The Church of the Open Door
June 9th, 1968 @ 8:15 AM
THE CHURCH OF THE OPEN DOOR
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-9-68 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Church of the Open Door. Before I bring the Word of the Lord from God’s Book and the message the Lord has laid on my heart, there are two things that I would first like to mention.
The first: this has been appointed by the president of the United States as a national day of mourning. And in keeping with that appointment by the chief executive of our nation, all of us would extend to the family of Senator Kennedy our remembrance in prayer and our sympathy in the tragic loss of husband, and father, and friend. And we would take this occasion as a time of rededication to an ordered society, seeking in every means at our command to encourage our people and to demand of our citizens obedience to law and respect for authority and above all, under God, a prayer that we shall come to reverence human life, which is a gift of God. And in next Sunday’s sermon, I hope that I may speak of some of these things at a much deeper and more lengthy and meaningful extent.
The second preliminary word concerns an exigency that has been placed upon me for which I importune the sympathies and remembrance of our dear church: a few weeks ago, the representatives of our publication society of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Broadman Press, came to me and asked me to write a certain book. I have gathered the material for that book, and it must now be written. To show you the exigency of this hour, I have never written a book under a year, and some of them I have taken two years to write. I must write this book in three weeks. What heretofore, I have done in a year, I must do in three weeks. So you will understand if the pastor is consumed day and night and night and day in this assignment. Then after three weeks, why, we shall see what other fires the pastor will fall into. But right now, I’m in that one. So understand, and I will be hibernating all of the moments that I can possibly command, writing this book.
Now to the message; in the third chapter of the Book of the Revelation, beginning at verse 7: “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write…” [Revelation 3:7]. Now verse 8: “Behold, I have set before thee an open door” [Revelation 3:8]. This message is in nowise or in any part an exposition of the text or of the passage in God’s Word in which the words are found. But it is a name for a sermon that God has sent me here at this hour to deliver. “Behold, I have set before thee an open door” [Revelation 3:8]; thus the title of the message, The Church of the Open Door.
One of the questions asked me again and again both in press conferences and by individual representatives of the press, and by an innumerable host of interested friends and leaders of our convention—“Why is it that in these years past, you have always declined the nomination to this highest place of leadership in our denomination, but now, you accept it? What has happened? Why have you changed? Why did you reject it heretofore and why do you accept it now?” There are three reasons why in the years past I have declined such a nomination.
First: I never felt that it was God’s will for me to do it. Nor could I quite describe all of those convictions that entered into that feeling in my soul. My classmates and men whom I have known intimately through the years have accepted such a place of responsibility. And I have loved them for it and prayed for them in it. But I never felt it was God’s will for me.
The second reason: I never felt worthy to assume so tremendous an assignment. This is not false or cheap humility. I am just telling you why it is that in years past I never accepted such a proffer. I never felt worthy in my soul for such a tremendous assignment from God.
And the third reason was you, our dear church. And there were two reasons in our dear church. First, I had watched the churches of men who assumed this great far-flung mandate and their churches suffered. This church, Dr. Truett was ambassador plenipotentiary to the whole world. And the church greatly suffered. Dr. Truett was gone most of the time. And such a prospect for me and our church hurt my soul. And one of the things that I resolved when I came to be pastor of the church was that I would accept it as my chief and primary assignment. Whatever else I did, my first work under God would be this pastoral ministry. And for years, I never accepted a revival meeting. For years, I never left the church. I stayed here, every week—every Sunday. And when finally, I did begin to accept revival invitations, they were never more than two. I would accept one in the spring. I would accept one in the fall. And I stayed here through the years and the years, trying to be a good shepherd for God’s flock. So I refused because I did not want to hurt our church. And being gone hurts the church.
And the second thing I staggered before was this question of race. And what would be involved in our church if I were to receive an assignment such as the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention, what it would mean to this church in the violent turmoil that has engulfed and convulsed our nation in these racial crises. I am just telling you why it is, the best I know how to say it, that in these years past, I have refused even to consider such an assignment.
Then why is it now that you have accepted it? Why? For all three of those reasons that heretofore I have refused it. First, as the days pass, and in the exigencies and fortunes and vicissitudes and turns of life, ten thousand, thousand things entered into it. I finally came to the deep conclusion and persuasion that this was something God wanted me and called me to do. My wife, Mrs. Criswell, greatly objected to it. All through these days she sought to dissuade me from it. Some of the friends who love me most, and pray for me the deepest, sought to dissuade me from it. But as the days passed, and as the turns and fortunes and incidents of life would come, they increasingly pressed upon my soul the conviction that this was something God called me to do. It was God’s will for me.
Second, my feeling of unworthiness; I laid before God the humblest, the most meaningful, the sincerest that I knew how and there came into my life that feeling that I had when I was a boy. In the days now so long ago, as a child and as a teenager and as a youth and as a young man, when I felt God’s call to be a pastor, a preacher, in those days, now so long ago, as a child in the grammar school, I consecrated my life in preparation for that work. As I look back now in age to those childhood days, I cannot imagine such a thing could be. Yet, as sincerely and as deeply as I am now, did I then give myself in preparation for this ministry. As a child, as a teenager, as a youth, and as a young man, and I have done it all over again in these days; I have recommitted and reconsecrated my life to God.
Now the third: what of the church? First, being gone, what of that? There is no doubt nor should we hide our faces from the fact that there will be many, many more times that I shall be away than in these days and years past. What of that and what of the church? This was a conviction that I came to about you. I believe there is also in the church such a like spirit of dedication and consecration, that we shall be more faithful to God’s work than we have ever been before. We shall assume for ourselves also a contingent, component, constructive, consecrated part of this ministry. And our deacons will be more faithful now than they’ve ever been before. And our teachers will be more faithful. Our leaders will be more devoted. Our choirs will be more faithful. Our membership will be more faithful. And our staff will be more committed than we have ever been before.
Wouldn’t it be an incomparable gift to offer to God that in these next coming immediate two years we had our greatest advance? Oh, if God would just give to us! And instead of the church waning and lessening and ebbing and staggering and stumbling, that in these immediate two years that lie ahead, we should offer to God our finest achievements. And I have felt it could be done. If we would each one in his place, resolve that now, in this time and in this hour, I shall be doubly committed to my task and to my assignment.
Then what of race? The First Baptist Church, and the racial tension and turmoil that we witness all around us, what of our church and race? If we had hours and hours, we could hardly, hardly enter into all that lies back of the message delivered this morning by the pastor. I have been asked countless numbers of times, “How is it that there has never been an ugly, bitter, racial incident in your church?” All through the length and the breadth of this land, those bitter, ugly incidents have taken place in the churches. And the churches have been torn apart and they have been decimated. And some of them have almost been destroyed by that bitter conflict and confusion.
Yet, in the First Baptist Church in Dallas, there has never been even an approach to such an ugly incident. Yet you would think that out of all of the churches of the Southern Convention, that our church would be the prime target. And you would think that of all of the pastors of the Southern Convention, that your pastor would be the first and primary target. Yet in the years and the years, and they’ve been many years, more than we realize now since this racial tension has been heightened in America. Yet in our church there has never been even an approach or an approximation of any ugly racial incident. Why?
And I have answered. I have never had any fear, never. There has never been any fear in my heart regarding this church and any ugly racial incident. I took it to God years ago. And I had an answer to prayer and an assurance from heaven that such an ugly incident would never come to pass, would never be seen in this congregation. And through these years, I have walked and preached unafraid. My heart has been quiet. I felt I had an answer from God. We will never have such bitterness in our church.
Then through the years I have watched our congregation. We have been in the years gone by, a church of Philadelphia; the Philadelphian church of the open door [Revelation 3 :7-13]. And I have watched it and watched it, and prayerfully watched it through the years and the years. I have seen Japanese come down these aisles, loved and welcomed by our people. I have seen the Chinese come down these aisles, loved and welcomed by the people. I have seen the Indian, the American Indian, the Indian from India walk down these aisles, loved and welcomed by the people. I have seen Mexican families and children and young people walk down these aisles, loved and welcomed by the people. And as I watched you, and the fabric of our church, I began to see colored people walk down these aisles, loved and welcomed by the church.
What do you mean “colored people”? I mean dark people with Negro blood in them. A pressman talking to me, I asked him, “Is Adam Clayton Powell a Negro?”
“Yes,” he said.
I said, “What part Negro? He looks like a white man to me?”
Coming down these aisles I have seen them. Mexican and Negro—colored people. Finally, I saw a Central American come down these aisles. He was black—loved and received by the people. And finally, I saw a Nigerian come down these aisles—loved and received by the people. Through these years, as they have continued, I have seen our church with an open heart and a compassionate spirit, welcoming into the kingdom and into the body of Christ these whose pigmentation might be different from mine and yours.
Then a few days ago, I received a letter from a man whom I loved and admired so much; a leader of great dedication in our convention, in our state and a loved fellow elder in this church. And out of the deepest love of his heart, he wrote me the sweetest letter. And in that letter, he said, “Pastor, I awakened in the night in South Carolina with a burden on my heart, I cannot escape. It is about you. And it is about our church. And as this presidency of the convention is being pressed upon you, I have a burden, I am afraid designedly there will be those who will try to destroy you and destroy the church.”
I, at that time—this was just a few days ago—had fully made up my mind, I would not accept such a proffer. I happened to mention it inadvertently without plan or forethought, I happened to mention that letter and my decision that I would not be pressed into such an assignment as the leadership of our Southern Baptist churches. I happened to mention it to the finance committee that is getting ready to launch our church in a multi-million dollar building and expansion program. I happened to mention it. And I said, among other things, “On account of race, I will not respond to that appeal.”
And those men, you can look at their names, they have been printed, you’ll see them. Those men answered as though they had been thinking about this a hundred years. They said, “Pastor, the time has come for us to face this now and forever.”
Well, I said, “I don’t want to do it now. It would be as though the pressure from others concerning the presidency of this convention had precipitated such a discussion in our church.”
They said, “Pastor, the presidency of the Convention does not enter into this one way or another. Some time, somewhere, this has to be faced and now is the time to do it. We’re going to do it now.” So Mr. Cantrell, who was there, called a meeting of the deacons Tuesday of a week ago. And after the business of the session was done, they said, “Now, pastor, stand up here and bare your heart.” So I stood there and for an hour, I bared my soul.
What is this thing that obtains in our people and among our churches? This is what obtains. I turned my face toward the Buckner Home and the Buckner Home has in it all kinds of children—yellow, black, white, and red. And when the time came that they discussed the bringing of those children to the First Baptist Church in Dallas, as many of them are here this morning, one of the leaders came to me and said, “But pastor, some of our children are colored, maybe we ought not to come.”
I replied, “It would be unthinkable that our First Baptist Church in Dallas would refuse the Buckner Home and their ministries because you have in your love and compassionate concern a colored child. Welcome. Come.” And the Buckner children have been brought these years to our dear church.
Then I turned to look at Dallas Baptist College. I went out to speak at their chapel service. And all through Dallas Baptist College are colored young men and young woman; our Dallas Baptist College.
Then I turned to look at our Baylor School of Nursing. And in the Baylor School of Nursing are colored young women. And I walked up and down the halls of Baylor University Hospital and there, you will see all races and all colors; our hospital—seeking to minister to them all.
And when we began our retarded children’s ministry, one of the sweetest in the earth, they brought down here retarded children from one of the homes in the city of Dallas. And a part of them were colored. They came to me and said, “Shall we close the door?” I said, “Close the door to these retarded children because some of them are colored? No! No!”—and they’ve been coming.
And as I looked through the length and breadth of our institutions, everywhere, everywhere there is that open door. And there are those hands outstretched and arms of welcome. I have said a thousand times with regard to tax money for church institutions, I have said this sentence, “You cannot separate a church from its institutions.” And to give tax support to an institution owned and operated by a church is to give tax support to the church itself. And I have found myself in this congregation with our Buckner Home and our Baptist College and our nursing school and our hospital with an announced policy of one way and no announcement from our church of any way.
And finally, as I spoke to my brethren and compeers in the church, our deacons, I said, “And I bare my personal soul to you. I cannot describe and I have come to feel the weight of it and the burden of it. I cannot describe to you how I feel when I preach the gospel of the Son of God and call men to faith and to repentance, and then stand there afraid that somebody might respond who had a different pigment from mine. It is though I were living a denial of the faith, to preach and be afraid that somebody might respond.”
What if there came down the aisle a Buckner child who was colored? How would I explain to that child? In ten thousand years I couldn’t explain to that child. I couldn’t do it. But that’s not so much the point, how can I explain to God? You tell me how. You give me the words. What do I return to say to God? “This child, Lord, out here at the Buckner Home found Jesus today.” What would I say?
I think of Patrick Henry who assumed the defense of the three Baptist preachers who were placed in jail for preaching the gospel of the Son of God. And in the court, the great, eloquent Patrick Henry held the indictment and waved it above his head and asked, “What does this indictment say? These men are accused of preaching the gospel of the Son of God. Great God! Great God!” And this indictment, this is the pastor who preaches the gospel of the Son of God and somebody responded, and he refused. Great God! Great God!
When the hour was done, our deacons had intended, I think, to discuss it and to speak of it. But when I sat down, one of the deacons stood up immediately and said, “Every man here stand to his feet.” And the deacons stood up just like that—all of them. And Chairman Cantrell called them to the front; a hundred eighty or more of them to fall on their faces and ask our deacon missionary to Nigeria, Dr. Wayne Logan, to lead in the prayer.
And this is without fanfare. It is without dramatics. It is just the simple announcement that as you walk up and down the streets, as you visit the Buckner Home, as you look at those retarded children, this is just the plain, simple, unadorned announcement that the First Baptist Church in Dallas is like the Philadelphian church of the Book of the Revelation. It is a church of the open door [Revelation 3:7-13]. And when the pastor preaches:
- as he quotes Isaiah 55:1: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters . . . Yea, come, buy, and eat without money and without price”—every one in it.
- As Jesus said, in Matthew 11:28: “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” anyone, everyone.
- As Simon Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:9: “God wills that all should come to repentance and that none should perish.”
- As the Book closes, in Revelation 22:17: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, anybody, you, let him take the water of life freely.”
Come. Come. Come. And God bless us and God attend in the way as you come.
Now we are past our time. We must sing our song of appeal. And while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, one somebody you, as the Spirit of Jesus shall press the appeal to your heart, make it now. Come now. Do it now. And bless you as you come, in Jesus’ name, welcome [Romans 10:8-13]. While we stand and while we sing.