Complex simplicity

Jim Boice: A robust intellectual with a heart for the city

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

Why, Lord," begged the Rev. Tom Myers in his pastoral prayer in Harrisburg, Pa., a few weeks ago, "would you want to strike down a five-star general when you could take a private like me?"

That was the question thousands of Christians of many denominations and church backgrounds were asking last week upon hearing of the death of James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church. Mr. Boice, just 61, was cut down only eight weeks after having been diagnosed on April 21 with a virulent form of liver cancer.

If there were an evangelical leader over the last quarter century who seemed born to royalty, it was Jim Boice. His degrees were from Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Basel in Switzerland. It took a starchy elegance to pastor Philadelphia mainliners of the likes of former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, an elder at Tenth Church for nearly all of the 32-year Boice tenure. There was finish in his bearing and polish in his language, befitting his term as assistant editor of Christianity Today magazine just before he went to the prestigious Tenth Church in 1968. He was just turning 30.

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But there was nothing stuffy about Jim Boice's ministry. He had a nitty-gritty commitment to the city. While thousands of other churches across the country fled to the suburbs, Tenth Church sank its roots deeper and deeper into the city. With his wife Linda, he helped found City Center Academy as a college prep school for inner-city youth-and he personally taught in that school. He helped establish programs for the homeless, for women with crisis pregnancies, and for AIDS patients and their families. Harvest Ministries, an outreach to folks struggling with homosexuality, grew out of Tenth Church.

Rounding out that commitment, the Boices lived in center city Philadelphia. Appropriately, he died at his home.

"He had a real sense of place, which is so important given the complexity of ministry in the city," said Linward Crowe, president of Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, an urban networking organization.

But if Jim Boice had a sense of place, he had an even bigger sense of the importance of the Bible in our times. His associate, Philip Ryken, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "His ministry was never about his personality. He always pointed the church back to God's Word. He was greatly loved for that and for his faithfulness to the church."

"He preached and spoke and taught," another of his colleagues told me, "as if such a clear and simple and direct and forthright declaration was all God needed to accomplish his purposes among us." He always saw the Bible as central to a whole variety of battles within the church. That led to his 1981 departure from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), when he told me in an interview, "The women's ordination issue this year is like termites eating away at our biblical foundations." But he had already helped establish the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy because he sensed that the same issues also threatened evangelicalism as well. "If inerrancy goes," he told me in that same 1979 interview, "evangelicalism will evaporate-and quickly. I'm not sure I agree with Francis Schaeffer that it would take only 10 years, but it would be a very short time."

The key Boice vision then, and since, was to help lay people develop a firmer grasp of the truth of the Bible they so casually said they believed. So he poured his energy into "The Bible Study Hour," a national radio broadcast, and into the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (which, oddly, held Bible conferences in different cities around the country). He wrote the four-volume Foundations of the Christian Faith, a popular systematic theology patterned after Calvin's Institutes. He served on the board of Bible Study Fellowship International, and has been devoted more recently to the work of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

Yet in all that, Jim Boice's trademark was always a remarkable simplicity and clarity of expression. While others with lesser credentials reveled in complexity, he regularly helped make hard issues easy.

WORLD magazine also has an unusual debt to James Montgomery Boice. Through the 1980s, he agonized over the fact that Eternity magazine, a leading lay magazine for evangelicals since the 1940s, was struggling to stay alive. Eternity had been founded by his predecessor at Tenth Church, Donald Gray Barnhouse, and was published from offices adjacent to the church in Philadelphia. But by 1989, several plans to prop up the venerable magazine had come to naught.

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