The charge has been made recently that many young Southern Baptists do not fully appreciate Southern Baptist heritage. No doubt there is some truth in what has been said. In our zeal to adapt and push towards the future many of us have neglected, forgotten, or even criticized the past. It is true that sometimes younger SBCers treat the SBC like the cousin you are afraid for your friends to meet. Southern Baptists are certainly not perfect, nor is our history. However, there have been wonderful characteristics like faithfulness, evangelistic passion, missionary zeal, cooperation, theological education, and triumphs in our past (and in our future by God’s grace). There are also godly men, pastors, preachers, missionaries, professors, who have gone before us. These men are heroes who faithfully followed King Jesus and led others to follow Him. Part of the purpose of Baptist 21 is to honor, respect and learn from the past, specifically from godly men and women who have run well and with great endurance the race set before us.
Robert Greene Lee was one of those men that we believe younger Southern Baptists need to get to know. Indeed, Baptist 21 is grateful for the ways God used RG Lee. Not to sound cliché, but he is a giant upon whose shoulders we stand. We want to over a few posts highlight his ministry and ask what we can learn from him for ministry in the 21st century.
RG Lee was born in a log cabin to poor sharecroppers in South Carolina on November 11, 1886. Mam Lindy, Mrs. Lee’s midwife, said at his birth, “Praise God! Glory be! The good Lord has done sent a preacher to this here house” (Lee, Payday Someday and Other Sermons, 5). Lee trusted Christ at the age of 12 in the First Baptist Church of Fort Mill, South Carolina. Lee was a hardworking, blue collar Southern Baptist. He worked on the Panama Canal at the age of 21. He delivered newspapers at 4 AM every morning walking his eight mile route in order to pay his way through Furman University. He also pastored a little country church up in the Mountains in order to pay school bills. The church paid him 50$ a year for one sermon a month. When the topic of a raise came up, one of the longstanding deacons, spitting tobacco from his mouth, said, “We’ve been paying 50$ for a long time. And, we can’t afford now to bite off more than we can chew, or swallow, or digest. And, as far as I’m concerned we’re paying for as much as we’re gettin” (Lee, “What Have I Done,” audio). Not only was he a hard worker, but he was also a brilliant student who graduated magnum cum laude. One of his most significant crossroads came when Dr. E. M. Poteat, the president of Furman University, who mentored Lee, asked him to chair the Latin department at Furman. Lee soon found out that the university would not allow him to pastor and teach at the same time. He resigned, and his wife Bula said, “That’s good! God never meant for you to dig around Latin roots. He meant for you to be a preacher” (Lee, Payday, 5). Lee pastored churches in South Carolina, Louisiana (FBC New Orleans, adding over 1,000 new members in his four years), and Tennessee (Bellevue Baptist Church, which grew to over 10,000 members in his 33 years). He served three terms as president of the SBC and four terms as president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Not only was he a gifted preacher, but he was a brilliant scholar. He turned down presidencies at Union University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (see more biographical information about Lee at http://www.siteone.com/religion/baptist/baptistpage/Portraits/lee.htm).
What can we learn for ministry in the 21st century from the life of RG Lee?
- Work Hard! Lee was blue collar and a hard worker. He saved money for college by working on the Panama Canal. While in college he delivered newspapers before sunrise, attended classes during the day, and he preached on the weekends. All of this was to make a living and gain ministry experience. While “extended adolescence” is the phrase used to describe many junk food devouring, beer binging, halo playing, jobless, living with their parents young men in America today, there are still young men like Lee who work third shift at UPS to provide for their families, pay tuition, and get trained for ministry. These men slip in 1 hour naps in the front seat of their car before waking up to finish exercises in Fuller’s Hebrew Grammar, make it to class on time, get home to play with their children at night, and serve in their church on the weekend. They then head out Sunday at midnight to start all over again. These are men of whom the world is not worthy! This is a lesson to many “called to ministry” who fail to get out of bed on Sunday morning, cannot finish homework assignments on time and want to complain about rising tuition costs (some on a seminary president’s Facebook page!). There have been and continue to be young men who work hard to provide for their families, train for ministry and serve their church. May their tribe increase and may we all man up!
- Battle for the Bible because theology matters! Lee battled for the Bible. He stood strong against the theological error of his day without compromise. While many in the SBC were just going along, Lee stood against rising liberalism by defending the complete truthfulness of the Bible. He said he believed it all. Someone asked him if he really believed a whale swallowed Jonah, and Lee responded, “The Bible tells us that God prepared a big fish to swallow his runaway preacher. I think if God can make a preacher he can make a fish big enough to swallow him. But let me tell you young people something if that fish had to hold down some of your liberalistic professors he wouldn’t hold him down any three days” (Lee, “Christ, Above All,” audio). He said he believed the Bible like Jesus believed it, never putting a question mark after God’s Book. Young Southern Baptists like me need to learn to contend for the faith in every generation, recognizing that the war over God’s Word will not end in denominational elections but in the triumphant return of the Word Himself. Lee teaches us to be confident in the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Bible.
- Preach hard topics while appealing with love! Lee preached hard topics with loving appeal. He never backed down from preaching hard topics. He was not willing to compromise the judgment of God, while in our day it’s popular to steer clear of it. His most famous sermon (arguably the most famous sermon of the 20th century) was “Payday Someday.” In that sermon, which he preached over 1,200 times, he taught millions that God’s payday will come, whether tomorrow or twenty years from now. He pleaded with men to avoid that payday by trusting in Christ who took the sinner’s payday! He said, “The only way I know for any man or woman on earth to escape the sinner’s payday on earth and the sinner’s hell beyond – making sure of the Christian’s payday – is through Christ Jesus, who took the sinner’s place on the cross, becoming for all sinners all that God must judge, that sinners through faith in Christ Jesus might become all that God cannot judge.” We need to learn like Lee to preach the hard things of the scriptures while passionately pleading with men to be reconciled to Christ. When the allure of tickling itching ears with our words rises up in our hearts would we remember those who have preached before us!
- Preach and teach the centrality of Jesus. Jesus Christ was the central theme of Lee’s preaching and ministry. He preached sermons like “Christ Above All” and “I Love Jesus Because.” He lifted high the gospel of Jesus. Lee said, “If you take Jesus out of the Bible it’d be like taking heat out of fire, melody out of music, blood out of the body and expecting health…” He believed that “all the hieroglyphics of the OT types find their keys” in Jesus! Lee told his wife on their honeymoon night, “Dear…you’re not 1st in my life. I love you very, very, very much. Else, I would never have asked to marry you and asked you to take my name. But Jesus is 1st in my life. I love him more than anybody whose name I’ve ever heard, more than anyone I’ve ever known…” Instead of preaching tips for a better this or principles to get rid of that, may we learn from Lee to preach Christ and Him crucified!
- Preach! Lee was a preacher of the Word. That is how Lee is best remembered. R. G. Lee once said, “I would not give up my preaching to be the president of the United States” (Lee, Payday, 9). In a day when the centrality of preaching is being compromised we have much to learn from a man so dedicated to this high calling. R. G. Lee was an orator, a poet, a language scholar, a pastor, an evangelist, a husband, and a father, but Southern Baptists will always know him as a preacher.