Thursday, September 8, 2016

Why I Haven't Put My Sermons Online Before and Am Not Sure I'm Doing the Right Thing Now

Sometimes I feel like the only preacher on the continent who isn't live-streaming and then podcasting his sermons. I'm starting to do it (a little half-heartedly) now. This is surprising to some of the people who know me, because I'm sort of a techie (I can do computer programming in several languages) and I love preaching. By one way of looking at it, I should've been putting my sermons on the Internet fifteen years ago. Here's why I haven't.

  1. I'm not so sure there's much of an audience who (a) wants to hear my sermons and who (b) I care about hearing my sermons.

    1. I'm not trying to move anywhere. I've served FBC Farmersville for seventeen years, and I'm perfectly content to stay here until I'm too old for anyone to let me do this any more. If you have your cap set to go somewhere (and there's nothing wrong with that), then having sermons online helps search committees quite a bit, but there aren't any search committees anywhere whom I am trying to help.
    2. I'm not trying to get my preaching into the hands of the members of other churches. Your churches' members should be listening to you guys. I'm sure that they have some time left over to hear other preachers, but like I said before, every other preacher in North America already has sermons available online, so I'm not sure how big of a void there is to be filled. Also, to speak frankly, I'm not that sure how many of your members have any interest in hearing my sermons.
    3. I have zero interest in encouraging my members to stay at home on Sunday mornings and just catch the service online. For those who are unable to attend, we already take a DVD recording of the service to their homes. We've been doing that for years. I don't want those shut-ins to get the sermon off of the Internet; I want a real-life flesh-and-blood member of our church to talk to them on their doorsteps—or even in their living rooms! For those who are not shut-ins, I don't want to tempt them with the idea of "Oh, it'll be on the Internet tomorrow, so I'll just sleep in now and catch it then."
    4. Now, there is my mother. My mother would be delighted to have my preaching available online, and I'm interested in making it available to her. This is a great development for my mother. You're welcome, Mom.
    5. Perhaps there are some fellow-preacher-friends who would have an interest in hearing some of these sermons, but that leads me to my next point of inner angst:
  2. My preaching is not my blogging. I've been writing online for ten years, give or take. I've gravitated toward several subject areas in my blogging and have developed a bit of an audience for my writing. Generally speaking, I do not preach about the same topics that I cover in my blogging. I aspire to preach text-driven sermons (although I'm better at achieving that in some genres than I am in others). This means that I don't really choose subject matter for my sermons; I take them where the text takes me.

    So, if someone who likes what I write about…say…religious liberty looks and says, "Hey, there's Bart Barber's sermon podcast. I'll bet there is a whole lot of good material there on religious liberty," then that person is destined to disappointment. Religious liberty makes it into my preaching. Perhaps it makes it into my preaching more than the next guy's preaching. But most Sundays I'm not preaching about religious liberty.

    This is all the more true because…

  3. I believe that preaching is a congregational act. I haven't made my sermons available for you people because I DON'T PREACH FOR YOU PEOPLE (no offense intended). I preach for the people of the First Baptist Church of Farmersville, TX. I have them in mind when I write my sermons. I have them in view when I deliver my sermons. There are things that I would do differently when speaking for my blogging audience, and not sharing my sermons online has protected me from the temptation to do those things differently. I want to preach tailor-made sermons to fit my people, not off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all oratory for a generic online audience.

    In a bizarre sense, if I hadn't managed to develop an online writing presence, I might have shared my sermons online a lot earlier (because then there wouldn't be any wider audience to worry about). But knowing the differences between Bart the Southern Baptist Blogger on the one hand and Bart the local church preacher on the other hand, I've made some effort to keep those two worlds from colliding. Not that there's anything in the one that is contradictory to the other, and not that they don't overlap a good bit. It's just that, to say it again in a slightly different way, I don't want the outside world intruding on the local intimacy of my pastoral relationships. I don't ever want to alter our church family's worship service even the slightest bit to accommodate the needs of people who are not in that room.

    Incidentally, this is why I think television preaching isn't any more successful than it is. Yes, there are a few pastors who have managed to build large television ministries, but I wonder how much lasting impact those ministries have. I know that they have some impact—I'm not questioning that. I just wonder whether the television sermon comes anywhere close to exploiting the potential offered by the medium of television. I suspect not. Why not?

    Because the sermon (and the other elements of a worship service) were designed and are empowered by God to be experienced live. The gathering of the body has something to do with the presence of Christ in His power. There's a mystical something missing, I think, when the incarnate sermon is reduced to electrons and phosphors. Made-for-TV programming, in my opinion, fares better. I think Sherwood Baptist's film ministry is the more effective model for screens, while the foolishness of preaching can never be toppled in the milieu for which God designed it: the live gathering of God's people.

You may think that I'm overthinking this. Perhaps that's true. I've finally capitulated to this (a bit begrudgingly) because I've discovered that some of the people in my congregation sometimes want to RE-listen to a sermon after they've heard it on Sunday. Also, some of my people want to share a sermon with a lost person in town. Finally, I know that there's a different kind of "search committee"—the local family searching for a church home. Although it seems pretty easy to me just to attend a service, I've seen convincing data suggesting that families are growing accustomed to checking out a sermon from home via the Internet first. I probably ought to accommodate that desire.

But I don't have to like it.

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Different Question, A Different Answer, A Different Vote

People come to the #NeverTrump movement for a lot of different reasons. From what I can tell, it is not a monolithic group. Once anyone who has trended Republican declares that he or she will not be voting for the Donald, that person is going to face a lot of questions, some of which reveal the agonizing choice that #NeverTrump represents.

  1. What's going to happen to the country if I vote against Donald Trump? Nobody knows where the polling will stand as we approach November. I think Donald Trump will by then be so far behind Hillary Clinton that it will not much matter how I vote, but I'm prepared to stick by my determination not to vote for Donald Trump even if my one vote were to decide the presidency.

    And yet, I realize that a Clinton presidency would be an unmitigated disaster for the nation. Clinton would immediately appoint an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court, and make no mistake, when we see whom she nominates, we'll then long for the opportunity to confirm Merrick Garland. With her nominee, the Court will trample on religious liberty, will let everything into your daughter's bathroom, will nullify the Second Amendment, will use cases like some Citizens-United-redux to tip the playing field of elections toward Democrats, and will shoot down any restrictions whatsoever against abortion-on-demand at any stage of development.

    Would a Clinton presidency be good for America? No. A Clinton presidency would be bad for America. And if this is the most important question to you, you'll probably wind up voting for Donald Trump.

    I say this in spite of the fact that all of the available evidence strongly indicates that Trump is not pro-life, is not pro-family, is not pro-real-marriage, is not pro-common-sense-bathrooms, not-pro-religious-liberty, not-pro-Israel. Donald Trump has given no reason to anyone for confidence that his government would be better for America than Clinton's would be, but he contradicts himself frequently enough to leave some hope that he might accidentally land on a good policy or two, whereas Hillary Clinton would be consistently bad.

    I'll admit it: There is a chance that my refusal to vote for Trump might make the difference between President Trump and President Hillary, and there's a chance that the nation could turn out for the worse because of that. If I were asking that question first and foremost (as folks like Mike Huckabee seem to be doing), perhaps I could wind up voting for Trump. And on Facebook, in blog posts, in personal conversations, on the phone, and even standing in line at Wal-Mart, people are asking this question, and pressing it hard.

    But that's not the question I'm asking.

  2. What's going to happen to the Republican Party if I vote against Donald Trump? I don't have to go into lengthy detail here, because I've just written a blog post speculating about the aftermath of a supposed implosion of the GOP. The Republican Party is under strains that it has never seen in my lifetime. People like me who refuse to fall in line behind Donald Trump are the proximate cause of those strains. This situation could lead to the removal of the Convention Chairman. It could lead to an open and ugly break between every living GOP former-President and the new GOP under Donald Trump.

    I think it is far from a foregone conclusion that the GOP is in mortal danger from the conflict of Trump-vs-NeverTrump, but I'm willing to concede that my kind of hardline stand could, if shared by a lot of people, spell the end of the Party of Lincoln. If I were asking that question (as people like Reince Priebus seem to be doing), perhaps I could wind up voting for Trump. And I hear a lot of people asking this question, wondering what will become of the GOP after this year.

    But that's not the question I'm asking.

  3. What's going to happen to my testimony for Christ if I vote FOR Donald Trump?

    That's the question I'm asking. How does it affect the church? How does it affect my testimony? How does it make what I preach more or less credible to a listening world?

    I think that we face precisely the same sort of moment that Billy Graham faced when he became publicly associated with Richard Nixon (here's how that turned out), that W. A. Criswell faced when in 1956 he addressed the South Carolina legislature against racial integration (Criswell later regretted and turned from that mistake), that Richard Furman faced when he tried to justify racism-motivated slavery from the Bible. There are moments that offer us momentary adulation and support from the culture at the cost of our morality, but the other shoe always eventually drops, and then that hideous thing that you once-upon-a-time did becomes the reason why people don't listen to you.

    But it reaches beyond you. Billy Graham is still respected. W. A. Criswell died a hero of the church. But the very thing thrown up into the face of the church by antagonists every time we declare the gospel these days is the way that Christians compromised their consciences during the Civil Rights movement in order to go along with the culture. It somehow affected every other church and every other preacher as much or more than it affected them personally. Robert Jeffress's and Jerry Falwell Jr's careers will probably be fine after this all is over, but I fear that the impression that Evangelicals lined up behind such a hateful thing as the Trump campaign will inflict lingering damage upon all of our efforts.

    So, this is the entire rationale behind my decision not to vote for Trump. I think it hurts the credibility of my testimony for me to be a vocal supporter of a demonstrably evil man whose campaign platform consists mainly of his evilness. It's just really hard for me to see any possible way that supporting Donald Trump furthers the cause of the gospel.

    And because Southern Baptists have generally voted Republican since the days of Ronald Reagan, if we're not vocally opposed to Donald Trump, we'll be counted as Trump supporters by default. For evangelicals to make it unavoidably clear that we are not supporting Donald Trump is something that, in my estimation, will make us more credible henceforth as we tell people about Jesus.

    I'm not saying that nobody else could add it all up differently and come to a different conclusion about the effect upon our testimonies. I'm trying to follow my conscience as best as I can. I guess I'm just trying to explain why appeals to the good of the nation or the good of the party do not persuade me.

I've been asked more times than I can count how #NeverTrump will affect the country. I've been asked more times than I can count how #NeverTrump will affect the GOP. I'm still waiting to be asked how it will affect the churches and my testimony. Apparently, that's not so much at the front of everyone's mind right now.

But shouldn't it be?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

If This Were the End of the Republican Party, Could That Be a Good Thing?

Is the Republican Party dead?

Those who say so are overreaching. The Republican Party still dominates the landscape at the level of the several states. Thirty-one governors are Republican, compared to eighteen Democrats and one Independent. A whopping sixty-eight out of ninety-eight partisan state legislative chambers (remember, most states have two, a senate and a house) are Republican, with Republicans controlling both the governor's mansion and the capitol in twenty-three states. In state government, Republicans have never been stronger.

So, of course, the GOP is not dead. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't call hospice.

Perhaps the worst thing that could happen to the Republican Party would be for Donald Trump actually to win election. As a hypothetical, Donald Trump is one thing. As President of the United States? The odds are significant that the President Trump experience turns out to be so bad that we raise a generation of former Republicans whose passions are as intense as the former Democrats whom Jimmy Carter handed over to the GOP in the late 1970s. We do not have to speculate whether a national politician can be bad enough to eviscerate a party at the state and local level; I've watched it happen in my own lifetime.

"How can you fail to vote for Donald Trump and hand the election to Hillary?" some ask. I retort, "How can you vote for Donald Trump and hand the next five elections to the Democrats."

But even if Trump should lose, there's a widespread sense that the GOP has crossed some sort of a continental divide. For my part, I can say that my relationship with the party has certainly changed in a number of ways.

  1. Who Are These People? For all of my lifetime I've listened to the shrill complaints of Democrats who have alleged time and again that the GOP is the party of various forms of hatred: misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, etc. To my horror and chagrin, I've learned that they weren't entirely wrong. With Donald Trump, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, and hatred aren't Democrat insults, they're planks in his platform. Yes, he'll moderate his tone in the general election to some degree, perhaps, but nothing Donald Trump can say or unsay in the next few months can ever change the fact that hordes of voters in Republican primaries across the country cast their ballots explicitly for and on the basis of every ugly insult that Democrats have ever made against the GOP.

    Emotions are high in this moment. Those emotions will fade over time, but even when the tide of electioneering emotion has ebbed, there will remain for me (and for a lot of other people, I think) the certain and dispassionate knowledge that most Republican primary voters in this nation are something that I am not. The occasional day arrives when I'm not angry at President Obama. The United States killed Osama bin Laden during his presidency. The United States secured the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini from an Iranian prison during his presidency. On rare occasions, I'm happy with something that President Obama has done. Nevertheless, even in those moments when I'm happy with President Obama rather than disappointed with him, I still always know regardless of my present emotional state that he and I are not the same thing politically. I now know precisely the same thing (and feel precisely the same way) about the Republican electorate.

    Henceforth, even when Republicans do something good, I'll respond by saying, "Isn't that nice what they did over there?" rather than "Isn't that nice what we did over here?"

  2. Thanks for the Memories…I think. In this, the most post-GOP moment I've ever known, I find myself looking around our dorm room to see what I can pack up in boxes to take with me from our sojourn as roommates. There's a thing or two. Ronald Reagan gave us the end of the Cold War. I'm just barely old enough to remember knowing that Russian nuclear ICBMs were aimed within thirty miles of my home. Yes, Vladimir Putin is still out there, but there is no equivalent to the Cold War in the world today. The GOP gave us that.


    Republicans in Georgia and Missouri just killed religious liberty bills authored to protect basic liberties that every American enjoyed for 240 years until just months ago. Republican SCOTUS appointees gave us the Smith decision (eviscerating religious liberty and setting up this mess), the Obamacare decision, the Obergefell decision, and every other act and scene in the cautionary tale that is the present state of American jurisprudence.

    If someone tells you that he is a Republican, what do you know about him? Do you know that he is pro-Life? You do not. Do you know that he is pro-Religious-Liberty? You do not. Do you know that he is pro-Natural-Marriage? You do not. Do you know his stance on immigration? No. The Flat Tax? No.

    Anything? No.

    The GOP comfortably contains Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump. Republican affiliation no longer means anything.

    The GOP just chose as its nominee a guy who stands for nothing more than his raw desire for power. The startling realization at this moment is how little contrast this action strikes when juxtaposed against the history and state of the national party.

  3. The ABCs of a Failing Party. This morning a significant number of Republican leaders and Christian leaders are already attempting to unify people behind presumptive nominee Donald Trump. The line of argumentation is simple and consistent: Donald Trump is not Hillary Clinton. The moment is frighteningly similar to the dying throes of the Whig Party in the 1850s. The very name of the Whig Party revealed the one thing that unified it: Opposition to "King" Andrew Jackson and the movement he represented.

    The question of slavery fractured the Whig Party because abolitionist Whigs discovered that although they still despised the Jacksonian Democrats, they despised slavery just as much. When that happened, the Whig Party died and the Republican Party was born out of its ashes, realigning voting patterns in ways that endured for more than a century. The Whig Party had nothing to offer other than "At least we're not Democrats," and therefore it died.

    Is ABC (Anyone But Clinton) any stronger of a platform for the Republican Party? Not in any way that I can see. I'm ready to vote FOR someone, not just AGAINST someone. The GOP has finally gone and done it. They've finally managed to fill in the A-blank with an "Anyone" who is utterly unacceptable to me.

    You see, in the past I've been willing to settle for candidates who were weak rather than vote for a Democrat. Now the GOP has advanced a candidate who is evil. Weak and evil are not the same thing. The ABC argument works well to convince me to vote for a weak candidate. It is utterly ineffective to convince me to vote for an evil candidate. Just as Whigs in the 1850s could not overcome their own consciences to vote pro-slavery just to oppose the Democrats, neither can I vote pro-Trumpism just to oppose the Democrats.

    I'm not alone. I cannot recall any time in my life when solidly conservative Republicans like Jason Villalba were writing things like this. The captain may not yet have called "Abandon ship!" but there sure does seem to be a crowd gathering in the vicinity of the lifeboats.

Whether the Republican Party is dead or not, I think that the time is ripe for a new coalition to emerge. I think that a sizable portion of the American populace can be found who want neither the politics of Donald Trump nor the politics of Hillary Clinton. I think it is time to ask whether the death of the Republican Party might offer more opportunities than losses. What are those opportunities?

There is an opportunity to attract to a new party people who will never vote for the Republican Party. Nominee Donald Trump makes it even less likely that Hispanics or Blacks vote for Republican candidates. Until this year this refusal of non-whites to vote for Republicans (even when those Republicans were not white!) has befuddled me. After all, the facts consistently show that Liberal policies are horrible for minorities and for everyone else. Why do people keep voting for the policies that are destroying their communities and subverting their values?

Well, mystery solved: They've apparently made the acquaintance of these people who have championed Donald Trump. They know better than to vote with them.

But what if there were a third party that championed American values? I'm talking about a pro-Constitution, pro-Bill-of-Rights, pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-family, pro-immigration, pro-business, pro-law-and-order, pro-fair-taxation party. Are there Republicans who would change to support a party like that? I think so. Some would not, thankfully. I'd only be excited about such a party if it were utterly repugnant to Donald Trump and everyone who has excitedly promoted his campaign.

Are there Democrats who would change to support a party like that? I think so. And that's the key to any hope such a party would have for success. It would necessarily fracture the Republican Party and weaken its strength. To succeed, it would ALSO have to fracture the Democratic Party and weaken its strength.

The keys to success here lie in appealing to family values while highlighting liberal overreach (e.g., letting guys pee in the ladies' room), demonstrating that pro-economic-development and pro-law-and-order policies are better for minorities than are liberal giveaways (and "pro-law-and-order" must mean support for a justice system that treats people justly), and absolutely welcoming immigrant communities. By the way, if illegal immigrants posed a threat to American jobs and the American economy, we should expect to see that the worst economies in the country were in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas rather than the Midwestern Rust Belt. Instead, places like Texas are a bright spot on the American economic map.

Could that happen? Could a party like that emerge? I don't know.

But if it did, the demise of the Republican Party would be certain. And when visiting the grave, I wouldn't bring flowers; I'd bring dancing shoes.

Monday, March 28, 2016

If Governor Nathan Deal Were a Real Baptist

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Governor of the State of Georgia.

Good morning.

The decision surrounding HB 757 has generated more intense feelings than most legislation, perhaps because it has highlighted the concerns of many in our religious communities regarding the actions of federal courts, especially the United States Supreme Court in its 5-4 opinion last summer which legalized same sex marriage.

HB 757 enumerates certain actions that religious leaders, faith-based organizations and people of faith shall not be required to take or perform. These include solemnizing a marriage, attending such marriages, hiring church personnel or renting church property when such acts would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs. Most people would agree that government should not force such actions, therefore it has puzzled me why a large coalition of advocacy organizations and big businesses would voice such vehement opposition to this law. If they, like most Americans, don't believe that churches should be forced by the state to violate their religious beliefs, then why are they prepared to punish the people of the state of Georgia and rob value away from their own shareholders in order to make sure that we don't explicitly protect liberties that are merely mild, noncontroversial provisions of what religious liberty has meant in this country for two centuries?

It is true that we have not yet experienced the kind of compulsion that has darkened the so-called jurisprudence of some other states, but the examples that we see across the landscape of our country give us ample reason for concern.

One example that is used is the photographer in New Mexico who refused to photograph a same sex marriage. That state has a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but it was not applicable. It was the New Mexico Human Rights Act that determined the results in that case. Georgia does not have a Human Rights Act, but it is clear that the businesses and advocacy groups who have threatened Georgia have it as their ambition to pass such laws in Georgia and in every other state of the union.

The second case that is cited is that of the bakery in Colorado that refused to bake a wedding cake for a same sex couple. There the court ruling was based on Colorado’s Public Accommodation Act which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Georgia does not have a Public Accommodation Act, but again, to veto this act would most certainly encourage the efforts of those who have it as their stated ambition to pass such legislation from coast to coast throughout our nation.

Although as I have examined the protections this bill seeks to provide to religious organizations and people of faith I can find no examples that any of the things this bill seeks to protect us against have ever occurred in Georgia, I do recognize that the Fire Chief of the City of Atlanta was terminated just months ago solely because the Mayor objected to his deeply held religious beliefs. Although it is apparent that the cases being cited from other states occurred because those state had passed statutes that specifically protected their citizens from adverse actions based on their sexual orientation, and although Georgia has no such statutes, the present state of our law is such that it permitted this unjust firing to take place under my watch, and I cannot with good conscience turn a blind eye to such injustices.

HB 757 appeared in several forms during the recent session of the Georgia General Assembly. I had no objection to the “Pastor Protection Act” that was passed by the House of Representatives. The other versions of the bill, however, contained language that could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination. I did have problems with that and made my concerns known as did many other individuals and organizations, including some within the faith based community.

I appreciate the efforts of the General Assembly to address these concerns which they did with great care and precision. Their efforts to purge this bill of any possibility that it will allow or encourage discrimination illustrates how contentious these matters have become that truly were already suitably addressed long ago by the broad protections of the First Amendment of the United State Constitution. Our Founding Fathers did not attempt to list in detail the circumstances that religious liberty embraced. Instead, they adopted what the late Supreme Court Justice Scalia referred to as “negative protection.” That is, rather than telling government what it can do regarding religion, they told government what it could not do, namely, “establish a religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof.” HB 757, likewise, simply provides "negative protection," offering the simplest, least controversial provisions that I can imagine, and, as I have stated above, upon which most people actually agree. The government should not be able to force free people or religious institutions to perform, host, or attend any event that violates their consciences. The Founding Fathers had previously proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that Man’s Creator had endowed all men “with certain unalienable rights,” including “Liberty” which embraces religious liberty. They made it clear that those liberties were given by God and not by man’s government. Therefore, it was unnecessary to enumerate in statute or constitution what those liberties included. And yet, left to their successors has been the task of applying those principles to daily life by means of legislation and court rulings. This is nothing new. It has been ongoing for the full history of our Republic. Those who would argue that the First Amendment need not be applied specifically are practitioners of either amnesia or sophistry.

In light of our early history, it would be ironic that today some in the religious community feel it necessary to ask government to confer upon them certain rights and protections, but in light of our recent history, with Christians being fined, fired, bankrupted, and threatened merely for holding beliefs that are not even peculiar to one religion but were shared by every major world religion until the last decade or so, Christians need not be paranoid to wonder whether any limit exists to the determination to force uniformity by those who have championed a new morality in our land. If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the “hands-off” admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution, and may God grant that we should return to a stable and shared presumption that these things are true. When legislative bodies attempt to do otherwise, the inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to discrimination, even though it may be unintentional. That is a risk to take, and it is unfortunate that our current legal climate requires that we state explicitly what should have been obvious all along. Nevertheless, the greater risk lies in losing the heart of religious liberty protections that have well served both the state and the churches since the dawn of our nation.

Some of those in the religious community who support this bill have resorted to insults that question my moral convictions and my character. Some within the business community who oppose this bill have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state. I do not respond well to insults or threats. The people of Georgia deserve a leader who will made sound judgments based on solid reasons that are not inflamed by emotion. That is what I intend to do.

As I’ve said before, I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives, nor do I think that we have to use the compulsive force of the government to force people to violate their religious consciences at the point of a gun. Our actions on HB 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. This is about the character of our State and the character of its people. Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. Our cities and countryside are populated with people who worship God in a myriad of ways and in very diverse settings. Our people work side-by-side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. In our personal lives we tolerate difference of opinion on questions like same-sex marriage without forcing anyone to perform, host, or attend anyone else's wedding. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.

For that reason, I will sign HB 757.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Requiem from a Student to His Teacher

The first formal instructor I ever had in my academic training for the pastorate has died.

I was a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old in 1988 when I entered Dr. C. W. Christian's Honors Old Testament Survey course (see his official Baylor obituary here). Prior to him, my instruction had come at the hands of parents, pastors, and Sunday School teachers. I had read a little Arthur Pink, a lot of Warren Wiersbe, and a heaping helping of Matthew Henry and Flavius Josephus (two of my father's favorites). Oh, and Dad also had a copy of Clarence Larkin's Dispensational Truth, complete with illustrations. For eighteen years, with perhaps a handful of Sundays missed in all of that time, I had attended that classroom we know as the church.

A twenty-four-hour span in 1988 took me out of the world of Wiersbe and into John Tulloch's The Old Testament Story. Week after week in a classroom on the ground floor of the Tidwell Building, Dr. Christian told me that my parents, my pastors, and my Sunday School teachers had been wrong. They had been wrong about the creation of the universe, because, according to Dr. Christian, by 1988 the question of creation vs evolution had long been settled decisively in favor of evolution and against special creation. Adam and Eve weren't real. Cain didn't slay Abel. There was no Noah, no ark, and no flood. God didn't really tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

Oh, and Moses had nothing to do with writing about any of that.

Dr. Christian did not advance any of these ideas as his favored contenders in a close race among competing theories; he presented them as the only viable options for understanding the Bible. He never showed disdain for conservative scholarship in the classroom, because he never acknowledged that such scholarship existed.

Would you believe that we got along, sort of? I never was the student who fought tooth-and-nail with liberal professors in the classroom. In the first place, I was there to learn, not to teach. Learning means submitting yourself to someone, even if you disagree, just so there's room for someone to be a teacher. In the second place, I believe in showing respect to people in authority in most circumstances. My dissent appeared in my assignments and in out-of-class dialogue. Only rarely did it appear in classroom discussion, and never was it disrespectful even there.

Somewhere along the way in my academic work at Baylor I applied to the University Scholars program (from which I graduated). I needed a faculty reference, preferably from my department. I went to Dr. Christian. After a brief conversation, Dr Christian said (and I've never forgotten this, down to his exact wording at key passages), "Bart, I'm going to go ahead and recommend you to this program. I'm going to do it because I believe that you are intelligent enough to work your way through [your conservative upbringing] and become a sound academic religion student."

That moment.

That's the moment when the Conservative Resurgence began for me (a decade late). That's the moment when Dr. Wally Christian made me a Fundamentalist (I honor him in death by using the term he would no doubt favor). I had been a good Southern Baptist conservative all of my life, not really knowing that anything else existed (except for Campbellites, Methodists, and Yankees). I was a jovial conservative without any known adversary. In Dr. Christian I met for the first time something that I wanted to defeat, or at least see defeated. Alongside the calling of God and the encouragement of some mentors, one reason I hold a Ph.D. today was to disprove Dr. Christian.

I wanted to defeat it because it seemed so blatantly small-minded and unbefitting a scholar of such evident talent and skill to fall victim to a self-ratifying certainty that all those who disagree with you must be less intelligent than you (and yet the number of otherwise-intelligent liberals who do this is mind-boggling). I wanted to defeat it because I had already read just enough conservative scholarship (like Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties) to know that there was a stream of evidence that Dr. Christian was selectively withholding from us. I wanted to defeat it because it was so brashly disrespectful of the spiritual leadership of my upbringing, and even I already recognized that the faith of simple farmers and factory workers was more likely to be similar to the faith of the unlettered apostles than was the faith of cloistered academes. Prompted to choose between trusting Dr. Christian and trusting the people who had led me to Christ, I was never going to choose Dr. Christian. I wanted to defeat it because apart from my head, in my heart I knew that it would be a betrayal of Christ to agree with Dr. Christian. I wanted to defeat it because I knew that, left unchecked, it would weaken the churches and leave lost people in their sins.

Dr. Christian was my original frenemy. And now, reading of his death, I want to say how thankful I am for Dr. Christian.

I'm thankful for him because I realize that he shaped me more than one might think. Like Dr. Christian, I am an advocate for a way of reading the Bible (albeit the very selfsame one that he was trying to supplant). I don't fault him for taking his place at the lectern as an advocate rather than some disinterested, dispassionate docent of religious curiosities. The stakes are too high in Christian theology and biblical studies for any responsible person to seek refuge in some feigned neutrality. Either the Bible is what it claims to be, in which case you'd have to be a monster not to implore people to accept its message, or it is an imposter making false claims about itself, in which case no moral person could refrain from warning people to read it with caution. If in my blogging I don't seem very good at straddling the fence, it's partially because I'm not trying to do so (and perhaps partially because I lack the skill).

I'm thankful for him because I've known some Southern Baptists who needed a Dr. Christian. Occasionally I'll run into someone who will say that the Conservative Resurgence was utterly unnecessary. Occasionally I'll run into someone who will say that there never were any liberals in Southern Baptist schools. Occasionally I'll run into someone who will allege that the leaders of the Conservative Resurgence completely fabricated these trumped-up charges for whatever reason—to accrue power, to settle old scores, to smuggle arms to the Contras or raise the price of Middle Eastern oil or whatever the conspiracy-theory-du-jour might be. Whenever I meet people like that and hear their cockamamie conspiracy theories, I think back to those weeks in Dr. Chrsitian's classroom and that moment in Dr. Christian's office, and I remember that it was real. I wish that some of the rest of you could have had the experience and could have known just as well that there was a real problem with liberalism in Southern Baptist educational institutions (and it's not altogether gone yet). Some of you would be more liberal than you are if Dr. Christian had been an early influence in your life, but some of you would be more conservative than you are.

I'm thankful for Dr. Christian because although he disagreed with me sharply and was dismissive toward my beliefs, he never penalized me for disagreeing with him. Not only in the grades I received in his class but also in that University Scholars program recommendation, Dr. Christian believed in and practiced fair play (although perhaps he might have considered it mercy).

I'm thankful for Dr. Christian because he and my other professors at Baylor University gave me a doggoned good education. There was wheat and there was chaff. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for the wheat. There was enough of it and enough quality in it to be worthwhile, and then some. And for you, Dr. Christian, requiescat in pace.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rosaria Butterfield and Dorothy Patterson

A few weeks ago on a Sunday night I led my congregation to watch this YouTube video. In it Dr. Rosaria Butterfield tells her own story of conversion in which she left irreligion and lesbianism in favor of Christianity. Every aspect of Butterfield’s story is spellbinding, but the part that caught me by surprise more than any other was the role she attributed to hospitality in her conversion. Butterfield glowingly described the strong community she enjoyed in her former lesbianism. She opened her own house every Thursday to whomever among her lesbian friends wanted to stop by. Someone in her cohort opened her home in this way every night of the week. Among the factors that made her willing to consider Christianity (alongside six-to-eight hours of Bible study every day!) was that she found in her pastor-friend and his wife someone as committed to hospitality as she was. Her most stinging critique of contemporary American Evangelicalism: That we are living “on a starvation diet of community.”

How ironic that at this very moment there are some quarters of American Evangelicalism (and semi-Evangelicalism/pseudo-Evangelicalism) who lampoon and mock the sort of work that Dr. Dorothy Patterson and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary have done through the Women’s Studies Program, the Homemaking degree, and the Horner Homemaking House to emphasize and teach hospitality and community-building as important means of ministry in the twenty-first century! Such antiquated values, we are told, will make of us obscurantists who will never be able to reach a modern generation of women, yet the ├╝ber-modern Butterfield—erstwhile Northern, lesbian, tenured Professor of English Literature and Women’s Studies, with emphases on feminist ideology and queer theory—has identified precisely the foci of these SWBTS programs as a sine qua non of her conversion and has listed them among the key needs of the hour for our propagation of the gospel.

I ask Southern Baptists to consider this: If Butterfield is right, and if hospitality and increased community are pressing needs for the success of the gospel among contemporary Americans, what serious strategy exists outside the Southwestern model for achieving them? I can assure you, for the Barber household to serve as this sort of a welcoming atmosphere is not something I could ever accomplish but through the efforts of my wife. A strategy expecting Southern Baptist men to assemble a winning combination of theology and hospitality on their own is a fool’s errand. The time has come to heed Butterfield’s words—and Patterson’s—by expanding training to interested women to empower them through homemaking skills and theological education to use their homes as Kingdom outposts welcoming in refugees from the culture who are looking for a home.

Yesterday I was in the audience as Dr. Candi Finch occupied the Dorothy K Patterson Chair of Women's Studies at SWBTS. Dr. Finch is an exemplary scholar and theologian in her own right, as well as an ardent follower of Jesus Christ and a champion for students. I think Butterfield is right. I think we are starving for hospitality and community. Of every solution on the table, I'm most optimistic about the one being offered through the mobilization and empowerment of biblical women at SWBTS.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Biblical Case for Religious Liberty

I am doggedly committed to the idea of universal religious liberty not because it is American or self-serving but because it is biblical. As a pastor, I am obligated to follow the Word of God even when doing so puts me at odds with contemporary public opinion. When the day comes that I do not have the courage to do so, I will relinquish my pulpit to a better man. The biblical case for religious liberty is not merely some marginal case; it is a case made as nearly invincibly as any found in the biblical text short of such matters as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Indeed, scripture so plainly declares it that I have not, before now, bothered to articulate it publicly. That has been a mistake on my part, and I write today in order to correct it. In doing so, I have it as my ambition to live up to the words of 2 Timothy 2:22-26.

22So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (ESV)

Specifically, it is my aim to keep my own passions at check. I aim to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace with pure-hearted believers who read my words today. I hope in my writing to be kind to everyone and to adopt the tone of a teacher, not a demagogue. Some of those who read this may be Muslims or people of other non-Christians faiths (some of which I will mention by name below). Toward them, I aspire to act with gentleness (even if that gentleness exposes me to criticism from other believers who may have no desire to live out 2 Timothy 2:22-26 with regard to Muslims and who are determined to speak of and to them in only the harshest of terms), because my heartfelt desire is not to defeat them but to invite them into the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which has come down from heaven to all people.

Of course, I must also consider whether I am disobeying the admonition to avoid foolish, ignorant controversies. The adjectives are important here, I think. From what we know of the Apostle Paul's life (he wrote 2 Timothy), he was a man often embroiled in controversy. Either he often disobeyed his own instructions in this matter (a possibility, since we speak here of imperfect, fallen Paul rather than sinless Jesus) or Paul believed that Christian leaders should indeed sometimes engage in those controversies that are neither foolish nor ignorant. He did participate in controversies where he thought the arguments on the other side were foolish ("O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you…?" Galatians 3:1, ESV), but in those cases the controversy itself—the subject matter under discussion—was very important.

Does the question of whether there will be a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Farmersville rise to that level of importance? In and of itself, probably not. If I were a missionary in China and if the Chinese government were banning a Muslim cemetery, I would be less inclined to join the controversy. If I were a missionary to a place where there are fewer Christians than in China—if I were a missionary to upstate New York or Boston—I would be less inclined to join the controversy. But here in Farmersville, Texas, enough Christians are involved in this turmoil that the central question, although it formerly concerned a Muslim cemetery, now concerns the proper way for Christian people to behave toward those who need the gospel. If city government were populated with secularists and if it were atheists spouting Philippics at local meetings, I would let it pass. But as things presently stand, the cause of the gospel is disserved if no one will stand up and place on the record the New Testament point of view. This point of view must gain public attention so that those who need the gospel might know that there are Christians who are prepared to behave toward them with the kind of gentleness demanded of the Lord's servants in 2 Timothy 2.

Thesis: We must not fight false belief by appealing to the government or other forms of coercive force; rather, we must fight it by testifying to the truth.

The Biblical Texts

I take these not in canonical order but in the order that I think makes for the best logical flow.

  1. I will first offer not a text but the absence of a text. Neither Jesus nor any apostle ever did anything that even approximately resembles having a false religion zoned out of town by city government.

  2. John 18:33-37

    33So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to Him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34Jesus answered, "Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about Me?" 35Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You over to me. What have You done?" 36Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world." 37Then Pilate said to Him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice." (ESV)

    In this statement, Jesus contrasts His kingdom with all of the governments of this world. But it is not just a general contrast; Jesus gave specific application. Because His kingdom is not of this world, His followers do not fight worldly battles for it. Period.

    I'm no pacifist. I'm not saying (nor was Jesus, I don't think) that Christians cannot serve in the military or the police force to use worldly force for worldly obligations. I'm not even saying that a Christian who is a private citizen could not fight against a home-invasion intruder who was trying to harm one of your children. We have obligations detailed in Romans 13:1-7 (ESV) by which part of what we "owe" to the state may be military service or some other form of public service that requires fighting.

    But we are not called to fight SPIRITUAL battles in this way. We are not called to go on the offensive against false belief in this way. Rather, Jesus said that His way of fighting is "to bear witness to the truth."

  3. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

    3For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV)

    This critically important passage reiterates and expands upon Jesus' statement to Pilate that his servants belong to a different kingdom with a different way of fighting. Yes, we "walk in the flesh," but that is no excuse for us to "[wage] war according to the flesh." We shouldn't do so because our weaponry is not suited to that kind of fighting. They are not worldly, fleshly weapons. Rather, they are weapons with "divine power to destroy strongholds." What does that mean? It means destroying "arguments" and "lofty opinion[s]" and "thoughts." The state wields a fleshly sword against bodies. The church wields a gospel sword against ideas.

    Friends, you'll completely miss the point if you conclude that this is about a limitation put upon the church. Not at all; it is about an extra empowering that Christians have that put government coercion in the Little Leagues while Christian soldiers using spiritual weapons are swinging for the fences in the "big show"!

    Because we know this about government: Government can never make a convert; it can only make hypocrites. That's because city zoning ordinances will never change an opinion or take captive a thought. All it can do is send down the police department to say, "You can't bury that person here." If your ambitions are no higher than that, then the Planning & Zoning Commission can help you, but if you want to win people to Christ, then you need to set aside these fleshly weapons, disengage from the zoning battle, and join the spiritual war. It's not that we war BOTH according to the flesh AND with these spiritual weapons; the apostle says that we "are not waging war according to the flesh."

    Now, there is punishment for "every disobedience," so this is not about ignoring the falsehoods and wrongdoing of those who do not know Christ. Those who persist in rejecting Jesus Christ—be they Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, or just plain lost—will all (I say it in fear and trembling) receive grave, eternal punishment for their disobedience. But the punishment comes "when [our] obedience is complete." When will that happen? At the end of the age (as I'll demonstrate in a later passage).

  4. Luke 9:51-56

    51When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem. 52And He sent messengers ahead of Him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for Him. But the people did not receive Him, because His face was set toward Jerusalem. 54And when His disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" 55But He turned and rebuked them. 56And they went on to another village. (ESV).

    So, a village of people rejected Jesus. James and John were outraged on the Lord's behalf, and they wanted to punish these villagers for their unbelief. Jesus not only declined, but he also rebuked them for this. Then Jesus modeled the appropriate response: He just left the village alone and went on.

    We all need to consider that the very moment when we think we're being the most zealous for Jesus might be the moment when we are earning our largest rebuke from Him. Keeping that in mind would probably make us all a lot more humble, particularly when it comes to the temptation to play the role of enforcer against unbelief or false belief.

  5. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

    24[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?' 28He said to them, 'And enemy has done this.' So the servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' 29But he said, 'No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, "Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn."'"

    36Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." 37He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are he sons of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. 40Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (ESV).

    This parable is explicitly, directly about religious liberty.

    I have to admit, I have only rarely heard it preached about religious liberty. I have actually heard it preached against church discipline, or in favor of the corpus permixtum of paedo-baptist churches. But Jesus left us very little latitude in our interpretation of this parable, since He gave us the interpretation Himself.

    The field is not the church; it is the world. The problem in the parable is that the field, which should've had only wheat, regrettably has both wheat and weeds in it. The real-life problem that this parable represents, according to Jesus, is that the world, which should only have in it Christians (the sons of the kingdom), regrettably has both Christians and those who reject Christ (the sons of the evil one). The world is this way because of the work of the devil, just as the field in the parable was in its condition because of the actions of an enemy.

    Dear Farmersville, we live in a world with Muslims in it. That was true a year ago no less than it will be true ten years from now. What will we do about it?

    Well, in the parable, the natural inclination of everyone who loved the owner of the field was to go out and do some weeding. I do not fault you, dear friends, for wishing the world were a pure place where there are no people who reject Christ and follow Mohammed instead. To have an inclination to defend your Christian way of life by using governmental force to drive out the Muslims may be a powerful instinct within you that is difficult to overcome. But I implore you to hear the words of the Master.


    I'll go further, but it really shouldn't be necessary. The answer to all of our impulses to go out weeding the world (or even little sections of it) on the basis of people's religious convictions is simply that Jesus has said no.

    Why not? Is Jesus overly fond of weeds? Not at all. But Jesus is far more protective of the wheat than you or I will ever be. And every time Christians empower the state to punish bad belief, it always, 100% of the time, without a single exception in the history of mankind, winds up with the force of the state punishing people for faithfulness to right belief. That always happens no matter what are the motives of the people who get that particular ball rolling (more on that later).

    Jesus just doesn't trust you with this assignment.

    Instead, Jesus is reserving this task for Himself, and He has told us exactly when He is going to do it. It will happen "at the end of the age." When Jesus comes back, he'll relocate everyone who persists in denying Jesus Christ. He won't do it like you or I will. Some of us, I fear, would gleefully watch the Muslim foreigners slip off to perdition, but what about your Texan neighbor or colleague or even family member who is not a follower of Christ? Some weeds we like better than others. That we treat the two differently shows why we can't be trusted with the weeding. So, at the end of the age, the Righteous Judge Himself will sort out the wheat from the weeds and will consign the weeds to their sad, avoidable fate.

  6. Revelation 6:9-11

    Yeah, but isn't it different if you've got a religion in which some people have done some bad things?

    Well, let's see whether there's anything like that in the New Testament. Would you think that people who had been murdered for following Jesus would have a greater right than anyone in Farmersville has to seek immediate governmental intervention and force used to prevent the opponents of Christianity from moving in? Let's see what the role is for such people while we await the end of the age.

    9When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar [in Heaven] the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" 11Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

    OK, so here's how much differently Heaven sees things than we do. God's plan is to wait and do nothing because they haven't killed enough Christians yet. So, anything in my mind that would reject that idea as totally unreasonable is an idea in my mind that rejects the teaching of Revelation 6:9-11 and the authority of God. It's an attitude of which I need to repent if it is there.

    What are Christians supposed to do between now and the second coming of Jesus? Preach the gospel. Watch and be ready in our own lives. Wait patiently. Leave the judgment of the world to God. That's it. And that's true for you if the unbelievers are friendly to you and it's equally true if they're trying to kill you. It's true if you live in first-century Galatia and it's true if you live in twenty-first-century Texas. It's true with regard to your relationship with the guy who does your taxes who spends his Sundays fishing on the lake and it's true with regard to your relationship with the guy who sells you gasoline who spends his Fridays at a mosque.

    Now, even though the ultimate judgment from God doesn't come until the end of the age, if we're talking about people who have committed a crime, then there's a Romans 13 role for government to bring partial, imperfect, temporary justice into the situation. Of course, no one has even bothered to allege that the Islamic Association of Collin County has committed a crime or is planning to commit a crime, and if they had, the proper people to call would be the police department or the FBI, not the Planning & Zoning Commission.

    But for Christians (of whom those who live in Farmersville have suffered far less than the martyrs, by the way, if we've suffered anything at all) to mobilize in order to invoke the secular sword of government against people just for what they believe or do not believe? That's just the opposite of waiting and leaving this kind of judgment of religious conscience to God alone at the end of the age.

  7. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13

    12For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you” (ESV).

    As a final entry (I could go on, but this is already too long and I think I've made my point), I give you another explicit scriptural command separating out our responsibility as Christians (Hey, if you've got a member of your church who thinks Mohammed may have been onto something with that whole Quran thing, then by all means, kick that person right out of your church!) from God's responsibility as God. We judge matters inside the church. God judges matters of faith for those outside the body of Christ, and He has chosen not to do so until the end of the age. Not the church. Not the preachers. Not the city government. God.

  8. Revelation 12:11

    And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death (ESV).

    OK, so I said the last one would be the final entry, but I couldn't resist doing just this one more. If we really want to win, the way to do that isn't by running to the city council. The way to do that is by testifying to the truth and laying down our lives. That is the way of Jesus.

    When we finally get to Heaven, dear brothers and sisters, the places of honor will not go to Charles Martel and Vlad the Impaler. The places of honor will go to Peter and Paul and James and John, to Perpetua and Polycarp and Hubmaier and Bonhoeffer, to Abedini and Elliot and Saint and Fletcher, and to a thousand nameless unknowns who have faithfully kept the word of their testimony and have laid down their lives for the gospel.

    This way of zoning out the "undesirables" and protesting the burial of the dead is not the way that they have shown us. It is not the way that Christ has shown us. It cannot be supported from the scriptures. It should not be displayed in our lives.

Considering the Old Testament

Someone will now object, "But what about the Old Testament? What about Elijah on Mount Carmel? What about Joshua at Ai? Those are good questions, and if we were Orthodox Jews, you'd have me over quite the barrel. But with a Christian understanding of the relationship between the New Testament and the Old Testament, the competing claims of those who follow a New Testament understanding of the relationship between Christianity and the state on the one hand and those who wish to make the Old Testament a pattern for church-state relations on the other hand are resolved quite decisively.

I give you three points to consider.

  1. These Old Testament stories support none of the positions advocated in the Farmersville debate. Old Testament Israel was expected to be a Theocracy or a Monarchy in which all idolatry was punished severely at the hand of the theological state. When people argue for the demolition of the Buddhist Meditation Center, the eviction of the Mormons, the rounding up and punishment of all of the atheists and agnostics, and the slaughter of all of the leaders of false religious movements, and the replacement of the city council with the ministerial alliance, then someone will be advocating that we follow the examples of Elijah and Joshua. No one is advocating for anything that approaches consistency with the pattern of Old Testament Israel.

    But why is that? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

    It is a good thing. It is not because Christian leaders in Farmersville lack the courage to seek what the Word of God truly demands. It is not because, as people on the left often claim, the Bible is a muddled mishmash of conflicting rules out of which people can cherry-pick what to follow and what to ignore. No, not at all. The reason why no Christian in this debate is calling for us to return all the way back to the way of Old Testament Israel is because of the fundamental truths that the New Testament teaches us about the way that the coming of Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament and about the way that the second coming of Jesus will fulfill what remains open after His first coming.

  2. The Civil Law of the Old Testament is no longer in force for Christian believers. In saying this, I am depending upon a tripartite division of the Old Testament law that hearkens all the way back to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth-century. Even if you have never heard anyone speak of the "ceremonial law," the "civil law," or the "moral law," with regard to the Old Testament, you, Christian in Farmersville, are living your life the way you are living based upon this concept. In saying that, I admit that I am making certain assumptions. I am assuming that you eat bacon. I am assuming that you do not stone to death your children if they rebel against your authority. I am assuming that you have not recently built an altar upon which you have sacrificed a lamb to God. I am assuming, however, that you feel obligated not to worship an idol, not to steal, not to kill, not to commit adultery, and to honor your father and mother.

    Perhaps you do not know WHY you pick and choose from the Old Testament in this way, but I am assuming that you do so, whether you understand the reasons behind it or not.

    Well, in a minute you'll know the reasons behind it. As Christians we observe that Jesus and the Apostles dealt with the Old Testament Law in three different ways. First, there are many, many elements of the Old Testament Law that are re-affirmed and continued into the New Testament. The standard of one-man-one-woman marriage was reiterated by Jesus Himself (that post on Facebook you read notwithstanding; Matthew 19:3-12). Jesus not only reiterated but also doubled-down on several Old Testament commands in His Sermon on the Mount, including prohibitions against murder (Matthew 5:21-26, ESV), adultery (Matthew 5:27-30, ESV), wrongful divorce (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV), and false witness (Matthew 5:33-37, ESV).

    These portions of the Old Testament that are enduring guides to Christian behavior, many of them reiterated explicitly in the New Testament, are what we mean when we refer to the "moral law." Jesus fulfilled these portions of the Law completely, to be sure. His death and resurrection thereby secure for us salvation in spite of our failures to live up to the moral law. But nothing about what Jesus did on the cross made it any less of a bad thing for me to murder you. Now, because of Jesus, I can go to Heaven even if I am a murderer, but murder is still bad. The "moral law" consists of those Old Testament laws that remain in force because they have been reiterated in the New Testament.

    Thus, if in spite of all that I have given you above from the New Testament you were able to demonstrate to me that the New Testament anywhere reiterates to us a command to treat unbelievers the way that Samuel the High Priest treated Agag, then it will be my new role not to beseech you to call for less government intervention to keep unbelievers at bay in Farmersville but to lead you to call for more. I do not claim to have perfect knowledge of the New Testament, but in my studies on this topic I have yet to find it.

    Second, there are aspects of the Old Testament Law that were fulfilled completely in the life and work of Jesus. Many items from the Old Testament fall into this category, but the one on the lowest shelf is the entire priestly and sacrificial system of the Old Testament. The sons of Aaron no longer slaughter animals in order to take away our sins because Jesus was the perfect sacrifice when He died on the cross and because Jesus serves now as the ultimate High Priest who intercedes for us (for this, consider pretty much any part of the Book of Hebrews, but especially Hebrews 7:26-28).

    These portions of the Old Testament are what we mean when we refer to the "ceremonial law." Jesus did not set aside these items because anything was wrong with them. It's just that the only purpose these laws ever had was to point people forward to what Jesus was going to do when He came. Once Jesus had come, these laws had been fulfilled completely in Him. Yes, certainly there is a sense in which Jesus in His coming fulfilled all of the Law completely, not just certain parts of it (in that He kept it all completely and demonstrated the purpose for which all of it was given). What's different about the ceremonial law is that after Jesus had ascended back to Heaven, no purpose whatsoever remained for the observance of these points of the Old Testament Law. Why would I sacrifice a goat when I have available to me the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? The "ceremonial law" consists of those Old Testament laws that have been set aside forever now that Christ has come.

    Third, we observe that there are aspects of the Old Testament Law that are suspended because we have not yet come fully into the Kingdom that Christ will some day establish. It will become clear in my explanation of this that I am a pre-Millennialist, but I think that Christians of any biblically cognizable eschatological persuasion should be able to agree with the basic thrust of what I am saying. Above I have already (OK, not really, but I'm leaving this in here so you can know that this actually was once even longer than it is now) written about that crescendo moment in Revelation 11:15, further immortalized by Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus, when the seventh angel blew the seventh trumpet and the loud voices of heaven declared, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever" (ESV, pronouns referring to deity capitalized because I like that). Because we are now strangers and aliens inhabiting a kingdom to which we do not rightfully belong, there are aspects of the life of Old Testament Israel which we are not supposed to pursue. The "civil law" consists of those Old Testament laws that have been suspended awaiting the second coming of Christ because they pertain peculiarly to His kingdom, which I think we will see when Christ establishes His Millennial Kingdom on Earth as promised in Revelation 20. I have already covered in the New Testament section above the biblical texts that drive me to view our relationship with the coming kingdom in this way. I think we have been commanded explicitly by Christ to "stand down" in the enforcement of temporal judgment against unbelievers until the coming of Christ.

    This is, for example, why we are permitted to have something like a democratic republic as (we hope) we have in America. There is absolutely no basis in the Old Testament for a government like ours. None. I defy anyone to produce evidence of it. And I guarantee you, my brothers and sisters, there are no polling places awaiting us in the heavenly kingdom. And there will be no religious liberty there, either. The regulations and punishments of the Old Testament will pale in comparison to the perfect standards of Heaven and the infinite torments of Hell. We nevertheless rightfully have our republic and our religious liberty and our comparatively lenient laws because Jesus has not yet restored the kingdom and none of us have the wisdom or power to establish it for Him.

  3. Understood as "our tutor to lead us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24, NASB), I think the Old Testament narratives illustrate quite well why we should prefer religious liberty today over Old-Testament-style theocracy. The governmental system of Old Testament Israel proved to be utterly inept at stopping idolatry (as a citation, I give you the entire Old Testament), but it did manage quite well, as Jesus lamented, to "kill the prophets and stone those sent to [them]" (Luke 13:34, ESV). This is simply because there are no men but Jesus who are sinless enough to wield such power. The Old Testament civil law is good, but "sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment [deceives people] and through it [kills them]. So the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Romans 7:11-12, ESV).

    This has not only been true for Ancient Israel, but it has also proven true in every last instance in which religious liberty has been set aside in favor of theocracy. There's always some good reason to justify it, but in the end it always ends up powerless to stop the infidels but effective at persecuting the faithful.

    Look no further than Europe, where as early as the eighth and ninth centuries people like Charlemagne were building a Holy Roman Empire, consolidating the spiritual power of Christianity and putting it under the "safe keeping" of the temporal sword of the state. What does Europe look like today? Those churches who were so confident that the government would protect them are the dead state-churches of Europe, mausoleums for and monuments to the hubris and foolishness of man. And what did they get in return for selling their souls? Did they keep out the Muslims? No, Europe is awash with Muslims. And what else happened along the way? The Catholics persecuted the Reformers, the Reformers persecuted the Evangelicals, and eventually our Founding Fathers had to flee Europe for the Americas in order to find liberty from the dungeons and guillotines of other Christians to follow the plain teachings of Jesus Christ.

    Jerusalem killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. Rome killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. Paris killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. London killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. Such has been the case everywhere—everywhere without exception—where men determined to give sinful men in human government the power to persecute people for wrong belief.

    It always happens this way because true belief will always trouble sinful men. The courageous believer will always have some critique to offer of his society and his leaders. There will always be some Salome somewhere who lusts for the head of a John the Baptist, simply because Christ will always have a John the Baptist somewhere who is ready to stand up and declare the truth. Therefore, every human government will eventually get mad at the true believers, and every human government empowered to do so will eventually use its power to persecute the true faith.

    Has it occurred to you that God has given us this example in the Old Testament to be our tutor to lead us to Christ? Has it occurred to you that these sad and sinful narratives of Old Testament Israel are designed to make us despair of human government and to long for the coming kingdom of Christ? Persuade Jesus to descend and become Mayor of Farmersville, and then I will gladly see city government discriminate among people for their beliefs. I have no such trust in Joe Helmberger, as nice as man as he is.

Every Christian ought to seek a consistent rationale by which he or she understands the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and then seek to live consistently by its implications. I believe that I am doing so, but I welcome and will consider thoughtfully and prayerfully any critique of my position that is based upon the teachings of the New Testament.


If anyone will answer this essay with an expository biblical case that shows where scripture commands me to run to the government to keep the Muslims out of Farmersville, then I will recant publicly, disavow my previous writings on the subject, and give vocal leadership to the other side of this issue. It is my obligation, after all, to be a servant of Christ rather than a stubborn blowhard who is more interested in saving face than serving Christ. It would take courage to change my position, but far less courage than Christ has instilled in the martyrs down through the ages. Would you have me on the other side? Then the task before you is clear: Show me from the scriptures where I am wrong and you are right.