Come Sunday is an imperfect movie that asks an important question not openly discussed in Christian churches: What happens when a faith leader has a change of heart about important points of doctrine?
Directed by Joshua Marston, the first feature film financed by This American Life is based on the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, the former senior pastor of Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center—one of the largest churches in in Tulsa, Oklahoma—and one of the first black televangelists. One night, after learning of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, Bishop Pearson has a divine revelation and feels compelled to preach what he now calls the Gospel of Inclusion, a doctrine that says God’s grace is sufficient to embrace all of humanity, even if they do not make a formal declaration of salvation. Put simply, he tells people that God will let them into heaven whether they believe in him or not.
For most of Higher Dimensions’ congregation, this is a problem because they are evangelical—meaning they see the need to save people from eternal hell as foundational to their spiritual lives. In my time in an evangelical congregation, sharing the gospel (that is, trying to convert people to Christianity so that they will be saved from eternal damnation) was the most important thing a person could do to show the love of Jesus Christ. More than fight oppression, more than be a voice for the voiceless, getting folks saved was seen as the primary goal. So for Pearson to alter his positions disrupts how his congregation sees themselves. Many of them are convinced it could have been a demonic voice, and not God’s, that spoke to him that night, and they ask Oral Roberts, the internationally known evangelist and Pearson’s father in the ministry, to talk to him. Martin Sheen portrays Roberts as a man with genuine concern for Pearson. As a pastor, he understands that spiritual lives and Pearson’s standing as a man of God are at stake, and the film does justice to the volatile nature of this spiritual dilemma.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the bishop as a man utterly convinced of the truth of his position, even as he questions why God revealed it to him. Lakeith Stanfield plays Reggie, a church organist and minister of music who is, as he puts it, struggling to be gay without acting upon his attraction to people of the same gender. Pearson’s change of heart and the church’s demise directly affect Reggie financially and spiritually, causing him to come to almost lose his faith in God. Yet despite these strong performances, the film fails to show us the day-to-day implications of Pearson’s decision for members of the congregation who are not in leadership positions. We see congregants leave and confront him verbally, but not the way losing respect for a man who has visited you in the hospital or performed at your wedding can have devastating effects personally and spiritually. A church is more than a place unified by doctrine—it is a family, and leaving is more like losing a member of the family than simply choosing to be somewhere else on Sunday at 11 a.m.
More could also have been done to examine how the bishop’s fall from grace affected his wife, Gina Pearson (Condola Rashad), a woman frustrated with the demands of being a pastor’s wife. In fact, black women in the film are not given much more to do than gaze approvingly or disapprovingly upon Pearson. They are rarely seen and heard from even less. Still, regardless of its flaws, this is an important movie for one simple reason: It shows why pastors who question orthodoxy are often afraid to publicly articulate the theological and political dilemmas with which they wrestle privately.
Before I left the Southern Baptist Convention, there were many points of doctrine people in the denomination assumed I agreed with: support of Republican Party candidates because of their stance on abortion, religious iconography that featured a white Jesus, homophobia wrapped in the language of concern for lost souls, and patriarchy articulated as divinely defined gender roles. These were issues on which I was expected to acquiesce. I felt uncomfortable for years with the oppressive nature of the denomination. For example, I was taught that pastoral ministry was only for men. When I began to question this position, I learned quickly that deviation from established norms could lead to broken relationships. Once, when I strongly suggested that my pastor allow a woman to sit in the pulpit, he said, without missing a beat, “I’ll die before a woman sits behind that sacred desk in my church.” Yet it was not until the SBC failed to issue an immediate and full-throated denouncement of the alt-right and white supremacy at their convention in June that I decided to leave. Had I known years ago what I know now, I’d have left earlier. I thought I was alone in questioning doctrine and political issues in the denomination. I now understand that I was not.
There are many pastors who privately question if a loving God would send people to an eternal hell for failing to make a declaration of salvation before they die, and yet the ministers who believe this choose to be quiet out of fear of retribution. I know even more who support same-sex marriage but feel they cannot do so publicly because they fear they will lose their churches and the support of fellow clergy. Where films like God’s Not Dead portray Christianity as a white, intellectually homogeneous cult of nice people who love acoustic guitar, Come Sunday takes seriously the challenge of being both a person of color and a person of faith. There is not now, nor has there ever been, orthodoxical uniformity in the Christian church, and to live a life of faith is to commit oneself to a life of questions that are often without easy answers. In ancient times, Athanasius disagreed with Arius; after the reformation, Arminians disagreed with Calvinists; and I disagree with each and every person who cast a ballot for the 45th president in the name of their Christian belief.*
A life of faith is not easy. We often disagree, and we need more cultural products that take seriously these ruptures and their complexity. Failing to think critically about religion is part of why some members of the South felt that God sanctioned their abhorrent, racist activity during slavery and Jim Crow. It is also why homophobia continues to run rampant, leading, tragically, to high levels of suicide ideation and attempts among queer youth who identify as religious.
Come Sunday is not a perfect movie, but it is an important one. It wonderfully dramatizes the beautiful struggle that is the life of faith, especially now. At a time when prominent Christian leaders like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress are vocally supporting the president and, in spite of recent sex scandals, 75 percent of white evangelicals say they approve of Trump and his policies, Christians need to know that they can disagree with the masses and still be sincere people of faith. Perhaps, as Bishop Pearson learned, the only way to truly follow God is to follow your heart—even if it leads you away from the crowd.
Correction, May 9, 2018: This article previously misidentified Athanasius’ debate opponent as Arian. It was Arius.