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A Spiritual Split : Anaheim-Based Pentecostal Sect Ousts Controversial Group

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TIMES RELIGION WRITER

In a split certain to send tremors throughout Pentecostal Christianity, a controversial Canadian congregation known for its ecstatic worship style that became known worldwide as the “Toronto blessing” has been ousted by its Anaheim-based parent denomination.

Pastor John Arnott of the Airport Vineyard Fellowship in Toronto said he was told last week by the Assn. of Vineyard Fellowships that his 1,000-member congregation had gone “over the edge” by encouraging worshipers to be so filled with the Holy Spirit that they would bark like dogs, swoon to the floor and laugh uncontrollably during services.

“We weren’t asked to leave,” Arnott said in an interview with The Times. “We were told we were out.”

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Word that the denomination has severed ties with Arnott is expected to have repercussions among Pentecostal groups throughout the world, known for their own exuberant worship services, which include such practices as speaking in tongues.

Since reports of healings and dramatic encounters with the Holy Spirit began almost two years ago, Arnott’s congregation has become a mecca for Christians, especially from the United States and England, seeking what they call more vibrant expression and proof of their faith. Even among more traditional Christians in old-line and evangelical denominations, the “Toronto blessing” is widely known.

Todd Hunter, national coordinator for the Vineyard Fellowships, said Saturday that he did not expect Arnott’s departure to precipitate a wider split within the organization, which has an annual budget of $800,000 and 200,000 members in 600 congregations worldwide.

But at least two other churches, including the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Pasadena, have asked to leave the denomination. Senior Pastor Che Ahn of the Pasadena church told The Times he asked to leave Thursday after learning of Arnott’s ouster. Arnott and Ahn said they plan to inform their churches of the break at services today.

Hunter said that a church in Missouri has also asked to leave.

The major disagreement, the denomination said, is over Arnott’s emphasis on Christians being dramatically filled by the Holy Spirit before they are adequately equipped to evangelize, start new congregations and minister to the poor and others.

Manifestations of being filled by the Holy Spirit, Arnott said, include uncontrolled laughing, shaking, loud moaning and falling to the floor. There have also been reports of healings.

“You need to give yourself permission to take time to soak in the presence of the Lord,” Arnott told an estimated 600 worshipers at the Pasadena church Friday night. While he spoke, a woman writhed on the floor in front of him, laughing uncontrollably.

“We’ve spent years trying to motivate people to get out there and do evangelism, or get out there . . . and talk to the people, visit the poor. [But] it always ends up becoming a religious sense of duty without the motivation of God’s love. I’m here to say that if you will soak in the presence of the Holy Spirit a couple of hours every day, it will so revolutionize your life you won’t be able to stop yourself from finding a place to serve God,” Arnott said.

Arnott said critics should pay less attention to the dramatic “manifestations” of the spirit and more attention to how the experiences change the lives of those involved.

Hunter said the Pentecostal denomination does not disagree that godly actions can flow from such experiences. “We just don’t want the whole body of Christ waiting around to be blessed by the ‘Toronto blessing’ before they can do normal acts of obedience and kindness and share their faith.”

He also said if he had been leading the service Friday night, he would have had the laughing woman quietly removed. “We wouldn’t let laughing interrupt the word of God.”

Despite one disagreement over when to evangelize, Arnott said the denomination has “taken heat” from others about allowing him wide latitude in encouraging “manifestations of the Holy Spirit.”

For example, Christianity Today magazine reported that Hank Hanegraaff, who heads the Christian Research Institute, warned that ministries like Arnott’s represent something “extremely dangerous that could be a road to the occult.”

The magazine also quoted others as saying that the emphasis on holy laughter could represent a “strong delusion” from Satan.

Arnott told the worshipers in Pasadena to “please have more faith in God’s ability to bless you than Satan’s ability to deceive you!”

As long as a year ago, John Wimber, the denomination’s founder and international director, called a special board meeting in Anaheim to review Arnott’s ministry. Hunter said Arnott had been repeatedly warned and that his conduct amounted to “insubordination.”

Hunter said the denomination’s decision to oust Arnott appeared to catch the Canadian pastor by surprise. Hunter said Arnott called it unfair and complained that the decision was made without “due process.”

But Hunter said the denomination’s officials had given Arnott at least a year to change his ways. Hunter said they considered that to have been due process.

Despite the differences, both Hunter and Arnott tried to put the best light on the break. Arnott repeatedly expressed Christian love and admiration for Wimber. For his part, Hunter said, “We’re all trying to make [the break] as amicable as possible. We’re all very concerned about minimizing the issue within [the church].”

Said Ahn, the Pasadena pastor: “We love him [Wimber] and respect him. But we do have a difference.”


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