CHURCH OF THE LIVING WORD (a.k.a. The Living Word Fellowship, The Walk) (Religious Movement)

Founded by John Robert Stevens (1919-83), the Church of the Living Word, now known as the Living Word Fellowship, is an association of congregations in the Pentecostalist tradition (see Azusa Street Revival and Charismatic Movements), rather than a discrete denomination.

Born in Iowa, Stevens started his first church and wrote his first book, To Be a Christian, at the age of 14. He became an itinerant boy-evangelist, organizing tent meetings, and was ordained at age 18 by Dr. A.W.Courtcamp, Pastor of the Moline Gospel Temple in Moline, Illinois, a congregation whose roots lay in the Pentecostalist and Foursquare Gospel movements. At the age of 20, Stevens enrolled at the Life Bible College in Los Angeles, where he spent three semesters. In 1943 he helped to develop the Christian Tabernacle School in Daytona, Ohio, and became pastor at Oklahoma in a congregation that became affiliated to the International Foursquare Gospel Church.

He later became pastor of the Lynwood Assemblies of God in California, where he claimed to receive progressive revelations about entering a new age of the Spirit. This new age involved the purification of the churches, which would entail a return to first-century principles of Church government, in accordance with scripture. In particular, he became convinced that Churches were to be governed by elders, deacons, and other scriptural ministries, rather than congregational and denomination boards, and that they should celebrate the traditional Jewish festivals of Passover, Tabernacles, and the Day of Atonement. Such teachings brought him into conflict with the Assemblies of God, who revoked his pastorship in 1951. He then set about organizing his remaining supporters, establishing his own independent Grace Chapel of South Gate, California in the same year.

Stevens apparently received a vision in 1954, which provided an impetus for further growth. This vision resulted in a break with mainstream Christendom, which, he claimed had become apostate. He subsequently taught the need for a scriptural foundation to any work to be carried out by the Church. The Living Word Fellowship thoroughly deplores the ‘fleshly emotions’ that the churches encourage: secular entertainments such as bingo nights, barbecues, and church outings; the enormous variety of churches, which causes confusion, leading to apostasy; and especially the ‘mega-churches’ and television churches, which promote cults of personalities rather than God.

The 1960s saw a further expansion of Stevens’ work, with the influx of many young people. A vision of Jesus, which Stevens claimed in 1963, gave his work further impetus, and the 1970s saw a period of increased expansion, with a total of 100 associated congregations by 1977. The key doctrines of the Church of the Living Word are set out as a list of thirty-one principles in To Every Man that Asketh (1959). These are still used by the Living Word Fellowship as its statement of faith. The inerrancy of scripture forms the basis of its doctrines, together with belief in God as triune. The statement affirms the lostness of humanity, the substitutionary atonement by Jesus Christ, the need for conversion followed by water baptism, and life as ‘a holy walk by the Holy Spirit for the believer’. Miracles and prophecy are affirmed, prophetic utterance being regarded as an important characteristic in worship. Particularly important is the statement’s position on the Church: all members, without exception, are regarded as God’s chosen priesthood (Exodus 19:6), and are ‘anointed’ for this role by laying on of hands. The Fellowship aims at world evangelism, in obedience to Christ’s ‘Great Commission’ to preach the gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20).

The organization is millennialist (see Millenarianism), teaching that humanity is living in the last days. It prefers the term ‘first resurrection’ to ‘the rapture’, since the latter expression is non-biblical. These end-times are characterized by a special visitation of Christ to the elect, in the same way as Stevens himself experienced him, and a gradual transition of believers’ earthly bodies to ‘spiritual bodies’ (full resurrection bodies: 1 Corinthians 15:42-44), making them ‘manifest sons of God’. Such a transition entails the acquisition of special powers, such as controlling evil spirits and perceiving special vibrations around human bodies. In 1979 Stevens claimed to have broken through into the new kingdom, and become able to take members into it. Such claims caused Stevens to be criticized for occultism.

Following Stevens’ death in 1983, the leadership passed to his wife Marilyn. The Fellowship currently claims some 5,000 members, and runs two schools, in San Diego and North Hills, California.

The name ‘Church of the Living Word’ also designates two other Christian fundamentalist organizations. The first originated as a house group in Euclid, New York in 1972, and with Robert J.Mazur as its first pastor, it gained early support from ex-hippies. It has now expanded to larger premises in Syracuse, New York. It is fundamentalist, with leanings towards Calvinism—affirming the ‘universal depravity of man’ and emphasizing hell—and the Holiness Movement, along with which it advocates the Spirit’s sanctification and the acquisition of’ tongues of the Spirit’. The organization claims ‘many hundreds of members’ and owns its school for pupils of all ages.

The second was founded by L.T. and Weeda Moss in 1984. It is associated with the Word of Faith movement, and is affiliated to the International Convention of Faith Ministries (ICFM) and the Bethany Cell Church Network (BCCN). It is situated in Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and, in common with Stevens’ organization, declares ‘every believer a leader’.

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