Winning The Peace
By Robin Johnston
The modern Oneness movement was birthed in controversy. The “New Issue” baptism in Jesus’ name and the Oneness of God divided the fledgling Assemblies of God when the organization was only months old. Within two and one-half years of its formation, over 25 percent of the ministerial constituency of the Assemblies of God walked out in protest to the newly constituted Statement of Fundamental Truths. Most who left embraced the Oneness position.
Despite its contentious beginnings, the Oneness movement has almost always had a quest for unity as a hall-mark. Before the movement was a year old, its two principle organizations the General Assemblies of the Apostolic Assembly and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World had merged. This interracial fellowship was distinctly counter-cultural, standing in sharp contrast to Jim Crow America.
Unfortunately, in what has become one of the sadder chapters of the Oneness story, that interracial fellowship broke down. As a result of this fracture, the Oneness movement lost much of its prophetic voice on the issue of racism. A number of years ago Bishop James A. Johnson, the former presiding bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, was a guest speaker in a class I was teaching at Urshan Graduate School of Theology. One of the students asked Bishop Johnson what racism had cost the church. I will never forget his answer: “The full witness of Christ.” Divisions almost always reflect badly on the mission of Jesus Christ.
Despite some setbacks, the impulse for unity is woven into the fabric of the Oneness movement. United We Stand is not just a book documenting the organizational history of the United Pentecostal Church International, it could also serve as a slogan that represented the ongoing desire of Oneness believers to live out the desire of Jesus for the unity of His followers.
Before “the merger” that formed the United Pentecostal Church, there were numerous mergers and attempted mergers between Oneness organizations. Almost every year at some Oneness conference the idea of a united Oneness movement was under discussion. In the early thirties the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ merged with the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and brought a measure of healing to the earlier racial divide. Sometimes mergers floundered over doctrinal or personal issues, but the impulse to merge continued. L. R. Ooton wrote, “There is no greater need among the Spirit-filled children of God today, than the unity of the Spirit. There are entirely too many divisions of organization separating Oneness brethren, and the eternal God is viewing this situation today. If we preach Oneness, it is also necessary for us to practice the same. If we continue to do otherwise, we make ourselves `false teachers’ in the eyes of the public.”‘
And when the merger between the Pentecostal Assemblies of the Jesus Christ and the Pentecostal Church Incorporated was finally realized and the United Pentecostal Church was constituted, the leaders of the new organization understood the fragile nature of the union. Oscar Vouga, in the inaugural issue of the Pentecostal Herald, reflected on the Allied victory in World War II and related that struggle to the struggle for unity in the Oneness movement. He wrote, As an Organization, we, the United Pentecostal Church, have won one of the greatest battles in the history of this great movement; we have won the war against division and have become one against a common enemy, but now we most win the peace. It will require as great an effort to win the peace as it did to win the war we have just won, but by His Spirit we will win.
Combining two significant organizations is fraught with difficulties. Not only did the new organization have to deal with various nuanced doctrinal differences, it also had to form new district structures that would replace already entrenched hierarchies. The first district conference of Louisiana voted for almost two clays before it elected its first district superintendent. But it did elect a superintendent. and Louisiana has become a model of stability.
A. T. Witherspoon is credited with composing the Fundamental Doctrine of the United Pentecostal Church. Witherspoon delicately balanced the stereological insights of both the PA of JC and the PCI and set a trajectory for the new birth message as we know it today. What is often over-looked in Witherspoon’s writing is the second paragraph of the Fundamental Doctrine that places a very high priority on unity. And it was this second paragraph that helped to keep the United Pentecostal Church together as it weathered a number of early storms.
It is easy to tear something apart. During my teen years my father purchased an abandoned house and let my brother and I tear it down. It is amazing what two teenage boys can do with sledgehammers and wrecking bars. It took very little skill and not much time to destroy what had been home to a number of families.
Every so often it is good to stop and reflect on the character of the men and women who built the United Pentecostal Church. Maybe we can catch some of their kingdom-minded spirit that compelled them to put aside differences and work for the common good of the gospel. Maybe it would help us “win the peace.”
The article Winning The Peace written by Robin Johnston is excerpted from Forward Magazine the 2007 September/October edition.