My life in a Plymouth Brethren assembly: 1980-1982

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My wife and I started attending Homestead Bible Chapel (no longer exists), a Plymouth Brethren assembly, in 1980; not too long after we were married at St. James in Grand Rapids, MI, a Roman Catholic church.

The first time we went there, we knew that we had found a home. It was a very small church. It had room to seat only about a hundred or so people. When we walked in the door, we were greeted by Abraham Lincoln! His real name was Randy Cooper, but you would swear this was old Abe reincarnated. Before the service even started, we had been invited over to his house for lunch. I don’t remember if we did–I don’t think so. We were kind of taken aback by the friendliness of the people. It was a good thing. We liked it, but is was so different than the aloofness of the laity that we were used to in many Catholic churches.

HBC was an open PB Church. To understand what that means, I have couple of things to tell you about PB “distinctives”. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail here, but here are some basic tenents of the PB.

First is that they are very mainstream Protestant, Fundamental, Evangelical, and Baptistic. For those who may not have heard of them before, they are not a cult as Christians usually define the word, although it is one if you look it up in the dictionary. So is Christianity as a whole for that matter. Some of the more famous people who have been PB are Harry Ironside, former pastor of Moody Bible Church; and WE Vine, author of “Vines Expository Dictionary.” Famous former PB are Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” fame; and Brian MacLaren, now associated with the Emergent Church movement.

Two other PB are of note. John Darby was one of the original PB in Plymouth, England (not Massachusetts) in 1827. Darby is the man to whom the Holy Spirit revealed the concept of the Rapture as we know it today. He also was instrumental in the development of Dispensationalism.

PBs reject the name “Plymouth Brethren.” This is not a name that they use to distinguish themselves, it is a name that others have put upon them to differentiate them from other denominations. They do not call themselves a church, but an assembly. The Greek word for church is (εκκλησία), or assembly. They believe (correctly) and stress that the church is an invisible organism made up of all believers, alive and dead. They do not use it for a local assembly of believers, or for the building, which they usually call a chapel.

PB are very Baptistic in their beliefs. See my next chapter for an explanation of Baptist distinctives. There are two major differences between them and Baptists:

  • They do not believe in a local church membership. PB see no Biblical or practical reason for local church membership. Nowhere in Scripture is there any indication that any local assembly of believers had any kind of membership roll. Baptists not only maintain such a list, but you usually must sign an agreement about your beliefs, and that you agree with the church Constitution. Most importantly, members must first be baptized by immersion. PB do not agree with any of these. They do believe in baptism by immersion, just not as a condition for membership.
  • Baptists believe in two offices: pastor and deacon. PB believe that these these two offices are one and the same, and they prefer to use the term “elder.” There is no clergy or laity. There are only those who have chosen to fellowship with one another. There must be more than one elder in the assembly, and they are not elected to office.

PB assemblies are completely independent from one another. One may differ greatly from any other one out there. The Worship service at Homestead was what my wife and I still call the closest thing to true worship that we have ever experienced in a Protestant church. There was no set message. There was no designated speaker. You simply walked in, sat down, and began to pray silently. If you felt like praying aloud, you prayed aloud. If you felt like reading Scripture, you stood up and read Scripture. If you wanted to share a testimony, you did so. Usually after about a half-hour, one of the elders would stand and share a 10 or 15-minute mini-sermon. After that, the offering basket would be passed very quietly, then we would share in the Lord’s Supper. Communion is a weekly observance in most PB assemblies.

We loved Homestead greatly. In 1981, we both felt the need to be baptized biblically, by immersion. We had both been baptized as infants by sprinkling in our respective Catholic churches, St. John Vianney for me, and St. Isidore for Mary.

In 1982, I was getting to the point where I dreaded my job.

I was working at Guardsman Chemicals in Grand Rapids. It was a dirty, scummy, union job. At his time, I hated unions but in order to work there, I had to join. My father was the foreman of receiving when I first started there. Dad was having physical problems at the time and had missed a lot of work. When the supervisor in the Drum plant (where I worked) retired, they moved my Dad into this position. A few months later, for unexplained reasons (probably because of his health) he was fired.

I hated this job anyway and had already decided to go into the Army, partly to see if I might like it as a new career, and partly to get some money for college, something my folks and I could never afford. The way my Dad was treated at Guardsman just confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing. My wife was pregnant with our first son, so I waited until after he was born so I could be at the delivery and share in the first couple of months after his birth. So when Mike was two months old, I left for basic at Fort Dix, NJ and AIT at Fort Sam Houston, TX while my wife and he lived with my parents in Grandville, MI.

After Fort Sam, I left for my permanent assignment at Fort Hood, TX. I went straight there after AIT so I could find an apartment. I found one almost right away and went home to get my family.

Homestead gave us a wonderful send-off. There were a lot of tears. Randy Cooper tried to convince me that it definitely was NOT God’s will for me to go into the Army. This was Randy’s personal thing, not a PB thing. So it was off to Texas for a new chapter in my life.

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My life as a Roman Catholic: 1959-1980

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I was raised in a traditional American Roman Catholic (RC) family, though not very strict. My Dad’s family are all Catholic. My Mom converted from Southern Baptist to Catholicism when she married my Dad. We didn’t go to Mass very often, except on holidays, although Catechism was a weekly affair through 8th grade. My folks have been attending Mass much more often in the past few years. They have always been devout, but because of personal reasons which I cannot share in a public forum, they did not go very often while we (my sisters, brother, and I) were growing up.

I have been interested in religion since I was a kid. At least when I was very young, I liked memorizing prayers, taking my first communion, saying the Rosary, my confirmation, going to Mass on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

I went through an extremely rebellious time during my teens, and finally came to the Lord when I was 17 at a Bible study with the girl who later became my wife.

During the next three years, my wife and I both were having trouble reconciling the things that we were discovering from the Bible, with what we had learned in the RC faith. The biggest is that of justification by faith (sola fide), “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” I know that RCs will say that they believe this too, but if you look at the full ramifications of their other beliefs, they deny it in just about everything else they do–or so I believed at the time.

My wife and I were married while we were still in the Church. Mary really didn’t want to, but she capitulated to my wishes. I had my doubts about the Church, but I was confident that as long as I was going to the particular parish that we were attending, I could force myself to accept the faith, and just not focus on the things that I didn’t agree with.

It didn’t work. Within about a month or two after getting married those things that I didn’t agree with, became increasingly troubling to me. That was when we decided to break from the RC and start looking at other churches.

The man that was leading the Bible study that we were attending was a student at the Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music (no longer exists). He attended a Plymouth Bretheren church (chapel) on the Northeast side of Grand Rapids. We visited his church a few times, but it was too far for us to drive. We found another PB church, Homestead Bible Chapel, that was a closer drive for us and began checking it out.

Disillusioned with Baptist theology

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I have been getting very dissolusioned with Baptist theology over the last few years. It will be hard to put it all down. I will probably explain why in a series of posts to make them easier to categorize. To start with, I will have to explain what has lead me to this point.

My testimony and short bio

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I was raised Roman Catholic, but not very strict. I have always believed in God, even as a small child. I remember that I just loved going through our old family Bible and looking at the artwork. There were a lot of classical paintings in it. Although I strongly believed in God, I didn’t really understand fully what that meant, or what I should do with that knowledge.

When I was in Junior High, I went through a period where I became very interested various cultic practices. I was mostly interested in ESP, and witchcraft. I think I read every book on the subjects that I could find on them in my school and city libraries.

At the same time I began to be very interested in a particular girl at school. I ended up with a giant crush on her, but I was too afraid to say anything. I credit her with beginning my turn back to the Lord. She was a very staunch Christian who didn’t have a problem with telling me that the things I was involved in were of the Devil. I wanted to try to impress her, and God, I thought, was just the way to do it.

This was in 1973 when the Jesus Movement starting coming around in Michigan. I remember someone coming around the house with free New Testaments from a place called “Key ’73.” I began reading the Bible more and began to realize that because of the things I was involved in, I was probably headed for Hell (I still hadn’t heard–or at least, understood the Gospel yet).

I began carrying my Bible to school and read it quite a lot, but pretty much just for the stories and histories. I didn’t understand most of the epistles. They were just too deep for me. It was obvious that nothing was going to happen between me and the girl I mentioned before, so the Bible reading went by the wayside also.

I started going to a friend’s local Baptist church. I liked the activities, but so many of the people that I knew from my school that went there were complete hypocrites (including me), it just became a place to meet girls. Eventually I stopped going altogether.

Later in my senior year, I met Mary, the girl who would later become my wife. We became friends quickly, but didn’t begin getting close until after we graduated in 1977. She was raised in a much more strict Catholic home. Knowing she was very religious (not saved yet either) it rekindled my interest in the Bible. At this time I also read Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. Until I read this book, I had never thought about the end-times, or the fact that I was living in them.

Mary really loved and looked up to her older brother. She was very surprised to learn that he was attending a home Bible study. He invited her to come, and after a few weeks, she invited me. We were going through the book of Ephesians. I had heard all my life that Jesus died for my sins, but I never really understood what that meant.

Mary and I both suffered from a similar problem. We both wanted to turn our lives around but it seemed that we could never get over the guilt aspect. It seemed that we could do whatever we wanted to try to get closer to him, but if we sinned too much—too bad! We weren’t good enough. We could never be good enough.

That was when we first heard from God’s Word that salvation was free. God wants us to do good works because he is good and wants us to be of the same mind. However, the whole reason Jesus died on the cross was because without him we are completely and utterly lost.

Within a short time, Mary and I came to realize this, dedicated ourselves to him, and have never looked back. Over the next three years we became engaged. During our engagement, we began questioning many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. For a time I especially wanted to get married in the Church so I tried to force myself to believe in the very doctrines that I had trouble believing.

We were married at St. James Catholic Church in Grand Rapids, MI in 1980. Shortly after this though, I got my wits about me and I just couldn’t force myself to believe in what I was increasingly convinced was anti-Christian doctrine.

We began attending Homestead Bible Chapel in Kentwood, MI, an assembly of Plymouth Brethren believers. It was a wonderful church that preached God’s Word accurately and the people were so friendly, that we knew we had found our new home. It was here that Mary and I both received believer’s baptism by immersion.

A couple of years later, I began to be very disillusioned in my job. Mary became pregnant, and I felt like I was now stuck in a job I hated. I decided to go into the Army to try to make a career change, and get some money for school. So when Mike was two months old, I went into basic training. Other than basic training and AIT, I spent the whole four year term of service at Fort Hood, TX.

When we moved to Texas, there were no Plymouth Brethren assemblies in the area. I wanted to go to a non-denominational church, but all of them in the area were Pentecostal or similar. All of the Baptist churches were Southern Baptist, and I didn’t want to go there. We met some people who had just begun a new Regular Baptist church in their home, and we began attending there. Mary and I had another son, Matthew, during this time. We stayed with Grace Baptist Church for the whole time we were in Texas, where I eventually was elected a deacon.

When I got out of the Army and went back to Michigan, we moved in with my parents for few months and then moved into the duplex across the street from them. We went back to Homestead, but so many people had left, that the spirit there had changed.

We started going to Grandville Baptist Church at this time and have been attending there since 1987.