Robert Parham, founding executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, died March 5 following an illness. He was 63.
“More than anyone I have known, Robert was well-suited for and passionate about his specific job in life,” Kevin Heifner, chair of BCE’s board of directors, said in an obituary on EthicsDaily.com. “His purpose was the same as the organization he founded and deeply cherished: to help people of faith advance the common good.”
The Nashville-based BCE, also known by its flagship website EthicsDaily.com, is a ministry partner of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
BCE was created to fill a void left when the Southern Baptist Convention Christian Life Commission (now called the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) shifted from a broad social-justice brand of Christian ethics dealing with concerns like poverty, racism and the environment toward a narrower focus on hot-button issues of abortion and homosexuality promoted by the Religious Right.
Announced July 30, 1991, during a press conference in Nashville, Tenn., BCE was one in a series of new ventures launched by SBC moderates who lost control of similar agencies held by the Southern Baptist Convention during a decade‑long battle in the denomination often known as the Conservative Resurgence.
Saying Christians are too often identified by what they are against, organizers envisioned an organization defined as “pro-health, not anti-alcohol; pro-family, not anti-pornography; pro-women and pro-people of color, not anti-discrimination; pro-peacemaking, not anti-war; and pro-poor people, not anti-poverty.”
Early on BCE held conferences and distributed newsletters, adding curriculum and study guides and establishing a website in 1999. With the launch of EthicsDaily.com in 2002 came a new motto: “challenging people of faith to advance the common good.”
In 2006 the organization started producing documentary DVDs for use in faith communities. The most recent, “The Disturbances,” released last September, shares a previously untold story about missionaries and local pastors intervening to save lives amid the 1966 genocide in Nigeria.
The story was personal for Parham, who grew up in Nigeria as a missionary kid. His father, Bob Parham, died in 2003. His mother, JoAnn Parham, survives.
Parham received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, a master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from Baylor University.
While in seminary, Parham worked as president of the student government with Professor Glenn Stassen to organize a convocation on peacemaking and the nuclear arms race at Deer Park Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., in 1979.
“He served as a faithful and dedicated witness to God’s purpose and called us to action with dignity and strength.”
After earning his doctorate, he took a job in 1985 with the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention as director of hunger and drug concerns and race relations in the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
Parham was named interim executive director of the CLC, following the brief tenure of director Larry Baker, before resigning in 1991 to open the Baptist Center for Ethics that September. He survived a bout with leukemia in 2005 and was later diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare and serious disease that commonly affects vital organs like the heart and kidneys.
News of his death brought sadness across CBF life.
“He served as a faithful and dedicated witness to God’s purpose and called us to action with dignity and strength,” CBF Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter said in a tribute on Facebook.
“Robert was a man of integrity and brought a prophetic voice to Baptist life,” said Tom Ogburn, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. “He will be missed in our midst.”
Parham was a member of First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.
Survivors include his wife, Betsy; daughter Elisa Wilhelm; son Chris Parham; and three brothers. A sister preceded him in death.
Funeral arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial gifts be made to Baptist Center for Ethics.