Early Spiritual Formation
I was born into a family of Methodists. When I was a few months old, I was baptized in the same Methodist Church in which my parents and maternal grandparents had been married, in which my mother had been baptized as an infant and in which she had been raised, and of which my parents and grandparents were members. Growing up, my family attended United Methodist congregations in Wichita, Topeka, and Rose Hill, Kansas (except for two years in the mid-1970s, when we attended a Presbyterian congregation in Topeka,1 where my uncle’s2 family attended), and I became a communicant member of the United Methodist Church in Rose Hill when I was eleven years old.
In the 1970s, my mother’s parents and siblings left United Methodism for Baptist churches. My grandmother took a child evangelism class, and I was her first subject. Thus, at the age of seven I asked the Lord Jesus into my heart. My sweet, godly grandmother had at least as a strong an influence on the formation of my faith as I was growing up as the churches my family attended, and from her I learned a deep respect for the Bible as the Word of God.
After I graduated from high school in 1985, most of the members in my graduating class who attended the same church as I moved away for college, while I stayed home and attended Wichita State University. Seeking a church with a fellowship of Christians my own age, I began attending First Bible Baptist Church in Wichita, where my grandmother attended, and where my uncle3 was the teacher of the college-age Sunday School class. After attending there a few months, I decided to get rebaptized.
This upset my mother. Rather than risk upsetting her further, I stopped attending FBBC. My church attendance over the next few years was sporadic, and I mostly attended the Methodist Church in Rose Hill when I attended at all, which was seldom. After a couple of years, my mother suggested that I start attending FBBC again, which I did for a while.
In December 1987, the Rose Hill Methodist Church wanted to designate the Sunday following Christmas to be led by the college students who would be home for the holiday, and I received a call asking if I would be willing to deliver one of two messages that morning. I was about to politely decline, but I distinctly recall an inner prompting that I should preach, using a handful of texts that outlined the Gospel message.
I continued attending FBBC afterward, but my attendance began growing sporadic again, and a few months later I learned that my uncle was no longer teaching the college-age Sunday School class, and I stopped attending.
In May 1988, my parents and I visited (on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary) the same United Methodist congregation in Wichita in which they had been married. I learned that they had a college-age Sunday School class (which was much smaller than the one at FBBC), and so I began attending there and participating in Sunday School. My church attendance began improving, and I soon transferred my membership from the Methodist Church in Rose Hill.
The senior pastor at this church was very charismatic, and although I enjoyed the fellowship of my Sunday School class, the way the Bible was handled from the pulpit bothered me. About halfway through the service, the senior pastor would set his own context, into which the associate pastor read the Scriptures, and then after the choir sang the morning anthem, the senior pastor would preach about whatever he wanted to preach about, irrespective of what the Scripture read that morning actually said. After nearly a year, I visited another nearby Methodist church for a few months, which also had a small college-age Sunday School class; but the way the Scriptures were handled there was not much better than it was at the other Methodist church, and the college-age class there met less frequently, so I went back. And so this continued for nearly three years after I left FBBC. I was spiritually hungry but failed to recognize that I was being spiritually malnourished.
In the Spring of 1991, a few months after I had graduated from WSU with a mechanical engineering degree, I noticed that there was a large Presbyterian church in northeast Wichita with relatively new construction. So I visited there on May 5, and what I experienced was profound.4 After the choir sang the morning anthem, the senior pastor (Dr. Frank Kik) read the Scripture, and then he preached on it, explaining its meaning in its original context and giving practical application to our lives today. He preached in such a way that it was clear that he believed the Scripture to be Truth, to be the Word of God. This was such a radical difference from what I had been feeding on at the theologically liberal Methodist churches over the previous three years. This was how Scripture was supposed to be treated. The following Sunday I attended the Methodist church for the last time (because I had a book I was borrowing for the Sunday School class that I needed to return), and after that, I began attending Eastminster Presbyterian Church regularly, transferring my membership there that Fall.
Eastminster was founded in 1957 as a new church plant of the United Presbyterian Church in North America (UPCNA), a theologically orthodox denomination that merged the following year with the larger, theologically liberal Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA), which in turn merged in 1983 with the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)). Dr. John Gerstner and his more famous pupil, Dr. R. C. Sproul,5 had been visiting theologians there, educating the members on historical Presbyterian theology and helping form Eastminster’s Evangelical and Reformed character. In 1976, after an earthquake devastated a number of churches in Guatemala, Eastminster, which was then bursting at the seams, gave approximately two-thirds of its building fund to help rebuild the churches in Guatemala, keeping only one-third of what they had raised to fund a modest expansion of their cramped facilities. But the Lord blessed Eastminster, and in the late 1980s it built a new, larger building on land it purchased in northeast Wichita, donating its old property to the Presbytery of Southern Kansas to establish a new congregation.
When I first started attending Eastminster, the PC(USA) was in the midst of the dispute over the Human Sexuality Report (HSR), a document prepared by a task force commissioned by the 1987 General Assembly to prepare a major policy paper on the subject of human sexuality, including an “understanding of the variety of expressions of human sexuality”. The sexuality that the HSR promoted was perverse and essentially pagan, advocating that Biblical sexual morality be jettisoned in favor of a “justice/love” sexual ethic that essentially said that human beings should be free to explore whatsoever sexual experiences they desire, just so long as they are consensual to all parties involved. Eastminster was poised to leave the PC(USA) for the smaller, more theologically orthodox Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) were it to have passed, but in the end the HSR was defeated by 534 to 31 at the 1991 General Assembly, and Eastminster stayed in the PC(USA).
My faith flourished at Eastminster, and I took to Reformed Theology as a duck takes to water. I got involved in the life of the church, participating in the singles ministry, the chancel choir, Sunday School, and serving on the Adult Education Committee. After a few years at Eastminster, I began taking distance learning courses from Reformed Theological Seminary.
Also at Eastminster I witnessed firsthand the pain suffered by a split in the Church. In the late 1980s Eastminster had hired a Director of Adult Education named George Granberry. Granberry had grown up in the Presbyterian Church6 and had earned a Master of Divinity degree from Denver Theological Seminary, but he was not ordained in the PC(USA) because he disagreed with the ordination of women. (Indeed, it was partly because of Granberry’s position on the ordination of women and Eastminster’s potential move to the PCA that he had been hired.) He was also a charismatic teacher and an effective leader who regularly taught one of the adult Sunday School classes. In 1993 he left the Eastminster staff to start a new PCA congregation in Wichita, and he took a couple hundred members with him. Several months after his departure, the tension surfaced in an Adult Education Committee meeting, when an elder who agreed with the ordination of women and a deacon who disagreed commandeered the meeting for several minutes when they got into an impromptu argument on the subject.7 In a recent sermon on Philippians 1.12-26, Eastminster’s new senior pastor mentioned hard feelings he had found from members who were still bitter about churches that had come out of Eastminster, but he said that he rejoiced, inasmuch as through them Christ is still being proclaimed, just as Paul rejoiced that Christ was proclaimed by those who preached Him out of envy or rivalry. Likewise, I rejoice, regardless of the denominational affiliation, that Christ is proclaimed, whether by congregations like Eastminster or by congregations that came out of her, like Heartland Community Church.
In late 1996, a job change brought me to the Kansas City metropolitan area, and the pastors at Eastminster unanimously recommended Colonial Presbyterian Church. I had first become aware of Colonial a couple years earlier, when The Presbyterian Layman published an article on the largest congregations by average attendance and giving, most of which were (and still are) Evangelical.8
Although Eastminster and Colonial are sister churches in many ways, Colonial had a different origin than Eastminster. Colonial was founded in 1953 as a new church plant of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), which merged with the UPCUSA in 1983 to form the PC(USA). When Evangelical PCUS congregations began leaving the denomination in 1973 for the PCA, Colonial elected to remain with the PCUS and the PC(USA) to be “salt and light” to the denomination, despite its growing acceptance of Theological Liberalism. Although the two congregations are indisputably Evangelical, Colonial is less Reformed in its theology than Eastminster, being more open to staff members who disagree with the historic Presbyterian interpretation of the Doctrines of Grace (i.e., Predestination). Colonial also leans more toward Baptistic influences, accommodating parents who wish to dedicate their infant children without applying the sign and seal of Baptism. Colonial has also been active in partnering with other Evangelical congregations in the city, irrespective of denominational affiliation, to present a unified witness to the city of the saving power of Jesus Christ. Like Eastminster, however, Colonial had suffered through two church splits—the first was Heartland Community Church, which separated from Colonial in 1986, and the second was Covenant Chapel, which split in 1989. Both congregations affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), although Heartland later transitioned to independency.
Shortly after I joined, Colonial purchased 127 acres of undeveloped land in southern Johnson County, Kansas, where it intended to build a second church building. At the same time, Colonial established a second worship site that met at a local Catholic high school for several years before the building on the new land was complete. At first, I worshiped mostly at Colonial’s original campus (the Wornall campus). Later, I supplemented by also worshiping at the new campus (the Quivira campus) before settling to worship primarily at the Quivira campus.
My faith continued to grow at Colonial as I engaged in the life of my new church home. Once I had gone through the new members class and had transferred my membership, I joined the choir. I also participated in several short-term missions trips to Guatemala, to serve a school in the city of Cantel that Colonial supported, and I engaged in a men’s Bible study led by one of the associate pastors that meets every Friday morning at a local restaurant to study different books of the Bible. I also served as the Deacon of Communion at Colonial’s Quivira Campus from January 2010 through December 2012. It was also while I was worshiping and serving at Colonial that I met and married (at Eastminster) the love of my life, the former Angela DeYoung, and the first of two daughters was born to us.
Out of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
In January 2010, the Colonial Session went on retreat, intending to talk about the role of elder in the church. But when they returned, they announced to the congregation that while there, they discerned that the Holy Spirit was calling Colonial to a Season of Discernment, to seek the Lord’s will as to whether the Lord was calling Colonial to separate from the PC(USA) and to affiliate instead with a Reformed denomination more in line with Colonial’s convictions, or to stay and continue to be “salt and light” to Heartland Presbytery and the PC(USA). The Session also discerned that the Holy Spirit was calling Colonial to get out from under nine million dollars in debt, largely incurred by the purchase of the Quivira Campus and the construction of a new church building there. The Session decided to address the first of these two issues first, and they approached the Executive Presbyter of Heartland Presbytery to appoint an Administrative Review Committee (ARC) to enter into discussions with Colonial and to participate in four town hall meetings, in which the Session would present a case for Colonial to separate from the PC(USA), the ARC would present a case for Colonial to remain affiliated with the PC(USA), and then the congregation would have the opportunity to ask questions or make statements. Because of scheduling conflicts, I was able to attend only the third of these meetings, which turned out to be the least confrontational of the four, but I did listen to the transcripts online.9
During the first town hall meeting, an inactive elder expressed a concern that Heartland had not been supportive of the three tenets of the Confessing Church Movement (of which Colonial was a part), particularly the tenet that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the only way of salvation. He stated that Heartland’s inability to support this tenet bothered him greatly, so he asked the representatives of the ARC if this were something that Heartland would be able to affirm today. In response, one of the representatives stood up and said,
Well, I think that the first thing that needs to be said is, as (Executive Presbyter Rev. Charles Spencer) said earlier, there is no one person that can speak for all of the hundreds of members of Heartland Presbytery. And I think there are a couple of things that come to my mind. And one is a very important part of the Book of Order, the Constitution of the PC(USA), “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” There are those who would say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord,” and I would be one who would say that. One reason being because what I know of God I know through Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. But am I going to be so arrogant as to say, “I know everything there is about God to say the only way God can reach another human being is through Jesus Christ”? I don’t know that. I know that’s how God found me, and I believe very strongly in Jesus Christ. But I think sometimes, frankly, we Christians—and we Presbyterians—become a little arrogant. And the fact is, I think there is always something more—whether we’re talking about individuals, congregations, or presbyteries—there’s always something more to know about God and how God is working. And I become uneasy when any of us—and I’ve been guilty of it myself—put too many restrictions on what we believe Scripture is saying or what God is doing, and that’s one thing I just think needs to be kept in mind and in balance. I suspect a good number of people in Heartland Presbytery would say, “Absolutely! The only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But there may be others who see it a bit differently, and I don’t think they’re all heretics. I just think some of us are at a different place in our spiritual journey and our spiritual growth, and I think we do well to remember, we have to leave room for that spiritual growth to take place wherever someone may be.
In other words, this ordained PC(USA) pastor implied that Jesus’ words in John 14.6 were not to be taken at face value, that it could be that people of other religions could come to the Father through avenues apart from Jesus Christ, and that those who took Jesus’ statement literally were “arrogant”. Never mind the colossal arrogance that had to undergird the assumption that the Lord’s own words could not be taken at face value because we know better today. If his intention was to persuade an Evangelical congregation not to leave the PC(USA), calling its plain interpretation of the Lord’s words in John 14.6 “arrogant” was hardly the way to go about it.
After the last town hall meeting, the Session and the ARC polled Colonial’s members with a non-binding survey as to whether they believed Colonial should remain affiliated with the PC(USA). Out of a total of 1,713 members surveyed, 1,183 (69.1%) responded. Of these, 1,079 (91.2%) said NO, and only 104 (8.8%) said YES. Of these 104, 54 said that they would transfer their membership to another congregation, 19 said that they would stay with Colonial, and 31 said that they were undecided in the event that Colonial were to disaffiliate. A few days after the survey results were published, the Administrative Commission of Churches Seeking Dismissal from Heartland Presbytery (AC), announcing their intention “to pursue reconciliation with ministers, members and congregations.” On the same day, the AC sent a letter to Colonial’s Lead Pastor and Clerk of Session, reminding them of the PC(USA) Book of Order’s property trust clause,10 and threatening to “ensure that all property of Colonial Presbyterian Church continues to be held in trust for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”
Notwithstanding the AC’s threat, Colonial asked for the AC to negotiate in good faith for terms of separation, with Colonial retaining control of its property. But after two months of no response, the Session announced on August 7 that it had scheduled a congregational meeting on Sunday, August 22, to vote whether to separate from the PC(USA) and if so, whether to affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. On the evening of Tuesday or Wednesday before the scheduled congregational meeting, Colonial’s lead pastor and clerk of session were summoned to appear before Heartland Presbytery, where they were grilled, and the Presbytery threatened to dissolve the pastors’ relation to Colonial, dissolve the Session, and appoint an Administrative Commission to serve as Colonial’s governing body in the event that the congregational meeting were not canceled. The next day, Colonial filed for quiet title and for temporary restraining orders against Heartland in both Missouri and Kansas. The congregational meeting took place as scheduled, and Colonial voted 927 to 27 (97.2% to 2.8%) to disaffiliate from the PC(USA) and 914 to 29 (96.9% to 3.1%) to affiliate with the EPC. I voted with the majority on both of those votes.
Subsequent to Colonial’s change in denominational affiliation, Heartland Presbytery took Colonial to court in both Missouri and Kansas in an attempt to uphold the PC(USA) Book of Order’s property trust clause. On June 9, 2011, the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court ruled that the PC(USA) has no legally-binding trust over Colonial’s property, and that the property belongs to Colonial; Heartland appealed the ruling. On February 2, 2012, the Johnson County, Kansas, District Court ruled that inasmuch as Heartland and Colonial were Missouri Non-Profit Corporations, the Missouri courts were the proper venue for the property suit, and that the Kansas courts would abide by the findings of the Missouri courts; Heartland missed the deadline to appeal the ruling. On June 26, 2012, the Western Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the Circuit Court ruling, that Colonial owned its property free from any legally-binding trust; Heartland appealed the ruling, but the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the case, letting the Appellate Court ruling stand.
In 2011 Eastminster sought and was granted dismissal from the PC(USA) to the EPC by the Presbytery of Southern Kansas. Eastminster’s situation was different from Colonial’s, in that the PSK was less theologically liberal than Heartland, and Eastminster had given its old property to the PSK to establish a new congregation when it had moved into its new facilities in the late 1980s, which led to a much more gracious separation for Eastminster than Colonial. Today, both Colonial and Eastminster are in the EPC’s Great Plains Presbytery.
In mid-2014 another job change brought me to Denton, Texas, on the northern edge of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Denton County has no congregations affiliated with the EPC, and the closest (and the only one in the entire metroplex) is an hour’s drive away in Carrolton. Highland Park Presbyterian Church, which disaffiliated from the PC(USA) in 2013 to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), is also an hour’s drive away. Given that my daily commute to work is about forty minutes (and the same on the drive home), my wife and I decided against an hour-long drive just to go to church, so we sought a new church home in Denton.
There are five Presbyterian churches in Denton. Three of these are affiliated with the PC(USA), one with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and one with the PCA. The three PC(USA) congregations here in town are theologically liberal, meaning that none of them would be a good church home for my family. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church broke from the PCUSA in 1810 over the latter’s (then) Calvinistic interpretations of the Doctrines of Grace. The CPC has adopted a semi-Pelagian theology, with which I strongly disagree. That left Denton Presbyterian Church, a young church planted in 2007 by a cooperative effort between the PCA’s North Texas Presbytery, Christ Presbyterian Church of Flower Mound, Texas, and the Southwest Church Planting Network. Denton Presbyterian became a particular church in 2011, meeting on the campus of North Texas University in Denton. Although my wife and I briefly considered a couple of non-denominational churches in Denton, we now regularly attend Denton Presbyterian (although we do make use of some of the programs at the much larger Denton Bible Church).
Such is the outline of my journey into Presbyterianism and out of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Today I am still very much a Presbyterian—just not a typical PC(USA) Presbyterian, which I never was. My spiritual character was profoundly shaped by the two PC(USA) congregations of which I was a member; but then again, neither of them was a typical PC(USA) congregation either. Indeed, had Eastminster been a typical PC(USA) congregation, it is extremely unlikely that I would be a Presbyterian today, and had Colonial been a typical PC(USA) congregation, my transition to the EPC or the PCA would have occurred sooner. Angela and I worship and teach children’s Sunday School weekly at Denton Presbyterian, while we endeavor to raise up our two young daughters to be godly women of grace and a deep, abiding faith.
1 John Knox Presbyterian Church in Topeka, Kansas, was affiliated with the UPCUSA. It closed in 1987.
2 My father’s (now late) brother.
3 My mother’s sister’s (now ex-) husband.
4 My experience is perhaps best expressed in what Charles Wesley wrote in the third stanza of his classic hymn, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” (The Methodist Hymnal, 1966, No. 527): “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
5 Dr. R. C. Sproul is the founder of Ligonier Ministries and the host of the Renewing Your Mind radio broadcast. Like his mentor, Dr. Gerstner, he was a theology professor at the PC(USA)’s Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Dr. Sproul left the UPCUSA in 1975 for the PCA after the Kenyon case, believing discipline to be a mark of the true church, and that discipline had failed in the UPCUSA. Several members at Eastminster provided financial aid to help Dr. Sproul start Ligonier Ministries, long before he became nationally known. He last taught at Eastminster on a Sunday evening in the Fall of 1991, on his way home from a Ligonier conference in San Diego, which was my first exposure to his teaching.
6 Specifically in Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, where I would later attend.
8 Listed by size, Eastminster was ranked #25 on the list, and Colonial was listed at #20.
9 These transcripts, together with other resources, were posted on Colonial’s website during the Season of Discernment but have since been removed.
10 “All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (USA), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA).” (The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II: Book of Order 2007-2009; Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 2007; §G-8.0201)