"Placing Faith in the Baptizer, Not the Baptism"
(testimony used by permission)
by David Vivas, Jr.
"Am I your brother in Christ, yes or no?" asked Dr. Walter Martin in a debate with United Pentecostal Church representatives Nathaniel Urshan and Robert Sabin, which took place on the John Ankerberg Show in 1985. As I sat and observed Brother Urshan's reluctance to give a direct response to the question, my mind pondered in dismay over the fact that my own General Superintendent would not answer, NO, YOU ARE NOT MY BROTHER IN CHRIST. This would have been a common response coming from a Oneness adherent to a Trinitarian believer.
I would like to share with you my experience in the United Pentecostal Church. The intentions of this article are not to bash Oneness believers but rather to help inform the Christian Church of the dangers that exist in legalistic movements of our day.
I was raised in the Assemblies of God. My mother, who was Catholic, had intentions of sending me to the Catholic Church. My father, who was Protestant, would not allow my mother to send me to the Catholic Church. Instead, he sent me every Sunday with his parents to Sunday School at the Assemblies of God. My mother and father were saved several years later, and we attended a Pentecostal Church in a nearby city. I was involved in the church and saw 15 of my high school friends saved. By this time I was 15 years old. At school, I began encountering classmates who attended the United Pentecostal Church in our city. I had countless discussions with them on the subjects of the godhead and water baptism. After several vigorous attempts to respond to their Oneness claims and the many Scriptures on water baptism, I became persuaded of their theology and even went as far as to doubt my salvation.
I became very angry and bitter with my parents, pastor, and Sunday school teachers who I thought had led me in error since I was a child. I was told by the UPC that the doctrine of the Trinity was in actuality a belief in three Gods. They also told me that I had been baptized the wrong way. They insisted that the name Jesus Christ must be spoken over an individual when being baptized and that those who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had been erroneously baptized. They asked me to show them in the Bible where anyone was baptized in the Triune formula and insisted that every instance of Biblical baptism occurred in the name of Jesus Christ, (that is, with the name pronounced over them).
I soon told my parents of my decision to attend the United Pentecostal Church. They opposed my decision. By this time, I had attended the UPC on several different occasions without the consent of my parents. After becoming aware of my excursions, they grew concerned. After my first few visits, I was determined to be baptized the right way so that I could surely be saved. Since my attending the UPC went against my father's will, I moved out of my parents home at age 16. As a result, I found myself living with different members of the church. Three months later, I was set up on the platform for preaching purposes.
I became heavily indoctrinated with various books and materials published by the UPC. I devoted my time to the listening of debate tapes between Oneness preachers and Trinitarians. I learned all the Oneness responses to Trinitarian theology and became dogmatically opposed to Trinitarians. In August, 1989, after being a part of the ministerial staff of the local UPC church, I became licensed with the organization. I started a prison ministry in which about 75 inmates were baptized in two years. I was very zealous with church activities.
I was familiar with Dr. Walter Martin and had obtained a number of his writings and tapes. Although I didn't believe he was saved at the time, I admired his knowledge in the area of comparative religions. Upon hearing of Dr. Martin's passing in June of 1989, I attended his Memorial service in Southern California. During the Memorial Service, I was moved by the comments made by different individuals concerning him and was battling in my mind how I was to consider this man lost and in error when his very life and ministry had helped so many thousands through the years. Yet, I could not compromise with what I thought was the Truth.
I was loaned a video of the debate mentioned above which took place on The John Ankerberg Show (The Trinity or Jesus Only: What Do The Scriptures Teach?). My first impressions of the debate left me disappointed. Dr. Martin and Cal Beisner were very thorough in their presentation and defense of Orthodox Christianity while in my prideful opinion the opposition delivered a poor defense of Oneness theology. So to more effectively present and defend Oneness doctrines, I began investing in scholarly works in the areas of Church History and Word Studies in Hebrew and Greek. To my astonishment, I discovered several faulty interpretations of church history as taught by the UPC. There were also a number of grammatical discrepancies of certain key passages that had gone by unnoticed and are in fact used to distort the meaning within the context of the passage.
During the last year of my involvement with the UPC, I analyzed the teachings of my local church. We were taught by our local pastor that he was going to answer for us on Judgment Day concerning our lives and personal experiences with God. We were taught that if we missed a church service, we would have to give an account to God as to why we missed. We were discouraged from attending family outings on a church night. When wanting to do so, members young and old alike had to ask permission from the pastor. More often than not, the answer was no. "Where are your priorities," he would ask, "to God or your family?" This would engender a sense of guilt among the members of the church. Scriptures were manipulated and effectively used to intimidate members who consequently had no rights or say-so. The pastor was always right because he proclaimed himself the man of God who was not to be questioned.
In my experience, I wanted to attend a Memorial Service of a relative. I was asked by the pastor if it was really necessary for me to attend since it was on a church night. He answered, "Let the dead bury the dead." Needless to say, I was in church that night. I found that not only did he manipulate Scripture and coerce the people but also was in fact acting as a dictator.
There were also the extremes of legalism which exist in most United Pentecostal congregations. Men were not permitted to wear mustaches, and women were not allowed to wear pants or slacks, make-up, jewelry, or cut their hair. And neither could wear sleeves above the elbows. These were all considered Holiness Standards. Television was disapproved of since it was considered a pipeline from hell into the home. To violate any of these standards, a member was considered to be rebellious and disobedient to the Word of God, not to mention their pastor. It became a salvation of works rather than grace. If a person did not follow these standards, they could not possibly be saved. The church was governed by modern-day Phariseeism.
Looking back now, I can see the bondage of the people caused by presumed self-righteousness, which they flaunted by their holy attire. It became as the Apostle Paul said, ". . . a form of godliness," (2 Timothy 3:5).
Another incident happened that further disturbed me. Different people from our local church left to attend another United Pentecostal Church and were informally disfellowshipped because they did so. We were taught that we must attend the church wherein we were saved. If one left the local assembly to attend another Oneness Church, they were considered rebels and lost, thus the disfellowshiping.
I knew that this teaching was not even remotely Biblical. I then began to thoroughly re-examine the teachings of the church. These and other situations prompted me to analyze the teachings of the organization as a whole. I asked a friend of mine (who was a disfellowshipped member attending a nearby United Pentecostal Church) to once again review with me the Ankerberg debate--this time, with open hearts, open minds, and unbiased intentions.
All of the evidences given by Martin and Beisner were irrefutable. We checked out many of the references and found them to be accurate and correct. Martin explained many of the passages the UPC representatives quoted. For example in John 10:30 Jesus said, "I and my Father are one." Oneness adherents maintain that this proves Jesus and the Father are one person. Yet Martin brought out that the Greek in this passage reads: . . . we are in union. (See further a Greek Interlinear Bible in this passage for the Greek word ESMEN. It translates we are). Deuteronomy 6:4 was also quoted. Again Martin and Beisner explained that the Hebrew word for one in this passage is ECHAD, meaning a compound unity.
Finally, at the end of the program, Martin asked Nathaniel Urshan if all those who had been baptized in the Triune formula were lost and going to Hell. Urshan expressed his uncertainty with a hesitant response. My stomach turned because the answer should have been an emphatic: Yes! They are lost and going to Hell. The UPC emphatically teaches that one must be baptized with the name Jesus Christ pronounced over them. Further, one must speak in tongues as the essential evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit. One could not be saved otherwise. In addition, members must follow the legalism taught in their church, be it shaving off one's mustache or wearing sleeves below the elbow, or for women refraining the from wearing pants, cosmetics, jewelry, and so forth. Therefore, it then becomes a salvation by works and not by grace.
What I never understood was how one who believed in the Trinity and yet was filled with the Holy Spirit could be lost. How could the Holy Spirit dwell in an unclean temple? I thought. Sins were washed away only after being immersed in water. The Scriptures did not teach baptismal regeneration as I was taught to believe. This doctrine was contrary to the Biblical concept of salvation by grace.
I was deliberating at this time whether to continue with the UPC or withdraw membership. I finally decided one month later to turn in my ministerial license with the UPC. At first I questioned my decision. I felt as though my very soul was in jeopardy. But I just could not deny the evidence of Scripture. What was I to listen to? My pastor? The UPC? No! The Word of God! The Bible was clear in Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast."
I could not deny the fruit of the Spirit I saw in other Christians who were not United Pentecostal. This began to bear witness with my spirit and consequently appeased my unsettled conscience. I learned a very valuable lesson when I realized God's love was unconditional! The local UPC pastor taught members to have nothing to do with those who left the church. Upon leaving the church, I was marked off-limits to the general membership and considered to have reached a reprobate state. I deduced by this their love for me and former members was purely and unmistakably conditional.
The Bible encourages us to: Prove all things, hold fast to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Even the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:15: " . . . judge for yourselves what I say." 1 John 4:1 exclaims, "Beloved, BELIEVE NOT every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." Finally, we are to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11: " . . . they searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so."
If you are in the United Pentecostal Church or some other form of legalistic movement and are disturbed by what goes on, do not be afraid to stand up for truth.
The members of the local UPC church I attended looked to the Pastor as the authority figure. Members would not question his stand on any particular issue for fear of being marked. Members could not go on a vacation or miss a church service without the pastor's permission. He became their dictator and ruled over them with unchallenged authority. The Bible does not support this. (See further, Matthew 20:25-27, 1 Peter 5:3). If this is the situation you find yourself in and want out, there is hope for you. I began to see that the general attitude of the UPC as a whole likened itself to that of the Pharisees of the New Testament. They appeared outwardly to men as being holy, but their insides were corrupt and rotten. (See further, Matthew 23).
Now that I am out of the UPC, I have found out what true liberty in Christ is. My identity is now with The Baptizer and not with a baptism. My sincere prayer for those who are trapped inside of a legalistic movement, such as the UPC, is for them to come out and experience what true freedom in Christ is and that in their search for truth, they will come to know Him who is Truth.
Should you have any questions concerning my experiences before and after my decision to leave the UPC, please don't hesitate to write me at:
Rev. David Vivas, Jr.
Integrity of Faith Ministries
P.O. Box 250
Delano, CA 93216
E-mail: [email protected]