An Open Letter to UPCI Ministers: Historical Perspective

Posted: January 16, 2012 in Resolution #6
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(The following letter was written by L. Danny Barba, a minister with the UPCI, and is published here with his consent.)

An Open Letter to UPCI Ministers

A Historical Perspective on Our Conscientious Scruples

January 2012

            The recent discussion about the altering of the principles of UPCI’s articles on conscientious scruples marks a monumental shift in our theology. Have you ever wondered what the founders of the Oneness-Pentecostal movement would say about issues we vote on today? Yes, those very same founders who received the Oneness revelation and practiced Jesus’ name baptism. This is a historical question I took up over a year ago in my PhD history seminar at the University of Michigan. As a very-committed member of the UPCI for over half my life now, a life-long citizen and patriot of the U.S., and now a trained-historian, I wondered how our founders understood their relationship and commitment to the U.S. when our country required them to take up arms with the possibility of taking human life.

Various records clearly show what Pentecostal pioneers did, not just said, when faced with such moral dilemmas about involvement and bearing arms in war. The record overwhelmingly points to pacifism as rooted in the Bible as was the Oneness understanding of the Godhead. Although he declined to join any church body, Azusa Street eyewitness evangelist Frank Bartleman decried the wholesale slaughter of human life and the premature consigning to hell of millions of soldiers.

In fact, a vigorous pacifism, together with the expulsion of Oneness ministers from the Assemblies of God, propelled the need for organization. Looming global war sent early Pentecostal pioneers rushing to form a religious body, in order to be granted Conscientious Objector status. Oneness Pentecostal organization founder  Sam McClain who received the Holy Ghost in 1912 and was of age to serve, recounts the tumultuous time, “the United States was preparing to enter World War I and as we had so recently organized, we could not get noncombatant service for our young men in the draft.” Did they refuse to serve out of sheer cowardice? God forbid. A deep conviction against the possibility of taking human life kept them from serving. In 1919 McClain published an early Oneness position on war in the Apostolic Herald stating,

“The Pentecostal Church,… opposes to its members participating in warfare in any capacity. But in case our government is drawn into a struggle with an enemy threatening or making an invasion on our country, we stand for loyalty to our government and our flag. We would ask for non-combatant service in some capacity that does not require the Christian to bear arms, which would force him to participate in shedding blood and taking human life.”

Writing in 1919 as a leader of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW), McClain likely knew about the treatment of conscientious objectors (those who refused to fight) in WWI America. Numerous Oneness-Pentecostal pastors and elders served time behind bars for their pacifist position.  One record shows that out of nineteen conscientious objectors detained at Disciplinary Barracks, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas (1919), all identified as “Pentecostals.” Among them were members of the Pentecostals Assemblies of the World, the antecedent of the UPCI. Here are a few of the many specific examples of how earnestly our founders were willing to stand up for their belief in pacifism: Elder Morton of the Detroit area was incarcerated at Kingston Penitentiary; according to the roster of U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, William Smith of Illinois was sentenced to 10 years behind bars; according to the Sacramento Bee, upon the apprehension of Pastor William Reid of Sacramento California for charges of “acts unbecoming of an American” and “remarks that were of seditious nature” the Sacramento Chief of Police spitefully upbraided Reid, “you should be lined up against a wall and shot.” Even worse than all these cases, many were sent to federal penitentiaries where they met a firing squad who had hoped to change the minds of pacifists. When some refused to recant they were fired upon with empty guns in an act of intimidation and violation of their 1st Amendment rights to coerce them to recant”. Others were tarred and feathered, run out of town; and most despicably, viewed as expendable and thus used as cannon fodder. Dr. Talmadge French has shown how Bureau of Investigation (now called the FBI) authorities even covertly joined churches, and were baptized in Jesus’ name, in order to investigate the PAW’s stance on War. In that same church in Santa Fe, NM, federal authorities arrested two preachers. Later, because of his pacifist stance, federal authorities sought to ban Garfield T. Haywood’s theological publication, The Voice in the Wilderness, but accidently banned another publication by a similar title A Voice in the Wilderness instead.

Why would Oneness Pentecostals have taken such a stance knowing that their members had suffered such persecution? I propose that their holiness convictions remained stronger than their political convictions. These holiness-minded pioneers believed that shedding blood on behalf of their country was unholy, unjust, and unlike Jesus.

Holiness minded pioneers took holiness seriously. The divine injunction, “Be ye holy for I am holy” took precedence over political or national affiliation. When will we like Paul understand that our citizenship (Politeuma) is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), and it is that citizenship that should take precedence citizenship to any country, U.S., Canada, or otherwise? Are the principles of peace in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount an example of cowardly theology? If we move to sanction the killing of individuals, even if in the name of the nation-state, we choose to not only reject the words of the founding fathers of Oneness-Pentecostalism, but also the words of Jesus, our Heavenly Father.

Why this gradual loss of our founders’ beliefs in sticking to the words of Jesus? Historians have noted that the reason leaders of Assemblies of God largely caved in to bearing arms in war and later changed its articles of faith was due to the participation of their boys in the military and their desire to gain acceptance among the rising National Association of Evangelicals. In other words, being Pentecostal took the back seat to being American and accepted by Evangelicals. Are we giving in to the same social pressure? Is our theology of non-violence now weaker because we love America so much? Do we not owe it to our much-vaunted non-U.S. constituencies and sister churches throughout the world to stay the hand of U.S. military power that may result in their destruction and loss of life. Lest we find ourselves on the same moral trajectory as other American church groups who feel at ease in Zion, let us reevaluate the motion at hand.

While it is not unknown to the UPCI to reverse and revise the positions of our earliest founders with regards to salient doctrinal issues, by hastily voting for this new article we nevertheless run the risk of being carried about by every wind of patriotic doctrine. Our Pentecostal history offers us a rich understanding of how Holy-Ghost-filled people ought to view and maintain their relationship to their country. It is my belief that if we do not look closely enough at this issue because of being blinded by our political convictions that we should march in lock-step with, we run the risk of putting something before our God. Thus, putting the commandment of America before the commandment of God Almighty is nothing short of (patriotic) idolatry. Finally, consider how would we respond to this issue if it were being discussed in our churches around the world, especially in communist countries? What makes it permissible to shed blood for one country but not for another? Last time I checked, God’s commandments transcend every people, kindred, tongue, and NATION.

L. Danny Barba

Comments
  1. Tom Brooks says:

    A plain, simple, historical truth. Well documented, well stated.

  2. This is exactly the kind of work that is needed! Not just arguing about the technicalities of the resolutions wording and such. We need explore the reasons we started out in opposition to war. Thank you for taking the conversation in the direction it needs to go. I hope others follow your lead.

    Cheers,
    Colten Barnaby

    • Dennis Munn says:

      Colten;

      I don’t hold out much hope; I think “patriotism” will rule the day in my fellowship. I feel like a small child standing in the back yard screaming that the house is on fire, while the adults ignore my cries and go about their business in the burning house.

      Guess I’ll keep screaming.

  3. Perhaps we should start to recirculate early Pentecostal literature on pacifism. 🙂

  4. Jason Cheney says:

    As a Pentecostal Minister and a Naval Officer I can understand where the above article emanates yet I reject the premise it seeks to further.
    No professional man or woman who bears arms would ever support the “wholesale slaughter of human life” nor “the premature consigning to hell” of anyone. The taking of a life is in no way the aim of a nation’s warrior, in fact the preservation of life is paramount in our minds. This includes the lives of our families, friends, neighbours, fellow combatants and even our foe.
    We are given far more training on the saving of life than the taking of it. Only when all efforts to remove aggression fail and the lives of those we are sworn to protect, or our own, are threatened do we escalate our response.
    I willing give my life in the service to my God and country if only to preserve that which countless others have secured with their blood.
    Those who would serve beside us as COs are party to our call and are “guilty” by association and are accomplices to our mission. If they feel there is guilt on out part, they are fully immersed in the same guilt; be it cook, steward or stretcher bearer.
    I understand that this line of thought has even been extended to Police Officers; this is quite perplexing.

    • Dennis Munn says:

      Jason;

      Thank you for your comment. I have forwarded it on to the author of this article, and will post any reply he provides…should he choose to provide one. However, if I may take the liberty of offering a couple of observations…

      First, the motivations and training of military officers aren’t remotely the issue being discussed here. The core issue being addressed is the question of whether a Christian should take the life of another human being. In particular, should a Christian take another human life under orders of secular governments. Your response is the one typical of those whose identity is primarily nationalistic. Further, the question is not whether you are willing to surrender your life for God and country, but if you are willing to take lives for country…since one most certainly cannot take human lives on God’s behalf.

      Second, the fundamental duty of any person serving in any military is to stand ready to execute the orders of their government, and underlying all the language of moral principle is the threat of deadly violence. That sir, and that alone, is the ultimate basis of all military power; the ability to deal death to an enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible. The question, then, is whether participation in such an activity is remotely within the purview of the Christian. The answer is ridiculously clear.

      Since you didn’t choose to comment in reply to one of my own posts, there are other issues you raise that I’ll not begin to address. In deference to the post’s author, I’ll refrain from further comments on this article.

      Thanks again, Jason, for your comment.

      -dennis munn-

      • Jason Cheney says:

        Dennis,

        This is more for you than the blog, however, feel free to post it if you wish.

        One of the questions one bearing arms would need to ask is “Do I serve a legal and moral government?” If the answer is yes then we are to follow the direction of the leadership, if not we are obliged to resign our commissions and relinquish our ranks/status. I might also add that one should probably seek refuge in a better place; but we will leave that argument alone. I find the question to be over-simplified. You (or the article you support) say a Christian cannot take the life of another based upon the direction of government, which would imply that one cannot take a life at all, ever, under any circumstance, point final. i.e. “Thou shall not kill”; after all, it is about time someone quoted scripture. I wish to change the parameters; if the life of your wife or your children were fatally threatened by an aggressor, who could only be stopped by your ending the aggressors life, what would you do? I am arguing that the taking of a life of a wilful aggressor in order to save a life is justified, legal, moral, ethical and righteous. While the article would condemn to hell our Saved by Grace Soldiers and peace officers, I will not. I do not believe “Thou Shall Not Kill” covers this ground. However, I will, pray with any repentant soldier following an engagement; the heart will always need healing. The article is narrow in focus and fails to address the need for a nation to defend itself or go to the aid of other who cannot defend themselves. And yes, the ultimate extension of a military is to stop the aggressor. First with the threat of action and when that fails with action. That action needs to be swift, and efficient in order to preserve the lives of one’s compatriots (yes, nationalistic) and to mitigate further taking of lives. The article over-simplifies and under-complicates the debate. What of the Old Testament? What of Israel’s current struggle? I understand your desire to keep the debate free from outside complication; the problem is that this is a complicated debate. And I will fight to the death to defend your right to take your side of the debate from any foreign power that would seek to impose a governmental or religious structure that would seek to remove that right. Would you do the same for me? Peace be with you Brother, I hope to meet you and shake you hand some day.

      • Dennis Munn says:

        Jason;

        The purpose of these articles was to support the historic stand of the United Pentecostal Church International regarding Conscientious Scruples, a stand which our organization held since it’s inception. They were also written to encourage our fellowship to remain in alignment with the larger Pentecostal movement’s traditional association with peace. They do not presume to answer all the possible questions regarding Christians taking human life, but then again, the resolution presented to our ministering body to bring about the change of our position didn’t either. In fact, it remains one of the most poorly worded and poorly reasoned resolutions I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. The very fact that the idea of Christians taking human life did not bring our greatest minds to the table for heartfelt, prayerful discussion should trouble all of us.

        You contend that we are obligated to obey a legal government; I’m puzzled at the suggestion that legality is the equivalent of morality. “Legal” governments throughout history have committed incredible atrocities, and “legal” governments continue to do so. Are Syrians Christians obliged to carry out lethal orders on behalf of their “legal” government? Are Chinese Christians obliged to do the same? What if those “legal” governments’ lethal orders are issued against Americans? Would a Syrian or Chinese Christian be obliged to carry them out since they were issued by a “legal” government? But of course, I assume you’re only referring to the government of the United States, and to the obligation of American Christians to execute the lethal orders of the American government against the enemies of the United States.

        The larger issue here is the need for all Christians everywhere to recognize themselves as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom first and foremost, and to refuse to place themselves in positions that will violate the Spirit of that Kingdom. As for your references to ancient Israel’s wars; please don’t compare their ancient Theocracy led by belled priests who made decisions with glowing rocks to our contemporary, amoral, secular, pluralistic democracy. As well, we Christians are under an entirely different covenant, a new and far, far better one than ancient Israel’s. Even the slightest glance at the principles of Christ’s New Covenant reveals absolutely no support for the idea of Christians serving as the sword of civil government.

        But I’m walking over ground that I’ve walked many times before. I would recommend that you read all the posts on Resolution 6…if you’re so inclined. While the very nature of blog posts don’t allow for the articles to be exhaustive, they do address the vagaries of Resolution 6 to a fair degree. I recognize you are unlikely to be convinced, seeing that most of the ideas you present in support of Christians serving as combatants are patriotic and political, not Biblical. You aren’t alone in this; apparently 79% of our UPCI districts agree with you. As we both know, however, ballots can’t prove the rightness of an idea…only the popularity of one.

        God bless, Jason. Thanks again for commenting.

        -dennis-

  5. Dennis Munn says:

    Yes, I am. Quite happily!

  6. Carlos says:

    Secular or “Church Organization” History over biblical theology will get you in trouble every time. That same history that is being leverage to support a position includes racism or at the very least non-biblical actions/views/biases (blacks, women, etc.)

    Let’s go back to scripture. Let’s clearly define the mentioning of Killing, Murdering and Slaughtering in their appropriate context, else you can define God as a slaughtering war monger (And the OT is not the only source….you can go to Revelations and see the same character of a God who is vengeful regarding sin).

    Respectfully,

    Carlos

    • Dennis Munn says:

      Thanks for commenting, Carlos.

      While I agree with you generally, it is valuable to see how we’ve understood and applied the Scripture historically. And while that doesn’t mean that all of our historical positions are necessarily Scriptural, it IS important to examine them thoroughly, asking ourselves both why those positions were taken and why we would wish to change them.

      Sadly, the point is now moot for our ministerial fellowship.

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