Guest Commentary by Bill Coates
When I was growing up in South Carolina, Malcolm Tolbert was serving as a missionary in Brazil and later as a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. At the time I was unaware of him or anything he was doing.
In fact, I would come to know him as his student only for one year, 1979, my final year of Master of Divinity studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Tolbert had left earlier that year from the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., because he was homesick to return to teaching.
Ironically, his homesickness for teaching would become a major steppingstone for my life as a pastor.
First, he would open up the book of Romans for me in a way that would prove transformative and lasting. I remember well his excitement as he entered class each day to talk about this New Testament letter that had turned Martin Luther’s world upside down and had been the catalyst for a number of great movements in Christian history.
Second, he would become perhaps the greatest force in the evolution of my understanding of grace. Grace was his theme. Grace was how he lived. And grace was his mantra.
How many times have I heard him say, “In this life we’re all going to err either on the side of law or the side of grace. Since we’re going to err anyway, always go with grace.”
Malcolm Tolbert put the final nail in the coffin to bury the legalism I had grown up in. For that alone I will be forever grateful.
Third, he revolutionized the meaning of “orthodoxy.” Again, he said repeatedly, “If you want to be orthodox, be loving.”
What’s more, that’s how he lived. His words and actions matched perfectly. He thus became not only one of the great mentors of my life, but also one of the great models.
Almost 20 years after I had sat in his classroom and learned from his Christ-like spirit, he would, unknown to me, become the reason for my leaving South Carolina to come to the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga.
Not only would I live all these years under the spell of his teaching and influence, but I would also pick up his work at the only church where he had ever served as pastor. In many ways I consider my 17 years here as something of an extension of his three years here.
The people who had loved him so much would extend the same to me. The ministry of caring, which he had begun, would continue to be at the heart of the ministry that I have come to love so dearly.
His emphasis on the priorities of grace and love would still be significantly present in this congregation that he had served so briefly.
Dr. Tolbert always leaned forward. He literally had a slight lean as he would teach in the classroom or walk across the campus. And he always leaned forward in his thinking characterized by a progressive theology that prized moving beyond anything associated with fundamentalism.
And his work in Gainesville from 1976-1979 would lean all the way into 1998 (and beyond) when I would have the privilege of being brought into this community to take up some of his work — and largely because of his influence with the pastor-search committee.
The last time I saw him in person was a few years ago when I called on him in Baton Rouge and took him to dinner. He was still leaning forward and looking forward; in fact, he was writing another book, having already finished Shaping the Church sometime before.
Most lives are forever affected by a handful of key figures. I shall always thank God that Malcolm Tolbert towers among those figures in my life and experiences and pastorates. BT
—Bill Coates is pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville, Ga. Malcom Tolbert died on Thanksgiving 2014 at age 90.