Sunday, May 7, 2006

Triumphalism and Narcissism in the SBC?

I've often said with regard to pastoral leadership that there are two common mistakes that we pastors make with regard to criticism. One mistake is to take to heart all of the criticism that comes our way. The other is to take to heart none of the criticism that comes our way. Regarding the recent "Memphis Declaration" offered by a group of Southern Baptist self-appointed gadflies, perhaps a semi-disinterested appraisal of the merits and failings of the criticism would be in order. I'm largely following and responding to the Thursday, May 4, 2006 post at Wade Burleson's blog entitled "The Memphis Declaration and Personal Repentance." I've decided to spend the next several days looking at the allegations one-by-one.

Memphis Declaration

We publicly repent of triumphalism about Southern Baptist causes and narcissism about Southern Baptist ministries which have corrupted our integrity in assessing our denomination bureaucracy, our churches, and our personal witness in light of the sobering exhortations of Scripture.

The Memphis Declaration alleges Southern Baptist triumphalism and narcissism. Do these two words describe Southern Baptist life? Triumphalism is "excessive exultation over one's success or achievements." As Southern Baptists, we do talk about our achievements—a practice that is probably necessary to keep millions of people motivated to complete a common task. The question is, do we exult over our achievements excessively? What, exactly, constitutes excess in this area? I suppose that exultation would be excessive if it took place over circumstances that really weren't successes or achievements. One of our students at the church recently had the misfortune while playing varsity basketball to score a basket in the opponent's goal. The student was guilty of triumphalism of a sort, celebrating his accomplishment for a moment before he realized what he had done. Are Southern Baptists guilty of this type of triumphalism? Maybe on occasion we are. We count and celebrate our baptism numbers, for example, when our own internal studies have revealed that a large percentage of our baptisms are not connected to actual conversion experiences. Nevertheless, this is not the kind of triumphalism that at least one of the Memphis drafters is alleging. Another way that exultation can be excessive is if, although it is celebrating something genuinely worthwhile, it expands out of proportion to what it is celebrating, becoming unseemly. But who decides the proper proportion, and what factors make exultation ( a very biblical concept) unseemly? From a broadly Christian perspective, I would suggest that exultation is excessive whenever it threatens to obscure God's glory or our sinfulness. Also, if we are too busy exulting when we ought to be working, our exultations might be excessive. This kind of triumphalism seems to be Burleson's target. He appears to believe that we have made more of our successes than we should, "as if God Himself were unable to save His people if were it not [sic] for our missionaries, our seminaries, and our work." The heart of this particular critique seems to be a perception that Southern Baptist preoccupation with our own successes have prevented us from being able to acknowledge the successes or achievements of others. Are Burleson's criticisms valid? Certainly I could not begin to prove that no Southern Baptist anywhere has been guilty of this level of excess. The question is whether triumphalism of this nature is characteristic of the SBC. I suggest that it is not. Southern Baptists have partnered with several other denominations on items of common interest. The list of non-Southern-Baptists whom I have personally heard speak at Southern Baptist meetings is impressive: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Tony Evans, Charles Colson, Jim Cymbala, and John MacArthur all come immediately to mind. Southern Baptists are more than willing to acknowledge the achievements of those who are not Southern Baptist. Also, I think that Southern Baptists, including the leadership of our convention, are more than prepared to face the weaknesses of our own people. The "Memphis Declaration" alleges that our triumphalism and narcissism have "corrupted our integrity in assessing our denomination [sic] bureaucracy, our churches, and our personal witness." Yet, at this moment we are in the midst of a campaign to address the flagging evangelistic zeal of Southern Baptist churches. We are only eleven years away from a thoroughgoing reorganization designed to address our burgeoning bureaucracy. My state convention, the SBTC, has done a great job of addressing the problem of bureaucracy. Prominent Southern Baptist scholars have called for SBC churches to reinstate biblical church discipline and to pay renewed attention to ecclesiology. The spirit of reform and healthy dissent—the prophetic element—is alive and well within the SBC. Ironically, Burleson's own movement, while speaking of the alleged triumphalism of the SBC, builds a significant following by profiting from the absence of triumphalism in the SBC—the willigness of Southern Baptist to look realistically, even harshly, at our faults and failures. Burleson speaks admirably about his repentance from "being concerned about how [his] church compares in numbers and statistics with other churches." If by speaking about triumphalism in the SBC, the "Memphis Declaration" is actually trying to put into its crosshairs the egotism that sometimes possesses prominent leaders, then the document's point probably has some merit. The battle against runaway egos is an incessant one. We lose our share of battles with this foe. But I do not see how this is a convention problem, per se. It is a human problem. I suggest that Baptist polity, with its absence of supercongregational bishops, popes, and prelates, does more to keep egos in check than any other system of Christian belief. So, although I think that we might have a thing or two to learn from this notion of triumphalism in the SBC, overall I think that the allegation in the "Memphis Declaration" is unfounded. Narcissism has several defintions, but the "Memphis Declaration" probably employs the word in a sense most resembling "extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type." Is this who Southern Baptists are? Ask the victims of Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita whether Southern Baptists are "extremely selfish." If Southern Baptists are craving admiration, I'd hate to see what we do when we are courting rebuke. We're regularly vilified and rebuked. I personally measure the health of the convention each year by looking to see whether we have a good crop of protesters at the meeting. Do we have a grandiose view of our own talents as a convention? Do we overpromote ourselves? Considering the fact that most Southern Baptists know very little about what the SBC does, I would say that we are guilty of underpromotion. Burleson himself is willing to suggest indirectly in another post that the SBC struggles to achive "good communication with the grass roots worker." I think he agrees with me, that the SBC needs to do a better job of communicating its objectives and successes to the Southern Baptist people. But when the SBC tries to do that, somehow it becomes guilty of "narcissism." What are they supposed to do? Get up on the platform and say, "Well, folks, we've got a lot of things that your convention is doing that you ought to know about. None of them are very good, but we'd like you to support them anyway"? Is that what Burleson and the others of the Memphis 30 are doing in their churches? If so, I'd really like to know how that is working for them. I'll admit that Southern Baptists have not signed up to compete in the Postmodern World Toleration Olympics, hoping to win the gold medal by seeing if we can be the loudest voice proclaiming that all religions, cultures, denominations, etc. are really the same—none better; none worse. As for me, I'm willing to say that Christianity is right and all other faiths are patently false (and I'm sure that Burleson agrees). I'm also willing to say that all denominations of Christianity are not equal. I don't think that Baptists are perfect, but I do believe that a properly organized and functioning Baptist church is the best and most biblical church...better and more biblical than other Christian churches. I believe this not from a desire to insult anyone, but as a part of a personal quest to practice biblical Christianity. I think that the Southern Baptist Convention represents a pretty good assemblage of Baptist churches, and I'm willing to be proud of who we have been and who we are. If thirty people in Memphis can't be comfortable with that heritage, then I hope that they can resolve those issues for themselves without pretending that their problems somehow constitute problems for me and the remainder of their Southern Baptist brethren.

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