Monday, June 24, 2013

Debriefing the Les Ollila Interview

Les Ollila is the former president of Northland Baptist Bible College, now Northland International University.  When I was in high school, our family had Ollila in for a meal when he was in Watertown, WI to speak at the Wisconsin State Youth Conclave.  I think it may have been the first ever WSYC.  At that time, I think, Les Ollila was some type of "youth evangelist," who spoke all over the country in meetings.  He was a well-known fundamentalist leader and popular fundamentalist conference speaker.

NIU has made a massive change in leadership and direction in the last 5-10 years.  Ollila is not at Northland any more and he doesn't support its changes.  Recently, he was invited to Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis, IN, where Chuck Phelps is pastor, to speak at the Crossroads Conference.  There Ollila was given time in a brief Q & A to answer questions especially relating to what's happening in relationship to NIU.  That I know of, this is the first public revelation of where Ollila stood and stands on the NIU situation.

What makes Ollila endearing is that in many ways he's a sort of one-of-a-kind speaker or person in fundamentalism.  He's got a campy and out-there sense of humor.  He'll say things in a very unique way that often times covers for the poor content of what he says.  You're too busy thinking about his funny and forget that he just said something you don't agree with.  At one time in the Q and A, he sent everyone reeling with his in depth exegesis of Alf, illustrating something with the television show that I've never seen.  I think I remember the puppet-like figure Alf (sp?), which was enough to spur intense disinterest.  Ollila seemed to love Alf.  It was funny watching Dr. O go into a total Alf machination to make a point that was totally lost without Alf knowledge.

Since I'm on comedy, another funny moment was the outburst of Ollila about bloggers.  Get a life!  I don't know who the people are who he's talking about. I've not read a blog post critical of Ollila.  He doesn't blog.  The technology is past a lot of guys his age, no disrespect.  Phelps started to cry on this point, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.  That didn't connect with me like it did Phelps.  I had no unction to well up with tears, so it got me thinking about how much blogging there has been about Phelps and how that connected with him emotionally.  I'm sure he wished blogging didn't exist as it related to the Tina Anderson issue back in his Trinity days, so he had true empathy with Ollila's feelings about blogging.

Ollila did not take questions from the crowd and there was little to no follow-up to the questions he answered from Chuck Phelps.  Phelps appeared to have his own questions and some with him from the audience.  All the interaction was with Phelps.  It's obvious that Ollila doesn't like what's going on at Northland.  My overall analysis of the Q & A is that it seemed to be an opportunity for Ollila to reestablish his fundamentalist credentials and to reconnect with the mainstream of the FBFI branch of fundamentalism.  He'll need it for his future parachurch endeavor, as he hooks himself up to another ox-cart in fundamentalism.  At the same time, Ollila was able to and will be able to remain a kind of hero among young fundamentalists with so much of what he said and how he said it.

Important aspects of what Ollila said did not jive with what I thought fundamentalists believed.   Where he clashed with typical fundamentalism, he used humor to deflect.  Phelps could have easily cleared all that up, but he just let it go.  I can't imagine that Phelps agreed with Ollila, but perhaps he didn't want to embarrass him in public.  Even though Ollila detached himself from NIU, I don't see how he's much different in principle.  His answers bothered me and they should be a problem for fundamentalism.  However, I would think that most young fundamentalists would have liked what he had to say.

In no particular order, first, Ollila said that CCM wasn't a sin -- it just wasn't wise.  That's a hard one to work through, but that does almost nothing to eliminate CCM.   It's either false worship or it isn't.  If it is false worship, it is sin.  If it isn't false worship, then it is acceptable.  Ollila didn't explain how it was unwise, and Phelps didn't follow up at all.  I would have asked, "Is CCM fleshly or worldly lust?  If so, then it is sin, isn't it?"  Or, "How is it unwise?  What do you mean by that?"  Ollila gave a big permission for CCM in fundamentalism with his statement on CCM.  That Phelps didn't disagree showed Phelps to either agree with him or to indicate that it is a liberty issue in fundamentalism.  You are free to use CCM fundamentalism, because it isn't a sin.  I think this is where fundamentalism is at now.

Second, Ollila talked about his visit to John MacArthur.  I don't think there is any problem with someone visiting with John MacArthur.  Ollila was checking him out.  It's his conclusion that was a problem.  Right there in a fundamentalist meeting, Ollila gave a complete endorsement to MacArthur with zero disclaimer and he was not challenged at all by Phelps.  Lots of cheering had to be going on from conservative evangelicals and young fundamentalists.  Phelps asked Ollila, "Are you a separatist?" Ollila:  "Yes."  Phelps:  "Are you a fundamentalist?"  Ollila:  "Yes."  So there we go.  Penetrating, probing analysis complete.

Ollila's defense of MacArthur was three-fold as I heard it.  I could defend MacArthur too, because there is a lot I like about him.  But that's not the point here -- it isn't what we're talking about.  Ollila defended MacArthur with moral equivalency.  Ollila wasn't going to the Hyles pastors' conference.  What?  That came out of left field, but it seemed to be a shot at those who have appeared with Jack Schaap at various functions, including the president of the FBFI.  Ollila has a point to be made there, a legitimate one, but it doesn't stand as a defense of fellowship with MacArthur.   At most, it scares away criticism, because it says that you can't criticize me for MacArthur because others did worse with Schaap.  Tit for tat politics.  It should have been argued by Phelps, but he just laughed it off.

The next part of his defense was that MacArthur's music, the one day Ollila was there, was better than a BJU vespers.   Who knows if that's true or not, but we know that on other days that Ollila was and is not there in Southern California, MacArthur uses rock music.  That's not hard to find out if you're just the slightest bit curious.  I guess one day is enough to evaluate all of MacArthur's music for anyone, according to Ollila.

Lastly, he said that MacArthur preached a true gospel, and although MacArthur might be Calvinist, Ollila himself isn't one.  This was again fundamentalism being reduced to a defense of a true gospel alone, gospel centered fundamentalism.  Is that truly all that fundamentalism is?  Because if not, someone should step up, but Phelps does not.  Crickets.

Although Ollila really didn't clear up the music issue, this was not and is not the main problem with MacArthur for fundamentalists.  MacArthur is the most conservative, conservative evangelical, but he does not practice separation like a fundamentalist.  If that were the case, then fundamentalists would be having MacArthur in to preach for them.  He fellowships with Southern Baptists.  He fellowships with Charismatics.  That has been a no-no for fundamentalists.  Ollila left that out of his evaluation, maybe because he is a simpleton, like he referred to himself.  If you are simpleton, you get a pass.  You get to preach at the conference, but you are excused for everything else because simpletons can pull the simpleton card.  It's a sympathy card, very convenient.

Why Ollila left NIU was because of pragmatism.  He's death on pragmatism.  I'd be happy to believe that.  I would call Ollila selectively death on pragmatism.  Why?  He's so pragmatic.  He signed on to the name change of NIU.  He defended it.  Why?  It was pragmatic.  It all depends on what kind of pragmatism you're talking about.   He blamed the changes on the PR guys that Olson brought in.  Olson brought them in, but it was the PR guys' fault.  Why?  He knows Olson's heart.  I know Northland had the heart conference, and I never attended it, but I hope that wasn't the essence of it.  As long as your heart is in the right place, you really, really are sincere and want it all to be good in your heart, then you're fine.  What you actually do, like hiring the PR guys that cause the demise and fall, that is excused by your "heart."  This kind of goopy sentimentalism is a big issue in fundamentalism.

It might not be the worst, but the worst part of the interview of Ollila to me was Ollila's explanation of the superiority of being a moderate.  You aren't in the right ditch.  You aren't in the left ditch.  The Bible teaches balance (where?) and you stay away from the right wingers and the left wingers and keep right down the middle.  That's the explanation of fundamentalist unity, I believe.  You can unpragmatically (of course) take the right course by lopping off the extremists on either side.  Who are the right wingers?  They're probably the ones who take strong positions on cultural issues.  Who are the left wingers?  Those are the almost-anything-goes guys.  Suddenly Northland was considered right ditch as it stayed in the middle of the road.  What to do?  When you are a parachurch organization, looking to keep your enrollment up, you've got to find that sweet spot.  Northland had it when Ollila was there.  Success is found in finding the middle of the road, bridging the gap between both sides.  That's not how I read it in the Bible, but this is a generally acceptable idea for fundamentalism.   It's not  the model for a church with the Bible as sole authority.

More could be said, but the Ollila Q & A was very informative and educational.  It doesn't speak well for the future of fundamentalism.


Don Johnson said...

Hi Kent,

Interesting. I think you are reading between the lines a bit in some of your conclusions. Your interpretation could be correct, but the interview was ambiguous enough that it isn't clear what Les' position actually is.

I'll close with a cryptic "stay tuned" and hope that gets explained shortly.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Kent Brandenburg said...


There was enough ambiguity that the ambiguity was clear, which is ironic.

Lou Martuneac said...


"Ollila did not take questions from the crowd and there was little to no follow-up to the questions he answered from Chuck Phelps."

The Q&A appears to have left many wanting, and may have raised more questions.

Following the live stream of the Q&A and closure of the formal conference, Les Ollila stayed on taking questions from all comers for approximately two hours.

To me, we encourage the guy when he's going right, admonish (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15) the guy when he's going wrong, and ultimately mark, avoid (Romans 16:17-18) and separate when he is far gone.


DLF said...

Kent, I believe you’re saying that this Q&A brought many more questions than answers and the answers really muddied the waters more than cleared things up. The CCM answer was very disappointing. It is as if CCM is just one of those issues that really isn’t that important…it’s just a matter of preference. Whereas the Bible does not directly address CCM, there are many principles given for us to determine what kind of music should be used by Bible-believing Christians. I agree with you that there is a sin issue here and I agree with Dr. O that it is unwise, but we don’t know why he says it is unwise. I would say that it is always unwise to involve ourselves in worldly, sinful practices. I recently heard someone say music is in the area of “doubtful disputations” (Romans 14:1) along with observing days and eating meat. He said those are not doctrinal issues. But I believe music is a doctrinal issue and we are given a great amount of information in the Scriptures to guide us in our choice and use of music that will glorify God.

Thanks for your observations on this issue.

D. Flaming

Larry said...

Kent, I agree that this was a disappointing in many ways, though personally I think you are asking a little much for the format. In a Q&A like this, there is not room to dig deep given the time constraints.

However, one point on the name issue: I think you are incorrect to call that pragmatism. It should rather be characterized as practical, particularly for the foreign missionaries who were being denied certain opportunities apparently only because of this name. Ollila said the underlying entities (the Baptist Bible College and the three others) did not change, which explains why some have labeled it the Northland Overarching Entity (something I never understood until this answer).

I think there were other pragmatic things going on, and I think that was wrong. But I don't see this as one of them. It does not appear that they were willing to "whatever works," but they were willing to do "what works," and in so doing they crossed no biblical boundaries on that issue. To call it pragmatic (with moral prejudice), I think you would have to demonstrate that they somehow sinned in choosing the label "University." I don't know how that would be demonstrated. But I will entertain the argument if you (or someone else) will make it. I suppose the question is, "Is it sin to choose "University" as a name? Or must a school have "Baptist Bible College" in their name?"

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Larry,

Thanks for coming by. I think there might be other examples of pragmatism better than the one I mentioned, and I actually think that fundamentalism overall is rife with pragmatism. I'm aware of my own pragmatic thinking at times. At one time, I was very pragmatic, as learned in fundamentalism. I don't think there is anything specifically in the Bible to guide the naming of a college, since college isn't in there. However, you're going to get a different evaluation with secular people when you call yourself "international university" instead of "Baptist Bible College." The latter doesn't sound as educational to a secular world, if educational is the right word, but something like that. "Practical" in my evaluation is also doctrinal, that is, a way to be sure to fulfill what scripture says. The Bible works, because God wrote it. It can be practiced. Changing to a name more palatable to those negative about "Baptist" and "Bible" isn't about the Bible or God. That's where I'm coming from on this, Larry.

Sometimes people say something "helped" people on the foreign mission field. Someone might say that a rescue mission "helped" inner city folk. I don't know how taking out Baptist and Bible from your public presentation, and giving it a more secular sound, actually helps. I can see how someone could explain how it helped, but that's where it becomes pragmatic. It's not about obeying scripture, which is practical.

I think I can find lots of other examples of pragmatism. I think Les Ollila is less pragmatic than the present NIU administration.

Steve Rogers said...

Spot on analysis Bro. Kent. I concluded several of the same thoughts after watching the "interview" myself. I find it ironic that Phelps was the chosen moderator for Doc O's comeback tour kick off. The oxcart reference is key. Can I ask, does anyone following these events know who Matt Olson's church is or who Doc O's church is? No, because all of this takes place outside of the one institution that God ordained to settle these matters, bring accountability, and safety and protection in the intensifying days of compromise in the church age the Bible tells us of. Phelps and his church are not the authority Doc O is accountable to, nor the FBFI etc. This is the parachurch, dare I say, supra-church mindset that fundamentalism is known for. It allows the good ol boys network to pass judgement and pass over judgment without true accountability. What is worse, these men and their "ministries" thrive off local churches and their members. The lack of discernment and willingness to confront is nauseating to me. If a brother is seeing some light and starting to come out of darkness, great, encourage him. Don't elevate him in a conference on conviction and separation as an authority. That interview told me which way Doc O and fundamentalism took at this another "Crossroads In Ministry."

Anonymous said...

I praise and thank the Lord that I am not around very many of these types of discussions anymore. What a blessing! I Timothy 1:5 "But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, 7 wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions."

Kent Brandenburg said...


Consider how close your comment is to this verse:

Luke 18:11, "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican."

Anonymous said...


Thank you for proving my point. Please read my post again. I made no reference to myself or my personal stature or status as the Pharisees do in Luke 18:11. Yet, in your response, once again graciously proved my point. I watched the video, read the blog and read the comments, including your follow up comment to me... and it all breaks my heart. It is apparent that Dr. O has been hurt and is hurting. He is a brother in Christ! Yet... many of the comments attack a brother when he is already obviously hurting. How quick we are to jump in and tell our brothers and sisters what they are doing wrong? Even the comment(s) about the moderator's prior indiscretion(s). I don't know what he did in the past and, obviously, I am glad you all don't know what I have done in the past because I would get in line with Paul as the chief of sinners. Are we not in the business of forgiveness and "restore such a one" as the Bible teaches? But, sadly, my comment(s) will not make any difference to any of you, as is even apparent by your response. So quick to cast the stones at one another when the world around us is collapsing in sin. Do you think that the Christians being beheaded overseas took the time while in captivity to try to set each other straight on music standards, John McArthur, what instruments are appropriate in church, etc.? We spend so much time and energy attacking our own and wonder why we're not reaching the world. It especially boggles my mind how one can nitpick about different stances and beliefs within the church and yet believe something that is absolutely contrary to the Word of God. And it will not change... why? Because it is apparently more important to hold onto the ingrained tradition of a belief system called "fundamentalism" than to believe what the Word of God says. Just to illustrate, one of the key beliefs about which I am speaking is pre-tribulation rapture. Clearly it is impossible, since it is not possible for God to go contrary to His Word. Revelations 20 clearly states that those who are part of the FIRST resurrection include those who did not receive the mark of the beast and we know that the "dead in Christ will rise FIRST, then" the rapture... it is impossible for a pre-tribulation rapture. Jesus himself makes it clear in Matthew 24... yet, because of the deep, ingrained desire to hold onto a belief system and it's tradition... most will not even consider what the Bible clearly says but will find lesser things to make a HUGE issue about with other brothers. Sorry, but it just breaks my heart. The thing is... I love you all. I know you love God. We are on the same team. I wish we could spend more time having dialogue about what we are for, rather than what we are against. I believe there is such a vastness to the greatness and glory of God and His attributes that we could spend all of our time talking about Him and focusing on Him and never run out of things to share. It draws people much more than having to constantly hear what you are against.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi David,

Thanks for dropping by.

Bryan Hatfield said...

I appreciate the article. Our society seems to be in a movement to throw aside the ancient landmarks. I do appreciate that, "some positions taken in the past were based upon events of the past." I have great respect for the Late Dr Green of Michigan. He would not allow men of God that wore beards or wire-rimmed glasses to preach in his pulpit. Although we knew one another and we talked amicably to one another, I never preached in his pulpit due to my wearing a full beard. I am confident it was a reaction to the movements of the 60's which he protested. We are 50 years beyond that and those items may not be an issue needing our attention. This one might refer to as personal separations. But, too many fundamental baptists today seem to let down standards that for thousands of years have been contended when it comes to worldliness. It seems like a strong statement for sure. I remember while taking a Talmud class that the rabbis spoke of how wicked and worldly it was to attend the circus. And it was worldly. This quote was from writings of c. 2000 years ago. The circu people dressed immodestly to arouse the masses. They caused people to be amused (not think) based upon worldly feats. The music was used to lure the people in to the event. All for worldly gain.
The CCM movement of today lures in the millions to listen to its sweet sound. (I know some might contend the term "sweet sound" including myself) It does not change their speech to that which is upright and good. It does not change their dress. The women are quite immodest and the men aren't much better. My contention would be that you cannot tell them apart from the world and lastly it leaves them in ignorance of God's commands, laws, decrees, teachings, etc. I have a brother who attends one of the farces because he says he feels so good while he is there. When he leaves he has to contend for the faith will no help, no armor, no understanding and no preparation for the week. Quite sad.
Jud 1:3 Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.
Jud 1:19 These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit.
They do not separate to God, but from God...