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John D. Pierce | Blog


Who is a conservative?

Last week I visited Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., with my colleague and blogging partner Tony Cartledge who is a new faculty member in the divinity school there. Participating in two classes, including one he teaches with Div School Dean Mike Cogdill, was very enjoyable.
My awareness of Campbell — home of the Fighting Camels — came in 1978 upon entering Southeastern Seminary in the lovely town of Wake Forest, N.C. Campbell grads were well numbered among the student body.
I also learned that Campbell’s president at that time (in fact, for a long time from 1967 until 2003, when he became chancellor) was Norman Wiggins (above). He was spoken of as a towering figure in the state — a respected World War II veteran, lawyer and educator.
Routinely I heard President Wiggins, who died Aug. 1 of this year, described as a conservative — but never with a negative connotation. There was no confusion back then in distinguishing between conservatives and fundamentalists.
It had (and still has) more to do with attitudes than belief systems. Conservatives can cooperate; fundamentalists can only conquer and control.
Campbell and Southeastern had clearly different and complementary roles prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and its theological seminaries.
After fundamentalist kingpin Paige Patterson rode over from Texas to Southeastern in 1992 — spoils for the victor — things changed drastically. Patterson, among other things, formed an undergraduate program — called Southeastern College at Wake Forest.
It serves the dual purpose of improving overall enrolment numbers used to formulate funding and giving students the unique opportunity from age 18 through doctoral work, if they choose, to have their educational exposure limited to the fundamentalism advocated there.
Of course, formation of the undergraduate program and the fundamentalist reshaping of the overall seminary broke down the old model whereby Campbell and other colleges and universities became natural partners with and feeder schools for the seminary. Instead the seminary was competing — especially with Baptist-related colleges and universities in North Carolina — for undergraduate students.
In 1995, Campbell launched its divinity school. Since the fundamentalist altering of Southeastern, new programs of theological education in North Carolina have emerged at Gardner-Webb University, Wake Forest University and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School as well. All four have some partnership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
After my visit to campus last week, I asked myself: Is Campbell a conservative school?
In a sense it retains the classic conservatism of Norman Wiggins. It is proudly identified with and connected to Baptist churches. Under the leadership of current President Jerry Wallace, the next major building project will be a new, large chapel.
The well-rounded and highly-educated, divinity school faculty shows some conservatism in the way they dress in professional attire and are committed to training ministerial students for service in congregations and mission settings. However, the school was started — at least in significant part — due to the fundamentalist takeover of a nearby Baptist seminary. Otherwise, there would be no market share.
Divinity school faculty members are progressive thinkers as well as devoted churchpersons. Most would wear the “moderate Baptist” tag due to their openness to women in ministry, their refusal to embrace creedal statements about theories of biblical authority, and the school’s connection to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Of course, none of that concretely answers the question of whether the school is conservative. The answer can only come in comparisons. Campbell is less conservative than the remade Southeastern Seminary and more conservative than many other theology schools around the country.
While tags like “conservative” and “liberal” are widely used for descriptive purposes, they are usually better understood in terms of comparison. So, in my writing, I prefer to describe something as being “more conservative” or “less conservative” than another.
The same applies to using descriptive terms concerning an individual’s theological perspective. After taking a seat in my first doctoral seminar many years ago, I greeted the person on my right and discovered he was a Unitarian/Universalist minister. Then I shook hands with the man seated to my left — an Assembly of God pastor who taught at Jimmy Swaggart Bible College.
Am I a conservative? Well it all depends on which side of the table I turned to for comparison.


Preaching Simplified

The fine art of preaching has long intrigued me. In the same way talented painters or sculpters have their very unique styles, good preaching can come in a variety of forms.
Since moving to Macon, Ga., nearly eight years ago, I have benefited from the superb preaching of my pastor, Jim Dant, at Highland Hills Baptist Church — except for the times I have played hooky or he has scheduled a musical or mission trip report to get out of the pulpit.
A couple of Sundays ago, I picked up on something in one of his well-crafted, well-connecting sermons that had not really crossed my mind before. (Bells and sirens should be going off here. A pew sitter remembers a sermon and text more than a week later.)
Jim was preaching on the parable of the lost sheep recorded in Matthew 18 and Luke 15, that goes on to tell of the lost coin and lost son as well. The familiar parable that Jesus told, of course, speaks of a shepherd who searches relentlessly for the single lost sheep despite the fact that 99 sheep are safe and secure.
We would be satisfied with retaining 99 out of 100 sheep, Jim noted, but God would not.
About the time the service moved toward the benediction and I started contemplating the menu options at nearby El Sombrero, it hit me: This is what preaching is really about.
In the simplest terms, it is an effort to shed light on the contrast between our narrow viewpoints and the wider perspectives of God.
Rightly so then, good preaching will often contain sentences that begin with “We…," and are followed by "but God…”
Added to that are inspiration and instruction for more closely aligning our limited perspectives with those of an infinite and infinitely loving God. For we settle for less in what we see, say, think and do.
And congratulations to my pastor (above) on ten years of preaching and pastoral leadership in a congregation that carries the extra burden of having more than 20 seminary graduates among its members. Yet, we too need weekly reminders that “We…, but God…”


Thumbs Down, Thumbs Up

Editors and writers, of which I am both, learn quickly that not all readers have the same opinion of our work. This is most obvious when we receive very different feedback to the same article or column.
Immediately following the release of the September issue of Baptists Today, an email hit my inbox from a displeased reader in Tennessee. He had “endured” the cover story about the influence of Southern Baptist bloggers on denominational life in which I had used “valuable space to condemn the Southern Baptist Convention.”
He asked that his subscription be discontinued. Of course, I honored his request though his criticism — in this instance — seemed unjustified. In my defense, the article was about loyal Southern Baptists trying to reform their convention. It was not about criticism from the outside.
However, if criticism of fundamentalism is unacceptable, then this was one subscription we were bound to lose at some point. The stranglehold this narrow, exclusive, judgmental approach to religion has put on some Baptist groups and others deserves all the challenge most of us can muster — something I do on occasion in my editorial writing.
But I confess to feeling some disappointment with the email because, deep inside, we all like affirmation over rejection.
My spirits rose later in the day, however, when an email from a respected theology professor affirmed the article as being very insightful and helpful. Others came as well that expressed appreciation for the story that I had worked on at various times throughout the summer.
The point here is not whether that one particular article — or any other — was well written, relevant or of value to readers. Rather these responses are reminders that we all view the world and everything in it through different lens. We look at the very same things, yet we see very different things.
Therefore, it is not surprising that one article would yield more than one opinion. Through years of putting my words into print, I have learned these two lessons among many.
First, it is hard to predict what will draw the most reaction from readers. I have written on topics widely considered controversial and anticipated strong feedback that never came.
On the other hand, I’ve done seemingly light, tongue-in-cheek commentaries that brought out venomous pens. You don’t always know what touches someone’s hot button.
Second, it is impossible to write something that is appreciated by everyone. In an interview with Ebony magazine 30 years ago, Bill Cosby was asked about the key to success.
He responded that he did not know the key to success, but that the key to failure is trying to please everyone.
While pleasing everyone is an unattainable goal, my nature is to try. But the daily mail reminds me again and again that we all look through different filters and see different things even when viewing the same object.
In this recent case, there were at least two widely different opinions about the very same article. But the math is complicated to me.
Three out of four responses that day were positive. Yet there was a net loss of one subscriber. I’m still not sure how to take that.


'Discount Knowledge'

Country music singer Rodney Atkins has a line about getting “discount knowledge at the junior college.” My introduction to post-secondary education came at what was then called Dalton Junior College in northwest Georgia.

Though it lacked the academic prestige of nationally known schools, it was a good transition into a more responsible era of life. The commuter experience enabled me — financially, emotionally, academically — to then go on to a fine senior college.

My gratitude remains high for the good professors like Drs. George Jones, Tom Deaton and Terry Christie who taught me at what now carries the more uppity title of Dalton State College.

Their enthusiasm for history, political science and philosophy was contagious. Professor Christie was inquisitive — a searcher who carried us along. In the mid-70s he wore jeans to class and took us on a mountain behind the campus on occasion to enhance the pursuit of truth.

Dr. Deaton had a seminary degree, once sang in a quartet with the late Baptist funnyman Grady Nutt, and had been invited into theological discussions with Elvis. He introduced me to my first serious philosophical inquiry that continued through three additional educational experiences.

Dr. Jones was a Nixon Republican and Baptist layman with a warped sense of humor that connected to mine. Classes were simply unpredictable and rarely touched by boredom.

When a couple of students and I sought to establish the first Baptist Student Union (BSU) on campus, George agreed to be our faculty advisor — a role he filled wonderfully for many, many years. With his help, and that of then-college President Derrell Roberts and others, the campus ministry group was formed in the fall of 1975.

The teacher with whom I connected the least was a sociology professor with long frizzy hair, tie-dyed shirts and sandals. He pedaled a bike to school and seemed to have little in common with most in this conservative community.

He wrote his name, “Allen,” on the chalkboard the first day of class. I wondered if it was "Mr. Allen" or "Dr. Allen," but it turned to be his first name. That’s what the hippie prof wanted to be called.

When we discussed the dynamics of marriage and family, a recent transfer from Bob Jones University insisted that God intended for husbands to be head of households. The weird professor said he didn’t accept the Bible as authoritative.

What? Our naïve little world had been shattered. It was commonplace to see behavior out of line with biblical teaching, but how dare someone come out and say the Bible is not true or applicable?

Allen not only insisted on gender equality, he talked about the importance of healthier lifestyles. He urged us to avoid nicotine addiction, fatty fast foods and sedentary routines. We laughed as we made our way to the Burger King or McDonald’s on nearby Walnut Avenue each day.

With more than three decades in the rear-view mirror, of course, I can see that the nutty professor was right about a lot of things. In fact, he saw truths we Bible-sure young Christians were blind to at that time and place.

Such confessions would be harder to make if not for the fact that I take a wider look in seeking truth than in many years before. While still convinced that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life — I don’t always get the inside view or the correct interpretation.

The lesson for me is that one should never discount what can be learned from others — even those with very different starting points.


Picking on Pastors?

While working on the next print edition (October issue) of Baptists Today a concern suddenly hit me. The fear was that it might come across as though we were picking on pastors.
My editorial about evangelism mentions how some preachers specialize in creating guilt. I double-checked to make sure my words implicated only some pastors, not most or all.
The Resource Page provides guidance for “second chair” ministers caught in difficult church staff situations. Sometimes that difficulty, professor Israel Galindo notes, is the result of a bad relationship with the pastor.
On the new Reblog page, that pulls and prints one each from the recent blogs by Tony Cartledge and me, Tony deals with the way some internal church battles have gone from business meetings and parking lots to the Internet. He notes that these struggles can relate to excessive pastoral authority and secrecy.
Upon closer examination, however, I am comfortable that the next issue of the news journal is pretty well balanced and really does not reflect poorly on pastors. But I confess to being overly sensitive about this.
My close friends tend to be either pastors or former pastors — and good ones. I’ve heard their stories. I’ve traveled with them when their family vacations or continuing education or conferences have been cut short by the need to get back for a funeral or other emergency.
While I laud local church autonomy and congregational polity, it must be difficult to have so many bosses — each with a better idea of how you should be doing your job.
My first act as the new editor of Baptists Today in early 2000 was to sit down with three Atlanta-area pastors at the time — Bill Self, David Sapp and Peter Rhea Jones. Over lunch I asked them to tell me how this news journal could help them in their congregations — and promised them that both the editor, personally, and the publication would be advocates for pastors and good pastoral ministry.
It is a promise I strive to keep with each issue as well as in personal contacts with churches. There are many keys to effective pastoral ministry. Some are beyond the pastor’s control.
Effective pastors need lay leaders to help them use their time and gifts to the fullest. Here are a few ways key leadership can help:
1. Emphasize all the many and varied things your pastor gets done in a week, not when they done. This is not a clock-punching factory job.
2. Help keep the few high-maintenance members from occupying too much of the pastor’s time. It can be consuming and laity can better take the heat for this.
3. Insist on some kind of sabbatical program that gives veteran pastors the chance to recharge and relax with plans in place so they will not be interrupted by pastoral emergencies — for just once. Lilly Endowment, Inc. is providing significant funds for this purpose. Since the grant covers both the costs of the pastor’s experience and the church’s pulpit replacements, not even the church treasurer has a legitimate complaint.
4. Always talk with your pastor directly when you have concerns, suggestions and feedback. It is hard to respond to hearsay or to interpret third-handed information.
5. Don’t compare your pastor to any of the ones on television. They are generally not as charming in person.
6. Try to be a good friend to your pastor. Most every pastor is glad to have one more.