Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mr. Falwell Moves On Up

On the surface the man seemed about as threatening as your corner grocer. He was affable, friendly, had a nice smile too. He did not come across like Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Baker as either too menacing or too slick and smaltzy for words. But there is no question that he accomplished far more than both of those men put together, and more than Pat Robertson as well. Throughout his adult life he remained a committed Reformed Dispensationalist Baptist, but what he will be best known for of course was his wedding of conservative Protestant faith with the galvanizing of the church, and even those not in the church, over political issues. We talk a lot about the politicizing of the Evangelical movement in recent decades, but no one was more responsible for that than Jerry Falwell, beginning in 1979 with the founding of the Moral Majority movement, which was disbanded a decade later, proclaiming that its mission had largely been accomplished. Falwell is credited with registering millions of voters, who then turned around and helped Ronald Reagan (and later George W. Bush) get elected. One of the things that distinguished Jerry Falwell from other tel-evangelists is that he was grounded and indeed continued to be ministering in a local church-- Thomas Road Baptist in Lynchburg Va. Indeed, Jerry Falwell was a man who never strayed from Lynchburg Va. much. He was born there, raised there, started his church there, ministered there his whole life, and yesterday died there in his office at Liberty University. He was a home boy made good.

The NY Times article this morning is a helpful summary of his life and career in ministry. Here is the link--- .

Jerry Falwell has often been called a fundamentalist, and if by fundamentalist you mean a very conservative person who believes the Bible is totally true, then I suppose the term applies. Fundamentalism however is more of a mindset than a theological position to be honest. I ran into fundamentalist liberals while at Harvard. They were so utterly convinced of their liberal opinions about the Bible that no amount of evidence or logic could convince them otherwise. One thing about Jerry Falwell, he did actually change his mind about things, he did also apologize for things he said when he was convinced he had spoken in an untrue or unChristian manner. Indeed, some people even say he had moderated on various things in the last decade. By moderate I mean he had gone from being a fundamentalist of sorts to being more of an Evangelical, at least on some issues.

If we assess the growth and transformation of Jerry Falwell, you could say that the changes in his college that he founded mirrored the changes in the man. The school has gone from being Liberty Baptist College (a school I once visited, checking on one of my church members in the early 80s, and found the place rather like Bob Jones University-- no public displays of affection allowed, and there was all this security, a kind of bunker mentality) to being Liberty University, more like a mainstream Evangelical school where some of my friends teach.

Yet Dr. Falwell did not change his mind on one thing-- the welding together of certain Biblical views and certain loyalties to American values was seen as the Christian thing to do. Jerry always wore his patriotism on one sleeve and his Christian commitments on the other, and sometimes you couldn't tell the difference between the two. There was a reason for this-- Jerry genuinely believed the notion that America was founded on a Christian platform of ideas and ideals. Well, Judeo-Christian, is what he called it. This indeed was the basis of his being able to bring together strange bedfellows in the Moral Majority, those who were pro-life, pro-family, pro-America. As a Dispensationalist, he was almost equally passionate about Israel, never mind that the government of Israel was a secular democracy rather like America's democracy.

You always new where Jerry stood on issues. He was honest, a person of integrity, passionate, forthright, and whether you agreed with him or not, you knew where he stood, and you had to admire him because he had such courage in his convictions. I for one disagreed with him on a whole host of issues, and found especially unhealthy the marriage of a commitment to a certain kind of patrotism and a particular political party with real Christianity, but Jerry Falwell was my brother in Christ, and I knew him to be a man who strove to serve the Lord in all he did and said, and was a big enough man to admit when he was wrong. He was like the passionate and convicted preacher who said of himself "I am never in doubt, but often wrong".

We have not discussed the role that Jerry Falwell may or may not have played in the fundamentalist take over of the Southern Baptist convention and then various Southern Baptist seminaries. This is too big a topic to address in this particular posting. But if you judge the measure of a man by the influence he has in various ways and places, Jerry Falwell was a giant of a man, standing only behind towering figures like Billy Graham in the degree he influenced the Conservative Protestant Church in America, and certainly he had more influence in politics than Billy ever sought or wielded.

But I choose today to remember the Jerry Falwell who was not anti-intellectual and did not see education as a threat to one's faith. I choose to remember the Jerry Falwell who out of his love for Christ founded a school which has become a vibrant large Evangelical institution. This is not the work of someone who really deserves the pejorative label fundamentalist. Jerry was always committed to the fundamentals of the faith, but a commitment to the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism was not who Dr. Falwell was at heart. Jerry was always fighting the battle against the forces of evil and secularism as he saw them. He understood we are in a battle for the soul of the culture. Whatever differences I may have had with him, and there are many, the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and on that issue we both stood together as devout conservative Christians. Jerry lifted up Christ constantly and with courage , and so should we. God bless you and keep you Jerry. We hardly knew ye.


Ken L. Hagler said...

As a young person growing up in the 80's and going to college in the early 90's, Falwell's influence was felt both in and outside the church. Thank you Dr. Witherington for putting his life in a proper perspective. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his opinions, the man was authentic.

Philip R. Gons said...

Reformed? That's news to me. Can you substantiate that?



green said...

a very nicely written tribute. It says much about a person when you can disagree with them on so many levels and yet acknowledge your shared Christian faith. Certainly he was outspoken and at times controversial but I do agree that he was not afraid to share his views and even apologized occasionally when he misspoke.

Steven Mynes said...

I'm glad I read this before reviewing any mainstream media reactions to Mr. Falwell's passing. Thank you for you insights and for making the essential point. He was indeed a brother in Christ, and whether one agrees with all of his actions or positions is secondary viewed, as you say, from the level ground at the foot of the cross, and with the understanding that he acted in faith.

I appreciate your comments and your frequent posts to your blog as it has become an important connection to a Christian community for me. May the Lord continue to bless your efforts here...

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Philip-- yep Jerry was a seven and a half point Calvinist. If you read or hear any of his sermons on the sovereignty of God this is clear enough. This is not uncommon with Dispensationalists.


Jay's Blog said...

RIP Jerry. While I did not agree with much of what he said, you are right Dr. Witherington that Jerry was a juggernaut for moral values and faith in this country and his university will be a powerful testament to the man that he really was, not just the man that was portrayed in the media.

Andrew McNeill said...

A very gracious and kind obituary to a good man no matter what our disagreements may have been. Thank you Ben.

David said...

Very well said.
In spite of differences, even extreme ones, it helps us to remember that we are all one in Christ and we all see through a mirror dimly.
I'm sure someday, I'll say, "Wow, Falwell was right about _____." As I'm sure his response, is the same about those he disagreed with now that he is knowing face to face and the mirror is gone.

Bill Barnwell said...

I'm pretty sure just about any Calvinist would take issue with labeling Rev. Falwell as one of their own. I've read tons of critiques of Falwell's soteriology from Calvinist quarters. The best I could see is that he was a one and a half or 2 point Calvinist, who bought into a modified total depravity and Baptist views of "eternal security." I think I read stuff on his site before that claimed he was not either an Arminian or Calvinist. Basically he just held to what is now mainstream doctrine amongst most conservative Baptist groups (excluding the Free Will Baptists) regarding the doctrine of salvation. Perhaps I missed something else though along the way. However, he most certainly was a staunch dispensationalist and did buy into what was arguably an unhealthy patriology. All that said, I join with those who mourn his passing and am sickened by those who been laughing off or celebrating his death.

Ben Witherington said...

o.k. Bill... sometimes when a Baptist gets hold of Calvin funny things happen to T.U.L.I. P.


The Vegas Art Guy said...

Isn't this the same guy who said the following?
"Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions." ~ Jerry Falwell

"If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being." ~ Jerry Falwell

"Billy Graham is the chief servant of Satan in America." ~ Jerry Falwell

'And the evangelicals, 80 millions of us in America, everyone knows we're the best friends Israel has, the best friends Jewish people around the world, including America, have." ~ Jerry Falwell

"The ACLU is to Christians what the American Nazi party is to Jews." ~ Jerry Falwell

"AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." ~ Jerry Falwell

"Homosexuals are brute beasts...part of a vile and satanic system [that] will be utterly annihilated, and there will be a celebration in heaven." ~ Jerry Falwell

"Someone must not be afriad to say, 'moral perversion is wrong.' If we do not act now, homosexuals will 'own' America!...If you and I do not speak up now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women, and children who get in its way...and our nation will pay a terrible price!" - People for the American Way. ~ Jerry Falwell

"God hates homosexuality" ~ Jerry Falwell (on TV)

"I am such a strong admirer and supporter of George W. Bush that if he suggested eliminating the income tax or doubling it, I would vote yes on first blush." ~ Jerry Falwell

"My problem is not with the intentions of the Bush presidency. My problem is where it might go under his successors." ~ Jerry Falwell

"Textbooks are Soviet propaganda." ~ Jerry Falwell

"It appears that America's anti-Biblical feminist movement is at last dying, thank God, and is possibly being replaced by a Christ-centered men's movement which may become the foundation for a desperately needed national spiritual awakening." ~ Jerry Falwell

(re: 9/11 attacks) "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen." ~ Jerry Falwell

"I believe that global warming is a myth. And so, therefore, I have no conscience problems at all and I'm going to buy a Suburban next time." ~ Jerry Falwell

I bring this up because I am conflicted on him. Statements like this make me wonder about his faith. It seems more like a Pharisee talking than a pastor. Did he take these back and is there proof?

Michael Gilley said...


He did recant on a lot of positions. I happened across a CNN page when he apologized for the statement about the 9/11 incident.

Falwell went to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, MO. That's about twenty minutes from where I live. I often engage in sreet evangelism in Springfield and often see many of the BBC students there holding signs that say "Divorce is adultery," "God hates homosexuality," turn or burn kind of thing. Somehow those folks manage to get their hands on some of the biggest KJV Bibles I have ever seen! Anyway, I once was stopped by one of them who tried to "convert" me. He would not listen to me trying to save him time by explaining that I was already a believer. Instead, he accused me of leaving to go home and sleep with my girlfriend (I was single at the time) and that I needed to change. A friend I once had went to BBC for a few semesters. He quit mid-semester when a teacher there (they're all men) told him he was being un-Chirstlike for not shaving. There's some background to the school he was trained in. He came a far way from those days, especially ever since the whole PTL Club with Bakker (who's in Branson my hometown now doing another show and building a park type of retirement village in Blue Eye), but nonetheless, I think the main thing is what Dr. Witherington brought out here. Even though I strongly disagree with what some of the BBC folks are doing on Friday and Saturday nights in downtown Springfield, I still love and care for them. They are my brothers and sisters to me. It is God who judges anyways whether or not they have taken the wide road that leads to destruction (i.e. Phariseeism, legalism, judgement devoid of mercy).

Leo said...

Thank you for the kind words about Jerry Falwell. Those of us who had any personal interaction with Dr. Falwell know that he was the kind of man you describe here. He will be missed, for lots of reasons, but I can't shake the thought that he is happier now than ever--basking in the glory of the Savior he sought to serve so diligently. Thanks, Dr. Witherington, for your thoughts!

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Mike, that does help some. Hopefully I can dig up a bit more. Let's just say I see some appalling behavior in a discussion thread and the double standard makes me sick. Sounds like my new post is around the corner...

Singing Owl said...

Good post, Dr. W. Thank you.

iwilli02 said...

It sounds to me like he was a human being, with all of the misconceptions, misunderstandings, and limitations we all have. It gives me hope...

Rhology said...

Not to pile on you here, Dr. Witherington, but yeah, he was no Reformed Baptist.

But I'll miss him in several different ways, some of them a bit strange.

Philip R. Gons said...

Not to draw attention away from reflecting on the positive contributions of Falwell's life, but I've put some thoughts together analyzing Dr. Witherington's claim that Falwell was Reformed: Was Jerry Falwell Reformed?.

Perhaps this might help to clear up any confusion on the matter. Or perhaps it will call forth evidence of which I'm not aware so that I might be straightened out on the matter.


Saur♥Kraut said...

I'll go with Green's comment (third down) and say DITTOs. And, as far as publicized fundies go, he had his foot in his mouth a lot less than Pat Robertson has.

I have a little story that I'm going to tell tomorrow that has something to do with him.