Interview with G.I. Williamson
The Presbyterian minister and author G.I. Williamson has now retired from the pastorate after fifty years in the ministry. His paperback commentaries on the Westminster Confession and Catechism are well known. He was recently interviewed by Glenda Mathes in the Christian Renewal magazine.
CR:Rev. Williamson, during a lecture at a conference in Johnston, Iowa, you mentioned something about the Des Moines area being your old "stomping ground" where you played the saxophone during the big band era.
GI: That’s right. When I was 16 or 17, I was a sax player in the dance orchestra at the old Riverview Dance Hall.
CR:It seems like a long stretch from playing saxophone at Riverview Dance Hall to becoming a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, how did that come about?
GI: I was drafted into the army at 18. I served some 30 months, most of it in the Adjutant General Department, playing saxophone in the military band. While I was in military service, I married Doris Jean Short, and we have now been married 59 years. When I got out of the Army at 21, I again played saxophone professionally for a short time. After the birth of our oldest daughter, Sandra Lee, and my discharge from the Army in 1946, we began attending the Westminster United Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, the church that my parents belonged to. The pastor, Rev. Will W. Orr – a son of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church – preached the Gospel with sufficient clarity that I was converted! The UP and Reformed Church in America were talking union, and Rev. Orr encouraged me to consider the ministry and suggested that I switch to Hope College in Holland, Michigan. But after one year, for financial reasons, I went back to Des Moines to pursue my Bachelor of Arts degree at Drake. The more I considered the ministry, the more I experienced an overwhelming sense of certainty that this is what God wanted me to do.
CR:What was your wife’s reaction at this point?
GI: Having met my wife in a dance hall, it is little wonder that she was strongly opposed to my going into the ministry. This was the most difficult time in my life because she was not easily persuaded. Had I known the Bible better I probably would have given it up. But so strong was the sense of call from God that I simply could not escape it. And in God’s mercy my wife was – after some three years – wonderfully converted.
CR:Where did you attend seminary and how did your wife’s conversion come about?
GI: I attended Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary where I sat under the teaching of John Gerstner, who has my undying gratitude for proving to me that what we call Calvinism is the teaching of the Bible.
In 1952, the GI Bill ran out and I became a student pastor. I attended seminary on Tuesday through Friday, then traveled to New Bedford where I preached twice on Sunday and led Youth Club and an adult Bible study on Monday. It was in the adult Bible class on Monday night at the manse, when I was teaching the doctrine of Total Depravity, that my wife suddenly cried out, "Well, if that’s true, there’s no hope for me!" I said, "To the contrary, Honey. There finally is hope for you!" And for 59 years she’s been a faithful, covenant-keeping wife. We now have over 50 years in ministry.
CR:Were you born in the Des Moines area and raised in the Christian faith?
GI: I was born in Des Moines and my parents were confessing believers. Both were brought up in the old United Presbyterian Church of North America. But we seemed, as a family, to just attend the nearest Protestant church. I remember a few years spent in the United Brethren Church as a child.
CR: I understand that you believe in exclusive Psalmody. When did you become convicted with regard to that?
GI: After attending seminary, I began to study in order to find answers to the questions that were not answered in seminary. An old lady in the New Bedford UPC, which I served as a student, gave me a copy of the Westminster Standards with proof texts. I also discovered old songbooks that contained only Psalms, and was given an old copy of "The Psalms in Worship." So I became convinced that exclusive Psalmody is Biblical.
CR: How did you come into the OPC?
GI: An old minister gave me a shelf full of official minutes of the UP Church. That was the catalyst that led me out of the UP into the OPC, because it opened my eyes to the great disaster which had overtaken this once great church. I spent one and half years in an Arkansas Associate Reformed Presbyterian until I ran into the buzz saw of Freemasonry. I came back to help some people from the UP launch an OPC in Fall River, Pennsylvania, and stayed there for seven years.
CR: Was it then that you began your years of service in New Zealand?
GI: Yes, I was called to minister to Dutch immigrants in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand for 17 years. I spent six years in Mangere, South Auckland, and 11 in Silverstream, Upper Hutt. Between these two, I served three and a half years in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America in Wichita, Kansas.
CR: After your ministry in Silverstream, you then returned to an OPC congregation?
GI: Yes, when I returned to the United States, I spent ten years in the Carson, North Dakota, OPC. while there, I began editing the periodical, Ordained Servant, with which I am still involved. It will soon be 12 years since I began editing it. It’s available on the OPC website [www.opc.org].
CR: How did you come to be an associate member of Sanborn’s Cornerstone URC?
GI: In 1992, I helped start an OPC in Hull, Iowa. That was before the URCs emerged in this area. But when the Redeemer Church was organized in Orange City, Iowa, we saw it as our duty to seek agreement with them. Since my wife and I live much closer to Sanborn, we decided to worship there. The Consistory offered us associate membership for which we are very grateful. Our Session encouraged our other members to join the Redeemer congregation, if liberty would be permitted with regard to Holy Day issues, such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday.
CR: Liberty with regard to their celebration?
GI: Yes. The Church in Rome faced this issue already in the first century. Some felt it a religious duty to observe days other than the Lord’s Day. As Paul put it: "one person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike." He then said: "Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it" (Rom.14:5,6). Days such as Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter, not being commanded by God are not to be imposed as a duty to the people of God today. In the early days of the Reformation in both Holland and Scotland, there was hope that these humanly invented days would be done away with. And for a considerable time they were. All we asked, in other words, was for the liberty our Reformed Fathers claimed three centuries ago. This was the stand of the early Reformed in both Holland and Scotland and however quaint it may sound today, it remains the biblical view.
CR: You mentioned your daughter Sandra’s birth. Didn’t you conduct her funeral after she passed away last year?
GI: Sandy died last September from a combination of Pulmonary Interstitial Fibrosis and cancer. She wanted me to conduct her funeral and I certainly considered it an honor that she asked. It was very difficult to contemplate beforehand. Yet, when the time came, it was not difficult at all – the words just flowed once I started to preach.
Her concern, as well as mine, was to remind the Lord’s people that our salvation is every bit as much about the body as it is about the soul. The Westminster Shorter Catechism sums it up most wonderfully: "The souls of believers are, at their death, made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection" (Answer to Q. 37). My emphasis was on this last part.
CR: Do you have other children or grandchildren?
GI: Our second daughter, Nancy, lives in Custer, South Dakota, and our third daughter, Cathy, lives in Sheldon, Iowa. We have 11 grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren.
CR: You’ve written a popular guide to the Heidelberg Catechism. Didn’t you also write one on the Westminster Catechism? Have you written other books?
GI: Yes, I’ve written a Study Guide on the Heidelberg and a Study Guide on the Westminster Confession of Faith (soon to appear in a second edition); a Study Guide on the Westminster Shorter Catechism (now in a second edition in one volume – before it had been in two separate volumes); two smaller books entitled Wine in the Bible and The Church and Understanding the Times. I also edited the recently published study of the Larger Catechism by Dr. J. G. Vos.
CR: On the floor of the 70th General Assembly, you mentioned an incident from your experience in New Zealand. What was the incident and its significance?
GI: The incident was a gravamen against the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the Fourth Commandment. The minister who raised this issue did not do what so many men today do: he did not start teaching his people that the churchs confession was wrong. He brought it to his Session, Classis, and Synod for deliberation. Some of the strongest defenders of the Confessions doctrine were Dutch elders. After due consideration, the gravamen was rejected. And the minister accepted a call to the Australian Reformed Churches, which had never adopted the Westminster Confession in the serious way that the Reformed Churches of New Zealand did. The result was that no harm was done to the local church or the denomination. And, I might add, the minister who brought the gravamen remained a good friend of mine even though we disagreed with respect to this particular doctrine.
CR: You used the illustration in connection with the Lee Irons case. Do you believe it would have been helpful for Rev. Irons to have followed that type of procedure instead of teaching his views to his congregation?
GI: Yes. I believe we need greater respect for our corporate responsibility. I have been given the status of a minister in good standing in the OPC because I have taken vows. One of those vows is my adherence to the Westminster Standards as faithful statements of the teaching of the Bible. Now my vow does not prevent me from seeking improvement in those standards if I see that there is need for it. I can even envision the possibility that it might be my duty to seek to change them. But even in such an instance it is my duty to respect the constitutionally defined way of doing it. And that is not by going right away with my ‘brilliant new insight’ into the pulpit or into print. I see this as another instance in which the golden rule applies. Since I don’t want all sorts of teaching to be allowed in the OPC from other ministers, neither do I have the right to teach things that are contrary to the subordinate standards of the church.
CR: Also at the General Assembly, you presented the views of the minority report with regard to the work of the Foreign Missions Committee. Can you explain the minority’s position?
GI: The 2001 General Assembly assigned a five-man committee to evaluate the method of operation of the Committee of Foreign Missions with special attention to the issue of the fifth commandment. Basically, it was the minoritys view that the committee overreached the boundaries of confessional authority. It was the minority view that the appeal to the fifth commandment instead of to Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession (which defines and limits the powers of synods and councils) was incorrect. We were astonished that the majority argued from a novel interpretation of the application of the fifth commandment – not found in any of the historical studies of the Larger and Shorter Catechism that we know of – instead of the Chapter in the Confession that specifically defines such authority. In essence, the committee equated itself with the body that created it in respect to their authority, whereas I maintain that a committee created by the General Assembly does not inherently possess such authority unless specifically charged with it. The Advisory Committee recommendation requested the Foreign Missions Committee to modify its official manual so that if a missionary is instructed to do something against his conscience, he can appeal to not only the Foreign Missions Committee, but also to his Presbytery. The manual must also give specific time and process guidelines.
CR:It is my understanding that you believe in paedocommunion [child communion]. Could you please outline your beliefs and briefly describe how and why you came to your present understanding of this issue?
GI: l helped write the 1988 report to our General Assembly on this subject. But honoring my subscription, I have nothing more to say here.
CR: Do you still play the saxophone sometimes, just for fun?
GI: Well, I did play it recently at a "fun" night at church. But then I heard a recording of it. I received some applause, but my own ears tell me quite frankly that I’ve lost it and should give it up for good.
CR: Looking back on your more than 50 years in the ministry, do you have any advice for young pastors or young people that you would like to share?
GI: The number one need in a minister of the gospel is personal integrity. To use Paul’s words we need to have "faith (and I think his meaning here is ‘the faith’) and a good conscience" (1 Tim. 1:18). We must hold to the historic faith, doctrinally speaking, and we need to do so with a good conscience. Failure to remain steadfast in both of these has always seemed to me to be like Samson allowing Delilah to cut his hair. I’ve seen more than one modern Hymenaeus and Alexander come to a tragic end because of this.
Christian Renewal, September 15, 2003, PO Box 777, Jordan Station, ON LOR 1SO, Canada. Used by permission.
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