by Bob West
March 27, 2010.
My name is Robert Alton West, Jr. and I am a Christian. I was baptized at the age of 14 during the summer of 1946. (And 30 years later I would begin focusing on Jesus.)
During all those years I was a member of a Church. I was careful not to call it "my" Church because I believed this Church belonged to Christ. It was Christ's "one true Church." I believed that one must be a faithful member of this Church in order to be saved and go to heaven. All other Churches were "denominations" made by men and the people in them were deceived and lost. (I learned later that members of some of those denominations thought their Church was the "one true Church" and that we were the ones in error.)
In order for a Church to be the One True Church, I believed it had to have the right name, the right organization, the right terms of membership, the right worship, and the right work. I believed that this is what the Bible taught.
Worship was something we did in a Church building or Church service, which we attended "every time the doors were open" in order to be faithful.
We had "five acts of worship" which included singing, praying, preaching, the Lord's supper, and the collection.
The singing was congregational only (no solos or special group singing), and a cappella only. I believed it was a sin to sing hymns and spiritual songs with a piano or other musical instruments. I believed that women must keep silent in Church services, unless they were singing.
I believed that a Church member must observe the Lord's Supper (using unleavened bread and unfermented grape juice) every Sunday and only on Sunday, and that observance at any other time was a sin.
There were "five steps to salvation": one must hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized (in that order).
Baptism made one not only a new creature and a member of Christ's body, but also a member of the local Church organization. If you moved to another location, you became a member there by "placing" your membership in that organization. Heavy emphasis was placed on baptism (immersion) in water, but little or no emphasis was placed on the Holy Spirit's part in making one a new creature.
Elders were elected to a position of leadership in a local organization, where I believed they were given divine authority to rule over the members. In many local organizations, there were not two or more men who met the qualification requirements for the office of the Elder. In those cases, business was decided in meetings in which only men were allowed to attend. Sometimes it was a preacher who made all of the decisions.
I believed that miracles and spiritual gifts had ceased with the death of the last person on whom Jesus' apostles had laid their hands in the first century, and that the work of the Holy Spirit ended when the New Testament canon was complete.
Our slogan was: "We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent." I believed we must do all things according to the "pattern," and that the "pattern" was the book of Acts and the other New Testament letters. I believed that I must have authority from God for all of my religious beliefs and that authority was determined by specific commands, approved apostolic examples, and necessary inferences found in the "pattern."
I took great pride in all of the above and was painfully humbled when I began to learn that I had been doing a lot of speaking where the Bible is silent and had been silent on some very important things about which the Bible speaks loudly.
I worked very hard for the Lord in this Church. At least at the time I thought it was for the Lord.
I was a workaholic. I earned my wages as a "full-time" employee elsewhere, while I "earned" my salvation as a "full-time" volunteer. My goal was to attend every Church service, every Bible class, vacation Bible school, and gospel meeting (our own label for what other Churches called revivals). I attended men's training classes, singing classes, business meetings, and Church work days. I took my turn cleaning the Church building and mowing the Church lawn. I taught Bible classes, preached from time to time, wrote religious articles for the Church newsletter and brotherhood journals, prepared visual aids, signs and advertisements for Church lecture series, served as a Deacon and later as an Elder.
I believed that if God had an organization called the Church, it should be the best organization in the world. Therefore, Sylvia and I decided to publish a magazine, Gospel Teacher, to help Churches fulfill the Great Commission in the most effective manner. We devoted several years of our lives, working days, nights, and weekends to the magazine, and used our savings to support it. At one point we accepted a loan from a Christian couple in Kentucky to keep the publication afloat, and finally put most of the money from the sale of our home into the effort.
If during this time of great personal sacrifice someone had asked me if I thought I would go to heaven if I were to die, I would have said, "I hope so. I hope I have done enough. And I hope that just before I die that I have an opportunity to ask God for forgiveness for any sin that I may not be aware of."
I did all of this for the Lord, but it had never occurred to me to ask the Lord if this was what He wanted. After all, I thought God stopped talking after the first century.
After exhausting all of our resources, we had to discontinue the publication of Gospel Teacher, and the Christian couple in Kentucky forgave us their loan. I went through a period of burnout and deep depression. I didn't like to think about death. I had a fear of death. Yet, I believed I was worthless and had such a feeling of hopelessness that I could understand for the first time in my life how someone could consider death as an alternative and take their own life.
It was while we were publishing Gospel Teacher and traveling around the United States advertising our publications that we began to get a more objective view of our religious system. Much time was spend fighting among ourselves over such matters as what could be done inside Church buildings and how Church funds could be spent.
Gospel Teacher was a how-to magazine dealing with teaching techniques, audio-visuals, and graphic arts as applied to the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ, and we tried to make it available to as many people as possible. But each way we turned we were met with a party-spirit that was devastating. We were criticized by those in our own division of the "one true Church" for selling subscriptions to anyone who doesn't "have our fellowship." Those in what we called the "liberal" division of the "one true Church" suspected that our magazine was a plot that those of our persuasion had come up with "to get a foot in the door." And members of Churches we called "denominational" canceled their subscriptions when a Bible verse that mentioned "baptism" was quoted in one of the articles.
Once we got outside of our own group, I began to see first-hand how divided our "one true Church" really was. I noticed that the members of other factions were just as sincere about what they believed as we were. They honestly believed they had "the truth" and that we were the ones who were deceived and in error. In retrospect I remember raising questions about some of our doctrines myself over the years.
A question I asked in a Church business meeting over 30 years ago stirred such reaction among some of the men that I began to wonder if they wished to do me bodily harm.
"If we do all things 'according to the pattern,' why were women excluded from our business meetings?" I asked. "The only 'business meetings' we have examples of in the Scriptures are in Acts 6 and Acts 15, where the entire group of disciples came together to make some decision. Apparently all voted in some manner, with women having equal say with the men."
The hostile reaction was ironic. Some very emotional men told me that women were too emotional to be allowed in our meetings.
Over the years I asked other questions on various occasions.
If God wants women to keep silent in Church services, why do we let them sing?
If first-century disciples only took up a collection to help Christians suffering from a famine, where is our authority to have weekly collections to buy real estate and maintain a Church building? Where is any reference to a church building at all in the Scriptures?
Why must the Lord's supper be observed every Sunday and only on Sunday? Why is it a sin to observe the Lord's supper on a day other than Sunday? There is no command in the Bible for these restrictions. The proof-text for this doctrine is an example in Acts 20:7, which more likely refers to a common meal. The only clear example of the Lord's supper at a particular time is when Jesus and His disciples ate it during the middle of the week, likely on Wednesday night. If Jesus wanted us to have the supper on a specific day and only on that day, why didn't He say so? When He gave the command to eat the supper, He did not specify a time, but said, "As often as you do this..."
If the New Testament is silent concerning instrumental music and we claim to be silent where the Bible is silent, why did we do so much preaching, teaching, writing, and debating against instrumental music.
Some people found these and other questions upsetting. I was always given a rationale that seemed to satisfy the person giving it more than it did me.
One day my daughter, Suzanne, said, "Dad, here's a magazine we received in the mail. I don't know who is having it sent to us. I believe you would enjoy it. It sounds a lot like you."
It was The Examiner, a monthly paper published by the Truth and Freedom Ministry and edited by Charles A. Holt. I immediately sat down and read every word. Then I got in touch with Charles and ordered all of the back issues. How exciting it was to discover that there were so many brethren in my "one true Church" who shared the same thoughts and questions that I had harbored for so many years.
I was not alone!