Buckle up for a longer post this time. I have to mention all the events and people included here, and I don’t feel like artificially breaking this up into separate posts, mostly because I have a lot to cover, and I’m not trying to tailor this series to a popular audience. When one wishes to blog like a champion, one must observe the rule to keep posts short, so as not to lose the interest of the average reader. Since I do not have many readers, nor average readers, I am writing at length today.
Still Floating Along, Not so Alone
Upon returning home from Yellowstone National Park in 2005, I continued working toward my Bachelor degree at SUNY Brockport, leading Campus Crusade for Christ (CC4C) on campus, and practicing evangelism with my mentors Peter and Phillip.
At CC4C, I became President of the club because the other student leaders had either graduated or quit college. With no leadership or ministry experience, and at 23 years old, I stepped into a pastoral role for two dozen young college students. Only two years out of drug rehab, I was relying mostly on zeal, while my learning in the Scriptures still had a long way to go.
On one harebrained occasion, I wrote a “letter from God” begging college students to “give Me a chance, it is up to you to choose Me.” I was ultra-Arminian, but only because I never knew anything different. As RC Sproul said, (paraphrasing), we are all born natural Arminians, loving and exalting our supposed free will, but by God’s grace we may become Calvinists. My fellow CC4C students and I printed several thousand of these letters, put each one in an envelope, and with a question mark on each, began passing them out on campus. We were also going to slip one under every single dorm door on campus, until another Christian group heard of our plan and begged us to reconsider, believing we would all be kicked off campus. We didn’t follow through with the plan, thankfully. It’s a mighty wonderful thing how God curtails the influence of heresy here and there. He was kind to stop our little heresy evangelism in 2006. I quit CC4C shortly thereafter, finding in myself far too many leadership deficits to continue acting as a quasi-pastor.
More specifically, I found it absolutely befuddling trying to be a friend and leader to these students. The friendships seemed to me weird, misshapen, like mutant relationships. Three years earlier I had been hitting 5-foot bongs and fist fighting in the streets, now I was trying to tenderly love and shepherd a group of far-from-home, dramatic teens. Ministry leadership was not for me, though strangely it seems to always finds me.
A Spinning Boat
For the sake of context, I was also deeply engrossed in alternative news at the time. When I was in drug rehab in 2003, there was a pastor who was supposed to come to the facility to conduct Bible studies, but instead talked about the powers of darkness and secret societies operating in our world. When I left that hospital and entered a halfway house, I spent much time in the local Wellsville library reading Webster G. Tarpley’s Bush Biography, which further changed my perspective on everything I thought I knew. I would print chapters at the library, bringing them back to my halfway house to read at night.
In 2005, I discovered a local AM radio station in Brockport that broadcast the Alex Jones show (before many people knew who he was). I listened every day to Alex’s reporting and analysis, and ended up listening to several other programs of a related nature on the station. Among them was Radio Liberty, the program of Dr. Stanley Monteith. Dr. Monteith often spoke against churches who incorporate as 501(c)3 with the IRS. According to Dr. Monteith, this was a covenant with the devil, and displeased Christ.
Around this same time, I attended a special service at my local Calvary Chapel. Our pastor had brought in an Israeli intelligence agent to talk to the congregation about Israel and prophecy. Amir Tsarfati was a Jewish convert to Christianity, a native Israeli, and therefore someone whom dispensationalist Americans would look up to as a sort of saint above saints. Mr. Tsarfati was introduced to a hearty applause and then hushed silence. If you are not familiar with Calvary Chapel or dispensationalism, to this part of the Body of Christ the Jews and the State of Israel are of central importance to the life and practice of our Christian faith. So much revolves around the State of Israel for this clan, that to have a Christian Israeli (and a military man to boot!) come into our midst to report on prophetic happenings in the Middle East was an event not to be missed.
I knew within 5 minutes that something was terribly wrong. Mr. Tsarfati was not discussing Christ and His gospel, he was discussing the justifications for Israel’s military posture toward the Palestinians, and for America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember him telling us to thank God every day that we had a President (G.W. Bush) who was willing to listen to God by taking our forces into Iraq. I was appalled. He also claimed to have known that 9/11 was coming some months before the attack, by some intuition, he said.
It was a deeply disturbing evening for me. I wanted nothing to do with a church who would give the pulpit to an intelligence agent, of any country, who had come to exalt war and politics over an open Bible. I believe I did not return to that Calvary Chapel after that. My boat was spinning, alone in the currents of confusion.
Zeal with Doctrinal Insanity: Home in a King James Only Church
What I did do, ever in search of the right local church, (though I didn’t know at the time that I needed the Church catholic), was to call the local AM station broadcasting all those wild shows I listened to every day. I asked the woman who picked up the phone if there was a church affiliated with the station; she said yes, and in fact, would pick me up for church Sunday. That Sunday I entered the Gates Baptist Temple not having a clue what I had gotten myself into, but I did know the church was not registered with the IRS as a 501(c)3, which seemed to me the marker of a faithful remnant.
The Gates Baptist Temple was a King James Only, Fundamentalist Bible Baptist Church. For those unfamiliar, these churches are borderline cults, growing like cancers out of the gnarled brains of men like Peter Ruckman, Jack Hyles, and Sam Gipp (the latter of whom I debated publicly in 2011). See my podcast episodes on fundamentalism for more on this.
What I discovered at GBT, (which was soon thereafter renamed Gospel Light Bible Baptist), was a tight-knit church family led by an energetic young pastor. I sat rapt each Sunday under the preaching of Pastor Vince Giardino, who taught the Bible with a winsome, though thundery conviction. I loved church during this season. The people were very warm and family like to me, and Pastor was a generous, smart brother with a big heart for evangelism. But for the foul, heterodox teachings of these churches, their zeal would be of great service to Christ and His people.
I attended GLBBC for a little over a year, but it felt like 10 because of how involved I became. Sunday became my favorite day of the week–I truly looked forward to singing hymns with a piano, dressing my best, and hearing Pastor’s exuberant sermons. GLBBC was for me an adopted family. I stayed after services to help clean up, to talk, and to be among friends.
At one time, I had brought my New King James Bible (not King James, NEW King James—an entirely different translation) to church, only to have Pastor Vince gently suggest it go into the trash. That copy of the Bible I had purchased for $5 at Calvary Chapel, and carried with me everywhere I went cross country, and to church. It was the Bible by which I had learned the Psalms inside and out, and by which I had been sanctified and blessed by God in season and out. I did not throw it away, but I was impressed by the black and white convictions of this man.
What I found at GLBBC was a place where there were no unanswered questions. Pastor Vince knew the right answer for everything from how much facial hair a man should have, to which musical instruments pleased God. I found certainty and clarity, zeal and hard-nosed Christianity, whereas Calvary Chapel was often a soft, feminized environment where I went unchallenged and overlooked by the pastors. Pastor Vince took a personal liking to me, and began to mentor me in the fundamentalist way. I was truly coming under the influence for a time, but God used three major red flags to call me out and beyond the KJVO fundamentalist flock.
1) I began to have a great love for Hebrew and Greek, and bought myself an interlinear Bible to teach myself the original languages. One day at Friendly’s, I told this to Pastor Vince, who leaned over his bacon and eggs, cocked his head, squinted his eyes, and asked me “why in the world would you want to do that?”
Stunned, I answered what I thought was totally obvious: “the Bible was written in those languages.”
Unwaveringly, Vince retorted “but you have the King James Bible, which is superior to the Hebrew and the Greek.” For the first time as a Christian, I suddenly had a conscious awareness that not everyone who has certainty is doctrinally sane. I felt my little boat begin to come untethered from the group of boats floating along on fundamentalist currents.
2) I would bring friends from college to church “to get them saved.” The KJVO fundamentalists are über evangelistic due to their revivalism roots, hailing from Finney, Moody, Sunday, et al. I watched over and again as the deacons would come to my friends to pressure them into making a decision for Christ. One friend, a Japanese student and a Buddhist, was surrounded by our church people on the stage (where they had ushered him forth like a man about to be strapped to the electric chair), who then pressed him and pressed him to pray the conversion prayer. He begged them to stop, as he could not violate his convictions. Another friend who came with me did in fact pray to receive Christ, but as soon as we left the church, began distancing himself from me. This practice of high pressure evangelism began to seem… unbiblical to me.
3) My dad introduced me to Way of the Master Radio, and the preaching of Paul Washer. Washer, unbeknownst to me, is a Calvinistic Baptist, and his powerful preaching aims to undo the very practices of high pressure evangelism I was experiencing at GLBBC.
And on that point, something earth-shaking had begun.
Long, Dark Roads full of Light
In 2006, Dad and I began going on long drives together all over the northeastern US and southeastern Canada, providing rapid service delivery of factory parts. Together we drove to at least a dozen states and provinces, going as far as Nova Scotia one time. Now keep in mind, before I was converted in 2002, Dad and I had never really been great friends. Now that I was a Christian, we began to share in the deep, fruitful bounty of sound biblical doctrine, and for the first time I really grew to cherish our relationship.
Previously, in 2005, I wrote my dad a letter challenging him to take my family out of Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church, and I recommended Faith Fellowship Church near Akron, NY. To my surprise and delight, Dad did just that, and my parents belong to FFC to this day.
And on those long drives with Dad through the mountains of West Virginia, along the coast in Maryland, in the backwoods of Tennessee, and everywhere in between, we shared our growing love of Christ and His truth.
Paul Washer and Calvinism
During that time between 2005-2007, I had a great deal of zeal for the Scriptures, for strong doctrine, and for evangelism, but was still a baby concerning truth, Church history, and so forth. When Dad played me that Paul Washer sermon (“A Shocking Youth Sermon”) from Way of the Master Radio, my world was turned right side up. I was absolutely captivated by this man’s teaching, and for the next 4 years, I listened and re-listened to Paul Washer’s sermons day after day. I even traveled to Alabama in February 2008 and 2009 to go to the True Church Conference held at Washer’s church. Watching him preach in person was even more electric.
When Washer preaches, you get the feeling he is a dying man preaching to dying men. There are no cute stories, frivolous personal asides, or wisecracks about a smokin’ hot wife (like so many boyish megachurch pastors are known for doing). Washer believes, with all his being, in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the sovereign power of God to convert dead men to life in His Son. I have listened to thousands of preachers, and there is no one like Paul Washer.
And so, I was gripped by a concern for sound doctrine where before I could barely have defined the word doctrine; now I wanted to learn proper exegesis, where I could barely have explained the difference between old and new covenants before, and my zeal for evangelism was heightened.
In 2004, I became interested in voting for the Constitution Party for the presidential election. In following them online, I became aware of a related online bulletin board (on their website) filled with Theonomists. Now I had no idea what a Theonomist was, but I spent considerable time reading them argue with each other about the civil laws of the land, God’s law, and the Scriptures. In case you don’t know, Theonomy is an almost exclusively Reformed movement which advocates the application of Mosaic civil law to all societies in perpetuity. While spending my time following these people as they argued with each other, I noticed several times where a discussion thread would go on forever on some point of doctrine, with no resolution. The participants were entirely concerned with getting everything perfectly right, which I respect, but the spirit of the thing was hard, cold, and difficult for me to understand.
I didn’t see among them a zeal for the lost; instead, I encountered a form of hyper-Calvinism (an overestimation on God’s determination of all things, to the exclusion of secondary means such as prayer and evangelism). Nevertheless, in 2007 I became aware that the family of Christians I was now enjoying were all Calvinists. Was I a Calvinist? I didn’t know if I could believe that God would have the sovereign right over our salvation. I was beginning to see doctrine in clearer categories, and was beginning to feel disheartened at the diversity of opinions in Christianity.
True Fellowship, True Friendship?
Meanwhile, I had been splitting my time between the KJVO fundamentalists and a different Calvary Chapel, called Koinonia. I hadn’t abandoned GLBBC, but rather was finding in Koinonia a more reasonable, biblical church. Slowly, I was spending more church time with the folks at Koinonia. I was hungry for a local church of universal Christianity from the heart of the Apostles–I didn’t want to be a part of a weird sect like the KJVO Bible Baptists, no matter how much I loved the people at GLBBC. Koinonia was eminently normal compared to the crazy-eyed KJVO sect.
Koinonia is pastored by Ray Viola, a man with a golden heart. His preaching is always Christ centered, and his pastoral love is always visible among the people. As I spent time at Koinonia, I was listening to Paul Washer every day, and I was also falling in among a group of zealous young men at Koinonia who all had a love of evangelism, a hunger for the Scriptures, and a desire to grow in holiness.
Among them was a brother who invited me to his house for a Monday night to an impromptu prayer meeting with some of the other guys from church. This was not a church-directed event, it was simply a group of 6-12 men in their early 20’s seeking to pray and read Scripture together. I was now, in 2006-7, finding a church family that seemed to be straight out of the first century Jerusalem (minus the Jewishness and Apostles).
We seemed to have all things in common, and we met what seemed to be daily to pray and share the gospel with the lost. I may be remembering that time with somewhat rose-colored glasses, but it seemed I had been caught up into a new world. This was a world of fellowship, of the communion of the Holy Spirit among God’s people, and of a truly shared love of the things of God. I am not entering into all the details in this spiritual autobiography, but I have to get across to you just how transformative this time was. Koinonia was a church of at least 800 people at the time, and the spirit was charismatic, yet sober (like most Calvary Chapels). Pastor Ray was preaching through Romans on Sunday mornings, and John on Sunday nights.
Please understand, KJVO fundamentalists and Calvary Chapel are both staunchly Arminian movements, which exalt the free will of man over the sovereignty of God in salvation. My initiation into the doctrines of grace/Calvinism came during this time, when I was deciding between two Arminian churches!
In God’s wonderful providence, at least 7-10 other young men in Koinonia were also catching fire for Calvinism at the same time I was, and all of us basically independent of one another in our journeys. We began meeting together to study John Piper’s TULIP series; we debated and talked about Calvinist teachings, and we kept meeting on those Monday nights at Tony’s house to read Scripture and to pray.
In April of 2007, Koinonia officially broke ties with Calvary Chapel after a sex scandal in the CC I had attended near Brockport with Phillip in 2004. Pastor Henry Tomasso had been involved in adultery, and when discovered, other CC pastors in the area helped conceal it from the church, performing a “secret restoration” to the pulpit. When the elders and Ray Viola at Koinonia discovered this, they were incensed, and broke away from CC altogether. Koinonia was no longer bound to parrot the sub-biblical Arminian doctrine of Chuck Smith and CC.
In what seemed like the dawning of a new golden age in my Christian life, Pastor Ray began preaching the Bible from a Calvinist perspective at this same time. We watched as he seemed to be filled with a new wind of grace. He preached Romans 8 and 9 Sunday mornings, and John 6 at night during summer 2007, and I thought I had been raptured. My hero Paul Washer was a Calvinist, all the best preachers I was discovering were Calvinists, my friends were becoming Calvinists, and by late 2007, we young men at Koinonia were ready to declare East Rochester the New Jerusalem (I say with tongue in cheek).
I was falling deeply in love with Calvinism, which is to say, the teaching of Scripture and the best of Church history. I couldn’t get enough John Piper, James White, RC Sproul, and beyond. What none of us knew at the time was that God was stirring up a revival of Calvinism among many, many young men and women across America in those years. I was part of the infamous “Young, Restless, and Reformed” before it was cool.
Every Monday night we all got together at Tony’s, and his wife would selflessly make a big, delicious dinner for everyone. We ate, shared our lives, and went downstairs to bond over jokes, playing with Tony’s kids, reading large portions of Scripture together, and often spending hours in prayer together. I went home many Monday nights after midnight, having prayed our hearts out for hours on end. No one was telling us to do this, it was organic and consistent. We loved fellowship in the Word and prayer. Some of the guys remained Arminian for a while, and often our Monday nights were full of heated debate, furious turning of the pages of Scripture, and sometimes hurt feelings… but we kept coming back.
We young Calvinists also took up the Scripture banner ministry of evangelism, going out to the City of Rochester every other Friday night for years, holding up large nylon banners covered in professionally printed Scripture. We were a fixture outside the bars and nightclubs in the city between 2007 – 2011.
But as of autumn 2007, it seemed I had found the ideal church community. Pastor Vince of GLBBC railed against me for embracing Calvinism, and goaded me by email to debate him publicly. I had to ignore him and move on from that church, though with sadness to lose those friends, and to know they were (and are) so deeply in error.
My little boat was tied to the good ship Koinonia, I had a strong group of Christians around me zealous for Scripture and prayer, evangelism and edification of the saints. It felt like I was home.
What a crushing shame to look back on what happened after that…
Next post, you’ll see what I mean.