Mailed to the pastors of all BGCO churches in February 1999.

Dr. Gene Garrison's Letter From Exile

Dear Colleague in Christ,

I’m sure you will be surprised to receive this letter from me! After nearly 24 years as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, I retired in October 1996. Since then I have been doing a weekly radio call-in talk show ("Religious Talk") on a network of AM-FM stations. I have also been teaching a weekly Bible study at the United Methodist Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City.  I am really enjoying both.

Why am I writing this letter to you?

I write for three reasons. First, I enjoy writing. Second, I want to address a rumor about me which I have heard from numerous sources. Third, I simply want to explain some of my deep, personal feelings about the denomination I have loved and served for nearly fifty years.

Let’s begin with the rumor. It has been said that I am no longer a Southern Baptist.  I wish I knew where and how this started!  Whoever is saying this may mean that I am not in agreement with many of the policies and practices of the current Southern Baptist Convention leadership.  That is true, but such an agreement has never been a requirement for individual Southern Baptists.  At least, not in the past. I hope it is not today.  Or, perhaps the rumor grows out of the fact that I preach and teach often in non-Baptist churches.  I have always accepted invitations to speak wherever I have complete freedom to explain what I believe the Bible says.   Frankly, most congregations welcome that and I will continue to minister wherever that kind of openness is allowed and encouraged.

The point is -- I still believe the same things, and preach the same way today that I did all those years I was holding revivals for pastors who, today, will have virtually nothing to do with me (including Morris Chapman, John Bisagno, and others).  Was I different then than I am now?  I don’t think so! But the spirit and attitude within our convention is much different now! As so many of us have discovered, in the Southern Baptist Convention today you have to go along to get along!

That is why this is called a "Letter from Exile" – because I feel that is exactly where I am, and have been, for about 20 years – In Exile! For several years after the so-called "conservative resurgence" began in 1979, I thought it would soon end and we would all be back like we once were.  It didn’t happen and, now, I know it never will. I am destined to live out my days in exile from the denomination I once loved and cherished.

Here is the denomination I remember so fondly:

First, the convention I once knew expected and welcomed disagreements over the interpretation of scripture in the Baptist tradition of individual freedom.  I do insist, however, that a clear distinction be made between differing in the interpretation of what the scripture is thought to say and in denying the authority of the what the scripture plainly says.  This is the essential difference between "I sincerely believe the Bible teaches (this) . . ." and "I don’t care what the Bible says . . . !"

Today, the convention expects complete conformity of interpretation in several areas and requires it in at least one area.  Consider the matter of ordaining women – and this is where my own "exile" began, when as the result of careful study and sincere conviction, I agreed the New Testament teaches that women may be ordained to serve as deacons if a local congregation chooses to ordain them.  It was never that I disregarded what the Bible said on the subject.  It was that my interpretation of the Bible was not "politically correct."

Second, the convention I once knew worked at creating a positive, attractive, and inclusive witness in the world as a means of reaching and ministering to those who need the gospel.  Some now say this required compromise with liberalism and secularism.   But I am convinced that continual negative pronouncements and self-righteous boycotts are more Pharisaical that they are Christ-like, and do far more harm than they do good for the Kingdom.

Third, the convention I once knew really believed in the separation of church and state, as championed by George W. Truett and others.  Perhaps the difference between that convention and the current convention is most clearly seen in W.A. Criswell’s now famous pronouncement, "The notion of separation between church and state was the figment of some infidel’s imagination."

Although I could describe other differences, my fears about the direction my beloved denomination was heading crystallized when Jerry Falwell was identified in the national media as "the Southern Baptist spokesman" following the convention in Salt Lake City last June!  Shades of J. Frank Norris!  Please don’t call it "conservatism."  Call it exactly what it is – Fundamentalism (with a capital "F").

Again, why am I writing to you?  For two simple reasons:

First, I want you to know that I am still "out here," believing the same things Southern Baptists believed and preached during the years that God chose to use, honor, and bless our denomination.  I read the reports claiming records in giving and baptisms and I am impressed.  I also know the history of Fundamentalist movements.   They capture the tide at a particular time when social and cultural movements are favorable to their narrowness – but they don’t last!

I am convinced that our whole country is becoming increasingly interested in conservative values!  And no wonder, with the moral and spiritual mess emanating from Washington.  But beware -- there is a difference between conservatism and Fundamentalism.

Second, I want you to know that living "in exile" isn’t so bad if you keep your integrity.  I believe that I have done that:

            I have never pretended to believe what I don’t believe.

            I have never kept quiet in order to keep my friends.

I have never changed my position on issues just to gain favor with people whose influence might help me.

In closing, let me give you something "that’ll preach."  My friend, Tim Owings, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., regularly meets with an elderly retired pastor who is "the wisest, most saintly man I’ve ever known" (says Tim).  One day, Tim asked the man to tell him about his own prayer life.  "What do you pray for?" Tim asked specifically.  The man thought briefly and then said, "Well, I pray for three things: First, I pray that my body won’t outlive my mind.  Then, I pray that I won’t outlive my mourners.   And finally, I pray that I won’t drown in shallow water."

So, stay out of shallow water . . . keep the faith (and your integrity)!

Your friend,

  Gene Garrison

P.S. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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