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John D. Pierce | Blog


Universalism and attitudes

Carlton Pearson fell from one of the coveted peaks in evangelical Christianity a few years back — and it had nothing to do with inappropriate relationships usually associated with disgraced star preachers.
Before the fall, Bishop Pearson preached to a flock of about 5,000 in his Tulsa, Okla., church and a bunch more on television. A graduate of Oral Roberts University there, he served on the conservative Christian school’s board.
What stopped Pearson in his tracks was a change in his beliefs — a big change. Pearson concluded and started preaching that God’s grace is completely inclusive. That is, everyone is already saved by grace.
Reaction was predictably swift and strong. In 2003, a council of fellow African-American Pentecostal bishops officially condemned Pearson as “a heretic.”
Embracing “universalism” — the belief that everyone will experience God’s full acceptance in eternity — will get you kicked out of evangelical circles quicker than wearing a Hillary for President button or bad-mouthing fried chicken.
However, Bishop Pearson has not backed down or recanted his position. He now preaches to a much smaller crowd in Tulsa and is getting use to being a reprobate in the eyes of his former colleagues.
I bring no defense to Pearson’s case. However, one thought continually comes to mind whenever the issue of universal salvation is raised.
Dr. John Eddins, now retired in Pensacola, Fla., was a fabulous teacher at Southeastern Seminary when I was fortunate enough to pass through the Forest of Wake as the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s.
One day in our systematic theology class, Dr. Eddins was lecturing on universalism — a perspective he did not embrace or espouse. (I’m sure that surprises those who believe the tales of current Southern Baptist Convention powerbrokers that virtually all seminary professors during this time were unbelieving liberals.)
The Bible teaches that the decisions we make in this life impact the life to come, I recall Dr. Eddins stating. But then he asked one of those uncomfortable, but needed questions.
“However, if you got to the end of time and found out that God had decided to let everyone in — would it make you mad?”
Good question. Because both a sound theology and a loving attitude should be desired.


Is God shortsighted?

The Columbus, Ga., newspaper recently carried a front-page story about a prominent Baptist church and its longtime pastor reconciling after some difficulty. It was encouraging to read.
But in response to the online version of the story, someone named Rick posted a comment criticizing the pastor for his approach to sermon preparation.
“His sermons are planned at least a year in advance,” the critic wrote. “That leaves no room for the Spirit to move, lead or direct…”
Pastoral criticism comes from a lot of different angles, but this was a new one for me. My initial thought was: “This guy sure has a shallow view of God.”
(Actually, my first thought was that the person making the comment is a complete idiot but you’re not supposed to admit those things in print.)
No wonder so many gifted and called ministers look outside parish ministry to fulfill their callings. How could anyone criticize a pastor for giving such a high priority to sermon preparation?
And since when is the Holy Spirit’s influence limited to one week at a time? Is God that shortsighted?
For Rick, whose anger at the pastor is surely rooted in more than sermon preparation, and other critics, let me pass along a little insight. First, not all pastors have the same approach to preparing sermons.
Second, those who do long-range planning — for a quarter, six months or even a year — generally develop themes, texts and titles. Who has the time, energy and inspiration to write out 50 complete sermons at once?
So even plan-well-ahead preachers rely as much on divine leading during their preparation process as the weekly sermon writers. And the pastor always has time for the most current concerns of the congregation and larger world to be addressed.
Some preach from the lectionary — an outline of biblical texts that gives a hearing to the broader biblical revelation over a three-year period. While few feel absolutely tied to each and every text offered for the week, this approach challenges both the pulpit and the pew to wrestle with some of the more difficult portions of the Bible.
Otherwise, preachers — usually those who claim the highest view of biblical authority — will tend to preach from comfortable, pet texts while avoiding some of the more challenging passages or even entire books of the Bible.
To criticize someone for advance sermon preparation is nonsense. But I have heard a few sermons through the years and thought: “They should have started on this sooner.”


Apparently Not

The cover story in the current (Sept.) issue of Baptists Today explores the question of whether loyal-critic bloggers will bring reform to the Southern Baptist Convention. These unofficial leaders were widely credited for helping elect a non-establishment candidate for SBC president in 2006.
They have pointed out the raw power and personal excesses of some denominational leaders. They have called the convention to envision a future that requires new approaches to ministry while remaining theologically conservative.
However, between the time the news journal went to press and when it arrives in mailboxes this week, the influential web site went into a tailspin.
Georgia pastor and blogger Marty Duren (above) started the popular site as a primary place for discussing denominational issues such as the continual narrowing of doctrinal parameters within Southern Baptist life.
When Duren decided to focus on missional church issues on a different site, a group of bloggers, led by Micah Fries, took over SBCOutpost. The group promised to build on Duren’s efforts and make it an even more significant place for addressing convention issues.
In their enthusiasm, the SBCOutpost gang sought the approval of some denominational leaders with whom they generally agree on the basic issue of stopping the ensmallment campaign of some SBC leaders whose favorite pastime is questioning the commitment of fellow Christians and adding new rules to keep from having to cooperate with anyone they can’t control.
Several of these less-condemning convention leaders — including SBC President Frank Page — offered their endorsements. Almost immediately, however, they began withdrawing those endorsements when hard-hitting blogger Ben Cole moved his expose' of powerbroker Paige Patterson to the SBCOutpost site.
While some convention leaders — especially SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman and International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin — are privately at odds with Patterson, they could not be seen as being publicly supportive of a web site that is so openly critical of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president who wields convention-wide influence.
(Patterson made national news recently by starting an undergraduate degree program in homemaking at the Fort Worth school this fall amid criticism from Cole and others.)
Now the SBCOutpost site has lost momentum and focus. It tried to be something it cannot — an open discussion forum that respects diverse opinions, even honestly critical ones that challenge denominational leaders who are rarely questioned, AND an effort receiving the formal blessings of denominational executives they respect.
Reform — as Duren, Cole, Wade Burleson, and other change-oriented bloggers have discovered — requires tough skin, patience and persistence. It doesn’t come with institutional affirmation, especially from those charged with keeping the bureaucracy going.
Walker Knight is the founding editor of Baptists Today, that started in 1983 as SBC Today (not be confused with a new web site by that name that defends Patterson and other controlling personalities in the SBC). He once observed that the least risk-taking persons he ever knew were denominational executives.
He is right and it is understandable. They are measured by success — numbers, dollars. They are concerned with profits, not being prophets.
So if the best efforts at denominational reform are reflected in the recent activities at SBCOutpost, it will be easy to answer the question of whether bloggers will reshape the SBC. Apparently not.
(Print or online subscriptions are available at or by calling toll-free 1-877-752-5658.)


Good jobs, bad jobs and odd jobs

My first “real job” came when the Days Inn opened at Interstate 75’s northern most exit in Georgia during my junior year in high school. Donning a red and white striped shirt along with several friends, we kept the hotel’s Tasty World Restaurant going for a while.
The first paycheck from this part-time, $1.60 per hour dishwashing job paid for my Ringgold High School class of ’74 ring. The good job also allowed me to drive a slightly damaged ’69 Pontiac LeMans and have enough pocket change to keep an always-hungry, male teen reasonably well fed.
Eventually, with hard work and limited competition, I became a cook and started bringing in the big bucks of $2.35 per hour.
By “real job,” I mean receiving a paycheck with income taxes and Social Security withheld. Prior to that, my various odd jobs were simple cash exchanges that usually involved a lawnmower, shovel or rake.
Like many of you, I held a variety of good, bad or odd jobs. Summer work was especially interesting.
Though strenuous, mixing mortar for bricklayers would have been a good job if not for wondering each morning when the bricklayers would make it to the job site and what level of sobriety they would exhibit.
So I moved on, joining a friend to work in a carpet mill that pressed sheets of carpet into proper shape for automobile floors. The longest tenured worker I found there was a prison trusty. When my carpooling friend's job was cut, I left with him.
The least desirable job I dabbled in — between long tenures in the restaurant and selling menswear in a department store — was installing fiberglass insulation. In the attic. In the summer. In Georgia.
Whether drawing the equally enjoyable task of actually spraying insulation into a 140-degree attic or pouring the large bags of loose insulation into the hopper inside the 130-degree truck, the night would be spent soaking in bathwater in hopes that some of the millions of particles of fiberglass embedded in my pores would be released.
Of course, all these and other jobs along the way brought me in contact with interesting people, helped me see the vast array of skills needed to keep the world going and cause me to be appreciative of them on this Labor Day weekend.
However, the most consistent lesson reverberating in my mind throughout each of these early employment episodes was: Stay in school!
What was your best, worst or oddest job? And what did you learn?


A lesson from above on making wise decisions

After years of leading conferences, and even writing a boring dissertation on responsible decision-making, one would think I would be better at it myself. However, considering all possible implications of one’s decision was a lesson that escaped me while planning a recent home project.
Even with the oppressive heat and drought in Georgia, I pretty much keep something going all the time to get me outdoors and to clear my mind a little. There is usually enough creativity to make it interesting and enough physical challenge to justify it as exercise.
For the past couple of years I have had my eye on a blank spot in a lower, wooded area of our yard that called for something. It is visible from several vantage points inside and outside of the house.
Earlier this summer, I sketched out some basic plans and got started. A just-read newsletter from the First Baptist Church of Marietta, Ga., made a nice template for the jigsaw cuttings.
After a few weekends and several evenings, the project was complete. I was pleased except for one miscalculation. In planning the location of our new arbor, I had not paid close attention to the extended limb well above.
While the shade was welcoming — this limb came off a shagbark hickory tree. When constructing the lattice-style top, and especially while painting the upper section and staining the decking, I faced an unanticipated challenge.
The squirrels cackled as large, heavy green-shelled hickory nuts crashed all around me. The ill-mannered creatures also sent various pieces of the partially consumed nut centers and woody husks over my head and the freshly painted, new project.
With stubborn determination, I finished the work and even added a bench and two chairs to the arbor. It will be a good place to sit and enjoy nature — even if I have to sweep away remnants of hickory nuts daily and wear a hardhat.
There I will watch the maple leaves turn a bright orange, gaze at the red-tail hawk soaring above, and relax to the rhythmic sounds of crickets and toads. It will also be a good place to remember that considering all the factors can help one avoid nutty decision-making in the future.