My Spiritual Journey in the Church of Christ: The Short Version
I’ve written two articles recently regarding my overall thoughts concerning my spiritual reality (here) and my overall life story (here). The first article spoke to where I am spiritually and how I see God working in all of this. It was more of a sermon and a confession than a story. The second article was a summary of my life, career, failures, and obstacles.
However, this article that I’m writing now is a bridge between those two previous articles. It is meant to tell how my personal history meets my current spiritual condition, with a particular emphasis on my background in the Church of Christ. This post was requested by several of you. Thank you for showing interest. I hope this article can be encouraging to you and let you know that you aren’t alone!
“My First Convert”
Mom’s family has been part of the Church of Christ since the 19th century. She was always very anxious and worried. I talked about some of her childhood in other articles that might help to explain some of that. I’m sure that had a lot to do with it. But I’m also convinced that growing up in the religious environment she was in contributed as well. Dad, on the other hand, didn’t grow up in any kind of church environment. They met, were married, and had me when my mom was in her late teens, and my dad was in his early 20s. They are still together today. They have been together for over 30 years. It wasn’t always easy, but, as far as I can tell, they are literally better than ever!
In the beginning, dad would visit church with mom on occasion, but he didn’t take it too seriously. He didn’t really think the Church of Christ was much different than any other church. He assumed they were a little shyer than the charismatic churches he would visit on occasion while he was a boy. He assumed that the CofC was just too poor to own a piano. When he did go with mom, he would just go through the motions and then leave (just like most people who DO grow up in a church environment). Much of the time, he just preferred to go fishing.
I don’t remember this happening, but apparently, when I was just old enough to talk, I asked him to pray with me before bed. Again, dad didn’t grow up super religious, so he was a little caught off guard by the question. He said, “Son, I’d love to, but I just don’t know how.” That didn’t sit well with dad. From then on, he sought out men in the little country church to take him under their wings and guide him into being a great Christian leader in his household.
Sounds great, right? Sure, it does! The problem is that dad doesn’t just “sit on his hands” very well. When he commits to something, he goes all in. And he certainly did with the CofC teachings. He read every book, pamphlet, and article he could find. He soaked in whatever the mentors would tell him. He thought for himself and asked questions, but he was given “approved” resources and thought processes by which to find those answers. Dad used to be my buddy, but, somewhere along the way, he became my religious authoritarian. He became unbearably strict. We never had a good relationship again until after I was 22 or so.
Now, I want to step out of the story a bit. This isn’t good for storytelling, but I care more about my dad than I do a good story. I want to clarify that I love my dad with all of my heart. He is a good man. I can count on one hand the number of men I know who believe with all of their heart, strength, mind, and soul. I can count on one hand the number of men who love God and others with their entire being. I can count on one hand the number of men who follow Jesus at all cost. And LaVohn Winn is one of them. Just because I disagree with someone or even think that their ideas about God are (unwittingly) toxic and untrue, does not mean that I think that they have bad intentions, or hate people, or are insincere. I’m not making excuses. Toxic religion has LITERALLY killed people.
However, we have to remember that we are all human. We have to assume noble intentions. I love my dad. I’m proud of him. He has grown so much. He was given a crappy hand in life, but he made the most of it in a way that I’ve seen very few people do. Dad taught me to be a good little CofC boy. He taught me all the key verses and arguments. He taught me all of the doctrines. He made sure I was at every service and every event. He made sure that I was involved and became as much of a leader as I could be. No excuses. I was a prize CofC lad. Or, as Paul would say in his context, I was a “Hebrew of Hebrews.” As negative as I could be about a lot of that, there was also a lot of good that came from those experiences.
“We Are THE TRUE Christians”
Being from a long line of dysfunction and poor communication, my family argued a LOT. I never felt like I was heard, so I talked a lot, I talked boldly, and I talked aggressively. I’m STILL working on that. It didn’t help anything that we were in a denomination that, for the most part, believed that it had all the right answers. Or at least all the answers it thought mattered. We were so confident about our answers that we didn’t even consider our denomination a denomination.
By definition, denomination means a name or category. It isn’t really a division as much as it is a part of the whole. It can be divisive, though. Let me give an example. One denomination of my body is my left ring finger. Now, if my left ring finger is part of the body, it is not divided. But if it is cut off from the body, it is divided. There can be denominations that are not part of the body and denominations that are, but a denomination is not inherently divisive. In fact, it is healthy if we all recognize its strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Just like every individual in a particular congregation has a name or even a specific office in the church (AKA: denomination). That doesn’t mean they are divided from one another. They might even have different opinions about some things, but that doesn’t mean they are divided.
But according to most in my denomination, we weren’t a denomination. We have arrived at all truth. We have restored New Testament Christianity. We were the actual church planted in Acts two. Anything else was false. The likelihood of someone worshipping in a place that didn’t have our name making it to Heaven was so slim that it wasn’t even worth considering. An added unofficial definition of a denomination was that a denomination has a central government and a creed. The CofC does not technically have a central government for the institution, and it has no official creed. The Restoration Movement (the movement from which we have the CofC, the independent Christian Church, and the Disciples of Christ) had leaders who said, “no creed but the bible” (they also said, “Christians only, but not the only Christians,” but I digress).
However, the CofC has always had public debates, lectureships, magazines, preaching schools, and universities to decide what was appropriate. It was unofficial, but it still played out very similarly to any Baptist conference you might go to. Furthermore, the CofC had books that worked precisely like creeds. They listed beliefs and had the appropriate proof texts for each doctrine. A great example of such an unofficial creed would be “Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ” by Leroy Brownlow. Or, for a narrative version of the same idea, there is “Muscle and a Shovel” by Michael Shank. At BEST, the CofC had an “unwritten Creed.” And how can you edit a human creed that you don’t know you have? There no doubt that the CofC was a denomination when I was growing up. No doubt to anyone besides me and almost everyone who was in the mainstream CofC. “We had arrived! Why try to improve? Improve what? God and the Bible? We have the perfect interpretation. There are no private interpretations of man!” Between my dad, my church, and youth leadership activities, I had all the answers I needed for “perfect doctrine” memorized by the time I was seven or eight.
“The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” (Parental Guidance 13+)
“Dad! Come here!” I was in first grade and lost a tooth but, to my surprise, there wasn’t money the next morning. I forgot to tell my parents before I placed it under my pillow. Dad rushed in, and I told him what happened. I decided to play it off cool and say, “ahh, the tooth fairy isn’t real anyways.” I didn’t really believe that, but I wanted to be tough. About that time, mom walks by passively and says, “yup, and neither is Santa.” My world fell apart right then and there! I was always suspicious, but not enough to say that he REALLY was fake! Then I started putting the pieces together. Dad ate half of the cookies left for Santa. Mom took some bites out of the carrots and threw them on the sidewalk and on the roof to make them look like reindeer snacks. That red blinking light dad pointed to last Christmas Eve; it was just a plane flying by our house. Those presents were hidden and wrapped the night before Christmas. I took the “evidence” for granted. But it was planted in my mind all along (we will come back to that).
From then on, I was dismantling any fictional character I could find. I was obsessed with truth. If my first-grade friends were in awe of McGruff the Crime Dog visiting us, I’d inform them that he was a puppet, and the voice was a tape player. If my friends talked about the Easter Bunny, I’d let them know that the biggest rabbit in the world was only 55 pounds. There’s no such thing as a life-size magical Easter Bunny. And I LOVED to tell them that Santa was made up. It was all in a day’s work of preaching the truth. No more of that false doctrine!
I was equipped! I was ready for war! It was time for me to go to the Lord’s battlefield. It looked different than what I expected. Tile floor, white tables with colorful cloth on top, the smell of homemade dressing, fun music in the background, and a tree in the corner that had boxes with my name on them. But alas! Satan was hard at work! He began to surround me. To my left was a small plastic manger scene with a white baby disguised as Jesus. Oh, Satan! Always going around in all his festive cuteness! To my right was a radio playing…well, I can’t spell it out, but “H*ly Ni**t.” I was seven; what am I supposed to do with all of this religious persecution? I saw some candles lit near the dessert table. I thought I’d distract myself. You know, resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. “Granny,” I said, “can I blow out those candles before they catch this place on fire?” I was concerned that if the place caught on fire, my grandmother would die in her sin. You’ll never guess what she said! “Jesse, they ain’t your candles to blow out. It’s not your birthday. Jesus gets to blow out his own candles!” Lord help me! I stood in disbelief. I won the battle, but I lost my grandmother. She wasn’t supposed to celebrate Jesus’ birthday! The argument goes: 1) We don’t know when he was born. 2) We were never given authority to celebrate his birthday. 3) Christmas was pagan. You can get gifts and MAYBE have a tree, but you better put a bow on top instead of an angel. 4) It would be adding or taking away from the Bible.
A year or two later, I was in third grade, and it was getting close to Christmas time. The choir teacher at school wanted to sing Jesus songs for a Christmas concert. I spent the whole time that season (and many years following) bringing my Bible to school and explaining to every kid I could that they were not a true Christian and that they were going to Hell if they celebrated Christmas as Christ’s birthday. There’s no telling how many kids I made cry. But I was fighting the good fight for the Lord!
“The Third Time’s the Charm!”
Around the same time as I was condemning all my schoolmates to Hell, a doctrine I learned several years ago finally clicked in my head when I saw a teenager from church get baptized. I never really paid too much attention to baptisms before, but I knew the argument we made in the church. The only sure way to put out the fires of Hell is to be dunked in the waters of Heaven. It was weird, though, because they didn’t baptize this girl at our church. We had water, but the heater was out. So, they risked her soul and drove 10 minutes down the road to another CofC that had a functioning baptistry. If she died on the way, we know where she would have ended up. But it bothered me that I wasn’t baptized yet. So, when we got home, I told my mom and dad that I wanted to be baptized too. They asked me why and I told them all the right answers. Still, they weren’t sure if I was ready, so they said we should wait. I didn’t like that idea, but I let it go.
The next year, in fourth grade, mom pulled me from my homework to talk to me. She asked me the same questions about baptism, and I gave the same answers. I was reading my Bible every day, so I assumed that it wasn’t totally random. She asked if I was ready to be baptized, and I said yes. She risked my soul until dad got home from work, and then we risked it again by driving to the church building to meet Bobby, my youth minister. When we got to the church, bobby pulled me to a private room and asked me the same questions that I’ve been able to answer since before I knew how to spell my name, and then we went to the water.
I was a little scared of the water because I didn’t really know how to swim. Plus, I’ve always been a heavy kid, so I wasn’t sure little Bobby could lift me back up after he dunked me. He dunked me, but I reached out of the water and grabbed the side of the baptistry out of fear of drowning. He had to dunk me again. The entire body had to be immersed simultaneously, or God couldn’t accept me as His child. No exceptions! So, I was dunked again. But no worries! This time was good!
The following Sunday morning, dad informed me that I would be taking the Lord’s Supper now (you might know it as the eucharist, communion, or love feast). I knew what it was and what it was for, but I didn’t give much thought to the fact that I had to take it now! Dad reminded me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians, if I don’t take the bread and juice and in a worthy manner, I eat and drink damnation to myself. This frightened me to death. Fortunately, the carpet in the church’s auditorium was red. So, as I took the bread and juice, I stared at the carpet without blinking and imagined the floor was blood flowing from the cross (so much for “the floor is lava). I did this every Sunday.
Five years later, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing my first baptism. I learned the hard way that I was not perfect. I had undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, and anxiety (I’ve only known about those conditions for the last three years, thanks to my doctor and therapist). I’m not justifying anything at all. I’ve hurt a lot of people in my life. Even back when I was in ninth grade. But I’m sure the context of my mental condition made me feel like I was more out of control than I actually was. And I’m sure it provoked me to hold onto guilt. I thought my mistakes were unfixable and that being baptized again would fix it all. So, I went to the building again, had those same conversations, was dunked again, messed it up again by raising my hand, and then was officially immersed once more.
I tried my best to be a good leader. I struggled with lust and manipulation, and disobedience as much as the next guy. I regret that. I hate that I hurt people (many of which I don’t even know how to apologize to them, or if I should, or, in some cases, who they are). But I tried. So so so hard. But any mistake I made was amplified because I was trying to be a leader in my youth group. I felt so unworthy. I had questions, doubts, and sins. I didn’t know who I was. I would often help my youth minister at the church and talk to him about my issues. We became really close. When I was 15, I started homeschooling through a CofC cover school. I failed ninth grade because of laziness which I believe was provoked by untreated mental health issues. I really started messing up then, but ironically, I also really started to study my faith more then. I hung out with my youth minister, I read my Bible constantly, and I went to a school of preaching with my dad once a week and learned about CofC hermeneutics, arguments, and history. I had so many questions about baptism, clapping, drinking, grace, instrumental music, and women’s roles in the church. I was silenced every time, especially by my dad. In his defense, I did enjoy arguing. But even when I was civil, he would get so mad at me even asking the questions.
I prayed for three years that God would give me somebody to love and help me by the time I was in my last summer as a kid. My family was very poor, but thanks to friends, I was able to go to two church camps my last summer. At the first one, I was, once again, so upset with my guilt that I got baptized once more. My sins just wouldn’t wash away. If only there was some type of Spirit I could lean on to guide me! But we didn’t believe in that in the CofC. I only had to be dunked once this time. I’m not sure if it was because it stuck this time or if it was because I was in the middle of a pool with nothing to grab ahold of.
The following week, I went to another camp. I met so many people. This was the last week of summer, so it was the last week God could answer my prayer about finding a person to marry. I didn’t know anyone there, but I met so many awesome people and had a great time. For a small moment, I felt free. A few weeks later, I started dating someone from camp. My plans were to go by a youth minister just like my friend Bobby. He was so helpful to me, and I wanted to be that way for others. My girlfriend at the time seemed to love that idea. She was a few years younger than me, though, so I wanted to wait. VERY long story short, some pretty extreme stuff happened to her that I don’t feel is my place to talk about online. We didn’t last long after those events happened to her. Back then I felt really hurt and betrayed by her, but now I realize that she was just a kid and someone else who knew better was really the one to blame. But I forgive them both.
I went crazy. I lost my faith. I decided not to go to school. But I finally asked questions that I was never allowed to ask. I considered myself an atheist (though that didn’t last long; I soon became an agnostic for almost three years). Then I felt alone. My Christian friends and family didn’t understand. They thought I was just trying to get attention or do “bad things.” My non-Christian friends didn’t understand why I cared so much. I loved God. I really loved God. But I felt like He abandoned me. And the God I knew wouldn’t do that, so He must not be real. I guess the third time wasn’t the charm.
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know if this is healthy or not, but I still wonder If I should be baptized again. I’m writing this two days before my 30th birthday, three degrees later, and with roughly eight years of ministry experience, and I still wonder that.
“From Church of Christ to church of Christ”
I slept around a lot, I popped pills, I worked and slept way too much, and I was always wanting intimate pictures from girls I talked to so that I felt like I was wanted. I desired understanding and intimacy. I know this sounds cheesy, but I missed God. I missed my church family. I missed my friends. But I felt like they all abandoned me. By the way, if you’re reading this and I ever did you wrong, especially during that season or before I found out about my mental issues, I’m so sorry. Believe me, it still haunts me. I would be blessed to have the opportunity to sit down and confess my heart to you. That’s not who I am, and it’s not who I want to be. I want to be like Jesus.
But I didn’t leave the church to do “bad things.” I left because I had questions that I couldn’t answer inside the church. Isn’t that sad? God help us if we go to a church where questions are either frowned upon or micromanaged. I felt alone, judged, unloved. I felt like nobody understood or cared WHY I did what I did or felt how I felt or believed how I believed. Again, I’m not justifying a thing, but context is important, and nobody loved me enough to care. Especially not in the church. I was suicidal for almost three years and almost every day. I would drive to the lake, where the boats go in and hold my foot on the brake. Sometimes for ages. It is a miracle I never let go. Life without God was not something I could do. What’s the point in all of this? “There isn’t a point,” my atheist friends would say. But I knew better than that. Basic philosophy, psychology, and sociology tell us that isn’t true. But still, I felt like nobody cared. I felt alone.
But that’s not totally true. Nobody is too strong of a generalization. Not everyone understood or approved. But I had a handful of people who didn’t give up on me. There was a handful of people who believed that my intentions were true and real, and valuable. They didn’t give up. You know, writing this, I realize that I never thank them as I should. I need to do that. Always remember the people who never give up on you. Those people are few and far between!
While I was gone from the church, I was searching for answers. I watched videos of, read books/articles from, visited with, and emailed people of various faiths, denominations, and no faith at all. I studied for hours and hours a day. I would research history, philosophy, language, literature, science, psychology, sociology, different religions, and peoples’ personal testimonies about their faith (or non-faith) journeys. I visited different religious gatherings and denominations. I read continuously. I tried it all. Long story short, I came to believe there was a God, He is the Christian God, and Jesus is the eternal Word who created all but left His authority behind and came in the flesh. While He was in the flesh, He lived out love perfectly; he lived out sacrifice perfectly, to the cross. He rose again and ascended to the heavens. I came to believe that He was who He said He was because He did what He said He would do. I believed that one could inductively reason with great confidence that He lived, died, and rose again. I trust Him. But where do we go from there? Back to the Church of Christ?
I don’t know if it was because of my upbringing or if I really believed this (maybe a little of both), but when I came back to the faith, I decided to stay with the Church of Christ. Not because I necessarily thought that was the right church, but because I knew the framework and principles the movement was founded upon (the Restoration Movement), and I appreciated those principles. I found them to be biblical, unifying, and universal. Also, I was still relatively conservative (mainstream traditional CofC views) when I came back. That said, it wasn’t because I thought those views were right; it was because, while I deconstructed my faith at large, I hadn’t yet deconstructed my particular denomination yet. I started where I was when I left, but with one big difference. I had a “test all things” mentality. I started with my classic views, but I was going to question everything. And I did. I started to see the Church of Christ as part of the churches of Christ. By that, I mean that “big C” means the name on the sign. It is a title. But “little c” means the descriptive phrase found in Scripture that defines the universal, spiritual, one true body of Christ, made up of every Christian who has ever been or ever will be. I realized that, while I currently help Church of Christ views, they were going to be pushed, and I would likely find that, at the very least, SOMEBODY was a Christian who didn’t have a sign that said Church of Christ. I saw myself as part of the church of Christ. I was going to test ALL things. I was going to have my own faith.
“Love is a Four-Letter Word”
I started attending church consistently again. It was one of the CofC congregations I grew up in. I still felt a ton of judgment, but I wanted to be around spiritual people. So I went with the youth group on a mission trip. Every afternoon on the trip the youth would sit in a circle and reflect on the day. I felt like an outcast. But one of my friends, Austin, looked at me straight in the eyes from across the circle and said, “Jesse, I know you don’t know what exactly you believe. I know you feel scared and judged. But God is love, and I love you. And you are going to spend eternity with me even if I have to drag you there.” I wept then and there. I had people support me and love me through my journey. But that was the first time that someone said in front of God and everyone that nothing was going to keep them from loving. And nothing was going to keep God from loving me. It was profound. It was a different kind of love than what the world gives. It was a selfless, unconditional, neverending love that was there regardless of reciprocity. It was supernatural. When I felt that love I knew that I also felt the presence of God, because God IS love. He isn’t just loving or lovely. He isn’t just good at love. It isn’t just a characteristic. His very essence is agape love. When you love someone, you show them God; when you show them God, you show them love. Austin showed me God.
At the time, I was still dating this girl that I was dating before I officially decided to come back to Christianity. We weren’t good for each other, and we weren’t good to each other, but I’m thankful for her. She helped me survive. Literally. But after I came to the faith, I was trying to do better about things (which proved to be easier said than done, but I was trying). We still dated, but I became distant, and she sought intimacy elsewhere. I understand why she did it. I don’t blame her. I let my new faith make me selfish and judgemental. We finally decided to split up, so I went to her house to pick up the movies and stuff I had there. I was hoping to see her and get some closure, but she wasn’t there. Actually, she called the cops and told them I was trying to break in. So I just left. I was devastated. I don’t do well when I don’t have closure.
I was crying on the way home, saying, “God! I came back to you. I’m trying to do what I’m supposed to do? Why do I feel this way? Why do I hurt?” And as soon as I said that, wisdom that I knew wasn’t from me came to my mind and said to me, “this is how I feel when those I love leave me behind.” My crying stopped, and my wonder began. Wow! I never REALLY thought of my Christianity as a relationship. I knew facts (or alleged facts) about God, but I didn’t KNOW God. As soon as I got home, I randomly flipped open my Bible and got to Hosea. I read through Hosea in one sitting and cut to my soul. Hosea’s wife was an unfaithful prostitute. But he chased her down and bought his own wife back from prostitution. God told Hosea that is how he feels about His people. I flipped my Bible randomly again and ended up at the beginning of Romans. I read it through in one sitting as well. I had read all of these books before. However, I never read them like that! For the first time in my life, grace and relationship jumped out of the pages of the Bible! It was beautiful. I hope I never forget how freeing that was!
I went to Bobby, and I went to Brad (another preacher mentor and friend I’m blessed to have) and told them of these things God was guiding me to. God is love, God is gracious, God is all about relationship! I found out that they, too, were coming to the same conclusions. I wasn’t alone! They pointed me to the sermon on the mount in Matthew seven and showed me how Jesus didn’t say “depart from me” to people for doing wrong things; He said it because He didn’t “know” them. Obviously, Jesus knew facts about them, obviously, Jesus knew who they were, but Jesus didn’t have a relationship with them, regardless of their works. Then they pointed me to John 17, where Jesus said that eternal life is to “know” the Father and the Son. I know atheists who know facts about Jesus. I know Muslims who know who Jesus is. But eternal life, abundant life, and fulfillment in life come from having a relationship with Jesus. Is that to say that works and obedience go out the window? Not at all! As Paul said in Romans, “should we sin that grace may abound? God forbid!” There are reasons for God’s principles and imperatives. But our salvation was really more about a relationship with a foundation of grace. As James, the brother of Jesus, would say, “mercy TRIUMPHS OVER judgment.” My emphasis was wrong all of my life. It wasn’t JUST that I got some views wrong (although that is true too), but I was looking at the entire Gospel through the wrong glasses.
When I was growing up, my dad would argue in circles. Dad would say, “If you love Him, you will keep His commandments.” Followed by me saying, “yes, but His greatest command is to love. That’s the fulfillment of it all.” And around and around we went in our circular arguments. I remember venting to Brad about it one day, and then another one of those wisdom bombs dropped (I would suggest that it was the Holy Spirit). I knew it wasn’t me. I knew it was something from outside of me pushing me in this direction. I asked Brad, “do you think that instead of Jesus saying you don’t love Him if you don’t keep His commands, He was really saying that the fruit of our love for Him is keeping His commands?” In other words, Jesus isn’t a jealous high school girlfriend saying, “if you love me, you’ll do…” Jesus doesn’t manipulate. Jesus was speaking about the motive and the consequences of our relationship with Him. He wasn’t speaking to perfection or legalistic standards that must be intellectually and morally kept in perfect condition, or else you aren’t a child of God. He was all about the relationship. If our primary motive is avoiding Hell or getting to Heaven, we totally missed the mark. There is both an overlap and a distinction between the condition of a Christian and the goal of a Christian. It is all about relationship! It is all about love!
“No Rock Unturned”
I was planning on going to preaching school. I wasn’t planning on being a preacher. However, I did want to go somewhere that was open enough to allow me to question my beliefs and conservative enough to challenge me so that I didn’t automatically assume my views were the correct views. I found a great school. I won’t name them here because they are not the same kind of school anymore, and I don’t want anyone to think they have the same grace as they once did. It was still almost a year until I would attend the school, so I worked full-time and continued to study on my own with my new way of seeing Scripture and with my “test all things” mentality.
I came across a Facebook CofC page and asked a question about a singing or something incidental. But I immediately realized that this group was different. There were several administrators, and they were all asking the same questions I was asking. They talked about creeds, translations, baptism, Lord’s Supper, the “name” of the church, denominationalism, inspiration, context, the Holy Spirit, women’s roles, the plan of salvation, faith only, works, legalism, prayer, miracles, musical instruments, Hell, Heaven, end times, marriage/divorce/remarriage, elder/deacon responsibilities/qualifications, drinking, creation, the purpose of the “gathering,” same-sex attraction, grace, hermeneutics, the place of church history, relationship, love, and discipleship. There was no rock unturned. I continued to study, talk to my mentors, pray, read, and enjoy this new community. However, I noticed some bitterness creeping in. The more I “unlearned” things that used to be taught with such sectarian zeal, the more bitter and angry I became. I felt like I missed out on needed fellowship. I felt lied to. I felt like I needlessly condemned others. Instead of pointing to humanity, to evil, or even to myself, I pointed to everyone else in my movement. Do some of them own some of the blame? I don’t know to be honest. Maybe? I mean, I think the answer is yes, but what good does blame do when most of these people were just doing what they thought was right? Right before I went to preaching school, I noticed the elders show concern. They were going to help me go to preaching school, but I was very vocal about my new views. They often pulled me into their office, made sure I “knew” the right answers, and then they smacked my hand and sent me on my way.
I was fortunate that one of those elders was also my boss. I worked for his landscaping business. He was much kinder to me than the others, but he was still frustrated by some of my questions. We had a lot of good conversations about some of the issues he had about different doctrine. I’m glad to say that he is free from legalism today. He is one of the best men I know. He stepped down from leadership and is not one of those Christians that work hard and doesn’t expect control or a power position in return. Honestly, though, I don’t think it was ever about power for him anyways. He has a great heart!
One of his employees and my co-workers, John, used to attend our church. He didn’t go there long, but while he was there, he was baptized with immersion and with the understanding that it was for the remission of sins. He understood that to be the point he became a Christian (as any good CofC man would understand). The problem is, John went to a Pentecostal church now. How can he be saved? But then it hit me! I’m not working under this false “everything or nothing” paradigm I once did. When I was growing up, if you sinned at ALL and didn’t explicitly ask forgiveness, you were going to Hell if you died. That included what we called worship sins. That included sins of ignorance by implication as well. But with the grace-centered understanding of the Gospel, the place John met on Sunday was almost irrelevant. Even with my strictest definition of baptism and what it takes to become a Christian, John was saved. He was doing the best he knew how to serve God and God’s people. He was using the same book. He was baptized in the same faith and even in the same baptistry, I was baptized in (several times). For the first time in my life, I had a real example of what it looked like to be in the church of Christ, but not the Church of Christ. I found a brother. And believe me when I tell you I was planning on finding many many more. I love that period of my life. I don’t think I have ever been as spiritually focused as I was when I immersed myself in grace. I’ve lost my way over the years in ministry. Being a Christian for others can be a spiritual distraction if you aren’t at a congregation that takes their faith seriously.
“Here is a List of Approved Answers”
I was fortunate to have my friend join me as a classmate and roommate when I went to preaching school. He was starting to question things as well. Neither of us planned to be preachers. We were both just looking for answers. And, frankly, we were both very bitt. I regret that, and I regret how I treated people who still viewed things the way I was taught. My bitterness came from a genuine and valid place of pain. I felt robbed, lied to, and insecure. But I channeled that into bitterness. I almost became legalistic about my liberalism (if you will allow me that loaded statement). I even remember making my mother cry one time because I was so aggressive about how she was wrong, and she let me down. It breaks my heart to think about that.
I could write an entire book on preaching school, but I’m keeping this story of my journey short (believe it or not… there’s much more that could be said about all of this). While there, my friend and I met many non-legalistic and non-judgmental CofC congregations and individuals in the Knoxville area who helped to encourage and teach us to shed our bitterness. Also, I must admit, the school that I was at, as traditional as it was, had several instructors who showed me who Jesus was as well. And they tolerated my bitterness more than I would have if I were them. They allowed me to ask questions. There were only a few teachers who allowed me to ask questions under the condition of micromanagement, approved resources, and elder approval. I didn’t get along with them very well, as I’m sure you could imagine.
While I disagree with much of the doctrine taught in school, I learned so much about the Bible. I had already read the Bible six times by the time I got to school, plus all of the studying and preaching school lessons during and after high school. But I learned the tools I needed to teach myself, teach others, and develop my own faith. I’m thankful for that. I found writers like Cecil Hook, Carl Ketcherside, Peter Enns, and Rubel Shelly. Also, I got a degree out of my time there as well. So that eased whatever pain I did have. However, towards the end of my time in preaching school, I didn’t know what I wanted or needed to do.
“God’s Best Stories End with a Beginning”
I was planning on going to school to be a counselor. I was already tired of the idea of ministry. There are many reasons for that, but I won’t say that here or now. Regardless, it would seem that God had different plans. I had this intense desire to teach theology at a school. I wanted to be closer to home, so, for me, that meant Heritage University in Florence, Alabama. The problem was that I needed a job to live there, and I needed it before I decided to move. Also, I was unwilling to compromise any of my beliefs. I’ve always been willing to agree to disagree or to admit when I’m wrong. But I wasn’t going to hide from my faith (being suicidal as part of your existential crisis will do that to ya).
I basically gave up looking. But the advisor would not allow that. Any excuse I could give, he found an answer for. He told me about this little church looking for a part-time youth minister. It was going to pay less than 200 a week and expect 25-30 hours a week. I was skeptical, not because of the money but because of the church. I didn’t know them, and I didn’t want to surprise them or be surprised. So I agreed to meet a few times and make transparency my policy. They were the perfect fit.
A couple of months in, I transitioned from full-time school to full-time ministry because the senior minister retired, and they decided to hire me. During my first week there, I found the first issue of Wineskins magazine, which started my birth year (a month after I was born… I’m 30 now, April 8th). I found out that Wineskins had a website with all of their articles and the extended blogs of their writers. From there, I found more groups and blogs of people like me. I found the Lipscomb and Pepperdine lectureships on youtube. The list goes on and on. I wasn’t quite as alone in my journey as I thought. My journey has continued and will hopefully continue forevermore. A LOT has happened since then. I am much much more on the progressive side of things now than I was then. I was what I call “CofC progressive” back then. I don’t really consider myself TRULY liberal, but most evangelicals would probably think so now. But that’s the problem with labels; we all mean different things. But the point I want you to take away is that we all have our own journeys, and the journey is the destination. That’s how faith has always worked. So, if you question things because of your understanding of who Jesus is, don’t hide from that. Don’t think you are alone. Even if you would go further than I do on some views or if you wouldn’t go as far as me. Even if you are as traditional as you have ever been, but you finally see grace and patience in the eyes of our Lord, just know you aren’t alone in your journey. – Jesse