by Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
WORLD WAR I
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
— 2 Timothy 3:16-17
While my first years in the church uncovered the kind of spiritual malpractice that can destroy a person’s faith, my faith actually grew stronger as the word of God gave me an ever increasing appreciation of the sovereignty of God. Inadequacies abounded in my home church, first seminary, and first pastoral experience, but though it all there was enough love and truth to enable spiritual growth. Even though my faith got flattened by some of the things I endured, it was never overtly attacked, not until I finished my internship and returned to my home state to become the pastor of the first church in a small, county seat town.
You’ve probably figured out by now that I am a Baptist, a Southern Baptist to boot. When you asked my home church pastor what he would be if he were not a Baptist, he said he’d be ashamed. If you ask me, I’ve often been ashamed of being a Baptist, and at certain turns in my life tried to leave. But like Al Pacino in The Godfather saga, every time I tried to get out, they pulled me back in.
Baptists do a pretty good job of getting out the gospel, pot luck dinners, and fighting with one another. I did not begin following Jesus to be a fighter, especially with other professing Christians. I signed up to be a pastor to lead the fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and I fully expect those entities to fight back. Little did I know that almost all of the punches would be thrown from inside the ring of the church. This was particularly true when I arrived at my first pastorate back in my home state. It was World War I: The Battle for the Bible.
I was drafted into this war by a pastor search committee who showed up unannounced one Sunday in my internship pastorate. As I stated in the previous chapter, this little church consisted of folks who claimed to love the Bible, but they really did not care much for expository preaching or theological truth. Feelings trumped facts, and my feelings got hurt and my faith trampled. The search committee from the East was a ray of sunshine bursting through the darkness. We hit it off immediately.
They represented a declining church whose pastors for the past few years did not inspire confidence in the Bible as the word of God. They did not preach biblical sermons, were weak on strong doctrines, openly denied the authority of Scripture, and supported issues like abortion on demand. The active membership, however, were mostly Bible-believing, conservative Christians. They were seeking a pastor of good character and qualifications who would preach the Bible, love everybody, and help them to grow by reaching people for Christ.
You would have thought that I fit the bill. It was my home state where I graduated from high school and a state university, an all-star football and baseball player. I had real world work experience with a Fortune 500 company and some solid church experience, too. I graduated wth honors from seminary. I loved the Lord, the Bible, and the church, but I was soon to find out once again how much the church did not love me.
At the time I arrived, the church had about a hundred active members in regular attendance. Ninety-three voted for me to become their new pastor. That’s good, right? But, ninety-one voted against me! A small group of mean-spirited members had engaged in a phone campaign to smear my character and qualifications. They convinced members who had not attended in years to show up and vote negatively, and even gave rides to homebound members on the condition they would come and vote no. What should have been a joyful time in our lives turned into a mess. I was faced with a choice between frustration and humiliation. Fortunately, God gives grace to the humble.
Convinced by the committee that the affirmative vote came from the active, attending, giving members, while the negative votes were mostly trumped up, I accepted the call to become their pastor. My first sermon was from Acts 2:44 on the unity of the church. I assured them of my love for every member. I extended my hand to all of the people, even those who had stirred up the vote against me. They bit it, hard.
For about a year these people continued to harass and slander this young pastor in his first real pastorate. They made prank and insulting phone calls to our home. They broke into the house while we were away to snoop around for information. They recorded our televised church services for the purpose of putting together a tape to pass around to demonstrate my ignorance and otherwise lacking qualifications. By the grace of God their insults were met with kindness, they found no evidence of evil or wrongdoing in our home, and the recording of all of my supposed gaffs never materialized.
The smear campaign against me was led by a few ladies from the church WMU. In our denomination at the time, the letters stood for Women’s Missionary Union. In our particular church, it stood for Women who were Mean and Ugly. They were merciless at first. They accused me of every crime under the sun, and said the Apostle Paul and I were misogynistic. At least I was in good company. But as the father of four daughters, I am actually a mild complimentarian with egalitarian leanings. But they didn’t care. They weren’t getting their way in the church so they decided to trash anyone who was in their way, especially the young pastor. What sweet spirits they were!
After about a year, when this group could not get control of the church in business meetings, they stormed out the door never to return. Unfortunately, some good Christian people were swept along with them. They started a new church let by a well-known man in our denomination who was infamous for denying the authority of Scripture and the deity of Christ. But, we had peace, even a semblance of revival, for a while, until some of the more crass conservatives figured out it was their turn to be in charge.
The church was a microcosm of the larger battle taking place all across our denomination at the time, World War I, the battle over the Bible. Shame on the liberals for denying and denigrating the historic Christian and Baptist view of Holy Scripture. Shame on the conservatives for using the Bible as a wedge to divide, conquer, and grab for power. Shame on us all, for acting like a bunch of Sadducees and Pharisees. I really loved this church and community and would have stayed a long time. People in the liberal group actually started being nice to me and my family after they formed their own church. But throughout my nearly six year tenure, it was the so-called conservatives who were a constant thorn in the flesh.
The twenty-four deacons I had to deal with on a regular basis were the source of constant friction. Half of them did not know Jesus from Jezebel, and seldom walked through the doors of the church except to attend a deacons meeting. Of the other half I think were true believers, most of them were bent on maintaining the status quo, using the office of deacon to sit as small town lords over some city council, ruling the church on their whims instead of the word of God. Only a remnant understood that Christ is the Head of His church, mediating His Lordship through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures, congregational but led by a plurality of elders and served by a multiplicity of deacons. Trying to lead this church was like fighting WWI, as soon as the Ottomans were defeated the Germans became entrenched.
One of the more conservative deacons, who I truly believe was a good and godly man, proudly proclaimed in a deacons meeting that the deacons were in charge of the church, and no pastor would lead it as long as he lived. He died shortly thereafter. Others remained to take his place and position. A couple of the older ladies in the church began verbally attacking me because, in their words, the church was getting too big, I was getting too much credit, and they were there to take me down a notch or too. The gossip and slander they deployed was far worse than anything the liberals had tried to do to me. The church had voted to fund my further education, since I had returned to seminary for a few weeks each year to work on my doctorate. When I did not do things the way the deacons and old ladies wanted me to do them, they cut off the funds, leaving me a large debt when I finished my degree. Don’t you just love Bible-believing people?
By the time I left, fortunately on my own accord with a call to another church, I was physically, mentally, and spiritual exhausted. I came to realize that as a fully devoted follower of Christ and determined biblical leader in my denomination, I was too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives. True to my father’s warning, the church was chewing me up but it had yet to spit me out. That time would come, however, and will be described in the next chapter.
I must admit that God did some very good things in those years. The chairman of that original pulpit committee and I became great friends and fellow workers. We ate a lot of fried chicken together. A florist who had quit attending church and never went out to lunch became a good friend, active church worshiper, and lunch partner. Another new pastor, starting in the same community at the same time, snuck into my office during a denominational meeting to spy out my books to prove that I was another liberal. When he found a library reflecting a high view of Scripture, we soon became best friends for life. His church, by the way, kicked him to the curb after ten years of biblically faithful service. The deacons were tired of being a Scripture-led church and wanted a little more excitement on Sundays. Unlike Pacino and me, he got out and stayed out. He now owns his own bookstore and is a blessed and happy Presbyterian elder.
Through all of the conflict and departures, the church grew in biblical fidelity and, in spite of the many departures and deaths, in number, too. Many wonderful worship services were held and many happy weddings took place uniting some of the fine young people who began to take their place in the church and seek to do things in a more biblical fashion. There were a lot of funerals laying a number of good people to rest, one of whom we buried the day after Christmas. His dear widow had wrapped his present, a sweater, and gave it to me after the funeral. I still wear it every year at our Christmas Eve service.
Out of darkness, God gives light. Out of chaos, God brings blessing. During World War I, the battle for the Bible, God taught me a lot of things about the Bible and the church. Most church people would rather fight over the Bible, misuse it as a license or weapon, than simply read it and obey it. I’ll share with you some insights that perhaps you can appreciate.
The Bible is not a trampoline. The people in my experience prior to WWI had used the Bible in this way. They would jump into the Scriptures until they found a word or supposed promise to name and claim some blessing from God. They would throw context and theological parameters out of the window and try to jump from one exciting experience to another. The person who uses the Bible in this way invariably wears out, gets hurt, and usually both.
The Bible is not a fairy tale. You don’t figure out which stories you like and ignore the rest. Those who do not really believe in the full inspiration of the Bible hide behind the Reformed and Baptist doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. This wonderful truth, reclaimed by Martin Luther and considered bedrock by Baptists, has been perverted in modern times by nominal and hypocritical Christians. They set themselves up as judges over the Bible, choosing which parts they think are worth following or are not. They reinterpret texts to give license to their sinful choices. In the name of Christ, they make Christianity unrecognizable and promote other gospels. They accuse conservatives of playing politics with Scripture, but since they don’t really believe Scripture, politics is the only game they know how to play. The only purpose they serve in the church is to confuse and destroy people’s faith.
The Bible is not a blunt instrument. It is the sword of the Spirit, used by God to bring about conviction, repentance, and forgiveness. But, it is not to be wielded like a club to seize power in the church. Fundamentalists claim to hold the Bible as the authoritative word of God, but they put more authority in themselves and their extra-biblical rules and regulations. Deacon boards, altar calls, strict dress codes, prohibition, and banning all divorced people from leadership are not defensible biblical positions. But, they are often used as ammunition to falsely accuse, grasp power, politicize the church, confuse the gospel, and drive people out. Some saved people get swept up into this mindset, while others simply use this form of religion as a means of ungodly gain.
The Bible is the word of God. Church members who simply believe this are the good soil described by Jesus. They are the people who take John 3:16 and 2 Timothy 3:16 to heart. They truly believe in the gospel and the word of God. They order their personal lives around Bible intake and obedience, and they desire their church to be a biblical church, whether it is Baptist or not. I love all the people of the church, but I love being surrounded by these kind of church members. They won’t destroy your faith, but rather embrace it, share it, live by it, and make it stronger.
We live in a world today which has little regard for God and almost none for his word, the Bible. The inspiration and authority of Scripture has long been under attack from the government, the educational establishment, and most sadly, the church. I hate war, but this is a battle worth fighting. Do not let those who cast doubts upon the veracity of Scripture defeat your faith. Cling to the gospel and cardinal doctrines found in the word of God. Do not let those who add to the Bible and put traditions over truth dissuade you from a pure and gracious way of following Christ. Put yourself under the authority of God and His word, insist upon your church being organized and administrated by the Bible, and the truth will set you free.
There was good and bad soil in that church where I honed my chops as a pastor. Those attacks have worn off, good memories and relationships remain, and I didn’t lose my faith, only my mind. I finished my second seminary degree, one much better and broader than the first one I received, and I sought the Lord to deliver me from the dogfights that continued in the church and the denomination after the Pharisees took over from the Sadducees.
Finally, that call did come, I thought. Little did I know at the time I was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Twenty-three years passed between the time the United States finished our engagement in World War I and entered into World War II. For this pastor still clinging to his faith, the time between two wars was much shorter.
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