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The Merge

Church splits are common. However, I only know of only one church that reunited after dividing, and I was part of it. “The Merge” of First Baptist Church, The Colony was official 28 years ago today.

In January of 1988 I began the Master of Divinity program at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. I filed my resume’ in the placement office with the hopes of serving in a church during my seminary career. By the end of the semester I received a call from the newly appointed pastor of First Baptist Church, The Colony. Pastor WB had seen my resume’,  and, after an interview, wanted me to be their Youth Minister. He invited me to introduce myself to the congregation during a Sunday morning worship service.

On the drive from Ft. Worth to The Colony that Sunday morning I took a wrong turn and ended up passing by the old Texas Stadium in Irving. First time I’d seen the fabled home of the Dallas Cowboys in person. As I walked up to the church I encountered two middle school boys sitting on the monkey bars in the children’s playground. They would be part of the small youth group I led beginning in the summer. Our first official activity was to attend the Youth Evangelism Conference at Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas.

Every weekend I commuted from Ft. Worth to The Colony and built a Saturday-Sunday youth program. Over the next six months our group doubled in size, from a dozen members to a high attendance of 26. I really enjoyed working with those kids.

At that time The Colony had around 20,000 residents, many of whom were younger families, so you’d probably expect the First Baptist Church to have more teenagers. In fact, you’d anticipate more members. Our auditorium seated 200 and it was never filled on Sunday mornings. You see, something had happened to this church before I arrived.

When Pastor WB first interviewed me he mentioned that the church had exprienced a split. A large group had left First Baptist and formed a new church called Calvary Heights, which met at the local high school. They called the former youth minster of FBC to be their pastor. The old pastor of First Baptist had evidently been the source of the contention that resulted in the split, and had subsequently resigned. First Baptist had called WB to be their pastor only a few months before he brought me in as their new youth minister.

So, the church had split over a disagreement concerning their former pastor. I was leary about this when I interviewed, but once I met the youth it didn’t matter. Several months into my tenure at First Baptist talk of a merger began. Each church appointed three members of a committee, which met for several months to discuss the possibility. By the end of the year, the committee had a recommendation: Merge! Wow, I was amazed at this. However, the pastor that hired me was not so enthusiastic. In fact, WB wholeheartedly opposed the merger.

You see, the committee’s recommendation was for the 27 year old pastor of Calvary Heights to be the senior pastor of a re-formed First Baptist Church, and for 60-something WB to be the associate pastor. I would be the youth minister. I was in favor of the merger. However, I had been hired by, and called by the church to, serve under WB, and he was opposed.  During my brief time in ministry training I’d been taught that staff at a church are called to serve under the pastor. That means submit to his authority. However, I was still a member of the congregation of First Baptist Church, and the church would make the decsion here. What should I do?

I remember the meeting I had with WB to discuss the issue. He was angry with me. He accused me of undermining his authority because of my support for the merger. In fact, at one point he began to yell, then lunged at me over his desk. It was not a very Christlike display of character. However, it helped me decide what I must do.

A business meeting where the congregation would vote on the merger was scheduled for a Sunday night in December. I knew what I must do. At the appropriate time in the meeting, before the merger vote, I stood up and read my letter of resignation. Then I walked out the back door, expecting never to return to First Baptist Church, The Colony. I met with a couple of my students at the McDonald’s across the street to say goodbye. I drove back to Fort Worth that night sad and shaken.

Now, that’s not the end of the story, or I wouldn’t be writing this today. But perhaps I should explain why I resigned rather than remain and vote for the merger. My primary responsibility if I am not the pastor is to serve the church under the pastor’s authority. If I cannot support the pastor, I do not oppose him or try to undermine him, I simply seek another place of service. That’s why I resigned.

On Monday morning I received a call from a congregational leader, perhaps one of the deacons (I don’t recall), informing me that my resignation had not been accepted. Ok, what, how could they refuse my resignation? This leader continued: WB had quit, stormed out the back door (and broke the glass on his way out!), the congregation had voted to merge, call the pastor of Calvary Heights, as pastor and me as youth minister. My objection to supporting the unstable and unChristlike WB was eliminated when he quit. I chose to serve the newly merged congregation under the new pastor, Bill Wilks. I would serve alongside two wonderful men: Morris Seay, education minister, and Ralph Baxter, music minister. It was like being called to a new church, except I got to keep the youth I’d worked with over the previous months.

The first official day of the merger was Monday, January 9, 1989. I remember the date distinctly because it was listed on so many records as the date people had joined the First Baptist Church. I had nine youth in attendance the last Sunday before the merger. On the first Sunday after the church reunited we had 90 youth!

There is so much angry energy expended when we disagree with one another. Divorce, political division, church splits and many other examples abound. It’s like the power of an atomic bomb, the destructive power of which was unleashed by the USA at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Those bombs worked by splitting atoms. However, there is exponentially more energy released when atoms unite in nuclear fusion. That is, when atoms unite.

When the church unites to do God’s will, His power is released, and people are saved, delivered and healed. Our families, our churches and our nation need to come together in the name of Jesus. I believe that will only happen when we who claim to be Christians actually follow Jesus, and allow the Holy Spirit to fill us so that we have “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

“… walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ephesians 4:2–6.

 

Strong Support for Separation of Church and State

I agree with the separation of church and state, and that includes the separation of religion from government. I am not an atheist. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and his teaching. Moreover, I am the pastor of a Bible teaching church. I support the free exercise of religion and speech. I support every person’s right to freely choose belief or disbelief. I think this way because it is evident that the Creator of human beings highly prizes free choice.

The narrative of creation for Christians and Jews, fundamentally agreed upon by Muslims, is found in Genesis chapters one through three. It is there that we find human beings are created in God’s image (1:27). God is a person with a free will. God does everything after the counsel of his own will (Ephesians 1:11). He has no needs. He cannot be coerced. This Creator made everything, simply because he chose to do so.

God’s motive for creating people is love. That is his nature: “God is love” (1st John 4:8). Love is not an emotion; it is not a need for attention, affection or acceptance. At its essence love is the determination to care and do what is best for the beloved. God created other persons to be his beloved. He did this because he wanted to share his love. It is also his desire to receive love from people.

Love compels, but it cannot be compelled. Coercion destroys love. Forced affection is abusive; it is molestation, not love. Therefore, freedom of choice is essential for love to be shared.

In the Bible’s account of beginnings there is a critical choice for the first man and woman. Two clear options are presented: live in communion with the Creator and enjoy the fruit of his garden paradise, or eat the forbidden fruit and die. Death was a curse that involved being severed from fellowship with the Author of Life, which eventually resulted in physical death. Adam and Eve chose the forbidden fruit and were banned from the Garden of Eden. They traded God’s blessing for his curse. This is called the Fall. It was their choice.

Every person who is born is given the same choice. The difference is, human beings are born into a fallen world filled with the effects of estrangement from their Creator. Nevertheless, God is still seeking lovers. Christians believe God demonstrated his love in this, even while we continue in sin, Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God chose to die on the cross prove His love for everyone (Romans 5:8). We also believe Christ rose in victory over the curse of death. It is every person’s choice to receive God’s love and return it in worship, or to disbelieve and reject it. Freedom of choice is absolutely essential.

You do not have to agree with Christian beliefs to benefit from them. In fact, the United States of America was founded upon the belief in a Creator who has given every person the right to choose. The Declaration of Independence clearly states this. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibits the establishment of religion, and ensures everyone the freedom of speech and religion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; of the right of the people to peaceably assemble…”

This amendment was established due to the concern on the part of the founders that a state church, such as the Church of England, would promote precisely the kind of intolerance the Pilgrims had escaped. Although the overwhelming majority of people in the 13 Colonies were Christians, they had different ways of worshiping and disagreed in various points of doctrine. The First Amendment gave them, and gives us, freedom to worship, and to speak freely about religion.

Today, each side of the political spectrum promotes a different an interpretation or application of the First Amendment. Those on the right support Christian symbols and Christian prayers in government and schools because they believe our nation is founded upon Christian principles, and that this practice does not prohibit other religious expressions. Those on the left oppose public displays of religion, but many seem particularly averse to Christianity. They hold this position because they believe any instance of government supporting a particular religious expression or practice, even when clearly historical in nature, results in some sort of tacit or de-facto establishment. They are opposed to Christianity because it has been the dominant religious expression in our nation.

So, do we eliminate all religious references from government and schools? Or do we allow a community to decide what should be permitted? What if we offer equal opportunity for different religions to pray or display their symbols? This would seem to offer an equitable
solution because it avoids offering preferential treatment to any one religious group.

The last solution was applied by the city council of the town of Greece, New York, which the Supreme Court recently ruled has the right to continue praying before their meetings. The accusation had been made that the city council favored Christian prayers, and, by virtue of this, encouraged the establishment of Christianity. In order to pacify the complaints and prove that they weren’t opposed to equal opportunity, Greece had brought in other religious leaders to pray, including a Wiccan priestess. However, it is not always reflective of the values of a community.

The majority of the Supreme Court supported the rights of the City Council to open in prayer.“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

However, if government supports one religious group, it is obligated to support all, even fringe groups, even religions that would oppose law and order. Satanists have created a large goat-headed statue to stand alongside the 10 Commandments outside the Oklahoma City courthouse,. A compelling argument could be made that Satan has historically been associated with rebellion and opposition to law and order. In fact, Satan represents evil. What makes the proposed monument even more disturbing is the inclusion of two children, one standing on either side of the figure, kissing its hands. I’d rather see the 10 Commandments removed from the courthouse than to legitimize Satanism.

Many Christians believe they should support the display of religious symbols in government, and prayer in public schools. In fact, there has been a tendency for Christian pundits and preachers to insist that the removal of public prayer from schools is precisely what has cause a moral decline. I disagree. Formal prayers in public schools do not necessitate the morality of those who are constrained to listen to them. Display of the 10 Commandments at the courthouse does not mean people must or will follow them.

You may think I have a liberal opinion at odds with traditional Christianity, but that would be incorrect. Baptists have historically supported the separation of church and state very strongly, and that continues. In the Supreme Court case we looked at above, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the plaintiffs. That is, they opposed prayer in the City Council. I concur.

If the examples of the Wiccan Priestess praying to pagan gods, and the Satanists seeking to erect their hideous statue don’t serve to support separation, then let me conclude with this.
Everyone has the right to believe and express their religion. Everyone should have the right to present their ideas in the marketplace. Government has no right to oppose any religion, nor the right to support any religion. I am content to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allow people the freedom to decide for themselves without government intrusion.

I don’t want a Mormon teacher proselytizing children from my church. I don’t want a Muslim legislator seeking to establish Sharia Law in my community or in this country. I will not bow my head and listen to a Wiccan priest/priestess pray to a false god. I have this right and no government should require me to do so. I do not believe that a Christian official has the right to force atheists, Jews or those from other religions to bow when they pray either. This nation values freedom. The God whom I serve strongly supports everyone’s freedom to receive or reject his Son. In the end God will judge: not you, not me, not the Supreme Court, not the United States government. Until Judgment Day, let each person decide for herself, for himself, what to believe, in whom to believe, and what to do about that. I will proclaim the Gospel of Jesus until that day, and I will support your freedom to receive or reject that message.