When I phoned Timothy George in 2002, I had been cut off from my spiritual heritage. Theological liberalism had robbed me of the evangelical Methodism that so many of my ancestors enjoyed. I had to leave the church of my youth to find that evangelical experience and theology. I had my Bible, and I had my conversion. But I didn’t know where I belonged.
Timothy George helped me to find that family history as an evangelical. And he’s been doing the same for generations before and after me, first as a professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and then for the last 30 years as dean of Beeson Divinity School. He retires as Beeson’s dean in May, though his teaching and writing will continue. Because he has yet more to teach us about what happened in church history in those years between Jesus and our grandmothers. And he has more to teach us about leadership that endures by faith.
Our character—and our grasp of grace—is revealed in how we treat people who can’t enhance our résumé, can’t do anything for us, and can’t make our lives easier.
Many first learned from George in his widely read Theology of the Reformers, published in 1988. I don’t know of any better introduction to what the major 16th-century reformers taught and believed. The fact that it was published by B&H for the Southern Baptist Convention is significant. Recovering the reformers’ theology prepared a generation for the SBC’s conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s and then inspired the growth of Reformed theology in the SBC during the 2000s and 2010s.
Man of Patience, Kindness, and Integrity
But I first knew George through his work as an executive editor of Christianity Today. He served many years in that position alongside Thomas Oden and J. I. Packer, two more role models for generations of evangelicals. That day in 2002 I needed help on an article I was writing about the differences between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. I had studied the movement Evangelicals and Catholics Together during an undergraduate course on American evangelicalism, and I sympathized with R. C. Sproul’s critiques. Though George and Sproul didn’t see eye to eye on this matter, I knew George would be a reliable source. More important for a fledgling journalist, he proved to be an available one.
Sometimes the simple things prove to be the most memorable. I called Beeson, and his assistant patched me right through to him. I don’t remember how long we talked; it seemed like at least half an hour, but given my ignorance of the subject matter, I don’t know how I could have asked that many informed questions. But I recall so clearly his patience with me and passion for the topic. He had nothing to gain by talking to me. Maybe only a dozen people would ever read this article I wrote for a campus Christian magazine. So far as he knew, we’d never speak again.
He never seemed busy, never rushed, never eager to shuffle me along so he could move on to more important conversations or writings or readings.
I’m sure I didn’t break any new ground in the article. But that initial contact changed the trajectory of my life. Over the years I would have many occasions to visit Beeson, located in Birmingham near where my wife grew up. Whenever we were in town at the same time, George welcomed me to lunch or to his office to talk. When I asked him about seminary, he put me in touch with John Woodbridge at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Like George, Woodbridge welcomed my visits with no agenda and stayed as long as I wanted to talk. Again, he had little to nothing to gain in the exchange. But he never seemed busy, never rushed, never eager to shuffle me along so he could move on to more important conversations or writings or readings. Together they connected me to Trinity International University president David Dockery, who demonstrates the same virtues of patience and kindness.
My favorite thing about Timothy George is a trait he shares with these friends. I know he doesn’t treat me in some special way. This is who he is, no matter who’s on the other end of the phone, and no matter who’s on the other side of the lunch table. He has traveled the world, written landmark books, taught the most influential evangelical leaders in the United States, and dined with the heads of the largest Christian communions. And he’s the same ambassador of Christ to all.
Future Evangelical Leadership
The occasion of George’s retirement as Beeson’s dean has made me reflect on evangelical leadership. In the last year, the top position has opened up at a staggering number of leading evangelical churches, schools, and other institutions: not only Beeson and Trinity where George and Dockery have served, but also Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, International Mission Board, SBC Executive Committee, Park Street Church, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Moody Church, Christianity Today International, Willow Creek Community Church, LifeWay Christian Resources, and many more. Several of these positions have recently been filled. Others remain open. All face unique and daunting challenges.
Leadership that lifts the least is leadership that lasts for generations.
I’m hopeful for the rising generation of leaders because God is faithful to his church. And I hope we learn the right lessons from the leaders before us who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). Our character—and our grasp of grace—is revealed in how we treat people who can’t enhance our résumé, can’t do anything for us, and can’t make our lives easier. Even when facing our enemies, we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Leadership that lifts the least is leadership that lasts for generations.