From Giant to Dwarf
They say life is the school of hard knocks. If that’s true, church life in a wealthy, comfortable nation is the school of disillusionment—at least, when you’re a young, idealistic guy who thinks getting doctrine just right will yield the perfect local church—or that the perfect local church will stay perfect once you get there with all your sin and imperfection.
Though I had begun to learn some hard lessons about local churches, I was still very optimistic in 2008. I believed that in a medium-size metro area like Rochester, there were bound to be several strong, sound Calvinistic churches to choose from. In my search for the Church catholic, I had begun to eliminate large swathes of denominations and local churches that deviate from the core doctrines and practices of the Reformation. My time in the Arminian, fundamentalist Baptist and Calvary Chapel churches, which had both seemed perfect to me, now looked like 2-D imitations of the real thing.
The Evangelical Church of Fairport: Is this the One?
I left Koinonia Church (Calvary Chapel) in November 2007, and moved to the nearby Evangelical Church of Fairport, a Baptist, Calvinistic, conservative church. I mentioned in the previous post that I am grateful to have ended up there, rather than at the nearby Reformed Grace Baptist church (GBC) where many of my friends went.
At ECF, I learned New Covenant Theology (NCT), where at Grace Baptist, my friends fell under the yoke of a heavy-handed legalism. Several of them were just about completely destroyed by their time under the withering whip cracking of the law at GBC. Ironically, I love and respect the pastor of that church, who joined me in street evangelism more than once, and who contributed financially to our street ministry. I do not wish to speak ill of him personally, or of his pastor’s heart. I only need to communicate that the balance of law and gospel is decidedly out of balance in many Reformed Baptist churches, and my direct interactions with those who were members at GBC reveal the extent of spiritual damage done.
On the other hand, the NCT of ECF was life giving, providing the most profound theological, practical discipleship I have yet received in a church to date. Pastor Reid Ferguson, still presiding as lead shepherd there, is a man of near unparalleled expository skill and pastoral love. There are truly few men in my experience who love Christ so visibly, and who love His Word with such consistent fervor.
At ECF, I met numerous young men (and several followed with me from the Koinonia exodus), who wanted nothing so badly as to learn the Scriptures, to embrace good theology, to learn to pray passionately, and to see many lost people saved. We were on fire, thanks to the doctrines of grace, and so joining a Calvinistic church like ECF was a great liberation to us.
Most or all of us young men had been raised in dispensationalism, which is the only acceptable interpretation of Scripture in fundamentalist Baptist churches and Calvary Chapel. I’ll let you look it up if you’re unaware of what it is, but let me say, dispensationalism is a horrible misreading of God’s Word. It confuses the unfolding of redemptive history so badly that Jesus ends up in a lesser position of importance in the scope of what God is accomplishing throughout history. In case anyone is unsure, Jesus is the true Israel of God. I’ll leave it at that.
By God’s grace, ECF holds to NCT, which moves the reader decidedly away from dispensationalism. So you see, we were being jam-fed with good doctrine, we were getting used to a slightly more liturgical worship service (ECF recites the Apostle’s Creed in every service, which is rare among evangelical churches), and many of us young men were out in the streets sharing the gospel on a constant basis.
I felt, once again, that I had found a local body of the true Church catholic. Every Monday night a small crowd of young men met for food, Scripture reading, and long sessions of prayer. We held Bible studies on other nights, we went about the city holding up large nylon banners with Scripture printed on both sides, and we talked endlessly of the good books we were buying and reading. Calvinism had opened our world to a deeper well than we had ever known.
Calvary Chapel, on the other hand, only traces back to 1965, and draws inspiration from the Finneyite revivals of the nineteenth century. Church history begins after the birth of the United States for CC. For the fundamentalist Baptists, the 1920s-1950s are the golden days of Church history, so for me, being trained up in 500-year-old Reformational theology was ancient, captivating, and exhilarating.
Pastor Reid taught on Wednesday nights from Exodus and Leviticus in 2008-9, and I will never forget how he showed Christ on every page of those old law texts. I asked him from where he learned to teach the Bible like that, and he told me “from John Gill.” Our church was connecting our tradition back to the Puritans and older, being filled with every good and pure thing.
ECF went through a big church split in late 2008, when Pastor Reid introduced a change to our church’s doctrine. No longer did Reid believe in the L of the TULIP, “Limited Atonement.” LA is the Calvinistic doctrine that teaches Christ’s death was designed to save only the elect, and that the sins of all those who are lost in hell were not paid for by His death.
In a Calvinistic church like ours, this caused no small stir of controversy. We had weekly meetings at night for people to ask questions of Reid and the elders, and I remember the heated, accusatory rhetoric hurled at Reid. He was going to lead us into all sorts of heresies, if you believed the angry crowd. But what struck me forever was Reid’s graciousness in listening and answering the flock. Not once did he bark back in anger at his opponents. He offered to leave the church immediately if it was what we wanted. His tender, godly tone impressed me as much as any doctrine he ever taught me. Around 15-20% of the church split and left at that point to form their own church, and in looking back, many of those people came back, and most of the wounded relationships were healed.
Once the church split, there was something of a revival of our spirits. It felt like a new day at ECF, a chance to begin in a new spirit, a new direction (while keeping to the good old truths and practices). And for me, the lessons were irreplaceable. In 2009, the elders began a Second Timothy mentorship class for young men. We met once per week to receive instruction and wisdom in leadership, in theology, and in practical matters.
I learned more from online sermons, apologists, and good books in 2009 than almost any other time before or since. Yet one prayer I was praying constantly got answered, and my faith has been tested ever since.
I kept praying that the Lord would do anything it took to make me more like His Son. Paul Washer had exhorted young men to pray like that, and I will attest that God likes answering that prayer.
While I was busy feeling like a spiritual giant, I met Danielle. In my awkward, completely not smooth way, I got her to go out with me. Simply because I do not like talking too much about personal relationships in public internet forums, I will keep details sparse.
We are two very different people, but we really liked each other, so we kept going out. You might even say we are incompatible, as far as the world measures such things. In late 2009, I had the spiritual giant bug, and thought I was a big, strong leader. Having a wonderful young lady by my side seemed to mean we should get married as soon as possible. Marriage is good and godly, and dating is for boys, Paul Washer taught me, so Danielle and I went ring shopping very early in our friendship.
Needless to say, there were some serious bumps in the road we began to face (read my earliest post in this series if you forgot what I was like as a youth). I immediately began to learn that I was not so much a spiritual giant, as I was a bit too optimistic about how much I had grown as a Christian in my seven years saved.
Here was a real, flesh-and-blood human being with whom I was openly talking about marriage—a lifelong covenant—and I had never in my seven years as a Christian really had to die to myself for the sake of another person. Though we got engaged, it wasn’t to be at that time. Through a series of extremely embarrassing, painful choices and consequences, we had to call off our engagement, while at the same time realizing we both needed serious, constant pastoral care to grow up.
The long and short of 2010 was finding out that a brain full of great doctrine doesn’t automatically transfer into a life of Christian fruit; in fact, the illusion of wisdom grows strong for those who learn much. Yet learning is not wisdom, and feelings are not love. I knew none of this in any deep manner. God gave me Danielle, and to Danielle he gave me, to bring our theology to life.
By 2011 our engagement was back on, but our struggles had taken a serious toll on our relationship with ECF. In our desperate need for mentorship, pastoral care, and friendship, the local church could only offer so much (which was a lot). Our needs grew beyond the boundaries of what a small church could provide, and in that immaturity of ours, we left ECF shortly before we got married in July 2011.
What had seemed to be the perfect local church, the church that was to be the Church catholic, where all my spiritual dreams came true, turned out to be a short, 3.5 year roller-coaster of a season. Weaknesses and immaturity that had been dormant in me came rushing forth when the pressures got high enough, and I left a great church with my tail between my legs, humiliated by my neediness and inability to maintain deep Christian friendships. A great loneliness had begun to take root in my heart, which to this day remains.
To this day, the form of doctrine I learned from ECF and Pastor Reid Ferguson remains the foundation work on which anything else I have learned has had to square with. OK, that was an awkward sentence—how about this—Reid gave to me essential Christianity, without bells and whistles. That pastor gave me new eyes for my salvation, and my Savior.
In my next post, I will recount the joys and difficulties of joining a church plant. I know this writing is not scintillating, but again, it is for posterity, for my family, for those who love me. I love you all too.