In my first semester of Seminary studying theology at Oral Roberts University, I sat in the chapel service led by President Richard Roberts. After the music stopped, he stood up and boldly proclaimed, “Your mind is the enemy of the Holy Spirit. If you want to experience God, you need to stop thinking. don’t be like one of those dead-in-faith seminary professors in the back whose theology destroys genuine faith.” That was the gist of his message and I sat there appalled. I remember thinking, “did he seriously just criticize everyone sitting here in the back of the room? Did he just call some of the most wonderful godly men I knew “dead in faith” because they used their mind? What I came to understand was that the Pentecostal/Charismatic brand of “Word of Faith” demands the rejection of the mind, abandonment of reason, and an embrace of the purely emotional as the source of truth.
Now before you tune out, give me a chance to demonstrate the truth of my observation from a recent story of a Pentecostal pastor who transitioned from what I am calling the Word of Faith to the world of the faithless. The NY Times published a story, From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader, featuring the story of Jerry DeWitt. His background of how he came to faith is described as below:
DeWitt grew up in the church, but it was only at 17, after being “saved” during a weekend visit to Jimmy Swaggart’s church in Baton Rouge, that he became a passionate Christian. Weeks later he spoke in tongues for the first time. Soon after that, sitting in church, he heard his pastor call on him to deliver a homily. Terrified, he asked if he could have a few minutes to pray for guidance. He stepped to the pulpit with his finger on a passage from the Gospel of Mark, and spoke for 15 minutes on the “seed of David.” The crowd loved it. “It was the biggest high I’d ever had,” he told me. “I knew right then that preaching was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” He married a local girl at age 20, and two weeks after the wedding, he received an invitation to speak at a camp meeting in Lucedale, Miss. There he preached to overflow crowds of whooping Pentecostals who were speaking in tongues.
This is not an unusual story in the Word of Faith movement. A man or woman has a personal encounter with God and they become anointed as ministers—no training, no education and no study of the Bible is necessary (and it is actually shunned). For DeWitt, his simple passion and feelings were the evidence that he is chosen by God to preach. He was no charlatan. He really believed what he experienced was real. He was just genuinely deceived by his own desire to be in power:
For the first time, he was treated with respect, even awe. “I had this whole prophet persona going on. I wouldn’t really mix with people before the sermon,” he told me. “All kinds of people were seeing miracles, and I believed it 100 percent.”
Now we see what happens when faith is built on the rejection of the mind to think and reason as DeWitt began to reject any form of orthodox theology:
DeWitt preached across the South, doing itinerant jobs to pay the bills. In 2004 he became a full-time preacher at a church near DeRidder. By that time, though, he had drifted away from the literal claims of Pentecostal doctrine and espoused a more liberal Christianity. He had begun reading more widely (he never got a college degree), starting with Carl Sagan’s books on science and moving on to Joseph Campbell and others. But equally, he told me, he found it unbearable to promote beliefs that only seemed to sow confusion and self-blame. He recalled how one middle-aged woman in his church who was suffering from heart disease asked him anxiously: “How am I going to believe for salvation when I can’t believe enough to heal?”
This last sentence is important to understand. As DeWitt began to discover the lies of the Health & Wealth / Word of Faith theology, he had no biblical foundation for reinterpreting his experience. All he had was a personal experience running in conflict of another persons’ personal experience and no way to reasonably discern between them. In an another article titled, Why a Pentecostal preacher gave up on Jesus and became an atheist activist, we can see the struggle DeWitt faced to justify his ego in light of his new experiences:
You’ve struggled to make a reputation for yourself as a man of God, a conduit of the Holy Spirit, who can bring spiritual hope and healing to the people around you. You’ve struggled to balance the rigorous demands of your religious calling with the pressing practical needs of your family. You’ve struggled to make sense of the contradictory teachings of the Bible; of the widely divergent and often contentious sects competing for your loyalty; of the deep conflicts between your deeply held Christian doctrine and what you know, as an ethical human being, to be right.
He began to see the conflicts people had over the Scripture and the conflict with his own experience, but lacking any foundation, or a decent education, he continued to rely on his experience and study of atheist literature as his guide. But experience kept showing just how abusive and wrong the Word of Faith doctrine he preached really was:
Many times the comfort religion offers comes at a very high price. This form of comfort is at the same time both temporally present and linked to an uncertain moment in the future. I’ll use the doctrine of Healing as an example. If you are ill, you may be comforted by the idea that God can heal you and may very well do so…one of these days. For some, this is more comforting then “knowing” you don’t know what the future truly holds.
The exorbitant price that is paid at the very same time that a measure of comfort is received is the emotional abuse one silently suffers while trying to receive/earn the promised Healing. Knowing that God could heal you immediately, but doesn’t, naturally causes the believer to ask, “Why not?” “What do I need to do to better please God?” “Is it God’s will for me to suffer?” “What’s God’s purpose in allowing this illness in my life?” The list goes on and on.
Now you see the truly destructive power of the Word of Faith / Faith-Healing doctrine—It is fundamentally a doctrine of works. In the WOF world, you have to work to earn God’s love. You have to work to curry God’s favor. Sometimes you have to prove your faith by giving money to the preacher. Sometimes, you have to stop taking medication to prove to God you really believe. But always… always… the person must earn God’s favor. And if you are not healed? Well, it’s your own fault for having a defective faith. This is the doctrine of oppression that DeWitt preached and the doctrine he rightly rejected. but unfortunately because he also rejected any meaningful biblical education, he thought the only alternative was to reject “God” and “Christianity” (at least his version of it that had deluded him for so many years.) He says:
Yes, by that point, reason, science and medication were all that was left for my illness. Had there been another line of religious thought for me to exhaust, I may have tried to do so.
Unfortunately, some dear souls still find a benefit in holding on to something that’s not working. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t allowed to do that. My love for truth and humanity, combined with my insistence on something that worked, forced me to look beyond faith.
The “truth” as DeWitt observes, is sadly much of the same. He just moved from one form of experience-based faith to another: atheism. Like many stuck in his position, DeWitt assumed faith, reason and science were in conflict because he did not know of any other options. Again, he describes how shallow his faith was because it lacked any grounding in the mind and then assumed his ignorance must reflect the faith of every Christian:
I think this is so common that it is the origin of most subsets of religion. Today’s “belief-ism” seems to be almost solely based on personal experience and/or feelings. (What feels right to me—not what’s right for the group.) It’s not uncommon to hear a believer say, “That’s not the Jesus I know!” This type of spiritual independence breeds religious independence. If my pastor begins to preach something that I’m not in line with, I can very easily use the bible to justify my ideas, changing churches or even starting my own.
Apparently my love for god, truth and humans kept me at least one step out of sync with whatever religious affiliation I was in at the time. So I did look to the bible for support for my ever-changing theological position. Due to the convoluted nature of the Christian bible, this wasn’t very hard to do, until I lost all confidence in the infallibility of the bible and its relevance to modernity.
DeWitt saw his feckless faith as the standard, and imposed it on every Christian. He failed to realize the flaw in his completely human-centered faith. DeWitt had fallen into the false idea that to reject the preacher is a rejection of God and when he rejected his own message, he wrongly assumed this meant a rejection of God. In the end, DeWitt’s faith was just another form of religious-narcissism replaced by another form of atheistic-narcissism:
If I was still supporting the minister that was being rejected by members leaving his church, it seemed obvious that they were being lead astray by the devil. Why else would they abandon the “Man of God”?
If, on the other hand, I (or someone I had confidence in) was the one doing the leaving, then it was God himself delivering me from a false prophet who had strayed from the straight and narrow. Again, it can not be overemphasized how personal and self-justifying the religious experience can be.
In this Huffington Post article titled, From Minister to Atheist in 5 Simple Steps, DeWitt discusses his book,Hope after Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism, that outlines his journey from Word of Faith to the world of the faithless. This is so important to understand because so many people I know are stuck in this same dead-end theology.
I won’t take too much more space outlining all the pitfalls to avoid, but I do want to point out more key to avoiding DeWitt’s brand of Faith-killing, experience-based belief. If I could give just one piece of advice to anyone seeking real hope in Jesus, it would be this: avoid grounding your faith in false teachers. Note for DeWitt that his early and most influential guide was the Pentecostal faith-healer William Morrison Branham:
A cassette tape containing one of the late Brother Branham’s messages was the very first time I heard a minister challenge the idea of Hell, and it wouldn’t be the last. Though Branham didn’t teach that God ultimately saves all souls, he did do away with the notion of eternal punishment, and did so while remaining the foremost Pentecostal of his day. For me this was a wining combination. Of course there were numerous versions of the concept of eternal punishment, but almost all of them were proposed by non-Pentecostals. This voided their relevance to me in the earliest days of my ministry. Later, I would grow out of my prejudices and would allow myself to be exposed to the works of Universalist from every ilk.
I myself first learned of Branham as a student at ORU. I had a class called “Signs and Wonders” where this man was held up as one of the great “heroes of the faith.” I attended a church for a short time called Higher Dimensions pastored by Carlton Pearson who also went on to reject Jesus as the only way of Salvation. DeWitt’s belief in a “god” who offers many paths to salvation reflects an inclusive gospel, shared by men like Branham and Pearson and popular TV stars like Oprah Winfrey—a that lies in direct contradiction to Jesus own words (John 14:1-6).
I know from my own experience that many reading this post are stuck in the same place as DeWitt and don’t know the way out. I have been working as the general editor for a new book titled Defining Deception by Costi Hinn and Anthony Wood published by SCSPress. This book speaks to the dangers of the Word of Faith teachers like Branham and DeWitt (before he became an atheist) who seek prosperity and healing through the rejection of the mind and the distortion of biblical truth.
Finally, let me say this. For those looking for more insight into the dangers of the Word of Faith / Prosperity doctrines, the book, Defining Deception, will be released in early February, so stay tuned. I pray anyone consumed by these messengers of a false Gospel will find freedom in the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ.