If you haven’t seen the movie ‘Come Sunday‘ yet, I would like to recommend it. The movie is about an American pastor by the name of Carlton Pearson. You may already know the story, but Carlton was a Pentecostal bishop; he is also a preacher, vocalist and evangelist. In short, Carlton heard the voice of God telling him something that his demonination would sit still for: He told him there is no Hell. And Carlton openly declared this visitation to his congregation. He paid the price for that honesty, in that he lost many of his congregation and was also declared a heretic by his peers. He felt he could not ignore the voice of God he believed he had heard, despite the reception his declarations received and despite the rejection he suffered. The movie is on Netflix, and I think this link leads to it (in that I don’t actually know if Netflix does links like that which work for non-Netflix customers). I have to say that it presents a beautifully balanced view of the whole story, from both ‘sides’ – that of Carlton himself, and that of the people who were grieved by what happened. An excellent film.
Having just seen the movie, I was interested to see that many people in my online groups had also seen it, enjoyed it and recommended it. I also noticed a very relevant post by Jeff Turner, whose work I share regularly here on Flying in the Spirit. Apparently – although personally I have never been subjected to this – some churches actually get their members to sign a declaration that they believe in the doctrines of the church; these may be specific ideas or they may be general ones applicable to the denomination as a whole. In any case, these doctrines will eventually become strictures, or possibly stumbling-blocks, to the more honest people in these congregations who may have genuine questions or doubts – in terms of the Stages of Spiritual Growth, people who are perhaps on the cusp of a transition from Fowler’s Stage 3 to Stage 4. In short, these documents will invariably be restrictive of people’s spiritual growth – whether this is intentional or not.
In this story, Jeff tells of The Envelope that arrives one morning, containing the Declaration that is to be duly signed and returned. His story is one of freedom, as you might have guessed, and what he has to say is very interesting. Over to you, Jeff:
Every year the envelope would arrive, and every year I would, through gritted teeth and a tear or two, dutifully sign and return its contents.
I was a part of a denomination that required its credential holders to annually affirm their continued agreement with two particular doctrinal positions, that were instrumental to this particular denomination’s founding. The problem was, I had long, long ago begun questioning the validity of these doctrines, and had started to feel increasingly guilty for claiming to believe what I was not convinced of, simply to avoid having my credentials revoked. It was not that I was angry at the denomination, or even hurt by these doctrines. I just simply could not defend either from scripture (and not for lack of trying), and had begun to see them as both historically and biblically unsound. I did not believe them to be dangerous, or even harmful, but was simply no longer convinced of their truthfulness.
Yet, year after year, I would sign on the dotted line, feigning compliance in order to avoid controversy. The problem was that every small integrity-lacking act such as that, though aiding in my survival and financial well-being, chipped away at what I can only refer to as my very soul.
And so, one year, not all that long ago, the papers arrived again on schedule. I sat there, staring at them for what felt like hours, pen in hand, contemplating whether or not I would finally push past the comfortable boundaries of casual and almost justifiable dishonesty. I could not sign that year. I just could not. I did not announce it with trumpets, banners and a parade. I did not contact the denomination, or even alert my superiors. I just hid the envelope somewhere in my disorganized desk, and awaited the consequences. Interestingly, none came immediately. What came instead was a sense of liberty, renewed confidence, and a respect for myself as a person. It was a very small risk, and it was certainly not revolutionary, but it was a first step in the right direction. I had not yet begun fearlessly proclaiming the truth as I saw it, but I had made a conscious decision to make a break with casual dishonesty.
From that day forward, I had a newfound appreciation for truth. I knew what it was to part ways with it for my own benefit, and I knew the sick feeling of my spirit rotting that accompanied it. Thankfully, that feeling stayed with me, and did not disappear beneath the covering of a thick soul-callous, and eventually led me to move in the right direction. Again, I was not yet an all out truth-speaker, but I had decided that, at least when it came to certain things, I would no longer feign belief. I began to trust myself again. My world became clearer. I was able to make clear distinctions between my own thoughts and those I confused as my own, but were actually being imposed on me from the outside. That first, small step really changed everything.
My preacher friends, what if, starting tomorrow, you simply stopped saying things that you were not convinced of? I know that mystery is key to faith, so I do not mean that you stop talking entirely. I am referring to those doctrines that disturb and unnerve you, that you do not even fully believe anymore, but feel you must continue to affirm in order to keep the lights on. What if you simply stopped saying those things? Now, mind you, you do not have to begin teaching the opposite. You do not even need to *say anything, really. What if you just *stopped saying the things you do not actually believe?
I cannot say for certain what would happen for you, but I can tell you for a fact what happened to me: I was liberated. I began a journey toward wholeness and clarity. I did not realize how much my speaking over my true thoughts had damaged me, but it had. So, I challenge you, starting tomorrow, simply begin to omit from your talks and sermons, ideas you are no longer convinced of.
The first step toward reformation is not necessarily bold speech, but a refusal to speak what you do not believe.