This guest article by Ruth Sutcliffe is the first in a series of personal accounts from former Christadelphians who have embraced Christian orthodoxy.1 Ruth was raised as a Christadelphian and was a baptized member of the movement for 26 years before resigning in 2008. She now attends Willows Presbyterian Church. Holding a Master of Veterinary Studies degree (Murdoch University, 2007) and a Master of Divinity degree (Australian Theological College, 2012), Ruth is now enrolled in a PhD programme at Christ College, Sydney with patristic theology as her area of research. Married with two daughters, she resides in Townsville, North Queensland, Australia. Readers interested in a detailed scriptural and historical defence of the beliefs Ruth now holds in common with mainstream Evangelical Christianity, and a critique of Christadelphian theology, may visit her blog, The Trinity Hurdle. Alternatively readers may wish to contact her privately by email.
I was born in 1965, the only child of parents who were first generation committed Christadelphians. I grew up reading the Bible at home and going to Sunday School. Lessons covered Bible heroes and events in the history of Israel. The life and teachings of Jesus featured one year in five, with maybe one or two lessons on his death and resurrection and nothing from the NT epistles. I vaguely understood that when you grew up you got baptised, but baptism, like weddings, seemed very remote. I learnt I should have faith in God, like the Bible heroes did, but nothing about a personal relationship with Jesus. I knew Jesus saved you when you got baptised, but I didn’t understand how. I was taught that the key to understanding salvation was the complex doctrine of God manifestation. The notion of substitutionary atonement, meanwhile, was anathema. I figured that getting into The Kingdom was about believing the Bible and following God’s rules and being good.
Sadly, the ecclesia of my childhood withered almost overnight as its dynamics changed and the families moved away. At this time my Dad suffered a ten year crisis of faith and I became a rebellious adolescent. As an only child, with no close relatives and that peculiar distancing from children “Outside” the exclusive ecclesial community, I had no real friends and no social skills. I still read the Bible, but it was an enjoyable obligation, an acquisition of knowledge for a nerdy child whose sense of self-worth was invested in school work and solo activities. God’s word had no impact on my life in any meaningful way. Then I started attending another Christadelphian Sunday School and youth group and suddenly I had friends! I was the odd one out, a nerd, an awkward loner with, paradoxically, a good Bible knowledge. Incredibly, I was accepted and to this day I thank God for a group of open minded, warm-hearted friends who exerted a positive peer pressure that kept me on the rails.
I so wanted to be like my young Christadelphian friends. This was a great influence on my behaviour and it definitely changed me for the better and I have no doubt God was working through them. Eventually, we reached our late teens and became old enough to learn “First Principles” with the not-so-hidden agenda of preparing for baptism. Of course, that’s what I intended to do, when I knew enough and felt “ready.” You got baptised because the Bible said you had to, to be saved. But you had to know the Truth thoroughly first, as a friend of mine discovered when she “failed” her first baptismal interview. It was then that I really appreciated how different we were, as custodians of the Truth against the “churches” who had gone astray because they didn’t know their Bibles as well as we did, but accepted the teachings of the apostate church. Because I wanted to obey God (I’m not sure that I really loved him, I don’t know that I really understood what that meant) and to be like my adult mentors, I became a vigorous defender of Christadelphian doctrine and an equally vigorous opponent of my mainstream Christian acquaintances’ beliefs. Join a school Christian fellowship group who just wanted to “praise God” and have “fellowship” and not even debate doctrines? No way! How pathetic! Personal relationship with Jesus? Far too touchy-feely and shallow.
The narrow way to acceptance with God was clearly defined for me, in doctrine and in behaviour, and I was determined to walk it. I was baptised at 17, within a year or two of most of my friends. I remember being frustrated with myself because after the warm feelings and the novelty of being welcomed as “Sister” died down, I felt nothing had really changed. I still sinned, and even though I knew I could now pray to God and ask for forgiveness, it strangely didn’t seem to make much difference to my life. (In line with Christadelphian tradition, I had been taught that the Holy Spirit doesn’t directly work in Christians’ lives today.) So I resolved to work harder at it and squeeze more firmly into the mould. Then I went to University. That wasn’t unheard of, but still a bit left-field for a young Christadelphian woman in the 80s, especially as I actually intended for it to become a career. I continued to keep my distance from Christian Union and anything to do with “the churches” and threw myself wholeheartedly into the Christadelphian youth scene. I brought friends along to Christadelphian youth events and Sunday night lectures occasionally, but couldn’t understand why they held no appeal; these things were my life!
Once I got talking to a young man who told me he was trying to renounce his life of alcohol-fuelled sin and come to know Jesus. I had no idea how to deal with that, but I told him I went to church and he actually wanted to come along. So I brought him, delighted that I was actually “preaching” to someone. It was Sunday morning. He was wearing torn jeans and a tee shirt and had long hair. We were ushered into the cry room because his appearance might cause offence to the older folk. He sang too loudly, raised his arms in praise and said things like, “Amen!” out loud during the exhortation, so someone had a quiet word with him afterwards. He never came back.
This and a few other incidents began to bother me, but I didn’t know what to do about it. We had some spirited discussions, my friends and I, but in the end it was easier to accept the status quo “out of love for our brothers and sisters.” Going anywhere else was never an option for me at this time. I couldn’t understand how anyone could leave “the truth,” and it pained me when some of my acquaintances did. Especially when they joined “other churches.” How could they do that, when those churches’ beliefs were so obviously wrong? Sure, the other churches did a lot of things that I wished we Christadelphians would do, like charitable stuff and welcoming people regardless of how they dressed, and knowing what to actually say to people who were drug addicted or who had sinned sexually and needed help. But it wasn’t right to sacrifice “The Truth” to do any of those things, was it?
One incident stays with me. It was some sort of a “preaching weekend,” in support of a country ecclesia’s “special effort.” We leafleted and held a lecture in a hall and even did some door-knocking. Coincidently, one of the local evangelical churches was also doing some sort of witnessing event and we all came face-to face in a car-park. I talked to the minister, expecting a good old verse-by-verse doctrinal debate, which of course I would win. (May God forgive my arrogance!) Not surprisingly, this minister wasn’t up for it (so I assumed!) but what DID surprise me was that he was mainly concerned to pray for me. Pray for me?! Why did I need anyone to pray for me, especially someone who would be praying directly to Jesus!! (How unscriptural!) He prayed for me then and there, in public, kindly, inoffensively, with an ease and a natural manner that I had rarely heard. Afterward, he just smiled warmly and said, “You’ll be back one day.”
Hah, no way! I thought. But he was right.
I met my future husband, a former nominal Anglican who was interested in attending church regularly. He “came in from Outside” and was baptised. We were married and had two children. We taught them the Bible and took them to Sunday School. We were thoroughly involved in ecclesial life. But for some time God had been working inside my head and heart. I loved my Christadelphian brothers and sisters and I still believed as they did. But because of my career, and our diverse interests outside of the Christadelphian community we were never completely “inside the box” socially. The girls went to a Christian school and we associated with genuinely Christian people. The girls began to ask challenging questions about beliefs. To cut a very long story short, I began to realise that mainstream Christians did not in fact have two heads. That many of them actually read their Bibles at least as much as Christadelphians did. The Christian world had scholars, real Bible scholars whose life’s work was to engage with Scripture and Christian thought. I began to engage with the wider Christian world and its thinking (as, incidentally, did some of my friends at this time). Because I worked shifts, I didn’t always fit into the standard Sunday morning and Wednesday night formula and so finally crossed The Line. I went to other churches occasionally, rather than miss out on Christian assembly altogether. I was exposed to the actual Gospel for the first time.
I cannot say I ever had an Ah-hah moment and just suddenly accepted the doctrine of the Trinity (or other doctrines I’ve now come to accept, such as substitutionary atonement.) But what I did start to seriously appreciate was that these Christians found their beliefs in the reading of Scripture. They were not finding them elsewhere and they were not placing any other authority over Scripture. I had some bad church experiences, yes, with TV-evangelism style “healings” and some pretty shallow teaching. But I began to see that they were not all tarred with the same brush. The real clincher for me though, was absolutely not that they were “nicer” or “kinder” or freer in their style of dress, behaviour or worship, or offered more opportunities for women, or they did more “good works.” Because mainstream churches vary in those respects too, as do Christadelphians. Those are not the issues. Certainly the biblical groundedness of mainstream churches varies. No argument with any of that. Those are not reasons why I began to leave Christadelphia.
The thing that really started me moving away, in a process that took several years and an enormous amount of thought, Bible reading and prayer, was, “Why do we believe what we believe when most others believe something else?” More particularly, how do mainstream Christians find their beliefs in the Bible, while we find completely different doctrines there? Are we really the only ones with The Truth? If that is the case, why do all the other Christians who accept the Bible as God’s infallible inspired word and who earnestly search for truth in its pages, believe something completely different? Would God really have allowed The Truth to remain hidden for nearly 2000 years? Perhaps the answer lay in a review of church history; perhaps there were plenty of Christadelphian-like Protesters through the centuries (there weren’t, actually). This deep dissatisfaction with simplistic responses such as “other people don’t know the Bible as well as us” or “They just don’t read all of the Bible as objectively as us” or “they are still blinded by apostasy and church tradition,” was combined with a growing restlessness to know more of the meat of Scripture. I wanted to learn more about the Bible, about church history, I wanted to learn to read it in its original languages. So I did the obvious thing. I went to Bible College.
I thank God that he led me to a thoroughly Bible-based, welcoming Bible College. They accepted me with a smile and a prayer, heretic as I was. Nobody argued with me, they just asked interested questions and discussed issues. They never coerced me, just pointed to God’s word. They prayed with me. I studied the Bible as I’d never studied it before. Everything was open to prayerful, biblically oriented discussion. I learnt what mainstream Christian doctrine actually taught and why, and found I had never understood correctly what others believed. I learnt what key words and phrases actually meant in the original Greek and it opened up a whole new world of interpretation. I learnt the history of the church and its doctrinal development and what the creeds really meant (as opposed to what I assumed they did). I understood the biblical basis of the doctrines that mattered and the ones that were open to interpretation. I understood how heresies arose. I learnt to view the Bible as a whole, under the overarching movement of the story of salvation in Christ and came to understand his absolute centrality. No more verse-by verse patchwork.
Probably the biggest challenge was the revelation that I had never really understood God’s grace and the assurance it supplied. My mother had always worried that she would not be found “worthy” at the judgement, and almost every Christadelphian with whom I had discussed “assurance” said they couldn’t be sure they’d be in the Kingdom. When I first read about Christadelphians in a book on different sects, one thing stood out. Not all the stuff we didn’t believe, I got that. But the statement that Christadelphians advocated a works based salvation. “No we don’t!” I remember saying adamantly to someone. “The Bible says we are saved by grace not works, and we believe the Bible!” But then it all started coming back to me. Doctrines to be rejected, number 24, “That the Gospel alone will save, without the obedience of Christ’s commandments.” That Christ died as our representative, whom we must emulate in order to please God; he did not take our punishment. That a certain way of life and manner of behaviour was necessary to win God’s love and favour. Snippets of conversation; “If we are found worthy...” “I will do that, I want to be in the kingdom too, you know.” A rejection of the belief in “Jesus is Lord” as adequate for salvation but instead a heaping of burdens grievous to be borne. I now realise that the official Christadelphian view of the atonement does rely on an inadequate works basis, because it is built on an inadequate understanding of the person and sufficient work of Christ. It requires salvation by identification and imitation; it requires faith itself to be a “work” by which we assent to a specific set of beliefs, and it provides no real assurance.
I have no axe to grind. My experiences as a Christadelphian were predominantly positive and I still count a number of them as friends, albeit somewhat estranged by distance. I did not leave the Christadelphians because they offended me, or rejected me, or were too boring, or didn’t let women do stuff in the church, or because I had been led astray from the Bible or just found “a nice church” and wanted to fit in — each of these accusations has been levelled at me. I left the Christadelphians because I discovered that the emperor has no clothes. Their beliefs about things of eternal consequence are wrong and that burdens me, which is why I spent years researching and writing. I discovered what the Bible really teaches about fundamental doctrines and what it means for Christ to be my Lord and Saviour. I left Christadelphia because I studied the Bible and prayed more, not less, and because I was prepared to try to understand others’ beliefs and do the Berean thing. I searched the Scriptures. I prayed that God would show me “the truth of the matter.” And he did. I did what that minister knew God could make happen, but my hard heart could not; I came back.
- 1 'Orthodoxy' is defined in terms of the classical creeds of Nicea-Constantinople and Chalcedon.