An Open Letter to Jonathan Martin


Dear Jonathan,

Yesterday a few friends and acquaintances shared your post from Facebook regarding your removal from Liberty University during the Johnnyswim concert on the evening of 10/30/17. Let me share from the outset that I attended LU from 1993-1994, right before I ventured across the country to serve at Willowcreek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. After being part of the initial launch team and then community with the Axis Ministry at Willowcreek, I moved from the Chicago area and have been a bit of vagabond since. Today I live in New Hampshire, and have called some diverse and not-so-diverse areas of the country my home. I feel uniquely blessed to have so many wonderful friendships with so many different folks.

After reading your statement a few times, I prayed the following prayer about the information you shared publicly –

“Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Thought it cost all you have” (Proverbs 4:6-7).

After praying, I then messaged two of my kiddos who attend Liberty at this time, trying to wrap my head all of the info that was out there. I did maybe a little more research than necessary before I wrote this letter to you, which I felt you and Liberty University both deserve.

What might be a surprise is that my friends who shared your post support your views regarding Liberty, and from what I’ve observed during this season of political unrest, these friends definitely are not supporters of the President or Jerry Falwell Jr. However, I can also attest none of these friends attended Liberty University or lived in the Lynchburg area. I am grateful for their views, whether they are in line or fiercely opposed to my own. We have shared robust, yet quite respectful dialogues, and they have challenged my persuasions in many areas, as I hope I have theirs.

Jonathan, I share all of that to simply let you know I am open to your response, as I pray you are open to mine. So, let’s get to the heart of the matter here as proficiently as we can.

On January 8th, 1956 missionaries Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Nate Saint were slaughtered by the spears of ten Aucas Warriors, the same tribe they had been attempting to reach. Jim’s journal entry from October 28th, 1949 shares his belief that this missionary work is more important than their very own lives. Jim cites Luke 9:24 when he wrote “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Filled with the knowledge and guidance of specific scriptures, these men’s hearts were full and they brought an unstoppable force of love, salvation, and peace to a people who would first greet them with wonder, and then soon after murder them as they stood defenseless on what had once seemed like peaceful ground. Later, as we all know, Elisabeth Elliot and other missionaries returned to Aucas tribe, casting away their deep agony and pain, replaced by a fire to preach the good news of the Gospel of Jesus.

These brave men and women did something you and I may never do – they risked their lives and livelihood to follow Jesus. Folks like us…well, we do a lot of this stuff behind a computer, Smartphone, or tablet. I’m not saying your feet weren’t firmly planted at Liberty University. I’m simply saying being escorted from the Green Room and off the campus of a private university isn’t exactly martyrdom.

When I attended Liberty, I was told by three local colleges (Randolph Macon, Sweet Briar, and Lynchburg College) I would be thrown off their campus and potentially prosecuted for my Friday night activities. Basically, a group of friends and I started going onto these college campuses and walking up to random students and sharing our testimonies with them. It was a very laid back approach to evangelism, but when I was formally asked to leave those campuses, I chose to never return. My friends did, though, and there were students that began a relationship with Jesus because of their efforts. It simply wasn’t about me.

None of these schools were “afraid of free speech”. Just because these schools didn’t want me on their campus to share the greatest story of hope the word has ever known, doesn’t mean they do “not easily tolerate robust dissent.” Are you aware of the following speakers who have been given a public forum at Liberty University? Here’s a brief list –

  • The Late Senator Ted Kennedy
  • Senator Bernie Sanders
  • Governor Tim Kaine
  • Writer Donald Miller
  • Writer Bob Goff
  • Democratic US Senator Mark Warner

Hillary Clinton was invited to speak, just as Bernie Sanders did, but she rejected the invite. In my humble opinion, she should have grabbed onto this opportunity, but I guess this doesn’t matter so much anymore.

Let’s get real about this list – a school simply doesn’t have a list like this if you are afraid of the engaging in a thoughtful discussion. Liberty University obviously isn’t making decisions driven by fear or narcissism, but out of loyalty and respect for those who have come before us.

Jonathan, your Instagram post was the very first thing my son sent to me when I mentioned your name, and to say it was condescending to students like Max and Kaitlin is an understatement.

“(Referring to Liberty University) It’s ground zero strategically for the counterfeit faith that is sweeping many evangelical churches right now.”

“Our goal will not just be to antagonize, but to see renewal and transformation.”

I love the renewal and transformation part, but antagonize? Really? These are just a few of the words you’ve shared publicly before setting foot on the campus.  What I can’t seem to find, though, is a single link to scripture in what you’ve shared. If I missed this, could you provide the link? It seems to not be there. And if you think for a second those two yahoos of mine aren’t free thinkers, than you don’t know a thing about my kids. Or their friends. Or the faculty. And can I ask you a simple question –

Why are you accusing my children, and over 15,000 students and faculty at Liberty University for holding onto a counterfeit faith, when you haven’t spent any legitimate time with them? When you haven’t lived in Lynchburg, taken a class at Liberty, or built long term relationships there? Why not follow the lead of the great men before you, such as Jim Elliot? If this is your passion, you would move to Lynchburg and start a new ministry there reaching Liberty students and the faculty there and enthusiastically convey a non-counterfeit gospel. If this is so important to you, why not make it a permanent decision? You’ve stated this has been something you can’t let go, so I vote you don’t. Here’s a few words of encouragement from the scriptures –

“For this is what the Lord has commanded us: I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the end of the earth” (Acts 13:47).

“He said to them ‘Go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation’” (Mark 16:15).

“Declare his glory among the nations, is marvelous deeds among all peoples” (1 Chronicles 16”24).

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and off the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).


Since you’ve consistently spoken of the character of Jerry Jr, I want to share with some words about his Dad, Jerry Falwell Sr. These words come from a man who hated and then grew to love Jerry Sr, founder of Hustler magazine Larry Flint –

“In the years that followed and up until his death he’d (Jerry Sr.) come to see me in every time he was in California. We’d exchange personal Christmas cards. He’d show me pictures of his grandchildren. “

“I always kicked his ass about his crazy ideas and the things he said. Every time I’d call him, I’d get put right through, and he’d let me berate him about his views.”

As much as Jerry Falwell Sr. was mocked and ridiculed, he never tried to twist or temper his words to please the masses, or even his friends. He never fought dirty or took cheap shots, and he never attempted to leverage his brilliance or position to gain notoriety. As his friend Larry Flint conveyed several times, his primary passion was found in the eternal and for all of his friends to personally to deeply experience a relationship with Jesus.

Here’s the trick of it all. Jerry Sr could have been a pretty darn good smooth talker. If you don’t believe me, check out some of his talks given at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, UCLA, and Notre Dame. If you can find it, the talk he gave at Harvard Law School went down as one of the greatest speeches given in the 1980’s. On that list also is Ted Kennedy’s speech at Liberty University.

Francis of Assisi said “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

This was the deepest calling on the life of men like Jim Elliot and his friends. This is the legacy that Jerry Sr left with his good friend, Larry Flynt, and thousands of men and women who knew him. This is not the call of those, however, who only use words to convey their doctrinal assumptions to a world desperately clawing for things like peace, love, and hope.

Jonathan, I have 2 simple questions for you. First, would you have done any of this if no one else was watching on social media? How can we know this from the narrative you’ve built? Honestly, is this about a platform?

And my final question is this – why are your posts filled with so many words, yet so very little scripture? Even as I browse the comments from your post which garnered the attention, it’s more like reading about someone who had a bad customer service experience buying a refrigerator, rather than the overflowing love that comes from the Gospel of Jesus. Your followers and friends aren’t electrifying this narrative with the words of God, but with conjectures and melancholy melodrama.

As I mentioned earlier, I live in New Hampshire, but I will contact my children today and we will gather with you in Lynchburg in prayer as you go down whatever path you think God is leading you. I’m sure they can bring a ton of their friends. They’re all really great folks.

The ball is in your court, Jonathan. If what you’ve said has teeth, my hope is that you’ll go to Lynchburg and make it your home. Change like this doesn’t happen through social media and showing up at an event. You referred to Jerry Jr’s alignment with darkness, so let me encourage you with the words of one of the greatest men who has ever walked this earth –

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can.” Dr. Martin Luther King.

So, let’s do love and do it well.

In Christ’s love and truth,


Thad Riley


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