As a former member, I try to keep up with the Pentecostal church. Since it is less monolithic than some others and lacks authoritative, central leadership, most of its tenets are maintained by various social and political pressures, a few of which I will be discussing here. I recently came across a blog by a young woman who calls herself the “Passionate Pentecostal.” The blog happened to be on what many evangelicals call “holiness standards,” and it made me more than a little nostalgic.
It strikes me first that what is meant by “holiness standards” has little to nothing to do with how one behaves. Of all things, “holiness standards” refers strictly to outward appearance.
Like Scientologists, Mormons, Heaven’s Gate, and many other fringe movements, Pentecostals waste no opportunity to insist they are not a cult. The Passionate Pentecostal is careful to emphasize “[Pentecostals] DO NOT HAVE TO” adhere to these standards of dress (though she later calls them “requirements” in “some churches”) and that “We are NOT a cult.” Her support for that last claim is fascinating. She is not a member of a cult because she is (emphasis mine) “allowed decisions and free thought.” Think of that. Imagine a wife boasting her husband “allows her” the freedom to make decisions.
I’m uninterested in whether, by the strictest definition, the organization she aligns with should be considered a cult (though its leaders are quick to slap some of their competitors with the label). I will, however, note that this sincere young woman clearly does not understand how cults work.
Most of the time, participation in cult behavior is completely optional. The members of Heaven’s Gate ingested poison of their own volition as a means of accessing a passing spacecraft. The eight members who submitted themselves to castration in order to stave off “mammalian desires” did so of their own accord. They were, in short, allowed decisions and “free thought.” It turns out it’s easier to delude people into participation than to force it.
The leader of Heaven’s Gate, who claimed to be the same reincarnated being manifested in Jesus, was not a charlatan out to hoodwink the gullible for profit. He was by all indications every bit as sincere in his beliefs as the Passionate Pentecostal. He did not fool his followers on purpose, though fool them he did. Similarly, Pentecostal girls are not fooled into drinking the “holiness standard” Kool Aid by sinister people but by sincere and well-meaning individuals. One anecdote from the blog makes this point for me. I removed her emphases in the text and added my own:
So when we were at the National Youth Convention […] after an emotional service with many tears shed, it became quite obvious what churches do not teach against makeup when my church’s group of girls saw another group with mascara and eyeliner smeared faces. Immediately one of our newly converted ladies turned to us girls, who were her friends and the same age as her, and gave us a confused look. Later in the hotel room the tight-knit group of the four of us had to sit down with her and explain that their pastor did not preach against it and that those girls were not purposefully disobeying the standards of holiness.
I was tempted just to reproduce this anecdote and forgo the post entirely because I can’t make the point any better than that. It’s characteristic of my experience, as well. We were invited to “think for ourselves” with leading questions, gentle social pressure, and a never-ending tennis match between “think this” and “what do you think?” Though indoctrination often begins with false teaching and fraud, once the machine is set in motion, good, otherwise intelligent people fall in line to keep it maintained, no evil mastermind required.
Pentecostals would likely argue we all espouse our own values and should feel free to share them. It’s hardly manipulation when you put it that way, but that is unfortunately not the sum of what is happening in these churches. There is a middle ground between telling people what to think (i.e. “preach against it”) and offering no instruction whatsoever, and it’s called teaching people to think for themselves. If this alternative does not appeal to the Passionate Pentecostal, that’s her prerogative, but it seems she lacks the perspective to distinguish between her options. That’s the trouble with indoctrination: it robs us of our ability to think freely and then, with a smile, welcomes us to try and do so.
I wept at the end of reading your post. To remember how insistent I was on those very standards, the people I apathetically watched be shamed into conformity, the quickness with which I reconciled my discomfort at the sight with the justification of my silence, secure in the delusion that they would ultimately be better Christians, better Apostolics for it. After all, for Pentecostals (much like the Mormon ‘cults’) have it thoroughly ingrained in our conscience that it is the ‘little things’ that pose the greatest threat to our spiritual standing and contentment. Thus, the little things, having such a disproportional effect on our salvation, become very big and uncompromising things. I am reminded of the story retorted so often by numerous Pentecostal preachers: A frog(a Christian) sitting in water(the world) slowly brought to a boil(exposing themselves to sin or changing habits away from the traditional ones) will die(burn in Hell) because he as grown comfortable by adjusting with each new changes in temperature until it is too late to jump out. However, after leaving Pentecost and becoming increasingly suspicious of all I had been taught, I learned that scenarios of both the frog and the sinner were entirely false. A frog will jump out of the water long before it is in risk of boiling and the church is the water in which the sinner is at risk of harm and growing increasingly and dangerously comfortable with practice of justifying one’s actions with scripture. After all, the ‘standards,’ if absolute, are impossible to uphold in any literal sense. So, when something practical simply must be done for the sake of wellbeing conflicts with the ‘suggested’ rules, they are forced to find, imagine and create justification around them. The one place where ministers’ warnings of a “slippery slope” would actually be quite applicable. I am fortunate enough to be beyond this mentality and equally relieved to know that you and many others are beginning to make the full journey to enlightenment and liberation.
First of all, thank you for such an open and thoughtful response.
“After all, the ‘standards,’ if absolute, are impossible to uphold in any literal sense.”
This is the whole game. The bar is set impossibly high (“be ye perfect” Matt. 5:48), and the best you can do amounts to nothing (Isaiah 64:6). You deserve nothing better than to suffer as badly as you possibly can for as long as you possibly can. After you’ve soaked in that thought for a while, here is the good news: God loves you and has purchased you from the punishment you deserve. To obey him at this point would just be the proper response, right? You just received free salvation. Free! But if you disobey him you could lose it. But it’s free. You have to accept it though, and obedience is the way to express your acceptance. But it’s free.
This is archetypal of cult behavior. Beat a person down, tell them they’re nothing, then convince them the leader loves them, though they don’t deserve it. Then beat them down again. Then lift them back up. It’s the cycle of abuse set to a hymn that never ends. I’m so happy you made it out!
Thank you for your post. fortunately, a ‘list’ of holiness standards were given to Moses called the 10 Commandments and then expounded in the NT. The key, in my opinion, is Micah 6:8. Modesty is NOT about your attire–it’s about your desire to be pleasing to God.
I appreciate the openness of this writer and assume he’s a gentleman that’s writing….I wish their were young woman who’ve ‘left this damaging teaching’. I have a daughter that I raised to ‘be modest’ before the Lord. Then we spent some time with a UPC-taught family. She started choosing shorts (knee-length) & jeans (not tight fitting) BECAUSE she did NOT want to ‘look’ like “them”. I don’t want our holiness standard to be anything but what scripture says and what God says it is. Please don’t hear that as ‘more spiritual’ than anyone else, but idols come in MANY different shapes….
This post is so on point. I don’t think I would ever go as far as calling them a cult, just because I do not want to be disrespectful to God in any way, because I do believe that they are Christians… but I will say that, when you are in it, it can often feel like one. I left Holiness Pentecostalism about August of last year. I had just gotten home from a youth camp where I helped direct the choirs. When we got home, the choir director that I had helped sat our home church choir down for a meeting. We were told that in order to be part of the choir, we HAD to tithe every week, attend every service each week, prove that we were faithful members, and follow all of the dress standards that had been set for the choir. I felt as though I was 5 years old and it was my first day of school. I felt targeted, dictated, and was actually fearful of what might happen if I showed up one day and didn’t meet these standards. After dealing with the same ting for almost 21 years, I decided that enough was enough. I left and didn’t go back for months. I am incredibly close to the Pastor and his family, so I still visit often, but I refuse to attend regularly and I will never be a member again. I do not believe that God intended for Christians to live a life of fear or continual manipulation. I do not find long skirts, long hair, and a fresh face necessary in my walk with Christ. I am still in a weird place spiritually, because I am starting form scratch. I have been saved since I was 5 (I’m almost 21), but I feel like a baby Christian, because I was never given the basic fundamental things I needed to survive life as a Christian in this world. Please pray for wisdom and guidance as I continue my journey to find a real relationship with Christ and a new church to attend. Thanks.
Thanks for the reply, Brittany. I share your hesitation to call them a cult because it doesn’t seem productive or useful. More “us and them” talk which I will leave to…well, *them*.
Your prayer request got a smile out of me. Not a condescending one, either! I’m just pleased not everything I write on these topics screams “atheism!” because I don’t (always) intend them to. Though I won’t be petitioning any gods (or sacrificing any goats) on your behalf, I do wish you the very best. I didn’t abandon Christianity until I was about 23, but I stopped calling myself “Pentecostal” long before that. I have no doubt it’s a step in the right direction for just about anyone. Enjoy thinking for yourself and doing good for its own sake!