Trusting God’s Heart and Doubting Frank Cox: Former Georgia Baptist Convention President Frank Cox Hears from God and Visits with Angels

When Frank Cox accepted the position of pastor at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church almost thirty-five years ago, the church was not a healthy one.  His compensation package was uncertain and older church members were duplicitous and contentious.  Not long after he arrived, a group formed that opposed Cox’s leadership.  Cox “had led the church to unprecedented growth. Salvations were occurring at a much greater rate than the church had experienced before. The financial base had increased, and Frank was diligent in his pastoral care.”[1]  Yet, criticism against Cox mounted to such a level that he considered leaving the church.  Cox “was well known and respected among many for his reputation as a growth pastor. Various search committees from other churches were interested in Cox and began to contact his references.”[2]  One of his references, having received numerous phone calls about Cox, approached him about his situation.  He encouraged Cox not to run lest he find himself in a similar situation wherever he went.  Despite pressure to pursue opportunities away from Pleasant Hill Baptist, Cox chose to heed the advice he’d been given and remained at there.  The story of Cox’s struggles at Pleasant Hill is an interesting one that includes claims of angel visitation and direct divine revelation.  Despite his many struggles at his church and in his personal life,[3] Cox was able to hold on at Pleasant Hill Baptist.[4]  Eventually, the Truett-McConnell and Mercer educated Cox would be elected President of the Georgia Baptist Convention (in 1997 and 1998[5]).[6] One is left to wonder if Cox’s claims of divine encounters helped him navigate the political intrigue that has recently pervaded the Georgia Baptist Convention.  One is also left to wonder if Cox’s claims of divine encounters are veridical.

Angels Unaware

About four years into Cox’s tenure at Pleasant Hill Baptist, dissent towards Cox’s leadership began to swell.  In the midst of this crisis, his wife was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer.  According to Cox, during this time of tumult he was given a sense of God’s assurance through an encounter with angels.  This encounter is described in the book Catastrophic Crisis:

“Because the church was close to the interstate, drifters looking for a handout often came around. Frank sometimes was amused at the elaborate stories they would concoct. Therefore, when two strangers showed up proclaiming they had a message from God, he was naturally skeptical. One of them was blind, and the other had shaggy hair and torn clothes— not exactly how Frank would expect someone with a heavenly message to look. However, when the shaggy-haired man began to tell Frank in detail about his wife’s illness and the trouble at the church, he was startled. There appeared to be no way the man could have known such specifics. From a bag he was carrying, the stranger pulled out a loaf of French bread and some grape juice. He insisted that the pastor have the Lord’s Supper with him and his blind companion, and Frank agreed. The stranger then proceeded to pray in a manner that brought the presence of the Lord to Frank in a special way. Before he left, he assured Frank that if he remained faithful in preaching the Word of God, then ‘He will take care of your wife and the problems of the church. . . . The church may be emptied, but He’ll fill it again with His people.’  After the prayer, the man who had prayed put the juice and the bread back into the bag and, along with his companion, quickly walked out the door never to be seen by the pastor again. The pastor later described the event as an ‘Abraham thing’, that is ‘a time of testing’ and that ‘I knew I had entertained angels unaware.’”[7]

This is a sensational story indeed.  One can appreciate the stress which Cox was going through.  It is not uncommon for pastors to be treated harshly by stiff-necked and exclusivist church members.  To make matters worse for Cox, his wife was dying.  Yet, should the hearer of this story take Cox’s words that he entertained angels? Common sense would seem to dictate that angels would bring the proper elements, unleavened bread and wine, to the Lord’s Table.[8]  Yet these drifters brought French bread and grape juice.  When the writer of Hebrews exhorts his audience to show hospitality to strangers, he indicates that by doing so they may be entertaining angels unaware.  Yet, Cox seems to be quite certain and aware that he hosted angels.  This story is highly dubious.  No one would question whether or not a pastor showed kindness to homeless people.  However, when the homeless people are angels with a special message from God in support of an embattled pastor, there is a reason for suspicion.  Those who opposed Cox not only had to contend with that they had been duly called by the church but with the claim that God himself sent messengers to support Cox.

The Voice of God

Despite the angelic visitation, certain members of the church demanded Cox’s resignation.  Their stated reasons, as stated in Catastrophic Crisis, were quite absurd.  A motion was brought at the next business meeting to remove Cox from his pastorate.  The opposition flailed.   At best, it could bring only feeble and ridiculous reasons to dismiss Cox.  Still, Cox felt put upon by the trouble which he was enduring.  Along with a group of 130 people, Cox resolved to start a new church.  Weekly meetings began with interested parties, money was raised, and a date was set to start a new church.   However, the Friday before the 1st Sunday for the new church, God (Cox claims) intervened again.  This encounter, too, is described in the book Catastrophic Crisis:

“Frank was deep in prayer. Prostrating himself before the Lord, he thanked Him for the opportunity to start a new church. At that point, Frank was startled by an ‘audible voice from the Lord.’ The voice said that God had not called him to start a church. Instead, he was to continue as pastor of this church. If Frank would stay faithful, the church would be emptied; but then God would fill it right back. The latter assurance echoed what the stranger had said to him a few weeks before. After this revelation, Frank told the group that was ready to start the church that they could go ahead with his blessing, but God had not released him from Pleasant Hill. Their response was that they were staying with their pastor.”[9]

Speaking not through scripture or an impression upon the heart, God audibly told Frank Cox to stick it out at Pleasant Hill.  Not only had Cox received a visit from two angels but he had now received confirmation of the angels’ message from God Himself in the form an audible voice.  Those who opposed Cox not only had to contend with the claim that God himself sent messengers to support Cox but that God himself has spoken to Cox.  The next Sunday Cox delivered a message to the congregation; “God’s word to them” was to move their membership given that they had not followed the pastor’s leadership.  Three weeks after Cox delivered his message, 170 members had left their church.  They were soon replaced by others, however.   The church has since grown into a megachurch with over 2,500 seats and an attendance of 10 times more than it had before Cox’s arrival. [10]

Revival Baptism

Miraculous healings are certainly a powerful demonstration of God’s mercy and sovereignty over creation.  No less powerful, however, are the witnesses of God’s children who faithfully live out a life plagued by illness.  Even when Christians are not miraculously healed, they can boast in their infirmities because God’s grace is sufficient for them.  As Cox’s wife struggled with her terrible illness, she understandably struggled with her faith.  However, Debbie Cox eventually came to accept that she had assurance in Jesus and lived out a faithful witness in her last days.  This faithful witness, unfortunately, may not include her rebaptism at Pleasant Hill Baptist.  Per an account published at sbclife.net:

“…during a revival at their church, Frank looked up to see Debbie struggling to get down the aisle. She was leaning on a cane, one leg and one arm in a splint, and once at the front, she told her husband, ‘God has convicted me that I am to be baptized as a witness to these people.’ Cox told the congregation what had happened a few weeks before and why Debbie was coming forward now, and thirty people came forward to receive Christ. The next night over twenty more came, and on Sunday, when Debbie was baptized, fifteen more came to know Jesus.”

God certainly convicts his children to identify with Christ by undergoing believer’s Baptist.  However, this is a one-time event.  No matter how great a showing it will make, baptism should not be used as a showing.  Success at a mega church is often measured in terms of scores of baptisms.  This should not be the measure of success anywhere.  Scores of people should not walk an aisle seeking salvation because they saw a sick person get rebaptized.  They should do so under conviction from the Holy Spirit.[11]  In no case should a church ordinance, such as baptism, be done in a way that is not scriptural.

Cox’s Claims in Retrospect

Certainly the struggles of Frank Cox and the tragic death of his wife should not be minimized.  Being a pastor is one of the most stressful jobs someone can have.  Back-biting and pastor abuse is common among congregations who view pastors like Micah’s hired Levite from the book of judges: their employee.  Some think a church hires a pastor in order for him to evangelize the lost for the members.  Members go to secular jobs and never endanger their relationships in the world by proclaiming Christ while pastors make a job of so doing.  When a church growth-model is built around building a building and having members invite their neighbors to hear “God’s man” preach, then “God’s man” can expect to be treated like an employee, a hired gun.  When a church hires a pastor based on his reputation for church growth, a hired gun is exactly what it expects.  The church knows that he grew something somewhere else and he is leaving that place for a new place and the right price.  This should not be the case.  The true task of the pastor is a to shepherd the church’s people as they fulfill the great commission themselves.   God grows churches, not pastors.   Where church growth is concerned there, are unfortunately two extremes which distort its value.  On the one extreme, there are those small, club-like churches who don’t want a pastor to bring others into the fold lest it upset the social order.  On the other, there are those massive mega-churches who demand that a pastor pump the baptism numbers at all costs.  Submission to God’s will is not apparent in either of these extremes.

Where disagreement is concerned, factions should not be formed to oppose pastors.  Rather, individuals who have a disagreement with their pastor should approach him in the spirit of Matthew 18.  A church business meeting should not resemble the sometimes contentious shareholders’ meetings of worldly corporations.  Disagreement and resolution should be done in love and in biblical order.  That goes for pastors and laypeople alike.  Pastors should not abuse their power or the “spiritual” nature of their positions.  No pastor should ever have to claim that God told him to build a new education building or parking lot.  No one should disagree with God, but pastors can be wrong often.  Surely enough “God-revealed” building projects have gone awry to prove that God wasn’t behind every one of them.   When church-going children are young, they are taught to sing “the bible tells me so.”  This simple line should be remembered always.  God’s word is in the Bible.  That’s the best place to find it.  When church members are told by professional clergy that “God has told them this, that, and other,” they may be discouraged in their laity if they have never received similar revelation.  “The big jobs and decisions,” they may think, “should be handled by the men who hear from God and receive visits from angels.”  Some church members may be reluctant to come forth with commons sense solutions for lack of “a word from God” (or even be tempted to manufacture one to back their positions).  All the while, those men with the words of from God and, in Cox’s case, a book with a foreword written by Jerry Falwell, will rise into more influential positions of leadership.

Each person will have to decide for himself whether he believes the account of Cox and those like it.  Cox’s association with the Georgia Baptist Convention leadership certainly casts dispersion upon it.  The sinfully opulent Georgia Baptist Convention Headquarters was built in Duluth, his church’s back yard.  For years the Georgia Baptist Convention was controlled by a tight-knight group of Mercer graduates.  Under its leadership, convention colleges nearly failed and men like the Caner brothers thrived in Georgia.  With the leadership of the Mercer cabal finally broken and the Georgia Baptist Convention planning to sell its embarrassing headquarters, perhaps Georgia Baptists are moving in the right direction.  However, if they are moving in the right direction it is perhaps because men are taking a biblical stand and abandoning reliance on curiously timely claims of direct divine revelation.

Frank Cox was a few thousands votes away from being the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and, if his story is to be believed, he was few inches away from communion bread hand delivered by angels.  Christians should always trust God’s heart but they are certainly justified if they choose to doubt the wild claims of men like Frank Cox.

[Contributed by Seth Dunn]

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

[1] England, Allen; Echols, Steve F. (2011-05-01). Catastrophic Crisis (p. 116). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.  

[2] England, Allen; Echols, Steve F. (2011-05-01). Catastrophic Crisis (p. 117). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[3] Cox’s wife tragically lost a battle with cancer in 1986.

[4] The church is now known as North Metro Church. http://www.northmetro.net/

[5] http://www.ourcampaigns.com/CandidateDetail.html?CandidateID=200829

[6] In 2008, Cox was nominated to be the President of the Southern Baptist Convention but lost to Johnny Hunt.  http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2008/june/johnny-hunt-wins-sbc-presidency.html

[7] England, Allen; Echols, Steve F. (2011-05-01). Catastrophic Crisis (pp. 119-120). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[8] There is also some questions as to whether angels, not being human Christians, would partake in a church ordinance.

[9] England, Allen; Echols, Steve F. (2011-05-01). Catastrophic Crisis (p. 122). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[10] England, Allen; Echols, Steve F. (2011-05-01). Catastrophic Crisis (p. 123). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition

[11] http://www.sbclife.net/Articles/1996/09/sla4

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