Note: Due to the sensitive subject matter being discussed, the names of the people involved have been changed to protect their identity.
Futile Fellowship: A First Hand Account
by Raymond Walker
Around ten years have passed since the events I am about to describe. These involve my own personal experience with trying to have genuine fellowship in a 'closed-system' church group. While these are not the most pleasant of memories to share, I feel that by documenting the experience at the time and allowing others to read it, it can provide some solace and comfort to those who feel they may be alone in their own personal testimonies of abuse within the body of fellowship in their own former respective church groups. I hope the Lord uses my own recollections as a reminder to us that we must earnestly and with open-minds search God's guidance if we are to truly understand and share with others what true fellowship is all about, and what it is meant to be.
Local Church Denomination (name changed):
"Only Our Personal Savior" Church (a.k.a. "OOPS Church"), the local church group I attended which is part of several local clusters originally modeled according to the Plymouth Brethren movement of the 19th century.
Cast (all names changed, ages and situations as at Fall 1991):
- Ray, myself, mid-teens, sole Christian in my family, saved less than 3 years prior.
- Tara, mid-teens, sole Christian in her family, saved less than 2 years prior.
- Milton, mid-teens, son of parents actively involved in the OOPS Church.
- Sandy, mother of Milton.
- Bruce, early thirties, married with two young children, Sunday School teacher at OOPS.
- Clarence, mid-thirties, married, in charge of the Youth Group programs at OOPS.
- Ken, mid seventies, OOPS Church elder.
- Jeremy, friend of Bruce, also a member of OOPS.
- Warren, friend of mine, same age, attended OOPS but not a formal member.
Being in the local OOPS Church was tremendously uplifting at the time and I willfully accepted all the "rules and regulations" imposed upon me.
"You will not be permitted to wear anything but a dark three-piece suit to show reverence to God."
I didn't see it as any big deal. I was willing to do it to 'please God'.
"You are not allowed to fellowship with churches outside the OOPS Church, because WE are God's true Church."
I never had. I felt I was in the right place. Why would I dare do things like that? It was 'unscriptural'.
I formally joined (or, more accurately, was permitted to join) the OOPS Church in October of 1991. I felt proud to be "isolated from the worldly ways" on Sunday mornings when we broke bread. Occasionally afterwards I would be invited to a fellow Christian's home for a nice meal, then on to an afternoon ministry meeting.
Joining the OOPS Church, I thought, made everything fall into "perspective". With abundant ministries on living the Christian life, it was the "perfect place" to forever live my Christian life here on Earth. Yes, I said I would never fellowship with any other Christian aside from those who were affiliated with the OOPS Church system. So there shouldn't have been a problem, although there was some concern on my part about an incident which had taken place six months prior to my entering membership at OOPS. Apparently, due to some irreconcilable differences, about one-third of the members of OOPS departed to have fellowship elsewhere. I didn't know the whole story at the time, but not long after I became a member approximately six months later, I was to find out, and on a more personal level.
One Sunday, Bruce gave a fiery lesson on the fallacies of certain popular "OOPS-approved" gospel songs and the importance of testing all things with Scripture (just like the Bereans). Everyone in the class 'agreed in unison' that the songs did not harmonize with the testimony of Scripture, including Milton.
Later, when one of the Sunday school teachers, Clarence, heard about Bruce's teachings, he took Milton aside and warned him about Bruce's doctrines.
I didn't know anything about what was going on at the time, or what Bruce's 'doctrines' were, but I did find out that some pretty ugly things were being said about Bruce without his knowledge by others in the OOPS Church. At first I was unaware of who started spreading such rumors among the youth group, and I didn't really know specifically what the rumors were, only that they were general "Bruce-bashing" type things. Since I wasn't too acquainted with Bruce at the time, I didn't pay too much attention aside from making a mental note. It wasn't until later that I deduced that it was Milton who had started spreading the rumours about Bruce.
Early December, 1991
A very popular OOPS-affiliated preacher was coming to town.
With great jubilations of joy I circled the week in December in which he was going to be here, which coincided with the final week of school before Christmas break. I was unable to come the first night, but I told Milton to take notes on the sermon for me. Apparently it was very good and I asked Milton if it was worth going to, as his tone of voice had suggested. Milton then remarked about how this OOPs-affiliated preacher knew so much more than Bruce. It was when Milton proclaimed and compared the knowledge levels of this preacher and Bruce that God reminded me about what Scripture had to say about back-biting and slandering. It was then that it hit me that something was terribly wrong.
Late December, 1991
I talked with Bruce over the phone about some of the things that were being said about him behind his back at the OOPS church. Bruce wasn't surprised that he was being talked about in that manner, but he was mystified by how much the youth group actually knew. I didn't really know the particulars of what Bruce "knew" at the time, but after some discussion with Bruce it was clear that there were some internal issues between OOPS and Bruce when it came to questioning the status quo in the light of Scripture, and Bruce was being portrayed as the 'bad guy'.
The next day, I met with Bruce for some more discussions. It was really intense and eye-opening. Being saturated with OOPS Church particulars, I took most of his testimony regarding what the OOPS Churches were really like with a grain of salt. However I again mentally noted it all down. I didn't understand what the problem was with OOPS and why they were so adamant in ensuring Bruce's 'silence'.
Although this may sound somewhat egocentric, secrecy was necessary because of what Bruce had told me concerning the tolerance level of questioning anything that the OOPS Church taught or did, even if demonstrated ably from Scripture. One of the main things that kept being called into question at OOPS was the doctrine of grace.
At this point, I repeatedly asked Bruce why he hadn't left the OOPS Church yet if he had such a problem with it, and he stated that unless he was thoroughly convicted by the Lord to leave fellow Christians, he would remain.
Unfortunately, none of what was going on was of benefit to anyone. For example, the disinterest of the teens in Scripture was beginning to show. In addition, Bruce was keeping secrets from other Christians, and rumors were being slung around everywhere. Meanwhile, Tara was cryptically talking to me because, like me, she was confused about all the goings-on which we were both a part of, and neither of us wanted to take sides. Tara just wanted everyone to get along again.
I was about to collapse under all the strain. None of this was Christian-like at all, and I was in the middle of all this! At the time the thought even crossed my mind as to whether or not I should leave the OOPS Church myself. It was not so much the subject matter but the behavior of everyone. Since none of the elders at OOPS were willing to confront Bruce in person, Bruce eventually decided to initiate a discussion with Clarence and one of the OOPS elders (Ken).
Early March, 1992
Although practically nothing was accomplished during the meeting, Bruce commended the elders for tolerating him and being able to get together for at least some discussion. He was looking forward to the next period of discussion they might have.
During this time, an internationally renown OOPS Church preacher came to our city to speak about the journey from Egypt to Canaan. During these meetings, I noticed something very disturbing. Although I had heard it many times before, for some reason the mention of anything pertaining to a "We, the OOPS Church, Are The Only True Church" attitude stuck out like a sore thumb.
Late March, 1992
Tara, Milton, and I met together for some serious discussion. At this time, the topic of the doctrine of grace came up again. A heated debate took place, and according to Milton and his mother Sandy, Bruce was leading us "the Devil's way". We were also told not to worry about things like this, and we were told to just accept free will, election, total depravity and salvation and not worry about the what's, where's, and why's of any of it. We were told that we could not, by any means, try and connect any two of the aforementioned "doctrines" and to keep the gospel "simple", because, it was argued, "what does it matter how or why you got saved, just be thankful you are!"
I almost collapsed. "That's Christianity?!?", I thought to myself. Like I said before, it was a useless discussion in terms of doctrinal edification, but it was amazing to see the other side of outwardly kind and generous Christians. After several hours it was time to go, and Tara and I strategically decided to walk home instead of accepting the ride home which was freely offered to us.
From here on things got worse. Clarence and Ken tried to suppress any and all questions being asked, doctrine of grace or not, and were saying, in much nicer terms, "Be quiet and just do what we do, because we're right and you're wrong. End of discussion."
In the first week of April, Bruce made his OOPS Church departure official, and a month later Jeremy did the same (in defence of Bruce). Their departures had little to do with the doctrinal differences, but rather the attitude of the OOPS Church, gossip, accusations (going as far as "devil worship"), and accusations of "wolves" and "thieves" in the OOPS Church trying to ensnare the "good saints".
Because of their departure, and in a surprising move which still baffles me to this day, Clarence put me in charge of Bruce and his wife's classes, while he himself took Jeremy's class of pre-teens. (Bruce taught the male teens, his wife taught the female teens). It seemed Clarence was hoping the departure of Bruce would end all this cacophony. However, Tara and I were alienated by the other teens. Warren just avoided me and the OOPS Church altogether. It seemed the times I needed friends the most were the times they were never around.
Late April, 1992
I eventually decided to just go on with the OOPS Church, regardless of all the craziness of the recent past, because at the time I just wanted fellowship with the real members of OOPS Church again. I figured all was forgiven, and soon to be forgotten, but I soon realized that it was far from over.
Clarence had instructed me to undertake Romans 6 with the teens. The first week was non-controversial, but the second week I reread Romans 6 again and suddenly realized the wonders of God's sovereign grace relating to salvation! Unfortunately, I was now at a dilemma. Should I teach Romans 6 the way it was, or to avoid rocking the boat again, "sugar-coat" it so Scripture is compromised with mainstream doctrine? At the risk of destroying any chance of me staying at the OOPS Church, and after some serious prayer, I went for the former.
With the guidance of the Holy Spirit I was able to go through the Sunday School class in an organized and understandable way. Most of the teens appreciated the lesson, and enjoyed how Scripture was making sense to them now. Unfortunately, Clarence was not too thrilled with my actions. I stated that I was only saying what the Bible said. Clarence could only say that I could no longer teach the class, and that Bruce had influenced me too much.
With Tara supporting me, I called Bruce up, and the three of us went for a long drive. By the end of the drive we were all in tears.
The following week I submitted my letter stating my decision to withdraw from the OOPS Church. Tara was devastated that this had gotten this far, and she also followed suit shortly thereafter.
It was strange. Over the next week I prayed and prayed, wondering if I should have left the OOPS Church in that way. It was an emotional decision. The OOPS Church no longer had any use for me, so had I not left I would have been dismissed from fellowship anyways. So, finally, I wanted to think that it was over. It wasn't.
Clarence and Ken called a meeting of the teens, including myself and Tara, for they wanted to rebuke me and Tara for causing "evil" to spread in the OOPS Church and amongst the teens. It was painful. I was silent the whole meeting, but they called me a heretic right to my face. Tara tried to defend me, but they said that she was "out of line, because as a female she was out of place by not keeping quiet". Needless to say Bruce's name was skewered again and again. A week after this meeting, she left OOPS as well.
A couple of weeks later, we wanted to see how everyone was doing (out of curiosity) and to see if things had settled down, and we realized through some of the other teens that our names were being "dragged through mud" during the communion service! We wanted to go in for an explanation, but as soon as they saw us they closed and locked the front doors. That was when the verdict was made: We were not to set foot in the place again. We walked away, looking back at the sign on the front of the building: "You Are Welcome Here".
The following few Sundays Tara and I spent the morning in the local park, reflecting on Christ and how His teachings became more and more unpopular as He ministered on the earth, until only the eleven and their close relatives seemed to show any indication of following Him. And then He was crucified. We looked back at the last few months and realized it all started when we started asking questions. It was all emotionally and mentally draining for me. I did somewhat poorly on my finals that year, and I didn't go to any of the grad events, aside from receiving my diploma. But I had little to be excited about.
Bruce encouraged Tara and me to go to some other church, which we did. We all went to a local Chapel, and it was helpful for us. We got back into the spirit of praising God and rejoicing in His Name. Bruce, through his generosity, provided me with encouraging literature and Tara was as good a sister as they came. Jeremy was also very helpful. Warren was starting to encourage me too, but unfortunately he had to go out of town for school. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had been so focused on the OOPS Church that I neglected to follow up on any post-secondary applications to universities and consider any aspect of my post-high-school future.
Bruce took Tara, Jeremy and me to various church groups around the city. One Sunday we decided to go to a place that worshipped in a similar manner to the OOPS Church: seats around a table with bread and wine in the middle, etc. We were welcomed with open arms at first. What happened next is next to unbelievable.
The preacher for the afternoon sermon personally invited us to attend, and we did. However, it was not what we expected. Without actually being specific the preacher said what he had to say about "wretched heresies". It was then we realized we were set up. Apparently, word got around various churches across the city regarding a group of "young heretics" wandering around looking for a church group to corrupt. This preacher happened to get a call from Ken the day before the "anti-heresy" sermon.
I came to understand what many churches were really like in this city, and used caution from that day on. In some places, we were already "known heretics". We were surprised how word had got around to so many churches. It was such a wild distortion that I didn't know what to think!
There was only a few options left for us if we were to ever fellowship again anywhere in the city: compromise God's Word (which we would not do); attend a church which had sermons but no fellowship (i.e. showcase Christianity); attend churches with emotionally led fellowship (as opposed to Biblically led); joining a cult (no); or just temporarily settling into a Bible study until the Lord opened another door (which is what we did).
Unfortunately, the OOPS Church was still not through with us.
Tara informed me that she was getting calls from Clarence, Sandy, and Ken's wife, asking her to come back to the OOPS Church. They all seemed worried that she had "gone to Moab" and was hopelessly lost. What was strange is that only she was getting calls. Bruce wasn't, neither was Jeremy, or myself. Tara, in her own words, said that she would not go back, because it would be too painful.
Tara and I were very grateful that Bruce and Jeremy were so helpful, loving, and supportive through the whole mess, through group prayer, long talks, and encouragement to go on for the Lord regardless of the absence of "going to church". They kept reminding us of how it is the people who are the church, and that even just two believers together make up a "church", in God's eyes.
Today, I am convinced that the Lord put me through the experiences at OOPS Church a decade ago to teach me about the true meaning of fellowship, by showing me what it shouldn't be. My only desire at the time was to have fellowship with other believers, like-minded or not, and to have discussions about the Bible in an open and calm manner, being able to disagree without disrespecting. Unfortunately, by "fighting a system" which relied heavily on traditionally established principles, and that had made a habit of silencing anyone who openly brought up an alternate point of view, it would have been difficult to find true fellowship in that particular arena.
I was also mortified by the continual and unabated gossip, slander and absence of restoration in love when I (or anyone else involved) was in the wrong. I am also deeply saddened that this pattern of continued ignorance of Biblically established principles of fellowship (Acts 2:44-47) is very common in modern congregational Christianity, based on my own personal experiences and research. While I do understand that fellowship is a two way street (re: I need to do my part), it is distressing when the response to efforts I make often entails apathy or disinterest, even among professed believers.
I am also amazed that many non-believers I've encountered seek deeper spiritual meaning in their lives than believers, whose "fire insurance" attitude is disappointing, but also a reflection of my own attitude sometimes. People need the Lord, and it's not just the unsaved! My unfinished prayer for genuine regular fellowship continues to this day, in addition to the reshaping of my own attitude with the help of the Holy Spirit. I am thankful that in recent years, the Lord has brought people into my life and path who reflect the genuine spirit of fellowship, and that I am able to have conversations and times of prayer with them. However, I am also thankful for both the good and bad experiences he puts me through each day. It is only by His grace and love that we can truly appreciate Him and all the things he has done for us as we continue on our journey in life with Him at our side. To God be the glory!
"See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." Hebrews 3:12-14 (NIV)