Reaping What I Sowed

8 September 2013

“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.

Not In Kansas Anymore

15 December 2012

I left a comment last week on this post to the effect that I’m not in the same place theologically that I used to be. A few days ago a good friend who knows my theological journey very well told me how surprised he was to hear me say that, so it seems like a little clarification is in order. I thought about appending it to the comment thread, but it seemed like it might be more visible as a post, so here it is.

First the assurances. I still believe in the virgin birth, the miracles, the bodily resurrection of Christ, His return in the clouds in like manner as He went, and just for good measure, His coming reign on this very planet. I also believe in the preservation of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego through the fire, the ascension of Elijah in a fiery chariot, Joshua’s long day, manna from heaven, the Red Sea crossing, and Noah’s flood that covered the whole world, by which I mean the whole world. I believe all these things because the Bible says them, and being the very word of God, the Bible is true in all its words and in all its parts. It is never wrong.

For the same reason, I believe that about 6,000 years ago, God made the world in 6 days, by which I mean six days. I have not failed to notice what is sometimes called “evidence of literary design” in the creation account, but unlike some folks, I seem to have also noticed that God is not just writing the account, He is also writing the world. These marks of authorship are a feature of the text because they are a feature of history, because God is telling the story.

I believe in the priesthood of all believers, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and I mean “faith alone” in a way John MacArthur would heartily disapprove of.

So what’s changed? Two things.

First, I have heartily rejected the rampant sectarianism of my former ecclesiastical tribe. Some of them will say straight out that of course they don’t think the folks in the local Anglican church are saved. Others would never say something like that, but practically, they certainly will not seek to love and serve their brothers and sisters at the local Anglican church. They will simply behave as though the local Anglican church doesn’t exist. In whatever guise, this breaking of table fellowship is a practical denial of justification by faith (Gal. 1-2), a moral failure to walk worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1-6), and a refusal to comply with Jesus’ dying wish for His people (Jn. 17).

Second, I now believe in all the biblical spiritual gifts, not just some of them, which is to say that I am not a cessationist. I believe in all the biblical gifts for the same reason that I believe in six-day creationism: because that’s what the Bible says.

I didn’t initially think of these two changes as a complete break with my ecclesiastical tribe. After all, we still had a huge amount in common, and I was prepared to work with them. However, I quickly discovered that virtually nobody was willing to work with me. They would fall all over themselves to affirm that I’m a good guy and they wish me all the best and they’re sure God’s doing great things through me — they just don’t want to, you know, actually work together. On anything. Ever again. But hey, thanks for calling, and let’s get coffee sometime….

So when Jeremy mentioned that he’s no longer where I am theologically — which he’s not — I felt pretty comfortable allowing as how I don’t feel like I’m in Kansas anymore either. I see how that was ambiguous, and I hope I have clarified it.

Headwaters Christian Resources

11 November 2012

We had been looking at the relationship between the institutional church as it exists on paper, and the situation as it actually exists in real life. I have some further thoughts that I am looking forward to exploring here, but this week I want to announce something special that I (and a bunch of other people) have been working on for a long time.

I am proud to announce the launch of the brand new Headwaters Christian Resources blog. Writing chronological Bible curriculum has been a real education for us, and this blog is a way to share with you some of what we’ve learned in that, and our other work. We only have two posts so far, but I think you’ll like them.

“Jesus Is the New Samuel” is an adventure in reading the biblical Story the way its authors — and its Author — meant it to be read. In it, my ministry partner, Joe Anderson, will lead you through an example of edifying typology at its finest.

“Stones into Bread” is my own modest effort to take a lesson from Jesus in how to read Deuteronomy. I conclude it with a couple of relevant devotional exercises that I have found very helpful in my own life. I hope you will too.

My sincere thanks to our web developer, Ben Tyson, our artist, Clay Tyson. We couldn’t have done it without you guys. And of course, I am deeply grateful to God for my dear wife Kimberly and our partners, Joe and Becca Anderson. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve never in my life been blessed with such a great team.

Why I am no longer a Cessationist, part 2

4 August 2012
Quick review for those of you who just came in: I resigned from RMBC&S at their request, fielded a few questions about that, and went into some depth on how all this came about. Because it’s a long explanation, and because it takes time to write charitably and clearly for a public audience, I’m doing it in pieces. Here follows the next installment.

While the theory of cessationism was falling apart before my very eyes, the Lord also began to show me the practical bankruptcy of the position. The setup for this, unfortunately, was a set of really ugly political battles that I won’t describe here. For our purposes at the moment, there were four salient results. First, I came out of the whole mess deeply aware that my ecclesiastical tribe — which had raised and trained me to follow Scripture at any cost — was unwilling to live up to its own principles when its own habits and traditions were at stake. I had been safe up to this point only because I had stayed away from the “wrong” passages in Scripture. That was okay when I didn’t know any better, but knowing compelled me to take a good hard look at the places my tradition had taught me to develop blind spots. Second, I needed to grow in my leadership ability. My tribe didn’t really have any way to address that, being generally convinced that leadership, communication, personality, group dynamics, and other areas of general revelation about human beings were all a greased slide into rank liberalism. Third, I was pretty beat up. It was far from being my first political fight, but all things considered I think it was the ugliest (thus far). I was really hurting, and I wouldn’t heal without help. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t get it from my tribe. Finally, of the three communities I considered home, one unceremoniously gave me the boot, the second was regarding me with serious suspicion, and the third was willing to allow me to continue work within the community under strictures that ruled out most of the ministry God was calling me into, forcing me to pursue much of my ministry outside the boundaries of my home community.

I went out into the broader Christian community in Englewood, because that was the only venue the Lord had left open to me. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, other than a chance to pursue my calling and hopefully heal. I had no idea what God was about to do.

For a few months, I just wandered, meeting new people, deepening existing acquaintances, and just trying to get the lay of the land. When summer came, I had very little to do because of the seasonal nature of my work, so I was looking for some additional ministry. One day I found myself getting a ride home from a friend who was working 40 hours a week, taking 14 hours of classes in summer session, and planting a church in his copious free time. He was clearly strapped, and I asked if there was something I could do to lighten his load. He got back to me with a request to help organize his worship service — they had an established order of worship, but needed someone to handle the administrative end of things, making sure everything got done. I visited the church a few times in order to meet the necessary people, and about a month later, realized that the Lord had gone before me and knit me into this church. I bonded with them, and they with me…without trying, I had accidentally joined the church. You have to understand, I am not one of those guys that people instantly bond with. This kind of thing just does not happen to me — but God did it.

Knowing that God was doing something special, I went with it, and remained with the church for about a year. It turned out — I did not know this going in — that the church I had accidentally joined was charismatic. I don’t know what sort of picture that word raises in your head, Gentle Reader, so let me describe a little. The worship was heartfelt. The Bible teaching was well-prepared and generally well-delivered. I never saw someone speak publicly in tongues in our church. I did see a number of prayers for healing, and something which was described as prophetic ministry.

At its most general, this might be a group of us coming together in prayer, not just to speak to God, but to listen. On several occasions, as I waited patiently to see if God would speak to me, I would find a particular passage of Scripture leaping off the page at me for no apparent reason. As we all began to share what we heard, it would turn out that the passage of Scripture that jumped out at me was a perfect fit to someone else’s circumstances, or the answer to a question someone else was asking God. It was very often the case that everyone got a little piece of the puzzle, and none of it made sense until we got all the pieces on the table. It was clearly supernatural, and the fruit was stronger fellowship, deeper understanding of God’s Word, growing purity and sanctification and a deeper reliance on one another. On the strength of Jesus’ assurance that a ministry can be tested by its fruits, I was sure that this was of God. But I had no idea just how good it could be.

During a time of deep discouragement in the fall of last year, I had occasion to receive ministry from two young women with prophetic gifting. We spent less than a half hour together, but in that time, it became clear that somewhere along the way in my Christian walk — I don’t know when — I simply stopped believing that God was interested in my good. For some time, I had been pursuing a life of grim determination more suitable to a Norse myth than Scripture. In a matter of minutes, these two dear sisters dragged this lie out into the light, exposed my sin, brought me to repentance, and spoke the peace and encouragement that my soul desperately needed to hear. I won’t share the specifics of what they told me here, because it was incredibly personal, but I wrote it down and I still refer to it often. In their own ability and their own paltry knowledge of me, there is simply no way they could have known to say what they said. But their own ability had nothing to do with it. My walk with God took a strong turn for the better that day. The glory, of course, is Christ’s. But I’m also profoundly grateful to two young prophetesses who were willing to be used by God in a supernatural way.

In January of this year, I was sitting with two friends planning a small-group lesson for the church when the conversation turned to my schedule, my incredible degree of busyness. Both of these two had a measure of prophetic gifting, and the conversation quickly moved from the mechanics of scheduling to the idolatry in my heart that was driving the problem. Subsequent conversations went even deeper, and exposed a sinful vow I had made as a child, an inner idol I had been serving for nearly 30 years. Through the ministry of Scripture and Spirit-led encouragement, God has torn that idolatry out of my heart — although I have to stay vigilant to keep it from creeping back in. Old habits of worship die hard.

Had we but world enough and time, there would be more to tell, but this is a sample. I spent a year with people who were willing to be used by God in supernatural ways, and they dealt with hidden lies, sins and idolatries in my heart, some of which had been festering there for decades. God got an incredible amount of work done, and I am vastly freer today as a result. I have a long way to go yet, of course. But today I know my Father as someone who loves me, seeks my good, tends my wounds, and cares for me specifically. Of course I knew all this doctrine before, but now I’ve lived it more deeply than I’d ever imagined possible. That wasn’t the case before all this started.

But so what? The process is different, but what I’m describing here in terms of results is just garden-variety sanctification: rooting out the enemy’s lies, coming to believe and live the truth instead. Couldn’t the same result have been achieved in a cessationist ministry? I have two answers to that.
1. I was 35 years under ministry that relied on doctrine alone without this stuff ever getting touched; in less than a year, faithful believers who were willing to be used by God in a supernatural way dragged it all out into the light. Kinda speaks for itself, don’t it?
2. God “strikes straight licks with crooked sticks,” as the Gaelic proverb goes, and I’m sure that had He decided to, He could have dealt with these things through a cessationist ministry. He’s God; He can do anything. But you know what? That’s not how it happened, and I am obliged to honor, not someone’s fantasy of what God might have done, but what He actually did. What I received from God was the benefit of prophetic ministry in His Church.

So I may not simply take the sanctification benefits I reaped and run back into the cessationist fold, even if I wanted to. First of all, those benefits really did come to me in a way that simply precludes cessationism (not that the position had a biblical leg to stand on anyhow). “If you won’t believe the words,” Jesus said, “believe the works.” The works happened right in front of me, and I simply can’t deny them. (In Scripture, there are people who did deny the works even though they saw them — but trust me, you don’t want to be like those guys.) Second, Jesus also said “Freely you have received; freely give.” I received the benefits of supernatural ministry, and I now have a duty to share. If God will give me opportunity, I will do exactly that. The problem, of course, is that I didn’t start out with either experience or gifting for this. But Paul said to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. I am obeying that command, and praying to that end. The fruit is coming slowly, but it’s coming.

If God is pleased to answer my prayers, then I will give to others as He gave to me. If not, then so be it; I’ll continue doing what I am gifted at now — shepherding and teaching — for His glory and the good of His saints. But no one will ever convince me that prophecy is not alive and well in the church today — it changed my life.

Resignation FAQ part 2: Why I am no longer a Cessationist

29 July 2012

I gave all the caveats for this post in my previous post, so I won’t repeat everything. Briefly, I am giving an account of why I am no longer a cessationist. I am not attacking anybody’s ministry and I am not setting out to criticize anyone. Some critique of cessationism and its proponents will come up inevitably along the way, but I can’t help that. I’m not trying to hurt anyone; I’m just telling about what God has done in my life.

I was raised in a cessationist tradition. The first thing you have to understand about cessationism is that it’s not monolithic. You have some guys that believe the modern-day phenomenon that Pentecostals call the gift of tongues is a demonic manifestation. You have some who view it as a natural expression of joy — but not the biblical gift of tongues. Every cessationist I know believes that God continues to answer prayer, and all of them believe that miraculous healings continue to occur today, but some will pray passionately and publicly for a healing, while others would feel that it’s sinful (or at least unwise) to “test God” in that way. Some cessationists have a deeply personal relationship with God, believing that they receive daily guidance from Him through impressions, inner leading, even dreams; others believe God only speaks through the Bible today (and sometimes, the same person will hold both points of view — about which more later). The common thread is the belief that certain miraculous gifts were given at the very beginning of the Church, for the purpose of establishing and validating the Church, and that shortly after the beginning, God ceased to dispense those gifts. Pretty much everybody includes apostleship, prophecy, healing, and tongues among the now-defunct gifts. Some would also include discernment, words of knowledge, words of wisdom. Some would say that these gifts absolutely ceased. Others don’t expect to find these gifts operating in the heart of Christendom, but expect to see them still in operation in situations analogous to the first century — like, for example, when a missionary makes first contact with a stone-age tribe deep in the jungle.

So in a sense, one can speak of “cessationisms” rather than “cessationism;” there’s enough variation to warrant it. The particular instance of cessationism that led to my resignation was RMBC&S’s teaching statement on the issue, which reads,

The miraculous gifts (apostles, prophets, healings, miracles including a word of wisdom or word of knowledge, and tongues) were temporary in nature as signs to unbelieving Jews and as a validation of the New Testament message and its messengers at the initial stage of the church.

I want to make clear that the RMBC&S statement is an instance of the sort of thing I’m rejecting, but this is not simply a matter of slightly different framing of the same basic sentiment. I am rejecting all cessationisms, root and branch.

I have always been an exegete at heart. If I am going to get up in front of people and say “Thus says the Lord…” I want to be very certain that the Lord has, in fact, said it. This goes back very early for me — I remember our family having knock-down-drag-out fights in the middle of family devotions over whether the passage at hand actually said this or that. This didn’t happen every week, but it wasn’t a particular rarity, either, and on those occasions my parents did not use their parental authority to end the debate — it was understood that the Word was the authority, we were all equally in submission to it, and it was vitally important that we manage to come to an understanding of what it said, so that we might obey it well. (These debates also formed in me the quality that several very frustrated folks have described as “not taking correction well.” It is in fact nothing of the kind — it is a gut-level understanding that you can’t win an exegetical argument with age or political authority any more than you can drive a nail with a kitchen sponge; just the wrong tool for the job. But for guys who are accustomed to doing that, it’s hard to take when a younger man refuses to play along. Oh well.)

Cessationism had always made theological and practical sense to me, and I had been taught that 1 Corinthians 13 was the go-to passage for an exegetical validation. This lasted until seminary. I was in my second or third year of seminary — I can’t remember which — and I had occasion to work through 1 Corinthians 13 in Greek. Ironically, the things I noticed are sitting right there on the surface of the English text, but I’d just never read the passage closely enough before to notice them. Certain gifts will cease — says so right there. But when? It certainly says nothing about the completion of the canon. What it does say is that these gifts will cease when knowledge is full rather than partial, when vision is accurate rather than dim, and when full maturity is reached. I didn’t think to pursue the implications of this at the time (that came later); I was so stunned at what the passage didn’t say that I barely noticed what it did say.

Surprised at what I found, I hunted down my Greek professor and asked if I had missed something. He grinned and said no — the passage does not, in fact, say what most cessationists think it says. He suggested to me that a case for cessationism would be better based on the historical evidence that the sign gifts did, indeed, pass out of existence in the first century, and that the modern manifestations that go by the name of tongues or prophecy fall woefully short of the biblical descriptions of tongues and prophecy. That made sense to me, and I went with it. I did, however, continue to want a genuinely exegetical case for the doctrine, and I continued to search for one.

Long story short, I didn’t find one, and I looked at a lot of cessationist arguments. Hebrews 1:1-2 certainly does say that God spoke through prophets in the past, but it doesn’t preclude prophets after Christ — and in fact, there were a number of them, as the book of Acts attests. Hebrews 2:3-4 tells us what purpose the signs and wonders serve, but never says they stopped. Likewise, Ephesians 2:20 says that the apostles and prophets are foundational, but it doesn’t say they have no continuing role (it also says that Christ is the chief cornerstone, and I’m pretty sure we all agree that He has a continuing role.) Even if 2 Corinthians 12:12 says that signs and wonders and mighty works were the signs of an apostle (questionable, but let it pass for the moment), it never says that nobody else did signs, wonders, and mighty works — and in fact, many others did, starting with the 70 that Jesus sent out, and continuing into Stephen, Philip, Ananias, and others. There were certainly people who were not healed miraculously — Paul had his thorn in the flesh (if that was a physical ailment), Timothy had his weak stomach, Trophimus was sick enough that he couldn’t leave Miletus with Paul, Epaphroditus almost died, and so on — but that didn’t mean that healing wasn’t happening; it just meant that not everybody was healed.

Now, the theology of cessationism made sense to me, but increasingly it looked like the theology of Calvinism: internally self-consistent and well worked out as a system, but utterly lacking in exegetical support for the key assumptions. In other words, something that could be true, but seemed to lack the necessary biblical evidence to establish for sure that it really was true. That made it an interesting speculation, but clearly not in “thus saith the Lord” territory. Knowing that the exegetical evidence was woefully insufficient and the theological formulations were speculative at best, I fell back on what, to me, was an obvious point of historical fact: the miraculous gifts seemed to have died out at the end of the first century, and some explanation for the (lack of) phenomena was required. If the explanation turned out to be a bit shaky and incomplete, there was still the brute fact that signs and wonders of the biblical type didn’t continue happening, which made cessationism (in some form) seem pretty likely.

At the same time all this was going on, I became friends with a Pentecostal pastor serving in Orange County, CA. You have to understand, I’d known some charismatic folks back in high school, and those guys pretty much confirmed every stereotype I’d ever been taught — they were flaky, emotional, undependable, unwilling to plan because they wanted to “let the Spirit lead,” which in practice meant doing whatever stupid thing came into their heads at the moment, unreflective, and uninterested in serious study of the Scriptures (again, they would rather “let the Spirit lead” than read the Bible — apparently it never occurred to them that He might be leading them to do just that.) So I’d steered clear of charismatic folks ever since, but this guy was wise, a serious student of the Bible, loving, down to earth — in fact, he was a godly man to whom I could turn for advice in ministry matters, with good results. It was news to me that you could be charismatic and not be a nutcase.

Sidebar: Many of the people who were responsible for my prejudice in the first place will admit, when pressed, that they know a few sane charismatics. However, they were only too happy to have me think that all charismatics were nuts, and never took the time to nuance that generalization by making the appropriate qualifications. This is a violation of the Golden Rule and the Ninth Commandment, which is to say, a major ethical problem. Just sayin’.

I remember that about this time, I found myself in a debate with a Calvary Chapel pastor over the gifts of the Spirit. I articulated my historical/practical defense, and he was underwhelmed. I remember his response like it was yesterday: “So what you’re really saying is just that you’ve never seen the gifts in operation?” he asked.

“No, no,” I said, “I’m saying that they just don’t happen after the first century.” Shortly thereafter, he disengaged from the conversation. At the time I felt like it was because we’d reached a stalemate. Looking back, I see that he realized I wasn’t ready to hear the counter-argument that he would have made. Being ready to hear that would take more than just a shift in my thinking: I needed God to do some work in my life as well.

God did that work by moving me to Englewood, CO. In Englewood, I encountered something I’d never seen — or even heard about — before. The evangelical pastors of the city would gather and pray for one another. I don’t mean one of those “prayer luncheons” where you eat a big meal and then spend 2 minutes praying at the end. I mean they’d get together for an hour, check in to see who needed prayer for what, and then wade in and spend 45 minutes of the hour in prayer for each other, for each other’s churches (as well as those churches not represented in the gathering) and for the city. These men were godly, wise pastors who genuinely cared for each other. They talked about how there’s really One Church in Englewood (even if it happens to meet in 24 different locations most weeks) — and they really meant it, and lived it. In order to show that to their congregations, they rented out the high school football stadium once a year and had a joint church service. The first year, there were 8 churches participating. This past year, 14 churches canceled their Sunday morning services to go to the stadium and meet together. In Englewood, I saw John 17 incarnated in ways I’d never seen before. These were the men I wanted to be when I grew up. As I got to know them better, I slowly realized that almost to a man, they were charismatic. Even the Dutch Reformed guy and the Anglican priest.

I had settled in my mind years ago that if you were going to practice something that you would call the charismatic gifts today, then obviously you had to follow the biblical guidelines for them — tongues must be interpreted, prophecies must be judged, and so on. I had never seen a charismatic church even try to implement those guidelines. Among these guys, it was a no-brainer: of course you had to follow the biblical guidelines. So my stereotypes of what it meant to be charismatic were shattering left and right. I recognized that I was seeing a practice of charismatic Christianity that had heard the cessationist criticisms of the various excesses practiced in the name of the Holy Spirit, taken the biblical content of the criticism to heart, and responded to it. In short, I was seeing maturity. Of course I was still a cessationist at this point, but I found myself forced to admit that these guys took the Bible seriously, and didn’t use charismatic phenomena as an excuse to dodge faithfulness to Scripture.

Speaking of faithfulness to Scripture, I was beginning to develop some biblical problems of my own. As I continued to investigate, the lack of exegetical evidence for cessationism became the least of my concerns: I was increasingly finding a great weight of biblical evidence against cessationism. About this time, a friend who headed a Bible study for a group of pastors and elders one day called me with news: “We’re not cessationists anymore.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because the final fulfillment of Joel 2 is still future. If, in the future, our sons and daughters will prophesy, then how can we believe that prophecy has already ceased?”

Good question. And that was just the beginning of the contradictions. I maintained that the New Testament was the authority for church doctrine and practice, but at the same time I also said that the practices that characterized the New Testament church should no longer characterize us today. I held the Great Commission as a charter for modern-day disciple-making, but surely “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” would include repeating Jesus’ commands to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” – and I neither obeyed these commands myself nor passed them on to my disciples. To the contrary, I taught my disciples not to do these things, nor trust anyone who (reportedly) did. I even disregarded passages like James 5:14-15 which spoke to supernatural expectations, but said nothing whatever about the putatively ceased miraculous gifts. Biblical commands began to leap off the page at me: “Do not despise prophecies.” “Do not forbid to speak in tongues.” “Desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.”

I began to wonder: if these things are supposed to continue, then why didn’t they? Why don’t they still happen? Upon investigation, I found that they do. Missionary friends return from the field with story after story — things they personally witnessed, things very much like the events of the Bible, things they don’t much talk about in the Western church because it freaks people out. And it wasn’t just the mission field. A close personal friend had his broken kneecap miraculously healed right here in the United States. Another friend was routinely seeing healing from a wide variety of ailments in direct response to his prayers. I had occasion to hear that guy speak on church history, and I was shocked at what I heard. To hear him tell it, the entire history of the church was just riddled with signs and wonders and healings. This was a history I had never heard about, despite being a church history teacher’s son and (I thought) a close student of church history myself. I had to know more.

I began to investigate, and what I found surprised me. You’d never know it from the history books I read in the course of my theological education, but it’s really true: signs and wonders have characterized the history of the Church from end to end, witnessed (and at times, performed) by such sober-minded saints as Augustin, John Knox, and Charles Spurgeon. The more I looked, the more I found, both in history and in the present day. Only by dismissing accounts of supernatural events out of hand as myths — or simply by refusing to pay attention to them — can we effectively maintain the illusion that these things stopped happening at the end of the first century. The fact that so many Christian historians were willing to do just that was incredibly disturbing to me. If these guys applied the same criteria to the biblical miracle accounts that they applied to accounts of anything that happened since, they would be 19th-century liberals. (Ahem.) Where did they learn to look at stories of God’s supernatural doings with such a priori skepticism? Certainly not from the pages of Scripture!

But while the theory of cessationism was falling apart before my very eyes, the biggest blow wasn’t theoretical at all.

I hope to have the rest of the story up next week, but this is as much as I have been able to write so far. Thank you for your attention, and I sincerely hope I am meeting my goal of being gracious to all concerned and truthful at the same time.

Resignation FAQ, part 1

22 July 2012

For those of you who haven’t heard, I’ve resigned — or more accurately, been asked to resign — from my seminary teaching position. You can find the announcement here.

As the dust has settled, a few questions have come to the forefront.

  • What will I do now?
  • Aren’t I mad about being asked to resign?
  • Why did I change my position on spiritual gifts?

Let’s take them in order.

What I will do now is exactly what I have been doing. Youth ministry at The Fount, writing curriculum for Headwaters Christian Resources, involvement in the Englewood community, seeking to know and follow Jesus, to introduce others to Him and help them follow Him, to be a better disciple, a wiser discipler, a more loving husband, a stronger friend. I won’t be teaching in the RMBC&S classroom, but I’ll continue to support the students, my friends among the faculty, and the mission of the school by whatever avenues are open to me; they’re doing good Kingdom work. The beauty of seeking first His Kingdom and His righteousness is that the work is not tied to any one organization (Pope Benedict, are you listening?). Organizational ties come and go. Wineskins wear out; all is mist, as the Preacher once said, but through it all, we fear God and keep His commandments.

And no, I’m not even a little mad about it. I don’t believe that this is an issue Christian brothers should divide over, but the school is serving a community that feels differently about it than I do. Theology is a contact sport, and when you change your position on something, you have to expect some organizational alignments to change as well; there’s nothing sillier than a professional theologian whining about having to change jobs after he’s changed his theology. That’s just the nature of the beast. When it comes to something like this issue — where the very, very contentious debates only died down about 40 years ago — the lines are brightly drawn and well policed. They’ll be gone in another 10-15 years, because people on both sides have matured, because much of the divisive craziness that characterized the debate 40 years ago isn’t around anymore, and because the younger generations are simply refusing to polarize around that issue — and God bless them for it. However, we have to deal with what’s going on now, and right now, things are still polarized enough that some folks feel the need to politicize the issue.
Also, not to put too fine a point on it, God will not be mocked. We reap what we sow. I was a foot soldier for the Doctrinal Purity Police in the not-too-distant past; in God’s good pleasure I am reaping a little of what I have sown. Of course I don’t like it, and I wish that God had arranged things differently. But discipline is never comfortable, because it brings change, and change is never comfortable. I look forward to being trained by it in order to reap the peaceable fruit of righteousness.

Finally, why the shift? This is the most common question I’ve gotten over the past days, and it’s more difficult to answer than you might expect, for two reasons. First, it’s not quite as simple a question as it looks, sitting there on your screen. Some people mean, “Please give me an autobiographical account of your shift.” Others mean, “Please tell me you haven’t turned into a snake-handling whacko.” (I haven’t, by the way.) Others mean, “Is there something wrong with my theology?” Still others, “Young man, we taught you better than this. No excuse will be good enough, but explain yourself anyway!” There are other nuances too — lots of subtext on this one. I need to be clear about which questions I can hope to answer. I intend to give an autobiographical account of how I came to hold this view. Along the way, I do also feel a responsibility to explain myself to the community that raised and trained me. If what I say addresses some of the other nuances along the way, then so be it, but these two are all I’m really trying for.

Second, it’s difficult to give an account for my shift because I’m kinda done being a foot soldier for the doctrinal purity police. I’m happy to be clear about what I believe and why, and I have no intention of dancing around the shortcomings of cessationism. As I always have, I’ll say what I believe to be true and make no apology for it. That said, there’s a lot of needless division and brother-hatred around this issue, and I have no desire to exacerbate the wounds already inflicted on Christ’s Body. I don’t want to be dishonoring to anyone, least of all to the community that raised and trained me. I can hardly avoid criticism — at least implied criticism — of that community; an autobiographical account of my shift will discuss why I started with their position, found it inadequate, and adopted a new one. That said, it is still a matter of Christian duty for me to be properly honoring and grateful to my community and the many gifts it has given me. This is a difficult balance to strike, and it is essential that I do it well. With that in mind, I’m going to delay answering this question publicly until I am able to do so in a manner that is agreeable to my conscience.

I intend to put an answer up in a few days to a week, but I’m making no promises. Articulating all this well has been significantly harder than I had thought it would be, and I had a full life before all this came up. I’ve got other things to do, and if this is going to take 50 hours, it will be a while before it gets done. I welcome private conversation on the topic at any time, so if you feel you need an answer sooner, please don’t hesitate to contact me. As I said in my resignation announcement, nobody has anything to hide here, and I’m happy to share the details in private conversation.

A Letter to my Colleagues and Students

19 July 2012

I was raised and trained in a cessationist tradition, but a number of years ago, I began to have serious doubts about the biblical integrity of cessationism (the belief that certain biblically attested spiritual gifts ceased shortly after the first century). Over a period of years, I have devoted considerable time, effort, and prayer to a careful study of the exegetical, theological, historical and practical issues involved.

Rocky Mountain Bible College and Seminary, where I have served as a curriculum designer and instructor since 2008, and an assistant professor since 2010, maintains a very specific teaching position on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It reads,

The miraculous gifts (apostles, prophets, healings, miracles including a word of wisdom or word of knowledge, and tongues) were temporary in nature as signs to unbelieving Jews and as a validation of the New Testament message and its messengers at the initial stage of the church.

As a result, my possible shift on this issue had some fairly serious ramifications. I want to assure you that I hid none of this from Dr. Lewis. I consider him a mentor and a friend as well as being my boss at RMBC&S, and I’ve kept him apprised of my progress as I have wrestled through this issue. For his part, he made it clear that as long as I was willing to stick to the school’s teaching position while I was working through the issue, he was happy to have me continue on faculty. These things cannot happen overnight, and I’m very grateful for his openness and support while all this was in process. He is far from the only one; a number of mentors and friends have been generous with their time and insight. I am grateful to you all.

As the process continued, the conviction that began as a trickle of doubt about the viability of one exegetical argument in one passage became an overwhelming flood. I don’t say this lightly at all, but my conclusion is simple: cessationism is exegetically insupportable, theologically weak, historically false, unable to account for realities that I personally witnessed, and practically very far removed from the New Testament. The Bible simply doesn’t teach it. Of course this is a large claim, and my reasons for making it are a separate discussion that I will be happy to have; for the moment suffice it to say that I did my best to investigate every reasonable avenue. After discussion with Dr. Lewis, I wrote and submitted a letter in which I laid out my exception to the RMBC&S teaching position on spiritual gifts, and my reasoning for it.

At this point I felt myself in a bit of a dilemma. I do not believe that this sort of issue should divide Christian brothers. I continue to believe in the mission of RMBC&S and would like to continue aiding the school in our areas of common endeavor. As a result, I didn’t feel that I could simply resign in good conscience; it seemed to me that would convey a rejection of the school that I didn’t, and don’t, feel. On the other hand, I am well aware that within our tradition the lines on this theological issue are brightly drawn and well-policed, so my resignation might be necessary for the school’s sake. I had no desire to cause the school undue trouble, and of course I didn’t want to be one of those jerks who — just to make a point — refuses to resign and forces the administration to fire them. That’s no way to love your neighbor.

Unable to act unilaterally in good conscience, I sought Dr. Lewis’ counsel on a way to resolve the issue to our mutual satisfaction. I was prepared to tender my resignation immediately if the school wanted it; on the other hand if they would prefer to continue discussing how we might navigate our differences and continue to work together, I was open to that as well.

On July 17, Dr. Lewis chose to accept my resignation. At the same time, he also indicated that he would like for us to continue discussing these issues, and to continue discussion on the possibilities for looser collaboration as opportunities arise where we might serve together: ministry within the local community, student internships, and the like.

Working with RMBC&S and with Dr. Lewis has been a lot of fun, and I am grateful for my time there. My students and colleagues, each and all, have been a blessing to me. I continue to ask the Lord to bless the school, its students and faculty, and its mission to equip believers for service, and of course I remain happy to assist in that mission as the Lord may provide opportunity.

Please be assured that there are NO hard feelings; we all remain friends. We may not be working under the same organizational umbrella for the present moment, but we are all still working for the same boss, seeking His Kingdom and His righteousness — each in the manner that God has convicted him to do.

This kind of event, if not carefully and fully explained, presents opportunities for unfounded speculation and gossip. I would not have the enemy gain a toehold through this, so I have chosen to be as clear and specific as seemed advisable. If this isn’t clear and specific enough, please ask for more details; nobody’s got anything to hide here. Thank you for bearing with the length of the explanation, and again, if I have left you with some concern or doubt, please don’t hesitate to talk with me.

God’s richest blessings attend you as He leads you in His will for your lives. My love and my prayers go with you.

In His service,

Tim Nichols