Recently a well-known pastor, television preacher, and best-selling author was asked about his beliefs about God. He coyly answered that he believed in one God who manifests himself in three ways: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. He said that God the Father was the One True God of the Old Testament. He became a man as the Son, Jesus Christ. When Jesus ascended he sent the Holy Ghost to empower the church. He stated clearly that he believes in only one God – not three.
Now most Christians would read his statement and assume he believes in the traditional Christian doctrine of the eternal Holy Trinity – One God in Three Persons. But that was not what he said. He said he believes in one God who manifests himself at different times in different ways: first as Father, second as Son; and third as Holy Ghost. This is actually representative of an ancient heresy known as Modalism (also called Sabellianism). It said there is only one God who appears at different times in different modes of existence. It is the official doctrine of God of several groups of churches who are usually called the Oneness Pentecostals. They are also known by other names such as the “Jesus Only” churches, “Apostolic Pentecostals,” The “Oneness Movement” and the “Jesus Name” Movement. These are what I call “the hidden cult of Oneness Pentecostalism.”
History of the Oneness Movement
The modern Pentecostal movement is generally regarded to have begun in 1901 in a chapel prayer meeting in Topeka, Kan., led by Charles Parham, a teacher at Bethel Bible College. A few years later, in 1906, the Pentecostal experience of “speaking in tongues” burst on the scene during a revival in an African-American Baptist church on Azuza Street in Los Angeles, Calif. Following these beginnings, Pentecostal preachers and churches spread rapidly, coalescing into various denominations and factions.
In 1913, one popular teacher, R.E. McAlister of Toronto, Ont., began teaching that the Trinity doctrine was untrue and that baptism should be done correctly in Jesus’ name only – not in the traditional Trinitarian formula. Other preachers, such as Frank J. Ewart and John G. Scheppe, joined McAlister in his non-Trinitarian perspective.
By 1916, “oneness” views were being expounded by some ministers in the Assemblies of God (AOG), a then new Pentecostal denomination. These were strongly rejected by the denomination’s council that year, and the AOG, to its credit, adopted a strong Trinitarian stance in its statement of faith. Nonetheless, more than 160 Oneness ministers who were expelled from the AOG quickly formed their own alliances to promote their heretical doctrines.
Eventually, a number of oneness sects formed, most of which were predominately African-American. The largest Oneness movements today are the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW). The UPCI was organized in 1945 with the union of two predominately white groups started earlier in the century. The PAW formed in 1918 but split along racial lines in 1924. Today it is predominately African-American and is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In our current time, Oneness groups have a number official names. Here is a list of the largest and their reported (their own estimates) memberships.
Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God (AOHCG) – 13,000
Assemblies of the Lord Jesus, Inc. (ALJI) – 50,000
Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ World Wide, Inc. (Bible Way) – 250,000
Church of Our Lord Jesus of the Apostolic Faith (COLJF) – 30,000
Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW) – 1,000,000 reported
Pentecostal Church of Apostolic Faith (PCAF) – 25,000
United Church of Jesus Christ (Apostolic) (UCJC-A) – 100,000
United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) – 500,000 (1.5 million worldwide)
Oneness Pentecostal Sources of Authority
Oneness Pentecostals, of all branches, affirm the authority of the Bible for doctrine. Many of the Oneness doctrines, however, are derived from the King James Version used to proof text their unique doctrines. It is also common for Oneness ministers to claim revelations from God that are regarded by their followers as inspired.
Evangelical Christians regard the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). It is the final authority for the Christian on all matters of faith and doctrine. No single translation or human interpretation can be regarded as infallible. All modern writings or “revelations” must be analyzed in light of sound principles of biblical interpretation.
There is Only One God
Oneness Pentecostals declare that the Godhead consists of only one Person and deny the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. They maintain that the only real “person” in the Godhead is Jesus. Thus, they are often referred to as the “Jesus Only” Movement. They maintain that God exists in two modes, as the Father in heaven and as Jesus the Son on earth. Nevertheless, they are the same person, not two separate persons. The Holy Spirit is not regarded as a person at all, merely a manifestation of Jesus’ power or a synonym for Him. Several verses are quoted to establish this view such as Colossians 2:9 (NKJV), “For in Him (Jesus) dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” Oneness theologians would argue that if the Father and the Son were separate, then the Godhead could not fully dwell in Christ. They also look to Matthew 28:19 to affirm their views that Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize in the “name” (singular) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is said to have two natures: human and divine. Thus, when He died, only His human nature died. Also, when Jesus prayed, it was His human nature praying to His divine nature – not to a separate Father in heaven. As mentioned, the Oneness Pentecostal view of God is similar to the ancient heresy of Modalism. Modalism is the belief that one God existed in time in three distinct modes of being: first as the Father in heaven; second, bodily as the Son on earth; and finally as the Holy Spirit.
The Bible indeed teaches the existence of only one God (Deut. 6:4). Nonetheless, historic Christianity maintains that the doctrine of the Trinity (or tri-unity of God) is taught in Scripture. The Bible teaches that the one God exists eternally in three separate and distinct persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Colossians 2:9 does not teach that the totality of the Godhead was in the body of Jesus, but rather that Jesus embodied the totality of the divine nature and God is totally revealed in Him. If the Father and the Son are the same person, then the Oneness teachers have a difficult job explaining how the Father and the Son can love each other (See Matt. 3:17; 17:5; John 3:35; 5:20; 2 Pet. 1:17), talk to each other (see John 11:41-42; 12:28; 17:1-26), and know each other (see Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22; John 7:29).
Matthew 28:19 clearly reflects the Trinitarian concept that the “name” (authority and characteristics) of the one God is incorporated in the three Persons of the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor. 8:6; 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:2). (See the following verses affirming the personality and deity of the Holy Spirit: Luke 12:12; John 15:26; Acts 5:3-10; 13:2-4; 1 Cor. 12:11; Eph. 4:30; Heb. 3:7.)
The Oneness Pentecostal movements generally teach that to receive and maintain salvation, a person must adhere to four essential requirements.
1. A person must have faith in Jesus Only. Oneness teachers would agree that salvation requires putting one’s full faith in the Jesus of Oneness doctrine. That is, the Jesus who is the totality of the Godhead, who died on the cross as make atonement for sin, and who rose again from the dead.
2. A person must repent and be baptized by immersion in the “Name of Jesus.” Acts 2:38 is used as evidence that the early church baptized only in the name of Jesus. They maintain that baptism in the Trinitarian formula is invalid since it implies belief in three gods. They claim Matthew 28:19 is not to be taken as a command to baptize in that formula.
3. A person must speak in tongues. Like most traditional Pentecostals and Charismatics, Oneness Pentecostals teach that speaking in tongues is a gift to be exercised today. However, unlike most traditionalists, the Oneness movements maintain that speaking in tongues is not just a post-conversion indicator of the filling or baptism of the Holy Spirit, but an essential ingredient in the salvation experience itself. In other words, if a person has never spoken in tongues, he or she is not saved!
4. A person must abide by strict and legalistic standards of holiness. Most Oneness Pentecostals teach that once salvation is gained initially by the preceding ingredients, it must be maintained by daily adherence to legalistic codes of personal behavior. Alcohol and tobacco are prohibited. Women are not allowed to cut their hair, wear short dresses or slacks, use make-up, or wear jewelry. Men are expected to dress conservatively (white shirts and dark slacks), be clean shaven, and have short haircuts. Violations of these codes may result in a loss of salvation and exclusion from church fellowship.
Some small Oneness groups also practice handling poisonous snakes or drinking poison to demonstrate their faith and holiness based on Mark 16:18 in the King James Version.
Evangelical Christians maintain that salvation is “by grace through faith” in Jesus Christ alone (see Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Baptism is not essential to one’s reception of salvation. It is a symbol of one’s identification with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Acts 2:38 must be read in context and in light of Jesus’ clear command in Matthew 28:19.
Speaking in tongues (glossolalia), like all other spiritual gifts, is distributed sovereignly by the Holy Spirit to those He wills for the equipping and edification of the whole body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 12-14). There is no indication that it, or any other spiritual gift, is required to receive God’s gift of salvation by grace or to be filled with His Holy Spirit (see Eph. 5:18).
Oneness movements’ emphases on personal holiness and healthy lifestyles are commendable. Nevertheless, the requirements for outward adherence to a strict moral code in order to maintain salvation inevitably leads to legalism and a lack of assurance of eternal life.
No amount of good works, moral living, or church membership guarantees salvation. Salvation is entirely based on grace through faith in Christ. Good works and holy living are the natural responses of salvation already received – not its cause (see Eph. 2:10). Salvation is eternally assured for those who have accepted Christ as personal Lord and Savior (see John 1:12; 5:24; 1 John 5:13).
Mark 16:18 is part of a disputed portion of Mark’s text. Regardless, handling snakes or drinking poison is a misuse of that Scripture and has resulted in the deaths of many practitioners.
It is troubling to know that one famous and influential American pastor has so easily disguised his doctrinal errors, even to the point of being invited to speak at Christian conferences and in evangelical churches. The truth is, Oneness Pentecostals have an anti-Trinitarian view of God, an unbiblical doctrine of Jesus Christ, and unbiblical requirements for salvation (speaking in tongues, water baptism in “Jesus’ name,” and a legalistic moral code). Thus, those churches or preachers adhering to its basic doctrines cannot be regarded as authentically Christian. Any group or church that claims to be Christian yet deviates at any point from historical Christian faith is, by definition, a cult. Oneness Pentecostal churches are, therefore, cultic in nature and outside the theological parameters of historic Christianity.
Witnessing to Oneness Pentecostals
1. Have a clear understanding of your faith and the Bible. Know what you believe And why you believe it. Develop a sharp sense of discernment so that you can recognize unbiblcal teaching when you are faced with it.
2. Acquire a basic knowledge of Oneness Pentecostals’ beliefs and practices. This article has presented a basic overview of Oneness doctrine. Study it and other resources that explain that movement’s errors.
3. Seek to build a personal and respectful relationship with the Oneness Pentecostal. If you know someone who is a part of one of these groups, take time to befriend them. Pray that God may give you opportunities to share Christ and his liberating (from legalism) love with them.
4. Focus the discussion on the essential elements of the Christian faith. Do not get sidetracked defending your denomination. The only real issues are who is God, who is Jesus, and what is the way of salvation. Everything else is secondary.
5. Be prepared to cite (in context) and explain specific biblical passages supporting Christian doctrines, particularly the biblical basis for the Trinity, the historic understanding of the nature and work of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith.
6. Share your personal testimony of God’s grace and your faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.
7. The Oneness Pentecostal may try to convince you that you need to speak in tongues, be baptized in Jesus’ name, and live according to their strict moral code. Be prepared to explain biblically why you do not believe these are necessary ingredients for salvation or eternal security.
8. Present the basic plan of salvation and encourage the Oneness Pentecostal to receive Jesus Christ as his or her personal Lord and Savior.
9. Pray and trust the Holy Spirit to lead you as you share.
Beisner, E. Cal. “Jesus Only” Churches. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.
Bowman, Robert M., Jr. “Oneness Pentecostals and the Name of Jesus,” paper. Atlanta: Atlanta Christian Apologetics Project, 1994.
Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia of American Religions. 6th ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999.Dictionary of Christianity in America. Edited by Daniel G. Reid. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
Scripture quotation marked NKJV is from The New King James Version. Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission.
© 2011 Tal Davis