In 1982 my wife and I planted our first church in Philadelphia – Faith Independent Baptist Church. The long church name seemed awkward back then but I wanted to be sure people knew up front where I stood. Fresh from eight years of ministry training at fundamentalist schools, I was a committed independent, fundamental Baptist. As extra insurance to validate my IFB credentials, I often added “militant and separatist” as well. The church’s doctrinal statement enshrined a dispensational hermeneutic essential for correct interpretation, the pre-tribulational rapture as the next event on the prophetic calendar, and the King James Version as the official translation. As a church we were known more for what we were against than for who we were.
Fast forward to 2011 where in the same city I am now working with a team of elders to plant another church in a spiritual wasteland where we parachuted in with a few families but without a significant core group. After thirty years of church planting I claim no special expertise, offer no guarantees of success, and sense an even greater dependency upon the Lord to build His church. Similar struggles, resistance to the gospel remain.
This one-year-old church is elder led, non-denominational, non-dispensational, and uses the English Standard Version. Much has changed. Most remains the same. I would venture to add that what is essential has not changed. In areas where change has occurred, thirty years of ministry, of study, of relationships, and of experiences have conspired to bring me to the place I am today. For many years IFB was all I knew or cared to know. Now I find myself rarely at home in this fragmented movement of competing networks. I find myself increasingly on the outside looking in. This is my journey, but I’m glad I was not alone.
After planting a church in Philadelphia from 1982-1987 my family and I went to France and then Romania in church planting and pastoral training ministry. Those years spent overseas provided opportunities for fellowship with believers from different horizons and spared me the need to engage in many of the needless conflicts being fought in the States. There was less need to conform to others’ expectations of what it meant to be safely within the fundamentalist orbit.
During that time overseas I pursued further studies with Reformed Theological Seminary’s extension in Budapest and in time completed a degree in theological studies. For the first time I was challenged from a different theological perspective by men with whom I had strong disagreements. Yet I was persuaded of their evangelical commitment, their love for God, and their commitment to God’s authoritative Word. I began to see that we could differ interpretatively and still enjoy fellowship in the gospel. I was moving away from former positions for which I could still argue but could no longer support biblically with integrity.
In late 1998 we returned to the States where I began a short residency in Deerfield, IL at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and where in 2004 I completed a DMin in Missiology. Once again I was struck by the combination of scholarship and godliness among the professors. There were differences in some areas but the centrality of the gospel transcended those differences.
From 1999-2008, I was missions pastor and director of church planting at a well-known suburban church. I travelled frequently and taught overseas in Russia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Peru, China, and several other countries. There were opportunities to teach in the area of missions and church planting at several schools and seminaries and invitations to preach at various conferences. My visits to China were especially revealing as we looked for house church leaders with whom we could partner for training purposes. I found myself looking for “significant compatibility” and agreement with the historic Christian faith rather than agreement with my convictions. My time in Lebanon among Arab believers caused me to look at Scripture afresh and contributed to modifications in my views on eschatology.
Some might find it surprising that personal experiences have influenced my theology to such a degree. In reality our experiences or lack of them have a great part to play in how we read Scripture. We read it with the eyes of those around us, those who trained us or those we look to for guidance. Our experiences should not determine our theology yet how we read and understand Scripture cannot be separated from our outside influences and experiences. Some may consider it a badge of honor to hold the same beliefs and convictions they held thirty years ago. While I can say that for the fundamentals of the faith, I must confess that second and third-tier commitments and interpretations are held loosely and are no longer a cause for separation or hindrance in partnership in the Lord’s work. Perhaps it’s partly due to the fact that I recognize it is His work not mine and that I labor in His vineyard not one of my creation.
On one hand, I have no argument with fellow believers who affirm their identity as independent, fundamental Baptists. I have no difficulty in seeing them as legitimate representatives of the diverse body of Christ. I have no reason to demean them or to expect them to cease being what they are. I have no desire to avoid fellowship and friendship with IFB men of integrity who are sound theologically and choose to remain within an IFB framework. On the other hand I find after all these years in ministry, with experiences and exposure to global Christianity, that IFB fails to describe how I see myself in my relation to the Lord, in relation to other believers, and in relation to the mission of the church.
The last few years have been especially decisive in the direction I have taken. When I returned from Romania in 1998 I knew that both I and the spiritual landscape that I knew had changed. Then in 2008, while temporarily living in France and helping to plant a new non-Baptist church, I wrote an opinion article on Fundamentalism. It was my way of signaling at that time that although I was on a journey out of Fundamentalism as I had known it, I wanted to remain friends with Fundamentalists. I began to write, to challenge conventions and traditions. I have not always been irenic and have not avoided controversy.
When I described myself as a “soft cessationsist,” questioned elements of dispensationalism, took issue with unbiblical separation, did not clearly espouse literal six-day, twenty-hour creation days, expressed my dismay at the paucity of resources committed to church planting, or challenged traditional thinking in the church’s engagement with culture, I found more criticism than interaction with the ideas. The criticism wasn’t about the gospel. It was mostly about culture, tradition and even personalities who thought I was out of line and should keep a lower profile.
Whether or not I should’ve written some of those articles for publication is another story although I have few regrets. I know there are some who are so much surer in many areas where I have questions. I know others who do not want to rock the boat and, to mix metaphors, prefer to fly under the radar. I suppose that would’ve been a safer route for me but that bridge has already been crossed. I must confess that I have found somewhat amusing the wide range of men who have disagreed with me, attacked me, or separated from me. There has been something for many to dislike although certainly not the same things.
I have no one to blame but myself although these experiences reinforced in my mind how important agreement is to Fundamentalists in areas where I believe we have scriptural latitude to disagree charitably. The agreement demanded by many IFB gatekeeper leaders, churches, and institutions in order to play in their yard far exceeds biblical teaching. The loyalty required by many in order to be safe requires submitting to traditional rather than biblical standards. It is not a virtue to have an inquiring mind in much of Fundamentalism. I had to decide whether I would shut up or speak out knowing that speaking out might marginalize me.
There are a few glimmers of hope as some IFB brethren have begun to break out of their isolation. I think particularly of Northland University which has invited professors from outside IFB circles and of Calvary Baptist Seminary with Mark Dever at their ATC Conference. Of course these moves have triggered substantial criticism from within IFBdom which comes as no surprise. Many IFB factions, which contribute little to theological reflection, brook nothing which deviates from their long-held conventions. I encourage those who choose to stay within the movement to continue their pursuit of God-honoring unity with those outside the IFB pale.
As for me, the time has come to seek to identify with men and movements which demonstrate greater generosity with dissent and challenge than I have found in my IFB experience, to identify with those interested in productive gospel-centered, church-planting partnerships, and God willing, to seek teaching opportunities to train men for next generation church planting. I have no illusions that moving on will bring greater resources or guarantee success in church planting. I’m not looking for greener grass. At this point any grass will do. I still welcome friendship and even partnership with my IFB brothers who have not drawn unreasonable lines in the sand. But I’m too old to jump through all the hoops, too ornery to kowtow and prefer relative obscurity and a few warm relationships to playing ingratiating politics and pleasing men.
Much has changed over the years but God has not. He is faithful and He remains the Lord of the harvest in these challenging and needy times, the ultimate Judge who knows the hearts, and the Accomplisher of His divine purposes. Before Him only I lift my hands, bend my knees, and bow my head.