Netflix recently released “Come Sunday,” a movie that told the story of Carlton Pearson. The story dramatized Pearson’s move from classic Pentecostalism to Christian universalism, approximately collapsing the years 1998 to 2006 into a movie format. The movie stars Chiwetel Ojiofor as Pearson and Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts, along with roles played by Danny Glover, Condola Rashad and Jason Segel.
For many who are part of Christian black religious culture, the most moving part of the movie wasn’t Reggie’s character played by Lakeith Stanfield (of “Atlanta” and “Get Out”), nor was it the portrayal of his relationship with Oral Roberts. Rather, it was the dramatic scene in which Pearson was hauled in front of the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops (informally referred to as the Joint College of Bishops). Famously, in 2004, the convener and presider, Bishop J. Delano Ellis, on behalf of the college of bishops, renounced Pearson and labeled him a heretic.
However, to unpack this, let’s start from the beginning.
Christian universalism, in short, is the belief that all are already saved and will go to heaven. There are some particular biblical scriptures that universalists use to support this belief:
We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
1 Timothy 4:10
As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ
1 Corinthians 15:22
For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross.
Christian universalism, in fact, is a doctrine that was present at the start of the Church as we know it. Many of the early church fathers, such as Gregory of Nyssa and Origen wrote doctrinal works that incorporated the beliefs of universalism, also known as apokatastasis, that all will be restored. Prior to the Church of Rome, the School of Alexandria (in Northern Africa, in modern day Egypt) was the central place of early Christian thought and much of the scholarship that emanated from there also embraced universalism as a school of thought.
It wasn’t until the 6th century, either by default or happenstance that an early church council condemned some of the teachings of Origen and universalism got swept into the same pile. But history generally shows that there was not major opposition to the doctrine of universalism.
Concerning Hell as a place, for many it wasn’t an eternal location after life, but rather a purgatory; to be in purgatory meant that Hell was a place of purging and refining to make one’s soul fit for the ultimate reconciliation. It was, indeed, temporary. The idea that God through Jesus had performed an ultimate form of apokatastasis was a belief that had traction amongst many. Even for those that went to Hell.
While proponents of Christian universalism are in the minority here in America, there are denominations and fellowships that fully support it. Pearson’s revelation about the work of the cross being for all of humanity wasn’t novel in the least bit. Nor was he a lone wolf on a crusade about this.
To be labeled a heretic in the past, as well as in the present, carries more social and political implications than inherent theological ones. The compendium of Christian history shows that’s normal to disagree or have different opinions about even the weightier theological matters. For example, Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ second coming is that “in the moment and in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be caught up in the air.” Meanwhile, the writer of Revelation clearly imagines the second coming as something that takes place on the ground. Yet both of these accounts were incorporated into the biblical canon and no church council found a way to favor the orthodoxy of one over the heresy of the other.
In order to have a heretic in the first place, the societal order must have a person or a body of people established as the creators of orthodox. The heretic isn’t just someone who disagrees with others, but rather someone, based on their beliefs, that’s challenging the social and political order. What’s most bothersome in the drama of Pearson being labeled a heretic is this exact display of social and political power and the wanton hubris of Bishop Ellis and the Joint College of Bishops.
It begs the question of who authorized the Joint College of Bishops to be arbiters of doctrine such as this in the first place! The original intent behind this organization was to address the proliferation of Afro-Pentecostal ecclesiastical fellowships in the early 1990s that were establishing an episcopal structure but would benefit from training about the various offices and positions. It quickly morphed into a who’s who of Afro-Pentecostal clergy. While on the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with colleagues forming an organization because of similar interests—professional organizations do it all the time—how they came to adjudicate the doctrine of Christian universalism and label Pearson a heretic completely negates whatever original altruistic reasons they had for their creation and continual existence.
Until the day that the Joint College of Bishops issues an edict that they, as a body, authorize Oneness as an approved doctrine, they’re a body that’s ultimately hypocritical. Sabellianism, was the belief that there was one God who revealed himself in three modes—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This was declared a heresy by the church councils in favor of Trinitarian doctrines that see God in three persons, and each “person” is distinctive from the other. The hypocrisy is that a large percentage of those in the Joint College of Bishops are Apostolic and believe in Oneness. As a colleague of mine aptly observes, this is intellectual dishonesty at is finest.
Penultimately, what’s most disconcerting about the movie is that Ejiofor lacks the charisma that Pearson exudes. The portrayal fell flat. Part of Pearson’s charisma is what made him such a perfect target for Bishop Ellis and the Joint College of Bishops. They were able to flex their ecclesiastical muscle against the popular kid and watch him fall from social grace.
This wasn’t a movie produced by African Americans to tell a story about black religious culture, but instead produced by the white gaze. Maybe that’s why some of character portrayals fell flat, or why the church scenes were some of the worst in cinematic history. While I appreciate that the story was told, it should serve as a warning to the black religious community about the importance of owning and telling one’s own story, even if you disagree with some of the characters.
Pearson was a progenitor of the neo-Pentecostal movement. His influence was so wide and strong that there would be no T.D. Jakes without Pearson. He was both a catalyst and a bridge to the new wave of Pentecostalism we see in black churches across denominations. His impact on black religious culture has yet to be told. Part of that is because he was excommunicated from the black church that he loved so dearly.
Links for further review:
Carlton Pearson’s original treatise presented to the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004:
Bishop J. Delano Ellis’ response to the movie “Come Sunday,” April 15, 2018: