I recently happened upon the website of the Bible college from which I graduated forty-five years ago. I was particularly drawn to the audio recordings of presentations, mainly sermons, made in the school’s chapel services over the past few years. For nearly three hours, I listened to excerpts, ranging in length from two to twenty minutes each, from a dozen or more preachers. Many of the speakers were men I knew personally from my years as a student.
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 when life seemed simpler and the future was filled with promise. The longer I listened, however, the less positive I felt about the experience.
In the end, 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. 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. I will not speculate as to why they have not changed. The purpose of this post is to try to tell you why I did.
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 fundamentalist 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.
I spent a few years in pastoral ministry after Bible college then enrolled at Houghton College where I finished my undergrad degree in 1977. 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 Christian believer, and my view 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 that included an emphasis on peace, nonresistance, justice, and simplicity. I became pastor of a Mennonite church.
In all of this, I maintained my commitment to evangelical orthodoxy. In 1994, I joined the faculty of a small, Mennonite Bible college as an adjunct instructor. In 2000, I was appointed to a full-time position. Over the next eight years, I would teach fifteen different courses in the college’s curriculum.
Preparation for teaching those courses 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 the early chapters of Genesis. 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 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 both my ideas about the church (the agent of the kingdom) and 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 coming under the influence of writers such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and others. I appreciated 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.
My growing commitment to liturgical worship led to my dismissal from my teaching position at the Mennonite college in 2008. In 2009 my wife and I received the Anglican sacrament of confirmation, and in 2011 I was ordained an Anglican priest. I once read that Stanley Hauerwas, one of my favorite theologians, refers to himself as “a high church Mennonite.” That works for me, too.
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-five, 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 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 God sustains me, amid my periodic doubts and discouragement, in my relentless pursuit of authentic faith.
That is the main reason why I write.