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I’ve met some of the kindest, most genuinely caring people in church. I’ve also met some of the most priggish, self-righteous assholes there.
Those in the latter camp are what I call the «dividers» — those who divide «us» against «them.» They’ve forgotten the message that we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness.
The «dividers» are the modern-day Pharisees, whom Jesus said were «whitewashed tombs»: beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside. Lest I myself be guilty of being a divider, let me sincerely state that these hypocrites truly need our prayers — and but for the grace of God, there go I.
Among the chief dividers that I’ve met in church life was Brother Larry Kershaw. He was the pastor of the First Baptist Church in the small Southern town where I used to live. Or, as they’re fond of saying in Southern Baptist churches, he was the «preacher.» He tended his flock with an iron fist.
«There are the sheep, and then there are the GOATS,» Brother Larry was fond of saying. He was able to twist the Scriptures to make it sound like we’re in an all-out war. Not a war against hunger, or like this a war against poverty, or a war against oppression — rather a war against homosexuals, a war against pornographers, a war against politicians who don’t happen to be Republican.
«Turn or burn, that’s my motto,» he retorted almost gleefully, «but these folks have made their choice. They’ve signed up for the wrong team. They’re the goats!»
«But isn’t it a war against darkness and spiritual powers, rather than against other people? I mean, didn’t Peter say that the Lord is not willing that ANY should perish, but that ALL should come to repentance?»
«You’re wasting your breath,» he said, «sounds like you’ve been eating some of that LIBERAL garbage that the Hollywood media’s been feeding you!»
«Then you’re MISINTERPRETING it. I didn’t go to seminary and get my Master’s of Divinity for nothing, Tom. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.»
Brother Larry was ALWAYS sure of himself. And yet, somehow, I didn’t really trust him. My fears about his authenticity were borne out when my wife, Tricia, left me.
«So, Tom, you understand you’ll have to resign from the deacon board.» These were Brother Larry’s first words of counsel to me in my hour of devastation and need.
I had served as a deacon in the church for nearly five years. I had reached out to families struggling with illness and to individuals in financial need. I had taught Sunday School, and truly believed what I was teaching. I had gladly visited patients in hospitals and nursing homes. And now I was being told that because my wife had left me, I was no longer fit for service.
Perhaps all that time spent in the Lord’s service and away from Tricia had led to the demise of our marriage. She not only wouldn’t join me in ministering to others, but she stopped going to church entirely. With Brother Larry’s hellfire and brimstone messages, I bought into her excuse for not wanting to go: she couldn’t stand the preaching. But she politely declined my offer to look for another church together.