Heretic,’ and the Sad Stories of ‘Rebel’ Pastors

Two newly released films flip the usual script, pitching the “I was once a megachurch pastor” narrative as a renegade hero’s journey.

These films pitch their protagonists—Pearson and Bell—as brave rebels who challenged a rigid, bigoted, staid religious establishment in radical and costly ways. But if that’s the case, why are these films so tedious and flat? Perhaps it’s because the supposedly groundbreaking “rethinking” these men advocate is nothing new—just boring old heresy in modern new clothes.

 

The “megachurch pastor falls from grace” headline is tragically common these days, especially in the sort of celebrity-driven, post-institutional Christianity that Andy Crouch has written about recently.

The media narratives of these stories often depict the megachurch pastor as the villain and their church as the victim. Two newly released films flip this script, however, pitching the “I was once a megachurch pastor” narrative as a renegade hero’s journey. Netflix’s Come Sunday, about Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson, and documentary The Heretic, about Rob Bell, tell similar tales of prominent pastors who lost their congregations after they started “rethinking” hell and promoting messages of universalism.

These films pitch their protagonists—Pearson and Bell—as brave rebels who challenged a rigid, bigoted, staid religious establishment in radical and costly ways. But if that’s the case, why are these films so tedious and flat? Perhaps it’s because the supposedly groundbreaking “rethinking” these men advocate is nothing new—just boring old heresy in modern new clothes. Perhaps it’s also because the “radical” message of inclusion they present—a Christ-less, cross-less, repentance-free gospel of everything-affirming solidarity—is in no way subversive in today’s world. Rather, it’s the bourgeois gospel of Oprah and Disney movies and Eat, Pray, Love. Ho hum.

Dangers of Hearing ‘God’s Voice’

Based on a true story and adapted from an episode of Ira Glass’s This American LifeCome Sunday shows how Carlton Pearson (played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) went from being the celebrated pastor of one of Tulsa’s largest churches (Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center) to being branded a heretic in the early 2000s.

After watching coverage of the Rwandan genocide on TV, the Pentecostal Pearson—a mentee of Oral Roberts (played in the film by Martin Sheen) and a TBN celebrity—became troubled with the idea of eternal torment for the scores of Africans who were dying without knowing Christ. He had previously accepted that some people went to hell, even members of his own family, because they had a choice, he tells his congregation in the film.

“But when did these people in Africa separate from God? When did they make a choice? How do they get saved?”

Pearson says he heard God’s voice, “clear as my own” say: “They don’t need to get saved. They’re already saved. . . . They will all be with me in heaven.’”

This doesn’t go over well in Pearson’s church. People walk out mid-sermon in droves. Mentor Oral Roberts is disturbed.

“That’s heresy son,” Roberts tells Pearson in the film. “Are you certain it was God’s voice that you heard, and not the Devil?”

But who could say for sure? Indeed, Come Sunday offers a cautionary tale about the abuses and theological confusion that can arise in charismatic cultures where “God told me” is common parlance and amplified by the “personal relationship” dynamics of individualistic evangelicalism.

Formed by an evangelical culture more driven by personality and novelty than ecclesial accountability and historical continuity, Pearson ignores Roberts (among other advisers, including a pastor played by Jason Segel) and doubles down on his newfound universalism.

“God spoke to me and told me that all those people out there starving and dying in Africa without being saved, they’re all going to heaven,” Pearson says in one scene, offering his interpretation of 1 John 2:1–2 as proof: “It means Jesus died for everybody. That’s the literal meaning. . . . Everyone is already saved. That is the finished work of the cross.”

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