My third confession in last month’s e-teaching—an admission of visiting an Assembly of God church in the summer of 1976 and experiencing what they called “the baptism in the Holy Spirit”—leads to my fourth, fifth and sixth confessions this month. But first, some background.
One week after my Pentecostal experience, I began my freshman year at Penn State University with the intention of majoring in forestry. I soon became involved in a campus ministry called Lamb Fellowship. It was led by a group of young men who had all been influenced by the Charismatic Renewal Movement—begun in 1960 when Episcopalian priest Dennis Bennet announced to his California congregation that he had been baptized in the Holy Spirit and had spoken in tongues. By the mid-1970s, the Charismatic Renewal was sweeping through traditional denominations across the U.S. and around the world. Those were amazing years.
Lamb Fellowship was fully in the charismatic flow, and it was at one of their weekly Friday evening gatherings that I witnessed my first healing miracle—a nearsighted young woman who had worn thick glasses most of her life instantly experienced corrected vision during worship, making her glasses unnecessary.
It was during my first semester at Penn State that I felt a call to vocational ministry. My calling was very compelling, and ever since I received it, I’ve never felt like I’ve had a choice concerning my profession. As much as I loved the outdoors (my reason for planning for a career in forestry), I knew that I could never be satisfied doing anything else but serving in some kind of ministry full-time.
My parents encouraged me to finish four years at Penn State and then continue on to seminary, but I was sure Jesus would be returning soon. I didn’t want Him to come back to find me studying history, psychology and philosophy!
A guidance counselor told me a quicker route to ministry was via a two-year program at a Bible School, and so I wrote to many of the more well-known Bible Colleges in the U.S. to request their catalogs and applications. To my chagrin, all of their replies contained negative statements regarding the growing Charismatic Renewal in general and regarding speaking in tongues specifically. I was not welcome! That was my first of many strange experiences of being rejected by professing Christians because I believed the Bible or had a biblical experience.
So I began a search for a Bible School that believed the Bible. Looking back, I don’t know why I never investigated if the Assemblies of God denomination had any Bible Schools. But one of the leaders at Lamb Fellowship told me about a Bible School that had recently been founded by an influential Pentecostal/Charismatic teacher named Kenneth Hagin, whom I had never heard of. When I received the catalog and application from Hagin’s Rhema Bible Training Center, I was relieved to discover that, not only were they not opposed to speaking in tongues, but that they hoped their students did speak in tongues! I applied and was accepted. And that is my fourth confession, something that I generally don’t reveal: I graduated from Kenneth Hagin’s Bible School.
And I’ll add a fifth confession: I’m glad for it (although with some caveats).
Perhaps you’ve heard of Kenneth Hagin. He eventually became known as the founder of the “Word of Faith Movement” and has subsequently been widely lauded and vilified. He died at age 86 in 2003. I sat under his teaching at Rhema for two years, so I feel like I can offer a fair appraisal. Let me tell you some things that you may or may not know about him. Rather than focus on negatives as is so often done, let me highlight some positives.
Kenneth Hagin started out as a Southern Baptist, but as he would humorously say, he “received the left foot of fellowship” from them when he received the same Pentecostal experience as me. He then gravitated to the Assemblies of God, and he eventually pastored five different Assembly of God churches in Texas over a period of 12 years. I mention these things only to affirm that Hagin preached the same gospel preached by Southern Baptist and Assembly of God ministers. He was completely orthodox on the fundamentals of the gospel.
Hagin’s teaching ministry covered a range of topics, but he emphasized faith, healing and spiritual gifts. He felt he was specifically called to teach on those subjects, and he was very qualified to teach on all three, having survived a premature birth in 1917 at which he weighed less than two pounds, only to live his childhood with a deformed heart and a blood disease that ultimately left him bed-ridden and at death’s door. (Hagin’s grandmother almost buried him in her backyard after his birth, but she noticed a spark of life, so she began feeding him baby formula through an eye dropper.) Eventually as a teenager, through simple faith in Jesus’ promise in Mark 11:23-24, Hagin experienced a healing miracle. He was not a theorist when it came to divine healing.
Because of his own protracted illnesses, he had an enormous amount of compassion for those who were suffering sickness, and because of his healing experience, he naturally wanted to share his discovery of healing through faith with as many people as he could. He made great sacrifices to that end throughout his decades of ministry. It was, however, his strong emphasis on faith and healing that caused so many to speak against him, which is tragic, in light of the many times that Jesus told people whom He healed, “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus was indisputably a “faith healer,” and so I think we should be careful when we use that term derisively.
Regarding spiritual gifts (listed in 1 Cor. 12:8-10), in my four decades of being a Christian, I’ve known of no one who had more experience in supernatural manifestations. (I will tell you shortly of one that greatly impacted my life.)
Hagin frequently attempted to correct the excesses that were constantly springing up among “Word of Faith” teachers and preachers, but he did it graciously, not naming names. Sadly, very few of the more popular Word of Faith teachers heeded his correction. Many seemed to be competing with each other to gain popularity among the biblically ignorant by sharing their newest “revelation,” revelations that were often derived from isolating Bible verses or alleged spiritual experiences. Many were attempts to outshine Kenneth Hagin’s teaching, attempts that were way out of scriptural bounds.
As the Word of Faith movement gravitated more and more towards “prosperity teaching,” Hagin made a robust effort to correct much of the error that was being propagated, and it cost him his relationship with many popular Word of Faith teachers who rejected his correction. Hagin defined biblical prosperity as “having a sufficient supply to accomplish God’s will,” which has always seemed balanced to me.
When I attended Rhema, I was still so young in my knowledge of the Bible that I was not equipped to be very discerning. Looking back, I have no doubt in my mind that Hagin himself taught a number of things that cannot be supported by Scripture. One in particular was his theory that God gave Adam a lease to the earth, making him the original “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), a lease that Satan usurped at the Fall of Man, thus giving him legal authority to operate ever since as “god of this world,” unrestrained, even by God. This theory is often still used in Word of Faith circles to explain all the suffering in the world. Satan is to blame, they say, and God would like to stop him, but He can’t, because Satan has legal authority. (I have disproven this theory from Scripture in great detail here.
Yet much of Kenneth Hagin’s teaching was biblically sound, and when I hear him being demonized by those who focus on his scriptural aberrations, I know they are focusing on only a small part of his teaching. I actually count myself blessed to have sat under his teaching during those two years at Rhema. At that time, Hagin had been working in vocational ministry for five decades, and what he shared from his wealth of experience as a pastor and traveling teacher was invaluable. He always admonished his students to judge everything by the Word of God and taught them to “rightly divide the Word” by taking every verse within its context of the entire Bible. He cautioned them against being led by alleged prophecies and visions that contradicted what God revealed in Scripture. He encouraged them to build their ministries on the teaching and preaching of the Word, and not on spiritual gifts.
Perhaps least understood by those who have only studied Hagin’s flaws is that he practiced and preached holiness. There is no one who has put the fear of God into me more than Kenneth Hagin, and in a very healthy way. Hagin preached that there was a hell to shun and a heaven to gain. He did not subscribe to the popular doctrine of unconditional eternal security. He taught about the “kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22), and he warned the wayward of God’s discipline. He taught against “head conversions” that did not result in a spiritual rebirth and a devoted life.
As I promised earlier, let me tell you about a supernatural incident through Hagin’s ministry that I personally witnessed while at Rhema, one that will help you understand why I say that no one has put the fear of God into me more than him.
A Strange Incident
It was the first day of classes during my second year at Rhema. The entire student body, consisting of perhaps 800 students, was gathered in the main auditorium for Kenneth Hagin’s first class of the year.
A few minutes into his teaching, Hagin suddenly stuttered and seemed uncomposed, just for a few seconds. It was strange. Then he pointed at me and said, “Please stand up.” I practically fainted, but managed to stand. To my relief, Hagin said, “No, not you, but the gentleman one row right behind you.” I gratefully sat down while the man behind me, who looked like he was in his 50s, stood.
Hagin said to him, “As I was looking at the people in your section of the auditorium, the Lord allowed me to see into the spiritual realm, and I saw an evil spirit attach itself to your body.” (Sounds weird, I know, but stay with me.) Most of the students had previously heard Hagin relate occasional instances when he had been granted “the gift of discerning of spirits” (1 Cor. 12:19), which he defined as “a sudden God-given ability to see into the spiritual realm, where one might see angels, demons, or even Jesus, if God wills.” So we assumed we had just witnessed that phenomenon happening to him again.
Hagin invited the man to the front of the auditorium, and when he came forward, we all prayed for him in typical Pentecostal fashion, with everyone praying out loud together. Hagin verbally “cast out” the evil spirit that he claimed to have seen attach itself to the man’s body. Once the prayers subsided, Hagin said to the man, “There are a few things that the Lord wants me to tell you, but in private, so please come and talk with me after class today.”
And that was it. The man walked back to his seat, and Hagin resumed teaching. I didn’t think much about it until one week later, when it was announced that the man we had all prayed for was unconscious and on life support at a local hospital. It was also announced that there would be a special prayer meeting for him that evening, led by Hagin himself.
Many students attended that prayer meeting, which lasted at least an hour. It ended with a few prophecies from students in which it was declared that God had heard our prayers and the man would live. But I had learned by then to observe Hagin’s reactions to such prophecies, as he would enthusiastically affirm what he believed was from the Lord, saying things like “Amen” and “Yes, that’s right.” But after each of the prophecies that night, he somewhat unenthusiastically just said “Praise the Lord.” I could tell he was being polite, and he did not believe any of the prophecies were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
A Confusing Conclusion
To shorten the story somewhat, within a week, the man whom we had all prayed for to be healed had died, and the student body was confused. First, Rhema students aren’t supposed to die of anything but old age, because we all strongly believed in divine healing! Second, we had witnessed what seemed to be a divine revelation to Kenneth Hagin regarding a demonic attack against the man, and Hagin had cast out the evil spirit in front of the entire student body when the man was called forward for prayer that day in class. Beyond that, there had been several special prayer meetings held on his behalf that ended with very encouraging prophecies. And so after the funeral and some time had passed, Hagin spent several weeks trying to help us all understand. And this is where it gets interesting.
We learned that the deceased man had been a pastor himself for many years, but that he had taken a year off from pastoring to attend Rhema along with his wife and adult son. We also learned that, although Hagin had told the man that there were a few things the Lord had revealed to him that he needed to share with him privately, the man never went back after class to speak to Hagin. In fact, several students had asked him if he had ever approached Hagin as requested, and he had replied that he had not and didn’t intend to. Hagin himself confessed that he had just forgotten about it, being consumed with so many distractions.
Naturally, we all wondered what the Lord had told Hagin to tell the man privately, but out of respect for the deceased, his wife and son, Hagin never did give us the details. He did, however, reveal that the Lord had told him to tell the man that God had allowed an evil spirit to attack him as a means of attempting to get his attention, and unless the man made some adjustments in his life, he would suffer dire consequences. That is, he needed to repent of something.
After that, Hagin spent several weeks during his classes telling us of how he himself had come close to death on several occasions because of getting out of God’s will in his ministry, but how his life was saved by repenting. Hagin spoke of an incident decades earlier when, at the Lord’s clear direction, he left his final pastorate to launch a ministry as a traveling teacher. After several months of suffering the hardship of being frequently separated from his wife and children, he decided to quit and return to pastoring. He cancelled all the meetings that were on his schedule. Shortly thereafter, while sitting in an adult Sunday School class on the topic of Moses’ disobedience, his heart stopped and he fell to the floor. He began praying, and the Holy Spirit revealed that it was because of his disobedience. Hagin repented, and his life was spared by seconds. And he went back on the road.
Another time Hagin had slipped while walking out of a church where he was ministering, and he had badly shattered his elbow. He claimed that Jesus actually appeared to him while he was sitting in a hospital room. And Jesus told him that He had allowed the accident in order to get Hagin’s attention because he was making the error of focusing on his teaching ministry while neglecting his prophetic ministry. Hagin claimed that Jesus told him, “If I had not have arrested your attention and you would have continued on the same path, you would not have lived past the age of 50, because you would have only been in My permissive will, and not My perfect will.”
Hagin also told us of many other ministers, some who were very well known and some who were used of God in authentic healing ministries in the 1950s, who had died prematurely—all because they got out of God’s will in their ministries. These weren’t cases of Hagin passing judgment on a few ministers who had died. Rather, they were cases when the impending deaths of certain ministers had been foretold to him by the Holy Spirit, and in some cases he had even warned those ministers that they were going to die unless they got back on track.
It was fascinating to say the least, and also quite frightening. You can read about some of these things in Hagin’s book titled, I Believe in Visions.
Hagin also expounded on 1 Corinthians 1:30-32:
For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number asleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.
Clearly, according to Paul, Christians can suffer God’s judgment, manifested in weakness, sickness and even premature death if they don’t judge themselves; that is, live obediently, and if they sin, acknowledge it and repent. Kenneth Hagin believed that divine health was contingent on obedience, a concept for which there is plenty of scriptural support.
May I say that it is never our place to pass judgment on other people in this regard. Obviously, there can be other reasons that Christians are sick. But I can tell you that if I became seriously ill, I’d certainly be seeking the Lord. And I’ve learned how foolish it is to always lay the blame for my sufferings on Satan or “God’s sovereignty.” Anyone who does just a cursory reading of the Bible will quickly learn that it is our lack of faith, as well as our sin, that may well be the reason that things don’t go better for us. It is so obvious that only a theologian could miss it!
In any case, as I’ve already said, no one put the fear of God into me more than Kenneth Hagin, and I’m thankful that I spent two years in the late 1970s in his Bible School. But I might add, as a sixth confession, that the knowledge I gained at Bible School filled me with pride. For the first few years of my ministry I identified entirely with the Word of Faith Movement, and many of us in that group looked at ourselves as possessing superior knowledge over those who were outside our circle.
Thankfully, as I continued to read the Bible for myself, and as the Word of Faith Movement drifted further and further away from biblical revelation and integrity, I came to realize that some of what I’d been taught—and was teaching—was erroneous. And as I began teaching what I believed (and still believe) to be more biblically accurate, I was rejected by most of my friends in the Word of Faith Movement. They said I was “no longer teaching the Word.” To them, “teaching the Word” meant parroting what the most popular Word of Faith teachers were teaching. Many of them are still stuck in that same rut, trapped in a “time warp.” I feel so sorry for them.
If there has been one experience that has dominated my Christian life more than any other over the past four decades, it has been this: rejection by professing Christians for doctrinal reasons. And that is a sad commentary indeed. But it is one reason that the cartoon below has become one of my favorites:
I’m glad for the entire body of Christ, which consists of everyone whose true Lord is Jesus Christ. Jesus wants us to love one another, in spite of our differences.
Finally, I always appreciate any and all feedback that I receive to my monthly e-teachings. That being said, there is no need to barrage me with links to articles that expose all the aberrations of Word of Faith teachers. I am very knowledgable of those aberrations, many of which I have addressed over the years in my own teaching. The purpose of this e-teaching was to reveal a few things that most folks don’t know about my own background, and to add a few positive things that many folks don’t know about Kenneth Hagin.
Next month—more confessions. — David