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Q & A
Q&A: Evangelist Roberts was comfortable with Methodism Lovett H. Weems Jr., Dec 29, 2009
When evangelist Oral Roberts died Dec. 15, it brought to memory an interview conducted by Lovett Weems, distinguished professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary and director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.
Roberts, who was president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., wore many hats: educator, evangelist, businessman, author and television personality. He was the author of more than 50 books and produced two nationally televised programs.
But in April 1968, Roberts surprised many of his followers and many United Methodists by joining Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa from the Pentecostal church. Two months later he was accepted into ministry by the Oklahoma Conference, but never served as pastor of a local United Methodist church.
This interview is an excerpt from Dr. Weems’ 1976 book, The Influence of the Church Upon My Life: Interviews with United Methodists (Discipleship Resources).
Dr. Roberts, why did you join the United Methodist Church in 1968? Really, joining is not the right word, for the first church I ever belonged to was the Methodist Church. My grandfather had been a steward in the former Methodist Episcopal Church, South and it was the first church my parents belonged to. As a youth because of a healing I received, I became a part of the Pentecostal movement. I was never fully comfortable outside the Methodist Church.
In 1968 I felt a distinct leading of the Holy Spirit that I should return to my Methodist heritage. After much prayer, and many conversations with Methodist officials, I became an elder in the Oklahoma Conference. For the first time since I was a boy I feel fully at home from the standpoint of the church and serving through it.
During those years as a Pentecostal, did you have much contact with Methodists? Yes. As our evangelistic work began to spread and grow, I realized that more Methodists responded positively to this ministry than any other group. Their enthusiasm for our work greatly encouraged me. Also, a good number of our faculty at Oral Roberts University, including the executive vice-president, were Methodists. My chaplain and others were Methodist ministers.
This was not something we planned. We had sought God to send us the ablest and most dedicated person for the position. God had done it and I felt very much in harmony in that association.
What went through your mind as you considered joining Methodism? At first, all I could see were the misunderstanding and probable loss of some of my partners. Finally, I came to see that this was a test of the kind of man I was. Would I obey God or worry about my own apprehensions? Once I realized this, the Lord gave me a scripture: “For a wide door for effective work has opened to me and there are many adversaries.” I knew that the door that was opening would overshadow any opposition or misunderstanding, so I was at peace with God and made my decision on that basis.
Did you consult many people about this decision? No. In matters of this kind, the most important thing to me has always been the will of God. What did God want me to do? If it were God’s will, I didn’t have to worry about success or failure. God would see it through.
Have United Methodist leaders ever asked you to change your ministry? Quite the contrary. Before accepting the orders of an elder in the Oklahoma Conference I asked Bishop Angie Smith if the United Methodist Church would take me as I was. “Yes,” he replied, “and if you changed we wouldn’t want you!” He went on to assure me that he believed in my ministry and accepted my ordination without reordaining me. He said his sole concern was the redeeming grace of God and believed the Holy Spirit would use me in the United Methodist Church.
When you first thought of taking this significant step, what was your view of the United Methodist Church? To my mind, the Methodist Church was more than a denomination. It represented many of the diverse elements of historic Christianity. In its membership and ministry were deeply committed evangelicals. Yet it had radical liberals, too. More importantly, it had maintained a free pulpit; Methodist ministers could preach their convictions and this was very important to me.
Now, after several years, what is your opinion of the United Methodist Church? I don’t feel comfortable with labels. But I do feel very comfortable within the United Methodist Church. I believe it is the most open church in the world today for the renewal of the work of the Holy Spirit I see is coming to the world. I am excited to be part of the Holy Spirit’s work in the United Methodist Church today.
How about Methodism’s involvement in social concerns? Do you feel comfortable with the church in this respect? The greatest mistake that can be made in social action is not to begin with the change of an individual’s heart and the salvation of his soul. To remove social action from proclaiming the gospel is to go against Christ’s way. But once we’ve put first things first, then Christ’s love must flow through us to help needy and suffering people through such measures as open housing, better physical housing, accepting minority people and individuals, alleviating job discrimination, etc.
If we keep our priorities straight, then I have no problem living with Methodism’s social emphasis. In fact, I support any social action that is centered in Christ’s own concern.
Do you see any conflict between your ministry as an evangelist and the ministry of the local United Methodist church? None. I believe in the Holy Spirit and Christ’s healing love more than I ever have. I believe my ministry has something to offer the church. But I also know that local churches are involved in a ministry that Oral Roberts cannot perform. What local churches and my ministry do have in common is that we are all called to serve people in the name of Jesus Christ.
Do you believe the Holy Spirit is working through the United Methodist Church today? Yes. The work of the Holy Spirit in the United Methodist Church is one of the great miracles of our time. I am thrilled and hopeful because of these manifestations of the Holy Spirit. We will see the renewal we have all been praying for.
Do you see any dangers that the current emphasis on the Holy Spirit could be abused? There is always a danger. But the greatest danger or abuse is not to get involved with or talk about the Holy Spirit at all. One of the problems of receiving the Holy Spirit is that some seem to get the feeling that is interpreted as pulling themselves above other Christians. This is not right. The main concern of persons who are really filled with the Spirit is to let the greater love of the Spirit flow through them to the needs of people, bringing Christ’s compassion to those needs. Receiving the Holy Spirit doesn’t place you above other people. It makes you willing to get down and wash their feet.