Tuesday, March 31, 2015

America: Where We Deliberately Allow Freedoms to Be Abused

People burn American flags. That's despicable.

The Ku Klux Klan holds a meeting. Every time that happens, it makes our society weaker and darker.

William Randolph Hearst was able to use his newspaper empire to plunge our nation into the Spanish-American War. What an abuse of power!

This parade of horribles represents the price we pay for having a First Amendment. We all know that Freedom of Speech is something that people abuse. We all know that Freedom of Assembly is something that people abuse. We all know that Freedom of the Press is something that people abuse. We consistently say, however, that these are but a small price to pay in return for the liberties that these freedoms provide for us.

Strict Scrutiny

Acting consistently with that line of thinking, we have said that restrictions upon these freedoms must survive what the Supreme Court calls "strict scrutiny." Every content-based restriction upon speech and press must pass the strict scrutiny test (subject to the O'Brien test). It is difficult to come up with cases about Freedom of Assembly that do not also involve speech (as defined in Con-Law), but where the government restricts the assembly of adults, that law must survive an examination according to strict scrutiny. Freedom of petition has been challenged so infrequently that I only know of two significant cases involving this right. First Amendment freedoms get the protection of this "strict scrutiny" regime.

What is "strict scrutiny"? When the Supreme Court applies strict scrutiny to a right, it does not mean that people have an absolute, inviolable entitlement to that freedom. Rather, it means that the government may only restrict these rights when (a) the government is trying to advance some "compelling interest" that it has, (b) the government has "narrowly tailored" the law to advance that interest, and (c) the government could not possibly accomplish the important thing that it is trying to do in any other way that would be less burdensome upon First Amendment freedoms.

Under this "strict scrutiny" approach, we deliberately let people do offensive things (burn American flags, for example) that constitute an abuse of free speech rights because we'd rather err on the side of providing too much freedom than on the side of providing too little.

All of this was true for another First Amendment freedom—freedom of the free exercise of one's faith—until a 1990 Supreme Court case entitled Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v Smith (or just Employment Division v Smith or Oregon v Smith).

Alfred Smith and Galen Black used peyote at a Native American ceremony and were subsequently fired for not passing a drug test. They applied for unemployment benefits and were denied. They took the State of Oregon to court, claiming that the state could not deny unemployment benefits to them for something that they did in the furtherance of their shared religious faith.

The Court, caught up in the war on drugs, didn't want to cut off Oregon's drug laws at the knees, so instead they cut off at the knees the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Departing from the pattern established in a much earlier case, Sherbert v Verner, the Supreme Court ruled that Free Exercise cases would no longer enjoy a "strict scrutiny" level of protection.


With regard to Freedom of Speech, our nation has adopted an attitude along the lines of, "Well, we know that some bad people are going to do offensive things with their freedom of speech—bad things that will harm people and diminish our society—but we're willing to suffer those harms and indignities in order to enjoy the greater good of the Freedom of Speech that our Constitution provides to us."

With regard to Freedom of Religion, our nation is rapidly adopting an attitude along the lines of, "Well, we can't have full religious freedom in this country, because if we give that much freedom, a bad person somewhere will use that freedom of religion to do something offensive, and we have to prevent those few abuses at all costs."

Why the dichotomy? Could it be that an alarmingly growing number of our fellow citizens actually do not support the idea of religious liberty?


Religious conservatives support religious liberty pretty consistently. Religious and irreligious liberals tend to support it when it lines up with one of their favored causes and deny it when it becomes inconvenient to their other "progressive" goals. So, in the 1990s when suppression of religious free exercise was resulting in stronger enforcement of drug laws, liberals (rightly, with the support of religious conservatives) put together the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The purpose of this act was simply to undo the effects of Employment Division v Smith and to restore the "strict scrutiny" standard of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court responded in the 1997 case City of Boerne v Flores by overturning RFRA as it applies to state laws. RFRA was still valid with regard to federal laws, but as a result of Boerne v Flores, states could suppress people's free exercise of their faith without having to survive strict scrutiny.

Congress achieved a partial remedy by passing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. After Boerne v Flores, however, a full return to strict-scrutiny protection for religious free exercise was only possible if the states themselves should pass state-level RFRAs of their own. RLUIPA passed with unanimous consent (you didn't know Congress could do such a thing, did you?), because at this point, liberals and religious conservatives were still on the same page.

That political situation changed with the 2008 case in New Mexico, Elane Photography v Willock. No longer were RFRAs about drug laws; now they were about homosexuality. Suddenly liberals didn't like RFRAs any more.

New Mexico ruled (and the Supreme Court refused in 2014 to hear an appeal) that although New Mexico's RFRA had successfully reinstated strict scrutiny for cases involving the government, individuals could suppress the religious free exercise of other individuals without having to meet the strict-scrutiny standard.

Then came Burwell v Hobby Lobby, where once again religious liberty came into conflict not with a conservative cause (drug laws) but a liberal one (everybody have sex with everything, please). First Amendment freedoms apply to people, proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations of all stripes. Every corporation has free-speech rights, for example. Before Employment Division v Smith, Every corporation also had free-religious-exercise rights. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ruled that only some closely-held corporations enjoy free-exercise rights.

And the American Left lost their minds, calling for the total repeal of every RFRA everywhere and the utter obliteration of any strict-scrutiny protections for religious liberty. Again, instead of the "some abuses are going to happen, but that's part of the price we pay for freedom" approach, the left adopted toward religious faith the "we must make the laws so strict that nobody anywhere can ever abuse their religious liberty, no matter how much freedom it takes away from the legitimate exercise of religious faith" approach.


The Indiana RFRA is written to try to return strict-scrutiny protection to all Americans in their free exercise of their religious faith. It is written (a) to embody all of the religious protections afforded by the Federal RFRA of 1993 while also (b) plugging the holes in RFRA that were exposed by Boerne v Flores and Elane Photography v Willock and (c) explicitly claiming for itself the benefits previously available under the First Amendment and made visible in the Hobby Lobby decision.

A Question for Liberals

First, an answer to the question that you've been asking. Yes, there will be a few people who will use the excuse of religious faith to try to justify discriminatory practices that are religiously insincere. Let me say, also, I think I'd probably bake the cake. In my personal opinion, baking a cake for someone's same-sex ceremony does not amount to endorsement of or participation in their ceremony. For those of my friends who are on the right, I have come to that conclusion as a result of what I think is sound, objective reasoning that I'll be happy to detail upon request. But for the moment, I'm addressing my friends on the left. So, people will do things under a RFRA that do not meet with my conservative approval. Yes, absolutely, far more things will happen that offend your liberal sensitivities.

My question to you is simply to ask why you believe that every single offense motivated by religion must be made illegal and harried out of the land, while flag burnings must be tolerated as part of the price that we pay for having a First Amendment that protects us all? Why not just let a few people follow the dictates of their faiths, even if their doing so offends you, and celebrate the fact that we live in a country that gives people the freedom to do these things?

Together let's embrace what has been the best contribution of liberal thinking to our nation—the idea that we ought to err on the side of the Bill of Rights when majority sensibilities come into conflict with minority convictions. Together let's stop this scary erosion of religious liberty in our nation before it goes too far.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson Apocalypse

Thick, black smoke billows from a burning car in Ferguson, Missouri. A grand jury has investigated the shooting of Michael Brown and has determined that the evidence does not offer sufficient cause to indict officer Darren Wilson for any crime in the shooting.

We often use the word "apocalypse" to describe events that are chaotic and destructive. Both adjectives certainly describe 2014 in Ferguson. First came the shooting. Then came the riots. Two other young black men have died in the Greater St. Louis are in the meanwhile. The Missouri National Guard had to intervene. The Department of Justice has begun its own investigation. Never has the Ferguson pot settled below a simmer since the day Brown died.

The root meaning of the word "apocalypse" is something along the lines of "unveiling." For my part, the events in Ferguson have served as something of an unveiling. I had hoped that we were further along in racial reconciliation. I had hoped that our nation was prepared to resolve differences more productively. I had thought that police forces were generally more representative of their communities and that tensions were not quite so high as they obviously are at least in some quarters of our country. I disagree with so much of President Obama's politics; I had hoped that the one silver lining of his term of office would be a greater harmony among the races during his sojourn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A different set of facts have been revealed, as has my erstwhile naïveté.

The Apocalypse is the actual Greek title of the final book of the New Testament. John's Apocalypse tells us the prophecy of the end and forms a major portion of the foundation for Christian eschatology. The events in Ferguson tell us more about our anemic eschatology than they do about our poor ethics.

A healthy eschatology will help us to see one another based upon our shared spiritual future rather than our diverse genetic heritages. Our eschatological citizenship makes us a part of a united nation that is far more polyglot than the United Nations. It reaches to every tribe and tongue and people. The barrier is torn down. We are now one. When we speak and act as though we are not one, we out ourselves as believers who do not actually believe, at least as far as our eschatological destiny is concerned.

A healthy eschatology will give us a hunger for justice, both in the sense of micro-justice (in this particular case of Officer Darren Wilson versus Michael Brown, was this shooting justified?) and in the sense of macro-justice (does Ferguson generally offer a just society of day-in-and-day-out equal treatment under the law for all of its citizens without regard to race?) Both, after all, appear in The Apocalypse: both the settling of scores with vast people-groups on a national scale and the appearance of each individual human before God's final tribunal. Being an eschatologically minded Christian will cause you to care about both.

A healthy eschatology will denude us of our incredulity when human beings act destructively toward creation, toward others, or toward even their own selves. This surprises you? Have you not read The Apocalypse? Why, again, did you think people were above such things? Good eschatology should never rob us of our compassion over the anguish human destructiveness brings, but it is difficult to read and believe the apocalypse while retaining a Pollyannish notion of the essential goodness and tranquility of humankind.

A healthy eschatology will remind us that spiritual forces are at work in the world, both of the evil and the good varieties. Pundits on news channels are not giving us the whole story, and they will never be able perfectly to analyze or predict what human beings will do. There are variables in the equation that are invisible to the analysis of the world. The people and the police of Ferguson, Missouri, are pawns in a cosmic battle.

A healthy eschatology will evidence itself in such seasons as a deep yearning for something beyond. I've written about Rich Mullins before. He penned these lyrics that are undeniably Christian and deeply applicable to this situation. The song is deeply, passionately eschatological. I think it exemplifies the way we believers ought to feel at moments like this.

I believe there is a place
Where people live in perfect peace
Where there is food on every plate
Where work is rewarded and rest is sweet

Where the color of your skin
Won't get you in or keep you out
Where justice reigns and truth finally wins
Its hard fought war against fear and doubt

And everyone I know wants to go there, too
But when I ask them how to do it they seem so confused
Do I turn to the left?
Do I turn to the right?
When I turn to the world they gave me this advice

They said boy you just follow your heart
But my heart just led me into my chest
They said follow your nose
But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head

And they said boy you just follow your dreams
But my dreams were only misty notions
But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses
And the Giver of dreams He's the one I have chosen
And I will follow Him

I believe there'll come a time
Lord, I pray it's not too far off
There'll be no poverty or crime
There'll be no greed and we will learn how to love

And children will be safe in their homes
And there'll be no violence out on the streets
The old will not be left alone
And the strong will learn how to care for the weak

And everyone I know hopes it comes real soon
But when I ask 'em where I'd find it they seem so confused
Do I find it in the day?
Do I find it in the night?
When I finally ask the world they give me this advice

They said boy you just follow your heart
But my heart just led me into my chest
They said follow your nose
But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head

And they said boy you just follow your dreams
But my dreams were only misty notions
But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses
And the Giver of dreams He's the one I have chosen
And I will follow Him

And oh, I hear the voice of a million dreams
Then I wake in the world that I'm partly made of
And the world that is partly of my own making
And oh, I hear the song of a heart set free
That will not be kept down
By the fury and sound
Of a world that is wasting away but keeps saying

They said boy you just follow your heart
But my heart just led me into my chest
They said follow your nose
But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head

And they said boy you just follow your dreams
But my dreams were only misty notions
But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses
And the Giver of dreams He's the one I have chosen
And I will follow Him

Friday, November 7, 2014

Simple Observations about the ERLC National Conference.

I did not attend the ERLC National Conference on the Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage. In money, in time away from work, and in time away from family, the cost exceeded my budget for October. Although I did not occupy a seat in Nashville, I did participate in the conference as an Internet event, both by consuming the live feed and by engaging in online conversation with other participants. I offer a few observations about the event itself, the Internet event surrounding the event, and the national landscape it addressed.

  1. The conference threaded the needle. The requirements of scripture tightly constrain Christians. Just as He did, Jesus expects us to treat people with love and respect. Just as He did, Jesus expects us to call sin sin, not with the intent to drive sinners away, but with the intent to call them away from their sin to something better.

    From what I saw, the only major substantive objection toward the conference voiced by those who opposed it was that, whatever other niceties it offered, it continued to treat sex between two men or between two women as a sin. Although it included gay men and lesbian women on the conference platform, they were all people who consider sex between two men or between to women to be a sin (therefore, they're not "really" gay or lesbian, some alleged). Although the conference decried parental behavior that contributes to gay teen homelessness, it didn't budge on the sin question. Although the conference called for civility and love toward all people, the conference's detractors questioned whether there can be such a thing as civility and love without abandoning the idea that sex between men or between women is a sin.

    Christianity cannot embrace same-sex marriage without contradicting the words of Jesus. The ERLC National Conference represents Christians moving as far as we can on these questions without moving beyond the Savior into something else. That the conference managed to go that far without going any further is a strong evaluation in its favor, I think.

  2. The distance between us and the culture is gargantuan. Gender-related questions are only the tip of the iceberg. In a Twitter discussion I had with a number of the conference's detractors, we started out with the question of whether gay or lesbian sex is a sin. We moved pretty quickly to other questions and discovered that A LOT of ethical questions separated us when it came to sex. I think pornography is bad; my interlocutors did not. I think monogamy is good; they were only willing to concede that there might be some forms of non-monogamy that are bad. Of course, this is not that surprising, since there are undeniable connections between homosexuality and non-monogamy.

    In the immediate future, Christians are going to face increasing pressure from society (and from some people who call themselves Christians) to cave in on "the sin question" with regard to gay and lesbian sex, ostensibly with the promise that you'll fit in with society better if you compromise in just this one way. Don't fall for it. Even if you sell out on that question, you'll still be miles and miles apart from where that movement really wants to take you. You'll be no closer to the culture; you'll just be further away from Christ.

  3. We see church differently. That's nowhere more evident than in the article "Why HRC Attended [the] Southern Baptist Convention's National Conference." Consider the following quote, which constitutes a significant portion of this brief article. After acknowledging that often "coming out" leads people out of one church and into another, the article considers the other reality:

    But often the experience is so demoralizing that they leave religion altogether and lose the community that comes with it. It's this community that they once relied on in times of need - the first to respond to a natural disaster, to the loss of a loved one, to a factory shutdown. LGBT people of faith deserve to be part of these communities - helping tend to an ailing neighbor or, when the time comes, having that fellow churchgoer deliver a hot casserole in a time of loss.

    While not everyone holds a particular faith tradition or practices a religion, for those of us who seek it out for moral guidance, for comfort and for community, we have a responsibility to help that community be the best it can. That responsibility doesn't stop if you're LGBT.

    The HRC's rationale makes perfect sense if the church exists to connect people in a "community." Indeed, in every aspect of my life that DOES actually exist for that purpose (civic clubs, workplace, neighborhood, etc.), I'm in favor of acceptance and inclusion. I've attended school trips and swimming parties with my gay and lesbian friends. I've spent long hours working with gay colleagues on projects in the secular jobs I've held down through the years, including a respected gay friend whom our family business employed, promoted, and highly valued. I want to be in community with my gay and lesbian friends.

    We don't see "community" differently; we see "church" differently.

    Church may create community, but the purpose of the church is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. The "community" created at church is a community of disciples who covenant together to bring their lives into submission under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

    Jesus taught that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sex is for marriage alone. The New Testament ideal for sexuality and marriage is consistent and clear. A real church has no "moral guidance" to offer that contradicts the teachings of Jesus Christ. The only "comfort" to be found in a real church is the comfort offered by Jesus. Real churches offer community first with Jesus Christ—and on His terms, not ours—which then leads to community with others who have made the same commitment.

    If this kind of "moral guidance, comfort, and community" is not "the best" a church can be, then churches ought to pass out of existence and give way to something else. But if the teachings of Jesus Christ represent the best plan for humanity, then churches ought to offer the moral guidance, comfort, and community of the gospel without apology and without compromise to the whims of decadent culture.

I wish I could've attended the conference. I look forward to future ERLC offerings. If this conference is a bellwether of things to come, I'm very optimistic. But no resolution of the differences between Christian sexual ethics and pagan sexual ethics presented itself in the early Roman culture that gave birth to the church, and we're not going to find one in this epoch, either.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why Southern Baptists, Above All Others, Must Stand Ready to Aid Liberia

A massive humanitarian tragedy is developing in Liberia and Sierra Leone. I'm not talking about the epidemiological tragedy, which will continue to unfold over the next several months. I'm talking about the inevitable state of these two nations after the virus has run its course and the epidemic comes to an end.

Between now and then, the United Nations projects that 10,000 new cases of Ebola will emerge weekly, mostly in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and that, at this phase of the epidemic, those numbers will increase exponentially. At present the fatality rate in this epidemic has been around 70%, so this nation of around four million people (far fewer than the population of the DFW Metroplex) will witness its disproportionate share of 7,000 Ebola deaths each week in coming weeks, with the possibility that those numbers will grow like a Texas brushfire. If, as some have estimated, 1.5 million people die from this disease, as many as one out of eight people in Liberia may be dead before this crisis ends.

How many of those dead will be parents of newly orphaned children? How many will be breadwinners for a dependent wife? Since epidemics spread as they do—not by randomly selecting people from the populace as a war might do, but through close contact—how many villages will lose their chiefs and virtually all of their leadership? Will the Liberian government fall? Will another bloody civil war ensue as the vacuum of population and power invites competitive claimants?

I'll say it again: A massive humanitarian tragedy is developing in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And as it develops, a lot of people will ask another question:

How is any of this my problem?

It's at least partially our problem because of the special relationship that Southern Baptists have with Liberia. I use the phrase "special relationship" deliberately, mimicking the way that those words have come to describe the relationship between the United States of America and Great Britain.

Has it struck you as odd that "Liberia" is not an African name? The names of so many other countries in Africa—Burkina Faso, Namibia, Lesotho, Guinea—arise etymologically out of native languages. "Liberia" is a Latin-derived name, roughly meaning "The land of the free" (sound familiar?). The capital city of Liberia is "Monroevia." Hmmm…looks a lot like the last name of an American President, doesn't it? The capital city of Sierra Leone (which is a Portuguese phrase meaning "Lion Mountain") is "Freetown." Now that right there, ladies and gentlemen, is a language we call "English."

The nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia were founded by people who were trying to solve the conflict over slavery by repopulating slaves to Africa. Liberia was founded by the United States of America. A great many Southern Baptists in the years leading up to the founding of the SBC and down through the U.S. Civil War favored this solution. They were too Christian to support slavery but too racist to support living together with African slaves as peers. So, "send them back home" was their plan (the facts notwithstanding that South Carolina, not West Africa, had been the lifelong "home" for these men, women, and children).

Southern Baptists were in on this up to our necks. One of the most prominent founders of Liberia was also one of the missionaries that Baptists North and South supported together before our schism: Lott Carey. Carey was a Virginia slave who purchased his and his family's freedom in order to move to Liberia as a politician-missionary. John Day, who served the SBC's Foreign Mission Board after the split, was a signatory on the Liberian Declaration of Independence and a Justice of the Liberian Supreme Court.

Ongoing conflict and segregation emerged between African-American-Africans and native-born Liberians. For nearly two hundred years, our experiment has unfolded on the Liberian coast, mostly with tragic results. Ebola is so successful there because little else—government, medical infrastructure—has been successful at all. To the degree that such things can be true two centuries later, the Liberian mess is one of America's making, with particular responsibility falling upon Southern Baptists.

So, when the epidemiological tides turn (we're not at all qualified to combat viruses), I believe that Southern Baptists will be doing the honorable thing if we step up to the plate in a sacrificial and jaw-dropping, head-turning way to address the plight of Liberia's survivors.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Stop Calling It "Reformed" If It Wouldn't Have Permitted the Reformation

Google informed me today that Wade Burleson had linked to a post of mine. I don't know what's wrong with Google—Wade hasn't linked to a post of mine in years. Google was picking up an archive page on Wade's site somehow. But I followed the link and, curious, I looked to see what Wade had been blogging about lately.

The years have not afforded me too many opportunities to blog in agreement with Wade Burleson, and by golly, when a chance like that rolls around, I'm going to take it!

Wade posted back on September 17 about James MacDonald's (and it is MacDonald, not McDonald—apparently he's comfortable with everyone's thinking he's a lowland Scot) view of the authority of elders. Here's perhaps the most relevant snippet of Wade's prose:

[MacDonald's] views [on the authority of elders] can be clearly seen in the prefacing words Pastor James McDonald used when the majority of elders publicly disciplined the three minority elders in September 2013 (you may watch the actual video if you desire):

  • "I just want to remind you that God has entrusted spiritual authority to the local church."
  • "We believe that (this) authority of the church is invested in the elders."
  • "When the elders speak collectively in agreement, they speak for God to our church."
  • "That's about as serious as serious gets."
  • "These elders are now going to speak on behalf of God to our entire church."

The elders then proceeded to explain why the minority caucus of elders in their midst were 'Satanic to the core,' were 'false messengers,' and everyone was to avoid them lest "you incur great detriment to your own soul."

I have not researched the situation with James MacDonald at all. I do not have the time to perform this research. I'm weighing in not at all on whether MacDonald said this, whether this is what his church believes and teaches, or whether his views have been represented accurately by Wade.

I do, however, know that there are people out there whose theology of the authority of elders is precisely this. Wade's post offers me an occasion to air my thoughts on the matter.

First, I want to affirm that I, too, believe that God has entrusted spiritual authority to the local church. I also believe that some authority is entrusted to the elders of a local church. The mistake MacDonald (as he is represented in Wade's blog) makes is to conflate the two. All of the authority of the local church is not vested in the elders of the church. Jesus grants sweeping authority to the gathered church in Matthew 18. Elders are mentioned nowhere in that passage. Rather, quite expressly, the authorization of Christ is given to gathered believers—to ANY assembled believers who are operating in the name of Christ. The authority of elders must be balanced against the authority of the gathered congregation if we would be Christian and biblical.

Second, I'd like to point out an important historical aspect of this point of doctrine: If the elders of the churches speak with all of the authority of God that He has entrusted to the church, then virtually every phase of the Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against the authority of God. I know that there are people who believe precisely that, and I want to be charitable in acknowledging that schism is never pretty and is never God's best plan. Nevertheless, I do question whether a theory of spiritual authority that would have prevented the Reformation can rightly be associated with the label "Reformed ecclesiology."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

David Platt is My IMB President, Too

The International Mission Board is reporting that Dr. David Platt is the new president of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. I had opposed his election. He now has my support. Here's why:

  1. According to our system, I had my say. The trustees had the opportunity to give full consideration to the questions that I raised. I trust that they did so. I do not regret having raised these concerns, but I respect our system of polity. I freely acknowledge that the trustees had access to more information than I had. More of them favored his election than opposed it.

  2. The very critique that I made of Platt requires that I support him now. This is the way that our system is supposed to work. You engage yourself in the process. You advocate vigorously for your point of view. Together we Southern Baptists come to a decision. Unless the decision is so bad that we cannot follow Christ and abide by it, we coalesce around the decision that we've made and we move forward for the sake of our Great Commission task.

    From the bottom of my heart I urge any of you who have talked about cutting your CP support if Platt were elected not to do anything so reactionary and foolish as that. If you were to reduce your support of the CP in reaction to this decision, in my mind you'd be putting yourself into the exact same category as the critique that I made of Platt. Please don't do that.

    Instead, do what I said that Platt hadn't done. Get involved in our polity. In good faith, help us to make decisions and appoint people even better than we have done so in the past. Don't disengage; do the hard work of consensus building and peacemaking for the cause of the Kingdom.

  3. I'm committed to making my initial post about David Platt a self-unfulfilling prophecy. If I still worry that the man most responsible for rallying us all to support the Cooperative Program is not someone all that committed to or passionate about the Cooperative Program, then guess what that means: I just have to do more myself to promote the Cooperative Program in order to make up for it.

    Southern Seminary exists today because four men agreed among themselves that "the seminary may die, but we will die first." If just four hundred Southern Baptist pastors were to make the same commitment regarding the Cooperative Program, I don't think any power on earth could stop us.

    I neither storm off from this election in protest nor throw up my hands in hopelessness. Rather, I simply acknowledge that a task lies before us and I put my hand to the plow. I hope you all will join me.

    If Cooperative Program support was not considered important in this season of Southern Baptist decision-making, together let us make certain that it will be in the seasons to come.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Cooperative Program Is More than a Money Trail

The Cooperative Program is a way of polity. In other words, it is a ethos of cooperative work among Southern Baptists that just happens to work best with a certain financial pathway.

It is Cooperative Planning. The Cooperative Program ideal means that none of us get precisely the budget we might plan all by ourselves. Rather, we join forces with sister churches who are around us and plan a consensus strategy and a consensus budget for the work we are going to do with one another.

This kind of vision is difficult for some of our Southern Baptist churches to embrace. I think one reason is because it demands a high level of respect for sister churches, and sometimes we tend to get so wrapped up in our own little silos that we lose sight of intercongregational fellowship and partnership in the gospel. This is made more difficult when Southern Baptist bodies grow very diverse doctrinally, methodologically, doxologically, and otherwise. We can work together through a great deal of diversity, but there has to be some unifying basis around which we gather and work. Our confession of faith is probably the best provision for that need.

Working in this way requires that our mutual respect for sister churches should facilitate a quest for a common plan. We have to be ready to submit our personal visions, plans, and objectives to the communal negotiations of the family of churches and work toward some consensus plan that lies within the realm of the possible outcomes.

To disagree with the budget of one's state convention and then summarily pull out of the Cooperative Program without having at least attempted to step up to the mike and influence the common plan toward some superior alternative is to betray this communal, cooperative planning mindset. It is a go-it-alone approach that views missions not as our common business but as our individual pursuits.

It is Cooperative Fundraising. The entities that benefit from the Cooperative Program have historically agreed to forego direct solicitation of the churches for anything other than the Cooperative Program. There have been, of course, exceptions (like the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering), but the general agreement is that Southern Baptist entities cooperate with one another in raising money toward the common good through the Cooperative Program.

Five years ago I tried to describe the lay of the land before we had the Cooperative Program in a post entitled "The Year 25 BCP." When our entities were counting on direct funding from individual churches rather than upon the common stream of the Cooperative Program, increasing amounts of money were lost to the professional fundraisers.

Cooperative fundraising benefits us all because the moneychangers all take their cuts and we therefore benefit from the relative lack of them in our system. Right now those churches who just give large sums of money directly to the IMB are getting illegitimate benefits. They know about the IMB because of CP-funded promotional work, but they give around that stream. When the Cooperative Program dies, the funding for the fundraising will have to come out of those funds being raised. As the competitive environment becomes more threatening, entities will lose higher and higher percentages of their received gifts to cover fundraising overhead.

It is Cooperative Giving. We had one transitional year when our church delved into a little bit of direct giving to entities. We were, at that time, still in the Baptist General Convention of Texas. When the BGCT capped the amount of CP dollars that could go to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, making sure that our church's CP dollars could not flow through to SWBTS, we started to give some amount of money directly to SWBTS in order to offset that spiteful act.

I quickly discovered that a lot of perks and benefits come from direct giving. We had never been recognized before, but suddenly the same level of contribution, given directly to the institution, qualified us for the President's Club. I got invited to soirees. Our church's name was printed on fancy programs.

But as soon we were able to do so, we returned to a thoroughly Cooperative-Program-focused giving strategy. Our church didn't get the same level of recognition, but we weren't in it for the recognition to begin with. We just wanted to be found faithful to do our part in giving to support our common Great Commission work. We give not only as an obligation to our Lord in fulfilling the Great Commission, but also as an obligation to our sister churches, that we should not leave others on the hook for more than their fair share of the burden of what we have planned together.

It is Cooperative Work. The Cooperative Program is built around the idea that it takes a multi-homed approach to accomplish the work of the Great Commission. It's wonderful that we have an International Mission Board. Now, who's going to train the missionaries? We're going to need seminaries for that, and they're going to have to produce students who aren't up to their eyeballs in educational debt. By the way, where will the seminaries find those students? They're going to be the students who surrendered to missions at Falls Creek and at other Baptist encampments maintained mostly by state conventions and operated either by them or by folks like our friends at Lifeway. How did they get there? They fell under the influence of pastors or youth pastors or other people at a local Southern Baptist church, which was probably planted once upon a time by a state convention and whose leadership probably attended a seminary. That local church, by the way, will provide the funding for every link in the chain.

The Cooperative Program is simply what you get when you fully realize that none of these parts will thrive without the others. We work cooperatively because we cannot succeed otherwise.


Do you see why I think it is so important that the leaders casting the vision for our convention should be proven supporters of the Cooperative Program? It is more than just a question of accounting. It is more than just dumpster-diving through ACP records to ferret out who gave what when.

Promoting leaders who have a passion for a Cooperative-Program-centered vision for our future means promoting leaders who buy into a whole philosophy of cooperation. It will affect the way that they raise funds. It will affect the way that they view their relationships with one another and with the state conventions and local associations and churches. It will affect the way that they envision the interface between the cogs of their work and all else that happens in Southern Baptist life.

Having this CP-vision is therefore among the most important qualifications for a person who would serve in a role like the IMB Presidency. At least I think so. Whatever bold vision a man might have for the future of the IMB, the power to achieve it will be found only—mark my words—only in his ability to bring Southern Baptist mules (a deliberately chosen metaphor!) together and yoke them into the same harnesses and get them coordinated in the traces. The only approach that has ever accomplished this objective well has been the approach that we call the Cooperative Program.

The best bet for a leader who will successfully accomplish that approach is the man who has already demonstrated an appreciation for it. May the Lord give us that man.