Leaders of the Anaheim, California- based Vineyard Association of Churches last month voted to sever ties with the controversial Airport Vineyard fellowship in Toronto. The split, however, may not be permanent.

John Wimber, international director of the charismatically oriented Vineyard movement, flew to Toronto on December 5 to announce to John Arnott and other senior staff of the Airport Vineyard that the American Vineyard Board and Council had decided at its annual meeting to cut the association's ties with the controversial Canadian church. The congregation has gained global attention for launching what has been called "The Toronto Blessing," a Christian renewal movement born in January 1994 (CT, Sept. 11, 1995, p. 23). The Vineyard Association worldwide has 546 member congregations.

Formal separation: In explaining the action, Wimber, in an interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY, cited his earlier teachings that Vineyard churches must focus on "the main and plain things in Scripture." While in Toronto, Wimber was joined by Robert Fulton and Todd Hunter, two American colleagues, and by Gary Best, the Canadian Vineyard coordinator. The meeting lasted nearly three hours and ended with a request that the Airport Vineyard leaders review the association's decision, meet with Best, then respond to the American leaders the next day. However, two hours later, Arnott, author of the recently published "The Father's Blessing" (Creation House), wrote a brief letter saying that the Toronto staff had agreed with the move for formal separation.

The next day, December 6, Arnott sent a message via the Internet to four key supporters, saying the previous evening's meeting "was conducted very well, no anger or tension."

Richard Riss, one of the recipients of Arnott's E-mail, openly released Arnott's note, along with personal commentary on the decision. Riss, a church historian at Drew University, wrote of "a precipitous separation of the sheep from the goats" and warned that Wimber is "putting himself in the position of [King] Saul," Israel's first monarch, who waged war on his eventual successor, King David.

However, Airport Vineyard staff quickly distanced themselves from Riss's comments. Riss later issued an apology for premature disclosure of the news and for his language about Wimber.

Wimber has told the Toronto leaders that the association's decision could be reviewed. "Our differences [with Toronto] will cause pain, for us and others," Wimber told CT.

A SURPRISING MOVE: The Airport Vineyard staff was caught by surprise at the separation, in part because Wimber and Best had planned to be in Toronto for a now-canceled February conference. In addition, Wimber had given an endorsement to Arnott's book on renewal.

Hunter, the American Vineyard national coordinator, says the American board thought its report and Wimber's own statements had made it clear that board members wanted the renewal in Toronto to move toward greater scriptural emphasis. Hunter now admits there were probably "mixed signals" sent to Toronto and that the communication could have been better.

However, he also says he "did not hear the Toronto leaders backing down" in the December 5 meeting.

Wimber's concerns focus on the controversial charismatic manifestations connected with the Toronto Blessing.

He and others have been increasingly troubled by animal manifestations, including doglike barking. Wimber has directed that no attention or prophetic explanation be given to such behaviors.

"I believe that there has been an authentic visitation of the Spirit there," Wimber told CT. "However, I am unable because of my own scriptural and theological convictions to any longer give an answer for, or defend the way, this particular move is being pastored and/or explained."

IMPACT OF THE FALLOUT: Hunter believes the Vineyard will "lose very few churches" over the rift with Toronto, although there will be "temporary confusion" and "a great deal of sadness."

Sociologist Margaret Poloma of the University of Akron in Ohio says the split would represent a negative byproduct of renewal. "Protestantism is rife with examples of how charisma lights a fire and the institutional church, in its attempt to control it, stifles its energy and light," Poloma says. "A remnant goes off carrying the torch, but the institution set up by these believers soon becomes filled with firefighters rather than torch-bearers."

But Tom Stipe, an ex-Vineyard pastor in Denver, says, "John Wimber has helped true biblical renewal by this decision. It's unfortunate that the Airport Vineyard leaders didn't really hear his concerns."

Wimber insists that he has tried to give some freedom to local churches in a movement where he wants "the best of Pentecostalism" combined with a "conservative theology."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.