I understood the gospel call on November 30, 1987. I was raised a Southern Baptist but never before had the truth of God penetrated my heart. It is unfortunate, however, that the SBC’s emphasis on getting everybody saved – to the exclusion of everything else – led to a stunted upbringing in theological education. Nor was anything about personal relationship really discussed. The emphasis was on believe. In all seriousness, it sounded like Zane Hodges was the source of all things SBC back in the 1980s. That is not to libel him but to simply give you a point of reference.
Upon salvation I turned my back upon everything I’d ever been told. If I couldn’t find it in the Bible, it wasn’t true. Immediately, I rejected eternal security – quite viciously, actually. I knew only two things from the ten years I’d spent in the Baptist church. I needed to believe to be saved, and I could never lose it no matter what I did afterward. A decade in church and that’s ALL I ever learned doctrinally. Well, I did learn that Jesus said, “Thou shalt not drink” and gave a whole list of behavioral requirements to get into Heaven. I also learned that you couldn’t work your way to heaven and yet they’d shame you into doing work at church as if you were the unfaithful servant who buried his gift.
About 12 weeks into my new Christianity, I got very sick with a combination of exhaustion and the flu. I was run down. We were at a choir festival in Jackson, MS when I came down sick. So the choir director sent me in the company of a nursing student (who happened to be one of my best friends) back at the hotel. The student explained about Christ was like an ‘invisible’ friend and emphasized relationship. That sickness, which some bed rest and cough medicine helped me overcome, turned out to be important in my walk.
Over the course of the next year, I pursued biblical truth with a vengeance. I didn’t even know what a commentary was. I didn’t know they made Bibles with study notes, either. It was just me and my KJV – it didn’t even have a concordance, but it was large-print. This language barrier caused me to make some funny mistakes but grow.
Then in my sophomore year of college, I began to wonder something tha made no sense. How was it that Jesus and the apostles did every day miracles, but I never saw any at my church? I began to believe God could do the miraculous and even ‘for’ the miraculous. And shortly thereafter I met the gal I would later marry. And that’s where it all took a strange turn.
She had come out of dating a Satan worshipper. She therefore had a lot of experience with demonic possession occurences, so our searches combined together into a more supernatural Christianity. It also just so happened that her uncle (I call him ‘mine’ because we’re family, but genetically it’s hers) was on staff at Kenneth Hagin’s ministry – not that I knew this at the time or even what that meant. In the summer of 1989, she took a missionary trip to Mexico where she claims to have seen sight literally restored to the blind. (How she ‘really’ knew whoever was blind, of course, is a question best left unpursued). Nevertheless, they had a successful trip.
So she comes back doing the tongues thing, which I didn’t understand. I wasn’t ‘for’ it and I wasn’t ‘against’ it. I didn’t know what I was about it to tell you the truth.
Then on my 20th birthday, we had a great day together. She gave me a new gift – small, of course – about every two hours throughout the day. One of the last things she gave me was two little booklets from her Rhema uncle. One was “Why Tongues” by Kenneth Hagin and the other was “God’s Creative Power Will Work For You” by Charles Capps. I got home about 11 pm that night and decided to read them before I hit the hay.
I wasn’t overly discerning at the time. I read Capps’ book, and I didn’t have any real problems with it at the time. I truly believed him when he said God had spoken audibly to him. Made sense, didn’t it? Didn’t God speak audibly about Jesus in the river Jordan? So Capps’ book was OK. Then I read Hagin’s book – and it was the most arrogant, condescending, and self-glorifying book I’d ever read by a professed Christian (at that time anyway). Hagin gave ten reasons why every believer should speak in tongues. And the focus of the book – in reality – was on Kenneth Hagin himself. He told one story of when a relative of his had had an accident/incident where he was pronounced dead. Hagin proceeded to stop the relative and tell a story about where the doctor had pronounced the guy dead and got into an argument with another relative. Hagin attributed the man’s alleged ‘resurrection’ to his own tongue-speaking. And throughout the book it was an ode to the power of Kenneth Hagin’s tongue talking. If I was undecided before, this book pretty much set me against it. He talked about how he talked in tongues while sitting in the barber chair while other guys were telling dirty jokes – which, again, seemed to be a case of “I’m better than these folks.”
I talked to the gal the next day and while we had some minor issues from the day before, the problem arose when she asked me what I thought of the book. I proceeded to issue the first declaration against anyone I ever had at my less than 2-year mark in Christianity: “That Kenneth Hagin guy is a false prophet. He’s nuts.” I didn’t know, of course, Unca Dunca (not his real name) was on staff or that Michelle herself had been to Rhema in the summer of 1986 and was planning to go to school there (or at ‘Christ for the Nations’). So it hit her like a ton of bricks, and we had our first real conflict. What’s ironic is that I approached the tongues issue as objectively as reasonably could be expected. I wasn’t pro, I wasn’t con. I honestly didn’t know because I’d never heard the subject taught – at all.
The next month I had my own ‘charismatic experience’ and came down on the pro-Pentecostal side (for the most part). I still rejected – and have always rejected – the P/C teaching that every believer CAN speak in tongues. Such is based not only on flawed exegesis but even upon a text of questionable authenticity. But I was pretty much pro-tongues. At the same time, I got into a separate war in the local newspaper. With the Church of Christ.
In the fall of 1989, three theological tracks ran through and intersected my world. The first was covered in the tongues issue. The other two overlapped each other. The second one was the relationship of salvation to discpleship. The previous year my father (not even a Christian) had bought a book entitled “The Gospel According To Jesus” by John MacArthur. Mac took a couple of folks – Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie, in particular – to task over the issue of salvation. I came out of that book with a better perspective as well as a belief in eternal security. It was this last that was one of my many contentions with the East Columbus Church of Christ. Along with baptism, miracles, and several other issues.
In the fall of 1989, they published a series of articles in our local paper. I read them. I disagreed with some points and agreed with other ones. It was not so much the position as the attitude that I didn’t care for. Basically, I was lost if I was doctrinally incorrect on any point. In February 1990, I wrote a letter that carried on a public feud for a few months. Eventually, I decided to simply stop responding. In fact, I contacted the Church of Christ and had them send me their materials for closer reading. And the next year (2/91) I actually met the guy who wrote the articles in such a strong tone when he was a substitute teacher at the same school where I was doing my student teaching semester. I was impressed that he was very nice – and yes, he remembered me. He was not, however, overly combative, and we had a couple of nice conversations between classes. So nice, in fact, that I actually did visit his church one Sunday night. I realize I was probably considered the lost prodigal, but so be it.
Meanwhile – in another arena – a theological tug-of-war began to occur.
In January 1990, my future bride brought a set of the 1987 Winter Bible Seminar tapes that Hagin had preached on spiritual gifts for us to listen to. Although we didn’t listen to any right then, I kept the tapes in my car and began to listen to them in the car tape deck. At this point, I always just assumed that no preacher worth his salt would lie about stuff. They might be wrong but it was a difference of perspective, not malicious intent. I devoured Hagin’s tapes, listening to a couple a day. This was great. This filled in all those blanks in the Bible like “What exactly is the gift of the word of wisdom and how does it work?” After all, does the Bible ever really tell us? No. But he was so enlightened and so experienced. But then came the turning point.
One evening I was listening to one of his tapes – I think it was number 1 of 2 messages – on the gift of the word of knowledge. All of Hagin’s sermons were the same. About five minutes reading the text and inserting words and about 70 minutes of stories, all of which began, “I was holding a meeting in (name of city) in the month of (fill in) in the year of nineteen hundred and (fill in the year)…” and continue with his stories. It did not dawn on me right away that what he was actually doing was simply quoting a Bible passage and then telling the story ASSUMING that his experience was what validated the Scripture. No, I was listening and soaking it up.
The tape was towards the end of side two. Hagin was talking about how he had manifested the ‘word of knowledge’ in his ministry more than any other gift. The gift he described, however, sure sounded an awful lot like fortune-telling to me. It sounded like something out of Miss Cleo. Still, I wanted to give the man the benefit of the doubt. So he told his own stories and then he told stories of times where the apostles or others had manifest the ‘gift of the word of knowledge.’ I was fine until about four minutes before the sermon ended.
Sounding rather laid back, Hagin mentioned he was going to another example of using the word of knowledge. He proceeded to inform me that in John 4, Jesus Christ Himself used ‘the word of knowledge’ to demonstrate information about the Samaritan woman and her five husbands. Do what? Hagin dealt with the rather obvious objection: he said that ‘yes,’ Jesus was the Son of God but He didn’t minister as the ‘Son of God,’ but only as a man.
This sounded INCREDIBLY CLOSE to the I John 4:1-3 definition of a false teacher to me. I backed it up and listened again just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Sure enough, he said it. But how then does one handle the ‘Jesus is God’ teaching here? But this was more problematic from another aspect: if this is TRUE then it means that in ministry Jesus was INFERIOR to every man who ever ministered – because Jesus never spoke in tongues. So we now have Jesus really no better off than any other man to the point that any man on the planet could have functioned as man’s Redeemer and the entire Incarnation was pointless.
That would have been bad enough except that two other things occurred at the same time. The first was that I attended the service at my wife’s WOF church and heard the born again Jesus taught that same week. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
If Jesus was really not God but only ministered as God – then He was capable of failure. And when that old preacher told it about how God was on the outside looking in and GOD NEEDED MAN’S HELP to pull of the Redemption – when that happened then the charcoal lighter was all over the coals. The match was lit when in the same tape series I get Hagin speculating about the limits of Jesus’ ministry.
On side one of one of the other tapes, Hagin said that he had a theory that he couldn’t prove but nobody could disprove (say what?). Hagin’s theory was that while Jesus as a man anointed by the Spirit had that Spirit without measure, He was still the Son of God. However, since Hagin taught that the ‘body of Christ’ is ‘Christ’ – he joined those ideas together and concocted the theory that the BODY OF CHRIST (the church) as a WHOLE is as unlimited in ministry capacity as Jesus was. He admitted over and over that he couldn’t prove it and we should go by ‘the Word’ – but by the end of the sermon Hagin was now subtly shifting to his FACT (rather than theory) that the church of Christ is as unlimited in minstry as Jesus.
It now began to dawn on me – about one year into this thing – that his preaching was little more than a bunch of stories, all of which always had him as the hero. On another tape he told a story of a guy during the Depression who woke up in the middle of the night praying, “Lord, stir me.” And when this happened he ‘got over in the devil’s territory’ and lost his business and went on WPA and was broke. But then he spoke in tongues and got his stuff back. A little while later the same thing happened – he woke up asking God to stir him, he got into the devil’s territory – and lost it all again. The third time he woke up and said, “Lord, stir…never mind, Lord, I’ll just stir myself up.” Hagin then went on to say that he was busy stirring Himself up – God wasn’t even involved with it at the time. God got involved later, Hagin said, but he has just stirred his-self up. In essence, Hagin’s tale presented the story of a man who wanted to intercede and begged God to help him and messed up – and a man who didn’t even need God to pull it off but, praise God, the man was able to let the Lord have just a little bit of credit there at the end of it.
I was getting angry now when I listened to this guy’s tapes. All he kept talking about was himself. In this guy’s stories, he was basically a modern-day Jesus.
I wonder what the girlfriend is going to say when I tell her this guy’s nuts? Especially since I only recently learned her uncle works for the man.