Until recently I was a fourth generation UPC minister with strong ties to many influential leaders of the UPC both current and recent past. I am currently the assistant pastor of a church that recently left the UPC and is now independent. If you're interested in short version of my story you can read it in my testimony, also published on this site, called Duane's UPC Experience. In this particular version of my story I hope to communicate the spiritual and emotional aspects of my journey more than the facts of the journey.
My hope is that you can perhaps glean from my experiences as you go with me back down my road of reminiscing. Perhaps it will inspire you to gratitude as you remember going through similar experiences and can now join me in thanksgiving how the Lord healed us. Perhaps you're in the middle of these storms and are looking for an anchor or a ray of sunshine in the darkness. Perhaps you've not yet gone through these storms and someday down the road perhaps the Lord will bring my story to your remembrance, uplifting you as you struggle in these valleys of indecision and despair.
My motive isn't based in self-absorbed narcissi or some over-inflated sense of self-importance. It helps me in my recovery to look at my past and sift the wheat from the chaff. I find that writing out my thoughts and experiences is cathartic and therapeutic. Truly, in the telling of this story I will most likely be the greatest beneficiary of its healing power as I take each memory and examine it, turning it this way and that, shining the light of God's truth on each one and hopefully reducing each experience and emotion to its proper perspective.
As far as I understand it, the roots of legalism in my life reach as far back as my early childhood. I say that because as I looking backwards over the years I realize my earliest memories of God are somewhat ominous. I remember as a child enjoying the social benefits of church life and all that comes with that: Friends, family, pool parties, sleepovers, Christian school mates, vacations. But I also recall my God view was one of almost literal fear.
I was afraid of God in the literal sense that I felt that I had to watch my P's and Q's at all times. Otherwise I was in danger of suffering consequences at the hands of a wrathful God or that somehow I'd remove myself, even unwittingly, from the umbrella of divine protection. Hell was a breath away and I was always to be cognizant of my eternal status.
As a youngster of 7 or 8 years I remember being aware of the so-called "age of accountability" and the so-called "unpardonable sin" and so-called "sins of omission". Concerning the first I figured that if I understood the concept then I was accountable. This added to my fear of the other two because I had no idea what sin was unforgivable and perhaps my unknown sins would keep me out of heaven.
As an adult I understand now, 25+ years later, that these concepts, even if true, must be balanced with the mercy and grace of God. But at that time I had no such understanding. I only knew that I had to be very careful, else God would reject me on Judgment Day. My identity in Christ was that of the perpetual prodigal son who considered himself at the level of pigs and barely worthy even to be called a servant, much less a beloved son. My view of God was that his favor and blessing depended on how I behaved and what I did or did not do.
If I wanted to pray I would instinctively examine my recent spiritual performance and quickly conclude that I didn't deserve anything from God. Sure, he was able to help me but unwilling to I was certain. My identity as a Christian was performance based rather than grace based.
It's difficult to explain how deep these feelings run and this perception of negative self-esteem is rooted in your identity in Christ and how this poisonous root reaches into every other area of your life. It's a life full of self-loathing and fear. This fear manifested itself in many ways.
For instance, many nights I would insist on sleeping with my younger brother who was 3 or 4 years old and I knew he hadn't reached "the age of accountability". I would sleep with my foot always touching his foot because I knew that if he was still here the rapture hadn't taken place and I was still safe. Many times I'd awake in panic when I thought he wasn't there. When I discovered he'd only moved away slightly I'd go back to sleep relieved that he was still here.
I remember desiring to go up in the rapture not because I wanted to be with my Lord and Savior but because I was petrified that I'd be forced to endure the trials and torture of the Tribulation under the Anti-Christ. I was more aware of the Anti-Christ than the Christ.
I remember one Saturday morning I woke early and everybody was still sleeping in bed. We lived on the fourth story of an apartment building and I went outside to find someone to play with in the apartment complex. It was too early and I was the only kid on the playground so I decided to go back home. I rang the doorbell at the bottom of the building expecting my parents to buzz me in. Nobody answered. I rang again. No one answered. I began to be concerned so I held the button down for a long time. Nobody answered. Becoming more concerned, I called out to my parents from the ground below. Nobody answered. I threw rocks at the window. Nobody answered.
Fear gripped me to the depths of my soul. It seemed my blood went cold, I became light headed, my heart pounded, I began hyperventilating as I began to sob uncontrollably because I was certain the rapture had happened and I'd been left behind. My whole body trembled as I ran in panic to the next building and up the stairs to another church member's apartment. I began to beat on the door crying out for somebody to open the door. Of course, they answered and it wasn't until they called my parents on the phone and I was able to physically touch them that I began to realize that I wasn't going to hell .at least not today.
That memory still haunts me today as I remember the stress and spiritual anxiety I lived under as a little boy. Where did that come from? What causes a little boy, who should be carefree and happy, to live in bondage to such condemnation and guilt? It's irrational and seems somewhat silly today and it's easy to laugh it off as something less than it really was. But I cannot believe that it pleases the Lord that his little children live in fear.
I believe this fear was birthed in me primarily through my religious experience which happens to be the UPC. Now, the UPC is not the only sect that produces children of fear, but it's the subculture from which I come, thus it's my point of reference. For others this point of reference is a Baptist background, for others it may be Assemblies of God, or Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Mennonite, etc . This tactic of the enemy is one common to many denominations and traditions.
I am not saying that all children that grow up in the UPC grow up as children of fear. Many of them don't. Nor am I saying that it's something specific to the UPC that creates this environment of ungrace. I am saying though that legalistic and spiritually abusive environments produce these kinds of reactions in people and I believe culture and doctrines of the UPC lends itself to legalism and spiritual abuse. This is the reality I found myself in and is what produced me, a child of fear.
Somehow or another it was communicated to me that God is one primarily of wrath and justice who will send you to hell for any sin without regard to your status as his son or the motive of your heart. There was little place for mercy and grace in my view of God. It was black and white, cut and dried. While on the one hand we as humans had the capacity to make judgment calls from a basis of mercy and grace, somehow God was unable or unwilling to do so. I had a secular view of a legalistic master who gave you exactly what you deserved. My overarching view of God was one of a heavenly judge who was disconnected from me emotionally and who was able to dispassionately mete judgment out to me at whim.
Without a doubt, God is a judge and wrath is a divine emotion. But I was told to balance this side of God out with his other attributes as my friend, my counselor, my advocate, my father, my liberator, my redeemer. This hard and fast mentality was encouraged in subtle yet powerful ways by my church family.
On the one hand they were kind, generous, loving, sweet people who genuinely loved the Lord and had a genuine spiritual relationship with Christ. They, for the most part, showed love to one another, fellowshipped in unity, celebrated the Lord with vigor and passion and reached out to lost souls with the love of Christ and genuine compassion. Their zeal for God and their spiritual intensity is something that will always be a positive part of me. There is no question in my mind that the UPC family of my past loves the Lord, knows the Lord, are used by the Lord, and I have no doubt that I will see most of them in heaven.
On the other hand though, there was definitely a hardness about them that expressed itself in their doctrines and their general attitudes toward those who disagree with them.
I attribute this hardness to their misunderstanding of the nature of God as a result of the spirit of legalism which has arrested their thinking. Legalistic thinking doesn't allow for true grace and mercy. Legalistic thinking does not allow for gray areas. It doesn't grant much space for theological diversity nor does it allow for the admission of error. In a legalists mind everything is hard and fast. Everything is figured out. A legalist is ultra-sensitive to image and in order for there to be continuity of the image there can't be inconsistency or ambiguity. A legalist is much more attuned to consequence than mercy. A legalist is more focused on rules than relationship, more concerned with correction than connection. Legalism and the manipulative spiritual abuse that enforces it are the faulty underpinnings of my past.
How can I say that and why do I feel it's important for me to go into such detail about my youth? It's important to understand how ingrained this illogic was embedded into my psyche and spirituality in order to understand the struggles I, and others, go through when exiting the UPC or any system similar to it.
The longer you are in this sort of system the more your identity is based on its precepts. These values aren't abstract ideas that can be debated and argued and accepted or rejected on their merits. This belief system becomes you. You become what the system says you are. If you're reared in it, you don't even have the option of losing yourself because you never had a self to lose to begin with. Since your identity in Christ and your place in the world are determined by your identity and place in the system, it's supremely difficult to disengage yourself from this system, discover a new God, and figure out who the real you is that He intended for you to be all along. In my case this reality is easily discerned simply by understanding what I believed when I was a youngster.
I don't remember when it first was communicated to me, but before I was 9 years old I understood that if you weren't baptized by full immersion with the actual name of Jesus spoken over you then were going to hell. If you didn't speak in tongues you were going to hell. If you believed in the Trinity you were going to hell. If a woman cut her hair she was going to hell. If she wore pants, make-up, or jewelry she was "worldly" and almost certainly going to hell. Smoking, drinking, cursing, gambling, dancing, having a television and many other "worldly" activities were sinful and we all know where sinners go hell.
Anyone outside of the UPC who called themselves a Christian was viewed with askance and considered less than saved at best but most likely deceived and going to hell. My entire existence centered not around Jesus Christ, but around the UPC. My view of the body of Christ was limited solely to the UPC. The UPC, I was told, is "the church". I was led to believe that a wholehearted belief in the Oneness of God, Jesus Name baptism and so-called standards of holiness were the heart of the gospel and anything less or different than this was heresy and abominable. I was told that if I disobeyed any of these things that I had turned my back on "the truth", and was backslidden and going to hell.
The problem though was it just didn't match up to reality. As I got older I'd begin to question things and was given answers that didn't jibe with real experience. It seemed to me we were forcing square blocks in to round holes and all the while declaring it to be sound engineering.
I would ask, "How can Assemblies of God people speak in tongues and heal people and operate in the gifts if they're not saved?" They'd say that other charismatics only had a portion of the Holy Ghost. Some would even go so far as to claim that it was a counterfeit Holy Ghost at work in these of other tongue talking believers. What? You mean that people can manifest all the outward signs of spiritual sonship yet live in innocent deception? If speaking in tongues isn't a sign of the infilling of the whole, complete, genuine Holy Ghost then what is it then and how can we be assured that what we as UPC'ers have is the whole and complete experience?
I'd ask, "What about all those millions of people in history who never heard the UPC's message? Are they going to hell?" Their answer to the second question generally consisted of something along the lines that God would most likely honor their faith in the revealed truth they had at that time. But now that the complete truth is revealed (Oneness, Jesus Name, UPC standards) these other folks had no excuse and if they chose to ignore "the truth" then God would hold them accountable for that. That didn't make much sense to me either because it seemed to me that if God would honor someone's faith 500 years ago why wouldn't he do the same today?
I'd ask, "If water baptism is where our sins are forgiven and tongues are evidence of the infilling of the Holy Ghost then how can people speak in tongues before they are baptized? Does God live in unclean temples? If so, then why was the cross necessary?" To this I was told that it was a good question and they had no answer except to say that I must believe by faith in the revelation of Acts 2:38.
These kinds of questions rolled around in the back of my head as a young boy and through my teenage years. I figured that I just didn't know enough and that eventually I would understand the Bible enough and have an intimacy with God that would reveal the logic of these apparent inconsistencies. So I just let sleeping dogs lie and lived the life.
I entered my teens a person who felt I was like a spider hanging by a thread from the finger of God over the flames of hellfire. One wrong move and I lost out with God. In spite of my questions I cast a critical eye toward Christians who believed doctrines different from UPC doctrine. I was led to believe that we had something special and more powerful than they did and couldn't imagine that they could have an intimacy and relationship with God equal to or deeper than what we experienced in our slice of the religious world. I was convinced that if I left the UPC I'd be going backwards and would never be satisfied spiritually. Paradoxically, I still had these nagging doubts and questions in the back of my head which prevented me from plunging headlong into the UPC mindset.
I also had a hyper-sensitive alertness to what people thought about me. So much so that I based my self-worth and identity on other people's opinions of me. I realize that this is a common human phenomenon but I am convinced though that in my case this reality was amplified well beyond the norm. I constantly fought the battle of "What would people think if ?"
My folks were in the full-time ministry so as a preacher's kid I felt enormous pressure to live up to expectations whether fair or unfair. For awhile as a teenager I rebelled against this pressure and vented this pent up stress in unhealthy, sinful ways. Ironically it was in a life of sin that I got my first glimpse at my true personality and tasted a form of freedom for the first time. Freedom to be me. I realize that sounds sacrilegious but if you keep it in context of what I've said so far and what comes later I think you'll understand my point.
In spite of my foray into the world, for the most part I tried to adhere to the UPC code of acceptable behavior and appearance to the exclusion of my individuality. In fact, when I recommitted my life to the Lord after my two year excursion into "worldliness" I determined within myself to be even more of what was expected of me. I took their unrealistic standard and raised the bar.
It wasn't long after my reconsecration I felt the Lord calling me to ministry. Once I made this calling public I found a level of acceptance from others that caused me to feel more validated and important than I'd ever felt before. I felt personal significant and worth as I began to experience the respect and admiration of the adults in my life. It was a heady time. I dreamed of being a well-known preacher in the UPC, of preaching General Conference, of writing books full of wisdom and becoming somebody in the UPC.
Although my heart was after God and my spirituality was genuine, it was also misplaced. I had more of a burden for myself than I did for people. I had more of a vision for religious acceptance than I did for the deliverance of people from the bondage of sin. It's humbling now to look back and see the obvious narcissism of my ambition. But I am convinced though that this was the natural by-product of the narcissistic, self-absorbed, navel gazing, religion centered church experience in which I was raised. I was truly a product of my past. Thankfully though, the Lord began to wean me from this type of institutional thinking not long after I accepted his call to minister to his flock.
In retrospect it's mind boggling to me that I don't remember ever associating or having any personal contact with any of those "other" Christians that were non-UPC. I'd heard about them and certainly had a vivid image of them in my mind but I'd never encountered one in my sheltered youth. My first real exposure to such people shattered all my images of them and forced me to face aspects of myself and my belief system that were unsettling to say the least.
My first real experience with the spirit of God in a non-UPC person occurred a couple of weeks before I began Bible school. I was fortunate enough to attend a two week retreat which was attended by other teenagers on their way to college. These other teenagers were from a whole host of denominations ranging from mainline evangelical, to Baptist, to Nazarene, to Mennonite Bretheren, to Assemblies of God.
In interacting with these kids all day for days on end I slowly began to realize that their love for God was genuine and passionate. It began to dawn on me that they really had a relationship with God in prayer and that they knew what the Bible said and applied it to their lives. I began to see that they had a burden for lost souls and they had experience in spiritual matters. Moreover, they seemed to be much more understanding and accepting of each others faults and shortcomings.
This was very disconcerting for me because I realized that I had nothing to offer them that they didn't already have. Even more disconcerting was some of these kids seemed to have a spiritual depth about them that I couldn't identify with because it was obvious they were light years ahead of me in understanding. My initial approach to them was from a position of self proclaimed superiority but I soon discerned that I had much to learn from these people. This realization hit me square in the face in an unmistakable way.
In the course of this retreat I met a girl. She was a Nazarene girl and we hung out a lot together. Unfortunately, we were caught alone in my room. We weren't doing anything physical or immoral but even the appearance of evil well, you know. Of course I was out of mind with guilt and fear. I just knew that they were going to call my parents and call the Bible school and I might get kicked out before I even started, etc . I just knew that the hammer was going to fall and the retreat sponsors would run me out on a rail.
However, the people running the retreat decided to do something unheard of for me. They convened a panel of four or five of the other kids and told them to decide what to do with us. It was with much fear and anxiety that I faced my new friends and told them what had happened. They talked with my new girlfriend and I anxiously awaited my fate.
I was more than a little shocked when less than ten minutes into their discussion the leader of the group asked me to come back into the room. The leader, a Baptist girl, took me by the hand, looked me in the eye and said "We forgive you" and she gave me hug. Each one of the panel members hugged me and told me they loved me.
Tears stream down my face and I tremble as I write this because words cannot describe the affect this simple act of grace had on me. My mouth literally dropped open and I was speechless. I couldn't imagine not having to pay for my transgression. Being the self-righteous legalist that I was I would never have considered forgiving another person in my predicament. I would have given them what they deserved! I would have kicked them out of the retreat! Sent 'em packin'!
But, no, they forgave me of my transgression and extended the hand of grace to me and showed me that they loved me and accepted me just the way I was. Not only that but when we all went back outside everyone in the retreat, staff included, were pleased with the outcome and continued to treat me with acceptance and love the rest of the retreat. I was floored and I was humbled.
I didn't know what to do with this experience. I was hugely relieved but also a little unsettled. Little did I know but this simple act of grace would be the catalyst for change in my heart. I never was the same person again. How could I deny the goodness and grace that I experienced through these non-UPC people? How could I deny their walk with God that I'd personally witnessed? My spirit was kindred to them and I couldn't escape it.
I was spiritually sensitive enough to realize that this had been a pivotal God moment in my life. I had come to that retreat a Holy Ghost filled, sincere, Spirit led, arrogant, self-righteous, and elitist young man. I left that retreat as all of that still but also humbled and much more open minded to the possibilities of God being in places and people I'd learned to discredit.
Looking back I can see where that was perhaps my first real step toward leaving the UPC. It was the first time I consciously acknowledged that maybe there was more to God than what I'd experienced in the UPC. Maybe, just maybe, these other folks knew the same God in the same way and were headed toward the same place as me. I didn't know what to do with this understanding so I went to Bible school.
Because of this watershed experience at the retreat I entered Bible school with a different frame of reference. In my heart of hearts, I was not as much the UPC's as much as I was God's. As a result I held myself back emotionally from the parochialism that is prevalent in most denominal Bible colleges. I held the "team spirit" aspect of my Bible college experience at an arms length all the while wondering what was to come of me.
I really began to notice, for the first time it seemed, the arrogance and elitism of my classmates that somehow we were special and closer to God than "others". I began slowly to see how many of them, like me, had much more of a burden for their ministry than they did for souls.
Although I had a lot of friends and got along with everybody I didn't allow myself to get too close to anybody because I didn't want them to sense my uneasiness with what I saw going on around me. I desperately wanted to find redeeming qualities about my environment but as time went on that list became shorter and shorter. I was sold out but at the same time I wasn't. Something about the whole scene didn't sit right with me. Somehow it seemed a little hollow. Like a slightly out of tune instrument it just didn't ring true with me.
A couple of years into college I got mixed up in something that I shouldn't have. After carrying around guilt about it for awhile I finally went to my Dean and confessed. Like my initial reaction at the retreat I was petrified with fear. I figured it was all over, I was exposed, my image shattered and my life was ruined. I was convinced that I'd get kicked out of school, that my reputation would be irrevocably sullied, and as a result I'd miss out on the will and favor of God. All natural reactions of a legalist focused on consequences and image instead of grace and humility. As it turns out I had reason to be concerned.
I was called before a panel of school administrators and greeted not with love and compassion but subjected to an attitude that bordered on disgust. These men didn't try to help me nor did they show gentleness or grace. Instead they made sure I understood the error of my way in no uncertain terms. Everything they said was technically and biblically correct, but I already knew I'd sinned. What I didn't know is if they'd forgive me. One of them who had known me for awhile identified the root of my problem as an alleged lifelong problem with submission to authority which struck me as odd because it had nothing to do with the issue at hand. My insistence that this was not who I really was was met with suspicion and my motives were questioned.
My sentence was handed down and I left there understanding that while they would let me continue to stay at the school they certainly were very disappointed in me and that I had much to do to prove myself and regain full favor. I don't think we prayed the entire time we met. I left that meeting with these revered instructors in shame and disgrace and lived with these feelings for the remainder of my college years. It affected me so much I felt the need to take a year off because I was too ashamed to face my classmates and instructors. In that year I don't recall anyone contacting me or offering a word of encouragement.
What a stark contrast to the unconditional, unmerited grace and mercy I'd experienced by a bunch of supposedly deceived pseudo-Christians at the retreat. A contrast that I did not fail to notice and take to heart. I began to see that something was very wrong with the spirit and culture of my upbringing and my probable future. Where was the compassion, mercy and unconditional acceptance and love I'd experienced at the retreat?
Although I was a theology major and had designs to be a minister of some sort I had a palpable aversion to the "preacher crowd" and refused to allow myself to be sucked into the politics and affected airs that prevailed in that group. I was hungry for something more than that. I just knew we were missing something and there was something more than all this. There had to be! We had great "moves of God" and had some awesome spiritual experiences and learned many useful things. But, somehow I wasn't on fire about what I saw and knew God had something more for me. But what? What was there in the UPC that I could sincerely embrace and devote myself to?
When I graduated from Bible school I went to work full-time as an associate pastor at a large UPC church. I felt good about this opportunity because this pastor had a reputation for being progressive and open minded. Because of this progressiveness and the size of the church and staff I figured that maybe this is what I needed and threw myself into my work.
I did fine for awhile but as time went by it became more and more evident to me that this church was just as narrow minded and legalistic as what I had grown up with. I heard the same elitist idea that we have a corner on truth, that nobody else is really doing a spiritual work of any significant value, that Trinitarians and non-UPC-holiness standards believers were deceived and most likely not really saved. It was clearly communicated that we had a corner on truth and that our spiritual experience was deeper and more significant than that of non-UPC "Christians". If people didn't live up to holiness standards they were suspect and termed rebellious.
On more than one occasion the pastor's wife publicly chastised the church staff and the pastor would posture his power from the pulpit whenever someone anonymously questioned his style or direction in a letter. (Of course nobody had the guts to say it to his face because even with all his friendly demeanor he was very intimidating.) As a church staff we heard a lot about church growth but not much about reaching lost souls and meeting the needs of people, if you understand the distinction I'm drawing here. There was an overemphasis on subjective spiritualism and not much emphasis put on Christian character and inner transformation.
After just a few months of this sort of stuff I finally started to realize something had to change for me. I agonized over this for months. I pleaded with God: "Change me or change my situation!" I didn't like feeling this way. I wanted to be 100% supportive of what I was involved in and didn't want to have these doubts and confusion about my church or the UPC. I asked the Lord if maybe I was being too critical or if maybe I wasn't viewing things correctly. Have I backslidden in my mind? What's wrong with me? I wondered if perhaps I was just a little too idealistic and that maybe I was trying to look at the situation through rose colored glasses.
I felt guilty about being so consciously disgruntled with the church that had given me such a good opportunity and the organization in which my family was so completely immersed. I figured maybe there was something wrong with me and that I needed to have a personal revival and needed to put these things under the blood. So I prayed and I fasted and I prayed and pleaded with the Lord to deliver me from this frustration and anguish.
"Change me or change my situation!" And God answered my prayer. He changed me. He made it worse! The longer I stayed the worse it got for me. The judgmentalism became obvious. I began to dread going to church on Sundays and Wednesdays. As soon as altar service would start I'd slip out the side door and go home because I was so depressed by it all.
I began to see how people were rarely lifted up and encouraged, rather they were badgered in overt as well as subtle ways and made to feel inadequate. I began to make the connection between this ministerial approach and my lifelong feelings of spiritual inadequacy. Of course this teaching was always couched in terms of spirituality and religiosity but it was burdening none-the-less.
I began to call this ministerial approach "The Ministry of Not Enough". I could never pray enough, give enough, fast enough, work enough, shout enough to either find or keep favor with God. In order to know Him and please Him I had to do and be more but it never was really enough. I became more and more disillusioned and longed for a way out! I began to identify with the children of Israel while they were in captivity! Lord, deliver me!
You may be thinking the obvious answer to my dilemma was to just resign, right? But that was not an option for me at that point. My ministry determined my value, not only to myself but to God and those around me (or so I thought). How could I do that and embarrass myself and embarrass my family? What would people think? Wouldn't my parents and grandparents be disappointed? What if I was missing the will of God? Would I be shooting myself in the foot by leaving such a prestigious and sought after position? What would I do? God called me to minister but where would I minister if left this church? Where would my wife and I attend church? Would I end up one of those losers who missed the will of God and ended up working a secular job when the Lord intended for them to be a pastor or missionary or evangelist? (You've heard the stories I'm sure). Would I look at myself in the mirror in 10 years and be full of regret because of an impetuous decision?
Besides, where would I go? I certainly didn't see any options within the UPC. Go outside of the UPC? I couldn't do that! Even if I considered that where would I start? I didn't know anybody outside the UPC. How could I leave everything I've known and understand to venture out into a religious world that was somewhat suspect even in my own mind? Even if I did leave the UPC and joined some other group somewhere out there how would I ever fit in? Would I feel like the bastard child for the rest of my life never really fitting in anywhere? Be independent? Alone? These and a blizzard of other questions and fears careened around in my head and pounded me with fear and anxiety. God was trying to pull up my anchor and I was fighting him every inch of the way.
It was almost impossible for me to even consider leaving my position at this church, must less the UPC. Words cannot convey the stress I went through for months trying to sort this out and trying to come to grips with what was going on in my own mind. All the while trying to do my work and not let on to those around me the inner turmoil raging inside me.
Finally, after about a year and half, the Lord provided a way out that was face saving and somewhat respectable. Again, the legalist in me was so overwhelmingly conscious of image and appearances that the Lord had to work around this insecurity to deliver me. The plan was to go into business and use the business to support missions. Sounds respectable enough. Even so it took me another six months to get up the courage to actually resign from the church.
I cannot describe to you the relief and freedom I felt when I finally resigned. I tried to act sober but the glee I felt was over the top. I felt as if the Red Sea had parted and I had found my deliverance! I felt as if a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders and now I could live in freedom and still do the work of God! It was amazing. I couldn't pack up my office fast enough to get out of there. I felt as if I had a new lease on life.
But I wasn't totally gone from the church yet. Even though I'd rejected their ministerial philosophy and had real problems with the UPC overall, I still couldn't bring myself to attend another church. I liked the music and the worship at our church and I was sure I wouldn't find this elsewhere. For all its faults one thing about my UPC experience that I valued was freedom in worship and I still felt this was important enough to stay for at this church.
My wife and I worked our business and we soon encountered difficult times financially and emotionally. We kept attending the church but as time went on I felt less and less comfortable there. I began to resent the implication that there was something defective in me and I became acutely aware of the fact that I had little joy and peace and rest in Christ nor did I witness much of it around me at the church.
I dreaded Sunday. Our business would frequently take us out of town and it would be two or three months at a time that we'd not be in church service. And we never missed a minute of it and still looked for excuses to miss once we got back. Even so, I never really seriously considered going to another church. Even though I didn't like my current church or the UPC at least I understood it and it had some familiarity with me. I couldn't even fathom going to a Trinitarian church. Go somewhere else? Am I crossing a line of sorts by doing that? Will God be displeased with me? If I go out there will I be deceived and lose out with God? Fear, fear, fear.
I existed in this hell for four or five years! I still loved God and I still wanted to do something meaningful for him but I had given up all hope of this dream and had almost settled for something less. I figured my hopes for ministry had been a pipe dream or else I'd messed up somewhere along the line and missed the will of God. During this time I sold all my Bible reference books on Ebay and totally wrote off the UPC in my mind and figured that God would never be able to use me in ministry. The only reason I went to church was because I knew the Bible said I was supposed to so I went. I was miserable.
Finally on a Sunday morning the final straw broke this camel's back. The pastor's son got up and began to berate the congregation for not "worshipping enough" while they gave in the offering. I don't know why but that was all I could take. That did it! I looked at a friend of mine and said "That's it! I can't another minute of this. I hope you'll still be my friend but I'm leaving this church and I'm never coming back." As his jaw dropped, my wife and I walked out and never went back to worship there again. (In the 4 years since that happened that friend has never contacted me since.)
But what were we to do? Where were we going to go? We sure didn't know. All we knew was that we felt a complete peace and liberty about leaving. Although by this time I had intellectually acknowledged that there are other non-UPC Spirit filled churches out there we still were too scared to actually go and visit them much less consider being comfortable as a member of such a group. It seemed too final. So we prayed, asked the Lord to lead us and watched video taped church services from another UPC church in our bedroom on Sunday nights.
I was extremely concerned with what my parents and friends would think about me. My parents seemed somewhat understanding of my frustration because they'd known I was unhappy at that other church for awhile. They seemed to feel this church was an isolated case and that I could find another place within the UPC family where I'd be comfortable and useful. But it was obvious they were very concerned about my attitude toward our former church and the UPC in general and sensed they sensed they were "losing" me and it concerned them very much.
It wasn't too long later though, about a month or so, that God did indeed lead us to a new church through the recommendation of a couple of trusted friends. Our only reticence to visiting this church was that it was a UPC church connected to the old church we'd just left. After debating about this for a couple of weeks we finally decided to try several churches in our community and put this one at the top of the list for no particular reason other than to eliminate it with dispatch and move on to the other churches on our list.
We attended the Sunday morning worship service with skepticism and trepidation. But within ten minutes of the start of the service I found myself sitting in my pew with tears running down my face because I felt the love and peace of God more in that moment than I had in a long, long time. I looked at my wife and she was responding the same way and we both knew this was home. The worship was low key but from the heart and the pastor didn't scream and holler at us. He just taught from the Word and didn't try to manipulate anyone into doing anything. The whole experience was like a breath of fresh air in a dungeon.
We began attending this church on a regular basis and found a high level of love and acceptance from the pastor and the people. Even though I flat out told the pastor that I wanted nothing to do with ministry and I just wanted to attend, give a dollar in the offering, and say amen from time to time, gradually I began to feel the stirring of my long lost minister's heart and I began to get involved slowly in different parts of the church. Everything seemed to be going fine but I knew it wouldn't last long.
The reason being is that as I looked around the church it was obvious that holiness standards weren't very important here. There were pants on women, make-up, jewelry, facial hair on men, etc and nobody seemed to care. I didn't care either but I knew that this wouldn't fly with the mother church. I became concerned because I knew that eventually the mother church would come down on the pastor and I wondered what he'd do. He assured me that he'd hold to his position when the time came and he felt he could work it out with the other church. I had my doubts.
It wasn't too long afterwards in a prayer meeting that God spoke to me very clearly and told me to prepare myself to re-enter the full time ministry. What! You have to be kidding me! This was the furthest thing from my mind! Where would I go? I certainly wasn't going to be UPC and I didn't see any opportunity at our church nor anywhere else. But God persisted and after a couple of months of adjusting to this insane idea I finally told the Lord "Yes, I'll do it. If you'll make the way I'll do it." That same week a lady in our church spoke to me in a prayer meeting and confirmed this calling in a specific and undeniable way. I was scared to death!
It was about this same time that the other shoe dropped from the mother church and they gave our pastor an ultimatum. Enforce standards are leave! We all decided to leave and thus began our church's exit out of the UPC with me tagging along at least for the moment. I had told my pastor about God's fresh calling on my life figuring that I'd probably move away somewhere and start a church or something. I was shocked when about three months later he asked me to be his assistant pastor. Holy cow! I went from being all but backslidden and in despair to the assistant pastor in less than two years! God is amazing! It was truly a miracle in my life.
But, I still had fear. I still wondered in the back of my mind whether or not I was on the right path. Isn't that nuts? Yes, but very true. I wondered if maybe I was wrong about these not believing standards and maybe I was wrong about some other things. I needed to make very sure of this before I made that final, public step to help lead a congregation out of the UPC and into the great unknown.
I prayed and asked God to speak to me. He told me to go to the Word and dig it out. God, please send me a sign, I prayed. He told me to go to the Word. He and I went around this bush for a couple of weeks until finally I got my Bible out and started studying these issues for the first time in my life.
You see, even though I'd been to Bible school and even though I'd worked full-time on staff at a large UPC church, I didn't have a grasp on what the Bible said about these things. I had just always accepted it as the truth and never really read what the Word had to say about it. Even later when I began to change my mind about standards my new belief was based solely on intuition and logic. I'd never studied these things out for myself. I'm embarrassed to admit this but it's true.
Imagine my shock when I figured out that there is only one verse in the Bible that the UPC points to that says pants on women are unholy. Imagine my shock when I finally did a study on jewelry and noticed for the first time that jewelry is all over the Bible and all over God's people in the Bible. Imagine my shock when I discovered that there is no verse that disallows make-up and that Jezebel also combed her hair and looked out a window when she painted her face. (Surely looking out of windows and combing your hair aren't illegal too are they?) Imagine my shock when I figured out that there's only one passage in the Bible that speaks to a woman's hair length.
The more I studied these things the more it became apparent to me that I'd been bamboozled all my life and somehow or another I'd allowed myself to be deceived and lived in false condemnation for the sake of fellowship and tradition. On the bright side though this new understanding gave me confidence and freedom to stand up for the truth and to leave behind the lies of my past. I had found the truth and the truth had set me free! It was another turning point in my life.
My conscience would not free me to do what was lawful because my conscience was based on untruth. I misinterpreted this faulty conscience as being the voice of God for most of my life. But as soon as I replaced the lie with the truth from God's word I was released from false guilt and condemnation. What was there to be afraid of now? Nothing! Knowing what God's true opinion of these things were freed me from the false guilt put onto me by false doctrine. Now my mind and my spirit were in agreement and the weight brought on by this conflict had been lifted from my back. I had found the truth and the truth had set me free! The confidence this gave me in my spirit and the courage this understanding produced in me is indescribable.
It was through this experience that I developed a love for the Word of God that I'd never had before. I began reading the Bible constantly and the more I read it the more I felt freedom. It gave me strength to know that my intuition about these things was correct and I began to trust my judgment and began to doubt the voice of God less and less. I had previously doubted the voice of God because it contradicted what I had been told all my life. How could that be, I wondered? But now I understood that it was my understanding that was wrong and that my spiritual sensories were leading me to truth.
The yoke of fear had finally been broken in my life. I no longer was afraid of the UPC nor of losing out with God. I finally realized that I was on the right path and that God accepted me, was with me, and loved me even though I didn't believe in the UPC holiness standards. As I write this it sounds a little silly but believe me it was no small moment in my life. I was ready to go full bore, dead on, straight ahead toward the unknown. I can't point to a specific moment in time when this happened, it just did. One day I wasn't afraid anymore. I no longer belonged to an organization, now I belonged to God! Hallelujah!
But there's a flip side to this victory. The fear was replaced by anger. When I began to see how wrong I'd been about some of these issues I became angry. I was angry at the UPC, angry at my parents, angry at my Bible college and all the pastors who had served me. How could they be so wrong? Can't they read? Don't they see how wrong this is? Don't they see the bondage they're putting on people and the false guilt that it's causing people to live under? How could they be so ignorant? Is it a conspiracy? All the years of fear transformed into anger and it exploded out of me onto everyone who was unfortunate enough to be around me. It was an ugly mess let me tell you.
In my search for some of these answers I had come across the web site on which this testimony is published and became an active member of this and other internet discussion boards. I would vent my anger toward the proponents of holiness standards and would rip them to shreds in our discussions. Unwisely I allowed myself to enter into discussions with some of my UPC relatives about these things and they'd quickly degenerate into shouting matches. They told me I was going to hell and that I was being duped by strange doctrines. I was ticked off and I let 'em have it! It caused a real strain on my relationships with my family at times. Of course, they weren't going to budge and neither was I. I had not yet learned the truth of Romans 14 & 15.
Gradually though I began to see that I was being just as unchristian in my behavior and attitudes as I claimed they were being and two wrongs don't make a right. I began to put myself in their shoes and realized that at one time I had been in their shoes and didn't know any better either. I looked back at my past and began to see times where God had tried to show me MY error and I'd reacted to the bearers of this message in the same way I was being treated. I began to realize that most of them are just as sincere as I am about God and they are as much victims of the system as I was. The Lord helped me to calm down and to become somewhat reasonable in my approach. It was about this time that I finally became a full-time staff member at our church. (I've given a testimony regarding our churches journey over the last year in a separate article.)
I do my best to be an intellectually honest person so once I began to realize how seriously in error I was about standards I naturally began to wonder what else I was wrong about theologically. Over the last several months I have been examining various doctrines I'd always accepted as truth and have come to some rather unsettling preliminary conclusions about some of them. In my studies that old fear tries to pop up every now and then "See, once you leave standards it ain't long 'till you leave the truth!" But I recognize that old devil now and I push him out of my mind because he no longer has any power over me. I have no creed to protect. My only allegiance is to Christ and his truth. I cannot tell you how liberating that is.
Growing up in the UPC I'd always heard that people who left the UPC claimed to have found liberty and freedom in the Lord that they'd never experienced before. Of course this claim was met with scorn and derision as my UPC friends would claim these people had been deceived by Satan and were only trying to justify their carnality by falsely glorifying it. They claimed that this alleged freedom and liberty of our former brothers and sisters was just their sinful nature expressing its satisfaction at defeating their spiritual nature. Oh how very wrong my legalist friends were, and are.
Let me tell you, I have grown closer to the Lord in the last year than I ever had before. I have been on that side of the fence and I can say without hesitation that I have found God in a mightier way on this side than I ever have before. I have grown faster and farther in the last year than I ever dreamed possible. As I threw off the legalism of my past I found a God I never knew. The concepts of rest, peace, joy, grace, mercy, and sonship have taken on personal meaning instead of being confined to an abstract theological context of something to be hoped for.
I have found safety and security in Christ that was unfathomable to me previously. I no longer fear for my salvation and I have begun to understand that I am a son of the most high God and I can truly call him Abba Father without shame or embarrassment. I can now enter into the throne room of grace with boldness instead of with apology, fear, and anxiety. I have begun to understand that God truly desires mercy, not sacrifice. I have begun to understand what grace is all about! In my former life grace was a mystery limited to regeneration, now it's simply amazing and all consuming. I have begun to see that the biggest problem that I'd had in my life was not understanding the power of God's grace to me and that I was responsible to express that grace to other people. I now am living in Christian liberty without fear or doubt. Things I sensed were lawful but was too scared to try I am now learning to enjoy with unabashed pleasure.
But that didn't come right away. It's come one step at a time. As I faced my fears and anxiety (If I do this will God get mad at me?) I conquered them and now they no longer bind me. My hands literally trembled the first time I handed my ticket to the doorman at the movie theater. Now I understand that going to the movies is not a sin as long as what I'm watching isn't sinful. The first time I took to the pulpit with facial hair my legs trembled. But when the Lord gave me a word for the people and moved in spite of my goatee I felt a release from that stress. Doubtless some people think these are silly things. But it's real to me and many others. Deliverance comes one small battle at a time.
Even still with all this explosion of change and growth God still had a major stronghold to break in me. Let me tell you about this and then I'll bring this epic story to an end. If you've read this far, bless your soul. I hope it's been as good for you as it's been for me.
About six months ago the Lord spoke to me and told me to read a book that I'd heard about several months before but hadn't seriously considered reading. The book is called "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse". I obeyed God and read the book. It was a very hard book to read because of all the pain it caused me to revisit in my life. Several times I would begin crying as I read this book and more than once I threw the book across the room in frustration because of the truth it revealed to me about why I had lived in fear and spiritual insecurity for so many years. The anger I had felt toward my UPC past re-surfaced. But the more I read the more that anger dissipated as I began to see what had happened to me and those around me. It dismantled much of what had happened in my life and in doing so truth neutralized any root of bitterness that could have come of it.
I read the book five times and each time I read it my past became clearer and clearer. I then read "Toxic Faith", "Tired of Trying to Measure Up", "Healing Grace" and others. In doing so it gave me such a release from frustration from my past. Even though it's only been a year or so since I left the UPC I can now look back with some clarity and understanding about what happened to me and those in my church. I find this knowledge to be liberating and empowering. I am learning to enjoy my life, my work, and my family. I am finally able to relax. Going through this painful process of discovery has enabled me to release the toxins in my faith and it put me on the path to thorough cleansing of my soul. Where previously there was anger there is now compassion. Where there was frustration now there is resolve. Where there was fear and anxiety now there is courage and strength. I have found the truth and the truth is setting me free.
I am learning that an active understanding of grace is the key to it all. I am learning that grace is the antidote to legalism. I am learning that living in the grace of God is freedom and liberty and that the essence of Christianity is to demonstrate this same grace toward those around me. This understanding is revolutionizing my ministry, my relationship with God, my relationship with my past, my relationship with myself, my marriage, my parenting, and my friendships. I am truly being conformed to the image of God through the transformation of my mind. I find myself these days devouring his word with an insatiable appetite and reading book after book about grace. I have had what Chuck Swindoll terms a "Grace Awakening" and it's stimulating beyond words.
I am under no delusion that I don't have more healing left to be done. Everyone I've talked with and everyone I've read says that this process takes years to accomplish. Philip Yancey used the imagery of a moonshiner's still when he said it took years for him to distill the gospel out of the subculture where he found the Lord. While it's true that in a sense I've been on this journey for many years already, I also realize that in many other ways I've only just begun.
The last several months have been nothing short of astounding. Especially at how quickly God has replaced my UPC network with new relationships of like minded believers of every stripe. I have found spiritual cousins I never knew existed and in places I never thought I'd find them. I am not alone. God has brought many men and women into my life in the last few months who have endured what I've endured and have extended to me and my family the hand of fellowship and empathy. Today I am sending in my application to join another ministerial association of men and women I can call compatriots in Christ with whom I can fellowship and establish mutual support. If you had told me two years ago that I'd be where I am today I would have called you crazy. But it's true and I can hardly believe it.
I have learned that fear is a powerful enemy. But fear can be defeated! I have learned that God is in the UPC. But I've also learned he's not ONLY in the UPC. I've learned that God loves me and accepts me just the way I am and I only need to put my trust in Him and he'll sustain me and lead in the path of righteousness. I have learned that I am righteous because God says I am and I can approach him with confidence even in the midst of my humanity. Grace! That's why it's so amazing. Sola gratia!
Posted March 12, 2003
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August 23, 1997
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