Yes, I’m going to miss Tom Gillespie. Not because he was such a great seminary president. Sure, he raised a lot of endowment funds. Sure, he oversaw the hiring of an international cast of superior faculty members. Sure, he pressed his high-minded professors to prepare not just scholars for the academy but — all the more — pastors for the churches. All remarkable feats, to be sure. But I’m no Princetonian. Tom wasn’t my president.
I’m going to miss Tom Gillespie more because he was so predictably unpredictable. On the one hand, Tom was a man of clear convictions. As a New Testament scholar he not only knew what’s in the Book. He actually believed it. His biblical faith shaped a clear commitment to Reformed points of emphasis in theology, and he wasn’t one to waver on the essentials of that faith. Categorically speaking, he was a true theological conservative, and being anything but naïve to the cultural, pseudo-scholarly and ideologically ecclesiastical threats to the faithful proclamation of the Word, he spent much energy in the “preservation of the truth.”
Then again he was unpredictable in his predictability. For example, when he spoke in conferences — a role to which he was invited often — he always stirred the pot. He would challenge the assumptions of everyone present, sometimes embarrassing members of the crowd for their petty extremisms, their dismissal of new ideas he thought worthy of serious consideration. His conservative convictions did not make him a regressionist.
Moreover, he was unpredictable in his choice of those with whom he would associate. As one who helped shape the denomination’s “Definitive Guidance” police on the ordination of gay and lesbian persons in 1978, his position on the matter was decidedly conservative. Yet, as Todd Jones, pastor of First Presbyterian in Nashville, relayed to me, this side of Gillespie’s was showcased 12 years ago at the Covenant Network’s General Assembly luncheon in Fort Worth by Peter Gomes.
The ballroom was packed at the Worthington Hotel, and it was not exactly what you would call Tom’s crowd. Gomes opened by telling the story of his own coming out as a gay man some time after he had been invited by Gillespie to preach at the Princeton Seminary graduation. Peter wrote to Tom and offered politely and quietly to step down as the graduation preacher, given Tom’s well-known views in the Presbyterian Church on this issue. Tom Gillespie said he would not hear of it or consider it, and that he looked forward to Gomes’ sermon at graduation. Gomes said that Tom and Barbara Gillespie received him warmly and welcomed him generously. Gomes’ looked at the large crowd, and said, “May Tom Gillespie’s spirit and number increase on both sides of this issue in the life of the church.”
I’m going to miss Tom Gillespie most because he was a friend of substance. Whether he was engaged in serious debate or cracking jokes, he so often said something I’d never known before — something so insightful and informative that it would make my head spin.
One of those serious moments came for me 13 years ago when I sought his counsel on whether I should co-sign the “Call to Sabbatical” which was suggested by a fellow conservative, Pastor Roberta Hestenes, and co-written also by Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick and Pastors John Galloway, John Buchanan, Laird Stuart and yours truly. We discussed it at length. He scrutinized every line. He warned that some folks wouldn’t like it — especially hardliners of the left and right. And he concluded, “Jack, this is something I certainly would sign.” After it was published, and criticisms flew fast and furious, I held on to Tom Gillespie’s words (ones soon thereafter echoed by Clayton Bell, another conservative of those days whom I’ve missed terribly since his death 11 years ago).
Tom kept encouraging me then and thereafter to stand up for the truth and to keep building better understanding and cooperation — saying so in his unpredictably predictable, substantially friend-making way.
At the risk of sounding sentimental, I do miss Tom Gillespie a whole lot already.