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Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Journeys from Christadelphia to orthodoxy: guest article by Dave Ellis (Part 2 of 2)

Walk into the Light (continued from Part 1)

So we have walked along the route of my journey seeing my early years growing up in my family and within the Christadelphians, and finding myself asking questions of the brand of Christian living I had seen and experienced within the community, and reaching the point where I started to meet people who would have a marked influence on my life.

One such person was Neil Genders from the Kings Heath ecclesia in Birmingham. Neil organised annual week-long retreats in mid Wales, along with weekend events at his house in Kings Heath, Birmingham. Simply being invited made me feel wanted and accepted, which was a massive boost to me at the time.

This period of time marked a stage in my life where a number of events and friendships began to happen either at the same time, or overlapped with each other, and with hindsight it is clear that they were all part of the process of me moving towards leaving the Christadelphians. Although I can look back to my early years in Sunday school and see God beginning to move in my life, it was this particular period of time where my journey began to pick up pace, and events began to take on a greater significance.

I am going to jump back in time for a moment now to add another ingredient to the mix. In the early to mid-1970s my family began to run a charity holiday and club scheme for children in social services care, initially to provide a week’s holiday for children who wouldn’t normally get one. But very quickly we developed this into having a youth club for them every Wednesday evening as well. We ran this charity scheme for 10 years with hardly any help from the ecclesia apart from free use of the hall. We were actually really grateful to a number of friends and relatives who came to help out over that period of time, and that did include a small number of the young people from the ecclesia.

Although we started by giving a holiday to 20 children, the scheme quickly grew such that we ended up giving a holiday to more than 40 over a two-week period by the end. We were transporting something in the region of 50 to 60 children to and from the hall every Wednesday by this time. Remember, the CYC was struggling because the way it was run made it unattractive to people from outside the Christadelphian community, yet here we were having regular contact with a huge number of these very same young people! In addition, when we took the children on their camping holiday at a campsite in Whatstandwell in Derbyshire, we had contact with the majority of the people on the campsite, many of whom arranging their holidays to coincide with when we would be there. As well as contact during the daytime events, the focal point would be gathering in the marquee for singing songs, having a Bible talk for the children followed by cocoa and bed! We found that large numbers of people on the campsite would come and join us every night, so we would often give the gospel instead of a Bible talk simply because we had access to so many non-Christians! We had actually got something with enormous evangelistic potential.

Unfortunately the ecclesia made two decisions which brought this whole scheme to a very sad end. Firstly they decided to invest in new chairs for the main hall, which created a problem because the new chairs were not suitable for the Wednesday night club. No matter, we were able to store the old chairs away on top of one of the toilet blocks, but it meant getting them out and putting them away every Wednesday, on top of transporting all these children to and from the building. Never mind, we carried on regardless. Because of the number of children, we were using both the anteroom and the main hall, but this came to an end when the ecclesia decided to lay a carpet in the main hall. And rather than use an industrial or public use type of carpet, they laid an ordinary domestic carpet. So to stop it wearing out we were no longer allowed to take the children into the main hall for some of their activities. So the entire evening was now constrained to housing 50 to 60 children in a room that was only between 12 and 15 feet square - effectively bringing the whole scheme to an end. For years afterwards whenever any of these children saw us, they would come running across streets, even in the city centre, to say hello to us. We still have contact with some of them even now, some 35 years later! Yet this fantastic ministry was brought to an end for the sake of the cost of a few yards of the right carpet!

Towards the end of this era we started to get help from some friends who had come to Nottingham University. Once the evening’s activities were over, they would come back to our house to chill over coffee and music. This developed into a prayer time because we felt it was a better use of time, and what amazed me was that suddenly I was amongst another group of people who accepted me for who I was, and who took notice and valued what I had to say. This was a revelation to me, as you might imagine! We eventually started to meet on a Thursday evening as a bone fide house group. An offshoot was that we formed a Christian rock band in order primarily to minister to Christadelphian youth groups. We started making contact with other Christians, and also found ourselves playing at Methodist, Baptist and Anglican youth groups as well. This was the period of time when I began to notice the Christians belonging to denominations outside of Christadelphia were living lives more like the Christianity I saw described in the Bible.

It was also during this period of time that I came into contact with Neil Genders, as I have already mentioned. He seemed to have the knack of being able to make contact with people who were on the fringe of things and make them feel welcome and part of something. I was invited on a week’s retreat at Ty Carreg, an Outward Bound/conference facility near Brecon in mid Wales. There were about 20 others there for the week, and I knew virtually none of them at that time. Even so, I was made most welcome, and was accepted for who I was, which was once again very significant for me. Being accepted is important for most people, but it was probably the first time I had ever known it. Being amongst a group of people who were “open to God” (a phrase Neil used frequently about events which he organised) was an eye-opener for me because I was able to experience being part of a group that was interacting with God in a very real, immediate way.

That I had experienced an encounter with God only really became apparent on the Sunday after the retreat. I was due to speak at the Mansfield ecclesia, and although the Christadelphian movement is a lay ministry where “the brethren” are all expected to take part in speaking duties, calling or gifting in preaching or teaching was not an issue. It was more an expected duty. Lack of confidence meant that I would write out any exhortation or study longhand and then read it to the congregation, whilst trying to gain a modicum of eye contact with them.

I had prepared the sermon for Mansfield, but lost it during the week’s retreat. When I arrived at the entertaining brother’s house (entertaining is CD speak for host, not someone who would do a dance or tell jokes on my arrival) I asked for a concordance, quickly writing 6 headings, and found a Bible reference for each title, then rushed off to the meeting, where I spoke for just over 30 minutes just from those hastily assembled notes. I had never done that before, and was fearful of “drying up” because I didn’t have the message written out in full. The exhortation just flowed out, and I have never had to go back to “full script” type speaking. This was really exciting, because I went instantly from being unable to speak without a script to being able to speak from just a few notes. This wasn’t a natural ability, or a learned skill, it was a gift from God.

The fact that I had noticed that the Christianity I saw described in the Bible was lived out better by people outside of the Christadelphian community became an increasing issue with me, and I kept questioning why this was so. I began to look into it, reading books and commentaries widely, both from within and from outside the Christadelphians, but found that although the writers undoubtedly tried to give an independent and balanced view, their denominational background tended to shine through.

I reached a point where I went in prayer to God, and simply asked Him to speak to me as I read His word. I put down all the books and commentaries, and began reading. I was recommended by a number of people to read the gospel of John - it is a regular recommendation, even though a number of Christadelphians have described the gospel of John as “a difficult book”. I have since found out why, although I did not know at the time. It was probably the last gospel to be written, perhaps around 70-80 A.D., and may have been written to correct the false teachings by a man called Cerinthus. He taught that Jesus was not God, but just a man, which lines up with Christadelphian teaching, of course. However, he was coming at it from a different direction, that of Gnosticism. As such, the gospel of John is not only about what Jesus did and said, but about who He is. We are, of course getting into the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, although I did not know this at the time. In actual fact, the main topic of the day wasn’t to do with the Trinity, it was the issue of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, probably because mainstream Christianity was in the middle of charismatic renewal. But as I have said, I did not leave the Christadelphians for doctrinal reasons.

As I read the gospel I found myself having a completely new experience of reading the Bible. It was as though I was sitting in my grandparent’s house, which was a small terraced house, with a front room accessed directly from the street, a short corridor to the sitting room, then on to the kitchen. Reading John’s Gospel was as if there was an extremely bright light in the front room which was coming through the little corridor and lighting up the sitting room. I finished the gospel of John very quickly, as you might imagine, and moved on to a number of other books, both Old and New Testament, before eventually beginning to embrace books and commentaries once more.

What this period of reading and praying did was give validity to these other people who were demonstrating the Christian life whilst holding different beliefs or doctrines to the Christadelphians. But all this did was raise a new question, which was whether or not I should remain with the Christadelphians despite the problems with how they lived out their faith, or should I leave and begin fellowshipping with people from other denominations?

Moving back to the children’s charity which our family ran, as we embarked on the last ever week of camping holiday for them, I had been invited to go on the Anglesey Camp as a leader with the CYC from Rugby, which was held immediately after. I only knew one person from Rugby, which was Adrian Thomas. He had come to Derby to study at the university, and he wasn’t on the camp, so once again I was in unchartered territory. I was a bit wary, because I knew that bringing the charity to a finish at the end of the camp would be traumatic, but arrived at Anglesey in due course, emotions relatively intact! The week went well, and while I was there I got into a relationship with Esther Pearce, a lovely, innocent young girl from Rugby. She was about 5 years younger than me, which wasn’t a problem for me, but it was quite a large age difference for her as an 18 year old. She was also taller than me (an important issue in Christadelphia at the time). So it wasn’t a just case of physical attraction, simply that we got on well together.

By this time I was speaking in tongues and experiencing prophecy. That in itself is quite a story, but that will have to be for another time. But here’s the puzzle – here was I fellowshipping with non-Christadelphians, speaking in tongues and experiencing prophecy, yet going out with someone from an influential family within the Christadelphians. What is going on, Lord? Where is all this leading? I took it that God wanted me to stay within the Christadelphians and do His work there. Why else would I have been introduced to a family with such a good reputation within the Christadelphians, specifically in the Midlands area where I lived?

After about three weeks or so I invited Esther up to Derby to meet my family, and to show her some of the beauty of the Derbyshire countryside. At the end of the Sunday morning meeting I introduced her to my grandmother, whose opening comment was “Hello Esther. Do we hear the sound of wedding bells?” Spot the awkward moment! That is not the first question you ask a young eighteen year old, especially with me being her first ever boyfriend! Esther appeared to take things in her stride, but the damage was done and she brought the relationship to an end a few weeks later. It is always painful when a relationship comes to an end, especially when it is because of something outside of your own control, but it was especially confusing for me given the issues I was grappling with.

Despite the heartache I continued with things I was involved in, including the Tuesday night Bible class. I began to notice that as we read the Bible passage to introduce the subject for the evening, a number of words, phrases or points (usually three) would stand out to me, and that they would often be relevant for the discussion time at the main talk. This actually began to happen just after my encounter at the Ty Carreg retreat with Neil Genders, but was becoming more and more regular.  As with my time at Sunday School all those years ago, the Bible talk was still effectively a history lesson with a moral or a point to it. Yet the issues which appeared to me during the introductory reading were about the here and now, and were often challenging. And although some of the brothers and sisters enjoyed the discussion which would follow, it transpires that a number of others were getting upset. Eventually my brother had a quiet word with me suggesting that I toned down the challenges I was bringing.

This heightened the tensions of whether or not I should remain with the Christadelphians. I have become increasingly aware of the involvement of God in my life, not just for my blessing but because of work He wanted me to do, as He does with all of us. With what happened at Ty Careg I had become much more capable at public speaking, and while this seemed to yield a great deal of fruit at the Bible class, for example, I was now finding myself being restricted and constrained. I respected the requests of the ecclesia which came through my brother to quieten my discussion points down, but was also beginning to find that when God laid something on my heart, I had to respond and speak it out. But if I kept quiet, the issue would burn within me, which is what happened here.

So after a few weeks I began raising the issues that arose out of the readings at the Bible class. And once more, I began asking the questions. The fact that my relationship with God had grown so much over the last few months meant that I wanted to continue this growth, but felt that it would be somewhat restrained within the Christadelphians. Yet if that is where God wanted me to work, I would be happy to do so. However, I knew that I would grow and develop far quicker outside of the Christadelphians without those constraints.

While all this was going on, and completely out of the blue I got a phone call from Esther Pierce in the November of that year, wanting to start our relationship again. I was delighted, but asked her if she was sure this was what she wanted, as an “on-off” relationship would not be good for either of us. I sent her a Christmas card and gift, but never actually heard back from her again. Then in the spring, the Rugby CYC held a youth day which we were invited to, so I took our own young people there. Knowing that the situation with Esther would be an interesting one, I laid a fleece before the Lord. I asked God “If Esther comes over and greets me early in the day, I will take this as a sign that You want me to remain with the Christadelphians. But if this doesn’t happen until near the end, or even not at all, I will take that as a sign of the opposite”. Laying a fleece is seen as controversial by many, especially within the Christadelphians, but when God is intimately involved in our lives, I believe it is a valid conversation to have with Him. Needless to say, as we arrived at Rugby, Esther was nowhere to be seen, and I ended up going and finding her at the end of the day to have a pleasant enough, but brief conversation with her. To me, the sign was clear enough, so now it was just a matter of timing.

I once again said to God that I would be happy to remain and work within the Christadelphian community if that was His wish, but asked Him to give me three Scriptures to confirm when I should leave. I received two Scriptures almost immediately. I had been invited to a fraternal gathering at the Birmingham Soho ecclesia by Nick and Helen Andrews, who were good friends. Unfortunately, the speaker for the day had got his dates mixed up, and wasn’t there when the gathering started. While we waited for him to travel down we started to look at the daily readings, and as we did, two verses stood out to me during this morning period. I have no recollection of what the verses were, as it was over 30 years ago! This will no doubt fuel accusations of the dubious nature of asking God for Scriptures to confirm something.

However, unknown to me some friends of mine had just decided to start praying and fasting for me to be set free from the Christadelphians, and their decision was on the same day as I received those first two verses. I heard nothing more from the Lord right through the summer time, finally receiving the third verse in the middle of October, which was exactly the time that my friends stopped praying and fasting for me! This I found very interesting, because it was just after my two friends had gone to Canada to a Bible college for a year, with it being by no means certain that they would return to Derby. The timing ruled out any chance that I was leaving the Christadelphians to follow my friends to their church, because they were no longer there!

So it was time, and I handed in my resignation letter. I was summoned to the AB’s meeting to discuss the letter, and it was quite a tense affair. The only people who had resigned from the ecclesia had joined them because they had moved to Derby – I was the first ever “home-grown” brother to leave. The issue of the fleece was raised, but my explanation seemed to be accepted. Not so with asking God for the three scriptures. This was totally alien to them. One brother looked like he was about to explode, and another shouted at me that he could simply open the Bible at random and “come up with appropriate verses”. He promptly turned up a list of genealogies to prove his point. At which point he sat down rather quietly!

And so I was out! I was invited to numerous social events, such as Boxing Day and Good Friday walks, for example – all attempts to bring me back into the fold. But although I did respond to a couple of the invites, they were awkward affairs. There were two factors, firstly that I was the first one “of their own” to leave, and secondly, everybody else who had left the ecclesia had allegedly drifted away to unbelief, while I was even stronger in my faith. My mum also commented that I wasn’t “the nice lad I used to be when I was a Christadelphian”. What it boils down to is that I was no longer able to be pushed around as people saw fit. Suddenly I had my own opinions and was making my own decisions and was able to express them. It is amazing what a bit of confidence can do! I have also been to weddings and funerals along the way – even being asked to give the eulogy at my father’s funeral! That was strange, given that non-Christadelphians are not allowed to take part in official duties.

I am still going on strongly with God, who is continuing to change me and get rid of the debris from the past. I have changed even more than during the period of time I have covered in this piece, so the crayfish example I used at the beginning is still directly relevant. However the change from what I used to be back then is absolutely colossal as God has been involved in different circumstances and situations. A major factor has been Veronica, my wife, who has been incredibly supportive and encouraging and is an absolute gift from God.

What I can say to finish this article is that if you who have given up your faith in God because of what you experienced in Christadelphia, Please Think Again. Don’t give up on God because of what man has done to you. Call out to God, and ask Him to show you who He really is.

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