This series is a collaborative effort between Pastor Tom Chantry, of Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Hales Corners, WI, and Pastor Dave Dykstra, of Grace Covenant Baptist Church in Willis, TX.
Democratic consultant James Carville is a Louisianan, but he forever defined one of the northern states with his often-quoted bon mot: “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” The quotation leaves little doubt that Carville spent at least a little time in Perry County, the beautiful and remote region just across the North Mountains from Carlisle.
Reibers Reformed Baptist Church
There, tucked among the hills and farms not far from the spot where Ernie Reisinger was born, is one of the churches influenced by the growing Reformed movement among Baptists. Reibers Community Church (since renamed Reibers Reformed Baptist Church) was the congregation of Ernie’s uncle, John Reisinger. For years each week’s church offering would be cached behind a loose brick in Uncle John’s mantel until someone was free to drive it to the bank.
On May 3, 1998 David Straub, coordinator of RBMS, was preaching in the Reibers church when he became dizzy and disoriented. His condition seemed serious enough for the members to doubt his ability to drive home on his own, and instead he was taken to the hospital for tests. Doctors discovered a strange mass on his brain, the unusual configuration of which led to initial confusion over whether it was a tumor or some sort of parasite. The question was asked, “Has this man traveled to any foreign countries in the last few years?”
For eleven years Straub had been traveling to every continent but Antarctica, visiting RBMS missionaries and others helped by RBMS projects. His secretary spent a frantic day opening files, checking travel receipts, and compiling an impressive list of countries visited for the benefit of the doctors. The project proved unnecessary; biopsies showed that the mass was in fact an aggressive tumor, already inoperable and clearly terminal.
By November it was evident that Straub could not continue in his work, and Bob Selph, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Taylors, South Carolina, was appointed his successor. Selph would take over the work in January of 1999, with Straub serving temporarily as an administrative assistant to facilitate the transition.
The cancer did its grim work, and by the next fall Straub was obviously nearing the time when he would cross the final river. On November 17 he died in his own home. In his early days as coordinator he had lectured on the life of William Carey, emphasizing Carey’s dual imperative: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Straub had exemplified this ethos. Working for a small group of churches made smaller by division, he nevertheless maintained an optimism about the work of the Kingdom and demonstrated a willingness to serve at times in remarkable and even perilous fashion.
This ministry had won the hearts of churches in many places. In late November his funeral was held in Grace Baptist in Carlisle, which had recently completed a building project including an enlarged sanctuary. Pastors and missionaries gathered from around the country and the world, and the church overflowed. Over seven hundred voices joined to sing Straub’s favorite hymn: “…and crown Him Lord of all!”
Just a Few of the Pastors Gathered at the Straub Funeral
Four months later, at the 2000 Convention & General Assembly, RBMS ceased to exist as an independent agency, becoming instead a subsidiary corporation of ARBCA. Reformed Baptists had taken another major step toward the long-desired goal of having a fully functioning association. That Straub, who was long an advocate of that goal, did not live to see it was a reminder that nothing in this world is ever perfect. It was not the only reminder.
In fact, during its first year ARBCA would face a serious challenge to its confessional commitments. This challenge had its origin in the process for accepting RBMS churches as charter members of ARBCA. In December of 1996 the ARBCA Steering Committee had decided to “grandfather in” all RBMS churches regardless of whether they had sent delegates to the constitutional meetings in Fayetteville, Georgia. Interested churches needed to fill out an ARBCA application, citing their subscription to the 1689 Confession and also – significantly – listing their church officers.
This process hit a snag when an application was received from the Reformed Baptist Fellowship of Portland, Oregon which listed two women among its deacons. During the next year the members of the Steering Committee, of ARBCA’s Administrative Council, and of the Administrative Committee of RBMS would all agree that the practice of women deacons violates the intent of Scripture and both the language of the Confession and the historical practice of its authors. The application created a thorny issue for both the new association and the existing missions organization.
The Portland church, already an RBMS member, had recently called Randy McCreith as pastor. In February of 1997 he wrote in explanation to the Steering Committee:
Between January and June of 1996, our church started studied afresh the issues of church membership and church leadership. The fruit of that study was the increased membership of Reformed Baptist Fellowship, the addition of Jeff Groshong as an elder, and the selection of four people to serve as deacons. Two of these deacons are men, and two are women.
The committee found it necessary to delay the application and also to refer the matter to the AC of RBMS. Earl Blackburn, then a member of the RBMS AC (and soon to chair the Council of ARBCA), proposed the following course of action:
1) It is my belief that the RBF must rescind the ordination (or whatever means of appointment) of these women as deacons and remove them from the office of deacon.
2) They must let the RBMS Coordinator and AC know of their decision and action in writing within 90 days of the  Annual Convention.
3) If they choose not to rescind the ordination of those woman as deacons and remove them from the office of deacon, they must be removed from the formal and official membership and fellowship of RBMS.
These proposals were adopted by the RBMS AC during its meetings in March, 1997 during the Convention held at Mesa, Arizona . By the time of the 1998 Convention elder Jeff Groshong told Selph that the church had also changed its view of the Sabbath. Ultimately the congregation would neither join ARBCA nor remain a member church in RBMS.
The Portland incident highlighted an issue which was sure to grow in importance in a movement now undergoing an unavoidable generational shift. As pastors exit their pulpits, new pastors may bring with them either subtle or dramatic changes in emphasis, in method, or even in stated doctrine. The continuity of any association thus depends in large part on maintaining continuity in its churches. The RBMS AC discussed making an offer of help to all member churches with an empty pulpit.
However, the struggle over confessionalism did not end with the Portland church. The ARBCA constitution had stipulated confessional subscription, and delegates to the founding GA had signed a statement that they held the 1689 as a doctrinal standard secondary to Scripture. However, a concerned AC proposed that the churches annually sign a statement of subscription based on that of the Presbyterian Church in 1729. Chairman Earl Blackburn would write:
There have been some Reformed Baptist churches in the past who have defected from vital parts of the Confession. These churches originally subscribed to all of the Confession, but later on changed their views on certain matters. Sometimes sister churches in fellowship with said churches were told of the changes and sometimes they were not. Eventually their defections were discovered. Because of this, the AC thought it would be wise to have each member church sign a statement each year saying they still subscribe to the Confession. Not wanting to continually reinvent the wheel, we discovered this Statement and thought we could use it as our own.
This strong subscriptional statement was distributed to the churches in advance of the 1998 Convention and General Assembly, to be held at Grace Reformed Baptist Church of Rockford, Illinois. It read:
In the presence of God, and of the delegates and officers of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, I do solemnly and from the heart adopt, receive, and strictly subscribe to the confessional standard of the Association, the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, as the confession of my faith, and as a summary and just exhibition of that system of doctrine and religious belief which our church believes is contained in the Holy Scripture, and therein revealed by God to man for his salvation. I, and the church I represent, do solemnly promise and engage not to preach, to propose, to promote, or to put into practice anything that shall contradict or contravene, either directly or implicitly, any element of that system of doctrine, so long as our church continues a member of this Association.
This statement is clearly consistent with the earlier statements and practice both of ARBCA and of RBMS, and in fact remains the formula of subscription for all trustees and employees of IRBS. However, it did not sit well with at least one member pastor. One of the “grandfathered in” churches not present in Fayetteville would now prove John Reisinger’s assertion about RBMS: “Some would love to see a far wider acceptance of men and churches.”
Juanita Community Church in Kirkland, Washington had called Bruce Ray as its pastor in 1976. Ray, a graduate of Reformed Episcopal Seminary, had been a reforming influence in the church. Don Lindblad had joined him in the pastorate in 1986, serving for more than six years before the two parted ways. By 1998 Ray was not on particularly good terms with some of the Reformed Baptists in Washington – especially Lindblad, who pastored Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in the same town. He was, however, friendly with several men in Oregon, including Randy McCreith. While Juanita did not have women officers, Ray had already written a paper probing in that direction entitled “Phoebe Was a Deacon.”
On February 22, 1998, Ray and his fellow officers sent a letter critical of the ARBCA AC to all the member churches of the association, as well as to at least some churches applying for membership. Ray suggested that the AC was attempting to impose strict subscription on a non-subscriptionist association. In the letter he defined “strict subscription” in a-historical terms, and at its conclusion he pressed the language of the Statement to an absurd degree. For instance, he questioned whether churches could continue to use the Baptist Edition of the Trinity Hymnal, which is published by a Presbyterian company.
But the most troubling statement of this letter was its insinuation that the AC itself was acting in a hypocritical fashion and was not itself made up of strict subscriptionists:
How many of you have similar differences with the Confession? Which ones are tolerable, and which are not? We understand that there are AC members who have problems with Confession 4.1 as it is commonly understood, and with 26:15. Should these churches have been excluded from ARBCA?
The suggestion that AC members objected to the confessional teaching on creation was a serious charge; that some of them might be opposed to the confession’s teaching on associational accountability was frankly absurd. Blackburn responded in detail in a letter to the churches on March 2, saying “ARBCA is not becoming strict/full subscriptionist; it already is!” Regarding the history of the association, he wrote:
The next point under your Constitutional Concerns that I wish to address is that of “…good men whose churches have been strongly discouraged from seeking to unite with us in ARBCA (and RBMS) by AC members because they do not ‘strictly’ subscribe to the 1689.” Yes, it is true that we have discouraged some good men. It was not because of their lack of love for Christ or the doctrines of grace or because they were ungodly men. It was because there were doctrinal deviations from the Confession that we thought to be too significant to overlook. What deviations am I referring to? Some have wanted to apply who believed in: women deacons; women leading in the public worship of God; the abrogation of the 10 commandments as the rule of life; the abrogation of the 4th Commandment (i.e. the Sabbath); the perpetuity of all the charismatic gifts and the issue of non-cessationism; actors & drama in the public worship on the Lord’s Day. Deviations such as these are not minor points. These are not only all contrary to the Scriptures, they are contrary to the Confession to which ARBCA subscribes. I, along with other AC members, have actively participated in such discouragements. It is not the goodness of these men that we question, it is their doctrinal beliefs and practices.
Blackburn also admonished the Juanita church for bringing these issues to the churches publicly without any previous communication with any member of the AC. This was particularly significant in light of the insinuations regarding the doctrinal commitments of the AC, none of whom could even be certain to whom Ray was even referring! Blackburn wrote of 4:1 and 26:15:
I do not know of a single AC member or ARBCA church who has problems with such. Your accusations are serious. They border on slander casting aspersions and creating suspicions in the minds of the associating churches. Through innuendo you have, with a broad brush, painted a dark cloud of suspicion over all our churches and over some of the finest, doctrinally sound, Christian men I know in order to try and prove your point. This grieves and upsets me. This is sowing discord among the brethren.
On only one point did Blackburn concede that the AC could have done better, and that was in asking the churches to approve the new formula of subscription rather than giving the appearance that stricter subscription was being imposed by the Council.
It was by this time evident that if the Mesa Convention & GA of 1997 had been a time of rejoicing, the Rockford meetings in 1998 would be a tense affair. Only a week remained until the delegates would gather in frozen Illinois.
On the night of Sunday, March 8 a late winter storm rolled through the Northeast. By the following morning snow was falling heavily across northern Illinois and in northwest Indiana, where the major east-west highways are pinched together by the southward droop of Lake Michigan. Flights into Chicago were cancelled and delayed, and sections of the Indiana Turnpike were shut down. Delegates to the Convention & GA were forced to spend the night in restaurants and hotel lobbies; a few had no choice but to abandon cars temporarily misplaced by the emergency teams and to make their way to Rockford as best they could. On Tuesday those shivering delegates who had arrived on time convened the annual sessions of RBMS and ARBCA.
The meetings were marred not only by snow but also by an atmosphere of tension surrounding the Juanita church. Ray was accompanied to the GA by every one of his fellow officers. Because of the public nature of his criticisms of the AC, everyone in attendance was aware of the impending clash. Meanwhile, the AC had already discussed its approach. It was suspected that Ray’s insinuations were at least in part directed against Don Lindblad and Tom Greene of Trinity Reformed Baptist in Kirkland, both AC members and both former members of the Juanita church. Lindblad recused himself from the matter, and the AC appointed an ad hoc investigating committee to meet with the Juanita members.
Over the first two days of the GA a committee comprised of Steve Martin of Fayetteville, Georgia, David Dykstra of Lafayette, New Jersey, Mike Gaydosh of Amityville, New York, and Jamie Howell of Taylors, South Carolina met with Ray and his fellow-officers for many hours. Throughout the meetings Ray asserted that his church stood by the concerns of his public letter and insisted that they saw nothing wrong with the procedure of sending it publicly. He only conceded that the letter erroneously identified AC members as non-confessional; he had meant to imply that member church pastors differed with the Confession on 4:1 and 26:15. Pressed to back this up, he named Don Lindblad and Walt Chantry as the pastors in question. His explanation of the charges was trivial in light of the ominous tones of his initial letter.
In 1992, when Lindblad and Ray had clashed while in the pastorate together at Juanita, Lindblad had chosen to depart rather than precipitate an ecclesiastical crisis by insisting on calling Ray into a council. On the basis of this, Ray now argued that Lindblad did not actually agree with the associational teaching of 26:15. Even more absurd was his allegation of Chantry’s non-creationism. In a question session at a conference Ray had attended, when asked if he believed that the earth had been created in six solar days, Chantry replied in part that there had been no sun on the first three days, and so to call them “solar days” was illogical.
It was evident to the investigating committee that Ray was inventing controversy where none existed. Finding that the Juanita church had acted in an ungracious and schismatic fashion, they called upon them to repent publicly at the Thursday business meeting.
On the following day the Assembly held an open discussion on the matter of subscription, but the Juanita men declined to attend. The AC explained the reason behind their recommendation of the subscription statement and affirmed their desire to hear the will of the churches in this matter. They clarified that their intent had been to propose the new statement to the churches. The floor was then opened for comment, and Pastor Joe Gwynn of Kempsville Chapel (now Grace Covenant Church) of Virginia Beach rose. After Juanita’s public letter, Gwynn had written a semi-public letter in support of Juanita to several members of the association. Now, having heard the AC, he wanted to publicly repent of his letter and acknowledge that he had spoken to the issue without hearing both sides. He supported entirely the actions of the AC. The Assembly enjoyed a bright spot in what had so far been a cloudy week.
Ray, however, did not comply with the requests of the investigative committee. On Thursday, as the business session approached, Ray sent another letter to the member churches. In a twisted bit of logic he represented the Wednesday meeting as a capitulation by the AC; they were now willing to hear the churches, presumably because of Juanita’s letter. He went on to ‘apologize’ to anyone offended, to defend the decision to write a public letter in such dire circumstances, and to explain that he had meant to imply that pastors, not AC members, were non-confessional. Since no details were forthcoming on this charge, Ray had now implicated every pastor who received his letter!
Unsurprisingly this response did not satisfy either the investigating committee or the AC. By Thursday most of the Juanita men had withdrawn from the GA; only Deacon Furbur Jolley remained. In the business session, Steve Martin read a summary of the case, concluding:
…it is the unanimous judgment of the Administrative Council that they used illegitimate means to reach a legitimate end; namely:
- they made unsubstantiated allegations about the integrity of Administrative Council members and churches;
- they violated biblical order in publishing allegations abroad before going to the men in question;
- and they disrupted the peace and harmony of the churches in the Association.
We are publicly admonishing them for their conduct and we warn them against any further actions of this kind.
This was and remains the only case of a church being publicly censured by ARBCA. March 12 was a momentous day, but not only for this reason.
During the same meeting the Association ratified the bylaws of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies and confirmed the appointment of Dr. James Renihan as Dean and Associate Professor. Renihan had earlier addressed the Assembly for the second consecutive year, this time on the nature of confessional subscription. He distinguished “absolute subscription” – or word-for-word agreement – with “strict” or “full subscription,” which means agreement with every doctrine. He distinguished both from “loose” or “system subscription,” in which agreement with the confessional standard is somewhat tenuous.
In the business meeting the AC had presented a Statement of Subscription which was considerably toned down from that sent out in the pre-Assembly meetings. In addition to the inflamatory comments of the Juanita church, appeals had been made by David Straub, supported in part by Walt Chantry. They feared that the statement rose to the level of a vow which should not be made often. ARBCA would eventually eliminate a yearly signing of the statement, adopting instead a requirement that if a church departed from a confessional position, they were required to make that change known to the association via a form included in the packet of information sent to the churches prior to each GA.
However, during the business meeting an unexpected motion from the floor was made by Al Huber, an elder in the host church in Rockford. Huber moved that Renihan’s address on subscription be published by the Association as an “official paper.” The motion was, ironically, seconded by Furbur Jolley and was met with great enthusiasm by the delegates.
Two amendments were made to this motion. First, Jon Hueni moved that the constitution of ARBCA be amended to reflect this definition of subscription, a matter that would need further approval the following year. Then Bob Selph moved that Renihan present a one-page definition of subscription which could be attached to the constitution. The twice-amended motion then passed by a voice vote. Once again – as at the RBMS Convention in 1989 – the churches had spoken from the floor of an associational meeting to confirm their confessional commitments. Renihan’s essay is now printed as Appendix 1 to the ARBCA constitution:
Full subscription honestly adopts all of the doctrines expressed in the confessional formulation. In the case of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, this means that by subscribing to the document commonly known as the London Baptist Confession of 1689, we receive all of the doctrines contained in it as true, founded on the Word of God.
If the story of the birth of ARBCA is critical to understanding its nature, the story of its first year is no less critical. Indeed, nothing is either perfect or easy in this world. Even while new churches were joining the association, one of the older Reformed Baptist congregations departed. Juanita Community Church would find a more suitable home in FIRE, demonstrating that it was not non-sabbatarianism but instead loose confessionalism that defined that fellowship. The struggles of the early years nevertheless confirm some of the very lessons which had led to the establishment of ARBCA.
First, the importance of confessional subscription was again demonstrated even while that subscription was upheld. Blackburn’s list of issues faced by ARBCA and RBMS over the years is a stunning testimony to the need for a strong confessional standard. The sufficiency of Scripture, male leadership in the church, the moral law, and well-regulated worship are all key issues in Reformed Baptist identity. Nevertheless, each was challenged. The mechanism by which all were affirmed was an appeal to the Confession of Faith. The history of Reformed Baptist associationalism not only demonstrates that our churches are confessional; it demonstrates why they need to be confessional.
Second, the need for associational accountability was demonstrated in more ways than one. As much as 1998 might be thought of as the “Year of Subscriptionism,” it might as easily be called the “Year of Accountability.” ARBCA was less than a year old when a member church sought to overturn its confession and in the process impugned the motives of its entire leadership. The association was able to respond to this in a proper, biblical, and firm manner. The representatives of the other churches observed a sober and well-thought-out process of engagement, leading one delegate to repent of a much lesser offense before he was ever challenged. Meanwhile, as poorly as Ray had behaved in the controversy, the AC was reminded of its duty to the churches. Even the formal rebuke of Juanita acknowledged their “legitimate end” – namely, the need for the churches to approve a new statement of subscription.
Third, the churches were reminded that doctrinal identity is an ongoing struggle, never fully settled in a world in which men do not live forever. Perhaps most important was the reminder to all that continued fidelity in any church or association must be generational. Among the Reformed Baptists, where many pastors have remained in one pulpit for decades, it has been easy to forget that all ministries come to an end. In one of the evening sessions of the 1998 Assembly Stuart Olyott of Liverpool, England preached on II Timothy 2:2, opening with the words, “The gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ must not be allowed to depart from the earth, but, the gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ is entrusted to men who will depart from the earth.”
Every congregation, then, must give a thought to how it will maintain its gospel and doctrinal commitments in the next generation. To an association, this means that doctrinal examination cannot be limited to the time of church’s application for membership. Particular attention must be given to those moments in which a church undergoes a change in its ministry.
And fourth, the association witnessed again the importance of the churches having their voice in associational matters. Perhaps the most remarkable moment of the 1998 General Assembly was the spontaneous and unanimous decision of the churches to adopt strict subscription in the very manner that Renihan had described. What Straub had urged on the RBMS AC in 1989 was proven again during the last days of his health: a confessional standard rising from the churches and insisted on by them must have a greater and more lasting value than any standard imposed by committee.
(Table of Contents for this series)