products.  Later on next year, I am going to order some of it to sample for myself actually.  If you are interested, Bishop Stan would appreciate the business, and he has a couple of websites you can access the goods from:  http://holychocolate.com/  (for his chocolate products) and http://burntsacrifice.com/ (for his barbecue sauces and rubs). 

As for other writing projects, many of them were school-related, although I did finish my Ephesians study and am getting ready to scan and edit it before sending it off to the publisher.  I also have an upcoming article in a theological journal, Watchman Theological Journal, on a Christian response to this resurgent Transhumanist agenda that is out there.  The Watchman Theological Journal is edited by Fr. Jack Ashcraft, a traditionalist Byzantine Catholic priest and a good friend who, interesting enough, is one of the few Catholic or Orthodox writers (besides myself, of course!) to tackle subjects such as the Genesis 6 reality of the Nephilim.  He likewise has some great programs and broadcasts available on his webpage, http://trueexorcist.com/, that are worth a listen.  

4.  Wrapping It Up
 
In retrospect, 2013 has been a busy and eventful year, not only for myself but for the religious world in general.  A new Pope, Francis, was elected this year, and I have some serious concerns that I won't divulge here but probably will address in another article in the future.  Also, Paul Crouch, the founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, as well as gospel music legend George Beverly Shea, passed away (Shea was 104!).  The Emerging Church movement continues to be an issue, and John MacArthur's rants against Pentecostals (much of it being ill-informed and badly-reasoned) were also subjects of personal interest.  Also, persecution of all Christians of true faith seems to be a major thing, from subtle legal attacks against Christian business owners in the US who refuse to make wedding cakes for gay couples to violent and deadly massacres of Assyrian and Coptic Christians in Egypt and Syria by Islamic militants.  Making that list is also a humble 23-year-old Pentecostal pastor in Tennessee, Andrew Hamblin, who was recently threatened with jail over his beliefs (he takes up serpents at his church as part of the worship) - despite one's attitude about serpent-handling, Hamblin's case is one we all as people of faith should be paying attention to, because the freedom to practice one's religious convictions is at stake.  Andrew was featured on a Discovery Channel series, Snake Salvation, this past year, and I found the series actually good.  I also got to know Andrew personally via Facebook, and consider him a friend and brother in Christ.  
23-year-old Pastor Andrew Hamblin, of LaFollette, TN.
 
Even high-profile Christian celebrities, such as Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson and actor Kirk Cameron, have been attacked for their convictions.  Robertson was almost censored by the network his show airs on, A&E, because the family says grace over their dinner at the end of each program and Phil prays "In Christ Jesus" at the conclusion. The powers-that-be at the network tried to make Phil stop praying because it might "offend Muslim viewers" and other such BS, but Phil stood his ground and asked them point-blank how many Muslims actually watch Duck Dynasty - of course, the show doesn't have a huge Muslim fanbase to begin with, and if some do watch and are offended, they can change the channel (which Phil also suggested - go Phil!).  A&E is in no position to dispute this either, because Duck Dynasty is earning them the highest ratings they have ever had, and they don't dare lose an audience!    Any rate, I too have felt some pressure from Facebook "trolls" and others who have attacked my stance on traditional marriage, and oftentimes these uninformed people will say "love is love -don't deny the gays love!" and other such crap.  However, with that logic, the pedophiles, bestialists, and other perverts could use the same argument - heck, even a rapist could use that logic!  I read recently of a Muslim trying to molest a horse and getting his face kicked in - I suppose that was "love" too??   Some of this logic these days - it brings to mind Romans 1:22; "professing to be wise they became fools."  Perversion is never to be equated with love, people - behaviors and lifestyle choices are also not to receive status as "minority groups" either.  Not politically-correct, I am aware, but I don't care - the Church has always defined marriage as between ONE man and One woman, and the state has no jurisdiction to say otherwise.  Marriage is a sacramental union, not a legal entitlement.  Therefore, government has no place dictating what defines a marriage - the Church does. 
 
Now, back on course, what is ahead for Sacramental Present Truths?   This year, it is time to start formulating my six-fold ecclesiology that will eventually be the substance of my MTS thesis, and I will be embarking on a series of articles to do just that.  Also, Appalachian theology - is there such a thing, and how can it be formulated?  I will be exploring that as well.   We are entering four years of this page, and as I do so I want to also focus less on apologetics and polemics and more on teaching, and in doing so I hope to enrich all who read these articles.  And, that being said, I hope you continue to stay tuned and check in from time to time.  The links to each new article are posted as well on my Facebook and other social media as they are published, so if you happen to be on Facebook, feel free to take a look.  
 
And, on that note, I want to close by wishing each one a blessed holiday season, a Merry Christmas, and God's blessings on you for a good 2014 year coming up.    
 
 
 
 


 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

John MacArthur's Blowing Smoke About "Strange Fire" - A Response

In recent weeks, a fundamentalist Reformed/Calvinist megachurch pastor in California by the name of John MacArthur has created a bit of controversy with a conference he hosted at his church, Grace Community Church, called  the Strange Fire Conference.  Essentially, what this conference entailed was a series of talks which sought to establish that the spiritual gifts it speaks of in such places as Acts and I Corinthians are not for today, but only for the Apostles' times (a view known as cessationism) and the concluding premise of this position is that the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements must be false, of the devil, etc.  This is a whipping-post MacArthur has wailed on before, as evidenced for one by his earlier book Charismatic Chaos.  Although he does make some legitimate points regarding some extremes in the Charismatic movement, overall MacArthur's position is extremely problematic in that in one sweeping assertion he has condemned half a billion Christians in the world to eternal damnation based on their belief in the spiritual gifts, etc.  I have been following this for some time, and now wanted to just provide some of my own perspective on this issue.







John MacArthur, author and popular Fundamentalist megachurch pastor


Not all MacArthur has said or done over the years is necessarily bad, and I am less inclined to totally dismiss everything he has preached on the basis of the stupidity displayed by this conference.  On many basic things, MacArthur is actually theologically orthodox, and he has also made a commendable stand against the growing apostasy promoted by the Emerging Church movement, and I share much of his convictions on that.  Therefore, in writing this, we must remember to not have a blanket condemnation of the man, but rather to stand against some of the false accusations he has made in regard to other Christian traditions. 

The main issue with MacArthur in regard to Pentecostals is that he is theologically a cessationist, meaning that many of the supernatural manifestations of the past, and the spiritual gifts that make them possible, are things limited to the Apostolic era and do not exist in the Body of Christ today.  Therefore, the only logical conclusion someone like MacArthur could come to is this - if genuine manifestations of the Holy Spirit are limited to the Apostolic dispensation (yes, MacArthur is also a premillenial dispensationalist doctrinally as well - more on that aspect of his theology later), then anyone claiming to possess them today must be either charlatans or of the devil.  However, this presents an issue for MacArthur, who claims also to be a proponent of Biblical inerrancy.  If the gifts were for one age and not for another, does that mean God is not immutable then?  What would someone like MacArthur do then with a Scripture like Hebrews 13:8, which affirms that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever?   Or John 1:1 - in the beginning Jesus was (or, being the phrase for "in the beginning" in Greek is dative, it can also be translated "from the beginning" and be placed at any position in that verse without altering its meaning).  So, if Jesus was from the beginning and is immutable (unchanging), by MacArthur denying spiritual gifts, is he not guilty then of "adding to and taking from the Word of God," (Proverbs 30:6 and Revelation 22:19) which in term would bring damnation upon him?  It also makes God unsure of himself too - after all, if you are a new Christian and someone like MacArthur stands up in a pulpit and says "well, God did that then but now he changed his mind," what would that do for your faith?   These are some interesting questions, but unfortunately this is something that is common in much of Reformed/Calvinistic Fundamentalist thinking.  To clarify that, let me just say that not all Reformed/Calvinists (or even Fundamentalists for that matter) think like this; even among Charismatics, brilliant Reformed theologians such as J. Rodman Williams have provided a great service to the Church, and others like D. James Kennedy and Francis Schaeffer have written a tremendous wealth of material that has also enriched the Body of Christ tremendously.  However, it also must be conceded that not all Reformed Calvinists are cessationists either, although the overwhelming majority of cessationists are Reformed Calvinists.  It is important for these cessationists to take heed to what Catholic apologist Karl Keating wrote when he said "They too (fundamentalists - my add) believe things that are not found in the face of Scripture.  There are peculiarly fundamentalist doctrines that find no warrant in Scripture that should, by the fundamentalists' own rationale, be thrown out." (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism {San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988}p. 67).  This is an interesting observation, because being raised fairly conservative myself, I have noticed over the years a sort of pragmatism even among the strictest Fundamentalists that means God can all of a sudden change his mind at whim, based on man's changes in societal norms (think, for instance, of how many Emergent Church people and Rick Warren disciples once described - and some still do! - themselves as "Bible-believing Fundamentalists." Hmm....).  And, this is something author David Bercot addresses when he talks about the Western Christian tendency towards legalism - reducing the truth of God's word to formulaic legalisms (David Bercot, Common Sense {Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing, 1992} p. 96).  Unfortunately, when that happens, the risk is that some things in Scripture become relativistic based on legalese, and the Calvinist tradition has unfortunately produced a whole spectrum of heresies, ranging from the cessationism of John MacArthur to the "Christian Universalism" of Rob "No Hell" Bell, that have plagued American Evangelicalism for generations.  In time, this idea that God can all of a sudden change his mind has catastrophic consequences, as churches change positions on things much like Madonna changes husbands.  Archbishop Haverland correctly notes this mentality when he writes that this individualistic view of Scripture and theology on the part of American Evangelicals will in time cause secularization, and indeed we are seeing that today (Mark Haverland, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice {Athens, GA: Anglican Parishes Association, 2011} p. 63).  In short, Fundamentalist ideas about Scriptural inerrancy may ultimately lead to their own crisis, and the Calvinistic idea of eternal security (which is a misappropriation of Augustine's theology of justification on Calvin's part) will not do them much good when the apostasy foretold in Scripture hits them too.  Given time, John MacArthur (or some of his disciples) may follow in the path of the Emergent Church crowd, as both their positions share a common root.  And, all this because MacArthur thinks God can change his mind about his own Word.

I noted the above to address MacArthur's allegations from the viewpoint of historic Church teaching on the issue.  The Church has first of all never advocated the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Do we believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God, divinely authored and enshrining His true revelation of salvation to man?  You bet we do!  However, the Church is the custodian of God's Word, and our understanding of that truth must be grounded in what the Church historically has taught concerning those truths.  Many things we have some liberty, as the Church presents a number of positions on minutiae, but on the major, essential doctrines there are no compromises.  For one thing, the Holy Spirit is seen as God, or as the Creed presents him, "The Lord, the Giver of Life."  As such, the Holy Spirit indwells every believer.  And, over the centuries, the Church has affirmed, documented, and testified that God, through the Holy Spirit, can and does work in miraculous, supernatural ways in the lives of individual believers.  The Biblical conduit for that, naturally, is the provision of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, although there are also "diverse works" of the Holy Spirit that the Church affirms Scripture doesn't specify but bear witness of the Lord's presence.  People have been healed, raised from the dead, and have often been given visions, prophetic insights, and other such things for the edification of the Body.  MacArthur, therefore, speaks a heresy against the Holy Spirit when he says these things have ceased, and it is the Pentecostals who are correct in that regard.  Although I have not agreed with Dr. George Wood, the current General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, in recent years over some other issues, I do believe he summed up classic Pentecostal understanding well in his statement regarding MacArthur's allegations when he noted, based on Acts 2:39, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to us and our children (meaning future generations) as a promise of the New Covenant - well spoken, Dr. Wood! (accessed 11/19/2013 at http://georgeowood.com/statement-regarding-strange-fire-conference/) A more conservative Pentecostal pastor and overseer of the Bible Holiness Fellowship Association, Dr. Joseph Chambers,  who responded that MacArthur's position is even unique among Calvinists he knows, and is an utterly hopeless view that gives the believer little hope.  This is what Dr. Chambers said:

We could study lives of the great leaders of church history from the disciples, Apostle Paul, and thousands of the Greats. John MacArthur is the first one I have ever heard say that said that God no longer speaks to men. Something is seriously missing in His theology. He is the first and only Calvinist that I have ever heard state this kind of theology. This may not be believed by most ministers in their ranks. I also confess that I have no interest in a system of theology that must depend on flesh and mind without Holy Ghost inspiration in the present. This view of "Total Depravity" is the reason that this theology is a hopeless theology. Not only do they believe in "Total Depravity," but also that the Holy Spirit has ended His supernatural work in human lives. If we are totally depraved to the degree that God cannot give us His anointing, and if the Holy Ghost is done with us, then our theology is going to be dead and empty as is most evident in this message by John MacArthur. We can only know truth by the power of His supernatural Spirit working in us for Christ’s glory. (accessed from http://www.pawcreek.org/end-times/john-macarthur)

I agree with Dr. Chambers on this, in that MacArthur has chosen to rely on his own fleshly wisdom and reason rather than the clear testimony of both Scriptures and Church history.  The verse I would have for Dr. MacArthur at this point is a harsh one, but may be a dose of medicine he needs to shock him back to reality - professing wisdom, he has become a fool (Romans 1:22).  God's ways, we must always have the humility to remember, are not man's ways, and sometimes what God does goes against the way we think (I Corinthians 1:25).  Tongues-talking looks foolish to our Enlightenment-minded Western thinking, but God has given it as a gift.  The idea that one can be healed without the aid of some professional doctor that will just give you a huge bill you can't afford anyway is unconscionable to the rational mind, but think of millions  God has touched - many people don't have the means of being healed in a hospital, so God comes to them, especially in Third World countries where medical care is sloppy at best.  Critics of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements like MacArthur often use the justification that "frauds" and "fake shows" can occur, based on the outlandish excesses of some TV preachers.  But, here is the problem with that - there are people out there trying to scam others with religion all the time, and if there wasn't a real, they wouldn't be faking it; think about it!  At the same time MacArthur's Charismatic Chaos was published around 1993 or so, another Evangelical author by the name of Hank Hanegraaff published Christianity in Crisis which documented the false teachings of many TV preachers, in particular the "Prosperity Gospel."   The main difference between Hanegraaff's and MacArthur's books is fundamental and can be found in the opening pages of Christianity in Crisis  - Hanegraaff specifically stated that his book was not a book targeting Pentecostals or Charismatics, nor did it have anything to do with positions on spiritual gifts.  As a matter of fact, Hanegraaff actually maintained that the "Prosperity Gospel" was cultic and didn't represent Charismatic spirituality as well.  MacArthur made no such distinction in his writing, but rather chose to paint every Pentecostal and Charismatic with a sweeping allegation that they were "abhorrent," and in that blanket accusation MacArthur also condemned Hanegraaff even, who is a member of Calvary Chapel, a Pentecostal denomination.  Yet, I also find it curious that MacArthur may actually hold to a few heresies himself, including dispensationalism.  Mind you, I am a premillenialist, but as a premillenialist I maintain that there will be only one resurrection, and only one Second Coming of Christ - a dispensationalist has Christ coming back more times than Shirley McClain's reincarnation cycles she brags about!  As a classic dispensationalist, MacArthur has essentially given consent to a non-Biblical heresy, namely that there may be as many as four "Second Comings" in the scheme his theology is constructed around.  This is worth mentioning because despite supposedly being "biblical inerrancy" advocates, people like MacArthur are really writing their own versions of Scripture, which in many cases are more infallible to them than the real thing.  Yet, they condemn us Catholics for our stand on Holy Tradition - even we would not go that far!

More could be said on all this, but I wanted to make a few concluding observations.  One, the same mentality that MacArthur espouses - essentially, the cessationist view that God is all of a sudden fickle in what he promised - is also the same mentality his biggest opponents, the equally-wrong Emergent Church crowd, have.  Both of these schools of thought have their roots in Reformed Calvinism, although they take the same premises to different extremes.  MacArthur would say that God doesn't give spiritual gifts for modern times, while Brian McLaren and Rob Bell would use the same reasoning to throw the organs out of churches, reject doctrines of sin and hell, and also slowly come to accept some bad behaviors such as homosexuality and abortion as "relevant for the age" (these are guys who think Sodom and Gomorrah's sin was inhospitality, and that prohibitions against homosexuality are not relevant today as a result - they are sort of cessationists as well).  Both extremes - MacArthur and McLaren - are wrong; the Church has an established doctrine and position that has not changed since the time of the Apostles, and on issues such as spiritual gifts and morality, the Church has had a consistent response and witness.  It is too bad that MacArthur, who is often bound up in the inerrancy of his own reading of Scripture rather than the way the Church has historically taught it, misses the whole point.  I am not ready to write him off yet, and do not believe he is un-Christian, but will say that if he doesn't learn to discern better his position, he will regret that choice later.  It is really too bad, because MacArthur has done some amazing things for the Kingdom in other areas.  If he can just get past his own biases now, he'd do well.   Any rate, that is my perspective on the issue, although much more could be said.  God bless.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Highways and Hedges Part 6 - The Fundamental and Free Holiness Movements

Introduction

I was actually not planning on doing a sixth article in the series, but so much information necessitated its creation.  The groups in this article - with the exception of the first - are all interrelated; they all have fellowship with each other, have similar histories and convictions, and the one thing that really binds most of them together is an Oklahoma-based periodical that is published bi-monthly entitled The Holiness Messenger.  First, I want to give some introductory material, and then I want to get into these groups themselves.

As the 1970's dawned, many of the larger Pentecostal denominations began to strive for more respectability in the wider Christian spectrum, and when churches start to do that it usually means a shedding and eschewal of many aspects of their early heritage.  Therefore, many people who were members of congregations affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland) and other such groups began to take on the more worldly trappings of society around them, and in doing so they sought to be indistinguishable from the wider world by supposedly "becoming those to whom they minister."  Not only Pentecostals, but many groups considered as historically conservative Evangelical had similar transformations.   This naturally led to concerns among many more conservative members of these churches, concerns that grew to such a magnitude that in time many congregations of more conservative Pentecostals began withdrawing from fellowship with the large denominations.  Such things as the growing popularity of "Contemporary Christian" music, worldly dress, and even the acceptance of social drinking and the use of tobacco products were incomprehensible to many old-time Pentecostal folks, and it was often seen by them in an eschatological context as a "falling away" or a "deception of the elect."   Seeking to preserve what they believed were their core convictions as Spirit-filled Pentecostal Christians, the dissenting churches began to fellowship with one another, and a number of small new groups emerged that embodied old-time Pentecostalism as it once was.  Many of these groups were informal fellowships, but some in time did develop structural mechanisms for ordaining clergy, promoting missions, and also Bible schools came into existence.  With this new developing of a conservative Pentecostal/Holiness identity naturally gelling into a movement, it is estimated that close to 20% of all Assemblies of God, Church of God, and other larger Pentecostal denominations experienced an exodus of membership to these new fellowships.

I write much of this material because I in many ways sympathize with people who are part of these fellowships because in many ways I share their convictions, although not with 100% agreement necessarily.  Oftentimes, you have to wade through some legalism, anti-Catholicism, and other things to see the real assets of such fellowships, but they are there.  I have, for instance, been subscribed to The Holiness Messenger since sometime around 2003.  And, I am also interested in seeing much of the Pentecostalism I knew in my childhood preserved at its best, and these groups are doing that in an exemplary way. 

I am going to focus on first a group out of Palatka, FL, called the Pentecostal Revival Center Association, and then I will devote much more space to those groups and fellowships which in some way are associated with The Holiness Messenger, as there are many of them. 

The Pentecostal Revival Center Association

A Christmas tree vision birthed a church in early 1966.  A lady minister by the name of Dolly Harrell had a vision in the early 1960's of a large cedar tree that she really took to heart, and from the vision a church emerged in Palatka, FL, called the Pentecostal Revival Center.  First, I want to tell a little of Dolly's story, and then we will discuss the PRCA.

Dolly Baer was born in 1920 in Charlotte, NC, and at an early age her folks moved the family to the town of Branford, FL, where young Dolly grew up.  She married her husband of 54 years, James Harrell, at the age of 14 and the young couple moved to Palatka where James worked in a paper mill.  After their move, Dolly worked as a Sunday School teacher in a local Methodist church until 1958, when she became involved with a local Assembly of God doing evangelistic work.  In time, she would be educated at Southeastern College (the same school I got my degree from) and she held credentials with the Assemblies of God beginning in the mid-1950's.  In December 1965, she established the Pentecostal Revival Center, later moving it to its present location in 1976 after confirmation of the tree vision she had.  At close to the same time, she began a radio ministry which later culminated into a TV ministry in the early 1980's, known today as GospelVision TV.  She continued in active ministry until her passing on April 13, 2009.

Pastor Dolly Harrell (1920-2009) - founder of the Pentecostal Revival Center
 
 The official establishment of the Pentecostal Revival Center Association dates back to 1978, when it was formally incorporated with the State of Florida.  The church operates the TV station, a school, and other enterprises, as well as credentialing ministers.  I am not sure where other congregations of this fellowship exist, although there seems to be alluding of the fact that at least a couple of daughter churches exist in northeast Florida.  The original church in Palatka now has about a couple of hundred members, and hosts numerous revivals, concerts, and other events which are aired over its TV station.  

The present Pentecostal Revival Center in Palatka, FL.
 
 
 
Fundamental Holiness/Pentecostal Fellowships Associated With The Holiness Messenger
 
The origins of many of these groups go back to 1953, when a group of conservative Holiness/Pentecostal pastors came to a consensus that the printed page would be a greater vehicle for fellowship among them.  Many of this group of ministers, coming primarily from Oklahoma, used the terms "Free Holiness," "Free Pentecostal Holiness," and similar terms to describe themselves, and many of them were originally affiliated with the Assemblies of God or Church of God.  With one of their own, Rev. Ira Roberts, chosen to edit the new periodical, the Holiness Messenger was launched on June 16, 1953.  70 years later, it is still published.
 
The flagship issue masthead
 
Rev. Ira Roberts
 
Rev. Roberts unfortunately passed on in 1950, and Rev. Ralph Cox succeeded him and as far as I can ascertain he still edits the paper today.  From that small group of ministers, The Holiness Messenger today has a circulation in the thousands, and on its website (www.holinessmessenger.com, where much of the historical information was obtained) a Church Directory lists over 428 congregations which associate with the periodical.  Many of these congregations are either independent Pentecostal churches, or they are organized into at least 15 small fellowships, some of which we will be discussing momentarily.  Also included in the list are a number of conservative congregations who are affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland) and other denominations.  As mentioned, I have been receiving The Holiness Messenger myself for several years, and although informative, it has also piqued my interest regarding the roots of many of the churches that subscribe to it.  The paper itself is still published out of Sapulpa, OK, and Ralph Cox, although advanced in age, still edits and oversees its operation.  
 
Rev. Ralph Cox, current editor of The Holiness Messenger, and his wife Doreen.
 
The Messenger has also proven to be a valuable resource of various services - missionary agencies, evangelistic ministries, Bible schools, camps, music artists, and other such - and also publishes in each issue a listing of upcoming revivals, campmeetings, and crusades conducted by its subscribing churches and fellowships.  Occasionally, it also includes reviews and contact information for books, CD's and other material its subscribers produce.  

As mentioned, there are 428 churches listed that have some association with this paper, and many of them are loosely organized into fellowships.  Some fellowships - such as the Wesleyan Pentecostals, Holiness Baptists, and Calvary Holiness Association - we have already discussed in detail in other segments.  Others are congregations, as mentioned, which are part of the Assemblies or Church of God.  Still others are independent congregations.  However, from what I could gather from research, there are about 11 other groups outside the listed ones above represented in the readership, and I want to deal specifically with some of those in the next section.

The Fellowships
 
1. Free Pentecostal Church of God Fellowship - This particular fellowship is based out of Cincinatti, OH, and has a number of affiliated churches in Ohio, Kentucky, and other surrounding states.  They have a website (www.freepentecostalchurchofgod.com) as well as a vibrant youth organization, the Free Pentecostal Holiness Youth.  They also have a spring campmeeting and credential ministers.  

The mother church of this fellowship, the Pentecostal Holiness Tabernacle in Cincinatti, was founded in 1922 in the downtown area, but erected its current church building in the 1970's.   At present, according to the Free Pentecostal Holiness Youth website (http://www.fphy.org/home.html) there are
  9 affiliated churches, with the majority being in southwestern Ohio.  
The Pentecostal Holiness Tabernacle in Cincinnati,HQ church of the Free Pentecostal Church of God Fellowship
 
 
2.  Free Holiness Churches - Richard Crayne, pastor of the Pentecostal Assembly in Morristown, TN, noted in his book Pentecostal Handbook (Morristown, TN: self-published, 1989) that there are six groups bearing the name "Free Holiness," and they vary according to faith and practice - four of them are conservative Holiness-Pentecostal, one embraces Oneness teachings, and one is not quite as strict on Holiness standards as the others.  Crayne also notes that some do practice serpent-handling, although this isn't a widespread thing among any of these groups.   A couple of the groups have a large concentration of members in the Midwest and Middle South regions (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, etc.) and played an instrumental role in the creation of The Holiness Messenger.  One group is well-established in southern Appalachia - centered in the Sand Mountain, AL, area - and also has a web presence at www.freeholiness.net.   Crayne counts this latter group as having about 40 churches, but their website documents 69 congregations ranging from Kentucky to Lake Wales, FL, although the majority are concentrated in Alabama and Tennessee.  This group is of interest due to extensive documentation, and they predate the arrival of Pentecostalism in the mountains by several years, as many of their churches were already established by 1908.  This fellowship was largely the work of two early evangelists from those days, Sam Bates and Tom Perry, the latter who according to Crayne had heard the Holiness message from a Tom Austin in Chattanooga (Crayne, p. 650).  Of the other Free Holiness groups, one can be traced back to the ministry of a Ruben Wayne Dillard (1890-1989) in Arkansas who came from a Freewill Baptist background but embraced the Holiness message in 1913 (Crayne, p. 68).  A second group claims the founder of The Holiness Messenger, Rev. Ira Roberts, among its membership.  A third group, Crayne documents, owes its origins to an "Uncle Mack" O'Neal (1850-1952) from North Carolina. 

Statistics are not available as to membership records of these various groups, but sufficive to say there may be a combined total of 3000 or more members in all of them, just by my estimate.  Richard Crayne's research on this has proven invaluable for finding out as much as I have, honestly!

Free Holiness Church, Higdon, AL
 
3. The Holy Church of God - The origins of this particular fellowship go back to the 1950's in Savannah, GA, when it was established by some dissident members of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).  The mother church of the movement - also the largest with a 700-seat sanctuary - is still located in Savannah, although they do have congregations in the Deep South in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.  
 
Having a very loose fellowship, each congregation has almost total autonomy.  Like many of the other groups discussed, the Holy Church of God is very conservative in doctrine, following a strict Holiness code.  Crayne notes however that the Savannah church tends to be more strict than the Alabama churches though (p. 130).   Their website is at www.holychurchofgod.org/#/home.
 
The Holy Church of God, Savannah, GA.
 

4.  The Bible Holiness Ministerial Fellowship - Recently, I obtained some good DVD teachings by a Pentecostal pastor in North Carolina by the name of Joseph Chambers (born 1936), and come to find out he is the overseer of the Bible Holiness Fellowship, which he organized in 1998 after withdrawing from the Church of God over modernism which he saw as a threat.  Several congregations of this fellowship - in particular in Elkton, VA - have a good relationship with The Holiness Messenger.  Pastor Chambers is the founder and overseer of this fellowship, and he also pastors Paw Creek Church in Charlotte, NC, as well as having an active parachurch ministry of his own in which he addresses things such as false revivalism, rock music, etc.  

Rev. Joseph Chambers, overseer of the Bible Holiness Fellowship and pastor of Paw Creek Ministries in Charlotte, NC.
 
This group is not to be confused with the non-Pentecostal Wesleyan Bible Holiness Church, which is headquartered in the Midwest, as the Chambers group is very much Pentecostal!  Rev. Chambers' website is at  www.pawcreek.org, and the Bible Holiness Fellowship's page can be found at www.bibleholiness.org.  A second group with a similar name and emphasis is also found in Arkansas, and can be accessed at www.bhfyc.org.   Dr. Chambers also has several books and messages available.  The Elkton church, which pre-dates the Paw Creek one by several years, is listed by Crayne as a "Free Pentecostal Church."

5. Free Gospel Church - This is a group I have some familiarity with, due to their well-known Bible Institute located at their fellowship headquarters in Export, PA.  Their history goes back to 1916, when brothers Frank and William Casley left the Christian and Missionary Alliance after receiving the Pentecostal experience in 1907.  According to 1988 statistics in The Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) the Free Gospel Church consisted of about a dozen American churches and around one thousand members (p. 315).  Much of this fellowship is centered around the Free Gospel Bible Institute, which has an influence that goes far beyond its membership - many Assemblies of God ministers back in West Virginia where I grew up graduated from there actually, which also led to many of them in the Potomac District of the Assemblies being somewhat more conservative than the rest of the denomination.  Although at one time the Free Gospel Church engaged in extensive fellowship with the wider Pentecostal community (it was a member of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America up until it was reorganized as the Pentecostal Charismatic Churches of North America in 1994, which the Free Gospel Church declined to join), in recent years it has engaged in fellowship with more conservative Holiness/Pentecostal groups like those represented by the Messenger.  As a body, the Free Gospel Church is fairly conservative, strictly Holiness and fundamental, and it hearkens back to an earlier era of the Assemblies of God interestingly enough, as it is much what the Assemblies used to be.  The Bible Institute still has a vibrant presence, although in recent years class size has decreased, but many ministers in these more conservative fellowships count FGBI as their alma mater.

Free Gospel Bible Institute, Export, PA
 
 
6. South Florida Holiness Fellowship -  This particular group sparked my interest as one of their congregations, God's Miracle Center, is located in nearby Plant City, FL.  The genesis of this group goes back to a group of Holiness Methodists who formed it in 1855, although it didn't become Pentecostal until the early 20th century (see http://fch.ju.edu/FCH-2005/Michel-The%20Importance%20of%20Florida%20for%20the%20Early%20Pentecostal%20Movement.htm#_edn50 for more on that).  Many of its current churches though were of more recent origin - God's Miracle Center, for instance, was founded in 1963.   The overseer of the six churches that are currently part of this fellowship is Rev. Rufus Caraway, pastor of the Upper Room Church of God in Arcadia, FL.  

God's Miracle Center, Dover, FL (established 1963), a congregation of the South Florida Holiness Fellowship
 
7. Pentecostal Christian Assemblies -  This little fellowship was organized in 1983 by Rev. Marvin R. Howell (1931-2008) a former Church of God minister in Goldsboro, NC.  Howell remained the superintendent of the Assemblies until his passing in 2009.  The stats of this group are not known, although they do have several congregations it appears in the Carolinas. (referenced from www.newsargus.com/obituaries/archives/2008/08/25/rev_marvin_r_howell/)

Marvin Howell (1931-2008), founder and General Overseer of the Pentecostal Christian Assemblies
 
Pentecostal Christian Assemblies headquarters, Goldsboro, NC.
 
 
 
8. North Georgia Holiness Fellowship - The North Georgia Fellowship is headquartered in Nicholson, GA, where it also holds its youth camps, and consists of six churches.  They have a website at sites.google.com/site/northgeorgiaholinessfellowship/home that gives more information about them, although little of their history is mentioned.

9.  Calvary Evangelistic Center Fellowship - This Independence, IA, based fellowship has its roots in the ministry of Rev. William F. Hill, who began evangelistic work in the area in 1965.  The Fellowship was incorporated in 1971, and now has an extensive missionary enterprise as well as a Christian school established in 1975.  More about them is available at their website - http://www.calvary-center.com/calvarycenter_english/About/aboutus01.htm.  

10. Shady Springs Holiness Fellowship - This southern Indiana-based Pentecostal/Holiness fellowship has its roots in a series of campmeetings that go back to 1958, initiated by evangelistic work of Rev. James Ray.  Today it encompasses a fellowship of 16 churches, primarily in Indiana but also in Kentucky as well.  Their website is http://shadysprings.org/history.html.  

11. Sunset Hill Campmeeting Fellowship - This Illinois-based fellowship originates back to 1915, when a local Pentecostal evangelist by the name of Ralph Cook (born 1888) first received the Pentecostal baptism and began a preaching ministry in 1917.  Bethel Chapel was later established in 1924, and became the "mother church" for the fellowship.

Rev. Ralph Cook, his wife Lena, and daughter Eula in 1919.
 
A campground is maintained near Bethel Church in Granite City, IL.  Although it is hard to determine how many churches are part of this fellowship, as no statistics are available, it seems to be fairly localized to Illinois and adjacent areas in Kentucky.  More about this group is available at their website,  http://bethelchapelchurch.org/history.  

Concluding Observations
 
Documenting these small fellowships is a bit of a chore, but it is fun work as well.  You learn much, but it can also be frustrating as some stats are not readily available.  Among some other churches that could have been mentioned here but were not due to the fact many are single congregations are the Martinsville Church of Truth in Martinsville, VA, pastored by Rev. Bill Preskitt.  This congregation dates back many years, and is in regular fellowship with other local conservative Pentecostal/Holiness groups in the vicinity.  For many years, they also made their services available on CD, although I am not sure if they still do so or not.  There are many such independent churches like this that merit a separate study of their own.
Again, many of these fellowships resulted from a split within larger Pentecostal denominations when the latter sought to modernize themselves more, although several also predate the larger groups by years.  The purpose of the Highways and Hedges project is to attempt to document as accurately and thoroughly as possible the legacy of these fascinating groups, for in many of them one can find a living portrait of what early Pentecostals used to be like.  It is only too unfortunate that many scholars of the larger Pentecostal movements cannot appreciate them - perhaps it is because they present an atavistic image of Pentecostalism that maybe some scholars want to divorce themselves from.  

At any rate, if any errors in information are documented, please forgive those, as this whole project is still a work in progress and will be subject to revision as new information becomes available.  Due to scanty history records of some fellowships - some of them believe sincerely that their primary duty is the Lord's work, and therefore they have an eschatological drive that dictates historical documentation take a backseat to evangelism.  They may have a point, but on the other hand they may deprive themselves of their greatest witness - a historical record of their testimony - by ignoring and refusing to write things down and keep records.  Therefore, it is up to those like me who can see the significance of their movements to preserve them.

Thanks again for reading, and continue to check in for new insights. 






 
 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Taking Up the Serpent

And He said unto them, "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs shall follow those who believe:  in My name they will cast out devils, they will speak with new tongues, they will take up serpents, and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
Mark 16:15-18 (NKJV)
This verse provides the primary basis for a series of practices called "the Five Bible Signs" that are kept by a number of small, devout Pentecostal churches scattered across the country, primarily in Appalachia where I grew up as well.  The one that garners the most attention when these groups merit discussion is the "sign" of taking up serpents, which these people take seriously because they also believe that the Bible is a true book (which of course it is).  I have for some years been following this group, being I am both a religious scholar and a native Appalachian-American myself, and there have been some of my friends who have wanted me to address this.  Therefore, that is what this article is going to do.

Recently, interest in the serpent-handlers has been piqued by a series of programs on some educational channels, such as Snake Man of Appalachia on Animal Planet, Hillbilly Venom on the National Geographic channel, and now Snake Salvation on Discovery.   Additionally, the publication of Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain in 1995 also generated some renewed interest. For the most part, these programs do show the people in a sympathetic light (thanks in part to consultations with capable and fair scholars like Dr. Ralph Hood) but I fear that maybe the American public's penchant for sensationalism may taint their view of these individuals as real human beings, as well as being fellow Christians who for the most part (aside from their distinctive belief in "following the signs") are pretty much in agreement with most of the rest of American Pentecostalism.  Therefore, I want to accomplish two things in this article.  First, I am going to give a brief historical overview of the movement as a whole - brief because many good reference works are available which will be more comprehensive - and then I want to give my own perspective, which will be lengthier as there is much to say.  I mainly want to encourage you as the reader to have an open mind to these people, for they are real people, and being I have gotten to know many of them personally myself over the years, I can attest that they are just good, decent human beings who maybe worship a little different than most of us are comfortable with, but they are still very much Christians. 

A Brief History of Those Who "Follow the Signs"

Serpent-handling did not appear out of a void, and indeed it shares a sort of affinity with other expressions of distinct piety in the Christian tradition.  Although the current serpent-handling church movement is just over 100 years old now, there are evidences that the practice in some form or another pre-dates the current movement by centuries.  I came across something very interesting, for instance, in C.A. Wallis Budge's translation of the Egyptian monastic writings that documents an Abbe Paule in Thebes who would take up poisonous snakes and scorpions and actually kill them with his bare hands.  His disciples, upon questioning in marvel how they could receive this gift, were told by the great sage the following: "Forgive me, O my fathers, if ye possess purity of heart, every living thing will be subject unto you as it was unto Adam before he transgressed the commandment of God." (C.A. Wallace Budge, The Sayings and Stories of the Christian Fathers of Egypt, Vol. 2 {London:  Kegan Paul LTD, 2002} p. 142-143).  There are two things of note in that example.   First, notice that Abbe Paule killed the venomous creatures, which meant that possibly the area where his hermitage was had an abundance of such things - in the Nile Valley, there are asps, Egyptian cobras, and horned vipers, so this is highly possible.  This relates back to Mark 16 as well, because it notes that Jesus said "in My name" one could do these things, denoting an authority bestowed on the believer by Christ Himself.  The modern-day serpent handlers in Appalachia do it because they believe that Christ mandated it in Scripture, and to them doing these things denotes a sign to the unbeliever that the Bible is true in what it says.  Abbe Paule, on the other hand, noted that the authority was given as part of the salvation covenant Jesus initiated at His Passion, and therefore it is restorative in that sense because humanity, through Christ, is restored to what it should be.  One aspect of that restoration is having authority over all creatures of the earth.  Authority though is the key concept in all instances, and it is an authority bestowed on those whom Christ has redeemed.   Second, note that Abbe Paule actually killed the creatures, which would indicate that he was endowed with a supernatural gift that gave him protection as well from the venomous bites of such creatures.  That is significantly different from the manner modern Appalachian serpent-handlers deal with snakes they encounter - indeed, a healthy respect is seen among the latter regarding serpents, and many of them even have convictions that the snakes need to be treated humanely and protected - Verlin Short in Kentucky is a good example of this, as he often rescues snakes - both venomous and non-venomous - from areas damaged by strip-mining.  This is the conviction of stewardship over God's creation that humanity is entrusted with, and echoes in many ways St. Francis of Assisi and others.  
Serpent-handling is one of many ascetic practices that pre-date the Appalachian handlers, as it relates as well to other such practices carried out by saints and monastics, including pillar-sitting (as in the case of the Studite monks) as well as the yurodivi ("Holy Fools") in the Eastern Christian tradition.  A more marked contemporary similarity could also be noted between the serpent handlers and the Los Hermanos Penitentes in the American Southwest, a traditionalist Catholic community which practices a rigid asceticism that even includes self-flagellation in order to grow closer to the Lord by sharing in His sufferings.  

Contemporary serpent-handling, however, is often traced back to Tennessee in 1910 when a Church of God preacher named George Went Hensley became the first to "preach the signs" and introduced them to many congregations.  Hensley was believed to have been a native of West Virginia, and although in early life a notorious bootlegger, he later found Christ.  George was a controversial character, as he was often without work and ended up marrying twice and having several children by both women.  As Thomas Burton records as well, there seems to be times when Hensley's faith lapsed, but he always seemed to find his way back (Thomas Burton, Serpent Handling Believers {Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993} pp. 40-44).  He continued to "preach the signs" for the remainder of his life until a rattler took him down finally at a revival in Florida in 1955.   Hensley is generally considered to be the originator of this movement, although other authorities have different conclusions, which we will now talk about as well.

The Church of God with Signs Following at Dolly Pond in TN, one of the first serpent-handling congregations. (today it houses a congregation of the Church of God of Prophecy)
 
George Went Hensley (1880-1955), the accepted "father" of the serpent-handling movement

Although Hensley's role is generally accepted by most scholars, it is only logical to understand that serpent-handling didn't appear out of a vacuum either, and there almost certainly had to be some antecedents to the movement.  Jimmy Morrow, a pastor in Edwina, TN, who authored his own book on the movement called Handling Serpents (Macon, GA:  Mercer University Press, 2005) notes that years before Hensley appeared on the scene a lady by the name of Nancy Kleinick in Virginia was taking up the serpent in the late 1800's, and contemporary to that, a Oneness preacher (not Pentecostal as of this time though) by the name of Oscar Hutton was taking up serpents in the 1890's (Morrow, p. 4-5).  I personally would trust Morrow's observations on this, for although an unlettered man, he displays an excellent talent for research and documentation, as testified by Dr. Hood who assisted him in writing the book.  Therefore, like any religious movement, no one individual can be said to have "founded" it, and serpent-handling churches are no different in that regard.
 
It also must be understood that there are two separate serpent-handling traditions.  The one, which is often traced back to Hensley's ministry, is Trinitarian in doctrine and generally evolved out of the Church of God tradition in Tennessee and Kentucky.   A second serpent-handling tradition, however, embraced Oneness Pentecostal doctrine, and for the most part it is generally accepted that the genesis of these churches can be traced to a Rev. James Miller who in 1912 began to engage in taking up serpents in Alabama (Hood and Williamson, Them That Believe {Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008} p. 40).   In North Carolina, an evangelist named Albert Teester also began taking up serpents independent of Hensley's influence as early as the 1920's.  Ralph Hood correctly notes, however, that although Hensley may not be the sole progenitor of the movement, most scholars do concur that he was indirectly responsible for its propagation throughout the Appalachian South (Hood, p. 40). 
 
Although over the decades serpent-handling has had its peaks and valleys as a movement, the current program on Discovery, Snake Salvation, documents at least a hundred congregations still engage in the practice and they are found not only in Appalachia, but also in the major industrial centers of the upper Midwest - congregations exist, for instance, in Detroit, Fort Wayne, and Columbus and Cleveland.  Now, I understand that there may be four Canadian congregations of snake-handlers as well.  
 
That essentially is a brief historical overview of the movement to give some background, and if you want to read more on it, there are an abundance of excellent resources out there available.  Some of the best are Thomas Burton's Serpent Handling Believers, David Kimbrough's Taking Up Serpents, and Ralph Hood's and Paul Williamson's Them That Believe.  Another good reference is Fred Brown's book The Serpent Handlers - Their Families and Their Faith, which focuses specifically on three prominent families in this movement; the Browns in Tennessee, the Coots in Kentucky, and the Elkins in West Virginia.  And, for a first-hand perspective written by one of their own pastors, Jimmy Morrow's Handling Serpents is a valuable resource.  There are others, however, that I would not recommend due to the fact they misrepresent the people and cannot be trusted except for minimal reference purposes.  One book that is actually a shameful piece of scholarship is Weston LaBarre's 1973 text, They Shall Take Up Serpents.  LaBarre was an anthropologist who often presented his subjects in a condescending manner, and therefore he has no credibility for me.  Also, I would read Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain with extreme caution - the book has some value as a reference, but Covington comes across as being a little flaky and he also created some issues among the serpent-handlers which hurt his credibility with them.  These references, as well as the 1982 Foxfire 7 volume which also gives a good documentation on a serpent-handling church in Kentucky, will aid in research.  
 
The Apostolic House of Prayer in WV
 
The Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ's name, Del Rio, TN - pastored by Jimmy Morrow
 
The Full Gospel Jesus Church in Columbus, OH - formerly pastored by Richard Williams
 
The Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, WV, perhaps the most famous serpent-handling church in existence.
 
The Pentecostal Church of God in Lejunior, KY, an early serpent-handling congregation
 
The Full Gospel Tabernacle in Middlesboro, KY, pastored by Jamie Coots
 
The Rock House Holiness Church, Sand Mountain, AL
 
the Tabernacle Church of God in Jesus Name in Lafollette, TN, pastored by Andrew Hamblin
 
 
Perspectives
 
Now that I have given you a historical overview of this fascinating movement, I want to now give you my perspective as to where I stand with it.  To begin, I am speaking as a Christian, and also as an Appalachian-American, and on that this subject bears considerable merit.  Also, I want to say that I know many of the people in these churches as friends, and they are decent people who have given me a lot of insight and appreciation for the movement.
 
As a Christian, I am an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist, which means I do not personally practice serpent-handling.  I tend to follow a traditional understanding of the Mark 16 passage, meaning two things.  First, the "serpents" it talks about I believe are spiritual forces we all encounter, and that by the authority of Christ within us through His Holy Spirit, we do have the authority to "take them up" so to speak and have victory over those situations.  Second, although I do believe it from a more traditional allegorical approach, I would also acknowledge that if a Christian were in a situation where an actual poisonous snake or other wild beast posed a danger, I believe God is by all means capable of allowing someone in a situation like that to actually physically engage the snake and remove the danger - that is really what I believe the context of Abbe Paule, the Egyptian Coptic Church Father, entailed that we talked about earlier.  To this I would add a third understanding I have been considering for some time, especially in lieu of actually getting to know many serpent-handling Christians personally.  I would not rule out the possibility at all that perhaps some individuals are gifted in this way to handle serpents, and being that is the case, I think some of these people may have an actual spiritual gift for doing it.  I am not dogmatic on that, but I am just saying the witness of the Spirit does bear out with many of these individuals, and it challenges me.   Much of my position on this still needs some development, but I can confidently say that I believe these people are genuine Christians, and that they are not crazy, nor are they just a bunch of "dumb hillbillies" either - on the contrary, Thomas Burton records that some of these serpent-handlers actually appear more mentally stable than some "normal" people they tested (Burton, p.129-130)!  It is truly a case where God indeed uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise (I Corinthians 1:25-27).  And, if one studies the Eastern Christian "Fools for Christ," one will find that many eccentric practices of saints were considered holy attributes as a result, so why should serpent-handlers be any different?  
Although I have been highly critical of Dennis Covington's book in this article, I must admit that he did say something that has merit in this discussion when he noted in his closing chapters this: " Feeling after God is a dangerous business.  And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Christianity at all." (Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain {New York: Penguin Books, 1995} p. 177).  I would actually agree with Covington on that.  Over the years, Christianity has gotten more complacent, more accomodating to the culture, and many of its pastors have entered "confort zones" in which they don't want to "rock the boat."  Sin and salvation are not preached as much, and "Christian humanitarianism" (also called by Barton Gingerich "Moralistic Therapeutic Relativism") has made much of the message of contemporary Christianity about what makes me feel good instead of what will save my neighbor.  Sacrifice and self-depreciation are not only ignored, but apostates such as Joel Osteen even say it is "dangerous" to think like that because in their eyes we (and by that, they) are to be "healthy, wealthy, and wise" with a daily dose of "I love me."   Serpent handlers fly in the face of that mentality, for to them Christianity is about obedience to God's Word rather than self-gratification, and sometimes obedience means a subjection of our own will and desires.  I respect the serpent-handlers for that, because unlike so many wishy-washy pastors and seminary professors, they actually believe and take seriously what the Bible says, even to the point of great personal risk - I recall Jesus did that too when He was crucified for our sins, right?   I may not practice what they practice, and personally may differ with their interpretation, but I know where they are coming from.  As an Appalachian-American, I also know what it is like to grow up poor, and to be honest it makes taking a risk a little more realistic - these serpent-handlers are the same type of people I am, and when I see their struggles I can see me, because in many cases I am them.  Joel Osteen, as well as many professors in theological graduate-school programs, don't relate to that and therefore are quick to be skeptical and dismissive of these things.  This, despite many of them spouting rhetoric about "identifying with the poor."  If they truly believed what they are saying, then perhaps some of them need to attend a service where people "follow the signs," and maybe they would be challenged to come out of those comfort zones.  Many old-time Pentecostals - whether they handle snakes or not - know what I am saying, because they live it.  Many "mainline" Pentecostals and others don't have a clue - just saying....
 
That leads me to one further thought about the various programs on cable television that have been popping up lately.  I do watch a lot of these programs, and many of them are good, but I have an issue with them as a danger exists.  The American public these days is infatuated with the sensational and bizarre, and slick TV producers often will make things that are not bizarre enough to them look bizarre.  That is why some of this trend in so-called "reality TV" is suspect, in particular the recent interest in "rural reality," which in part has led to these programs about serpent-handlers.  Some of these programs are actually good - for instance, I think Duck Dynasty and Swamp People are two of the best shows on TV these days because what they depict are real people in real situations, and in many cases they also communicate solid values.  However, there are other shows, in particular those targeting religious groups, that are so sensationalized that unless you know better you would believe them as fact.  One such show, totally unrelated to serpent handlers, is this Amish Mafia.   Many capable scholars such as Dr. Donald Kraybill, as well as even former Amish people such as my good friend Mose Gingrich, have stated that Amish Mafia is more fiction than fact.  And, the show has depicted the Amish community in an unnecessarily negative light - secular TV loves picking on Christians, yet I find it fascinating that while they are degrading Amish and other Christian groups, they make sinful lifestyles like homosexuality look so good.  If that is not an agenda, I don't know what you would call it then.  It is my hope and prayer that these secular networks don't treat the serpent-handlers as nasty as they have the Amish, which is why they need to be monitored.  Fortunately, so far the serpent-handlers have been treated objectively, thanks again in part to good scholars like Dr. Ralph Hood who are often consulted for these projects.  Let's hope that continues.  Also, it would be in Discovery's best interest to maybe consult actual Anabaptist scholars like Dr. Kraybill in dealing with Amish subjects as well.  In the case of the serpent-handlers though, many pastors of their congregations take good precautions against thrill-seeking journalists who want to exploit their apparent eccentricity, and the Amish likewise have a prohibition against having film and photographs, and for good reason - the press in this country is biased, has an agenda, and will do almost anything to discredit people of faith.  It is our duty as Christians to enforce responsible journalism when it comes to any publicity - we are exercising wise stewardship and preserving the integrity of our witness when we do so.

In conclusion, here is my final thoughts on serpent-handlers.  Over the years, I have gotten to know many of them personally, and the ones I have gotten to know are decent, Godly people who just want to practice their faith in peace.  I have serpent-handlers who are my prayer partners as well, and I would trust their agreement in prayer on my behalf anyday.  That being said, again, I do not practice those things myself, and probably never will, but I have an openness and respect for them doing that.  I also want to emphasize that too many people focus on the snakes and not on the fact there is much more to these individuals than just the ability to heft a diamondback under the anointing.  Many are insightful people with their own individual God-given personalities, and a couple of them are gifted in many other ways too - Verlin Short, for instance, has a great respect for the environment of his home, and may actually be doing a service as far as protecting endangered rattlesnake species.  Jimmy Morrow, the unlettered pastor of the Edwina, TN, church, is also a gifted historian, and what he has done as far as personal research would put some Ivey-League scholars to shame.  Intelligence is not automatically bestowed with a college degree in other words, and Jimmy Morrow is actually quite an intelligent guy.  The same could be said as well of a non-serpent handling old-time Pentecostal pastor in Morristown, TN, by the name of Richard Crayne.  As far as I can tell, Pastor Crayne has never went to college, but he has one of the most comprehensive reference books on the independent Pentecostal movement I have seen, and I use it extensively in my research as well - it is called The Pentecostal Handbook, and although out-of-print now you might still be able to find a copy of it on Amazon or someplace.  Many of these people are also gifted songwriters, and yes, even among the serpent-handlers there are degreed people!  I said all that to close by saying that studies like this one are meant to show people there are more to the oft-presented "facts" than we see on the surface, and I want to be one of those who sees the whole picture.  And, I intend to do that with serpent-handlers as well as others - they deserve to be presented fairly and not sensationalized.  God bless until next time.