For years I have wondered how certain fundamentalist churchmen could remain so powerful in spite of their shallow, manipulative, arrogant, abusive, and even immoral behavior. In some cases, these men are able to retain a significant following even after being exposed publicly. Often, they are connected with the version of fundamentalism that Jack Hyles once labeled “Southern Baptist Fundamentalism” (see the fourth chapter in his book The Church), and that has more widely been known as Independent Baptist Fundamentalism.
To be clear, I believe that most fundamentalist pastors are humble, gentle shepherds who love the Lord, the Bible, and their people. Nevertheless, Independent Baptist Fundamentalism seems to attract more than its share of ecclesiastical tyrants, manipulators, assassins, and predators. What is it about this movement that leads people to tolerate such leaders?
This question requires more than one answer. No single factor can account for the IBF’s high level of tolerance for bizarre leadership. Over the years, I have noticed several factors that I think contribute to the toleration of abusive leadership. Recently, my reading has emphasized one answer that should perhaps be given greater weight.
This answer comes from the writings of John R. Rice, in whose oeuvre I have recently been immersing myself. To be clear, I do not consider Rice to be an example of the vicious leadership to which I am referring. By all accounts, Rice was humble and generous in his personal relationships, a man of some piety, and a devoted family man. Even his critics have admitted that he was capable of unusual tenderness.
John R. Rice was also a thinking man. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago and at Southwestern Baptist Seminary. His thought was not always deep, but he understood the difference between argument and propaganda. He was capable of reasoning.
Evidently, Rice went through a bit of a transition during his early ministry. After leaving Southern Baptist circles, he was briefly associated with J. Frank Norris. During this period, Rice sometimes engaged in the kind of bumptiousness that has characterized the worst of Independent Baptist Fundamentalism (see his book, What’s Wrong With the Dance?). Eventually, however, he was alienated by Norris’s bad behavior. In response Norris attacked Rice publicly, slandering his theology and character. The experience seems to have softened Rice and taken some of the swagger out of him.
A decade later, however, Rice came across Lewis Sperry Chafer’s book, True Evangelism. Chafer had worked with some of the big-name evangelists at the turn of the century. In True Evangelism he critiqued mass evangelism and stated that modern evangelists had misunderstood their biblical function, their proper message, and the methods that they ought to use.
While Chafer wrote the book in 1911, Rice did not read it until the mid-1940s. When he did read it, he instantly resented it. His first recourse was to appeal directly to the publisher, attempting to have the book withdrawn from the market. Failing in this personal appeal, Rice induced a group of forty-odd evangelists to sign a petition to get the publisher to suppress the book. When that measure also failed, Rice went into print, hoping that when the publishers knew “the feeling of soul-winning Christians all over America . . . they will withdraw the book from circulation” (Sword of the Lord, 21 June 1946). In other words, Rice tried to use his personal influence, and then attempted to arouse public pressure, to stop Chafer’s views from being circulated.
Only when his attempts to censor the book flopped did Rice actually respond to Chafer. The result was a volume entitled The Power of Pentecost (1949). The core of Rice’s argument was that effective evangelism requires a special, post-conversion anointing or infilling of the Holy Spirit, known as the baptism with the Holy Ghost (Acts. 1:5). This baptism with or in the Spirit is not identical to the baptism by the Spirit, which places believers into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Rather, the baptism in the Spirit is an enduement of power for service and especially for soul-winning. It is not interchangeable with either biblical learning or sanctification. It is obtained through obedience, pleading with God, and waiting upon Him. A person who receives this anointing will know it, and so will those who observe his ministry. The mark of a Spirit-anointed evangelist is that he will bear much fruit, which means that he will win many souls. It is even possible for the ministry of a Spirit-anointed evangelist to be attested by miraculous events (as Rice thought his ministry was).
The theological implications of Rice’s view were enormous. He was forced to reject Dispensationalism and to insist that the church includes all saved people. He adopted an inaugurated eschatology, and his cessationism was only of the softest variety. He railed against the “worldly-wise Bible teachers,” such as Dispensationalists who saw Pentecost as a one-time event: “Oh, the dearth, the famine, the spiritual wilderness, the powerlessness resulting from this retreat from the clear Bible teaching of the power of the Holy Spirit!” (p. 89).
The practical effects of Rice’s view were even greater. He deliberately divorced spiritual power from biblical knowledge and from sanctification. Presumably he also disconnected spiritual power from Christian maturity, though his book contains no discussion or definition of maturity. Knowledge, sanctification, and (probably) maturity can be placed on one side, and Spirit-anointed power on the other. The infilling of the Spirit outweighs all the others, for the most important work of the church was winning souls, and the only way that souls would be won was through anointed ministry.
Rice himself did not draw out all of the practical implications of his theory, but they are plain to see. If sanctification is disconnected from enduement with the Spirit’s power, then even an immoral man might be Spirit-anointed. Furthermore, as long as a man is winning souls, then he is doing the thing that most pleases God. His ignorance of the Bible, his immaturity in the faith, and even his sinful conduct can be overlooked. If he has the anointing, then he has the most important qualification for Christian leadership.
It requires only one further step to connect Rice’s theory with the command to “touch not mine anointed” (Ps. 105:15). Once this element is added, a Christian leader becomes virtually invulnerable as long as he is winning souls. He may be arrogant, manipulative, abusive, predatory, and even immoral, but he must not be challenged—at least not as long as people are responding to the invitation. Rice himself recalled instances in which opponents of his ministry were divinely struck dead (p. 183).
I have always wondered why some fundamentalists believe that bad men can be good leaders. John R. Rice may provide part of the answer. By all accounts, he was not a bad man. He was, however, a man who had a bad idea. He taught that bad idea and people believed him. The bad idea has now worked its way out over three generations. The result is a version of fundamentalism that is too willing to tolerate malicious men in its most responsible positions.
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.
Come Unto Me
Christini Rossetti (1830-1894)
Oh, for the time gone by, when thought of Christ
Made His Yoke easy and His Burden light;
When my heart stirred within me at the sight
Of Altar spread for awful Eucharist;
When all my hopes His promises sufficed,
When my Soul watched for Him by day, by night,
When my lamp lightened and my robe was white,
And all seemed loss, except the Pearl unpriced.
Yet, since He calls me still with tender Call,
Since He remembers Whom I half forgot,
I even will run my race and bear my lot:
For Faith the walls of Jericho cast down,
And Hope to whoso runs holds forth a Crown,