Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 1
John Carson (RTS 1973) has been a dynamic leader of men since his high school days, but he’ll tell you in a second he’d be nowhere today if the Holy Spirit had not constantly been leading him.
A campus leader while at RTS, John was also a highly successful pastor for ten years before he became Professor of Historical Theology at Erskine Seminary in 1985. Recently, fellow leaders of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church underscored their trust in John when they elected him moderator of the 1989 General Synod.
THE CALL TO MINISTER
It seems that John has always relied on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and, with age and practice, has become quite attuned to His promptings. But in the early years, this wasn’t the case.
Raised in a Christian family in Gastonia, North Carolina, John knew tragedy before he was out of high school when his only brother was killed in an automobile accident. Oddly enough, John’s faith didn’t suffer, but his ambition did. His brother had been the leader John followed in academics, athletics, and honors. With him gone, John had to set his own goals, and he realized he didn’t have any.
He graduated and went to Erskine College on an academic scholarship, but he had lost any desire to excel.
“Although I was a good athlete in high school and always a leader, I stopped playing sports, and I floundered in my studies and leadership roles,” remembers John.
Other changes occurred. Although he had felt God calling him to the ministry at age 13, John began to question that call during his sophomore year. Instead of the ministry, he decided to get his teaching certificate.
“I feel strongly about the call to the ministry,” explains Carson. “My view is that if you can find happiness or success doing anything else in life, then you ought to pursue it. In a sense, it is a way of testing your calling. If you can be content doing something else besides being a minister, then perhaps the Lord really isn’t calling you.”
After graduation, he returned to his old high school in Gastonia as a football, wrestling, and tennis coach. For three years, the job was very fulfilling, but he still felt a tug on his heart from the Lord. Finally, in 1970, he enrolled at RTS. And they were good years.
“Seminary was like the lights coming on,” remembers John. “I was already a believer, but I began to see how my faith related to so many aspects of life. That was exciting.”
At RTS, John was involved in several Bible studies and for two years was co-pastor of the Wynndale Presbyterian Church south of Jackson, Mississippi. He also served as president of the Society for Missionary Inquiry and helped organize the first annual missions conference at RTS.
After graduating from the seminary, John became the pastor of Ebenezer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, a challenging pastorate he held for ten years. The church, over one hundred years old, had just split prior to his arrival and was suffering wounds that badly needed healing. Moreover, the church had been founded in the rural countryside outside Charlotte. A century later, however, city suburbs sprawled around it, bringing with them new members who were college educated and upwardly mobile. Mixing these new members with members who grew up in the church was a unique challenge which the Lord graciously enabled John to meet successfully.
Under his leadership the congregation developed a highly positive attitude, especially in the area of missions support. When a young lady in the congregation felt called to mission work in Zimbabwe, the church decided to support her through faith-promise giving — a first experience for Ebenezer.
“To the surprise of the congregation, we raised her funds very easily that first year,” recalls Carson with a smile. “So, we thought we might take on someone else. By the time I left nine years later, we were not only supporting her but also providing one-third support to seven others. Our missionary giving had risen to one-third of our budget. It was tremendously exciting to see how the Lord blessed us financially as our faith-promise grew.”
John looks back on those years in the pastorate as the hardest job he’s ever encountered.
“A pastor’s life becomes so closely involved with those of his congregation. I believe I grew most in learning how to be emotionally involved. A pastor lives and dies with his people, trying to pull them along, doing whatever he must to get them to move ahead.”
THE CALL TO TEACH
Although John loved pastoring the Ebenezer church, he sensed that God was moving him away. He became convinced that God wanted him to teach at Erskine Seminary, the denominational seminary of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Due West, South Carolina.
The call was not really a surprise. The welfare of the ARP denomination had always been one of John’s high priorities. During the years at Ebenezer, he had always reserved some of his time to work within the presbytery and synod.
Now he began to realize the critical need for good seminary professors to teach solid biblical principles and Reformed distinctives to the men who would lead the denomination in the years to come.
But he had no credentials with which to teach at a seminary level. In order to prepare himself, Carson went to Aberdeen University in Scotland in 1983 and spent two years earning a Ph.D. in theology.
That he quit his church to earn a degree is not so out of the ordinary. What is startlingly unique is that he did it on faith; there was not even a job opening at Erskine, nor did he have any real hope of there being one for years.
“I really felt like I would probably have to take another church and wait for an opening. But as I was finishing my studies, the seminary actually created a new position in historical theology due to the rapid growth of the school. So, providentially, I became Assistant Professor of Historical Theology.”
Not surprisingly, one of John’s main emphases in his courses is the work of the Holy Spirit.
“I want my students to know that the Holy Spirit did not become inactive at the end of the first century but has continued to work in and through His people through the ages,” explains John. “For instance, the great doctrines of God and Christology were hammered out in the context of living situations where challenges to the Scriptures were faced. People knuckled down and asked themselves, ‘What does the Bible say about this and how are we going to express it?'”
“I think theology is a living, ongoing entity,” continues John. “The Lord is continuing to bring forth light from His Word and teaching us more and more about Himself.”
Also, Carson helps his students see that the heresies one meets in the cults today are frequently only variations of the heresies encountered by the early church. Therefore, in the material he teaches are resources for the challenges we meet today.
THE CALL TO MODERATOR
It seemed John was just getting his feet wet academically and settling into his new post at Erskine when the call came to take the position of moderator. Even though he loved his church, John felt it was not at all the best time to be heavily involved in denominational work when his teaching responsibilities required so much attention. Nonetheless, it soon became unmistakably clear that he should assume this additional responsibility.
“I think I have something to offer because I see many similarities between our denomination now and Ebenezer Church when I first went there,” reflects John. “We have decided as a denomination what we are not; now it is time to decide who we are and where we are going, time to develop a positive, aggressive stance. With God’s grace, maybe I can help in that decision.”
No doubt John Carson will help a great deal, not because he’s John Carson but because of his willingness to admit his dependence on God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
“The fact of the matter,” admits John humbly, “is that I have bungled and botched just about everything that God has given me. Only by His ruling and overruling grace has anything been accomplished in my life and ministry.”
John Carson –a man who’s made mistakes but has learned through God’s grace to hear the still, small Voice. He serves as encouragement to us all to step out in faith –and listen.
Toward a New Era in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Although the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has a rich, distinguished past, the denomination is not known well outside the South. Like other Presbyterians, the ARPC traces its history back to the Church of Scotland. In 1733 Ebenezer Erskine and others formed the Associate Presbytery because they detected patrons and church courts conspiring to deny evangelical ministers access to pulpits. In 1743 the Reformed Presbytery was formed by other Scots called Covenanters who steadfastly maintained that Scotland’s monarchs must swear to govern according to Christian principles.
In 1782, churches from these two traditions joined together in Philadelphia to form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Over the years the northern branch of this merger was absorbed into other Presbyterian denominations. The present ARPC is the continuation of the southern branch, although it is no longer limited to the south.
Increasingly aware of the need to plant new churches, the ARPC has expanded into states such as New York and Pennsylvania, growing from 155 to 175 churches in the last decade. Men like John Carson and other RTS graduates have been on the cutting edge of this growth.
At the forefront of the crucial church-planting task are men like Jim Corbitt (RTS ’74), Bob Hamilton (RTS ’73), and Jamie Hunt (’71). Robert White (’87) and Roy Hulling (’88) are also making steady progress in church-planting situations. After dynamic ministries in well-established churches, Greg Slater (’76) and Chuck Wilson (’76), along with other RTS grads, are now doing solid work in development situations.
RTS graduates have also proven their leadership in denominational roles. Calvin Todd (’72) is current Vice Moderator of the ARPC General Synod, while other graduates chair synod committees and hold presbytery offices.
In addition, RTS graduates are serving as missionaries of the ARPC and making significant contributions as pastors of growing churches.
Under John Carson’s leadership, the Synod of 1989 could be a watershed year for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, as special committees review all areas of the denomination — missions, church extension, Christian Education — with the purpose of establishing realistic aspirations for the future. And, as usual, it’s not John Carson’s agenda that Carson is pushing.
“I want us to look at who Christ would have us be and where he would have us go as a denomination,” says Carson.
With that kind of attitude, they can’t go wrong.