A former student and I have been carrying on a conversation recently about Reformed theology. When I suggested that she look to see if there are any PCA churches in her neighborhood, she was understandably a little tentative at the prospect since she’s never been exposed to much outside of the fundamentalist Baptist camp. To her credit, though, she wanted to know more about what Presbyterianism and Reformed theology were. We were engaged in our back-and-forth conversation when things took a slightly unexpected turn. She asked, “If you don’t mind telling me, why did you leave Heritage?” I saw her words on the screen, took a deep breath and wrote, “I don’t mind telling you, but the topic is still a very tender one.” And then I wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more.
After having spilled it all out, it took me a moment to realize that this was a story that I have been avoiding telling — to myself or to anyone else — for ten months now. Other than offering an off-handed word of explanation here or there, I haven’t told anyone. I haven’t even rehearsed it with myself because I didn’t want to acknowledge what had happened. And the question that quickly followed was “Why? Why have you not talked about this? Why has it taken you ten months to come to grips with what happened?” Whether my reticence has been due to fear, pain, or shame I’m not sure. But with one leg now over the hurdle of denial, it seems that the time has come for me to lay this out plainly, because I know others have gone through similar circumstances in their lives, and I know, based on recent experience, that sharing these kinds of stories helps people.
It’s not my desire to lay blame or to justify my position. It IS my desire, however, to show how good people can become enslaved when they hand the reins of their lives over to a fallible human institution, over to an extra-biblical, man-made system of rules and regulations… just like those that enslaved the Galatians.
So let’s get started. To do that, I’ll need to back up a bit.
The change that was eventually responsible for leading Camille and me away from BJU was in very large part due to the Reformed theology being preached at Heritage. It wasn’t called that because, as we later found out, BJIII told Danny Brooks that if the word “Calvinism” was ever used from the Heritage pulpit, the church would be put off-limits to BJU staff and students. (In fact, Danny had begun attending classes at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte some time before 2000 but was explicitly forbidden to continue there by BJIII. As unbelievable as that sounds, it’s true. And perhaps even more unbelievable, Danny complied.) So even though it wasn’t called “Reformed theology,” that is indeed what we were learning while at Heritage. As a result, God began to change us. I explained a lot of the clash in those two big blog posts that I made just about a year ago:
God was teaching us that the Christian life was not about US; it was about HIM; that our sanctification wasn’t something born of our own effort, but that it was a God-ordained process that we have the opportunity to embrace; that the Christian walk was not about works, but about love for our Savior. The more we understood and embraced these things, the more we found ourselves at odds with the theology that we were hearing at BJU. The Christian walk was NOT difficult! It was something that God had, at the moment of our salvation, re-created us to do. We were so overjoyed at what we’d found, we were telling everyone about it. It was like finding an inheritance tucked in the back of the closet that we never knew was there. It was utterly transforming, and we were bursting at the seams to share it with everyone we knew… first and foremost the students we saw who were so oppressed by the performance-based mindset that permeates student life at BJU.
That transformation and the resulting conversations put us at odds with BJU’s theology. They kept saying, “You have to do such-and-such in order to be a good Christian.” We were saying that “in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love” (Galatians 5:6). They kept saying, “These rules are in place so that the students will learn to be better Christians.” We were saying, “The moment any one… submits to circumcision or any other rule-keeping system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered…. The person who accepts the ways of circumcision trades all the advantages of the free life in Christ for the obligations of the slave life of the law” (Galatians 5:2-3). Eventually BJU realized that what we were proclaiming was Reformed theology. In fact, they recognized it before we did. And to be perfectly frank, putting Reformed theology with its Christ-centered focus and grasp of grace up against BJU’s works-righteousness mindset resulted in exactly what should have resulted: a clash so incompatible that there was no way both messages could coexist. The no-holds barred embrace of grace that we were championing was death to BJU’s system of control and manipulation, and so they gave us an ultimatum: shut up or get out. There was no way that either Camille or I was about to repudiate the light of the Gospel that God had shined into our hearts, and so we left.
That part of the story you’ve heard before. The next is the part I haven’t been able to relate until now.
Danny Brooks had been a great friend and counselor to us the entire time Camille and I were “going through it” with BJU. We were under his counsel for literally months last fall. It wasn’t that he was actually giving us advice about how to proceed and what to do; it was much more that Camille and I understood the ramifications of what was happening to us, and, by extension, to those with whom we associated. We loved Heritage, and we didn’t want BJU’s blows to reach our church home. We spent hours over several different sessions telling him what was going on with us and what God was teaching us. They were all very amicable, very encouraging meetings.
In mid-October Danny and I had lunch at NGU. It was a good meeting. He gave me some things to think about, and I responded in a sincere and, I believe, receptive manner (though I don’t now remember what exactly his points were). It was a good time of friendship and ministering grace to one another. Twenty-four hours later, however, an email from Danny with a very different tone arrived for me. It was VERY long — probably two pages typewritten — and he finished by saying, “I need you to stop talking about all of this. I need both of you to lay it down. And until that happens, Grant, you cannot sing solos at Heritage any more.”
I think it’s entirely likely that Danny may have been trying to say, “Look: you’re blowing our cover with BJU. The Reformed message we’re trying to instill in this community has to be introduced slowly and patiently, and you’re attracting attention — negative attention that we don’t want.” In retrospect, I think that’s probably exactly what he was trying to say. I also think that in the back of his mind he was saying, “I stopped attending RTS because of BJU. I was willing to do what I did, and so you two need to be willing to keep your mouths shut about all of this.” Whatever Danny’s intentions, his method and manner utterly floored me, cut me to the quick. There was nothing in our conversations up to this point that would have warranted that kind of a heavy-handed action. It was the same brand of punitive coercion that we had borne up under for literally YEARS at BJU. And what was even more hurtful was that it was under Danny’s preaching that we had learned the things that had set us free from BJU’s system of rules and regulations. We were both shocked and hurt. I immediately wrote to him:
Wow, Danny… wow, wow, wow. Whether you’re right or wrong — I’m not saying either at this point — I just can’t believe you’d deliver this kind of news in an email message. That’s just seems incredibly inappropriate to me.
Your email adds upheaval to upheaval, and Camille and I are still trying to wrap our heads around what to do and what to think. I do know this, though: if it’s not appropriate for me to be involved in a leadership position as a soloist at Heritage, then it doesn’t seem appropriate for me to be involved in a leadership position as a choir member or for Camille and me to assist with the 4-year-old Children’s Church (which we began last Sunday).
Right now I don’t think the healthiest course of action for our family is to engage in any activity that has BJU’s imprint on it in any form, and that includes life at Heritage. I think we need some time away… a “leave of absence” if you will. I hope you understand what I’m trying to communicate. We feel very wounded and alone. I think we’re just going to hole up for a few months.
That was October 17, exactly one year to the day and hour that Camille had emerged from her particularly awful meeting with Darren Lawson and Lonnie Polson. I felt so betrayed by what had happened (this was FAR worse than what we’d gone through at BJU), I couldn’t even abide the idea of walking into a church… ANY church. I didn’t want to have anything to do with organized religion at that point. I understood that it wasn’t God who had betrayed me; it was people. I knew that God didn’t “need” me in church, and so in order to get my head straightened out, I just kind of spiritually curled up into a ball and “went away” for the remainder of the year.
During that time — and in the time since then — Camille and I have both realized that BJU’s influence is toxic for us. The good people, good music, and good preaching at Heritage notwithstanding — even the amicable apology that Danny offered us after the first of the year notwithstanding — BJU’s influence had invaded even the sacrosanct haven that was Heritage, and we had to acknowledge that any aspect of life touched by BJU would simply be incompatible with who we had become. We had, by God’s good grace, outgrown all of it. I missed Heritage terribly. There were people there who meant a lot to me, and frankly, it was Heritage’s nurturing environment that allowed me find the spiritual wings to fly away from BJU. I now know that Danny had the best of intentions and that he really WANTS to have a church that is beholden only to Christ… but sadly, that’s not the case. He has, at least in part, surrendered the reins of his ministry to an institution hell-bent against anything that wrests from its grasp the control it seeks to wield over others. And so there was no other choice for us but to leave. In retrospect, God helped us to do the right thing, and that was for us to just go.
It was during those months of soul-searching, I think, that I first realized what we had become; where, in coming to grips with our theological conclusions, we had arrived. Surprisingly, God had begun leading us even in the parenting techniques that we adopted back when Isaac was born (a subject that Camille can better verbalize). It’s a little hard to wrap descriptors around the journey, to put into words how literally every major life event that God had taken us through beginning in 2000 were only steps leading us out of fundamentalism and into a broader understanding of and appreciation for what He had to teach us. There are a number of good PCA churches here in Greenville where Camille and I could have found a home. It’s only been after 10 months that we’ve finally settled on Mitchell Road, a PCA church just a couple of blocks from Heritage. Next Sunday we meet with a representation of the church elders to give our testimonies. A week from then we’ll be joining the church. And I don’t think it’s any small coincidence that the conversation with the aforementioned student gave me the opportunity to reflect on how it was that God brought us to this new Ebenezer in our lives.
Another reason I sincerely believe God wanted us to keep talking OPENLY about what has happened to us during this transforming process is the scores of “thank you” notes we get from people telling us how helpful our speaking about all of these things has been to them. For instance…
… one from a recent BJU graduate:
After reading about your journey over the past two years — something that I didn’t know anything about — I’m thankful that your struggle highlighted the strong Keswick influence in the BJU community. In particular, the Sunday morning sermon in which I wasn’t in attendance but spent 5 hours+ discussing (arguing against) with fellow Seminarians.
… a paraphrase from an undergraduate BJU classmate of mine:
Grant: Thanks for your candidness. I can’t help but wonder if God helped us get reacquainted to help me with these unknown apprehensions about BJU.
… from a former student:
Keep talking, keep writing, keep learning, keep moving towards what God has for you and what He has for you to gain…I am praying for you!
… and from a current BJU faculty member:
I just wanted to let you know that I sit here silently applauding you guys. If it weren’t for fear, I’d be giving you a standing ovation. I’m sure you can understand…
Why must we all be content to live in our small, hermetically-sealed, individualized environments where everyone judges how spiritual you are by studying your bubble to see how happy you appear to be? People never have the opportunity to realize that others struggle, that others become disillusioned, that others hurt when they’re mistreated… and so we all suffer in silence, alone. Sometimes the cries of those who are in pain are an inconvenience. They interrupt our reverie, cause our plans to be waylaid, or make us wish that we could all just “get along.” But every part of the Body needs every other part… even those parts that are hurting. It’s only by talking, by being genuine and transparent, and by speaking openly that we can minister grace and healing to one another.
2 Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”