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Theology forces departure, return of pastor to SBC

SUFFOLK, Va. (BP)–T.A. Powell preached countless sermons and served as pastor of two churches before he ever committed his life to Christ in a biblical way.

“Where I lived in Virginia, when children became 12- or 13-years old, they just joined the church,” said Powell, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, Suffolk, Va. “I mean, that was just the thing to do. And that’s what I did.”

Powell recounted that after he joined a church he decided Christian ministry was for him. During the 1970s Powell fulfilled his wish. While pursuing a college degree in Richmond, Va., he pastored two Southern Baptist churches in a neighboring community.

It was then an evangelist asked him, “If you died tonight, how do you know you would go to heaven?'”

“I was born and reared in Virginia’s Southern Baptist churches, and no one ever asked me that question,” Powell said.

Void of spiritual assurance, Powell voiced a prayer of confession and repentance of sin, emerging as a new man. “I’m not sure what I did back there in my youth, but I truly was born again after that prayer.”

Invigorated by his newfound faith, Powell was anxious to pursue Christian ministry in way he never had done before: “I was ready to charge hell with a squirt gun,” he joked.

“With a desire to win Richmond to Christ and a disenchantment with the Southern Baptist Convention, I moved to Richmond and started an independent Baptist church. It just seemed to me that the independents were having the greatest spiritual and evangelistic impact in America then,” said Powell, noting his affinity for New Testament Christianity.

Powell explained his “disenchantment” with the SBC and its churches by citing the steady decline in statewide baptisms, which was “well documented,” and the liberal theology in Southern Baptist seminaries at the time. “I heard from many Southern Baptist corners that the Bible just wasn’t the Word of God.”

After almost six years in Richmond, Powell furthered his education at Hyles-Anderson Bible College in Hammond, Ind., then accepted the pastorate of Liberty Baptist Church, an independent Baptist congregation in Suffolk, Va., in 1978.

Though Powell enjoyed the evangelistic fervor among independent Baptists, he shied away from the legalism espoused by some. And though he still uses the King James Version of the Bible, he doubted the idea that it was the only translation Christians ought to read or believe. He also rejected the notion that a woman’s spirituality should be measured by whether she prefers wearing pants as opposed to a dress or skirt.

The 1979 election of Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Cordova, Tenn., as SBC president was barely a blip on Powell’s pastoral scope. But his interest in the SBC’s conservative resurgence grew through the 1980s and piqued around 1990.

“I saw the Southern Baptist Convention coming back to the biblical standards I’d always held,” Powell said, who in the early 1990s attended the annual Bible conference sponsored by First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It was there I heard the preaching of Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky. As I listened to them, I said to myself, ‘Hey, these guys believe like me.'” Powell also cited the ministries of Jerry Vines, Homer Lindsey, W.A. Criswell and others who “let me know that Southern Baptists really did believe the Bible.”

Powell closely watched the national drama as Southern Baptists repeatedly elected theologically conservative presidents. He also remained keenly interested in how the SBC’s conservative resurgence impacted churches in Virginia.

One major impact the resurgence had was the formation of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, an organization now comprised of nearly 300 theologically conservative churches.

“My staff and I began attending every conference and seminar the SBCV offered,” Powell said. “We’ve been highly impressed with the level of quality and content in everything we go to. In fact, I began to feel a little guilty that we were receiving so much.”

After nearly three decades of searching, Powell found the fellowship he had sought in his early Southern Baptist journey. He realized that Liberty Baptist Church could be part of something so much bigger than itself. So in 1999, the members of Liberty voted to join the SBC of Virginia by a near-100 percent vote.

“We joined the SBCV because of what the pastors and churches stand for and what their mission and goals are,” Powell said. “They are evangelistic and believe in the inerrant Word of God. Furthermore, the fellowship at SBCV conferences and meetings is sweet. Certainly the hand of God is upon the SBCV.”

At the SBC of Virginia’s annual convention Oct. 9-10, 2000, Powell finally came home when messengers unanimously admitted his Suffolk church into their fellowship.

Though Powell says his basic theology hasn’t changed much, he is quick to observe that it was not really he who had come home, but the Southern Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • Norm Miller