On Christmas Eve, Donald M. Brong slipped into the presence of his Lord. He had served in vocational ministry for more than fifty of his ninety-six years. Over the decades he pastored First Baptist Church in Russell, Iowa, and First Baptist Church in Monroe, Iowa, then served as director of the Iowa Regular Baptist Camp and representative for the Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches.
I first met Brong nearly half a century ago. I was around thirteen years old and he, in his forties, seemed ancient to me. It wasn’t just his age (though to a thirteen-year-old anything over thirty qualifies as geriatric). It was his bearing. Donald Brong was a dignified man. He was what the New Testament calls grave. He took life seriously. His manner spoke volumes about the importance of his work. Though he was personally quiet and unassuming, he unconsciously gave the impression that he represented some Great Person. And he did.
Not that he was stuffy or withdrawn. Far from it! He knew how to plan a good week of camp. He was willing to look a gangly teenager in the eye and offer a smile and a greeting. In fact, it seemed as if this little act was part of the important business to which he was called. And it was.
At the time, I did not realize that he was teaching me how to be a gentleman. As a fundamentalist leader, he was a strong man who took strong stands on important issues, but he was also a model of decency, kindness, and decorum. He was iron and velvet, stone and clear water, truth and grace. He wasn’t a man who told you how to behave. He showed you. He was a model of strength under control. Those of us who watched him may not always live up to his pattern, but the fault is ours and not his.
His teaching by example also extended to matters of Baptist polity. While training to be a minister, I heard many lectures on the centrality of the local church, but the most important lessons came from watching Don Brong in action. I remember sitting in an ordination council where he was asked to pray because he was the “head of the association.” After rising he paused to say, “Brethren, I am not the head of the association. I am the feet of the association.” I’ve never forgotten that lesson.
After I graduated from seminary in Colorado, I sent a copy of my resume to the offices of the Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches. I was a nobody, and I wondered whether Brong would even circulate my name among pastorless churches. I need not have wondered. After I was called to a fellowshipping Regular Baptist church, I learned what his procedure was: he circulated all the resumes that he received to all the churches that were seeking pastors.
This procedure did not satisfy the deacons in one particular church. They asked Brong to tell them whom they should (or at least shouldn’t) call to be their pastor. He not only refused, but also gave the deacons a bit of a lecture about the importance of local churches not looking to officials to do their work for them.
I came to realize that this procedure was a deliberate strategy. Brong was determined that the office of association representative would not become a fulcrum for political power among the churches. He recognized that the person who controls the flow of names to pulpit committees can eventually control pastors, and, through them, the churches. He flatly refused to play that game. He had seen conventionism at work and he wanted no part of it. Because he believed that churches, not representatives, are the pillar and ground of the truth, and because he knew how power tends to centralize, he worked hard to keep that kind of power out of the association offices and in the churches—even when some church members wished that he would do otherwise.
I’m not suggesting that Brong’s way is the only right way to help churches find pastors. Other good men are more selective, and that is not bad. But Brong’s approach impressed me so powerfully that I did my best to copy it when I became the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.
Donald Brong exhibited a rare combination of competence, integrity, and commitment to ideals. People recognized his giftedness and his character, and they trusted him. He served the Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches for many years, and he also became a key leader in the larger General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. The fit was a good one, since Brong modeled the GARBC commitment to both primary and secondary separatism.
As a fundamentalist leader, he was a personal encouragement to me. When the GARBC was debating separation back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I went to Brong for counsel. It seemed to me that the more separatistic group was the one that most faithfully represented the historic principles of Regular Baptists. I had done some writing to that effect, and I had received a good bit of negative reaction. As a young man, I was unsure how to receive the criticism of pastors who were older and more experienced than I. So I sought Brong out and laid out my concerns, to which he listened patiently. Finally I asked him bluntly, “Have I become too extreme?”
He immediately responded, “Brother Bauder, you are not the extreme one here.” He then took time to encourage me in my convictions. I learned that he loved to hear pastors—especially young pastors—defend the truth with energy.
Occasionally somebody wants to know who my fundamentalist heroes have been. I rarely answer that question, partly because the men are largely unknown, and partly because they are more models than heroes. But among those models, one of the most important was Donald Brong. He was the kind of fundamentalist I would still like to be. I am grateful for his example, his influence, and his labor for the Lord. His name will not be remembered by many, but he has left an important legacy.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Firm As The Earth
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Firm as the earth thy gospel stands,
My Lord, my hope, my trust;
If I am found in Jesus’ hands,
My soul can ne’er be lost.
His honor is engaged to save
The meanest of his sheep;
All that his heav’nly Father gave
His hands securely keep.
Nor death nor hell shall e’er remove
His favorites from his breast;
In the dear bosom of his love
They must for ever rest.