I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. G. Al Wright, pastor of First Baptist Church of Waynesboro, recently about his transformation from being a “moderate” Baptist to becoming a “conservative” Baptist who has an uncompromising allegiance to the Word of God. He is active in Baptist life and serves on the Georgia Baptist Executive Committee and Administration Committee. He also served on the search team for the executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. He has served as pastor of First Baptist Waynesboro for 27 years and become one of Georgia Baptists’ most respected leaders.
~Senior Editor J. Gerald Harris
The Christian Index: How would you have described yourself theologically prior to the transformation to a more conservative doctrinal position?
Dr. Wright: I was saved when I was 15 out of a crisis over the sudden death of my father; and I came out of a very unchurched and non-biblically informed background. The clear call to preach came less than two years later and I began serving a church as an interim pastor and then pastor. I had good mentors, but my bent was toward legalistic fundamentalism with little grace and no capacity for understanding the real and true depth of my sinfulness or the sinfulness of others.
I expected everybody in the church to be madly in love with Jesus, devoted to growing as believers, and becoming all that God wanted them to be. I also wanted everyone to have a passion for serving God in the church and for seeing sinners saved.
I was shocked and unequipped to handle what I saw and what I experienced in the church. And so after four years of lots of frustration in ministry, my wife and I left for Louisville, KY and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
I was empty. I was frustrated. I had no solid biblical or doctrinal foundation under me. I was a sponge ready to soak up whatever I was taught.
The Christian Index: What contributed to that “left-leaning” theological inclination? Seminary? Church where you grew up? Relationships? Personal Bible study, etc.?
Dr. Wright: I went to Southern Seminary because while in college in Augusta I had served as president of the Baptist Student Ministry (BSU) and attended the state conferences where many of the speakers were from Southern. One of my best friends was there. The man who led me to Jesus went there. And I knew that I could get there what I wanted most and that was to learn the Biblical Languages.
I went to a New Testament class the first day and heard a professor say that the New Testament contained core truths that were framed by many legends and myths. He likened it to the meat of a nut in a peanut or pecan etc. It was new for me. But I listened and trusted what I was being taught.
I then went on that same day to an Old Testament introduction class to hear about the Pentateuch and on the way out of class encountered James Merritt for the first time. In an agitated voice he slapped me on the back and said, “Do you believe that they are teaching that Moses did not write the Pentateuch?” I held up my hand to stop him and said, “Buddy, I am not that far yet; I am still trying to find out what the Pentateuch is.”
I was a novice. But new water was filling my sponge which led to my getting to the end of my middle year having everything that I had believed evaporate into nothingness only to be filled the last year of my M.Div., during my Th.M. at Southeastern, and my Ph.D. at SBTS with very liberal teaching that called into question everything from the miracles to the nature of the atonement.
Here, however, is the great providence of God. I went to seminary for languages and stayed at every level focused on and saturated in the biblical languages. I began to read the Greek Text in 1976 every day and continue that practice even until now.
The Christian Index: How did that early theological position influence your life and ministry?
Dr. Wright: Short answer – it got me in a lot of trouble. I did not affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. I was big on the love of God for all people and weak on the idea of judgment or wrath for anybody. My theology was simple: love God, love people.
My missiology and evangelistic strategy was to learn from all religions and even from those with none. It really began to have an impact when during the Baptist Battles I was a part of the Moderate Movement and frankly could not understand why we would just not be candid about our not being inerrantists.
It seemed to me that “the other side” had named the battle correctly: it was a battle for the Bible. They were inerrantists; we were not.
God, by His gracious Spirit, was beginning to open my eyes even during those days. It began to bother me deeply that we did not want to say clearly who we were or where we stood. I began to wonder if there was really something seriously wrong about where we stood.
The Christian Index: What were the things that prompted a change in your theology or doctrines to a more conservative position?
Dr. Wright: There are three things primarily. First, I was reading the Greek text every day and seeing more and more how absolutely true and accurate it was. I was seeing that the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New Testament and that the Bible is not out to deceive (there is no nut at the middle around which have accrued myths and legends); the Bible is Truth and the Truth is absolute.
It does not contain Truth; it is Truth. All of it. Every word and all of it together.
Two, I had come to Waynesboro from two rather difficult places to serve. Most of that was due to where I was spiritually and theologically rather than where the churches were. But it had been hard, very hard.
I came to Waynesboro and was loved by the church from the start. An older saint in the church called me the first day I was in my office. When a person is a liberal as a pastor, he finds out who the conservatives are in the church in a hurry. Many in our churches are not liberal and never have been; they are nominal or cultural in their Christianity.
This elder saint was a conservative and wanted to come see me on my very first day on the job! I thought, “Oh no, here we go again.” She walked into the office and around the desk to hug me and to thank me for being her pastor. I cried. I hadn’t had that in so long as a pastor that it stunned me.
She was just one representative of what was in the church. It created a crisis for me. I had been miserable in ministry for some time, but had blamed it on the church. My marriage was good, and our children were fine, so I thought the only source of my misery was the church.
But I no longer had that excuse. I was quickly coming to a place where I was seriously contemplating leaving ministry. I did not know what else to do.
Third, the book by Kirby Godsey, When We Talk about God, Let’s be Honest, was published. I read it immediately. I knew then that if that book represented what a moderate/liberal was then whatever I was, I wasn’t that.
It was during this time when three things came together. In a short period of time some men in Waynesboro arranged for me to go to the Promise Keepers Pastors Conference in Atlanta. They paid for it. They paid for the motel and the gas to get there and back. I had no choice.
But I had already begun, before going, to make plans to leave and get a new job while staying in Waynesboro. I did not want to move my family any more. I prayed before leaving for the conference: “God, I am going to this conference and I need you either to recall me and reclaim me for ministry or I am quitting.”
The conference began with Tony Evans coming to the pulpit and speaking these words that God used to break me and begin to remake me: “Gentlemen: some of you have come here tonight in need of a recall, and God is going to recall you right here tonight.”
He did. I went back to my hotel and prayed through the night taking my Bible and holding up to God, asking Him to forgive me and begging for a new opportunity and promising God that if He would give that to me, I would preach and teach the Bible as the inerrant, infallible, and fully sufficient Word of God so long as He would keep me here on the earth or until Jesus returned.
The Christian Index: Where were you serving the Lord when that transformation occurred?
Dr. Wright: I came back to Waynesboro knowing that God had changed my life. I read the Scripture the next Sunday, holding up the Bible and declaring, “This is the inerrant, infallible, and fully sufficient Word of God.” It soothed some who had been waiting for that and it stirred up a bunch. My wife and I knew that what God had done in both our lives could mean another move, but the Holy Spirit prompted us both to be patient and to see what God would do.
It wasn’t easy, but we watched God change the church in real and radical ways. I give praise to God alone for what He alone did. And He did it through His Word. His Word along with persistent prayer are most powerful tools that God has given us for change.
The Christian Index: What were the circumstances and who were the people that influenced you in this change in your theological position?
Dr. Wright: Well, I began to see from the liberal or moderate side that what I had been taught and what I was reading in liberal books and commentaries could not hold water when compared with the very plain truth of the biblical text. And on the conservative, evangelical side I began to read and listen to whomever was taking the Bible seriously in preaching and teaching and doing it expositionally. I gave myself, as a pastor, to expositional preaching and wanted to learn from whomever was doing that.
The Christian Index: How did that change you personally and how did it impact your church?
Dr. Wright: Personally, it has brought a deep peace and an enthusiastic joy into my life with a passion for ministry that keeps getting hotter. I love the church. I love the Word of God. I love the work to which we are called together to see sinners saved and deployed as disciples in the world.
The church is very different than she once was. It would be hard to be in our church now and not affirm inerrancy and all that means from how we conduct our business to how we worship God to the time given on Sundays and throughout the week to the teaching and preaching of the Word of God.
The Christian Index: Please give an example or two of how your theology or doctrinal beliefs about the Bible changed.
Dr. Wright: I will cite II Timothy 3, Isaiah 40 and 55, and II Peter 1 as examples. The Bible is absolute truth and it is our sole authority for who we are and what we do. Our people at our church have heard me say over the last 25-plus years: “I love being Baptist and I love being a Southern/Georgia Baptist, but what I love more is being biblical in who we are and what we do.
“The Bible is the final, eternal, absolute, and sufficient authority on all things so that if something Baptist is in conflict with something biblical, the Bible will win every time, no contest.”
The truth, in my view, is that if a man or woman does not accept and affirm the inerrancy of Scripture their doctrinal edifice is a house of collapsing cards. It is only when the Bible is seen and loved for what it is that we can speak and live truth about Jesus being the only way of salvation, about His atonement being a sacrifice to God and a substitute for sinners so that no human being can be saved apart from Jesus, and that the impetus for what we do in missions is not a ministry of good works to hurting people – as important as that is – but a mission to bring people to God through Jesus Christ for which deeds of kindness can open a road, but they cannot save sinners. Only God can do that, and He does it only when we open our mouths and make clear the truth of God, the center of which in all the Bible is the glorious good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Christian Index: What would you say to a young pastor who may be going through a theological crisis in his life or ministry?
Dr. Wright: It is simple. Doubt and distraction do not come from God. They come from the devil. Love the Bible. Soak in the Bible. Preach and teach the Bible.
It is doing what we are called to do even in times of doubt that will deliver us from doubt into deeper confidence in the Word of God. It is where Jesus turned during times of temptation and it is where the preacher must dwell. Love the Word and Preach the Word no matter what is going on inside you or around you.