A Podcast Episode Pastors Can’t Miss

Today I listened to one of the most important, timely podcast episodes I have heard in a long time. The episode is “Leaders Who Won’t Flame Out” with Paul Tripp, the most recent installment of the Gospelbound with Collin Hansen.

Tripp has a new book releasing Lead: 12 Gospels Principles for Leadership in the Church. In the episode, he describes the book as a followup to his book Dangerous Calling. This earlier book was a huge hit among pastors when it released in 2013. One of the things Tripp draws attention to is the initial endorsements for the book on the back cover.

Those endorsements include Tullian Tchividjian and James MacDonald. Both are now out of ministry, having been publicly disgraced for the very kind of prideful and domineering spirit that the book encourages against. They are two of many high profile pastors to disqualify themselves from ministry in recent years.

Tripp says that when he wrote the initial work, he would have pointed at the pastor when you asked him why a certain leader had a “fall from grace”, whether sexual promiscuity, abuse, abuse of power, pride, etc. The issue was something in their heart. Now he looks somewhere different for early signs. Tripp says he would instead ask about the community around the pastor. Are those who should be holding the pastor accountable and protecting him from his own sin and the temptations that leaders face now his chief defenders? Is the most seasoned pastor that everyone looks up to a 40 year old? Does anyone have the ability to call the leader to repent if he engages in sinful behavior in a meeting? In Lead, Tripp says he discusses these principles and more, providing recommendations for how to create healthy churches and healthy church cultures.

My heart was moved listening to Tripp articulate what a healthy gospel community looks like, both for pastors and those who they shepherd or lead. It is impossible for me not to see this crisis of character in our church leadership culture. As a young man, one of my Sunday School teachers went to prison for sexual abuse. The pastor who was preacher when God first began to call me to ministry was outed for a multi-decade adulterous affair. One of the first ministry conferences I attended was headlined by 3 pastors who are no longer in ministry due to their sinful actions in leadership. Over the span of the next decade, I can name at least 15 leaders who I have admired, known, or looked to as a model have disqualified themselves due to sexual sin, sinful abuse of authority, or various manifestations of pride. My spiritual “family tree” is littered with destruction such that I can not look back on any major period of spiritual growth in my life without experiencing grief over the fallen leaders who ministered to me then but are gone now.

I can not say why it happened to each of them. But here’s what I know: every time it has happened, it has caused me to grieve and question myself. It should not be this way. Young men like myself should not have a spiritual graveyard full of their former role models.

How do we prevent this?

Tripp says, “The key to longevity is spiritual health…the key to spiritual health is gospel community. There’s the book.”

I can not recommend this podcast enough. You can listen to the whole thing by clicking below for iTunes or Spotify, or listen to the YouTube embed above.

Buy the book here.

On Diverse Reading Lists: A Friendly Response to Denny Burk

Disclaimer: During my time in Louisville, Denny Burk was the associate pastor of the church where I was a member. We maintain a friendly relationship to this day, and this post should be read as no exception to that.

I spent some time yesterday reading and thinking about Denny Burk’s recent reflections posted on his blog entitled “The Dead-end of Research Justice.” Burk can always be relied upon to interrogate the demands of an ever-secularizing culture on Christians. Secularizing is perhaps not strong enough a word for the idealogical conformity demanded by some sectors of the American left. In this case, Burk is concerned by “research justice”, also known as decolonizing, approach to academia. I share his concern.

Just this past week I saw a completely absurd post from a student attempting to put her professor on notice publicly for failing to meet whatever arbitrary standard the student thought was acceptable. This is a real problem in academia and in our culture writ large. It needs to end.

Burk writes, “Research justice requires racial preferences for authors from marginalized groups and racial discrimination against authors from privileged groups. When you add to this standpoint epistemology (which is also a favored tool of Critical Theory), it’s not difficult to see why the racial identity of the author outweighs reason and evidence as a criterion for excellence.”

So what then? What should professors do? For Burk’s part, he says that he has never screened potential textbook authors with consideration to race. He only screens them for excellence of content and assumes all person of any race or culture can produce such work. Burk writes, “Racial identity just doesn’t figure into that calculus, nor do I see why it should. It is certainly no failure of justice to leave it out of the calculus.”

This is where I want to push back on Burk. First, let me agree with him. I do not think it is wise, correct, or helpful to label Burk’s standard as racist, xenophobic, or unjust. I asked Denny for clarification on this on twitter and he gave it: “Racial identity is not a category that either commends or condemns a prospective text.” It would be fair to say that he takes a “colorblind” approach to text selection.

I want to put forward disagreement with Burk here. While I do not believe racial identity or cultural identity condemn a prospective text (e.g. “no white male authors!”), I do want to offer some reasons that I believe they may commend a text. In sum, I want to argue for the inclusion of diverse voices in theological reading. I believe it would be good for theological educators and Southern Baptist ones in particular to strive towards this sort of intentionality.

The lack of diversity in reading for theological education is a real issue of debate. During my time in seminary, countless students of colors expressed their dismay and frustration to me that in 3-4 years of theological education, every single author without exception was a white man of European descent with the possible exception of Augustine. How can this be possible?

Why Does This Matter?

First, we have to ask: does this even matter? Yes, it matters. Diverse perspectives are meaningful and worth intentionally including in our theological work. For this part of the discussion, I want to draw off of David Clark’s excellent book To Know and Love God: Method for Theology. This is one of the standard texts in Evangelical theological method. In his book, Clark makes a distinction between the sort of postmodern deconstructionism that Burk is concerned about and the value of different perspectives for doing theology. Clark writes, “One’s perspective always forms the grid out of which the world is interpreted and life is lived” (100). To borrow the old phrase, to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Clark wants to balance the importance of diverse perspectives with evangelical truth. Culture can not determine truth. He says that Christians must adhere to the universality of the gospel as true for all people and totalizing as a worldview. He writes, “The gospel is true for all peoples in every culture… perspectivalism, however, must deny this is so. Therefore…evangelical theology must reject the current rampant perspectivalism.” This perspectivalism is the belief that cultural/racial/social perspective determines meaning, and therefore, truth itself. This is what Burk is rejecting as well, and rightly so.

However, we should not suggest that we are utterly objective in how we approach theology or exegesis. We all come to the text with presuppositions, both conscious and unconscious, which shape our views. Clark writes, “Evangelical theology at its best will acknowledge that perspective influences all thinking. And a modest deconstruction of overly assertive modernist claims is all to the good. But proper evangelical theology also realizes the need for deliberate strategies to prevent cultural and historical location from imprisoning theology in the though of a particular time” (144). What should we do then? We should a) interrogate our own assumptions, and fight their influence over our interpretation and theological method and b) refuse to allow our culture to imprison our theology.

We are people who are not inherently objective working to interpret Scripture which is absolute. This is a difficult task. D.A. Carson tells us that there is something to learn from this view of different perspectives. He says, “…gently applied [this] rightly questions the arrogance of modernism… ruthlessly applied [this] nurtures a new hubris and deifies agnosticism.”

Clark is insistent that we not give into these cultural forces. What Burk, and the sources he cites, calls “standpoint epistemology”, Clark calls “epistemic relativism” and says it is “deeply flawed” and self-defeating. He says that this view is that “all truth depends on the knower’s viewpoint” and that this is utterly inconsistent with Christian belief.

Commending Diverse Perspectives

Why then would I argue against Burk’s point? Simply put, it’s because there are significant benefits that commend diverse perspectives in curriculum without giving an inch to critical theory, intersectionality, epistemic relativism, or any other secular theory that contradicts the gospel as a totalizing worldview. As such, we should consider works by scholars from the majority world, as well as minorities in our own spheres when we decide which resources to use.

Clark gives an example of why this is valuable. One day, teaching a 90 minute class on divorce and remarriage a student approached him to tell him how the lecture did not relate to his needs. Why? Because he is the eldest son of his father’s fourth wife. His father is a polygamist. In that moment Clark realized that culture had affected his approach to theology, his emphasis on teaching, and his application of Scriptural truth.

I am decidedly NOT saying that there is truth that is inaccessible to white men and therefore we need BIPOC to interpret Scripture in a way that we can not understand as white men. That is some weird form of ethnic gnosticism. I am purposefully NOT saying that culture should determine theology.

What I am saying is that we should read diverse perspectives to prevent undue influence from one culture over a theology or exegetical task that should speak universally. The issue is not the Scripture. The issue is us.

The church is diverse. Evangelicalism and the Southern Baptist Convention are diverse. We need each other. We need to hear each other and balance each other. So then I want to conclude with a list of reasons that commend an intentional effort to include diverse voices and perspectives that are not beholden to worldly approaches. Every point below assumes that diverse perspectives and cultures does not mean divergent views about the gospel and assume a refusal of secular worldview; diversity in perspective and background, unity in common confession and a common gospel: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”

  1. Preventing bias. We need diverse readings to prevent a single culture from having unchecked cultural influence over our study of theology. We have blind spots. By their very nature, we can not see them. Diverse perspectives will challenge us on our assumptions, some of which we may find to be less biblical and more cultural.
  2. It’s who we are. We need diverse perspectives because we are diverse. The SBC repented of racism in 1995. Since then, the number of black churches in the SBC has increased significantly. It should not be the case that our nearly 4,000 black SBC churches can send their students to seminaries that they fund and their students basically never read a scholar that looks like them or shares their background. Their tradition is loaded with great resources. That is not even to speak of contributions from Asian scholars, Latin American scholars, and others. Why are we not drawing from them? This brings me to the next point.
  3. There’s no good reason not to. We should intentionally consider diverse perspective because they are not hard to find and countless minority scholars are producing excellent work. It speaks to our blind spots that this requires effort! There are many, many faithful scholars of color who far surpass our standard of excellence in Christian scholarship. Sometimes we saying we are only choosing the “best stuff”. What are we communicating to students who are non-white if the “best stuff” is always from white scholars? This does not reflect the reality of many scholars from diverse backgrounds producing great work. Unintentionally we may be communicating that only we are capable, or that all are capable but culturally we are simply better. Representation matters for precisely this reason.

    (I do not believe Burk, or other scholars believe this. I am speaking here of the kind of communication between a husband and a wife when she is sharing about her day, and he won’t look up from his phone. He may be listening, but is communicating something different. This may not be conveyed in one class, but perhaps over the course of a whole theological education without any minority authors.)
  4. We would benefit. We need to include diverse perspectives because it would be beneficial to us. Diverse perspectives have given us countless insights about honor-shame culture, sacrifice, etc. Asian and African Christians do not help us read the Bible by eisegeting their culture into the text. They have helped us see things we otherwise might not notice, because of the assumptions we bring to the text without realizing it.
  5. It’s another way to show how we have been reconciled to one another. Diverse reading is a picture of the gospel ministry of reconciliation. I am hesitant to put this only because I know of how some may represent it. What I am not saying is that those who assign reading from authors of a single cultural perspective are denying the gospel. I am not saying that the gospel requires my view here. What I am saying is that God in Christ has reconciled people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation to himself. Diverse readings train students to see how God is working throughout all the world and all people so that we are not unintentionally convinced that God is only leading us to produce theology that is up to the standard of excellence.

I want to close by saying that I am grateful for Denny Burk. I don’t see him saying everything I’m pressing against here. We don’t always agree, but I have always found him to be willing to engage in a charitable conversation with me. I hope this brings far more light than heat to this conversation. I think Denny would agree with a lot of what I say here. I do not think he is guilty of intentionally excluding any authors, and he explicitly encouraged reading widely. I just wanted to go a step further and say that these reasons listed above commend diverse readings and should encourage us to intentionally shape our reading lists, within our confessional standards, in such a way. I am not condemning “colorblind” reading selection; I am attempting to affirm intentionally diverse reading as a better way.

Now, go read widely.

Who should do theology?

Is theology for everyone? R.C. Sproul has made popular the phrase “Everyone’s A Theologian,” even publishing a book by the same title. He’s right: everyone has thoughts and foundational beliefs about God that shape their lives. In asking the questions though, I have something more specific in mind: who should engage in theological discussion? Who should be part of the debates, write the blogs, and host the podcasts?

St.Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 330-390) answers:

Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

“…there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

Endemic to Evangelicalism, particularly the very-online Evangelical social circles, is what I have come to call “theology as sport”. Like the old show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. It may be that one of the worst effects of a Twitter and Facebook timeline is how serious theological claims are thrown into a stream as if they’re no different from the latest political charade or Hollywood fanfare. And so arguing over theology takes on all the gravity of a sports debate, or can be filled with all the competitive vitriol of a political fight.

We do well to heed this warning from Nazianzius about such people who use theology for their own entertainment, their own platform, or their own social ladder:

They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense… Such is the situation: this infection is unchecked and intolerable; “the great mystery’ of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment.

Sounds familiar.

Gregory of Nazianzus quotes taken from “On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius” Order a copy here.

Some of The Best Books I Read In 2014

We love lists, don’t we? We especially love lists about books. [Insert witty paragraph that shows I’m well-read and my opinion on this matters.] Without further adieu, the 5 best books I read in 2014 (in no particular order):

Handbook of Consolations: For the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death

consolationsIf nothing else, this one wins the award for best title.

This book is nearly 5oo years. Written by German Luther Johann Gerhard, this short volume is a balm for every Christian soul. Despite some reservations I have due to my being a Baptist and not a Lutheran, Johann Gerhard’s words were a great encouragement to me. Handbook of Consolations is part of a large, but nearly forgotten, type of literature known as ars moriendi. These books focused on the importance of how one dies. In this book in particular, Gerhard deals with the subjects of doubt, pain, suffering, sin, repentance, the sufficiency of the cross, the certainty of faith, the efficacy of the sacraments, and so on. I would recommend it to all Christians.

 

The Gateway Chronicles (Books 1-6)

gateway

K.B. Hoyle is a rising young star in fiction. To take a break from studying during the Spring 2014 semester, I read the her YA series The Gateway Chronicles. These books tell the story of a young girl named Darcy and five of her friends who are taken through a gateway into a land where they have been prophesied as the redeemers of that world, Alitheia. These books are an easy read, and the ending was a true surprise—which rarely happens to me when reading fiction. As a regular fantasy reader, I found Hoyle’s invention of a new mythical creature, called “narks”, to be one of the best and most creative features of any fictional book I have yet to come across. Hoyle’s  understanding of narrative and redemption help shape these stories, and I was easily captured by them.

 

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

81Zhc7ela8L._SL1500_I hear that I’m about two years late on this one.In this book, Smith argues for a change to how we view education in the Christian life. The life of the mind, he says, is deeply shaped by the liturgies of our life as they shape our desires. He discussion of liturgy and the formative power thereof is so good that I can not overstate it. I think it could be helpfully appropriated by professors, pastors, and stay-at-home mothers. Though this book is not accessible to all (it requires a certain level of education already), I would recommend it to all who are willing to take it on. I read through this with my friends Collin and David, and found it was one of the best ‘book group’ experiences I have ever had because the book in question was excellent.

 

Strange Glory by Charles Marsh

bonhoeffer-book

Bonhoeffer was not C.S. Lewis. Heck, even C.S. Lewis wasn’t C.S. Lewis according to how some folks portray him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a fascinating Christian leader who lived a great life. Perhaps better than any other Bonhoeffer biography, and certainly more so than any recent ones, Charles Marsh holds forth on the enigma that was Bonhoeffer, laying bare all of his idiosyncrasies (like his obsessive cataloging of his clothes) and peculiarities (such as his relationship with Eberhard Bethge). I was privileged be at a small book release for this work with Dr. Charles Marsh in Birmingham, AL. His love for Bonhoeffer and commitment to accurately represent his life struck me that night and led me to read this work. What I found was a masterpiece, a wonderful work, that is theologically and emotionally engaging at every turn.

 

Theology of the New Testament by Frank Thielman

Thielman

This year for New Testament class, Frank Thielman’s NT textbook was our only text apart from a few articles and handouts. It was and remains to be one of the best books I have ever owned and read. Not only that, I can personally testify that Dr. Frank Thielman is among the godliest and humble men I have ever met in my life. This book is no different. Thielman exudes a quiet confidence in the Word of God in his confrontations of liberal theology while showing no fear of engaging in textual criticism himself. He likewise critiques the New Perspective on Paul while giving credit where credit is due to that crowd. Thielman is not afraid to borrow from someone at one moment and criticize them the next. He recognizes that all truth is God’s truth. Because of this, he draws from the best of all the traditions in Christianity. That, and more, makes this book excellent.

 

1 Corinthians by David Garland

[Part of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Series]

Garland

As part of a Greek exegesis class on 1 Corinthians with Dr. Frank Thielman (see above), I was required to read this entire commentary. I was worried, since 1 Corinthians has long been a great mystery to me. Food sacrificed to idols? Sleeping with step-moms? Few things have shaped me in seminary like my time in 1 Corinthians. Little did I know that Paul’s words on lawsuits would immediately apply to my life. Little did I know that God would use 2014 to teach me that weakness is how he prefers his people. As Garland points out, the foolishness of the cross is the primary message of 1 Corinthians. It ought also to be the primary message of our lives. This book is not a devotional. It is an exegetical commentary. If you don’t know a lick of greek, it will be incredibly challenging to read. Nonetheless, my time with this book was a time that I will never forget. Garland’s writing is lucid and concise. He explanation of difficulties in the text and explanations is helpful. I would recommend this book to all preachers, as well as all who wish to know 1 Corinthians better.

 

I hope you enjoyed this list. Yes, this post was a tad informal. I’m in seminary, and my reading list isn’t for most folks right now. But if anyone benefits from this, it will have been worth it.

CLOSURE: How I Ended Up At Southern Seminary, Part 3

Before reading, make sure to check out the previous installments:

As I finished the last blog in this series, I alluded to the fact that Southern Seminary was “in” for me. What I had experienced was not the Seminary rolling out the red carpet only to jerk it from beneath my feet as soon as they had my deposit. The Lord was not yet finished. I have many stories I could tell already from my time at Southern Seminary, but I think that three will suffice.

The first thing major point on my road to SBTS happened only weeks after my visit. As providence would have it (as well as irony), it happened on twitter. If you know me well, you probably know about my  15,000 or so tweets. I am an active -understatement of the year- user of the social media platform “Twitter” [NOTE: Follow me at @griffingulledge]. Once I knew I was going to Southern, one of the first things I did was follow [this is like ‘friending’ someone on facebook] a few guys at the seminary I had never met before. One of these was Charles Smith (now VP of Institutional Advancement at MBTS). Charles had just posted about meeting with an Ambassador for the seminary. I sent him some cheeky response about how much I wanted to be one. This is probably the most important tweet I have sent to date. He responded with an offer and a series of emails to me offering me a position. It was more complicated than that, but I think that explanation will do.

I showed up to seminary on August 3, 2012 at 7 a.m. for my Ambassador meeting. 24 hours previously, I had been at a meeting in Minneapolis and had flow back to Birmingham, hopped in the car at midnight, and began my voyage through the night. I was wired on Five Hour Energy, but I was present. This has turned out to be one of the greatest blessing I have had. The other Ambassadors are all older, smarter, and more experienced than me; that’s not to mention they’re all friendly, godly, and married! I am the youngest by far, but they have all been so gracious with me. They have become my good friends. I gained instant community, which was one of my great fears (not having it) going off to such a large school. Not only that, but I would be able to meet Board of Trustee members and dine with them, serve the Foundation Board for the seminary (which, if you recall, had already played a part in my life), and I would be able to work with some of the best men at the seminary! What a blessing! This was the first confirmation to me that I was in the right place.

The second thing that happened was financial. Honestly, I came to seminary completely empty financially. I had around 500 dollars and tuition was staring me in the face. Who knew how I was going to pay that? First i got a job that would pay me nearly a third of my tuition for only three weeks of weekend work doing college events around the country! Next, I got a job in Louisville. Still, it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t going to be able to pay my third tuition payment. I have this page here on my blog where people can donate money to my seminary education. A few people have faithfully suported me in my time here. Even then, I was short. Out of nowhere, someone I know only in passing drops $300 in my bank account! What providence! This is the body of Christ, giving freely at my time of need! I needed it so badly, and there’s no way he knew. He simply gave freely and it was just enough! When I didn’t get in to Beeson I questioned God, asking,”Why would you call me to this and not provide for me?” How wrong I was! He had closed that door to bring me to Southern where he would richly and providentially provide for me! [Note: Paying for seminary is still hard. Check out this page to help me out. Being full time at work and learning Greek isn’t ideal, though I’m willing to do it.]

The last thing that occurred is probably the greatest confirmation I have had. The other two were huge, but this is the biggest. Last Friday, I took a road trip to Auburn University to recruit students for Southern Seminary.On Friday, I stopped in Birmingham to attend a class with one of my best friends, Blake Jenkins, and go to lunch with him afterwards. Blake attends– you guessed it– Beeson Divinity School. As I pulled in to campus, I felt like the Lord wanted me to go see someone before I met Blake. I got out of the car and walked to the Admissions office. Mrs. Sherri Brown, the Director of Admissions at Beeson, was wonderful to me during my application process. She helped me every step of the way, was my interviewer, and encouraged me the day after I didn’t get it. It was Mrs. Brown who asked me to reapply for the Spring.

Blake, his wife Rebecca, and Me. She can’t
deny our friendship (not that she would).

When I stepped into her office, I could see the surprise on her face. She told me she had just been thinking about me as they were organizing for a new round of admissions. Then she noticed my jacket, a beige pullover with the Southern crest on the breast pocket. I hadn’t spoken with here since that ‘day after’ so she had not known. She was excited for me. I told her how it all worked out and how happy I am at Southern. She once again encouraged me, told me that they were very happy for me, and said,”Well we’d love to have you for a D.Min. one day!” One day, Mrs. Brown. Maybe one day. As I walked out of her office, I had a real peace about everything. I knew. God has placed me at the right place. As I went to meet Blake, I remembered how I had fallen in love with Beeson’s campus. Once we were in class, I saw that I had estimated rightly that it was a great school. As the professor taught, I realized I had heard nearly the exact same thing in my own class at SBTS the week before! It was a great day, but it was not home. Southern Seminary is my home now. I can honestly say, with no reservations that I love Southern Seminary. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

God did not only redirect my course, he redirected my heart. Once again, I’m learning not only that I have to trust the Lord, but that I can trust Him! He is good and He has done good to me. I don’t know how my career here at SBTS will turn out, but I know this: The Lord will do good to me. I hope you know, reading this, that he is good. I hope you know that he only does good. He will do good to you as well. You can trust Him. Trust Him.

How I Ended Up At Southern Seminary, Pt. 2

Before you read this, make sure you read Part 1.

_______________________________________________________________________
The next few days after not getting into Beeson were some of the hardest of my life. I cried more than I expected to. What had this done to me? I began to see what it means to have one of the greatest idols I had ripped from my fingers. God owed me nothing. He was teaching me the lesson of Proberbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” I had been so arrogant. Only a week before I had met President Mohler at Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn, AL, and told him I would not be applying to Southern Seminary. I had better plans. What a fool I was!
As I contented myself with moping, certain that no one could comfort me, the Lord sent five people in my path. The first was a good friend of mine and one of the most encouraging believers I know: Garrett Walden. Garrett did two important things (which, hopefully, you will benefit from as you deal with people in extreme disappointment). First, Garrett turned me to the gospel. It may seem so strange to you since I am on the road to the pastorate, but I had a great deal of trouble preaching it to myself. He told me I could trust God not only because he is in control, but because he is good. He told me my approval and acceptance is in Christ, not in a letter of acceptance from a school. Then, he prayed for me. He didn’t give a short, trite prayer. He earnestly prayed for me that day and then continued to do so in the following days. I will never forget that.
The day after I spoke with Garrett, I went to discipleship with my pastor, Steve Scoggins. He prayed with me, just like Garrett. He hurt with me. Finally, he challenged me on some of my pride. Why was I so destroyed? Why had I not considered other schools?
“Are you going to be Southern Baptist?” he asked. Yes, I am.
“Are you going to turn into some Arminian?” he asked. No, I certainly am not.
“Do you love the church” he asked. He knew I did!

Pastor Steve Scoggins

“Do you really want to serve in the Convention one day?” Of course!
“Then go to Southern,” he told me. He helped me move through much of my strongheaded-ness that day. He explained to me that the SBC needs godly, Baptist trained men serving in its churches. He promised me I would get a superb, not merely passable, education at Southern. He comforted me. Again, the Lord was using another to soften my heart, bring me away from my pride, and teach me to trust Him.

The next person the Lord sent my way was the father of a friend of mine, a man named Bill Sanford. Long before, Bill had asked me to visit Southern Seminary with him. He told me he was a member of some foundation there and liked visiting. I had politely declined. After all, I had chosen where I was attending. Bill contacted me again with an offer to take me to Southern Seminary. This time I accepted. If he had not offered, I would not have visited. I did not have the money to drive 9 hours to visit a school I did not want to attend. What I did not know was what would come of this visit.

The next person that helped me was President Mohler. Down in the dumps, I sent a sad tweet in a weak moment. It follows:

Privilege? President Albert Mohler, privileged to welcome me? The seminary reject? What is this? I didn’t even expect him to respond. I regretted even sending the tweet in the midst of my pity part. Dr. Mohler was gracious, however, and encouraged me at a terrible time in my life. Not only that, after I got in he sent me this message:
A follow up tweet! From one of my heroes, at that! Why would he even take the time? I didn’t know. If nothing else, it made me happy to visit SBTS. If the people are this friendly, they are worth being around! 

Soon after, an Admissions Counselor at Southern Seminary by the name of Kody Gibson contacted me. Kody was friendly, helpful, and- providence!- had also considered going to the same school as I had and had a similar experience. He also pointed me to trust in Christ. Kody was there for me in every way possible, from being willing to just listen to me rant about how unhappy I was (How many admissions counselors at colleges/graduate schools will do that?) to praying for me. After the entire visit was set up, I got a confirmation email from Kody with my visit form attached.
You can’t see this picture to the right. If you can see the bottom line there, it reads as follows: “Kody filled this out. VIP student.”

I read it and started to tear up again. Before this all started, I didn’t know I was going to become a crier again. It had been a while since I had cried that much. Now, obviously, reading a form where you get called a VIP is a huge opportunity for sinful temptation to creep in. I could have become full of myself. I could have felt awesome about myself. Instead, it was simply a blessing from God. Sweet relief! They want me! At the end of the day, throughout the whole fiasco wherein I had been rejected, what hurt the worst was the feeling of rejection. I had been rejected and the only consolation for it was acceptance. Garrett pointed me to this first in the Gospel. Kody helped me feel it again academically. I was going to go to Seminary. I was not completely unwanted. I was not a total failure. How easy do we sinners turn from Christ! How gracious is He to turn us back and to put people in our lives for just that purpose!

Little did I know what this visit would be. When Kody found out on the phone what Bill had set up, he was shocked. “This is not normal,” he told me. I had no idea.

I graduated from Auburn University on May 7, 2012. The next day, I got in the car with my dad and Bill Sanford, and we headed to Louisville. My dad and Bill are in the same profession (Bill owns a construction company and my dad owns a tile company). As you know, the construction industry is not doing too hot right now. My dad and Bill hit it off and were able to be encouraged together from the start. I think they both needed that. If nothing else, that made the trip worth it.  I knew then that this was going to be a good weekend. I had no idea how good.

Over the span of 3 days I met with Dr. Ware and Dr. Coppenger for coffee, Dr. Russ Moore, and had dinner with two donors for a great dinner (they gave me their  card and told me to contact them if I need anything. I have since found this to have been an earnest offer). The next day I had lunch with Dr. Donald Whitney, as well as with the head of Admissions, Mr. John Powell, and he answered every question I could have possibly had about the school. I was able to tour President Mohler’s library and office, both of which were a truly special experience. Finally, I met with renowned historian Dr. Tom Nettles and the Dean of Boyce College, Dan DeWitt. With every single one of these meetings, I found the professors and staff to be genuinely caring and kind. There was not a single man who met with me because they had to. All of these men met with me because they wanted to. They were gracious and wise, each offering me a great deal of counsel. I came away impressed with how much they cared, not just about me, but also about my family, how courteous they were to my father and listened as he regaled old stories from his time at Southern Seminary.

The last night I was there, I came back from dinner and a familiar face drove by. He stopped the car and rolled down the window. I stood there dumbfounded, in shock for a moment, as President Mohler rolled down his window, and he and his wife, Mrs. Mary, greeted me. He looked tired.
“I just got back from CNN,” he said.
I said,”Oh. That’s cool,” showing my powerful command over the King’s English in a moment of pressure. He went on to welcome me to the school, and he asked me how the visit was going. I told him it was going wonderfully. He talked with us for about five minutes more and then departed to his home. It was very special for me. As I came to find out later, he had not been to CNN for any old taping. Pres. Obama had just given his support on TV to gay marriage rights, and Dr. Mohler was giving the Evangelical response. I watched it later. It was powerful, wise, and exactly what needed to be said. Surely, it was exhausting for him. Still, he stopped for us! Why had he done that? His windows were tinted. I didn’t know his car. He needed not stop and talk, but he did. President Mohler stopped and talked to a guy having one of the worst months of his life, because he is a good man. His seminary reflects this; every single person I met on the trip reflected this.

As I left lunch with Boyce Dean Dan DeWitt on Thursday, I headed to the housing office with my dad. I told him I didn’t need to see any more. This was it. One hundred dollars of college graduation money in my hand, I signed up for a dorm. I was in. Southern Seminary had charmed and enchanted me. The Lord has turned my heart back to trust him, and, more importantly, he gave me peace. I had no rest. Christ gave me rest.

As is the common refrain, I had no idea how good this was about to get. I was “in” for Southern Seminary. I was about to find out that Southern Seminary was “in” for me. My preview day visit was not a flash in the pan. The Lord was about to move mightily. The story was not yet complete.

Fin Part 2.



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How I Ended Up At Southern Seminary, Part 1

One of the words a Bible reader should notice is the word “Remember”.  One of the clearest examples of this is in Deuteronomy 8:2, which reads:

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.

I have no intention to dig deeply into the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy  I simply want to point out the nature of this verse. It does not say,”Remember how faithful you were? Remember how you acted so obediently and were patient with the Lord. Remember how well you did when the Lord sent you a challenge.” No, quite the opposite. God calls us to remember our past, because in remembering we see the goodness of the Lord whereby we are tested, exposed, and (finally) humbled. With that said, I’d like to undertake an experiment in remembering the most trying time of my life outside of my mother’s death. This was a life altering period that eventually led me to Southern Seminary. Please allow me to
recount to you the grace of God and show you how good he truly is.

_______________________________________________________________________________

My freshman year of college at Auburn University the Lord radically shifted my life plans and called me into ministry. Previous passions died in a moment and over the next year I fell deeply in love with service of Jesus Christ and his church (a love that still remains). As such, I knew I had to get to ministry as soon as possible and as responsibly as possible. I learned that I could graduate college in only 3 years if I switched my degree to philosophy thereby saving me money and getting me to ministry sooner. I had a full tuition scholarship, but the less I spent on housing and living the better.

I began to research seminaries nearly immediately after being called to ministry. I had a long list full of great schools: Trinity Evangelical, Beeson Divinity, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, The Master’s Seminary, and on and on. All of these are exceptional institutions. Some were disqualified by distance from home alone (Master’s and Gordon-Conwell). After that, the choose became much more difficult.

The greatest mentor in my life, Sam Hallman, was and currently is still getting his doctorate at Beeson Divinity School and talked it up to me. Beeson is a small, confessional institution in Birmingham, AL, which is all of 25 minutes from my hometown. As I was still researching, I listened to a sermon by Robert Smith, Jr. called “The Glory of the Groan“.  It was then and is now the best sermon I have ever heard. I sat alone in my room and wept listening to it. As a Southern Baptist who believes there is no greater calling than to preach the Word of God, I knew this was it. I just knew it. Dr. Smith quickly became my hero and mentor from afar. I bought boxes of his sermons on CD and listened to them regularly. I downloaded as much of his stuff as I could find; articles, sermons, lectures– I had them all!

The dome of Beeson Divinity’s Hodges Chapel.

My decision was made before my senior year. I was going to Beeson Divinity School. The school I had considered the most after Beeson was The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When I was called to ministry I had to deal with a lot of dissatisfaction towards the church (local) and Christian attempts at intellectualism. One of the most, if not the most, influential men on me during this year long process was Dr. R. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is nothing short of brilliant and played a large part of my realizing that church and Christian thought doesn’t have to be done in the way I had seen. To this day, I will never be able to thank him enough or repay him for the influence he had over me (though he has no idea, nor would he want repayment if he did know).

As I looked at Southern Seminary, a bit of rebellion remained towards my Southern Baptist roots. An interdenominational school seemed, to me, far superior. I became a bit of an elitist about it. “Those Southern Baptists, you know. They’re all saying the same thing there. I want some diversity.” What a fool I was. Besides, they keep telling me that they have the best seminary in the world. Really? C’mon. All I could think about was Buddy the Elf’s response to the best coffee in the world sign. After all, SBTS has like 4,000 students. You’d think the best seminary in the world would be a little more exclusive.

By the midpoint of my final year at Auburn University, my mind was set. I was moving to Birmingham after school to attend Beeson. One of my mentors in ministry, a friend of my father’s with whom I had a written correspondence, Calvin Miller, was a preaching professor there. My new found hero, Robert Smith, Jr. was there. My GPA was high. I was a three year graduate. My recommendations were superb. My interview was one of the most encouraging hours of my life (they were so excited that I wanted to be a preacher, not an academic). I visited multiple times. I worked 7 months on my admission essay on the Apostle’s Creed and, if I may, it was pretty darn good. I had had dinner with the Dean, who my pastor (who was discipling me) was friends with. Everything was perfect. Now I just had to wait.

My dad called me on August 2nd.
He told me,”Your letter came in from Beeson.”
I told him to open it. I could hear him opening it on the other end of the phone.

Then, silence. It seemed like my father had fallen in. That silence was the longest of my life.
“Say it,” I told him.
“You didn’t get in.”

I hung up the phone and walked to my room. It was April! I was going to graduate in a month. I dropped (not sat or lay, but dropped like a rock) to the floor of my room. I wept openly. Door locked, I was free to express my rage. Why God?! Why have you robbed me of this?! I did everything right, do your job!! Then I cried. I had no other response. I simply wept. For the first time in my life, I had been rejected and in the most important area of my earthly life. For nearly two years, I was set on this. I had it all planned out. Now, this.

I rolled over on the floor of my room and grabbed my laptop. I was desperate. I went to Southern Seminary’s website and logged in to the admission application I had finished. I clicked “submit” and paid my application fee. At least I had a backup plan. I called Beeson for a reason for my rejection. They had none. The lady on the other end of the phone had worked with me quite a bit throughout the application process. She seemed shocked herself I had not gotten in. She dealt with me graciously and plead with me to reapply for the spring. That’s what I would do, I thought. I was going to Beeson no matter what. I had plans, after all.

Beeson is a marvelous school. I have good friends there and would never speak ill of it. The fact is, Beeson was my plan. As I was about to find out, God had plans as well. His plans were better than mine. His plans would change me. His plans would change everything. How he put his plan in motion, however, is the greatest story of providence in my life and the subject of the post to follow.

Fin Part I.

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