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This was originally an article in Rose Creek Village's Stonehouse Chronicles.
I encountered God in 1982. It was sudden, unexpected, and caused a great deal of change in my life.
In fact, it was a rather stunning experience. It was a lot like being tripped up at a time when things were really going pretty well in my life. I wasn't looking for God. He came looking for me.
I'm sure it all began with Roger Thomas. Roger was my first boss in the military. I found out later, after he prayed for an alcoholic friend of mine, that he was a rather powerful man of prayer. The constant intrusion of God into my life while I worked for Roger was surely the result of his prayers.
Roger and I argued about religion almost every day. Most days I won the argument hands down. I backed him into one logical corner after another. Each time he would laugh out loud and tell me what a great Christian I would make some day.
I began reading the Gospels, looking for contradictions that I could use against Roger, but I began to fall in love with Christ. I had read the Gospels a couple times growing up, but they'd never really gotten inside of me. This time they did.
I remember being surprised by how rude Christ seemed. He was extraordinarily blunt. However, his approach to life was incredible, and I was impressed by the impression he left on his disciples. I began to wonder, who was this man? Could he really be the Son of God?
With that, I also thought, "I sure hope not, because an awful lot of what I'm doing is going to have to change if he's right."
Not long after, I ended up sitting down with a man who asked me, "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?" It took me a long time to answer. I thought about the Gospels. I thought about some recent events that had happened that had shaken my disbelief in God and his intervention in human lives. I finally looked up and said, "Yes, I do."
The effect was incredible. The whole world changed. It looked different and smelled different. An incredible happiness overtook me that is simply indescribable. My chest literally filled up with joy. It was such a powerful and stunning experience that I promised myself and God that I would never forget it nor doubt that it was a miracle.
I threw myself into the Christian life ñ attending churches, Bible studies, and home fellowships literally every day. Unfortunately, while there was much joyful fellowship as well, it seemed like the number one activity of committed Christians was arguing about the Bible. We were constantly throwing Scriptures back and forth, trying to determine the correct view on this doctrine or that one.
In less than a year, the military sent me to a remote site in Alaska. At that base there were only about five committed Christians at any one time. When I got there, they really weren't doing anything, so I quickly got them organized. We added weekly Bible studies, and we began making trips into the local Eskimo village to pass out tracts. However, we were all from different denominations, and it took only weeks for our little Bible study to dissolve into nothingness. These committed Christians literally wouldn't talk to one another.
At the same time I was receiving word that my best friends from my church in Florida had been put out for teaching that Christians ought not to call themselves by denominational names.
I was already growing frustrated when people I witnessed to would answer me with, "There are a thousand churches teaching a thousand different things about the Bible. Why should I believe what you're telling me?" It seemed I heard that over and over again. I found a verse where Christ prayed for his disciples "that they may be made perfect in one, so that the world may know that you sent me" (Jn 17:23).
I didn't know what to do. "Is this what you have for your church?" I asked God. "Your church will argue, divide, put one another out, and teach competing doctrines from the Bible? We're definitely not made perfect in one, and it's stopping the world from knowing that God sent you."
I made up my mind to be of no church or denomination. I began to read my Bible with a new openness, trying to read it just for what it said, not for what my church had told me it said. There, in Alaska, I had plenty of time for that, and I got through the whole Bible four times that year and the New Testament more than that. That was enlightening, but it really only led to more arguments than before.
It was all very confusing. When I left Alaska to go to a base in Germany, I didn't know what to do. What church should I go to? Should I go to no church? Who would I fellowship with?
I ended up attending whatever church or Bible study I ran across. I talked to Christians about unity, about a commitment to Christ together without letting doctrines divide, but it was like I was speaking a foreign language. Very few even understood what I was talking about, and I was beginning to figure out that few Christians really want to follow Christ, anyway. The idea of denying yourself, taking up your cross daily, and coming after Christ which were Jesus's minimum requirements for being a discipleñwas completely foreign to most of the Christians I met.
Not only was I growing discouraged with the response of Christians, my doctrines were growing more "heretical" by the year. I had some confidence that they weren't really heretical, because I was having to do less and less explaining away of troublesome Scriptures and more and more of the ability to take Scripture for exactly what it said. But it was becoming impossible to know what to do with my faith in God. I had gotten married during my years in Germany, and my wife asked me one day, "How can you be the only one?"
I answered her, "I can't. Something's got to be wrong with me, but I can't go back to what everyone else is doing, because it's clear that one, it's not working, and two, they can't defend their views scripturally."
Not long after, a friend gave me a copy of a book called Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. It was a review of the doctrines and practices of the church during the first two centuries after apostolic times. I was completely stunned to find most of my own "heretical" beliefs outlined and defended by writings nearly 2,000 years old. I was thrilled. I read much of the book at work one day, and then ran home to declare to my wife, "I'm not the only one! I was just born in the wrong century!"
Before reading this book I had no idea there were so many writings from the early centuries of the church. Just the writings of the 2nd century, from AD 100 to AD 200, are easily three times the size of the Bible. We don't have to wonder what the apostles themselves taught to the church. The churches of that day tell us!
My wife and I returned to the US in 1990, longing to find the sort of fellowship, unity, and commitment that we were reading about in the early Christian writings. The early church had been a family to one another, living their lives together, sharing and taking care of one another, and devoting themselves to spiritual growth and to the ministry of Christ. We couldn't find it anywhere, nor did we seem able to start such a church ourselves, and we were beginning to despair.
After bouncing around the country, visiting people, writing tracts, and trying to start various works with friends, we finally wound up in Tennessee at the same time that two brothers were coming up from Florida to begin the work that would become Rose Creek Village.
I was not surprised to find in Noah Taylor, the leader of the church back in Florida, someone who shared my doctrines and beliefs. I had met a few others like him, but they all had small, boring home groups. What was different about Noah was that he had people with him actually living it out, sharing one another's lives back in Florida. In fact, what he described was so different, and we'd been disappointed for so long, that we really didn t believe it. When a friend offered to drive to Florida to check out Noah's story for us, we were delighted.
I still remember the day, a few weeks later, when he returned. We rushed to his car. "So?" We asked.
He chose a quote from the early Christian writings in which to answer us. "Behold how they love one another."
It's been a never-look-back proposition for us since that time. There is simply nothing like the church of God, his disciples banded together as one; not for any theological doctrine, but just for the one teaching that Christ is Lord, that he lives on, and that he is still in the business of utterly transforming all with whom he comes into contact.
My newest book, Rome's Audacious Claim, was released December 1. See synopsis and reviews on Amazon.