Reaping What I Sowed

“That you may be found just when You speak
And blameless when You judge.”

A while back, I parted ways with the Grace Evangelical Society, which was the closest thing I had to a denominational affiliation. Unlike my departure from Rocky Mountain Seminary, which was public and suitably attended by explanation here, here and here, my departure from GES was very quiet. The only public ripple was my removal, without comment, from the list of speakers at that year’s conference. It was a while before the conference, so it seems that only a few people noticed.

Bob Wilkin told me at the time that he wanted to spare my reputation, and I believe that he sincerely meant that. For my part, I believed (probably wrongly) that my reputation was in no danger at all, but to be honest, it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I thought it had been. I’d been gambling my reputation on every public thing I did for years, and this was no different. The issues at stake were serious, and I believed they needed to be discussed in public for the benefit of the entire movement. I was rightly confident I could acquit myself well in open debate. I wanted to give it a shot — and the more public, the better.

However, I wasn’t willing to try to force Bob into a public debate he didn’t want to have. I was still smarting in the aftermath of the vicious Chafer Theological Seminary split, in which I had been very active as a full-time professor (and the school’s only Th.M. graduate). In that context, the quiet parting of ways felt like getting away clean — and in a sense, it was. At very least, it was a significant improvement over the previous unholy mess. Having no significant public venue available to me, I left quietly, and continued the conversation where I could, trying to lay out a Free Grace approach that repented of the past’s errors without surrendering its victories.

Now, with more miles on my shoes and more meals under my belt, I see it differently. The issues under discussion did, and still do, need serious public consideration, and suppressing discussion was and is an awful idea. However, the public debate that would have happened then would have been bad for everybody. I was still pretty angry. I would have gone the extra mile to embarrass my opponents in the debate (and in all modesty, I would probably have succeeded — they were vulnerable at several points, and I was pretty good at that sort of thing.) Serious and important issues would have been buried under all sides’ emotional baggage. Everyone would have come away nursing unnecessary wounds and more entrenched than before. In that sense, a quiet departure was a good idea, and I’m grateful to God and to Bob that it happened that way. However, it was not an entirely unmixed blessing; some fallout has come from the very quietness of it all.

A good while after my departure, I found myself catching an enormous amount of flak from certain quarters because of my association with GES, and this largely because people thought I would teach the very errors I had been trying to correct. I see no reason to allow those misunderstandings to continue, so I am hoping to prevent similar misunderstandings in the future by explaining a little of the history

The job at this point is not to try to go back and say what I should have said back when the separation was fresh, or to enumerate my disagreements at every point. The moment has passed. What I can do is reflect from the present distance on what happened, and in the process clear the air and remove whatever gossip and lingering doubts I can.

The short version is pretty simple: I was a Free Grace hardliner, and sought to advance the cause of Free Grace theology. In the course of that, I gradually became aware that in certain areas, I was sinning against my Christian brothers, and these sins had been nurtured in me by the Free Grace movement. At the same time, I saw a need to encounter and address a set of problems — call them second-generation concerns, perhaps — that would move the conversation beyond some of the traditional Free Grace bullet points. Having grown up Free Grace, I saw it as a living tradition rather than a fixed ideology, and so I sought to reform the movement from within. To say that I encountered very highly placed resistance is putting it mildly. I kept pushing — hard — and after a long series of clashes behind closed doors, I was unceremoniously bounced. The proximate cause was that in the course of a public discussion, I made a critical remark about Zane Hodges and Bob Wilkin, which seems to have provoked Bob to re-examine the value of my participation in GES. At the time it seemed the right thing to say, and I’m still not sure it wasn’t. Had I kept my mouth shut then, something else undoubtedly would have been the last straw — open debate on the issues I was concerned about was not welcome at GES back then. (I don’t know about now — I’ve been out of touch.)

This post is long enough without getting into the specific issues at stake in those discussions (many of which I have written about here before), but l will close with a couple of theological observations about this whole mess.

First, in the events surrounding my departure, I believed with all my heart that I was being treated unjustly. I still think that some people treated me very unjustly, but I can now see that at the same time, I had it coming. You see, I had served for years in the Doctrinal Purity Police, picking fights about doctrinal minutia, causing division among brethren, and so on. These skills were encouraged in my training, and in all modesty I was good at them. When I repented and began to seek a different approach to ministry, I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of the Purity Police treatment — and let me tell you, that was not as much fun as dishing it out. Giving me the treatment was sin on the part of the Purity Police, but it was certainly justice where I was concerned. God will not be mocked; I had sown the wind, and I was reaping the whirlwind. I had it all coming, and then some — but God is merciful.

Second, because it seemed to me at the time that there was no rhyme or reason to the situation, I suffered emotionally over my exclusion from GES far more than I should have. As I said above, it was a certain sort of justice, and therefore I ought to have simply received it as training from my loving Father. By the time the chickens came home to roost, I had already repented of the sins whose consequences I was reaping, and was seeking to follow Jesus in those areas. But for some reason I had the idea that things should go well for me whilst following Jesus. Stephen, Peter and Paul would have found that a very odd notion. Following Jesus leads to trouble with the powers that be, and more than a little of that trouble comes from reigning religious authorities. We are Christians; Jesus told us it would be like this, and taught us what to do. Instead of wallowing about feeling wounded and rejected, I ought to have rejoiced as though I were getting a big promotion. In fact, I was, if only I’d had the eyes to see it.

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2 Responses to Reaping What I Sowed

  1. Tim,

    This is an incredibly difficult experience, and one I have had little taste of myself. I am encouraged by your heart to build relationship, even with those you are not in theological agreement with. it is a bit of a step from being the theological purity-police, but it is a step toward the unity they Christ said would define His followers. I find it interesting that each side of the free grace camp, GES, FGA, Deluthians, and etc. all spend so much time pointing out each others errors that much of the original free grace vs. antinomian debate has been entirely lost. In fact, some of the Neo reformed, Tchividjian, Horton etc all, are sounding more and more gracious, while the “free-grace” camp has become more legalistic. Strange indeed.

    FedEx

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    FedEx,
    I’ve noticed the same thing, and while it seems strange at first, it’s really not, if you see the world in biblical terms. He who saves his life will lose it. That which we idolize in hopes of preserving inviolate will first destroy us, and then we will lose it after all.

    Even if the idol is the doctrine of grace.

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