Jerry Falwell: A Reflection by John Beeson
I’ve been working my way through Preaching with Power, a compilation of articles published in Preaching Today over the past decade or so. Quite a motley crew is represented in the book: from Bryan Chappel to TD Jakes, to John MacArthur, to Brian McLaren to Jerry Falwell.
Most of the preachers in the book aren’t the kind of guys that I would generally gravitate toward, but I’ve found the read interesting and helpful nonetheless. It just so happened that I read Jerry Falwell’s chapter just days after the evangelical giant passed away. For me, Falwell certainly falls in the camp of leaders whose advice I would typically avoid.
But I was engrossed by his chapter. In the two posts that follow I will discuss Falwell’s approach to politics and Christianity’s prophetic voice. Let me first reflect on two things Falwell has modeled that I would do well in heeding.
First, Falwell exhibited remarkable loyalty. At 22, Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia While many of those who rose with him shifted to televangelism or working the preaching circuit, Falwell faithfully served his congregation for over 50 years. That is to be commended and imitated. In a day and age of growing transience, the importance of stability of leadership in the local church is even more important. and remained there until his death.
Second, Falwell exhibited a remarkable productivity and adaptability. Born in 1933, Falwell never seemed out of his element despite the technological advances and changes to the various mediums of preaching and pasturing. Until his death Falwell basically worked nonstop, usually out of his plane as he flew from engagement to engagement. Falwell was unbelievably productive and had unrelenting enthusiasm and adaptability.
It took until the week of his death for me to appreciate him, but better late than never. Thank you for your example, Jerry.
Politics, Christianity, and Jerry
As most know, Jerry Falwell, along with a number of others including Pat Robertson and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker rose to prominence in the public eye in the late 70s and stayed there throughout the 80s. It was in 1979 that Falwell helped create the Moral Majority, the Christian organization that basically got Reagan elected and dominated the political scene in the 80s.
Falwell says that when he went to seminary, it was the unwritten rule that you don’t preach politics from the pulpit and that he just accepted it. Over time, Falwell rejected this, and has actually molded his ministry around politics. His sermons are often crafted around pressing political issues of the day.
As a pastor now, I find that the right balance of politics can be very difficult to maintain. I receive half a dozen mailings a week from different Christian political organizations that all want access to our church. Frequently I am sympathetic with their cause, and yet I’ve yet to allow access. I don’t want to turn the temple into the courtroom and I don’t want to ever place a stumbling block in front of the gospel message.
On the other hand, I do believe that the gospel message, while fundamentally a spiritual message is holistic, and thus is also a political message. For the church to not to take up the cause of the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned is for the church to neglect its gospel call.
My own tenuous resolution is to allow the text to dictate the sermon through expository preaching while including prayers for the nation and the world in almost every service during our time for Congregational prayer. My hope is that this models for the congregation a spiritual intentionality about politics without clouding the gospel with a political agenda.
A Prophetic Voice
In Preaching with Power, the interviewer asks Jerry Falwell, what he means that he is a “salt and light preacher.” Falwell responds: “I believe that God has called me to be both salt of the earth and light of the world. Light of the world—evangelism, soul winning, world evangelization church planter. Salt of the earth—confronting the culture, speaking out against the ills of society that need a prophetic voice.”
Prophecy is the area I think that our evangelical predecessors got it most wrong. The Moral Majority’s agenda time and time again was to act as the prophetic voice of accusation against the society. But this displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the role of a prophet is.
In the Old Testament 99% of the time the role of the prophet was to call the nation of Israel to repentance. Our evangelical predecessors took this and translated this to the United States, but there is a fundamental misapplication in doing this. The United States is not a theocracy. The United States is not Israel. The church is. Our prophetic call, therefore, should be to the church, not to our nation.
Falwell’s fundamental misunderstanding of being “light and salt” is displayed when he says that God has called “me” to be salt and light. No, Jerry. God called the church to be salt and light. And neither salt nor light are metaphorical equivalents to prophetic judgment. They are metaphors for salvation (preservation) and spiritual awakening (light).
Our call to the nation should be evangelical in nature: the gospel call to discipleship and salvation. Our prophetic call should be saved for the church: it is the church that should be reprimanded about how we have handled sexual issues; the church should be the one that is reprimanded about our sloth and greed.
May we, the church, be salt and light to our nation and world.