Webmaster's note: Thank God for Pastors who still have the guts to speak out and tell their congregation the truth. This sermon can be heard....... Here
"I am going to be brutally honest. I am going to name the names, in specific cases, of some preachers and some institutions, and I am going to say exactly what I think.
The time for contemplative silence is past. Some things simply need to be said. It is high time for some cancers in our IFB movement to be exposed for the disease they are" .....Bro. Tom Brennan
39 Years an Independent Baptist… And Grieved About It
By Pastor Tom Brennan
I was born and raised in an IFB (independent fundamental Baptist) home. My father pastored two IFB churches over a 38 year time period. I attended, K-12, IFB schools. I graduated from an IFB Bible college. I’m currently enrolled in an IFB seminary. For the past 15 years I have pastored two IFB churches, one in rural Pennsylvania and one in inner-city Chicago. I’ve attended the large IFB conferences (and the small ones). I’ve heard probably 10,000 sermons or Bible classes in my lifetime, and each one was taught by an IFB preacher or teacher. In addition to that, for 10 years I have interacted on various internet forums with numbers of IFB and ex-IFB people from around the country. (It is astounding how perceptive our critics are, and how very valuable hearing such criticism can be if one is willing to be uncomfortable). I’ve read hundreds of issues of various IFB periodicals. I’ve also read hundreds of books by IFB authors. I correspond regularly, via email, with dozens of current IFB pastors and missionaries. In other words, I think I have a decently educated understanding of what it means to be an IFB, of where our movement has been, and of where it is going…and I am grieved.
Peter tells us ‘the time has come that judgment must begin at the house of God.’ (I Peter 4.17) God is nothing if not a consistent God of integrity. The theme of I Peter is suffering. That was brought out to me at some length as I preached 25 sermons from that precious book last year, and at least eight of them were about suffering. The very heart of this message and this book is the context surrounding the above quote. In this context Peter gives various reasons why it benefits us to suffer, not for wrongdoing, but for ‘righteousness sake’. (I Peter 3.14) Such suffering reveals our underlying character and integrity, or perhaps I should say how we respond to suffering reveals these things. The point in this section of I Peter 4 is that it is better for us to suffer for right than it is for us to suffer for wrong because God will ensure that all men are examined searchingly by Him.
Remember, God is nothing if not a consistent God of integrity. Where does such a God begin His searching examinations? He begins, in His integrity, with His own. ‘For the time has come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?’ (I Peter 4.17) In other words, He is this hard on us, His own, justifiably, but think how hard He is going to be on those who have rejected Him!
Yet amongst this larger point relating to suffering is the lesser, while still applicable, point that God’s integrity demands of Him that He hold His own accountable first. In this, Peter is echoing Ezekiel, who, in chapter eight, upon digging in the walls, finds wickedness and abominable idol worship being conducted secretly in the very Temple itself. ‘And he brought me into the inner court of the LORD’S house, and, behold, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east; and they worshipped the sun toward the east. Then he said unto me, Hast thou seen this, O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have returned to provoke me to anger: and, lo, they put the branch to their nose. Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them.’ (Ezekiel 8.16-18)
If God wouldn’t let the heathen get away with idol worship He certainly wouldn’t let His own get away with it either. Remember, He is a God of consistent integrity. ‘He cried also in mine ears with a loud voice, saying, Cause them that have charge over the city to draw near, even every man with his destroying weapon in his hand. And, behold, six men came from the way of the higher gate, which lieth toward the north, and every man a slaughter weapon in his hand; and one man among them was clothed with linen, with a writer’s inkhorn by his side: and they went in, and stood beside the brasen altar. And the glory of the God of Israel was gone up from the cherub, whereupon he was, to the threshold of the house. And he called to the man clothed with linen, which had the writer’s inkhorn by his side; And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof. And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity: Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which were before the house.’ (Ezekiel 9.1-6)
The principle we see, then, in both the Old and New Testaments, is that God begins His searching examinations of humanity with His own people first. The house of God, where Peter in the New Testament said judgment was to begin, is clearly revealed in I Timothy 3.15 to be the church: ‘But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.’
As a pastor of such a church I have rightly preached sermons through these years that roundly condemned all sorts of wickedness, such as abortion, homosexuality, the New Age movement, materialism, hedonism, environmentalism, gambling, drinking, drugs, crime, and political corruption. Such sermons, while helpful to numbers of our people, were primarily aimed at the spirit of the age. As a pastor, I have also rightly pointed out to my people, in preaching, the varied and grievous dangers of errant branches of Christianity such as the charismatic movement, contemporary evangelicalism, and the trendy denominationalism of our day. Yet if I am willing to point my finger in righteous indignation at the sin going on in other people’s camps I must, as God’s messenger, be just as willing to point my finger in righteous indignation at the sin going on in our own camp – and this is precisely what I aim to do in this article. In so doing, I am going to be brutally honest. I am going to name the names, in specific cases, of some preachers and some institutions, and I am going to say exactly what I think. The time for contemplative silence is past. Some things simply need to be said. It is high time for some cancers in our IFB movement to be exposed for the disease they are.
Let me hasten to add, I do not believe I am simply over-reacting to the Jack Schaap scandal. I freely admit this scandal has crystalized a bunch of my previous thinking, and has emboldened me to speak out on some issues, but the things I will reference are longstanding errors and subjects I have thought about for years. I have not spoken before because of my relative youth (I entered the pastorate at the tender age of 24), and because of my relative anonymity. I hold no position of any prominence. I pastor a growing yet average size church. I have published no books. My face or byline has never graced a national IFB periodical or platform. But I am not a novice anymore, and I have come to the conclusion that, regardless of who does or does not take notice of what I say here, what I say still needs to be said.
I have also striven, throughout this process, not to over-react doctrinally either. I am acquainted with large numbers of my peers who, in their disgust, have abandoned the IFB movement altogether, and moved themselves, their families, and their churches into some other Christian orbit. Some of them are very dear friends of mine, and while I believe strongly that they have the individual soul liberty to make that choice, I just as strongly believe they have made the wrong choice. As a pastor in the internet age one must either be willing to searchingly examine everything his critics say about his doctrine and practice, or simply bury his head in the sand and hope his people do likewise.
I am the former, not the latter, and over the past 10 years I have sought to carefully examine almost every aspect of the doctrine and practice I was handed by my IFB background. I have kept almost all of it. In fact, I am more firmly committed to being an IFB than I have ever been in my life. After all, as I told one of our missionaries recently, I believe in the doctrines that drive our independence, the doctrines that drive our fundamentalism, and the doctrines that drive our claim to the term Baptists. Thus, I am an IFB by definition, and while I am willing to hear any man’s position to the contrary, I believe our grasp of doctrine as independent Baptists is, in these respects, still the best and most scriptural. In other words, I am not changing who I am, or taking my church in some different doctrinal direction as a result of my grief with so much of the approach of the larger IFB world. It is not the core doctrines that give us our identifying moniker that cause me such pause. No, for the most part, it is the approach of so many influential men and institutions (and their lackeys) that has me so grieved.
In my view, there are several major errors in approach. I have chosen to deal with three in this article. Some of these bleed together. Some of these are more noticeable than others. However, at a foundational level, they all indicate that some deeply errant attitudes and actions inhabit the core of some major branches of the IFB movement.
1. Non-textual preaching
Paul instructs preachers, in the Pastoral Epistles, to ‘preach the word.’ (I Timothy 4.2) Yet hundreds of sermons I have heard through these years have been either filled with the preacher’s personal philosophy or, even worse, have spiritualized the text entirely away.
When I became the pastor of our church here in Chicago I found myself inheriting a church that was close, both geographically and historically, with my alma mater, Hyles-Anderson College, and the First Baptist Church of Hammond. I appreciated some of Jack Schaap’s early moves, among which was a revamp of the ladies’ periodical, ‘Christian Womanhood.’ I subscribed to a number of them for our church, and passed them out to our women. However, over the course of a couple of years, I found myself increasingly disgusted with the amount of philosophizing showing up under the guise of Bible teaching. Often, other than a token verse, the articles, including the centerpiece from Jack Schaap, contained nothing more than the personal philosophy of the author. I wanted my ladies to receive scriptural teaching relating to marriage, parenting, and the home yet often all they received was an opinionized systemic philosophy masquerading as authoritative truth. Eventually, I was forced to cancel the subscriptions, and that contributed, along with a number of other issues, to my gradual distancing of our church from Hammond.
Of course, intellectual integrity forces me to admit that Jack Schaap learned this from a master, Bro. Hyles. Most of Bro. Hyles’ books are nothing more than his personal philosophies. Most of Bro. Hyles’ Pastors’ School teaching sessions (which I attended for over 20 consecutive years) were nothing more than his personal philosophies. When I was a student there, I found it all very profound and intellectually stimulating, but increasingly, as I matured in ministry, I found it all empty. I found myself wanting the substance of the Word of God, what God thought about the matter under discussion, and all I could get was what Bro. So-and-so thought about the matter under discussion.
Even worse, as I have mentioned, is the tendency to take a text and interpret and apply it in some other way than it was plainly intended. This spiritualizing was exemplified to me in a sermon I heard shortly after my arrival in Chicago. Allan Domelle, currently an evangelist, and then a teacher at Hyles-Anderson College, was leading a ladies tour group at an area church. I attended, along with some of my church people. After enjoying the music, Bro. Domelle got up to preach and took as his text Acts 26.2 where Paul, addressing Agrippa, says, ‘I think myself happy.’ Paul goes on to say, contextually, that he is pleased with the opportunity to explain himself at length personally to Agrippa. However, Bro. Domelle simply took those four words, ‘I think myself happy’, and proceeded to preach a very entertaining sermon (as is his style) on how we are to, in the midst of difficult circumstances, think positive thoughts and thus be happy in spite of our circumstances.
That concept has perhaps some merit, but that clearly wasn’t what Paul was conveying with the phrase ‘I think myself happy.’ In essence, then, Allan Domelle, an HAC educated and endorsed preacher, acting in his official capacity as a representative of the college, simply ripped four words out of a verse and said with them something completely foreign to their intended contextual meaning – and nobody blinked an eye. Imagine my horror, the following year, to take my people again to the exact same church to hear another HAC tour group, only to watch a new tour preacher (whose name I cannot recall) get up and preach the exact same sermon, point for point! He had ripped it off Allan Domelle, and, not knowing Domelle had preached it there the preceding year, thought he would try out what he deemed a good sermon!
I use this illustration because it reveals the systemic approach taken so often, first by Bro. Hyles, carried on under Bro. Schaap, cultivated amongst the staff, and then gone to seed in my generation, of a careless handling of the Word of God. Now, our critics say this careless handling of the Word of God is par for the course with topical preaching, and that the only (and required) solution to such an error is expository preaching. I like expository preaching. In fact, about half of my preaching is expository preaching, but I completely reject the demand that we cease topical sermons and simply go verse-by-verse from Genesis to Revelation. Bro. Hyles was correct when he so often asserted that there is not a solitary expository sermon in the New Testament, and thus it isn’t even modeled, let alone commanded. No, topical preaching, in and of itself, is not wrong, rather non-textual topical preaching is wrong.
I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that such non-textual preaching is so popular in the IFB movement. It is certainly easy to prepare. It allows the preacher to mold the church in his own image, forming them around his opinions and philosophy. It makes the preacher appear spiritually deep to his people as he impresses them with the stuff he finds in the Bible that they have never heard before. It allows the preacher a short cut to passionate preaching since he can dwell at length on what moves him, and such passionate preaching is always entertaining.
Popular it is, certainly, but just as certainly it is dangerous. After all, anything unscriptural is dangerous. Anytime the preacher’s opinions become the authority the genuine authority of the Word of God is minimized. Such preaching showcases the preacher rather than the Word of God, and is just one more door for the foot of pride to enter into his heart. In addition to all of this, non-textual preaching inevitably produces malnourished Christians over the long term. A good friend of mine whose circles overlap the IFB movement with some conservative evangelical movements was discussing the King James inspiration dust-up with one of his preacher friends on the conservative evangelical side. This man told my friend, ‘Your movement is a mile wide and an inch deep.’ Sadly, he was largely accurate in that assessment. Furthermore, such preaching is corporately dangerous to a church because it allows the preacher to go off the reservation without being called on it.
Years before Jack Schaap’s immorality he preached some exceedingly puzzling things, a sexualized theology, purporting to show from Psalm 119 that the Christian essentially has the equivalent of intimate sex with the Word of God, that a wife does essentially the same with Christ while being intimate with her husband, and that this is illustrated in the Lord’s Supper. It is true that many preachers outside of his own church called him on this, yet it doesn’t appear that his own church did. Why? Perhaps one reason is the people had been trained to simply swallow whatever the preacher said as authoritative regardless of how ridiculous it became.
This kind of non-textual preaching has developed for several reasons. First, we have de-emphasized hermeneutics. In retrospect, I find it appalling that I could get a Bachelor’s degree in theology without a class on hermeneutics. In fact, it wasn’t until eight years into my ministry, when I attended a Pastors’ College meeting with Clarence Sexton in which the theme was preaching, that I came to appreciate the importance of hermeneutics. I’m glad my alma mater requires an entire course in it at this point, but hundreds of men went into the ministry without any grasp the importance of sound hermeneutics. Second, we have de-emphasized study as a whole. If you aren’t soul winning 25 hours a day then you must be a deeper-lifer with the pulpit presence of last year’s Christmas tree. Intellectualism was routinely railed against by Bro. Hyles during my ministry preparation. I realize there is a ditch on that side of the road, but too much study is not our problem. An elder statesman in our movement, Bob Gray of Texas, said recently in an internet article at independentbaptist.com on July 16 of this year, ‘Do not read Bible study books. You do not know the authors and you could easily be misled. The most important thing is to simple (sic) read the Scriptures.’
Thirdly, we have over-emphasized theatrics. A good sermon has come to be defined as one in which the preacher put on a good show rather than one in which he accurately explained and applied God’s words. Lastly, non-textual preaching is the kind of preaching my generation of preachers was soaked in during their formative years. Bro. Hyles routinely (and infamously) often said at the very beginning of a sermon, ‘Close your Bibles and look up here at me.’ Now I don’t, for one moment, think every time he said that he was taking his text out of context, but I do know that such statements lead impressionable young preacherboys to de-value the text, and to over-value the preacher’s own opinions and philosophy.
Brethren, we must firmly reject such philosophizing and spiritualizing. The test of a sermon can no longer be how loud the preacher is, how much we were moved to laughter and tears, or how many microphone stands were kicked over. We must embrace the fact that the test of a preacher is his doctrine, his manner of life, and how closely his sermons bring out the simple and precious Word of God.
2. A complete lack of public exposure for preachers who have fallen into sin
I tremble with this one, for in saying what I am about to say I am placing a gun to my own head, yet it cries to be said, and, above all, it is right.
The Pastoral Epistles were written specifically to pastors in order to tell them how to lead their local churches, and to churches in order to tell them how to choose their pastor, relate to their pastor, treat their pastor, etc. Now, I have often heard preachers use texts from the Pastoral Epistles to explain to their people what a preacher’s responsibilities are and are not, and what the people’s responsibilities are and are not. It is true that perhaps these sermons were sometimes used to beat people over the head, but, then again, maybe I am being uncharitable in saying so. After all, I myself have preached from these books as well. But there is one passage in I Timothy 5 that, very suspiciously, in my 39 years in church I have only heard referenced once (and that one time was by Bro. Hyles, and he twisted it to make it say the exact opposite of its intended meaning.) In other words, the silence from the IFB movement in preaching this text, let alone applying this text, is absolutely deafening. ‘Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.’ (I Timothy 5.20)
The context reveals that we are talking about preachers who are accused of what we would term great moral failures. ‘Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.’ (I Timothy 5.19) Now this verse I’ve heard railed on a time or two in my life, for sure. It soundly establishes the acting principle that a church shouldn’t consider seriously disciplining its pastor unless there is a pile of evidence as to what has been done. This rightly protects the pastor from the talebearing gossips spoken of so often in Proverbs and experienced by every genuine man of God at some point in his ministry. However, once a church has painstakingly sifted the evidence, and come to the undeniable verdict that their pastor has committed some great moral lapse, how come, I ask you, nobody goes on the next verse? ‘Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.’ (I Timothy 5.20) We fire him, and justifiably so, if he commits adultery, molests a child, or embezzles the offerings, but what we don’t do is publicly and formally announce what he has done to the wider Christian community – and we are supposed to!
In my experience, there are several excuses offered up at this point in the narrative, supposedly so compelling as to enable public silence. For instance, we are instructed not be negative. My response is, ‘Says who?’ There is no scriptural instruction in this context to keep silent simply because the publicity is negative. Actually, the opposite is true, as Scripture is absolutely filled to the brim with examples of negative messages given publicly. What is so ironic about this is that we sure can be negative about every other Christian group under the sun until it is our ox that is being gored.
Another statement that often comes up at this point is ‘We aren’t supposed to judge.’ Yes, we are. ‘Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment.’ (John 7.24) After all, if we aren’t supposed to judge then the deacon board could not possibly have determined Jack Schaap’s guilt or innocence and fired him, could they? No, judgment must be cautiously done, and once we have carefully judged the preacher to be in great moral sin then said judgment needs announced. Some will, at this point, throw out ‘love covereth all sins.’ I agree that Proverbs 10.12 is found in the Bible, but a clear and contextually appropriate section of that same Bible explains that this doesn’t apply to pastors, at least not in the sense of keeping quiet about their sin.
Pastors have a greater influence, a greater visibility, and a greater opportunity to damage the cause of Christ, and ‘unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.’ (Luke 12.48) I do not want to type this sentence, but if I want the privilege of anonymity in my sin then I had better resign the pastorate. We are public men ministering in a public way. If we are found out we are to be publicly exposed.
Undeniably, the IFB movement has an absolutely disastrous record in this respect. I was heartily glad to see the openness with which the First Baptist Church of Hammond conducted the recent firing of Jack Schaap. They put out a press release, posted it on their website, scheduled a press conference, welcomed the media, and invited a whole bunch of pastors to lunch to discuss it. This sure is a sight more scriptural then announcing that he resigned ‘for health reasons.’ You cannot get much more public or open than this. At the same time, I’ve been around long enough to know just how rare such a step is.
My first experience with this came as a teenager. The pastor of the church that sponsored the Christian school which I attended suddenly launched himself into evangelism. I heard a whisper here and a whisper there, but it wasn’t until much later that I put two and two together and discovered he had been confronted by a concerned staff member, and basically ran away into the night. Yet no one ever thought it a helpful idea, I suppose, to inform a very impressionable teenager, in an appropriate yet open way, of just what exactly he had done wrong. Two years later, in 1989, while I was considering Bible colleges, Sumner launched his public attack against Jack Hyles. I read the original article, and for the first time came across the name Dave Hyles, and became aware of his depravity. Shortly afterward, we received and I read Jack Hyles answering defense. In that defense, he asserted that he had no prior knowledge of his son’s immorality before recommending him to the pastorate at Miller Road. As much as it pains me to say it, that was a flat out lie. I have spoken with numerous individuals who have personally told me that they confronted him with his son’s sins prior to this, and that he refused to heed them. It is this very culture of silence that I Timothy 5.20 was designed to prevent.
Sadly, this type of sweep-it-under-the-rug-and-hope-no-one-notices is not confined to Bro. Hyles’ ministry. It is written deep into the IFB DNA. One of the leading pastors in the IFB movement for decades was Bob Gray of Jacksonville, Florida. In 2006 he was arrested after being accused by 21 individuals now grown up with molesting them when they were children.
He would die shortly before his trial began the following year. However, in addition to the awful tragedy that this series of sins produced in the lives of these children, when the leadership of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida discovered this in 1992 they simply announced his resignation with the affirming words that it didn’t concern anything ‘sexual or immoral.’ Bob Gray then proceeded to raise money from IFB churches all across the country (including ours here in Chicago) and headed to Germany as a missionary. A wolf was released into another sheepfold with nary a warning to those sheep. To this day, Pastor Tom Messer and the Trinity Baptist Church have not, to my knowledge, apologized for their cover-up.
As a good IFB, I have read every issue of ‘The Sword of the Lord’ for decades. As this story unwound across the pages of the internet I eagerly awaited Shelton Smith’s take. Curiously, month after month went by with nary a word. Finally, summoning up my small courage, I wrote Bro. Smith and told him that, inasmuch as the Sword had played a tremendous part in lifting up Bob Gray’s ministry publicly it owed the country a public announcement of the man’s sin. I still read the Sword every issue, and I’m still waiting for that announcement. In 2009, Greg Baker, a Canadian pastor whose picture graced the Sword on occasion, and spoke in their national conferences, committed suicide after being discovered in an adulterous relationship. For some reason, the Sword could spare lots of ink and column inches to promote him, but nary a drop of ink to reprove his actions before the very public to which they had lifted him up.
Yet who can blame Shelton Smith, for he is simply continuing a long tradition at the Sword of these curious silences. The largest IFB national conferences ever held, in the 1970’s under the auspices of John R. Rice, were led by a veritable Who’s Who of IFB pastors, men such as Truman Dollar, Ray Batema, and Bob Gray, who were each later found out in confirmed egregious sin – but the Sword has never uttered a peep.
This tragic approach has been carried over even into the less well known IFB periodical, ‘Revival Fires.’ Just last year, Matt Jarrell, the pastor of the Open Door Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas, hanged himself in jail after being arrested for the sexual assault of a woman he had picked up in a Charleston, West Virginia bar while supposedly attending a revival in Pennsylvania. I had heard Matt Jarrell preach just prior to this at the national Revival Fires conference, and his sermons had been in the paper on occasion. Knowing Dennis Corle, the editor, to be a man of integrity I awaited a statement in his paper. When it came, tucked away in the back, the short paragraph made no mention of his sin or even of the cause of his death, and simply asked people to pray for the family. I stood there, holding that newspaper, knowing that once again a national IFB periodical, while willing to publicize a man’s ministry, was unwilling to publicize that man’s sin.
I can hear them now. ‘We must keep it quiet for the cause of Christ.’ Will someone please show me that in the Bible? After all, as Baptists, our sole authority is the Scriptures. Surely, in the case of such momentous life-changing decisions, we can point to a clear Scripture verse telling us to hush things up so that the cause of Christ isn’t made to look bad. What we find is, just as surely, the opposite. Jesus Christ requires of us holiness, and corporate religious institutions and churches can only come to holiness as sin is exposed and repented of.
A dear friend of mine in the ministry conducted a holiness conference at his church every year. Partnering with him in that was an evangelist based in his church, Rodney Stewart. Right around the time of the holiness conference Bro. Stewart was found to be discussing, in graphic terms, sexual activities online with someone he thought to be an underage girl. He was arrested, convicted, and sent to jail. After this hit the news I called my friend, the pastor of this church, in order to offer him comfort and encouragement. Curiously, he didn’t seem to need it. He said to me, ‘Tom, we have been praying for God to show us our sin, and for revival to come. Why would we be upset when He answered our prayer?’ His attitude was both refreshing and enlightening. The cause of Christ doesn’t need our cover-up. The cause of Christ calls for an open denunciation of sin for only that way lies the pathway of holiness.
3. Man-centered churches and movements
‘I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another’ (Isaiah 42.8) ‘And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.’ (Acts 5.42) ‘For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory’ (Matthew 6.13) I believe firmly in a pastor led independent Baptist church, but the day my church becomes about me is the day we have crossed the line into error. In 1895, Rudyard Kipling, in his famous poem, ‘If’, spoke about the temptation that comes the way of all men who can move crowds of people with their words: ‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue’.
Pride is such a problem for preachers, and I have seen, again and again, the temptation to make yourself the focus of your church be fallen prey to. In 1990 and 1991 I spent my summers traveling with evangelist Joe Boyd. We were in one particular church in Texas, a large and growing church, led by an up and coming IFB pastor. As I climbed onto one of his church’s buses on our first day, lo and behold, there is a large picture of the pastor at the very front of the bus. Sure enough, that same picture was in the same prominent place inside the front of each bus. I could not help but be reminded of the Communist leaders of Soviet Russia, and the cult of personality they cultivated by placing large pictures of themselves everywhere.
It is not difficult to see how such a preacher-focused church can be developed. For some preachers, thousands of people hang on their every word. They are never challenged or told they are wrong. They are accompanied by a posse everywhere they go. Often, when they preach, they are preceded by a glowing introduction and followed with a standing ovation. Following their sermon, numbers of people line up to have their Bible autographed. People come to their office for counsel and tell them, ‘No matter what, I will do whatever you tell me.’ Their sermons are filled with their own personal illustrations in which they are the hero.
In this scenario, sooner or later, you begin to believe your own publicity. Your ministry becomes about you, done by you, and molded b you. Your opinion of your own opinion rises higher than is appropriate. You begin to think yourself indispensable. You begin to wrap your entire ministry even tighter to yourself. You see the crowds and think they came to hear you. You see the adoring gazes of those who sit at your feet and think you really do know something. You listen to the rhapsodic introductions and think they are actually true. You bristle when corrected, criticized, or questioned. You lash out when someone crosses you, since, after all, you are clearly always right. Your vision for your ministry becomes grander and grander, and you see yourself striding across the pages of church history, having rescued a degenerate Christianity, brought revival, or built something other people will stand in awe of.
You teach your staff to keep you first and foremost in the minds and hearts of the people they work directly with. You cultivate personal loyalty to yourself, personal gratitude to yourself, personal praise about yourself, and sell these things to yourself as essential for church unity and progress. You think you know better about every single aspect of your ministry than any other person in your ministry does about any aspect. You see this man worship developing in your people, and you don’t see it as dangerous, but as good and healthy for your ministry. You mouth occasional platitudes of humility, but in your heart you really think it all revolves around you. You are the straw that stirs the drink. Without you, it wouldn’t have come near as far. Without you, it would all fall apart.
How do I know all of this? Because, even with the relatively small ministry that I have, all of these temptations have attacked me. As the pastor of my church I have the biggest influence, the biggest part in each public service, the most attention, the most praise and thanks, and the most respect. Consequently, I have found how easy it is for pride to creep into my own heart. I preach a powerful sermon and people are plainly moved. I receive some kind word, or gift, or thank you note. I am recognized in a public meeting somewhere – and the foot of pride gains entrance in my heart. I have tried to fight it externally. For instance, my name is not on our church sign, or our church stationary. I have asked our people not to applaud platform performances. I strive to preach often about the primacy of glorifying God. I regularly remind my people of my own humanity. I have sought to cultivate the kind of a church that is willing to offer, with a sweet spirit, a word of friendly and kind criticism to me. Frankly, sometimes I win that fight in my own heart and sometimes I lose it.
I am not an expert, but in my opinion one of the great problems in our IFB movement is the lack of even seeing this as a problem. It is about Him, and when I forget that, God begins to resist what I do, even if what I do is His work. ‘God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.’ (James 4.6 and I Peter 5.5) When I reach this point, sooner or later, my ministry comes crashing down with a bang, or sliding down with a whimper. The cities of America are filled with the ghosts of great churches, churches now mired in scandal and curled up in pain, whose pastors forgot the simple truth that ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ (John 5.30)
In the 1970’s the largest church in almost every state in the Union was an IFB church. Today, that is true in one state, and that church, the First Baptist Church of Hammond, is in total disarray. Time after time, in the past 15 years, I have sat in a preacher’s meeting somewhere, and listened to someone wax eloquent about why this used to be, isn’t any longer, and what we need to do to get it back.
Why on earth would we want it back? Most of the national IFB leaders of the 1970’s ended up either doctrinally compromised or morally bankrupt. Most of the influential IFB churches of the 1970’s are shells of themselves. Many of the preacherboys who came out of the 1970’s have now abandoned the IFB movement because of its perceived decline and latched on to the contemporary evangelical movement because of its perceived incline. Why would we want to go back to what produced all of that?
No, let us not aim, as an IFB movement, to replicate the 1970’s. Let us aim at holiness. Let us aim at obedience. Let us aim at faithfulness. Let us aim a genuine faith. Let us aim at prayer. Let us aim to glorify God. Let us aim to love our wives like Christ loved the church. Let us aim to raise our children to love and serve God. Let us aim to take the Gospel to every creature.
I realize my article can be taken as depressing. I would prefer the scriptural word ‘sorrow.’ ‘For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.’ (II Corinthians 7.8-11)
I have staked my life and ministry on the fact that the IFB movement has the right doctrine. That is not enough. We have got to have the right living and practice as well. May God bring to the IFB movement an inner cleansing, a heart revival, and a scriptural approach to ministry – and may holiness come to us and glory come to Him as a result.
Bro. Tom Brennan, is the Pastor of Maplewood Bible Baptist Church, in Chicago, IL www.MaplewoodBibleBaptistChurch.org