Ep. 9 -- 1971 - Part 4: FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT - The elephant in the room
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We usually think of elephants as zoo animals, and until recently as circus performers. Times have changed even for elephants. In certain parts of the world where mechanized equipment has not arrived, they are work animals. Further back in time, before guns and cannons replaced spears, arrows, and swords, they were military equipment. Hannibal brought his elephants over the Alps when he attacked Rome.
There are other elephants that are invisible, but that doesn’t make them any less real or formidable. And unlike the elephants we’re used to seeing, they can go anywhere, anytime, even as big as they are.
From the very start of our climb up this mountain, we had to face a strong headwind that made an improbable goal practically unattainable. We were in Bend, Oregon, for about a week, visiting a couple of churches when I got a phone call from the pastor of a church in the neighboring state of Idaho. I had never been on the west coast in WA, OR and CA, so I knew nothing about any of the churches we visited. At the most I only knew three or four of the pastors personally. Appointments were made through the grapevine of preachers who knew other preachers. The pastor who called me was one of those I didn’t know and had never heard of. He called to say that he spoke to his church about us coming by and they voted against the proposal. We were not welcome. The reason: The Reminder, my father-in-law’s monthly publication and the doctrines he espoused. (See Episode 6 – Cast of Characters). They didn’t know who I was or what I believed, but they knew who my father-in-law was and what he taught. They never found out how strongly my father-in-law and I disagreed on points of doctrine, even down to the end of his life. Had I gone to Idaho and had they found that my doctrine lined up with theirs, I’m certain we still wouldn’t have received any support from them on the field. In fact, we never got support from any of the west coast churches we visited. I was an outsider from Colorado, with family ties in Arkansas.
Bro. Byrd was not the elephant in the room, but he personified it. Through his paper, “Bro. Byrd” had spawned a considerable number of preachers who were, for all practical purposes, his “disciples”. Like the Athenians mentioned in Acts 17:21, when these preachers got together for a fellowship meeting, they talked of nothing else except to hear who among them had come up with “some new thing”, their latest revelation on church doctrine. Many of these disciples pastored churches up and down the California coast. The louder they promoted their positions, the more they alienated those who held “traditional Baptist” views, earning for themselves the sobriquet “New Lighters”.
My journal of 1971 includes numerous references to discussions with pastors and preachers regarding this rift. This was always the elephant in the room. I repeatedly made entries like, “Bro. Xxxx received me well and nothing he told me was too far off, but it sounded like it could be.” **“Bro. Yyyy and I seem to agree in most points, but I am still uncertain. I appreciate his attitude.” “I had conversations with pastors who have ‘disagreements’, but I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt.” “(We) discussed the doctrinal problems. We all seemed to agree (in doctrine and in spirit).” “I can’t go along with it all, but here are some good points, I think.”
In California, I attended an associational meeting of Missionary Baptist churches, at which a church was expelled from the association, accused of embracing heresies related to these doctrinal squabbles and for supporting a dear missionary colleague I had known for years. The pastor of the sanctioned church was a follower of my father-in-law’s teaching, and the motion was amended to say that the grounds for the expulsion were "receiving members excluded from other churches", instead of “embracing heresies”. My comment in the journal: The attitudes and actions of certain parties were evidently un-Christlike and childish, unbecoming of His people.
This was the doctrinal gauntlet I had to run. At every turn, there was pressure to affirm one side’s position or condemn the opposing view. Out of respect for my father-in-law and his years of study, I tried to see the positive side to his interpretation of scriptures, as my comments imply. At the same time, I could never bring myself to fully embrace them. There was always something I couldn’t put my finger on that didn’t seem right. It would be almost 30 years before I understood where the logic of that position failed, and then all the pieces fell into place. When they did, we lost all the support from the churches that had supported us for 30 years. When the break with my father-in-law’s position became final in the 1990s, he wrote a letter accusing me of rejecting the truth of scripture (i.e., his interpretation of what Baptists should believe) and he said I had taken the easy path of accepting “tradition”, which he otherwise labeled Protestantism. “On the contrary,” I replied. “I had taken the hard course of rejecting ‘tradition’.” (Tradition, in my case, was the doctrine he and others had promoted, which I was brought up in). I explained that I had joyfully and fully embraced the truth of the Scriptures, and as Jesus said, “the Truth had made me free.” I wouldn’t say the path I chose was the easiest one, but I became so free, I was even liberated from the burden of receiving support from the churches.
There’s no point in detailing the issues that inflamed the discourse among our brethren and churches. I only mention this because it was important for me to resolve for myself once and for all which side was right in light of the Scriptures. Despite all my attempts to see the positive side to what these brethren were saying, I only had peace when I took an open stand and told them, “Your interpretation of scripture and history is wrong.” As I look back on it now, I ended up not fully agreeing with either side. I take my own stand on what I read in the Word and don’t concern myself with trying to align with anyone or any line of teaching, except the scriptures.
My father-in-law was wrong about something else. He felt that because I did not accept his teachings, I had rejected him as a person. It would be just as wrong to think that I don’t love those churches and brethren that cut off fellowship with us because of the position I came to defend based on the Word of God. I bear them no ill will or feelings of resentment. I believe they love the Lord, and He used them to be a tremendous blessing to us, I only pray they might come to know the joy and freedom we now experience in the Lord.
I explain all this here because this whole question permeated all the contacts we made as we prepared to go to the mission field for the first time. It festered like a boil for nearly 30 years until it was lanced, and the wound in our hearts was healed. May God extend His hand and heal the wounds that may still be open in the hearts of others.
On December 18, the day after we got to Mom and Dad’s house in Colorado, we received word from our sending church in Rockford, Illinois, that our visas had been approved. There were a few more papers to fill out before we picked up the visas, but 1972 was going to be a completely different year, except for our financial support system, which on paper would be as uncertain as it was in 1971. But it continued to have God as its underwriter.
We weren’t sure when we would leave, but we were determined to leave as soon as we had the money to ship our things and buy our plane tickets. We hadn’t set a minimum amount of promised monthly support from churches or individuals before we departed, which seems to be a common practice of missionaries headed for the foreign field. As soon as we had the documents and the travel fare, we were going to be on our way to Brazil. Our leaving the country wouldn’t resolve the doctrinal battles raging among our fellowship of churches, but at least we would be out of the direct line of fire of the doctrinal dogfights we had passed through. We would continue to be plagued by that elephant, but for the most part, he was in the other room in the Northern Hemisphere. We would have a new battle to contend with in Brazil: learning Portuguese.
I can’t wait to find out what happened in 1972. I haven’t read that journal since it was written 51 years ago.