Heretic in the headlines
Why did The New York Times use that word?
Bishop Carlton D. Pearson died just a few days ago, in Tulsa, Okla., at age 70. The New York Times reported his death and, remarkably, used the word “heretic” in the headline. That word is certainly applicable in this case, but it is still quite noteworthy that the nation’s most influential paper—not known for much interest in theological orthodoxy—invoked “deemed a heretic” to describe the late bishop.
Heresy is one of the most indispensable words in the theological vocabulary. It is not to be used carelessly. Heresy is not doctrine we don’t like. Heresy is not a mere doctrinal disagreement. Instead, heresy is the denial of a doctrine both central and essential to Christianity. To be deemed a heretic is to be declared an enemy of the Christian faith, an apostate, and a threat to the theological integrity of the Church.
Bishop Carlton Pearson illustrates the definition. Pearson grew up in classical Pentecostalism, though he was later to rebel against its doctrinal strictures and moral teachings. As a young man, he went to Oral Roberts University, then the institutional center of the charismatic movement. According to Pearson, the first thing Oral Roberts asked him was “Can you sing?” It turned out that he could, but Pearson could also preach. He was promoted by Oral Roberts himself and, at least according to Pearson, was referred to as “Oral Roberts’s black son.”
Pearson had talent and ambition, and he struck out on his own, establishing his own ministry in Tulsa, eventually known as Higher Dimensions Family Church. It exploded in growth, drawing crowds numbering thousands each Sunday. Pearson, named a Pentecostal bishop, was living the dream. He had a big church, a big car, and a prosperous ministry. He hosted a major charismatic conference and was an emerging television presence. He seemed on top of his Pentecostal world and was still rising.
But then, something happened. Pearson said it came as he was looking at photos of suffering children in Uganda. Something snapped in his theology. He began to reconsider basic Christian orthodoxy, and he thought his way into the heresy of universalism and the denial of hell. Before long, Bishop Pearson denied the existence of hell and the threat of everlasting punishment. Eventually, he would embrace the teaching that “most people on Earth will go to heaven, because of Calvary, because of the unconditional love of God and the redemptive work of the cross.”
He stopped believing that belief in Christ was necessary for salvation, affirming that adherents of other world religions would go to heaven. His denial of hell went hand in hand with his universalism. He simply could not believe that a loving God would send anyone to an eternal hell, or just about anyone. He did allow that there might be exceptions. He would later say, “If I am judged for perceiving Christ or Christianity in error, I’d rather be wrong for overestimating the love of God than underestimating it.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not the product of our theological speculations. We are not called to estimate the love of God in any sense. We are called to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. We see the love of God displayed in Christ on the cross, put forward as a substitutionary savior for sinners. “Herein is love,” declared John the apostle, “not that we loved God but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
When he was tried for heresy by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004, he was directly confronted with the clear teachings of Christ concerning the reality of hell. Bishop Pearson was undeterred and refused to be corrected. He had redefined the work of Christ. He was adamant in his heresy, and he denied that faith in Christ was necessary for salvation. He would later affirm the LGBTQ movement.
The Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops found Bishop Pearson guilty of heresy and unrepentant, declaring to the public, “Because of our concern for the many people that could be influenced to adopt this heresy and in so doing put at risk the eternal destiny of their souls, we are compelled to declare Bishop Carlton Pearson a heretic.”
Traditional evangelicals and the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops disagree on many areas of doctrine, but we have to say that the Joint College acted rightly in declaring Bishop Pearson to be guilty of heresy—even to be a heretic. That is noteworthy in an era of theological laxity. The Episcopal Church did not declare Bishop John Shelby Spong to be a heretic, though he certainly is. The Church of England has failed to remove a succession of heretical bishops. Frankly, it takes a great deal of courage and doctrinal fortitude to use the word “heresy” and mean it these days.
But if there is no heresy, there is no orthodoxy—there is no Christianity. The bishops were precisely right when they defined heresy as a risk to the eternal destiny of souls.
The death of Bishop Pearson comes as sad news. Sadder still is the fact that he continued to resist doctrinal correction. He put the destiny of his own eternal soul at risk, and he did so in a way that led The New York Times to use the word “heretic” in a headline. That ought not to pass without our notice.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.