Looking At Lonnie Frisbee: A Real Jesus Freak?
By Steve Mitchell Power To Stand Ministries
Jesus Movement historian, David DiSabatino has just released a new documentary film entitled: Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippy Preacher and its caused quite a stir in film festivals and churches. It documents the life and times of a hippy, Lonnie Frisbee, who many believed was gifted with great power from God after being extraordinarily commissioned and sent. He became influential in the histories of two large church movements – Calvary Chapels and Vineyards, and it is alleged in the film that because he practiced homosexuality and died of AIDS, his part in the formation and growth in these churches has been marginalized and all but written out of history books.
Many testimonies weigh in with their versions of who Lonnie was and what he did and, it can be said, this film attempts to accredit Frisbee for his contributions and feats accomplished through a “powerful anointing”. The subtitle of the film even includes the phrase: “A Bible Story”
I first heard the name Lonnie Frisbee after I got ordained in Calvary Chapels in 1997. It was merely passing mention made by a pastor friend of mine and the only detail I knew was that he had been a hippy preacher that had died of AIDS. At the time I never knew any other details about Lonnie’s life.
It wasn’t until 2005, when I heard YWAM Hawaii Director, Danny Lehmann mention how God had used his friend Lonnie Frisbee in the early days of the Jesus Movement. Lehmann had been teaching some very aberrant things and promoting some unbiblical teachings and ministries and so I wondered about this Lonnie Frisbee. Danny had apparently ministered for a year with Frisbee in those early days and this film documents several elements of Lonnie’s life and ministry.
I would be somewhat shocked with what I saw when I ordered David DiSabatino’s Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippy Preacher. What follows is a look at the content of this documentary. All direct quotations are cited from the 60-minute film, the DVD “Special Features” section, or the website: http://lonniefrisbee.com/
The documentary opens with film footage of Lonnie baptizing multitudes on a California beach. He looks like a biblical figure, or at least the popular artistic portrayals commonly seen. He even likens himself to the famous forerunner:
“I kind of relate to down in the wilderness baptizing in the river Jordan, sometimes. It’s really neat to see how each one reacts in a different way but I can feel the presence of God comin’ down upon me and upon the person being baptized just all over the place…” (Lonnie Frisbee).
“Lonnie Frisbee was a hippy seeker who came of age during the 1960s. At the end of his quest for truth, he embraced Jesus Christ and became a Christian.” (David DiSabatino, Director).
“He became influential in the southern California evangelical scene, sparking the rise of two denominations that planted churches across the southwestern United States.” (David DiSabatino, Director).
Well, this is the claim and it very well may be true, but we need to look closer at the peculiarities of Lonnie’s “walk of faith”. This documentary is very revealing about Lonnie’s initial “experiences” as documented by his friends and ministry associates. As you will see, these give great cause for concern and are very problematic.
Far Out, Man!
Early on, we see footage of Frisbee on stage with false teacher Kathryn Kuhlman where he describes his own idea of what God was doing:
“The church for so long has been expecting a certain mold of what a Christians should look like or what a Christian should be or what a Christian should say and God is blowing everybody’s mind because He’s saving the hippies and nobody thought a hippy could be saved.” (Lonnie Frisbee)
Mind-blowing is right! Lonnie definitely broke all the molds in his day but even in these words we see something that should be cautionary to us. I rejoice that the Lord moved in the 60s counterculture and that many hippies were saved but Lonnie’s earlier assessment of the church here will be relevant to his own involvement later in his life. The “mold” that Lonnie rebelled against was broken right off the bat as the documentary recounts the tale of Frisbee’s conversion. Lonnie’s actual “conversion” is definitely unorthodox. Frisbee experimented with all manner of drugs, false religions, and meditation practices:
“All the things that went along with the mystic. It just wasn’t quite enough for me. I kept on searching and searching.” (Lonnie Frisbee).
This early search was typical of many in the hippy movement and no one at that time could be faulted for their base practices as they were yet unsaved. But then, DiSabatino introduces a problematic twist that I believe has severe bearing on Lonnie’s alleged conversion account.
“One of the ironic twists of the 60s was that many openly stated that drugs, LSD in particular, played a large part of their experience in Christian salvation.” (David DiSabatino, Director).
Steve and Sandy Heefner, identified on the film as “Early Hippy Christians”, weigh in on this heavy phenomenon:
“I took my LSD, laid down on the floor a couple of hours and when I could get together to get up, I got up as a Christian. Its just that simple…”
Simply preposterous. One is hard-pressed to see accounts like this as any kind of true conversion. Where is the repentance of sin and the understanding of rebellion. Who preached the gospel to them? How can one be truly saved without hearing the truth of the Gospel? The Bible says:
“How shall they call on Him whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?…so then, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:14,17).
In John 17:20, Jesus prayed for all who would believe in Him through the disciple’s “word”; the preached gospel message.
Acts 15:7 records Peter saying: “by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.”
I do not doubt that many who have been on drugs have had spiritual experiences of many types but I am afraid that many misunderstood the reality that true regeneration or truly being converted to Christianity is antithetical to the counterfeit experiences one can be caught up in while being high. Many hippies saw the “Christian experience” as just another “trip”. It may have been referred to as the “real high” and may have lasted longer that any drug or drink stupor but eventually one needed to “come down” and be sober in order to really be able to accept and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am judging no one’s ultimate salvation here but I believe that many of these testimonies are extremely dubious given the fact that the alleged new converts to Christ were, in fact, stoned and in altered states of consciousness. Anyone who has done drugs can tell you that LSD and other hallucinogenics, so rampantly and consistently used, can duplicate the most mind boggling and radical false realities imaginable. Meeting “Christ” on drugs is more than an ironic twist, it may very well be counterfeit, especially if the “christ” or “god” you encounter fails to tell you of repentance and the gospel. Lonnie seems to have met “Christ” on one of these trips. Here are the disturbing details surrounding Lonnie’s conversion: Lonnie’s high school friend, Judy Meston, recounts:
“So we drove out to Tahquitz Falls and we hiked up- he wanted to go to the very top falls. And once he got there, he opened his back pack and he spread out- and he had LSD, and he had marijuana, and he had all of his oil paints and he had togas, and he told us to put on togas, so we did. And he proceeded to paint a picture of Jesus on the rocks, a full-sized picture of Jesus on the rock. Then he pulled out his Bible and he got into a kinda yoga position and he says ‘We’re gonna read the Bible now.’ He was reading about John the Baptist and how John the Baptist baptized and he baptized us up at Tahquitz Falls, even though we were all on drugs…”
“Sometime in 1967 at the age of 17, Lonnie Frisbee took another trip into Tahquitz Canyon. There he took a hit of LSD, removed his clothing and began to pray in a relatively unorthodox but sincere manner. He would later recount that it was here that God came to him in a vision and told him of the unique role that he was soon to play.”
“He saw like the Pacific Ocean emptied out of water but filled people raising their hands and crying out to God to be saved. He says he saw a sea of humanity crying out to the Lord. He said the Lord told him that he would have a unique ministry and that he was not to be afraid.” (Neal Liebig, “Pastor”)
“When the Lord called me, I was going into the desert and I was taking all my clothes off and I was going ‘God if You’re really real, reveal Yourself to me!’ And one afternoon, the whole atmosphere of this canyon I was in started to tingle and get light and started to change and I was going ‘Uh-oh!’ I didn’t want to be there!”
Could drugs have contributed to these special effects? Most assuredly, and with such a bent towards mysticism and occult practice, a young Frisbee was wide open for a dangerous visitation. None of the actualities of this account can be verified or believed to be from the True God because of the self-admitted state he was in. I’ve had addict friends who saw very vivid manifestations and convincing deceptions while on drugs.
“Early Hippy Christian”, David Sloane reveals:
“All of a sudden the Spirit of God hit him hard and he went almost into a trance and he saw himself standing up there with a Bible and he was preaching the gospel powerfully to young people and God told him He was going to use him to bring young people to Christ.”
So according to the film, a high, naked Lonnie receives a vision from a being he identified as “God” who especially selects him for a mission. Although this film is referred to as a “Bible story” and continuously makes comparisons between Frisbee and Bible characters like John the Baptist, Jesus, Samson, and David, one is hard pressed to find any such episode in the lives of these men in the Scriptures. Why is this any kind of credible testimony? Why should any true believer in Christ believe that this was anything other than a counterfeit? Both his “conversion”, confrontation with God, and his subsequent alleged commission all happened while he was high on LSD. Please understand I am not judging whether Lonnie was ever saved or unsaved by his life’s tragic end. All I am saying is that these details don’t indicate this particular series of events to be genuine.
It is alarming to me that these testimonies were left unexplained and largely unclarified throughout this film. I just have to ask, is this evidence we are asked to believe pointing towards a true conversion to Jesus Christ? Is this drug-addled experiential episode the real thing or could it be a counterfeit spiritual experience whose falsehood would be revealed in later fruits of Lonnie’s ministry?
Director DiSabatino offers this perspective concerning whether these experiences were authentic or not:
“The history of human spirituality ifs full of moments like those here the recipient claims to receive a message from God, but the significance of these events is not found in the vision of light or the burning bush but rather what happens afterwards – the tremendous zeal by which the person embraces the calling. Whatever happened to Lonnie Frisbee in the canyon that day so transformed him that it shaped the course of his entire life.”
First off, Lonnie’s phenomenon cannot in any way be compared to Moses and the burning bush. Was Moses high when he saw that? Hardly. Secondly, tremendous zeal to embrace a “calling” as the aftermath of an experience like this is not indicative as to whether this was really God or not. Thirdly, the whole after the fact account is relegated by DiSabatino to “whatever happened to Lonnie” in the canyon and that is where we must leave it at this point. If more details were provided such as repentance from drugs and a true turning away from homosexuality then one might argue the validity of a true conversion. What DiSabatino appears to be doing is what we all must do: marginalize the glaring problems with this alleged conversion account if we are to really believe that Lonnie was so used by God as the rest of the film claims. What follows is more testimony concerning the change that Frisbee underwent after this bizarre scenario.
Lonnie himself believes he was changed:
“He just changed my life. I entered into something that the Bible calls the ‘born again experience’. I was transformed on the inside. I became a new creature in Christ Jesus and the old things passed away…I wanted everybody to experience the experience of Jesus Christ. When I first turned on to drugs I thought that was the truth so I turned everybody on to drugs.”
I believe Frisbee was sincere. Something had definitely happened to him. Note his constant use of “experience”, the “born-again experience”. The “experience” of Jesus Christ. True to many in the Jesus Movement, Christ and salvation was an experiential encounter often perceived to be totally real as a result of a heavy trip while under the influence. All that can be said is that Lonnie had an encounter but we must ask “was it genuine?” Just because he was sincere in his belief about what happened does not make it actual or genuine. If Lonnie truly met God, where was the call to repent of his drug use? If God actually came to him in his drug trip, one would think that he would be told to repent for his sins, but there is no mention of this occurring. We must be wary of anyone who claims to be commissioned by God to serve Him without being told anything about repentance from their sinful lifestyle.
The sad part as featured in the rest of this film is that we will have to acknowledge that not all of the old things were left behind. There just seemed to be no fruit of real repentance, therefore no credible evidence that Lonnie was really saved. The drug use didn’t stop right away either as this testimony of one of Lonnie’s early Bible studies shows:
“I think that Lonnie must have fixed this one particular room up. There were candles lit and everything. The room filled up with people and we had taken some LSD and he was reading the Gospel of John out loud, and we’re goin’ through the whole gospel. And we get to the end of it, it’s the crucifixion stuff, everybody’s crying, you know, and not one person left the room. And then it was over. He was a planner of experiences.” (Connie Bremer-Murray, “Lonnie’s Ex-wife” Special Features section)
Is he zealous? Was he sincere? Did he “do” a lot of stuff? Absolutely, but that doesn’t really mean much because Christ said that by our fruits will we know someone (Matt. 7:15-20) . “A good tree bears good fruit…” (Matt. 7:17). This is not to say that we all don’t struggle or that anyone is perfect. I certainly am not pointing fingers without first acknowledging my sins before God and that I fall as well. But when false teaching and erroneous belief consistently characterize someone’s life and public ministry, we must be careful to just automatically attribute the power behind that person to the God of the Bible, especially if there is no repentance evident. Sadly, Lonnie’s “Christian” life is riddled with erroneous belief and what can best be described as counterfeit signs and wonders associated with false revival and the presence of sexual immorality.
Life in the Big House
Soon after this experience, Frisbee moves to another part of California and meets a similar group of folks who have started a commune called the Big House in the Haight Asbury district. Frisbee fits right in. The leaders weigh in on some of the bizarre beliefs held by Lonnie concerning Christ. One must ask how sober or “with it” Lonnie was when he began sharing about his experiences and his newfound faith. It is hard to believe that he was able to comprehend what had actually taken place in that canyon. Ed Wise, Leader of the Big House Commune:
“Some of the times he would be talking about Jesus being from another world, coming out of a flying saucer, which is not unusual in those days.”
The leaders of the Big House allegedly steered Lonnie towards a “more orthodox” understanding of the Christian faith but a major problem still remained:
“His thirst for experimentation did not stop.” (David DiSabatino, Director)
Again, these terms are not descriptive of any of the men that God ever appeared to in the Bible to be given a special commission. I find it hard to believe that the very man that God had actually appeared to and personally commissioned to do mighty things could still entertain thoughts of Christ in a flying saucer or other things, especially experimentation in drugs. Again, where’s the call to repent that is integral for a real relationship with God?
This hunger in Lonnie drove him to seek out some of the stranger elements of Pentecostalism, especially in the practices of dramatic manifestations like being slain in the spirit, bizarre miracles, and ecstatic utterance. By these references I have in view the unbiblical “fringe” practices of some hyper-Pentecostal preachers and their churches where I believe Lonnie was largely influenced in how he wanted to do ministry. I believe in the Bible’s accounts of men who were unable to stand in the presence of God but don’t believe people falling and hitting the floor or violently thrown around in church has any connection to the biblical examples. I also believe that God can heal and do whatever miracles He ordains as well as even cause someone to have the gift of glossalalia, biblically defined. These gifts and practices have been abused and twisted in teaching and practice by many churches today so I need to define my terms. Lonnie’s ministry, by all accounts in this film, is empathetic to the abuses mentioned above, as we will see.
Early on, Lonnie begins to teach the doctrine of subsequence, or the baptism in the Holy Spirit (the “second blessing” version or a derivative thereof), obviously taught to him from the Pentecostal ministers he was attracted to. This area becomes sketchy because many of these practices cannot be supported biblically and much error and heresy has emerged in churches that don’t have a biblical understanding of doctrine or the gifts. The evidence exists in this film that something otherworldly seemed to accompany Frisbee’s practices but we cannot be certain this was from God.
When Lonnie prayed for Steve Toth to receive subsequence,:
“I felt the Spirit of God come down upon me in such a powerful way and Lonnie was kind of encouraging me to start speaking in this unknown prayer language.”
It’s obvious that Frisbee has now fallen into ranks with some of these Pentecostal teachers whose ministries have been characterized by major aberrance and in some cases, abject error. Typically Frisbee was hailed to be from God because things happened when he prayed and put his hands on people. We can see the manifestations increase as his ministry grows and many testify to amazing powers coming from Lonnie as the Lord allegedly worked through him.
early years, Frisbee begins to embrace strange practices associated with the
heresy of being able to transfer the Holy Spirit. This doctrine in its most
popular form relegates the Holy spirit to an “it” or a force that can be thrown
around a room, thrown on people, and hit folks with such force that they are
knocked around, sometimes violently. Many people erupt into ecstatic gibberish
or even animal sounds (as is the case in the Vineyards), which is a counterfeit
version of tongues-speaking and completely violates the guidelines for
exercising that gift as found in 1 Cor. 12-14. Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and
a host of other false teachers refer to this power as the “anointing”. Again
this is utter heresy and sadly, Lonnie seems to have picked up this wickedness
from false teachers in his day.
It would be difficult to find a charismatic/evangelical
service/program/tract/book that is not liberally sprinkled with the word
'Anointed, which has become arguably the most overused, overworked,
misunderstood, misinterpreted term in the Pentecostal and Charismatic arenas.
As Lonnie’s popularity grew, so did a tendency for weirder stuff:
“Then at one time, Lonnie had a feeling that if he took his deerskin, of course he was a little eccentric, we probably all were, and he painted a picture, a likeness, of either Jesus or himself- its debatable. And he wore it around his shoulders and that was pretty good… But then he got the idea that if he put this sheet over people they would manifest the Holy spirit and begin speaking in other tongues. And it did – it happened that way a few times… Then he thought this is his ministry.” (Steve and Sandi Heefner, “Big House leaders”).
“I got a deerskin to be my mantle and I painted a picture of Jesus on it and I wore it like a cape. So when I would pray for people and the Spirit of God would come on ‘em, I’d take off my cape and throw the mantle over the top of them I think.”
Eccentricities like this seem to characterize Lonnie’s new ministry practices and also show his penchant to be influenced by some of the aberrant and bizarre fringe methodology of some Pentecostal practitioners. So where is this “steering” to better orthodoxy that supposedly happened at the Big House?
Lonnie Marries Connie
Lonnie witnesses to Connie, a girl he had known from earlier in his life and she believes and is baptized by Frisbee. In April 1968 they were married but it wasn’t all well. Lonnie gave certain indicators early on of a battle that would be with him throughout his life:
“When Lonnie asked me to marry him, at that particular time is when he told me that he was gay. He didn’t say it as though he was still gay but that he had gotten saved out of that lifestyle.” (Connie Bremer-Murray, “Lonnie’s Ex-wife”).
More on this issue later, but noteworthy in this film is the presence of quite a lot of confusion concerning Lonnie’s sexual orientation. Lonnie himself seems to clarify it later in the film.
Lonnie Meets Chuck
I appreciate the love Pastor Chuck Smith developed for the hippies and for the many he ministered to. For the most part, those who sat under his teachings for an extended period of time were taught the true gospel and many were truly saved. It was under Chuck’s ministry that the Bible was expounded and truth was proclaimed and, I believe, is one of the places where many hippies, who had formerly had these wired experiences and continued to use drugs, thinking they had been truly saved, perhaps first heard the actual message of salvation. The Holy Spirit cut through the fog in many minds during those days and I believe God’s Word was honored with the fruit of seeing many young people pass from death to life in a genuine way.
DiSabatino and the voices in the Frisbee film would have us believe that it was basically with the advent of young Lonnie Frisbee, that all of these things began to really take place. Pastor Chuck’s ministry was rejuvenated and the real movement began under Frisbee’s influence.
I’ll say initially here that this circumstance may have been partly true although I believe that Chuck’s teaching of the Word was far more instrumental in the growth and development of Calvary Chapels than was Frisbee’s presence which was, at times, extremely troublesome and laden with error. I believe Pastor Chuck, who is given a rather negative light in this film should be commended for eventually separating from Lonnie because of the presence of such error that eventually came to a sort of fruition with Wimber and the Vineyards.
Pastor Chuck also acknowledges a power that accompanied his first meeting with Lonnie. He attributes this to the power of the Lord:
“And Lonnie extended his hand and there was such a warmth of love manifested in his greeting, I was caught off guard. There was an instant bond. There was the power of God’s spirit that was very easily recognized.”
Whether this was a true assessment or not we may never know. Obviously Pastor Chuck and everyone else on this video believed wholeheartedly that Lonnie was indeed truly saved and about ready to be used explosively for the Lord. All I can say is that what follows really fortifies my concerns and misgivings concerning the claim that God Himself was truly leading Lonnie’s ministry. Again, I mean no disrespect and I realize that all I have to go on is what this film documents but I think my concerns will be validated.
Chuck Smith Jr., Chuck’s son and pastor of Calvary Chapel Capo Beach has been rightly chastised by his father because of his involvement with and promotion of false teachings and error of the Emerging church. Nonetheless, he was close to Lonnie and is featured quite frequently in this film and shares several observations about Lonnie. He definitely concurs that his father and mother were enamored with Lonnie when they first met him. His mom Kay Smith gave a prophecy concerning Frisbee and he was welcomed into the ranks of ministry in the early days of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.
[See Footnote For more on Calvary Chapel’s recent position Paper ]
Honestly, it was a bit disturbing to see the film’s still photo of Lonnie onstage with Pastor Chuck being commissioned to essentially “impact the world” as was prophesied by Kay Smith. Knowing what would occur after this, the reason for being disheartened is evident. Here’s some background about hat prophecy:
“There were 15 of us at the altar praying and the Spirit of God came through a prophecy with Kay Smith and said to us: ‘Because of your praise and adoration before My throne tonight, I’m gonna bless the whole coast of California’… And when we started to receive the word as from God, the Spirit of the Lord fell upon us and we began to weep and the Lord began to give people visions of that prophecy and then the Lord continued on to say that it was going to move across the United States and then go to different parts of the world…” (Lonnie Frisbee).
Chuck Smith, Jr.:
“My dad and mom were so convinced that this was a wave of God’s Spirit and that all of these people coming to Christ represented the new church.”
Was this prophetic word really from the Lord? Well DiSabatino and the contributors to this film would have us believe that Lonnie should truly be recognized and accredited for being used mightily by the Lord and even globally. In fact, according to this documentary, he was the reason for the big beginnings of this movement. But I think the following quote hits on the real reason for the growth of Calvary Chapels which also was present around that time:
As recounted by Henry Cutrona, “Christian Musician”,:
“For the first four years I was there, all he(Pastor Chuck Smith) preached on was love, because love at that time had so many different meanings and I think Chuck hit the nail on the head. He just basically said ‘God is love.’”
I have trouble believing that Lonnie Frisbee, who may have been involved even then in immorality behind the scenes, and who most definitely separated himself from the biblical direction Pastor Chuck was going in the following few years, was really the groundbreaking reason God has blessed and continues to bless many in the Calvary Chapel movement, then and now. I believe that it was the teaching of God’s Word. Insofar as Lonnie towed that line and taught some truth, then God chose to work, but I think the overwhelming evidence shows Lonnie’s penchant for ministry and methodology that was largely unbiblical and, if I may be so bold, downright dangerous in its subsequent manifestations
“Throughout the Bible, we are confronted with historical figures said to have held special power, granted by God to perform acts that promote faith but defy rational explanation.” (David DiSabatino, Director).
While this is true, many of these giftings and callings were unique. God can certainly do miracles and work supernaturally today, but from what this film declares, any belief that Lonnie was on par with the apostles and prophets of Holy Scripture in terms of his gifting and authority should be thoroughly tested. Truth be told, I find it hard to believe with the evidence that will emerge in this documentary that Lonnie was the spiritual powerhouse/powder keg that others claimed he was. I’m afraid that abundant evidence exists that there was a hearty mixture of truth and error in his ministry and practice. More info is needed but the portrayal here is clear. Here’s a few eyewitness accounts mentioned in the film:
“Early on, he was a little whacked out, but he was powerful…” (David Sloane).
Whacked out and powerful? A dangerous combination to be sure.
Excerps from article on
Section 10A .. The Contemporary Church/ Vineyard Churches
Looking At Lonnie Frisbee: A Real Jesus Freak?
By Steve Mitchell Power To Stand Ministries