Update (07/14/2007): “Carlton Pearson: The closest to God youâ€™ll probably ever get“
What is heresy? The textbook definition is simply:
- An opinion or a doctrine at variance with established religious beliefs … or
- A controversial or unorthodox opinion or doctrine.
And right alongside that definition — at least on this weblog, anyhow — you can find a picture of Bishop Carlton D. Pearson who wants to “rewrite the theology of the charismatic world” by preaching a “Gospel of Inclusion” asserting that Christ’s death conclusively reconciled all mankind to God — whether we realize it or not — and that the only separation between man and God’s grace is subjective, illusionary, and exists only in unenlightened minds (Carlton Pearson, “Jesus Savior of the World/Gospel of Inclusion — Position Paper,” Higher Dimension website, viewed March 5, 2006).
More on that later, but first.…
Heresy at its core is simply a difference of opinion — but a difference that stands against the majority view or the traditional and “orthodox” view of things. Heresy may actually be the correct view. Or, it may be false. Traditionally, the Catholic church reserved the right to label heretics and saints. Thus, Galileo Galilei was a heretic. So was John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and scores of protesting reformers who dared question the orthodox Catholic view of things. But, of course, the Roman Catholic church doesn’t have a corner on establishing ideology any more, and thus many of our early A/G pioneers were called heretics by the mainline Protestant churches. Now that the A/G is fairly mainstream, we don’t suffer that charge much these days.
But heresy really is more than simply holding an unorthodox view. I mean, after all, who doesn’t hold unorthodox views today? Unorthodox is the new black. We all want to be different — just like all our friends. Get any three people together, and the one dope who disagrees with the other two is the heretic. And his report card probably reads: “Has strong leadership potential.” America was founded on unorthodoxy. It’s in our blood. It’s in our DNA. It’s why Americans love the image of the maverick, the Lone Ranger, the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants fighter pilot.
We worship iconoclasm.
Enter Carlton Pearson
So it should come as no surprise that Bishop Carlton Pearson, once cast down, is now on the rise. Once everybody knew Pearson was preaching an “inclusive gospel” (where literally everybody gets a pass into Heaven), he was branded heretic by the World Bishops Council and the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. Pearson was denounced by COGIC leader Bishop G.E. Patterson, NAE president Ted Haggard, by Foursquare leader Jack Hayford, and even confronted by the charismatic doctrinal fringe such as his mentor Oral Roberts, John Hagee, Marilyn Hickey and even his protege, T.D. Jakes. Charisma Magazine has maintained a running commentary, as has Christianity Today. But, according to the Dallas Morning News, “Carlton Pearson has still got it.”
Due to Pearson’s theological paradigm shift — popular among the pagan-set — he’s now getting national media attention. Of course. He preaches a toothless gospel: they love him. Apart from the Dallas Morning News coverage, he’s been interviewed by the National Geographic, Dateline NBC, and NPR’s This American Life. His doctrinal dissolution has been exhaustively covered in Christianity Today, Charisma Magazine, and National Catholic Reporter. And Gospel Today has recognized Pearson as one of “America’s 10 Most Influential Black Ministers.” Soon, he’ll be publishing a book titled, God Is not a Christian.
Okay … so what? Pearson is merely a little unorthodox, right? Wasn’t his spiritual father, Oral Roberts, unorthodox? Yet nobody branded him a heretic — at least not on this scale. Why is Pearson getting a bad rap?
Because heresy, true heresy, is more than disagreement with orthodoxy. It’s moral quicksand that puts you at odds with no less than the Big Guy Upstairs: God himself.
There are two kinds of heresy: benign heresy and “damnable” heresy. Benign heresies are like benign tumors. You know they exist, they’re a minor irritant, you keep a close eye on them, but these tumors probably won’t kill you as long as they remain benign. Across the church spectrum you’ll find skirmishes over relatively minor doctrinal points with no real eternal consequences. For example: baptism by immersion vs. baptism by sprinkling. If sprinkling was good enough for you, it won’t send you to Hell. Or take communion. Do you take communion with wine, grapefruit juice, or diet soda? Your choice of symbol isn’t fraught with eternal consequences.
Carlton Pearson’s Heresy
But, let’s say you take a cornerstone doctrine of the church — of all Christian churches, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant — crumple it up, and declare that “Whatever separation there is between man and the benefits of God’s grace is subjective in nature and exists only in man’s mind and unregenerate spirit,” What do you get? Heresy on the order of a cancerous growth invading your lungs, brain, bones, and limbs (from Carlton Pearson, Jesus: The Savior of the World, cited at Carlton Pearson and Universalism“).
First, Pearson believes in continuing revelation from God. For him, the canon is not closed. Indeed, for Pearson, the Bible is just a collection of books squabbled over by wine-bibbing old men in a stuffy room:
“I won’t get into great detail but I’m just saying, that which we revere as the most sacred lexicon of truth on the planet is not necessarily — and any true scholar will tell you — infallible or inerrant. …” (This American Life, “Heretics, Episode 304” [00:26:35–00:26:51).
So, if the Bible is not really an infallible book on the subject of what God wants us to know about him and his plans for us, then what informs Pearson’s theology?
Voices in his head.
In the Beginning
Pearson explains how he first began to formulate his break from orthodoxy. In 2002, he told Charisma magazine that he “first started thinking about the inclusive doctrine after reading E.W. Kenyon’s writings more than 25 years ago.” Once, something said by a guest on TBN resonated with Pearson, and he began to turn it over in his mind. The quote stuck with him, and it has become the oft-cited line: “The world is already saved, they just don’t know it.”
Still, until the late 1990s Pearson stayed pretty orthodox. Then, when his second child, Majestè Amor, was still an infant in late 1997, Pearson was watching an evening news report about the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda. Holding his infant daughter in his lap while watching scenes of extreme malnourishment, he had an epiphany:
I said, “God, I don’t know how you could call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell” — which was what was my assumption.
And I heard a voice within me say, “Well that’s what you think we’re doing?”
And I remember, I didn’t say yes or no. I said, “That’s what I’ve been taught.”
“We’re sucking them into Hell?”
I said, “Yes.”
“And what would change that?”
“Well, they need to get saved.”
“And how would that happen?”
“Well, somebody needs to preach the gospel to them and get them saved.”
“So, if you think that’s the only way they’re going to get saved is for somebody to preach the gospel to them, and that we’re sucking them into Hell, why don’t you put your little baby down and turn your big screen television off, push your plate away, get on the first plane, and go get them saved?”
Now — and I remember I broke into tears — I was very upset. I remember thinking, “God, don’t put that guilt on me. You know, I’ve given you the best 40 years of my life. Besides, I can’t save the whole world, I’m doing the best I can. I can’t save this whole world.”
And that’s where I remember — and I believe it was God saying: “Precisely. You can’t save this world. That’s what we did. You think we’re sucking them into Hell? Can’t you see they’re already there? That’s Hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I’m taking them into my presence.”
And I thought, Well, I’ll be. That’s weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That’s where the pain comes from. We do that to each other, and we do it to ourselves.
Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create Hell on this planet for each other and I — for the first time in my life — I did not see God as the inventor of Hell. (“Heretics” [20:13-22:03])
Update: For another version of this revelation, see the quote from an interview, posted in my comment, below.
So, there you have it. Born again and called to preach at age 5. Licensed to minister at age 15. Holding week-long revivals and exorcising demons out of his girlfriend at age 16. Ordained into ministry at age 18. Told by God that he would be “a bridge between the nations, denominations, cultures and peoples” at age 21, Founder and CEO of Higher Dimensions Incorporated at age 24, married at age 41, a father of two by age 44.
And a heretic by age 45.
That short slippery slope.…
And now? As the NPR interviewer said, “All of his detractors — who predicted that once you stopped believing in Hell and sin, you start down a long, slippery slope to decadent universalism — were wrong: it’s a lot faster than they could have imagined” (“Heretics” [48:13-48:51]) Now, Muslims, homosexuals, and Buddhists attend Pearson’s church. And when Pearson compares the orthodox view of God to Hussein, bin Laden, and Hitler — now God comes out looking like a monster:
“The way the God of the Bible — particularly the Old Testament — is presented, he’s — he’s — he’s a monster. The God that we’ve been preaching is a monster. He’s worse than Saddam. He’s worse than Osama bin Laden, he’s worse than Hitler — the way we’ve presented him — because Hitler just burned six million Jews. You know, but God’s going to burn at least six billion people … and burn them forever. Here’s this customized torture chamber called Hell where he’s going to torment … torture … not for a few minutes, or a few days, or a few hours, a few weeks — forever.” (“Heretics” [23:18-22:53])
Not that I’m complaining about Muslims, homosexuals, or Buddhists attending an Evangelical church, I applaud that, and wish we would see more of it — if only to encourage open dialog and exploration rather than outright distrust and animosity. But Carlton’s agenda now is driven by his aberrant theology, and it’s insidious. It’s not that he’s deviously helping, say, the homosexual, repent of his sins in order to get right with God. No, that’s not necessary any longer. What Carlton wants to see is homosexual leaders infiltrating Evangelical churches in order to corrupt them:
“Pearson said he hoped gay leaders would ‘build silent bridges’ by joining the staff of ‘heterosexual churches’ and gradually convincing them to accept the gay lifestyle” (J. Lee Grady, “Heretics Among Us,” Charisma, April 2004).
Loving heretics don’t kill souls, heresy does
And Pearson’s gospel is not just de-clawed and de-fanged without a real Hell, it’s not just quietly respectful and tolerant of the Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist visitor just down the pew, it’s unintentionally malicious because it offers a poisonous lie rather than life-giving truth. It comforts the unbeliever in his unbelief, providing exactly no compelling reason to consider the claims of Christ. As Pearson relates, regarding a Hindu friend who underwrites Pearson’s radio ministry:
“My Hindu friend wasn’t sure he wanted to become a Christian because he and his family had been Hindu for generations and he didn’t want to believe that his father — a good, devout Hindu — was in hell,” Pearson said. “I said: ‘I think your father is in heaven; don’t you think so? Your dad is as reconciled to God as I am, according to the Scriptures'” (Natalie Nichols, “Controversy Clouds Pearson’s Ministry,” Charisma, October 2002).
Heretics don’t destroy towers, Evangelical theology does
And Pearson seems to empathize with the terrorists. According to Pearson, God says we Evangelicals and our hellish version of God are to blame for 9/11:
“God said, ‘In order to get attention you might have to create some tension, because I want you to re-present me to the world.’ He said, ‘You all have not done it accurately. You have not done me justice. People don’t like me because of the way you represent me.’ And he said, ‘You’re not preaching me like I am, and that’s why trade towers will continue to fall and religious wars will fight'” (“Heretics” [36:58–37:21]).
But Pearson’s theology is not without is paradoxical wrinkles and contradictions. In a letter to Charisma magazine in response to continued attacks and reports of heresy, Pearson wrote about a real Hell for those few who will not be saved:
“For the record: I do believe that all will be saved with the exception of those who, in their heart, intentionally and consciously reject the grace of God, which brings salvation and has appeared to all men (see Titus 2:11). I believe in heaven and hell, though I am persuaded that hell is much worse and heaven is much greater than I can imagine” (Carlton Pearson, “Carlton Pearson Responds to Criticism,” Charisma, August 2002).
So, let me get this straight. Pearson’s “Gospel of Inclusion” holds that Christ’s death reconciled all mankind to God, made it possible for God to accept all mankind as totally clean, and proved God’s unconditional love for all his creatures. That the only separation between man and God’s grace is subjective, illusionary, and exists only in unenlightened minds (Carlton Pearson, “Jesus Savior of the World/Gospel of Inclusion — Position Paper,” Higher Dimension website, viewed March 5, 2006). And, further, that “it is reasonable” that Satan himself will go to heaven — if he says “I’m sorry” (Selwyn Crawford, “Devil may go to heaven, says beleaguered bishop,” Dallas Morning News, May 10, 2003. Cited on ReligionNews.com, viewed March 05, 2006). …
But, if you reject God’s grace you’ll go to Hell?
If this is the mumbo-jumbo that passes for theology in Pearson’s church, then he should consider well the implications here: if everybody already has a free pass to Heaven risked only by rejecting God’s grace — then for the love of God stop preaching! By persisting in his bishopric, by maintaining his radio program, by staying on the missions-sending boards of a handful of churches, by promoting his Azusa conferences, by continually preaching his new gospel day-in and day-out, by accepting national-level interview opportunities, Pearson is actively and energetically sending people to a Hell he doesn’t believe in!
On that, perhaps, Carlton Pearson and I could agree.
Stop. Preaching. Please.
The roots of heresy
I have been challenged in private email regarding my claim that Pearson was mentored by illiterate preachers. I can no longer find my notes which led to me make that claim and I hereby respectfully and apologetically retract that statement. I did not mean to disparage Pearson’s mentors within the COGIC movement.
Carlton Pearson is an amazing leader. I cannot imagine the drive and energy it took for a young black man starting out as a minister in the 70’s, discipled by illiterate preachers, to rise to the very pinnacle of the Pentecostal/Charismatic fame. Pearson has been invited to the White House under both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration. He was tapped by Bush to sit on his Faith-Based Initiatives advisory panel. He had friends around the world who were the elite of the Evangelical ministry world — and they were inviting him to be their guest preacher. He sat on the ORU Board of Regents for 15 years, and pastored a 5,000 member church that covered 30–acres. He was on TBN and SkyAngel, radio, in print. He won two Stellar awards, and was nominated for a Dove award. He founded a major annual conference that easily drew 50,000 attendees, including the most sought-after preachers in the Pentecostal/charismatic world. He founded the Beacon College and Graduate School, created the Azusa Federal Credit Union, and ran in the Tulsa Republican Primary for mayor.
Pearson’s resume is not a typical preacher’s bulleted list of accomplishments.
And the personal cost of Pearson’s paradigm shift has been great. You can hear it in his voice when he describes the relationships lost, the bridges burned, and the successes forgotten. But buried within his recitation of woe, you can also hear the seeds of his misfortune: egotism:
“I miss ORU. I miss the Board. I miss being Bishop Pearson, the celebrated preacher. I miss my people that packed this place out and came by the thousands, and I baptized them, and dedicated their babies, and saw them play together, and ran into them at theaters, and saw them in the mall — and they’d hug my neck and their babies would kiss me and I would hold their little babies and preach to them on Sundays and pray with them on Saturday nights.
“I would’ve been studying right now and getting ready for them in the morning … I built this whole place for them.
“I miss being able to pick up the phone and call my friends all over the country and say ‘I’m going to be in your city in a couple of weeks, let’s get together.’ ‘Oh would you come and speak for us?’
“And, you know, that whole world — that’s all gone. At least, it appears like it is, for me. I’m not celebrated among those people. They don’t think about me any more.
“It’s like I died. And they mourned my death. And they’re pretty much over it” (“Heretics,” [38:28-39:35]).
Grady’s five trends
Charisma editor, J. Lee Grady, wrote a brief, insightful editorial warning of the “potential for more Carlton Pearson scenarios.” He identifies “five unhealthy trends in our churches that are sure breeding grounds for heresy:”
(J. Lee Grady, “Learn to Discern,” Charisma, February, 2003)
The bullet points may be self-evident, but the article is still worth the read and should, perhaps, be required discussion material for all ministerial candidates. Throughout my research for this post I found evidence for all five trends in Carlton Pearson’s history (with the possible exception of “authoritarianism,” but only the members of his church would be able to testify to that). If Grady’s right, it would only take one of these boat-anchors to sink a solid, respected, preacher like Pearson.
If there’s anything I walk away from this research with, it’s the knowledge that I, too, could fall prey to heresy if my world revolves around me, my needs, my plans, my emotions, and my desires. I, too, could fall prey to heresy if I become the sole authority in my life, accountable to no one but lording it over others. I, too, could fall prey to heresy if I view myself as one of the rarefied few, one of the cognoscenti, the inner-crowd with a special all-access pass that insulates me from the real concerns of the hoi polloi. I, too, could fall prey to heresy if I elevate obedience out of balance to grace, if I serve the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law, and the law-giver himself. I, too, could fall prey to heresy if I fail to properly discern my impulses, fail to “test the spirits” and measure all my intuitions against the Word of God, and assume I have an inside track to God’s mind and plans that no one else has access to.
I pray God helps me stay on guard. I also pray God brings Carlton Pearson back to the fold.
The Church needs him, I miss him, and I’m certain God does, too.
- Heretics, Episode 304 (12/16/2005) — National Public Radio: This American Life
- The fall and rise of Carlton Pearson – The Dallas Morning News. Also here.
- Devil may go to heaven, says beleaguered bishop – The Dallas Morning News
- America’s Christian Star Power – Treasure In Clay Jars
- Pearson’s “Gospel of Inclusion” Stirs Controversy — Charisma Magazine Online
- Carlton Pearson Responds to Criticism — Charisma Magazine Online
- Controversy Clouds Pearson’s Ministry — Charisma Magazine Online
- Bishops Say Carlton Pearson ‘Heretical’ — Charisma Magazine Online
- Group Says Pentecostal Bishop Pearson a ‘Heretic’ for ‘Inclusionism’ Views — Beliefnet.com
- ‘Inclusionism’ deemed heresy — The Washington Times — April 21, 2004
- Bishops Endorse Carlton Pearson — Charisma Magazine Online
- Heretics Among Us, By J. Lee Grady — Charisma Magazine Online
- Black Pentecostal Group Denounces Carlton Pearson as a Heretic — Charisma Magazine Online
- Called to Account — Christianity Today Magazine
- Too Inclusive — Christianity Today Magazine
- Heresy Charge Torpedoes Pastor’s Political Debut — Christianity Today magazine
- Pearson faces theological controversy – ReligionNewsBlog
- Carlton Pearson and Universalism – LetUsReason.org
- Definite Redemption, Jesus Christ Died for God’s Elect. by J. I. Packer (Monergism.com)
- Carlton Pearson, “The Gospel of Inclusion” – OnDoctrine.com
- Honoring many paths – ReligionNewsBlog
- Higher Dimensions official website (Note: as of 07/14/2007, site points to a porn address. Try the Internet Archive
- Jesus Savior of the World/Gospel of Inclusion (Position Paper) by Bishop Carlton D. Pearson (Note as of 07/14/2007, site points to porn. Try the Internet Archive instead.)
- International Communion of Charismatic Churches (ICCC)
- Inclusion2005 – formerly Azusa.org. Official website of Azusa conferences.
- Learn to Discern – Charisma Magazine Online
- For Whom Did Christ Die? & What Did Christ Actually Achieve on the Cross for Those for Whom He Died? by John Piper (Monergism.com)
- Four Kinds of Universalism – Banner of Truth Trust
- Universalism Briefly Examined, Matt Perman (Director, Internet & Radio, Desiring God Ministries)
- Universalism – The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry
- A Summary Critique: Universalism Isn’t for Everyone – Christian Research Institute
- Confessions of a Universalist — Charisma Magazine Online
- Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death – Barna.org Research Report
From the Blogiverse
- HERESY: The Paulks Meet Carlton Pearson’s Inclusive Gospel! (The Sheep’s Crib)
Pearson has announced that his next major theological summit — called Inclusion 2006 — will be held in October at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit [aka Cathedral at Chapel Hill], a charismatic church founded by Bishop Earl Paulk in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur.
- Will Carlton Pearson ‘Win’? (Strang Communications: The Ministry Report)
These “common-sense” objections to the traditional view of hell may resonate with the secular skeptic, but Pearson’s noticeable avoidance of a coherent biblical argument should strike any thoughtful Christian as bizarre. If you intend to dismantle a cardinal doctrine built on two millennia of church history and Scriptural interpretation, you need more than a handful of witty one-liners. It’s like trying to take down the Brooklyn Bridge with a butter knife.
- Apostate ‘Gospel of Inclusion’ (ENewsBlog)
One of Pearson’s supporters, in showing his support for inclusionism, writes on Pearson’s Web site: “Any God who would cast away the majority of mankind, as your critics insist, is not deserving of anyone’s worship or praise.”<br /><br />In other words: We don’t like the God of the Bible. We want to fashion a new god in our own image.
Update (07/14/2007): Pearson’s once-official higherd.org website has been taken over by porn.
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