Robert Parham, founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics, died March 5 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after a prolonged illness.
Funeral services will be held at noon today (March 13) at First Baptist Church in Nashville.
Friends and colleagues have shared their reflections on Parham’s life, work, legacy and friendship:
“Robert Parham was a contemporary Baptist prophet … and a cherished colleague,” said Larry Hovis, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. “[He] never let us get too comfortable with our convictions, yet never forced us to go places he hadn’t already paved the way. … Robert’s legacy … will have a Kingdom impact for years to come.”
Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, praised Parham’s ability to garner ecumenical support “to engage urgent issues such as race, incarceration, genocide and ecology.” She added, “With moral clarity, he kept before us the promise of authentic Christian faith.”
Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock praised Parham’s ecumenical spirit, citing EthicsDaily.com’s faith and immigration documentary, “Gospel Without Borders,” which involved Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians and Baptists.
“Robert was a true Christian” who had an “obvious commitment to living out the teachings of Jesus in his own life and using his talents to work with others to bring the teaching of Jesus to bear on the issues we face today,” he said.
Sam Tolbert, pastor of Greater Saint Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and president of both the North American Baptist Fellowship and the National Baptist Convention of America International Inc., remembered Parham as “a replenishing friend.”
He praised Parham’s work to inform and resource the local church and his efforts to reach “across racial, religious and relationship boundaries,” saying, “Robert has moved me to becoming intentional about building healthy relationships with people of different religions for the good of humanity.”
Darrell James, pastor of Culbertson Baptist Church in New Albany, Indiana, and a longtime BCE supporter and event volunteer, said he admired Parham’s fearlessness, passion “about doing the things that were good and right,” “cutting-edge Baptist mind,” and “Matthew 25 life.”
“He was one whose prophetic voice was always tempered by a pastoral concern for those who would disagree with him. Whatever the issue, he was more concerned with building bridges than with erecting barriers,” observed Colin Harris, professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a regular EthicsDaily.com contributor.
“Many words come to mind when I think of Robert, but the primary one is ‘proactive,'” shared David Hughes, executive director of the Transforming Center in Wheaton, Illinois, and a former BCE board member. “He made significant contributions in the field of Christian ethics. And he will be sorely missed within the larger Baptist family.”
David Crocker, Operation Inasmuch founder and former BCE board member, recalled Parham’s “high degree of integrity and professionalism. He insisted the ministry always do the right thing in the right way, which wasn’t always the easiest or most convenient.”
He added, “I could always count on Robert to tell me exactly what he thought and not hedge his statements so as not to challenge me or my thinking too harshly. I will miss his counsel.”
“Robert had a powerful belief that the way to make social change was through the local congregation,” recalled Stephen Copley, a church and community worker missionary with General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. “It was exciting to visit with him about issues and how we might work with congregations to change the narrative. … I am thankful for having the opportunity to work with him.”
Connie Mack and Martha Bowers, retired Baptist missionaries to Nigeria, remembered Parham as “a thoughtful person, [who], as he grew older he was always seeking to expose racial problems and other injustices and do something about them. We listened carefully to what he wrote and said about issues because of his insight and compassion.”
Parham was a regular, active presence at Baptist World Alliance gatherings and served on a number of committees.
Several tributes were voiced at the 2017 BWA executive committee meeting, March 6-8, in Virginia, and several global Baptists shared their appreciation for Parham’s life and work.
“Robert was a quintessential Christian gentleman,” said David Kerrigan, general director of BMS World Mission. “For me, there was a tangible connection between Robert’s deep commitment to Christian ethics and his deep commitment to people. He was a warm human being, always interested in others and always with a heart for the outsider.”
Tony Peck and Helle Liht, general secretary and associate general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, respectively, placed Parham “in that comparatively rare category of a journalist of deep integrity, whose passion and Christian faith shone through all he did.”
“We European Baptist leaders deeply appreciated his global vision and the way he showed an instinctive understanding of the complex issues facing the churches of our region,” they continued. “In an era increasingly dominated by issues of truth and integrity in the media, he was a steadfast and eloquent witness to the enduring values of God’s Kingdom. We thank God for him.”
“Parham embodied a comprehensive vision of Baptist ministry and mission, helping people of faith to advance the common good through informed action and reflection. He was a man of integrity, grace and courage,” wrote Rod Benson, an Australian Baptist ethicist who is pastor of Lithgow Baptist Church. “He was positive not reactionary, radical in the best Baptist tradition, biblically committed, big-hearted, tenacious, visionary. … Long may we learn from his example. Long may we share his passions. Long may Baptist communities follow his dream for the common good.”
Several Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com staff and board of directors, past and present, also voiced their appreciation for Parham:
Jodi Mathews, former BCE communications director who helped launch EthicsDaily.com, recalled Parham’s leadership in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and praised the care he took in crafting responses to this and other matters.
“Robert never took lightly the great responsibility of the message. The message always mattered and he knew it would have ripple effects far beyond its initial telling,” she wrote. “[He] showed me that writing wasn’t just about stating the facts or offering some interpretation of events. It was always more about compelling people to do good and to think deeply.”
Joel Emerson, EthicsDaily.com’s web editor, echoed Mathews’ sentiment. “I always valued Robert as someone who inspired others to think deeply and act intentionally on theological and ethical issues. I always left a conversation with him or finished reading one of his editorials with a deeper commitment to live out what I believed to be truth about God’s love for the whole world.”
Former board member Sara Powell expressed her appreciation for Parham’s “willingness to prayerfully take a stand on issues that could easily become a flash point” as well as “the diversity he included on the BCE board and his willingness to listen to our voices, even if they didn’t agree with him.”
“Robert Parham was a remarkable person whose drive and passion about applying the Christian faith to real living was magnetic,” wrote Steve Vernon, associate executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and current BCE board member. “He was a remarkable friend and a tenacious Christian. He shall be missed.”
Parham was “a bright light for us to follow,” said Barrett Owen, pastor of First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Virginia, and BCE’s newest board member. “His scholarship, acumen and Baptist beliefs will be honored and remembered for centuries to come.”
Don Gordon, pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, called Parham “one of those rare individuals whose deep personal faith was matched by a passionate pursuit for ethical living grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.”
He added, “Justice, mercy and compassion weren’t just words to him. They were essential to living out his faith in the world, among his neighbors and with his friends.”
“We need unpretentious voices who confront our presuppositions, those who question our partisan theology or politics, those who unmask our superficial religion, those who highlight the plight of the least of these, and those who point us toward a more biblical perspective on life,” observed Barry Howard, pastor of First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.
“Robert Parham has been that kind of relevant voice, a prophet who not only pointed out the predicament, but one who suggested a proactive path forward,” he added. “May his voice and vision infuse the next generation with missional courage and conviction.”
Clista Adkins, minister of discipleship at First Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, and a BCE board member recalled, “Robert was one of my first friends in seminary – when only three women were in our divinity class. … I always felt that Robert saw me as I saw myself – a person called by God.”
“I loved Robert saying that we were doing the ‘right’ thing if people on the left and right were frustrated with us,” she added. “If anything is true about Robert, that truth is he cared so much! … If anyone ever used up his life for ‘Christ’s sake,’ it was Robert. … Robert didn’t ‘save’ any of his own life. May that be true for you and me as well.”
Editor’s note: A press release about Parham’s life, work and legacy is available here.