c. 2003 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON _ Bishop Carlton Pearson, a pastor who embraces a controversial “gospel of inclusion,” faced his critics Thursday (March 20) in a doctrinal forum of fellow black Pentecostal bishops.
Pearson, pastor of Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Okla., believes that all have been saved. Many of his evangelical clergy colleagues believe, instead, that a personal confession that Jesus is savior gives a person entrance to heaven.
“In the biblical and classical Christian theology, salvation is sometimes pictured in a restrictive sense, belonging only to those who respond in faith,” Pearson told delegates to the congress of the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops.
“A more careful study of Scriptures will reveal that salvation is also and, perhaps more often or more comprehensively, pictured in a universally inclusive way, in which God is redeemer of the whole world or creation, including all human beings.”
Pearson presented portions of an 18-page position paper, which was rebutted by a panel of bishops, representing independent Pentecostal churches as well as congregations affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. Members of the college’s ad-hoc doctrinal commission expect to make a formal declaration in a few weeks about whether Pearson should be considered a heretic.
But there was little evidence of support for his views at the forum.
In fact, Bishop J. Delano Ellis, president of the organization, warned the 300 delegates and a similar number of the general public to refrain from catcalls and outbursts before Pearson came to the podium at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church.
“Bishop Pearson, you are among your brothers and your sisters,” he said. “We are not here to do anything more than hear and understand you and ask you `What meanest thou?”’
But Ellis noted at the end of the forum that if the college’s board determines that Pearson is espousing false teaching, “we will not make any pathway for him to evangelize any more than we would (Nation of Islam leader) Louis Farrakhan.”
Pearson, 50, has been criticized in some circles and hailed in others, including among more liberal Christians and non-Christians in the Tulsa area. He has seen lower attendance at his church services and conferences and was dropped by an evangelical musical label.
At the forum, he reiterated his view that fewer people may be in hell than some of his evangelical brethren believe. During a question-and-answer period, Pearson was asked to explain how he reached that conclusion.
“The logic of God is different than the way some people interpret written words, Scripture,” Pearson responded. “I don’t want to believe in eternal damnation about God. I don’t want to believe that God is that mean and that unforgiving. … I don’t see God as being that angry, vicious and eternally punitive.”
Bishop Clifford Frazier, pastor of an independent Pentecostal congregation in St. Louis and a rebutter of Pearson’s arguments, noted that “the theological scrutiny of inclusion is not the same thing as attacking the inclusionist.”
He, like other panelists, questioned Pearson’s focus on the “loving” aspects of God while not addressing divine judgment.
“The inclusionist has been a victim of and is victimizing his audience by a gross distortion of the sacred text,” Frazier said.
He asked Pearson if he was accusing Jesus of lying when he taught about hell: “Why die to save people from damnation if damnation is an empty threat?”
Bishop Haywood Parker, pastor of an independent Pentecostal church in Rocky Mount, N.C., said Pearson’s arguments prompt questions about the relevance of the church in the 21st century, but he said Pearson “sideswipes the theology of the church” in an effort to use an attractive methodology for modern preaching.
Parker said he, unlike a universalist, does not believe that universal atonement is the same as universal salvation.
Bishop Donald Hilliard, pastor of an American Baptist congregation in Perth Amboy, N.J., told Pearson that he believes faith and obedience must be linked.
“I contend that while God does not choose to destroy any of us, so often sadly, regrettably, we too often choose to be destroyed,” he said.
(OPTIONAL TRIM BEGINS)
Participants in the unusual forum said it was an important exercise in seeking to preserve Christian orthodoxy and uphold their belief that the Bible is inerrant, or without error.
“The church of the Lord Jesus Christ has a crisis at hand,” said Bishop T. Lane Grant, another panelist, from East Chicago, Ill.
“This council has embarked upon a long overdue process.”
The audience, which remained relatively quiet during most of the presentations, agreed more vocally with Bishop James Everett of Irvington, N.J., when he preached a more traditional message of inclusion based on repentance.
“The sinner doesn’t have to be included in hell,” said the pastor, who heads an independent Pentecostal church. “He can be included in eternal life.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
After the forum, which lasted more than two hours, Pearson said the arguments against his views only enhanced his desire to continue preaching his theology.
“It shows the great need that is in the church to reach beyond the walls and to broaden its perspective and be that much more inclusive,” he said.
He expects that the group will determine that it cannot support his views. “They’re not my target audience, not them or their churches,” said Pearson, who has spoken at a synagogue and dialogued with Muslims and Hindus. “I’ll continue preaching and reaching.”
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