There is a large part of me that simply wants to drop things and move on. But it has been declared publicly that I have been found guilty of false teaching, so for those in my former circles who want to know what happened, I offer this. The hurt is deep and real, so I ask forgiveness if my tongue is sharp.
I am not hostile against my former denomination. There are many good people and good shepherds who seek to follow Christ. But they are also trying to make sense of what happened in the last few years.
I believe that it might be helpful to some to hear my perspective on what happened to me, and then I will let this go and leave my reputation in the hands of my loving Savior. I am not afraid of bearing his reproach.
If you are new to the workings of the internet or discussion groups, you might not be too familiar with some of the things I am going to talk about. On the other hand, if you have ever belonged to any kind of discussion group online with the word “Reformed” in the title, then you understand what I am about to say.
So for those who do not understand, go to any discussion group with the word “Reformed” or “Geneva” in the title. Look at the people who are the admins. Generally, they will be holding cigars and have long scruffy beards. But not always.
After you have entered the group, start a discussion. You can say,
“Have you read the latest by Aimee Byrd? Dynamite stuff. Really profound!”
“I don’t think that there was any hint of a hierarchy before the fall of man. Adam and Eve lived in perfect harmony as one flesh.”
or try this one:
“Genesis 3:16 doesn’t say anything about wives desiring to manipulate and control their husbands. I think that the ESV has that wrong.”
Notice that none of these statements have anything to do with the historic confessions of Reformed theology. All of them are modern discussions and have to do with secondary issues.
Try it, and see what happens. If you are like me, you will receive death threats, threats of church discipline, threats of violence. You will be reviled, insulted, cut off.
If you are not a pastor, like most of my friends, your pastor will receive notes demanding that church discipline be undertaken and that the vicious offender who dares to question the tenets of Whatever-New-Thing-Doug-Wilson-Whipped-Up be driven out of the church.
At first, these types of bullies were fringe. Most of them have , in the past, been viewed with suspicion by the leadership in the church, but church discipline against them was unfortunately very rare.
We considered them zealous, but not according to knowledge, and figured we could work with them.
Now, though, they have taken over most of the NAPARC congregations and they will not rest until anything that they interpret as even mildly woke, egalitarian, liberal or (gasp) feminist is destroyed, crushed and run out of the church. Their positions of white male dominance have been carefully defined as crucial to the Christian faith, and they will tolerate no dissent.
They are not nearly as zealous for actually confessional issues. For the most part they tolerate trinitarian heresy, denials of justification by faith alone, and the sufficiency of the blood of Christ to cleanse from all sin.
In the years that I have pastored, I have seen more and more truly ugly stuff. Church leaders convicted of sexual assault, domineering, and abuse. Pastors who physically abuse their children or their wives; I’ve seen women excommunicated for fleeing from godless homes. I have heard of officers in good standing publicly teach that it is sometimes necessary, or at least understandable, for men to rape their wives. I have seen young men and young women who have struggled with same sex attraction their whole lives being told that God hates them and that they are going to hell. I’ve seen toddlers scream and try to run away when they see the church building because they associate it with pain. I’ve seen preteen girls being forced to “reconcile” with the grown men who sexually assaulted them.
And hundreds of young people who associate the beautiful Heidelberg Catechism with pain, shame and suffering because of what they have endured in catechism classes.
One man reviled me as “unteachable” when he found out that I allow my wife to read “whatever she wants” without my permission.
I used to reserve for myself the luxury of thinking that these things were fringe. I suppose it is similar to the thinking of men like Martin Luther in the 16th century. Surely the organized church will listen and discuss these things. Surely they desire to bear witness to Christ and throw out this ungodly leaven.
And I’ve spoken out against it. I have sought to look at the errors in theology that lead to such heinous sins. Why is sexual assault tolerated? Why isn’t ONE instance of domestic violence enough to warrant church discipline or even divorce? Why is the position of women as co-heirs of eternal life so controversial in this age?
The scripture speaks of love as the mark of the disciple. And yet, Reformed Fundamentalism has changed the mark from love to fear. They fear being wrong about something. They fear women will take over. They fear that their wives will stop making their sandwiches. They fear that the wrong party will win. They fear anything that hints of humility and so they fear “beta males”. They fear the LGBTQ community and baking the wrong sort of cakes. They fear anything that they are told smacks of socialism. They fear minorities and immigrants. They fear progressive Christians. They fear social justice.
Mostly, to sum it up, they fear losing their place and their nation.
Something is wrong. The church is worshiping power, control and money and is desperately afraid of losing it.
I hate watching powerless people being driven away from Christ and left without hope, whether you are talking about men, women, children, LGBTQ people, liberals, foreigners, people with disabilities. When one is worshiping their own power and control, anyone who is viewed as a threat to that power must be crushed.
With that backdrop, let me ask you a question. Unless we are living in complete denial, we as Christians understand that we have a sinful nature that we must struggle with our whole lives. There is a part of us that we inherited from Adam that Paul calls “the flesh” and if we are born again, that part of us is at war with the “born again” part of us. “The flesh wars against the spirit.”
The part of us that is being renewed day by day greatly desires to love our neighbor as ourselves. But the flesh that still dwells in us challenges that desire every time the neighbor’s rooster crows at 2 AM, or we get cut off in traffic or count the number of items in our neighbor’s shopping cart in the express lane.
Do you have a sinful nature that you still struggle against? If you are a believer, then you know that you do.
So here is the question – do you have to have complete victory over that sin nature in order to be qualified to serve in the church of Jesus Christ?
Do you have to be free from all desire to strangle your neighbor’s chicken? Do you have to be free from every tendency to distrust, to fearfully withdraw from the duties of love? Do you have to be completely free from the temptation towards lust?
Do we struggle with our sinful nature our whole lives, or do we find complete victory over sin while still in these corrupt bodies?
If we already have what we hope for, then what value is hope? But we long for victory and see it by faith and strive towards it.
If you say that a minister of the gospel must be free from every form of concupiscence (our sinful tendencies, whether we act on them or not) in order to be qualified to serve God in the church, then I must confess to you that I am not righteous enough to serve Jesus. And neither are you.
As those who confess Christ, we hopefully agree on this. It is nothing more than the Christian faith which has been confessed by all ages. This doctrine was clarified by the church in the controversies with the Donatists who taught that there were SOME sins that we too big to ever be forgiven. The church added “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” to the creed to counter such foolishness. If there are some sins to great too be washed by the blood of Christ, then ALL sins are too great to be washed by the blood of Christ.
So nothing too controversial there. So let’s get personal.
Instead of sinful tendencies in the abstract, let’s put a name to them. Suppose, instead of speaking of our tendency to ungodly anger, racism, lust, greed, and failure to love, we are talking about exclusive same sex attraction? Does that change the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins?
Has Jesus promised to make everyone heterosexual and take away all forms of broken sexuality the moment we believe?
Or has he promised to wash us and cleanse us and make us holy, even in the midst of our struggles in this life?
As the Reformed Fundamentalist world began to single out “same sex attraction” as the unforgiveable sin, I naively thought that I could add my voice to the discussion, and bring it away from the culture wars and back to what the Gospel of Jesus is all about.
In my head were all the people who have been told their whole lives that God hates them and that they are not fit to ever serve the church because their particular sin is too icky to be spoken about. In my head were all who have suffered in silence because they didn’t dare speak the word out loud: “I’m gay”. And I truly hate the idea that Jesus, the Friend of Sinners, has no healing or help or welcome for one particular kind of sinner. Once we say that, we no longer have good news for anyone.
And so I wrote a blog on the subject. Some of the points could have been made clearer. There is a typo or two. I could have softened some of the language. But I stand by the theology. If God doesn’t forgive the sin of the “others”, then he doesn’t forgive anyone’s. When that happens, we might win some sort of culture war, but we no longer have any good news.
No one spoke to me about it. No one called me. No one asked me to clarify anything. From my former brothers in the RCUS, the only thing I received was a notice of charges filed against me for false teaching. The Rev. Dr. Kevin Carroll and the Rev. Steven Carr brought charges against me, without once picking up the phone, sending a note, asking for clarification or even attempting to discuss with me what they thought was unbiblical. The excuse that they used was that my blog was public, so the rebuke should be public.
At the “trial” last fall, my counsel attempted to dismiss the charges on the grounds that the whole thing could have simply been talked about over coffee; that no one attempted to make anything right before jumping right to charges.
But those who were charged with hearing the complaint were also my accusers. Several of the delegates slandered me publicly by saying that I never listen, there is no point in trying to talk to me. They brought up discussions that they had in the hall during the breaks where former members complained that I don’t listen.
So because “I don’t listen”, the Classis determined that the constitutional and Biblical requirement of private admonition did not apply in my case.
Next, we attempted to get them to clarify exactly what I was being accused of. They did not seem to think that was important.
I asked, “You have accused me of false teaching. Can you answer this question for me so I know how to defend myself. ‘Sam Powell is a false teacher because he teaches…what?”
The same delegate that slandered me earlier got up and accused me of being a “hyperproceduralist”. He said, “This is what happened in the OPC. Every time there was a problem, the lawyers would come out with their procedures.”
So the trial proceeded without any specifications. Several of the delegates were also accusers. and they were out for blood. When I was dismissed so that the body could discuss the charges, there were many other accusations that were brought up. I was dismissed from the room and was not even told what those accusations were until later. Since I didn’t know about them until afterwards, I had no way of defending myself against them. (I wasn’t supposed to know about that, but it was so unjust that it is a part of the complaint going to the Synod.)
For hours, the same delegate filibustered with every accusation he could think of, and his voice was joined by others. The hostility and enmity of several were evident to many.
To this day, no one has clarified what that false teaching was. It really didn’t matter. I was guilty before I walked in. The trial followed none of the biblical or constitutional procedures. I was found guilty and ordered to, among other things, recant of my errors.
Several of the delegates fist bumped after the verdict.
I asked the executive committee to tell me what my error was that I was to recant. They were unable or unwilling to specify them to me, not wanting to “presume to elaborate on what was adopted by the body since it would be merely an opinion which could easily be misleading or incorrect and in addition, it would have no authority.” These are the words from our clerk of Classis.
Several good friends filed a complaint with the denomination which will be heard in May. I filed an appeal in order to gain a little time for my congregation to decide what to do.
About half the congregation left. When the shepherd is struck, the sheep scatter. First Reformed Church was no longer viable and voted to close the doors. Our last Sunday was February 26.
I asked Classis to remove my name from the rolls of ministers, which they did the first week are March, so I am finally free of the ridicule, contempt, and hostility that I endured at every meeting for years. My appeal, then, will not be heard, as I will not attend, but the complaint will still go forward.
In one last typical move, they noted that I resigned “under discipline” which was not true. But that is another story.
My family and I moved to Minnesota and are getting settled. We are excited about the next chapter of our lives.
I am so, so tired of the hostility, the accusations, the ridicule, and the exclusion that I endured every Classis meeting, while the rest of the delegates sit silently. The health of myself and my family is my first responsibility and the stress of continuous threats is taking its toll. The RCUS is not a safe place for me, which is sad, since my commitment to the Reformed confessions has never wavered.
I am tired of not being able to speak freely, or debate freely. The voice of God’s people is silenced and crushed in Reformed churches out of fear, and this should not be the case.
So after a lifetime of membership, and 33 years of continual service, I am no longer a part of the RCUS.
I just can’t do it anymore.