Redacted Letter: “Assembly Quest”

For the last 10 years or so, I have been on an “Assembly Quest” of my own and can so relate to many of your experiences, longings, and struggles. My wife and I both grew up in […] and have recently moved away from that group. It has been a long, slow walk away for me.

As you probably know, […] is heavily influenced by Brethren ideas and forms but with its own strong peculiarities. For a number of years, I “served full-time” in that organization and became more and more heavily involved. So, it was highly disruptive–both to us and to others–when we suddenly pulled out. Our whole identity was there.

My interest in the Brethren began during my college years when I was an avid reader of the MyBrethren website. Through that website, I came into contact with many ex-Taylorites and visited a tiny “out” assembly in […]. I also began to acquire books by James Taylor Sr., C.A. Coates, G.R. Cowell, and others. Throughout this time, I always had an issue with the concept that […] was/is the “minister of the age” with the “ministry of the age.” But seeing the general state of things among Christians, I put these nagging feelings to the side.

After college, I moved to […] and became entrenched in the organization. I did have a heart and desire to find the Lord and follow the Lord, but it had been ingrained into me that to follow the Lord meant to “follow the brothers.”

As I got more and more involved with things on the inside, I began to see how completely and utterly organizational everything was; behind the scenes, things were run like a well-oiled machine, only then to be given a heavy cloak of spirituality (and legalism!). The more I worked, the more I felt burnt out.

One day, I collapsed onto the floor and got out all of my old Brethren books and started to read. Mostly what I read was from G.R. Cowell, who confronted James Taylor Jr. in the late 1950s and led the way for thousands of other Exclusive Brethren “outs.” The ministry that I read spoke deeply to my heart at that time, and I began to read voraciously and to reach out many of my old ex-Taylorite contacts and acquire more books.

This presented a problem, and I knew it. It was my vocation to promote […] as “the minister of the age with the ministry of the age.” All the while, I was slowly deciding that I wanted nothing more to do with it.

Around this time, my wife and I visited another ex-Taylorite assembly. Eight people, most over age 70 (some closer to 90), in a little room with stacks of books and many empty chairs, preaching the gospel to each other and considering themselves “the remnant.” I imagined that this is what we would like 50 years into the future, but I did not know what to do. Over the next months, I began to read more and more, and my capacity to toe the party line became completely untethered. I also began to read a few other writers who helped me have a growing realization that “the church” is not some identifiable thing, but is a spiritual reality.

With one of the senior leaders, I shared my feeling that so many things seemed completely outward and organizational. I told him, “I want the Lord, but I feel like what I am getting is more and more organization.” He immediately became enraged and told me, “You have allowed your seeds of suspicion and discord to develop into a dissenting opinion, and there is no room for any dissenting opinion here.” The experience totally unsettled me, and I became physically ill for weeks.

Being so entrenched in that system, we were never encouraged (but rather discouraged) to seek out fellowship with Christians outside of it, to attend any other kind of Christian meeting, or to read any other kind of Christian ministry. Being freed from that kind of legalism is a long and ongoing cleansing, detoxing, healing process.

Recently, we visited an “Open Brethren” assembly, a “Bible Chapel.” There were about 10-12 adults. Everyone seemed extremely somber. We observed their bread-breaking meeting and then one hour of preaching for “Family Bible Hour.” The preaching was especially disconcerting to me, as I have always been used to something more participatory.

We have been back a few times since, and have maintained a good relationship with several people there, mostly visiting with them outside of their meetings, and trying to enjoy more informal fellowship that way. We have heard all about the divide between “Bible Chapels” and “Gospel Halls” and have been very much exposed to their whole “Bible Chapel” world. Although I deeply enjoy the fellowship with them on a personal level, I have no interest in their whole religious apparatus with its chapels and camps and conferences and “missionary service organizations” and “commended workers” and colleges, etc., etc. Another insular world to me. It seems that one loses sight of the significance of the whole Body of Christ when everything in consideration is part of one little (however far-reaching) group.

Last weekend, we had a particularly interesting experience when my wife and I visited another “chapel” in a very remote town many hours’ drive from here. What we encountered was another very chapel-looking building with a steeple outside and with pews and books inside and a sign announcing the remembrance meeting and Bible study. Six others gathered there, all directly related.

We enjoyed very sweet fellowship with them, and they were very gracious. However, it seemed so unnecessary to me that an immediate family should feel spiritually obligated to maintain this building and these decades-old forms and customs. I still cannot wrap my mind around it. I don’t exactly know how to pinpoint my feelings on the matter, but I wondered–are we ever going to be wiling to seek the Lord concerning His mind as to how He would have us gather (or not gather) in a place? And in a way that puts everything on the table, not holding on to anything?

This transition has been difficult without the past’s constant and continuous cycle of meetings after meetings. Recently, we were invited to a barbecue by a couple we met recently who are involved with a Bible church in town. At the event, we met a number of very wonderful brothers and sisters from their group who all seemed quite a bit more “relevant” (forgive the term) and serious than what we have been encountering among the Brethren. We even wondered if we should begin to meet with them, despite all our misgivings and thoughts about the church (the one Jesus is building).

I am still not sure how I feel about it, but I know that for either one of us to even be open to such a consideration is a demonstration of how far we have come out of the tight bondage of where we were.

Anyway, there are still many other things that I would like to say, but this is already quite a long message. I just wanted to share some of my experiences with you. I have not touched on a lot of the spiritual considerations behind these outward movements, but you may be able to read between the lines. Please pray for us, as it comes to mind. Thank you so much.

Love Covers (Paul E. Billheimer)

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The last few weeks I have been reading Love Covers: A Biblical Design for Unity in the Body of Christ by Paul E. Billheimer. The book is a product of its time–published shortly after the upswell of Charismatic Christianity 1960s and 70s in the USA. But the lessons in Love Covers are extremely relevant and offer a compelling and insightful commentary on biblical oneness through the lens of the author’s experience allowing agape love to “bridge the gap” of spiritual prejudice and isolation.

Billheimer is most widely known for his earlier book Destined for the Throne, which was popularized among Charismatics through promotion on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) where Billheimer and his wife hosted a companion television series at the end of his life.

billheimer-paul-eThe ideas presented in Destined for the Throne are familiar to me. Destined for the Throne is considered one of the only contemporary books that echoes the theology of the leader of the group in which I was raised. Billheimer’s notions of a “Biblical cosmology” will seem strange (or extreme) to many Christians, but I do feel that there is something to consider there:

With bated breath we read in 1 Corinthians 6:17: ‘He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.’ This union goes beyond a mere formal, function, or idealistic harmony or rapport. It is an organic unity, an ‘organic relationship of personalities’ (Sauer). Through the new birth we become bona fide members of the original cosmic family (Eph. 3:15), actual generated sons of God (1 John 3:2), ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4), begotten by Him, impregnated with His ‘genes’ (No physical relationship is implied.), calle the seed or ‘sperma’ of God (1 John 5:1, 18 and 1 Peter 1:3, 23), and bearing His heredity. Thus, through the new birth–and I speak reverently–we become the ‘next of kin’ to the Trinity, a kind of ‘extension’ of the Godhead. (Billheimer, Destined for the Throne (1975), 33-35)

Because this was all somewhat familiar territory (or approved reading, I’m still working through a lot of things…), I was interested to see what else Billheimer has to say, especially on the topic of Christian relationships and the universal church.

In Love Covers, Billheimer, a buttoned-up, lifelong Wesleyan Methodist, works through his build-up of prejudices against Charismatics and Pentecostals, and asks his readers–generally–the question: “How can the Church justify the divisions, schisms, and antagonisms, hostilities and hatreds which have divided the Body of Christ over the centuries?” (25)

What Billheimer does is take his own struggle with questions concerning “gifts” and “Charismatic” practices as a case study on the issue of fellowship and oneness between all believers, regardless of their spiritual, sociological, and ideological differences.

On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came when the Church was in full accord. Since then He has operated only in the ambience of love and fellowship. Therefore, without doubt, the most important prerequisite to world and evangelization and revival is the unity of the Body of Christ.

What is the basis for the fellowship which represents, defines, and gives content to this unity? According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the term “fellowship” from the word “fellowship” denotes ultimate identical derivation. In other words, two persons being designated as fellows implies common origin, a common family relationship. Therefore the primary, fundamental and distinguishing basis for fellowship is shared ancestry rather than shared theories, concepts or opinions. 

If this means anything at all it means the fellowship between born-again believers, members of the same family, should be on the basis of a common spiritual parentage rather than common opinions on non-essentials to salvation.

For centuries, fellowship within the Body of Christ has been primarily on the basis of conceptual, theological and organizational persuasions and practices. The principal thesis of this book is that in the Church, or Body of Christ, acceptance and fellowship with one another should be on the basis of common spiritual parentage rather than on common views or opinions in nonessentials to salvation…

It is only natural that the measure or dimension of fellowship may be affected by the degree of agreement or disagreement on various phrases of divergent theological positions. But fellowship based on a common family relationship through the new birth should properly overshadow or even dwarf fellowship based on opinions not essential to divine life. In other words, membership in the same family is a more important foundation for fellowship, especially to the heavenly Father, than intellectual or theological agreement. This is because all members of God’s family are equally precious to Him. So far as He is concerned, no difference in opinions on nonessentials to the new birth justifies alienation in the family. It assumed error does not produce broken fellowship between the heavenly Father and one of His born-again children, is there any reason it should do so between brothers and sisters? (7-10)

Billheimer spends the rest of the book using his experience of the Charismatic/non-Charismatic divide as a venue for presenting his realization that “love covers” (1 Peter 4:8)–not just sins, but “nonessential” differences of any kind between brothers and sisters who share the same life and Father.

Especially poignant for me is Billheimer’s Epilogue in which he discusses beingg convicted by God of his “outsider syndrome” among the Charismatics at TBN in whose company he found himself.

I am no longer an ‘outsider.’ These are my people because we have the same Father and are organic members of the same Body. I have learned and am still learning much from them. Spontaneous agape love enfolds and embraces us and we are one…Agape love has bridged the gap. (156)

I don’t agree with all of Billheimer’s ideas or conceptions of what is important concerning the church. But as one who just now breaking out of lifelong spiritual isolation within a very strict and tight-knit circle of fellowship, this matter of the “outsider syndrome” spoke to my heart as well–as I let the Lord rid me of all of the vestiges of suspicion and judgmentalism that well up within me toward other brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever their practice or background. However others behave or practice, the Lord wants to work on me. It is a difficult lesson to learn, but I see a little more the Father’s heart and design–there will never be “doctrinal oneness” in this age, and that is not the point. It is agape love that can “bridge the gap.”

Life Outside the Camp

After “serving full-time” for a number of years in a tight-knit “high intensity” Christian group—with some signs of success and the respect of others—earlier this year, I turned my life upside down and abruptly put it all aside in exchange for the freedom (and loneliness) of life outside the camp. But not without months (and years) of soul-searching and coming to terms with the Lord’s inner voice and the discrepancies I began to see more and more clearly all around me.

 It has been a hard road. A tumultuous change for me and for my wife. Every day, I struggle with the consequences of my choices, with my relationship with God, with my relationship with His people, and with my understanding of the church and what the future holds for us.

 Spiritual realizations propelled outward changes, in other words—completely uprooting ourselves and moving across the country to a land unknown for a school transfer (for her) and a government job (for me). There is a sense of quiet and peace in getting free from the stress and noise of religious obligation and the cognitive dissonance of being told to think and do one thing while knowing that it’s all wrong deep inside the heart. At the same time, there is a deep sense of loneliness and loss—loss of community, loss of security, and loss of recognition from others.

 This blog is about working through all of this. I call it “Finding Fellowship” because that is where I find myself. After spending my entire life in a closed religious system, I find myself confused, discouraged, but somehow expectant—wanting to find God, wanting to be free among His people. And I hope that this outlet can serve as a medium to make more connections as I share my story.