Why do you believe what you believe? Are you Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian and more importantly why or why not? Are these things you thought through systematically or do you still go to the same church as your parents? Within your denomination, are you conservative, liberal or moderate? What are your thoughts on election (Romans 8 not Sanders vs. Biden)? These questions are rhetorical, something to think about, but the one I really want to address today is this: Are your answers to these questions today the same as they would have been 10 or 20 years ago? How many iterations of systematic theology did you go through to get where you are today?
I would like to put my thoughts into words about how I got here on the journey. I suspect that if you’re somewhere around middle age, like myself, then 40 or 50 something you is at least somewhat removed from early adult, fresh out of college, ready to start a family/career you. And if you are currently at that earlier stage of life I would be willing to wager that you have changed course on some things since teenager in youth group you began plotting a course. Life is almost entirely about the journey and that is especially true for the Christian believer. Every arrival is the departure point for the next destination. In this post I want to consider how I got where I am now theologically. Could you explain what you believe and also why if someone asked? Most people could do a better job with the first part of the question than the second. You may have had a parent or ministry leader that discouraged asking questions and/or went as far as to say something to the effect of “Just believe what we you tell you.” That is not a healthy approach to understanding nor is that a scriptural method of teaching.
I grew up in churches that were usually medium to small and always independent, premillennial, fundamental Baptist. I did not know growing up that my dad had been in an SBC church, teaching Sunday school and even being licensed to preach, and later rejected those experiences. When he was licensed to preach by an independent Baptist church in the early 80’s, he returned the license the SBC church had given him in the 60’s. I grew up in an extremely conservative environment in which the local church pastor was the highest source of authority. I wore a short haircut and long pants year round. Mixed bathing – when members of the opposite sex swim together in the same pool – was as much an unpardonable sin as a man drinking a can of beer or taking off his shirt. Asking why was discouraged and the best answer one could hope for was “because this is right/ that is wrong.” The King James Bible was published in 1611 and I learned not to even bother ask what people read in 1610. If you know the type, that’s what I was expected to grow up and become. That’s the path I was placed on.
By the time I finished high school I had come to realize that my dad, even among conservative evangelicals, was unusually strict. I learned that other English versions of the Bible were translated from the same or even older texts than the KJV (as opposed to changing what the Bible said). Without realizing at the time I went to one of three Georgia Baptist colleges. I was surrounded by SBC pastor, preacher and missionary kids some of whom would later go to Baptist seminaries. Shorter University is actually more conservative today than the liberal arts school I graduated from 25+ years ago but that was a turning in point in my spiritual journey. I bought an NRSV study Bible, with Apocrypha, for my intro to Bible class but continued to carry a KJV at all times and attend my parents church throughout college. I met, dated and married a deacon’s daughter; the deacon of a medium/large SBC church near Augusta, GA. We got married in that church and although my mother came to the ceremony, Dad stayed at home. That was a point of contention for many years.
When I graduated from Shorter our church gave me a Scofield Reference Bible with my name on the cover. Today you can buy a Scofield in translations other than KJV but not in 1998. My wife was not thrilled with our church situation but they were good people and we had some good times. She enjoyed many of the quartets and singing groups as well as singing in the choir and my piano and guitar playing, even if wearing a dress to church as a requirement was not part of her growing up experience. Going to college and getting married strained the relationship I had with fundamental evangelicals. And then it happened… our church fell apart. The pastor had an affair with one of his married church members. In the aftermath we visited some of the churches I grew up in (our family moved around a lot; not houses but churches). I was invited by a friend from college to his church, a small/medium SBC church out in the country. That visit marked my departure from my parents church and from KJV-only fundamentalism. My wife and I joined an SBC church that she felt right at home in and I came to as well very quickly. These were my people and I just hadn’t known before.
In a short period of time we joined the church, a Sunday school class and the choir. We became volunteers at the local Baptist center and I went on three short term mission trips. My wife and I helped work one VBS and then became VBS directors the next summer. I became a deacon myself and when we left for the mission field (state missionaries in Kentucky) that church ordained me as a minister. Shorter College and my wife’s family were a window into another world but at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church I became a functioning member of that world. It was my education of all things Southern Baptist; the Baptist Faith & Message, Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, annual association meetings and so forth. My childhood experience with missionaries was that we sent them money and every few years they came with a slideshow. Jerry Brooks showed me what it was to be mission-minded. I learned about short term, long term and career missions from many good folks at PHBC and am better for it. My wife and I both had other jobs and everything we did was as volunteers; and I wanted more.
My career goals through high school and college centered around teaching public school. Part 2 will be about the strange path the led me to pastoring an SBC church.