(A case study of failure to love within the church)

Editor's Note: One of the amazing things about the story of Jesus Christ is how quickly those who followed him could turn away from him.  How could Thomas see Lazarus arise from the dead and shortly deny Jesus could rise from the dead?  How could Peter have a vision of the animals in the sheet in Acts 11 and be told "God is no respecter of persons" and then turn around and refuse to eat with Gentiles in Galatians 2:11-15?  Throughout the pages of the Bible, we see people doing incredibly stupid things.  Many people confuse things done by people in error with those things God told man to do.  A rash vow by Jephthah in Judges 11:29-31 caused him to put himself in an irrational position.  David's sin with Bathsheba led him to a terrible act of sinful violence against Uriah.  This kind of irrationality on the part of man is taking place in the church today and has left your author, and perhaps some of the readers of this journal as well, with great pain and dismay as we see the unity that Jesus prayed for disintegrate into religious war and the death of many congregations.  This is my story of my religious life as the "odd man in the middle."  It is my hope it will be something many of you can relate to.

"You're that weird guy that converted out of atheism, aren't you," the questioner asked.  I told him that I had been an atheist for many years and had come to believe in God through my studies in science.  The man looked at me rather skeptically for a minute and looked at our large sign which read "Does God Exist?  A Nonprofit Effort To Show That Faith and Science are Compatible" and took a deep breath and said, "Well, what is your position on the progressive versus traditional issue?"  A flood of emotions ran through me, ranging from anger, to frustration, to disbelief, to disappointment, and finally to out-and-out pain.  Here I was trying to show followers of Jesus how to answer questions of faith and how to approach people living in the twenty-first century, and all this gentleman could think of was the current debate among members of the "churches of Christ."

This is not the first painful event I have had in this regard.  In fact, as the years have passed, this kind of incident has been repeated over and over.  I was fortunate enough to stumble into a group of people who were just Christians when I first started finding my way out of atheism.  I had come to belief in God through my studies in science and by studying all of the options--the Koran, the Vedas, the Sayings of Buddha, etc., and the Bible.  I had decided that Jesus was the Son of God and that the New Testament was our sole guide on how to live and serve God.  It had been a long, difficult, confusing road.  My conversion to Christianity was catalyzed by my own experience that the atheist life style left gaping holes in any workable plan for life and that the best of everything could only be found by following the teachings of Jesus.

The congregation where I was converted was focused on reaching the lost and, as a new convert, I never knew that there were issues around that could inflict damage.  Their love for me as a struggling human being inspired me to seek what they had. I saw people disagree, but they seemed to value their unity above their personal opinion or political position in the church.  When I moved to South Bend after college, I found a similar spirit prevailed.  I jumped into the local work, and because I worked with teenagers, I again never got into any internal problems in the brotherhood because no one wanted to work with the kids.  People might not have agreed with me on things, but because no one else wanted to work with teenagers, I was blissfully ignorant of any conflict or stress between individual Christians.  In 1968 I was led to start a ministry in Christian evidences.  This was an area of work where, at the time, nothing was being done by anyone else.  People who did not believe in God were viewed as hippies or radicals not worthy of any time or effort to reach.  For many years we worked on college campuses and did public programs in a vacuum because we were working where no one else saw a need or method.  After five years or so of beautiful work, the world caved in on me.

I remember coming home from school and finding my wife having a strange air about her.  She had prepared my favorite meal and seemed to be going out of her way to make the evening special.  My wife is a loving person, and I was just enjoying all the attention.  After the dinner she brought me a registered letter to read.  It was written by two men I had never heard of who had amassed many pages of charges against me, had a questionnaire for me to fill out, and concluded by challenging me to a debate.  As a na•ve new convert, I had a very hard time trying to understand what was going on.  Most of the challenges were things I did not believe personally and certainly had never taught publicly.  No amount of attempts to ask for a friendly discussion to resolve these people's misconceptions seemed to do any good.  The only thing that they would agree to was a debate.  I was sent a copy of a journal that had an article written about me in which I was referred to as an infidel.  When I first read that, I was certain it must have applied to my life before converting to Christ, but I quickly saw that it had been a recent article and that the charges against me were slanderous.  I went to my elders and was told to ignore this as it was written by a minority, obviously someone who misunderstood what was going on and would eventually see that they were incorrect about us.  I was promised that things would get better.  They did not.

A book was written about my work and my efforts that was even more slanderous than the previous journal article.  I found that some of the people who called and told me they were atheists wanting to learn about God were actually workers hired by these two men to get statements from me that could be used in articles and books being written to discredit me.  When you talk to an atheist, you do not use the same language, logic, or approach that you would in talking to a believer, so it was easy to take a statement made by me (thinking I was talking to an atheist) sound like it was some kind of heresy.

At one time, I got a letter requesting a meeting with these men to "resolve our difficulties and find unity."  I had a lectureship scheduled with a congregation in the area, so when I flew to California to do the lectureship I scheduled a meeting with them between sessions.  When I got there, I found that flyers had been put on every car in the lectureship area denouncing me and saying I did not represent the churches in northern California.  Stooges were put into our question/answer session to dominate it and goad me into statements that could be used in a book.  Members of the congregation (of which one of these men was a minister) had been given 3 x 5 cards with questions on them to read during our question and answer session.  Many of the members could not pronounce the words on the card, and when I asked them questions to help them understand the issue I was dealing with, they had no idea what I was talking about.  It was so bad that a local denominational minister got up in the middle of the session and publicly apologized to me for the conduct of the people who were disrupting the session.  I also learned that the same two men had announced a public meeting to start immediately after I left which was advertise as a "expose of the heresies of John Clayton."  It was obvious that, in spite of the fact that I had been asked to come to reconcile differences, this was never in their minds.  The final result of all this was another book attempting to discredit us and our work.  There was never any intent to resolve differences or present to the public the love that Jesus commanded Christians to have for one another.

I survived all of this abuse and political maneuvering by just focusing on Jesus.  I refused to participate in mud-slinging or debates and just tried to show people who did not believe in God the evidence that God does exist.  When someone was converted, I would try to find a local congregation that was free of all this political maneuvering to bring them to.  The pain of being misrepresented, abused, and ridiculed never went away; but having a good relationship with my home congregation and knowing that God was blessing my work with the disbelievers gave us the stamina to continue just working with the lost and ignoring the storm that swirled around us.  Then Satan struck at home.

Since 1959 we had worked with a congregation located less than a mile from the school I taught in for 41 years.  When I first came, this group of Christians was a blue-collar congregation of wonderful people who loved each other, struggled with many things, but worked together and accomplished a great deal.  I was aware of some issues in the Church, but in a mission field like South Bend, Indiana, Bible belt debates had very little impact.  For many years I worked with the teenagers, was involved in the Bible school and prison ministries, and even served briefly as an elder.  During the 1990s, there were obvious changes taking place in the Church nationwide.  As we did lectureships all over the country we would find ourselves in a growing variety of worship activities.  New songs were introduced, song leaders in some congregations changed from a single man to several men or a group, emphasis on grace and prayer increased, and worship in many places we visited was less formal and allowed more freedom.

When this progressive movement came to South Bend, it met with considerable resistance from a variety of people.  It seemed to me that most of the problems were coming from people not understanding what was being done or why, so I stepped in to try to help that happen.  I knew that trying to be in the middle between religious people on an issue like this is dangerous.  Since I had been an elder, knew, and loved people on both sides of the issue (I had worked with everyone involved for some 35 years) I thought people knew that I cared about them and only wanted what was best for the congregation.  I thought I could bring peace and unity to the congregation by being a mediator.  Surely, in my opinion, the love that had typified this group of people for nearly half a century could be used to solve the conflicts.  I was wrong again.

The thing that hurt so deeply was not that I was unable to prevent division in which a large number of people left.  Satan knows what he is doing and that was predictable--even though the issues for the most part were not major doctrinal issues.  What hurt was that the same experience I had suffered through when people attacked my work in evidences happened all over again.  A man I had served with as an elder and had known for over three decades suddenly viewed me as an enemy, and every move I made was under suspicion.  Once again I had a book written about me--this time not sold and given world-wide distribution, but still containing some 19 pages of accusations, making vicious and untrue charges against my integrity, and with anything but a spirit of love.  I gathered and submitted documentation to prove that my integrity was not compromised, and it was ignored.  Having stood together shoulder-to-shoulder against all kinds of problems and situations in the Church meant absolutely nothing.  I was distrusted, and it was clear that I would never again be allowed to have any role or purpose in the local church.  Any love of me as a brother in Christ that had existed in the past was gone.  My options were to create an even greater and more damaging battle with the church leadership, retreat into complete apathetic inertness, or find somewhere else where I could labor.  I chose the latter.

I would suggest that this story is not an unusual story.  The fact that a man would ask me in a workshop to take a stand on an issue that is obviously outside of my realm of expertise shows how far down we have come.  Recently I attended a funeral of a man who had rejected me for 41 years because he thought I was too liberal.  The funeral was preached by a man who had rejected me because he considered me too conservative.  Both sides failed to apply the principles of love that Jesus Christ taught.  I found myself unable to participate in something so painful.  As I walked away from the funeral, I was joined by another older Christian who had had the same experience.  The death of this man was not where the pain was because he served his God to the best of his abilities all of his life.  It is the pain of a fractured and divided body of Christ, brutalized by the very thing that Christ prayed would never be.

You may feel that this story is an unusual one and that my experience is just a singular arrangement caused by my own passion, weakness, and circumstance.  I would argue that this is not the case. I think that the vast majority of the Church is "the odd man in the middle."  Most of us sitting in the pews could care less what songs we sing, how many song leaders there are, whether we use books or not, or what logistical arrangements we have in working together--whether it be small groups or a congregational wave.  Most of us are glad to hear about a better understanding of grace or prayer and would not even be disturbed if someone feels that our understanding of something has been misguided for a long time, as long as he was willing to consider our understanding and work toward a common position.  We know we all need to grow.  We understand that the needs of the culture around us always change and that the Church must learn how to meet these needs.  We may struggle with some of these things, but we can grow and adapt to them as long as love is the basis of helping us grow.

What we cannot handle is the unkind and unloving way in which people are being treated--both ourselves and others.  We feel the pain, and we are mortally wounded by what is happening between people who in reality have much more in common than they do in difference.  We cannot stand to see the Church of our Lord in an internal conflict that violates all that Jesus taught and prayed for and which love demands.  In reality, we will not just sit there and watch it happen; and we will not be the agents of hate in a struggle where love does not exist--we will just leave.  Somewhere we will find others of kindred spirit who do not want to experience the same pain in their worship that they feel in daily struggles with the world.  Somewhere we can find a sanctuary where we can be free to worship in a variety of ways, but where we can focus on bringing people to a knowledge and saving relationship with Jesus and experience the love that Jesus commanded.

The Church will survive the twenty-first century even more free of hierarchy and clergy abuse than in the past.  This is grass roots Christianity, and it is where the restoration movement began, where it is, and where it will be resurrected in the future.

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, JulAug06.