DON’T LET THE CHURCH DESTROY YOUR FAITH
by Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
WORLD WAR II
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
— Ephesians 2:8-10
My first fifteen years in the church confirmed my father’s warning. I spent the first five years listening to mixed signals regarding the gospel and legalism, though at the end there was an unmistakable call from God to go into vocational ministry. I pursued this over the next ten years through two seminaries and two churches, where the good came hard and the bad was easy to find. I was holding onto my faith by a thread. But, it was a strong, threefold cord that could not be cut, not even by sharply dysfunctional Christians and churches.
Then, the sun came up, or so it seemed. World War I, the battle for the Bible, was over in our denomination and church. Had the conservatives been kinder, I could have settled down where I was, but God soothed my unsettled spirit with a call to another church. I had no idea at the time that I was re-enlisting as a soldier being sent into World War II, the battle for the gospel.
The first four years in this church were idyllic. I had learned from my own mistakes and become a much more positive, teamwork oriented pastor. I worked with the existing church leadership to upgrade the staff, mobilize the members for evangelism and ministry, and emphasize missions with extensive giving and going campaigns. When folks came in for Sunday services, children and old ladies hugged me, students gave me high fives, and men shook my hand and patted me on the back. Our family was complete with four daughters and completely happy in our home, church, schools, and community. Life in the church for us was good, for the first time.
Life was good for the members of the church, too, for the first time in a long time. Years of decline had been stemmed and baptisms had become a weekly occurrence. Attendance nearly doubled, a second Sunday School had to be started, while ministries and mission trips proliferated. We built a church in another country and we bought forty acres for ourselves for a future mission church or relocation project. On Easter Sunday that fourth year we were aided in worship by a big city symphony orchestra and chairs were put out for the overflow of worshipers in our eleven-hundred seat sanctuary. Three months later, to top all of this off, they fired me.
I had never come close to being fired before, and true to my father’s warning, it was the church who did it to me. They strategized, campaigned, organized, and voted me out of the church even though I had not preached unsound doctrine, not been immoral with other women, not stolen a penny from the church, not been dishonest in personal or pastoral dealings, not even kicked anyone’s dog. I lived and led among them with biblical fidelity and godly character. I thought they loved me, finally a church that loves me, but they ruthlessly kicked me and my family to the curb.
After a season of light I was tossed back into ecclesiastical darkness. The fall was precipitous for every member of my family. I sank into a depression so deep it required medication to resolve. My wife became embittered and disinterested in the church. One daughter required hospitalization for depression, too. Another ran off into a season of rebellion against God, and still another had to endure the changing of schools in the midst of her high school years. Only the youngest daughter was unscathed at the time, too young to understand the fallout of war, although the aftershocks would affect her life even more than the others.
How could such a thing happen? It was a perfect storm. Denominational politics, patent dishonesty, and pure ignorance all played a part. Of all the shocking and hurtful things that had been inflicted upon me and my family over the years by the church, this was by far the worst. True to my father’s words, faith, at least in part of the family, was destroyed.
About the time I arrived at this church, a secret meeting of ultra-conservative leaders was taking place. A friend of mine who pastored a large church was invited and gave me a report. During the gathering, a well-known megachurch pastor stood up and said, “Now that we’ve gotten rid of all the liberals, how are we going to get rid of the Calvinists?” A smear campaign ensued and within four years it had ripped our church and our lives apart, not to mention the damage done in many other churches as well.
To start the bombing, one popular megachurch pastor within range of our church had sermon tapes disseminated among our congregation. The message was an uninformed and historically inaccurate sermon accusing Calvinism of killing missions and evangelism, sent to a church that had enjoyed record levels of both under her Calvinistic pastor. A church member called a state denominational leader and asked what to do about the trouble in the church. He was told, “If you have a Calvinist pastor, you have to do whatever it takes to get rid of him.” After my firing, a member of that megachurch pastor’s staff became the pastor of my former church. If the church can’t destroy your faith, maybe the denomination will help.
Our church had been growing in tremendous ways, but truth be told not everyone was happy. Disgruntled members were set into motion by a few egotistical people who were jealous of our four-year run. Among the unhappy were disenfranchised deacons who had turned over leadership to the plurality of pastors and consigned to elderly ministry. They grabbed hold of a clause in our constitution and bylaws that allowed the deacons to make a motion to dismiss the pastor, for any or no reason. Armed with ammunition from denominational leaders and a host of misinformation from the internet (it’s got to be true if it’s on the internet, right?), they put their campaign in motion.
They used letters, phone calls, and private talks to get out their well-organized, slanderous pitch: Pastor Chuck is a Calvinist, Calvinists kill churches, then added the kicker, “If you only knew what I knew about him, you’d want to fire him.” That last talking point was spouted verbatim hundreds of times to cast doubt on my character and cause confusion in the church. God as my witness, there was nothing to it but empty slander and false accusation. But, it worked.
One of the members of the search committee who called me to the church wrote a nine-page diatribe about me being a part of a secret Calvinist conspiracy to take over our denomination. Ironically, someone in my first church experience had spread the rumor that I was part of a vast right wing conspiracy to take over the denomination and even the American government. Conspiracy theories are the cover of cowards, for I was never a part of any such nonsense.
A women claimed she had been to my previous pastorate and discovered that I had been fired there for misconduct, then sued the church and won a large financial settlement. This was a total figment of her perverted imagination, yet people believed it. Most of the leaders of the ouster just stuck with the “if you only knew” innuendo. Children who used to run up to me on Sundays crossed the halls to avoid me. Hugs and handshakes became few and far between. Four months of WWII bombing had destroyed four years of hard and honest work.
As the fire spread through the church from Easter until my summer dismissal, I tried desperately to make peace. I finally agreed to ask the Lord to move me to another church, and the Personnel Committee agreed to a process that would likely take about six months. However, only a month later, the committee and the deacons organized a special meeting to call for my firing, which succeeded by a two-to-one margin. Their attack had been swift and deadly.
The church split three ways, with half remaining, a quarter scattering to the wind, and a quarter splitting off and starting a new church. I went with the latter group, since all of my prospects of moving on to another church were dashed by the firing. Of course, the old church falsely accused me of orchestrating the entire thing in order to start this new church, but that, too, was a lie. I may be a Calvinist, but I’m not a masochist.
Dazed, confused, and depressed, I stayed on in the community as one of the pastors of the new church for three years. All at the while I would have preferred to move on to another field, but it is very difficult to find work in the church when you’ve been fired by the church, even if it was for no legitimate cause. The members of this church were wonderful, serious, and joyful Christians bent on doing things right. I loved them and could have stayed with them for a lifetime, but the old church kept on the attack and made it virtually impossible for me to lead the new church in reaching out to our community for Christ.
Deep in depression, I resigned with no place to go. Dad could have said “I told you so,” but he had died of a sudden heart attack before I was fired. I did not want to be a pastor anymore. I did not want to remain in the church at all. Some days, I did not even want to live. But the Lord compelled me to do all three. So, I waited, hoped, prayed, and learned.
I learned that honesty and integrity are not necessarily the keys to success in this life, especially in the church. In the company I worked for before I became a pastor, I was promoted several times for honest and hard work. In the church, I got persecuted for the same. The Bible and church history are filled with pages of prophets and preachers who did what was right but got treated in ways that were wrong. I had just been fired, but so many of them were killed. I had told the church’s pastor search committee in our second meeting that I am an evangelical, five-point Calvinist. Aware of the rumblings which were the birth pains of World War II in our denomination, I told them that if my Calvinism would be a problem in the church, to drop me and pursue another candidate. They unanimously recommended me to the church, then four years latertarred and feathered me. I preached the exact same sermon on my last Sunday before they voted me out that I had offered on my first Sunday when they voted me in, without calling special attention to that fact. The first time they heard it they called it the gospel and welcomed me in, the second time they called it Calvinism and kicked me out. I have not developed a messiah complex about this, but the fact is that in many churches, the more you act like Jesus, the more you get treated like Jesus.
I learned the truth of what the great Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon said, “Calvinism is the gospel.” Just like my belief in the Bible was attacked yet confirmed during WWI in my first church, my understanding of sovereign grace was tested and proved true during WWII. Faith and doctrine which cannot be tested cannot be trusted, and God and His grace were the only things that became sweeter during this ordeal. I was told to recant my Calvinism and keep my job. I was told to drop the doctrines of grace and I’d become the pastor of a real big church. But I never met Calvin and was not preaching Calvinism, I was preaching the gospel and the word of God. From those days until now, the more I read and preach the Bible, the bigger God gets and the smaller man gets, but O how He loves you and me.
I learned to be gracious to those who disagree with Spurgeon, and on a lesser level me, over the doctrines of grace and almost everything else. I understand how people growing up in a democratic, pro-choice environment find it difficult to understand the complete sovereignty and providence of God. In the Bible, election means one God chose for Himself the people to be His subjects. In modern democracies, like our own which I love, the subjects elect one person to serve as President. As pastor of the church who fired me, I never insisted that others view election and predestination the way I did, but I honestly taught and preached the doctrines of grace. We filled six pastoral staff positions while I was there, only one of whom could be considered a Calvinist. I pledged to love and work with all people and did, they pledged the same and did not. I did not become sectarian and seek to work with only reformed people, but forged and open heart and held out open hands to all Bible-believing, Christ-following pastors and church members.
One of the last sermons I preached before they fired me was from Ephesians 2:8-10. I expounded upon grace as the undeserved, unmerited gift of God. I pointed out how the faith that connects us to God comes from God, not from any physical or mental energy we can exert. When God’s grace grants faith it really works, changing us into living, loving children of God, willing and able to work for the cause of Christ. I pledged to them my continued love and willingness to work together for the glory of God, to build upon the gains we had made as a church, and to do so with people who saw sovereign grace in Scripture or who colored in the lines with a little more free will.
I could not have been more sincere. They could hardly have been more sinister. I guess I was on the winning side, if there was one, of World War I. World War II, however, nearly killed me. I am glad my father did not have to witness it. The church had defeated, although not destroyed, my faith. But, I would live to fight another day, and lose again.
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