It's not the shame, it's the politics
D-Day is my birthday in Christ. Looking back on 20 years of my own faith, I see a lot of disappointment, but even more hope
Today is my birthday. My birthday in Christ. On June 6, 1999, I went to church for the first time as a believing Christian, having made the heavenly transaction to invite Jesus Christ into my heart. The matter was settled, as Isaiah wrote.
“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
The road to faith
My road to faith was, at least from my point of view, complicated. I was born Jewish, the youngest son of two Jewish parents, who, as far as I know, were Jewish in lineage from antiquity. I attended Hebrew School at an Orthodox synagogue in Lynn, Mass. (Congregation Ahabat Shalom is still there, 101 years old.) For several years, I attended a Jewish parochial elementary school in Swampscott Mass. I was Bar-Mitzvahed in the Orthodox tradition. By all rights and privileges, I was (am?) considered a Jew in every community of the world, including Israel.
After moving to New Hampshire, and my Bar-Mitzvah, I pretty much left the active parts of the faith, and became, like so many, a cultural Jew. We celebrated holidays, we did our Jewish thing, but I never really connected to a synagogue for many years. In fact, I considered myself rather agnostic, since that was the rational, scientific, and culturally cool position to take. In 1992, I moved to central Georgia.
One day, I happened to watch a documentary about the Shroud of Turin, claimed to be the burial garment of Jesus Christ. I remember asking myself, “if this is true, then everything I believe is wrong.” The thought didn’t consume me, but it was a seed that I never really forgot about. Then one day in 1999, seemingly all at once, there was on a business trip to Denver. I felt really sick and flew home sleepless with a 103 fever, but came in to work (it was my company, I sort of had to). For some reason unknown to me (still unknown), I accepted an invitation from an employee to go to the Perry, Georgia talent show. You need to know that the Perry talent show was not “America’s Got Talent,” but you probably guessed that.
This young employee had a band and they were performing. I went, and uncomfortably realized they played Christian music. I should have known this, since the employee was pretty open about his faith. After the show, we all went to Waffle House, where I proceeded to attack their religion. The leader of the band calmly explained what they believe without losing his cool. As we were leaving, in the parking lot, I asked my employee why be believes all this stuff. He said, “I don’t believe. I know.” I asked, “How?” He told me to genuinely ask God and I would obtain an answer.
So, unchurched, cynical me did that. I asked in my pickup truck on the drive home. “God, if you’re real, and you’re there, show me.” God did.
I had what I learned is called an “open vision.” I was in a cold, dark, damp pit, or a well, with brick or stone walls, wide so I could not reach them. When I looked up, I saw only a little light, enough to illuminate a thin string by which I hung. When I looked down, I saw nothing but blackness. I knew, somehow, that this was a bottomless pit, and should I fall, there would be no return or end to the journey into darkness.
After some time—I am not certain how long—I “heard” a voice. I am fairly sure I didn’t hear it with my ears, but it was clear in my mind as I hung there. The voice spoke only four words: “This is your condition.” It was the voice of God. I don’t know how I knew that either, but I knew it with a certainty I’ve never been able to explain or dismiss.
Then suddenly I was back in my pickup truck barreling down the interstate. I nearly ran off the road, simply from the shock of being returned to “real reality.” I don’t think any time at all had passed in the long interval I experienced in the vision. I drove home, cried all night, and threw away all of the sinful things I’d accumulated over years of living a single, self-centered life. I won’t list them for you, but I think you get it.
The next day, I told the employee—well the whole company—that something in me changed. I actually had them all get in a circle, hold hands, and say a quick, awkward prayer. They thought I had lost my mind, except the one employee, who encouraged me to start going to synagogue (not church). I wanted to know the God who spoke to me, Adonai Tzva'ot (יְי צבאות).
So I showed up at the synagogue in Macon, Georgia the next Saturday morning, out of the blue, and was there anytime the doors were open for five months. In that time, I found a lot of fellowship, kind people, and devotion to God. But I didn’t find the voice that spoke to me. I was miserable. One of my employees called me a “basket case.”
That older employee, who grew up Church of God, an on fire teenager, but left the faith, took me out for a beer one night. He said, “Steve, you need to decide what you believe. Read the New Testament.” I told him that book was off-limits for me. He explained that until I read it and decided whether I believed it or not, I would continue to be a basket case, because I was obviously attracted to Christianity but refused to explore it. This came from an avowed agnostic who told me he never again planned to darken the door of a church except to attend weddings or funerals.
That night, I picked up the New Testament that the young employee had given me, which had laid unopened on my dining room table. There was no evangelist or counselor to tell me to start with the Book of John, so I just started at the beginning. I got all the way to Matthew 27, verse 51.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:51-53)
All of the seeds in my mind took root at once. The Shroud? I still don’t know if it’s real, but that night I knew the one who wore it is. Being wrong about everything—yeah. I went to see my rabbi and asked him where the Spirit of God went when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Holy of Holies was no more. He told me it’s in the Torah, and each of us as we read the Holy Books. Good answer, but I wasn’t satisfied. I pressed him, asking where the physical manifestation went.
“You’ve been reading the New Testament,” he said flatly. “Christianity is like Outback Steakhouse, no rules, just right.” I left his office, determined to pursue the truth and to find Christ. It took me another month or two to accept Jesus as Lord. I was “counting the cost” (Luke 14:28), since as a Jew, I knew there would be real consequences of becoming a follower of Jesus.
That brings me to June 6, when I first entered a church as an innocent, baby Christian. I had no idea why there were denominations. I was “saved” at home, but friendly with the pastor of an Assemblies of God church.
When I was a baby Christian, the idea of “church politics” was so foreign to me, I couldn’t even comprehend the purpose of it. I had read the New Testament, and I understood that even the disciples, and later, the apostles, had differences among them.
The Apostle Paul upbraided the Church in Jerusalem for its practice of separating Jews from non-Jews. Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, the Corinthians, and the Thessalonians remind us that proper doctrine demands good leadership. His epistles to Timothy set the boundaries and qualifications for good leadership. Lastly, Paul’s split with Barnabus, detailed in Acts chapter 15, shows how leaders can “agree to disagree” sharply, but continue the work of the Gospel.
Over the years, I’ve personally seen how church politics, at the local, denominational, and interdenominational level, has caused so much pain, division, and confusion to believers and, most damningly, the lost.
As a new believer, a Jew, I was regarded as a novelty. I was also “on fire” for God, rapidly consuming knowledge and hungry for experience. I was also 34 years old, which made many in church leadership assume I was more mature than the typical 14 to 18-year-olds who accept Jesus, running to the altar in an emotional frenzy after a particularly stirring altar call. However, this is true: A baby Christian is a baby Christian, whether eight or eighty years old.
I went through a series of stages of charismatic Pentecostal excitement. I was baptized at Brownsville Assembly of God, during the apex—though the mature tail end—of the Brownsville Revival. I church-hopped with a group of revival chasers, always looking for where the “Spirit is moving.” We were hooked on the emotion, chasing the feeling, not the calling. But to me, it was purifying in many ways. For nearly two years, I watched no television. I listened to no music except worship. I was committed in a way few in the American church are, or even can be, today.
It was during this time that I was allowed to pursue bringing the evangelist at the Brownsville Revival, Steve Hill, to the Perry agri-center. There is a 5,000-seat auditorium there and I intended to fill it with eager ears for a stop on the “Awake, America” tour with Brownsville worship leader Lindell Cooley and Hill giving the roaring call to Christ. I was co-chairman of the committee, and as such, gained access to many ministers in the central Georgia area. I had a database of every church in a 40-mile radius, and contacted many of the pastors.
It was hard enough getting Pentecostal pastors on board, though they had no objection to the speaker. Baptists generally scoffed. I was told at one church, when asked where I was baptized, that Brownsville was “wild fire.” What was really worthy in that time (the year 2000) is I went to dozens of church services at different evangelical churches, and kneeled in prayer at their altars. I must have been “saved” at least 20 times.
That year, the Georgia Baptist Convention of the SBC had its annual meeting in Macon. I asked to have a booth at the convention, to ask for volunteers for the “Awake, America” event. I disclosed all the details, and who the evangelist would be. The request went up to headquarters, and I was told there was “no chance” it would be approved. You see, Baptists don’t look kindly on the wild, charismatic Pentecostals at the Assemblies of God. They especially don’t like preachers like Steve Hill, who lay hands on worshipers, and people fall prostrate, “slain” in the Spirit. They don’t like the operation of the gifts, or speaking in tongues, and regard it as a heresy against their cessationist doctrine.
But privately, a number of Baptists (including pastors) are also baptized in the Holy Spirit. They do, privately, speak in tongues. They do, privately, believe in the operation of prophecy, healing, and other gifts of the Spirit in operation. Many stand firmly against it, and really believe that the gifts ceased, but many others are open to the idea, if publicly in doctrinal lockstep. And there’s those who openly promote the gifts, who find themselves politically tossed from their pulpit. This happened in a few churches in Warner Robins, Georgia over the years. I witnessed it myself.
Against all expectations, GBC leadership approved my booth. It’s funny that in my own innocence, I believed this would happen, and had prayed fervently for it. These days, I doubt I’d possess such faith.
The day came and we set up our booth. People came by, and we handed out flyers. Some pastors seemed surprised. Some were undoubtedly surprised, but didn’t show it. Everyone was kind to our little group of charismatics. About halfway through our day, we were approached some men from the SBC, who said we’d need to leave. We were told that there were several complaints that our project was not in keeping with Baptist doctrine, and these pastors were not comfortable having us there.
I still consider it an honor, a badge of faith, that I was ejected from the Georgia Baptist Convention annual meeting, not because I was a rebel, or a disruption, but because I promoted a brand of Christianity many of them personally practiced but publicly denounced.
Shortly after this event, Steve Hill announced he had prayed and the Lord instructed him to stop the “Awake, America” tour. Our stop was abruptly canceled, without as much as a personal phone call from Hill. I was quite offended, but Steve’s wife Jeri assured me it was not personal. Jeri is an angel on earth. Steve Hill passed away in 2014 after a long fight with cancer, followed shortly after by his adult son Ryan. Jeri, to this day, continues Steve’s ministry, “Together in the Harvest.”
Through my years, I’ve seen church congregations turn from holy warriors for Christ into a pit of vipers in the fifteen minutes between the end of the official service and the beginning of the business meeting. One pastor apologized to me as I sat (as a visitor) through his congregation taking a truly petty issue and turning it into a vote of no confidence in its own deacons (not to mention the pastor).
I’ve seen the Assemblies of God central office demand that Dr. Michael Brown accept AG credentials to continue running the Brownsville Revival School of Ministry. Dr. Brown has a Ph.D. in Greek and Hebrew from New York University. He’s the author of nearly two dozen books, including a five-volume comprehensive set titled “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.” Dr. Brown told AG that he prayed and did not believe the Lord instructed him to accept total authority under the AG umbrella. AG instructed the Brownsville Assembly of God board to fire Brown, and they did.
Dr. Brown went on to found the FIRE School of Ministry. FIRE is still producing missionaries, while BRSM is long gone. The Assemblies of God, like all denominations, gets things wrong. Sometimes in the zeal to attract the lost, and encourage the faithful, AG puts its faith and money into bad trees like Jim Bakker. There’s a long history of pentecostal preachers who assume the role of shepherd while fleecing the flock. Charismatic Christianity is a particularly vulnerable demographic for being fleeced, because we believe in the miracles of Christ, including financial miracles.
I spent a few years attending a Church of God congregation during my “chasing revival” time. It went from a traditional hymn-singing Pentecostal church, to a modern, thumping worship scene, to a name-it-claim-it word of faith church in the time I attended. They left the small, humble property where the church sat and built a large, boxy building near the Interstate. They brought in guest evangelists who told stories of how they sowed a thousand dollars into some preacher, and the next day, received a “harvest” of $10,000. Then they took an offering, frequently using some scripture as a “money” goal the Lord approved of. That church left the Church of God and went independent, as many of these kinds of congregations do when someone in their denomination confronts them.
When I see a church head to the money, the bile rises in my throat. It’s one thing to raise money for a building project. It’s one thing to fund missionaries and outreach all over the world. It’s another thing to flash bling, Rolexes, and private jets, claiming these things are blessings from God.
I became cynical. I walked away from God for three years. I personally understand the Biblical link between money and faith. It’s very real. Jesus said in Matthew 6:21 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In 2003, I spied a Ford Mustang GT convertible I wanted. It just so happened I received an unexpected $5,000 check from the IRS (of all places!) for overpaying taxes on a business sale. I ran to the dealer and bought the car. I didn’t tithe on the money. I stopped tithing at all.
I stopped attending church. I began engaging in worse behavior than I’d ever done before I was a follower of Christ. I invited the demons to live in my head, to share my home, to destroy my relationships. I spent money without regard. I was sexually promiscuous. I smoked, and I did recreational drugs (that would be legal now in most places). I drank. I gambled.
Between 2003 and mid-2005, I walked on the sin side of the world. I pursued my own desires. I then reaped the whirlwind in a sharp rebuke from the one who spoke to me in my pickup truck that February night in 1999. The IRS came after me for $20,000 (which I had to pay). My credit went into the toilet. Relationships were permanently destroyed. My dog was hit by a car and killed.
God sent more people into my life to help me. During all that time, I still listened to worship music and I don’t know why. I didn’t mention earlier that a rather large group of people were praying for me during my initial journey to faith. After my conversion, I had the incredible privilege of many of the people who prayed for me visiting me in my office to share their faith and prayers for me. I was gobsmacked at the number of people (many of whom I had no idea were Christians) cared for my soul.
I finally succumbed to the “encouragement” of my friends. One in particular minced no words, calling me the “king of excuses” of why I couldn’t go to church on Sunday morning. Honestly, looking back at it, I understand my reticence going back to church.
It wasn’t really the shame of admitting I was backslid. The Spirit of God living in my wanted my to repent, and repentance was a dam opening to let in the power of Jesus. It was like lancing a boil filled with poison. I wanted to go back to church and live a Christian’s life again. It wasn’t shame; I could handle admitting where I stood and kneeling in repentance.
It was the politics. It was the fact that I had been looked at with respect from people who should have known better than to trust a baby Christian. That most of those people knew I was backslid and absent from the faith community, but wouldn’t return my calls. They didn’t return my calls, but I’m not sure it’s because they didn’t want to associate with a sinner (though that would be bad anyway). It was because they didn’t want to deal with the fact of their own mistake. I wasn’t “in ministry” as such, so rehabilitating me would not gain any political advantage in any particular denomination. I was just a guy who lost his way, but one who was promoted as a novelty.
I can understand the likes of Anne Rice, Justin Bieber, and Kanye West. They are mega-famous, and their conversions were widely covered as some kind of revival for faith. But in reality, each of them had to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. Rice left the faith. Bieber and West seem to be continuing. None of them should have a yoke placed upon them that is beyond their own maturity. Christian leaders who do that are betraying their own hearts, placing treasure (fame, stardom, ministry) above the Gospel.
Look at all the Christians, not to mention the lost, who have been injured by Ravi Zacharias, who lived a double life and died without repenting. Ravi was right that the disclosure of his sins and crimes would harm the cause of Christ. He was so full of himself that he could not see the value of his own soul, apart from his public ministry. Those who enabled him were equally blinded, because they knew there was a problem but refused to do much about it.
Do you think any of the big-name preachers would answer the phone for Zacharias, if he publicly confessed while he was alive? Would any of them take Bieber’s, or West’s call, if they walked away from Christ? Of if they did answer the phone, would it be out of concern for a soul, or concern for their own ministry? The fact that I have to ask the question is stomach-turning.
Many of the same preachers who eagerly took calls from Donald Trump, who hobnobbed with Jerry Falwell, Jr., would never call on a fallen celebrity or preacher. One who did was the late Billy Graham. When Jim Bakker served time in prison, Graham visited him.
"Billy Graham came into my prison when I was there. He wrapped his arms around me when I was a mess. I was cleaning toilets at that moment and I was at a very low moment in my life," Bakker said. "Billy Graham walked in and threw his arms around me and said, 'Jim, I love you.'"
Bakker is back to his huckster con-man ways. But Graham was never interested in rehabilitating Bakker’s ministry, or publicly saving face. He was always—and only—interested in Bakker’s soul.
Millions of babies
I believe the problem with today’s church in America is that we have millions of babies, many of whom have been going to church for decades, but have never advanced past the basic tenets of the faith. They thrive on politics, public admiration, image, and church power.
There are also millions of humble, praying, faithful Christians who put up with the first group out of grace and the desire to not make trouble. The second group lets the first group stand in front, but doing that only makes the problem worse. The lack of discipline, authority, and good leadership within the modern American church is apparent from the very public rebukes of faith leaders.
Russell Moore’s and Beth Moore’s (no relation) departure from the SBC over the group’s failure to take on racism and sexual predation are awaiting a reaction from the governing body. The upcoming annual meeting is going to be either an inflection point, turning the denomination to repentance and humility, or a line in the sand, which will further accelerate the departure of many from the church, or even from the faith altogether. As Religion News Service reports:
The evidence suggests that many women, African Americans and young people are growing weary of the fight. The all-white, all-male SBC leadership can continue to proclaim their own persecuted righteousness. But if they do, many who have struggled to work within the denomination may simply respond with the two-word verdict Dates offered, quoting Harriet Tubman: “We out.”
When the mature Christians depart for the hills, what will be the fate of the millions of babies, left under the care of pernicious, self-dealing leaders?
What will be the fate of faithful leaders who believe the organization can be repaired from within?
What will be the fate of millions of lost people who are open to the Gospel but instead get an earful of politics?
What will be the fate of the backslid who have been hurt in church, but don’t want to go back to because of the church politics?
None of it will be to Christ’s glory.
Epilogue: Where are they now?
Many of the people who were major presences in my life have turned out differently from what I expected. I am eternally grateful to many of them for my own faith. But it’s with a heavy heart that I know the politics of the church and the pain it brought took some of them out.
Some of the most on-fire Christians who witnessed to me are no longer believers. They walked away, citing “new information” when they used to believe a simple Gospel with a burning faith. Some were lulled by post-Christian liberal ideals. Some were hurt by the church; some hurt by me, for which I can only repent but never take back. Words hurt, and actions can have permanent effect.
One pastor for whom I have a high regard turned in his credentials, dove into “hyper-grace” and now believes in “universal consciousness” and “experiential spirituality.” Another, Pastor John Kilpatrick is promoting a Brownsville Revival 25th Anniversary Celebration at the Church of His Presence in Daphne, Alabama. I spent a lot of time watching Kilpatrick’s sermons and following his ministry in my early years. Kilpatrick is still an AG ordained minister, and his church is listed in the AG church directory. But he also spent a lot of time producing prophetic words regarding Donald Trump and the 2020 election, which have not come to pass.
National politics is a poor mix for prophetic gifts.
Yet I have hope. There are millions of faithful Christians who do not bend the knee to popular culture. There are many humble, praying Christians who value souls over reputation or the survival of this or that ministry. There are still many who would rather not speak rashly of others than stand up to abusive leaders, but the time will soon come when more and more find the courage to do so.
Christ has already won the victory for those who believe. Love, not power, will win the day for souls, and for Christians who value individual souls, as Christ does.
I pray for my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. It would be a terrible national tragedy for that denomination, which has conducted so much outreach, been a part of so many lives, to disintegrate into factional feuds and benighted racist attitudes. I pray that the same open-minded and soul-focused Baptists who allowed me to bring a group of charismatic Pentecostals to the Georgia Baptist Convention annual meeting will prevail at the SBC meeting this year.
After 21 years in Christ, I still can’t understand why we must be so divided. But I do understand it must be so until Jesus returns. Maybe, finally, I am no longer a baby Christian.
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