Next July, Charles Swindoll will become a commuter. Already the motorcycle-riding senior pastor of First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California—not to mention a popular author and radio preacher—he has accepted an invitation to add another line to his already-crowded business card: president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Here Swindoll talks to CT about how he plans to lead Dallas from a distance—and where he will lead it.
Presidentelect Charles Swindoll says get ready for a kinder, gentler Dallas Seminary.
Dallas Theological Seminary is known as the flagship of the dispensational movement. How would you evaluate the state of dispensational theology? And what is its future there?
I’m going to be very vulnerable with you: I think dispensations is a scare word. I’m not sure we’re going to make dispensationalism a big part of our marquee as we talk about our school. I like to think of Dallas Seminary as first and foremost a biblical school. And when you take the Scriptures as they are, dispensations take care of themselves. Most people are dispensationalists, but they don’t know it.
I’m a 1963 graduate of Dallas. Most graduates I’m in touch with were not rammed into a mold or made to sign on the dotted line. The scuttlebutt has always been that at Dallas you’re going to get dispensationalism crammed down your throat. Usually it’s coming from people who have never been in the school. The word is out that Dallas is where you go if you’re a little extreme on dispensationalism. That’s not true at all.
When Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas seminary, used the term dispensationalist, he had something very specific in mind. He probably wouldn’t recognize the dispensationalism being taught today at Dallas. Do you think the term is going to disappear as well?
It may, and perhaps it should. I grew up with the old Scofield Bible. I’m more in that camp than any other. But in the progress of revelation, there is the need to fit terms so they make sense, to use words that do not frighten or create misunderstanding.
Will Dallas ever make friends with charismatics?
I don’t believe we would view the charismatics as enemies, so making friends sounds like we’re now not friends. I’m confident Dallas will never be a charismatic school.
But if you read my newest book, Flying Closer to the Flame, you’d probably think it sounds like a softening of my position on the Holy Spirit. I think the school without knowing it has probably operated from a standpoint of fear—fear of being misunderstood, of things getting out of control, of losing doctrinal distinctives. I don’t think we need to be afraid. There’s wider room for interpretation than we may have allowed.
What areas should be given wider room?
I look at my own life. I’m in a worship service and the fellow next to me lifts his hands in praise, which happens in most churches today. There was a time when I had a lot more things figured out than I do now. I would have felt awkward. It doesn’t bother me for a minute now.
As I look back, my analysis is I was probably afraid. “What if something happens and I don’t know how to control it?” Now I don’t feel the need to control a lot of things.
In The Beauty of Spiritual Language, Jack Hayford says that speaking in tongues is not necessarily a precondition for fullness in the Spirit. If that’s the case, what are the barriers between evangelicals and charismatics?
The primary barrier would be extrabiblical revelation. Now, Jack’s a good friend, and I love him dearly. He’s taught me as much about worship as anyone else. But I think he would have room in his theology for extrabiblical revelation, of God speaking outside the Scriptures and beyond the Scriptures. I have trouble with that.
At the same time, I have a place in my theology for the work of the Spirit in our emotions. I think God honors the whole person. What else is joy than an emotion? What else is peace if not a feeling? And conviction is a feeling. Those are things we at Dallas really believe in. Interestingly, we’re also the ones who have said for years that you can’t trust your feelings. But one way of knowing God’s will is to let the peace of Christ rule in your heart. You feel restful, at peace. It’s an emotion. The Spirit prompts those emotions. I never made a major decision in my life where emotions were not involved.
Evangelicals have traditionally said things like, “I think the Lord is leading me to do this.” How is that different from extrabiblical revelation?
Those who embrace the idea of extrabiblical revelation may or may not mean an audible voice, but it is an absolutely firm realization that this is “what God told me we ought to do.” It’s a prophetlike declaration. It sounds right until you get to the point where it doesn’t make good sense.
Does that mean that God does not reveal his will specifically? No. My coming to California was a major step away from all of my roots—my family, Cynthia’s family—but there was that sense of call and excitement. And I sought the mind of several men and women I respect. There were green lights along the way. Rather than a direct signal, we got a long answer to a short question.
The dispensational community has been split over the lordship salvation debate. What is behind the controversy?
I think it’s a concern because of the number of individuals who express a superficial faith. In Mark 4 we read of the seed falling on rocky soil; the sun comes and scorches the plant because there’s no root. Those who espouse lordship salvation emphasize the importance of sincere faith in Jesus Christ, in him alone, in his death and resurrection, as the very basis of eternal salvation. It grows out of a desire to move people away from a quick and superficial kind of belief.
Now, having said that, I am not a lordship salvation person. I preach the importance of dedication to Jesus Christ. I talk about the works that follow faith. But I believe eternal life is a gift and that I receive it not by anything I do, or am, or promise to become. I take the gift that God offers. I think the result is that my life becomes changed, and slowly but surely I’m growing toward maturity. And I think works follow, but I can’t find biblical reasons to emphasize to a sinner who is lost, out of hope, without life, doing anything but taking a gift. At that point, it’s the work of the Spirit of God within that individual to bring him or her to maturity.
Both sides share the same high goal—that those who say, “I’m giving my life to Jesus Christ” would begin to evidence a changed life. And I think the lack of evidence of that is proof that there was not faith to start with. So, I don’t know in what camp you put me, but I would say that the proof of the faith comes in the life. Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.
How do you struggle with the role of being a celebrity in the church?
I don’t like it. Celebrityism makes me self-conscious and uncomfortable. I’m a family man, a pastor, a friend to our staff, a leader. It’s true that doors have been opened to us for ministry in books and radio, but if you were to visit the Fullerton church you would find the flock there unenamored. They’re as surprised as I am about my popularity.
I believe God honors this kind of authentic ministry. The world cries for it. We all want mentors who are real. Which is part of the reason I’m not leaving to go to Dallas. I think it adds credibility to ministry to still be engaged in it, wherever I may be serving.
As you approach your first year as a seminary president, how do you feel?
I’m way over my head, having never done this in my life. I will be a learner for the first few years.
Interview by Michael G. Maudlin
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