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.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Does Denying Religious Liberty to Muslims Violate the Baptist Faith and Message?


OK. I was just going to leave the body of the post at that one-paragraph, one-word response, but after a few minutes' reflection, I've decided that when nothing more needs to be said, I'm just the guy to say it.

Here is the full text of Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message (emphasis mine):

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.

So, I intend to demonstrate three points (being a Baptist preacher). First, I intend to show that Article XVII explicitly affirms religious liberty for all people, including Muslims. Second, I intend to show that all of the information that we have about Islam today is information that was available to Southern Baptists in 2000, 1963, and 1925 when they drafted and revised The Baptist Faith & Message (and, indeed, was even available before then, when Baptists first developed their articulation of the biblical doctrine of universal religious liberty). Third, I intend to demonstrate that affirmation of religious liberty is not an area at which The Baptist Faith & Message departs from Baptist confessionalism, but that this is a sentiment broadly affirmed by other Baptist confessions of faith.

All of this will take me more than a single post to complete. Also, I write this series of posts leaving unsaid some important things because I am depending upon my readers to look to what I have already written on this topic. For example, it hardly matters what The Baptist Faith & Message says if we have not first considered what the Scriptures say. Fortunately, I have already made that case in a way that no one has yet been able to answer (not because I'm so good, but because the biblical witness is so clear and the arguments against religious liberty are so specious). I don't feel any need to republish what I have already published about the biblical justification for our belief in universal religious liberty.

I will therefore turn my attention to the first point. The Baptist Faith & Message explicitly affirms religious liberty for all people, including Muslims.

Consider the wording of Article XVII.

  1. "The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind." These words are plain enough on their face. Examining where they stand in the historical development of Baptist doctrine makes them even plainer.

    1. "The state has no right to impose penalties…" John Leland authored The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, in which he put forth the view that every person's religious conscience lies beyond the scope of governmental authority. That's an important point and I don't want you to miss it: If the government gives you the death penalty for going one mile an hour over the speed limit, it has abused authority that it rightfully possesses. The government has the authority to govern aspects of your behavior, including the way that you drive an automobile on public thoroughfares; it just shouldn't abuse that authority by doling out extremely harsh punishments for minor infractions. But Baptists have long said that religious liberty doesn't belong in the same category as that. When it comes to my theological convictions, government has no authority at all. Government does not grant the right to religious liberty and it cannot take it away. It is an inalienable right, alongside life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Before we even talk about what the penalties are and before we even talk about what the opinions are, from the get-go, the state has no rights over anyone's religious conscience.

    2. "…to impose penalties…" Here is religious liberty defined simply: Changing my relationship with God doesn't lead the state to change its relationship with me. The history of Baptist persecution at the hands of other American Christian denominations and the history of Baptist responses advocating for religious liberty make clear what has counted as inappropriate "penalties" for us. Imprisonment? Yes. Executions? Yes. But also, inappropriate taxation and inappropriate restrictions on the construction of houses of worship have long been misdeeds that Baptists have opposed as a breach of government's obligation to leave unfettered the religious consciences of men.

      If you went to seminary and studied Baptist History, you may recall learning about The Clarendon Code. The Church of England employed these laws to persecute Baptists. Among them was the Five-Mile Act, which denied Nonconformist pastors the right to reside (and have their house-churches) anywhere within five miles of locations where they had previously been caught worshipping. Baptists rightfully opposed these efforts to regulate away religious liberty.

      So, back-door attempts to use governmental regulation to restrict religious liberty have long been on Baptists' radar as inappropriate "penalties" used to quash religions that the state did not favor. The Baptist tradition of opposing these inappropriate penalties runs straight through The Baptist Faith & Message.

    3. "…to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind." I submit to you that "of any kind" means…wait for it…of any kind. Does "of any kind" include Islam? By any plain reading it does, but we need not speculate. Leland wrote "The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, [Muslims], Pagans and Christians." Here Leland has given us a list of what "all" means, and it includes Muslims (to use the old terminology, "Turks"). Roger Williams wrote "It is the will and command of God, that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most Pagan, Jewish, [Muslim], or Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries" (spelling updated). Williams has told us what "of any kind" means, and it includes Muslims.

  2. "and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power." Again, the wording of the article is not difficult to understand. Religious opinions can change over time. People form their own religious opinions and they propagate them, influencing the formation of other people's religious opinions. We are conversionists; our entire system of belief is based upon the idea that people's religious opinions change.

    That includes lost people. Lost people sometimes get saved. Amen? You know, Muslims are not beyond the power of the gospel. The Lord's hand is not shortened so that He cannot save Muslims. But even apart from the salvation of lost people, lost people sometimes shuffle among systems of religious belief while they form their own religious opinions.

    To suppress religious liberty for Muslims is to suppress religious liberty for every American. The lost American who is nominally Presbyterian (but spiritually lost) today might choose next week to convert to Islam. From the moment that you restrict religious liberty for Muslims, you restrict it from Presbyterians, too. Yes, they have the freedom to continue as Presbyterians without fear of governmental reprisal, but the liberty they had once enjoyed (to convert to Islam without governmental interference) even Presbyterians no longer enjoy. Although I know as a theological truth that I, having been genuinely converted, cannot (by means of spiritual boundaries) convert to Islam, so far as the government is concerned, I presently have the full religious liberty to do so if I so choose. If the government were to take away religious liberty from Muslims, I myself no longer have the religious liberty (as far as the government is concerned) to choose to convert to Islam without suffering reprisals from the government.

    The Baptist Faith & Message supports my right to form my religious opinions. I have the right to form them in both bad ways and good ways. God may interfere with that formation. My parent may interfere with that formation. By God's grace a church might interfere with that formation. Government, we believe, must not interfere with it.

So, this is what The Baptist Faith & Message says about religious liberty—it affirms it as pertaining to all religions without exception, and the authors of those words penned them in an environment in which no Baptist was arguing that Islam was not a religion. I do hope that Southern Baptists will not treat The Baptist Faith & Message (not to mention the New Testament) in the same manner that Ruth Bader Ginsburg treats the Constitution. The Baptist Faith & Message cannot mean today what it cannot have meant in 1925, 1963, and 2000. It meant then, and it means today, that we support religious liberty for all religions, Islam included. Anyone who denies that religious liberty should extend to Muslims is in strong and direct opposition to Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message.

This series of posts is occasioned by reports that An IMB trustee from Tennessee has resigned from the board because he disagreed with the IMB's affirmation of Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message. Really, the story goes no deeper than that. We had somehow elected an IMB trustee who did not affirm The Baptist Faith & Message. The aftermath has illustrated for us why a confessional basis for denominational service is both helpful and necessary. That we had governing one of our institutions a trustee who opposes the IMB's confessional standard is a situation that is bound to lead to conflict, and it did. He resigned, and that was the right thing to do. We should be careful to replace him with someone who agrees with our denomination's statement of faith.

I presume that the pastor in question is a good man, a good pastor, a devout Christian, and a man with whom friendship would be a blessing. Those things are true of a whole lot of people in the world who cannot affirm The Baptist Faith & Message.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Most Scandalous Thing Rick Patrick Said

I've now watched the chapel video from the day when Rick Patrick spoke at SWBTS. The topic for his speech dealt broadly with Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. Rick is (famously) not a Calvinist, and his remarks raised the ire of some of my Calvinistic friends in the convention who took umbrage at what Rick had to say.

Rick was certainly provocative. Intentionally so, I think. He laid a number of Southern Baptist ills at the feet of neo-Calvinism, or at least seemed to do so. But I didn't think that his critique of Calvinism was the most scandalous thing that Rick had to say that day (perhaps because I'm not a Calvinist). Rather, I thought that Rick's most scandalous quote was this one:

[Connect 316 is] the first—and I believe the only—ministry fellowship in Southern Baptist life committed to [non-Calvinism].

The scandal is not that Rick was wrong, but rather that I suspect that he is right. The Southern Baptist Convention is awash with Calvinistic or nearly-Calvinistic organizations. Rick is 100% correct about that. Why only one organization representing other soteriological perspectives? I think we need others, if you want my opinion.

  1. We need others because it is healthy for the convention that non-Calvinistic soteriologies should be presented as enthusiastically and as well as Calvinism has been presented. A book like The Extent of the Atonement is good for the convention. Even if you are a Calvinist and are not interested in any data to the contrary, you cannot be the strongest Calvinist that you can be until you have faced and considered the strongest critique of Calvinism that you can find. David Allen's work in this book is a valiant effort in that direction, but nothing can flourish in Southern Baptist life unless it be preached, and more popular, less academic presentations of non-Calvinism are necessary. Multiple non-Calvinist organizations and groups ought to arise in Southern Baptist life in order to provide these popular presentations of non-Calvinist soteriology.

  2. We need others because nuance exists within Southern Baptist non-Calvinism that Connect 316 cannot fully comprehend. I am not a member of Connect 316. Perhaps the day will come when I am, but my absence from the rolls at Connect 316 is not at this point an oversight on my part. I do not belong in Together for the Gospel. I do not belong in The Gospel Coalition. I do not belong in IX Marks. I certainly do not belong in the Founders. But neither am I certain that I belong in Connect 316. I see nuance at a number of places that would differentiate me from Connect 316.

    1. Relationship with Southern Baptist Calvinists: I think it is entirely accurate and not uncharitably spoken to say that I have a different relationship with Southern Baptist Calvinists than Rick has. While disagreeing with points of their soteriological views, I value greatly the contributions that many Southern Baptist Calvinists are making to our cooperative work and count many of them as friends—not in the sense of "Why, some of my best friends are Calvinists," but really…my dear, treasured, close friends. I would name names if I didn't think it would embarrass them.

    2. Assessment of the Effect of Southern Baptist Calvinism: I've never quite comprehended the argument that says that the vast preponderance of Southern Baptists are not Calvinists (true, that), but somehow Calvinism is responsible for flagging evangelistic zeal in the Southern Baptist Convention. If the non-Calvinists weren't part of the problem, we wouldn't have a problem (at least, the numbers seem to add up that way to me). I'm not a Calvinist; God help me, I need to get out of my office more, share the gospel more, and lead more people to Christ (the irony of my saying that in a blog post composed in my office is not lost on me). I'd rather people were not Calvinists because I think Calvinism is in error at least in part. And yet, most of the Christians who aren't winning people to Christ don't know what Calvinism is. Respectfully, I think Rick leads us away from the real problems to chase a red herring. But he is entitled to his view as much as I am entitled to mine. That our views diverge strengthens my point that there ought to be different organizations embodying our differing perspectives.

    3. Strategic Approach to Dialogue with Southern Baptist Calvinists: Strategically, I think a presentation like Rick's speech in SWBTS's chapel is unlikely to persuade very many Calvinists to consider non-Calvinistic alternatives to the soteriology that they have embraced. I'd rather that he had presented a text-driven sermon (not that sharing a testimony is inappropriate in chapel), and plenty of texts offer the opportunity to preach non-Calvinism convincingly and exegetically. Last week I had a brief conversation online with a young scholar at another SBC seminary. He has been a Calvinist, but something happened to him: He read Arminius. He did not journey all the way to Arminianism, but he discovered that Arminius was not the caricature that his instruction in Calvinism had portrayed him to be. This young man discovered that Arminius had some critiques to lodge against Calvinism that weren't humanism, weren't liberalism, weren't Pelagianism, but were just plain Bible. So now he's something that remarkably resembles a "Traditionalist."

      I'm not interested in waving around raw meat before my non-Calvinistic friends. To tell you the truth, I'm really not even all that interested in "converting" my Christian Calvinist Southern Baptist friends away from their Calvinism. What I do yearn for is deep, penetrating conversation about the scriptures, conducted with an awareness of those like Calvin and Arminius and Hobbs and Rogers and Mohler and Patterson who have given us thoughts to consider. Those willing to go there will, I think, find it difficult to make strawmen of those holding a soteriology similar to mine, and I dare to hope that some will make the same journey that the young scholar made while reading Arminius, but I'm proud to call friend, brother, Southern Baptist, and colleague anyone willing to engage in that process.

      It's admittedly an observation from the outside, but Connect 316 doesn't seem to be about that. I'd love to be a part of a non-Calvinistic organization that was. I think such an organization would advance non-Calvinist thought far more successfully in the Southern Baptist Convention. Again, Connect 316 is free to go about this in the way that seems right to them. I'm merely making the point that there are nuances within Southern Baptist non-Calvinism that will be difficult for any one organization to comprehend.

    4. Attention Span Available to Devote to Calvinism: I'm bored, bored, BORED with carping over soteriology. Every once in a while, I'd like to talk about missiology, or Christology, or ecclesiology, or the longer ending of Mark, or the authorship of Hebrews, or the evils of the NIV, or the greatness of the St. Louis Cardinals. I just can't play the same tune on my fiddle ad infinitum. I'd prefer to be a part of an organization that is prepared, while being non-Calvinistic, to look at a lot of things OTHER than soteriology and explore (charitably) how non-Calvinists approach such things. I'd love to be a part of a non-Calvinistic organization that would devote some energy to exploring the common ground shared between Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists in various areas beyond soteriology without shying away from articulating differences where they exist.

  3. We need others because non-Calvinism comprises quite a bit of theological diversity, and we do not all fit well in the same organization together. Coming out of the Conservative Resurgence, almost the full complement of the people who opposed inerrancy also oppose Calvinism. Although I am not a Calvinist, I have a lot more in common with Al Mohler than with Dan Vestal. Inerrancy matters more to me than soteriology. Show me someone who affirms the BF&M 1963, deliberately rejecting the BF&M 2000, and I'll show you a committed non-Calvinist 9 times out of 10. Connect 316 affirms the BF&M 2000, but there are still churches, associations, and conventions within the Southern Baptist Convention who reject the 2000 version, and some of them exist within and play a part in Connect 316.

    I never got over the Conservative Resurgence. I don't let it break up friendships for me or keep me from loving anyone, but my theological and ministry partnerships are with people who affirm biblical inerrancy and who are in line with what the BF&M 2000 articulates. If I were to get yoked up in serious theological work with people who could not agree with me about those basic things, we'd eventually be at an impasse with one another. Having more than one non-Calvinistic fellowship in the Southern Baptist Convention would permit those who are more in line with or open to 1980s SBC theological "moderatism" to have their group, while non-Calvinists who are fully on-board with the Conservative Resurgence could likewise have a fellowship.


Most of the time someone writes a post like this and concludes by saying, "That's why I'm starting the XYZ organization…" If you were expecting that from me, prepare for disappointment. I see the need, but I don't have the calling. Neither do I have the time. But I do believe that the Southern Baptist Convention is ripe for more organizations and more opportunities offering the diverse field of Southern Baptist non-Calvinists opportunities for fellowship, mutual support, and theological development. Maybe God is calling you to do it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The BGCT and Local Church Autonomy

Recently the Baptist General Convention of Texas moved to disfellowship two member churches: Wilshire Baptist Church of Dallas and the First Baptist Church of Austin (story from The Baptist Standard). After more than a century of affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, my church is no longer a part of that convention and belongs instead to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. In some way, this dispute pertains to other people's networks and affiliations and is none of my business.

There are other ways, however, in which the impasse among the BGCT, FBC Austin, and Wilshire are subjects upon which I ought to comment, not so much as a pastor of an SBTC-related church but rather as a student of Baptist denominational polity.

Both FBC Austin and Wilshire Baptist have alleged that the BGCT has violated their autonomy as local churches. Such accusations are pretty much boilerplate language when churches find themselves disfellowshipped from conventions or associations. Actually, the mechanism of disfellowshipping preserves rather than denudes the autonomy of local churches. All of the other local churches affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas possess the autonomous right to determine whether they do or do not wish to be affiliated with FBC Austin and Wilshire Baptist. They have made their choice. FBC Austin and Wilshire Baptist do not have the right to drag the other BGCT churches into the world of welcoming and affirming homosexuality. After all, the other churches of the BGCT are not taking away these two churches' property or terminating the churches' pastors or editing the churches' statements of faith (which all would be actual violations of local church autonomy). They are simply acknowledging that two autonomous churches have freely adopted beliefs that put them outside the parameters of affiliation with the other dozens of churches who pointedly disagree with these two churches. I think that the churches of the BGCT had good reasons for moving to disfellowship these two churches, but whether conventions and associations disfellowship for good reasons or bad ones, when they do so, the majority of churches in the convention are exercising their own autonomy, not depriving the disfellowshipped churches of their autonomy. This is a reliable general principle.

However, that general principle notwithstanding, there is something peculiar about the situation over at the BGCT, and although it is not a violation of the principle of local church autonomy, it does run contrary to the typical Southern Baptist veneration of the local church as the pinnacle of Baptist organizational structures. The disfellowshipping of FBC Austin and Wilshire Baptist Church represents a sort of selective enforcement of sexual orthodoxy at the BGCT by which churches are shown the door for doing things that other entities in the BGCT family can do without the least consequence.

FBC Austin Pastor Dr. Griff Martin comes by his affirmation of homosexuality honestly. He holds four degrees from BGCT-related educational institutions (two from Baylor University and two from Baylor's Truett Seminary). I was a student in Baylor's religion department from 1988-1991, and already at that time professors like Dan McGee were telling us students that homosexual sex was not sinful. Martin's entire course of theological education has come directly from the BGCT through related educational institutions. His wife is also a Baylor grad. His ministerial experience consists preponderantly of service in large and influential BGCT churches.

When it comes to the BGCT, Dr. Griff Martin signed up for the full course, all the way through to a terminal degree.

There's little wonder that after this educational program Martin claims that his church's disregard of what Jesus said about marriage and repudiation of every biblical statement about homosexuality are (rather than the capitulation to culture that we all know this to be) the fruit of "diligent theological work, being guided by the Spirit, meditating on sacred scripture, and hearing the stories and struggles of our own members" (source). I recognize that sentiment, and it isn't difficult to trace. That's what Baylor University's Department of Religion tried to teach me (and failed) back in the 1980s. With Dr. Griff Martin, they succeeded. It's as simple as that.

George Mason has been associated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas for years. He has preached the convention sermon for the BGCT. The Baptist Standard, the newsmagazine of the BGCT, highlighted Mason in its "Deep in the Hearts of Texas" feature just a few months ago. When asked to name the people who have been most influential in his life, he identified key names in recent BGCT history such as Charles Wade and Suzii Paynter. His degrees from pre-Conservative-Resurgence SWBTS hearken back to a time when the the BGCT felt itself much closer to SWBTS than when, just a few years later, the convention pledged to block contributing churches' funds from going to SWBTS (the occasion of our church's departure from the BGCT). Mason is, like Martin, someone whose life story is distinctively woven into the warp and woof of the BGCT. Now the man whose biography was featured just months ago in the BGCT's newspaper has been ousted from the BGCT.

So, although I do not agree with Martin's and Mason's sexual ethics, I do sympathize with their joint bewilderment. These men have done nothing more than to go where BGCT-supported institutions have led them to go. Once they arrived, the BGCT has ostracized them. So, what shall we make of this?

A church affirms homosexuality, and the BGCT disfellowships them. A university affirms homosexuality, and the BGCT moves heaven and earth to keep their funding relationships with those institutions. Considering these two realities, I ask you this question: Which is more important to the BGCT, affiliations with local churches or affiliations with universities?

Keep in mind the following realities about Baylor University:

  1. The university changed their student conduct code just last year to remove language explicitly making homosexual sex a violation of the student code of conduct (Washington Post, Texas Tribune).
  2. Although the university claimed that the alteration of the code amounted to mere wordsmithing rather than any actual change in policy, just a year beforehand Brittney Griner revealed that she had openly identified herself as a lesbian to Baylor before she was ever recruited to the university to play basketball and that the only admonitions that she ever received while playing basketball at Baylor was to keep her lesbianism quiet.
  3. Baylor's student newspaper published a full newspaper article about homosexual life at Baylor, naming such students as Adam Short and identifying them as gay. After appearing in national publications as a gay Baylor student and pushing for the university to grant official recognition to the Sexual Identity Forum for three years, Short graduated from Baylor in 2014.
  4. When Baylor amended the student code of conduct, they also dropped "sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault" from the list of explicitly identified sexual sins that are contrary to the code. This year, Baylor has faced the ongoing scandal of rampant sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault on campus (timeline of the scandal as it relates to the Baylor athletic department)
  5. As I mentioned previously, at least some Baylor religion professors all the way back in the 80s were welcoming and affirming homosexuality and advocating that perspective in the classroom.
  6. Even the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a secular newspaper that is not at all what you would call prudish or parochial, called for the BGCT to distance itself from Baylor, but to no avail.
  7. In the comments on this post by Rachel Held Evans, a number of Truett Seminary alumna give us some insight into the climate there, including one's observation that "the students and faculty [emphasis mine] are constantly and thoughtfully raising the [question of whether the Truett student conduct code should sanction homosexuality]."

So I ask you, if a BGCT-related CHURCH were revising their church covenant to remove all specific references to homosexuality, recruiting lesbian staff members, admitting members who proclaimed their homosexuality in articles in national newspapers, fending off sexual misconduct scandals, and openly teaching from a welcoming-and-affirming perspective, what would the BGCT do? I think Griff Martin and George Mason can answer that question for you. But what happens when a BGCT-related UNIVERSITY does such things? In that case, even if the secular media starts to clamor for the BGCT to take disciplinary action against the institution, the BGCT does nary a thing.

Martin suggested in his letter that personnel at the BGCT had mentioned withheld funding, not theological scruples, as their entire rationale for the disciplinary action. I don't doubt that this was a factor, but I cannot allege that greed is the root of the issues. The fundamental problem at the BGCT remains unchanged: At the BGCT, the tail wags the dog and the institutions, not the local churches, come first. Griff Martin and George Mason are wrong about Christian sexuality and they are wrong about local church autonomy, but they are 100% right that something is wrong with the way that the BGCT relates to its affiliated churches, especially as compared to the way that they relate to their supported institutions.

If member churches of the BGCT are concerned about the direction of the convention, next year they should introduce motions to call their related universities and other entities to operate within the confines of The Baptist Faith & Message (in its most recent revision). If they do not do that, or something like it, they will soon discover how little and late are their attempts to compel the forthcoming graduates from the BGCT's theological institutions to set aside upon entering ministry in BGCT churches everything that the BGCT paid for them to be taught.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How to Replace Scalia

Donald Trump is President of the United States. Most of my friends who voted for him did so first and foremost so that Trump would pick the successor to Antonin Scalia. They want the same sort of replacement that I want—someone like Scalia; they just had more confidence in Trump than I had about whether we will get that.

If Donald Trump is serious about providing a more Constitutionalist Court, here's how I think he should go about it.

First, we have to acknowledge that the GOP does not hold a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. A president nominates people to the Supreme Court, but he has to have the consent of the Senate before a justice can be installed. Senatorial confirmation is going to be difficult to achieve. Democrats will find justification for a filibuster in the GOP's refusal to conduct hearings on Obama's nominee Merrick Garland. Count on the Democrats to filibuster.

Donald Trump should put forward a nominee from his list. He should choose first the person on that list whom he least likes, because the first nominee is doomed. I'm going to guess that Trump will nominate Cruz. The Democrats will be apoplectic. They will fight hard against him. The GOP senators will not fight hard for him, because they don't like Ted Cruz. Cruz would be my favorite nominee, but there's no way Ted Cruz gets past the Senate to join the Supreme Court.

After his first nominee is defeated, Trump should put forward another nominee from his list. Then another. Then another.

The Democrats can get away with blocking one nominee or maybe even two, but eventually it becomes politically dangerous to continue to filibuster nominee after nominee after nominee. If I were Donald Trump, I'd save the nominee I liked best for my third or fourth nomination, and then I'd push hard for that one.

Invoking the "nuclear option" is going to be a big temptation. Trump will push for the GOP Senate to do so. But that's a very risky play, because the odds of losing GOP majorities in Congress at the midterms is significant, and at that point the GOP is going to be happy that the filibuster is still an option.

The worst potential outcome would be this: After a couple of nominees from his list fail to clear the Senate, Trump compromises and nominates a moderate to the court, which is pretty much the same thing as nominating a Lefty, as Associate Justice Kennedy has taught us. Donald Trump hates losing, loves winning, and is prone to change his ideology on a whim. Let's pray that doesn't happen, because the stakes are high for the unborn, for religious liberty, and for the legitimacy of our American government in the face of a Supreme Court that long ago left the Constitution behind.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Realignment for Pro-Life Victory

Foreword: I do not write today to change how you will vote on November 8. Go for it. Vote your conscience. God bless you. If you think you can't read this without interpreting it as voting advice, then please stop right here, bookmark the page, and come back to it November 9 if you don't drink a cup of hemlock that morning. It's already November 9 in my heart, so I write this entirely from that perspective.

I am pro-life.

That sentence has shaped my politics for my entire adult life, and I make no apologies for that. Other political questions are important, but this is the only political issue that kills the population of Elizabeth, New Jersey, every day (approximately 125,000 people). This is the only political issue that involves a taxpayer-funded organization butchering up people and selling their parts for experimentation. This is the political issue for which, when God's judgment falls upon our nation, we will have no choice but to acknowledge that it is just.

My pro-life convictions have shaped my politics, as I said above, for my entire adult life. The 2016 elections have changed that, if at all, only by intensifying it. I will be voting third-party this year, and I will be doing so not in spite of my pro-life convictions, but because of them. I write that not to change your vote but to explain mine.

My Objective

My objective is that abortion-on-demand be illegal in every corner of the United States of America unless the baby poses a biological threat to the mother's health. For me, what it means to be pro-life is that the reversal of Roe v Wade is only the start. After we set aside juridical fiction in favor of the Constitution, each state will be free to determine its own abortion law. I'm not satisfied with that. I want an amendment to the United States Constitution saying something to the effect of "No state shall make or enforce any law abridging the right of every human being from the moment of his or her conception to live."

Do you think that's crazy? Do you think I'm dreaming? The abolition of slavery was once such a dream, and now look where we are.

Part of why that goal may seem crazy to you is that in my lifetime we've elected Reagan, Bush, and Bush, who have in turn nominated several Supreme Court justices, but we are farther away from protecting the legal rights of the unborn today than we ever were before. Why is it that every election Democrats win seems to turn out to give more protection to the abortion lobby, while every election Republicans win seems to, at the very most, maintain the status quo? Some frustrated voters seem to think it is because Republican elected officials lack pluck, sagacity, drive, or (worst of all) sincerity when it comes to pro-life causes.

What they really lack, I think, is votes.

Republicans win the White House occasionally. The GOP sometimes controls the House, sometimes controls the Senate, sometimes controls both, sometimes controls neither. But when a Republican moves into 1600 Pennsylvania, only some of the votes that put him there were pro-life votes. Others are country-club Republican votes from the Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP. When the GOP controls the Senate, it's always with razor-thin margins that count on people like the former Senator Olympia Snowe who are not pro-life. Some pro-life Republicans win in pro-choice districts by minimizing their pro-life stance, which makes it hard for them to take controversial pro-life stands once in office. A GOP majority doesn't always mean a pro-life majority. We don't make forward progress primarily because we don't have the votes at the federal level.

OK. Up to this point, you probably already knew all of that. But here's something maybe you didn't know: One reason we don't have enough votes is because in every election a number of pro-life votes go to the Democrats (a YUGE number this year). The best hope for the pro-life movement to go forward is to get all of the pro-life people in the United States of America together on the same page so that the true strength of our movement will be counted.

Now, as I said before, my pro-life convictions shape my politics. This is the number-one priority for me. I'm prepared to put every other single last thing aside in order to win on this issue. That's why it breaks my heart so much to see the pro-life movement being thrown into the trash in favor of building a wall on the Mexican border. Here's how that's happening.

Let's Plug the Leak

The latest data from Lifeway Research shows that fewer than half of those Americans who hold Evangelical beliefs will actually vote for Donald Trump. A large percentage of this voting bloc will hold pro-life convictions, even though only 4% list abortion as the top factor driving their votes (Note: I realize that another sizable contingent of the pro-life movement is Roman Catholic). It's safe to say that the vast preponderance of these Evangelical Christians hold stronger pro-life convictions than does Donald Trump. The low prioritization of pro-life convictions among the electorate may reflect the fact that neither of the candidates care about protecting unborn life, anyway. It's hard to tell a pollster that pro-life convictions were the primary factor shaping your vote when there are no pro-life candidates on the ballot.

I know, I know, at this highly polarized moment someone is going to want to come on here and say how fervently pro-life Donald Trump is and accuse me of being misinformed. Before you do that, just go read his acceptance speech. Go read his stump speech. Go read his Twitter account. I know people with laryngectomies who are more vocally pro--life than Donald Trump is. The point here is not whether you think he can be pressured into acting pro-life, and I'm not trying to change your vote. I'm simply trying to point out that even if you think Donald Trump is inwardly pro-life, you've got to admit that he hasn't campaign on the basis of that hardly at all (if any).

That is a big reason why he is getting so shockingly few Evangelical votes.

Now, 15% of those Evangelical voters remain undecided, and it is possible that those voters will break more for Donald Trump than for any other option in the end, but still, if this poll is accurate, millions upon millions of pro-life votes will go to Hillary Clinton in this election cycle. Why is that? We're leaking pro-life votes to the pro-death, pro-abortion, pro-carve-em-up-and-sell-their-parts Democrats. Where is that leak, and how do we plug it?

The Lifeway survey has the answer for us.

The GOP has managed to consolidate only one portion of the Evangelical vote—the WHITE Evangelical vote. Ethnic Evangelicals agree with you about Jesus, agree with you about the Bible, agree with you about the sanctity of life, agree with you about the Golden Rule, and agree with you about serving the widow and the orphan. The broader Evangelical vote is the voting bloc most reachable on the pro-life question, and the major pro-life strategy up to this point (support the GOP above all else) has been utterly unable to unite the pro-life movement among Evangelicals. Why could that be?

In the Donald Trump candidacy, we get a chance to see the reason why. Black people are not going to vote for Donald Trump. Hispanic voters are not going to vote for Donald Trump. The George W Bush presidency was an exercise in trying to draw Black and Latino voters into the GOP and largely failing; The Donald Trump candidacy is an exercise in trying to drive Black and Latino voters out of the GOP and largely succeeding.

But consider for a moment what it would mean to have all of these Evangelical voters united in the support of life. It would mean comfortable pro-life margins in both houses of Congress. It would mean a greater moral authority behind the pro-life movement. It would mean a softening of the Democratic Party's hardline advocacy of abortion as they panic over losing a once-reliable base (if Black Evangelicals were to bolt from the Democratic Party in favor of Life, they would become more politically powerful than they have ever been in the history of this nation). Remember, we're talking about doubling the pro-life vote, here. That's major.

If you are aware of these numbers and aren't doing anything to try to plug this leak and take these Evangelical pro-life voters away from the pro-death Democratic Party, I question how serious you are about ending the Holocaust of abortion.

A Pro-Life Realignment

As I said above, when I say I'm pro-life, I mean that I'm willing to set aside my political opinions about a wide variety of other matters in order to advance the pro-life movement. I think it is that important. What is it going to take?

This much is clear: It's going to take telling anti-minority elements in the GOP to take a hike. It's going to take our repudiating forcefully any political candidates or leaders who cultivate anti-minority sentiments in this nation. Now, those are the right things to do anyway, but they're all the more important because those people are utterly responsible for giving away half of the Evangelical vote to pro-abortion candidates like Hillary Clinton.

Whatever it takes, I'm prepared to do it. That's how pro-life I am.

Ann Coulter has a different set of priorities. In this election cycle, she infamously tweeted: "I don't care if Donald Trump wants to perform abortions in the White House after [his] immigration policy paper." For Ann Coulter, if saving the lives of 30 million babies every year is of any importance at all, it's a whole lot less important than dragging Abuelita out of her house in the middle of the night and shipping her off to Mexico in chains. It's a whole lot less important than sending the Green Berets to locate the five-year-old girl whose dad signed up with ISIS, line her up against a wall, and execute her. The Green Berets would object to such a war crime, because they are men of honor, but Trump guaranteed us that he would force them to do it over their objections (and then, of course, in Trumpian style, flip-flopped and issued a maybe-retraction). For the Coulters and Trumps, everything else is more important than the pro-life cause. For me, nothing is more important.

Perhaps you'll disagree with some of what I have written. Politics are good for finding where people disagree. But before I leave you, I just want to ask you to do this: After you've read the final words of this essay and after you've responded in whatever way you plan to respond, I want you to look back up at those charts, realize that the pro-life movement has been rendered ineffective in this election and torn asunder, and ask yourself whether you're willing just to accept that or whether you're prepared to take action to fix that problem. If you want to get angry at the Evangelicals who canceled out your vote, realize that they're just as angry at you, and that glaring at one another in anger is not going to save a single baby from the clutches of the abortionist.

For victory to come to the pro-life movement, a political realignment must occur in our national politics. I'd prefer for that realignment to take the form of a movement toward the Republican Party. The present state of the GOP is obviously (and this is math, not opinion) taking us in the opposite direction. A major reorientation of the Republican Party to make it more friendly to Black, Latino, and Asian Evangelical pro-life constituencies is one good way that this could move forward. As I said, that's what I'd prefer.

Or, that realignment could occur somewhere else. It is not possible in the Democratic Party. You'd be more likely to birth a pro-life movement in the executive suite at Planned Parenthood than at the DNC national headquarters. Well, actually, those are pretty much the same thing, so…. Anyway, no pro-life movement can possibly take place within the confines of the Democratic Party. Perhaps it will require the ascendancy of an issue-oriented third party like the Prohibition Party of the late 1800s and early 1900s (OK, actually, it still exists, but that was its heyday). The Prohibition Party accomplished Prohibition without ever winning the White House. That's right: They lost every Presidential election (Herbert Hoover doesn't count) and yet not a single vote for the Prohibition Party was wasted, since it entirely accomplished its objective. One way that a third party can be effective is by the way that its existence forces the other two political parties to change.

Although I'd prefer that the GOP be the party to unite all pro-life Americans, I'm prepared to align with whatever form this movement takes.


If you're planning to overturn Roe v Wade without the help of anybody but white people, how's that working for you? If you're planning to get Black, White, Latino, and Asian pro-life Evangelicals together behind Donald Trump to overturn Roe v Wade, let me know how that turns out. But if, on the other hand, you're serious about ending the horrors of abortion—serious enough to look at the numbers and take action—then it is time to contemplate what we're going to change on November 9 so that things turn out differently—better—next time.