"When did you change? "Why did you change?" These questions come to me from friends who learn of my changes from some of the traditional beliefs and practices of my upbringing in the Church of Christ.
Although my changes have not been sudden or dramatic and my experiences are not of wide interest, some review of factors that worked in bringing about my change of direction may make someone else aware of the choices he or she may take. It might help some discouraged person to find the peace and joy that can replace the oppressive feelings of guilt and insecurity.
Each of us has some private questions and misgivings about the beliefs and practices of the group with which we associate. We usually learn to live with these individual disagreements in order to conform and to be compatible. That is true in my case, but I met a challenge in 1958 that altered my thinking greatly. It caused me to see that something very fundamental was lacking in my understanding.
Seven years earlier, I had begun working with the small group of disciples in New Iberia, Louisiana down in the heart of "Cajun" country. We were blessed with numerous conversions; so probably half of the members in my midweek class were newer converts for whom I had been the chief instructor. We usually consider that we have the most mature-the "Cream of the Corp."-in a Wednesday evening class, but I learned something disappointing when I polled that class.
I have always considered an unsigned poll to be a great value to leaders to understand the people whom they are leading. The first question that I asked that class of 22 persons was: If you were to die now, do you think that you would be saved? The answers: 11 yes; 4 no; 7 undecided or equivocal. Fifty percent were confident, fifty percent were burdened with feelings of guilt! That insecurity was expressed in spite of the fact that all 22 in the class indicated that they prayed privately daily.
The facts revealed by that poll shocked me. These were the sincerest of disciples. They were "my product." What had I been teaching them that made their faith so unsure? Why had they not found the peace and joy that Jesus offers? Evidently, I had not been offering them hope but only a chance of having it.
Even though I did not understand the cause of my failure, I did begin to emphasize hope, assurance, confidence, the comfort of the Scriptures, the strength that God gives us, and other such positive concepts. Yet I continued to emphasize the necessity of knowing all the right doctrines accurately, obeying each detail correctly, and fully accomplishing righteousness within through constant reform, dedication, and works. It was hard for me to see that I was undermining their confidence by my demands for accomplished righteousness through keeping all the details of what I interpreted to be a system of law. I was demanding a rightness by sufficient law-keeping rather than a rightness being accounted, or imputed, to us because of our faith.
Years passed as I wrestled with this problem. At least, I began to open my mind for new possibilities of understanding. I began to read material written by men who were not content to repeat our simplistic slogans and arguments in order to stay in favor with everyone. According to my judgment, those writers were not always right, but they were not afraid to think and to challenge my thinking. I thank God for them.
In hacking my way through the underbrush of both traditional and acquired misunderstandings, I began to discover beautiful flowers of truth long hidden from me by my ignorance and misdirection. Each new discovery made me more eager to find that next one. Here is a list of many unexpected discoveries that I came upon in the next twenty-five years of struggle.
1. God's basic requirement is for us to love him and one another. That is simple enough, but we have complicated it into a tedious system of religion.
2. We are all sinners-always! Because of our faith, the grace of God counts us as though we were sinless. Rightness with God is never accomplished in us either by God or ourselves, but it is imputed, accounted, or credited to us.
3. The new covenant is neither a code of law, the New Testament scriptures, nor a book.
4. The New Testament scriptures are not "the faith once for all delivered to the saints."
5. The entire New Testament writings are not gospel. They contain both gospel and doctrine/teaching. There is a difference between gospel and doctrine and also a difference between preaching and teaching.
6. We can be right doctrinally on most everything and still not be right in the things that count most.
7. All Biblical teachings are important, but they are not equally important. There are some weightier matters.
8. Even we who have discovered salvation by grace continue to try to answer questions about such matters as marriage and divorce, the role of women, and the qualification and role of elders by legal concepts.
9. If unity is by conformity, it is brain-dead. All true unity is in Christ where we accept each other in spite of diversity.
10. Our tradition has been to reject and try to convert all who differ from us doctrinally; so we have approached them on an adversary basis. To accept all believers as fellow disciples and to try to mature their understanding on an accepting basis is more sensible, non-judgmental, and effective.
11. Rather than serving to unite, doctrinal confrontations tend to polarize extremes.
12. Being in fellowship with a person does not mean that we approve or endorse all that he teaches or practices.
13. Our unity is in Christ rather than in compatible doctrinal beliefs and practices.
14. The person who tries to bind his convictions on others is guilty of being divisive. He becomes a judge, not just discerning for his own conscience, but condemning others for what their consciences allow.
15. When we are saved, the Lord adds us to his universal church rather than to local congregations. We join local groups. That is the way we get into sectarian churches of Christ.
16. The very message that we have proclaimed, intended to promote unity, is divisive by its nature. We have proven by our many self-produced divisions that legalism, patternism, and restorationism make unity impractical, if not impossible.
17. Generally, our congregations are formed on the basis of doctrinal agreement rather than by people being drawn into association by love. So, when one of our number begins to disagree with the doctrinal stance, we find it hard to love him.
18. One may be in a sect without being sectarian. A person may be in a church which rejects others who are in Christ while he himself is non-judgmental and accepting of all who are in Christ. He does not allow himself to be limited by the exclusive attitude of the group. He has a non-sectarian spirit.
19. Generally, we in the Church of Christ have not been geared to convert others to Christ. We tend to find others who already believe in Jesus in other denominations and then we try to convert them to a different set of doctrines. Even our overseas missionaries (Bless them!) have done too much of that.
20. Preachers and elders are the two greatest causes of friction in our congregations. If we would let elders shepherd the flock instead of being authority figures, they would be removed from controversy. Everyone would love men who would be concerned with their personal problems, pray with them, and give them loving encouragement. When the role of the preacher is truly preaching (Evangelism) instead of being a surrogate elder/pastor serving the needs and whims of congregation, he will gain respect instead of criticism.
21. Few of our people ever learn of their heritage in the Stone-Campbell movement. They feel that they are not influenced by their heritage. A person might as well deny the influence of his inherited genes as to think that his thinking is unaffected by his religious heritage. We can better understand ourselves by reading our history.
22. Our worship is not limited to five acts or to certain rituals performed in an assembly at specified times and in measured amounts. When we commit ourselves to God in Christ, our whole lives are offerings or worship.
23. Regrettably, most of us have had constant tensions related to our service in the church. Most of that problem is caused by our efforts to work in an organized congregational system where elders and committees assign the use of our gifts and resources. When we use our gifts in exercise of individual, private ministries, all that tension of trying to please a system is relieved.
24. Jesus assured us that His yoke/law is easy, that His burden is light, and that His commandments are not burdensome.
These colorful flowers bursting forth transformed my jungle path of darkness, fears, burdens, brambles, and bits into a fragrant, delightful way lighted with fulfilling love, joy, acceptance, and security.
About twenty-five years after the first poll was taken, and in my fifth year here, I polled another class. By this time I had begun proclaiming salvation by grace through faith, a grace that had to be accepted though not earned, and a faith which brought commitment which might fall far short of total accomplishment. Of the 48 present, 35 believed they would be saved if they died that night and 13 expressed uncertainty. That was still disappointing. The answers reflected an amount of resistance against my "new" message of salvation by grace instead of law. Some could not comprehend the possibility of salvation apart from law; hence, they had begun to denounce it.
As you can see, my change did not come abruptly. Neither did it come as a reaction to some disillusionment causing me to want to abandon ship. In honesty with myself, I had to admit that my message was not accomplishing what it should. So, rather than trying to blame my hearers, I questioned my interpretation of the message and began to progress toward the solution. Much credit is given to a private study group devoted to learning the truth and accepting it regardless of the changes it might demand in our doctrinal beliefs and practices.
Ultimately, reaction against my changed message by sincere people in the congregation here produced much conflict. After ten years with this group, I resigned my preaching commitment with the church and took the janitorial work to supplement my Social Security income. That enabled me to retire. After several years of retirement, when Lea was able to draw Social Security benefits, we terminated the janitorial contract.
When we received our last paycheck from the church, even for janitorial work, we felt a freedom which we had never experienced before. We came to realize more than ever before that we had spent our career in helping to build and entrench an oppressive system of organized, sectarian religion. That system overpowers the life and conscience of the devotee and stifles the freedom of individual initiative in using the God-given talent. Through our developed system, the church supposedly became the route to heaven-a route of continual conflict and intimidated conscience-a route that bypasses Jesus at times.
Praise God, he was patient with me and permitted me to discover the flowers in the midst of the underbrush. Now I enjoy that peace that passes my understanding.
When did I change? It was a long, growing process. I am still changing. All of my beliefs are tentative-ready to be changed as I learn and understand the will of God better.
I am still free to change.