John and I entered the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada church in Ottawa as soon as we were married. As far as we knew, Pentecostalism WAS Christianity. There was the dead, formal kind that we had known as children; there was this…
Yet I must make one caveat. Don had introduced us to the writings of Francis Schaeffer almost immediately. We had even visited Swiss L’Abri on our honeymoon. So we did know there were other voices out there. But how they fit together, or not, what the essential differences were – we simply didn’t know that yet. We had varying information, I suppose, but we didn’t yet have to tools to prioritize, to filter it.
So, essentially, we were what the home influences, the greater influences, were. Let me tell you what I appreciated about our Pentecostal friends first:
They were kind – very kind – and loving and hospitable. Right away, one of the families in the church – friends of Don’s family – took me in during those few weeks before I married. Then they extended that same generosity to both John and me.
Although I was still employed in a group home run by Children’s Aid, I ate with the Richardsons and often slept there. About the latter: I was full of fear, the fear that had built up over a lifetime of not understanding anything about life. Their daughter, my age, would let me sleep right in her room with her, reading Scripture to me before we went to sleep, to comfort and quiet my heart. Can you imagine the blessing that was to me?
And her parents: I was there every Sunday for dinner after church. Mr. Richardson was at one end of the table. Mrs. Richardson was at the other. Kids and visitors along the side…And they talked, and talked about the sermon, about life. It absolutely blew me away. I had loving parents but we never talked, didn’t eat together in any meaningful sense. Eating was a speed sport in order to live, certainly not an opportunity to build and maintain relationships.
And the Richardsons were multiplied several times over by others in the church. We were very well cared for on a personal level.
The other great blessing the Pentecostals bequeathed to us was an absolute belief in the truth of Scripture. There was not a shade of a thought of ‘higher criticism’ in the entire congregation, as far as I can recall. If God said it, it was true. Full stop.
So that is what I gained – and they were great gains – from the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Now on to the challenges and even losses:
As with most young, male converts, John decided he was called to the ministry and, of course, this was encouraged by our friends. So, we went off to the heartland of Canadian Pentecostalism – Eastern Pentecostal Bible College in Peterborough,Ontario.
I think centers of denominational study are generally either more conservative, or less conservative than the majority of churches in their group. This was definitely the former. In our urban, Ottawa church the cultural differences between our own background and that of the sub-culture had been muted. No more.
Again, there were lovely people in our life, but also those who found us worldly by virtue of our differences alone. I remember one young woman telling me God viewed me as arrogant because I like to read so much. Still, the majority of the pain of that year (Yes, we lasted only one year) came from the intermix of the faulty theology and the culture itself.
There was, of course, an exclusivism and separation from the world. That goes without saying. And with no attempt, really, to sort out what that was, or should have been, based on. What were the nefarious elements in the culture Christians should be wary of? What might be neutral? What even good? There was just a general suspicion of all ‘out there’. But that had been my ‘out there’ not too long ago. And my parents, my family were part of the ‘out there’. It was so very confusing. You may have noticed that my brother-in-law, Don Millar, commented after my last post. He and my sister, not yet converted, remember well my constant refrain of “I just don’t know what an (aspiring) Pentecostal minister’s wife should do in this case…..”
So, I had my culture ripped from me whole-cloth. It was awful! And then there was the demand to enter into the holy-of-holies of the Pentecostal experience: to speak in tongues. I remember being surrounded by the climax of each service – the exercising of the ‘gifts’ – and being terrified, simply terrified. The noise, the undercurrents of something mysterious and menacing…I was a cerebral kid. My defense against meaningless was a constant attempt to be balanced, to understand all that I could. And now I was told those two attributes of my personality were harmful, were blocking my ability to know God. What I feared I had to embrace. It was hellish.
Based on all this, we fairly quickly discerned that there were two levels of Christians in this world. Those who knew God as well as it was possible to through the vehicle of Scripture alone. And those who knew him really well through both Scripture and gifts. They were definitely at the top of the spiritual hierarchy.
I saw this. And I knew I could never enter the elite circles. With everything in me, I feared and was repulsed by what that took. But then what was left to us? What kind of a mediocre Christian existence did that consign us to?
John and I were sick that whole year from stress. I remember once just stepping through the church doors and beginning to vomit.
We had been Christians for two years now. Gradually, alongside all of this, the other influence we had been exposed to – the writings of Schaeffer – began to penetrate our minds and hearts, to soak down through the layers of our thinking.
And finally, we began to get it, to be able to sort out the key difference in the two systems. The Pentecostals believed in the inerrancy of Scripture and loved it, without a doubt. But effectively they undermined it with their system of competing, experiential, and direct, mystical knowledge of God. In one sense, God had to be known - and re-known – day by day. Which led to my statement to John that “there is no more security in Christian life than there is in non-Christian living’.
But Schaeffer emphasized again and again that Scripture alone was the only way of knowing God. Full stop. End of tale.
We finally really got that, and grabbed on to that life ring with both hands. Finally, we knew what we had to look for. So, we said goodbye to the PAOC and went forward to…Well, I will tell you next time….