Let Your Faith Build Up the Church
by Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
CHAPTER THREE: SHE LOVES ME, SHE LOVES ME NOT
The book of Acts records the spread of the gospel, the salvation of many souls, and the planting of churches throughout the world. Though I had listened to the gospel throughout my young life, I never really heard it until I walked into a little country church in the midst of my sophomore year of college. There was no pressure to walk some aisle or pray some prayer, just warm singing, honest prayers, and plain preaching that included the biblical mandates to repent and believe:
“I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21, ESV).
My mother, God rest her soul, had recently joined this congregation. She dropped out of church years before, and only attended this one for a little while. But this was the critical event God used to get me under the sound of the gospel, this time preached by a good and godly pastor. In his sermons on that fateful Sunday and the following Lord’s Day, taken from the Gospel of Luke, I understood for the first time the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done to accomplish salvation. Through talking with him, not in a fleeting moment at the end of a service but carefully in his office filled with books, I understood the proper responses to the gospel are repentance and faith. Then, on that second Sunday evening in my little college apartment, I truly repented, fully believed, and was born again into the kingdom of God.
The only way I could articulate this experience to my family and friends was to tell them that I was going to live the rest of my life for Jesus Christ. Repentance was evident, since I turned away from a lifestyle of partying and promiscuity to joyfully obey the word of God. Faith, hope, and love were abundant in my life and relationships. I prayed, not for what I wanted, but to discern what God wanted for me. I began a life-long pattern of reading the Bible every day, and the pastor gave some books written by a couple of dead guys named C.S. Lewis and C.H. Spurgeon. An eternal flame was ignited in my soul, but the church would almost snuff it out, true to my father’s warning.
I admired this pastor very much and I knew that my new life in Christ must also be spent in the church, the bride of Christ, for this body is more important to God that any other on earth. I could have greatly benefited from being discipled by this pastor in this church, but soon the deacons turned against the pastor in a pattern I would see repeated ad infinitum. I’ll save the discussion of how the church destroys faith by destroying good pastors for another chapter. Nevertheless, my mother and others dropped out of church in the process, never to return.
But I could not, for I loved the Lord so much that I understood I must love His church, too, even though I learned from the outset this would be hard. I searched for another church and soon crossed paths with another pastor. That’s when things went from bad to worse. Recounting the story is very painful, so once again I will withhold names and tweak the story in order to protect the guilty and innocent.
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30, ESV).
My first Christian friends consisted of a small group of college kids who were earnestly seeking the Lord. My radical conversion had influenced my girlfriend, roommates, and their girlfriends to join in, and all of us were brand new to the Christian life. We welcomed others into our circle, and one of the girls in the group knew a fellow college student who was also a pastor. He was a little older, married, had a couple of kids. We trusted him, visited his church, and a girl in our group babysat his kids and worked for him that summer in his church’s youth camp.
Let me make a sordid story succinct. This wolf used his spiritual authority to seduce the girl into a sexual relationship. As new Christians, we had committed to a life of holiness that included abstinence from sex. When our young friend became pregnant, the adultery was uncovered. All of us were devastated and our newfound faith on the brink of destruction.
After the truth came out, the pastor tried to pick her up in the middle of the night and get her to run away with him. I learned later that this man remained in the ministry and was promoted several times by his particular denomination. I’d rather not say what happened to the girl, but needless to say she was scarred for life. Our little fellowship busted up, and most of them never got involved with pastors or churches again.
Scandalized, confused, but still desiring to follow Christ as a faithful member of the church, I went back to the church I had joined at age thirteen. Much to my surprise, I was still on the membership roll, even though I had not attended in over seven years. My girlfriend joined the church and was baptized, while I was counseled again not to doubt my salvation as a teenager but just rededicate my life to Jesus. Jaded but committed, we stayed on the back row for a while, but we were still in the church.
As we became active over the next few years, the church showed us a lot of love. Some had been praying for me during my rebellious high school and college years. I got reconnected with some old friends who were believers and we became close friends. A dear man who owned a fish market became a great mentor and opened up some of my earliest teaching opportunities. He taught me to love the word of God, the church of God, and the pastors of the church.
The church had gone through a few pastors beyond the one who resembled Elmer Gantry. Soon after I came into the church for real, a brand new pastor arrived. I was quite disappointed at first, since frankly he did not appear to be very bright, and I though our church deserved better. I would learn later that he got his degrees in the mail and plagiarized his sermons. Yet, he had a long ministry and was well taken care of by the church, and even became a high ranking official in our denomination.
I did not see the major problem in his ministry until years after I left the church. My mentor and I would often talk about how something we missing in our church, but we just couldn’t put our finger on it. We loved God, we loved one another, but instead of loving other people we mostly judged them for not following Jesus in the same way we were taught. Still, people were being added to the church little by little, and some men, including myself, were being called to go into full-time ministry.
When my call came, the pastor advised against seminary, but I was determined to go. A pastor from another church told me that if I were called to be a heart surgeon, I’d have to go to medical school, and God had called me to deal with souls. So, off to seminary in a yellow moving van we went. My family and I left that church in tears. After all, the church is people, and we loved them and they loved us, for a while, until I rejected their brand of religious fundamentalism.
Time and two seminaries taught me to study the Bible much better and more deeply than I learned from my home church. I realize now that from the time I joined that church until the time I left for seminary I changed from telling people about Jesus to chastising them for smoking and drinking. I threw away a golden collection of records, quit going to dinners or parties that served alcohol, and otherwise separated myself from sinners. Between the shock of adultery and the slow burn of legalism, the church had robbed me of much of my joy in the Lord.
Most of this folly I blame on the pastor. The sermons he read from the pulpit were fair, but he too often departed from his notes and chased self-righteous rabbits. A relative I invited to Christ and church for years finally visited on Easter Sunday and heard a robust, forty-five minute sermon on the evils of rock and roll music. It would take a long time to recapture the freedom and fervor I felt in my first days as an open-minded, open-hearted Christian. I finally recovered and realized the people in my church tradition were not the only ones going to Heaven; there wasn’t a demon behind every bush and secular song, television show, and movie theater; you can be friends and have dinner with lost people; there are things to learn from the infidels who belong to different denominations; women can work and do just about everything a man can do, only better; and, Jesus and Paul did not actually preach from the KJV, nor did they employ a piano and organ in worship and sing all the verses, twice, of “Just As I Am” at the close of every service.
“And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).
From all of these ways in which the church loved me and loved me not, the God who works all things together for good taught me some important lessons. Even those in the church who tried to weaken my faith actually provoked me to find principles to make it stronger. I’d like to share some of them with you.
God is infinitely better than His church, but we still need them both. The church stunted and stimulated my growth as a child of God, but I needed trials to truly grow. I must admit those early days of college Christianity, before I met the wolf and the legalist, were some of the most enjoyable and Bible-centered times of my life. I can understand the temptation to go it alone with Jesus, without the church. But following Christ without the body of Christ is like trying to be a player without a team, a soldier without an army, a brother without a family. We need God in Christ more than anything, but we need one another in the church more than everything else in this present world. Find the best one you can, then strive to make it better.
God is worthy of unlimited and unconditional trust, not church leaders. I’ve seen churches run off good pastors, bad pastors fleece good churches, and everything in between. Too often we can be like Simon Peter in the water. When his eyes were on Jesus, he was fine; when he looked at the water, he sunk. When we keep our eyes on the Lord, and realize we are serving Him by serving in the church, we do well; when we focus on some of the people, especially bad leaders, we can really get sunk. Deacons ran off the first good pastor I ever knew. The first pastor we ever let into our circle of personal friendship betrayed us to the core. The pastor who presided over my early years and call into the ministry had serious fundamentalist flaws. But God will never forsake His people, so trust in God, stay in the church, and find the best pastors you can.
Sexual purity may be the most important, least dealt with issue in the body of Christ. Holy and honorable relationships in marriage and ministry are priceless in value. Consequently, few things destroy the faith of church members like sex scandals. In my first decade of faith I had to deal with that predator pastor, a fellow seminarian who propositioned my wife, a seminary church pastor who ran off with another woman, a pastor who was having sex with a girl in the youth group, and those were just people I knew. Add to that all of the national attention given to the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals. God created sex and marriage to mirror the gospel and the church, but too many professing Christians, even trusted leaders, have selfishly used sex to destroy people’s faith.
Love is better than legalism, and God’s word must trump extra-biblical teaching. My first pastor used to always encourage us to not take his word, but search the Scriptures. Touché, I did, and eventually grew out of some of the unbiblical things he taught. I hope people who listen to me preach will do the same thing, search the Scriptures to see whether or not these things are so. Our churches and our own Christian lives will run aground if we do not reform and always reform them according to the word of God. There will always be some differences in interpretations, doctrines, and practices even among sincere believers. But we must cease to be unnecessarily divisive and prohibitive. I’m weary of the battles over the meaning of modest apparel, hair length, musical tastes, and drinking wine. Like Martin Luther, we should say, “My conscience is captive to the word of God;” then, like Cole Porter, we should sing “Live and Let Live.”
And finally, the church did not destroy my faith because God’s grace is greater than all our sin. I confronted that predator pastor and told him I forgave him for the sin which scandalized my first group of beloved Christians. I asked my home church pastor to forgive me for the way in which I had criticized him to others. As far as I know, I have forgiven those in the church who have hurt me, and I have begged forgiveness from those I knew I hurt. By forgiving and being forgiven, we imperfect people can keep a foothold in God’s imperfect church, where grace should be the first and last word.
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