Back in 1999 (if my memory is serving me correctly) Mike O’Fallon contacted me and asked if I would speak at a conference at his church and then go on a 4-day, 3-night cruise thereafter. And so it started. Mike comments on how we started this aspect of the ministry.
If you have followed the ministry of Dr. James White for any length of time, you have probably wondered “Why does Alpha and Omega Ministries cruise on an annual basis?” Well, the answer will most probably surprise you and might even inspire you to continue to strive for the cause of Christ in your own experience.
As a member of a large Southern Baptist Church 7 years ago, I viewed a tremendous amount of confusion within our congregation regarding even the most basic of doctrinal considerations. What is the Gospel? What is a Christian? What is Salvation? None of our church faithful had Biblical, historical, grounded, workable answers to these questions yet they continued to push forward enormous efforts in “evangelism” without any real hold on the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints. Doctrinal chaos only increased as Billy Graham and Promise Keepers marched through our area and dispersed a well-intentioned fog of ecumenical disorder among the evangelical community. As our church only increased in our population of “almost Christians,” several theologically-minded friends and I regarded the situation at our church as grave and closing in on irreparable. We recognized that if modern protestant evangelism was to truly grow a church as a result of God-ordained conversions of the heart and mind (in comparison to false professions of faith and emotional “decisions”), then it certainly doesn’t need to be ashamed or embarrassed about Biblical Christianity being distinct and particularistic, and secondly, that if the current ambivalence in evangelicalism towards theological reflection were to continue, then evangelicalism as a movement would most certainly succumb to liberalism and pragmatic methods of church-growth and shallowness in the discipling of new converts.
My wife and I decided to approach our pastor about the idea of staging a conference dealing with foundational doctrine, apologetics, and cult evangelism at our church during the next calendar year which yielded the response, “Well O’Fallon, we’ll do it if you want to pay for it.” One of my consistent faults (which at times has been my greatest assets) is a Petrine exuberance that looks at every obstacle as a challenge instead of a defeat (as a former professional athlete, I’m extremely competitive). The last thing that I ever want to hear from someone is “we can’t” which can only be worsened by sarcasm from the one making the declaration. So, within the space of only a few hours, the genesis of an apologetics cruise was borne as a means to fund the land-based conference at my church.
To make a rather long and detailed story short, our sponsoring of conferences and debates with Alpha and Omega Ministries has done well to encourage the emergence of sustained serious theological reflection in several different venues across the United States. Our conferences have had the pleasure of having men such as Dr. Eugene Merrill, Dr. Robert Thomas, Michael Gendron, Dr. Thomas Ascol, Phil Johnson, Sam Shamoun, Dr. Jobe Martin, David King, Dr. Eric Svendsen, Dr. James Renihan, and Steve Camp, all of whom have contributed greatly to the goals of our conference and cruise. During this same time, scholastic debates between Dr. White with Robert Sungenis on papal infallibility, Dr. John Sanders on inclusivism and open theism, Greg Stafford on the deity of Christ, Douglas Wilson on the salvific state of Roman Catholics, and currently, the debates with Dr. John Dominic Crossan and Dr. Marcus Borg on the Historical Jesus and the veracity of the Biblical resurrection accounts coming up in just a few short days in Seattle, Washington, have furthered the cause of a defined and Biblical faith. We have consistently believed that an informed laity (for lack of a better term) is a genuinely evangelistic church that should never compromise its role of heralding the Gospel in a fallen world. While I am no longer at the church where the conferences began ( I have since joined a congregation where verse-by-verse Biblical exposition is the distinctive hallmark of the church), our mission has been to bring to the churchman an understanding of core, orthodox Christian doctrine in a historical framework, an understanding of proper exegesis and the applied practice of proper hermeneutics, and to engage through debate both those within the camp of orthodoxy that with whom we have important theological differences and those with aberrant and heretical tendencies. This realm should no longer be understood to be the hallowed ground of seminarians alone, for the elect of God, men and women of every stripe or position in the church, are still under the command of Scripture:
“but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” 1 Peter 3:15 NASB
If we are to seriously follow this command and “be ready” to give a defense “with gentleness,” then it is necessary that a goal for all Christians should be to know what they believe and why they believe it as opposed to the tired answer I have heard so many give in response to someone with serious questions, “you should talk to my pastor….” Our goals today in our conference and cruise remain the same as they have always been:
1. To focus both devotionally and theologically on the finished work of Jesus Christ
2. To clearly declare Scripture as the ultimate authority in all matters of doctrine and practice
3. To understand our faith within a Biblical and systematic framework
4. To be able to share and communicate this faith to those outside of the pale of orthodoxy
5. To live by this faith in both word and deed
To properly achieve these established goals, we must also be aware of the tendency to frame those that disagree with our theological conclusions in the worst light possible, or even worse, to misrepresent their views in order to demonize their belief or hermeneutic. I must admit that I agree completely with the assessment of Dr. White’s next opponent in debate, Dr. John Dominic Crossan:
“I am not too happy with… the recent shift from academic argumentation (‘I will make your case as accurate and strong as I can before I demolish it’) to political argumentation (‘I will make your case as dumb and silly as I can before I demolish you’)”
We should always deal with those that we have disagreements with in clear and honest terms without erecting positional straw-men to attack as we attempt to delude others into thinking that we have accomplished some sort of victory for God by misrepresenting one another’s beliefs. Sadly, I have seen this most often occur from those within reformed evangelical community and it truly grieves me. Those of us who are monergists, or reformed in our soteriology, should be engaging one another, not continuing to marginalize each other by creating fictitious and insincere positions of those that we disagree with (Credobaptists vs. Paedobaptists, Dispensationalists vs. Covenantalists, pre-mills vs. post-mills vs. a-mills etc). We must always be able to admit that we do have differences, and be willing to confront and engage one another in those differences, but always in the context of 1 Peter 3:15 “with gentleness and reverence…” As a community of faith, we should look forward to the times that we can come together in honest, sincere debate as we seek to work through the Scriptures and sharpen one another as brothers in Christ honestly should. If Scripture is our only source of true authority, then all arguments and positions should begin and end with God’s perfect and infallible Word.
All this to say that as we look forward to this year’s Alpha and Omega Conference, Debate, and cruise, try to remember this article and the purpose and mission behind the convention and debate. Please pray for all of us, particularly Dr. White, as we seek to be obedient and pleasing to Him in all that we do and say. I pray that in all that we do our efforts shall continue to be to His glory and for His glory.
Sovereign Christian Cruises