Going Back to Greenville

 

greenvilleby John Ellis

Three years ago this past August, Danita, the kids, and I woke up early one morning and headed north to our new home in Arlington, VA. After eight years in Greenville, SC, we knew that it would be hard leaving friends we loved and a place that had become home. More than anything, we knew that leaving our church family would be painful.

The Sunday before we left, I stood up in our church’s morning prayer service and delivered a tearful goodbye. After briefly recounting some of the ways in which the Holy Spirit had used Emmanuel Bible Church to teach us about God the Father and to grow our faith, I asked for prayer. Specifically, I asked the church to pray for the Holy Spirit to knit our hearts to our new church family as we were sure to be lonely and homesick. At the time, I had no idea how prescience my prayer request was.

We had been praying about moving to Washington DC for about a year. During that time, we researched churches, and even included church friends in our search. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the Holy Spirit was directing us to Arlington Baptist Church[1].

Utilizing the church’s website, we studied Arlington Baptist Church’s statement of faith and constitution. We listened to many of the pastor’s sermons that were posted online, and bathed our search in prayer. Graciously, Elders from our South Carolina church prayed with us, helped us research the church, and encouraged us as we concluded that the Holy Spirit was directing us to ABC as our new church family.

Unfortunately and sinfully, upon our arrival, we began to steer into our homesickness. We deeply missed our church family in South Carolina. After a few Sundays in our new church home, we began to wonder if we had made a mistake. We believed that no church could ever replace Emmanuel Bible Church, and, frankly, we didn’t want to have EBC replaced. We convinced ourselves that we should never have left our church family in Greenville. That began almost two years of yo-yoing back and forth between Greenville, SC and Arlington, VA. We took every opportunity to drive back “home” over weekends and tried to manufacture reasons to move back. In part, our resistance to having our hearts knit with our new church family was a product of how much Emmanuel Bible Church meant to us because of the ways in which the Holy Spirit used EBC in our lives.

During the summer of 2005, Danita and I arrived in Greenville, SC reeling from self-inflicted spiritual wounds. I was a new Christian, we were pregnant newlyweds, and our knowledge and faith in God was anemic.

Over the previous year, I had bowed the knee to King Jesus, Danita and I had met, we had gotten pregnant, and then we had married. A year full of momentous decisions, to say the least. Some of those decisions were ill-advised; some were flat out sin. But throughout the entire time, the Holy Spirit was working in our hearts and lives for the glory of God and our sanctification.

Part of our honeymoon involved driving cross country from San Francisco to Greenville, SC. Upon our arrival, in his glorious mercies, the Holy Spirit brought us to the initial prayer meetings that were the seeds of Emmanuel Bible Church.

Since his brother married my sister, the pastor of this new church plant and I had known each other since junior high. This meant that he had been a witness to the darkest days of my rebellion against God. In fact, he lovingly shared the gospel with me just a couple of months before I moved to California. Prior to me showing up with a pregnant wife in 2005, the last time he had seen me, I was a hardened heathen who openly reviled God.

Of course, he was happy to hear about my conversion, but, after asking me to explain how the Holy Spirit had changed me, who God was, and what being a Christian meant, I’m sure that his happiness was tempered as he heard me confess to a theology that was basically a version of deism. On another occasion, I vividly remember going to him and boasting about how excited Danita and I were to be able to use our talents in this new church plant. He looked at me, and gently said, “Maybe should you focus on learning about God instead of serving.” That made us angry. How dare he rebuff our offer of service? That wouldn’t be the last time that someone at Emmanuel Bible Church angered us.

During those first few months in Greenville, SC, I became obsessed with my theatre career. From my end, things were going well. I was the main theatre teaching artist in the pilot program in Greenville for a new arts integration program out of the Kennedy Center. As the Director of Education at the Greenville Little Theatre, I had freedom to plan and teach a variety of acting classes. And my acting skills were in high demand. Life was so good that I failed to notice that my young, pregnant wife was lonely and struggling.

My good life was soon upended, however, by my mom’s cancer diagnosis. Over the next few months, as the gravity of my mom’s cancer set in, I began to be confronted with the sovereignty of God. At some point during those months, my dad implored me to find a new church. His reasoning was based solely on the fact that the pastor of our church was a dreaded Calvinist. A fact that had escaped my attention during the six months or so that we had been attending Emmanuel Bible Church.

“Do you know what Dad said?,” I scoffed to my sister one day on the phone. “He said that Brad’s a Calvinist.”

“He is,” was her reply.

That shocked me, and I didn’t want to believe it. Based on my childhood church background, the little bit that I knew about Calvinism didn’t paint it in a good light, to say the least. I finally began to pay attention to Brad’s sermons, and became horrified at what I heard. He actually believed that God was sovereign over all of time and space. And by “sovereign,” Brad literally meant “sovereign.”

About that time my dad bought me a copy of a book written by Dave Hunt titled What Love Is This?: Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God. As I read the book, I became even more horrified at my new pastor’s Calvinism. About halfway through the book, though, I began to feel guilty about judging John Calvin without interacting with any primary sources. So, I bought Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. More importantly, I read Calvin’s Institutes with the Bible open beside me. I assumed that I would find that Calvin had taken the Bible out of context. To my unhappy surprise, he hadn’t.

The discovery of what God’s sovereignty means coupled with my mom dying of cancer was too much for my young faith. I tried to throw in the towel.

Early summer of 2006, I sent several of the men at EBC an email declaring that if this is who God is, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Him; I no longer wanted to identify as a Christian. During that time, I stopped taking my young family to church on a regular basis.

Reverting to cues from my past worldview, I began to devour things like the Sceptics Annotated Bible and Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. My old rebellion against God still fit comfortably, and I began searching for reasons to discard my infant faith. Not being sure of how she would respond, I kept my struggles and doubts from Danita. I was afraid that she would take our baby daughter and leave me. To be fair, I wouldn’t have blamed her. After all, this wasn’t what she had signed up for.

During that time, my young wife was deeply worried, even scared, at times. Although I didn’t open up to her about my struggles, she knew something was wrong. In her worst fears, she imagined that I was going to leave her. Her fears weren’t helped by the fact that she was living in a place thousands of miles away from her family and friends and that because of her husband’s sin, she was kept away from her new church family.

As my mom’s cancer progressed and my anger towards God grew, I began to poison Danita’s mind towards Emmanuel Bible Church. Blowing up perceived slights into egregious insults and harping on Brad’s “bad” theology, I attempted to justify to Danita why we were only sporadically attending the church. During that time, I even began rehearsing my old anti-theist apologetics to my wife. By God’s grace, I did little damage to her overall faith in God, but I did succeed in driving a wedge between her and EBC.

Turning to my unbelieving theatre friends for affirmation and support, I readied myself to make a final break from Christianity. Thankfully, the men of EBC refused to simply let me walk away.

Sending emails letting me know that they were praying for me, seeking me out by phone, and taking me out for coffee were a few of the tactics that the men of EBC utilized to show me God’s love and affirm the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the time, I didn’t see it that way, of course. I would return home after meeting with one of the men from the church and complain to Danita about how judgmental they were. Sneering at their commitment to the Bible as God’s full and final revelation of Himself, I would prattle off the standard list of “contradictions” in what I was beginning to once again believe was a man-made book. Besides my irritation at being challenged by my obviously intellectual inferiors (including a PhD in microbiology)[2], I didn’t understand why they couldn’t mind their own business.

One day in a Port City Java, after a long debate in which I challenged the morality of the Bible, Brad looked down at his tea, sternly looked back up at me, and forcefully said, “John, I’m done arguing with you. It’s your pride. You need to repent of your pride and submit to God!”

Once again, he made me angry.

I returned home, fuming at the audacity of a pastor to speak to me that way. “What right does he have to talk to me like that?” I angrily demanded of Danita. Following my lead, she agreed. In my mind, I swore that I was done with Brad, EBC, and God, in general.

Just a few weeks after that, I watched my mom give her final earthly hug and goodbye to her sister. A couple of days later, I angrily wept as we left my parent’s house. As far as I knew, I would never see my mom again.

“If God is sovereign, why is He doing this to my mom?” I finally blurted out to Danita. That conversation was the closest that I ever got to confessing to her my desire to walk away from Christianity.

As we drove the eight hours home from Pace, Florida, the conversation in my mind became more directed at my mom. I didn’t understand the faith that she evidenced. Her unwavering love and faith in Jesus was beyond my ability to grasp. During that conversation in my mind, I recalled Brad’s words to me that my “mom’s cancer may not have anything to do with you. God may be teaching her something about Himself. Stop assuming that it’s about you.”

The original voicing of those words was one of the times that I left the conversation angry with Brad. On the drive back to Greenville, however, his words wrapped around a different perspective – that of my mom’s. I began to puzzle even more over her faith.

Over those next two weeks, I found myself reading the Bible differently, hearing the counsel from EBC men with new ears, and praying with an honest spirit of submission. To this day, I’m not sure when the actual change in my heart happened. Which is odd, considering that it happened over such a short space of time. But, by God’s grace, between the time I told my mom goodbye and her death just a couple of weeks later, God’s sovereignty was revealed to me as a blessing.

On the morning that my mom died, Brad came over and prayed with me. Later that evening, the couple that eventually became our “adopted” parents and our kids’ “adopted” grandparents brought us dinner. Phone calls from our church family rolled in, and EBC members loved us through that hard time.

I wish that I could say that we immediately plugged into Emmanuel Bible Church and wholeheartedly embraced the church family that the Holy Spirit had blessed us with. Unfortunately, sanctification is most often a slow process, and the next couple of years were characterized by our continued selfishness and lack of faith. But, God is good.

Emmanuel Bible Church never stopped loving us and they never gave up on us. By the time we moved to Arlington, God had used EBC to teach us not only about Himself but also about how Christians are to live life together in the community called church. We learned the importance of inviting members of the Body of Christ into your life. We learned the blessings that come from inserting yourselves into the lives of other members of the Body of Christ. And we learned the importance of the right preaching of God’s word. Eight years after moving to Greenville, Emmanuel Bible Church had truly become our family, in the deepest sense of the word.

On that final Sunday in Greenville before moving, I also said that we felt like kids who were finally mature enough to leave the parents and strike out on their own. Three years on, and I still believe that analogy to be apt.

This past weekend, we had the privilege of returning to our “parent’s house” in Greenville and sharing in the praising of God for ten years of blessings in and through Emmanuel Bible Church. It was a sweet and encouraging time, and we enjoyed catching up with old friends.

I was asked to share how God has used EBC in our lives, and I was happy to oblige. One of the things that I said was that I am looking forward to the return of King Jesus when our new church family and our old church family will sit together at Jesus’ feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and praise God together. You see, one of the most important things that we learned while at EBC and are continuing to learn from our new church family is how the Church points us to life in the new earth. The sweetness and joy we feel as we worship and serve God alongside our church family will be exponentially greater upon the return of King Jesus when we will worship God with all of God’s family from all times and places.

As we drove back home this past Sunday, I asked Danita if she regretted moving from Greenville and leaving Emmanuel Bible Church. She immediately responded in the negative and I wholeheartedly concurred. Driving north on I85 through North Carolina, we talked for a while about how God had knit (and continues to knit) our hearts to our Arlington Baptist Church family. In fact, whenever we’re away from home, there is a part of our hearts that is always longing for our ABC family and as sweet and as much of a blessing as it was, this past weekend was no exception.

Eleven years ago, God brought us to Greenville, SC and Emmanuel Bible Church. No blog post, even a long-winded one like this post, could adequately express how the hurt, tears, and self-idolatry were turned to joy, spiritual growth, and a desire to serve God through the loving ministry of EBC. Needless to say, and thankfully, because of the Holy Spirit’s work in and through EBC, God is using our service at Arlington Baptist Church for His glory.

In His kindness, God has given us a new church family that loves us, cares for us, and cherishes the right preaching of God’s word. We are excited about what God is doing in our family and how He is using Arlington Baptist Church to make us more like Him. Going back to Greenville this past weekend was a good reminder from God of how He has blessed us through our old church family and how He is continuing to heap blessings on our head through our new church family.

Sola deo Gloria


[1] At the time, the name of the church was Grace Baptist Church of Arlington. The reason for the name change is a glorious testimony to the goodness of God, but it’s also a different story for another time. Throughout this post, I will use “Arlington Baptist Church” for the sake of uniformity.

[2] I wish that I didn’t feel compelled to disrupt the flow of the narrative with this footnote, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that tone is frequently overlooked. My claim of intellectual superiority is a thing of the past and a product of my sinful pride. Those men are NOT my intellectual inferiors. If anything, I am theirs.

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One thought on “Going Back to Greenville

  1. […] Moving to DC from Greenville was an adjustment; mainly because of our church family in Greenville. In His kindness and grace, God has given us a new church family who continue to love us and care for us. This past October, my family and I returned to Greenville to help Emmanuel Bible Church celebrate their tenth anniversary. Upon returning home, I wrote down my reflections that were prompted by that weekend. You can read those reflections here. […]

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