MY JOURNEY FROM FANATICISM
© 2019 BY Philip A Matthews
I want to take this time to describe how my wife, Segatha Douglas Matthews, and I left fanaticism and legalism and arrived at a place of spiritual balance. Because of this journey, I have indefatigable patience with other fire-breathing fanatics, simply because if it weren’t for the grace of God, “there go I.”
We both got saved in 1970 and worshipped at the Los Angeles Church of God (Evening Light Saints). Being young (early 20s), active, radical, on-fire, sold-out, and conviction-driven new believers (the only way to be—just don’t be fanatical), we immediately fell into the common legalism and fanaticism of the COG (ELS).
The main emphasis was on not being worldly, which thus focused on the external "holiness" of not wearing certain types of clothes, the way you fixed your hair, no jewelry or makeup, not even a wedding ring, the places not go to, the media to stay away from (especially TV & movies), not going to hospitals (trust God instead of turning to the "hand of man"), stay away from sports, etc. We practiced these rules and regulations and believed everybody else should do the same. As much as possible, we added to the group pressure to force others into compliance with these rules: judging and condemning others, shunning those who did not obey, writing or preaching against worldliness, etc.
There are two things we are especially thankful grateful for: (1) We truly had a real relationship with God in which we could hear His voice and feel His presence, and (2) Thankfully, He did not allow us to remain misguided for too long.
In the spring of 1973, Segatha's 85-year-old grandmother, Sis Ethel K. Miles from OKC, was staying with us in Los Angeles. She wanted to go to a revival at the Stockton COG (ELS), pastored by Bro E.J. Trotter, because she knew him from decades before in Western Oklahoma and wanted to see him again. As a Baptist preacher with a young wife and two or three kids, Bro Trotter had "come to the truth," i.e., joined the COG (ELS), in the house church meeting of Segatha's Great Aunt Mary Williams, Grandmother's sister. These two gospel working sisters had invited Bro Trotter to a "cottage meeting," then invited the nearby senior evangelist, Bro Ulysses Phillips, to come preach & consult with the young man and his wife.
So we took Grandmother 400 miles to the Stockton revival to hear her old friend as he talked to the church young people. His lesson was typical of his burden at that time, which was that God looked on and judged the heart, not the outside of a person. He never dwelt on externalities, so this lesson was no different. To a fire-breathing fanatic, such messages were full of what was called “compromise,” i.e., failing to take a strong stand against the styles and fashions of the day and letting people do whatever kind of “worldliness” they wanted to do. During the subsequent question and answer session, one of the young people asked, “Well, are naturals, i.e., Afros, wrong?” This was during the period when black people, especially the “cool” ones, became more culturally aware (“I’m Black and I’m proud” by James Brown), stopped processing (straightening) their hair with chemicals or heat to look “white,” and starting wearing their hair long, natural, and styled into “Afros.” Afros were definitely worldly, and as such they should have been quickly condemned. That would have been “sound doctrine,” but Bro Trotter was rumored to be a “compromiser,” someone who would never stand up for the “truth.”
And sure enough, he didn’t. “Well, they’ve got to wear their hair some way!” he flippantly answered. And all the little “worldly” young people smiled and relaxed, looking smug as their desires to be “cool” were okayed and sanctioned by the “man of God.” But those of us in the fanatic camp were thoroughly appalled and disgusted. “Why couldn’t he just tell them that Afros are worldly—because they are?” we inwardly questioned. We were alarmed at what was gonna happen to the church and all the “worldliness” that was being brought in from so blatantly letting down the “standard.”
Grandmother dismissed the service and never once sounded concerned over this “compromise.” Afterwards, everybody went to the kitchen to eat lunch, but Segatha and I stumbled out to our car, barely able to hold back our tears. Earnestly praying and crying out to God in our car—which, by the way, was a 1965 Cadillac, a car on the list of forbidden cars because “saints aren’t supposed to drive luxury cars!”—we pled with God to help the church and keep it from going astray because of compromisers like Bro Trotter. Instead, God spoke to both of us individually, saying basically the same thing. He has led us this way many times since: giving us each individually the same message at the same time, although usually in different words. And this is what He told us:
“IF the Bible is somewhat silent about certain issues so that we don’t have a definite, written, black-and-white commandment in the Word about that matter, then it is a 'loophole,' where God reserves the right to talk to each individual Himself through His Spirit. In such cases, everything is between that person and God Himself, and we cannot grab a few unrelated scriptures and try to prevent people from exercising their freedom in that matter. Without a written command from the Word, we have no authority to close that loophole just because we are concerned about how the church is gonna look. People have liberty. If they want to use their liberty to indulge their flesh, then they have a 'heart' problem, a touch of dishonesty before God, and God already knows about and will deal with that. So we don’t have to be 'pearly gate watchdogs' and expend a lot of time and effort trying to make sure nobody jumps through the 'loopholes' to indulge themselves."
Suddenly, we sat up, alert and enlightened by this epiphany. We discussed what we had just heard from God. We began to feel free and relieved. We dried our eyes and went to go get our lunch. And we have never been fanatical since then.
That September 1973, as we sat in a morning service at the Fresno, CA, campmeeting, we again heard God speak to each of us. I turned to Segatha and said, “I’ve got something to tell you when church is over.” She replied, “I’ve got something to tell you, too.” When we got together, it was the same message: “I want you to leave LA!” We discussed this with Bro Trotter, who also pastored this congregation, and the three of us agreed that God wanted us to move to Fresno. Three months later, I quit my lucrative computer programming job in aerospace (told you I was radical!), and in January 1974, we began a 16-year stint ministering under Bro Trotter as assistant pastor, youth pastor, worship leader, Christian school co-founder and administrator, and several other formal and informal jobs and positions.
Because Bro Trotter was a prophet-teacher, it turned out that my gifting was also prophet-teaching (I didn’t realize it at the time), so it was critical for me to be in Fresno during that time to receive the invaluable mentoring only he could offer. He was an amazing man of God! Through my experiences—and, man, were they dramatic! —it was there that I grew in leaps and bounds in every area of spiritual life, and there I was transformed into the servant of God He meant for me to be. “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now!” Thanks be to God!