How is it that an ageing Englishman ends up being called to a small Dutch Reformed Church in Northern Alberta, Canada?
Growing Up Dispensational
I was born and brought up in London, England and my family were faithful members of the Open Brethren churches, who count as part of their history the great George Müller and the martyr, Jim Elliot; firmly premillennial, Dispensational, “no creed but the Bible,” and Baptist with many other idiosyncrasies thrown in. I moved to Coventry in the Midlands of England for college and stayed in that area afterwards, involved in a variety of evangelistic efforts and youth work. I even remember one summer teaching faithfully at a Bible class with all the charts and without any doubt, the end times according to Hal Lindsey!
Over the years, however, I began to question certain things. I inherited from my father the necessity not to accept everything that I was told without checking it out first. Upon examining scripture, various things that were taught by these lay preachers did not seem to be accurate but there was no other place to turn. By this time, England was fundamentally bereft of Presbyterian or Reformed churches or Reformed influence (except for a few strict Baptists, who appeared to be closed to the outside world). Whilst now there is a growing church-planting Presbyterianism in both the International Presbyterian Church and Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales , then the United Reformed Church (i.e., the denomination in the United Kingdom, not to be confused with the URCNA) was a hot bed of theological liberalism. One local minister came to the Christian Union at college and try to undermine every aspect of the Bible, disbelieving openly the creation story, Adam and Eve, the flood etc. etc. Fortunately his coming to the CU meant we had to decide where we stood on the Bible. I’m thankful for the faithfulness of my fellow students then.
The Lord though, had everything in his hand. I met my wife Anne in Coventry while she was studying. She hailed from Northern Ireland and as she had to return, I went with her. By this time we were engaged and soon to be married. After a couple of years in Northern Ireland, I began working with a ministry that sought to reach out to Roman Catholic areas across Northern Ireland. The Troubles were still ongoing, and we found that by inviting American students we were able to have an open door, since all Americans were perceived to be pro nationalist and for a United Ireland, whatever their background.
Discovering The Doctrines Of Grace
It was during this time that as various teams came from Christian colleges and churches in America, that I first came across Presbyterianism and Reformed doctrine. One person in particular, Wendy Lee, a recent graduate from Covenant College stayed with us for a number of months, beyond the usual two weeks. She was relentless in her insistence of the doctrines of grace, and we had many long discussions. Whilst I came to be convicted and convinced fully of the fundamentals of the Reformed faith, baptism, of course, was a step too far. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that For the first time in my life I had met truly faithful believers, in faithful churches who held to paedobaptism. In England, my friends at school were both Anglicans and Catholic, who had been baptised as infants but were by no means believers, yet I was considered to be not a Christian because I was unbaptised.
One aspect of the brethren churches is their insistent on lay, non-ordained leadership, as well as how much they disapproved of Bible colleges or seminaries, believing that the local church is a place where we learn all we need to know. A couple of years later, a colleague and I were involved in a ministry in Romania, which continues to today where soon after the fall of Communism, we were able to provide support for children and young people in a particularly poor area of southern Romania the opportunity to go away to a Bible camp. After a while we built a camp centre and we planned to use it for pastors’ retreats and other training opportunities. My colleague, who was an Irish Baptist, suggested that if we were to be teaching, we should ourselves be grounded in Scriptures. By this time, though I was a lay preacher and an elder at a local independent evangelical church with Brethren roots, I was being convicted of my own lack of knowledge particularly through 2 Timothy 2:15, ‘Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved…rightly handling the word of truth.’ We began a Masters program in theology at the Irish Baptist College. Whilst there, through a number of ways the Lord unexpectedly led the church at Castlereagh Baptist to call me as Pastor, which I did accept and began to serve in September 2006.
As I continued to study and learn, my influences were, as for many, R. C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries, attending a number of conferences and avidly reading and listening. Over the years I ‘graduated,’ so to speak, to those further afield, for example Westminster Seminary California and the Heidelblog and I continued to read and to learn. As a Baptist, however, I wanted to be a ‘Reformed’ Baptist or at least as I heard from Dr. Clark, a Particular or Calvinistic Baptist. I was challenged when I listened to a friendly debate that had taken place some years before between R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur over baptism. Dr. Sproul said that if, as he believed, the Bible taught paedobaptism, then it would be a sin not to baptise infants of believers. That brought home to me how important the ordinances and sacraments are. If we are getting them wrong then it is sinful because they are Christ ordained. I was a Baptist Pastor and wanted to be faithful to the call and to the statement of faith, how could credobaptism not be correct?
After a while Reformed covenant theology began to make sense and answered so many of the questions that had been unanswered ever since I had rejected Dispensational theology, even before moving to Northern Ireland. There was a unity of the scriptures, there was one way of salvation, there is one plan of God, not two. Furthermore, the creeds and confessions stopped being ancient, almost ignored documents and became living statements of faithful Biblical belief and practice. The move from Biblicism was complete.
Constantly in the New Testament we are faced with Abraham. It seems as if every time that in the New Testament, whether the Lord Jesus, the apostle Paul or James wants to argue about faith and living as a Christian, they turned to Abraham and the covenant of grace. He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness; and he was given the sign after faith–so far so good–but then he was commanded to give the sign to his children and to his household. The importance of the sign is emphasised in that strange encounter in Exodus 4, after Moses had been called, when the Lord sought to put Moses, or his son Gershom, to death because Gershom was not circumcised.
Exploring Reformed Ministry
I still wanted to be faithful to the call I had received, but Particular Baptist covenant theology just did not make sense to me, no matter how hard I tried. I wanted it to be true, I did not want to abandon my Baptist position but the more I studied, read, and prayed, the more I found myself moving towards the paedobaptist position. The children of believers received the sign under the Old Testament (albeit males only) but the New Covenant is better and the command is not rescinded therefore boys and girls of believers should receive the new covenant sign of baptism. After all, when Peter said on the day of Pentecost ‘this is for you and your children,’ it would be implicitly understood by the Jewish listeners that the sign should be given to their children.
Eventually it was time for a decision. One day I was listening to the Presbycast podcast (thanks to Chortles and Wresbyterian), and Dr. Clark mentioned that there were a number of vacancies within the URCNA. I messaged him somewhat light-heartedly and he replied with a list of vacancies adding–’if you’re serious’—I was and I made contact with a couple of the churches on the list. I had a chat with the elders of one of the churches (Covenant Reformed) over the internet, but nothing came of it. I was not what they were looking for at the time. Nothing came from the other churches and who could blame them? Why, as COVID restrictions hit, would they consider a not-so-young Baptist pastor from the UK? Nevertheless, I continued to maintain contact with Covenant Reformed, with occasional friendly contact, but particularly tuning in to their second service as the time difference meant that it was a very blessed and pleasant ending to the Lord’s Day for me.
Clearly then there was a struggle. I had an internal sense of needing to change, but no external evidence. Was it time to step aside from the pulpit? Was this how God was leading? I was careful to be faithful to the Baptist statement of faith in my preaching, but it appeared to be only a matter of time before matters would come to a head and I would need to step aside, but I still felt the call to pastoral ministry.
Covenant Reformed URCNA in Grande Prairie were no nearer to finding a minister. They had called but those men did not respond positively, other potential pastors did not continue their interest. More and more, they were struggling, the elders were weary and the church disheartened. Even from afar, there was a clear sense of them being sheep without a shepherd. They decided to advertise in Christian magazines as well as at seminaries in Canada and the USA, and on mentioning it to me, said that if I wished I could submit a resumé, without any guarantee. I did, but with no expectation of a positive outcome, but I prayed sincerely that God would lead them to the man of His choosing. I remember when I got the message that one of the elders would call me. I expected that he was graciously going to say that they were looking elsewhere. Not so. The council wished to explore further, to take it slowly, to move carefully. I was overwhelmed, certainly with joy but also with trepidation.
Things have moved more quickly than we anticipated. As travel restrictions were lifted, we were invited to visit Grande Prairie, I would preach and we would visit many of the congregation. The enormity of what was facing us became clearer. We would be leaving family, Anne and I have parents in their eighties, as well as our adult children—shouldn’t they be the adventurers?—and our home and friends. My mum lives in England, but for Anne her parents live near to us and we see them every week and often more times than that.
We were so warmly welcomed; for sure we were questioned but questions that were genuine and positive. We left with a sense of connection and assurance. Then came time for the church to consider the motion to call and they voted unanimously to extend the call, subject to sustaining a Colloquium Doctum (a learned conversation), an exam of sorts before the Classis. By accepting the call, I put myself outside of the bounds of the Baptist statement of faith, which meant that I had to resign as pastor. The shock was palpable, not just because of the nature of the change of views (not many change from Baptist to Reformed), but also because of the length of time I had served the church faithfully, over 15 years.
Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming sense of assurance. It has been difficult and it will be difficult. We plan, God willing, to leave Northern Ireland in January 2022 to move to Grande Prairie in winter, to begin the ministry at Covenant Reformed Church. Pray for us, pray for the church at Grande Prairie and please pray for those we leave, including the faithful believers at Castlereagh Baptist (who demonstrated much grace and kindness to us even after my resignation).
We have a sense of peace and the clear leading and providential hand of the Lord. It is an exciting adventure that awaits; unexpected, unusual perhaps, but we can safely say that ‘it is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes!’ (Psalm 118:23).
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