Power and Control: A Fitting Epilogue to the Toronto Blessing

Power and Control: A Fitting Epilogue to the Toronto Blessing January 25, 2020

Hi and welcome back! For a while now, we’ve been talking about the Toronto Blessing (TTB). That’s a huge evangelical movement that broke out in Toronto in 1994, then spread to most of the evangelical Christian world. As our community here discussed it and engaged with it as a topic, some very familiar themes rose to our attention: power, control, and authoritarianism on both sides of the leadership divide. Today, I’ll show you the conversation I had with an ex-Christian who was very much a part of this movement as it happened–and what we both realized as we talked about it.

gherkin tower in london
(Karl Bewick.) The weird building is called the Gherkin. I guess its nickname could have been worse! Also: that triangular thing on the building to the left looked exactly like a “play” button on a video at first glance. For a moment there, I experienced a short-circuit in my paradigm processing center.

(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 TTBThe Chaos Created by TTBThe Problem With the Christian Slapfight Over TTBTTB Does The UK; LeekSoup Saw It Happen.)

An Interview.

As our community first discussed the Toronto Blessing (TTB), a few folks spoke up about having actually been active evangelicals when TTB broke out in the United Kingdom (UK)! One of them, LeekSoup, graciously consented to allow me to interview him about his memories of TTB’s takeover there.

I’d already read quite a lot about TTB by then, so I had some detailed questions. LeekSoup’s kind answers to these questions helped move me in a lot of new directions in my research–and helped spark and then test various ideas I had about it and the influences that led up to it.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Gherkin.

Like Dominoes Falling Into Place: tik-tik-tik.

After LeekSoup had generously answered my questions, we both began to notice some themes emerging from them. I felt amazed to see how quickly and effortlessly the Toronto Blessing itself, as a movement, fell into narrative lines.

As you can probably guess, those lines led straight to authoritarianism:

  • Who owns the power to dictate what a church member or leader will or won’t be allowed to do
  • The process by which that power gets expressed, seized, transferred, denied, ignored, trampled, or just vetoed
  • How churches respond to trends that might shift existing lines of power
  • What happens before and after these inevitable power struggles erupt
  • How individuals in these authoritarian systems engage with power–or seize it for themselves
  • How leaders try to get in front of potential power shifts to stop it from transferring

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:

The Toronto Blessing was very obviously not divine. Nothing about it speaks to a divine or even supernatural or even weird origin.

Going You One Further.

And now I’ll go you one further:

Nowhere can we more easily confirm the purely natural origins of the Toronto Blessing than in studying how it proliferated so far and so quickly in the United Kingdom.

That’s what today’s post is about: how the Toronto Blessing confirms and validates all the stuff we talk about here regarding authoritarianism and evangelical/fundagelical control-lust.

TTB happened because evangelicals needed something like it to happen.

When they’d gotten what they wanted out of it, they let it fade away. It’s really that simple–and that devastating to their claim that any gods had any hand in these events.

A Split Itching to Happen.

Before the Toronto Blessing broke out in evangelicalism, the doctrinal and cultural divide between fundamentalists and evangelicals couldn’t have been deeper or more set-in-stone. But that would change–and dramatically!

But that wasn’t the only divide. Evangelical and fundamentalist churches functioned along starkly authoritarian lines for the most part. Within evangelicalism alone, some groups were already way more rowdy and expressive than others. Christians called this rowdy, expressive element charismatic evangelicalism (“charismatic” is Christianese for what Christians call “gifts of the spirit” — all that showy performative jazz like speaking in tongues, prophecies, rolling on the floor, hopping or dancing in euphoric bliss, magical healing, etc).

When elders or members grabbed a little too hard for power within a group, friction broke out. And when someone pushed for a more sedate group to start getting more rowdy during church services and prayer meetings, other members and leaders could be counted upon to refuse to budge–which also created friction.

So a number of evangelical denominations found themselves in the middle of a huge doctrinal fight about exactly how they would be Jesus-ing. From the Church of England (which had been quietly colonized by a whole bunch of charismatic evangelicals) to the Evangelical Alliance (a powerful umbrella group representing many, many evangelical churches of all kinds), suddenly every leader in that end of Christianity had to make some big decisions about exactly how they’d respond to TTB.

A Schism Within a Schism Within a Church Within a Church.

Over the previous couple of decades, a decidedly charismatic flavor had stolen into many evangelical groups in the UK. Even the Church of England couldn’t escape those tendrils of change.

LeekSoup’s church community sure wasn’t immune to the power-struggle going on around how churches would respond to those influences. Then, when the Toronto Blessing gave the UK sloppy kisses from Canada, it really shook the congregation up. If his leaders talked much at all about it, they didn’t do much of it before the movement was in full swing.

As he said:

In hindsight, maybe a bit more discussion would have prevented those problems. There was some other stuff going on as well. The one elder who quit my church was definitely the most authoritarian of the elders. . . It’s not surprising that the authoritarians left [over TTB arguments]. TTB wasn’t something that could be controlled from the front. It was a very democratic movement – anyone could be affected by it, and anyone could take prominence in it. If you were the person rolling round the most and making the most bizarre noises, then it was all eyes on you. Authoritarians were faced with a choice – risk their dignity and out-weird everybody else, or decide it was excess of some kind and put on a Sam the Eagle frown about it.

That’s where my ninja whiskers first tingled:

“TTB wasn’t something that could be controlled from the front.”

Huh, how bout that?

A Slapfight Erupts.

But it wasn’t just his church trying to get out in front of what had turned out to be a very “democratic movement.”

What really got me was the very next thing the [college’s Christian Union, or CU] guy did [after nixing discussion of TTB] was pray a long prayer asking for God’s blessing including the fairly standard request for God to send revival. I remember complaining to my Dad that the CU wouldn’t allow anyone to discuss this thing that could be revival and then were praying for revival, which I just thought was stupid.

LeekSoup’s church did more charismatic stuff than other evangelicals did at the time, but they already faced power struggles:

We were already the ‘crazy Charismatic’ church in the area so this was just taking it one step further, and in the eyes of our detractors we would have been just even more in error and deception. The biggest rows were within our own ranks, and they weren’t really rows about the Toronto Blessing, as much as about issues of control. TTB perhaps focused those disputes and meant people actually had to voice their disagreements. We lost an elder and a worship leader and a few other people. [Their sister church, which was Baptist] lost a good chunk of their membership. . .

I know it became an issue that almost split the Evangelical Alliance because the non-Charismatic churches were very worried about it, and the Charismatic evangelicals thought everyone else should recognise the work of God. The Alliance survived though, ready to lurch into its next big divisive crisis.

He wondered later if maybe “TTB was just the excuse for a bunfight that everyone was waiting for.”

Swiftly-Mounting Opposition.

From what I’ve read, that’s exactly what it represented: a sort of intensification of the issues evangelicals already couldn’t resolve except through fiat–which none of them would accept from their opponents.

The Christians who opposed TTB spoke up quickly and early–for all the good it did. I mentioned Clifford Hill not long ago as one evangelical who super-opposed TTB as well as everyone and everything involved with it. Well, he’s got his own product to sell–and that product competed with TTB’s product. Though a lot of evangelicals give him a lot of attention, others regard him as a wackadoo. Per LeekSoup:

[Clifford Hill is] a nut too. His Prophecy Today outfit is all about Israel and how Christians should support Israel no matter what. I’m not surprised he was against TTB or Kansas City Prophets or anything else. Clifford Hill thinks there’s only one person Christians should listen to – and that’s Clifford Hill.

Not at all surprising, is it? Authoritarians don’t trust what they can’t control utterly and all the way down to its genetic code. What they can’t control, they oppose with every bit of force they can muster. They are not completely naive, disinterested bystanders in these fights. They’ve got dogs in them too–always. If someone’s Jesus-ing with a competing group, then Clifford Hill loses that person’s subscription to his newsletter and their obedience.

That’s how it goes with all of the Christians fighting over every doctrine and movement in Christianity. Their side writes their checks and pays their bills–literally if not metaphorically. That simple reality interferes with their judgment.

As Above, So Below.

When the first church experiencing TTB, Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV), got booted out of its denomination around the end of 1995/beginning of 1996, Vineyard’s leader and TAV’s pastor both tried to put a good face on it. But it wasn’t a mutual breakup at all. As LeekSoup recalls:

Carol Wimber wrote  (in her 1999 book The Way It Was) about how John met with the TAV leaders and there was some disagreement about the Blessing, which resulted in the TAV leaving the Vineyard church group. I can’t remember now if they left on their own or if other churches left as well. Carol painted that as a sad thing, but necessary because TAV needed to do their own thing and so on, but reading between the lines it was a control issue. John and the national Vineyard leadership were worried the controversy around Toronto would affect the reputation of Vineyard, but the TAV leaders didn’t want to rein back on any of their practices, so they went their separate ways. . .

Now that I’m apostate, I see how the parallels between the rows in my church and the rows in the Vineyard denomination were all really about control and who gets to be in charge. It was the same issue from the local to the international level.

No, it wasn’t at all voluntary–and yes, a couple of other churches did indeed leave the Vineyard along with TAV. In fact, that link offers a quote from a Vineyard leader, National Coordinator Todd Hunter, saying that John Arnott “had been repeatedly warned and that his conduct amounted to ‘insubordination.'”

Moreover, that warning came straight from John Wimber–the head honcho of Vineyard himself who clearly considered the denomination like his very own baby to protect unto death. Yes, Vineyard’s reputation was starting to face repercussions from these nutjobs. And just one month previously this same guy Todd Hunter had informed Christianity Today that “if John thought the Airport Vineyard were hurting the body of Christ, he would shut things down in a second.”

Well, apparently that’s exactly what happened, and sure enough that’s exactly what he did! But at least two other Vineyard churches didn’t like seeing Wimber laying down the law about their euphoric release valve!

The Narrative Taking Form Before Our Very Eyes.

At some point, I wrote this note to LeekSoup:

I noticed as well the narrative shaping from your answers — a lot of it does seem like it comes down to control and authoritarian flexing on the part of leaders. Wow. It really does sound like that’s exactly what happened: this huge group performance trend exploded out of Toronto, and leaders had to work out how to get in front of it–or try to take control of it as best they could–or watch it flash right out of their hands.

He replied: 

As I wrote the piece I realised for the first time just how much “control” was an issue. The legacy was a split in our church leadership, a rift with our cousin [Baptist] church, and on a higher level arguments in the Evangelical Alliance. TAV itself got basically booted from Vineyard.

When I did church history in my degree there was a discussion about “prophecy vs order” – basically new things happen all the time and create a tension between the established way of doing things. It wasn’t new in the Protestant Reformation – it’s been happening throughout recorded church history. Montanism, Nestorianism, monastic movements, mystics etc. It usually results in a tension with the existing structures. Sometimes it becomes integrated into the structure. TTB fell into that “prophecy” tradition of challenging church “order,” the established way of doing things. (That was how I saw it when I was 20.)

That made a lot of sense to me. The most serious criticisms of TTB and similar movements always seem to center around disorder vs. order.

She Guessed They Just Weren’t “Ready.”

In the comments somewhere, someone linked a sociologist’s paper written about the Toronto Blessing. The writer of it was completely on board with TTB and attended some of the meetings at TAV while it was going on. She declares a couple times that Jesus totally sent a revival to his church, but gosh darn it, the church just wasn’t ready to be shaken up right then by his awesomeness. LeekSoup replied to this observation:

I guess it will always crop up in authoritarian institutions – eventually people will find a way to rebel. And Holy Spirit disorder is acceptable – if the leaders try to quash it then they are basically blasphemous. So you get this tension where the leaders claim to have authority from God and to be carrying out his will, but then among the proles God is inspiring something new and unsanctioned.

I agreed:

Christians get this need to push against the boundaries, but these movements are deeply authoritarian so it’s like hey meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Without a lot of effort, people in broken systems like right-wing Christianity will keep re-creating the imbalances of power that broke their old system and made it so deeply toxic and dysfunctional and abusive. “Jesus” sure won’t help them avoid those pitfalls.

Creating a New Power Base.

It sure seems to me that ultimately, the Toronto Blessing was about a new group of authoritarian leaders hijacking religious language and processes to create a new power base for themselves that bypassed the current authoritarian leaders. As LeekSoup said,

Yes, the prophets either end up hounded out of the institution (Montanism, Quakers etc) or become institutionalised [ie, embraced as part of a new power structure]. It happens on an individual level too – a “prophetic” person who clashes with the church order might get booted out. Or if they gain power, their prophecy becomes the new order. And one day, a new prophet later on will rise against it, thus continuing the creative tension and the dialectic.

This happens in science and medicine and stuff as well. New ideas have to prove themselves legitimate before they are accepted. The difference is in the quality of evidence. Power struggles tend to resolve in the direction of facts eventually in the scientific war of ideas.

And that’s exactly why science and reality ultimately win over religion in the war of ideas, as well as why the Toronto Blessing itself didn’t matter even a tiny bit to anybody outside the evangelical sheepfold.

Segue: Science, Facts, and Truth.

The scientific method isn’t perfect–any more than people could be perfect.

However, its processes were designed by people who wanted to do their best to eliminate subjectivity and bias from their pursuit of little-f facts. They wanted to built their beliefs and worldview from those little-f facts–and not from anything that was not actually credibly supported as a little-f fact. And Christians can’t offer that, as much as they love to say they do. What they claim as a big-T Truth is made up of a bunch of nonsense that contains not one single little-f fact at all.

Years and years ago, when I was a wee little Pentecostal teen, I seriously thought my religion was built from nothing but little-f facts.

I thought that tons of contemporaries had written about Jesus–by which I mean the actual definition of the word, which is people who lived at the exact same time as the subject and wrote their accounts when it was still fresh news, since so many Christians muddy the waters so much about the matter. I thought that miracles totally happened and were credibly attested everywhere in the annals of science. And I thought that the scientific method could be applied to any claim made about my religion and it would easily survive that engagement.

But when I innocently suggested applying those sorts of tests to our practices, I got shot down out of the sky by my pastor.

He knew that religion never survives a test like that. I didn’t yet. And he didn’t want to tell me so, because he’d made peace with it for a very comfortable paycheck and a lot of power. But he also knew that I entirely lacked those potent motivations. Consequently, I wouldn’t be nearly as willing as he was to put up with a lack of veracity in my beliefs.

Why the Toronto Blessing Didn’t Matter.

That’s why my experiences in Pentecostalism–which I considered categorical PROOF YES PROOF of my religion’s claims, the same as my peers thought–didn’t matter to anybody else.

They weren’t objectively real.

And the people I was trying so hard to persuade knew that, while I didn’t.

Now imagine millions of Teen Cas Pentecostals out there trying hard to persuade people of their claims. And the people listening to them know, or at least strongly suspect, that those claims are based on frantic, desperate hope and cruelly-exploited ignorance and fear and greed. Of course those experiences mattered to Teen Cas: she worked herself up into thinking she had had them, and yes, she had suffered from that frantic, desperate hope as well as the ignorance and fear and greed to need those claims to be true. Those millions of Teen Cas Pentecostals out there whip themselves into a frenzy on the regular to keep it all working in their heads.

That’s the Toronto Blessing in a nutshell. That’s it. Leaders utilizing trendy movements to solidify or gain power; members sensing a shift in the wind-currents of power and leaping to take advantage of it; millions of Teen Cas Pentecostals aching for something real in a whole muddle of subjectivity–and only finding it when they deconvert.

And next time we meet up, I’ll show you what happens when one of those Teen Cas Pentecostals finally recognizes what all those little-f facts really add up to.

NEXT UP: Making sense of weird experiences after deconversion: the aftermath of the Toronto Blessing. LeekSoup joins us again on this side of the commbox! See you soon for it!


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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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