Last Friday, I inadvertently happened upon the Facebook page for the Bible college I attended in the late 1960s. I noticed a picture there, from one of last year’s chapel services, and the speaker was a man I knew very well when we worked together in the same church more than forty years ago. I loved and respected him then, and I still do.
The caption for the photo included a link to the college website’s archive of chapel service audio recordings, so I clicked on it. For the next several hours I listened to excerpts, ranging in length from two to twenty minutes each, from a dozen or more preachers who had spoken in chapel over the past five years, some more than once.
Many of the speakers, like the one I mentioned above, were men I knew personally from my years as a student. One was a classmate who had “competed,” along with me, for the school’s first annual Award in Expository Preaching back in 1970. (I won’t tell you which of us won the award, but it wasn’t him.) One of the speakers had actually been my roommate during our senior year.
It’s hard to describe how the experience of listening to those voices from the past affected me. At first, I was nearly swept away on a wave of nostalgia, as their familiar speech patterns took me back to a time, more than four decades ago, when life seemed simpler and the future was filled with promise. The longer I listened, however, the less positive I felt about the experience.
After three or four hours of listening to those sermon excerpts, I had to conclude that, although I could detect some changes in their voices—most had grown thinner and shakier with age—the content of their talks suggested that little had changed in their thinking or the way they perceived matters of faith and spiritual truth. They were fundamentalist Christians when I knew them forty years ago, and they are fundamentalist Christians still.
They are, but I am not. Not even close. I have changed—a lot—but they apparently have not, at least not in ways immediately obvious in their Bible college chapel sermons. I couldn’t help but wonder why.
Still, the purpose of this post is not to surmise why they have not changed, and I do not mean to disparage them for their choices or impugn their character in any way. It cannot be denied, however, that, although we started at the same place, our pilgrimages have taken distinctly different turns. When it comes to questions related to Christian faith—specifically, the nature of biblical revelation, the character of the gospel message, and the implications that arise from that—I changed, and they did not. What follows is a chronological survey of the most significant of those changes.
I was born late in 1949. Through the fifties and sixties, I grew up in a church-going family under the influence of Baptist fundamentalism. In 1970, I graduated from a Bible college in southern West Virginia. As a result of my upbringing and the indoctrination of Bible college, at the time of my graduation I was a dispensationalist, a pre-tribulation rapturist, and a young-earth creationist.
I thought of the kingdom of God as an altogether future reality with little application to present-day life, and the gospel was a prescribed way of understanding the death of Jesus which made it possible for a believer to escape hell and live forever in heaven. I regarded the local church as essentially a fortress against an encroaching culture at war with true Christian values. I practiced “strict separation,” which meant that I avoided meaningful interaction not only with liberals and other heretics but also with other conservatives who were not as discerning as I was regarding those with whom they chose to associate.
By 1975, my fundamentalist and dispensationalist foundations were beginning to crack and crumble under the influence of thinkers and writers I had not read in Bible college. Moreover, when I read the New Testament without imposing dispensationalist presuppositions, I found I had to abandon the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture of the church. That was the first doctrinal pillar to fall. Some would say it was the first major step in my journey over to the dark side.
In 1977 I graduated from Houghton College. That experience, coupled with exposure to magazines such as Sojourners, The Other Side, and The Wittenburg Door, forced me to reconsider my definition of a “true believer,”and my view of the “evangelical tent” expanded to include many I had shunned just a few years before.
By 1985, after studying at Wheaton Graduate School and while I was a student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, I developed a broader, more comprehensive view of the kingdom of God. One consequence was that I adopted a perspective on Christian discipleship consistent with historical Anabaptism, including its focus on peace, nonresistance, justice, and simplicity. I became pastor of a Mennonite church.
Despite these changes in my thinking, I maintained my commitment to evangelical orthodoxy. Throughout the nineties, I was involved with a ministry, known as Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship, which sought to revitalize contemporary Anabaptism through a renewed emphasis on orthodoxy within that communion. This led to an invitation, in 2000, to join the faculty of Rosedale Bible College as a full-time instructor. (I had already taught there as adjunct faculty for six years.)
Preparation for teaching a total of 15 different courses over the next eight years exposed me to a wide spectrum of thinking, all under the general umbrella of orthodoxy. As a result, among other things, I moved away from young-earth creationism and a fundamentalist reading of Genesis 1, 2. At the same time, my appreciation for church history increased dramatically, and I developed an awareness of, and an attraction to, the liturgical tradition in Christian worship.
Although still politically conservative, I was becoming more sensitive to a growing gap between conservative political philosophy and a straightforward reading of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. My discomfort in this area came to a head in 2005, when I taught a course at RBC called Peace, Justice, and Simplicity. Conscientious course prep required me to read material by proponents of viewpoints I had never previously examined. Among other things, the experience gave me a new way of looking at the Sermon on the Mount. I found this new point of view persuasive and irrefutable.
I began to consider that Jesus may have really meant what he said in the Gospels. That completely changed my perception of the kingdom of God, which, in turn, produced a major alteration in my concept of the church (the agent of the kingdom), my political perspective (“your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…), and the presuppositions that underlie my convictions as a responsible citizen of the kingdom.
By 2006, I was reading the work of writers such as Brian McLaren, Scott McKnight, and others associated with Emergent Christianity. I “resonated” with their questions about the character of American evangelicalism and whether or not it fairly represented the heart of Jesus’ teaching and the meaning of Jesus’ example.
Late that fall, I attended the first of three conferences addressing “an Ancient Evangelical Future.” My growing commitment to liturgical worship led to my dismissal from RBC in 2008. In 2009, my wife and I received the Anglican sacrament of confirmation, and in 2011, I was ordained an Anglican priest. Today I consider myself, as I was described by an Anglican seminary professor, a “liturgical Anabaptist.”
This has not been an easy pilgrimage. A person willing to make changes when confronted with new information is often lonely. He is generally written off as a traitor to the cause by those who continue to hold the position he has moved away from. At the same time, he is regarded skeptically by those whose ranks he has joined because they don’t know him well enough to trust him. At least, that has been my experience.
Still, at age sixty-four, after a lifetime of service to Christ and the church, I am glad to be where I am. I have a healthy respect for godly authority, but for now, free from the constraints of a pattern of belief imposed by an employer or a board of oversight, I have the liberty to explore in depth the truly radical nature of Jesus’ message, his example, and the full meaning of his crucifixion and resurrection.
I am devoting the remainder of my life to describing and explaining how I have come to my current convictions because I want people to understand my positions and the rationale for my choices. More than that, however, I believe there are people who can be helped by my recounting how God has brought me from where I was to where I am, as well as how he sustains me, amid my periodic doubts and discouragement, in my relentless pursuit of authentic faith. My pilgrimage is not over, and there are no doubt more changes ahead. It’s better to make the trek together with others on the same trail.
My book, The Long Road from Highland Springs: A Faith Odyssey, is a major element in that endeavor. It should be out in a few weeks. Stay tuned. And, as always…
Soli Deo Gloria.