Chapter 2 - Bewitched!
About two months later, I went home at the quarter break and immediately lost some of my holiness when I saw my girlfriend. Just when it was looking like I was going to commit serious sin, I got a letter in the mail from Jeff. This totally floored me, because I almost never write letters, especially when I will only be gone for 10 days, yet he seemed to care enough about me to write me a note. The letter was peppered with verses and strong encouragements to remain in the Lord and not to backslide into old habits while away from the group on break.
Prior to going home for the break, Jeff had expressed some mild discomfort at my decision to visit my parents and tried to talk me into staying back in San Luis. I thought nothing of his advice, however, and went home because I was going to get a new car, and I wanted to do laundry, see my parents and see my girlfriend. Jeff’s letter was great and gave me fresh strength to put off any sin for at least a few more days. It also caused me to realize that God was being so good to me that I couldn’t just sin anymore, now I would be accountable to Him, through his people, like Jeff. I did not want to let Jeff down and very much appreciated his letter.
In hindsight, I should have noticed that I essentially had a double life at this point. When I was at school, and immersed in the group, I was very serious about holiness. But when I went home, I was weak in moral areas. This should not have been. If God was really working in my life, I should have had the same conviction regardless of geography. However, I didn’t notice this, I just felt guilty and resolved to not let God down. I also realized that if I was going to grow spiritually, I really needed this new church and the dear people that God had given to help me. I didn’t notice that even at this early stage I believed that I needed Jesus and the group. A major theme of preaching was that, "Saints, we need each other! God doesn’t want lone ranger Christians, we need fellowship." This statement, taken at face value, is true. However, what was meant by "fellowship," was not quite right. What we meant was not that we needed to be involved with fellow believers, but that we needed to have fellowship at our Assembly, and to be accountable to its leaders. This was the beginning of a subtle form of deception that was to put me off course in my Christian life for the next 15 years. Not until much later would I learn the truth and begin to be delivered.
Until this time I had only attended the Wednesday night Bible study, the campus Bible study on Friday and rarely Sunday morning worship. I really didn’t want to attend the prayer meeting on Tuesday or the Sunday afternoon meeting, let alone the tape meeting on Saturday morning. To be perfectly honest, I would have rather been surfing or even sleeping. However, I knew that all the others went to these meetings and that someday I would be expected to as well. I suspected that attending these additional meetings would accelerate my spiritual progress, and that I would someday have to just swallow the pill and attend, because they were God’s meetings, which were all important. We would often hear messages that exhorted us to this end: "Seriously, if someone has the opportunity of being in God’s presence, and they opt out for some worldly diversion, what sort of Christian are they?" Because I was "opting for diversion," this sort of teaching made me feel guilty that I didn’t really have as much heart for God as I should have had.
For the first two months of my involvement I never knew what the name of the church was. The Bible study was simply called, "Community Bible Study." This wasn’t really its name; it was more of a description of what it was, a Bible study in a college community. The church also did not have a name. We were careful to explain that it was not a church, but part of The Church, which included all Christians. If we were to call our church by a name, like everyone else, we would insult the Spirit of God, because His church already had a name, The Body of Christ. How dare we add to this, like everyone else, and flavor it with some human, earthly idea! Furthermore, the actual Greek word used to describe the church in the Bible is the word Ecclesia, which means, "Called out gathering." This was best translated with the word "Assembly," not church, because in today’s confused evangelical environment the word "church" is often misunderstood to mean a building. So we called ourselves Christians, and our group The Assembly. We did not mean that we alone were The Church, but only part of the One Body of Christ, locally expressed. We referred to ourselves as The Assembly, but we understood that we were only an assembly. The Assembly was not our name, but who we were. Other churches were, in a technical sense, assemblies as well, but we never referred to them as such. We called them, "The church down the street, denominational groups, or churchianity."
I will never forget the first time I went to a worship meeting. I walked into a small conference room at a local motel and immediately noticed that everyone was wearing a suit and tie or long formal dress. I was wearing jeans and a polo shirt and felt a little uncomfortable. It was 9:20 and the service didn’t start until 9:30, but everyone was very quiet, reading their Bibles or praying silently. I found myself looking around the room, in awe of the sight of 12 or so young men and women so dedicated to God.
Then the strangest thing happened. At about 9:25, all of the women took out what looked like white lace doilies, and put them on their heads. Almost immediately, someone began singing and soon everyone joined in. I had never heard the song before but recognized that it was an old style hymn. Jeff rose and walked to the front of the room and opened his Bible and began to speak. Then, after he prayed, he asked us to stand and sing hymn number 28. "Hail thou once despised Jesus…" everyone stood and sang loudly, like they really meant it. There was no musical accompaniment so we sang a cappella. After a song or two someone would pray a very serious prayer, thanking God. Many of the people used a sort of King James English, addressing God as Thee, and referring to the members of The Assembly as "Thy people." I was shocked when I found out that this was all spontaneous and free flowing.
The Holy Spirit seemingly continued to direct the worship for exactly one hour. I was speechless. I had never seen people so focused on worshipping God. Never had I known people who could pray out loud, with such skill and eloquence. They were so full of worship that sometimes two or three would pray at the same time and they would have to stop and figure out who would go first. No waiting around here, these people were ready to praise God, right now! Looking back, I now understand that I really didn’t see nearly as much of Christ as I did the seriousness of the members.
Following the worship time was communion. We passed around one wine glass and I remember feeling a little strange drinking out the same cup as everyone else, but I was so awed by what had taken place in the previous hour that I just did what everyone else did, and took a sip. After communion, three of the brothers gave short Bible lectures.
When it was all over, at noon, I had lots of questions. "What are the doilies on the girls’ heads?" I asked Jeff. He showed me how, in 1 Corinthians 11, the Bible taught that women should pray with their heads covered. Turning to Ephesians 3, he explained that this was because the assembly was engaged in teaching angels!
"Wow! You mean that angels are watching us right now and we are teaching them?"
"Yes, that’s what the Bible teaches." He proceeded to string together a few more verses that proved his point. Everything seemed to confirm exactly what I witnessed just minutes before and I felt like I had just read passages that no one else had ever read, let alone practiced.
"Why don’t other churches do this?" He shrugged and indicated that most other churches are not following the Word of God, but some tradition or other.
"Most Christians don’t even know the Bible says this," he added.
I was astonished. I had walked into a group, one of the few groups, which actually read and followed the Bible. God was amazing!
In the ensuing weeks I was to be taught, mostly by inference and suggestion, that almost everything in the modern Christian world was shallow and not fully Biblical. There was a deeper spiritual realm out there, for anyone who had the humility to be a plain reader of the Bible and then to put it in practice. Yes, those other Christians were too proud to just take God at His Word. I remember praying something to the effect of, "Thank you God, for the humility of this small group, who are so humble they are willing to do things Thy way, in spite of what everyone else is doing."
The string of revelations was to continue and I was to become completely immersed in the group, literally exchanging my views for God’s on everything. I learned that the "Normal Christian Life" was an overcoming life, full of power, exactly like the Apostle Paul. All those many other believers were abnormal, essentially stunted in their growth, but God still loved them, even though they were not doing what He wanted. He loved them, but there was something special waiting for the faithful, namely us. God wanted maturity, not barely saved sinners.
I learned that pursuing God was the only thing that really mattered in life. School, career, marriage, family, recreation and anything else were at best necessary to live, but for the most part only distracted us from The Upward Call of God in Christ Jesus. Closely linked to this calling was The Assembly, as they were the only like-minded brethren around, who were companions of the Heavenly Calling, which is the term we used to describe a serious commitment to Christ, as taught by our leaders. The other churches in our area were not serious enough to qualify as valid places of fellowship, at least in our minds.
I also learned that Jesus had much to say about how friends and family would inevitably persecute true believers. "The world loves its own, but hates us because we are not of this world." This indeed came true; my family was very alarmed as was my girlfriend’s; they "persecuted" us. As you might imagine, since I was forewarned that this very thing would happen, it only served to reinforce in my thinking that God was in control and that I was right where God wanted me.
Everything came together when I started learning about The Cross of Christ. Usually, it was in the context of how very few churches preach The Cross anymore. It is not popular to the natural man (most other Christians), because The Cross is where we die and Christ lives in us. I soon learned that at The Cross, I died with Christ, was buried with Him, and furthermore rose with Him in victory! Wow! Although this was all true, it needed to be made real in my life. There was an amazing, huge spiritual life out there that was deep, powerful and just waiting for me.
What was the secret to The Cross? Simple, I was told, be willing to die to yourself, and all that you are hanging on to and reckon by faith that you are dead indeed to sin and alive to God. God wanted my whole life, He would not settle for less. If I did this, my life would be transformed! This was puzzling to me at first, because I had always thought that Jesus died in my place so that I could live, but now I understood that He died, so that I might die, and only after I really resigned myself to die to self and sin could I live. Somehow, until now, I had missed this crucial middle step. Oh how I wished this had been taught to me when I first got saved! All these years I had believed a watered down, mass-consumption gospel, no wonder I never walked with God before meeting The Saints.
This concept was simple, but the practice of it was difficult because I didn’t know just how much self-preservation I had. Many times I thought I was totally committed, only to learn that it was just my wicked and deceitful self, pretending to be committed, but all the while trying to preserve the natural man, who will hang on to life at all costs. The way of The Cross was a slippery way, because it was so hard to really be totally serious. The only way I could be delivered was to have my eyes opened to my true condition. To accomplish this, God almost always employed others, specifically those who were leading and discipling in The Assembly. I became familiar with the Proverb that says, "As iron sharpens iron, so does a man the countenance of his friend."
Soon, God began to faithfully "sharpen" me, mainly by using Jeff and others to "cross my will," in order to show me areas in my life where I was not fully dead to self and yielded to Him. Then, if I would repent, and really mean it, I would get victory in that area and move on to the next, or so the theory went. It became a daily thing to go to the cross and die, and pray that God would cleanse and fill me. This new teaching of The Cross was my passport into the Deeper Life. Initial salvation, or "mere salvation" as it was taught, became almost a trifle. Thousands of people may have prayed a sinner’s prayer at some point in their lives, but where were they? They were not really walking with God, because they didn’t understand The Cross. God would express some displeasure with them, but He would become downright angry with so-called pastors who didn’t teach the way of The Cross. Basically, these people were hindrances to God’s people really getting on with Him. They were enemies of The Cross of Christ, having their own appetites as their God, with a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.
The main emphasis in The Assembly was on how to grow in Christ and please God. This was not nearly so easy as saying, "Jesus, I am a sinner, please forgive me!" It was a long, tedious practice that required real dedication on my part. But as I was taught, it would all be worth it someday, because my very inheritance in God’s kingdom was my reward for obedience.
In keeping with the tri-partite nature of man, as taught by Watchman Nee and others, The Assembly taught that salvation had 3 tenses, past, present, and future. This view is perfectly logical only if we first agree that man is body, soul and spirit, and that each "part" is saved in a different phase of salvation. Certainly, we must agree that our bodies are yet to be redeemed. The Assembly adopted this teaching and the following associated doctrines:
Our spirits were saved when we accepted Christ in the past. This was the unconditional part of salvation. As far as the salvation of the spirit is concerned, we believed, "Once saved, always saved."
Our souls were being saved presently. This, we were taught, was what the Bible called Sanctification, and only occurred if we were appropriating God’s Grace, or obeying Him, or yielding to Him, or reckoning ourselves dead to sin and many other such ideas. The salvation of the soul was conditional upon my choices. Pertaining to the soul we believed, "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but lose his soul?" We understood this verse, Mark 8:36, to apply to born-again Christians, not to the unsaved. Even though we have our spirits saved, we could easily lose our souls if we were worldly, or distracted with profit, or simply not "going the way of The Cross." The salvation of our souls was tenuous at best.
We were taught that the body would be saved someday, and this future aspect of salvation was somehow linked to the present salvation of the soul. In other words, it too was conditional upon my choices and effort. Without even blinking, I now fully subscribed to the idea that two-thirds of my salvation was conditional upon my obedience and the genuineness of my commitment to yield. The remaining third, or initial salvation, was already accomplished in the past. That was God’s part, and He had faithfully kept His end of the bargain. The rest was up to me.
We dealt with the obvious conflict presented by the orthodox idea that we are saved by grace alone, through faith, by saying that this passage applied to initial salvation, or justification. The rest was all contingent on yielding to God and doing His work, not our own. The fact that His work was difficult and required effort on our part did not really mean we were working, because the book of Hebrews seemed to say that we are at rest when we cease our own works and do His. This concept held, however hard "His works" might be. I understood that I must work very hard for my inheritance, but that somehow, it was not really work, even though it seemed like it was. I tried not to think about this too much, because it violated my sense of logic.
Practically, what this meant was that if I lived a careless life, not spending time in the word every day, not praying earnestly, and the like, I would not be sanctified and as such would lose some portion of my inheritance in God’s Kingdom. It was up to me. Would I, like most of Christianity, be like Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup, or would I be like Moses, who chose to suffer with God’s people? I was constantly taught and reminded that only two of the Israelites entered the Promised Land. The rest of the multitude all perished because of unbelief. Our present situation was no different, God had made all provision at The Cross, and it all depended on me, whether or not I would avail myself and obey Him.
I was bewitched. I fully believed that the Christian life started with faith, but growth and sanctification occurred only by my "choosing," "yielding," "reckoning," and really meaning it.
In spite of this subtle error, my life seemingly continued to "shape-up" in a spiritual sense. I had become permanently ingrained with quite a few useful habits, not the least of which were reading the Bible and praying. Also, to this day I include God and His will as the primary ingredient to any decision I make. Yes, there were plenty of good things. However, the subtle error of confusing grace and works was to eventually leaven and pervert even these godly habits. Some ex-members are not able to even look at a Bible, because their spiritual lives were all but destroyed when they experienced the emotional devastation of learning that their foundational beliefs, for which they had sacrificed, were not able to deliver as advertised. The reason for this is that their faith was sidetracked onto a Deeper Life path, and they had drifted away from God’s Grace, in the person of His Son, Jesus.
As of this writing, I am looking at things quite differently. What we were taught in The Assembly is nothing more than what the Judaizers taught the poor souls in Galatia. At the time I was learning these doctrines, I was totally sincere in my belief, but within one year of involvement I had lost the initial joy of my salvation. I was told that this was good, because that was just natural joy anyways and God was doing a deep inward work. I was partaking of the fellowship of His sufferings, which meant that someday soon, I would be glorified with Him also.
I stayed on this treadmill for a very long time, always believing that someday I would get my act together and experience real joy, but it never happened. As we will see shortly, what did happen is that I became quite adept at living this way and really enjoyed the approval I was getting from others around me. If I could not have real, lasting joy, I would have to be satisfied with approval and praise from God’s people, all the while wondering if and hoping that this was the joy that the Bible spoke about.
I hope the reader is able to see the subtlety that was at work here. The members of my little assembly were totally sincere at this point. We were all young people with no previous experience and were thoroughly indoctrinated into ideas that were taught by well-respected Christian authors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Watchman Nee. Much of what these people have to say about the Christian life is good and true. They take certain aspects of the Bible and the Christian life and expound on them in great detail, which can be instructive and helpful.
The problem with us was that largely through these author’s writings, we had taken our focus away from Jesus and had begun to concentrate on our progress and the process of becoming godly. In time, this incorrect focus undermined the blessing of a simple walk of faith, which we had enjoyed at the beginning.
In contrast, I now believe that God will bring each one of His children into a deeper relationship with Him in His own time. This progress will occur without much effort on the part of the believer, and will be sweet and joyful, even in the midst of trials. The key is love for God, which is present the moment the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts. As we continue in God’s love, this will grow and we will find ourselves behaving differently without trying. Instead of being ever so careful not to forfeit some aspect of our inheritance, the Holy Spirit will teach us to be thankful that Jesus loves us and saved us, knowing that if while we were still sinners and He saved us through His death, how much more, now that we are saved, will He sanctify us through His life. It is by Grace, through faith, not by my effort or correct choices.
Our little boat was now a good way off course and we had no idea. We used our broken compass and sextant, which told us where we were, and falsely concluded which direction we needed to sail in order to reach our destination. We plotted our course on a special Deeper Life chart, and it said we were right where we should be. The sunny days of the past were now punctuated with some rough weather. However, our faith in the process of "going the way of the cross," assured us that it would all be smooth sailing by and by. We never entertained the idea that something was wrong.