Theological pilgrimage

I have blogged about this matter in the past but only very briefly in passing.   After many months of self-reflection and getting resettled, I now have more time to reflect upon my journey and share with  readers here (and anyone else who may be interested).

Since November of 2011, I have made a journey that has brought my family and I to a new denomination, and to another province.  As  some of my old readers may know, I began serving as an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. My family and I decided to leave the Lutheran church for various reasons–partly for family and ecclesiological reasons.  The ELCIC denomination (Canadian equivalent to the ELCA) in which I was a part of had made big changes in the summer of 2011 in the way it treated marriage between two people of the same gender.  I believe its interpretation of Scripture had gone awry and I know that this goes against the popular beliefs in society today. The atmosphere in this denomination made it very difficult for pastors to speak their mind (despite what they may say).  After some time praying and reflecting upon this, as a family we decided that it was better just to leave rather than remain within the system.  The theological currents within the ELCIC was too powerful, especially in its leadership level, so I was under no deception about this.

Despite these huge changes, many of my former fellow colleagues in ministry chose to remain in the same denomination (since they are mostly life-long Lutherans).    I know how hard it is to leave a denomination they have known all their lives.  It takes a lot of courage, perhaps too pressure to stand alone for most.  [but to my Lutheran colleagues and brothers and sisters who choose to remain, I pray for them God’s richest blessings. ]

For me, it was a much easier decision to leave because I was already very familiar with the evangelical church.  I had grown up a classical pentecostal assembly (PAOC) in Vancouver, and was baptized by immersion in a Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) Church in Ottawa in my early 20s, and had fellowshiped in evangelical churches most of my life.  (…yes, I’ve been on a theological-ecclesiological journey.)  So to return to the evangelical fold was no problem at all.  Our family packed up our belongings and moved from the prairie towns to the Greater Toronto Area in eastern Canada.  We finally feel more settled now.  We’re recently in the middle of a transition, but overall, this move has been a spiritual pilgrimage back to our evangelical roots.  In looking back I think this pilgrimage has also stretched me in  ways to become a better pastor. I have recently served as a pastor in a Baptist Church (CBOQ).

First use of “wall of separation” between Church and State

Roger-Williams-Edward-Coke-2
Depiction of Roger Williams while he was still a member of the Puritan clergy (his pre-Baptist days).

The first Baptist in America, Roger Williams, was actually the first to use the phrase “wall of separation”.  In his quote below, Williams compared the true church as a sort of garden of Eden, and he referred to this world’s secular realm as the “wilderness”.  He stated:

“[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”

Roger-Williams-illustration-631
Depiction of Roger Williams after he was banished from the colonies by the State.

Williams was later to be banished from the colonies for his seemingly liberal and heretical views of a division between Church and State. Previous, such a secular approach to government had never existed because the Crown’s Head of State was ordained and was to dutifully and responsibly act as “Defender of the Faith”.  Williams realized that a state-run religion would create a spiritually void culture of Christendom (in borrowing a term from Soren Kierkegaard), rather than, encourage true and genuine faith that would save one’s soul.  Therefore, a joint State and Church was seen as an enemy of true and genuine faith. He believed  to mix religion with politics would result in politics; and that to mix church and state would corrupt the church.

To this day, Baptists and Evangelicals believe that true religion must be voluntary and arise from a free conscience (thus, the Baptist doctrine of “Soul Liberty”).

Keeping a “wall of separation” between Church and State

President Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson

Baptists had a very important role in the formation of the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state”. Thomas Jefferson made this phrase famous, and in part, it was due to the influence from the Baptists. Jefferson had written two letters. The first of the two letters was addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802, in which he mentioned this concept of a “wall of separation between church and state”. This letter was written in response to alleviate concerns that Baptists may have had about any creation of an official State Church. Baptists were not anti-religion (as some secularists may prefer to portray). Baptist believers loved religion and their Christian faith. What they abhorred was one official state religion, for fear that the State’s politics would interfere with the church’s affairs and cause corruption.

President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Baptist Association of Connecticut dated January 1, 1802.
President Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Baptist Association of Connecticut dated January 1, 1802. It was a letter in response to concerns raised about creating an official state church.

Today, some misinterpret the phrase “wall of separation” to mean that we are to keep all religious involvement outside of the public square for fear it might be perceived as it being sanctioned or approved by the state (example). However, this was not what Jefferson had intended; what he had intended was exactly the reverse. This revolutionary concept of having a “wall of separation” between church and state was made in response to the State’s intrusion upon the church’s right to determine its own affairs. It had over-stepped its bounds, as proven in the Crowns persecution of Baptist and Quaker believers. The one and only intent for this conceptual wall was to keep the government’s hands completely off how churches and what Christians believed and live out their faith.

After stating all of this, I would also opine that the State does have  place to maintain religious liberties and freedoms for its people. Today, our courts have done a disservice by deconstructing the precedent of an accommodationist approach historically established by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the framers.   The separationist approach will completely distance any concepts of religion from the public square; whereas, the accommodationist approach will not prohibit or inhibit religious ideas and speech from flowing freely in the public square (e.g., public prayer, reading of scripture, etc.). Personally, I prefer the accommodationist approach over the separationist approach.  Keeping religion actively flowing freely in the public square creates a healthy religious atmosphere in society, which I feel would still be a good thing for today’s seemingly over-secularized western society.

Was the world’s first Baptist church Arminian or Calvinist?

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of Calvinism within Baptist churches (e.g., John Piper, Albert Mohler, including hipper and younger Baptists like Mark Driscoll).  When I read and hear Baptists describing “true evangelical” doctrine as  Calvinist in doctrine, this makes me scratch my head and wonder.

When I was reading up on Baptist history, I found something very interesting.  Thomas Helwys (along with John Smyth), two fathers of the Baptist movement, fled to Holland together with other Puritan/Separatist followers to escape the persecution of King James.  Helwys later returned to England and started the first Baptist church at Spitalsfield in 1612.  This was the first Baptist church recorded in history.

What theology did this Baptist church hold to?  Historians describe this as a General Baptist type of church which held to an Arminian belief of free-will (as opposed to a Calvinist doctrine of predestination).  So should Calvinistic Baptists continue claiming what is “truly evangelical”?

Who was Henry Alline?

First Great Awakening

As part of my orientation into the Baptist Church, I started doing some research on the early Baptists in Canada and rediscovered the importance of spiritual revivals.   Though Baptists had an even earlier history in Europe, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many early Baptists in  Canada and the American colonies had its beginnings in the revivals of the Great Awakenings.  God used and is still using spiritual revivals to call His people back to Himself.

Many Baptist churches in the Maritimes were established upon the foundation set by the leadership of one of the most influential preachers in early Canadian history, Henry Alline, who was central to spiritual revival in Nova Scotia.  Alline was regarded by his contemporaries as Nova Scotia’s George Whitefield—dynamic, eloquent, and uniquely spiritual.

Born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1748, Alline arrive to Nova Scotia with his parents and experienced a spiritual conversion in 1775 at the age of 27. Henry Alline began to preach in 1776 during the spiritual revival that swept the Maritimes, in which most, if not all, protestant churches were impacted.  Whether it was in Nova Scotia or New England, crowds flocked to hear him wherever he went.  His ministry lasted only eight years from 1776 until his premature death in February 1784 at the young age of thirty-five.  All though the timespan of his life and ministry was short, God used him powerfully, and later, his predecessors, to make a lasting impact in the evangelical and Baptist landscape in the Maritimes during this period of the First Great Awakening, 1778-1783.

Alline often spoke of this personal spiritual experience in terms of “New Light” and “New Birth”.  Today, we would probably speak of his New Light experience as equivalent to what we know as the “Spirit-filled” and “born again” experience, which is expressed in his words, “Attracted by the love and beauty I saw in the divine perfections, my whole soul was inexpressibly ravished with the blessed Redeemer . . . my whole soul seemed filled with the divine being”. Church historian George Rawlyk says: “Sometimes his preaching, ‘charged with emotionalism’ as it was, and delivered in a ‘fervent and eloquent manner’, in a resonating tenor voice, became superb poetry. Sometimes, the poetry was sung as a spiritual song and followed immediately by an almost frenzied outburst of words directed at specific [types of] people in his audience.”   For example, it might be directed it at young and old, at fisherman, community leaders and soldiers. Rawlyk says he probably did not have time to prepare his sermons.  He preached “as the Spirit moved him” and used words full of evocative and powerful imagery.  Between 1777 and 1783, in his trips crisscrossing Nova Scotia and the New England states, it is estimated that Henry Alline may have preached fifteen hundred sermons.

Between 1776 to 1784, Henry Alline established  five churches in Nova Scotia and two in New Brunswick that were known as New Light congregations.    These congregations did not start out Baptist in polity.  All but one of these New Light congregations eventually organized to become a part of Regular Baptist and Free Baptist denominations in Atlantic Canada. By 1810, there were about 28 Baptist churches in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

News of my family’s life-changes

Grace and peace to readers of the New Epistles blog.  It’s been a while since my last blog post. In this month of November, our family has been undergoing a big life-change. We have moved to new place (Brampton, Ontario located in the Greater Toronto Area). This change was stressful at first but we are getting used to it. There are different things to deal with: new environment, new home, planning on a new school for our daughter, new church, new working relationships, etc. We have been finding ways to cope with the new changes of living in a new place and getting to know new faces and names. Such life changes are never easy so I have empathy for anyone who has gone through this.

The reason for our move is that I’ve taken on a new call in a new congregation and denomination. I’ve moved from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada to the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. This means some different ways to “doing” church. At the outset, it may also seem like different ways of “thinking” church, but for me personally, it won’t be that different since my spirituality is rooted in evangelicalism. There will be some things I will definitely miss (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, church seasons, etc.).

On a sub-note, we will be recognizing the start of Advent with the lighting of the advent candles this coming Sunday (which I learned was a recent tradition that was started in this congregation about four years ago). It may even be addressed by someone one of these Sundays during our childrens’ talk (if not by myself).  This Sunday, I will be preaching on Isaiah 64:1-9  and will be titled: “We are the work of God’s Hands”.  I hope to challenge my congregation to think of God’s work in our lives as a vital necessity in our spiritual lives.

The theological language between the two churches may be a little different but through my years worshiping and growing in the Lutheran Church and evangelical churches, I feel that I’ve have been stretched. My wide exposure and experience have challenged me to use theological-speak without losing the crux of the theological idea. I have found that being trained in various ecclesiologies and theologies has broadened my scope of ministry methods. It has enabled me to become more versatile in ministry, leadership, and in communicating the gospel, and sometimes, find myself searching for different ways to bridge the gap of understanding.

I am sure there are many other Christians who have traveled between various denominations. There differences may seem big at first, but as one becomes accustomed to the differences, they seem to shrink as time goes by.

Anyone else out there who has, or is, going through similar life-changes?