DON’T LET THE CHURCH DESTROY YOUR FAITH
by Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.
— 2 Corinthians 4:7-9
After fighting in two world wars, spiritually speaking, the Lord relocated me to a people and place as close to home as I’ve ever been. A small town First Baptist Church within a hundred miles of where I grew up provided good soil to plant my life, family, and pastoral ministry. It was a culture I could relate to, a proximity close enough to keep an eye on ailing parents, and a church that seemed hungry and ripe for biblical polity and practice. At just over forty years of age, I perceived this would be a long term, perhaps a last term, pastorate.
I wound up spending almost a decade there. Like Dickens’ novel contrasting aristocratic England with revolutionary France, it was the best of times and the worst of times. The first years were fruitful and exhilarating. The middle years required revisiting some old battles. Just as peace settled in those last years, all hell broke loose. I rode in on a white horse and had to be carried off on a stretcher.
Conflicts in the former pastorates had been exclusively caused by the church. As for me and my house, we were sincerely trying to serve the Lord. Yet it was the Lord’s people, the church, who made life difficult. After every contentious deacons meeting or church business meeting, however, I could find solace and support from five beautiful girls, my wife and four daughters. Family life made church life bearable.
But what do you do when your family is falling apart? The church should be the source of solace and support. After all, the body of Christ should be a family and friend that sticks closer than any other brother. As a pastor, I had always made aggressive attempts to strengthen families, provide marital enrichment, and offer counseling. By the grace of God, I had a good track record of seeing weddings waft into solid marriages, broken marriages repaired, and families stick together.
Sadly and shockingly, I woke up one morning to discover that my own family was falling apart. For the first time in a long time, maybe the only time, I really depended on the church. I told them the facts as much as I could, coveted their prayers and advice, and received from them some comfort and assurance. But when push came to shove, they pushed and shoved me out the door with no place to go but down. It was a long, dark, and painful fall. My faith almost went with it.
What made this the worst was the beginning which seemed to be the best. The town itself could have been an old southern postcard. A majestic courthouse stood in the middle of the square, flanked by beautiful First Baptist, First Methodist, and other churches. Everyone loved Jesus, fried chicken, and high school football, although not necessary in that order. In many ways it was like crawling into an old black-and-white television and being transported to Mayberry. I poured myself into community life, regularly visited the town cafes and barber shop, and got involved with as many people and organizations as possible to share with them the love of God and gospel of Jesus Christ. I chaired the Ministerial Alliance, frequently helped out at the schools, aided the Chamber of Commerce, and became president of the Rotary Club.
Small town life in the First Baptist Church seemed to suit my family well, too. I mentioned in an earlier chapter that my wife had lost interest in the church due to past strife, and this is true. But she got along well with members of the church and community while going back to college to complete her degree. It took years but she did it, and afterward got a job in the local school system. Our oldest daughter had grown up and married off in our past church and remained out of state. Our second married a local farmer and seemed happy to settle down close to us. Our third was a jewel of a student and cheerleader captain, then graduated and went off to our old hometown college. Our youngest became the school beauty queen, dancing queen, and overall queen of Sheba. Family life was good.
Church life, as in most Baptist bodies, was good, bad, ugly, and everything in between. The staff and core leadership were simply the best. Two associate pastors were the most excellent leaders in their fields I had ever worked with. Two secretaries were sharp and professional, and the pastor’s secretary was the best assistant pastor I ever had, and she and her husband were faithful friends, too. Two custodians provided excellent service to our stately buildings and grounds, the later of which was a key but quiet African-American community leader. I had the privilege of helping him help others, then holding his hand as he bravely fought cancer. The members of the original search committee and other key leaders were mostly good and godly folks. They joined me in a commitment to reform the church into a loving, biblical, God-centered body. We got off to a good start with great worship and immediate growth.
I must add a word about our fine worship leader, who had already served at the church for years before my arrival. He was a good and godly husband, father, and pastor. He was a most excellent choir director and led worship with dignity and quality. Our philosophies of worship were almost identical, but our theology differed. Though it did not matter to me, it mattered enough for him to leave after only a couple of years together. He had been on the other side of the denominational wars and went to a church with more moderate to liberal leanings. Liberals enjoy a reputation of being kinder than conservatives, but this church took this fine man and chewed him up and spit him out in short time. His conflict with a powerful deacon and choir leader led to his abrupt firing, an ensuing mental breakdown, and a harmless threat against them that they turned into his incarceration. His story is yet another of a good minister attacked and destroyed by, of all people, the church.
The beginning challenges in the church were to stem years of decline and address matters of disunity. The low attendance was mainly due to the immediate past pastor, a nice man by all accounts, who simply could not preach his way out of a paper bag. The simple infusion of biblical preaching combined with a balanced emphasis on the purposes of the church resulted in substantial growth the first year or two. Then, it was time to address unsettled conflicts caused by matters of church polity.
The people by and large felt like the deacons of the church exerted too much control. Since this was a typical Baptist church, they were right. Once again, I had inherited a church with some mimeographed constitution which called for a board of twenty-four popularly elected deacons. I hope whoever wrote this version of a church constitution is suffering in Purgatory. Men got elected in this church on the basis of friendly and familial ties, without any deference to their regeneracy, spirituality, or basic knowledge of God’s word. We were all in essential agreement this had to change.
I waited two years to take it on. Then, I reassembled a constitutional committee and began teaching them and the whole church body of the biblical and historical practice of having a plurality of elders and a servant body of deacons. That’s when some of the old artillery began to fly. Some members lobbed accusations of Fundamentalism (not true), Calvinism (very true, and they knew it up front), and called me that drinking and dancing preacher (guilty on both counts, in the biblical sense, thus proving the first charge false, of course), all in an effort to confuse the situation, cause disunity, and run me off as the pastor.
The next three years became a Mexican standoff. Disillusioned staff left and had to be replaced. Deacons meetings and church conferences became acrimonious. Attendance plateaued. My wife became more aloof from church matters, my daughters hung in there as best they could, and the community around us began to change. I survived as pastor since the opposition was a minority, their leaders were unspiritual and unintelligent (one of them infamously stood up in a business meeting, made a motion, and then spoke against the motion he had made), and the heart of the church stood with their pastor, literally, in one particular scene.
It was the most support I had ever experienced. They majority knew that, although I was not sinlessly perfect like my mother said, I led the church with love for all people, fidelity to the Scriptures and historic Baptist principles, and a genuine desire for a unified church for the glory of God. Most of the minority moved to another church, even though as much compromise as possible was made for their sake. Then, the bulk of us embarked on the next few years of ministry together.
By the end of my time there we had called another two excellent assistant pastors for worship and student ministry. My wonderful pastoral assistant had retired and the other secretary left for greener pastures. The custodian began his valiant fight with cancer. A new committee was formed to assess and address the demographic changes in our small town. Most of our young people were going off to college and not coming back, newcomers were not moving in, and in spite of a great effort spearheaded by a generous benefactor, the town was not headed for growth and economic prosperity. Even still, I aspired for us to become a church great in strength if not size, reaching out in every local and technological way possible, to worship God and communicate the word of God. I wanted to stay for the long haul and lead the effort. That’s when the hurricane hit.
We started having marital difficulties during my last year as pastor of this church. My wife had seemed distant, to me and to church matters, for some time. While living in this town, she had put all her energy and efforts into college. I thought things would return to normal when she attained her degree. But, they only got worse. Years of counseling others clued me in to what she was doing with mysterious phone calls, unaccounted disappearances, and explanations that did not ring true. We went to counseling ourselves and clung to the bottom line that divorce was not an option.
My parents divorced when I was a child, as did my wife’s parents during her adolescence. It was the early 70’s, after all, when so-called no-fault divorce became the law of the land. Over the years, most of our siblings experienced divorce and remarriage, as had many friends. Through twenty-nine years of marriage and twenty years of pastoral ministry, we had placed a great deal of emphasis on marriage and family ministry. Our churches has experienced a very low rate of divorce and my counseling had resulted in a great majority of reconciliations rather than divorce. We never thought, I never thought, divorce could happen to us.
She served the papers on me without any warning. A patrolman pulled up in the driveway early one Friday evening, handed me the divorce decree, and gave me an hour to pack up and get out of the church parsonage where we lived. I went into some kind of shock. I gathered up some clothes and went to stay at a house in the woods across from a faithful friend and fellow church member. It was the first of many dark nights of the soul.
As I contemplated our lives together and what would become of them apart, I truly believe the church destroyed her faith. Being a pastor’s wife during church conflict can be more difficult that being the pastor, and she had endured many years and multiple campaigns of ecclesiastical warfare. With her degree in hand, she no longer needed her husband, her kids, or her church, and she left all three.
At this point in my life, I needed the church more than ever. I had confided in church leaders about our marital problems. They were aware of some of the facts, and the fact that we were seeking counseling. A prominent pastor in our denomination had recently been divorced against his wishes, was strongly supported by his church, and he and his people moved forward together in fruitful ministry. My leaders assured me that if the worse happened, if my wife sued me for divorce against my wishes, that they would stand by my in the same manor.
When it all hit the fan, however, they blew me off. The very leaders who gave me special encouragement called me a failure, would not listen to the facts, and asked me to resign effective immediately. Even though I thought they spoke for the minority, even though I knew that as the facts came out it would be known that I was a faithful husband who by no means wanted a divorce, and even though I had no vocational or financial assistance awaiting, I resigned in bitter tears. With the love of my daughters and custody of the youngest, we holed up in our cabin in the woods until the storm passed by. As the rain fell, with my faith getting soaked, I learned more than ten seminaries and twenty churches can teach.
As I examined the autopsy of our marriage, I was forced to admit that PTSD, pastoral traumatic stress disorder, strikes not only pastors but the members of the family, too. It causes spouses to walk away. It causes children to rebel and many never return to the church. It creates vocational obstacles and financial hardships that Christians in other lines of work never have to face. When my wife walked away and served me with divorce papers, the name on the plaintiff line could have just as easily have been the church. The church quit shooting their wounded and do much, much more to help pastors and their families in a crisis.
This tragic chapter confirmed something else I had already believed for a long time, that the church’s handling of divorce and treatment of divorced people is double-minded and deplorable. My home church pastor proudly declared he would perform no weddings for anyone who had previously been divorced, without even looking into the circumstances. Churches like this regularly ordain pastors and deacons who are charlatans, liars, thieves, and adulterers, just as long as they’ve never been divorced. I never read in the Bible where divorce is the unpardonable sin. Therefore, throughout my life and ministry, I have married previously divorced people, ordained church officers even though they were divorced, even brought people onto the church staff who were denied other church employment because of divorce. Each person was handled on a case by case basis, and treated with love, fairness, and biblical truth. But when my day of judgment came, the facts did not matter, only how fast I could clean out my office.
Most of all, I learned to lean on the Lord like never before. He is trustworthy and His word is true. Though it was affliction like I’d never known, I was not completely crushed. I was perplexed beyond words, but did not go down to despair. Persecution this time came not only from within the church, but within my own family, but God had not forsaken me. I was struck down, indeed, but not destroyed.
Child of God, when you are in the worst situation of your life and your are tempted to let go of God and His church, know that the former will never let you go, and you must somehow hang on to the latter. When God is calling you into the ministry or mission field, know that it can indeed cost you all that you have, just as the Lord promised. And know, please, if you are divorced, whether your are the perpetrator or pariah, God loves, forgives, accepts, and can still use you for His glory and the good of other people.
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