SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2008
VOLUME 9, ISSUE 5
D E P A R T M E N T S
STORIES of Faith
From Torah-observant to discovering the New Covenant
Jeff and Sondra Brickell
I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist family, and my father was a pastor until I was about ten years old. I'm not sure which came first, Desmond Ford at Glacier View, or my parents' divorce, but one or both of these events marked the end of his ministry. He shared with me his disagreement in the key doctrines of the church and also the evidence about Ellen White's plagiarism. The ensuing years in Adventist schools during which I lived with my mother never persuaded me of the church's claims. With doubt firmly implanted, my foundation cracked, yet I didn't choose to abide in Christ. As I grew older, I developed a rebellious, self-destructive lifestyle, but God did bring me back to Him a few years later after he brought Jeff and me together. We began to attend church early in our marriage, and I finally experienced true repentance and faith in Christ.
After being disappointed by the first church we attended, I went running back to the familiar: a small Seventh-day Adventist church in a nearby town. I tried to weigh out what I'd learned from my father and wasn't sure which side to believe. The Bible worker studying with us explained a teaching given in 1888 which the church had rejected but was now being recognized. As I listened to him, the focus sounded good, better than the one I'd grown up hearing. I had the sense I was going toward something new, not returning to the past. The thought of looking for truth outside Adventism scared and overwhelmed me.
Jeff and I were baptized as members together. At first he believed the teachings because they seemed to all fit together like a puzzle. But he never could fully accept Ellen White as a prophet, and he could never get a satisfactory answer from anyone to questions such as, "Why keep the weekly Sabbath and not the other Sabbath days God commanded?" and "Why is Sunday worship a pagan practice, yet Christmas is okay?" He joined me for lack of a better alternative at the time.
After a few years of trying to be good Adventists, something prompted me to start a serious study of the New Testament. This may have been the first time I ever read it straight through. I was amazed at the contrast in focus I perceived between the New Testament and Adventism. It seemed fairly obvious the message of the early church was simply Jesus. I was shocked to see in Ephesians the true seal of God was the Holy Spirit. These verses jumped off the pages at me. The pivotal liberating truth came with the book of Hebrews. I realized Jesus was not investigating anyone in a heavenly sanctuary but had finished his atonement, once and for all, at the cross. I relegated the investigative judgment to the false teaching file, which also proved fatal to my already wavering belief in Mrs. White as a true prophet. This insight in Hebrews poured into my heart with an incredible joy I will never forget. We soon asked for our names to be removed from the church books. No one confronted us with a plea to return to the truth.
While we no longer believed Sabbath observance was the seal of God, we still wondered how a believer should relate to the law. We could not seem to get a grasp on the new covenant. We thought it only meant we received grace and forgiveness, but we still looked to the law for our standard of Christian obedience. I diligently studied and prayed over many issues as we were leaving the church, going through the fire of fear and doubt, begging God to lead me because I didn't trust myself or anyone else. But after leaving Adventism, it seems we abandoned our dependence on God and became confident we could find our own way.
At first we tried different Sabbatarian groups and found them all painfully cold and dead. We finally started attending a Bible Church, but it seemed so simple and boring to me. Looking back I realize the element I missed was the feeling of having a distinctive, special message other Christians didn't have, but everyone needed to know. The gospel alone wasn't enough. For me, obeying the law was driven by a need to be more right than other Christians.
Soon after we started attending the Bible church, a friend introduced us to a group he had been attending which observed the feasts of Israel. I'd recently begun learning about modern Israel, so it piqued my interest. The law from the Jewish perspective had a great deal of life and celebration to it, unlike the attitude of somber duty I'd been used to. I found this emphasis appealing, and I hoped this could be the answer we were looking for. To clarify, this was a group of Gentile Christians believing they had a right to call themselves Jews through belief in the Jewish Messiah. We now refer to it as the Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM) in order to distinguish it from our Messianic Jewish brothers who do have a clear picture of the new covenant, yet still enjoy their rich heritage.
What started out as an optional lifestyle soon turned into an obligation of the Sinai covenant and the whole law. We became "Torah observant" and nearly as strict as many orthodox Jews. Space does not permit recounting all the negative spiritual fallout of choosing this path. We traded the reality of Christ for His shadow.
Five years later, my soul was in agony, and I had no idea why. I thought I was right, so I assumed I just needed to try harder. In December of 2006 I determined to once again seek God as I had done in the days of questioning Adventism. Daily fellowship with God through prayer and the Word had disappeared from my walk. Like a person clinging to a limb on the edge of a cliff, I clawed my way back to firm ground, and a firm hand pulled me up. Every day new life breathed into my soul, and once again, God answered His promise of sending His Spirit as a teacher. I became keenly sensitive to all the ways we were denying Christ in our teaching and focus, yet claiming to be His followers. I read the Sermon on the Mount and realized we weren't following Jesus at all. About two months into my renewed Christian walk, God gave us an incredible gift by opening my husband's eyes to more than either of us had ever been able to understand.
I was exposed to the Worldwide Church of God in my early 20's through my father. From a young age I had a fascination with mysterious, spiritual ideas, so I found the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong intriguing. As I studied his material, I believed that no one I knew was able to prove it wrong. I placed it on the back burner of my mind but continued to acquire a large library of his writings. Every now and then I would study them, dabbling with various ideas.
A few years after leaving Adventism we went through a period of financial struggle. I began to wonder if I wasn't experiencing financial success because I wasn't obeying everything I'd believed God wanted me to do. This thinking began our journey into the Hebrew Roots Movement. We knew of a group through a friend of ours, so I called and asked if we could visit the congregation with him. We immediately fell in love with the group and the message of the movement: the restoration of the ways of God in an immoral, pagan culture.
Sondra and I decided that we were going to live out this new lifestyle of keeping the Torah. After nearly a year, there were enough people interested in our own area that we felt a desire to start a group of our own, thinking we could avoid some of the negative pitfalls we'd already encountered. We did not want our group to be legalistic, and anyone would be welcome to study with us even if they were not Torah observant. We didn't believe in pushing it on anyone else who didn't already feel led to the same walk. Regardless of our noble intentions, our path took us farther from Christ and deeper into the worship of the law itself.
This open, accepting atmosphere soon fell by the wayside. I learned a valuable lesson. If you don't have a doctrinal statement, someone will come along that does have an agenda, and it will become yours. What we didn't accept, we tolerated. Some began to rid themselves of everything pagan, going beyond the initial rejection of Christmas, Easter, and Sunday worship. Nearly every word we had traditionally used to communicate our faith, such as God, Christ, Lord, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Christian, church, Bible, cross, and baptism were replaced with more appropriate names or pronunciations. We also focused on the minutia of the law, learning how to tie fringes for our clothing and some even made their own phylacteries. We had the law on our door posts, and somehow we even believed circumcision was still a valid practice as a sign of obedience to God. We spoke of the church in derogatory, insulting terms. Many in this movement reject the Trinity and divinity of Christ. Full conversion to Judaism and denial of Jesus proves to be a very short journey from these positions. We knew some who did go to Judaism. I was also plagued with irrational doubt for a time that Jesus was the Messiah.
By the fall of 2006 I found myself in a spiritual desert. I had become very critical of myself and others, and burnout was setting in. The next few months brought still more stressful burdens. By January of 2007 I told the congregation I needed to step down for awhile. I began to fast once a week and read the Word more diligently. On one of these days of fasting, my Bible fell open to the book of Galatians. I intended to study in another area of Scripture that day and I wasn't looking for the truth. I thought I had the truth, but the Lord had other plans. For some reason, I decided to read where my Bible had opened, and God completely transformed my life. It was as if Paul wrote that letter just for me. I finally understood for the first time what it meant not to be "under the law." When I finished reading, I stood up with my hands on my chest of drawers and took a deep breath. I felt like the weight of the world just lifted off my shoulders. When I excitedly shared with Sondra what I'd seen, she responded with relief and thankfulness. God had prepared her heart for what He had shown me. Of course we had read Galatians before, but we always managed to twist it around to fit our perspective.
In the next few weeks, many layers of falsehood started to peel away one by one as the new covenant became crystal clear. The simplicity of it amazed and humbled us. We repented, knowing we had only ourselves to blame. The truth had been in front of us from the beginning, but through our own desires and lack of faith, we were blinded. We were shaken to the core when we realized how far we'd gone, and mystified as to why God would pull us out.
I initially hoped to move the group to a more balanced perspective, not teaching the shadow observances of the law as obligation but focusing on Christ and the New Testament. But after a great deal of discussion with the other elder, who refused to accept my new position, I was faced with the sad task of announcing our departure to our group. I confessed I had been leading them down the wrong road, asked their forgiveness, and left them in the hands of the man who would teach them what they wanted to hear. Some were in tears, others were angry. They were our family, and it was agonizing.
We found our way in a few months back to the simple Bible church we should have never left. They welcomed us with open arms, and we now jealously treasure the simple truth.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16). †
Copyright 2008 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Glendale, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised October 26, 2008. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff and Sondra Brickell live near Fort Worth, Texas with their four children. Jeff is a finish carpenter, and Sondra enjoys teaching their children at home. They are members of Northwest Bible Church in Fort Worth.