Friday, January 9, 2009

Chapter 19: Banana Box Religion

During the same time I was trying to decide whether or not I should become a preacher, I was concerned that if I did enter the ministry I wanted to be sure I was preaching the right doctrine, and in the right church.

In high school I had friends who were of different denominations. Some of them sincerely thought I was lost and on my way to Hell because I didn’t belong to their church. They seemed to intelligent, honest people, honest, who were just as sincere in their beliefs as I was in mine.

One was a beautiful brown-eyed girl, Barbara, who sat in front of me in English class. To look at her one might assume Barbara was a Pentecostal. According to her own denomination’s teachings, she had long hair, wore long sleeves, and no makeup or jewelry. She was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Barbara and I were friends, and we had several discussions about religion. She told me that, as much as she liked me as a friend, and didn’t want to hurt my feelings, she had a responsibility to tell me that I would be eternally lost unless I started worshipping on Saturday instead of Sunday. She also said I had to stop eating pork, if I wanted to be saved.

Just like me, Barbara had scripture verses to back up everything she believed.
Another friend, Waymon, was in my physical science class. Waymon and I had many long and heated discussions about religion. He was planning to become a preacher in the Church of Christ. Waymon knew the Bible well, at least in the narrow areas of his expertise. He told me I was lost because I had not been baptized properly. I told him my Daddy, a Church of God preacher, had baptized me, and that T.L. Lowery had baptized me again for good measure.

According to Waymon neither of those times counted. He said I had to be baptized by a Church of Christ preacher, because they got their authority directly through apostolic succession. He also said our church was wrong because we used instrumental music in our services.

Once Waymon passed a note to me during class, asking me to write something in tongues and interpret it for him. The note dismayed me, because he clearly did not understand the nature of this spiritual gift. The teacher interpreted our note, and forbid us to discuss religion any more in his class.

One of the biggest surprises is that I met a young Pentecostal man who told me I was lost because I had been baptized the wrong way. He was a member of the United Pentecostal Church, which is often referred to as “Jesus Only.” They do not believe in the Trinity and accuse other Christians of having three Gods. This young zealot told me that the only people who were saved were those who had been baptized in “Jesus’ name.” He was adamant that I was bound for eternal damnation if I believed in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as one God in three persons.

One day I asked my United Pentecostal friend, “What about that time when the Apostle Stephen was being stoned to death. He looked up into Heaven just before he died and said “I see Jesus, standing at the Father’s right hand.” If the Father and the Son are not separate, how do you explain that?’

Nonplussed, he answered, “If you whop somebody up the side of the head with a stone, they’re likely to see anything.”

In high school I also became exposed to Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who all felt they alone were the true followers of Christ.

It troubled me that, if I were honest with myself, I had to admit that I was Pentecostal because I was raised that way. I wondered that if I had been brought up in another denomination, would I believe in their teachings as strongly as I believed in the Church of God?
“So God,” I prayed, “If You call me to preach, You’ve got to also tell me where (in which denomination) you want me to preach, and which message You want me to deliver.

I continued praying that prayer for years – even after I was in the ministry. I wanted to be absolutely certain I was in the right church. At the same time, I couldn’t wait until God showed me the right way before I began winning souls. How could I just sit by and let people die without God, while I tried to figure out the finer points of doctrine. I focused on telling people about Jesus, and not just get them to go to my church.

While I waited for God to show me which church was right, I began investigating on my own. Except for one time, when Mom let some of us children go to First Baptist Church to see a Billy Graham film, I had never been to any kind of church except the Church of God. I decided it was time to see what the others were like.

My first foray was to Maple Street Baptist Church, just a few blocks from North Cleveland. I snuck away one Sunday morning and didn’t tell anyone where I was going. The service at Maple Street Baptist surprised me in that it was hardly any different from the Church of God. They sang the same songs, the preacher yelled just like a Pentecostal, and his message would have been perfectly acceptable in my own church. The only difference was that the women at Maple Street had shorter hair, and they wore a little makeup and jewelry. I also knew they didn’t believe in speaking in tongues, but we didn’t speak in tongues at every service in the Church of God either.

I next visited a Seventh Day Adventist church. They were just a bit more reserved in their expression than most Church of God folk, but they looked more like us than the Baptists did. The only real difference I could see was that they had church on Saturday.

I went to a Christian Science meeting, and considered it to be the dullest church meeting I had ever attended. And from the things they were teaching, I thought they were out of touch with reality.

I visited a Catholic Mass, which was all in Latin, with lots of standing, kneeling and mumbo jumbo. At one Catholic Church I attended with some friends, they showed me a little room on the side of the sanctuary, with a curtain for the door. They told me that was the confession both, so I went in and knelt on the little kneeler in front of a screen.

A voice on the other side of the screen asked if I had come to make a confession. I said, “Not exactly, Father. I came to ask you how I could be sure I was going to Heaven when I die.”
I already knew I was going to Heaven, but I just wanted to get his version of how a person could be saved.

“Are you a Catholic?” the priest asked.

“No sir, I’m Protestant.”

He explained to me that in order to go to Heaven, I would first have to go to catechism classes. He instructed me of the time and place they were held. After I completed the classes, he said I could be baptized into the Catholic church, and then I could come back, make my confession, and everything would be okay.”

“But Father, what about right now? What if I should die tonight? Is there any way I could get to Heaven by this afternoon.”

“Is your conscience bothering you?” He asked. “Is there some particular sin you’re worried about?”

“No Sir, I just want to be sure that if I died I would go to Heaven.”

“Well, Son,” he sounded a little impatient now, “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. If your conscience is clear then you should be alright.”

Later, when I was witnessing door-to-door one afternoon, a woman stood in her doorway and told me she was a Jehovah’s Witness.

“Then tell me something,” I asked her, “According to your religion, how can I be sure I will go to Heaven when I die?”

“Oh, forget that. Only 144,000 people are going to Heaven and they’re already there. Heaven’s full.”

“Then am I going to Hell?”

“No, there isn’t a Hell. Don’t worry about that.” she assured me.

“Then what happens to us when we die?”

She explained to me that there was another spiritual state, better than Hell but short of Heaven, where I might go when I died, but there was no way I could be sure I was going to make it. The best I could do would be to join the Watchtower Society and then start going door-to-door witnessing for Jehovah instead of Jesus. She said the harder I worked the better my chances of making it, but I wouldn’t know for sure what my eternal destiny would be until after I was dead.

Not only did I began attending other churches and talking with others about their religion. I extended by my search by radio and the U.S. Mail.

Every day after sunset, our local Cleveland radio station went off the air, and powerful stations for distant cities could be picked up. I listened to preachers on WCKY in Cincinnati, WLS in Chicago, and WWL in New Orleans. But my favorite was XERF, a maverick station beaming its million-watt signal from just across the Mexican border, with a mailing address in Del Rio, Texas.

The late night radio waves were the domain of such preachers as Herbert W. Armstrong, Pasadena, California, and A.A. Allen, Miracle Valley, Arizona. I wrote to these and many more, asking them to please mail me information on what they believed and why. They all responded with packets of tracts, books, and even an anointed prayer cloth.

In the library at Bradley High School was a little blue and yellow volume called “Handbook of Denominations in the United States.” I checked that book out, and from the addresses I found there I wrote the headquarters of dozens of denominations:

Dear Sir,
I am searching for the truth. I want to be sure that I am in the right denomination. Will you please send me information on what your church believes, and why you believe it?

None of my requests went unanswered. I received personal replies from the top bishop in many denominations. They were all thrilled that God was leading me into the truth as they taught it, and they were certain that the Holy Spirit had directed me to write them.

I was so deluged with materials that I made a file from an empty Banana Box. When that one was full, I filled a second Banana Box. I kept the boxes in my room, and spent many hours reading and studying all the materials that I had collected.

One evening Dad came up to my room and asked me what was in the Banana Boxes. When I told him, he looked perturbed. He didn’t order me to get rid of the boxes. He just said sternly, “Son, you shouldn’t waste your time reading all that false doctrine. Instead of studying what other people believe, you should be studying the things that you believe.”

I thought that was one of the dumbest things I had ever heard my daddy say. I didn’t know what I believed, so how could I study it. I only knew what I had been taught as a child. God had called me to be a preacher, and had decided that I wasn’t going to make a final choice as to which church I was going to preach in until I knew what every church believed. How could I reject another belief until I knew what it was?

The more I studied, the more confused I became. To complicate matters, I was already preaching almost every weekend. But I never violated my conscience. I vowed to God that I would only preach the things I felt sure about, and I would just ignore those areas of doctrine about which I had questions.

I was invited to speak one night for the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) at the First Methodist Church in downtown Cleveland. They were studying different religions, and my assigned topic was: “What the Church of God believes, and why.”

I took this opportunity very seriously, and decided the first thing I needed to do was study what the Methodists believed. Then I could focus on the differences between the two.

A friend of mine at high school, Rufus Triplett, was a Methodist preacher’s kid. At my request, He borrowed a book of Methodist doctrine from his Dad’s library and brought it to me.

I was amazed at what I read in that book. According to it, the Methodists believed almost exactly the same as we Pentecostals, with the exception the gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues.
So when the
big night came, I stood in front of 30 Methodist young people and told them that the Church of God believed exactly the same way they did when it came to being born again, sanctification, and holiness.

They had no idea what I was talking about. Some of them had heard about the new birth, but not a one of them had a clue of what I was talking about when it came to the Wesleyan doctrines of Sanctification and Holiness. Those things were in their books, but apparently nobody was preaching them any more.

My search for the right church was based on the premise that somewhere there was in existence a church or religious organization which was more right than all the others. I felt sure one group had a corner on God’s truth, and I was determined to sift through the teachings of more than 250 denominations to find which one it was.

It never occurred to me in my prayers and searching to consider whether any church or religion was right. In my prayers, I never thought of asking God whether or not He was a part of organized religion at all.

I was making poor progress in sifting through all the beliefs of all the different churches. Although I was sincere in my own beliefs, I knew that sincerity was not enough. Proverbs 14:12 says ‘There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” The possibility of being sincere but wrong was a thought that frightened me.

After about three years of study, I was more confused than before I began. Surely, I thought, there must be some key to recognizing the truth. And then I found it.

In the Bible I discovered a passage that shows how a person can know assuredly that he is in the right church. Jesus gave the promise that there would be those distinguishing signs which identify the true believers. It was God’s stamp of approval – His mark of identification.

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

I noted the plural pronoun “them” in these verses. It indicated that the five signs listed would follow the body of believers, but would not necessarily be product of each individual.

And I saw, or at least heard about, all of these signs in the lives and practices of Pentecostal Christians. So I assumed we must be right.

Not only did I often hear people speaking in tongues, but I spoke in tongues myself. I had been in revival meetings where the evangelist purported to cast devils out of a person. I had seen a young man convulsed as if by an unseen force, as the minister commanded demons to come out. After they departed, the formerly possessed person fell limp and repentant at an altar of prayer.
Although I could not swear that I had ever been healed, I often heard people in church testify that they were healed. And I remembered how one of my younger sisters, Sharon, had recovered from tetanus (lockjaw) after Doctors said she would not live, when she was only three years old.

When it came to taking up serpents or drinking any deadly poison, I noticed that these signs were prefaced by the word “if.” I considered these to be promises from God that if a Christian were to be bitten by a poisonous serpent or accidentally ingest poison, that person would come to no harm.

As I traveled and preached on these verses people came up to me and shared their stories. In Crab Orchard, Tennessee, a pastor told me that the former pastor’s son had been bitten by a poisonous snake, a Copperhead, which he accidentally stepped on while the snake was coiled on the front steps of the parsonage. The church folk gathered around and prayed for their preacher’s boy, and he came to no harm.

After I preached in Aiken, South Carolina, a farmer told me that his little daughter had swallowed a mouthful of deadly DDT insecticide, thinking it was Kool-Aid. After he prayed for her, she suffered no ill effects.

This was all the proof I needed. I was in the right church. God had revealed that his true believers were the Pentecostals, by giving them these signs – God’s own stamp of approval.
But as I studied more, I began to see some problems with my reasoning. For starters, the very authenticity of the 16th chapter of Mark was in question. This passage did not exist in the earliest known copies of the New Testament. Many Bible scholars thought the verses about signs following believers we never spoken by Jesus at all, but were added to the text, perhaps by some over zealous scribe, many years after it was originally written.

That troubled me, but I assured myself that surely God was in control of His Word, and He would not allow any such tampering with it against His will.

Also, as an avid outdoorsman, I was aware that a pit-viper does not always deliver a dose of venom when it strikes. And I also knew that the Copperhead was the least lethal of all of America’s poisonous snakes, and that the vast majority of people bitten by Copperheads make a full recovery, even without treatment.

For a long time I still could not explain the incident of the little girl swallowing DDT. Having read books such as “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, I was convinced that DDT was surely one of the most deadly substances known to man. But later I read several articles which told of Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, a professor from San Jose State University in California, who debunked Carson’s theory about the deadliness of DDT. He proved his claims by ingesting a teaspoon full of the insecticide before his startled audiences at the beginning of his lectures. Despite swallowing the insecticide, the good doctor was still healthy enough to climb mountains at the age of 83.

This knowledge shot holes in my original theory about signs following believers, but I had little time to worry about it. My course had been set. I was too busy preaching and winning souls to Jesus to stop and reconsider the things I believed.

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