Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Oneness Community and the Social World

[In this post, I share a chapter from my dissertation, The People of the Name: Oneness Pentecostalism in the United States (Florida State University, 1985) regarding the social functions of the Oneness Pentecostal community and its relations with the larger social world. Several of the examples used in these posts reflect American evangelicalism in the 1980s when the dissertation was written.]

The Oneness community/congregation serves not only as the arena for the defining events of ritual worship and the theoretical framework these events engender, but also as the central social institution in the believer's world. The worshipping community acts as a primary grouping which provides a sense of identity, belonging, and order for the individual and, in turn, bridges the gap between the individual and the larger society. On the one hand, the Oneness community functions as a social world unto itself which displays an "objective existence" apart from the existing relationships of its members, provides obvious standards for membership which define and exclude, and raises clear boundaries which regulate the flow of members into and out of the community. But on the other hand, individual believers continue to function in the economic, political, and vocational life of the greater society. The boundaries between the two worlds—the Oneness community and the larger society—remain permeable, but this permeability is closely monitored by the framework of belief which orders the worshipping community.

The maintenance of a given social order, according to Peter Berger, rests in the continuing function of the society as that which is "most real" for its individual participants. In other words, the social base must retain its "plausibility," its believability and functionality, among its individual adherents. Any framework of religious belief must be undergirded by constructive social communities to maintain this plausibility.

The reality of the Christian world depends upon the presence of social structures within which this reality is taken for granted and within which successive generations of individuals are socialized in such a way that this world will be real to them. When this plausibility structure loses its intactness or continuity, the Christian world begins to totter and its reality ceases to impose itself as a self-evident truth.1

The firmer the sense of community is, the firmer will be the theoretical framework upon which it is built. Accordingly, social bonds within the Oneness community both maintain and legitimate the worship forms and distinct beliefs as the truth of Christianity and the way of salvation.

Berger sees that the "plausibility structure" of a religious tradition is maintained in one of two ways in the contemporary world: the religious community relates the larger society as "church" or "sect".2 In the religious community as "church," the entire society serves as a "plausibility structure" for the religious world—all social processes within the larger society confirm or reconfirm the reality of the religious community. But such situations of religious monopoly in the American scene have recently given way to an explosion of pluralistic competition. In this context, the religious community as "sect" acts as a sub-society, seeking to organize a "cognitive minority" against a hostile or at least non-believing environment.3 The growing secularism of contemporary society and the innumerable religious options appearing in the 1960's have created a milieu of pluralistic competition in American religious life and forced this redefinition of the terms "church" and "sect." Pentecostalism, especially its Oneness expression, has engaged and even flourished in this time of religious pluralism and competition.

In the present, Oneness Pentecostalism continues to take advantage of the instability and discontinuity in the contemporary religious world, offering an alternative "vision" from the major Christian traditions which have grown tenuous and even unacceptable to many. The ability to convert and maintain the allegiance of the converted signals Oneness Pentecostal successes. But such successes are not easily perpetuated: sectarian groups like Oneness Pentecostalism must find ways to motivate individuals to remain sectarian in light of the "attractiveness" and ease of life in the greater society. Oneness Pentecostals have, thus, developed certain strategies to prevent such lapses in commitment, including complex theological apologetics, defensive attitudes in childhood training and higher education, and restrictions on associations with those deemed "dangerous" to the maintenance of the religious "worldview." Such defensiveness has often limited, even replaced, the vitality of the Oneness movement, further gelling notions of exclusivism. At this point—the "openness" and "closedness" of the worshipping community—the central dilemma of Oneness social life appears: in what way is the congregation to maintain its identity and purity while also evangelizing and participating in the larger society?

The Oneness community provides the essential bridge between the believing individual and secular society and, in so doing, colors the believer's perceptions of the external social world and defines, even delimits, the believer's active participation in it. Oneness believers demonstrate a high degree of "consciousness of oneness" with the religious group. This intense "in group" identification appears most clearly in the distancing of Oneness life from the practices and values of the "outside" society.4 While "Holiness" condemnation and restrictions on certain behaviors and associations have faded in general Pentecostal circles, Oneness practice has institutionalized this late nineteenth century value system, changing it only through reapplication to modern technology (note especially the United Pentecostal Church's restriction on television viewing).5

Social roles within the Oneness community are fixed and real. Oneness believers fully and joyfully embrace the community demands of worship and daily ethics. These believers resist any role detachment or "front stage/back stage" manipulation of impressions by bringing together the ideal of the "overcoming" Christian and the reality of this ideal's performance. Such "true believers" demonstrate a pervading authenticity (albeit out of step with greater cultural values) in their social and ethical lives. Those perceiving the "ought" of the Oneness Christian life, but failing to fulfill it, are deemed outsiders, regardless of any close connection to the congregation. This ethical clarity and exclusivism, as much as any specific behavior pattern or restriction, sets Oneness Pentecostals apart from the dominant society.6

The Oneness community encourages strong feelings of loyalty, solidarity, and cooperation, all of which function to draw members in and prevent them from flowing back into the larger society. Theoretically, the Oneness community understands itself in conflict with the values of secular society or, perhaps better, as a participant in the great cosmic struggle between good and evil, God and Satan—a conflict which is waged at the most practical level in daily ethical decisions. But seldom does this rather apocalyptic rejection of secular society work itself out in true attitudes of world-denying. Although Oneness believers do feel themselves separated from and incompatible with the greater society, most do not understand their restrictive behavioral norms as a total rejection of human society (cf. the true world-denying attitudes of the radically adventist Jehovah's Witnesses), but rather of the evil that plagues that society. The real arenas of antagonism are specific clashing values—the traditional Holiness norms to which Oneness believers are emotionally committed and by which they judge behavior. The evil in society is often projected upon the "demonic system" as a whole or upon its leaders or specific institutions (educational centers and corrupt governments) rather than upon individuals who are deemed, not incessantly or irredeemably evil, but pitiable, deluded, and in need of the readily available salvation provided by Christ.

Relationships within the Oneness community, especially in smaller congregations, are understood as primary—intimate, invaluable, ends-in-themselves—in contrast to the secondary and instrumental quality of the community's relation with secular society. In Oneness circles, religious activity serves as the basis for broader communal associations and the congregation provides a pool of human resources from which closest associates and friends are drawn. In larger congregations, the physical proximity of believers in regular face-to-face contact during worship services and their frequent inter-visitation tightly knits the community together. Accordingly, even the largest Oneness congregation preserves the intimacy of the primary group and acts as the arena of direct, personal contact, the haven of values, and the agent of socialization and social control.

In light of the intimacy of Oneness congregations, it is not surprising that the community often perceives itself in the biblical image of the "new family," the superlative family that supplants the functions and allegiances of all other primary groupings. The initiatory experiences of the Acts 2:38 "plan of salvation" are constantly cast in the language of "new birth," transitions to "new life," and rites of passage within this "new life." The notion of the non-human leader in ritual worship blends with portraits of God as "loving Father" to reinforce the images of birth and family which pervade Oneness self- perception. In the salvation process, the believer embraces not only Christ experienced in the community as "new parent," but the worshipping community itself as "new family." References to fellow believers as "Brothers" and "Sisters" are commonplace; while references to pastors or elder believers as "Mother" or "Dad" are not unusual.

Beyond the matter of self-perception, the community's responsibility to the believer and the believer's loyalty to the community parallel normal family relations. The family, therefore, provides not only an engaging image to describe the community of believers, but also an effective pattern for ordering community inter relationships. The fact that Pentecostal recruitment follows lines of existing social relationships means that families, as well as individuals, are the normal targets of evangelism. Existing family bonds within Oneness congregations only further enhance the notion of the worshipping community as the "new family."7

The dynamic, direct, on-going contact with Christ in worship demands a choice of community for the participant—identification with the Oneness community with its restrictive ethical life or identification with secular society and its relative ethical ease. The choice of Oneness life is measured by the quantity and quality of personal associations and external conformity to the behavioral norms within the worshipping community. The notion of the Oneness congregation as "new family" appears strongest and most demanding in times of community opposition and intense worship. This notion is not so overpowering in everyday life as to disrupt normal family relations. The compartmentalization of spiritual and natural families rationalizes Oneness daily practice, elevating the claims of the worshipping community, but avoiding the disruptive power of these claims. Only in times of open hostility and family opposition toward an individual's participation in Oneness life do the claims of the "new family" supersede existing family relations. In such cases, the worshipping community literally replaces the old support system as a new source of values and center of relationships for the believer.8

In addition to this family structure, Gerlach and Hine have expounded the "segmented" nature of the Pentecostal community: Pentecostals demonstrate both strong interpersonal relations within their congregations close associations with members of other congregations through personal associations, leadership exchanges, and travelling evangelists. This "infrastructure" within the movement, as well as perceived hostility from the larger society, solidifies the Oneness Pentecostal community within and beyond the local congregation. Such a social network provides a "grapevine" communication system which quickly collects and disburses information vital to the life of the community and offers a system of support—both prayer and financial support—that transcends normal denominational and organizational distinctions.9

Leadership roles in the Oneness community, especially that of pastor, have followed a pattern of development and institutionalization similar to the changes in the elements and order of worship. Whereas early Pentecostal leaders acted as "referees" to control and order the spontaneity of demonstrative worship, contemporary pastors have assumed roles more comparable to the traditional notions of ministry in evangelical churches. But in the Oneness movement, with its institutionalized restorationism and zeal to maintain Pentecostal enthusiasm and Holiness ethical rigorism, the minister has also come to function as the guardian of the orthodox message and the supervisor of the community's ethical life as well as a leader and participant in ritual worship. Ironically, this shift has often led to excessive authoritarianism among those Pentecostals who most emphasize divine, rather than human, leadership in the worshipping community. With the rush toward organizational uniformity and centralized administration, the Oneness minister has enjoyed constant elevation, in some extreme cases apotheosis, as the "voice of conscience" within the community.

This centralizing of leadership within the congregation has also accelerated a shift toward theological conservatism in the Oneness tradition. Rather than retaining the "openness" to divine insight inherent in the "end time revelation" of "Jesus" as the saving name of God and the prominence of spiritual gifts of utterance, the Oneness movement and message has developed its own "fundamentals of faith" which contain not only the rejection of modernity apparent in Fundamentalist thinking, but also Oneness distinctives as necessary ingredients in the church's orthodoxy. Also, the Oneness statements of faith act as creedal tests for those aspiring to the ministry and as points of censure for those deviating from the party line. This is equally true for the unwritten standards of behavior inherited from the movement's Holiness forebears.

Deviance in doctrinal beliefs, standards of behavior, and attitudes toward the secular world is usually limited to individuals rather than substantial subgroups within Oneness congregations. The rise of such a subgroup usually leads to community fission and the formation of a new congregation. Heterodox individuals, more often than not, keep their deviating beliefs and behaviors to themselves, outwardly conforming to group standards. Outspoken heterodoxy leads to community isolation, correction, and even expulsion.10 Whenever opposition to Oneness doctrine or practice becomes too vocal, the detractors quickly find themselves outside the movement. The Oneness pastor, therefore, acts as an agent of social control who pressures the compliant into conformity and ostracizes and even removes those deviating from orthodoxy.

Such in-group exclusiveness and strong social control raises the issue of the Oneness community's place in the larger social world. Arthur Paris correctly states that the Pentecostal "participates in the world but does not 'live' there," that their "worldly lives are of secondary importance to them."11 While this obviously overstates the case, it is essentially true. The amount of time demanded by Oneness religious devotion and the strict regimen of behavior standards limits the believer's leisure time and recreational opportunities. Beyond work support self and family, the Oneness believer lives his life in the context of church worship and activities.

The isolation and insulation from secular society underlies the prevailing attitude of social quietism in Oneness churches. The "in group/out group" conflict model defines Oneness perceptions, but offers no significant framework for understanding the believer's participation in the larger society. This Oneness framework of thought disallows any meaningful recognition or discussion of the believer's secondary relation to the secular world. Religious commitment is the sole point of reference for the believer, but this does not discredit the believer's worldly life. It is wrong to understand American Oneness Pentecostalism (except in its most apocalyptic expressions) as anti-cultural and, therefore, thoroughly sectarian and world-denying. The believer lives in an ethical paradox—a dualism of community and secular demands. The "Christ against culture" rhetoric common within the group arises from its limited framework of perceptions rather than real anti-cultural sentiment.

Marion Dearman's early 1970's sociological study, "Christ and Conformity: A Study of Pentecostal Values," clearly captures this ethical dualism. This study tests Benton Johnson's conjecture that certain features of religious groups rooted in the Holiness tradition socialize members in the key values of the dominant society. Johnson, in 1961, argued that the conversion experience in such groups leads to an "innerworldly asceticism" which emphasizes "rational, purposive, disciplined, efficient, steady, predictable activity directed toward self direction, mastery, and positive achievement in occupational tasks." In short, such religious traditions actively socialize their adherents to the dominant values of American society.12

Using Robin Williams' list of "value belief clusterings," Dearman demonstrates that Oneness Pentecostals (in this case, United Pentecostal Church members from Oregon) share these values or orientations. These "belief clusterings" include:

(1) activity and work, (2) achievement and success, (3) moral orientation, (4) humanitarianism, (5) efficiency and practicality, (6) science and secular rationality, (7) material comfort, (8) progress, (9) equality, (10) freedom, (11) democracy, (12) external conformity, (13) nationalism and patriotism, (14) individual personality, and (15) racism and related group superiority themes.13

ACTIVITY AND WORK. The Oneness Pentecostals interviewed unanimously showed a positive attitude toward activity and work. The assumption that God observed the believer while at work and that the worker represented God and his church to his non-believing fellow workers leads Oneness believers to excellence in their jobs or at least to "work to the limits of their capacity."

ACHIEVEMENT AND SUCCESS. Despite the rhetoric of separation explicit in the Holiness life style and a negative attitude toward secular education, Oneness believers learn the importance of the "power of positive thinking" and "aggressive, self-confident action" in their church lives which prepares them for upward mobility.

MORAL ORIENTATION. Oneness believers take American moralism to its extreme with restrictions on liquor, tobacco, and almost every form of entertainment.

HUMANITARIANISM. The Oneness community is only partially committed to humanitarian values—they are forever concerned with the needs of men's souls, not their bodies, and often attribute poverty and poor health to the moral evil of those who suffer—but this limited commitment parallels that of the larger society.

EFFICIENCY AND PRACTICALITY. Oneness believers recognize the qualities of efficiency and practicality as God's standards for the Christian worker in both religious and secular vocations.

SCIENCE AND SECULAR RATIONALITY. The Oneness believer accepts the advances of technology, but vehemently opposes scientific discussions which ignore or discredit divine guidance in nature or history.

MATERIAL COMFORT. Oneness Pentecostals do not deviate from the desire for possessions and creature comforts prominent in secular society.

PROGRESS. Most Oneness Pentecostals are optimistic about the future despite their eschatological beliefs.

EQUALITY. Oneness believers qualify this notion under the divine rule: if divine authority is recognized, then human equality is advocated.

FREEDOM. These Pentecostals use the American rhetoric of freedom, although their understanding seems to lean toward freedom to conform to society's norms rather than any real recognition of dissent or non-conformity—a position shared by many in the early 1970's.

DEMOCRACY. These believers praise democracy as the "American way," but show little real understanding of the concept.

EXTERNAL CONFORMITY. Dearman found these Pentecostals extremely favorable to societal external conformity, here understood as a return to the "old fashion" middle class values upon which America was built.

NATIONALISM AND PATRIOTISM. Oneness Pentecostals, despite standard conscientious objection clauses in their statements of faith, demonstrate ample nationalism and patriotism. Displays of "Americanism" and respect for the nation are deemed Christian duties.

INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITY. Oneness Pentecostalism asserts the value of the individual personality, although this value is ultimately religious—the individual as the object of divine love and the recipient of Spirit baptism.

RACISM. Dearman found the least conformity to national values among Oneness Pentecostals in their rejection of racist notions and language, although she admits that this finding might more reflect the geographic arena of her study (the Pacific northwest) than the standard values of the entire American Oneness community.14

These findings led Dearman to conclude that rather than rejecting the values of the dominant society, Oneness believers fully embraced them. This embrace of the establishment is "not passive, but active." Moreover, Dearman saw that emotionally compelling conversions made it possible for new members to change from value systems which do not prize the values of activity, achievement, and success to a new way of life that more clearly reflects dominant societal values. In Oneness circles, Dearman concludes, "it should be sufficiently clear that the life God demands is remarkably similar to that which the establishment desires."15

In light of Dearman's study, the noted social quietism of the Oneness movement seems to blossom from limited social vision and theological perspective rather than any apolitical leanings. Arthur Paris comments that any discussion of the "apolitical or reactionary political position of Pentecostal religion" is flawed by its assumption that politics or political action is a concern, or much less a central concern, of the churches. Such evaluations fail to take seriously the framework within which the believer perceives himself and the community. The Oneness church's sole social action is the salvation of the lost. This goal of evangelism shapes, almost exclusively, the Oneness community's relation to the secular world. This purpose along with latent millenarianism removes serious consideration of secular society, its ills and future, from the church's corporate concern. Corporately, Pentecostals simply do not have a political role. In questions of social, political, or economic struggles, Pentecostals act as individuals, concerned citizens, rather than as community members.16

With other evangelical groups, Oneness Pentecostalism limits its understanding of Christian mission to the all-consuming aim of winning the world to Christ. Ministries of social service are secondary, even suspect, lest a "social gospel" replace the evangelistic imperative. Social ministries, when engaged, uniformly work toward evangelistic ends. Those who seek God find him within the church building or through the religious "witness" of believers. Any notion of a non-churchly worship of God has yet to appear in Oneness circles. For the Oneness believer, obedience to Christ's social demands consists of being an instrument for bringing individuals to the institutional church and the salvation it provides.17

Samuel Hill, noted scholar of southern religion, finds three "distortions of Christian responsibility" in this evangelical reductionism:

[First,] the degeneration of the valid Christian belief that the life of faith produces transforming power into the naive judgment that the conversion experience will rectify all individual and social ills, and by itself humanize life . . . [secondly,] the tendency to overlook persons and their need unless they are "prospects" for membership in the local church . . .[and thirdly,] the inflation of "one portion of the biblical message into the whole," making the "all-important moment of conversion" dynamically separate from the rest of life.18

Oneness Pentecostal life—in the worshipping community and beyond it in the secular world—internalizes the dichotomy of men as "Christian brothers" or evangelical prospects. This dichotomy underlies, even legitimates, the social and political quietism of the movement. Within the community, ethical demands are social and positive. The community as "new family" recognizes the vast array of needs in its membership and joyfully assumes for meeting these needs. But beyond the community, the believer stands alone to face the secular world. The corporate life of the community does not extend beyond the church service or the existing relationships (familial or otherwise) of community members. Outside the community, the believer's ethics become strictly personal and negative, defining his behavior and separating him from the larger culture by outward symbols such as dress and hairstyle. The paradox of the activism of the church "as a social world" and the quietism of the church "in the social world" dictates the values of Oneness social and ethical life.

1Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1969), p. 46.

2Berger's redefinition of these terms does not ignore or discredit previous church/sect analysis—whether expressed in its classical form by Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr or in its contemporary forms by Yinger, Wilson, and others—but rather reapplies these studies in light of the rampant religious pluralism of the 1960's. This redefinition, therefore, updates and clarifies church/sect analysis in terms of the changing situation.

3Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 164.

4James W.Vander Zanden, Social Psychology (New York: Random House, 1977), pp. 218-34.

5United Pentecostal Church International, Manual of the United Pentecostal Church International (Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame Press, 1981), pp. 22-23.

6Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (New York: Mentor Books, 1951), pp. 130-33.

7Luther Gerlach and Virginia H. Hine, People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), pp. 79-97.

8The strength of the believer's commitment to the Oneness community as surrogate family also diminishes with time as the believer develops broader social relations (i.e., employer/employee, teacher/student, and neighbor/ neighbor).

9Luther Gerlach and Virginia H. Hine, "Five Factors Crucial to the Growth and Spread of a Modern Religious Movement," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 7 (1968): 26-30.

10Arthur E. Paris, Pentecostalism: Southern Religion to an Urban World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982), p. 123.

11Ibid., p. 121.

12Marion Dearman, "Christ and Conformity: A Study of Pentecostal Values," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 13 (1974): 437-38.

13Ibid., pp. 439-40.

14Ibid., pp. 442-47.

15Ibid., pp. 449-50.

16Paris, Black Pentecostalism, pp. 128-29.

17Compare the assessment of southern religion in Samuel S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), pp. 195-98.

18Ibid., p. 198.


  1. A really important post, Joe! The sociological aspect of the Oneness Pentecostal movement is without doubt one of its most salient features. Repeatedly I have observed that long after a person concludes that the theological profile of the movement is flawed, the sociological ties that involve family members may keep a person tethered for lengthy periods of time. The cost of separation can be excruciating and profoundly threatening.

  2. My first reservations on Oneness culture and lifestyle, if not doctrine, occurred in the early 1980s when "ACE schools" were all the rage in the UPC. I was preaching a revival in a small town in central Louisiana. I spent some time the first day in the church school where the pastor was the principal and "Sister Sally" and a couple others were the teachers. We were holding revival services every night of the week. Even though I was still a zealous pentecostal preacher, I thought: These kids spend all day and all night at this rural clapboard church. They have no other social outlet; they are not in public school. They see the same few people every day, including these unaccredited people teaching them. This cannot be good for these kids."