The most recent copy of Newsweek (8/14/06) features a photo of an aging Billy Graham and an article about the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, if not of all time. He has spoken to more people and been in more countries than any other preacher of the gospel. He has spoken and counseled presidents, heads of state, and brought together clergy of all stripes through the process of planning his crusades. He allowed ministers from all denominations to sit on the platform during his meetings. Graham also has been an example of racial reconciliation by refusing to segregate his crusades during the turbulent 1950s-60s. Now he spends most of his time with his wife Ruth in their Montreat, NC home, reflecting on a great life and looking forward to an even greater one.
There are several things I could say about Graham that we all know, but one quality about him that I particularly admire is his belief that Christians can have fellowship with each other without agreeing on everything. This isn’t a revolutionary statement, but like the old E. F. Hutton commercial stated, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” Even more so with Graham. He states, “There are many things I don’t understand. Sincere Christians can disagree about the details of Scripture and theology–absolutely.” He has remained focused on communicating the gospel while keeping relationships with folks of all theological backgrounds. “I spend more time on the love of God than I used to.” Graham says. “But I have tried to maintain friendships with all of these people” (a reference to more politically active conservative ministers). Politics is secondary to the gospel.
It can be argued that as an evangelist, Graham hasn’t had to deal with the inner workings of a local congregation and the varied opinions of individual members. It is also true that his primary purpose has been to present the gospel in simple and clear terms in order that people might come to faith in Jesus Christ (Who hasn’t seen one of his invitations?). He could have gotten involved in the denominational malaise of the Southern Baptist Convention but instead kept his distance. There are times I wish he would have offered more guidance in this area, but perhaps he thought this was beneath his purpose. But, better late than never does Graham state that differences among believers ought not create division among us.
I appreciate theological views, and have spent a great deal of time formulating my own. It bothers me when Christian fellowship is compromised due to issues that should be open for interpretation. This is something I could write a great deal about, and a topic that has already been discussed ad nauseum by many others. I still lament the loss of people in our pews who could be helping us build the Kingdom of God. However, we can’t expect more from our people than their pastors, many of whom more readily label and libel those with whom they differ. Our differences have become divisions, and these in turn have become barriers. Good fences make good neighbors for the time being, I suppose. I admit I’d rather not waste time arguing with someone about an issue when I know it’s not going to get me anything but a headache. It’s best to move on.
Graham isn’t questioning how to get to heaven, the Incarnation, or the Work of Christ. But, “he is arguing that the Bible is open to interpretation, and fair-minded Christians may disagree or come to different conclusions about specific points” (p41). This is all I’ve been trying to say. We’re not going to get complete agreement on every issue, and we’ll lose valuable people resources if we insist on it. The SBC’s withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance poses a glaring example among folks of our ilk. Apparently, the theological tent was not big enough for the SBC and CBF to co-exist, so it was time for the SBC to part company. In contrast, former President Jimmy Carter held a ministers’ conference and the result was a covenant agreement among Baptists from North America.
Even here in our small community, I feel a greater kinship and acceptance among the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians than with other Baptist churches. I’m grateful that our church is more ecumenical, and in turn, closer to Jesus’ prayer that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (Jn 17:21). In this process of growing in the faith, I am becoming “more Christian than Baptist” in my theological perspective on some things. Graham’s article helped confirm that. I’m glad I listened.