I couldn’t believe my ears. Did the Leading Brother really say what I thought he had said? Tom V. had committed suicide. I was stunned. It was only a few months ago that Tom had visited the Valley to help care for the children of the Workers who were leaving for their annual conference.
Tom was a kind, thoughtful, and very devoted Christian. He was very aware of his need for inner strength and continually strived to lay hold on the promise of holiness. How could such an individual wind up taking his own life?
At the time, it was said that sin overcame him and he chose the “loser’s” way out by taking his own life. “Would he still be saved?” I asked. “Yes, but he will lose out on his inheritance,” was the answer.
According to the teaching of this group, salvation was an insufficient remedy for those Christians who were struggling to continue on to perfection. If a Christian failed to “overcome,” then that person’s destiny became the “Outer Darkness.”
I then asked, “How should we answer questions that others have about Tom?” I was told, “He made his own choice and it should provide a warning to the Saints to not let sin get a hold in their lives. Pray that the enemy doesn’t take advantage of the situation to stain the Testimony.”
I was shocked by these answers from my spiritual leaders. Two things alarmed me. First, it was terrifying to consider that, like Tom, I might not be able to achieve a life of perfection either. I, too, might miss out on “God’s best.” Performance standards were extreme in this Fellowship. The road to perfection was filled with hurdles such as maintaining a rigorous group life style, endless meetings, stewardships, seminars, submission to leadership, unquestioning loyalty, and scrupulous purging and “putting to death” of any vestige of self so that one might secure God’s provision and power to “get the victory.” I suffered terrible doubt, shame, and fear over the possibility of not entering the inheritance.
Second, I was genuinely troubled by the lack of compassion that the Fellowship exhibited upon the death of this little one. The leadership labeled him a “loser.” He was said to be “having problems.” Nevertheless, he was part of the body of Christ and of the Testimony; he was part of the family of God, a beloved brother in the Lord.
Suddenly, it was as though he had never existed. There was no concern about him as an individual even though a short time before he was considered a “dear brother.” The Fellowship’s biggest concern was how a suicide might negatively affect the group’s image. These thoughts persisted in the back of my mind for years.
I now believe that Tom’s suicide and my inner turmoil had a common denominator: the Fellowship’s teaching about holiness. Was it possible that the Fellowship’s teaching about holiness and how to live the Christian life was in error? For those who have labored under the same deception, I would like to explain what I discovered to be the answer to that question in the following article. An outline and a condensed version of this article are available.
“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. If we say we have no sin the truth is not in us.” (I Peter 5:5b, I John 1:8).
False Holiness: A Tool for Control
To understand the meaning of holiness in my former group, one must first understand that the Fellowship’s spiritual leader twisted the definition to strengthen his own control of the group. Holiness was defined as total commitment to the spiritual leader and his “heavenly vision” of the church.
Adherence to this teaching opened the door for an entirely new category of “sin” to deal with. Any criticism, questioning, independent decision, lack of submission, or differing opinion about this ministry would not be tolerated.
Further, any desire in one’s life, be it marriage, career, missionary service, place of residence, or schooling must be put aside unless it would advance the goals of the spiritual leader’s “vision.” A member of the Fellowship must put to death self and surrender to the will of the Lord, which just happened to be the will of the leader.
I remember a brother in the group who had a desire to be a missionary. The brother had the necessary language skills to minister to those in foreign countries and another ministry not associated with our Fellowship would sponsor him.
The brother was told, “Brother, God has placed you here and you should not seek to be a star in another ministry; instead you must learn to be nothing before the Lord in this place.” The brother’s burden to serve God was turned into a “sin” of pride! He set aside his desire and submitted to the spiritual leader’s direction. The brother was successfully brought under control.
Is the Fellowship’s interpretation of holiness correct? No. I Corinthians16:12 shows the contrasting Biblical example to the “total commitment to the spiritual leader and his ‘heavenly vision’ of the church” false teaching.
In this passage we see the Apostle Paul and Apollos in a practical display of what is the healthy view of submission to the will of God in a ministry. The Apostle Paul “strongly urges” Apollos to go to Corinth to minister to the struggling church there. Apollos answered that he was unwilling to go now, but he would go when he had the opportunity.
Notice the freedom of Apollos to decide before the Lord how he would serve Him. Apollos was not overruled by Paul, nor did Paul try to make Apollos feel guilty by suggesting that he was not putting Christ first in his life. Paul did not accuse Apollos of the sin of pride, rebellion, laziness, or suggest that Apollos did not have the ability to really know what God wanted him to do.
Certainly Paul did not suggest that Apollos lacked submission to Paul’s vision for the church. Apollos surely was not shunned by Paul or his co-Workers for not submitting to Paul’s emphatic urging of him to go to Corinth. True holiness does not demand unquestioning submission to a leader, even a God-appointed leader.
Another example of the proper understanding of submission to authority in the church is given in Galatians 2:11-21. Paul publicly rebuked Peter for “not walking according to the truth of the Gospel.” Both men were leaders in the church.
When Paul rebuked Peter he had the authority of God’s Word behind him. Paul was not trying to assert himself and show everyone that he was in charge nor was he relying on the fact that he was a true Apostle. The very important fact to remember is that authority derives from the Word of God, not from a position of leadership in the church (“God is not a respecter of persons”).
Please notice that Peter was not unentreatable; he did not turn the tables on Paul and attack him as being non submissive or trying to be a star in the midst, in the flesh, or the like. Peter recognized that all in the church, apostles included, must be subject to the truth of the gospel.
This truth of the gospel was not just a statement of faith, but had ramifications for the behavior of the leaders and members. The issue Paul addressed with Peter was the believer’s freedom from any rules of performance in order to be rightly related to God.
The spiritual leader in my former group has been confronted many times in the same manner as Peter yet he remains implacable. James 3:17 says that the wisdom from above is peaceable and easy to be entreated. The spiritual leader is anything but.
False Holiness: The Split Level Error
The next aspect of the Fellowship’s false holiness teaching has to do with its misunderstanding of Salvation and the life of faith. The following quote summarizes the error:
“They recognize faith as the way to initial salvation, but they believe that faith should be supplemented by fuller obedience to God’s will and that this fuller obedience would be honored by God through a fuller gift of the Spirit or salvation.” (A Theology of the Holy Spirit by Frederick Dale Bruner)
Although our spiritual leader would begin by teaching that an individual was saved by grace alone through faith, he quickly swerved into error. Initial salvation, it seems, was only enough to get one started in the Christian life.
“Forgiveness of sin, as great as that is, friends, is only the beginning of the Christian life.” “You’re on the launch pad!” Something more was needed. Now the new believer is told that in order to attain “full salvation” and go on to higher blessings and deeper spiritual life, the new believer must get busy and strive to attain sanctification (holiness).
In the words of the spiritual leader, “We need to climb up into God’s presence by means of a heavenly ladder in our lives. A ladder provides a way by which we may pull ourselves up. The supports or arms of the cross are clean hands and a pure heart.”
This spiritual leader had subtly taken away the believer’s access to God, access which is given completely at the new birth, and he had created a condition for being in the presence of God. Due to this, enjoying God’s presence becomes almost impossible. The false teaching forces the believer’s focus inward (away from what God has done in Christ), searching within himself for a means to obtain clean hands and a pure heart.
Remember the new believer doesn’t have the presence of God. Instead, he is trying to “pull himself up” into the presence of God. When activities such as regular devotions, attending meetings, resisting sin, obedience to the leaders, etc., become the means of entering into “full salvation” and God’s presence, the performance of these activities only leads to hypocrisy and despair.
A believer is soon filled with anxiety about how to overcome issues in his life that, in reality, have already been dealt with in his salvation. It only takes one slip on the rung of the heavenly ladder for the believer to lose out on the presence of God now and in eternity. This subtlety, the division of salvation into two parts, is the crux of the problem with the false and damaging teaching that I followed for years.
The Bible teaches that when one is born again he is completely saved. There is no distinction between initial salvation and full salvation. Salvation includes complete forgiveness of sins (past, present, and future), the very presence of God, sonship, inheritance, Heaven, participation in the Bride of Christ, and so much more. God does not require human effort to help perfect an already perfect salvation. In Galatians 3:3 (NIV) Paul states,
“ . . .After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
How does God want the believer to continue in the Christian life? The answer is through Biblical faith. Biblical faith is the act of simply receiving the free gift of full salvation from God.
In contrast, the Fellowship’s spiritual teacher described faith as an action taken by a believer to secure God’s full salvation. In Galatians 3 Paul describes receiving the full salvation of God as “the hearing of faith” and further states that Christians are to “wait for the hope of righteousness.” God emphasizes hearing and waiting. Faith is receiving, not doing. There is nothing more that can be added to a full salvation.
Therefore, everything the believer needs for complete justification and sanctification is immediately given when he first believes the gospel. At first faith we receive all of Christ and all the blessings of his salvation. There is no need to seek another method or different means to deal with the sin still present in a believer’s life--even if those methods or means sound very high and holy.
The Galatians seemed to think circumcision was a high and holy sounding way to enhance their faith. Paul thought differently and told them so. He says in Galatians 6:13, “. . .they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh.” For the Galatians, performing the action of circumcision became a means for earning a fuller salvation from God than their initial new birth included.
When a Christian leaves a grace-based relationship with God, it is inevitably replaced with one that depends on his abilities (i.e., laying hold of the rungs of the heavenly ladder). He is then separated from the power of the Holy Spirit working in his life and a dangerous dynamic takes over--one that leads to serious damage to the soul.
One of the dangers inherent in the false holiness message is pride. Paul terms it , “boasting in the flesh.” Pride was the sin of the Pharisee; they related to God on the basis of their own effort and expected to be blessed by God as a result of that effort.
However, Jesus revealed that their inner life was full of sin, and that only the work of God changes the heart and produces true works of righteousness. Predictably, the Fellowship’s spiritual leader taught, “You’re not going to Heaven in a rocking chair.” His statement means that Christians better get busy doing to obtain a full salvation from God or lose out on Heaven.
False Holiness: A Higher Life?
The Fellowship’s spiritual leader constantly reminded the members that the Christian church was rampant with worldliness. He said that worldliness in the church was proof that his message of “holiness” was desperately needed to awaken Christians to their need of a higher and holier life. He would exclaim, “If my message of holiness would make a difference in your life then it is worth considering, isn’t?”
Long ago in Galatia, just such a message was being preached. The apostle Paul steadfastly opposed it. He exposed it for the error that it was. The false holiness teachers of Paul’s time used the same siren call to bewitch the hearers into a graceless pursuit of a higher way of holiness. The Galatians expected to not only win God’s approval, but also to express a greater testimony of Christ to the world.
The problem with this call to false holiness is that the flesh is awakened and attempts to do. True holiness brings a spiritual response, which acknowledges what God has done in Christ. Holy behavior is the fruit of a completed work of salvation.
Holy behavior is not the result of “diligent pursuit of the holy calling” by those possessing greater determination to overcome. Those who claim the greater determination become elitist in their attitude toward their second class brethren and take on an unhealthy pride in their own “more determined” abilities.
This elitism and pride creates a lack of love toward the weak individual, evidenced in the Fellowship’s treatment of Tom V. It is also the reason why those who could not muster the strength of will to keep up with the Fellowship’s lifestyle were not valued and were cast aside by the Fellowship’s spiritual leadership.
Just as the priest and the Levite, each busy with his own journey, couldn’t be bothered with the needs of the beaten and robbed man on the road to Jericho, so the Fellowship’s leaders treated the “non-performing” little ones.
Even as the Good Samaritan ministered to all the battered man’s needs, so Christ places the greater value on these weak and wounded ones. He will minister true healing and the restorative power of grace.
False Holiness: Recovery
Do you have joy and peace today? If not, do you remember the joy and peace that you had when you first received Christ? The same joy and peace can be yours again. Recognize that true holiness comes from the Christian’s security and full acceptance in the finished work of Christ on the cross.
Following the Fellowship’s spiritual leader’s vision and message of false holiness will never result in joy and peace. The spiritual leader teaches that one’s inability to “get the victory” will cause one to end up with a shipwrecked faith.
The reality is that when a Christian is struggling, God is still there ministering His restorative grace to the heart. God draws near to the broken and contrite heart. A succession of blessings follows deliverance from false holiness.
First, a believer experiences rest. Rest, because I know that all the liabilities and care of my soul’s condition have been taken care of in Christ, there is nothing more for me to do.
Second, I experience a wonderful deliverance from the self-preoccupation. I am no longer burdened with the constant self-evaluation process that the false holiness message requires.
Third, grace then leads to the true expression of holiness in my life, which is love: love for God, love for the brethren, and love for the lost. As Jesus said in John 4:14 the new life becomes “a well of living water that springs up” and flows out to others. My freedom now becomes a blessing for others.
When I left the Fellowship, I began to see people as individuals who needed to have the same grace that I had found. Before leaving, my attitude was judgmental, always looking down on other believers who didn’t have the Fellowship’s “great light” and “vision.”
Also, my concern and desire to reach out to the Fellowship was heightened. I wanted them to know the same restoration that I had been experiencing. Some may think that they can change the group from within. Can they? Paul in Galatians 4:21-31 teaches us that grace and the system of false holiness cannot abide together; the Slave woman and her Son must be gotten rid of.
If you are involved in a group similar to the Fellowship, I doubt that any criticism or questioning of their false holiness message would be allowed. Most likely you will not be able to change the system by staying. Indeed, it has been tried many times, in many ways, over many years. By staying, you enable those who teach the false message to continue and to encourage its propagation.
Is it easy to leave the Fellowship? For most, it is not and happens only after some devastating crises. Some who leave the Fellowship feel the bitterness of many wasted years in a false holiness system and wonder if it is possible to ever recover the loss.
Some leave in discouragement because of constant failure to live up to the standards of false holiness. Others become angry with God for allowing them to get into such a situation. Sadly, as I mentioned above, some commit suicide in their despair of ever being able to please God.
All this is a reaction to following a false teacher’s message of false holiness. The truth is that the false holiness message is an egregious error. The Good News is that there is wonderful restoration in the true grace of God.
Leaving may not be easy and healing takes time, but the ministry of grace from His own hand will have its way in each situation. There will be no more busy doing or proving to anyone that you are a devoted follower of Christ. Christ accepts you completely and you no longer have to live before others.
Fortunately, some ex-members came out to me with information to help me understand the true nature of what I had been involved with and what the true grace of God was. This website is a great resource and accommodates contact with those who have gone before and can provide tremendous help.
Do you have an awareness now of the difference between false holiness and true holiness? Do you understand the difference between doing and done? This consideration and new understanding are ones that I have profited from.
My hope is that many Christians will experience the same. In the short term, it is possible that your former associates in the Fellowship, or similar group, may verbally attack, silently shun, gossip, accuse you of being divisive, excommunicate and reject you.
But let me share a word of hope: I left the Fellowship over 11 years ago. At that time, I wrote a letter of appeal to the brethren sharing my concerns about their false teaching. I received no positive responses and believed that my letter had been totally rejected.
However, I have recently learned that the letter traveled far and wide and has been a great help to many. That same letter, from over ten years ago, will soon be read on this website. Perhaps many of these thoughts will enable you to share the message of grace with greater empathy and effectiveness.
May our blessed Lord Jesus use this article to make clear His way of true holiness and strengthen every heart with peace and joy.
Comments from Readers
The Weisers: "We just wanted to encourage everyone to read Mark Campbell's article called "False Holiness" on the assembly relections website. We just found it a few days ago, although it seems it's been there for a while. We think it should be required reading for anyone examining assembly doctrine and practice, and especially for those still meeting in an existing assembly." The Wiesers
Ary G., Middelburg, the Netherlands: "Thank you very much for this article. I'm a believer from Holland. For a period I used to visit the meetings when George Geftakys visited Holland. I never accepted his wrong teachings, because I had already a strong foundation in the Word. I realised that the partial rapture message was introducing legalism into the Christian life.
I have a teaching ministry in the local independent Baptist church. Although I rejected the wrong teachings of George, I am thankful for the careful explanation of the biblical message of grace as it is done in this article, 'False Holiness', by Mark Campbell. After reading it I realised I had to be more careful to avoid becoming legalistic in my teaching about holiness and the victorious Christian life. Sometimes you see the right way more clearly if you contrast it with a dark example. I hope this will encourage you to go on with proclaiming the message of "done" instead of "do".
Read more on this topic: