My father left the Southern Baptist Convention before my recollection of church life began. His father had been a baptist deacon, but Dad didn’t “hear a clear cut gospel message” until he was 21 years old. He received Christ, surrendered to preach, and became a bi-vocational home missionary in the Tennessee Valley (starting 3 IFB church plants and rescuing 1 dying church). He reared 8 children (including 4 boys who have all become preachers). He took us to Faith Baptist Camp in Resaca, GA almost every year. He loved people. He witnessed with the gospel passionately. And he taught us to believe the Bible.
That last part was probably the strongest and best work Dad accomplished in His ministry. He just turned 80 last month. His legacy will be a whole family that believes a trustworthy Bible is our final authority for all matters of faith and practice. But his greatest lesson has also been the undoing of much of the cultural religion that he exposed us to and touted loudly.
I realize that my story is not unique or even unusual. The stories and snippets of experience that are shared weekly on the RFP resonate loudly in my mind and heart. But it is interesting to me how the Spirit so patiently and persistently led me out of legalism.
I was the quintessential IFB preacher’s kid. Walked the aisle dozens of times. Was baptized over and over again. Was as lost as the devil himself. I knew the words of the gospel. I did not know Christ. I had the facts, and even had some feelings. But there was no repentance in my heart and I was not trusting Christ as my Savior and Lord. I was deeply curious about what the world had to offer outside of my sheltered existence. Whatever that fun was “out there” – I wanted it badly.
I did receive Christ sincerely and truly on August 13, 1985 at “Sammy Allen’s Camp Ground” (after a young preacher got up and screamed about hell until I actually woke up and realized that if Jesus didn’t rescue me, hell was where I was going for sure). As has been said many times, “God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick.” There was much about the ministry of Concord Baptist Church and the camp meeting culture that I would never endorse now, but those people believed the Bible, believed in the work of the Holy Spirit, preached hell hot and Jesus real, and were used by God to get my attention.
I went home from camp a changed boy. In 5th grade I had been all trouble. I was the worst kid in my class. Cussing (well trying to), fighting, cheating, whatever I could get in to in our little Christian School (under pastor Chuck Cofty). After my conversion though I went home and voraciously read through the whole New Testament that fall. And I began to avoid sin… sometimes. That may sound a little strange, but I had never avoided sin at all that I recall. I had sometimes avoided getting into trouble before (though not very well). But I had never avoided evil out of a spontaneous desire to be right, do right, and to honor God.
But it didn’t last. Well, not entirely anyway. The hunger for truth remained. That has been permanent. But I discovered girls. Girls became the idol of my heart. There was the natural and wholesome attraction for sure. There was even an awe and respect for women. But I also began to feed an insatiable objectification of women; a pollution that racked my mind and wrecked my spiritual walk.
But God’s grace is amazing. Just His common grace on all men is amazing. But the way He protected ME from myself through my teenage and college years – that is the greatest example of providence I can think of. He shut doors of opportunity (for me to get into trouble) over and over again. It wasn’t for any lack of effort on my part though. I pursued my fleshly lusts and pushed the envelope as far as I thought I could push it. Yet all the while I would routinely return to a pursuit of holiness (as I understood it) and attempt to embrace the victory that Christ was always offering to me.
How can I put this? I was an addict, but not a constant addict. I was a sporadic addict. I would binge on sin and then return in humiliation and sorrow. I would then focus on what I thought to be the straight and narrow habits of right relationship and fellowship in the Spirit. Sometimes these cycles went quickly. Sometimes they were drawn out over time. My secret sins might rule me for days or weeks. Then I would follow after righteousness for a while. Sometimes I would enjoy many months of victory. But I was always subconsciously (if not consciously) holding on to the possibility of returning to the pleasures of sin for one more last thrill.
This might not sound like an IFB story. But it is. What I was wrestling with was legalism. Where would I draw the line? The periods which I considered times of victory were times when I had drawn a smaller circle to stay in. I was avoiding the worst vices, and only surrendering to smaller ones, so I thought, “This is victory.” Then I would find a new opportunity, a new girl, another avenue to express my sensual nature outside of God’s design, and I would start expanding my circle again. I would push the boundaries. I always knew people who were wilder than I was. I always avoided the worst scenarios. So I figured I could get away with my antics. After all, I wasn’t as bad as I could be. I certainly wasn’t as bad as many of my acquaintances.
But three left hand turns are equal to a right hand turn. And despite all my wanderings and erroneous ideas, God kept working on me. He brought me the wife I needed. He got me into the job I needed (teaching in an IFB Christian school). He opened doors I wasn’t knocking on. He had called me to preach long before I was willing to embrace it. And ever so slowly and steadily He inched me into it. “You will be teaching our high school Bible class.” “Will you teach this elementary Sunday school class?” “Would you fill in with our teens since we don’t have a youth pastor right now?” “Could you preach in chapel?” These were all divine appointments. They were incremental, and they were countless.
Around the year 2000, Evangelist Ron Comfort came to preach a series of meetings in our church in north Alabama. One evening he made the following statement: “God has called enough men into the ministry to win the world to Christ, but most men have not surrendered to that call.” That was it for me. God had already been working on me pretty hard. He had used one of the teenagers in my Bible class to actually get me to reading the Bible and paying attention to what I was reading. About that time I read through the whole Bible for the first time in my life. It was a revolutionizing experience. The water of the word was being used by the Spirit to sanctify me supernaturally. Dr. Comfort’s words couldn’t have impacted me more if an angel had uttered them to me personally in a vision.
To make a long story shorter, I got busy into ministry in that church. I had started there in 1986 as a kid and ended up staying there until 2005. Other than my college years at Pensacola Christian College in Florida, I was at Bethel Baptist Church & school in Hartselle, AL for 19 years. And I embraced our culture. I mean by that, after my ordination there at Bethel, I was all in. I ran the bus ministry. I towed the dress standards line. I preached against CCM. I taught long series on the superiority of the KJV. I fidgeted nervously when “edgy” special music was played and sang in our congregation. I was the poster boy for IFB youth pastors. We took our teens to the WILDS and to the Bill Rice Ranch. We went on mission trips to smaller churches to run their VBS program. And I preached the hide off my teens.
Somewhere along the way though, the Spirit led me to preach through books of the Bible. So, in Sunday school, children’s church, and in youth group I preached through Ezra, Psalms, Acts, and other books. Without realizing what was happening, I began to move from emphasizing and prioritizing the common topics of high personal standards to actually knowing Christ and His Word. Interestingly, while my legalistic list of “dos and don’ts” began to shrink, my actual behavior began to improve.
Skip ahead a bit. 15 years ago God graciously and gently helped me move on from Bethel (and youth ministry) to Grace Baptist Church in Hurlock, MD. As the Senior pastor in Hurlock I have seen God slowly peel away my cultural preferences. Without a plan to do so, without organized support or encouragement, and without pressure for or against it from fellow ministers, I have slowly set aside the church dress code concept, stopped worshipping the KJV, have moved to mostly modern Christian music, have withdrawn myself from the more extreme IFB influences, and have tried to preach God’s Word faithfully as the Spirit has directed.
Back in junior high school I suffered an emotional disappointment. It was a very small thing really. It didn’t amount to anything at all. But to me at the time, it was life altering. I thought someone cared about me, and realized that they were just tolerating me. It took me years to realize it, but that one incident set me in a whole new and awful direction. I believe that I decided at that moment that nobody could be trusted and that I had to live my life on my own. My assumptions concerning everyone around me became intensely tragic and pessimistic. I tell you that because it illustrates perfectly the incredible providence of God and how He works even in our brokenness. See, I ran from God throughout most of my college years. So, I didn’t study for the ministry. I got a BA in history. As a result I got virtually no ministry experience in college and made no network of preaching friends. So, life in ministry has been quite lonely in that respect. And, in one way, distancing myself from the IFB culture (that I grew up in) only narrowed the pool of possibilities. Of course, that has also opened up many other opportunities to get to know other godly men who are not old fashioned IFBers.
When I was “all in” with the IFB culture, I felt self-righteous and superior. Unfortunately, when I realized that I had escaped from that legalistic straitjacket, initially I was not set free. I actually bounced too far. I began to feel self-righteous and superior in my newfound license to do stuff I had previously thought was wrong. Then I tried to embrace both sides. I attempted to find a balanced approach; some middle ground that would allow me to fellowship with radical traditionalists as well as the liberated evangelicals of popular Christianity. But my flesh grabbed that opportunity too. I decided that I was exceedingly rare; that my willingness to try to love the ones on my liturgical right as well as those on my liturgical left made me the most righteous of all. What a pitiful attitude!
Now I’m just broken. Actually, I was broken all along. Only now I can see it and admit it and embrace it. I am trying to faithfully follow the Scriptures and the Spirit one moment at a time. I fail often, but I do at lest realize the victory that I have in Christ. Not the legalistic victory of “a number of days” without doing some particular wrong thing; not the victory of good habits or great effort; but the victory of knowing that I am loved by God. I have the victory of knowing that Christ is in me. He is my all. My flesh is as evil as ever and will not improve. I must never give it an inch. But I am complete in Christ. And you want to talk about God drawing a straight line with a crooked stick! God is blessing our church in so many ways. But it is definitely HIM. I’m just along for the ride. It’s not my church. It’s His. I am just a small fish in a big pond. Sometimes I throw a pity party and bemoan the fact that our church is small and that nobody knows me. At other times I embrace it and am so grateful that I can swim under the sonar. Being unknown does have its practical advantages. But for sure, the big pond of IFB churches was both used by God to put me where I am, and He has delivered me from most of the toxicity that exists in the worst parts of the IFB. I’m thankful for my heritage. And I’m thankful that the distracting parts of it are being called out and destroyed by folks such as yourselves.
Our church is still IFB, but Brian, we are really just unaffiliated Baptists. We are also part of the GARBC, but we have no more allegiance to them than we do to the IFB world. Our allegiance is to Christ, at least that’s what we are aiming at.
I look forward to the RFP episodes each week. It is a highlight of each week for me for sure. Brian, Nathan and JC are always SUCH a huge blessing to me. You guys are great examples to follow. God is using you and your ministry in my life for sure. Your interactions with your guests are always so interesting and enlightening. Keep up the good work. There is a small catfish down hear in the mud gobbling up the stuff your dropping and I’m loving it!
By the way, I used to have a cassette tape of Craig Edwards preaching on the prodigal son. I listened to that thing over and over again. He was one of my favorite preachers at camp meetings. It is a real joy to listen to Brian in particular since I feel like I know a little tiny bit more of where he came from. Anyway, I couldn’t sleep this morning, so I thought I would write you guys. I’ve been wanting to do it for a while now. Hope you are encouraged to know that your are blessing and that you are inspiring people who you don’t know at all. And I’m sure my story is one of MANY other similar ones that you just haven’t heard yet.