Falwell: “I have never been a minister”

Jerry Fallwell quote 2 (1)

What do courtiers say when the emperor brags, “I’m wearing no clothes!”? Maybe the reaction speaks volumes about the courtiers.

Jerry Falwell, Jr., did just on that before 72,700 Twitter followers while dogging David Platt, the pastor of Northern Virginia’s McLean Bible Church. Platt dodged verbal crossfire after President Donald Trump forced him into a split-second decision: Do I or do I not pray for the chief executive before my congregation on Sunday – per his last-minute request? Platt said yes and prayed a bipartisan prayer. The internet’s second-guessers stampeded, often coupling him with Trumpian sycophants. Never mind that Platt has shunned partisanship, denounced nationalism, and called Christians to free themselves from the American dream.

The pastor could have fired back (“Imagine the tweet storms if I refused …”), but he opted for his characteristic grace and posted an explanation. A couple quotes: “I love that we have over 100 nations represented in our church family, including all kinds of people with varied personal histories and political opinions from varied socioeconomic situations” … “I know that some within our church, for a variety of valid reasons, are hurt that I made this decision. This weighs heavy on my heart. I love every member of this church, and I only want to lead us with God’s Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God.”

Some characterized this as an apology (I plead guilty myself). Actually, he never said “I’m sorry.” Which is fine with many across the political spectrum, since none was owed.

Enter Falwell on June 4th. He tweeted that Platt should “grow a pair,” which spun an offense-filled thread. One reader said a “minister of the Gospel” should never employ such language.  Falwell’s tell-tale reply: “You’re putting your ignorance on display. I have never been a minister.” His listed his credentials: “UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs. Univ president for last 12 years – student body tripled to 10000 + /endowment from 0 to $2 billion and $1.68B new construction in those 12 years.”

To underscore: Falwell’s resume shows no seminary or formal religious education. His statements reveal little schooling in biblical theology or systematic theology or knowledge of a theology for the common good, the heritage of which reaches back to Augustine and weaves its way through Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin to John Wesley to Abraham Kuyper and to living souls like Miroslav Volf and Timothy Keller. Those thinkers – along with many others – stayed up past their bedtimes as they puzzled over Christian social teaching.

Falwell is a lawyer (nothing wrong with that); a commercial real estate developer (that’s fine); and a university president (wonderful). He’s raised wads of cash (congrats). God has blessed him with talents and qualifications galore.

But he’s the opposite of Russell Moore, who’s ordained, oozes academic degrees, and is the appointed president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Moore is the designated Southern Baptist go-to guy. No church authority anointed Falwell. Sure, he lives in America, the land of the free. He can proclaim his viewpoints up and down the internet like any citizen; he can even claim he’s Christianity’s herald – just like the guy living in a Mojave Desert shack. The difference: We actually listen to the admittedly unqualified Falwell. Platt, the gracious pastor with three degrees (including a Ph.D) and whom Falwell ridiculed, is better dressed than he.

Why pay heed to a naked emperor?

I’ll concede: It’s complicated.  Some are understandably wary of seminary-educated clergyman. One mainline pastor warned me as I filed applications to various theological schools in the mid-1980’s: “Seminaries can be bastions of atheism.” Their professors slice and dice the Bible and leave much of it on the cutting-room floor; they follow theological fads and dismiss all opponents as anti-intellectual “fundamentalists.” Their god shrivels into a genteel deity for whom the only heresy is the notion of heresy. And all political opinions are welcome — as long as they’re radical chic.

Add another wrinkle:  Some fine pastors never obtained a seminary degree.

But sound teaching pervades institutions like Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts (my alma mater), Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California, and (my favorite) Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. There are a slew of others. Most feature on-line degrees, paving the path for pajama-clad scholarship and whittling the number of valid excuses for avoiding an education. Some might plead poverty, but I’ll walk on a limb and say Falwell can afford it.

Yet the courtiers linger.

Perhaps that’s because we’re too impressed with the qualifications Falwell listed. Again, he’s a lawyer (trained to win go-for-the-jugular arguments); he’s a successful businessman; he’s great at raising money. He’s been groomed to achieve the American dream, not to speak prophetically to a post-Christendom Western civilization. His very popularity among some self-identified evangelicals speaks volumes: The American dream – from which Platt invited us to free ourselves – has crept into the Body of Christ and smothered the cry Holy Spirit’s cry: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). We hear instead: “bigger is better,” and we love it.

The emperor is not alone. The courtiers have stripped themselves. The entire palace is now a nudist colony.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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