Monday, 8 October 2007

Leave the JA and you are leaving God

I am not one for regrets. I have almost too few to mention but one bugged me throughout the 1980s, which was that I hadn't been able to get across through the media my main concern about the Jesus Fellowship: the fact that members were taught that if they left they would be damned. It just wasn't sexy enough for a secular audience, which lapped up stories about banned relationships, banned TV, arranged marriages, children beaten with rods, babies smacked with wooden spoons, celibacy, etc etc. Certainly, these had been concerns of ours but they were not the be all and end all.

I rang Mick (Temperate) Haines in the late 1980s in an attempt to explain this, to make him understand that my concern had not been put across clearly enough, even by the Christian media. I think he imagined I regretted talking to the media at all and was apologising, but this was not the case. I just regretted not being able to control the stories the media told....and as my main audience was the JA themselves, I attempted to make Mick understand that their lost salvation doctrine was wrong and kept people in membership under duress.

I talked to David (my local JA House Elder friend) about this last year and though he is keen to emphasise that things have changed and that lost salvation is not taught at the JA, if it ever was, he does concede that whoever leaves the JA must backslide, since he cannot conceive of any situation in which God would call anyone away from them. I asked where they would stand on someone's belief that he was being called to missionary work abroad, perhaps, or to join another church, and there was simply is no room within his perception of the JA covenant to accommodate such a notion. Essentially, he says, God just wouldn't. The call to covenant in the JA is irrevocable.

I suppose that whatever the JA now teach about the loss of salvation, there is still no room in their understanding of Jesus fellowship membership for a breaking of the covenant made at their baptisms. This understanding is rooted in the fellowship's historical concept of being THE church. In my time it was explicit that all other churches were nominal; that we were the church that God was blessing, the late 20th century continuation of the work done by the Salvation Army, who had lost their edge, being now the "form without the power". Within our concept of church, there was nowhere else to go, nowhere that would not be a compromise, the beginnings of backsliding. Leaving the JA was then to leave God.

I wrote a posting for the JA's own forum about this but their moderator, Tschaka Roussell intercepted it and wouldn't let it through, insisting that it was a perversion of Christian belief and simply never would have been taught at Bugbrooke. To his credit Tschaka (a very sincere and earnest young man) later emailed to say that a senior elder who has been in the fellowship since before my time, [name removed], had told him that lost salvation for those who broke covenant was spoken of far more freely in earlier times. Nb. I have received an email from Tschaka asking me to check our correspondence for the name of the senior elder he had said confirmed this. It seems I misremembered it. I will amend this in due course. I apologise for any offense caused. (11 Oct. 07)

After I left, a fellow ex-member referred, tongue-in-cheek, to "Bug-speak" (Bugbroooke's own Newspeak, as in Orwell's 1984) as being a means by which the truth could be disguised from non-members. It wasn't a term which had ever been used, but I knew what he meant right away. At that time the JA was not in good fellowship with other Christians and had to try less hard than it does today to present its sense of being THE church in a good light. Noel Stanton actively taught us not to cast pearls before swine, effectively using the Bible to sanction lies or sleights of hand if they protected the church from unpalatable truths being seen by either unbelievers or nominal Christians (Christians from other churches).

Nowadays, the JA's PR activities are considerably more sophisticated. In contrast to the 1980s, when their exclusion from the Evangelical Alliance came about precisely because they were careless of the views of other churches, their image now among other evangelicals is of paramount importance to them. To eschew claims that they are a cult they emphasise their Christian orthodoxy, playing down theological distinctness. Teaching of lost salvation for leavers is no longer made explicit, but implicit in the suggestion that God would never call away from the JA anyone called into covenant with them, is the implication that nobody can ever leave and remain under grace. The differences are subtle, but ultimately the pressures on members to stay must be similar; and this was precisely the sort of danger of JA membership which John Everett and I had campaigned to expose.