The election of Jerry Rankin

Tonight I called Joel Gregory, a man whose counsel and friendship have been invaluable to me since I first sought him out in 2001, nearly a decade since his departure from First Baptist Church of Dallas. His book, Too Great a Temptation, was published during my undergraduate days at Baylor University, and I quickly devoured its pages. Soon thereafter, I began collecting every sermon I could find that was preached by Joel, and to my delight I discovered a box of sermon tapes being thrown out at the Criswell College library in the Fall of 1995. It took me several years to meet him in person, but by the time we eventually sat down for a visit I had listened to every sermon he’d ever preached at FBC Dallas, which was no small feat due to the fact that his sermons were not — at the time — available for purchase from the church’s media ministry.

Last October, our church had the privilege of hosting Joel for a day. We sent out letters. We made fliers. Some of my church members who attend Southwestern Seminary distributed them on campus. During the Fall trustee meeting, those fliers were distributed to a few trustees in an effort to discredit me for having a “known adulterer” in my pulpit.

I remember the day that something snapped inside me about Paige Patterson. The day I knew he was no longer my hero. The day I realized he would destroy people and lie about them.

Near the end of my studies at Southeastern Seminary, Patterson preached a sermon series on 1st Samuel. I had already stopped going to chapel by that time, choosing rather to spend my time with my pastoral responsibilities or just relaxing at home with a book. Very soon into Patterson’s series, he preached a sermon on the sex-sick sons of Eli and their sensual slip into sin.

I hate alliteration. Really I do.

After chapel that day, my phone rang. On the other end of the line was a friend of mine from Brazil, a fellow student, who was quite insistent that I get a copy of Patterson’s sermon for that day. Patterson had blasted Joel Gregory, he said, knowing of my friendship with the man. I quickly obtained a copy of the sermon and listened as Patterson proceeded for ten minutes or more to denounce Gregory in the harshest terms possible, using his personal pain as an occasion to illustrate the text regarding Eli’s sons. At one point, Patterson announced the title of Gregory’s book, telling students that he would require its reading if “it didn’t mean putting money in that man’s pocket.” Toward the end of his tirade, Patterson told the chapel audience that Gregory had “in the end” stopped believing the Bible.

I was disgusted. Angry. Frustrated.

Later, when I arrived at Southwestern Seminary, I was informed that Patterson had sent a directive to the Public Relations office that “no coverage” would be given in the alumni news to Joel Gregory.

I couldn’t help but think of Yul Brenner’s portrayal of Pharoah in “The Ten Commandments.”

“Let the name of Moses be stricken from every obelisk…”

Last fall I invited a group of SWBTS students to have lunch with Joel Gregory and me at Pappadeaux’s Seafood Restaurant in Arlington. For nearly two hours we sat around a table and listened as Gregory offered advice about pastoral ministry and preaching. At one point Gregory told the group the same thing he’s told me many times.

“I’m not able to be a pastor any longer,” Joel said. “But I can tell you some pitfalls and give you some pointers to make you better servants of Christ.”

“Lash yourself to the local church,” he told us. “The Kingdom of God is not built on the backs of anything other than the small-membership church.”

With all of this commotion about Patterson’s very clear opposition to Jerry Rankin’s presidency at the IMB, I thought it would be interesting to talk to Joel Gregory about it. So I called him, and we talked for 30 minutes tonight.

Joel Gregory, you’ll remember, was the chairman of the search committee that brought Rankin’s name to the board. At the time of Rankin’s election, Gregory had already resigned from FBC Dallas and was living in a small apartment on the outskirts of Ft. Worth selling cemetary plots. One night, Gregory told me, he received a phonecall from Charles Stanley, Adrian Rogers, and Paige Patterson. All three men were insistent that Gregory blockade Jerry Rankin’s candidacy.

Stanley, Gregory told me, explained that “Jerry Rankin is the most Christ-like man” he’d ever met. “But,” Stanley said, “he’s not one of us.”

It was at that moment that Gregory determined to buck the powers that be and allow Rankin’s name a fair hearing by the committee. When the 1992 convention rolled around, the IMB trustees gathered at Second Baptist Church in Houston, TX, for a closed meeting called for the purpose of electing Jerry Rankin.

The search committee was unanimous, but opposition to the recommendation was mounted.

With the committee members seated on the dais, Houston Judge Paul Pressler stood on the floor and raised opposition to Rankin’s candidacy. Every possible argument was raised. Every possible allowance was made by Gregory to let Pressler continue his speech.

In the end, only seven trustees voted against Jerry Rankin in a roll call vote. Once the vote was taken, Pressler made a motion to make the vote unanimous and report the unanimity to the press.

Rankin ascended to the presidency of the IMB, though his leadership has been frustrated at every turn by some of those who opposed him from the beginning. Joel Gregory retreated to the shadows of denominational life, his ministry and witness repeatedly victimized by rumor-mongering from some of the same men.

I remember the night in Patterson’s class on the Doctrine of the Church, back in the Spring of 2001, when the issue of divorced pastors arose. At a point in his lecture, Patterson spent considerable time addressing the pastoral qualifications of Charles Stanley, whose divorce difficulties had become well-known.

Patterson told us about a “conference call” he had with Stanley and Jerry Vines and a few others. On the call, Patterson explained, they had “agreed” that Charles Stanley could remain as pastor at FBC Atlanta so long as he kissed dating goodbye. I remember wondering who Patterson thought he was to interfere in the autonomy of a local church like that. And then I thought about Patterson’s interference with the IMB, and some things crystallized in my mind.

I think I could live with a Deist version of Paige Patterson, an architect or a clockmaker if you will, who wound up the conservative resurgence and then stepped back and let it run by itself. Instead, Southern Baptists have been left with an unmoved mover, an unseen hand, whose capricious tinkering has left the convention unable to define words like “autonomy,” “priesthood,” “competence,” and “liberty” in ways that our Baptist forbears would recognize.

6 thoughts on “The election of Jerry Rankin

  1. While I am in no way trying to demean the importance of preaching clearly against sin, we who speak the loudest should also remain the most humble in the face of the sin of others. If our own personal sins were trumpeted from the rooftops I’m afraid our comfortable facade of rightness would crumble. Let’s hope that Gregory and his life remain a reminder of both the danger of sin, and of the wonderful grace of our great God.

    Good thoughts Ben.

  2. Please don’t read any personal criticism into what I am saying here, because none is intended. I’m genuinely shocked that that Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines would have assumed the authority to decide whether or not Charles Stanley could remain as pastor after his divorce. But I guess I’m finding it harder to believe that Dr. Patterson would disclose this to a seminary class, especially at a Baptist seminary. I’m assuming those comments are on the record?

    Personally, I think Dr. Rankin’s presence at the IMB is very much needed. The missionaries I know think the world of him.

    I was a student at SWBTS when Dr. Gregory was pastor at Travis Avenue. I absolutely loved his preaching. I heard him again about three years ago. The style is unchanged, but his sermons now have a much different tone, tempered with a lot of experience, heartache and full of a refreshing spirit of repentance and renewal. Where there was once a touch of arrogance, there is now a much fuller understanding of grace.

  3. Very interesting. I was at the TBA pastor’s meeting, and I, too, was very impressed with Dr. Page. Humble. He gave testimony to a personal relationship with Jesus, and he wanted to speak for the gospel and not just against some sin. However, stories like the above cause me to share his “cautious optimism” for our convention. Ben, when I met you last week, you offered lunch sometime. I would like to take you up on that offer.

  4. Dear Dr. Cole,

    I have a very inquisitive mind. It is a failing of mine. This inquisitiveness has caused trouble for me ever since I could remember. I have never been able to take what some would say without questioning what was not being said.

    Indulge me for a moment and I will illustrate how this horrible character trait manifests itself from time to time.

    I read with interest your recent blog entries. It is rife with nefarious trustees who wish to do you vocational harm (perhaps as much as you wish for Dr. Patterson). I wonder if these as yet to be named men are the same men that the local owner of the Bohemian Music store in our city said are out to get him. Men in suits…radios to the ears…waiting to pounce on him/you when he/you least expect it.

    Imagine my surprise when I scroll down to read the September 16 entry and find that you are the savior of SWBTS whom everyone wishes to be seen with. Well, perhaps not everyone, it seems that some wished to do a Nicodemus. They wanted to be with the savior of all things SBC, but not seen with him. I can only assume (and it is an assumption) that they too feared for their vocational calling.

    I wish you and Mr. Burleson the greatest of success on your endeavors of crossing the state of Texas in an “effort to encourage a surge of new blood into our convention’s work.” Without men like you we (as a denomination) are doomed to continue to fall into denominational fundamentalism beyond our ability to recover from.

    I too thank you for your transparency. Enjoy your day.

  5. Joel tells another story about Patterson. He was close to getting fired when he was at Criswell College, and some of those same guys saved his bacon. Joel was the pastor of FBCD. They all came into his office, convinced him to not push for PP’s letter of resignation for a couple of months while they found him another spot.

    A. Rogers was the biggest part of that. The scariest thing for PP is, now that AR is gone, there’s no one to really pull him out of the fire any more. There really isn’t much of a safety net for him.

    Tim Dahl

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