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Legalism or Love: James Clay's Escape from the Sect

By Peter Bustetter & Lisa Wentland with Gorman Woodfin
The 700 Club "When Mom finally decided to leave Dad, her reasoning was that she married once before when she was 17 for six months, and that meant that she was living in adultery with my father, according to Matthew 19…

"It was very traumatic for me. I cried myself to sleep for about two years solid."

James Clay's mother left her husband, the father of her three children, to join a legalistic Christian sect. It was a decision that confused James' understanding of God for years.

"Around Christmas of 1991, we were going down to see my grandparents in Florida," he says. "While we were gone, my mother told me that we'd never be going back. What we had on and in our suitcases is what we had, and we were never going back to North Carolina."

James' mother was walking away from a 14-year marriage and the home that James had known for 11 years.

James as a child"I thought every child had an ocean," he says. "I thought every kid had a sound, and that every kid could throw a line in their pond and pull out catfish."

James' happy childhood in the outer banks of North Carolina seemed normal then, but tensions were building that quickly turned everything upside down.

"My mother was saved a year after I was born," he says, "and was absolutely on fire. She took me to church every Sunday. And Sunday was also race day. My father raced boats. There was always this pull. I wanted to go with Dad and go to the boat races, but Mom would always take me to church."

James was no stranger to the conflicts between his parents but when a friend began to influence his mother's beliefs, he couldn't understand what came next. His mother claimed she heard from God…

"God wanted her to get a divorce," James says. "He's God, and He told Mom to do something. So apparently God wants me to be miserable and dragged all over the United States. That's what it felt like to me."

Without James' father, the Clays moved to a trailer park in Georgia. They lived with a congregation of other families who followed the same demanding rules as the woman who had mentored James' mom.

"I was taken from MTV, Nintendo-playing, wanting to grow up and be a professional surfer kid to completely landlocked in Atlanta," he says. "For a few months my life was about nothing but the things that we're going to do to make ourselves more righteous. You're going to live this way too so that you don't go to hell."

James' family stopped eating pork and shellfish. They also turned off the electricity and the water from Friday to Saturday evening in observance of the Sabbath.

"Men had to have long sleeves on," he says. "You weren't a man unless you had a beard. We weren't allowed to have photographs because they are graven images."

James made his best efforts to fit into this new and strange environment…

"I tried to dress like they dressed and act like they acted because if you didn't, they would literally sit you down, open their Bibles and begin to hammer you until you changed your mind.

"If God was causing all of this, then why would I want to live in a world that was created by this God -- if this is who He is?"

That question nagged at James. He wondered if the things his mother was learning really came from God?

"I started to study the Word to prove her wrong," he says. "What it did was get inside of me. It started to change the way that I saw the world."

Then the congregation moved together to Missouri but James' mother kept her family in Atlanta for another year before rejoining the group.

Without the influence of the others, the Clays began attending a Vineyard church. It was perfect timing for James, who was eager to know the truth.

"Something clicked in me about the purity of the worship that was going on," he recalls. "It wasn’t about a show. It was just about worshipping God. I thought, Now, this is what church ought to be like. It shouldn't make me feel like the way I've felt for the last four years. It should make me feel good."

But James' mother was still attracted to her old friends and sent 13-year-old James ahead to start working in Missouri, assembling pool cues in a factory.

"When my mom finally made it out, she brought with her my guitar that I'd bought in Georgia at a pawn shop. The first time I put my first four chords together and started to sing over them, I realized that I had a vehicle where I can say whatever I want to say. What are you going to do to argue with me?"

Members of the church questioned his mother's influence over James. Why had they attended that church in Atlanta? Why were they allowed radios, TV and a VCR? It was a final straw for James' mom. After eight months in Missouri, she left the body of misled believers.

James moved out on his own at age 17 and found a solid church and the love of his life. He married Ashley, and their family expanded -- first with daughter, Grace, then three years later with son, Judah.

" I got a job at a turkey plant. I started working long hours, and I wanted to do what I loved. I wanted to do what I felt I was created to do, which was make and write music.

"I threw everything up in the air. I was like, 'God, if You're there, prove Yourself to me.' And He did. He threw the door open on all of my dreams."

James recommitted his to Christ. His pastor asked him to play on the worship team at church. About six months later, a musician visited his church and heard James. He introduced James to a record producer. James’ dream was coming true.

James ClayHe landed a recording contract. Songs he'd written in his younger years of doubt began to minister to others.

Now James and his family returned to the place of his childhood -- North Carolina’s outer banks.

With a second album slotted to launch this fall, James is a grateful man. "If I could have worked it out in my own mind, I wouldn't have thought up something this good as my life now. And it all came from submitting to God.

" Jesus said, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.' Now, what's He trying to get across to us with that? He's trying to tell us, 'The law was to show you exactly how far off you were that you could not -- on your own righteousness or anything that you're going to do or conjure up -- make yourself righteous enough to be worthy to stand before God. But through Me, you can.'"

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