A Pastor’s Thoughts in Memoriam to John Spencer

A Life Well Lived

April 16, 1920 – November 22, 2012

On Thanksgiving Day, Nov 22, 2012 I received a phone call informing me of the homegoing of John Spencer, a longtime member and Elder of Briarwood Presbyterian Church. Immediately I had two thoughts. One, a statement from the Old Testament with New Testament meaning, “a Prince in Israel has fallen today.” Secondly, “a Saint of grace has ascended to glory.” John Spencer was an unusual Christian man who served Christ faithfully as a Christian businessman, citizen, community leader and churchman all undergirded by an undeniable love to his Savior and servant leadership in his family. His homegoing leaves behind a grieving church who will greatly miss him and his 50 years of faithful engagement and leadership. But even more so must be the grief of a devoted wife, Emalyn, three children, John Jr., Ginger and Janie along with 4 grandchildren who now deal with an extraordinary vacuum which only the Lord of glory can fill. When you love deeply, you grieve deeply.

My first personal encounter with John and Emalyn Spencer was in the fall of 1983. Having been sent by Briarwood and Mission to North America to plant Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier that year, I had been invited to speak for the Sunday night service of the National Missions Conference at Briarwood later that year. After having spent time in prayer with Dr. Frank Barker, I slipped into the morning service and sat beside an attractive, mature couple. They introduced themselves and I realized I was sitting next to John and Emalyn Spencer. I felt like I was in the presence of celebrity – John Spencer, well known for his leadership in the PCA as well as at Briarwood and beside him his lovely wife Emalyn, the author of Christian books and Bible Studies (one of which Cindy and I had raised our daughters with – A Woman that Feareth the Lord – a study of the Proverbs 31 woman). They were so gracious and encouraging and it began a personal relationship with John and Emalyn which only deepened after the Lord called me to serve as Briarwood’s Senior Pastor alongside of John’s leadership. But at the time I had no idea how much I would benefit from that relationship then and in the future.

On Nov. 22, 1963 there were two deaths. One most of you will remember. The tragic assassination of JFK and the other overshadowed but perhaps an even greater loss was the homegoing of C.S. Lewis. Now on the same date, 49 years later the church of our Savior blessed gloriously by the gift of God’s grace through John Spencer has lost the presence and intimacy of a great man of God which only the Lord can remedy. John Spencer, a faithful member of Briarwood for almost 50 years beginning in 1964 as he arrived simultaneously with Briarwood’s move from the Storefront to its first church building. It was not long thereafter that the church, recognizing John’s quiet yet influential leadership, made him a ruling elder which initiated a growing ministry of shepherding, evangelism and disciple-making that continued until the day Christ, the Head of the Church called him home. His strength and courage woven into the fabric of compassion and humility became a contagious hallmark of Christian leadership benefitting not only Briarwood, the PCA but also numerous organizations and ministries.

In 2006 John became an Elder Emeritus yet continued to serve the church as a commissioner to the General Assembly, the Evangel Presbytery, all the while serving on the Jethro Council consisting of senior elders who provide counsel and insight to the Sr. Pastor, the Pastoral Staff, the Session and the Diaconate upon request. Throughout 40 plus years John and his lovely wife Emalyn provided servant leadership in the church on the Global Missions Team, the Pastoral Shepherding Care Team, the Nehemiah Intercessory Prayer Partner Team, Children’s Church, Sunday School, various special initiative ministry teams and perhaps most notably every Wednesday night faithfully serving the meals for the MidWeek Dinner and Small Group Bible Study Ministry at Briarwood.

Each Saturday morning found John at either Dr. Frank Barker’s or Dr. Lamar Thomas’ prayer breakfast. John’s love for the lost and evangelism was continually exhibited in living and sharing the Gospel as a way of life and providing leadership, as well as being a Trainer in the Briarwood Evangelism Ministry. He was a teacher/trainer of the Campus Crusade “Four Laws” and then when the church moved to “Evangelism Explosion” he again provided leadership which continued in the current “Bridge to Life” Evangelism initiative.

It is impossible to identify all of the venues which were enhanced by John Spencer’s leadership, teaching, shepherding and disciple-making always unmarked by pettiness or self promotion. Perhaps one of the most meaningful was the “Men of the Covenant” small group discipleship meetings each Friday at 6:30AM.

For all of these reasons and many more, John Spencer deserves to be remembered as a man of God, a Godly husband and father, a faithful witness to Christ in the community and a dependable servant leader in our Lord’s Church. But perhaps he should be remembered for two other reasons which have blessed the church at large in general and the PCA in particular. Many of us in the PCA are a generation removed from the era when the Founding Fathers of the Presbyterian Church in America out of necessity took a clear and thoughtful stand against the encroaching and debilitating liberalism infecting the church with a vengeance in the 1940’s to the 70’s. John, along with fellow ruling elders, supported their Pastors with courage and fortitude, standing firmly yet graciously, boldly yet with humility for the inerrancy of the Word of God, the vitality of the Reformed faith and a relentless commitment to fulfill the Great Commission. He, along with a number of these ruling elders and teaching elders were the first to sign, “A Letter to All the Churches” adopted by the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America which identified a denomination unalterably committed to the Great Commission, the Reformed Faith and the Word of God as truth.

The second reason is John’s devotion, specifically to the task of Christian Education in the church. John loved all of the ministries of the church – worship, evangelism, shepherding, the Sacraments but he was specifically drawn to the initiative of disciple-making through Christian education. Even though John was well known for his excellence as a longtime employee of Bellsouth, being fully engaged in his family and the community and immersed in various leadership responsibilities he found the time to complete a Masters Degree in Christian Education at Birmingham Theological Seminary. In his teaching ministry at different times he taught Children’s Sunday School, Children’s Church, Adult Sunday School and Small Groups. John provided leadership for Christian Education Committees, not only at Briarwood but also, in the Evangel Presbytery and the General Assembly.  Perhaps John’s greatest delight in Christian Education was the insightful, influential and prolific writing ministry of his beloved wife Emalyn who was the author of numerous books and Bible studies for women (published through Great Commission Publications) and used widely throughout the PCA and beyond.

Finally, as the Chairman of the World Missions Committee, early in the life of Briarwood he was instrumental in introducing Briarwood’s Faith Promise Offering commitment while supporting the Sessional policy requiring 50% of all giving at Briarwood to be directed to missionary causes outside of Briarwood in local, national, global mission and mercy initiatives. His favorite teaching ministry may well have been the Reformation and Confession of Faith course which he taught for all new members at Briarwood. John’s love for Christian Education also extended to a tenure of over 20 years serving on the Board of Covenant Theological Seminary and its various committees including the Search Committee which selected Bryan Chapell as President and promoting the Briarwood Endowment for Missions . His devotion to the Seminary continued throughout his adult life.

In the words of one of his close friends and an elder colleague, “John Spencer was a churchman in the truest sense of the word out of love to Christ, his Lord and Savior.” The loss of a man like John Spencer will be and should be felt deeply in his family, the community, his church and denomination. Men of God like John Spencer are needed in even greater numbers for the church-at-large and the PCA in particular. John Spencer, by the grace of God, was a man of God, moved out of his love to God, who ran with endurance the race set before him with his “eyes fixed on Jesus” persevering to the end with the joy of his salvation.

While he will be missed by a grateful church and denomination, a wife of 64 years, two daughters, a son,  and four grandchildren, he has been welcomed into Glory where the Savior, whom He loved and served by faith, he now beholds by sight. On Thanksgiving morning, November 22, 2012, John Spencer, preparing for the day, sat on the edge of his bed, laid down for a moment, closed his eyes, “fell asleep in Jesus” and awoke in the presence of his Savior – life forevermore. John did not leave the land of the living for the land of the dead. He left the land of the dying for the land of the living! Join him through Christ – “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

A Few Thoughts on Mercy Ministry from the Eye of a Storm

As many of you will know, our area was recently devastated by multiple tornadoes in the space of 24 hours causing not only the loss of lives not only in our own congregation but also with the loss of property, businesses and the consequential assaults upon the dreams and hopes of many. Pastorally, I wanted to share two, hopefully encouraging, thoughts with you out of the context of Matthew 6:1-4. Please take a moment to read this text and then my two thoughts.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right had is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:1-4

My first thought is just a pastoral observation of thanksgiving to the Lord. The immediate, unhesitating and sacrificial response of our congregation to the call to “love one another” and to reach out to neighbors with ever expanding initiatives has been more than encouraging to me…it has also been instructive. We have enjoyed the privilege of partnering with other churches and organizations but I am reminded once again that nothing can replace the motivating love of Christ for eliciting sensitivity, flexibility, compassion and generosity toward others in need. My pastoral privilege has been to observe it, participate in it and be instructed by it as it has been gloriously manifested and continues to grow though the crisis has passed. I thank the Lord for the many of you who have given of yourself, your resources, and your heart to the many who are still in desperate need of redirecting our hopes to the unshakable Christ and responding to the pressing needs that this devastating phenomena has produced under the hand of a sovereign God who is accomplishing many things in the midst of it all.

My second thought is one of gratitude not only to the Lord but also to you. I am so grateful that you, who served the Lord in meeting the needs of many who were devastated in this disaster did so by pointing them to Christ as you ministered to them. One of my great fears as a Pastor is that we would intentionally or ignorantly violate the principle clearly stated in Scripture that when we do mercy ministry we are not to be like the Pharisees and “blow a trumpet” calling attention to ourselves and/or our organization. I am so grateful that you have done what you have done in a manner purposed to exalt the preeminence of Christ and have not fallen into the trap of exalting ourselves or using the occasion as a commercial to promote our church. I am also grateful that there were no well-meaning but I believe counter-productive t-shirts pointing to our church or ourselves individually but only your words and deeds directing men and women to the love of Christ and the Gospel of Christ. “Your reward is great in Heaven.”

Accountability Groups: Instruments of Legalism?

Pastor Reeder, do accountability groups foster moralism and self righteousness? Aren’t they fundamentally wrong in that they are focused, not upon Christ and the Gospel and the joy of our salvation but upon a performance, legalistic Christianity?”

Recently some believers whom I respect greatly approached me with that question knowing that I have been in an accountability group for nearly 3 decades and that part of my discipleship ministry is encouraging what I call “a band of brothers” or a “circle of sisters.” A “band of brothers” would be men who covenant together to commit themselves to Christ-centered, Gospel-centered, Spirit-filled relationship of nurture, encouragement and accountability. I was informed that the question was instigated by a recent article they had read which warned of accountability groups becoming instruments producing self-righteousness, false guilt and a moralistic approach to the Christian life. Even more, such groups promote a narcissistic Christianity centered upon the performance of the believer instead of the grace of God, the joys of salvation and the freedom of Christian liberty. Of course, having been in a longstanding accountability group I immediately rose to the bait. Perhaps I was driven by a defensive motivation, but I was actually much more compelled by the fact that, aside from my marriage, the accountability relationship which I have enjoyed for 28 years is perhaps the most Christ-centered, Gospel-driven, grace-saturated, sin-destroying experience in the entirety of my Christian life. So needless to say, this assessment of an accountability group surprised me. It also was a surprise as to how widely this subject is being discussed and the traction it has gained. I thought I would share my response through this blog for those who might be interested.

First of all, to assume that someone in an accountability group is driven by a moralistic approach to Christianity or that accountability groups of necessity produce a self righteous, pharisaical Christianity is in my humble opinion not only unbiblical but arrogant and short-sighted at best. Obviously, I believe Covenantal relationships of accountability are biblical. I am incapable of sharing with you how much my relationship with three men for 28 years has been used by God’s grace to challenge me concerning the sufficiency of the love of Christ and assisted me in staying focused on Christ while warning me of the inevitable markers in my life which display my seemingly unstoppable tendency to walk away from Christ. These men and their love for Christ and their love for me has enhanced, encouraged and propelled me in the joys of salvation by grace as well as the call to responsible living for Christ because of grace. These men, who have had a green light to challenge me, an invitation to comfort me, and a heart to encourage me while surrounding me and periodically shaking me, will probably never know on this side of eternity how valuable they have been in my life by insisting upon my pursuit of the preeminence of Christ in every area of life.

Secondly, accountability groups are simply a mechanism, albeit a biblical one. They are only as good as the integrity of their purpose, content and most of all the participants. For those who would use accountability groups for self-righteous legalism then they need to be rebuked. But the problem is not the accountability group. It is the lack of integrity and/or the inappropriate content of the participants. I am fully aware that Satan can take valid mechanisms–such as accountability groups–and distort them. Look at what he does to distort Christianity through heretical preaching; but I would not dismiss preaching because of the distortions any more than I would dismiss accountability groups and the principle of accountability because of its misuse by some.  By the way, it is intriguing how today’s new found proponents of grace are always warning others against the heresy of legalism but seldom do I hear warnings concerning the heresy of licentiousness. Interestingly, the heresy of antinomianism/licentiousness gets more ink in the New Testament than legalism.  Simply stated, we must forever be diligent in Gospel preaching to blow up the dam of legalism that obstructs “the river of life” while simultaneously cleaning up the creek of licentiousness which would pollute “the river of life.”

Our accountability group was basically patterned on the covenantal commitment that Jonathan and David employed. Most of all, it is simply rooted in a Biblical concept that, along with other such concepts, caused me to become a Presbyterian. The “one another passages” such as, “be submissive to one another–admonish one another–rebuke one another–encourage one another” convinced me to become a very practical Presbyterian. I believe in the plurality of leadership because I know that when one leader is above accountability you may receive the blessings of his strengths but you will also receive the curse of his weaknesses. I know my flock needs for me to constantly be aware of the various ways Satan would assault me and ensnare me because he knows if he strikes down the shepherd the “sheep will scatter.” But another significant reason I am a convinced Presbyterian is that it is the only system I have found where every Christian, every church and every family is accountable to someone and therefore enabled to live out organically and organizationally the “one another” passages. Granted, we very seldom employ the Biblical system of being submissive to one another in a consistent, healthy, vibrant and effective manner. But I would not use our imperfections or those who employ the principle of accountability wrongly as assuming that those who desire accountability and who develop a functional system of accountability must be legalistic moralists. Nor would I assume that a covenantal relationship of nurture and accountability of necessity would lead to a moralistic, pharisaical Christianity.

Thirdly, I do find it interesting in our glorious day of recapturing the Doctrines of Grace that some grace-enlightened have appointed themselves as the “grace police.” Without being invited they have decided to become an accountability group for others, and without knowing the hearts of others they suspect that those who commit to an accountability group must actually be “closet” legalistic moralists instead of simply desiring Christ-centered nurture, grace-saturated encouragement and discerning accountability. The fact of the matter is they just might hate sin because they know the sinfulness of sin and the effects of sin, not only in their lives, but in the lives of others including their family and those to whom they minister. When I see people serious about hating sin because they love Christ, who first loved them and graciously saved them, I prefer to assume that their hatred of sin is grace-driven, not narcissistic. Could it not be they realize Christ has loved them and because He has first loved them, they now love Him? Also, could it not be that because of their love to Him they desire to keep His commandments? In other words, they have been called fully and freely by grace so they now desire to “walk in a manner worthy of their calling.” They are aware that they have a heart prone to wander. Therefore, they are not so arrogant as to dismiss their need of accountability nor the blessing of input from those who love them in Christ and desire to keep them focused on the love of Christ.

I thank God publicly for those committed to warn me of the death traps of sin and who propel me to the joys of loving Christ and “growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ.” I thank God for those who love me enough to warn me against legalism while not allowing me to be drawn into the snares of licentiousness and antinomianism. I know I have that accountability in the formal relationships of family and church but I am also grateful for the opportunity to covenantally commit to my “band of brothers” who take the time to know me and love me enough to be a friend that will wound me even when I don’t know I need it, encourage me when they know I need it, and nurture me to rejoice in the fullness of my life in Christ.

So, I think I will keep my accountability group as we nurture, encourage, admonish, rebuke and exhort one another since these are simply Biblical commandments and I don’t think I have a greater grasp of grace than the Christ who put these relational commandments in His Word. Yes, I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I know in an amazing way God actually uses me in the lives of these men from whom I have learned so much. I think I will keep my accountability group because I know my wife and children as well as my flock desire me to do so and would probably be deeply and rightfully concerned if I was so arrogant as to use the Doctrines of Grace to put myself beyond the need for accountability. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I have in my life men who will not let me thoughtlessly develop that secret life of licentiousness, nor the legalistic life of moralism, nor the arrogance of thinking that I don’t need accountability as I descend into the ignorance of assuming that it might be a hindrance to my joy and freedom in Christ. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because in it I have men who realize the Bible warns of TWO Gospel errors, not just one. Legalism, yes. But also, licentiousness or antinomianism. They realize there was a reason the Holy Spirit inspired the content of the books of Second Peter, Jude, Hebrews and I John, as well as the needed warnings against legalism in Galatians. I think I’ll keep my accountability group since the freedom I have in Christ is not the absence of accountability but the joy of accountability. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I know that Satan is subtle, sin is insidious and while sin is always a personal matter in its commission it is never a private matter in its effects. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I want to love my Savior and I want to hate my sin and my Savior has informed me that I need brothers in my life to accomplish this. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I want to see Christ and because I know since I have died to sin I don’t want to sign any secret peace treaties with sin. Yes, I think I’ll keep my accountability group and I’ll keep teaching others to employ accountability groups like the one that has blessed me because it is a divinely designed means of grace whereby the Holy Spirit and the Word of God work on me, in me and then, through me.

I guess I am an incurable convinced Presbyterian who has been graciously saved to enjoy the liberty of Christ and now knows the blessing of submission to Christ by pursuing submission and accountability to others…who realizes that the joy of salvation also brings a sober unrelenting call to Holiness of life for the One who saved me…who has a Savior that has done much to save me from my sin, not to make much of me but to free me from sin to make much of Him…who in Christ Jesus desires to “put off the old man” and “put on the new man…” who has known the blessings of being pointed to the joy of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone by “friends who are closer than brothers”…who has been warned of the sinfulness of sin…who by God’s grace will keep seeking the encouragement and nurture of my brothers and sisters to hold me accountable for the glorious joy of desiring to die daily to self and sin and live for Christ who has set me free to be accountable to Him through others.