I Never Got Over Sunday School

I Never Got Over Sunday School

Mark Coppenger

In my first chapel address at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I spoke of “the splendor of childlike faith,” saying, in part, that I’d never gotten over Sunday School and R.A. Camp. The expression, “I never got over Sunday School,” has gotten around, and the editor mentioned it when he asked me to contribute to this issue. Following up on that, I’ve decided to work with that “I-never-got-over-it” theme for this article.

Of course, lasting memories and deeply impressive experiences are a woefully insufficient base for building a Christian life or school. But if they are not free floating experiences, but experiences which illustrate the truth of Scripture, then they are gifts of God. Titus 2:9-10 teaches that our Christian behavior can “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (KJV) or “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (NIV). Such behavior does not make it true, but the one who sees it can gain a lasting, veritable impression by it. Similarly, we Christians can gain unforgettable impressions from the world, impressions which quicken our understanding of the Bible’s teaching and which serve as benchmarks in our Christian travels.

These experiences can, in turn, inform our own ministries. We want our students to study this, hear that, or journey here and there. We lead them as we have been led, when that leading led to life in accordance with Scripture. And so these impressions have shaped my Seminary leadership. It’s my desire that the students at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will, in the best possible sense, never get over Midwestern, and that their churches will, in the best sense, never get over them.

I never got over Sunday School

About 10 years ago, a reporter from Baptist Press asked me how I became an inerrantist. I thought of a number of things, including my going to Wheaton to teach. As a faculty member, each year I affirmed the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. I also thought of the time in Seminary when I read Jack Rogers and Donald McKim’s specious attack on inerrancy and John Woodbridge’s excellent rebuttal. I recalled my exposure to the theological follies of Vanderbilt’s errantist divinity school. But I couldn’t recall a time when I moved from errancy to inerrancy. So I concluded that I simply never got over Sunday School.

In Sunday School, they told the Bible story plainly–Daniel and the lions’ den; Jesus’ replacing the servant’s ear; the ax head which floated at the prophet’s prompting; the reality and sin of Adam; Paul’s deliverance on Malta. I also heard the instruction of Scripture given without irony–Don’t steal; Don’t hate; Don’t forsake the assembly of Christians; Be filled with the Holy Spirit; Be perfect. Not only did I hear these things; I was compelled to hear them. Whenever I feigned a headache to miss church, my parents wouldn’t buy it. So I learned early on that the Word of God was not only true; it was important. And I just never got over that.

Sure, along the way I read some Bultmann, some Gide, some Heidegger, some less-than-respectful passages in the Interpreter’s Bible. I also studied with a variety of skeptics and patronizing folks. But I saw nothing in their lives or words that could match or discredit the truth and power of God which I had learned as a child.

When I recounted this at Midwestern, a trustee said that I had no idea how revolutionary my statement about not getting over Sunday School was. For, in his student days at Midwestern, one professor in particular made sure to debunk Sunday School, saying it was high time that students moved beyond that childish orientation. And so this professor did his best to liberate them from their childlike faith in the veracity of Scripture.

Those days are virtually over at Midwestern. A few persist in teaching their doubts about the clear reading of this or that aspect of Scripture. But these are vestiges of an earlier day, a day which prompted the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. By God’s astonishing grace, the vast majority of our professors affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. They, along with their President, cling to their childlike faith; or rather their childlike faith clings to them by God’s power. Our desire at Midwestern is to see students strengthened in their faith, not robbed of it.

I never got over that conversation outside the auditorium

My father was a preacher and Baptist college professor. My mother was a Woman’s Missionary Union president. It seemed that the Coppengers were at the church every time the door was open. I remember thinking, accordingly, that if we were killed in a car wreck, we’d all go to heaven on the family plan. After all, we always went to church things together.

I also remember when the shell of such confidence began to crack. Sitting on the right, near the front, one Sunday, I began to realize that one must personally decide to follow Christ, that association with a Christian family was not enough. I knew I had to do something, but I wasn’t quite sure what, so I asked my mother on the way into church a Sunday or two later.

I had just come from Sunday School and was hurrying with her to join the others in church as the singing began. I’ll never forget what happened next. When I brought up the topic of my salvation, she pulled me aside to some chairs outside the auditorium and began to talk to me in earnest. I knew that skipping church was not allowed, so this had to be a momentous occasion. I listened intently as my mother explained the way of salvation and I knew that I needed to be saved immediately. I can’t remember the details–whether she or I prayed, or both; whether I framed my own confession or simply followed her lead. I do remember that, as we finished, we slipped into a back pew and joined in the closing minutes of the sermon.

My father had preached in another church that morning, and he arrived home soon after we did. As mother prepared lunch, he and I sat in the front porch swing, talking about what had happened to me that morning. The glad choice was made, and I looked forward to coming before the church to say so that night.

As we drove east to church that evening, I leaned on the back ledge of the car and looked out the back window at a sunset. I’m reminded of Dwight Moody’s testimony that the birds never sounded so sweet as they did when he was just saved. That sunset was a scene of heavenly splendor in my eyes, an occasion for great peace and joy. The warm reception by my church family and subsequent baptism were sweet celebrations of my new life in Christ.

Was I born again? With confidence, I say yes, for immediately a change came over me. Regeneration is a mysterious thing. I’d been exposed to the gospel for years, but, as British philosophers sometimes say, the penny’d never dropped. When it happened, it was not a matter of cold calculation and prudence. I knew calculation; I could break in a ball glove, trade for particularly handsome commemorative stamps, and scan the Sears catalogue for Christmas possibilities. But this wasn’t calculation. It was painful compulsion. A new kind of caring and fearing came over me, and I responded. When that happened to my own children, I didn’t praise them for their acumen. I thanked God for his grace. The same grace He showed me.

At Midwestern Seminary, we train our students to preach the Word, share the gospel, and expect God to work His miracle of regeneration. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). We can’t produce conversions, but we can faithfully present the Word in dependence on the Spirit to do His work. And so we send our graduates out, expecting more little boys on the right front pew to have the same soul conviction and anxious questions which I had that day in the 1950’s.

I never got over Royal Ambassador Camp

In my childhood days, Arkansas Baptists sent their boys to a camp somewhere back in the woods southwest of Little Rock. The quarters were humble, the tabernacle was an open-sided shed, and the ball field was so rough that we had instructions to pick up ten rocks each time we crossed it to swim in the spring-fed pond. The setting was crude, but the Great Commission teaching was spiritually compelling.

They taught it with power, in the services and in the study course book reading assignments–God calls, you go. Wherever. Whenever. However. If you live and prosper–fine. If you die–fine. It doesn’t matter. The crucial thing is obedience, joyful obedience. Your job is to “send the light, the blessed gospel light,” and to “let it shine from shore to shore.”

I had the strong sense that it would be the highest privilege to be called to be a foreign missionary. They were the best. Next came preachers, then Baptist college teachers followed by deacons, Sunday School teachers, and so on. I now cringe when I remember how I devalued the role of the godly layman, but I cherish the sense that God’s best involved danger, a willingness to face poverty, isolation, and other troubles.

Few things make me sadder than a preacher’s personal ambition, his insistence on this package or that, his geographic parameters, and his grumpiness and lassitude when God does not satisfy his grand timetable. It is hard to imagine Paul responding to the Macedonian call with, “But have you got a good dental plan?”

One of the happiest moments of my first year at Midwestern came late in the Spring. A senior came to my office with something to confess. He stammered as he tried to come out with it. I was afraid he’d fallen into some sort of ruinous, secret sin. Finally, in embarrassment, he confided that he was responding to a church’s call in Alabama. He’d heard so much of our mission to reach the “pioneer areas” of the Midwest that he felt he was spiritually suspect to go to one of the multi-staff churches in Dixie. After all, real men went to Fargo. I told him that God would forgive him, but not to do it again.

Paul and Barnabas were described as men “who risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26). And when Paul was faced with the prospect of severe persecution, he said, “None of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). The next generation of gospel ministers must be trained in this same spirit to risk everything and go anywhere in order to make Jesus Christ known to a lost and dying world.

I never got over the Bill Glass crusade

Each year, our church held fall and spring revival meetings. We met before school in the early morning, and we gathered at night. The week was full of special meetings and activities.

The one that stands out most vividly involved Bill Glass. This defensive end for the Cleveland Browns was a giant of a man, well spoken, unapologetic in his faith, and infectious in his enthusiasm for the Word of God and the Christian walk. Our little town, with its relatively little colleges, was stood on its ear. If any rough cut football player thought that he was superior to the things of God, then that week stopped that conceit. I remember some of the cooler elements from the campus coming to church like sheep, ready to listen to anything Bill might say.

A number of impressions came from that experience. First, no matter what they tell you, Christians can stand toe to toe with anyone on earth. Second, it’s a wonderful thing to schedule, organize, publicize, pray for, and attend special meetings with special preachers for special purposes.

With regard to the first impression, I’ve had my Bill Glass moments in philosophy, my original teaching field, through the years. I’ve seen George Mavrodes of the University of Michigan hold skeptics in the Vanderbilt graduate philosophy department at bay as he spoke of the faith. I’ve seen Alvin Plantinga and William Alston bring a revolution of respect for Christianity in the formerly hostile American Philosophical Association. I’ve had scores of accountability group breakfasts with Dal Shealy of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and heard his updates on the courageous walk of such star athletes in the realm of professional football, basketball and baseball.

Obviously, our faith does not depend on the success of such brothers. It would stand if all of us were unimpressive in the world’s eyes. But it is heartening to see that the world has nothing to intimidate or dazzle the believer. At Midwestern we train our students in that spirit. We resonate with Southeastern Seminary president Paige Patterson’s desire to produce invasion troops rather than mere occupation troops.

Regarding the second impression (that planning for special meetings is a good thing), I know that God honors those who earnestly and collectively seek him, and does so often in the course of planned “revival” meetings. Of course, calling it a revival doesn’t make it a revival, and God is the Lord of true revival. Any number of “revivals” amount to little more than the use of a visiting preacher and the taking of a love offering. They are prayerless, planless, painless, perfunctory exercises in program drill. But this does not have to be the case.

When I was a pastor in El Dorado, Arkansas, we planned a special “revival meeting” for the church. Careful efforts to plan and pray weeks in advance involved nearly half of the church membership. In and through our concentrated focus, revival broke out in our church three weeks before the scheduled appearance of the guest preacher. Nearly three dozen public professions of faith were made. Another 200 professions were registered during the week of meetings (which we, out of spiritual compulsion, extended for a few days).

Was this manipulative Finneyism? I don’t think so. Rather, it was a case of the whole church getting on the same sheet of music, forgetting petty differences in the interest of Kingdom come, clearing out the hindering brush of laziness, inattention, and bashfulness. We knew that our prayer, planning, and effort would not oblige the Lord to send true revival, but we thought it presumptuous to ask the Lord for revival in the midst of apathy.

At Midwestern Seminary, we speak often of the “prairie fire” of Awakening. We regularly bring speakers to campus to address this theme under the direction of the Midwestern Center for Biblical Revival. We understand that we cannot manufacture what is only a sovereign work of God. But we also understand that if we do not discipline our hearts and minds to that end, if we do not do all that we can do, then we scarcely have standing to ask for God’s special touch.

I never got over the Mike Makosholo vote

It was the only day our church had to set up chairs in the aisles. The crowd was enormous, for that day we would vote on membership for a black man. Mike Makosholo, a Nigerian, had elected to attend Ouachita Baptist College, our local Southern Baptist school. He was the product of our foreign mission effort, the sort of man whose appearance in a missionary slide show brought gladness to the hearts of our people. But now he wanted to come to our utterly white school, and worse, join our utterly white church. The year was 1961. The place was south Arkansas.

My mother was a Michigander. She’d gone to high school with blacks in Detroit. My father, a native of east Tennessee and Georgia, had served as a naval chaplain with broad ministry among the races. Whatever the sources of their conviction, my parents were not only open to racial integration. They were for it, and so were we children.

We understood that Arkansas’s Governor Faubus was a staunch segregationist, as were the nearby governors of Mississippi and Alabama. But surely the good folks at First Baptist Church, Arkadelphia, Arkansas, were open to black members. After all, we sang, “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.” Well, precious or not, a good many of our members didn’t want one on our roll, even one who spoke with a British accent.

Counseled at a distance and wanting to avoid embarrassment on the scene, Mike sent his request for membership in advance of his arrival in the United States. The day of decision was announced, and the membership braced for confrontation. Ralph Phelps, the president of Ouachita spoke in the affirmative. Mr. Seymour of the men’s Bible class spoke against. Fascinated by the spectacle, I was hoping for a show of hands, but someone successfully moved a ballot vote.

Before the morning service, my Sunday School teacher spoke to the issue. He observed that there were some perfectly good black churches on the west end of town and that Mike would naturally be happier with his own people. He expressed concern at the divisive nature of Mike’s request. Try as he might, my vote for Mike was fixed.

You could cut the tension in the service with a knife, and you couldn’t help but feel some disdain for those who never attended except to reject a black man. But it was over before we knew it. Ballots were cast and we went on with the service.

That night, the vote was announced–two to one in favor of his joining. But that still meant that hundreds of people were against it, when they’d never opposed anyone’s membership before. Who knows the folks we accepted en masse, as many as 100 on a single Sunday when the college students came back to school. The passing years proved a few of these students to be utterly lost. I remember two who later joined Herbert W. Armstrong’s group, the Worldwide Church of God. Some proved to be sexually promiscuous. One went to prison for fraud. Never mind that. They were white, and we asked no questions. But when a black man appeared, and we got squeamish.

My self-righteousness at this point is palpable, and I should say that, had I not had such parentage, I would have likely absorbed the fears and perspectives which saturated the region. But I’m not a cultural relativist, and right was right, wrong was wrong. Mike had a proper place in our fellowship. The richest lady in the church, the one who’d just bought us a set of choir robes, left the church. I’m sure that there were other repercussions from which my thirteen year old ears were well shielded.

I learned that day that a good many church members can be wrong, that congregations are susceptible to grave moral and doctrinal confusion, that shame escapes folks deeply stained with sub-Christian values, and that church business meetings can mean unholy or holy war, as you please.

Church is hard work. There is no way around it. I learned that lesson well when I was eight. And seminarians must learn it at Midwestern. The right road is not always the one with the fewest potholes. Paul admonished his young pastor friend to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3). Gospel ministry demands nothing less. The work is hard, indeed. But it is not impossible. Mike Makosholo became a cherished member of First Baptist Church, Arkadelphia, Arkansas, because godly men and women refused to be intimidated or cajoled into denying the clear teachings of God’s Word on brotherly love and fellowship.

I never got over Twelve Angry Men

No, I’m not talking about a deacons meeting. I mean the play, one of dozens I saw in the Ouachita Little Theater when I was a faculty kid. The theater was cobbled out of a wood frame, World War II era building on the edge of the campus. It had a cavelike feel, and the productions were, to my pre-teen mind, utter magic. I remember Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and one play where stranded submariners had to choose one member to go to his death through the torpedo tube in order to alert those above to their plight. Then there were the children’s theater productions. I hated to miss a one.

Twelve Angry Men concerns the passionate deliberations of jurors on a sweaty day. They’ve made up their minds except for one man who has his doubts. They fume and rail against him, but the tide turns, and, one by one, they come to his side. It’s a wonderful demonstration of courage under fire and the reasoned pursuit of important truth despite tremendous opposition. It was both fruit of and rationale for the liberal arts tradition. And, as Allan Bloom has argued in The Closing of the American Mind, it’s a tradition whose very foundation is crumbling. In our relativistic age, we no longer believe in truth, so why waste our energy in pursuing it? It’s your thing and my thing, not the thing. But for those men around the jury room table, it was finally a question of the truth.

One thinks of the tradition of the prophets. They didn’t work by surveys and polls. Noah didn’t rely on focus groups. Paul didn’t test the waters before bringing forth the word in Macedonia. They spoke the truth and then let the chips fall where they may. We like to think we’re cut from the same cloth, but we often love peace more than agreement in truth. The latter takes a lot more work than the former.

Earlier this year, I spent some time with Jim Sibley of our North American Mission Board’s Interfaith Witness department. In the course of our conversation, he observed that Southern Baptists were more a relational people than a doctrinal people. That is to say, they cherish amiability and peace more than orthodoxy. One advantage is that we can overlook a host of petty differences for the larger cause. As people who serve the God of peace it is certainly fitting that we should pursue peace as far as we can.

On the other hand, one great disadvantage to this temperament is the tendency to tolerate grave error and dismiss prophets, all in the interest of peace. Someone who his perceived to be a “troubler of Israel” is too easily dismissed, no matter how right he may be. By this standard, a “good” meeting is a peaceful meeting, even if, in peace, dreadful doctrinal cracks in the wall are lightly papered over.

My own doctoral training and college teaching came in philosophy at Vanderbilt and Wheaton. Philosophers are trained to ride to the sound of the guns. But when the Lord called me to be a pastor it seemed as if I had joined the fraternity of those who are more inclined to ride from the sound of the guns. I experienced a real culture shock in seminary.

We were in the heart of the SBC controversy in those days and professors were less inclined than usual to mix it up in the classroom. (As an aside, let me say that you cannot both call yourself a “school of the prophets” and whine about how you have to be careful what you say because people are so critical in these days.) But what I witnessed was not simply a result of the controversy. Many of the men who were my teachers and classmates were fearful of argument per se.

I couldn’t understand why this was so. I’d come from a Christian liberal arts background where the debate raged more or less good-naturedly on everything from the Carter-Reagan campaign to Francis Schaeffer’s take on Kierkegaard. Seminary presented an equally rich set of issues, including the viability of dispensationalism, the meaning of inerrancy, and the temporality or atemporality of God. But few relished discussion.

Then it hit me. These teachers and students were pastors, former pastors, or future pastors. And conflict, like fire on an airplane to a pilot, is the pastor’s worst nightmare. When the pastor’s natural love of peace is mixed with the Southern Baptist’s natural love of peace then careful, thoughtful, persistent, classy pursuit of truth can take a back seat. Doctrine suffers. Sermons turn insipid. Church discipline disappears.

In this atmosphere, we lose our ability to argue well. We turn petty. We fall into whining, backbiting, sloganeering, careless labeling, shabby research, demagoguery, and, yes, slander. We cheapen discourse, and our cheap discourse further undermines respect for discourse. It’s a vicious cycle.

In the place of thoughtful discourse, we preoccupy ourselves with feelings, each others’ pain, wounded spirits, and such. The church and seminary become a puddling masses of flesh and blood and viscera, like a cow without a skeleton. Sure, the skeleton of doctrine can be a repellent sight without the soft tissue of human passion and compassion to clothe it. But remove the skeleton of doctrinal commitments hard won and all that is left is Bossie without bones. Not a pretty sight.

Compounding the difficulty is what I call “the new teetotalism.” When I was a kid, a teetotaler was one who didn’t drink alcoholic beverages. Now, we have folks who have a host of don’ts–no television; no credit cards; no movies; no Halloween; no public school. Granting that our culture is vastly corrupt, we still need to recognize that Christ has called us to live in the world while calling us not to be of it.

We can become so isolated that we’ll never see Twelve Angry Men because neither the writer nor the play are distinctly Christian. Somehow, we have to steer a course between the Amish and the Unitarians when it comes to cultural engagement. If we don’t, we’ll either become so worldly we’ll lose our saltiness, or we’ll stop using the word Thursday because it honors Thor. We’ll just call it Fifthday (I hope I haven’t started anything here!).

Working against the forces of peace at any cost on one hand and cultural disengagement on the other, the seminary needs to foster the sort of thoughtful conversation that honors God and secures truth, even if it irritates. Someone once asked George Will what difference his regular Newsweek column made. He said that he didn’t expect people to remember his particular arguments or to change their minds in light of what they’d read. He said rather that he hoped he could model a certain quality of discourse and that the use of reason, clear language and pointed citation would encourage a higher level of communication. Similarly, I hope that seminary will engage the hearts and minds of the students, and that they will learn to remain firm in the pursuit of truth, come what may. Further, I hope that they will learn that all truth is God’s truth, wherever it appears, and that they will have the wisdom and even courage to admit it once found.

I never got over Blessed Assurance

I once had a Nazarene secretary. One day, I found her highly disturbed at her desk. Pale with anxiety, she had me worried. When I asked her if everything was okay, she said she feared she’s lost her salvation. Earlier that morning, she’d joined in some joking with the staff and had been flip about sacred things. She counted this a case of blasphemy and was sure she would be in hell should she suddenly die. While I appreciated her spiritual sensitivity, I hated to see her torn up by faulty theology. The fact of her genuine sorrow was, of course, one sign of her salvation. I worked with her as best I could, and in time she seemed to gain a better grasp on assurance.

Such spiritual terror in a believer is foreign to me. From the beginning of my Christian walk, and even before it, I have understood that Christians are forever. God holds them. Ours is a faith of peace, of confidence. Some of our hymns say it quite well.

I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.

Fanny Crosby’s great hymn, Blessed Assurance, which I learned as a child, accurately describes God’s work in my own life.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

…Angels descending bring from above,
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest:
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in love.

I can see in my mind’s eye the very locations in my childhood church where I sang these words with unbridled joy, knowing that the Lord had secured heaven for me by His blood shed on the cross. The Holy Spirit testified with my spirit that the words I sang were true.

There is a difference between assurance and presumption. I’ve just come out of conversations with Mormons about their own spiritual assurance. The problem is, their spirit is not the Holy Spirit, their gospel is another gospel and that which they believe is a lie. Assurance of salvation is more than a feeling, a “burning in the chest.” But it can scarcely be devoid of feeling, the feeling which Fanny Crosby has so richly captured in Blessed Assurance.

Peter tells us to be diligent to “make our calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10) by abounding in Christian grace and discipline. In doing so, the Scripture promises that we will “never stumble.” Gospel ministry in the next century will require sure-footed soldiers to stand against the onslaught of the world, the flesh and the devil. At Midwestern we want our students to have a settled assurance of their relationship to the Savior–an assurance born not merely of subjective feelings, but grounded solidly on the firm foundation of God’s Word. We want them to learn not only to stand themselves, but also how to teach others to stand firm in their faith in Jesus Christ. Confident, humble, secure Gospel ministers are what we are bent on seeing come out of our seminary.

Robert Fulghum I’m Not

You remember Robert Fulghum, the lapsed Baptist who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Well, I learned some dumb things as a child, and some wonderfully smart things as an adult. In this article, however, I stuck with the theme. And I think it is a profitable one. For it underscores Bible truths essential to the Seminary enterprise. We do not try to be too sophisticated at Midwestern. We believe that the Bible is inerrant, that salvation is a thrilling, lasting work of God, that you needn’t be intimidated by the culture, that church folks can be wrongheaded, that truth is worth pursuing and defending, hard as that might be, that we do well to pray and plan for revival, and that you go wherever God calls you, whatever the cost. Nothing fancy. Just the basics. Not childish, but childlike.