As part of our Focus On: Religion page’s “Conversations With Pastors” series, the Independent Herald last week sat down with John T. Polk II from the Oneida Church of Christ. Polk, who has been at the local Church of Christ for five years, has been preaching since 1964 — when he was majoring in pre-med but wound up on a new life’s course after becoming involved in a study of the Bible. He and his wife, JoAnn, have been married 53 years. They have three children and three grandchildren.
Independent Herald: So tell us about yourself; tell us about Johnny Polk.
Johnny Polk: I grew up in West Tennessee. Except for five or six years of living in Southern Illinois, I’ve lived in Tennessee all my life. Most of it was in Middle Tennessee, and I moved here five years ago. So I have lived in all three areas of Tennessee — West, Middle and East. The opportunity just presented itself to come here and I’m glad that it did. I thoroughly enjoy it. The church is great, and this is a great place to live.
IH: After all these years in the ministry, was coming to a rural place like Scott County an adjustment for you?
JP: I came from an even smaller place than this! I came from Stewart County. This is not an adjustment. It gets smaller.
IH: How did you get into the ministry?
JP: I preached my first sermon in 1964, when I was in college (at Freed-Hardeman University). I started regular Sunday preaching. Then I got out of college and I’ve been, quote, full-time, ever since.
IH: How did you know that you wanted to preach?
JP: I always enjoyed being in plays in school. When I started at Freed-Hardeman I started doing some serious studying of the Bible. I decided if I had any talent, I’d better use it the right way.
IH: Have you always been in church? Were you a preacher’s kid, following in your father’s footsteps, or was this your own path?
JP: My Dad wasn’t a preacher. But I grew up in church … quote, unquote; whatever that means. We were always Church of Christ. I think that’s what made me do a lot deeper studying of the Bible … to make sure I wasn’t just accepting something. It’s easy to accept something just because that’s the way you were raised. But the Bible is a standard, not just something somebody says.
IH: You’re not a pastor; you’re a preacher. For those of us who aren’t too familiar with the Church of Christ (there are only two in Scott County), help us understand this distinction.
JP: As far as the New Testament is concerned, the word “pastor” means shepherd. I’m not a shepherd. A shepherd is designed as a person specifically qualified to lead the flock. And I’m not qualified.
Within the church, you have a pastor and elder and deacons, then you have a preacher. The only authority I have on anything is what the Bible says. The qualifications of an elder are listed in 1 Timothy 3, and also 1 Titus 1. Otherwise, I’m in the category of preaching. The apostles drew that distinction in Acts 6. The first problem arose with the Church of Christ in Jerusalem. Some of the widows were being neglected and the apostles drew the line. They said you select men among you who will oversee the tables; we’ll give ourselves to administer the word and the prayer. The line is drawn. Now, the apostles were inspired; they didn’t need to give themselves to the administration of the word so much. But they were drawing the line. You need to devote yourself to what the Bible says if you’re going to preach it.
Then Paul came along in 1 Timothy 3 and definitely draws a line between the elders and the deacons. When he describes the makeup of the church in 1 Ephesians 4, there’s a distinction between apostles and elders and preachers.
IH: Most of our readers are Baptists, and most of Scott County is Baptists. Explain the difference between the Church of Christ and Baptists.
JP: It’s a matter of interpretation, I think. What the Bible says, it says. If we approach it from, “It’s supposed to mean this,” that’s our concept. If we approach it from our concept, it reverses the emphasis. I’m not looking at things to be a Baptist or anything else. I’m looking to be a Christian. Not anything else. God called us Christians. And the word is only used three times in the New Testament. It’s very important. So it’s not what kind of Christian we are, it’s whether we’re a Christian or not. The trend should be, I think, to go back to scriptures and what they teach.
IH: You said that you don’t consider the Church of Christ a denomination. Can you expand on that?
JP: We have the Bible. Every step we take away from that just goes further away from what it actually says. With the word “denomination,” they’re wanting to denominate what the New Testament actually teaches. There is no denomination. It was very clear when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 10:13. We’re either baptized in Christ for the purpose Christ gives or we’re not. Any step away from that and we’re missing it. That just causes divisions. That makes it easy for people to say, “Well, y’all are just saying you’re the only perfect one.” I don’t want to say that. I’m just simply saying everything we do, we have to go back to what the Bible says. Christians are people. That’s why Paul wrote the letters, by matter of inspiration, to people.
John Polk has preached in 17 states, and he’s made 10 trips to Ghana, West Africa to preach the gospel. He was pastor for almost 22 years at one church in Middle Tennessee and preached 10 years at another after that, before eventually winding up in Oneida.
IH: How did you wind up in Oneida, after so many years in the ministry?
JP: The opportunity. The church was looking, and I was too. We just decided it would be an opportunity for me to come.
IH: Going back to when you were in college, you were a pre-med student. Moving from that to the ministry is quite a change.
JP: Oh yes. I came face-to-face with some good studies of the Bible. Meanwhile, I have good friends I graduated with who’ve retired from good medical careers. I told them when I started studying the Bible, I figured that instead of doctoring the body I would try to doctor souls.
IH: Was it a sacrifice, giving up another career for the ministry?
JP: No. Not at all. If you’re not in a career you enjoy, you don’t do it. And I enjoy it. There are hardships, but it’s always worth it.
IH: In 55 years of ministry, how have you seen the church change?
JP: Society is influenced more by whatever somebody says we’re supposed to be doing. That influence has become stronger. I grew up post-World War II. It was very militaristic. People’s principles were strong. Church meant a lot. Anymore, it’s gotten to where people have been told the church doesn’t mean anything. Baptism doesn’t mean anything. The Bible isn’t important. And a lot of people seem to think it’s non-essential to think about these things. But we have Bible principles. When you get down to it, when there’s a shooting everybody says, “What can we do?” Well, what about the Bible principle of thou shalt not kill? What about the Bible principle of loving everybody? What about the fact that Jesus came to make a difference?
IH: What’s the importance of the church within the community?
JP: To do whatever Christians do in a Christian way. It just adds great influence. We have members here who’re scattered all around. They’re in teaching, nursing, the medical field, they sit on boards, they help make decisions. It’s just trying to have good positive influence on things that are done.
It’s important to get the truth out there to people who will listen to it. That’s kinda been lost. The term is pluralism. Everybody has the idea that it’s your truth, my truth, their truth. There is no subjective truth. Truth is truth. It’s totally objective. It’s either factual or it isn’t; it either did happen or it didn’t. That’s the only way we can understand that Jesus is absolute in history. When Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, the life,” that’s absolute. There is no equal.
IH: What do you say to people who may not have a church home, to steer them towards the Church of Christ?
JP: I don’t. I don’t want people everywhere I go thinking, “Oh, here comes the preacher and he’s gonna drag me to church.” I’m a guy. I’m no different than anybody else in that sense. I’m just a guy who preaches. There’s nothing special about me. And I want people to feel comfortable approaching me if they have questions or want to talk.
IH: Do you feel that preachers are called by God to preach?
JP: Everybody is called to be a Christian. It’s up to them to figure out what they can do. Everybody has talents. We all have to do exactly as we’re supposed to do as Christians, and we have to figure out what that is.
IH: “Everybody is called to be a Christian.” Can you expand on that a little bit?
JP: Well, the Gospel calls. Paul makes the reference in Thessalonians 2:14. In Mark 16, Jesus said, and I camp out on this passage, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” Well, why? That’s the call. He that believes will be baptized and be saved and he who doesn’t will be condemned. So the gospel is a call to every person on the face of the earth. First we have to answer the call by our own obedience. Second we have to determine how we can serve the kingdom, whether we teach, or preach, or serve the Lord. We all find our little niche and just serve the Lord to the best of our ability.
IH: After 55 years, do you have any thoughts of retiring from the ministry?
JP: I don’t have a definite time. I think I’ll understand when it’s time. But as long as I can, I want to. In life, whether you’re raising children or anything else, you reach points where you think, this is it. I call those plateaus. Sometimes when you plateau you look around and say, “What’s next?” I have determined in my life that God gives us plateaus so we can catch our breath and get ready for the next period.
Services at Oneida Church of Christ include Sunday school at 10 a.m., Sunday morning worship at 11 a.m., Sunday evening worship at 6 a.m., and Wednesday Bible study at 7 p.m. The church hosts a tailgate at its fellowship hall before every Oneida High School football home game.