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Prof’s ministry investments paying off eternal dividends

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The best investment Malcolm Yarnell ever made came after an investment his pastor made in him.

Yarnell had already left a potentially lucrative career in finance and investments to pursue a call to the ministry. After earning master’s degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Duke University and gaining valuable ministry experience by pastoring churches along the way, Yarnell heard from his former minister, Wayne Dubose.

DuBose told him to apply for Ph.D. work at Oxford University in England and not to worry about the money. Not worrying about the money was no easy matter for Yarnell, who, as an international student, would have to show up front 3 years worth of support for himself, his wife and his young sons. Bankruptcy, he recalled, was a constant concern.

He had other concerns, too. Following his father’s military career from station to station as a child, Yarnell valued a more stable life for himself and his family. He had already accomplished more academically than anyone else in his family with a college degree and two master’s degrees. When he left the financial world to pursue his call, friends told him he was wasting his God-given investment abilities. And, he had self-doubts.

“I didn’t think I could do it intellectually, and I knew that I didn’t have the financial resources,” he said.

But Yarnell’s confidence that God had called him to a teaching ministry, the encouragement of his wife and the word of DuBose, a pastor he respected deeply, helped him overcome any negative feelings.

Still fresh in Yarnell’s thoughts was what occurred years ago when he first told DuBose that he felt called to the ministry. DuBose lay prostrate on the ground, praying and weeping that God would make clear the path for Yarnell to follow.

“It was all laid out for me in a divine sense; from the human viewpoint it was constant turmoil and guessing,” Yarnell admitted.

On faith, Yarnell applied only to Oxford. He admitted that he was shocked when he was accepted and equally shocked when DuBose said more than $50,000 had been raised to support his education, given through Green Valley Baptist, Birmingham, Ala., where DuBose was pastor. Others contributed tens of thousands of dollars more — money Yarnell never asked for.

“I did ask for money a couple of times, but it never worked out,” Yarnell said, adding that even a few Episcopalians made significant contributions to his education fund.

This financial investment in his ministry was just one in a series of investments made in Yarnell’s life.

He made a profession of faith at age 7 in Barksdale Baptist Church, Bossier City, La., but admitted that at first he went forward to tell the pastor of his decision because he was jealous of his older brother who had accepted Christ earlier and was receiving lots of attention. Yarnell knew his pastor sensed a lack of understanding.

Not until he stood at the top of the steps to the baptistery did he admit that he had come forward for the wrong reason and was convicted of his sin.

“As I entered the baptistery, I actually gave my heart to Christ at that time,” he recalled.

After the service, Yarnell said he stood at the back of the church still without a sense of forgiveness. Then, he felt God saying, “I forgive you.”

“That which was black and white and gray, suddenly burst into colors as I understood what forgiveness meant,” he said.

Throughout childhood, Yarnell remained committed to Christ wherever the military sent his father, even though his family fell away from the church.

As a teenager, however, he too looked for happiness outside the church.

“I never enjoyed sin,” he said. “I was doing it because all my friends were.”

It took his great grandmother and a bowl of banana pudding made with potato chips instead of vanilla wafers to get him back on track.

Talking with this woman who prayed every day for her more than 50 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, Yarnell saw that “although she was losing her mind, the thing that was very clear to her was the necessity of a relationship with Jesus Christ.” She prayed with him to rededicate his life.

While he is not proud of the lapse in his Christian walk, it did teach him an important lesson.

“That experience has shown me it is very necessary to be a part of a church,” Yarnell said. “We need that accountability and fellowship only the church can provide.

“I cannot be rightly related to Christ unless I am rightly related to the church.”

The importance of the church as a community continues to influence his studies and ministry today. In the Angus Library at Oxford, Yarnell said he was shocked to read early sources of the Reformation and Baptist history and see that modern historiographers had mischaracterized this era in church history as a push for individualism.

“There was no hyper-individualism in the church at this time,” he said. “[The early Baptists] wanted to know what it meant to be the church, the body of Christ.”

In early Baptist literature, Yarnell found the recurrence of Matthew 18:20, which early Baptists used to assert that the presence of Christ coincided with the church gathered — even if only two or three.

“Their authority did not come from the pope or a king,” Yarnell said. “It came directly out of the gathering of the two or three. That’s why baptism was so important. It was the way in. The Lord’s Supper was the continuing evidence.”

The onset of the Enlightenment 100 years later began the push for individualism, Yarnell contends. And not until the 20th century did radical individualism become the mark of Baptists, especially those in America, which Yarnell said, stemmed from a misinterpretation of “priesthood of the believers” as referring to individuals rather than the church.

The individualistic interpretation of that phrase has erroneously been used as an “antidote to inerrancy and any attempts to establish authority in the SBC,” he added.

His dissertation, “Royal Priesthood in the English Reformation,” scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press, contains many of his conclusions. And he knows now why God wanted him to study at Oxford.

“I could only have done it outside the American context,” he said. “I literally lived in the 14th through the 17th centuries for 3 years and outside the American Enlightenment mindset.”

“When you do that constantly you begin to see the world through different eyes, the eyes of our Baptist forefathers.”

Although he refers to his time at Oxford as “a grand learning experience,” life was not without challenges. Finances were taken care of thanks to DuBose and others, but he knows that he also needed the cooperation and understanding of his family.

Yarnell credits his wife, Karen, with being a constant supporter of his call to ministry, even when he wanted to give up. The two met at Missions ’85 in Nashville, Tenn., and she still feels the call to missions. At this time, Karen, a Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary alumnus, is working on a master’s degree from Oxford.

During Yarnell’s studies, the family of five lived in a 459-square-foot apartment and did without television from necessity at first and by choice later.

They did have to adjust to the new culture. “The lack of efficiency” of British society while at times frustrating for the Yarnells was also refreshing because of the absence of the American work ethic and slavery to the clock.

Yarnell noted that the English appreciate intellectuals, good thoughts and good deeds. At Oxford, he also knew he was surrounded by great talent and creativity.

Back at Southwestern, Yarnell’s goal is to tie together a rigorous academic intellect with evangelical practice. Some say schools have to choose between the two, but Yarnell believes otherwise. He said his developing passion is political theology, in particular the role the church and Christians should have in politics.

Though his academic interests may change, Yarnell desires to remain true to his calling “to be a teacher of teachers, a minister to ministers, a pastor to pastors, a preacher to preachers … to serve those who serve the churches.”

In his office hangs two pictures of ships at sea — one floating on peaceful waters toward a beautiful sunset and the second still in port but tossed by stormy waves. The second reminds Yarnell of William Carey, the first Baptist missionary, who went against prevailing wisdom and practice to take the gospel to another country.

Yarnell, the man who admits to having great difficulty with change, now has adopted a more Carey-like attitude.

“Instead of looking at life as living in a building in the middle of a continent, I began to look at life as living on a ship,” he said. “Life is an adventure, and it calls for change.”

So the one-time financial investor knows that the only important investments are those made in eternity.

“God didn’t call me to make my home on this earth. I’m waiting on that city whose foundation and builder is God. I haven’t made it to Jerusalem yet.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MALCOLM YARNELL.

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  • Matt Sanders