Ern Baxter - An Autobiographical Sketch 2.
Yesterday I began sharing some extracts from Ern's autobiographical sketch that he includes in his superb book on shepherding called, "The Chief Shepherd and His Sheep". It was very stirring for me to re-transcribe the material from his "Trossachs Experience" where a man came to his house, and commissioned him and they went together to a large conference where he received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I saw the importance of small groups and remembered the concept of "Sovereign Surprises" - how we never know when God may "break out" into our lives and change the course of our stories. Today I wanted to move on and address the dilemma that Ern's Trossachs Experience put him in. It was a dilemma that was to keep him for the rest of his life.
Word and Spirit.
"My desire to walk in this balance put me in a dilemma. I was eager to embrace both sound Biblical teaching and the gift and gifts of the Holy Spirit. However the doctrinal side of me was unacceptable to the Pentecostals, and the pentecostal side of me was unacceptable to the Evangelicals. Most churches were seperated from one another according to emphasis and this segregation was dramatic and complete, a divorce that allowed for no toleration of one by the other. To try and embrace both emphases was to forfeit one's acceptance by either. In retrospect I realise that many good men involved in maintaining this tension faced the same dilemma. Consequently some chose to play down their pentecostal experiences in order to be acceptable to evangelical Christians, and some who made this choice became prominent in evangelical circles. (I would question whether or not this is still going on today).
As I was experiencing the ministry of the Holy Spirit, my call to serve God became very clear. I "knew" God wanted me to preach, and considering my providential circumstances - my exposure to two emphases that were mutually exclusive to much of the body of Christ - the working out of this call was to prove difficult. Unlike those who were yielding to the pressure to choose one or the other, I foudn myself compelled by conviction to embrace what I saw to be the whole counsel of God.
For a time I was able to move in a relatively small circle of like-minded men who discipled me in the Scriptures and the Spirit. All was well. But as my abilities in God's service developed it became apparant that I was being called to a larger sphere of activity. Some Pentecostal leaders approached me about ministering among them and I candidly shared my doctrinal convictions, affirming that these might hinder my usefulness and could eventually precipitate problems. The leaders felt certain that my views would not hinder me, but that on the contrary my contribution would be a blessing. I would also be able to broaden my sphere of usefulness. I relented, accepting their offer and became the pastor of a country church. Indeed I did experience blessing, and the church grew, however my original protestations proved prophetic. An unpleasant confrontation developed and my associations with the Pentecostal denominations were severed.
At that time, God put into my heart the Scripture that says, "If thou wilt walk in My ways and if thou wilt keep My charge ... I will give thee places to walk among these that stand by" (Zech 3:7 KJV). This assurance helped me to handle the pain of what I felt to be a severe and unfair handling of my life and service for God by the Pentecostal leaders. (Since then I have had fruitful and pleasant relationships with many "official" Pentecostal leaders).
I realised that God was challenging me to make a choice. Since the Pentecostals no longer desired my service, I could surpress my charismatic experience as others had done and go into other denominations or I could stay true to my convictions and trust God for the outcome. I came close to yielding to the temptation to hide my charismatic light under a bushel and going into the denominations where I would find "respectability" and "security". Yet the challenge persisted: could I trust God and embrace His whole counsel? I considered the possible isolation and loneliness that such a course could produce. However it quickly became clear that such possibilities were no argument for evading the will of God. Loneliness and isolation were a small price to pay for a clear conscience.
The whole counsel of God as I saw it, was like a whole pie cut into sections. One section was water baptism, one was the baptism of the Holy Spirit, one the authority of the Word, one the deity of Christ and so on. Unfortunately the body of Christ was so divided that Christians were being forced to choose certain pieces of the pie and by default, to lose the rest of the pie in the process. I did not want to be forced into taking just a piece and missing all the other good things. I therefore decided to trust God and preach to whomever would have me. I chose the whole counsel of God".
I think again we can learn some relevent truths from Ern's account.
1. Hiding charismatic light will still provide "respectability" and "security". Despite the century we have had of Pentecostal and charismatic experience, I believe that there is still a certain "respectability" and "security" that one can gain by downgrading charismatic life and seeking solace in the Reformed Evangelical circles. The tendancy of the Charismatic Movement to not provide careful scholarship and theology for what we believe is valid Christian biblical experience has often forced this temptation and Christian leaders, pastors and churches are still being tempted to make this choice. Yet as Ern said, what price for a clear conscience? It is interesting that at the end of his life in 1991 when he stood in the pulpit of New Covenant Church, Dunstable he could say (somewhat like Paul) with a clear conscience, "For sixty years I have enjoyed and relished charismatic life and I wouldn't change that for ... anything".
2. The divorce between Word and Spirit is still as strong and difficult.
While we have many groups of churches and leaders to be grateful for in attempting to re-marry these two dimensions, I still see time after time the choice between Word and Spirit made - and sometimes it is quite unconsious! Sometimes it is just a "drift" due to theological preferences. We have much to be grateful for to Ern Baxter himself, to Dr R T Kendall, to Dr Sam Storms and to Newfrontiers as well as Ministries without Borders (formerly CMI) for being just some key people to stand as fast as they can in marrying these two - Reformed Doctrine and Charismatic Experience.
3. Obedience to God often entails Loneliness.
I am profoundly challenged by this truth. At what price do we seek friendship with all, unity with all? While unity around the gospel when it happens genuinely is a marvellous thing, church history often shows that obedience to God and true commitment to His Word entails being forced to walk alone for a time. Ern Baxter made that decision even though it meant leaving a large successful Pentecostal ministry. Yet he did it because he had a vision for his life - and that vision grasped and consumed him. I wonder - do we have a vision that will carry us through the loneliness and the solitude? Jesus Christ Himself had a vision that carried Him through Gethsemane and Calvary; "For the joy set before Him ... He endured". I suppose one could argue that Jesus Himself was a Christian hedonist!