A Solemn Appeal for a Serious Approach to Licensure and Ordination – Part 1

(The following is Part 1 of a 5-Part series of posts adapted from Tim Campbell’s “A Solemn Appeal for a Serious Approach to Licensure and Ordination,” presented at the theological trends seminar at the 2014 FWB National Association Meeting. Readers who desire a copy of the full-length presentation can request this by emailing their request to fwbtheology@gmail.com)


These reflections are born out of personal experiences. I was reared in a Free Will Baptist minister’s home, saved and discipled, for the most part, in a rural Free Will Baptist church, and licensed and ordained by an historic Free Will Baptist Association in Arkansas. The whole of my ministry has been among Free Will Baptists. Because of ministry positions in national and state Free Will Baptist agencies, I have been in hundreds of Free Will Baptist Churches. Therefore, I can speak with a reasonable degree of authority on the subject about which I write.

After attending dozens of district, state, and national associational meetings, and having attended hundreds of church services and heard and observed the same amount of preachers, I have come to the conclusion that there are many who have been ordained to the gospel ministry among Free Will Baptists who are unqualified. More than a few do not have the ability to preach doctrinally sound, biblical sermons. Many do not possess adequate pastoral skills. Perhaps even more disturbing is that some manifest a mediocre attitude toward the responsibilities of ministry. The result is a tainted denominational ministerium.

Yet, incompetent sermonizing, inattentive shepherding, and a feeble view of the ministry are merely consequences of root problems. The problems are we have significantly diminished the ministerial licensure and ordination requirements in the Free Will Baptist denomination and we have created an ecclesial culture of mediocrity where anything or anyone is acceptable.

Two looming questions arise out of my proposition: (1) How was this culture created? (2) What steps can we take to correct it? The answer to those questions will be the body of my remarks.

 I. A Culture of Mediocrity

A Reduced Pool of Ministers

The demographics of Free Will Baptists are changing. It is my firm conviction that during the next few decades there will be fewer Free Will Baptist Churches. Small rural churches built close together around small communities of 40-80 acre family farms in the early part of the twentieth century have changed into 1,000-5,000 acre farms where technologically advanced agricultural equipment has replaced dozens of farm laborers [1]. Consequently, these densely populated rural communities in close proximity to one another have faded away. Also, many small towns built around these agrarian cultures have decreased in population and are now dying slow deaths.

What were once thriving country churches in these communities are now struggling congregations comprised of only a few people. In the next few decades, these churches will cease to exist. In some cases, the core of these churches will move to another Free Will Baptist church close by, but many will not.

The practicality of the present situation is that these churches are fighting to stay alive. One of the key components in their fight for existence is securing a pastor. Unfortunately, there is a very small pool of ministers who can afford, or who are interested in pastoring such a church. Adair T. Lummis makes a pertinent observation: “Regional leaders generally find helping congregations get the best clergy for openings paying good full-time salaries a far more pleasant and productive use of their time than trying to find clergy for congregations at a distance from urban areas, offering low clergy salaries.   It is probably fair to say that the great majority of regional judicatories have at least several and sometimes many congregations with open pulpits that cannot pay enough to attract a full-time pastor” [2].

Most churches that fit into this category draw from a small group of retired ministers in their area. There are more of these churches than ministers available. Therefore, the churches are forced to take who they can get. Many times, homegrown youngsters are coerced into ministry by these congregations simply so they can have a pastor. The churches actually contribute to the problem by doing this. Oden astutely observes: “Ill-prepared ordinations may jeopardize the health of the Christian community. This is why the advice and consent asked of all relevant parties in ordination is taken so gravely” [3]. Many times congregations settle for whomever they can get just to extend the life of the church while in actuality they are draining health from the church by settling for an unqualified pastor.

Free Will Baptist churches in this situation are numerous and have had, and are having, a great impact on the dumbing down of licensure and ordination standards for these reasons. In many cases, though they do not make up the bulk of statistical membership in a district or state association, because they are so numerous, their delegate count overrides attempted reforms in the standards and requirements for licensure and ordination [4].

Substandard Educational Levels

The general culture of only a few decades ago was much more learned than that of recent years. The reading, writing, and comprehension skills of a person who only had a grammar school education were more proficient than many high school or college graduates today [5]. Thus, their study and sermonizing abilities were much more scholarly as far as reading and comprehending the biblical texts.

Currently, many who petition for ordination are lacking in these rudimentary skills. Younger petitioners have been affected by an onslaught of technology and media. Gary Small and Gigi Morgan declare: “Daily exposure to high technology—computers, smart phones, video games, search engines like Google and Yahoo—stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones” [6].  They go on to cite another expert: “Since 1982, literary reading has declined by 28 percent in eighteen-to thirty-four-year-olds. Professor Thomas Patterson and colleagues at Harvard University reported that only 16 percent of adults age eighteen to thirty read a daily newspaper, compared with 35 percent of those thirty-six and older” [7]. The result is that those who do not seek any specialized or formal training for ministry are less knowledgeable ordinands than a few decades ago. This accounts for a significant number of Free Will Baptists.

Therefore, there is sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that the young preachers today who are answering the call to preach do not have the discipline and cultural educational background that their ancestors did.

An Abandoned Ministerial Apprenticeship

Before the mid-twentieth century, when formal training for ministry for the common man was not as accessible, mature, experienced ministers would consider it their duty to mentor young men who petitioned the association for credentials. Conversely, these young petitioners would eagerly attach themselves to those veteran pastors. There was a network for training and advice. It was a natural internship model that was unofficial, yet effective [8].

This classic model that was once prevalent in the Free Will Baptist culture is all but non-existent. While those who have been privileged to receive formal education could also benefit from such a model, those who have no formal education many times have nowhere to turn for training.

The Pervasive Attitude of Non-Confrontation

Serious churchmen are decrying the absence of biblical church discipline. Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr. states: “The absence of church discipline is no longer remarkable—it is generally not even noticed” [9]. I believe that marketing philosophies of church growth adopted in the last few decades have created a mentality of lenience. Endemic to consumerism is “the customer is always right” philosophy. Biblical church discipline runs contrary to marketing and consumerism adopted by some churches. David F. Wells points out a key marketing mantra in rhetorical form: “how effective can discipline be if the person being disciplined can simply go down the road and find a new church?”[10]. While we cannot blame the church growth movement for the state of the broader culture, I believe you can see its contribution to the air of tolerance in the church world.

Also, postmodernism, in its day, unraveled any ties to truth and absolutes. If there is not truth or absolutes, then there can be no authority to impose standards [11]. Free Will Baptists have not been unaffected by these concepts. While we would say we believe in absolutes and standards, we have ignored the creep of consensus among us. Diversity, tolerance, opinion, preferences are all catch words that confirm our biblical timidity. Many times we are hard pressed to find people who will stand for clear biblical principles.

Lest a person doubt the last statement of the previous paragraph, I would like to offer an example taken from 1 Timothy 3: 2-7:

 “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” 

 The second phrase is “the husband of one wife.” For example, in the Arkansas State Association there are stated positions against the ordination of a man who has been divorced and/or remarried, or whose wife has been divorced and/or remarried [12]. Yet repeatedly in recent years this standard has been ignored in many sectors of the denomination. One of the primary reasons is that no one is willing to confront the issue. This is but one qualification. We take the others much less seriously.

My point is not to argue for or against the standard at this time, but to point out that people are willing to blatantly ignore denominational positions so they will not have to confront or rebuff people. Sadly, this is true of many presbyters with biblical principles surrounding licensure and ordination.



[1] According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 1964 there were approximately 3.5 million farm units in the U.S. In 2013 there are 2.2 million farm units. That is a decrease of 37%.

[2] Adair T. Lummis, Finding Leaders at All for Part-time and Rural Parishes (Hartford, Connecticut: Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research), 1.

[3] Thomas C. Oden, Classical Pastoral Care (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 103.

[4] The 2012 Free Will Baptist Yearbook’s statistical report showed that there were 1,130 city churches and 1,205 rural churches in the Free Will Baptist denomination.

[5] A 2002 Zogby Poll International conducted for the Princeton, NY-based National Association of Scholars states that high school graduates of the 1950s did approximately the same on a general information test as college seniors.

[6] Small, Gary; Vorgan, Gigi (2008-10-01). iBrain (p. 1). William Morrow Paperbacks. Kindle Edition.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Benjamin Randall established an elaborate organizational structure of quarterly and yearly meetings. Though concept of formal mentorship was probably in his mind, and there were probably more autocratic motives at hand, the establishment of Elder’s Conferences reflected, as Bryant states: “… [a] desire to maintain control, both theological and ethical, over the minister’s within the movement.” Scott Bryant, The Awakening of the Freewill Baptists, (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2011), 181.

[9] Mark Dever, Polity (Hunt Valley: Sheridan Books, 2001), 56.

[10] David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 237-238.

[11] Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 209ff.

[12] See original document for full-length citation.

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