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FIRST-PERSON: Staggered & humbled

EDITOR’S NOTE: At the SBC Executive Committee meeting in February, Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, announced that Jonathan Akin had been named to lead a ministry of NAMB and the Executive Committee to engage young leaders in Southern Baptist cooperative missions. Ezell arranged a meeting between Akin and several state convention executive directors who were concerned about the appointment; Ezell subsequently asked Akin to evaluate the meeting, in which he recounted his interaction with Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Director J. Robert White, which is released here with permission of Akin, pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tenn., the last six years, and White, who has led the Georgia convention since 1993.

NASHVILLE (BP) — I took Intermediate Greek in seminary with Dr. John Polhill, and we did our work in Philippians for the entire semester. Each student had to select a passage in Philippians on which to write three exegetical papers. I grew up listening to my dad preach a wonderful message on Philippians 2:1-11, so I selected that passage for my papers. That beautiful passage that some think was an early Christian hymn tells all about the humility of Christ and how He voluntarily set aside privileges that were rightly His in order to serve humanity.

I was pumped about digging into the Greek syntax and learning more about it. I studied that passage for four months. I did lexical work, syntactical work and exegetical work. I knew the ins and outs of all the Greek clauses. In fact, I memorized the passage in Greek. You could say I was an expert on Philippians 2.

The problem is that while I worked hard to become an intellectual expert on Philippians 2, I didn’t work hard to become a practical expert on it. Far from having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5) and far from displaying the humility of Christ, I actually became more arrogant and prideful. Despite Dr. Polhill’s best efforts to challenge the students, including me, to make this more than an intellectual exercise, I failed to adequately apply the passage to my life.

Regretfully, as a young minister, I have often been guilty of arrogance and pride. I have often thought I knew better than my elders. I have often been cocksure that my solutions to the problems were always the correct ones. I still have Philippians 2:5-11 memorized, at least in English, but I often fail in having the mind of Christ.

And yet, the other day I was convicted and challenged anew to apply Philippians 2 in my life when I got to see firsthand a brother in Christ powerfully demonstrate the humility of Jesus to me.

I met recently with some state convention executive directors. Backstory: I have at times been very critical of state conventions and state convention leaders. So, I was meeting with some men who had every reason to be upset with me.

One of the men in the room was Dr. J. Robert White, the executive director of Georgia’s state convention, and he asked to go first. I braced myself wondering what he would say. However, Dr. White turned the conversation on a dime and changed the temperature of the room with his first sentence, “Jonathan, I want to ask you to forgive me.” I was caught off guard and humbled within seconds.

Dr. White went on to say that I had written some hurtful things about the Georgia Baptist Convention, and he said that instead of doing the biblical thing that he knew to do — call me or come see me to talk it out like brothers — he chose to just be upset with me. For that he said he was sorry and sought my forgiveness.

It was such a powerful moment. I was almost moved to tears and did choke up when it was my turn to speak (especially since it’s a ministry of Georgia Baptists that led to my mom to faith in Christ while she lived at the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home). It was a powerful moment because Dr. White displayed the mind of Christ. Dr. White is a man in a very important position. He is my elder. He has tenure in ministry longer than I have been alive. He honestly didn’t owe me anything. I hadn’t had the respect or courtesy to call him or sit down with him before I wrote those things. And yet, he voluntarily humbled himself before me. He apologized to me. He sought my forgiveness. In that moment I was reminded of Philippians 2 again, and I knew that’s the kind of man I want to be.

I was staggered. I was humbled by Dr. White. Of course, I forgave him and I sought his forgiveness in return. In my zeal to see more resources get to the places with little to no gospel witness, I have sometimes been guilty of being uncharitable to other brothers and have arrogantly thought my proposed solutions are the only right ones. Dr. White graciously forgave me as well.

It was an encouraging and convicting meeting — one I’ll never forget. And it’s a reminder to me that knowing the Word is one thing but practicing the Word is quite another. I hope this will be a challenge to all students and young pastors. I know it’s a challenge to me. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5) and “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

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  • Jonathan Akin