Cecil May, Jr.–Dean of the V. P. Black College of Biblical Studies at Faulkner University–is a kind, loving Christian gentlemen in the best sense of that term. He was the first to ever interview me for an academic position just weeks before Sheila died as he was about to become President of Magnolia Bible College. Later, in 1989, he did hire me as a faculty member at Magnolia. And, then, he graciously released me from my contract in 1991 as we decided to move to Memphis upon learning of Joshua’s terminal genetic condition.
I have nothing but admiration, gratitude and love in my heart for Cecil May, Jr. And there is absolutely no “but….” I would add to that previous sentence.
I believe he falls in the G. C. Brewer “tradition” or style of thinking and ministry, and I know he would appreciate that categorization as he grew up at the Union Aveune Church of Christ in Memphis, TN. His teaching on grace follows Brewer’s (see my article grace and the Nashville Bible School), his openness to diversity on a range of questions from pragmatic methods to assembly practices (e.g., he doesn’t like singing during the Lord’s Supper but he does not believe it unscriptural) reflects Brewer’s own practical innovations (e.g., introducing multiple cups to the larger brotherhood) and views (e.g., special singing was not prohibited in the assembly in Brewer’s opinion), and his ecclesiological patternism follows Brewer’s own substantively reasoned perspectives (e.g., opposition to instrumental music).
I was reminded of my love for Cecil when he provided a clarification for Todd Deaver regarding Todd’s use of some of his past statements. Todd graciously published it on his website.
I have just listened to his recent lecture at Freed-Hardeman University entitled “Can Patterns Go To Far,” February 3, 2009 at 8:30am. While I would not agree with everything in his lecture (he briefly critiqued Come to the Table while surveying 1 Corinthians 11), I thought he modeled a kind but forthright gentleness in his presentation. His conclusion was particularly on point and provided a broad common ground for discussion and agreement between (to use the terminology in play at Todd Deaver’s website) progressives and traditionalists. Below is the last three minutes of his lecture (my own transcription).
To lovingly strive to please God by seeking his pattern in Scripture and to endeavor to live by it is not legalism. Legalism is the notion that we can save ourselves by our own doing either by being correct enough, believing all the right things or being good enough, doing all the right things.
I read something every once in a while that seems to imply that the writer is absolutely certain that he knows everything there is to know and therefore he’s going to be saved because he’s absolutely right about everything. I wish I were that certain about everything I know. I’ve already learned a few things I thought I knew that I realized I was wrong about. And I obviously think that whateverI think I know now is right or I wouldn’t think it anymore. [Laughter] But I’ve had occasion to learn a few things later and point out somethings that bear on things that I’m not able to be absolutely certain. Somebody has called me an agnostic over that. I prefer to say that I have a little bit of epistemological humility. Maybe that’s the same thing, but I like the second phrase a little bit better.
And I know that I’m not good enough. You may not know that I’m not good enough, but I know that I’m not good enough to be declared on that basis. We all have sinned. The good news of the gospel is that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scripture. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. With his stripes we are healed. We are not required to be perfectly right or perfectly righteous. We are required to be faithful. We are saved by grace through faith.
The existence of divinely authorized patterns does not deny the gospel of grace. None of us is perfect either in our actions or in our standards. None of us, some of us are further along in the maturing process than others. Some of us live more correctly by the patterns than others do. Some have had more opportunities to learn than others. But we’re not saved because we perfectly follow the patterns of Scripture. We are saved by the sacrifice of Christ through our faith in him.
However, patterns for life and conduct in the assembly and outside of it tell us how our Lord would have us to live. When we recognize, listen to this, and remember this if you don’t remember anything else that I said today, when we recognize that he has saved us by his death, when we believe the Scripture is his own revelation of himself and his will, and when in gratitude we search the Scriptures for his will for us in order to conform to it as we understand it and can, that’s not legalism. That’s faith working through love. Thank you and God bless you.
“Pattern,” as Cecil pointed out earlier in his lecture, is a slippery word. I believe in patterns. I certainly think Christ is our pattern and I believe the gospel regulates both our assemblies and life (see chapter seven in A Gathered People or some of my previous posts on the topic). The devil is in the details, precise definitions and hermeneutical methods.
But the larger point, and more important one, is where Cecil ended his lecture. It is not legalism to seek patterns or to live by patterns. It is legalism to use those patterns in such a way that they undermine salvation by grace through faith.
Thank you, Cecil, for your life, magnamity and gracious spirit.
May God continue to use you and bless you, my friend.
P.S. The substance of the lecture is also available in a PDF file here.