Foreword by a Member of Our Small Group
What we know is what we have been taught; rarely do we question the truth of it. We were taught by men and women whom we trusted and respected, so their teaching became our truth, the lens through which we view all of life. Everything that aligns with our truth is accepted and all that is contrary to our truth is declared false.
When we encounter opposition to our truth, we often respond by digging in our heels and declaring that our truth is the only truth, refusing to consider that what we have been taught and used as the foundation for building our life, may indeed be false. We want to be right, so we will deliberately close our minds to considering another understanding of truth. We do not want to admit we were wrong. How devastating it would be to find, halfway through your life, that what you had thought and taught was actually a lie. So you fight hard against any and all who would shake the foundation of what you believe.
This is especially true in churches and with church leaders. The truth becomes distorted and then taught to the next generation, who pass it to the next and the next, until it became a dogma to rally around: “We have the truth and anyone who disagrees with us is guilty of heresy.” Using shame and blame and guilt, leaders and teachers convince those within their domain to abandon their own truth and take on the only “real” truth. There is nothing malicious in this coercion, the leaders and teachers are truly convinced that their way is the only way and they genuinely believe they are helping people to find the only real truth. Sadly, far too many people view pastors and teachers as having received special knowledge from God that they, on their own, cannot access. Rather than emulating the early Christians in Berea by searching the Scriptures daily to see if these things were true, congregations tend to rely on a man to tell them what is true instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to make the truth clear.
And that is when problems develop. Pastors quote other pastors and align their teaching with the teachings of other men and staying true to those teachings becomes more important than finding and adhering to God’s truth. And then the people suffer.
One evening, Gordon had been unusually quiet during the Bible study portion of our small group meeting. As we started sharing our spiritual needs prior to praying, it was obvious something was greatly troubling him. Finally, he blurted out, “I don’t think I’m saved. I don’t think I am one God’s chosen.” The group was stunned into silence.
Most of the group knew that Gordon and Amanda were struggling with teachings from the pastor and associate pastor of our church, but only a few of us understood that the issue was Calvinism. In fact, most of the group wasn’t even sure what Calvinism was all about. But it was obvious to all of us that Gordon and Amanda had been deeply hurt by this teaching that had become obvious in the sermons and teachings of our pastor and his associate.
Our Life Group rallied around Gordon and Amanda, encouraging them and affirming their faith at every opportunity. But it had shaken us. Most of the members of our Life Group had known each other since childhood, we had been part of planting our church, and we had chosen to affiliate our church with a denomination that encouraged its people to search the scriptures in their entirety rather than build doctrines on a verse here and a verse there, to seek unity by affirming belief in basic truths and being tolerant of differences of opinion on lesser doctrinal issues. We had been known in the community as a place to go to be accepted and loved regardless of background or life circumstances. For many people who had been betrayed, abandoned or rejected by their biological families, the church people had become a replacement family where love and acceptance abounded. Gordon and Amanda certainly had found that to be true, so had I.
Over the course of the next weeks and months, our group looked at Calvinism and Arminianism and decided that what we believed did not align with either teaching. As one of our group members succinctly said, “I believe in Jesus and what he taught. I don’t need anyone telling me what Jesus supposedly meant.” But our eyes had been opened and we could not go back to naively listening to our pastors and not hearing the Calvinistic bias in everything they taught. This created a conundrum for all of us. What we had planted nearly 3 decades earlier was turning, mutating into something else. And we felt angry and helpless. How could we stop this slide into Calvinism and away from the love of Jesus?
Looking back, we could see how small changes over the years had accumulated to bring the church to this point. But hindsight could not tell us how to reverse the changes. So we prayed and talked and prayed some more. Week after week after week.
But we became increasingly frustrated with our church leadership, especially the pastor, who seemed totally unconcerned that his teachings were causing a spiritual crisis. When life group members took their concerns over the situation to either the pastor or his associate, the response was that Gordon and Amanda had spiritual issues, probably rooted in their past, that they needed to work through. We were also warned against divisiveness and told that we need to trust our pastors and follow their leading. But why would we follow leaders who were heading down the wrong path?
For Gordon and Amanda, being rejected by the pastors and elders in such a manner left them with a feeling of humiliation and shame, even though they had done nothing wrong. It was hard for them to deal with people who asked them about the situation. They certainly did not want to publicly criticize the pastors, but it was hard not to seek vindication for pursuing the truth.
In our small group, we opted to continue as we had in the past, searching the whole of Scripture for our answers rather than looking to the commentaries by men. But what about church? Did we continue attending a church where the pastors were teaching doctrines and dogmas that did not align with what we believed the Scriptures clearly taught? Did we go looking for another church where Calvinism was not taught? We talked about going to the pastors as a group with our concerns, but eventually ruled that out as we realized that would just get us branded as troublemakers seeking to divide the church, which was not our goal. The pastors had made it clear where they stood and that they would not listen to arguments against their stance. We did not want to walk away from our church family and the relationships we had enjoyed for years, decades for most of us. We felt frustrated and helpless, there simply did not appear to be a way to return to what was taught and believed when we started the church. Some of us checked out other churches in the area but discovered that nearly all of the evangelical churches were also on that slippery slope into Calvinism. Suddenly, the church that had meant home and belonging for us was no longer a place to feel loved and accepted.
Where to go and what to do? The question extended beyond our small group. Some church families just quietly quit coming to church, citing doctrinal differences when asked the reason. Others just attended sporadically, not comfortable with the teaching but not knowledgeable about Calvinism and so unable to cite a reason. Our small group continues to meet, and we pray for the pastors continually.
But the question remains: how do churches get to the point of harming their members? Research shows that it is happening all across the country. Amanda has written out an incredibly honest and accurate account of how our church changed over time from being Spirit led to being governed by the tenets of Calvinism. My prayer is that her retelling of this intensely painful period will alert others in time to prevent their church from heading the same direction.