Monday, December 21, 2009

The Forgotten Legacy of Oral Roberts

Today I watched the Oral Roberts memorial service live on TV.

Rightly hailed as a central figure in Christianity in general and Pentecostalism in specific, Roberts' legacy lives on through countless protégé's, a major Christian university, and many, many other obvious contributions.

However, I have not yet heard others comment on what I perceive to be a major component of his legacy: the broad acceptance of professional medical treatment by people who believe in divine healing. Like it or not, Pentecostalism (in general) has a history of rejecting medical treatment in favor of divine healing alone. In fact, some of the pre-Pentecostals influencers such as John Alexander Dowie classified doctors in the same category as demons and devils! Many of Dowie's followers would become early leaders in the modern Pentecostal movement and promote divine healing--such as John G. Lake, F. F. Bosworth, Eli Richey (and his son Raymond T. Richey) among others.

Though I have not yet found it specifically stated in any Pentecostal denomination's creed, there was a generally negative opinion of the medical profession in early Pentecostalism--from simple suspicion to blatant opposition. Many taught that pursuing medical treatment was a sinful act demonstrating a lack of faith! As recent as 1955, British Assemblies of God leader J. Nelson Parr's anti-medicine teaching was published by GPH. His opinion was not unique; many Pentecostal leaders shared his view and taught it to those they influenced, making it a common (but not universal or codified) belief.

Enter Oral Roberts--arguably the icon of divine healing for the 20th century. Under his massive tent and through the media, countless people outside of traditional Pentecostalism were exposed to the supernatural healing ministry for the first time and all of Pentecostalism sat up to take notice. The name Oral Roberts is still synonymous with divine healing.

In 1977, this spokesman for the supernatural announced his dream of building...a hospital! He further went on to explain that there was no conflict between medical treatment and the belief in (and practice of) divine healing! This sent murmurous ripples across the church world. However, this announcement did not reflect a personal change in Roberts' doctrine; he had a rather developed doctrine of God's sovereignty relating to divine healing from his early days of ministry. His logic was that not everyone receives divine healing, so therefore, the Pentecostal/Charismatic world should have their own world-class hospital.

I'm sure you know the rest of the story; the City of Faith Medical Center only operated from 1981-1987 before financial problems forced its closure. End of story? Not in my opinion. Still today the Pentecostal/Charismatic world is indebted to Roberts for what the near-sighted perceive to be his greatest failure. This American icon of divine healing built a hospital and sidelined the common, long-standing anti-medicine teaching--hopefully once and for all. Today, only a few fringe sects of Pentecostalism teach against medical treatment.

Though the three towers of the once-hospital (now an office complex) still cast a shadow over South Tulsa, they remind us today that Pentecostals are compassionate and humanitarian alongside our belief in supernatural healing.

Thank you Oral Roberts; whether or not you realized it, your prophetic action of hospital building brought balance to an often narrow understanding--yet you still encouraged us to believe in God for our healing, demonstrating the reality of both through your own ministry.


Al Di Salvatore said...

Well put my friend...well put... two bliss bars way up!!

Anonymous said...

I cannot doubt Mr. Robert's initial inspiration, however as one acutely aware of the propagation of WoF in our movement, you must have seen his awful spiral into rank doctrinal error with his espousal of many, if not all, of the heretical WoF teachings. At this stage, his campus and its trappings stand more as a mockery of Pentecostalism, that a monument to it.

Anonymous said...

His legacy is also associated with the negative ie popularising Kenneth Hagin's charismatic word of faith and prosperity teachings in AOG and Pentecostal churches. Now Pentecostal and charismatic are synonymous. He has made classical Pentecostal and strict adherence to scripture as something of the past and replaced them by the hyper charismatic extrabiblical teachings and experiences, likened to burning of strange fires by J Lee Grady ( former editor of Charisma).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for honoring Brother Roberts on your blog. Too many people look at the flaws in a person's life, as if they are the ones who can judge God's servants!

My husband and I determined the other day (when talking about Brother Robert's old tent meetings)that although our families didn't know each other, we must have been at the same Robert's tent meeting as children.
Oral Roberts came to Wichita in the late 40's, set up a tent on East Central, and my mother, brother and I walked 7 blocks to that meeting. My husband said his parents took him to the same meeting! That was a good 10 years before we met!

We all must be very careful (IMHO) to not judge another Man's servant! Even when that servant makes mistakes! Our mistakes are usually not published world-wide!
Thank goodness!

Good job!