To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
(Titus 1:15-16 ESV)
From the beginning, we have prayed and followed God’s direction in all matters to best of our wisdom, and by His sovereign grace we have followed His leading and longed for service and obedience for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He has been and always will be faithful and in Him we trust. In 2004, as we were in Roanoke, VA, we began feeling the need and burden to see a church planted in Claxton as a central point for church plants across the area. Despite popular belief, only 12 to 15 percent of individuals in Evans County alone are affiliated with ANY church and these numbers of church goers decline as the population changes each year.
Not only studies but also the biblical narrative reveals to us that planting new and smaller churches, even multiple congregations in the same city is best practice in regards to evangelism and ministry. It takes only a few seconds to look at many church roles to discover the truth about the “back door” of churches in America. Planting churches is one, not the only strategy to answer this issue and it is to this that my family, and I have been called.
From 2004 until 2011 we had conversations with many young men, church planters, local and remote pastors about partnering with us in church planting but never considered that we would be the ones moving to Evans County to start a church. But in May of 2011, the Lord changed it all, He put in both my and Robyn’s heart to come and we made open plans to make a transition within two years. By making our calling and plans public, we found God moving quicker than expected and the first Sunday in September we moved to Georgia from the East Bay of California and our plan after arrival scheduled things to begin about within about two years. Through word of mouth alone we scheduled a date for an informational meeting to be set in October of 2011. At that first meeting, we had over forty people attend and the consensus was that we would begin meeting weekly in bible study for the purpose of seeking a church to be planted.
Families from Lyons, Statesboro, Glenville, Pooler, Savannah, Rincon, Springfield, Reidsville, Vidalia and other areas gathered over the next few months until March of 2012 when we moved out of our living room into a small rental building that we currently occupy. All of us were astonished and are still amazed at the work of God. We have seen new life in Christ, baptisms and on July of 2014, we constituted with our founding families as members and today we have actively 58 covenant members including member’s children.
Having served in ministry in four states over nearly two decades, the heartbeat of the “bible belt” always seemed like a safe and sound location for church planting and in May of 2011 I contacted the GA Baptist Convention and spoke with Butch Butcher, the director of church planting and discussed with him about our plans to come and begin GraceTruth Church. He was elated and told me to contact Mr. James Bland, the Association Missionary or “Director of Missions” for Evans County to work with them in our efforts. I did, and that same day Mr. Bland said, “we don’t need you coming down here and messing up our current churches… we have enough Baptist churches here.” I attempted to help Mr. Bland see that we were not coming to move sheep from church to church but to reach the lost, equip the scattered and love the sheep. This conversation set the tone for the remainder of this portion of our experience.
When we arrived in Claxton, one of our first ministry plans was to assist a local church in Reidsville with their Fall Revival where I gave seven sermons and three plenary sessions with questions and answers over the week-long period. Some of those evenings Mr. Bland attended and offered a compliment to my teaching. We also in short time petitioned (Read Request) to be considered as an affiliated church of the local association where the response would be to assemble a committee to talk with me and our church leadership and then present us to the assembly of churches to be considered a “petitioning” church under watch care for twelve months.
As this process continued, the annual meeting of the association was at hand where we were supposed to be present and presented. Just a few days before the meeting I received a call from Mr. Bland that the committee needed more time and that they would not be presenting us at this time. Upon pushing, he gave me over ten reasons, of which all were petty assumptions, as to why he felt we were not “of like faith and order” even though we fully subscribe to the Baptist Faith and Message. I requested a meeting with the committee that was honored in February of 2013. At this meeting of 2 hours and 22 minutes, (which is recorded and available upon request) many accusations were made about our doctrine and practice, but as the conversation moved on, we settled the minds of these men that we were indeed of like faith, but due to the polity differences, this group felt it would be confusing for us to be a part of the local association. At the final moments of our meeting, we asked for a letter to be written to GraceTruth Church as to why we had decided to remove our petition from the TEBA. Mr. Ross made the comment that Mr. Bland should maybe even come to discuss it with the church to help them understand our decision. Several of the credentials group actually indicated they felt we should be a part of the association. We adjourned the meeting with prayer and a spirit of acceptance and agreement that we would await the letter to GraceTruth and decide if Mr. Bland would come or not at a later date. This letter never came.
A few weeks later, James Bland joined as a provisional member, the fellowship of Elza Baptist Church in Reidsville where Luke Adams, an assisting Elder/Pastor with GraceTruth, was Sr. Pastor. Though several people were skeptical about Mr. Bland’s presence, he and Pastor Luke discussed the matter and the church received him for a period of six months in an attempt to “get to know the church”. Within a few weeks, Mr. Bland spoke up at a business meeting and accused Rev. Adams of being a false teacher and of not being Southern Baptist. (Notes of this meeting available upon request) After a quick rebuke and the adjourning of the meeting, Mr. Bland continued to pass out literature and cause division. Some time later, Mr. Bland was a guest preacher at Eastside Baptist Church in Claxton and on that day he preached against the “false teachers” that had come into the area and among his sermon’s errors were not only false witness claims against Luke and me, but also grave theological errors. This sermon was transcribed and several local pastors were alarmed. (Audio and Transcription available)
The next day, Mr. Bland had an unsigned letter sent to all the churches in the association stating that me, Luke and another elder, Dave Hanson (who moved his family from California to help plant the church) were indeed false teachers, divisive, non-Baptistic, not of like faith and order, and other things that were hellish to say the least. (TEBA Accusation Letter) GraceTruth church had removed her petition and already petitioned with another local association and the only letter that was to be sent was to her outlining our conversation in February. This letter caused a storm of confusion and two long-standing churches in the association: Rehoboth Missionary Baptist Church (see statement) and Hagan Baptist Church (see letter) submitted a formal complaint of sinful behavior and bearing false witness against brethren against the men on the committee. Their response was a short “we did not mean to state these men were hyper-Calvinist” sent only to the associational churches.
I personally sent two letters asking for repentance and an explanation and to date, I have had no personal response from any member of the committee nor have I been allowed to have a conversation regarding the circumstances except for this “receipt of our withdrawal“. While I am cordial around the men, their words and accusations and lack of repentance did damage. Because of the confusion, four of our families moved on and since that time, several preachers in the association have and are currently preaching actual series of sermons (so-called) against us, calling “those” that teach “such things” as unbelievers and wicked. The damage has caused harm to several marriages, not just among our congregation, but among some of the associational churches. Several people have left their church because the local pastors would not stand up for or against the claims. All-in-all, we have become ostracized and even long-standing friendships are strained as people are unsure as to how to relate to me and our members.
While many of the state leadership did dialog with us, none of them were at liberty to give biblical instruction on the matter and while some of them gave stern rebuke, no public statement has been made on this matter. While this may be odd, the GBC has a long history of public statements concerning misconduct and public or political actions that do not suit certain criterion, but when the scriptural mandate of unity and repentance is at stake, they remain silent. I pray that I may one day make a retraction of this post by way of an update. May the Lord bring us all together.
At the date of this post, May 24, 2014, in the last week, there have been two separate occasions where individuals have informed me or another member of our church that pastors and church members are continuing to gossip and cause trouble in an attempt to have our church removed from the area. Many other advocates have called for repentance and biblical discipline but nothing has come. Public leaders have joined the bandwagon, singing in the gossip wind in order to discredit the teaching of our pastors and one such letter was voted in executive committee to be “not received” and discarded while the people passionately hated the truth.
While things like these seem deplorable, and they are, they are not outside the sovereignty of God’s glorious hand and His timing and purpose in them all is good. Therefore, our desire is to be biblical and humble in our dealings and these men along with subsequent murderous slanderers are forgiven. In the future, the Lord will prove the substance of these claims but the damage will never be completely healed and these actions will have far reaching implication for years and decades to come. When the truth of God’s love or the touch of His ministry and the power of His word springs forth through the ministry of the family of GraceTruth Baptist Church, many will rejoice, then the enemy will come and remind them that we are “scary” or “different” and they will rejoice no more having had the joy snatched away. In the end, the men who allowed these things to happen will be seen for what they are; either brothers who are restored to fellowship with us and others or liars who are not in the faith. My pray is that of Paul’s who desired God to “grant them repentance that they may escape the snare of the devil.”
The Tattnall-Evans Baptist Association of Churches have allowed these actions by a large majority and gone against their own constitution and bylaws as well as the referencing to biblical mandates contained within. I pray that as time moves on all these churches (the Christians in them) can see and do what is right.
Lord have mercy,