Billy Graham and Our Mission to the World

This past week, Billy Graham passed away at age 99. He was probably the most effective evangelist in all of church history. Over his long career he shared the gospel with over 215 million people. He was not a perfect man, but he was an example to Christians and Churches on what it means to have the heart of an evangelist and to be singleminded in our Great Commission to the world.

When Billy Graham first burst on the scene, many ministers struggled to understand his popularity. As a preacher his gifts were average, more or less. Yet his simple “John 3:16” message was drawing crowds by the tens of thousands. Naturally, Graham’s career was made possible by the labors of effective promoters, but there was much more to it than this. Graham’s career followed in the wake of the modernist/fundamentalist controversies, in which modernists solidified their place in the Northern Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. This resulted in an exodus of separatists groups from the mainline churches. This exodus gave birth to a handful of denominations, but also a large amount of congregations resolved to remain independent.

As a generalization, separatist groups fit into two categories. The first category were those that gracefully embraced their outsider status and focused on doctrinal purity (our denomination, the OPC, fit in here). The tendency for doctrinal purists is to talk amongst each other. The danger is that we loose sight of the “world” that remains uninitiated in our parochial concerns.

The second category were those that focused on “reclaiming America for Christ.” Former cultural insiders resented their loss of cultural influence. They nursed this bitterness and allowed it to grow. Some began to be influenced by other outside movements. Some of the loudest voices identified with various fringe conspiracy theories. At times these conspiracy theories were racist, anti immigrant, and anti-Semitic. Some were convinced that FDR’s blue eagle insignia was the Mark of the Beast and that progressives were part of a Communist plot to take over the world and destroy the Christian Church.

Against this backdrop we begin to understand why Graham’s “John 3:16” preaching was refreshing to so many. As a theologically conservative Southern Baptist, Graham demonstrated to doctrinal purists that the supernatural message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is still “the power of God unto salvation.” Graham’s example challenged them to lift up their heads and look out on the world to see that the fields are ripe for harvest. God’s desire is for his gospel to be offered to the wide world. At the same time, Graham’s example was a challenge to the culture warriors. Graham demonstrated that preaching the love of Christ was a more excellent way to influence culture. This way resolutely eschews fear and hatred.

Segregation grieved the evangelist. He sought to desegregate his crusades in 1952 or 1953. But it also grieved him that his audiences were overwhelmingly white. How could he build a bridge into minority communities? Graham invited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to offer the opening prayer at Maddison Square Garden crusade on July 18, 1957. Billy Graham introduced King to the crowd, saying, “A great social revolution is going on in the United States today. Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out of his busy schedule to come and share this service with us tonight.” Although Graham strived to be non-partisan, this was a provocative, political act. It was also a stand made necessary by the Great Commission. Graham was standing up for the theological truth that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek.”

Graham’s personal politics leaned conservative. Graham acknowledged with regret that he allowed his social views to become an unnecessary stumbling block for the gospel. This is the lesson he learned after being burned by his close relationship with president Nixon. Graham confessed, “I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God, then I realized that God had called me to a higher kingdom than America. I have tried to be faithful to my calling as a minister of the Gospel.” (2007). In the same interview Graham elaborated, “I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”

“We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people.” It reminds me of the words of another evangelist, the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23).

15 Theses for Christian Social Doctrine (from Romans 13:1-7)

Romans 13:1-7 is the loadstar passage on government in the New Testament. Yet there is a dearth of deep reflection on this passage among Protestants. Our negligence is illustrated by the lack of any book length expositions in modern times on these seven verses. Below are fifteen theses that I believe can be enlarged and established by Scripture, which theses are rooted in this critical passage.

  1. In Romans 13:1-7, the Apostle Paul is not addressing a particular government, or type of government, but is addressing the essence of human government in general.
  2. God instituted human government in man’s state of innocence; therefore government is a necessary good, and not a necessary evil.
  3. God’s sovereign control extends even over wicked governments.
  4. The civil magistrate is God’s “penultimate” minister, charged with overseeing the temporal affairs of life. God’s civil ministers are essentially different than ministers of the Word in that civil government is an order of common grace, while the church is an order of redemptive grace.
  5. God’s will is that the civil magistrate uphold the common good by promoting justice through wholesome laws. The duties of justice are directed by the principles of the sanctity of life, family and labor.
  6. Justice has negative and positive duties. Positively, justice especially requires defending the defenseless: the poor, feeble, orphan, widow, and alien; protecting them against oppression, robbery and violence.
  7. Negatively, the state is tasked to uphold justice with the “power of the sword.” The external restraint of law and punishment is made necessary because of sin.
  8. Justice in punishment is defined by the principles of proportionality and parsimony and seeks to balance the goals of retribution, restitution and restoration.
  9. Commitment to the sanctity of life includes the obligation to impose capital punishment for those guilty of intentional murder.
  10. The power of the sword includes the obligation of the state to wage just war when the occasion arrises. Just War is defined by the principles articulated by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, which principles have become the common heritage of Protestants and Catholics alike.
  11. Taxes are not “theft” but are necessary to secure both justice and freedom.
  12. Politics and public sector work are honorable callings that calls forth a full time, and lifelong pursuit of excellence. Public service careers are honorable vocations for Christians to pursue.
  13. In the main, Christians owe obedience to civil rulers. Christians ought to be the best citizens. This is no way implies that Christians are to be defenders of the status-quo or reflexively side with privilege and power.
  14. The respect Christians owe to civil rulers requires a certain “anti-partisan” stance. When advocating for just and wholesome laws, we must bear in mind that we are “co-belligerents,” and not allies.
  15. No ministerial authority is absolute. Therefore, duty may require Christians to resist civil authority in specific circumstances; through protest, civil disobedience, and, in the most extreme circumstances, join an effort (under a lesser magistrate) to overthrow a tyrannical government.

The Christian and the Immigrant

Leviticus 19:33-34 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

“People are commanded to cultivate equity toward all without exception. For, if no mention had been made of strangers, the Israelites would have thought that, provided they had not injured any one of their own nation, they had fully discharged their duty; but, when God recommends guests and sojourners to them, just as if they had been their own kindred, they thence understand that equity is to be cultivated constantly and toward all men. Nor is it without cause that God interposes Himself and His protection, lest injury should be done to strangers; for since they have no one who would submit to ill-will in their defense, they are most exposed to the violence and various oppressions of the ungodly, than as if they were under the shelter of domestic securities….”

“He recommends strangers to them on this ground, that the people, who had themselves been sojourners in Egypt, being mindful of their ancient condition, ought to deal more kindly to strangers; for although they were at last oppressed by cruel tyranny, still they were bound to consider their entrance there, vis., that poverty and hunger had driven their forefathers thither, and that they had been received hospitably, when they were in need of aid from others…. Moreover, it must be observed that, in the second passage, they are commanded to love strangers and foreigners as themselves. Hence it appears that the name of neighbour is not confined to our kindred, or such other persons with whom we are nearly connected, but extends to the whole human race; as Christ shews in the person of the Samaritan, who had compassion on an unknown man (Luke 10:30).”

“He confirms the foregoing decree by a reference to the nature of God himself; for the vile and abject condition of those with whom we have to do, causes us to injure them the more wantonly, because they seem to be altogether deserted. But God declares that their unhappy lot is no obstacle to His administering succor to them… In short, God distinguishes Himself from men, who are carried away by outward appearance, to hold the rich in honour, and the poor in contempt; to favour the beautiful or the eloquent, and to despise the unseemly… [it is] an unjust judgment, which diverts us from the cause itself, when our minds are prejudiced by what ought not to be taken into account.” (John Calvin)