In keeping with the idea of posting more real life stories sent in by readers, I invited former pastor Tim Hoehn to write up his own story (seeing it was more involved than I could adequately express) I believe it shows movement from the Faithful stage, through a period of questioning, and to a Mystic stance. Read on and see if you agree.
Springtime, 1974. All the festivities that accompany a college graduation unfolded around me — a full auditorium, proud parents, classmates weary from finals, an inspiring speaker — as, at twenty-six, I was moments away from graduation.
My parents and I were equally surprised that I now sat waiting to receive my degree in … theology? Seriously? Me? Theology? No one had seen that one coming — except God. He knew it all along; that infinite knowledge thing.
Five years earlier, my wife and I had driven from Ohio to Charlotte, NC, where I’d accepted an engineering job in this city known as “the buckle on the Bible Belt.” Two months later we “found The Lord.” He wasn’t really hiding; I had just never really looked.
Shortly thereafter I felt God’s call in my life and began preaching at a local rescue mission and also received invitations to fill in for pastors who needed to miss a service. Within eighteen months I was majoring in Theology at a prestigious university associated with my denomination.
Two months before my graduation, I had preached a “candidate” sermon, and I knew the church would be voting on me that night. At my graduation dinner with my wife and parents, a phone call confirmed my selection. For my first pastorate we would be moving to central Indiana. We were thrilled.
As the years passed, however, the theological ideals of college ran head-on into the well-entrenched realities of life — not that I hadn’t expected that to a degree. But this was church, not a business, I’d thought, so surely things would be different here — right?
I found the subtle shifts within my heart as I developed my own beliefs alarming. If I didn’t believe it, how could I teach it? College had afforded few opportunities to examine the truths presented, and students were expected to take them as fact. I was no exception; I accepted the teachings gladly. I had studied at the feet of some of the most revered teachers in the church — foundational leaders and Godly men of great reputation and success — and I … well, who was I to question these men? I had been involved for just a few years, and some of them had been at their churches more than forty years — much longer than I had been alive.
One thing they all taught me was to establish personal beliefs based on my own independent study and to always be true to myself. But now, more and more, being true to myself was bringing me into direct conflict with their teachings.
The church to which I was attached preached three levels of dogma: doctrine, convictions, and preferences; and all were being used to wield power and divide. Not exactly the church’s stated mission.
Doctrines are the foundational tenets of the faith about which there can be no disagreement — so important that membership in the church requires full agreement. The primary doctrine establishes the Bible as the authority for all other doctrines — for example, the atonement, or the route by which a believer is forgiven his or her sins through the crucifixion of Christ.
Convictions are Bible-based principles of such magnitude that non-compliance disqualifies you for service but allows church membership. An example is abstinence from alcoholic beverages. Convictions are numerous, very subjective, a source of vain pride, and localized.
Preferences are strongly held beliefs not forcefully imposed or disqualifying for service. Presented as badges of spiritual attainment, they are thus a fertile ground for big egos. The expectation is that as you grow spiritually, you will see the importance of the preference and willingly comply. Examples are not wearing pleated pants or wire-rimmed glasses. Regardless of how silly or petty that may sound, many well known, successful pastors of large congregations hold these preferences.
As a brief introduction, here is a token sampling of convictions.
Women’s Clothing: Shorts, slacks, tank tops, dress or skirt hems above the knee, and tight-fitting garments were forbidden at any time — even at home.
Mixed Swimming: Males and females were forbidden to swim together publicly or privately, the exception being a family swimming together privately. Mixed swimming fully clothed was permitted as long as the clothing concealed body shape when exiting the water.
Failure to comply with any of these disqualified you from service such as teaching, holding an office, or singing in the choir.
As I studied the justifications for these positions, I found that at best they were subjective and many were clearly misinterpreted. For example, it was routinely presented from the pulpit that if a woman wore pants she was an abomination to God! The verse quoted in support was Deuteronomy 22:5:
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are an abomination unto the LORD thy God.
First of all, this was Old Testament law and we in the Church Age were under grace, not law. Second, this was a very serious pronouncement by God, so there had to be more to it than the wearing of pants.
My study showed that in Bible times, there was little difference between the traditional clothing of men and women. Both wore belted tunics that were virtually identical, and sandals for footwear. The only variation was in head covering. The women wore a colorful, lightweight, more feminine headdress, while the men’s was heavier, and a solid color. Wearing the opposite gender’s headdress advertised homosexuality; and therein lay the instruction behind the verse. It had nothing to do with pants.
One by one I evaluated the questionable dogmas, and one by one, most fell. I had quietly discontinued speaking on many of the issues, and that stirred questions among lay leadership. When confronted, I would respond: “I just preach and teach what the Lord tells me.”
I endured an ever-increasing anguish as year after year I stood before the people whom God had entrusted to my care, knowing full well that I was a hypocrite and a fraud. I constantly thought of the hundreds over the years I had misled and the many who wanted to serve God and get involved, but instead abandoned God because of these teachings. My heart was truly aching, and I knew that this could not continue.
I prayed incessantly, and one day the answer came: My pastoral ministry was over. I had no idea where God was leading me next, if anywhere at all. With mixed emotions I resigned the pastorate after twenty-five years. But a great weight lifted that day, and I felt free to finally pursue God according to my heart.
Nearly twenty years have passed, and I have never looked back nor attended another church. But I paid a dear cost. My personal life took a downward spiral, and my marriage of twenty-nine years ended in divorce. My two teenage sons struggled with the breakup and suffered tremendously.
I never stopped praying and reading the Bible, although my walk with God was vastly different. It took years for me to fully reacquire the relationship with God that I once enjoyed — but that was my problem, not His. Little by little, the dark clouds began to lift and the warming rays of God’s sunlight penetrated my sorrowing heart.
The solid foundation remained intact, but the house built upon it today looks entirely different. What was once an uncomfortable, cold, and drafty old Victorian has miraculously transformed into a modern, energy-efficient, warm, and comfortable home that actually feels like home. I have remarried and am thoroughly enjoying life.
Looking back, I see that clearly God had a beautiful plan; and it was all for my good and His glory. I am closer to Him and more fulfilled in my daily walk than I have ever been. Prayers are answered as never before, and God’s direction is sure and steadfast. What was once a very closed and narrow mind has been gracefully pried open, and the growth in knowledge, kinship, and relationship to the Ancient of Days is wondrous to behold.
Just six months ago, at age sixty-four, an amazing revelation lead to the discovery of my true purpose in life, providing me with opportunities for service I could have never imagined. I have decided to write about it all since religious dogma is just a very small part. My first book, The Law of Attraction: How It Really Works…Honest!, is being published early this year and is the first in a series of four that explores how we can truly know God and get what we need for a fulfilled and prosperous life.
A final thought. Spiritual truth is all-powerful until we try to organize it; for often — perhaps inevitably — the organization becomes more important than the truth it is founded upon.
-by Tim Hoehn, author of The Law of Attraction: How It Really Works…Honest!