The Christian Slapfight Over the Toronto Blessing Reveals a Dealbreaker Problem

The Christian Slapfight Over the Toronto Blessing Reveals a Dealbreaker Problem January 18, 2020

Man alive, ain’t nothing more entertaining to me than watching Christians argue about doctrine. And their slapfights around the Toronto Blessing (TTB) might be some of the best reality-TV the religion’s had in recent memory. This whole thing happened decades ago, but they’re still not ready to make nice–even at the cost of their entire religion’s credibility. Today, let me show you what they argued about, and why these huge doctrinal fights should matter to them–but just don’t.

jesus-ing all wrong at a Christian church service of some kind
(Carlos Arthur M.R.) Someone, somewhere thinks these folks are Jesus-ing completely wrong.

(Previous TTB-related posts: What ‘Jesus’ Is Doing Lately Instead of Being UsefulAwakenings and Other Christian LiesThe Tangled WebTodd Bentley’s Amazing Escape From AccountabilityA Muddle of InfluencesAuthoritarianism in TTB; The Chaos Created by TTB.)

Switching Gears.

The Toronto Blessing (TTB) first broke out in January 1994 in the Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV) church. Its pastor, John Arnott, had decidedly been trying hard for years to create exactly the right environment for such a movement to begin. His co-creators, like John Wimber of the Vineyard denomination itself, had as well.

To make TTB happen, these leaders brought their flocks around to the idea of euphoric outbursts as valid expressions of spirituality. This process took years. The idea came hard to many of these Christians, however. Such outbursts were the province, they felt, of fundamentalists–not evangelicals like themselves. Evangelicals might shout encouragement sometimes or raise their hands where they sat in their pews of a Sunday morning, but they did not dance or faint and they most certainly did not crow like roosters and growl like dogs, thankyewverrahmuch. They were not charismaniacs, to borrow the pejorative term. Hmph!

So yes, the effort met with some resistance. But slowly, slowly, these leaders wrought the change needed to their culture. In the process, they helped usher in the merger of their tribe with their once-despised and looked-down-upon fundamentalist brethren–but I don’t think they cared, if they knew at all that this merger was going to be an inevitable outgrowth of the change they’d birthed.

However, the change never took completely. See, a lot of those behaviors in TTB had already been identified by the evangelical tribe as evidence of demonic activity!

So a new battle began for the heart and soul of evangelicalism. And evangelicals waged it with deadly earnest.

“What In the World?” Indeed.

“Virtually every time I told people where I pastored, they asked me about the Toronto Blessing.”

Dave Collins, a Toronto pastor (1995)

Despite widespread misgivings about those behaviors, TTB spread very quickly from TAV to other churches. Evangelicals loved this new movement–and they were already very attuned to seeking out movements like it, thanks to their leaders. (One nickname for evangelicals that I often spotted while reading about TTB was movement-gelicals. Feel free to point and laugh. I sure did.) A September 1995 writeup in Christianity Today describes the local scene in language reminiscent of a faddish craze:

A year ago few people, Christian or secular, knew anything about the small Vineyard church located just west of Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Now certain airlines offer a discount for travelers who want to fly in for the nightly, Tuesday-through-Sunday renewal meetings. “Toronto Life” magazine has even billed the Toronto Blessing as the top tourist attraction of 1994.

In May 1994, the Vineyard denomination put out what they hoped would be the definitive, all-singing all-dancing document to lay evangelicals’ doubts to rest about the bizarre behaviors observed in TTB. Sympathetic evangelical pastor Bill Jackson wrote it for the Vineyard, calling it “What In The World Is Happening To Us?”

The very beginning of Jackson’s paper starts with a history showing how quickly TTB was leaping from church to church. Clearly, Vineyard wanted to get out in front of accusations of somewhat-less-than-divine sources for their new movement. Jackson made sure to smash as many Bible verses as he humanly could into this section to support what evangelicals were doing in TTB churches.

(Did you ever see the 1990 movie Hunt for Red October? Remember the line about Russians never taking a dump without a plan? That’s how evangelicals like to think of themselves with Bible verses.)

And Then the Silencing Tactics.

The second part of Jackson’s paper, called “God, I Still Don’t Get It!” aims at silencing specific objections. If burying objections in Bible verses didn’t do the trick, surely the tribe’s arsenal of silencing tactics would! Right? Right..?

On that note, I had to laugh about him burying “It’s So Disorderly” midway through his list. Considering that was the primary objection I saw from other evangelicals, it’s funny that he put it where he did. The whole list is simply one long attempt to poison the well with strawman tilting. The silencer lists a possible objection, then answers it–with an implication that this answer is not only definitive but devastating. It’s easy to defang, but evangelicals aren’t used to standing up to it.

If you read this paper, don’t miss Jackson’s final silencing attempt: “It always smells in a nursery.”

WWJD? Load up his diaper, obviously. Jesus did a stinkie! Better get some woman to go clean it up!

But Vineyard’s national coordinator at the time, Todd Hunter, offered one ominous warning a scant year later in that September 1995 Christianity Today:

“If John [Wimber, the international director of Vineyard] thought the Airport Vineyard were hurting the body of Christ, he would shut things down in a second.”

Vineyard, it seems, had decided to adopt a wait and see posture on TTB. The denomination’s top leaders weren’t all-in. Not by a longshot.

But they couldn’t condemn it outright, not yet.

The Usual Infighting.

As always, Christians disagreed about TTB’s practices–as well as the doctrinal positions that had led to those practices.

On the one side, TTB’s supporters had a ready supply of tons of Bible verses that encouraged the notion of Christians lurching around as if drunk, making weird noises generally, laughing uncontrollably, and all the rest. These supporters claimed that TTB had come to “shake Christians up to wake them up,” to borrow Bill Jackson’s phrase, as well as to “humble” them and anoint them for service. Above all, it renewed their faith and devotion, which is why it gained the name of blessing rather than revival. (It made almost no Jesus sales to new customers.)

On the other, though, Christians had a bunch of objections.

Todd Hunter turns up again in a December 1995 article in LA Times. Now he felt that these “manifestations” interrupted church services. He said, regarding one woman who’d broken into loud laughter during a service, that his people would have removed her from the sanctuary. Reading between the lines of that story, it seems like he was also concerned that evangelicals in his denomination might chase these experiences as prerequisites to performing charity or undertaking church projects.

Also in that same story, we find Hank Hanegraaff, the leader of the Christian Research Institute, declaring that TTB “could be a road to the occult.” Other leaders standing against TTB thought it represented a serious problem with “discernment,” maybe even “a strong delusion” straight from Satan. And one guy in that story even thinks TTB services resembled voodoo worship. The magazine didn’t say anything about the other accusations, but they did rush to debunk that last one–it was just too explosive to be allowed to stand without comment.

The Spiritual Yardstick Turns Out to Be 100% Subjective.

When I was fundamentalist myself, well before TTB broke out, I felt great sadness that my evangelical friends looked down upon my religious tribe’s practices.

When my evangelical friends got overwhelmed by what we all imagined was the spirit of our god, they didn’t dance or cry out or hop around or run like cannonballs through the aisles of the church. They just sat in their seats (not pews–their churches tended to use folding chairs) and maybe raised their hands. My evangelical friends spoke in tongues, yes, but theirs sounded quiet and subdued compared to the rambunctious shouted speeches and admonitions of my peers. When I visited their churches, it felt to me like their entire sanctuary had been drained of blood as well as joy.

It was hard to imagine what held them there. But held they were, and held fast. When my then-boyfriend and I tried to reason them into joining our church, they reacted with outright horror. Absolutely not, they said. Absolutely, positively not–what, and open ourselves up to Satan?

That’s when I found out they thought my tribe stood in dreadful danger of that exact fate.

What my tribe considered a sublime expression of faith, their tribe considered just human pretense at best–and outright possession at worst. They wanted no part of it at all.

And there was nothing whatsoever that we could say that could convince them otherwise.

Bible Verses As Battlebots.

Many, many nights we argued for hours over various Christian topics. My memories of those squabbles are tinged with my sharp frustration and bittersweet feelings of helplessness and concern for their immortal souls.

We all thought for sure that we followed the Bible and did what Jesus wanted. Of course we all had Bible verses that applied, we thought, exactly to our arguments at hand–both in support of our own position and in opposition to any others. But confusingly, sometimes we all used exactly the same Bible verses, just interpreted differently. We’d spin them out into the arena like they were Battlebots, proudly festooning them with banners of original Greek and Hebrew, dude! And we’d smash them against each other all night, cuz this is what fundagelical college kids do instead of sex and fun parties and stuff.

Actual Battlebot tournaments end in winners, usually. However, ours never did.

Never.

Nobody in these arguments ever changed their mind about any doctrine we ever chose to argue about. Biff and I could not be persuaded that our tribe’s practices were anything but divine. My evangelical friends could not be persuaded that those practices were ever divine.

I’m quite certain that it bothered my friends as much as it bothered me that none of us could find agreement.

But we had no idea how bad the situation was. If we had, our arguments might have taken a very different turn.

“The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History.”

Our friend Neil Carter, over at Godless in Dixie, refers to the big problem that faced me and my friends back then as the most fantastically failed prayer in history. It is, simply put, Jesus’ absolutely failed prayer regarding his followers. We find it in John 17:20-23:

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Oof size maximum. I mean, critics can point to all kinds of stuff that disproves Christians’ claims of Jesus’ divinity, like his hilariously failed prophecy of returning Real Soon Now™ or his followers’ absolute inability to credibly reproduce even one of his purported miracles. Sure. We can and we do. But really, this one here is the Big Kahuna of failure. Jesus flat-out tells his followers that unity will both mark them as his followers and establish his legitimacy.

Owwwwwwwch. And yet what Christians have, instead, is a religion marked more by disunity than unity. They can’t agree on a single doctrine or practice. Even when Catholicism strangled the religion and seized its throat in an iron fist, they couldn’t stop heresies and other such alternative interpretations from erupting all through the religion.

A Situation That Bothered Pentecostal Cas.

Y’all, I cannot even tell you how much this situation bothered me when I was Christian.

I didn’t know about that failed prayer Jesus offered up in John. It’s just one of many verses I somehow never fully perceived while I was Christian despite having read the Bible front to back and making Bible study a regular part of my devotions. A lot of ex-Christians run into this exact same problem, so I know it wasn’t just me being lackadaisical, either. Had I known about it, my concern would have rocketed straight into the stratosphere.

Even so, our disunity bothered me. Sure, I teased Biff about his longstanding habit of “sizing up” every single Christian he ever met by figuring out which beliefs they held, so he could know exactly how to argue with them and what about. I called this sizing-up process his spiritual yardstick. But the teasing concealed a great deal of concern that it was even possible to have Christians be so completely at odds with, well, everything.

Somehow, our friends had studied the same Bible we had and seen the same verses we had, had prayed to the same god we had, and had the earnestness that we did, and yet had come out with a totally different interpretation of those verses than we had.

At the time, I did know of another relevant Bible verse: God is not the author of confusion. And all these different interpretations of the same verses sure looked like confusion to me. If our beliefs were true, that confusion should not have been even vaguely possible.

And yet there we were.

For What It’s Worth.

It should matter enormously to Christians that so much disunity can be found in their ranks.

It should bug them to pieces that they have who-even-knows-how-many quirky lil competing interpretations of their sourcebook.

Most of all it should destroy their peace of mind that somehow, a sincere Christian can try really hard to discern what their imaginary friend wants and still manage to come out with a totally contradictory answer from what another earnest “seeker” comes away thinking Jesus wants.

It cannot possibly be more obvious that nothing divine at all directs anything that any of them are doing. And they have only themselves to blame.

And the awful part–for evangelicals then and for fundagelicals as a whole–is that even if it destroys their credibility as a religion, not a single mother’s child of ’em are willing to do anything substantive to change the situation.

Why They Don’t Care.

Few of them care about stuff like disunity. Oh, I mean, yeah, sure, they talk about it. But the problem facing them is one of deep pride, which isn’t nearly as ironic as they’d probably like.

Ultimately, none of them are willing to give ground to any other Christian to achieve the unity they say is so important. One evangelical, Iain Murray, summarizes the pervading belief in a quote here:

The true cause of all religious disunity is the addition of man’s teaching to the Scripture.

See how that belief makes it almost impossible for fervent Christians to change their mind to fit in with some competing viewpoint? If they change, then obviously they were the ones who “added man’s teaching to the Scripture.” Obviously! And that is only rarely going to happen. And if some other Christian believes differently, then that one’s the one who added “man’s teaching” to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. A fervent TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is not about to water down the scripture, which is what they call it when someone who believes exactly what they do changes in any way.

I’d sooner expect to see an evangelical lick the naughty bits of a Lucifer statue than to admit their beliefs were the ones that had to shift.

Saji George, “Tom’s Doubts #14.” (Sept 2011)

Disunity in Christianity has only gotten worse since it was invented–not better, never better. It can’t ever become better. The only way it can go is to fracture worse and worse.

And Christians would rather have utter chaos and disunity than admit that a competing take on Christianity makes way more sense than their own. The Toronto Blessing only put that truth into sharper relief than maybe we had seen before.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then: The Toronto Blessing took the United Kingdom by storm. We’ll see if we can suss out how that happened. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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