The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Jimmy Allen

Jimmy Allen (1930-2020)

I was saddened to hear that Jimmy Allen, well-known evangelist and long-time Bible professor at Harding University, passed away early yesterday morning. He had been in poor health for some time, so his passing was not a surprise, but still, I feel that the world has been made a dimmer place by his absence.

Allen was best known as an evangelist, and specifically, was a revivalist in the style of Billy Graham. In the 1960s and 1970s, he held a series of citywide gospel meetings, preaching to thousands and thousands in coliseums and sports stadiums. It is estimated that his evangelistic efforts led to over 10,000 baptisms.

Within the Harding community, however, Allen was also well-known as a Bible professor, and it was in that role that I knew him best. Dr. Allen was one of three absolutely outstanding Bible teachers that I had at Harding who made a profound impact upon my life (another was Neale Pryor, who I wrote about after his passing in 2011). By the time I came to Harding in the early 2000s, Allen’s style of fiery preaching was not popular with college students, but he seemed to be universally loved by those who had him as a teacher, and this despite the fact that he was notorious for rarely giving out A’s (the running joke was that the Apostle Paul couldn’t swing better than a B+ in Allen’s Romans class).

When I took Allen’s Romans class (and, also, when I read his autobiography, Fire In My Bones), I learned so much. Here are some lessons that have stayed with me:

Burden for the Lost

The driving passion of Jimmy Allen’s life was telling people about Jesus. He did not hide the fact that he had lived a prodigal sort of life before giving his life to Christ, but once he made Jesus the Lord of his life, he was obsessed with telling others about Him. There are so many stories of Allen taking advantage of “captive audiences” (friends in his fishing boat, even hitchhikers in his car!) and converting them to Christ. Allen didn’t consider himself to be a preacher (he would say, “I’m not a preacher, I’m a school teacher!”), but he felt that it was his mission to share his faith and it was unfathomable to him that so many other Christians didn’t seem to feel the same way.

Biblical Interpretation

I well remember an idea that Allen repeated often:

“You don’t learn anything about a Bible subject by reading a verse where it is not mentioned.”

This, perhaps, seems obvious, but people neglect this sound advice all the time. For example, if you want to know what baptism accomplishes, you need to read the various passages that talk about baptism and what it does. It is poor biblical interpretation to read passages that don’t mention baptism and then infer ideas about baptism from its absence.

Believing the Best of Others

I don’t remember the specific context, but it was in his Romans class that Allen said these words that I’ll never forget:

“If I hear something bad about someone, I never believe it. If it comes to the point that I have no choice but to believe it, I do not delight in it.”

These words have become a standard for my life. I do not always abide by them perfectly, but this is the goal that I seek. In an increasingly graceless cancel culture that pounces on the misdeeds of others and seeks to write them off, these words obviously represent a different path, but I believe it to be a path of profound wisdom.

Continual Learning

In Fire In My Bones, Allen shares several areas in which his views have changed over the years. He introduces that chapter with these words:

“A brother who says, “I haven’t changed any of my Biblical views in the last twenty five years,” has not had his head in the Bible. Furthermore, he would make a stagnant, mosquito-infested, mud hole look like fresh water! In teaching others, we are continually asking them to change from error to truth. We should be willing to practice the same.” (201)

This idea has played out in my own life: the more I study Scripture, the more my understanding of it grows. Some beliefs are anchored more deeply, others are nuanced and refined, and still others are changed significantly, as I learn new things that I didn’t know before. Like Allen, I am deeply suspicious of those who hold their never-changing ideas up as some sort of badge of pride.

Hope of Resurrection

In his younger days, Allen was an impressive athlete. I remember he used to tell us that when he was in college, he could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, and there are all sorts of stories about his exploits on faculty teams in intramural sports. When I had him as a teacher, he was in his 70s, but I would still see him jogging outside.

In Romans class, I well remember his exposition of Romans 8.18-25, and his discussion of the resurrection body. Well aware of his own decaying body that no longer could do the things it once did, he eagerly anticipated “the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23), and the splendid and powerful body that he would have post-resurrection. His emphasis on bodily resurrection as the center of Christian hope was re-orienting for me, and remains influential in my own views; his teaching on the redemption of creation (from the same passage) was a significant influence in my understanding of eschatology that has developed over the last several years.

In addition to what I mentioned above, Allen was also noteworthy for his teaching on grace at a time when that had not been properly emphasized, his commitment to racial equality in a time of segregation and racial tensions, and his dedication to a nonsectarian Restoration ideal. In short, he was an impressive and inspirational man in a lot of ways.

For a man who was so active and had such a brilliant mind, I cannot imagine how frustrating the last few years must have been: from what I understand, he was confined to a nursing home, in declining physical and cognitive health.

Echoing the words of the Apostle Paul, we can truly say that for a man whose life was Christ, his death is gain: Jimmy Allen is now with Jesus, and he awaits the resurrection. But at the same time, we can lament, for death is never a good thing; it is not a part of God’s plan. It is an enemy, indeed, the last enemy to be defeated. But as Christians, we believe that it will be defeated, that our bodies will be raised, and our lowly, corruptible bodies will be transformed and become like Christ’s glorious, incorruptible body. Jimmy will enjoy that; he has long anticipated it.

Freed from Sin to Fight Against It

Inspired by a close friend, my personal Bible reading and study for this year is taking the form of focusing intently on a short passage of Scripture each week. The plan is that each day, I’ll do something different with the passage: select it, read through it (many, many times), read it aloud, pray about it, write it out, read it in the original Greek or Hebrew, read the interpretations of various commentaries, and, importantly (and through all of the other steps), memorize it.

I am interested to see how it goes.

The first passage I selected was Romans 6.1-5, which is, in some ways, controversial and misunderstood. That’s too bad, because I think it is one of the most beautiful and theologically profound passages penned by Paul in the New Testament. Basically, it focuses on the new life we have in Christ, how baptism functions as the line of departure between the old life and the new, and how, in the act of baptism, we re-enact the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

One key idea in the passage is the idea of being “dead to sin.”

I love the words written below by my former professor, Jimmy Allen, in his Survey of Romans (p.66):

“Death to sin does not mean sinlessness. It means that sin no longer rules in the life of a Christian. However, sin’s dominion can re-establish itself and that is why Paul warned the brethren…God’s people have been freed from sin to fight against it. If they fail to fight, they will be conquered again.”

This brings a lot of clarity to the idea of being “dead to sin.” It’s not that we have no sin in our lives; it’s not that sin has no pull over us. Sin no longer dominates us; it no longer has dominion. As slaves are powerless to fight oppression, so are we powerless to fight against sin as long as we are enslaved by it. Once we are set free from sin through Christ at baptism, our efforts to fight against sin are empowered and thus, much more effective.

Don’t Be A Know-It-All!

People tend to dislike know-it-alls. It’s bad enough to be around people who are extremely intelligent and knowledgable and arrogantly let you know that all the time—it’s even worse to be around someone who acts like they are extremely knowledgable when in reality they are clueless. Being around people like this is one of my pet peeves.

Four brief stories on this topic:

The first story is youth ministry-related. Going back to my summer interning days, I have now been in youth ministry for over 10 years now (yikes!). In that time I have learned a lot, but I still have a lot left to learn. One time a couple of years ago, I was chatting with a college youth ministry student online, and he asked me to describe how I felt about my job. I remember I was dealing with some frustrating issues at the time, and so I told him that while youth ministry was very rewarding, it was also difficult and challenging at times to watch teens who you had poured yourself into make poor decisions which could potentially derail their entire lives.

This particular youth ministry student (who I think was a freshman at the time), proceeded to lecture me, basically saying that I should just love my teens rather than being disappointed by their poor decisions (as if these two things were mutually exclusive) and suggesting that I just wasn’t quite committed enough.

It was an annoying conversation, but one which gained a lot of comic value when I learned later on that this youth ministry student ended up changing his major…

The second story centers on an interaction between two guys I knew well in college. One guy was complaining to the other about his classes—how boring they were and how he struggled to make himself sit through class and listen to his teachers.

“What’s so special about them [his teachers] that I should have to listen to and respect what they say?” he asked.

The second guy couldn’t believe his ears. “Are you kidding me? Your teachers deserve your respect because they went to school for years and years and studied for hours and hours to accumulate the knowledge they are sharing with you in class! Who are you to think you can’t learn from them?”

As you can probably tell from the interaction, the first guy was pretty full of himself, while the second guy was one of the humblest guys I’ve ever known. As it turned out, the first guy struggled through college, bounced around from job to job, and honestly, I have no idea what he’s doing now. Meanwhile the second guy went on to earn his Ph.D. and is now a college professor.

The third story comes from Monday night, when I had the privilege of hearing Jimmy Allen speak at a gospel meeting. If you are unfamiliar with Jimmy Allen, he is a long-time preacher, teacher and Bible scholar whose life has greatly influenced untold thousands of people. He’s now in his eighties, and on Monday night, he discussed how he needed to study the Bible more because there were some topics he just didn’t understand.

And the fourth story comes from yesterday afternoon. I am in Bethesda, Maryland this week at the National Institutes of Health for consultations and evaluations for my daughter Kinsley, who has a rare form of congenital muscular dystrophy. Yesterday we got to meet with a world-class pediatric neurologist and neurological researcher who is so respected that he was repeatedly referred to as a “rock star” by other doctors we met with. He was able to give us some new information and insight that no one else has had, but he was also very upfront about telling us the things he did not know and could not predict.

Pulling all of these random stories together, here are the summary points of this post:

(1) Know-it-alls drive me crazy (see stories 1 and 2), and because of that, I try hard not to be one myself.

(2) A big part of not being a know-it-all is being upfront about the things you don’t know (3, 4).

(3) Even in those areas where you do know a lot, there’s always more to learn (3).

(4) Humble people tend to be impressive, and impressive people tend to be humble. I think the two are inherently related (2, 3, and 4).

Wise Words I Once Heard…and Bobby Petrino

If you pay any attention to sports at all, you are likely aware that Arkansas Razorback football coach Bobby Petrino was in a serious motorcycle wreck eight days ago, and that as more details of the incident came to light, it was revealed that a female passenger on the bike turned out to be an employee with whom Petrino was having an inappropriate relationship.

The national media has been quick to pick up on this story and has been decidedly anti-Petrino (a quick Google search on ‘Bobby Petrino’ will confirm this). Perhaps neither of those facts is very surprising—our culture (and by extension, the media) is always interested in a juicy story about the misdeeds or failure of public figures, and Bobby Petrino has never been very popular with the media anyway (ESPN’s Pat Forde has been on a personal crusade against him for years).

I don’t know if Petrino will be fired or not, and I have mixed feelings about whether or not he should be. I am disappointed in him and embarrassed by his actions, but at the same time, he has been the most successful football coach that Arkansas has had in my lifetime (or at least, in my memory), and I was never under the impression that he was hired because of his reputation for upstanding character.

All of this—the initial report of the accident, the rumors flying around after that report, the revelation of Petrino’s female passenger and his relationship with her, and the response of the national media—has reminded me of some wise words I once heard from Jimmy Allen.

Jimmy Allen is well-known within Church of Christ circles as an evangelist, and additionally, within the Harding University community as a Bible professor. It’s in the latter role that I know him best, as I took his outstanding class on the Book of Romans during my time at Harding. It was in that class (I don’t remember the specific context) that he said these words which I’ll never forget:

“If I hear something bad about someone, I never believe it. If it comes to the point that I have no choice but to believe it, I do not delight in it.”

I’m not entirely sure what it is about us as humans that makes us crave and delight (cf. Proverbs 18.8) in hearing of the failings of others. It likely stems from our own insecurities, and our tendency to feel better about ourselves when we see the shortcomings of others. But that craving and delighting is all closely related to the sin of gossip, which is a topic that the Bible has an awful lot to say about.

In the case of Bobby Petrino, I’m not delighting in the story like a lot of people in the National media and fans of other programs are, but if I’m honest, a lot of the reason for that is because he’s the coach of my team, and I don’t like the ramifications of all this for me. When it comes to hearing gossip about someone I might not like as much, I don’t always do a very good job of following Dr. Allen’s words.

Instead of gleefully focusing on the failings of others, the Apostle Paul suggests an alternative course of action in Philippians 4.8:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

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