Monday, September 15, 2008

Why did you leave the Baptist church? (Part One: People)

As I get in touch with old friends through Facebook, the question most often asked is how or why I became a Presbyterian after being a Baptist all my life. It's a fair question. I want to answer it over a series of posts in the coming days. My goal in doing so is not to make "converts" (although the PCA stands ready to receive you with open arms). Nor am I trying to bash Baptists (although relating the negative things that drove me away will perhaps give that impression). I ministered in the Baptist church for several years; first as the Discipleship Pastor at a church of several thousand; then as the Spiritual Formation Pastor at a church that I helped plant. I loved and still love my friends in the Baptist church and those folks to whom I ministered. In the end, though, I couldn't stay. This is the story of why.

I came to faith along with my family in an independent baptist church in Anchorage, Alaska. It was unapologetically fundamentalist. This means it was arminian, dispensational, and legalistic. But I felt loved by the church and the adults that gave their time to the children. I learned about the Bible and heard the gospel regularly. After moving a couple of times in the Air Force, we found ourselves in Izmir, Turkey. Also new to Izmir was an Air Force chaplain (PCA) by the name of Bobby Gardner. Bobby and dad spent time together and Bobby began to teach my dad the doctrines of grace. Dad was faithful to teach us what he was learning from Bobby. My initial reaction was to recoil and reject the doctrines of grace. This was the beginning of my long journey into the reformed faith.

I eventually began to consider the doctrines of grace. I didn't understand them. I embraced what I thought they were, and then would discover that I hadn't understood and so I'd keep thinking and growing in my understanding. This process spanned more than a decade. I didn't have too many people to talk to, but would continue to discuss it with my dad occasionally. All this time I continued to worship in the Baptist church.

Twenty years after meeting Bobby Gardner, I applied and was accepted to Dallas Theological Seminary. I was still a dispensationalist. I knew better than to embrace legalism, but wasn't sure what the alternative looked like. I was finally able to say with understanding and conviction that I was a Calvinist. During the course of my five years at seminary I ran into several people that played an important role in my transition. First was Dr. John Hannah, professor of Historical Theology. In my study of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen and others under Dr. Hannah (not to mention Dr. Hannah's wonderfully pastoral care for his students and obvious love for the reformed theology of these great men in the history of the church), I came to understand and love reformed theology.

At the same time, I was being lovingly encouraged by friends at seminary (Jason Helopoulos, Clay Daniel, and others) to question my dispensationalism (and my view of baptism and the church). The quiet confidence these men had in their theology, combined with their patient approach in our conversations slowly won me over. I was struck by the ease with which they parried my arguments. I was overwhelmed by the way that they answered my objections not merely by going to Scripture, but by going to Scripture broadly. They would sweep from end to end showing me how their view was in accord with Scripture and mine was not. They would constantly poke holes in my logic, showing how inconsistent my views were. And on at least one occasion one of them did this without looking up from the task he had in front of him. It wasn't that he didn't care. My arguments simply didn't require much effort. Frankly, I think my efforts to argue bored him. I just didn't have anything to stand on! For my friends reading along at this point, you know I've always liked to argue. And whether I'm right or not, I rarely cede the point. In my conversations with these guys, I just never won. And then they loved me anyway.

The next person in this litany is now the southwest area director for RUF (Reformed University Fellowship). His name is Keith Berger. Keith takes a group of guys down to the BVI each year to spend a week sailing. Through a series of unforeseen circumstances, I ended up on his boat (by means of a connection: the son of Bobby Gardner, Greg, with whom I have been best friends since Turkey). During the course of the week Keith had an opportunity to demonstrate grace to me, and did so in a way that no Baptist pastor ever had. Don't get me wrong, Keith's no Mother Theresa. But maybe that was what caught my attention. Keith ministered to me in a way that recognized my sin and didn't make light of it, but applied grace to it nonetheless. I'll bet to this day Keith wouldn't even know what I'm talking about. It seemed to come to him that effortlessly. I had seen this same sort of grace in Dr. Hannah.

Finally, while Greg was visiting Dallas 3 or 4 years ago, he encouraged me to swing by Park Cities Presbyterian Church one day. We went into the office and asked to see a pastor. Out came Ron Williams. Ron spent the next 2 or 3 hours talking to Greg and I about PCPC and the PCA and where he grew up, etc. Ron and I went on to have lunch several times over the next few years. He's the one that finally shepherded me out of the Baptist church and into the PCA. He didn't talk me into it. As a matter of fact, having been Baptist once himself, he told me to stick around the SBC as long as I could and only leave when I couldn't stand it anymore. I followed that advice and it served me well. When I finally met with him and told him I wanted to make the change, he helped me get into the required pastoral internship (required by the PCA in order to eventually be ordained). PCPC had such an internship and I was accepted.

There are several reasons I left the SBC for the PCA. The first and foundational reason was the key people that played such an important role in my growth in understanding. Some of these folks may not realize the part they played, or how important it was. Few of them set out to convert me. But by persistent gracious attention they did just that.

The remaining posts in this series will follow this outline:

Part 2: Theological Differences (a post in two parts)
Part 3: Historical Background
Part 4: Leadership Problems

I hope you enjoy reading along!