I have just learned of the passing of Robert Shank, 88, who died peacefully at his home in Mount Vernon, Missouri on October 16, 2006, ten days after suffering a debilitating stroke. His death concluded an earthly pilgrimage of humble conviction and quiet scholarship, bringing to an end more than 60 years of faithful ministry as a Christian pastor, preacher, author, lecturer and teacher. Following in the footsteps of his Baptist minister father, Shank himself began pastoring Southern Baptist churches in 1941, also serving as teacher and president of a Bible academy. The same year marked his marriage to Ruth Marybelle Sutton, a union which 65 years later had produced five children (including one minister son, David, an associate priest in the American Orthodox Church), nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Shank’s progeny also included six books, three of which attracted considerable attention because they crossed the grain of his current denominational tradition. In 1960 he published Life in the Son, in which he argued that the believer’s salvation is secure but that any believer could theoretically abandon faith and lose the salvation. At that point, certain Baptist leaders suggested that he join the Churches of Christ. Shank did so — and was welcomed into his new fellowship as a hero of conscience and conviction. Churches of Christ rejoiced again in 1970 with the publication of Shank’s follow-up volume Elect in the Son, in which he proposed that God corporately chose all those “in Christ” rather than choosiing particular individuals with names and faces. In 1975, Pepperdine University presented Shank with an honorary doctorate in acknowledgement of his theologial contributions.
For a decade and more, Shank remained in demand as a preacher and lecturer among Churches of Christ. That ended with the 1982 publication of his book Until the Coming of Messiah and His Kingdom, in which he presented the case for historic premillennialism, an end-time interpretation traditionally rejected by the vast majority of Churches of Christ. For the second time Shank found the welcome mat retracted by spiritual comrades as a result of his thinking outside their usual box. Many within Churches of Christ who had lauded as courageous scholarship Shank’s earlier questioning of Southern Baptist tradition now denounced and shunned him when he devoted the same independent study to question their own accepted doctrine. Despite the furor, Shank continued as preacher for a village Church of Christ in Missouri where he had lived for many years.
I have been honored to call Robert my friend for 40 years, have delighted to stand by his side as a Christian scholar and brother, and to defend him on occasion against the calumny of his detractors. Robert Shank was an honest, diligent and godly man, full of grace and the Holy Spirit, who humbly taught Scripture as he understood it, regardless of the consequences. At the close of this life, I know of no higher compliment any Christian teacher could wish to receive.