The Complicated Legacy of a Bishop Who Was Sincerely Wrong

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  • Waking up after a long Sunday nap, I surfed channels and landed on Carlton Pearson’s broadcast. He was a younger preacher than many on TV. His church was jampacked, mega-sized, and racially diverse. A traditional black preacher, Pearson even “whooped” – backed by a Hammond organ. This set of ministry dynamics is rare now. Imagine how alien it was thirty years ago. 

    I was encouraged by the message I heard that night. Pearson was articulate, joyful, and – from what I could tell – sound. None of the subsequent messages I heard raised any red flags. For the record, I was (am) a non-Charismatic Baptist preacher. Pearson was Pentecostal (At this point, I did not know about his connection to Oral Roberts and “Prosperity Theology”). However, Pearson did not preach in a way that would turn off a non-Pentecostal. 

    It was not long between hearing Carlton Pearson’s name for the first time and hearing it everywhere. His national TV broadcast grew in popularity. He was consecrated a “bishop.” His Azusa Conference drew tens of thousands – bringing together different ethnicities, denominations, and traditions. His speaker line-up may have been unknown when they stood up, but they were household names soon after they sat down. Pearson’s singing was as good as his preaching, maybe better. His music recordings gave a new generation a love for the old songs of the church, all while giving contemporary Gospel artists a national platform. 

    Then, out of nowhere, it all came crashing down. 

    After watching a documentary, Pearson’s theological positions radically shifted. He began to preach what he called “The Gospel of Inclusion.” Discerning Christians recognized his doctrinal shift as the old heresy of Universalism wearing makeup and a new dress. A “college of bishops” charged him with heresy. After allowing Pearson to defend himself, the group concluded that he was preaching “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6-10).

    Bishop Pearson would soon lose everything he built – his home, church, conference, platform, and associations. 

     Unfortunately, we regularly hear about the downfall of high-profile religious personalities. Most of the time, ministers are disqualified for moral failures or financial improprieties. Sometimes, the preacher is ousted after being on the losing end of a church fight. 

    Carlton Pearson’s downfall was unique. He was not brought down by money, sex, or power. Members fled his church for doctrinal reasons. Admirers lost respect for him because of his position on eternal punishment. Friends shunned him because he denied the existence of hell.

     Hell is the most unpopular subject in the Bible. You would think people would be glad to hear the finished work of Christ meant everyone goes to heaven. But for Pearson to be right would mean the Bible is wrong. That Jesus himself was wrong. It was a bridge too far for even Pearson’s most fervent allies. When men who deny the Trinity, make false prophecies, and teach Word of Faith theology call you a heretic, you’re a heretic!  

    Carlton Pearson was given many opportunities to teach and defend his Gospel of Inclusion. During these occasions, he stated his convictions clearly, articulately, and graciously – though not convincingly. Yet those who debated him were often unable to pin him down. He sincerely explained his error better than his detractors explained the truth. 

    Over the years, Pearson remained on the outskirts of church life. He was not embraced in orthodox circles. Yet he was not wholly shunned. He was generally received warmly when he popped up, as many Christians remembered what he once meant to them.

    Meanwhile, Pearson roamed further away from the biblical and historic Christian faith. He flatly rejected the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. He led a Unitarian Church and a New Thought congregation. And he affirmed homosexuality and gay marriage as legitimate Christian lifestyles. 

    In 2018, Carlton Pearson’s life story was told in a feature film. The biopic was filmed with his approval and told his story sympathetically. Remarkably, he was both the victim and the hero of the story. In the process, Pearson reemerged from the shadows. Many Christians viewed his situation in a new light, even though he had not recanted any of his false teachings. The renewed affection for Pearson intensified recently, as news spread of his illness and death. 

    Some posted loving tributes to his life and ministry. 

    Others condemned him as an unrepentant heretic. 

    Many argued with those who did not share their perspective. 

    I understand people gratefully remember how the Lord used Carlton Pearson to bless them. And it may seem inappropriate to speak critically of him at the time of his demise. But this is the inevitable result of the path he chose. His complicated legacy rightly invokes words of eulogy and words of rebuke. 

     At the same time news of Pearson’s imminent death spread, news broke that Bobby Knight – the longtime Indiana Basketball coach – died. No one took issue that the obituaries reported his significant accomplishments and that he was fired in disgrace. All our stories will record the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The more your life is lived in public, the more both sides of the story will be told – unless biographers are very kind to you. 

    Carlton Pearson was among the most influential Black ministers in the last fifty years. Think about that. There may be names that you think of before him today. In most instances, Pearson did it before they did, influencing their success.

    In 2007, Shayne Lee wrote T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher. Lee argued that Jakes was this generation’s Billy Graham. Yet the book’s opening chapters reveal that there would be no T.D. Jakes if there was no Carlton Pearson. 

    In a real sense, the “black church” is characterized by grace to the fallen. Yet, there are times when we are too gracious. A line must be drawn somewhere if we are to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

    No, this does not mean we should take personal shots at the late bishop. But if we do not stand for the truth, we are only playing church. Christian ministry is not about name recognition, personal accomplishment, megachurch status, conference platforms, or worldly influence. We are to faithfully proclaim the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ – and pass it on to the next generation.  

    Carlton Pearson’s Gospel of Inclusion did not garner a large following or spark an “Azusa” level movement. But that does not mean it was inconsequential. Pearson’s defiant false teachings poured poison into the children’s milk. We now have trained, eloquent, and sought-after preachers who deny the authority of scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, and the message of the gospel. And they do so without suffering any of the repercussions Pearson endured. 

    Too many are seduced by how a man preaches and ignore what he preaches. But a congregation is only a church to the degree it is exposed to and seeks to have its body-life shaped by the truth of God’s word. And no professing believer is a genuine Christian if they reject the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Paul’s charge to Timothy is the Lord’s command to every minister: “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). How can you preach the word if you do not believe the word you preach? 

    Over the years, liberal theologians (who, in many instances, are just apostates holding on to selective truth-claims that suit their own passions) have claimed to embrace the teachings of Jesus over those of Paul. It’s a convenient way to profess Christianity while rejecting the doctrines you do not like. 

    Now, some celebrated preachers dare to say that Jesus was wrong when he declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). You don’t have to believe this divine claim. However, you cannot claim to follow Jesus and call him a liar.

    It is one thing to neglect the Great Commission. It is another thing to cancel it by deeming it unnecessary. 

    What will your legacy be? 

    That question has nothing to do with size, numbers, or prominence. It has everything to do with your fidelity to biblical authority, sound doctrine, and gospel truth.

    Paul testified, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Will you give up before the fight is over? Will you quit the race before you reach the finish line? Will you abandon the faith once delivered to the saints? 

    To some degree, we will all have complicated legacies. We are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We are a bundle of paradoxes. We get some things right and some things wrong. So, brace yourself; people may write conflicting social media posts about us when we move off the scene. But the opinion of men is not what matters the most. The only thing that matters is whether you will hear the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21-22). 


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.