The "Old" Highland Park Baptist Church: Death in the Pot
Enlarged May 23, 2011 (first published April 12, 2011) (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, firstname.lastname@example.org; for instructions about subscribing and unsubscribing or changing addresses, see the information paragraph at the end of the article) -
Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is the home of Tennessee Temple University.
Beginning in 1942, the church was pastored for four decades by Lee Roberson, and under his direction the church left the Southern Baptist Convention (or was kicked out, depending on who is telling the story), learned to support missionaries directly, and became a real spiritual powerhouse for world evangelism.
Founded in 1946 as an educational arm of the church, Tennessee Temple began as a simple Bible School for the training of preachers and Christian workers. As the years passed, a college and seminary were added and the emphasis changed to Christian education in general. (John R. Rice was vice-president of the seminary for its first decade.)
World War II had just ended and through funding from the GI bill veterans flocked to Tennessee Temple for Bible training, 184 students right off that bat. At one point there were 1,400 married students enrolled. Tennessee Temple was the largest Independent Baptist school well into the 1970s.
My wife and I were students at Temple in its heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s. In those days there were over 3,000 students in the Bible school, college and seminary (2,200 in the dorms) and the average Sunday School attendance at the main church (not counting the chapels) was about 4,500. The congregation was giving half of its income to church planting and world missions. Its annual missions conferences typically hosted 80-100 missionaries. The church’s own faith missions giving contributed to the support of more than 560 missionaries.
Lee Roberson was the founder of the Southwide Baptist Fellowship, a fellowship of Independent Baptist preachers which had 3,000 members at its peak. He also was instrumental in the founding of Baptist International Missions International (BIMI), the largest Independent Baptist faith-promise missions board. By the end of Dr. Roberson’s life there were over 1,000 BIMI missionaries in 90 countries, with support coming from 8,500 churches.
Dr. Roberson was a visionary and a real leader but he had an air of quiet humility and was not a self-promoter. He didn’t like to have things named after him. He was courageous and seemed to fear God more than man. He was a come-outer and a warrior, and I greatly respect that. His message was simplistic but effective at a certain level: Get saved, surrender to Christ, and go right down the line serving and obeying Him. You won’t go far wrong following that counsel, though we will deal with the lack of biblical depth later in this report.
He was a man of real Christian character. J.R. Faulkner, who knew him as well as any man, said: “He was a man of his word--great character, great integrity. He lived what he preached” (James Wigton, Lee Roberson: Always about His Father’s Business, 2010, p. 117). He believed in dying to self, in being filled with the Spirit. He had a love for God and an unquenchable burden for souls. He was a man of prayer, a man who depended upon the Lord rather than on the arm of flesh. He lived frugally and didn’t take a large salary and refused to take his pay check until the missionary support was all paid. There was never a hint of moral or financial scandal in his life and ministry. He was exceedingly careful about his relationship with women. There was a large mirror between his office and his secretary’s office, and he refused ever to be alone with a woman other than his wife. He didn’t give personal gifts to his female secretaries. He said that even if he saw his secretary walking in a driving rainstorm he would not have stopped to pick her up lest someone see it and get the wrong idea.
And I am convinced that this is the reason why Tennessee Temple graduates from his era have not been known for moral scandals as the graduates of some other IBaptist schools have. It has happened, but it has been rare.
The daily chapels and annual conferences featured some of the best preachers from across America, and there was real life-changing power in the services.
The music was sacred and glorious. I have never heard more thrilling congregational singing than I heard at Highland Park Baptist Church in those days. Every Sunday they sang “Behold He Comes” in harmony and what a joy it was! “Behold He comes ... and every eye shall see Him.” One of the fundamental themes then was the imminent return of Christ, and this is very biblical and very important. Dr. J.R. Faulkner was not a dynamic song leader but he was cheerful, enthusiastic, and effective, and he brought out the best from the choir and congregation. There was absolutely nothing contemporary in style about the music. Everything was built on a solid sacred foundation that sounded nothing like the world’s pop music. The rejection of CCM in those days was not just lip service. The special music groups sang sacred music in a sacred manner. There was plenty of talent, but as I recall the groups did not put on “performances.” The presentation was not showy or fleshly or even flashy.
Dr. Roberson was trained in music and he understood the power of something as seemingly inoffensive as a chord progression. Consider the following event that happened at Temple in the early 1980s:
“When two Tennessee Temple students tried something new in chapel one day--transitioning their song with a diminished chord, bringing in a seventh chord, Roberson got right up in front of the student body and said, 'No, no. Always finish out your chords. Don't leave it hanging, young men.' They never did that again!" (James Wigton, Lee Roberson, p 178).
This is very instructive in light of the way that unresolving chord progressions predominate in today’s contemporary worship music. It creates an mystical, relativistic atmosphere.
Dress standards and dating standards and such were high, and it wasn’t any sort of “legalism” or “Phariseeism.” That is a slanderous accusation made by contemporary world lovers. Even Christian rockers and emergents have standards. I don’t know of one such church that would allow a woman to sing in the praise team or teach a Sunday School class in a bikini. No, they draw lines, too, and for them to call our lines legalism is blatant hypocrisy. It is not legalism for blood-washed, grace-saved churches to prayerfully apply God’s Word (e.g. 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 5:11; Titus 2:11-12; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17) to issues of practical Christian living. That’s exactly what Highland Park tried to do in those days.
It was not a matter of an emphasis on mere externals. A heart for God and seeking after true godliness was emphasized. The atmosphere at the church and school was happy and spiritual.
There was a godly vision to be caught. It was a place where multitudes of lives were changed to the glory of Christ, and hundreds of churches were planted as a result of what was “caught” at Highland Park Baptist Church in those days. One graduate said, “During my tenure at TTU, I believe that it was truly a Biblically conservative, separated institution of higher learning, that strove to pass along godly principles for life and ministry.” I agree with that.
Lee Roberson said: “In my first year at the Highland Park Baptist Church, we had one missionary. The blessings of God came down upon us, and many were saved. As we kept on preaching the Gospel at home, we were driven to a deeper concern for the rest of the world. So we began putting on missionaries with support of them through the regular offerings of the church and by special offerings on Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. We saw scores of our young people volunteer for missionary work. During my fortieth year at Highland Park , we were giving support to 565 missionaries in all parts of the world. Fifty percent of the church’s offerings went to home and foreign missions. Every need of the church was met, and every building was paid for. At home we were seeing the salvation of hundreds. People were happy and the blessings of God were upon us. Obey God! Don’t question. Don’t procrastinate! Don’t quibble! Obey God! Obedience brings manifold blessings.”
Though some of the teachers were mediocre at best, which will always be the case in a large Bible-training institution, some were excellent. Bruce Lackey, who was the Dean of the Bible School, was one of these. Sitting in his Bible classes was like tucking into a prime rib meal. I took practically everything he had to offer. His teaching had doctrinal and spiritual depth, but it also had that element of godly simplicity that Paul referred to in 2 Corinthians 11. I really loved Bruce Lackey, and I loved him because he was a Christ-centered Bible Man. He was an all caps Bible Man. He helped my wife and I greatly in our Christian lives. He performed our wedding in 1976, and he continued to help me after I went to the mission field. He and David Otis Fuller died the same year, in 1988.
Though Tennessee Temple was segregated in its early days (public schools in my hometown in Florida were segregated until after I graduated from high school in 1967), which was wrong, Dr. Roberson had a burden for training black preachers and Highland Park established Zion College in 1949 for that purpose.
THE DRAMATIC CHANGE
By the late 1980s Highland Park and Tennessee Temple were experiencing dramatic changes.
There was a great influence from Liberty University and Word of Life, both of which have long been in the New Evangelical orb. Dr. Roberson regularly spoke at Word of Life in his later years. The church used Word of Life directors as conference and chapel speakers. Danny Lovett came from Liberty in 2005 to head up the school. (He and David Bouler are listed as co-pastors of Highland Park today.)
In 1989, Jerry Huffman reported that Tennessee Temple groups used “soft rock” at the Southwide Baptist Fellowship that year (Calvary Contender, Oct. 15, 1989).
By 2005 Highland Park was rocking out, no holds barred. In April of that year the church and school hosted a Christian rock concert featuring Bebo Norman, Fernando Ortega, and Sara Groves. It was held in Highland Park’s main auditorium. All three of these mainstream CCM musicians are ecumenical. Ortega, for example, has appeared at Billy Graham Crusades and Promise Keepers conferences. Bebo Norman has toured with Amy Grant.
Marty Tate, pastor of Peaceful Valley Baptist Church in Rising Fawn, Georgia, and two other preachers (one a TTU alumnus of the late ‘60s) stood on the sidewalk and preached against rock music and handed out tracts exposing the dangers of CCM. He told me that many of the people they encountered “were very haughty and condemning of us, all the while accusing us of being judgmental, legalistic, and all the usual stuff.”
This is a dramatic change from the philosophy and attitude that prevailed in this same place just 20 years earlier. The “new” Temple crowd criticizes the “old” Temple crowd, but of course they “haven’t changed.” And of course, they don’t believe it is right to criticize, unless you are criticizing some old extreme fundamentalist, then it is no holds barred, let ‘er rip.
In April 2006, the school’s College Days, when prospective students visit the campus, featured two Christian rockers, Toddiefunk and the Electric Church and Warren Barfield. Toddiefunk is the bass player for Toby Mac, formerly with DC Talk. Electric Church’s album Ready or Not featured “Holy Ghost Thang,” “Dance Floor,” “Naked,” and “Crazay.”
The October 29, 2005, issue of the Chattanooga Times Free Press featured a picture of Tennessee Temple University students “worshipping” to contemporary rock music during a Wednesday evening service. The accompanying article said: “Beneath the 90-year-old stained glass at St. Andrews Center, rock music blares as worshippers in jeans and T-shirts fill the sanctuary. The weekly Wednesday night church service has all the markings of traditional worship--music, preaching and praying. But the choir and organ have been replaced with drums and an electric guitar. ‘Each generation has different styles of music, and what churches have to realize is that we’ve got to meet those younger generations’ needs,’ said Dr. Danny Lovett, who preaches at the service and is president of Tennessee Temple University.”
Lovett had recently come to Temple from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, which was already New Evangelical to the core. Billy Graham, the Prince of New Evangelicalism, had spoken at Liberty and was praised by Falwell for his “faithful ministry.” Liberty hosted conferences for the radically ecumenical Promise Keepers (at a time when one of the PK directors was a Roman Catholic) as well as for Southern Baptist church growth guru Rick Warren, an enthusiastic promoter of many New Age gurus. (See “Rick Warren Launches New Age Health Care Program,” “Billy Graham’s Sad Disobedience,” and “Jerry Falwell: The Billy Graham of Independent Baptists” at the Way of Life web site.)
Here we can see Dr. Roberson’s soft-separatism and his positive, non-critical philosophy coming home to roost, as we will see later in this report. He refused to “criticize” the SBC, Graham, or Falwell and refused to distance himself properly from them, so it is little surprise that they eventually took over his former ministry, and brought all of their baggage with them.
Temple was one of the sponsors of the “Winter Jam Tour 2007,” which featured Christian rockers such as Jeremy Camp, Steven Curtis Chapman, Sanctus Real, and Hawk Nelson. Sanctus Real lead guitarist Chris Rohman says: “On the tours we’ve been lucky to be part of, the kids are really into the rockin’ songs ... every night on that tour kids were just screaming along to every word of every song.” Can you imagine the apostle Paul promoting this type of worldly thing? Matt Hammitt of Sanctus Real participated in the 2003 tour of the !Hero rock opera, which depicts Jesus as a cool black man. In !Hero, the Last Supper is a barbecue party and ‘Jesus’ is crucified on a city street sign. Sanctus Real and Steven Curtis Chapman played a concert in 2003 at St. Mary Seminary sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. Retired Catholic bishop Anthony Pilla celebrated the Mass at the event. Chapman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that it’s “a good thing” that “the Catholic Church is showing a greater openness to contemporary Christian music” (Plain Dealer, Aug. 7, 2006).
By 2008, Highland Park Baptist Church had joined the Southern Baptist Convention.
I believe it was that year that Temple had emerging church leader Dallas Willard for the Spring Lecture Series. Willard believes that “it is possible for someone who does not know Jesus to be saved” (“Apologetics in Action, “Cutting Edge magazine, Winter 2001). He rejects the infallible inspiration of Scripture, saying, “Jesus and his words have never belonged to the categories of dogma or law, and to read them as if they did is simply to miss the point” (The Divine Conspiracy, p. xiii). Willard is confused about salvation. He says, “Why is it that we look upon salvation as a moment that began our religious life instead of the daily life we receive from God” (The Spirit of the Disciplines). He rejects the gospel of Christ’s blood atonement (The Divine Conspiracy, pp. 44, 49). In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, which promotes Roman Catholic-style contemplative mysticism, Willard includes the endorsement of Sue Monk Kidd, a New Age “goddess.” (See “From Southern Baptist to Goddess Worship” at the Way of Life web site.)
Some Temple grads wrote to the school to protest Willard’s appearance and to document their concerns, but of course they were ignored as mere “critics.”
Pastor Terry Coomer, who attended Temple in the 1970s, told me on August 10, 2010: “The last time I was through Chattanooga, I went into the old auditorium and there was a large drum set and part of it was painted black. There was a mural of Dr. Roberson and a church service in the old building blown up on the outside wall. On the other side of the wall were posters of a Christian rock concert to be held there. People dressed in wild clothes and wild hair, etc. The book store was filled with the same thing.”
The school’s dress code has been significantly downgraded, and students are no longer required to give a account of their salvation when applying to attend.
Numbers-wise, the church and school are just shadows of what they were.
The year Highland Park joined the SBC, they remodeled the main auditorium to downsize it because of the massive loss of attendees. When I visited there on a Sunday morning in about 2000, it appeared that the auditorium was only about one-tenth full, which was a very sad sight for someone who attended during its glory days. After installing a coffee-cafe, a bookstore, and a grand lobby where seating once existed, the 5,700-seat auditorium, which was completed in 1981 and which used to be full every Sunday, now seats 2,000, and even that is much too large for the crowds. But hey, they serve a good cup of coffee at the cafe and you can get the latest titles from the pens of prominent New Evangelical authors at the bookstore and the praise band can crank out a rockin’ number.
As for the college and seminary, there are just a few hundred students now and recently the church voted to shut down the high school.
DEATH IN THE POT
Though the great changes occurred under Don Jennings and (to a larger degree) under David Bouler, in reality, there was death in the pot at Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple all along for those who had eyes to see.
I will mention several of these.
I am sure there were many behind-the-scenes factors at play at some level, such as what was happening with the deacons, some sexual scandals, low salaries for teachers, etc., but I believe the following factors get to the heart of the changes and should be warnings to others.
The same errors are alive and well in many other Independent Baptist churches and schools and they will produce the same fruit they did at Highland Park.
Insanity has been defined as trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.
1. Soft separatism
The Bible warns repeatedly about the importance of separation from wrong associations. “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple professed to believe in separation, but it was a soft separation. They were weak on associations all along. Speakers included prominent Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, at least one Methodist, and New Evangelicals such as Warren Wiersbe, Stephen Olford, and Jack Wyrtzen.
I believe that Dr. Wiersbe spoke every year I was there. Everyone loved his preaching. It had biblical depth (which was not true for a lot of the story-telling preachers that came through). He was gracious, smiled a lot, shared practical tips from his extensive pastoring experience. What could possibly be wrong? The thing that was wrong (and we weren’t even given a clue about it by the leaders at Temple in those days) was his total commitment to the loosey-goosey, pacifistic New Evangelical philosophy. Highland Park was reputed to believe in biblical separation, but Wiersbe was an enemy of separation.
After I was on the mission field in the early 1980s I began to research contemporary Christianity for myself. I was learning firsthand about the destructive fruit of New Evangelicalism in some personal dealings with organizations such as Campus Crusade, Youth for Christ, and the Bible Society. One of the publications I perused in that research was Christianity Today. I was shocked by the lack of spiritual conviction and the off-handed promotion of heresies such as the myth of “evangelical Catholics,” the defense of heretic Robert Schuller’s self-esteem theology, praise for Neo-Orthodox theologians, praise for the pope, etc. For example, the April 6, 1998, issue of Christianity Today contained a full-page ad for “Six Inspirational Video Sets,” including one featuring Pope John Paul II.
I was amazed one day to see in the front of Christianity Today that Warren Wiersbe was an Advisory Editor. How could this be, I thought to myself? And I immediately wrote and asked him how he could be associated with such a deeply compromised publication. In a brief reply, Wiersbe said, “Frankly, some of us need to take off our gloves and pick up a towel.” In other words, he advised me to stop worrying so much about doctrinal purity, stop taking a separatist stance, and to focus rather on a more positive approach to Christianity. As a young missionary, I considered his advice before the Lord in light of God’s Word and decided that Dr. Wiersbe was advising me contrary to the will of God. The Lord has instructed me to stand for doctrinal purity and to rebuke error (Jude 3; 2 Tim. 4:2; etc.), and I determined to continue to do that regardless of the unscriptural counsel of popular evangelical leaders. In addition to his association with Christianity Today, Dr. Wiersbe has worked with Youth for Christ (which has Roman Catholic personnel), been a board member of the radically ecumenical National Religious Broadcasters, preached at Willow Creek Community Church (where “there is no fire and brimstone here”), etc.
Stephen Olford, another man who spoke at Highland Park Baptist Church, is another prominent New Evangelical compromiser who despises biblical separation. After Olford delivered a strong-sounding sermon on the authority of the Bible at Billy Graham’s Amsterdam conference for itinerant evangelists in 1986, Foundation magazine reporter Dennis Costella asked the following question in a recorded interview: “Dr. Olford, you emphasized in your message the dangers of liberalism and how it could ruin the evangelist and his ministry. What is this conference doing to instruct the evangelist as to how to identify liberalism and the liberal so that upon his return home he will be able to avoid the same?” Olson reprovingly replied: “That’s the wrong spirit—AVOID the liberal! I love to be with liberals, especially if they are willing to be taught, much more than with hard-boiled fundamentalists who have all the answers… Evangelicals should seek to build bridges” (Foundation, Jul.-Aug. 1986).
This reminds me that New Evangelicals can sound very bold and strong for the faith at times. They will preach against error in a general manner; but in practice, they reject the biblical solution to the problem of error, which is separation from it. This philosophy of spiritual neutrality is the very heart of New Evangelicalism, and it is even right now permeating large segments of the fundamental Baptist movement.
Many other examples of this type of wrong associations could be given.
In the 1980s I wrote to Don Jennings after he became pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church. As a young missionary in the thick of the battle, I was concerned about things I was learning about New Evangelicalism and I wanted to know where Jennings stood. I asked him if he was opposed to New Evangelicalism. He asked me to define this, so I replied that I was referring to its standard historical definition as stated by men such as Harold Ockenga -- the chief characteristic being “a repudiation of separatism.” I told Dr. Jennings that I was referring to men such as Billy Graham and Charles Swindoll and institutions such as Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Seminary and Wheaton College and publications such as Christianity Today. He thanked me for the clarification and said that he was definitely opposed to New Evangelicalism under that definition. I then asked him why the church and school invited New Evangelicals such as Warren Wiersbe as speakers. I reminded Jennings that Wiersbe was affiliated with Christianity Today, a magazine he had labeled New Evangelical. Jennings’ demeanor changed at that point, and he said that not only had he invited Wiersbe to speak again at Highland Park that year but that he himself was scheduled to speak at Founder’s Week at Moody, one of the very schools that previously he had said he stood against!
I learned a lot in those days about the deceitful character of compromise. Men can take a very bold-sounding stand for the truth when their actions aren’t taken into consideration and when it doesn’t cost them anything.
The weakness in association and the softness in separation was the most prominent reason for the spiritual downfall of Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple. (Of course, the present regime doesn’t agree that there has been a downfall; they are convinced that their current philosophy is much advanced over the old “legalism.”)
It should come as no surprise that an institution that plays footsy with Southern Baptists and New Evangelicals, rather than distancing itself from them and issuing plain warnings about them, would eventually become thoroughly New Evangelical and be perfectly comfortable joining the Convention.
The soft stance on separatism and the wrong associations and lack of clear teaching and warning about error were the reason why the church’s deacons were not prepared to choose a pastor to replace Dr. Roberson. No one there was properly educated about New Evangelicalism and some other important issues pertaining to the isms and schisms of our day, and the association with New Evangelicals and Southern Baptists was already established. So it is no surprise that the deacons chose a soft fundamentalist followed by an out-and-out New Evangelical to replace Dr. Roberson.
The fact that the church Dr. Roberson pastored for 40 years is Southern Baptist today and the fact that his funeral was preached by a man from a Southern Baptist-approved college (Paul Dixon, president of Cedarville University) and the fact that his authorized biography was written by a Southern Baptist pastor is the fruit of his soft separatism and his very weak stand toward the great spiritual/doctrinal/moral compromise within the Convention (compromise which is worse today than ever in many ways).
“Roberson never fought against Southern Baptists, nor did he openly criticize them. ... Dr. Fred Afman, for many years a Tennessee Temple professor [said], ‘I don’t think he wanted to pull out.’ ... Through the years Roberson continued to welcome conservative Southern Baptist preaches to his pulpit--men such as his mentor R.G. Lee. ... J. Harold Smith. To the end of his life, Roberson would on occasion preach for a Southern Baptist church or in a conference on the same platform with Southern Baptist preachers. A number of Tennessee Temple graduates became Southern Baptist preachers. ... in 2002, Baptist pastor Randy Ray told me, ‘To this day, Dr. Roberson has never broken with Southern Baptists. To this day, Southern Baptist churches still contact him for pastors and references.’ ... He didn’t spend his time fighting. ... In 1996, Lee Roberson preached for Pastor Tom Messer at Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida ... Roberson publicly offered the younger Messer advice. Roberson publicly said that in retrospect he thought it had been a mistake to leave the SBC. ... Two years before he died Lee Roberson accepted an invitation from Bailey Smith to preach at a Southern Baptist meeting” (Wigton, Lee Roberson, pp. 227, 228, 232, 242).
Intimately associated with proper and effective biblical separation is marking and reproving error and compromise. We are both to “mark” and to “avoid” (Romans 16:17).
Highland Park Baptist Church did not practice either aspects in an effective manner.
In fact, one of the prevailing principles was the New Evangelical philosophy of positivism. Everything was kept on a positive, upbeat note. Dr. Roberson’s biographer observes:
"Roberson developed a focus that controlled his ministry. 'I kept my mind and ministry settled -- winning people to Christ, getting people to grow in grace,' he said. 'Stay out of controversy in the pulpit--stay out of it and stay on the main line. I think that helped me a lot. I tried to avoid personalities and stay on the main line: preaching the gospel, emphasis on winning people to Christ, emphasis on developing the spiritual life, dying to self, the fullness of the Spirit, the second coming--kept on the positive side, kept negatives away from the people.’ ... Negativism and criticism simply were not a part of Lee Roberson’s life" (Wigton, pp. 78, 243).
Typically, warnings were given only in generalities. Leading compromisers such as Jerry Falwell or James Dobson or Bill Bright or even Billy Graham were never identified by name. The powers that be at Highland Park and Tennessee Temple in those days were definitely not fighting fundamentalists.
“Later when Billy Graham’s ecumenical cooperation became a controversial issue among fundamentalists, Lee Roberson quietly backed out of such cooperation. ‘Dr. Roberson never said a critical word about it,’ said Faulkner. ‘ If he had anything to say, it was always positive. That was his position on all issues. He just never had a critical word about anything. ... He won’t talk about the brethren. You never heard him in the pulpit here call anyone names.’ ... Ed Johnson, always loyal to Dr. Roberson said, ‘He avoided controversy. We were not exposed to the rise of the neo-evangelicalism in my days at Temple. Doc stayed away from that controversy.’ ...
“When it became common for some independent Baptists to criticize independent Baptist leaders such as Jerry Falwell or evangelist Tim Lee for preaching for Southern Baptists or other non-independent Baptist ministries, Roberson never wavered in his support of such men. He felt that men like Falwell and Lee had a heart for the Lord and for souls, and that was all that mattered to him” (Wigton, pp. 240, 241).
It has been said that no position can be maintained without constant campaigning, and I am convinced that this is one of the reasons why Highland Park is a rock & roll Southern Baptist institution today. In the 1970s and 1980s, the church claimed to be fundamentalist and professed not to be New Evangelical, but there was no real campaigning for separatism and against New Evangelicalism.
I learned many good things at Temple and I thank the Lord for it, but the problem resided more in what I didn’t learn. This is the New Evangelical error. It is not the heresy that is taught that is the problem; it is the truth that is neglected.
Further, it was not uncommon that underhanded pot shots were taken against fighting fundamentalists and those men who did issue plain warnings. Of course, they didn’t name the names of these men, but everyone knew who they were talking about and everyone got the message.
Positivism is death in the pot of any church or school that wants to maintain a biblical position, because the Bible is most assuredly filled up with a lot of very “negative” stuff, and the plainest warning against sin, error, and compromise is a major characteristic of the New Testament writings! Paul often named names, and he said, “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Philippians 3:17).
3. Independent Baptist Unityism
Another element of the death in the pot at the “old” Highland Park Baptist Church was the philosophy of Independent Baptist Unityism. This goes hand in glove with the danger of wrong associations, the softness on separatism, and the philosophy of positivism.
The idea, basically, is that if it is Independent Baptist it is within the framework of what is allowed. When it comes to associations and separation, issues are categorized as “essential” and “non-essential,” and the non-essentials are those things about which Independent Baptists disagree. The list has grown longer every decade.
It is the “in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity” approach.
This dictum has been an integral philosophy of New Evangelicalism from its inception, and an IB preacher who buys into it is well on the way to a full-blown New Evangelical position, and many are well along this path. (See “In Essentials Unity” at the Way of Life web site.)
There is no support in the Bible for the “in non-essentials liberty” doctrine. The Lord Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to teach converts “to observe ALL things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:20). You can’t training God’s people to observe all things if you downplay some things for the sake of having a broader conference or whatever! What you do in that type of thing will speak more loudly than what you say.
The apostle Paul reminded the elders at Ephesus that the reason he was free from the blood of all men was that he had preached the WHOLE counsel of God (Acts 20:27). The more plainly you preach the whole counsel of God, the less likely it will be that you will join hands in ministry with those who hold different doctrine.
Paul instructed Timothy to keep the truth “without SPOT, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:14). A spot is a small, seemingly insignificant thing. That particular epistle contains commandments about such things as the woman’s role in ministry, which is widely considered a “non-essential” today. Paul taught Timothy to have an entirely different approach toward such teachings.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul said to the church at Corinth, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in ALL things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” This passage deals with hair length and the Lord’s Supper, which are widely considered to be “non-essentials” today, yet Paul praised the church for remembering him in all things.
We know that not all doctrine has the same significance and weight, but none of it is “non-essential” in any sense.
IBaptist Unityism is the working philosophy at Crown College and West Coast today, and it was the working philosophy at Tennessee Temple in the 1970s and 1980s. These schools will never issue a clear public warning about the error of fellow Independent Baptist preachers. It’s considered off limits.
It doesn’t matter that Independent Baptists today include despisers of separatism, despisers of dress standards, Southern Baptist wanna-be’s, Christian rockers, honky-tonk Southern Gospelers, men who slander biblical repentance as “lordship salvation,” modern textual critics, Calvinists, wanna-be Christian hedonists, and wanna-be conservative evangelicals.
As long as they are Independent Baptist we won’t separate from them. We will include them in our Friendship conferences and our Striving Together ventures.
This was definitely one of the elements in the downfall of Highland Park Baptist Church, and it gets back to the danger of wrong associations and the softness on separatism. “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
4. No Criticism
Another key element of the death that was in the pot at Highland Park Baptist Church in the 1970s and 1980s was the no criticism policy.
Dr. Roberson often said, “Critics are a dime a dozen,” and there is plenty of truth to that, but without godly discernment and reproof, sin and error go unchallenged and uncorrected.
A former Temple professor said, “We don’t want anyone around here who is negative and has criticism for the school” (Wigton, p. 99).
I agree that criticism can be wrong and dangerous. I have often said that it is easy to sit in a church and criticize what others are doing, but the first question that needs to be asked is what am I doing to build things up? Churches are frail things and they are hard to build and easy to tear down. A good question to ask is “if the whole church were like me, what would the church be?”
We need to honor God’s men in a spiritual and scriptural fashion and treat them with godly respect and always give them the benefit of the doubt. I preach much on this, because it is very important.
But this is not to say there is no place for proving and reproving.
While it is wrong and carnal to have a critical attitude, which is described in James 3:14-16, and it is wrong to dishonor spiritual authorities in a carnal manner, and it is wrong to be ungracious and unmerciful and hypocritical in one’s judgments, it is scriptural and right and necessary to have a discerning eye toward sin and error.
Further, no man is to be placed above reproof and discipline. God’s Word says we are to “prove ALL things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The Bereans were called noble for exercising spiritual discernment and comparing everything with God’s Word, and that included the apostle Paul himself (Acts 17:11). Paul was referring to pastors when he said, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). Nowhere in the New Testament are we taught to blindly follow any man or institution other than the Lord Jesus Christ. To do so is idolatry.
“Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
“Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand” (2 Corinthians 1:24).
“I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not” (3 John 1:9).
“Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality” (1 Timothy 5:19-21).
“But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me” (Galatians 2:6).
Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple helped lead the way in the promotion of the “no criticism of the man of God” policy which has so deeply permeated the Independent Baptist movement. This is reflected throughout Dr. Roberson’s authorized biography. The hero worship is almost nauseating it is so unscriptural and wrong. He didn’t encourage it, but he didn’t stop it, either.
“I could not get them to talk about anything which could be perceived as remotely casting him in any way less than a 100% favorable light” (Wigton, Lee Roberson: Always about His Father’s Business, p. xi).
“There seemed to be an aversion to commenting on anything which could cast Dr. Roberson in anything but a positive light. This fierce loyalty was widespread” (p. xv).
“It was hero-worship for me” (p. 71).
“But nobody ever challenged him” (p. 95).
“I’ve often said if he told me to go jump off the bridge, I probably would have” (p. 97).
“Dr. Roberson was ‘king of the roost’ here” (p. 143).
“As far as I’m concerned, he can do no wrong” (p 279).
“At the time I came to Temple he was like God” (p. 338).
The leadership at Highland Park Baptist Church was not pompous like Jack Hyles. Dr. Roberson didn’t strut his stuff and encourage near worship from his followers; but it still came down to a requirement of “unquestioning loyalty.” Even humble, Bible-based criticism was likened to “touching God’s anointed,” which was a gross misuse of 1 Samuel 24:10. The context has to do with killing an anointed king of Israel. Apparently some Independent Baptist preachers think they are kings. And they must also think that someone who reproves them is trying to kill them. But even an Israelite king was not above reproof. David didn’t kill King Saul, but the prophet Samuel did not draw back from reproving the king, nor did Nathan draw back from reproving King David nor did Jehu from reproving King Jehoshaphat.
Even kings could be reproved by God’s preachers, and so can Baptist pastors.
“These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee” (Titus 2:15).
“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).
Paul could reprove Peter (Galatians 2:11), but who could have reproved Lee Roberson? Or Jack Hyles? Or any other man who has patterned his pastoral ministry on that model?
I thank the Lord for Dr. Roberson and for the many great blessings in my life that exist today because of his vision and passion, but he wasn’t God, and I refuse to be an idolater. And while every IB preacher would agree with that statement in theory, the question I would ask is why have we given such god-like authority and such worshipful loyalty to some mere flesh and blood men?
The “touch not the man of God” philosophy as typically defined among Independent Baptists is idolatry, pure and simple.
It was the “don’t touch the man of God” policy that took away the heart of even a bold man like Lester Roloff, so much so that he would come to Highland Park Baptist Church and preach against the modern versions that were used by teachers at Tennessee Temple and against the modern textual criticism that was being taught in the Greek classes, IN GENERAL, but he would not have dreamed of turning around and pointing his bony finger at Lee Robertson and saying, “Thou art the man who has allowed this mess to happen!”
That no “old” Temple graduate could even imagine such a thing occurring in his wildest dreams shows how far we have fallen in our Christianity and our church model from the day when Paul reproved Peter.
Truly, this policy is “death in the pot.”
When a “no criticism” philosophy operates in an institution, no substantive change can be brought to bear. The leaders consider criticism to be wrong and they typically ignore it. In fact, they tend to look upon criticism as persecution which they need to endure rather than as godly warning they need to heed, and they tend to look upon the “critic” as an enemy rather than a friend.
Some men reproved Dr. Roberson and Highland Park Baptist Church along the way for being soft on separation, but their Bible-based warnings were despised and ignored.
“He was criticized for not being a ‘fighting fundamentalist’ and for not being strong enough on ecclesiastical separation. ... Bob Kelley said, ‘Those who criticized him for not being a militant enough fundamentalist--that didn’t bother him. It didn’t matter what anyone said. He just didn’t worry about opinions. He never answered them. He wouldn’t bother with it--no way, shape or form. He had one goal, and that was to please the Son of God’” (Wigton, p. 230).
That is a ridiculous statement. It is the Son of God who has taught us to reprove error and to heed godly reproof. The Bible says that one’s attitude toward reproof is evidence of one’s spiritual condition.
“He is in the way of life that keepeth instruction: but he that refuseth reproof erreth” (Proverbs 10:17 ).
“Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge: but he that hateth reproof is brutish” (Proverbs 12:1).
“Correction is grievous unto him that forsaketh the way: and he that hateth reproof shall die” (Proverbs 15:10).
“The ear that heareth the reproof of life abideth among the wise” (Proverbs 15:31).
“A reproof entereth more into a wise man than an hundred stripes into a fool” (Proverbs 17:10).
“Smite a scorner, and the simple will beware: and reprove one that hath understanding, and he will understand knowledge” (Proverbs 19:25).
We can ignore reproof that is based on human opinion or false doctrine, but Bible-based reproof is not to be ignored.
Had Dr. Roberson heeded the godly reproof that was issued against him instead of ignoring it and treating “critics” as enemies, perhaps Highland Park and Tennessee Temple would not be rock & roll Southern Baptist institutions today and perhaps far fewer of the graduates would be died-in-the-wool New Evangelicals today.
Godly, biblically-informed, respectful criticism is not only right; it is necessary.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Proverbs 27:6).
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1 John 5:21).
5. Biblical Shallowness
The preaching at Highland Park was solid as far as it went, but typically it was shallow. The emphasis was not on staunch expository preaching that got down to where you live and that would build strong disciples. It was not so much Christ-centered as work-centered, and I am not saying that we don’t need to work. We do, but I am talking about the heart and emphasis and the context in which the “work” is presented.
And I’m not saying there weren’t exceptions among the speakers. Some of the faculty members and some of the visiting preachers had a lot of spiritual depth. I could mention Bruce Lackey, for example. He is not mentioned in Roberson’s authorized biography, but he should be, because he had a large and very godly influence at Tennessee Temple in the 1970s, when he was the Dean of the Bible School.
I’m talking here about the preaching (and SS teaching, etc.) that was typical week in and week out and I’m talking about the heart and emphasis of that preaching. The emphasis tended to be toward motivating the crowd to work hard in building the institution.
It was “straight down the line,” but the line was pretty limited. It was pray, read your Bible, be faithful to every church service, give your tithe, and go soul winning. All of those are important--fundamentally important--but if that “line” is the sum total of the Christian life we don’t need most of the Bible, and it is puzzling why Paul and the other apostles wrote about so many things and emphasized the things that he did. Very puzzling.
As a young and very zealous Christian I went to Temple to learn the Bible, and I hungered for teaching and preaching with real spiritual depth, and candidly, I left there far from satisfied. The diet was just too shallow, too basic, too lacking in challenge. If someone disagrees, that is certainly your prerogative, but that was my experience, and as I have considered the IB movement as a whole over the decades one of the things that has repeatedly come to mind is the term “shallow.” I thank the Lord for the great many exceptions among IB churches, but I am talking about the “movement,” particularly some of the “circles.”
Biblical shallowness does not build strong Christian lives and families and churches and it doesn’t prepare the saints to stand against the fierce hurricane onslaught of end-times apostasy and it doesn’t glorify the Christ of the Bible.
6. Bigism and Pragmatism
Another error that existed at Highland Park Baptist Church even in the 1970s, an error that doubtless contributed to its downfall, was Bigism. The emphasis was on size and growth in the sense of numbers.
Bigism encourages a pragmatic philosophy that emphasizes things that “work.” “Success” is praised and promoted, success being defined as a large or an impressively-growing church. The most popular speakers and heros, typically, are men who epitomize this success.
Bigism encourages the comparing of men with men. It is the sin that was condemned by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:12.
“For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12).
It was Bigism that drove the promotionalism craze. In the pastoral theology class in the 1970s, Dr. Faulker told us that “you have to keep it pumped up.” He was talking about maintaining the promotional fervor in order to keep the crowds coming. He was a master at this. One year he designed a large cake for anniversary of the church’s radio ministry, which was rolled down the aisle to the front of the auditorium. After it opened up through a motorized mechanism, a rocket was launched, blasting powdered sugar on the speakers on the platform, including Dr. Roberson and his standard double-breasted dark blue suit. The church had clowns, a flaming evangelist who lit himself on fire, a 1500-pound cake, an evangelist who para-glided into the church parking lot, wrestlers and fighters who took on the local tuffs, martial arts demonstrations, you name it. They gave away bicycles, hid money under bus seats, whatever it took. Almost no one questioned the biblical legitimacy of these things, because promotionalism “worked” and the objective, which was the salvation of souls, was supposedly unimpeachable. It was pragmatism gone wild.
When Bigism reigns, preachers are not interested in anything that would hinder the “success,” and that even includes things as scriptural as a strong emphasis on ecclesiastical separation and clear warnings about error. In theory they will say that they care about these things, but in practice they tend to go by the way side as far as emphasis and clarity, because they get in the way of the program.
When Bigism reigns, you can offer 100 biblical reasons why we should not use jazzy Southern Gospel, but the fact that the people like it and it is an effective tool in drawing a crowd is going to outweigh all of those reasons, hands down.
When Bigism reigns, you can offer 100 biblical reasons why Quick Prayerism is wrong, but the fact that it gets “results” and the fact that the “successful” pastors and missionaries and evangelists use it is going to outweigh all of those reasons, hands down.
Typically, the preachers attending the annual Southwide Baptist Fellowship conferences in those days (Southwide was closely associated with Highland Park Baptist Church) would buy a book on how to build a large Sunday School or how to pack out the buses, but they had little or no interest in a book on something like New Evangelicalism. As a result, the preachers are uneducated on many issues that affected their churches and they, in turn, are not educating their churches properly in these issues. Therefore, the people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. It is no surprise that Southwide Baptist Fellowship so quickly slid into the contemporary New Evangelical camp.
The same thing is happening in Bigism circles today.
When Bigism reigns, Independent Baptists go to church growth gurus such as Rick Warren in search of tips (all the while professing to be opposed to him). They feed their pragmatism with principles gleaned from successful secular corporations and five-star resorts. Instead of going to the book of Acts as the guideline for “church growth,” they examine Solomon’s kingdom and glean principles from how he impressed the queen of Sheba.
It is Bigism that causes men to water down the message to the lowest common denominator within the IB movement in order to draw in as many people as possible from the various “circles.” I think Tennessee Temple went seriously wrong at the point where it ceased to be a simple local church Bible training institution focused primarily on the church’s own people and sought to be a large thing that would draw students from everywhere in order to build an empire, and I think that is exactly what happened. At that point, a school has to start toning down any message that might offend some segment of the IB movement or it will not get its singing groups into those churches and will not draw students from there.
If you are a local church training your own people, which is what we are supposed to do (and any that choose to come to you of their own free will as opposed to be drawn in through a widely-cast advertising net), you don’t have the temptation to tone down your message for the sake of not offending various “circles.” You can preach whatever you want and you can have in whichever men you want and you can distribute whatever literature you want, and let the chips fall where they may, because you aren’t trying to build an empire through schools, conferences, etc., beyond your own church ministry.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. Bigism is not the same as big. I thank the Lord that there are some fairly big ministries that aren’t afflicted with this disease, though it is rare, human nature being what it is. I preach in some fairly large churches and associate with some men who have some influence, but they are humble men who don’t want to be worshiped and they aren’t trying to build an empire.
I have nothing whatsoever against big influential ministries if they are scriptural and godly and aren’t permeated with arrogance, if they are built on the Bible rather than human pragmatism, if they are Christ-centered rather than man-centered, if they are monuments to the glory of Christ rather than to the glory of man, and if they don’t think of themselves as above reproof. If that be the case, more power to them and may their tribe increase.
In fact, I appreciate a “big” vision and the zeal to accomplish something significant to the glory of Christ in this wretched world, but it must be to the glory of Christ, and I fear that many of the biggest IB churches in my lifetime have been built to the glory of man.
It is no surprise that so many of them have crashed and burned. You can construct a very impressive building from wood, but it won’t withstand the fire of God’s judgment.
Bigism is death in the pot.
7. Quick Prayerism
The “old” Highland Park Baptist Church was committed to Quick Prayerism. In fact, this is a term that I invented perhaps a couple of decades ago in an attempt to describe what I was taught at Highland Park in the 1970s, as a worker in the bus ministry, as a student taking evangelism courses, and as a worker in and pastor of one of their 70 chapels.
I’m not saying that the emphasis on soul winning was wrong or that all of the soul winning of that day was in vain or that the zeal in this matter was not important. Preaching the gospel to every creature and trying to lead as many people to Christ as possible is one of the most important things there is in this age. It must be very high on any church’s agenda. It’s Christ’s Great Commission. It is highly emphasized in Scripture. It is God’s passion. It is why Christ died. It is why Christ is waiting and why the Holy Spirit is restraining the mystery of iniquity. Please don’t misunderstand me. And many people did come to Christ in those days through the evangelism outreaches of Highland Park.
In fact, I believe that one of the reasons why the Lord kept me at Temple even when I wanted to quit at times and go somewhere else was to hammer home to me the importance of evangelism and world missions. Because of some of the things I am mentioning in this report I determined to leave Temple after my first year. I was planning to attend a GARBC Bible College. I drove there at the beginning of the summer break but the Lord didn’t even let me unpack my bags and I headed back to Temple and completed my studies. I found out later that the school I was planning to attend was Calvinistic and pretty dead as far as evangelism and missions vision, and I can see why the Lord guided my steps as He did.
So please don’t misconstrue what I am saying here. I am not saying anything whatsoever against evangelism. We need more of that, not less.
I am saying something against unscriptural evangelism, and in that area there was definitely death in the pot.
Quick Prayerism is the evangelistic program that is quick to get people to pray a sinners prayer, often pursued through a salesmanship psychology approach; that is quick to pronounce people saved when they have merely muttered a sinner’s prayer; that refuses to ask hard questions about people’s salvation once they have “prayed the prayer”; that is quick to give “assurance” even if there is no clear evidence that anything supernatural has occurred; and that is quick to baptize people and receive them as church members without proper examination of their conversion experience. The sure sign of Quick Prayerism is when a large percentage of one’s “salvations” turn out to be empty professions.
We don’t see this on the Day of Pentecost. Those that were saved that day didn’t even pray a sinner’s prayer but they repented and cast themselves upon Christ and they gave the clearest evidence of their salvation by continuing “stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). All 3,000 converts continued. Now that happened in one day, but that’s NOT Quick Prayerism!
An experience that a pastor friend had during a soul-winning visitation is all too typical. A couple of years ago he went door knocking with one of the prominent soul-winners in a large independent Baptist church. This man is a veteran missionary as well as a teacher of evangelism and missions. A young preacher was also with them who was preparing to start a new church. They knocked on a door and a Roman Catholic man answered. He wasn’t interested enough to invite them in, but the soul-winner quickly presented the “Romans Road,” led him in a sinner’s prayer, and gave him “assurance.” As the soul-winner and the young preacher were busy writing down the man’s address and other details, my pastor friend asked the man if he believed he was a good man and that he would die and go to heaven based on his merits as a good person, and he replied, “Yes, of course!” Which is a proper Catholic answer, of course, but it is not the answer of a truly saved man.
My pastor friend said: “Nobody blinked; they kept on writing as if nothing happened. I actually had to pause and look around to see if all this was for real before I realized that this wasn't important from their perspective because he had already prayed a prayer and as long as he can be brought in to attend Sunday School, he can be baptized and trained to act like an IFB church member afterwards.”
This is Quick Prayerism, and it is practiced at a church that claims to believe in repentance and to be opposed to “easy believism.” How confusing!
One of the elements of Quick Prayerism at Highland Park was the pressure to get salvation results, and that is simply not humanly possible. We can aggressively preach the gospel, but we can’t produce or guarantee salvations. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet the pressure for salvation statistics at Highland Park was immense.
“Church old-timers remember one service in Chauncey-Goode, the longtime main auditorium, when no one came forward at the gospel invitation--for the first and only time in 25 to 30 years. DR. ROBERSON ANNOUNCED FROM THE PULPIT THAT THIS HAD BETTER NOT HAPPEN AGAIN. AND IT DIDN’T” (Wigton, p. 179).
“This relentlessly expectant atmosphere generated even more pressure on the pastoral staff. Working for him, in one word, was ‘intense,’ said Clarence Sexton. ‘He expected you to have someone saved, down the aisle and baptized every service. He employed people to make it happen.’ Roberson used to say that he had a 40-hour job for anyone who could consistently win souls to Christ and get them down the church aisle to make a public profession of faith on Sunday” (Wigton, p. 125).
That type of man-made pressure for “decisions” results in Quick Prayerism methodology.
Quick Prayerism is no light matter. When Highland Park’s Quick Prayerism engine was running at full steam in the 1970s, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the surrounding area for 100 miles was filled up with empty professions. It was typical to knock on a door and to hear from the lips of someone with absolutely no interest in the things of Christ: “I have done that,” meaning they had prayed the sinner’s prayer and perhaps even been baptized at Highland Park or one of its chapels. This methodology is exceedingly dangerous because it almost inoculates people to genuine biblical conversion, because they’ve “done that.” When I pastored one of the Highland Park chapels, I found that a vast number of people in the community had been enticed to church through promotionalism and had “prayed the prayer” even though they were still moral reprobates and enemies of Christ and the Bible. What confusion! In fact, it is even worse, because not only had they prayed the prayer, they have been “given assurance” of their salvation, and that entire close-knit community knew all about it. This practice spread about as much confusion about genuine salvation through that community during the last half of the 20th century as the Methodist heresy of losing your salvation had done over the previous century.
When Quick Prayerism reigns, the church tends to baptize and receive as members many people who haven’t been supernaturally converted. They learn how to act right but they aren’t saved and they don’t have Holy Spirit-wrought discernment and conviction. As the decades pass, these people work their way into positions in the church and it becomes increasingly weaker through the mixed multitude phenomenon.
When Quick Prayerism reigns, the church can’t exercise effective discipline. Highland Park Baptist Church operated more like a large ecclesiastical machine than a New Testament church, and one of the missing elements was discipline. Without discipline you can’t keep the body pure, and it becomes increasingly contaminated with each passing decade.
When Quick Prayerism reigns, you can’t question people’s salvation. One man wrote in reply to my article “What’s Missing in Soul Winning Programs,” and said, “There is nothing wrong with sharing the gospel personally and asking them to trust Jesus, even leading them to pray. If they profess to be saved, believe them and don’t be suspicious.”
That is the Quick Prayerism philosophy, but it is unscriptural. Jesus and the apostles and New Testament writers warned about those who profess but do not possess.
“They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” (Titus 1:16).
“He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).
One man wrote:
“The big churches have been built on the foolishness of ‘just pray the prayer and you are all set’ and as a result have tons of ‘goats’ in them. This is why they continue to fall into CCM. I bought into the quicky method for 40 years due to well-meaning yet unscriptural Baptist preachers. We need to bring people to know Christ as their Saviour the proper way, through the law, repentance, godly sorrow, and waiting for the Holy Spirit to truly convict hearts of sin.”
I have long been trying to figure out where and when Quick Prayerism originated, and I suspect that it came along in the 1960s and became an established “soul-winning” technique in the 1970s, having been enshrined in the popular courses by then. In the 1940s and 1950s there was some degree of true revival in America and there was a great ingathering of souls. Consider the following example from Highland Park’s earlier history:
“Evangelist Joe Shadowens recalled ... ‘We had revival. J. Harold Smith was the preacher. That was the biggest meeting I’ve been in.’ Smith preached his famous sermon on ‘God’s Three Deadlines.’ ... The scheduled four-day revival series of meetings was extended for three weeks” (Wigton, p. 179).
This type of thing was typical in the 1940s and 1950s but by the 1960s deep spiritual apostasy had set in across the land. People were still being saved (as they are today, of course), but the move and power of God was nothing like before.
I suspect that in Quick Prayerism was formula-ized and encouraged and promoted through soul-winning courses to keep up the numbers in spite of the fact that the spiritual reality had significantly dissipated.
Whatever the truth is as to its origin, Quick Prayerism is death in the pot.
(And we are not talking about some sort of “Lordship Salvation.” This has often been used as a straw man to draw attention away from the error of Quick Prayerism, but it is also true that there is such a thing as Lordship Salvation that is unscriptural and dangerous. (See the report “Repentance and Lordship Salvation” at the Way of Life web site.)
8. Modern textual criticism
Another element of death in the pot that I will mention at the “old” Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple was modern textual criticism.
Even in the 1970s Temple used the critical Westcott-Hort text in Greek classes. It was created by heretics using the unbelieving theories of modern textual criticism and relying on corrupt manuscripts from Egypt in a day when heresy and heretical tampering with manuscripts was rife. We have documented this in Why We Hold to the King James Bible and The Modern Bible Version Hall of Shame. My Greek teacher at Temple taught us that both the critical Greek text and the Received Text, both the NASV and the KJV, are equally the preserved Word of God, though he did not inform us that the critical Greek and the NASV omit or question dozens of entire verses and thousands of words and did not explain how that two dramatically different Bibles could both be the preserved Word of God. He held the myth, which originated from Westcott, that the difference between the Received Greek Text and the Critical Text is only one-half page of text. He did not explain to us that the prominent editors of the UBS Greek New Testament third edition (e.g., Bruce Metzger, Kurt Aland, Matthew Black), which was our textbook, blatantly denied the infallible inspiration of the Scriptures and that one (Carlo Martini) was a New Age-tinged Roman Catholic cardinal. I only learned that important information later.
Modern textual criticism is founded on unbelieving principles, the most prominent of which is that the Scriptures have not been divinely preserved and that the alleged purest text--the Alexandrian--was lost to the churches for roughly 1,500 years until it was recovered by textual critics in the 19th century.
That type of thing is certainly death in the pot of any Bible-believing institution, because it destroys the authority of God’s Word.
As we have noted, Tennessee Temple began as a simple Bible training institute for Christian workers, but over the years the emphasis changed to education and even “scholarship” in a worldly sense. There was an emphasis on higher degrees and the accompanying pursuit of accreditation.
In 1979, two years after I graduated, Tennessee Temple became a “university.” In 1983, the school became accredited by the American Association of Bible Colleges, and in 2000, by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Scholarolatry does not refer to a love of study and learning; it refers to the pride of intellect and the pursuit of education that yokes the student into unscriptural associations.
The Word of God puts no premium on ignorance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with education and study and scholarship in a godly sense, and no one loves to study more than I do. For those who might charge me with encouraging ignorance, I invite you to consider my 6,000-volume personal library and to consider the intense research that went into the writing of books such as The Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible & Christianity, Things Hard to Be Understood, What Is the Emerging Church, The New Age Tower of Babel, Contemplative Mysticism, Faith vs. the Modern Bible Versions, Israel: Past Present and Future, the Advanced Bible Studies Series, and Keeping the Kids, to name a few.
Learning is important, and I do not criticize any effort a man can make to learn the Word of God more perfectly. Get all the degrees you can if your goal is the mastery of the Holy Bible and preparation for a fruitful ministry and if you are not disobeying the Scripture in the pursuit of those degrees. I refuse, though, to respect a man who is puffed up with his own conceit. I am not against seminary training in principle, but it is a fact that the bulk of seminary education today is the philosophical study of fallible man which results in uncertainty and foolish questionings instead of the practical study of God’s infallible Word which results in confidence in the Bible, settled truth, holiness of life, and humble discipleship.
The wisdom commended by God is a practical wisdom, not a theoretical one; it is a dogmatic wisdom that is gleaned in the confidence that His Word is sufficient to throughly furnish us in all good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Godly wisdom is a skill in understanding and applying the truth of God’s Word to the needs of life and the work of God. As soon as a church or school leaves that simple path, it is on the road to apostasy.
It was the disease of scholarolatry that took Tennessee Temple down heretical paths such as modern textual criticism, Christian psychology, Christian hedonism, and full-blown New Evangelicalism.
It was the disease of scholarolatry that resulted in the inflow of teachers who had the right credentials but not the right principles, men who sat at the feet of New Evangelicals and even Liberals and had been influenced by “evil communications” (1 Corinthians 15:33), even while professing that they had not been negatively influenced.
They came from Dallas and Regent and Trinity and other places, but they did not plainly and publicly renounce these compromised institutions. No, they carried the compromise with them to Temple and spread it through the student body, and with each decade the convictions have become weaker, the associations broader, the thinking more “tolerant.”
It was the disease of scholarolatry that resulted in many of the sons and daughters of staff members at the old Highland Park Baptist Church to end up solidly planted in the New Evangelical contemporary path. For example, J.R. Faulkner’s son Randy got a doctorate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and it is no surprise that he pastors the rock & roll Metropolitan Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
With one exception, the Lord’s apostles weren’t scholars. The Lord Jesus put these men through an intensive course of knowledge and wisdom, but it was not in a classroom and it was not theoretical. It was not “ivory tower” or “arm chair” theology. Christ taught them a practical, spiritual wisdom. Jesus did not establish a seminary; He established a church. He did not grant degrees; He taught the disciples how to do the work of God in this wicked, Hell-bound world. The apostle’s proud detractors did not recognize nor understand the wisdom God had given them. In their enemies’ estimation, they were “unlearned and ignorant men” (Acts 4:13). The Pharisees were consumed with “scholarolatry.”
My friends, I contend that the apostles of Jesus Christ were among the wisest men who have ever walked this earth. They were common men, but God gave them eternal wisdom. They were not scholars, though, and even the mightily-educated Paul was not bitten with the bug of scholarolatry as we see from his statements in 1 Corinthians 1:19-31; Romans 16:17; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Colossians 2:8; and 1 Timothy 6:20.
10. Not a true New Testament Church
Highland Park Baptist Church functioned more as a preaching/evangelism center than a true New Testament Church. The church was called “an empire of evangelism” by Elmer Towns’ in The Ten Largest Sunday Schools, and that pretty much nails it. While evangelism is a major part of the church’s calling, a New Testament church is much more than “an empire of evangelism.”
Highland Park was one of the first megachurches. By the early 1970s it was considered the largest church in the world.
But it was not a New Testament church in its pastoral model. Lee Roberson was not really a New Testament pastor; he was the visionary leader of an “evangelism empire.” The word “pastor” means shepherd, but if you got ten minutes of Dr. Roberson’s time, you were doing well. “A visit in his office would not last long--even for a faculty members, usually 10 to 15 minutes” (Wigton, p. 132). I’m not criticizing him in any sense. I am simply stating a fact. He was only one man and it was impossible for him to truly pastor thousands of people, even with the help of his pastoral associates. The first church at Jerusalem grew phenomenally until it was scattered by persecution, but it was pastored by 12 men right off the bat. Further, that was an unusual circumstance and not at all typical of the early churches.
In studying further into Lee Roberson’s life in recent days by reading three biographies and getting feedback from old Tennessee Temple graduates, it has become obvious to me that he was an evangelist and not a pastor. In fact, he had been a full-time evangelist prior to coming to Highland Park, and that is what he always was. He had a passion for the salvation of souls, but he was not a pastor. He was not given to hospitality, for example, which is a twice-repeated requirement for a pastor (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). “They found him to be a very private man. ... Roberson never socialized much--even with his key staff members--and never seemed to have real close friends, other than his wife. ... Wendelken could remember only one occasion when Roberson took the senior staff and their wives out to eat together ... ‘I attended very few social gatherings,’ Roberson told me. I didn’t go. They had them, but I didn’t go. They knew I wouldn’t go--meetings of different types in homes. I rarely went to any of them.’ According to [J.R.] Faulkner, ‘He put in appearances. He just went in and shook hands and was gone. He never stood around’” (Wigton, Lee Roberson: Always about His Father’s Business, pp. 133, 134). Even Faulkner, who worked at Roberson’s side for 40 years, never ate a meal in Roberson’s home and in fact was in his home on only three occasions. “Rarely was anyone other than family members invited to their home” (Wigton, p. 323).
Roberson made hospital visits; he preached funerals; but he wasn’t a pastor. He didn’t know most of the members of Highland Park and didn’t shepherd those who attended services. He exhorted them and motivated them, but he didn’t pastor them. Again, that is not a criticism. I believe he was a true man of God, a man of Christian character and clear divine calling, but his calling was not that of a New Testament pastor. That he held the position of a pastor does not change this fact.
Highland Park was not a New Testament church in its membership model. Of the first church, the Bible says that all of those who joined as members “continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). There was not a great difference between membership statistics and functional members. But the dichotomy between membership statistics and reality at Highland Park was phenomenal.
When Dr. Roberson retired in 1982, the church had a membership of 60,000 (James Wigton, p. 23). But the number of actual functioning members of the church was probably more like 1,500-2,000, because of the 3,500 attending on Wednesday, (Wigton, p. 22), which is a much clearer reflection of the true church than Sunday morning statistics, a large number were students who were not actually members. This means that some 58,000 of Highland Park’s members were phantoms that appeared on a membership roll only. That is a true universal church!
The reason for this strange dichotomy between membership statistics and reality was that every individual who made a profession of faith and was baptized through any of the church’s ministries, including the Union Gospel Mission, Camp Joy, the 70 far-flung chapels, and the 50-60 bus routes, were automatically added to the membership roles “whether or not the people realized it” (Wigton, p. 192). They became church members without being informed of the fact and typically without knowing what the church believed or what membership entailed. In a vast number of cases, it was a completely meaningless thing.
Someone might argue that this is what we see in Acts 2:41, that believers should be baptized as soon as they believe, but consider that verse in the context:
“Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
Only the church that has the evidence and fruit of Acts 2:42 can say that they are practicing Acts 2:41!
Highland Park was not a New Testament church in discipline, either, as we have already mentioned. Of the 60,000 on the membership rolls when Dr. Roberson retired, multitudes were living in fornication, adultery, and other sins mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5 as cause for church discipline, but there was no discipline. As we have seen, a high percentage of the professions were empty of spiritual reality and a vast number of the “members” were simply AWOL. I met some of them while door knocking in that area. “I prayed that prayer; in fact, I got baptized at Highland Park,” they would say with a beer in one hand, a cigarette hanging out of the mouth, and the shack-up girlfriend or boyfriend standing in the background, and they refused to hear anything more. But they were church members. When my wife was a student at Temple, she lived next door to a Mormon lady who had been baptized at Highland Park and was still a “member.”
Discipline was non-existent even for active members. Hugh Hamilton, a graduate of Tennessee Temple Bible School in 1951, writes:
“At the organizational meeting of the Southwide Baptist Fellowship, Dr. Roberson conducted a question-answer time in the Phillips Memorial Chapel. One pastor asked if he believed in church discipline. Dr. Roberson answered most emphatically, ‘No. They need to be in church’” (e-mail to David Cloud, May 19, 2011).
When it was discovered in the mid-1980s that Dr. Roberson’s associate Cliff Robinson had been carrying on an affair with Dr. Roberson’s secretary for something like 15 years, they were fired but there was no church discipline. They weren’t even brought before the church.
Dr. Roberson said,
“When you have people, you have problems. I called them in and talked with people when I had to straighten it out. I dismissed some who did not behave. I did it quietly. ... I never say a word in the pulpit--never did it in all my 40 years. I never brought anything [of this nature] to the pulpit” (Wigton, Lee Roberson: Always about His Father’s Business, p. 98)
This is not New Testament church discipline, and to disregard 1 Corinthians 5 is to disregard God’s law for the church. Paul, under divine inspiration, praised the church at Corinth for remembering him in all things and keeping the ordinances as he had delivered them (1 Cor. 11:2). Does anyone really believe that God no longer cares whether or not a church obeys these things?
What do these facts matter? They matter because “by the 1960s and 70s Highland Park Baptist Church had become the model church in America for the independent, fundamental Baptist movement” (Wigton, p. 151).
In spite of the great blessings that existed there in bygone days, the Highland Park Baptist Church model cannot be supported from Scripture, and that is where we must go as the sole authority for faith and practice. In that light, it is sad that it became a model for so many of the 12,000 Temple graduates and such an influential model among Independent Baptists in general.
11. Refusal to speak out against compromise
A final element in Highland Park’s downfall that I want to mention was the widespread refusal to speak out against the compromise on the part of those who recognized it.
I found it instructive that many of the Temple graduates who responded to my request for feedback on this issue were willing to talk to me “privately” about their concerns, but they requested that their names not be used anywhere. (I thank the Lord for the exceptions.)
This issue is intimately associated with a previous point - No Criticism. The members of Highland Park Baptist Church and the graduates of Tennessee Temple were trained that it is wrong to criticize, that it is a mark of disloyalty to criticize, and the vast majority of them have followed that principle to this very day. Thus, most watched mutely (as far as any effective protest) as the captain and his loyal crew ran the ship aground.
This was wrong then and it is wrong now. When God’s people aren’t allowed to “prove all things” and to speak out against compromise and error, there is no possibility of correcting a wrong path.
We are commanded by God to “exhort one another” (Hebrews 3:13; 10:25). We are to earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 3). We are to abhor that which is evil (Rom. 12:9). We are to hate every false way (Psalm 119:128). We are to restore those taken in a fault (Gal. 6:1). Even an elder is to be rebuked if he sins (1 Tim. 5:19-20; Gal. 2:11-14). Spiritual discipline is to be exercised without partiality (1 Tim. 5:21).
We need to put a double watch on our hearts and guard our spirits.
We need to strive to be as sweet as the honey from the rock in our disposition even as we are as firm as the rock in our position, but firm we must be!
We need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we still need to throw out the bathwater!
We need to keep all things in biblical perspective and not strain at gnats while swallowing camels, but we also must not buy into the lie that some biblical truths are “non-essentials” and that only the “big” things are worth fighting for. The “big” issues are often won or lost at the “small” issue level.
Someone is doubtless thinking at this point, “But nothing would have changed.” That might be true, but to speak out in a wise and godly way against sin and error and compromise is pleasing to God and will be rewarded by Him whether or not it appears to be “successful” by earthly standards.
I know of some men who did say something at least privately to Dr. Roberson and others, and I thank the Lord for them. Obviously, they were ignored, but they tried and that is what God holds us accountable for.
1. The change at Highland Park Baptist Church was gradual, incremental.
Nothing happened overnight, and the beginnings of the compromise were subtle. The changes were “small,” but over the course of time, they added up to some very serious things. One doesn’t have to veer far off course to arrive at an entirely different destination down the road.
This is how CCM takes over a church. As one man wrote to me a few years ago, “I see this decline in standards in my local church, as contemporaryish music gains more and more acceptance and the pastors and deacons refrain from placing a limit.”
It starts with soft folk rock and ends with hard rock and beyond and the breakdown of all standards, and the only time the slide can possibly be halted is at the soft rock stage.
It is the gradual, creeping character of compromise that often keeps people from discerning what is happening and resisting it.
Those who do speak out are considered extremists. “Don’t they see all of the good? Nothing of substance has changed. Why are they so ‘picky’? They have too much time on their hands; if they would do more soul winning they wouldn’t have time to worry about what someone else is doing.”
2. It has been said that those who refuse to learn from history are destined to repeat the errors of history, and that is true for Independent Baptists today.
Highland Park Baptist Church did not become a rock & roll Southern Baptist church by accident. It didn’t just happen. It was not inevitable.
But they didn’t listen to “critics” then and most of those heading down the same road won’t listen to “critics” today.
Insanity has been defined as trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.
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