superBy John D. Pierce

Christianity Today published a recent tribute marking the 98th birthday of Billy Graham. The now-aging evangelist was instrumental in the founding of the publication.

In the friendly article (titled “The Remarkable Mr. Graham”), biographer Grant Wacker noted that Graham held firm — “decade after decade” — to his central beliefs. He added, however, that the changes Graham made “form a large part of the preacher’s legacy.”

(My observation: Unlike his son, the elder Graham had the ability to think and grow.)

Wacker enumerated those changes, noting, first, that “Graham moved from biblical literalism to a more dynamic sense of biblical infallibility.” That is, the Bible’s authority was rooted not in its historical or scientific accuracy but in doing what it promised: to “bring people to faith in Christ.”

The second change Wacker noted concerned Graham’s understanding of salvation.

Graham, he said, moved beyond his earlier “ready-set-go” understanding of conversion: Stand up, go to the front, sign a decision card, join a church and then witness to your new-found faith. He made room for other ways of experiencing God’s redemptive grace — noting that his wife, Ruth, grew up in such grace and never had that single moment of decision.

Wacker cited other changes such as Graham, widely known for emphasizing personal conversion, increasing his calls for social reform as well. And, said Wacker, he moved from the familiar threats of hellfire, brimstone and eternal torment to describing hell as “separation from God’s love.”

Also, Graham grew in his ecumenism, the article noted, and refused to take on the role of God when it came to judging the eternal fate of others.

Reading the article took me back to my seminary days when professors and other Southern Baptist leaders of the 1980s were castigated for similar understandings of the biblical faith.

Fundamentalists don’t appreciate change, especially the expansion of minds and hearts. And in an effort to seek or retain power they will eagerly call those who do grow in their understandings and application of faith everything but “Christian.”

Later in the day Supertramp came on the radio singing “The Logical Song.” A few words jumped out to me: “Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical, liberal, fanatical, …” Ha! Indeed they will.

Those who grow in their understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith get tagged with negative labels by those who don’t ever expand their minds and hearts. That is the way fundamentalism works — trying to protect something that doesn’t need to be protected.

Yet often there are those who function in similar ways out of fear more than conviction.

That thought resurfaced when I read about how the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) — the more-moderate of the two Southern Baptist Convention-related state conventions there — is poised to boot out two fine congregations for being too accepting and affirming of LGBT Christians.

Apparently BGCT leaders fear losing funds from other churches if they don’t carry out such ugly actions — although they fly in the face of the once time-honored Baptist understanding of local church autonomy. And these are two darn good churches in Dallas and Austin.

With all the needs and challenges to be faced today, labeling and pushing around other Christians out of fear — and resisting growing understandings of the biblical faith — don’t appear to be the highest priorities. Such foolishness just compounds the damaged, self-destructive witness of American Christianity as something less loving than Jesus.

Supertramp also noted: “There are times when all the world’s asleep.” Sadly, it seems so.

At the least, it’s time for some to wake up to the reality that the widening of God’s grace cannot be corralled by those who think they have it all figured out and must fearfully protect their settled conclusions. Expanding minds and hearts should not be feared.

John Pierce

About John Pierce

John D. Pierce is editor of Nurturing Faith Journal — the signature publication of Baptists Today, Inc. He is also publisher of Nurturing Faith Books and Resources. Previously he served as managing editor of The Christian Index and as Baptist campus minister at Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University. A native of Ringgold, Ga., he is a graduate of Berry College (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He speaks frequently in churches, consults with congregations concerning communications and holds interim pastorates.