Joel Gregory, a two-time Baylor graduate best known among Baptists as successor to legendary pastor W.A. Criswell at First Baptist Church in Dallas, is returning to the campus in Waco, Texas, as professor of preaching at the university’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
Gregory, 56, currently a distinguished fellow at Georgetown College in Kentucky, has been appointed a professor at Truett for the 2005-2006 academic year, according to a news release.
“At Truett Seminary, we intend to make preaching a priority,” said Paul Powell, dean of the seminary. “We sought Joel Gregory because I believe he is the finest preaching professor we can put before our students.”
Gregory, a past president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and author of a 1994 tell-all book describing his short stint as pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, said he hoped to help establish the seminary as “a center for contemporary biblical preaching in the historic, mainstream Baptist tradition.”
“To return to Baylor University is a gift from God,” Gregory told EthicsDaily.com on Thursday. “I do not know if they will want me past the one-year contract I have signed, but any such opportunity is for me a divine gift of grace and more than I have expected.”
Once regarded one of the best preachers and a rising star in the Southern Baptist Convention, Gregory chronicled his 21-month pastorate, which ended with his abrupt resignation in 1992, in a book he titled, Too Great a Temptation: The Seductive Power of America’s Super Church. The book inspired David Rambo’s play, God’s Man in Texas, which debuted in 1999.
In the book Gregory said while he was sympathetic to conservatives, he sat out the power struggle between moderates and conservatives until he endorsed conservative candidate Morris Chapman as SBC president in 1990 over moderate Daniel Vestal. Chapman won the race, cementing the so-called “conservative resurgence” in the SBC, while Vestal moved on to later become coordinator of the rival Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
But after Gregory’s book, which Criswell admirers thought presented the fundamentalist patriarch in a negative light, and Gregory’s 1993 divorce and subsequent remarriage, he was shunned by conservatives. Gregory’s second marriage also ended in divorce.
Without a church, Gregory took a job selling funerals and burial plots. His book helped him enter the magazine publishing business. With some partners he bought Chile Pepper/The Zesty Life magazine in 1999, taking over as editor and publisher.
In 2004, he founded Gregory Ministries for the purpose of advancing the Kingdom of God through speaking, writing, media, Internet, consulting, homiletical education and ministerial counseling.
At a “Leadership With Integrity” conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics in 1997—his first appearance before a national Baptist audience since leaving the pastorate—Gregory said he regretted entering the SBC controversy and that he did so only because conservative leaders promised to “broaden the tent” of SBC leadership, something that they didn’t do.
Gregory was elected as president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1988 and 1989. He delivered the annual sermon at the 1988 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in San Antonio, Texas, “The Castle and the Wall,” in an attempt to mediate the breach in the denomination.
In his book, Gregory said he was approached by people on both sides asking him to nominate both Winfred Moore and Charles Stanley for SBC president in 1985.
He criticized liberal professors he said he encountered while an undergraduate at Baylor in the late 1960s, but added that he was grateful for the liberal arts education he received.
He opposed then-President Herbert Reynolds in 1990 for moving Baylor to adopt a self-perpetuating board of trustees, and 10 years later stood beside him at a Texas Baptists Committed rally opposing changes to the Baptist Faith & Message.
He defended Reynolds’ successor, Robert Sloan, against criticism that he was moving the school out of the mainstream and toward the right. Sloan in February announced he would resign, citing divisions over his leadership, to become chancellor June 1.
Gregory said in Thursday’s Waco Tribune-Herald he has confidence in Baylor’s interim president and board of trustees.
“I owe everything good that has happened to me to my relationship with Baylor University, starting as a teenager,” he said. He said he was astonished when Powell started talking with him about a position about two years ago.
Though some people saw Gregory as a right-winger, he said he never saw himself that way. “I was never a fundamentalist,” he said. “I am very much in the center of everything Baylor stands for.”
Gregory told EthicsDaily.com his journey in faith has taught him “there is more danger to the traditional mainstream message from the extreme right than from the left.”
He said while he was raised in a church culture that always warned about dangers of the left, he has seen in his mature years that “the graceless, legalistic and judgmental spirit that often comes from the right negates the message of the gospel.”
Gregory said he was grateful to the Baptist Center for Ethics for giving him a platform eight years ago. “It helped enable my return to active ministry in a very substantial way,” he said.
Even before that, Gregory found acceptance and encouragement from African-American Baptists. This week, for example, he is preaching at a conference in Newark, N.J., where his close friend, Dr. Joe Carter, leads the New Hope Baptist Church.
Gregory said his exposure to the black church has deepened his appreciation of how the tradition unites proclamation with involvement in social justice, in contrast to the white church, which tends to divorce the two. “The same Jesus who saves from sin is also the Jesus who turns over tables in the Temple and sets things right in the courthouse as well as the church house,” he said.
Gregory said he hoped to pass on to his students “something of the vitality and holism of black preaching.”
“If there is to be a revival of preaching in America today, it may well come from the black church culture and spill back over to the white church culture,” he said.
He also said he sees “the gravest danger” in the marriage of the religious right to the political right.
“Daniel was not on the committee to re-elect Nebuchadnezzar,” he said. “He spoke to the palace from outside the palace, not from being inside the palace. The Kingdom of God does not belong to one political party.”
“Jesus spoke to more than two or three marquees issues of morality,” Gregory said. “He made it perfectly clear that His Kingdom stood for the poor, the dispossesed, the marginalized and the helpless. He stood above and beyond the political structure and spoke to it.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.