The Preaching and Teaching Legacy of Dr. Ralph G. Turk
By Paul J. Scharf
God has given me the privilege of studying the Bible and theology under some tremendous teachers. Were I to catalog all of them, the list would be formidable. Some of these men, although great in their own right, would be unknown to many; others would be household names, at least in our circle of the Christian world.
As I look back, one of my seminary professors stands out to me in a way that I did not at first realize he would. Yet in the end, Dr. Ralph G. Turk impacted my life as much as any spiritual leader could (Heb. 13:7). Turk has been in Heaven for more than 16 years now, but it is my belief that this survey of his life and ministry still has the ability to encourage readers in service to their Lord.
Turk would stand out in almost any crowd. He was tall and lean, with distinctive features. God gave him a preacher’s voice—and a mind, including a wit, to match. Yet none of that would have mattered apart from his devotion to Scripture, the obvious concern he showed for people—his students, his congregants, and the lost—and the ability that the Lord gave him to make discerning use of his vast educational background and ministry experience.
Turk was a solid fundamental Baptist preacher who was not afraid of the times or the issues they portended. Nor was he looking for a return to yesteryear or to the methodology it represented. His thinking was always rooted in theology; his preaching was always bound by exegesis; his approach to situations was always academic; his ability to encourage was intensely practical.
Building on a Foundation
Turk was not afraid of undertaking vigorous academic work. After finishing a four-year degree at the University of Wisconsin–Superior, he went through Moody Bible Institute (where his father had studied during the earliest days of his life, taking young Ralph to hear Dr. Harry Ironside at The Moody Church) before going on to finish a bachelor of divinity degree (now called master of divinity) at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Northern Seminary).
But that was not enough for Turk. Higher theological education was important to him, as he demonstrated in 1967. With three pastorates already under his belt and a family of four to care for, Turk moved his family to Dallas to finish his master of theology degree at Dallas Theological Seminary.
He knew he would need the degree to fulfill his desire to teach on the college/seminary level, and the move proved providential, opening many doors for him throughout the remainder of his ministry. It also placed him under the teaching of such great expositors as Dr. Charles C. Ryrie.
“I am a Ryrie dispensationalist,” he would later write. “The key issue is a consistent literalism and a continuing distinction between Israel and the church.”
Finally, Turk completed his doctor of ministry degree by distance from Luther Rice Seminary. He also undertook additional graduate study at Westminster Seminary California.
Jeanne Turk, his wife of 47 years, remembers leaving their church in Joliet, Illinois, to go to Dallas because her husband knew he wanted to go into teaching. “That was not a bad move,” she says, recollecting how it led to the couple’s first stint at Denver Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary and the beginning of his academic ministry.
Interestingly, he would go on to be called twice to teach at Denver, as well as at Christian Heritage College (now San Diego Christian College) and Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. He also pastored Parkers Lake Baptist Church in Plymouth, Minnesota, for two separate stays.
Several patterns were developing in Turk’s life and ministry. First and foremost, he could be just as comfortable functioning as a professor in the classroom as he could be serving as a preacher in the pulpit. He taught when he preached, and he preached when he taught.
Preaching and Teaching
By the time I was privileged to encounter Turk as a professor at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s, he had accumulated roughly the same number of years in both spheres of ministry, the church and the academy, with some of them coming concurrently. (In fact, the first time I had him for a class, he was the pastor of a local church and was teaching as an adjunct professor.) It was a pattern that would remain generally consistent throughout his life, as he completed roughly 25 years of pastoring in Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa, as well as roughly 25 years of teaching at the three schools.
“God just gave him a heart for God and His Word, and the people,” Jeanne says. “A long time after he died I would get letters from his past students, and I saved them—I still have them—about what Ralph meant to them in their lives and ministries.”
One such student at Faith was Dr. Jeremy Estrema, who states of Turk, “He was not just a professor. He was a pastor to the students, and he cared about your life, and he told you where you needed to change.” Estrema was also struck with Turk as “a deep family man; it really came out in his teaching.” Estrema still keeps in touch with Mrs. Turk, checking in with her on a weekly basis.
Dr. Kevin Bauder, research professor of systematic theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, studied under Turk at Denver and later taught under him there as well, with Turk serving as seminary dean.
“He was one of Ralph’s favorite students,” Jeanne says. “They just had the best time talking about theology.”
“The relationships with all of the professors at Denver were unique,” Bauder says. “Most of them had to work outside jobs. They were there because they wanted to be there. They served sacrificially. It gave them considerable moral leverage in our lives.”
Bauder recalls one incident when being at a smaller school afforded the opportunity to create a class out of thin air.
“Three of us had an interest in studying [Søren] Kierkegaard,” he remembers. “We mentioned it in his presence once, and he said, ‘That sounds like fun.’” The group began to meet in the Turks’ home to discuss the 19th-century Danish existentialist philosopher.
“That is the kind of guy he was—very accommodating,” says Bauder.
He even remembers Jeanne hosting the study group and says of Turk, “He found a really good wife. She has always been a gem; she is a gracious lady. She would be so welcoming for students—always creating just a wonderful atmosphere for us to sit and converse.”
Bauder also reiterates how Turk brought a unique viewpoint into the classroom: “No matter what he was teaching, he was able to view it from a pastor’s perspective. He had been a pastor, and he brought a lot of pastoral experience and insight with him.”
Bauder says Turk was a gifted pulpiteer, was gifted with people, and was a gifted administrator, “so he could do either job just about equally well.” And he had a theological mind. “He was a professor; he was a dean. There was a very real sense in which he pastored his students. As a dean, there was a sense in which he pastored his faculty. There are very few men who I think can do that successfully. But he was an exceptional person in various ways. To find a guy who is gifted in the pulpit and gifted with people and gifted in administration—that is a rare combination.”
Indeed, the Lord had equipped Ralph Turk in a manner that applied equally well to both the church and the academy. He did confess once in class, however, that his mother ultimately considered only the pastorate to be “ministry.”
“He always said, ‘If I could cut myself in half, half of me would be a pastor and half of me would be a teacher,’” Jeanne recalls.
“I remember in our first years of marriage and ministry, I always admired his preaching and teaching,” she said. “I remember getting together with other pastors’ wives, and the wives would say things like, ‘I was so glad we had an evangelist, and I hated to see him go, because I had to listen to my husband again.’ I could not wait for the evangelist or the special speaker to leave so I could listen to my husband again!”
Man on the Move
“We moved a lot,” Jeanne says, commenting on the family’s many changes in ministry, but adds, “We were younger. I look back on it, and I know that Ralph was asking the Lord every step of the way, and I knew that he wanted God’s will.”
Had God in His providence directed and allowed Turk to remain in one place for the bulk of his ministry, he certainly would have been able to succeed. But his tendency was to seek a more fruitful calling rather than to remain in one place. Jeanne sums up their experiences with this statement pertaining to their decision to leave one place of ministry in particular: “Ralph just felt like he was beating his head against the wall, and he said, ‘I cannot keep doing this. The Lord has more for us.’”
“You have a guy who was just not willing to put up with nonsense,” Bauder says. “If he were a smoother politician, he probably could have had a larger orb of influence, and it is not that he did not know how to do that. He could have played the game; he just would not do it. By compromising his convictions to the degree he would have gained a larger sphere of influence, to that same degree he would have diminished the moral force of his influence.”
Bauder adds, “He was pastoring in Minnesota during some of the years when fights were taking place. He saw a lot of that firsthand. Because he positioned himself as a fundamentalist, that cost him in terms of ecclesiastical advancement.”
For their daughter, every move was “very difficult,” but their son was “very adventurous.” Jeanne says she wonders how in the world they did it.
Proverbs 13:20 teaches that “he who walks with wise men will be wise.” In the varied contexts in which he served, Turk managed to spend his life surrounded by other wise men and leaders who could provide an atmosphere that was mutually edifying. These included many stalwarts of note among the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches from Turk’s days at Denver and Faith, along with many well-known professors at Dallas Theological Seminary.
At Christian Heritage College, Turk had the opportunity to interact with the great creation-scientist Dr. Henry Morris. Dr. Turk’s ministries there were conducted under two famous pastors, Dr. Tim LaHaye and Dr. David Jeremiah. Jeanne also worked closely with both of them. LaHaye, in particular, along with his wife, Beverly, had a huge impact on the Turk family. “They were special people to us,” says Jeanne.
Turk himself was a man of practical, Biblical wisdom—and very special in his own right to his students.
Preach the Word
It was evident to all who knew him that Turk’s greatest strength was his ability to exposit the Scriptures—whether the venue was the church pulpit, the college or seminary lectern, or the office desk for a counseling appointment.
He also valued church administration (a seminary course that he taught and the subject of his doctoral dissertation), yet Jeanne remembers one humorous aspect to all of that. “He never typed. I did all of the typing. Before we got married, his mother did all of the typing. He had a computer on his desk at Faith and never touched it. He enjoyed different gadgets, but when it came to technology, he had no interest.”
Turk really appeared to thrive in Iowa, where he spent the final 16 years of his life and ministry. That involved two terms of full-time teaching at Faith, interrupted by a four-year pastorate in Des Moines. True to form, Turk continued his involvement at the school while he pastored, then fulfilled an interim pastorate and pulpit supply when he returned to the classroom.
Dr. George Houghton, former vice president for academic services at Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary and college dean, says, “Ralph had extensive and successful pastoral and teaching ministries. His ministry at Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary was well done and a blessing to many. He was a class act!”
Dr. Ernie Schmidt succeeded Turk both at Parkers Lake Baptist Church and as the chair of practical theology at FBTS. Schmidt says, “Having followed him in the church, it was obvious he was a great leader, a great preacher, a great pastor. He was loved and respected by all ages. I could just tell that he was the full package. He was just a great all-around pastor. Practical theology is caught as much as taught. He was a great teacher and model.”
A Man of God
“We are glad that we came [to Iowa]—we sure are,” Jeanne says. “None of our ministries were really long until we came here. This is the longest I have ever lived in one place.” She has been in her condominium now for more than 25 years. According to her, “That is really a miracle.”
Jeanne enjoyed being a pastor’s wife and being Ralph’s wife. “I would not trade those 47 years for anything,” she says. “Our love grew and matured; it was so solid. We had many people tell us, ‘You were such a blessing to us as a couple.’ Ralph did not hesitate to show his love to me. He was definitely a man of God.”
Paul J. Scharf (MDiv, Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) has served as a pastor, Bible teacher, and journalist. He is a freelance writer for Regular Baptist Press and has helped prepare six Life Design and Truth for Living adult Bible study leader’s guides. He has also assisted Dr. John C. Whitcomb in ministry since 2003. Scharf and his wife, Lynnette, live outside of Columbus, Wis.