Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Reflections on the Ministry of Jerry Falwell

I just heard the news that Jerry Falwell has died. My first reaction is one of shock. Though I never met him personally, Rev. Falwell has been a fixture in my world for almost my whole adult life, or so it seems. It’s strange to think of the world without him in it.
My second reaction is sadness for his family and for many who knew him personally and loved him. There were many of these people. If you’ve only known Jerry Falwell through his public persona, you might think that we wasn’t especially kind in person. But when I was at Harvard, one of my liberal professors knew Rev. Falwell well and said that he was quite pleasant. All I knew of Jerry Falwell was what I read in the news and saw on TV. In this mode his kindness was often obscured by his self-righteous bluster. Of course the media tended to play up his flirtations with rudeness, making matters worse for Rev. Falwell.
When Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, and when he was the leading spokesman for the religious right, I was about as liberal as they come politically. During those days I couldn’t stand Jerry Falwell, either his ideas or his attidudes, and it really bugged me that he was my brother in Christ because I felt guilty disliking him so much. (In fact, Christians are also not to hate non-Christians, but let’s not get confused with the biblical facts here.)
Years later, when my political views became more centrist (and often more complex and more confused), I wasn’t quite so horrified by some of Rev. Falwell’s ideas, but I found his pompous pundit persona to be a major turn-off. He always seemed to have a tone that suggested those who disagreed with him were complete idiots.
Jerry Falwell did say things that seemed foolish to me. No doubt you’ll recall his infamous gaffe on The 700 Club following 9/11, when he said that God had allowed this tragedy as a punishment for America. Then he proceeded to name those who were morally responsible for 9/11, including: the ACLU, the federal courts, the abortionists, the pagans, the feminists, the gays, the lesbians, and the People for the American way. Curiously enough, Osama bin Laden escaped Rev. Falwell’s tirade unscathed. After mentioning all of bad folk who turned God against the U.S., Rev. Falwell said: “I point the thing in their face and say ‘You helped this happen.'” Later Jerry Falwell apologized. Nevertheless, what he had said didn’t exactly endear him to me or make me glad that he was such a prominent spokesman for the church in America. I say a lot of stupid things too, but I try to keep them to myself.
Given all of this, I must admit that I never got warm fuzzies when I saw the Rev. Falwell on Meet the Press, or even when I happened to catch a moment of The Old Time Gospel Hour, his popular religious broadcast.
With this confession in mind, let me tell you what happened on a Sunday evening a couple of years ago. I was doing some late night channel surfing when I happened upon the broad face of Jerry Falwell. He was preaching, so I thought I’d linger for a moment to see if he was saying anything foolish. (Yes, I know this isn’t a very Christian way to think, but sometimes I don’t think very Christianly.) What I heard, however, was startlingly wise. Rev. Falwell was talking about things he had learned as “a fourth quarter saint,” which I took to mean an experienced, older Christian. There was lots of wisdom here. In fact, some of what Rev. Falwell said about a pastor giving priority to his family actually struck my heart.
So I kept listening to the sermon. As it turns out, it was a message he had delivered at the “SuperConference 2005″ sponsored by the Thomas Road Baptist Church. Rev. Falwell was addressing several thousand people, most of whom seemed to be young adults.
I didn’t agree with everything in this sermon. But I found myself agreeing with more than I would have imagined, and actually feeling personally challenged and encouraged. Given my negative attitude toward Jerry Falwell, you can imagine that this was an unsettling and humbling experience for me.
When the sermon was over, I realized that I needed to repent of some of what I had thought and felt about Jerry Falwell. Though I don’t agree with many things he said in his public ministry, I have to admit that he also said and did many very good things as a pastor. (One of those was to challenge me to spend more time with my wife and children.)
But when the sermon was over, I also felt sad, sad that a preacher with a good chunk of biblical wisdom and a genuinely caring heart had said so many things in his public ministry that were unkind and, in my view, unwise. Now I think Jerry Falwell was right to bring his religious convictions into the socio-political realm. We need Christians of all theological persuasions to extend the kingdom of God into all facets of our world. But I also think Rev. Falwell, as a preacher, overstepped some appropriate bounds, thereby weakening his impact and undermining his message. Honestly, I’m not sure I can define precisely where these appropriate bounds lie, but I think this issue deserves serious attention from any preacher before holding forth in the public arena.
I am not saying that preachers shouldn’t deal with political topics. I don’t think we can truly preach God’s Word without getting into matters political. After all, the Bible has plenty to say about matters of justice. But I do think preachers need to think very carefully about what and how we speak when it is explicitly political and partisan. I think we need to discern what we should say as preachers and what we should say only as private citizens. I also think we need to distinguish carefully between what we can say on the authority of God’s Word, and what we can’t say without lots of input from our personal political, economic, and social philosophy. It’s too easy for us to jump from A (God opposes poverty) to Z (the Congress should vote for or vote against this particular legislation) without realizing that many of the letters from B to Y aren’t taught in Scripture so much as in poli-sci and economics classes.
Finally, we preachers are a talkative lot. Mostly this is good. But it seems to me that preachers, and all Christians, for that matter, should work hard to speak the truth as we perceive it in a Christ-like way. To do otherwise is to contradict the message by the media.
(Note: much of this post once appeared in a series I did on Churches, Elections, and the IRS.  There you can find more of my reflections on faith, preaching, and politics.)

  • On Jerry Falwell’s Life and Legacy at PastorBlog

  • Rick

    Great men of God are rarely liked or understood well by the masses. How often did the Israelites persecute the prophets sent by God to correct their ways?
    Jerry Falwell’s Godly, visionary leadership will be missed.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    I think Jerry Falwell’s most lasting positive contribution, in the end, will be Liberty University.

  • MT

    Well said. This is the first reflection of Falwell’s life that captures my feelings. Some – like Christopher Hitchens – were mean-spirited, while others ignored the many foolish things he said. My impression is Falwell was a genuinely good and decent man whose “bedside manner” often wasn’t too good.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Thanks, MT. I expect that if I were weighing in publicly on all measure of things, I’d end up sounding pretty bad at times. I’m glad I don’t believe this to be my calling as a pastor.

  • Grumpy Old Man

    Does God oppose poverty, or does He call for generosity to the poor?
    Not the same thing.

  • Phil Kloster

    I have had the same reaction to Dr. Falwell as you have expressed here…But I was rather taken back by your last statement: “But it seems to me that preachers, and all Christians, for that matter, should work hard to speak the truth as we perceive it in a Christ-like way.”
    What exactly do you mean..the truth as we perceive it? Did you really mean… speak the truth as God’s Word reveals it? Maybe I misunderstood your use of that phrase.
    Otherwise, thanks for your open transparency about your early concerns of Dr. Falwell’s problems with his public perception. I shared them at that time as well.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Phil: Ah, yes. Thanks for the observation. I used “as we perceive it” for a couple of reasons. First, even though I believe it absolute truth, I think it’s good to remember that there’s a difference between that TRUTH and my perception of that truth. This recognition leads to a measure of humility. But I was also thinking of the truths that we proclaim that are not clearly revealed. Much of what got Jerry Falwell in trouble, I think, was his tendency not to distinguish between the truth of revelation and the lesser truth of his political convictions. So, I would add that we should speak in a Christ-like manner even (and especially?) when we’re passing on God’s revealed truth.

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