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Olbricht a ‘Renaissance man’ for churches

“In those days there were giants in the land” quintessentially captures the essence of Thomas H. Olbricht’s contribution to Churches of Christ.
Few octogenarians remain as vibrantly engaged in church life and the academy. Olbricht recently published an account of his life, aptly titled, “Reflections on My Life in the Kingdom and the Academy.”
The book provides a fascinating narrative, not only of Olbricht’s life, but also of historic moments in Churches of Christ and in higher education institutions associated with Churches of Christ.
Few individuals merit a book chronicling their achievements. Olbricht  belongs to that meritorious few. He has served churches from Maine to southern California and taught at numerous institutions. The common thread throughout his professional and personal life has been his commitment to the Lord and his overriding desire to place every aspect of his life in service to the church.
I was privileged to first encounter Olbricht as my undergraduate and graduate professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas. I took every course he taught. Any student who sat at Olbricht’s feet will tell you he was a unique professor. Most have a “Dr. Olbricht story,” one that invariably conveys admiration and devotion for a professor with both uncanny erudition and a great sense of humor.
Olbricht chose early in his career to immerse himself in a number of subjects and gain expertise in fields as diverse as rhetoric, biblical theology, philosophy and church history. He truly has been a “Renaissance man” in our movement.
Similarly, Olbricht refused to accept any dichotomy between excellent classroom pedagogy and rigorous scholarship. He was superb in the classroom and gave his time freely to students outside the classroom. He published extensively, producing work at the highest levels of academia, as well as materials for those sitting in the pew.
One might expect a person of such intellectual prowess to manifest moments of pride and condescension toward those less gifted. However, Olbricht is genuinely humble and respectful of others, even those who might have been most critical of his insights and understanding of God and Scripture.
Regardless of the treatment Olbricht received, he has always responded with graciousness and love. This is not to say he “suffers fools gladly.” Perhaps no one is better at “speaking the truth in love” than he. As his colleague for several years, I observed him gently inform colleagues and friends whose thinking or behavior was off-track.
However, even when he has been upset with someone, his frustration never survives the day. Olbricht extends grace and forgiveness daily.
In 1987, he offered me a faculty position at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. A year earlier, he had left ACU to become chair of the religion division at Pepperdine.
Serving as a faculty member with Olbricht as chair was an incredible opportunity to see biblical leadership in action. Olbricht’s unique pedagogical and scholarly abilities also were mirrored in his distinctive leadership style.
We are all indebted to his’s visionary courage. We would have neither the journal Restoration Quarterly nor the Christian Scholars Conference without Olbricht’s vision or his willingness to work tirelessly and selflessly to make those dreams a reality.
As an administrator and colleague, he was most memorable in that he never manifested concern for himself or his own professional wellbeing.
Rather, he spent his time solely defending the rights and concerns of those colleagues who had little voice in the discussion and were most vulnerable to decisions that might have harmful consequences.
Olbricht was willing to fight tirelessly for colleagues and for important ideas. Not only did he spend no time protecting himself and his own agenda, he refused to succumb to leadership stereotypes he considered less than effective.
As a colleague, I repeatedly watched him work diligently to meet with key stakeholders prior to an important meeting, working through possible objections and problems, so that when the discussion occurred in a larger gathering, potential problems and attempts to derail important decisions had already been resolved.
A concluding anecdote captures the essence of the person presented in “Reflections on My Life.” While a graduate student at ACU, I also attended Minter Lane Church of Christ where Olbricht served as an elder.
On Saturday mornings I was blessed to work with him on several neighborhood service projects. For several months we went door to door throughout the neighborhood to engage our neighbors in conversation about God, Jesus Christ, and the church.
What remains most vividly with me to this day is that, during the week, I would sit at his’s feet in class and engage in conversation at the highest levels imaginable about the nature of God and his relationship to his creation and his people.
On Saturday, I would sit in living rooms with my mentor and hear Olbricht talk about God and his relationship with his world, in language any layperson could understand.
He treated this neighborly conversation with the same respect and dignity that he accorded his graduates. Such is the mark of one who truly has given his life in service to the Lord.
RICK MARRS is dean of Seaver College at Pepperdine University and teaches in the university’s religion division. He is an elder of the Conejo Valley Church of Christ in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Filed under: Staff Reports Views

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