A. T. Robertson, the Book of James, and Dudes with Ambition


If you have not picked up Greg Wills’s recent The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford, 2009), you owe it to yourself to do so.  It’s a huge book, it is an institutional history, and it may seem esoteric, but in reality, it reads crisply, it tells an engrossing story, and it offers wisdom on a great number of topics related to Christian life and ministry.

In the course of reading the text, this section stood out to me.  Wills describes how the seminary’s fourth president, E. Y. Mullins, handed down a policy in 1911 that pushed faculty away from leadership positions in the Southern Baptist Convention.  This may have happened 100 years ago, but I assure you that it is relevant for us today:

“Mullins apparently felt that the seminary president alone should exercise significant denominational leadership.  Mullins may have feared that his faculty would become more popular and influential in the denomination than he was.  RobertsonSampeyMcGlothlin, and Carver were indeed becoming very popular.  Robertson especially was growing in the esteem of the denomination for both his preaching and his scholarship.” (280)

Wills comments on how two of the professors handled this seeming slight:

“Robertson became Mullins’s warm supporter and promoter, and Mullins came to rely heavily on Robertson’s counsel.  He gave up aspirations to equality with the president and became instead his promoter and chief counselor.  McGlothlin, however, apparently transgressed Mullins’s restrictions inadvertently around 1914 or 1915, as McGlothlin attained the kind of leadership that had thus far eluded Mullins.” (282)

In situations like this, there is always more than meets the eye.  Whether in a seminary, on a church staff, or among friends, jealousy and ambition have a way of finding an entryway.  In this particular case, Mullins seems to have acted out of naked jealousy and thus put his faculty in a difficult and unfair position.  He was the principal wrongdoer here.  In response, A. T. Robertson chose the high road and sacrificed his interests for the sake of peace at Southern.  McGlothlin took a different tack and ended up leaving the school and becoming the president of both Furman University in 1919 and the Southern Baptist Convention from 1930-32.  His route to leadership involved the loss of friendship with Mullins.

It surprised me in reading this sad story how much it mirrors the trajectory mapped out for jealousy and ambition in James 3:13-18:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. 

We note that James predicts perfectly what will happen when we allow the “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” that reside in our hearts to creep into our friendships and working partnerships.  Peace will evade us.  “Disorder” will overtake us.  This is what happened at Southern nearly a century ago; this is what happens today, in countless places and situations, including in churches, seminaries, homes, and the contexts of everyday friendship.

It is a difficult thing to find the balance between righteous agency, of the kind commended, for example, in Proverbs and the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), and “selfish ambition”.  Mullins and McGlothlin were both gifted for leadership; neither was sinful in principle for pursuing the application of their gifts in ministry.  But the way in which we fallen people work out the application of our gifts amongst brothers and sisters takes careful discernment.

It can be very difficult to know whether in seeking more work, or a role that better suits our abilities, or the improvement of a certain sphere of our church, we are being selfishly ambitious and acting in part out of a jealous desire to displace others and exalt ourselves.  Or take another example.  In the age of the Internet, is it “selfishly ambitious” for authors to in some way advocate for their texts?  Or is it wise stewardship?  Is it better to have one’s book languish on Amazon, unnoticed and thus of little benefit to the church, or to push a little harder and get the material into the hands of readers who may benefit from it?  These are tricky questions that necessitate prayer, brotherly counsel, and keen discernment.

What we can say for sure, though, and what we might forget as we tackle such thorny issues is that James commends “the meekness of wisdom” to those who are tempted to be sinfully ambitious and jealous.  What exactly does meekness look like?  Does it mean talking in a soft voice?  Limply shaking hands?  Wearing sweater-vests on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays?

Speaking as a young man, I wonder whether those of us who want to kill our sin and embody “the meekness of wisdom” might locate this quality in an inward demeanor, a posture before the Lord that is “pure, peaceable, gentle…open to reason” and so on.  Those of us who want to avoid a limp-wristed Christianity need to remember that these traits are commended to us by God.  This does not put them in opposition to other biblical traits like agency, dominion-taking, kingdom shrewdness, boldness, courage, strength, and much more.  But it does mean that these qualities need to figure prominently in our character, and especially in areas where we are tempted to be jealous and ambitious.

That balanced way of life reminds us ultimately of another man and His own self-sacrifice for something much greater than a seminary or an institution.  In Jesus Christ, we have both the perfect example of self-sacrifice and the blood-bought means by which to live in “the meekness of wisdom”.  We need when tempted to promote ourselves (a sin expedited by certain features of the web) and to hate others out of jealousy to remember with A. T. Robertson that the work the Lord has given us to do is rooted in Christ and the promotion of His fame and glory.  He is infinitely worthy of celebration; we are not.

As we learn this–and it will take some of us young dudes a while to do so–we recall the biblical irony that characterized Christ’s life and that should characterize our own.  In seeking a position of lowliness, He became great (Philippians 2:1-11).  In adopting a course of existence that sometimes appeared so weak, He in fact destroyed the powers of darkness that rule this world.  So may it be for us if we will allow God to humble us and further conform us to the role of servant in order that we might rule with Him.

Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind. You can find him on Twitter at @ostrachan.