Thursday, November 1, 2018

Thanking God for Black Southern Baptists

Note: Throughout this essay I will use the term "Black Southern Baptists" anachronistically at times. Therefore, you should take it to mean "Black Baptists from the South" whenever you encounter it referring to Baptists living before 1845.

In the first century of Christianity, nobody accomplished more in terms of spreading the gospel where people thought it couldn't spread and in terms of bringing together Christians people thought couldn't be brought together than did the Apostle Paul. He gave leadership to the church in Antioch of Syria, which was perhaps the most ethnically diverse and most exciting churches in the history of Christianity. From there, Paul left to become the father of cross-cultural evangelism and church planting. All of the apostles undertook this mission, but Paul succeeded beyond them all. Why was he so successful? Of course, the biggest reason is that God gave him a unique calling and a unique gifting for this task. As a consequence, Paul was uniquely motivated, and motivation means a lot. Few people are successful at things that they aren't trying to do, after all.

In addition to all of those things, I've noticed that Paul was extraordinarily thankful for people of all kinds. Whether this arose naturally from the man God made Paul to be on the one hand or was a careful strategic decision on the other hand (or some combination of the two?), I can't say. I simply observe that it was true. Paul gave thanks for people, and he generally did it at the beginning of letters, before he tried to teach anything or correct anything.

Book Expression of Gratitude

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.”

Paul was giving thanks for people whom he had never even met and for a church with whom he had never gathered.
1 Corinthians

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus”

Paul was giving thanks for a very troubled church whose interpersonal, moral, and theological failures he was writing to correct.
2 Corinthians This troubled letter is one of the rare exceptions which Paul did not open with an expression of thanks for the church.
Galatians Disappointment and astonishment replace thanksgiving in this epistle addressing the Galatian heresy. By the way, this actually serves, I think as evidence that the expressions of thanksgiving in the other letters are not mere boilerplate letter-writing formalities for Paul. He doesn't give thanks when he can't do so sincerely. He just has an amazing knack for being able to do so sincerely when others would fail at the task.

“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers”

Paul gets caught up in his doxology for so long in Ephesians as to make you think that he'll never get around to his expression of thanks for the church, but it's the very next thing that he does.

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you”

In many ways, Philippians IS a thank-you note in its entirety. In this letter, Paul even gave thanks for the activities of his enemies!

“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you”

As with the other prison epistles, we get a clear picture of Paul's own sufferings in this letter. Paul was thankful for other people and said so even when he himself was suffering.
1 Thessalonians

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers”

The Thessalonians, it appears, were at least somewhat disappointed in Paul's not having returned to visit them. They also were disappointed that, although Paul had preached the resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ, some members of the church had died and their bodies lay in their graves. Paul gave thanks for people who were complaining and worried about some things.
2 Thessalonians

“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”

Paul identified thanksgiving for fellow believers as a moral obligation. Go back and read that verse again!
1 Timothy In this personal letter to Timothy, Paul didn't bother. This is one reason why I think Paul was being strategic about his epistolary thanksgivings.
2 Timothy

“I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.”

But, in the second of his personal pastoral letters, the thanksgiving just broke through again!
Titus Another personal letter with no thanksgiving in the introduction.

“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers”

Getting ready to make a strong appeal and to attempt to make peace among separated and estranged (now-)fellow believers, Paul returns to the preparatory balm of thanksgiving.

I realize that I probably took too much of your time going through that list of epistles, especially since it was a labor to demonstrate to you something that you likely already knew. Sorry. I just thought it would help what I'm trying to do in this post if I would lay out a set of biblical evidence that warrants, I think, the drawing of at least these conclusions:

  1. There is biblical precedence for us to look for reasons to be thankful for every individual Christian and every group of Christians.
  2. Giving expression to our sincere, heartfelt gratitude for other believers can coexist with expressing difference of opinion or even with moments when we are tempted to engage in contests of our wills.
  3. The kind of thanksgiving that most resembles the Pauline model is a thanksgiving coupled with a hopeful intercessory prayer that genuinely and earnestly hopes for the best for fellow believers.

Applying These Principles to Black Southern Baptists

It seems to me that some of what we write or say as white Southern Baptists is not as bad in-and-of-itself as it is made bad by the absence of this Pauline model of thanksgiving from the recipe. I'm starting off November by giving thanks for Black Southern Baptists, because I think it makes the conversation better for me to do so. I want to give thanks for the group as a whole, and then I want to give thanks for some individuals.

Thank God for the African Influence upon Southern Cuisine

I've been to England, folks. You know that joke that says that (among other things) in Heaven the cooks are all French, but in Hell the cooks are all British. There's a reason why that's funny. It's not that British food is run-screaming-into-the-night horrible (although, black pudding), it's just that there's nothing there worth much emotion one way or the other.

On the other hand, I've been to Senegal and I've taken a lot of Southerners to Senegal. Everyone loves the food there. Every. Single. Southerner.

The truth was sitting there right under my nose, but here's what finally turned on the light bulb for me: I learned about a myth over there. In West Africa, there are people who think that it is lucky to eat peas. My Mom and Dad taught ME that people eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck. How did a West African myth wind up in Arkansas? Then I thought it through. The fried chicken over rice, mixed with mushy carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and just the right seasoning! The eggs for breakfast! The penchant for pork as a special treat! This is the food I grew up eating! It makes sense, doesn't it? The slaves were the ones doing the cooking in wealthy Southern households. Southern food is connected with West African food.

Other people have known this for a long time, but it took international travel to bring it into my view.

So, thank you, Black Christians from the South, for every mouthwatering potluck of my childhood in my 100% white country Southern Baptist church. You weren't there, but you WERE there in every spoonful!

Thank God for the African Influence upon Southern Music

I don't know enough about musicology to know whether Wintley Phipps does or does not know what he's talking about with regard to the musical roots of "Amazing Grace," but my case doesn't rise and fall on his.

Some of our worship music comes from Germany ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"). Some of it comes from England ("And Can It Be?"). But for that portion of it that comes from America, the influence of black Americans is indelible. Alongside the recognized category of the Negro spiritual (and these songs made it into my personal hymnody even in a white church), the influence of black musical styles by way of the blues, rock-and-roll, and gospel music genres has touched everything composed and written in my lifetime.

Our worship music is better because of the influence of black Christians upon it, and for that I am thankful.

Thank God for African Influence upon Southern Baptist Missions

When we formed the Southern Baptist Convention and the Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board), we only initially sent a handful of missionaries to a handful of countries. The choices that we made at that time tell us what we cared about in that age of our existence.

We sent missionaries to the Far East because of William Carey, Andrew Fuller, and the fascination with the Far East that had captivated West Europeans since the days of Marco Polo. We sent missionaries to Italy, because we were ready to storm the gates of the Vatican with a water pistol. But neither Italy nor Brazil nor any other destination came second upon the heels of China as a missionary focus for Southern Baptists. Rather, from the opening days of the IMB, we have been laboring the share the gospel in Africa.

The details of this effort represent the twisted amalgamation of sin and nobility solely within the reach of sinful humanity to achieve. Southern Baptists genuinely wanted to win the population of Africa to Christ. They also wanted to solve the problem of American racial slavery. Those Southern Baptists who were too racist to countenance the integration of black Christians into their own churches and communities on the one hand, but too Christian to accept the status quo of racism, chattel slavery, and religious segregation, thought it the best solution simply to ship all of the slaves back to Africa. As a key part of this plan, several important Southern Baptists had supported black Baptist missionaries like Lott Carey in endeavors like the Liberia project.

The sad history of Liberia is as good a demonstration of the disaster that sin brings as I know, but the result of Southern Baptist missionary work in Africa has been a success story. We most certainly would not have gone as early or in as much force to Africa to share the gospel had it not been for the influence of black Southern Baptists upon our decision making. The importance of that decision is a story that is still being written. It is not difficult to imagine today that the two first target areas for Southern Baptist missions—China and Africa—may be the home of the churches that carry the gospel into the world if American evangelicalism finally implodes.

To extend that line down through today, I doubt that I would be involved in Senegal as Dave and I are involved today if it were not for the pioneering influence of black Southern Baptists. Indeed, the sending of missionaries from America in general is indebted to George Lisle, the first American missionary (and a black man). Thank you for turning our attention toward Africa. I have been blessed by that.

Thank God for African Influence upon Southern Baptist Preaching

I know everyone falls all over themselves to laud the preaching of Charles Spurgeon, and I know that there are clear differences between Southern Baptist white preaching and Southern black preaching. Nevertheless, I think that you can trace significant differences between European and Northern preaching on the one hand, and then Southern (white or black) preaching on the other hand. In my opinion, the best Southern Baptist preaching brings a balance of logos, ethos, and pathos that is often missing—particularly with regard to pathos—from more European preaching. I think that our black brothers have helped us in this regard.

Last year at a training event in Africa, one of our teachers was teaching disciples about some of the finer points of ecclesiology. This included, among other things, describing how to address conflict when it arises among church members. After the training session was over, I said to the teacher, "I noticed that whenever you were delivering the lecture material, you spoke in French, but whenever you were playing the role of a disgruntled church member, you shifted to the Jola language. Why is that?" His answer, simply stated, was that his African language was more suited to the conveyance of emotion than was French. I'm no expert in linguistics, but I fear that Southern Baptist preachers might have wound up as boring as an Anglican rector were it not for the influence of Africans upon our discourse. There is, after all, a beauty in a Martin Luther King, Jr., sermon that is exemplary to us without being foreign to us. What's more, we love to hear black Baptist preaching.

So, I suspect that I am a better preacher because of the influence of black Southern Baptists, and there are few things that I love to do more. I'm grateful for anything that makes me a better preacher. Thank you.


I could extend this article for a long time. I'm thankful for black influences upon our theology and our ministries to urban areas. I'm thankful for famous black theologians like James Deotis Roberts and famous black pastors like E.V. Hill or Tony Evans. I'm thankful for black colleagues and friends like Jamar Andrews, Michael Allen, and my new friend, Walter Strickland.

When I say that I am thankful for them, I mean that I have needed them and that I need them still. My life is made richer because of the influence of these brothers and sisters. Indeed, among other things, I'd probably be a lot more racist than I am if it weren't for people like that. It scares me to write about race, because it is so easy for me to make inadvertent mistakes whenever I do so. So if anything in this article is a mess, please hear my testimony that it would be worse if it were not for these folks.


There's a way of saying that God had His hand working something good out of the American slavery experience that sounds awfully arrogant falling from the lips of a white man: "Well, God brought the gospel to Africans through slavery. This was clearly something that God used for His glory." That just sounds a lot like, "You people really ought to be thankful that we enslaved you so that God could save you and improve your lives."

Well, when it comes to Romans 8:28, I not only affirm it, I cling to it. Even the experience of American slavery, I think God has worked together with everything else for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. But in saying that, I'm not offering some one-sided assessment that black Southern Baptists are better off for the unfolding events of history. That's not mine to say. Instead, I'll just say that, even though the line of depravity and wrong is so painfully visible in the story that brought most black people into the Southern Baptist family who are among us, among whatever else God has done to bring something good out of the bad, He has made my churches better churches and has made me a better man because of your influence here. It would be sinfully dishonest for me to pretend that all the things you gave me were things that I made for myself.

Thank you.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

About the Presidential Succession at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

For the three people in the Southern Baptist Convention who ever thought this might be a good idea (Hi, Mom!), I want to declare early and definitively that I will in no way whatsoever be a candidate for the presidency at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I hereby offer my Sherman Statement: If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.

It's not that I would find the assignment distasteful. To everyone who has mentioned it (Hi, Mom!), I'm deeply flattered. If there is a man among us who doesn't have an ego, it isn't me. My ego loves the idea that anyone would think of me in that way. What's more, I love SWBTS, love the mission of SWBTS, love the students of SWBTS, and love the faculty of SWBTS. I'd be in the middle of the school I love, giving of myself to lead it. I think I'd enjoy that. Whoever steps into the helm at SWBTS steps into a blessing, in my opinion. What's more, I think I wouldn't entirely stink at it. But I will not in any way entertain the idea.

My reasoning is simple. I have played an instrumental and public role in causing the office of the president to become vacant. It strikes me as unseemly for anyone involved in vacating an office such as this one subsequently to fill it. Such happenings fuel conspiracy theories and undermine confidence in our polity and our convention entities, and I want no part in doing that. There are people who can do as good a job or better who have in no way whatsoever been involved in this. I love the school too much not to defer to one of those other potential leaders, whoever they may be, such that the transition is clean and above reproach (a good, important, biblical word).

What's more, I'm happy at First Baptist Church of Farmersville. If you're happy, stay happy.

It's not just the presidency, by the way. I do not plan to join the faculty, join the administration, or any other such thing. I plan to be (very soon) the former trustee who hangs around at campus events and who gives his widow's mite to the school. I'd leave the door open maybe after my term of service as a trustee has come to an end to teach the occasional adjunct class as I did before I was a trustee, if anyone would have me.

Why make this declaration? Because Southern Baptists can sometimes be a rumor-loving, conspiracy-imagining people. We're better when we don't do that, and I want to be a part of making us better.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Let's Talk Israel: New Creation Eschatology and the Land by Steven L James

One of my favorite fringe benefits of maintaining an ongoing relationship with my seminary is that I am frequently in the company of people who know more about theology than I do. One of them, Dr. Steven James, has written New Creation Eschatology and the Land: A Survey of Contemporary Perspectives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017). I just finished reading it, and I enjoyed it enough to recommend it to you. I found it for sale online at a number of locations. Amazon is selling the Kindle edition for under $10.

The book is an adaptation of Dr. James’s Ph.D. dissertation. For a lot of people, the only way to acquire a taste for reading one of those is to write one, but you shouldn’t let that chase you away from this book. Although it follows the format of a dissertation, it poses a simple research question for which most Christians will understand the relevance and follow the line of thinking. He held my interest from the first page to the last.

People who believe in New Creation Eschatology want us to pay close attention to Revelation 21:1-22:5 and take those words literally and seriously. God hasn’t suggested that we will spend eternity floating among the clouds in Heaven, they remind us; He has promised us eternity under the New Heavens on the New Earth, living as a new creation in a new creation. Living as a new creation, I will be the same, but different. I will be the same because I will still be Bart Barber, and the body I inhabit will be the body I have now, resurrected to eternal life. I will be different because I will have been changed—purified from the residues and consequences of sin. According to New Creation Eschatology we should expect the same thing from the world that we inhabit. The earth beneath our feet will be the same, but different. We will not be whisked away to Kolob or shipped off to rule our own respective planets. We will live forever on earth. The earth that we inhabit, however, will be purified and pristine, cleansed from the effects of sin and made to be very good.

Why do people believe this? As it turns out, they have a pretty strong basis in biblical teaching consisting of passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament promising the restoration of the cosmos in the last day.

Steven James believes that if all of those who have embraced New Creation Eschatology will apply consistently the same theological method that has led them to take literally the promise of a restored earth, that approach will lead them to take literally the promise of a restored Israel (both demographically and territorially, although the emphasis is upon the territory) as one part of the restored earth. James concludes, however, that a number of those who decry the spiritualization of what the Revelation says about the new heaven and the new earth are the same people who spiritualize what the prophets say about the restoration of Israel.

James interacts with the writings of prominent exponents of New Creation Eschatology and with the major scriptural arguments that they make. Determined to offer more than just a negative case, he proposes an interpretive framework by which the key passages advanced by both sides of the Israel question can live in harmony.

It’s not hard to know more theology than I do. Frankly, I like Historical Theology better than Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology more than Historical Theology, and being a pastor better than the whole business. Nevertheless, the people whom I serve as a pastor ask questions about Israel and Heaven more than all the other places of the world combined. I’m thankful that Steven James has helped me to think more carefully about these two places and about what the Bible says about them.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tragedy and Injustice

Earlier today I tweeted the following:

How tragic! The death of #PhilandoCastile, no matter the officer's state of mind, is a great injustice.

It's a deep and controversial subject, and the subsequent conversation has motivated me to teach a bit more about the question of tragedy and injustice. I'll start with a table and some examples.

  Just Unjust
Tragic Branch Davidians Michael Morton
Not Tragic Nadir Hamid Soofi Wayne DuMond

Just, but Tragic

The use of deadly force against the Branch Davidians was just. I do not mean to offer an opinion about their initial entry into the compound. That's above my pay grade. But after the police say, "Come out with your hands up," and you shoot back at them, whatever happens next is on you.

That having been said, this situation is nonetheless tragic. Women and children died because they had been deceived by a religious huckster. Even if the situation is just, it is tragic.

Just and Not Tragic

Nadir Hamid Soofi went to shoot up a Garland conference dedicated to drawing cartoons of the Mohammed. Killing non-Muslims was his goal, but he failed. Instead, his final action on this earth was to learn some interesting and relevant facts about Texas.

His death was just. He was trying to kill people in the commission of a felony.

His death was not tragic. He was an evil man caught being evil. Although there is a deeper level at which I mourn the existence of false religion and the wayward state of mankind, Soofi's death was, in the simplest and most superficial sense, a thing worth celebrating (and celebrating the death of the wicked who pose harm to others is not a matter without biblical support).

Unjust and Tragic

Michael Morton went to prison for 25 years for the murder of his wife, although he did not murder his wife. He has subsequently been exonerated (story here). I know people who know him. I know of no reason to doubt his story.

Morton has suffered an injustice. Twenty-five years of his life he was deprived of his freedom for a crime that he did not commit.

The injustice that Morton has suffered is tragic. Almost all injustices are going to wind up being tragic, although…

Unjust, but Not Tragic

Wayne DuMond raped a Forrest City, Arkansas, cheerleader in 1984. Not long afterwards, men broke into DuMond's home and cut off…well, he never raped anyone else after that. Sheriff Coolidge Conley had something of a reputation in the area (I grew up in Northeast Arkansas). He kept in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk DuMond's…uh…evidence. Local opinion was that Conley had something to do with what happened to DuMond. I'm in no position to say one way or the other who assaulted DuMond, but for the sake of our thinking exercise here, let's assume that the Sheriff's office actually did this.

DuMond suffered an injustice. We do not try crimes in this way. We do not execute cruel and unusual punishment like this. What happened to DuMond was unjust.

There is nothing tragic about it. Although I do not affirm Hinduism or Buddhism, every once in a while even I want to say, "Karma, baby!"

Tragedy and Injustice

So, the major point of this blog post is to show that tragedy and injustice are separate things, somewhat independent of one another.

The death of Philando Castille is, I think, both an injustice and a tragedy. It is an injustice because I think the evidence leads us to conclude that Castille had not committed a crime and was not actually trying to draw his gun to shoot anyone, yet he is dead. It is a tragedy because here is a person who was just driving down the road one moment and was dead the next.

It is helpful to identify injustice like this because (a) justice is a biblical and theological concept that we need to learn, (b) it builds unity when we know that we all see the injustice in this matter, (c) we ought to want a society that is more just (right?), and you can't improve if you can't identify what needs improving.


We cannot easily assign blame for all injustice. Some injustice happens because we are not good enough. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Sometimes people perpetrate injustice on purpose because their hearts are evil.

Some injustice happens because we are not wise enough. The more complicated the situation, the more wisdom we require to accomplish perfect justice. But eventually we face a situation complicated enough to make us realize that we are not God and that we are not capable of accomplishing perfect justice. We will have to wait for Heaven for that. Thus, there is a level of injustice that happens even when everyone tries their dead-level best. Some of these DNA exonerations have proven this point.

When should police officers face criminal prosecution for an unjust death? People who knew and loved a victim feel one way about this question. Police officers tend to feel another way about it. I'd like to address the question in terms of what accomplishes the most justice overall, and I'd like to do it in terms that move things away from police officers (who make up only a portion of the population) toward an experience common to most of us.

In the Michael Morton story told above, a jury sentenced him to prison. Should those jurors be held responsible for his unjust imprisonment? Knowing that you might very well serve on a criminal jury some day, under what circumstances do you think that a jury member ought to be liable to criminal prosecution?

A juror can be convicted of juror misconduct in a number of scenarios. All of these involve explicitly violating the orders of the presiding judge. But we do not prosecute jurors criminally for simply getting it wrong. This is true in spite of the fact that we know (from pretty compelling statistics) that juries get it wrong in predictable ways. This is true in spite of the fact that real people suffer real harm when juries make mistakes. This is in spite of the fact that not all jurors serve equally well and not all jurors try equally hard. Why don't we put jurors in jail when they cause injustice?

The answer is pretty simple: Would you ever agree to serve on a jury if you could be imprisoned for making an unintentional mistake? If you could not avoid serving, would you ever vote to convict anyone of a crime if there were a chance that five years from now you wound up in prison because something shed some new light on the case? Probably not.

And so, the overall effect of harsh punishment against jurors for their mistakes would be less justice. Some particular defendant might get more justice in his individual case (those jurors who took away 5 years of my life will have to pay for what they have done), but the resulting damage to the justice system would mean less justice in the aggregate (Wow! Nobody gets convicted of ANYTHING any more! Especially not people with the monetary or political resources to get charges brought against jurors in the future).

In the same way, if we start sending police officers to jail left and right for honest mistakes that they make on duty, who's going to want to serve as a police officer? And even if some people take the job, are they going to stop responding to calls that they think might lead to difficult choices? Are they going to stop going into neighborhoods where they worry that they are going to face extra scrutiny? If that happens, does life become better or worse for everyone in society? Does everyone get more justice or less justice in that scenario? Who suffers the most from an understaffed or under-confident police force: people who live in high-crime neighborhoods or people who live in low-crime neighborhoods?

I do not think that Philando Castille was trying to do anyone any harm. The evidence does not support a claim to the contrary. Any fear or bias that keeps us from mourning his death is a bad thing. I do not think that Jeronimo Yanez was out looking to do anyone any harm that day. The evidence does not support a claim to the contrary. This looks quite different from what happened in Balch Springs, for example. It is possible for an unjust death to happen when a police officer does everything by the book. I think that both Castille and Yanez were frightened. I think that the end was tragic. I think that what happened to Castille was not fair and was not just. He didn't deserve it. Let us strive to do better. But I accept the verdict of the jury, and I do not think that imprisoning the police officer in this case would have given us greater justice.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Considering SBC Polity in Light of the Alt-Right Resolution

In May 2017, Pastor Dwight McKissic published to the Internet a proposed resolution in condemnation of the Alt-Right. At some time before the deadline mandated in the Southern Baptist Convention's bylaws, Dwight submitted that resolution to the convention's Committee on Resolutions. That committee can do one of three things with proposed resolutions. First, they can decide that they like the resolution so much that they will publish it without any alterations whatsoever. Second, they can change the resolution in any way they like (delete sections they do not like, add language that they think is missing that would be helpful, merge one resolution with another resolution, etc.) and then publish an alternate resolution inspired by the proposed resolution. Third, they can decline to consider the resolution, publishing nothing at all related to the resolution's content.

At this week's Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the report from the Committee on Resolutions indicated that the committee had declined to take action on Dwight's proposed resolution. Dwight challenged the report from the floor. The messengers voted twice NOT to heed Dwight's challenge but instead to honor the committee's proposal. Then, late Tuesday night, the committee changed its mind and recommended that the convention consider a revised resolution inspired by Dwight's original resolution and submitted in a newly added second report from the committee. The convention overwhelmingly agreed to receive the second report and then overwhelmingly voted to approve the new resolution.

The bigger issues in play this week are those of racism and the alt-right. Not familiar with the alt-right? Joe Carter's explainer gives you all the information that you need, or you can go visit Twitter and see how these cretins have dealt with SBC Pastors' Conference speaker Chris Davis…

…with Micah Fries…

…or with Thabiti Anyabwile…

The SBC has voted overwhelmingly to reject and condemn the alt-right movement, which these tweets exemplify.

And yet, is the Convention's stand clear? We took four votes. Two of them overwhelmingly (in effect) opposed Dwight's resolution. Two of them overwhelmingly supported the very similar substitute resolution offered by the committee. These votes contradict one another, yet they came from the same messenger body within the same 24-hour period. How can we explain this? Which vote actually represents the viewpoint of the SBC?

I will start with the obvious: Any time any deliberative body experiences an outcome like this, something is wrong with the way in which it makes decisions.

That doesn't mean that everything is wrong with the way in which it makes decisions. But polity (the way that a group makes decisions) has malfunctioned whenever a group makes decisive, self-contradictory decisions in response to a situation, the basic reality of which has not changed. If things like that happen regularly—and they do at the SBC—then it is time for the group to examine how well its polity is working for it. I believe that Southern Baptists should consider making changes to the way that we presently conduct our resolutions process.

How Our Polity Currently Works

Some of what I am about to describe is our formal polity (that is, the rules that are written in our governing documents). Some of what I am about to describe is our informal polity (that is, where our written rules give us freedom to do things in more than one way, the preferred way that we almost always choose to follow). This is the way that we pursue our resolutions process.

  1. When you go to a microphone, you lose more than you win. My personal batting average from the microphones on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention is .000 and I'm in good company. Our messengers are highly skeptical of affirming things from the floor that they aren't expecting and that they haven't fully considered.

  2. The messengers approve whatever the Committee on Resolutions recommends. Do you want to make sense of those four self-contradictory votes? Here you go: On each occasion the messengers voted to sustain the committee's recommendation.

    This reality, you might think, makes the people on the Committee on Resolutions very powerful. In a way, you'd be right. These are people who get to tell the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention what they should say that their collective opinion is, and the messengers do as they are told.

    And yet, there is a way in which this reality makes the Committee on Resolutions less powerful. How? Because fiascos like what happened this week, although they leave the Committee on Resolutions pretty much in charge of the resolutions that we adopt, make those resolutions less significant. Resolutions are important only to the degree that they represent the considered opinion of the aggregation of messengers who attend the convention's annual meetings. If that idea is a farce—if the messengers are lifting their ballots mindlessly, solely as a show of solidarity with the personalities on the platform or the institutional momentum of a committee—then the more widely that farce is revealed to be a farce, the less power our resolutions (and by extension, our Committee on Resolutions) actually have.

    Already we have resolutions on appreciation and other resolutions that messengers approve with about the same gravitas that we intend when we begin conversations with "How are you doing?" How many of the ballots cast for other, weightier resolutions are waving in the air with the same level of consideration behind them?

  3. The resolutions report comes too late for the messengers reasonably to do otherwise. Messengers arrive at the Annual Meeting each year with nary a clue as to what resolutions the Committee on Resolutions will recommend that we adopt. Often, the messengers do not receive the text of the resolutions to consider until the morning of the very day on which they will be expect to vote on them. Resolutions can be numerous. Resolutions can be lengthy. The text of proposed-but-declined resolutions (like the one Dwight submitted) do not appear in the report at all, nor does any rationale for the decision that the committee reached.

    The messengers do usually have at least an hour to read the proposed resolutions, research the issues raised therein, and form an opinion. Of course, every minute of the time that they have is time with which they are supposed to be doing something else. They are supposed to be praying. They are supposed to be listening to a sermon. They are supposed to be voting on other matters that come before them. They are supposed to be watching a video or singing a worship song. They have breakout meetings and group luncheons to attend. Time allocated in the annual meeting for people to read proposed resolutions before voting on them? Zero minutes.

    And so, almost everyone voting on Resolution #6 has not read Resolution #6. Our messengers, generally speaking, are voting on our resolutions in the dark.

    Next year I think I'll submit a resolution against Congress's voting on measures that the members of Congress haven't read, just to bask in the irony of it all.

  4. The Committee on Resolutions meets too late to propose resolutions any earlier. This year the Committee on Resolutions met on the Thursday before the Annual Meeting began. They met and met and met up through and including the arduous session on Tuesday night just to discharge their duty.

    I have never served on the SBC Committee on Resolutions, but I have both served on and chaired the SBTC Committee on Resolutions. If you haven't done so, do not hastily conclude that it is not much work. We considered the theological aspect of each resolution. What does the Bible say? What have Christians written and thought about the relevant issues down through the ages? We asked whether our convention had previously gone on the record with a viewpoint about the issue in question and about whether a new statement was needed. We explored the political implications of each resolution. Would the adoption of this resolution amount to the taking of a partisan stand by the convention? Sometimes it is appropriate to do so—is this one of those times? We explored the impact of the resolution from the vantage point of our diverse family of churches. How would the various sub-groupings within the convention react to the resolution? We explored the impact of the resolution from the vantage point of people outside our convention. What effect would it have on our relationships with other denominations? With lost people?

    And then, after all of that work had been concluded on each and every resolution, we went over the final products reviewing grammar, syntax, rhetorical effect, and logical consistency.

    I completely used up a red pen.

    This kind of work takes time. It also takes down-time to do it well. If done straight through in marathon sessions, this process does a grave disservice to the twenty-third resolution that the beleaguered committee considers. There is simply no way, meeting on the schedule that it presently follows, that the Committee on Resolutions can bring a report to the convention body any earlier than it presently does.

  5. The deadline for the submission of resolutions comes too late for the Committee on Resolutions to work much earlier. The convention president does not have to create the Committee on Resolutions until 75 days before the convention. This year, that works out to March 30. So, the committee does not even have to exist until March 30.

    Once the committee is in place, the Executive Committee can start to receive resolutions as early as April 15, but the deadline for receiving resolutions is not until 15 days before the start of the Annual Meeting. This year, that works out to May 29, or Memorial Day. The members of the committee hardly had any time to meet prior to their pre-convention meeting starting on June 8.

    These committee members already come to the Annual Meeting at least three days ahead of everyone else. They are already in the convention city for more than a week. I don't know about you, but for my part, prior to being out of town for a week on convention business, I need a few days in the office to try to get things ready at home for my absence. We cannot expect that the Committee on Resolutions should schedule another meeting between May 29 and June 8.

    Furthermore, even if they did so, I do not know how much of a difference it would make. If they were to have released the resolutions report on June 9, by that time the preponderance of messengers who are going to attend the convention are caught up in their own preparations to attend the convention or travel to the convention site. They are already busy.

How It Could Be Different

I offer the following just as a thought-exercise. How could our resolutions process look different? How could we have better, less confusing, less-likely-to-grab-the-wrong-headlines processes each year in the development of our resolutions?

Concept One: The only resolutions worth passing are those that represent the carefully considered position of the messengers.

What happened at SBC17? We voted first, then considered the vote second. That's the wrong order in which to do things, and that SBC17 transpired in this order is indisputable. That's why we wound up voting again. When we operate in this way, we delegitimize the whole process.

Instead we need to operate in this order: Careful consideration of each resolution comes first, then comes voting. Operating in this order empowers the messengers, and I believe that our system needs to work harder to empower the messengers. If anything ever tempts me to get more involved in the work of our Annual Meeting it is the idea that by doing so I would be able to empower messengers.

Once upon a time people started a discussion at SBC Voices proposing my name as a candidate for the presidency of the SBC. I demurred, but along the way I stated that if I ever were president of the SBC, my focus would be upon performing well the constitutional duties of the presidency rather than devoting all of my time and attention to the bully-pulpit or public-relations aspects of the job. When I said that, Dwight McKissic very kindly said that he would be supportive of the idea of my serving as president, but not if I solely wanted to be a "caretaker president."

Dwight, might I offer a kindly rebuttal at an opportune time? I think if we did a little more of what you have termed "caretaking"—if we would work a little bit on our process and if we would try hard to make our process empower the messengers more, remove barriers, and advocate for a fair hearing of their sentiments—without becoming an agenda-driven president, our presiding officer might free the messengers to become more effective as agenda-driven messengers. Isn't that how things ought to be in a deliberative body like our own, with the messengers setting the agenda and the president protecting their rights?

President Steve Gaines did a masterful and statesmanlike job of steering our ship away from the icebergs this week, but the better system is the one that doesn't often require such craft at the helm, is it not? Wouldn't it be better to avoid these chaotic situations from the get-go by having a better process?

I think we need to alter our process such that the good deliberation that took place Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning could have taken place before we had ever taken the first vote.

Concept Two: The deliberations of the Committee on Resolutions should take place much earlier and with greater transparency.

Let me cut to the chase: I don't see any reason why the Committee on Resolutions couldn't publish their full set of recommendations in May.

I think that the Committee on Resolutions should meet in conjunction with every SBC Executive Committee meeting. The committee should accept resolutions throughout the year. The deadline for the submission of resolutions to the Annual Meeting should be one month before the Spring meeting of the Executive Committee.

Two weeks before each Executive Committee meeting, the Committee on Resolutions should publish the full text of all proposed resolutions that it has received since its last publication and should solicit public comment from messengers from SBC churches, providing a form through which churches could submit their feedback. That form should employ some of the same safeguards that presently are in place for online registration of messengers.

At the Spring meeting of the committee, based upon the feedback that they have received and based upon their own deliberations, the committee should adopt their report. This they should submit for grammatical review. They should be able to take an electronic vote to affirm changes in grammar or style. Then they should publish the entire report well in advance of the annual meeting. I think a May 15 submission deadline would be well within reach.

What about late-breaking matters? What if we needed to speak to a major event that happened only in the latter weeks of May (for example, to express sympathy in the wake of a major terrorist attack)? The Committee on Resolutions should meet with the Executive Committee on the Monday before the SBC Annual Meeting convenes on Tuesday. Any last-minute resolutions that they wish to propose should require the approval of two thirds of the Executive Committee before being allowed onto the floor of the convention for consideration. Only those resolutions about which we are overwhelmingly agreed should be able to short-circuit the process.

Concept Three: We should only have dispute about resolutions when we are genuinely divided about their content.

Southern Baptists are not divided about the white supremacists in the alt-right. The latter two votes revealed that. What has been damaging to our convention is the fact that we wound up having a dispute over matters about which we are not genuinely divided.

The procedure that I have suggested above would not eliminate all dispute over resolutions within our convention. Sometimes we do not at all agree. When we face resolutions related to our disagreements, we will still dispute with one another over those disagreements. Even in those circumstances, however, our disputations will be better informed, and perhaps we will conduct them in the light of careful consideration rather than in the heat of partisanship and misinformation.

In general, we messengers to our conventions give too little consideration to our polity, I think. We tend not to give it credit when it helps us to conduct business well. We tend not to give it due blame when it hinders us from conducting our business well. We tend to heap plaudits or condemnations upon the people involved rather than ask whether we could organize better and achieve better outcomes.

Certainly, there is a place to praise or criticize the people involved. The best people will make a bad system work better; the worst people will make a good system work worse. But all other things being equal, even the best people will face problems when they are working through a flawed system. Sometimes I think that description fits well the people of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Monday, April 17, 2017

About the Johnson Amendment

In 1954 Lindon B Johnson persuaded the United States Senate to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, requiring 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to refrain from participation in campaigns for elected office. The rule remains to this day, and we call it "The Johnson Amendment."

President Trump has promised to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment." This has become a central theme of his administration's approach to religious liberty issues. President Trump is not alone in his determination to eliminate the amendment. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has long identified the repeal of the Johnson Amendment as one of their top priorities. A lot of organizations would like to see it go.

As for me? I'm pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. Here's why.

  1. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will have no impact upon what my church (or most churches) do. It is an empty gesture. The ADF already hosts a "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" encouraging pastors to endorse or oppose candidates as an act of civil disobedience. No church has ever been prosecuted for participating, to my knowledge. Every church who wants to endorse or oppose candidates for electoral office is already doing so.

    Most of our churches do not endorse candidates for office at present for reasons that go a lot deeper than the Internal Revenue Code. I can identify a number of reasons why I am unlikely to endorse candidates from the pulpit no matter what happens with the Johnson Amendment:

    1. My pulpit time is full already, thank you very much. I'm preaching God's Word, attempting to give my congregants sound, expository preaching, which I generally provide by preaching through books of the Bible. I don't preempt that content for elections. Period.

      In fact, once upon a time at an ADF event—and the ADF are good, good, good people. I thank God for them—I mentioned that the kind of preaching they were suggesting was difficult to integrate into a schedule of text-driven preaching through books of the Bible. In the conversation that ensued, it became clear that none of the pastors present who were using the pulpit to endorse or oppose candidates were preaching in that text-driven manner. I'm not saying that it doesn't exist anywhere; I'm just saying that the combination is difficult to achieve and therefore rare.

      What do you get when you mix religion and politics? Politics. There are plenty of examples demonstrating how political preaching, once it gets its nose under the tent, crowds out gospel preaching. Since my readers are mostly conservative (both theologically and politically), perhaps you can see this more clearly by looking at the churches on the left who have abandoned the gospel and betrayed biblical morality in order to preserve their political alliances. Well, if the gospel is supremely more important than the next election, then letting "good politics" shove the Bible out of the pulpit is really not that much better than letting "bad politics" shove the Bible out of the pulpit.

      Let's just preach the Bible and let God do whatever He wishes with its political implications.

    2. Preaching politics can shut doors for preaching the gospel. Sometimes you have no choice but to preach politics. There's a political aspect to the gospel. It comes to suppress a rebellion and change people's allegiances, after all. But when those times come, you learn that many people will not listen to a spiritual message if it starts messing with their political ideas.

      That shouldn't make us cowards when preaching the Bible steers us into political collisions. It should, however, make us unwilling to seek out political controversy that biblical preaching does not require us to address. Why offend people about lesser things and lose opportunities to speak to them about greater things?

    3. Even candidates with the right positions on the issues can become liabilities to the churches. When that candidate gets caught in an airport men's room or an FBI sting operation—that candidate whom you used your credibility and reputation to endorse, pastor—what then? The church is certainly safe when she stakes her reputation on Jesus. She's safe when she takes a stand on biblical morality and truth. When she ties her credibility to the behavior of human politicians, she is taking a serious gamble.

    Other churches feel differently. Other pastors passionately believe that they should be making endorsements of candidates from their pulpits. I take into account that reality in this point. Those churches and those pastors are probably already endorsing and opposing candidates. I don't think that repealing the Johnson Amendment will make much of a difference in what they do.

  2. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will have no impact upon what the IRS does. The IRS does not enforce the Johnson Amendment. In the 1970s part of my dad's job was to take Democratic candidates around to worship services at black churches to pick up endorsements. The IRS does nothing about that. As I have already said, the IRS does not prosecute those who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, who are overwhelmingly Republican and white. So it is a little difficult to understand why some religious liberty establishments (generally on the political Left) are going apoplectic about the possibility that Congress will repeal a law that nobody enforces.

    Take a chill pill, guys. The only active process that this repeal would shut down are those annual missives from Barry Lynn, and reasonable people everywhere should rejoice in that.

  3. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will change what politicians do. And it is here that the measure should give us all some pause. What we really need is protection for conscientious objectors against SOGI laws and against pro-baby-murder zealots. Instead, politicians make it their top priority to make it easier for them to get political endorsements from us.

    "Religious liberty? Why, yes! I want you to have the liberty to endorse me in my next campaign!"

    I'll give this to them: They know which side their bread is buttered on.

    Personally, I do not look forward to a future in which politicians are pressuring me to gain the official endorsement of our congregation. I mean, I can answer, "Not in a thousand years!" as quickly as the next guy, but it is nice at present not to be bothered with the question at all.

  4. Government shouldn't engage in viewpoint discrimination against churches. But if the Johnson Amendment ever were enforced, there's no doubt that's what it would amount to. The IRS's recent history of targeting conservative groups (which had nothing to do with the Johnson Amendment) reveals that we may not be wise to entrust such power to a government that so easily engages in selective prosecution.

In conclusion, it does not violate religious liberty for religious groups to have freedom of expression. American religious liberty thrived from 1833 (when Massachusetts disestablished the Congregationalist church) to 1954 without a Johnson Amendment. It can do so again. Part of the benefit of religious liberty to society at large is to have spiritual organizations free to critique the government and the culture. Almost all of the time we can do that best without endorsing or opposing candidates from our pulpits or through the official auspices of our churches, but not always. I'd like to think that in a hypothetical electoral choice between Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler my church would have something definitive to say. Most elections don't quite rise to that level of clarity, and most of the time most churches will stay out of the candidate-endorsing business. But both civil liberty and religious liberty remain intact and healthy even when churches have the freedom to speak about elections.

I'd rather President Trump devoted his religious liberty thinking to the many actual threats on the horizon, but if he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment, I'm OK with that.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Pragmatism, Partnership, and Politics

It seems to me that a great many of our conflicts among Southern Baptists at this moment in time come at the juncture of pragmatism, partnership, and politics.

Sometimes we have spiritual convictions that lead us to adopt political goals. I have a spiritual conviction that I should not use coercive force to try to strong-arm anyone into false conversion by persecuting him for his aberrant faith. This spiritual conviction is soundly biblical. Holding that spiritual conviction leads me to adopt a political goal: maintaining First Amendment guarantees of universal religious liberty.

Pursuing political goals often drives us to practicing a little pragmatism. Pragmatism often leads us into strange partnerships. I know that there are enemies of religious liberty in our country. Preponderantly, they are people on the academic left who hold the views expressed by Chai Feldblum. There are enemies of religious liberty in our nation, and they are prepared to wage war against the First Amendment in the courts.

If I want to defend religious liberty against these foes (and I'm sort of assuming that when it comes to Chai Feldblum's agenda, we're all pretty much on the same page in this forum), it doesn't make much sense to say, "If the battle happens on this battlefield over here, I'll fight against the enemies of religious liberty, but if it happens on that other battlefield over there, I won't." No, if you want to defeat an enemy, you have to be ready to fight wherever they bring the war to you.

If Southern Baptists say that we will defend religious liberty in court cases so long as there isn't a mosque involved, Chai Feldblum and her ilk will simply file all of their cases against mosques. Want everyone to open their ladies rooms to men? Don't file that zoning case requiring open bathrooms against a Baptist church. No, if you do that, the Christians will fight you in the courts. File it against a mosque. Then the Christians will remain silent, and you'll get the law changed with a minimum of effort. After you win in court, the law will apply to all of those Christians churches just as much as it applies to a mosque, and you'll have won the war while the bulk of the forces arrayed to defend religious liberty sat in their tents at camp.

So, if defending religious liberty law means that I inadvertently benefit false religions, I'm prepared to do that. I don't see that as a partnership with a mosque; I see that as a partnership with likeminded Christians who are trying to defend the law. But I understand that my work to help churches winds up helping mosques, too, and I can see how some people could view that as an unholy alliance.

Sometimes our pragmatic pursuit of political goals (even those rooted in spiritual convictions) can lead us to strange partnerships.

If you think of it, it's a bit like deciding that you need to vote for a Mormon or a skirt-chasing, LGBT-affirming, New York non-Christian because you want better Supreme Court picks or hope to see some Executive Orders reversed. You have spiritual convictions about abortion or marriage or even religious liberty. These spiritual convictions lead you to adopt political goals. In pursuing those political goals, you find that you can only achieve them if you form some partnerships with people who are not a good match for you spiritually.

In the past two years we've had a lot of people on one side deriding the pragmatic choice of religious liberty advocates to defend religious liberty laws when they happen to become vulnerable in cases that happen to involve mosques. In the past two years we've had a lot of people on the other side deriding the pragmatic choice of other Christians to form partnerships with Donald Trump or Mitt Romney. In the one case, people have (falsely) alleged that the religious liberty advocates have endorsed Islam or otherwise gone soft on the exclusivity of Christ. In the other case, people have (falsely) alleged that the GOP advocates have endorsed sexual assault or have otherwise gone soft on the difference between Mormons or nominal Christians on the one hand and true Christians on the other hand. If one of these situations is an unequal yoking with unbelievers, the other is. If one of them is merely coincidental co-belligerance and therefore not a violation of 2 Corinthians 6:14, then there's probably room to seek to understand the other in the same light.

These problems and these accusations are made worse by the fact that sometimes we struggle to think clearly and communicate well when we're in the middle of verbal wars with one another.

Perhaps there's a way forward for us along these lines.

Perhaps we could all engage in a little repentance for ways that we've refused to grant to others the grace that we've sought for ourselves. I've expected people to understand my pragmatic actions in defense of religious liberty against threats that I believe stand poised to make life very hard for believers in the United States. If I will have those expectations, I ought to be more understanding of other people's pragmatic actions as they chose to vote for Donald Trump.

Perhaps we could all extend a little goodwill and benefit of the doubt toward people who actually share both our spiritual convictions and the preponderance of our political goals when they choose different pragmatic methodologies by which to achieve them. Honestly, if we can't live at peace with people with whom we share so much in common, it speaks poorly of our relationships with Christ.

Perhaps we could try not to be offended personally (or to lob charges of heresy) when people advocate for pragmatic strategies that differ from our own. Why don't we just make our case and try to let the strength of our positions persuade or fail to persuade? Why don't we recognize that the brother who is trying to make us all succeed together by a different plan than my favorite plan can be differentiated from the enemy who wishes to conquer us all?

Perhaps we could dial back our tendencies to assign nefarious motives to people who think differently when we advocate for our own pragmatic strategies. After all, none of us like it when others do likewise to us.

Perhaps we could recognize a bit of wisdom, even when it comes from the bizarre source of a deceased former Soviet Premier: "We and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it." Of course, Nikita Khrushchev, not President Kennedy, was the one who had tied the knot of war in the rope to begin with (this communique took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis), but his observation about what happens when we pull hard on the rope is nonetheless both picturesque and instructive.

The Southern Baptist cooperative relationship, like any relationship, only functions for as long as the people in the relationship say they're sorry when they wrong, forgive when they are wronged, and labor to permit both freedom to advocate for our various views and determination to cooperate graciously both when our ideas win the day and when they do not, for so long as we share a common commitment to the biblical convictions that we have articulated in The Baptist Faith and Message and around which we pursue our common Great Commission work.