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Monday, December 22, 2014

Liberalism at Assemblies of God University? Further Elaborations on a Recent Interview

Earlier last week, I had the privelege of being interviewed for an article regarding my own experiences recently at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL.  The lady doing the interview was Chelsen Vicari, who works with the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC.   Chelsen is herself a very astute writer, and I personally highly recommend the book she recently published entitled Distortion, as she exposes a lot of the nonsense that has been going on in recent years in the name of "Evangelical Christian," and what she is reporting is actually something that needs to be said.   Chelsen was a great person to talk with, and she wants to expose the agenda of political/theological liberalism that is infecting many Evangelical denominations these days.  Therefore, upon finding out that I was an alumnus of Southeastern, she wanted to interview me.  The full interview can be seen at this link,, and you are welcome to read it for yourself.  I personally think Chelsen did an excellent job on the article, and she is to be commended.

However, as expected, a tsunami of attacks and opposition against what I said started to inundate my Facebook page when I posted the link, much of it from people I knew.  Momentarily, I will address some of those,  but first I want to give a little bit of the background of my story, as it will clear up any confusion.

A Brief Summary of My Testimony

As I mentioned (and Chelsen accurately noted) in the article, I was raised as a very conservative Holiness/Pentecostal Christian in Appalachia.   Although very conservative theologically though, nominalism existed even among old-time Appalachian Holiness faiths, and there are many people who identify with this tradition but are not as committed to its day-to-day practice - my mother was like that.  Although my mother had believed she discerned a ministry calling while she served in Okinawa during the Vietnam conflict, she never really followed through and eventually lapsed in her religious conviction.  And, by "lapse," I mean she essentially did what many old-timers would have called "backsliding" - she hasn't darkened the door of a church in years, and she also smokes heavily and drinks, despite the fact she is now 68 years old and her health is not as good as it once was.  However, although Mom is not by any means perfect, I owe her some credit in that she raised me to have a healthy respect for the authority of the Bible, and she knows what it says and at least does believe what it says, although she isn't a practicing churchgoer these days.  And, she also knows the difference between truth and error.  I say that because many people - even those who regularly go to church and some who even are pursuing theological training - cannot say they can discern the difference.  Of course, that is the whole point of the article we will get to shortly. Suffice to say, Mom raised me right, although she herself may have lapsed, and along with many godly influences in my life, it helped me to make an important decision when I was a mere lad of 16.

Although I grew up with strong convictions, as mentioned life sort of caused Mom to lapse in her own Christianity, and some bad choices and other circumstances also led to me being raised in what was abject poverty in my childhood.   I grew up in this small West Virginia town where almost everyone there was poor and on some sort of assistance, including our family.  Also in that small town, alcoholism, child abuse, and other ills were rampant, and compared even to some kids I grew up there with, I had it better in many cases - some of the neighborhood kids were treated like garbage by their families, and their parents would be quick to spend the last dollar in the house on booze while the kids went hungry.  Looking back on it, we kids in town had challenges to overcome, and being I still keep in touch with many of them today (thanks in part to social media), I am very proud of many of them and how they turned out, despite what many of us were subjected to.  In a sense, in my own particular case I have to look at it from the perspective of Romans 8:28 - "All things work together for good to those who love God, and are called according to His purpose."  I say that because I may not be the person I am today had I had it easier - God allowed that to make me grow and ultimately lead me to Him, and it worked!  I have shared my story before, but a summary bears repeating here because this is how God worked in my own life.

The town I lived in throughout much of my childhood and into my early teens was a rough place to grow up, and although I cannot say Mom was ever abusive to me - she really never was - it still was not easy, as Mom did drink a lot when I was a kid, and it wasn't always pleasant in other ways dealing with that.  Many a time we too went without food, and I was even forced on many occasions to go to extreme measures - raiding the neighbor's gardens at night, catching fish out of the creek, and on many days my meal was toast or a cooked potato.  By the time I was in my early teens, I was desperate for a change, and one night I made a promise to God that if he delivered us from that hellhole of a place, I would commit my life to him.  In the summer of 1985, God did deliver us out, and for several months some transitioning took place in my life that almost made me forget that promise.  That is, until we moved with my grandmother and step-grandfather to the town of Rowlesburg, WV that November.  Across the street from where we moved, my step-grandfather's sister and her husband lived, and at the time they were involved in a little Southern Baptist church that had started in town there a few years previous, and she invited me to go to church with them one night.  So, I did - and I liked going!  At around that same time, the local storeowner down the street, a Lebanese-American man and his wife Freda, were also alive and very elderly, but Freda also invited me to go to Mass with them at the local Catholic parish in town, St. Philomena's.  And, I went a couple of Sundays with her too.  However, the Baptists really reached out to me, and it finally got to the place that I began to ponder my own soul's condition, and it led me on a cold night in January to the altar at that little Baptist church, and at that altar a godly pastor led a shy, awkward 16-year-old kid to the Lord, and I was born again that night.  It is a journey now I have been on almost 29 years as I write this, with a lot of twists and turns yet I still remained faithful.

I took my newfound Christianity seriously too, and it wasn't long before I started thinking about a call to the ministry.  Upon graduation from high school in 1989, I was accepted into a small Baptist college in Graceville, FL, but during that summer something else happened.  Again, I told this story before, but it bears some repeating,  The high-test Holiness/Pentecostal faith that my mother nominally identified with when I was a kid was something that at times could be scary, especially for a little kid.  And, although Mom nominally held onto the ideas, sometimes in her lapsed state things got a little mixed-up and she would "preach" at me things that literally scared me out of my wits!  Fortunately, the Baptist pastor who led me to Christ and soon after baptized me, Rev. Olen Phillips, helped me, but in the process I also became appalled with some of the stuff Mom had put into my head, and was blaming the Pentecostal movement as a whole.  It was not the Pentecostals' fault - Mom just gave me some wild misinterpretations of what they said - and as I began to grow in my faith I came to realize that and also became open to the Pentecostal experience.  That eventually led to my own reception of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and I spoke in tongues for the first time, at a little Pentecostal Holiness church in Brunswick, GA, on June 21,1989.  Eventually, after a couple of years at the Baptist college, I joined the Foursquare denomination and later finshed my undergraduate education at Southeastern University in the spring of 1996.

It is here now the story picks up and we get into the issues dealing with the article.

Southeastern University - the Before and After

I transferred into Southeastern back in the fall of 1992, and when I did so that year, one thing that impressed me with that campus was the degree of spiritual vibrancy that I found there.  It was not unusual then, for instance, for professors to feel the leading of the spirit, stop class, and pray for the needs of students.  Also, campus revivals were something more frequent then, as many students' lives were touched by the Holy Spirit, and God really worked on that campus.  Also back then, the teaching was sound - you pretty much knew that you were generally getting a well-grounded theological foundation when you walked into a Bible or Theology class on that campus, and often when you walked away from one of those classes you took more with you than just a letter-grade on a paper or test.  That was the Southeastern I knew in the early 1990's.

Somehow though, some strange things had transpired over the past several years, as the leadership changed and the rise of many new theological fads - notably the "Emergent Church" movement, which was at one time merely heterodox but today is outrightly heretical - began to infect many Evangelical Protestant denominations, churches and institutions (I left the Foursquare denomination, by the way, in 1994, and have in the years following become part of the Anglo-Catholic traditionalist movement).  Southeastern unfortunately was not immune from this.  I went through a period of about 14 years after getting my BA in 1996 where I more or less just worked and provided an income for my family at secular employment, and although I wanted to pursue my graduate education, I really had no way of doing that where we lived at the time.  So, in 2011, we decided to move back to Lakeland, and I thought maybe I could finally have the opportunity to pursue that Masters degree I wanted to get.  So, I enrolled, was accepted, and beginning in the fall of 2012 I started my graduate work at what had become Southeastern University.  I had expected some degree of change to have occurred in the years since I had gotten my BA, but not like what I found.  After being exposed to some coursework at SEU in the Fall 2012 term, it was to me as if I had landed on a different planet, and as I progressed in coursework into 2013, it got more bizarre - much of the specifics of that are covered in Chelsen's article, but if time permitted I could report other things too.  Whereas in the past spontaneous prayer for students' needs would be a common thing, it now got to the point where my wife Barbara had to literally pray over me before I went to class down there, given what I was hearing and up against.  During my time there, I largely just kept my mouth shut, observed, and took note of many things - for instance, hearing professors in classes going off on their pet agendas which had nothing to do with the courses they were teaching, a high level of theological and Biblical ignorance when it came to essential doctrines and rudimentary material (one professor, for instance, actually said in class that Jesus was celebrating a Passover Seder when he fed the 5,000 - I know Jewish religious customs, and as I recall there are no fish on the Seder!  Oddly, the professor was supposed to have a Ph.D. and should have known better, as the particular class he was teaching was New Testament Theology).  In time, it just got to be too much - my spirit and emotions just couldn't handle it anymore - and upon some consultation with the bishop of my church communion I transferred out of SEU and instead resumed my education at Franciscan University of Steubenville.  I am happy to report that studies at Franciscan have been refreshing - they have had their challenges, but they have been excellent overall, and I feel I have made the right choice.  That tells you a little of my perspective and where I am coming from.

It is now time to expose some of the attacks I have gotten against my stand on this due to the exposure it got from the article, and as I do so, I hope it clears up a lot for the readership.

Answering The Flak

As mentioned, when Chelsen published this article last week, I got a lot of feedback - some of it has been good, some not so good, and some just ridiculous.  I want to take some of those statements and respond to them here.  I am withholding names of the people, and am instead focusing on a few things that caught my attention.

1. "Just because you don't agree with it does not mean it should not be taught."   This was a comment by a classmate I had graduated with back in 1996, who himself had some liberal views of his own at that time.  There are some problems with a couple of phrases from this argument.  First, it is not about whether or not I disagree with something, although much of what I was addressing I do disagree with - rather, it is about being faithful to what the Church and Bible have historically taught, and much of what is being taught there now doesn't do that.  Also, about whether or not it should be taught; again, not the real issue.  It is important to know theological trends, and there is a difference between teaching about differing viewpoints and openly advocating for one while ridiculing others.  My issue here is what is going on - there is a sort of groupthink going on there at that campus, and if you sit in classes you are exposed to only one view, not many, and everybody at least acts like they all agree - that is the problem.  When a real issue arises or a dissenting voice is heard, it is often ridiculed.  If it were merely about teaching the fact that other views are out there, while at the same time stating the view of the particular school and denomination (rather than the professor's opinion) and why there is disagreement, I would not be even raising the issue to begin with. 

2. "Your conservative viewpoint is just as valid as a liberal one"  This is one that is commonly bandied about to avoid real debate and discussion, and essentially what this is really saying is "Oh, can't we all just get along, tiptoe through the tulips, and not be judgmental about everything?"  Fact is, every denomination - including the Assemblies of God, which is Southeastern's affilliating denomination - has doctrinal standards, and the duty of the teachers in such institutions is to uphold and instruct others in the doctrines their denomination holds.  Every professor at SEU - or at least they used to anyway - used to have to sign a statement pledging to do just that.  Problem is, in recent years I have heard some things that are contrary to the doctrinal statement of the Assemblies of God (called the "Statement of Fundamental Truths" I believe) and it essentially would be dishonest for a professor to put his signature on something saying he believes and upholds it while at the same time teaching something totally in opposition.  And, if I may be so bold, I have come to a shocking conclusion - many current Religion faculty at SEU these days are lying to get a paycheck when they sign those statements, and that is wrong.   

3. "We follow what we believe."  This statement follows a couple of sentences of prior discourse by its author leading up to it that essentially says "I can disagree with you, but we're all right, and nobody knows for sure."   In essence, the argument had to do with an interpretation of a Scripture passage in 2 Timothy 3 that talks about the "falling away" in the latter days of many calling themselves "Christian," and the author of the quote used the reasoning that liberals view conservatives as the "fallen ones" too and that both views are valid.  The guy who wrote this - and I went to school with him too - is obviously confused; what he is embracing is a radically pietist/mystical individualism that has led to many a cult leader wreaking havoc on the religious world and society as a whole in past decades.  Jim Jones, for instance, followed what he believed too, and we all know how that ended!  Daniel Applewhite, and his Heaven's Gate cult from a few years back, also followed what they believed - where are they today?   My Archbishop, Mark Haverland, addresses this very thing in his book, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice (Athens, GA; Anglican Parishes Association, 2011) on page 63 when he says, "However, the seeds of failure are present even in those forms of Protestantism that are doing well in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  For instance, the Southern Baptist (Convention - my add), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in this period, is theologically committed to the individualistic ideas of personal inspiration in the reading of Scripture and the autonomy of the local congregation.  Over time, in the context of a secular culture that is hostile to religious truth and traditional theological perspectives, such an individual and local focus will produce the same secularization found in other Protestant bodies.  Likewise, the emphasis on the authority of personal religious experience found among the charismatics lends a sujective and individualist cast to their movement that will, in the long run, lead down the familiar Protestant path."    This has happened even to some vibrant spiritual movements in the past - remember Conrad Biessel and the Ephrata Cloister?  Biessel started out as a Sabbatarian Dunkard, but then became influenced by pietist mystic Jakob Boehm and later lapsed into esotericism due to his individualist pietism - the Rosicrucians and Mormons came out of a similar mindset too.  Also, as to secularism, let's look at how late Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann defines it - "the absence of man as a worshipping being."  The more the religious communities try to emulate the secular world, the more they lose their spiritual vibrancy and focus, in other words, as they begin to adopt the tactics of secular society.  So, to answer my friend's quote, no, we don't merely "follow what we believe," but rather we follow what the Church teaches historically.  We are allowed some leeway though in secondaries, but when it comes to the essentials, it has been already given to us.  As we grow in our faith, we will understand what we believe if we struggle, provided we humble ourselves and open up to the Church's instruction. 

4. "A good theological education requires that all sides are fairly given voice...even if we don't agree with their conclusions."   The individual who said this was originally an academic advisor at SEU before moving onto a program to complete his doctoral studies.  He misses this big-time though, as the true purpose of a good theological education is to prepare those who are partaking of it to more effectively communicate the doctrines and tenets of their faith as leaders in churches and other institutions.  And, although to be fair it should never ignore that "other sides" are out there, at the same time the purpose in educating about those "other sides" is to prepare the student to answer their differences and errors with the historic positions of their religious communion.  A second thought about this statement that is the sad reality at SEU too though is this, and it centers on the second part of the statement - "even if we don't agree with their conclusions."  The reality is that many students are not given the opportunity to disagree with anything being taught, as instead the "conclusions" are often presented as facts, and as I had seen many times at SEU, they are even "pentecostalized" - one student, although very intelligent and articulate, nonetheless ignorantly tried to say Jurgen Moltmann's "Theology of Hope" (or some called it "realized eschatology") was "Pentecostal."  Also, if all sides are given fair voice, I have to ask this gentleman something - how is it that on two separate occasions and by two separate professors I heard people like D. James Kennedy and Francis Schaeffer ridiculed, and Church of God evangelist Perry Stone called "dangerous," while the latter professor also extolled a known postmodernist philosopher by the name of Merrold Westphal, a man who believes Nietzsche is a "prophetic voice of Christendom?"  I would not say that is giving fair voice, would you??  The word for this is "double standard" -  the said professors say this essentially - "let's blast the more traditional viewpoint and extoll our more "enlightened" approach, shall we? "

5.  " I think your issue is more with Protestantism as a whole. If I just believe what the church teaches me, where is my discernment? Dont I get to decide what I believe. If Luther would have just kept his mouth shut rather than challenge what was being taught, we might all be Catholic today."   This argument was so absurd that it almost begged for a response, and so it is going to get it.  After going off on how "I'm OK, you're OK" we all are, despite our differences, in his earlier posts, this guy let his true colors be revealed by turning it into a Protestant/Catholic issue.   There are many, many things this fellow failed to realize, so we are going to rock his world now!

First, it is the whole Protestant issue, because this individual knows little about me or my positions.   For one, I think Protestants are fellow Christians, and I myself have a very rich Protestant past with many good things.  Second, I have studied a lot of Protestant denominations, and I know their strengths as well as their weaknesses - I have just published my own book, for heaven's sake, about small denominations and fellowships, and it is actually putting them in a very positive light!   The point of my position was not to make a Protestant/Catholic issue out of anything, as believe me, Catholics have their own issues with liberalism in some quarters which defy historic Church teaching.  Therefore, there is no anti-Protestant bias on my part at all - the point I was actually making about SEU is that it has moved away from its own roots, and in the process a lot of its own rich heritage has been lost in favor of a more flaky secularized agenda.  

Another issue is this statement "Don't I get to decide what I believe?"  If you are a committed Christian - Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise - the answer to that is an affirmative NO!!!  There are a set body of essential doctrines that transcend Catholic, Protestant, or other divisions which are commonly held and accepted by all Christians and are non-negotiable - the deity of Christ, the Trinity, salvation by Christ alone, etc. - and once you have accepted salvation in Christ, you have already decided to believe those things.  As Catholic Christians, this is also called historic Church teaching, and is upheld and authenticated by the Church and proclaimed by Scripture.  As an Evangelical, you would believe in Sola Scriptura, and if your denomination is historically Evangelical, many of your doctrines are going to come out of the plain reading of Scripture itself (although in many cases that more fundamentalist people want to admit, many doctrines common to all Christians owe their existence to the Holy Tradition of the Church, and they are concurrent with Scripture as understood by the Church - I personally don't adhere to Sola Scriptura as a Catholic Christian myself, but understand what it is saying.).  So, to answer that question, your decision has already been made when you either converted later in life, or chose to believe that which your parents taught - and, as part of the Church now, you are not in a position to change it.  

As for the Luther reference, Luther would be nailing a new "95 Theses" on the door of Bush Chapel on SEU's campus if he knew some of the crap being taught in the name of "Christianity" today.  Luther had his issues - and believe me, that could merit a whole discussion in itself! - but although the fruit of his efforts has not always been good, he was doing something legitimate.  Luther was addressing abuses that were being perpetrated in the name of the Church, and actually never opposed fundamental Church teaching.  Therefore, this argument on the part of my detractor is unwarranted to this situation. 

6. "
Using one disgruntled person's perspective to cast aspersions on a University is irresponsible."  This is one person's attack on Chelsen's credibility as an author, and it was unfair to her and unbalanced.  Also - and I see this a lot! - this characterization  of me as merely a "disgruntled person" is so ridiculous that it is almost laughable.  To begin, I am not merely "disgruntled" - I have had other professors in my undergrad years I disagreed with as well but at the same time they were respectful and legitimate disagreements that both they and I appreciated, and it has nothing to do with disgruntlement.  I have raised some serious issues with this interview, and Chelsen also saw them as serious enough to warrant attention to write it.   It is not merely my personal kick to do this either - I would rather not personally, as I don't have time for answering attacks and I definitely don't have a personal desire to masochistically put myself out there just because I am "disgruntled."  This clueless person who wrote this statement doesn't know the  full story, and perhaps should go to the source (like they challenged me to do, I might add!) before making such baseless accusations.

I have dealt with six "gems" that I have gotten back, but there is much more - both comments on my FB posting of the article (which I had to end commenting on) and posts on Chelsen's article page have said some ridiculous things - I have been attacked as being "baseless" in my accusations (despite sitting in class and hearing a lot of this stuff), my faith has been attacked (some wag actually attacked the fact I was Anglican, even though the doofus failed to realize that I am not, nor have I ever been part of, the Episcopal Church - the Anglican Catholic Church, the communion I am part of, is a separate and much more Catholic and conservative jurisdiction),  and some students and faculty of SEU have tried to gloss-over the issue with a weak apologetic.  Alan Ehler, who is the Dean of the College of Religion at SEU (where a lot of these issues are happening) even felt compelled to respond and said something like this - "Southeastern University is affiliated with the Assemblies of God (AG) and upholds the AG's Statement of Fundamental Truths. (The statement can be found at These include belief in the Trinity, including the deity of Jesus Christ, the final authority of scripture in all matters of faith and practice, and salvation as only coming through faith in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. All religion, Bible, theology, and ministry faculty are required to uphold these core doctrines in their courses"   On paper, that may be the case, but perhaps Dr. Ehler needs to shadow some of his faculty and find out what they are really teaching - I know the Statement of Fundamental Truths well, and although I have never been affilliated with the Assemblies of God personally, when I did my undergraduate studies at Southeastern years ago, they required us then to take a class in them to know them (as I was Foursquare in those years, I upheld them because essentially they were the same as my denomination anyway).  I have an issue with Dr. Ehler's statement in that he is resting on the assumption that all his Religion faculty at SEU are enthusiastically upholding what the Statement of Fundamental Truths said, and if that were really the case, this whole discussion would not even be necessary.  Fact is, the professors are affirming one thing when they sign a piece of paper to get their tenure, but teach something radically different in their classes.  Hence, the issue - I personally would not subscribe now to the A/G Statement of Fundamental Truths personally (as an Anglo-Catholic, we're simply a little different in that regard) but they do have a lot of good doctrine in them and if I were an SEU professor with Assemblies of God ministry credentials, I would take it as a personal responsibility to make sure I was committed to upholding what I affirmed with a signature.  To do otherwise is to lie, and last I heard, lying is still a sin.   So, to Dr. Ehler, I respectfully say, "wake up!"

Much more could be said, but frankly, I have other things to do.   However, I close by saying this - Southeastern and other colleges like it (it is not alone) have some serious issues to address, and they had better do so seriously because they are grooming the next generation of leaders in their denominational traditions.   I don't hate Southeastern at all - it is part of my history, and when I did go there as an undergrad I got a fantastic education.  But, I am concerned about the direction it has taken in recent years, and I only pray real, genuine revival - much like the revivals that mark that school's past - would come to that campus.  I also see SEU and other colleges like it now as a new mission field - students are lost, many of them don't really have a Christian experience of any kind, and this presents an opportunity for more traditional, conservative communions like mine; what a witness we could have on a campus like that!  A conservative Anglican priest in another jurisdiction, Fr. David Valentini, is even proposing a traditional Anglican campus outreach, and this is not such a bad thing to consider.   It is ironic though that many Evangelical college campuses these days are in need of evangelization themselves - Lord help us who name the name of Christ but don't bother to properly disciple the new generation!  I only pray that in the future, and before it is too late, SEU will see that it has some things to work on, and maybe a renewal can happen on that campus.  Therefore, we cannot hate SEU, but rather should pray for it; especially those of us who have that institution as part of our own history.