Harold Ockenga, Church Renewal and the United Methodist Church by Timothy C. Tennent, PhD

One of the most interesting books I have read recently is by Garth Rosell entitled, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. Rosell, a church history professor and leading expert in revivals, explores the life of Harold J. Ockenga and his relationship with Billy Graham.  Ockenga is widely regarded as the founder, chief architect and leading thinker of the 20th century revival and renewal movements which are collectively known today as neo-evangelicalism.  It was Ockenga who helped Christians see that there was a third choice between narrow, defensive fundamentalism and the mainline liberalism which was sweeping the country.  The result was a major movement which was embodied publically by Billy Graham’s ecumenical, socially engaged evangelism and spawned the planting of thousands of new churches.  It also produced a number of major evangelical seminaries including Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, both co-founded by Harold Ockenga.   Ockenga also served as the President of both Fuller (1947-1954) and Gordon-Conwell (1969-1979).  He was also the founder of Christianity Today magazine.   The magazine was designed to promote thoughtful Christian reflection on contemporary culture.  It was no mistake that the first editor was none other than the great thinker Carl F. H. Henry, the author of the multi-volume work God, Revelation and Authority.  Oh, did I forget to mention, Ockenga is also the founder of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and served as its founding President (1942-1944)?  In short, the book makes a convincing case for what many of us have long argued; namely, that Harold Ockenga was arguably one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century, and certainly a leading voice for church renewal.

I am sharing this because there is an interesting, little known, Methodist connection with Harold Ockenga.  He was born in a devout Methodist home.  His parents raised him in the Methodist church and he came to Christ in a Methodist camp meeting.  Ockenga even experienced a second work of grace which he subsequently described in a way which was precisely in line with Wesleyan thought.  Ockenga graduated from Taylor University (a Methodist related school) and eventually answered the call into the ministry and became ordained as a deacon in the Methodist Church.  He decided to go to Princeton because he longed for a classical education and Princeton was on the approved list of Seminaries by the Methodist Church which to this day certifies which seminaries United Methodist students may attend in order to be ordained.  Near the end of Ockenga’s time at Princeton (and as he was preparing for full ordination as an Elder in the UMC) the Seminary decided to embrace modernism and separate themselves from their long-standing commitment to the authority of scripture.  Princeton turned its back on its long standing commitment to historic orthodoxy.  Its heritage goes back to 1727 when William Tennent founded what became known as the Log College.  This is a history I know well because William Tennent is also my great (times six) grandfather.  Princeton eventually became known for great stalwarts of the faith such as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield.   J. Gresham Machen led a separation from Princeton which resulted in the founding of Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia.  Although Ockenga was about to enter his final year at Seminary, he felt compelled to switch to Westminster because of his abiding faith in the Word of God.  When Ockenga switched to Westminister, the Methodist church informed him that he could not be ordained unless he remained at Princeton.   Even though he had completed two years at Princeton and had already pastored two Methodist churches in New Jersey, his graduation from Westminster would make him ineligible for full ordination in the Methodist church.  Ockenga was in deep distress.  His entire orientation was Wesleyan.  He knew no other tradition.  After a long struggle he decided sadly to leave the Methodist church and join the Presbyterians.  It is from this platform that his amazing ministry unfolded over the next five decades.  By denying Ockenga ordination in the Methodist Church, we lost his voice and missed much of his influence.  To this day most Methodists have never even heard of Harold Ockenga.  What a missed opportunity!

However, Ockenga never lost his love for “the people called Methodists.”  In the early 1980’s I met Ockenga while I was a young student at Gordon-Conwell.  He was the most respected Christian statesman I had ever met in my life.  He had recently retired as the President of Gordon-Conwell and had been named as President emeritus.  As a young, budding theologian and future pastor, I was awed by the presence of God which I sensed when I was with him.  He was a man who had walked with God his entire life.  He never lost his love for Christ, his confidence in the Scriptures and his devotion to the church (he also pastored the historic Park Street Church in Boston for several decades).  I told him I was a United Methodist and asked him if I should stay in the denomination even though many of its leaders and churches had lost touch with orthodoxy, or should I go join another denomination.  I was truly prepared at that moment to do whatever Dr. Ockenga told me.  He told me, “son, stay in the Methodist church, and be faithful there until they ask you to leave.”  Because of that conversation I stayed in the Methodist church.  I am still ordained in the UMC, with a membership in the North Georgia Conference.  Today, I am the President of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Ockenga died on February 8, 1985, about nine months after I graduated from Gordon-Conwell.  I was the pastor of a United Methodist church in Georgia at that time.  Someone close to Ockenga, who had been with him in his final days, told me something which later Garth Rosell confirmed for me. Above the bed where he died hung a portrait of John Wesley.  It was the same portrait that had hung in his office all the years of his remarkable ministry.  Ockenga never lost his love for Wesley.  One can only wonder how history might have been different if the Methodist church had received 50 years of leadership under a man like John Harold Ockenga.

Charge to 2011 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary by Timothy C. Tennent

One of the great privileges which are mine as President of Asbury Theological Seminary is to give a final charge to our graduating seniors.   This is my 2011 charge to the graduates of the Seminary.

2 Cor. 4:8-10 (NIV)

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;   9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

When the Jesuits sent out their missionaries to the Far East in the 17th century the journey was so perilous that they gathered the entire group on the deck prior to leaving port and gave them a charge which included the ominous fact that 30% of them would die at sea before they even reached the mission field and that 20% more would die in the first year on the field due to disease.  So it charged them to look around and recognize that half of their number would be dead in a year.  They were then given a final opportunity to get off the ship.

I would like you to look around and know that if you really want to serve our Lord Jesus Christ and not just your own ambitions on the coat-tails of the church, then you must all die.  This is my charge to the 2011 graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary:  Go forth carrying around in your body the death of Jesus.  What does this mean?  It means that you have died to yourself.  It means that you have forsaken all worldly ambitions that you might be reborn to serve Jesus Christ in the world.  Paul profoundly understood that the death of Jesus is not merely an isolated event in human history, but is an event which draws the whole human race into it.  We cannot participate in his resurrection unless we have passed through the cross.

Every voice will cry out for you to measure your success by worldly standards.  What is the size of your church?  How much money do you get paid?  How nice is your parsonage?  What kind of pension plan do you have?  Are you popular?   Regard such questions as distracting arrows from the pit of hell.  If the cross of Jesus Christ teaches us anything, it is that God sometimes does his greatest work under a cloak of failure.

To carry around the death of Jesus means that your focus is not so much on being successful, as being faithful.  For some of you this may lead to charges with great responsibility over thousands of members.  For others, faithfulness means feeding a small flock and defending a relatively remote outpost of the kingdom.

But never forget that whatever act we faithfully do in God’s name the whole incarnation is present in seed form.  When Jesus touched the leper, it wasn’t a stepping stone to the cross.  The whole cross was always in seed form in everything Jesus did.  There are no stepping stones to the kingdom.  There is no denominational ladder to climb.  There is no career path stretching out in front of you.  What we have before us is the call which beckons us to the cross.  It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th martyr who was hung for his faithfulness standing against the evils of the 3rd Reich, who wrote, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”    The Apostle Paul writes 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. (1Co 4:9 NIV) As graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary I send you forth to inhabit the kind of robust, muscular, Apostolic Christianity which is necessary to face the challenges of our day.   Go forth from this place with a vibrant confidence in the Word of God, the supremacy of Christ, and the ongoing power of the gospel!

Don’t confuse busyness with godliness.  Don’t confuse programmatic activity with authentic relationships.  Don’t confuse knowledge with holiness (knowledge puffeth up, love edifies); Don’t confuse title and position with faithfulness and calling.  Instead, make it your daily ambition to die to self and be daily reborn in Christ.  You are being called to defend some outpost of the New Creation in Adam’s world – don’t get distracted –keep your post, defend the gospel, proclaim Christ.  Amen.

The End of the World and the Last Humanist Party by Timothy C. Tennent

By now, everyone has heard that Harold Camping, the President of Family Radio,  and his followers predicted that the world would end on May 21, 2011.   The media has ridiculed this group for their foolishness and the waste of millions of dollars in full page ads in USA Today and other major outlets, billboards and TV.  As you may recall, this was Camping’s second prediction of the end of time.  Previously, he insisted that the world would come to an end in September of 1994.   However, Camping is just the last in a long line of such predictions.  The most famous in American history is still William Miller and the “Millerites” who predicted that the world would come to an end in 1843.

How should we respond to these kinds of predictions?  First, Christians need to regularly re-read Matthew 24:36 where Jesus says quite plainly, “No one knows the day or the hour.”   The precise time of the Eschaton is simply not given to us to know.  The Scriptures seem clear that the knowledge of the day has not been given to Harold Camping or William Miller or anyone else.  Second, we do not need to feel reticent about stating with clarity that such predictions are an expression of a false prophet and do nothing but bring unnecessary harm and ridicule upon the church.  Third, we must faithfully remind ourselves and our non-Christian friends, that although we don’t know the day or the hour, this does not change the fact that Jesus Christ is going to return.  The kingdom will be consummated.  The world will be judged.  The earth as we know it will pass away and God will create new heavens and a new earth.

I think the best comment I heard about the Harold Camping prediction came from one of my friends in Scotland, Kevin Scott, who remarked, “despite this false prophecy and the unnecessary way it discredits the gospel, we do know that there will be one too many humanist parties.”   Apparently, quite a few atheists and humanists held parties on May 21st to mock and ridicule Christians.  OK, let them party for now.  But, at some point in the future (we don’t know when) they will have one too many parties.

Global Partnerships at Asbury Theological Seminary by Timothy C. Tennent

May 12th was an amazing day at Asbury Theological Seminary.  We had the privilege of hosting Vice Chancellor Douglas Carew and Provost William Udotong on our Wilmore campus.  Dr. Carew is the senior leader of Africa International University in Kenya and Dr. Udotong is the senior leader of the West Africa Theological Seminary in Nigeria.  This is the beginning of some vital partnerships for Asbury as we truly engage in the globalization of theological education.  I thought I would share with you the remarks I delivered at the formal signing ceremony.


May 12, 2011

The Lausanne movement has popularized the phrase, “the whole church, bringing the whole gospel, to the whole world.”  It is a way of capturing a movement of mission from a “West Reaches the Rest” paradigm to a paradigm which is truly rooted in the missio dei, namely, God orchestrating his work through his church in his world.  Mission has never really been about tasks which the church does, but about God’s redemptive work in the world.  None of us possess the resources or ingenuity or strategic insight sufficient for the unfolding of God’s great meta-narrative.  Indeed, God’s work is often filled with surprises which come from unexpected quarters.

Today, we are honored to join in partnership under the great banner of the missio dei with two exemplary institutions, the West Africa Theological Seminary (WATS) in Lagos, Nigeria and African International University, formerly known as NEGST, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.  We do not regard this signing today as the end of anything.  Rather, it is the beginning of a relationship founded on a shared vision and a desire to serve Christ in the world.  Partnerships are never simply organizations or schools doing tasks for the other or cooperating on this or that initiative.  Partnerships imply a deeper re-ordering of relationships based on mutual trust, respect for the identity of the other, and shared mission.  It is an expression of genuine Christian hospitality which will flourish as we grow to know, love and trust one another.       We began our first formal global partnerships with our brothers and sisters in Africa for three reasons.  First, it is a way of our demonstrating our profound respect and appreciation for God’s work on the continent in the last century.  Africa was once known in popular literature as the “dark continent” and the “white man’s graveyard.”  Today, Africa is the continent of light and the home of the fastest growing church in the world.  There is no greater need in Africa today than the faithful equipping of a whole new generation of African leaders.  These two institutions stand at the forefront of this great challenge and we are honored to stand with them.

Second, these institutions do not come to us today as strangers, but as friends.  We already have long and abiding ties with these two institutions.  Dr. Mark Royster, our Presidential Envoy for Global Partnerships taught at NEGST for a decade and Dr. Jim Miller, our Associate Professor of Inductive Bible Study and New Testament taught at NEGST for four years and served as their Dean of Doctoral Programs.  Dr. William Udotong, the newly installed Provost of WATS, graduated in May of 2010 with a PhD in Intercultural Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Julie and I had the privilege of spending a day with Vice Chancellor Douglas Carew on the campus of AIU in Nairobi and I have a long standing relationship with Nigeria.  Thus, we already have a deep and growing relationship.  Third, we in the West desperately need the biblical vision, the vigorous commitment to church planting, and the deep connection between personal and social holiness which is so evident in the African church.  We truly believe that God is using Africa to enable the West to re-discover Apostolic Christianity as a faith beyond the Western forms of it.

I want to conclude with the same hopeful prayer that Vice Chancellor Carew uttered on the day that NEGST formally received the status to become Africa International University.  He used the words of Charles Wesley, as I will,

The task Thy wisdom hath assigned, O let me cheerfully fulfill,

In all my works, Thy presence find, And prove Thy good and perfect will.

Reflections on the Death of Osama bin Laden By Timothy C. Tennent

The death of Osama bin Laden has reminded me of the recent discussion surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, about who might end up in hell.  It is interesting that modern discussions about such matters invariably find a way to put ourselves in the category of the “righteous” and hell is reserved for Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Osama bin Laden.  The Scriptures point us in a different direction.  Paul is determined to silence the endless self-righteous talk which ends in self-justification, whether stemming from Jews who live under the Law or Gentiles who do not know the Law, but only have their own conscience.  Paul finally bluntly declares that God’s righteousness is being revealed “so that every mouth may be silenced” (Rom. 3:19).

This is important because as Christians we must recognize that the evil which we so often want to identity in the “other” is actually in us as well.  We are capable of all the atrocities which we find so unimaginable, such is the depth of human depravity.  Osama bin Laden was, through his death, sent to a higher court for final judgement.  Someday we will stand at that same bar of judgement.  Paul declares that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).  The only hope for any of us is in the grace which God has revealed in Jesus Christ.  He is the only one truly righteous.  Death, floods, earthquakes and tornadoes are all regular reminders of human frailty and that the whole of creation is “not right.”  We must cast ourselves on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Let Osama bin Laden’s death be a reminder not of the wickedness in the “other” who has “finally gotten what is due him,” but rather a sobering and humbling reminder of the nature of the human race to which we all belong.  Augustine wisely said that we are sinners by birth and by choice.  The whole human race is in rebellion against God.   We are “in Adam” and we are willful participants in that seminal rebellion.  The fundamental struggle of our time – or any time – is not about the West versus radical Islam.  The struggle is between the righteousness of God and the rebellion of the human race against God’s righteousness.  We are all part of that rebellion, right along with bin Laden and Pol Pot. Until we see ourselves in the Cambodian killing fields, the falling Twin Towers and Nazi concentration camps we really haven’t fully grasped the depth of our own human fallenness, nor the height of God’s amazing grace in Christ.

Looking into the Pit of Hell by Timothy C. Tennent

We are still basking in the wonderful good news of Easter.  During this Eastertide, I am reminded afresh of the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This past January, my wife and I spent two weeks in the Holy Land.  No words can really ever capture the power of walking this land.  One of the most moving juxtapositions in the trip was the last two days.  We were in Jerusalem and spent half a day at the Holocaust museum.  I have been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. and in Richmond, Virginia. Both are moving experiences, but nothing quite like the one in Jerusalem, especially being with our normally very loquacious Jewish guide, Mishi Newbach, who was reduced to silence and tears as we walked through the horror of the exhibits, documentary films and paraphernalia.

One of the highlights of the holocaust museum in Richmond, Virginia is the very clock which hung in the Ten Boom workshop.  As you may recall, this was the one used to alert the Jews they were hiding of impending danger.  Corrie Ten Boom was eventually arrested, along with her father, mother and sister.  She witnessed the worst horror of Ravensbruck, including the death of both parents and her sister Betsy.  In Jerusalem I was struck by a room which was filled with quotations about the holocaust. The one which really grabbed me was by Elie Wiesel, the famous Romanian born Nobel Laureate writer who is Jewish and one of the most well known survivors of the Holocaust.  He is the author of many books but is especially known for his book Night.  In Night he shares the horror of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  He movingly writes that he looked into the pit of the Holocaust and saw such unspeakable horror that God must be dead.  The Holocaust put God to death for Wiesel.

The day after our trip to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem we went to the Garden Tomb, known as Gordon’s Calvary.  There I was able to walk inside a first century tomb hewn out of rock outside the city gates and just below a massive outcropping of rock which looked like a gigantic skull (Golgatha is an Aramaic word meaning “skull”).  It was a powerful place to be reminded of the central truth of our faith:  Jesus Christ is Risen!  He has born the sins of the world and is victorious!

This is what made Wiesel’s experience of the Holocaust so different from Corrie Ten Boom’s.  Corrie Ten Boom looked into the same horrifying pit as Wiesel.  However, she saw something even deeper than the pain, agony and suffering of the Holocaust.  She saw the sufferings of Christ who bore the sins of the world.  Wiesel looked into the pit of hell and declared, “there is no God.”  Corrie looked into the pit of hell and wrote, “there is no pit so deep, that the love of God is not deeper still.”

Are “Mainline Churches” in Denial? by Timothy C. Tennent

John Buchanan is the thoughtful editor of the Christian Century.  In a recent editorial (See, March 8, 2011 issue) entitled “Living Traditions” he bemoans an article which had recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 4) entitled, “Where have all the Presbyterians gone”
The article had pointed out the rapid decline of “mainline” churches and the rise of the non-denominational churches.  Buchanan is a bit miffed that his beloved Presbyterians (PC, USA) are held up as the poster child for the denominational decline.  Buchanan is clearly unhappy with much of what he sees in today’s growing independent and “mega” churches.  He cites the excessive consumerism and the individualistic narcissism which is rampant in many of these rapidly growing churches.  He reminds us that today’s consumerist culture does not care what denomination you belong to as long as you offer a dynamic youth program, great music and a nursery.  Buchanan attributes the growth of non-denominational churches to “smart marketing” and providing “multiple options.”

What’s so fascinating about Buchanan’s article is that he makes so many excellent observations about the contemporary North American church scene which lives under the “evangelical” banner.  Nevertheless, Buchanan misses the real reason why mainline churches are in decline.   I contend that even if all of these non-denominational churches were to disappear tomorrow, it would not substantially change the precipitous decline of mainline churches.   Buchanan seems to think that these independent, individualistic churches have co-opted the mainline church members.  However, let’s remember that just because two patients share the same hospital room, it doesn’t mean that they have the same disease, or that one caused the other. Mainline churches are in decline because these movements reached a critical mass such that sufficient numbers of bishops, pastors, elders, deacons and laypeople lost, forsake or otherwise failed to remember the true marks of the church.  The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.   When the church becomes divided, unholy, parochial and forsakes historic orthodoxy, then it will decline.  This will be the long-term verdict of the mega-church as well as the mainline church if they do not remember afresh that they are Christian churches.

What Buchanan misses is that the rise and fall of Christian movements is fundamentally not really about denominational loyalty or whether a church has a great music program.  It is far too reductionist to simply say that the mainline churches need to do “smart marketing” or that mega-churches are simply benefiting from a “great American innovation.”  The United Methodist Church has spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting the smart marketing byline:  “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”  But all this “smart marketing” does is underscore the United Methodist disease.  This marketing line says nothing about Jesus Christ or the apostolic faith.  It actually communicates the very blandness which is the problem when a denomination loses its center.  The phrase, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” says nothing about “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”  It says nothing about our great communion with the global church around the world and back through time.  It says nothing about the beauty and power of Jesus Christ.  It affirms, at best, congenial niceness, while carefully avoiding anything about Christian identity.  The phrase, “open hearts, open minds, open doors” could very well have been a sign hanging over a 19th century brothel.

It is the gospel which keeps us connected through history and with our brothers and sisters around the world (catholicity).  It is the gospel which reminds us of the apostolic message (apostolicity) and calls us back to orthodoxy when we are tempted to throw it all away for the latest cultural “mess of pottage.  It is the gospel which “tears down the dividing wall of hostility” and creates a unity which transcends all racial and ethnic barriers (oneness).  It is the gospel which calls us to holiness – both personal and social – at the profoundest level.  One, holy, catholic, apostolic church should be the “sign” written or unwritten over every church in the world.

Buchanan says he is is weary of being lectured about what is wrong with the mainline church. I don’t want to add to his weariness.   As a lifelong United Methodist I am as concerned with mainline renewal as Buchanan is.  However, as a Christian, I am buoyed by the truth that Jesus Christ will “build his church.”  The goal, after all, is not the long term success of any denominational movement.  The goal is the long term spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I have hope for the United Methodists as well as the Presbyterians (PC USA), but that hope will only emerge out of the ashes of metanoia (repentance) and a return to apostolic faith and practice.  In the meantime, let’s not confuse the wine with the wineskins.