I was raised Catholic, gave up on Catholicism, explored eastern mysticism as a teenager, and wound up agnostic at age 20. The prayers and daily witness of my first Air Force supervisor and some reading of the Gospels led to a life-transforming conversion at an Assembly of God church building on a Wednesday night in 1982.
I was excited to join a church for which the Bible was “the sole rule of faith and practice,” and I was anxious to learn.
Maybe Not the Sole Rule for Faith and Practice
For those of you raised in church, this is going to seem like a joke, but it was not to me. It took me six months to get through the New Testament twice and the Old Testament once. My biggest surprise was NOT finding Sunday school, nor a Sunday morning service with 3 songs, an offering, and a sermon, nor a Wednesday night Bible study/business meeting. How could something that the Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists all believe and practice NOT be found in “the sole rule of faith and practice”?
It only got worse from there. I was baptized almost as an afterthought a month after my conversion. The reason I was given was that baptism is simply a public testimony to a salvation that had already occurred. Yet every baptism in the Book of Acts occurred immediately upon belief, not only on the same day as believing, but often within minutes. The Philippian jailer in Acts 16 was baptized in the middle of the night with only his own family as witnesses!
This is all I can remember struggling with my first nine months as a Christian. The town of Niceville, Florida had a thriving and active Christian community, and I was in some sort of Christian activity every day, whether it be a Bible study, church service, Christian music night at the skating rink, or street witnessing.
What Does the Bible Really Say?
After nine months, the Air Force sent me on a remote assignment to Alaska. I found only 5 or 6 committed Christians there, and I immediately gathered them up for a Friday night Bible study and passing out tracts in the local Indian village.
I had something to do with creating the explosion that happened within 6 weeks. I had already noticed that although we were always careful to say that God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the New Testament was not nearly so careful. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul says, “For us there is but one God, the Father, … and one Lord, Jesus Christ.”
I can’t remember where I was getting all the tracts we were using, but one of them suggested the possibility that the only-begotten Son of God was begotten before all time rather than just at Bethlehem. This made a lot of sense to me, and it seemed to explain the contrast between the Bible’s wording and the wording my Christian friends used. I shared this with the others on Friday night, and one of them ate it up. He got quite excited about the idea, but the others did not.
One Friday evening, we got into a deep discussion about it. I loved it, but one new Christian, who had been converted there in Alaska, was offended by the arguing and refused to speak to any of us from then on. It was only a couple more weeks, and most of them refused to meet with each other anymore. I eventually won the new Christian over, and he would at least hold discussions with me. In fact, I was no longer cut off from anyone, but several of them remained cut off from each other. The rest of my one-year tour was spent with only one or two Christians at a time.
This provoked me to start over. I decided I could not be Assembly of God anymore, I needed to get in the Bible and find out what it really said. I spent all my time in it, snatching every moment to read it that I could.
I ran across one verse that stuck in my craw. Romans 2:6 says that God will repay us according to our deeds. Despite the fact that the Assemblies of God believe that a Christian can lose his or her salvation by living an ungodly life, “salvation by faith alone” was a central theme of their conversations and teaching.
In fact, I remember explaining this to my Catholic mom (who had been raised Church of Christ, but converted to Catholicism so she could marry my dad). The conversation went something like this:
Mom: So we go to heaven by faith alone?
Mom: So I can do whatever I want, and as long as I believe in Jesus, I will go to heaven?
Me: No. You have live out your faith by obeying Jesus.
Mom: So I have to do good works.
We went around like that for a while before I realized I was not equipped to win that argument. This happened in Florida when I was only a couple months old in the Lord, so I figured I just needed to learn more.
Romans 2:6, though, seemed to agree with my mom. I was puzzled. I wrote it on the blank last page of my Bible, which would accumulate a lot more verses on judgment by works over the next six years.
Sealing My Status as a Heretic
The Air Force moved me from Alaska to West Germany. It was not my first trip to Ramstein Air Force Base. My father was in the Air Force too, and I had graduated from high school at Ramstein.
When I got there, I was more influenced by my desire for unity than by my questions about how to describe the Trinity or the role of works in our salvation. Gene Edwards’ book, The Early Church, that I had picked up during a weekend in Fairbanks, had made a huge impact on me. In addition, a close friend from Florida had been writing me with teachings about unity that had their source in Watchman Nee, a Chinese teacher and author.
I tried to pass on those teachings wherever I went. It would be impossible to count how many people to whom I brought up 1 Corinthians 3:3. “Paul said that the Corinthians were carnal for saying they were of Paul or Peter or Apollos or Christ,” I would tell them. “Doesn’t that mean that we are carnal when we say we are Baptist or Assembly of God?”
Oddly, almost no one agreed with me, or if they did, their answer was, “That is why I am a Christian first and a Methodist second.” Almost no one grasped the idea that distinguishing ourselves from other Christians was divisive.
I got out of the military and stayed in Germany in order to remain in the house church that was my primary fellowship. I got a job at an English-language Christian bookstore, and God proceeded to devastate both the house church and my life. The story is too complicated to tell here.
I wound up making phone calls for a life insurance salesman who sold to the American military. I had to move into an apartment he owned because I was homeless. The first day I arrived I took a walk and found a shortcut to a big Baptist church that was just off a main thoroughfare. I attended the church on Sunday, and when I did not come back the following Sunday, they sent a visitation team to me.
I have to skip the great story about the girl on the visitation team who became my wife. I have to skip the great story about being nominated for deacon at that Baptist church. I will tell you about two conflicts the pastor and I had.
Three weeks after we were married, the pastor called me in to ask why I was not a member. I told him I had become a member of the church when I was baptized. My commitment to the church was made and sealed at baptism. Signing a membership paper would put something else in the place of baptism. I couldn’t do it. The Pastor told me to beware of spiritual pride.
My wife burst into tears as we drove home. “Why can’t you sign the stupid paper?”
We got home, and an hour later she walked triumphantly into the living room. “My dad is coming over to talk to you.”
My father-in-law is as devout a Christian as any man, and she trusted him implicitly. We talked for a while, and he told my wife, “If I believed what Paul believed, I would do exactly what Paul is doing.”
My wife told me later that her dad handed the reins of her life to me that day. She felt free to follow me on the difficult path we would walk the next thirty years.
The next encounter with the pastor was about baptism.
I had seen the contrast between the practice of baptism in evangelical churches and the practice of baptism in the book of Acts way back in 1982. It took me several years, however, to understand why the apostles baptized immediately (though now it seems obvious). When I did, I sent a letter to the pastor with my thoughts, asking if he would talk with me. When I got there, he began by accusing me of not tithing. I explained to him that I did tithe; I just did not put the money in an envelope with my name on it. I did not need the tax deduction.
When we got to the subject of the letter, he told me to go to the Church of Christ. He also told me that greater minds than us had discussed that subject for centuries, and he told me to beware of spiritual pride.
Afterward, my wife asked how I could be the only one that is right. I told her, “I can’t be. No one who is alone is right. I can tell you, though, that pastor is not correct. He doesn’t care what the Bible says.”
The Real Heretics
In 1989, a couple years after we were married, I ran across the book, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?. The book was a survey of 9 Christian writers who wrote in the second and third centuries. I had no idea that we had letters and books from Christians from the second and third centuries. We do, though, and a lot more.
The author, David Bercot, covered about 10 subjects. The rules for the subjects were that at least 5 of the 9 early Christians had to have written on the subject, and all of them who wrote on it had to agree.
I spent all evening and a good portion of the next day reading it. (I was no longer making calls for an insurance agent, but I ran an auto insurance agency and a Christian bookstore both.) When I got home from work, my wife was reading on the bed. I threw Bercot’s book on the bed and told her, “I’m not a heretic! I was just born in the wrong century.”
I was shocked at the agreement between the things I had seen in the Scriptures and the subjects Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up covered. Only 1 subject was new to me. On the other 9, the book and I agreed in advance. After growing used to being a borderline outcast, it was nice to know that had I been born 200 years after Christ’s birth, rather than 2,000, I would have fit right in.
I was thrilled, and I felt justified. I was anxious to spread this new-found knowledge.
What I Have Learned Since
The first thing I did was buy the 10-volume set The Ante-Nicene Fathers. The set contained many, maybe most, of the extant Christian writings from the second and third centuries. Despite constantly being told that the early church fathers disagreed with one another, I found that the fathers of the second and third centuries were in amazing harmony. (In 2011, I published a book about the Council of Nicea in 325, which is when Christians began vehemently disagreeing with one another. It is called Decoding Nicea.)
I quickly deceived myself into thinking that if Christians could just see this, they would drop their traditions and unite. That did not happen. I only alienated the evangelicals even more.
You might wonder why I did not move on to the Church of Christ or to some high church like the Anglicans. One answer is that I do not actually agree with the Church of Christ on baptism. The main answer, though, is that I like to be around people who want to talk about Jesus, spend time in his presence, hear the voice of God, walk by the Spirit, and give themselves to Jesus, the Gospel, and each other. Others have had a different experience, but I found it easier to find people like that among the evangelicals. For all their problems, they have a lot of people who love Jesus. To me, it looks like they have more such people than anyone else does.
So that’s the story of how I came to be a heretic, or at least a borderline heretic, among the people I most want to fellowship with. You can probably see what I’ve done with that problem in the pages of this blog or on Facebook, where I post regularly. Just look up my name there (Paul Pavao).