An Open Letter to Dr. George Wood and the Assemblies of God Denomination – of which I was once a member

by Phil Snider

Note: My response to Dr. George Wood’s article in yesterday’s News-Leader can be found here. Before reading it, however, I ask that you first read the following (personal) reflections:

While I’m primarily writing this post as a reply to the biblical and theological critiques that Dr. George O. Wood (the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God denomination) made in his News-Leader response to the clergy letter signed by myself and 22 other Christian leaders in support of the LGBT community in Springfield, I would like to begin by sharing a personal note that is often lost in the public eye.

While this may come as a surprise to many, I have very deep roots in the Assemblies of God church. Not only did I grow up in Springfield, where the headquarters of the Assemblies of God denomination is located, but I was baptized into an Assemblies of God church where, surprisingly enough, Rev. John Lindell was once a youth pastor. I also had a Damascus Road conversion experience in the Assemblies of God that changed my life forever, and the Assemblies of God church is the first place I felt a call to ministry. For these reasons and more, I continue to hold the Assemblies of God very close to my heart.

In addition to these religious experiences – and every bit as important to me – are the close friendships that I made in the Assemblies of God church, for they remain the most enduring friendships I’ve made in my lifetime, and I will forever treasure them. I simply would not be who I am without them, as those who know me on a personal level can well attest.

This personal background is important for several reasons. First, when I respond to perspectives related to representatives from the Assemblies of God, I’m not simply thinking about a group of people with a certain set of beliefs from a certain denomination – I’m thinking about a group of friends who are very close to my heart. This underscores an important point: Unlike what was read into the clergy letter I signed, I do not for one moment believe that Rev. Lindell, or other representatives from the Assemblies of God, lack class or integrity – not for one second. In fact, in the same edition of the News-Leader in which the clergy letter appeared, I am on record as saying, “We consider pastor Lindell to be a person of integrity. It’s just a matter of differing opinions.” Several of my dearest friends are pastors in and members of the Assemblies of God church, and I have the utmost amount of respect for them. While many of us have long had differing interpretations of the Bible, we’ve never found ourselves questioning one another’s integrity. Indeed, we’ve been able to have meaningful conversations with one another about controversial topics precisely because we care for one another and respect one another. And I have no reason to doubt the integrity of Rev. Lindell, especially given the fact that so many of my friends who know him well speak very highly of him. I have no reason to disagree with Rev. Don Miller, the Southern Missouri District Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, when he says that Rev. Lindell’s “character is impeccable.” I only waded into these waters to help provide an alternative approach to understanding a very complex matter in the Bible. So, to be clear: this is not a matter of questioning one’s personal integrity, it’s a matter of biblical interpretation.

All of this is to say that, contrary to the popular misconception, having differing interpretations of the Bible is not to be equated with doubting the integrity of the one(s) with whom you disagree, for I firmly believe there are well-intentioned people at various places along the spectrum, including Dr. Wood and Rev. Lindell, as well as so many of my friends from the Assemblies of God, and I hope they think the same of me. I’m proud to be part of a Christian denomination in which we recognize that none of us necessarily view every doctrinal or social matter the same way, but even in the midst of a diversity of perspectives — especially in the midst of a diversity of perspectives — the love of Christ transcends our differences. We often borrow a line from the heroic civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin, who liked to say that “our unity is not based on uniformity of opinion but on mutuality of love.” And the same principle applies here.

So with this disclaimer in place, allow me to respond to the critiques made by Dr. Wood, with the recognition that I am not attacking his personal integrity or intentions but am simply offering a different interpretation of the Bible that I (and a rapidly growing number of Christians) experience as being (1) far more persuasive on a personal level, (2) far more credible on a scholarly level, and (3) far more helpful in the lives of individuals and communities.

Admittedly, this is an interpretation that the Assemblies of God doesn’t leave much room for, at least not yet, which is why it represents one of the primary reasons I had to leave the Assemblies of God church I loved so much  – albeit with a backward wistful glance, the bittersweet effect of which I feel every time I drive by the Assemblies of God church of my youth, which remains very close to my heart to this day.

More than anything, I want my friends (as well as those who often read these kinds of posts online), to know that I didn’t arrive at this place in my spiritual journey lightly. It’s not because I’m trying to be controversial. It’s not because I’m trying to go along with the crowd. It certainly doesn’t express the way I’ve always felt. And it’s not because I don’t take the Bible seriously — as you’ll see in my full response, I do. But my mind has changed over the course of nearly twenty years, and I am thankful to God for it.

Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir.

Click here to view my full response #longread

Those interested in this conversation also might like to check out Justin Lee’s book, Torn: Rescuing the Bible from the Gays vs. Christians Debate