A while back a friend of mine who was a pastor of a church in Canada invited me to give a series of lectures. During the drive to his home from the airport he mentioned his concern about a certain “Ministers Prayer Breakfast” he was attending. His concern focused upon there being a United Pentecostal Church (from hereon UPC, not to be confused with other Pentecostal groups who are Christian in theology) minister as part of the gathering. What worried him was not necessarily this man’s presence at the breakfast, but the fact that the group engaged in prayer, using only terms upon which they all agreed.
I attended the breakfast. The event indeed began with prayer, followed by breakfast, during which the ministers talked about spiritual things. At the close of the hour, I suggested to the group that what was going on was not biblically sound. All were taking part in prayer and spiritual conversation without recognizing that there was “another Jesus” represented by one of the ministers. “With all due respect,” I said, “our UPC friend here does not believe in the biblical Jesus.” The UPC minister raised his voice and exclaimed, “Steve, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’!” I then asked, “In John 1:1 is ‘the Word,’ who was with the Father, a person?” He said, “No. The Word is a ‘thought’ in the Father’s mind.” I then turned to the others in the group and explained that this was another Jesus, because this man denied the preexistence of the Son as the Son (more on this later).
At this point, one of the other ministers scolded me for being too picky, and that before they started having these meetings they agreed on terms that all could use without being divisive. My friend stood for the fact that the view represented by the UPC minister was not biblical, and that he had been concerned and convicted about being part of the meeting.
By the way, during that initial drive from the airport, I also told my friend that the UPC minister did not consider him a Christian because he had not been baptized “in Jesus’ name only” in order to obtain the remission of sins, and because he did not speak in tongues (not to be confused with Christian Pentecostal groups who state that tongues are a sign of a subsequent blessing, not of salvation). This was confirmed several days after the confrontation at the prayer breakfast. Soon after the meeting, the UPC minister went to each of the other ministers’ homes and told them they were not Christians.
UPC View of the Godhead
The UPC is vehement in its denial of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than believing that there is one God (Isa. 43:10), and that there are three persons who are called God (the Father is called God in 2 Pet. 1:17; the Son is called God in John 20:28; the Holy Spirit is equated with God in Acts 5:3-4), and that the three distinct persons exist simultaneously (Matt. 3:16-17) and are the one God (see Matt. 28:19), the UPC opts instead for a modalist concept of the “Godhead.” Their modalism is summed up by the following short formula: One person, three modes of operation. Again, this is vastly different from the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, which simply put is “One God, three persons who exist eternally and simultaneously.”
The UPC brand of modalism suggests that there is only one person (Jesus) who is God, and that Jesus acts in different modes—he can be the Father at one time, then the Son at other times, and still at other times the Holy Spirit.
As regards the UPC doctrines that “the Word” of John 1:1 is a “thought” in the mind of the Father (and Jesus was the Father before the incarnation!) and that there is no preexistent Son of God, UPC writer David K. Bernard states, “The Word or Logos can mean the plan or thought as it existed in the mind of God. This thought was a predestined plan . . . the Son did not have pre-existence before the conception in the womb of Mary. The Son of God pre-existed in thought but not in substance” (The Oneness of God, p. 103).
In UPC theology Jesus did preexist, but as the Father: “If there is only one God and that God is the Father (Malachi 2:10), and if Jesus is God, then it logically follows that Jesus is the Father” (Ibid., 66).
There are two negative implications arising from the UPC view of God.
First, and I briefly mentioned this earlier, when a group denies the preexistence of the Son (i.e. that the Son existed as a person before the incarnation) as the Son, they end up believing in another Jesus, a Jesus contrary to the Jesus that is taught in the Bible. The Bible teaches that the preincarnate Jesus, the “Word” of John 1:1, is a person. The teaching of John 1:1 is that the Word was “with” the Father (clause b). The rub with the UPC lies in the debate of whether the Word is a person or a “thought.” The UPC position that the Word is a thought in the Father’s mind is not supported by further segments of the Gospel of John. For example, what did Jesus mean when He stated, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was”? Note carefully the “I” of Jesus’ statement. Jesus, as a person who can say “I,” experienced glory “with” the Father “before the world was.” This evidences a personal preexistence of Jesus with the Father prior to Jesus’ incarnation. Some UPC teachers explain the dialogue of prayer between Jesus and the Father in this way: Jesus’ human nature was praying to His divine nature. We, however, must ask whether it is possible for natures to communicate with each other, or whether it is more reasonable to believe that persons communicate with each other!
Second, if there is only one person in the Godhead (as the UPC believes), and that person is Jesus, how does this affect the doctrine of the atonement of Jesus and the doctrine of the mediatorship of Jesus? How, in UPC theology, does Jesus make atonement TO the Father, and how does he mediate for us TO the Father? In the UPC literature that I have read, Jesus’ human nature made atonement to His divine nature, and Jesus’ human nature mediates for us to His divine nature. One reason we might reject this interpretation lies in the Old Testament, where the person of a priest of Israel brings the offering of atonement made to God (See Lev. 4). Another reason is that the plain meaning of 1 John 2:1 (“we have an advocate with the Father”; emphasis mine) is that two persons are involved, Jesus and the Father, when Jesus mediates for us.
With these kinds of beliefs, the UPC cannot be considered a Christian group. Its denial of the Trinity and its view of Jesus place it outside the pale of classic, biblical orthodoxy.