Friday, May 20, 2016

An Open Letter to Family, Friends, & Interested Followers

I am writing today to update you on the latest developments in our family, to share the joy of what God has been doing in our lives, and to provide some context for news that will become increasingly public over the next several months. Some of you are well aware of what I am about to describe. You have remained in close contact with us and know very well the theological and spiritual journey the Lord has led us on since 2009. Others will be surprised, even dismayed, and will likely be confused as to how I could go from being a well-respected minister in the non-institutional Churches of Christ to having the theological commitments and ecclesiastical connections I do today. For those who are surprised, I can only say I would have enjoyed sharing more of this journey with you, and to whatever extent your ignorance of these changes is my fault, I sincerely apologize. Some of you have been unaware of these developments simply because time and distance have prevented our being more frequently in contact. But none of these things have happened in a corner, and anyone who has paid attention to the teaching ministry at RBC over the last two years, our public statements, or my social media engagement could certainly predict that something like this was coming. Some of you have remained ignorant of my theological evolution by choice, and I respect your decision to disengage. But I am happy to provide explanation and context for what God has been doing in our lives, particularly over the last year and a half, and it is my hope and prayer some of you will be interested in corresponding privately and examining these issues more thoroughly, personally, and biblically. I welcome such engagement.

As of this writing I have spent the last 17.5 years of my life engaged in full-time preaching ministry in the local church. I did not intend to make ministry a career. Indeed, the Lord knows I tried diligently, more than once, to discard this calling and to do something else with my life. But God did not allow it. I have made many mistakes over almost two decades of public ministry. I have written many articles, preached many sermons, counseled many individuals, and led several churches in ways I deeply regret. I am grateful for many, many things related to my upbringing in the Churches of Christ. It was there a strong foundation of Bible knowledge was laid. I have been loved, supported, helped, and encouraged by family and friends in those congregations, and I will always thank God for the godly influences I received there. But I did not learn the gospel from the Churches of Christ. On the contrary, I actively and aggressively taught a false gospel, a gospel-less system of salvation by works that encouraged self-righteousness in my own life and in the lives of those I taught. I repented of those errors years ago and have sought both by personal and public confessions to demonstrate my godly sorrow for the errors I affirmed and helped promulgate. But this does not change the damage that was done, and though I repudiate many things I thought and taught at that time, the pernicious influence of that ministry remains to this day.

I thank God that early on he placed godly men in my life who encouraged a more diligent and disciplined practice of Bible study and a more faithful, systematic approach to Scripture in my teaching ministry. Those men may be dismayed at the path I have taken, but they pointed me consistently to Scripture rather than our shared tradition. God used that influence to challenge my theological system and, eventually, to lovingly break, re-make, and shape me into the man and minister I am today. I spent years of my life reading Scripture aloud, memorizing it, outlining it, teaching it, and seeking to live in and learn from it. After years of doing so, I began to realize there were many things I believed that I could not find in Scripture, and many things taught in Scripture that I did not believe. I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole actually would go. But the best analogy I have found for the experience is like pulling a loose thread on a sweater and finding the whole garment suddenly unraveling before your eyes.

In 2009 I made a serious mistake, one I regret to this day. After several months of intense, personal study and several more months of private study with several friends, I disclosed to the church I was serving a radical change in my views of divorce and remarriage. My thinking had not become more liberal; on the contrary, my new position was much stricter than before. I insisted from the outset that I did not wish my new views to ever become a boundary for fellowship, but that disclosure rocked the very narrow, theologically inbred community in which I had lived all my life. I know now that I was wrong, very wrong, and in more ways than one. My handling of that disclosure was atrocious. I made many statements both in person and in writing that were confusing and hurtful to those who heard them. But more fundamentally, my new thinking about the issue was simply wrong. I had become convinced of a particular point of view that was an error, but God used that error—as serious and as divisive as it proved to be—to begin opening my eyes to a much larger issue.

I was not removed by my congregation, though they were disturbed by my new views on divorce and remarriage, but I chose to resign due to the strife I had caused. I moved my family to a new position in Georgia, but my heart was heavy with grief and full of questions over what had transpired. I had made serious mistakes, but I had also seen dear friends and several former mentors and heroes turn against me quickly and aggressively. The diligence of some in branding me as a false teacher seemed to far outpace attempts to reprove, correct, or restore me. I entered my new work wondering how things could go so wrong, so quickly. I began to wonder why a theological disagreement over a secondary issue produced such division and animosity in so short a period of time. I pulled on the thread, and the theological sweater I had been wearing all my life suddenly unraveled at my feet. Years spent in careful study and meditation of the Word suddenly began tormenting me, shining a light on my errors, exposing my pride, self-righteousness, and sin. I realized I had done the very same things, and far worse, to others that were now being done to me. I began writing letters to as many people as I could think of whom I had harmed or wronged over the last decade. I asked their forgiveness. I acknowledged how ignorant and ungracious my actions had been. Not everyone chose to respond, but most that did so were very gracious. I realized I had been the Pharisee, boasting of my own righteousness before God, but I still had no relief. Like the tax collector standing afar off, I beat my breast and cried to God for mercy with tears, but I had no peace in my heart. By December of 2010 my theological deconstruction was complete. God had broken me, and the security of my theological system was gone forever. I was still a minister serving a Church of Christ, but I only knew three things: there is a God, Jesus is his Son, and the Bible is his Word. Beyond that, I was starting over.

My closest friends know that I strongly considered converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy during that time. I had been told my entire life to seek the “one, true church,” and of course, the Church of Rome claimed to be just that. I was communicating with members of the RCC and EOC that had grown up in the Churches of Christ and left that tradition to enter their current communion. My wife was terrified, but I did not care where the truth led me or what the cost might have been. I only wanted to be confident that I was doing God’s will. I continued to preach every week and teach more than a dozen Bible studies. I focused on working through books of the Bible, the same practice I had maintained for a number of years prior and that had helped me discover the problems in my own heritage and paradigm. Then something unexpected happened. The Bible convinced me—actually, the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures did so—the Lord showed me as I continued to read, study, meditate on, and teach his word that justification is not by grace plus faith and our works. Indeed, it cannot be (cf. Rom. 3:28; 4:4-5; Eph. 2:1-9). Works are important, without question, and even necessary as the fruit and evidence of true faith and a regenerate heart. But they could not contribute in any way to man’s justification before God. I did not yet express the doctrine clearly or well, but I had become convinced that justification is by faith alone. That ruled out Rome and Constantinople. It changed my trajectory immediately, and it set me on the course that eventually led me where I am today.

Growing up in the Churches of Christ I heard a lot about “Calvinism” and the error of “denominationalism” (a catch-all category for anything Protestant and outside the Churches of Christ). Looking back I realize much of what I thought I knew about both categories was actually a straw man constructed from ignorance. When I became convinced of the Reformation principle of sola fide, I knew that Rome was no longer an option, and I was compelled to repent of my semi-Pelagian presuppositions and recognize the biblical reality of original sin. Nevertheless, it was impossible for me to even consider that something like Calvinism could be true. I rejected it without a second thought and soon joined the Society of Evangelical Arminians. I thought for sure that my theological questions and confusion would soon be tidily answered and that my future lay within conservative, evangelical Arminianism. But a new problem quickly emerged. I had long heard (and often said) that Calvinism was a philosophical and logical construct based not on the Bible but human thought and reason. But in fact, as I began to develop new friendships within the Arminian world, I discovered that most of the Arminian arguments I was hearing were not biblical, exegetical arguments at all; they were, in fact, philosophical arguments against the doctrines of grace. The Calvinists, on the other hand, were consistently working from Scripture and resolving tensions between divine sovereignty and human responsibility by appealing to the inspired and inerrant Word of God. I began corresponding with Arminian scholars, reading significant Arminian theological works, and dialoguing with other Arminian friends. I was teaching several classes through Genesis and Revelation in the church at that time, and over and over I was seeing clear affirmations of divine sovereignty and God’s effectual grace. As I poured over the text of Scripture, it became clear that Arminianism was still a perversion of what the Scriptures clearly taught, that unregenerate man is dead in sin (Eph. 2:1-3),unable to do anything good in God’s sight (Rom. 8:8), and unable even to understand the things of God (1Cor. 2:14). Man’s decision could not be the decisive factor in salvation, nor could election unto salvation be satisfactorily explained by appeal to a primarily corporate model or in terms of God foreseeing man’s faith (2Tim. 1:9). Oddly enough, it was not Calvinist writers or works that convinced me of the doctrines of grace; it was studying with Arminian scholars and being overwhelmed by the realization I could not reconcile what I was reading in Scripture with what those men were saying. I finally called a friend and admitted defeat in a battle I had never anticipated. “Either Calvinism is true,” I said, “or the Bible is not.” Jesus meant what he said in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

After 3.5 years in Georgia, I finally accepted a pastoral call out of the Churches of Christ to serve a broadly evangelical community church in Arizona. I had declined the opportunity to move to this congregation twice before accepting the call the third time. I knew the transition for my family and for that church would be extraordinary. How little I really knew about the situation. I have told the church more than once in the years since that had I known what would transpire after moving to Arizona, I never would have agreed to come. But God is faithful, and he led us according to his perfect wisdom, not our own imperfect vision. The congregation experienced tremendous pains in the transition, due in part to exchanging a beloved pastor of 25 years for a young man in his mid-thirties with a passion for expository preaching and a heart full of the glories of divine grace. Many of the elders who called me as the Senior Pastor had changed their minds after 53 weeks of my teaching and preaching, but the Lord led us through those challenges as well, and despite my expectation that I would once again be labelled a false teacher and, perhaps this time, finally be removed as a minister, God preserved us and brought the church through a momentous reformation and change. What had been a socially focused, doctrinally superficial community church became a spiritually focused and doctrinally substantial congregation with a strong and clear witness to the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture and to the gospel of God’s grace.

After I moved to Arizona, I continued to pursue intensive theological study, and during that time I became interested in the history of Reformed Baptists, assuming my own journey was taking me along somewhat similar lines. But as I dug into the particular nuances of 17th century Baptist covenant theology, an unexpected thing happened. I became convinced that redemptive history was, indeed, organized covenantally and that covenant theology is the appropriate hermeneutical grid for understanding the Scriptures. But rather than finding myself in agreement with the 17th century Baptists, their arguments convinced me the Presbyterians largely had it right! Just as the Arminians helped convince me of Calvinism, so my Reformed Baptist brothers and forebears helped persuade me of a classical, reformed understanding of covenant theology. I knew immediately this would likely lead to questions about baptism, and it was not many months later that my convictions began to shift in favor of covenantal, household baptism. I knew this would be an especially inconvenient point of view to become persuaded of, and though I did not find many books written by Presbyterians on the subject particularly convincing, I began to find the Scriptures so compelling in favor of that position that I began largely limiting my reading to baptistic arguments against paedo-baptism. Ultimately, it was to no avail. Our associate pastor, who had originally been ordained as a Southern Baptist, had also become convinced of Reformed infant baptism, so we approached the elders privately to disclose our new convictions and to offer our resignations. But rather than accept our resignations, the elders asked to study the issue so they could understand why we had changed our minds. Not many months later, our elders were largely in agreement. The baptismal sign of God’s New Covenant promises belong to believers… and to their children.

Early in 2015 the elders of our congregation began discussing and praying about the possibility of aligning with a conservative, Reformed denomination. We had discussions with ministers from the PCA and URC, but the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was our early and obvious choice. While still in Georgia our family had been encouraged by worshipping occasionally at the local OPC congregation, and the sincere faith, strong commitment to Scripture, and clear presentation of the gospel among those brothers and sisters was refreshing to our hearts during that time. Now it seemed the Lord might be leading not only our family but the entire congregation in that direction. After six or seven months of prayer, conversation, research, and meetings, the elders opened a dialogue with the congregation about the possibility of entering the OPC. Several more months of study, discussion, informational meetings, and prayer followed. On February 14, 2016 Reformation Bible Church voted overwhelmingly to petition the Presbytery of Southern California for reception as a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Over the last several months, immediately prior to and since the congregational vote, I underwent ordination trials for reception as a minister in the OPC. The denomination takes the Bible, the gospel, and the qualification of her ministers very seriously. So even though I have been in full-time pastoral ministry for 17.5 years, I had to sustain their entire battery of ministerial exams. This included proctored, timed exams in English Bible, Church History, Apologetics, Church Government, Greek, and Hebrew. I had to submit two academic papers. Then I had two oral examinations in theology, one before the Credentials Committee and another before the entire Presbytery. On Friday May 6th I completed the final step in my exam process. I preached at the Presbytery meeting and then was examined on the floor by the ministers and elders there. It was an incredible experience, and I enjoyed it very much. It was challenging, and that Friday was the single most important day of my “ministerial” life. The entire process was a big step, and a fairly arduous one. But I am very humbled by and thankful for the opportunity and privilege to serve. Indeed, I am simply overwhelmed. I know how unworthy I am, and I cannot thank God enough for the kindness and mercy he has shown to me.

I could never have imagined when I first began preaching in late 1998 that one day I would be a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The possibility never even crossed my mind when the only theological system I had ever known and had always loved began coming apart. Me, become a Calvinist, and baptize infants?!?! Impossible! That’s what I would have said if anyone tried to warn me. But as Luther reportedly said at the Diet of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason… my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

The final reception of our congregation and my installation as a Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church will not be complete until October, our Lord willing. But I thought it appropriate to provide information, context, and explanation for the transition now.

This event is the culmination of years of study, repentance, theological evolution, and spiritual renewal, and it is a journey that has been painful, confusing, sorrowful, humbling, and joyful. Though I regret many things said and done over the years before and throughout, I do not regret what the Lord has done in and through it. I do not regret where he has led us. It seems an unlikely destination for someone with such strong roots in the Churches of Christ. Like Paul I can say that I have “lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1). But oh how many sins I committed in my pride and ignorance! I was a legalist of Legalists, a Pharisee of Pharisees, sincerely professing my love for Christ even while denying the sufficiency of his grace. But God had mercy on me. I am not the man that I ought to be, and I still sin and fall short of his glory every day, in more ways than I even know. But I thank God I am not the man I used to be and that he did not abandon me to my arrogance and error but that he loved me by breaking me, humiliating me, exposing me, and then teaching me.

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

Soli Deo Gloria!