I Was an Evangelical Pastor
THE religious scene in Colombia has witnessed some very pronounced changes during recent years. The vast majority of my countrymen still profess the Roman Catholic faith. But few could be called ardent Catholics. The last few decades have seen more and more going over to other religions, including fundamentalist Protestant groups that emphasize personal salvation in their preaching.
For the first eighteen years of my life I was a devout Roman Catholic. I went to Mass daily, confessed and took Communion two or three times a week, and participated in the crusades of the Church, such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus Crusade. In my hometown of Armenia, Quindío, our family became close friends of the priests.
About the year 1945, an elderly Evangelical couple turned up on our doorstep in search of a place to stay overnight. They had with them a copy of the Bible, the first one that we had ever seen. Mother became so interested in it that she kept the visitors up almost till daybreak talking about it. She soon realized that what her church taught was not in complete harmony with the Word of God. Mother became an Evangelical. Before long, Father and the rest of us in the household were investigating the Bible with her.
Little did we realize what was in store for someone who, living in a Roman Catholic community, left the Church. Former friends became bigoted enemies. When my baby brother died, the priest refused us permission to bury him in the Church cemetery. As there was no other cemetery, we had no recourse but to bury him in our backyard.
A year later, when Mother died, we passed through a similar experience. “For studying the Bible,” said the priest from the pulpit, “that woman does not deserve to be buried in holy ground. Any old coffee patch will do.” That sort of treatment did not endear the Church of my youth to me. Refused permission to bury her in the cemetery, Father, in desperation, spoke to the gravedigger who then agreed to open the cemetery at three o’clock in the morning. So at that predawn hour, unknown to the priest, Mother was buried.
The last time that I entered a Catholic church was in 1948. While visiting some relatives in Santa Rosa de Cabal, I attended a Mass at which the priest sermonized against a certain newspaper that had printed something offensive to the Church. In his denunciation, the priest said that anyone who bought the newspaper would burn in the fires of hell the same as if he were a Liberal. That comment about Liberals did not sit very well with me, for at that time I was a Catholic Liberal.
It was in the same year that political violence flared up throughout Colombia, touched off by the assassination in Bogotá of a popular Liberal party leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitan. For years the nation was on the verge of civil war. All that bloodshed between the clergy-supported Catholic Conservatives and the Catholic Liberals left me somewhat confused and disillusioned with the Church.
My uncle was serving as a policeman when the violence was at its worst. Preoccupied with so much killing going on among professed Catholics, he asked a priest from the town of Armenia if he did not think it was something very sinful. The priest replied reassuringly that, if my uncle was afraid to use his firearms, he would bless them so there would be no danger. The priest reminded him of what Peter did in trying to defend the Christ, how he took out his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave, Malchus. (John 18:10, 11) In the same way, added the priest, the Church had to defend the Roman Catholic faith even if it meant destroying the enemies from their mother’s womb. That estranged me even more from the Church.
So I continued investigating the Bible with the Evangelicals and in 1949 was baptized by them. The following year I was ordained in Pereira as a pastor and assigned to my hometown of Armenia.
My Life as an Evangelical
The Evangelical group with which I first associated was founded by an American. Returning to the United States in about 1930, he sold, not only the church building, but also the religious movement. A couple of members thought it rather immoral that the congregation should be sold as if composed of irrational animals. So they formed an independent movement that they called “Fundamental Apostolic Colombian Church.” One of the statutes on which it was founded was that its ministers should receive no salary. They had in mind what Jesus said about ‘the hired man who does not care for the sheep.’—John 10:11-15.
Some thirty years later, the founder of the original movement returned to Colombia. He was so impressed with the progress of the breakaway group that he asked to become an associate. Ostensibly, he agreed to the statutes. However, within a year or so, some of us realized that many of the other pastors were no longer employed secularly. We discovered that the American was secretly paying them. Confronted with his violation of the statutes, he said that we could put the matter to a vote. The majority of the pastors were more than content to remain with the American.
The fact that most of my colleagues preached for a salary discouraged me. I had acquired the knowledge that the Divine Word should not be preached for hire. (Matt. 10:8) Besides, as a fingerprint expert and an accountant, I had turned down very good job offers in order to become a pastor. It also was disheartening to observe the contention and competition among the pastors and disquieting to become aware of the differences that divide the Evangelicals into so many sects.
Then, for economic reasons, I moved to Bogotá in 1954, and did not resume serving as a pastor until after leaving the city in 1960. However, during this time I continued studying the Bible and comparing its teachings with those of the various sects. On becoming disenchanted with one sect, I would pass over to another.
I first attended the services of a Pentecostal group. To my surprise, the one officiating was a woman. I realized that, Scripturally, the woman should not exercise authority over the man. (1 Tim. 2:11, 12) When I asked about the point, I was informed that the former pastor had abandoned the congregation because it had been unable to meet his salary demands. They offered me the opportunity to serve as pastor. So one night I met with the ones in charge in order to compare their teachings with my beliefs.
Among other things, they claimed that they had received the gift of healing, so they had no need for doctors or medicine. All that they had to do was pray, they said, and they would be healed of any ailment. Later, on the subject of the Lord’s Supper, I asked them why they celebrated it using individual cups. They acknowledged that when Jesus was on earth the participants did share a common cup. However, at that time there was not the same risk of getting a contagious disease as there is now. I asked them where their faith in their so-called healing power was if they were so concerned about infection from use of the common cup in imitation of the Lord. That brought our meeting to an abrupt end at three o’clock in the morning.
A couple of days later I visited the church, but the woman who presided was not there. That morning she had become ill and had to be taken to the hospital. For me, this confirmed that they did not have the gift of healing.
Thereafter, I became associated with another religious organization with Pentecostal tendencies. In a revival campaign staged at the Fairgrounds in Bogotá, an exhibition of the gift of healing was programmed for the final day. Yielding to the insistence of a friend and to my own curiosity, I went.
An elderly blind man was led to the platform and took a kneeling position. Men as well as women began to pray over him, asking that the spirit of blindness be dispelled and his sight be restored. After a while, the blind man was asked if he could see. He moved his head from side to side and replied that he could not.
They had asked the audience to stand and join in praying. Being somewhat incredulous, I had remained seated. Having observed this, they were now saying that I was the culprit. Because of my lack of faith, they had been unable to perform the miracle. After urging me to participate, they again prayed over the blind man. Still I refused to cooperate. Asking the blind man if he could see, the answer remained negative. Once more they blamed their failure on that “unbeliever” who had entered in among them.
Approached afterward by the ministers in charge, I pointed out to them that faith on the part of the unbelievers was not a prerequisite to Jesus’ success in performing miracles. (Matt. 8:16; John 9:1-7, 35-39) On the contrary, he had often performed them to convince the unbelievers that he was truly sent from God. (John 10:37, 38, 42; 11:42-45) So if they did indeed heal by the power of God, let them overcome my disbelief by effecting the miracle!
My Contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses
Now I must tell you about another facet of my life. It has to do with my relations with Jehovah’s Witnesses through the years.
It all began in 1952. On a visit to the home of my fiancée, I noticed a book that her father had obtained. It was entitled “‘This Means Everlasting Life.’” Knowing that I was interested in anything related to the Bible, he gave it to me. A fellow pastor informed me that it was “Russellism,” a name he used with reference to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although it had some good parts, it was dangerous, he told me, because it also contained error. I was curious to know what error it contained. The more I investigated, the more I came to know about Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At the time that I was ordained to be a pastor, a friend named Fabio Rodas was also. Soon thereafter, though, Fabio became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I next met up with him, he cleared up some doubts I had in connection with the book I had received. From then on, whenever we met, he provided me with more Witness publications.
On account of Fabio’s kind insistence, in time I agreed to let the Witnesses study the Bible with me. But I stubbornly refused to disavow my belief in the Trinity, that “mystery” that alleges that God is not one, but three in one. My conviction was based almost entirely on one verse, 1 John 5:7. The Witnesses would invariably point out to me that that part of this verse is spurious, a later uninspired addition to the Holy Scriptures. To me, though, that was just a weak argument deceitfully employed by them.
But then, in 1956, in Bogotá, I had one of those chance encounters with Fabio. I accepted his invitation to go to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There I was introduced to the Rivera family and arrangements were made for them to study with me. I presented them with my insistence on the Trinity. With calmness, one of them took a Spanish Catholic Nácar-Colunga Bible, turned to 1 John 5:7, and had me read the corresponding footnote. I read: “This verse, that in the Vulgate says: ‘Three are those that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the three are one,’ is not found in the ancient manuscripts, neither Greek nor Latin, etc., and is unknown from the Fathers. It appears to have Spanish origin and to have come forth little by little by way of an exegesis [interpretation] of the preceding verse. Only in the 13th century did it acquire the form that it has today in the Vulgate.”
On reading that, I could see that Jehovah’s Witnesses were right in saying that this part of the verse had no rightful place in the inspired Scriptures. And I was astonished to learn that the Evangelicals participated in the same deception as the Roman Catholics in using it to support their Trinity concept.
From then on, I had more confidence in the Witnesses. When I again served as pastor, their teachings influenced the content of my sermons. As a source of sermon material, I even pasted in my Bible the “Scriptural Summary, Without Comment, of Primary Doctrines,” published by the Witnesses in the back of their book “Equipped for Every Good Work.”
Yet, I refused to sever my ties with the Evangelicals. Why? Above all, I did not want to displease my family, all of whom were Evangelicals, several of them pastors, including my father. I also harbored certain unfounded prejudices against the Witnesses. Perhaps, too, I was looking for a way out, an escape from a responsibility that was becoming more evident the more I studied with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My Departure from Evangelicalism
Once I saw the importance of the name of the true God, Jehovah, I used it constantly in my preaching. As a result, my superiors wondered to what extent I had been influenced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was called before the church court. To have their confidence in me reaffirmed, they asked me to give a sermon exposing the errors of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since that would require me to be inconsistent with my own beliefs, I replied: “Under no circumstances will I give such a sermon. If what I have been teaching from the Bible harmonizes with the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, then I will have to become one of them. ‘Choose for yourselves whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah.’”—Josh. 24:15.
To sever all ties with the Evangelical organization, I moved my family from Pereira to Cali. That was toward the end of 1967. Early one Sunday afternoon, I headed for the center of town wondering how I could locate the Witnesses. Then, on the bus, I noticed a copy of The Watchtower sticking out of a man’s back pocket. I decided to follow him. He led me directly to the Kingdom Hall. After the meetings that afternoon, arrangements were made for me to study again.
Previously I had studied with the Witnesses up to the point of baptism. But they had refused to acknowledge as valid my Evangelical baptism, even though, as I reasoned, I had been immersed or baptized ‘in the name of the Father, Son and holy spirit.’ (Matt. 28:19) On approaching the subject this time, I asked the one considering it with me, José Patrocinio Hernández: “But, why should I be baptized again?” He simply asked me: “Did you know the name of the Father when you were baptized?” Since I did not, it was obvious that I had not been baptized ‘in His name.’
Then, in connection with being baptized ‘in the name of the holy spirit,’ he asked me: “Did the organization that baptized you give evidence of having God’s spirit by preserving peace and unity?” (Eph. 4:3) Then I recalled that the very Evangelical minister that baptized me, Angel de Jesús Vélez, just two weeks later had formed a new, dissident sect. Since “contentions, divisions, sects” are not “the fruitage of the spirit” but “the works of the flesh,” it was clear that they did not have God’s spirit.—Gal. 5:19-23.
And so, at long last, on May 10, 1969, in company with my two older children, I submitted to Christian baptism in symbol of my dedication to God. My wife and two younger children did so later.
In retrospect, I appreciate the sentiments of the apostle Paul when he said: “You were once darkness, but you are now light in connection with the Lord. Go on walking as children of light, for the fruitage of the light consists of . . . truth.” (Eph. 5:8, 9) The recollection of my experiences as a part of religious systems of Christendom impresses me with how great my darkness was. Now, as a child of light, how grateful I am to serve as a God-ordained pastor or shepherd and to bring forth the fruitage of the light, namely, the truth.—Contributed.