I last posted 11 months ago. The fatigue has grown gradually worse but may be lifting. It’s too soon to tell. We now have a more specific diagnosis–chronic mononucleosis. There’s still no cure, but at least the name sounds more respectable.

In any event, while I’ve got a bit of strength, I wanted to share with you my decision to withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. On May 14, 2008 I submitted the letter below to the Presbytery of the Central United States.

The brothers there received the letter graciously. They endeavored to persuade me to stay, even suggesting that I retain my ministerial credentials in the OPC while laboring “outside of the bounds of Presbytery” at our new church. But it seemed to me for various reasons that this was not the correct resolution. They accepted that and sent me on my way with prayer and without condemnation.

Here is the letter. The first part is fairly boring and may safely be skipped. But for those interested in the nuts and bolts of Presbyterian protocol, I leave it in. Jump down to the next section if that kind of thing bores you or drives you nuts:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

From:  Bill Baldwin

To: Presbytery of the Central United States, Orthodox Presbyterian Church

RE: Withdrawal from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Dear Fathers and Brothers:

I am writing to tell you of my decision to withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I am leaving to join with a local congregation of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). The ECC, while having a Reformational heritage, is not considered to be of like faith and practice with the OPC. And they do not hold ministerial credentials in the absence of a call. For those two reasons it is not possible for the Presbytery of the Central US to transfer my credentials to my new church and denomination.

Therefore, I am seeking to leave under the provisions of Book of Discipline V.2.b.(1):

  • When a minister, whether or not he be charged with an offense, informs the presbytery that he desires to renounce the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by abandoning his ministry and membership therein, or by declaring himself independent, or by joining another body without a regular dismission, the presbytery shall seek to dissuade him from his course, and, if these efforts fail, it shall erase his name from its roll and record the circumstances in its minutes unless the presbytery institutes or continues disciplinary action.

That is to say, I am not seeking to demit the ministry or be divested from office (though an erasure will necessarily remove the only formal ministerial credentials I possess). I am asking Presbytery to dismiss me, perhaps even with its blessing, noting the irregular circumstances in its minutes.

The Book of Discipline instructs us that Presbytery must “seek to dissuade [me] from [my] course.” I am willing to meet with the presbytery for that purpose either at the May 2008 stated meeting or at another time. In the circumstances, I do not feel it would be appropriate for me to deliberate with the presbytery in other matters while waiting for that meeting. I have cleared my schedule for May 17, 2008. If someone from Presbytery could call me at [phone number] and tell me when to appear, I can arrive as soon as half an hour after that phone call. The presbytery may then meet with me at that time or we can put our calendars together and choose another time.

Ok, enough of procedural matters. The rest of the letter below deals with the substance.

Meanwhile, let me explain as briefly as I can, where I’m going and what thoughts have led me there.

Since mid-January, my family and I have been attending City Church in Kansas City, MO. We have been warmly received. There appears to be a place for us and for our gifts there.

City Church, as I say, is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). The ECC has a brief statement of faith that is acceptable to me. It is in the tradition of apostolic, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Reformational Christianity. But it is not nearly as detailed as the Westminster Standards. This fits in with a growing desire I’ve had to re-connect with Bible-believing Christians with whom I agree concerning the essentials while allowing for charitable disagreement in other matters.

The ECC web site makes the following statement: “We are a Reformation church, a part of the Church universal, and an evangelical church. In that heritage, we share certain central beliefs, which draw us together in faith and fellowship and make possible a freedom among us on more widely ranging issues.”

Organizationally, ECCs are not as tightly run as Presbyterian churches. The church does have a board which functions something like a session and a Mutual Ministry Committee that functions something like a diaconate. Leaders from various congregations meet together in regional “conferences” and as a whole denomination , but these groups do not exercise the same level of authority that Presbyteries and the General Assembly do.

There are two other differences that Presbytery may find of particular note. ECC policy stipulates that pastors must be willing to perform both infant baptism and believer’s baptism. This is a policy I can live with. It seems to me a better choice than dividing from other believers when those believers do not recognize the Biblical reasons for baptizing our children. And it is certainly better than forcing infant baptism on parents who cannot participate in good faith and conscience.

The second difference is that the ECC will ordain women as pastors. I have not changed my position on this matter. I continue to believe that Scripture counsels against this action. But as I have re-evaluated my priorities, I find that other errors of belief and practice, and other ecclesiastical attitudes trouble me more. Since there is no perfect visible church to join, we must evaluate each imperfection scripturally and proceed from there.

So what has prompted me to trade the imperfections of Reformed and Presbyterian churches for the imperfections of the ECC?

Well, first, there just doesn’t seem to be a place for me in the Reformed and Presbyterian circle of churches. If I had found a place, I would probably have chosen to stay and help address whatever imperfections I saw (and have my own imperfections addressed in turn).  I have spent the last 5 years off and on searching for a ministerial call in a Reformed church. There have been several interested churches in the OPC, PCA, and URC. But the end result has always been that a call was extended to another candidate.

In such circumstances I have naturally examined myself to see whether I may not be called to the ministry after all. My inward sense of calling remains robust. And the testimony of those who have been deeply affected by my ministry remains encouraging.

I have also examined my situation to see whether I can make any changes that would make a call more likely. There are certainly many things I would like to change about myself and about my situation. Some, such as my overall health, I can’t. Others are a matter of sanctification; the Spirit is working change in me over time. Perhaps when that work has progressed further I will find the ministerial call I seek.

Meanwhile, I think there is another part of the church that can use my gifts and skills such as they are. It is good then, and consistent with Scripture, if you can willingly send me as a gift to another part of the body of Christ.

I have benefited greatly from my time in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I value the training and the fellowship and the wisdom that I have received from OPC and PCA and URC scholars and ministers and friends. I do not leave those things behind. I bring with me to my new church a deep and satisfying Reformed, Covenant, and Biblical Theology. I trust that will continue to be a great blessing to me. I know it has already begun to be a blessing to my new church family.

I want to be honest, though, about some other reasons I have for leaving. These reasons will help you decide how you want to understand my departure and what you may want to say to me as I leave. These reasons may also give you food for thought as you remain and pursue the work of “always reforming” the Reformed church.

First, I have become concerned about what I might call “the leaven of the Pharisees” in the OPC and other Reformed churches. Please understand that I’m not saying I see absolute and pervasive Pharisaism. But I think I see a tendency and I worry that a little leaven eventually leavens the whole lump of dough. I worry that we’ve become cut off from the rest of the evangelical church in part due to some spiritual pride. I’m troubled by the condemning attitude I sometimes see in Reformed churches, both toward outsiders and toward one another. I’m concerned when we seek to prove theological points by appeal to confessional standards rather than by appeal to Scripture. And I’m distressed when we sometimes seem to pursue sanctification by Law rather than by grace alone.

Broadening that point a little, I wish I could see more Christlike love, more kindness in Reformed churches. I think we have too often lost sight of those heart attitudes in our pursuit of other goals. Here I certainly speak as one of the guilty. I need to go learn this love and kindness from others before I can teach it myself. I’d love to see Reformed churches re-connect with the rest of the body of Christ. I think we have as much to learn from them as they do from us. I’ve been putting that proposition to the test since mid-January. I haven’t been disappointed. My new congregation has a love and a kindness that takes my breath away. And I think they have that without sacrificing reverence for God or humility before his Word.

This desire for Christlike love is part of what I was alluding to when I said I’ve re-evaluated my priorities. It’s easy to run down a checklist, note that a church ordains women, and conclude that it has failed the test. But what if the checklist asks whether the people have sacrificial love and the presence of the Holy Spirit? How do you quantify that? How much of it should we be willing to give up to gain a church that doesn’t ordain women? Which question does Scripture spend far more time addressing—need for love or the ordination of women? Our tendency—and I think this is part of the leaven of the Pharisees—is to focus on the questions that have clear cut answers. The Gospel drives us instead to focus on what cannot be measured but only pursued with all our might.

Seeking that Christlike love became central in my quest for a new church. As I sought that church, I realized I was also seeking a church with less of a suburban, middle-class character. Reformed churches seem to be most comfortable serving a certain socio-economic educational class. This can make it difficult for such churches to truly serve the poor. Especially in the suburbs, it’s easy to forget that the poor exist. The suburbs exist to keep the poor at arm’s length. But a church that takes on that character becomes something less than a church, something more like a club.

Suburban churches try to address this problem in various ways. Some of them simply try to send money to the poor. Some try to make a further connection. But it’s very difficult to have the poor in your midst when you’re in the suburbs. I began to feel it was better for me to go where the poor are than to try to bring the poor where I am.

If I want to go where the poor are, I don’t have a lot of Reformed and Presbyterian options. In exploring what my other options might be, I found City Church. My new church is about half black and half white. The people are from various economic and social backgrounds. It looks gloriously like the kingdom of heaven.

My new church is also a praying church. This is something I need as well. I find that I have not believed in the power of prayer nearly as much as I ought. Being among those who do believe has refreshed me considerably and has helped me overcome my fatigue to attend the weekly prayer meeting.

I hope you can rejoice with me just a bit in that, even if you naturally have some concerns. I hope you can see that this move has had a salutary effect on my spiritual health. I believe this move is from the Lord. And the people at City Church believe so as well. Pastor Robert Johnson, in particular, is excited to have me there. We get together once a week to pray. I’ll be leading the worship on Sunday and will be preaching in June. The church is a blessing to me and I, I hope, will be a blessing to them.

Let me last of all address the question of my family. The narrow question before you is what to do with me. But of course I don’t make this move alone.

Mercy, my 12-year-old daughter is the least enthusiastic. The style of worship is boisterous in a way that bothers her. People say “Amen” and “Yes, Lord” and “Hallelujah” all too frequently for her tastes. Also, she has not been able to find close friends. She would prefer to go to the PCA in the suburbs where her friends have gone. So this is hard for her. But it has resulted in some good talks. I’ve explained why we are where we are. I’ve made it clear that I don’t think that other churches are bad churches or that they aren’t believers there. By God’s grace this transition will stretch my daughter’s faith, broaden her view of the kingdom, and help her focus on what is essential.

William, my almost-16-year-old son, has fit right in. He too found the boisterous worship quite different and not entirely to his taste. But he says that he has adjusted well and he really enjoys the people and the Christlike love they show. He has already begun running the sound system. I think this is stretching him as well and has been very good for him.

Lisa, my wife (age undisclosed), is enthusiastic. Before the first service was over, she was certain that this would be our new church home. There was an almost palpable presence of the Holy Spirit at that service, and at subsequent services. She was overwhelmed and immediately drawn in. (I felt the same way. But I also felt the need to express myself more cautiously and to investigate the church carefully.) Lisa continues to love our new church home.

And they continue to love her. Pastor Johnson has recognized her spiritual gift of compassion toward those who are struggling. This recognition is such a blessing to her and to me. In the past she has taken criticism for not being more like a traditional pastor’s wife. I have tried to tell the critics that they are missing the deep value that she brings to the church with her quiet compassion and words of grace. Pastor Johnson picked up on this without having to be told. It almost brings tears to my eyes writing this. It is good to have someone else confirm to my wife the great value of her gifts.

Please forgive anything in this letter that is less gracious than it ought to have been. I hope that we can part as friends who will still remember one another in prayer. I hope you can even see this as a positive move on my part, as something that comes from the Lord, however irregular the circumstances may seem.

May Christ our Savior continue to watch over us. Amen.

Bill Baldwin