I first met Frank Houston in 1976. He was the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in New Zealand and I was an impressionable 14-year-old. My father, who was also an Assemblies of God pastor, was conducting a series of meetings in New Zealand. Dad decided to call in to see Frank at his church in Lower Hutt, near Wellington.
Frank came out of his office to the carpark to say hello. After greeting my father, Frank came round to the front passenger’s seat, leaned in through the window and introduced himself to me. I remember being quite startled and embarrassed at the attention I was receiving. Frank seemed more interested in talking to me than to my father, who, after all was a ministry colleague.
All of a sudden, Frank reached through the window, took my hand, and began to stroke it in a tender, almost seductive way. I remember thinking to myself, “What is going on here?” It seemed, well, creepy. Something didn’t feel right, but in my youthful innocence, I didn’t know what it was. Then, in a bizarre twist of events, Frank picked up a stone and began to press it forcefully into the back of my hand. I wanted to cry out and tell him to stop because it was hurting, but for some reason I kept my mouth shut and endured the pain.
I remember thinking that it must have been some kind of profound spiritual exercise: “He’s a mighty man of God; it must be alright; he must know what he is doing.” But the image I remember most, that still haunts me to this day, was the leering, rapacious look on his face as he pressed the object into my hand. It was as though he was deriving joy from my pain. And in some strange way, I felt like he wanted to eat me.
I never discussed the incident with my father. I was in a mental fog, like “What just happened there?” I felt confused, embarrassed, ashamed, and yes, guilty. In my naivety, I didn’t realise that I had just been ‘groomed’ by a man of God. Frank told my father that I had a disposition toward God that was rare for a boy of my age. Perhaps he thought that I had a disposition toward other things as well.
The last time I saw Frank was in 1999. Some friends and I had lunch with him in Byron Bay. I was shocked at how he had deteriorated. He was already showing signs of senile dementia. But it was the lack of grace in his life that astonished me. Basically, he was a cantankerous, bitter old man. He was angry with the world and everyone in it, including his son, Brian. It was pitiful, really.
In 2002 Frank’s ministry license was revoked by the Assemblies of God when details emerged of historical sex offences he had committed against minors. Only God knows how many young boys suffered because of his depravity. Some sources allege that at least a dozen cases of sexual abuse took place in New Zealand and Australia over a 30-year-period. If that is true, then we are not talking about a one-off offence (as bad as that is), but a pattern of predatory behaviour that defies belief.
As a young man growing up in the Pentecostal movement, Frank Houston was my hero. He epitomised everything I wanted to be: a dynamic evangelist who moved powerfully in the gifts of the Holy Spirit; an apostolic church planter who opened new areas in New Zealand and Australia to the gospel. But on another level, Frank represented everything that was wrong with the modern Pentecostal movement: power without purity, charisma without character, image without substance.
I remember attending an Assemblies of God State Pastors’ Conference in Ballarat in 1984. Frank was the guest speaker, fresh from the inspiring success story that was Christian Life Centre, Sydney. During one of his sermons, Frank lambasted a fellow New Zealand pastor who had fallen into immorality. Frank said, “Some of these men have thousands of people in their churches and think that they will get away with it, that no one will believe it.” Then he thundered, “But people did believe it, and they didn’t get away with it!”
Frank concluded his rant with this observation: “After 40 years of ministry, I thank God that I’ve still got my credibility.” I sat there along with other young aspiring preachers, thinking “Wow! What a role model. What an example. I hope that one day I can be like him!” Little did we realise the double life he was leading.
Almost 46 years have elapsed since my first encounter with Frank Houston in Lower Hutt. And 46 years later, I still have more questions than answers.
How could such a dichotomy of good and evil exist in one person?
How could a person with a narcissistic personality disorder be allowed to function for so long at such a high level of leadership?
Did Frank genuinely repent of his sins and die in a state of grace?
When did Frank’s son, Brian, become aware of his father’s sexual crimes, and why didn’t he or the other members of the National Executive of the Assemblies of God report it to the police as required under mandatory reporting legislation in New South Wales?
Frank served as a member of the National Executive of the Assemblies of God in Australia for over a decade. He was more than just an executive member; he was a close personal friend and confidant of his fellow leaders. One State leader, in particular, often referred to Frank as his ‘best friend’. These men travelled together, preached together, stayed together, and sat in conference together. How is it possible that not one of them knew, or at least suspected, that something was seriously wrong in Frank’s personal life? And if so, why didn’t they deal with it in a biblical and lawful manner? Or did their infatuation with growth and success prevent them from discerning the evil that was present in their own closed circle? Remember, these were the same men who prided themselves on being the ‘apostles and prophets’ of the AOG movement. Yet, for all intents and purposes, they failed the most fundamental leadership test of all — that of being vigilant watchmen and protecting the people who were entrusted to their care. To my knowledge, not one of these men, some dead, some still living, ever apologised for failing to recognise the sexual perversion that was in their midst.
What does this say about the future of the Church? Is it really about big crowds, exciting programs, theatrical productions, rock-star musicians, and celebrity preachers? Or is it about the simplicity of following Jesus and trying to be like Him in thought, word, and deed?
One thing is for sure: my life has been deeply affected, both positively and negatively, by my association with Frank Houston. And it has shaped my attitude toward the Church in general, and religious leaders in particular.
And I have resolved to only follow a leader, regardless of who they are, insofar as they are following Christ (1 Cor 11.1