From Playing Church to Loving God

Part One

I grew up Southern Baptist and remained a member of the denomination until a few years ago.

In fact, Trafalgar Village Southern Baptist, in the suburbs of Memphis, was the first place I ever walked the aisle. I was nine years of age. I remember being emotionally disturbed by the time of the invitation, as I felt certain that my behavior wasn’t altogether good, and that there did exist a God, a heaven, and a hell- and I was as sure as rain just after you water the garden that I wanted to miss the latter.

My grandfather, my mother’s daddy, was a Southern Baptist minister from Texarkana, Arkansas. He preached in his own pulpit, and occasionally in the pulpits in the rural area surrounding Texarkana. We were a close-knit extended family, and this meant that I spent a great deal of time, especially in the summers, running in and out of pews with my brother and usually a cousin or three, in an empty sanctuary. Every now and again, we’d stop some other trivial sport to play church. Some of us would gather on the pews and listen to my brother preach, while another would lead the singin’. Once in a while, there was even a solo- and some of us could boast a truly pleasant voice, which meant it wasn’t a painful experience every time.

Sometimes, when we were feeling especially bold, we would hold a baptismal service. These moments were of course more extraordinary than those when we had no new converts, and often times there would be quite a lot of discussion surrounding whose turn it was to dunk the neophyte … though we never dared to fill up the baptistry… so a healthy imagination was required to participate.

It was a different story when we got together for our family camp. This event, held each year on a crystal clear lake in Arkansas, when the weather was about as hot as weather could get, was ruled and presided over by my four foot ten and a half inch, Irish-American, Granny. She cooked three meals every day in the camp kitchen for she and her husband, their four daughters and their husbands, fourteen grandkids, and eventually a whole slew of greats. She served the goodies up buffet style in the dining hall, just following the blessing; which was most regularly delivered by my Uncle George, a Southern Baptist minister himself, who had a voluminous bass voice which reverberated such, that most of us were pretty sure the fish were prayin’ for ears just so they could plug ’em up.

As soon as the ‘amen’ was sounded there went up a myriad of cheers and grateful comments, as each one dove into the piles of steaming hot biscuits, eggs, and pork bacon if it was breakfast; or fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and slaw, or some other mouth-watering combination if it was supper. Nothing seemed to please my Granny more than watching her large family enjoy the work of her hands.

Each morning, we took off for the lake as soon as we swallowed the last mouthful of Granny’s, and God’s, wonderful provision, and we swam like turtles in the cool, shimmering water until hunger claimed us for a second time. Now, these swimming sessions were when our mock church services would get easier for those who were less able to employ a flight of fancy when we played. In the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost, we dunked one another until we were either silly with lake water, or fussin’ to beat the band. We were enjoying being young and alive in those days and we didn’t give much thought to anything else.

Eventually adolescence arrived, as it has a habit of doing, even in those of us who put up the greatest struggle. I was a member of the youth group at Berclair in those days, and my most interesting memory- next to the time we experienced the earth tremors from the New Madrid fault which runs just underneath west Tennessee, and pretty much felt like it ran directly below the church fellowship hall- is one in which our brand spanking new youth minister, fresh out of seminary, elected to teach us to practice meditation and centering. We didn’t talk too much about The Bible, more about social injustices and getting in touch with ourselves.

I was fourteen years old when I attended the Billy Graham Crusade in Memphis, and I had never felt more out of touch with myself. It was nineteen seventy-eight and a tumultuous time in the life of my family, as my parents were beginning to fight the final battle for their highly complicated marriage. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I walked the aisle in that stadium with hundreds of other people. I don’t remember what were my thoughts when I collected my packet of information, which included a phone number that I was told I could call for further counseling and prayer. I only know that I was overwhelmed with the sense of how big was the world, with all its joy and suffering, and how small was I.

As time moved forward, my family moved to rural Arkansas. I attended my last two years of high school in a tiny town of three hundred, while my parents proceeded to divorce. And as there are fine people everywhere, if a person cares to look, I made some truly good friends. Still, I remember those years as the most emotionally difficult of my life, and often joke that Bill Gates himself couldn’t offer me enough money to return to them.

By the time I was twenty-two I had piled up enough personal trouble to frustrate St. Peter, and soon was compelled to walk a third aisle-and this time the motivations of my heart, present and witnessed therein, were different indeed.

Though, again in a Southern Baptist church, this third experience proved to be unique. I walked the aisle because I was exhausted with myself. I was begging The Lord God to save me from my sin, from my self. I had a new and proper understanding of His position, as well as of my own in relation to Him. I needed saving- not from hell (though that would certainly be a benefit) but from me. I needed a ruler to tell the fool what to do every minute. Certainly, I didn’t immediately understand all things or even some things… more like a little something new everyday. It has been and continues to be a process. But I did immediately begin to want to understand. I desired to please this new found Love.

Today, I am a dedicated wife, mother of seven wonderful children, daughter, sister- and friend to many; but He, Jesus, The Redeemer of My Soul, remains my First Love. I do not please Him perfectly, but He is faithful, forgiving, and loving, and restores me to right relationship with every slip. At this point, I have studied through The Holy Bible a few times, a bit each day, prayerfully pondering each word and wondering at my Savior. And I remember my childhood with particular fondness, as well as with great sadness, as I have realized over the years that in all of our sincerely church-focused moments, we were subscribing to a convoluted view of The Scriptures that was bound to unravel our faith- if we ever got to thinkin’ very hard.

Part Two

The view I am referring to is the view of a man by the name of Joseph Arminius (1560-1609), whose followers published his teachings in a paper titled The Five Articles of Remonstrance. A close inspection of The Scriptures reveals that it is in error, and has I fear been a culprit behind many turnings from faith, including the apparent change in perspective which we have witnessed in the Reverend Billy Graham. This explanation of The Holy Scriptures fails to consider the entire Word in context, and as a conceptual whole.

The Arminian view states that man is a creature created with and always in possession of a free will, and who if he chooses to believe in Christ, is therefore granted election into the kingdom as a result of that choice; and also teaches that man is unable to do any truly good thing with his free will. It supposes that the creation is therefore able to resist the grace (the supernatural call) of his Creator God and choose his own way, and so that some men will not choose God and will remain forever under His wrath, and yet also that every man’s sin is forgiven. It teaches that a man in the Faith may not continue in the Faith, but may fall away and not return, and yet sites the very verse which states that none of whom Christ has been given will be lost; and that God has forgiven every man’s sin. Obviously all of these things cannot at once be true. For instance, I am sure all would agree that God in Christ alone may forgive sin, and that if one is forgiven his sin, then he is released from the eternal or supernatural consequences of his sin. (However not always from the natural or earthly consequences of his sin.) Now, if one is released from the eternal consequences of one’s sin, it is necessarily implied that one’s sin is forgiven. If one is forgiven then God has forgiven him in Christ. This is salvation: To be rescued by God in Christ from sin, and therefore released from its eternal consequences. Thus, it can be clearly seen that these arminian ideas will continue to lend support to the rise of the heretical teachings of open theism and universalism in the church.

Man has a free will and yet cannot exercise that will for good? Then that will is not free. Either the will is restrained or it is free- it cannot at once be both! Either one is capable of good (as defined by God-pure motive) apart from God, or he is incapable of it. Either man elects himself for salvation by his own good works as he sees fit to do, or God elects him by HIS own good works as God sees fit to do. Either repentance and the forgiveness of sins is necessary for one to inherit salvation, or it is not. Either one is transformed and made a new creation upon salvation, or one is not. Either God is Supreme Ruler of All, subordinate to no one and to no thing, or He is not. Either God’s Word is true or it is not.

The Arminian view of Scripture is dangerous in that it diminishes God and magnifies man. This is the antithesis of what God’s Word is most intended to do, as its greatest purpose is to identify God and so to exalt God and to humble man, which will serve to bring man into right relationship with God.

If at any moment, I hold in my core the opinion that God is small and that I am large- then I am in a state of confounded spirituality due to pride; here, I am utterly useless to the kingdom of God- be it for a moment, for an hour, or for a lifetime.

Of course, many men of the reformation era of history did take into account the entire Word in context, and did consider It as a conceptual whole. Their explanation of The Holy Scriptures is quite different, and is logical, as it permits for Scripture’s interpretation of Scripture- therefore allowing It to prove Itself.

The view of these men, including John Calvin (1509-1564) and his followers , states that man was created with a free will, but that he lost that gift in the garden when he fell from grace. They taught that man then became a slave to his sin nature, thus was totally incapable of anything purely good, and so needed a Savior to restore to him, through Salvation, his free will, that he may be capable of what God considers good, and so may volunteer for it. Therefore, they taught that God chose whom He would have mercy upon and rested His grace upon those, and that they, unable to resist His supernatural call, responded and followed Him; and were therefore forgiven of their sin. (As is stated in The Scriptures, repeatedly, God in Christ grants to His followers both repentance and the forgiveness of sins.) It was also taught that they would never again be in that fallen state from which they had been redeemed because of His ability to save and keep souls perfectly. Also, that whomever was not chosen for mercy would be under the wrath of God forever, and that this is according to the Sovereignty, to the supreme authority, of God. These things can all be true at once. Also these teachings do not lend to the errors of open theism or universalism.

However, many people are confused about what it means to be reformed, or to be a Calvinist, today. This is understandable, as it actually means different things to different people in this postmodern period. Personally, I would not profess to be a Calvinist, unless I had read his giant thesis put forth in his institutes and had agreed with it. It is enough to have read and studied every word in The Holy Scriptures and to have agreed with all put forth there, and to call oneself a Christian. However, I do occasionally refer to myself as reformed, because I agree with the five solas of the The Reformation, as well as with the five spine doctrines of Calvinism, sometimes referred to as The Doctrines of Grace .

There are, also, those who agree with Luther’s soteriological thought (teachings regarding salvation), which differs a bit from Calvin’s, who may also label themselves reformed, as well as reformed Presbyterians and those Presbyterians whom I’m sure Brother Knox would consider to be running amuck. Contemplating all of this, we may be tempted to ask ourselves- why does it matter?

I do believe it is a matter of great importance, because next to being assured of one’s own salvation by faith, nothing fires the passionate love of God in a man, or establishes a man more firmly and aids him in his stance more fully when the trials of this life are at their most difficult, as does knowing what he believes to be true about The God who has saved him, and why according to The Holy Scriptures, he believes it is true.

For those of us who exist in the western world today, extremely harsh treatment and physical persecution due to our faith are unheard of- thanks be to God! But our freedom from this particular brand of suffering is not guaranteed. Our right to freely assemble and to worship as is pleasing to us, has been hard-earned in the past and continues to be a state of being which we must work to preserve. I pray that we will never become comfortable to a fault.

All being stated, most importantly, in light of all that we know of God from His Holy Word is the sure mandate that as Christians we are to love and to bless all, within the church and outside of it.

Currently, I am a thankful member of a non-denominational evangelical church where The Word of God is faithfully and carefully preached Sunday by Sunday, and heresy does not mar the pulpit. However, I am forever tied- if only by mere sentiment- to the largest protestant denomination in the United States, the precious Southern Baptist, and I long for her continual reformation around pure and sound doctrine.

©2010, L.L. Shelton