Attentiveness: Courage - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Courage

Gordon-Conwell had two commencement ceremonies in the last two weeks. Both from the Charlotte and Hamilton ceremonies, we sent out pastors, missionaries, counselors, teachers, and other church workers into a world that is increasingly hostile to the gospel. Forty years ago last week I graduated from Gordon-Conwell and entered ministry and mission in a very different country and world. The bamboo and iron curtains blocked both information and Christian workers from western church leaders. Friends sought to smuggle Bibles into China. Even so, Christianity was still at least a veneer of most civil discourse and was often the standard behind laws and public policies. Richard Halverson, a Wheaton College graduate, was chaplain of the Senate.

It was a very different world.

Our graduates today need to not only know their faith well, but they must also have the courage of their convictions and be willing to suffer for the gospel more so now than in the past. The protective womb of “Christendom” no longer exists.

After commencement in Charlotte, my wife, Nancy and I had lunch with Dean Gerry Wheaton, his wife, Jessica, and their five boys. We had an engaging discussion about leadership. After a break in the conversation, I was taken aback by a very important question posed by one his sons: “How does a leader know when it is time to compromise and when not to compromise, but to stand firm?”

This is a great question and it goes to the heart of many of the leadership problems our faith community is facing today. My answer came easily, as I had been thinking about this very topic during the previous weeks in preparation for a commencement address.

“A leader must not compromise about core values and truths but be bold and courageous,” I said. “For the Christian that means not compromising on the centrality of Jesus Christ in all we do, according to Scripture. It would also include being courageous in defending Christian virtues taught by Scripture.”[1]

More than ever, we need leaders with courage in humility upholding foundational Christian truths and virtues.

As a historian, I think we can teach our congregations and our children examples of such courage in the lives of great Christian leaders, remembering that though they are not Jesus (so they do err), their lives, like an icon, point to Jesus. I think of David Livingstone in Africa, Bishop Tutu and David Bosch standing against apartheid in South Africa, pioneer missionaries like William Carey in India, Robert Morrison in China, and Samuel A. Moffett in Pyeong Yang, Korea. John Sung (Sung Shangjie: 1901-1944) is another great example of courage in humility around the truth of the gospel.

Sung was raised in a Methodist home in Fujian Province China and, being very bright, he was supported by the Methodist church in America to be educated for ministry in the United States. However, he was distracted during his studies and instead of studying for ministry he earned a bachelors and masters degrees and finally a PhD in chemistry in just six years! After he graduated, remembering his promise to his pastor-father, he went back to the original plan and attended “the best seminary in America,” as he described Union Theological Seminary in New York.

The liberal theology of Union led him astray briefly. Then, one evening he went to Harlem to hear a 15-year-old female evangelist, Uldine Utley. Her message spoke to his soul and changed his life utterly. His conversion was powerful and he could not restrain his joy. However, his hymn singing, vocal prayer and preaching to his liberal seminary community was interpreted by them as mental illness. The seminary committed him to an asylum where he remained for 193 days. During that time he read through the Bible 40 times, and with each cycle of reading he looked for differing themes.

Upon his return to China, John Sung, preached and preached. With a single mind he preached to Chinese throughout China, in the Philippines, in Thailand, Malayia, and Indonesia. With focus and courage, he preached, eating a restricted diet, wearing simple clothes, and praying “without ceasing.”

The courage of evangelist John Sung is an inspiration to me and should be to us all: “Preach the Word. Be urgent in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).

When do you keep to your convictions and refuse to compromise? When it is a matter of the core of the gospel and gospel virtues, even if it means being deemed a fool.

[1] Or “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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