I fully realize that subjective experiences do not prove propositions, but I know also that I am not alone in the journey I have been on for many years now. In order that my readers may know that I have not reached the place I am now in a day or even a year nor without struggle, I wish to tell you something of that odyssey. I believe there are many others who are thinking and wondering about the things they have always heard and I wish to assure you that you are not alone and to encourage you to keep searching for the truth.
The combative, confrontational attitude of which we wrote in the last post was still very much in vogue when I came of age and began to think about preaching. In my teen years I attended a number of debates conducted by brethren in the Churches of Christ with Missionary Baptists. These debates were always well attended with people coming from far and near, especially if some well known debater happened to be engaged in the discussion.
The other major events, aside from the weekly assemblies, were the annual gospel meetings which usually lasted ten days with services twice daily and monthly singings hosted by a different area church. The gospel meetings were usually conducted by some well known preacher from Nashville or other larger town. These meetings were almost always well attended by folks from neighboring congregations. Most of the sermons had to do with “first principles” or what the sinner must do to be saved with heavy stress laid on the necessity of baptism. Ordinarily there would be several people “respond to the invitation,” come forward to “make the good confession” and be baptized. Much is made today of the necessity of being baptized “the same hour of the night,” but in those days most churches did not have baptistries, so baptisms were postponed until the next day following the afternoon service when the candidates were taken to a nearby creek to be immersed.
There were no divisions among the churches of Christ in the area where I grew up. Many folks subscribed to the Gospel Advocate – preachers especially. This was the way people kept up with what was going on outside our semi-isolated communities and no doubt were aware of controversies brewing elsewhere. The Gospel Advocate also provided the Bible study literature for the Sunday classes with appropriate studies for different age levels. Between the Advocate’s influence, that of David Lipscomb College (now University) in Nashville and Freed-Hardeman College (now also University) in Henderson, Tennessee producing the preachers, the direction of the churches was pretty well controlled.
It wasn’t until I attended Freed-Hardeman (1955-57) that I became aware of some kind of controversy arising among brethren, although it would only be after I graduated from FH that I found out what that was about. During my two years at FH I never heard any issues or hint of what was going on in the wider world discussed by the faculty. A few months after my graduation I was invited to a neighboring county, given a job in a department store and a room to stay in so I could do “appointment preaching” with the church in town and with other churches out in the county.
When attending a gospel meeting at one of those small rural churches I was confronted by the preacher with the question, “Where do you stand?” I replied, “On what?” My indoctrination into the non-institutional side of the controversy began with this brother loaning me a tape recording of a sermon by a well known preacher presenting what he saw as error on the part of the “institutional brethren.” In order to inform myself better of the “truth” I attended debates, subscribed to NI papers and church bulletins, attended meetings conducted by NI preachers (in which there were always one or more sermons devoted to the “issues” and why the other side was wrong and why we were right. By this time I had long since “taken my stand” with the “sound” (NI) churches and was preaching the gospel according to the Gospel Guardian, the most prominent periodical among these brethren. I was led to believe that those who opposed the GG-NI teaching were unfaithful to the scriptures and were going beyond what was written.
During the time I was preaching I often sought other employment in order to provide a living for my family since the churches I worked with were small in numbers and limited in resources. To provide for my family I did everything from selling shoes to delivering furniture, cutting meat and I later years, substitute teaching with one very interesting assignment, that of teaching elementary school kids to play chess and coaching three chess teams in the local school system. In my preaching for the first thirty or so years I tried to the best of my ability to be faithful to the teaching I knew, upholding what I saw as the truth against the “liberals” and “digressives.” I believed with all my heart that I was doing what was right – what the Lord expected of me.
During this time whenever someone from a “liberal” (institutional) church or a “denomination” would visit where I was preaching I felt duty bound to “skin ’em alive” (tell them from the pulpit what was wrong with their belief and/or practice). No matter what I happened to be preaching, I would work the mistakes of the “erring brethren” into the sermon. I taught classes on “How to Establish Bible Authority” using the usual CENI-S formula as the divinely approved method of Bible study which everyone must use to be able to really know the truth. I contended that those who differed with us on the issues simply refused to see the truth as the Bible plainly revealed it to us … through CENI-S, of course.
After about thirty years of preaching the party line something began to trouble me. When a certain cousin whose husband was a preacher for the opposite side would visit I would go into the usual performance for his sake. Eventually this began to bother me. I knew him to be a godly man who was trying to the best of his knowledge and ability to serve God just as I was. What right did I have to call his integrity or his faithfulness to God into question over matters that I was beginning to have doubts about? What right did I have being so high handed and condescending to a humble servant of Jesus? Doubts began to evidence themselves when I would attempt to preach a sermon that dealt with the “issues” that had divided the church. Every time I preached on some such subject I would come away with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach – an uncertainty, a hint of doubt. Something wasn’t making sense to me.
By this time I was working in the local school system. At that time there weren’t any official objections – and no one else to object – to my studying the Bible when I had time. When the students were working on assignments I would have my Bible open. (I have had a number of former students tell me that my studying the Bible made a lasting impression on them. Some have even told me that it encouraged them to exhibit better behavior!) But I began to observe things I had never seen before – things that did not rightly mesh with what I had been taught and what I had been teaching. I will not go into details concerning what I learned in my studies. You can read my blog and my books, A Better Way and Give Me Liberty and see for yourself what I believe.
The more I thought and studied the more I began to realize that if I were to change my beliefs and let that be known my preaching career would come to an end. No one on either side would trust me. What would I do to earn a living? (I can sympathize with preachers who face a crisis of conscience from facing such a decision). For a good while I simply said nothing. In my preaching I did not deal with the controversies as a good NI preacher was ordinarily expected to do. Fortunately I was working with a congregation that tolerated me expressing some different views. Eventually I began to express more and more of my convictions to the congregation. Jesus, love and grace began to take precedence over legalistic pronouncements and inferred commandments.
A few years ago after I retired from full time preaching and while attending a NI congregation I had been associated with at its beginning and due to personal circumstances I felt it important that I “go public” as to what I had come to believe. At this point I had been writing a daily article on Facebook and posting also on my blog for several years. I went before the congregation, told them what I was doing and assured them that what I believed would make no difference between myself and them – that if there were any difference in our relationship they would be the ones to make the difference. To make a long story short, it made a difference with them! You can read my explanation of these events on my blog at DISCLAIMER AND EXPLANATION. (The material I was writing is also available on my blog and in my books, A Better Way and Give Me Liberty; Restoring the Spirit of Jubilee).
Since leaving the NI church I have been attending more “mainstream” churches. I have visited a number of different congregations ranging from more traditional ones as well as a few of the more “progressive” churches. While none of these congregations are exactly alike – and not any of them perfect – I have found in them people who love the Lord, who believe Bible and who are seeking to the best of their understanding to serve the Lord to the best of their ability. In all the churches I have attended through the years I have found the some of the sweetest, most devoted disciples of the Lord one could ever wish to know. Their faith in Jesus is evident as is the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I have known preachers who obviously love the Lord and have devoted their lives to serving him in the preaching of his word. For all these people I am thankful. I am proud to call them my brothers and sisters – all of them – and confidently look forward in hope to meeting them in the new heaven and new earth.
No, I have not found a perfect church. As the saying goes, if I had it wouldn’t be perfect when I got there. We are all – all believers of whatever religious heritage – on a journey together. It is a journey from the imperfect to the perfect. When we reach it we will know. But for now our greatest need is for each of us to help the other as we travel along a common road of human experience toward a divine destination. And when we reach it we will be there only by the grace of God. It ill behooves any of us to think that we alone are favored by our one Creator.