Q+A: Mark Rutland on Oral Roberts's Legacy
Pentecostal evangelist Oral Roberts died Tuesday of complications from pneumonia. He was 91. Roberts was one of the nation's first television evangelists, author of more than 100 books, and founder of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. Christianity Today spoke with the president of the university, Mark Rutland, about Roberts's life and legacy.
What will we look back and remember about Oral Roberts?
His legacy will be on two different levels. One is the physical aspect. Oral Roberts University is a healthy, strong, comprehensive university that's going forward and will continue to prosper. Leaving a university that you carved out of the prairie is a pretty big legacy. One of his other legacies will be a spiritual or theological legacy. Oral Roberts kind of transcended his own roots. He was a prairie Pentecostal who began in the healing ministry at tent revivals. He was part of the wave of healing ministries in the mid-20th century. While some of those people thought medicine was the opposite of faith, Oral Roberts took a more holistic look at life. One of the great aspects of his legacy is a broad view of spiritual life. He really was one of the prominent lights of the 20th century. Oral Roberts and Billy Graham were the two preeminent luminaries of the 20th century.
Is there anyone who could take his place?
I don't think people take somebody's place like that. I don't think there's a swap label where another steps in. I think God raises up unique ministries at unique times. I believe Oral Roberts was a truly unique instrument. I don't really see anyone slipping on Oral Roberts's coat.
Jack Hayford said, "If God had not … raised up the ministry of Oral Roberts, the entire charismatic movement might not have occurred." Would you agree with that assessment?
He was certainly a great instrument to encourage Pentecostals and charismatics. He never allowed himself to be trapped in denominationalism or in Pentecoslism or any of those "-isms." He was a person that seemed to draw the interest of charismatics in mainline denominations. When I first met Oral, I was a United Methodist minister. He had a cup of coffee with me at a Methodist church. He spoke across denominational lines. He was a tremendous part of the encouragement in the charismatic/Pentecostal world in the second half of the twentieth century.
What set him apart from other charismatic leaders?
One of the things that set him apart was that he was not trapped in any kind of rigidity. He was able to think outside of the box. He had a vision for physical things like the university. He walked out and looked at a plot of land and said, "I'm going to build a university here." That's a huge visionary. He was also unique in his ability to communicate the broader issues of the charismatic movement, particularly his emphasis on healing. He brought, for example, an emphasis on physical fitness into the campus and into the DNA of Oral Roberts University before others were even thinking about it. His emphasis on excellence was a hallmark of his leadership. One of his ideas that is built into the university is "go into every man's world." Every man has a world. There's a theater world, there's a communications world, a journalism world, or philosophy. Evangelical Christians and spiritual charismatic Christians should be excellent in all those spheres. He saw the university as a means to raise up people who hear God's voice, respond, and go into every man's world that wins the admiration of the world, and give glory to God. He resisted everything that would marginalize spiritual Christianity. He never saw Christianity as pulling away or pulling apart. I think sometimes in the evangelical world and sometimes in the charismatic or Pentecostal world, there was an early sense that we should pull away, separate ourselves from the ungodly. Oral said just the opposite. He refused to be marginalized. He didn't want spiritual Christians marginalized by ignorance or anything else.