Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Roundtable Resolution Analyzed

I offer here an analysis of the "Resolution on Partnership and Free Religious Expression" (see text here) approved at the recent Skeleton Creek-Arlingtonian Roundtable at Cornerstone Baptist Church.

Is this really a question of religious liberty? No.

We've had a Memphis Declaration. We've had more blogs than I can count. We've had Tom Hatley called every name in the book. And that's not counting the things he's probably been called in tongues! ;-) We've had a Joshua Convergence. We've now had a Roundtable. There's a Conference on the Holy Spirit planned for the Spring. And boy howdy...have people smiled for the cameras and seen all of this in the press!

Yet somehow, in ways that defy imagination, a group of voting pastors in Arlington seems to think that freedom of religious expression is in danger in the SBC.

Let us reiterate what we ought already to have learned during the Conservative Resurgence. Freedom of Religious Conscience and Religious Expression is in no danger from SBC conservatives. Every human being has the right to hold whatever religious beliefs they wish. Believe in the inerrancy of scripture or believe that the Bible is one step above Calvin & Hobbes. Believe that Jesus is "The Christ; the Son of the Living God" or believe that Jesus was just a good teacher. Believe that Allah is God, that Krishna is God, or that there is no God. If necessary, I personally will pick up a weapon and risk my life to defend your right to believe these things, to preach these things at the top of your lungs, and to worship accordingly in public or in private however you wish. That is what religious liberty means.

During the Conservative Resurgence, we learned that some people seem to think that religious liberty means that everyone has a God-given right to a denominational paycheck to subsidize their personal religious beliefs and expression, even when those beliefs and expressions are at odds with the beliefs and expressions of the people doing the paying. I thought that we had settled that question. I thought that we all now understood that religious liberty also means the freedom of religious assemblies to define themselves according to their collective conscience and following the structure of their polity. Their liberty includes the liberty to express themselves by saying, if they should choose to do so, "We don't believe in gibberish, and we choose not to pay to spread it." Of course, it also means the liberty to come to the opposite conclusion. Defense of religious liberty is not a valid argument for either side of this discussion.

Is religious liberty really liberty from the churches or from the SBC? Yes, and no.

Yes, because we believe in voluntarism and have enshrined it in the law of the land. People have the right to choose with which church to affiliate and worship. Churches and groups of churches have no "temporal sword" by which they may compel anyone in matters of conscience or religious expression.

No, because once someone has voluntarily entered a covenant relationship with a church, that person's private and public spiritual life is certainly the business of the church. The old standard church covenant that hung on the wall where I grew up did not only bind people regarding their public actions; it enjoined people to private and family devotion. Surely we all preach to address the private lives of our members, and I sense that I ought to be more involved in the private devotional lives of members as an episkopos than I am.

I trod again down the path of Roger Williams's "Two Tables of the Law." Matters of religious conscience are not the proper jurisdiction of the government, but they are indeed the proper jurisdiction of the church. Free religious expression as an historic Baptist distinctive means freedom from government regulation of my religious expression and thereby freedom for me to choose which, if any, religious tradition will have spiritual authority over my religious expression. Thus, religious liberty does not mean that my personal religious expression is outside the scope of my church's interest.

And certainly any individual church, when choosing whether to affiliate with another individual church, has the right to take into consideration toward that choice any information that it deems to be pertinent, including how the church in view and its individual members express themselves religiously. This is a central concept in each church's freedom of religious association. And the SBC is nothing more than a group of churches freely affiliated with one another. Thus, the SBC has the absolute right to determine the bounds of its own cooperation. In doing so, not only is it not actually infringing upon anyone else's religious liberty, but also it cannot possibly do so. Therefore, it is nonsense to suggest that the SBC needs to police itself in order to safeguard the free religious expression of anyone.

Can the historic Baptist distinctive of religious liberty be defined as "the protection of the freedom of individual conscience from doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to God’s Word or not contained therein, as well as the freedom to form and propagate beliefs within the sphere of religion"? No.

Our doctrine of religious liberty can be defined as the protection of the freedom of the individual conscience in matters of religion. Period. Whether the "doctrines and commandments" be "of men" or of God. Whether they be "contrary to God's Word or not contained therein" or whether they be an explicit teaching of God's Word contained entirely throughout. I believe in religious liberty even for athiests and infidels. That is the historic Baptist distinctive.

The next two paragraphs of the resolution suggest that the heart of this Baptist distinctive is a generous spirit toward other Christian denominations regarding the doctrines that are distinctive to Baptists:

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists have labored to protect the freedoms of religion in every context, both internationally and within the United States, even when those religious beliefs were contrary to the generally accepted confessions of faith adopted by Baptists;

WHEREAS, there has been a general willingness among Southern Baptist churches to respect the religious opinions and practices of non-Baptist churches, with the recognition that mutual respect and religious tolerance does not imply endorsement or affirmation of those religious opinions and practices; (emphasis mine)
These two paragraphs are absolutely true, but the qualifiers and limitations are odd. In other words, it is interesting what they do not say. Southern Baptist vigilance over religious liberty has nothing to do with ecumenicity. It is not that we've just agreed to overlook the distinctives expressed in "the generally accepted confessions of faith adopted by Baptists." Rather, we respect the religious liberty of those religious beliefs that are contrary even to Christianity. We respect the religious liberty of Moslems and Buddhists.

Religious liberty is not about respecting "the religious opinions and practices of non-Baptist churches." In fact, for a significant amount of Southern Baptist history, a pretty large contingent of Southern Baptist life would not have agreed that there was any such thing as "non-Baptist churches," much less have expressed respect for opinions and practices of such. Nevertheless, they and other Southern Baptists have respected the principle that non-Baptist churches and non-churches alike have liberty to believe and practice as they do.

And this distinction really strikes to the heart of the matter. When we realize that our distinctive belief about religious liberty extends not just to the guy who includes ecstatic utterances in his prayer life but also to the guy who prays to Satan, then we realize that religious liberty is not about whatever course we might choose to follow internally in the SBC. The guy who prays to Satan is not welcome in the SBC at all. Not welcome to lead. Not welcome to work for us. Not welcome to be a member. But that fact is not one iota in contradiction to our sincere and historic commitment to universal religious liberty.

Is the absence of a statement in the Baptist Faith & Message about the "hot topics" of our day the result of a preference "to recognize confessional and experiential latitude among member churches as an intentional effort to maintain a commitment to religious liberty and ensure peace and harmony among member churches"? No and maybe.

No, because, as demonstrated above, it is incorrect to state that the Baptist doctrine of religious liberty has to do with the internal relationship between churches in religious affiliations.

Maybe, because maintaining "peace and harmony among member churches" has been a difficult task since the get-go, and we have indeed seen a lot of compromises toward that goal in our past. The resolution seems to state this with a certainty, as though whoever authored it has a letter from someone saying, "We didn't put styles of worship or tongues in there because we're making an intentional effort to ensure peace and harmony among member churches." If they have such a document, I would love the chance to read it, just because...well...I love to read that kind of thing. Otherwise, we just have a case of people putting words into the mouths of dead people who aren't around to defend themselves. Don't they know that you have to have a History degree to earn the right to do that! ;-)

Now the last two "Whereas"es are really good.
WHEREAS, the Southern Baptist Convention recognizes a greater strength in cooperative missionary ventures by the participation of churches with every liturgical preference, whether contemporary, blended or traditional; and

WHEREAS, the Southern Baptist Convention recognizes that the task of world evangelization and church planting is a much more important component of our obedience to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ than is a prolonged discussion among Baptists about acceptable and unacceptable worship practices, whether those practices take form in public or private expressions
There, folks. That is the heart of the discussion. These two paragraphs express it with concision and precision. Delete everything above this and you have a good resolution. I still don't agree with it entirely, but it makes a logical argument. They're saying that we're stronger with this kind of diversity in the SBC, and that these matters really aren't that important compared to what we're united to do.

With regard to music styles, I couldn't agree more. With regard to the whole field of "liturgical preference" I don't think that I could say so. What if we have a church that likes to burn incense to the "saints" and pray to Mary on occasion? What if a church in my association starts snake-handling? What if, as some early Baptists apparently did, a Southern Baptist church started baptizing people in the nude? I'm not sure that such diversity would make us any stronger at all. I'm not sure that those questions wouldn't rise to such a level that they needed to be addressed. So this segment could benefit from a little more specificity.

If it were more specific, I'm sure that the infamous "private prayer language" would make the list of specifics. Given the aggressive and divisive nature of charismatic practice over the past century, I think it is the right of the messengers to decide for themselves whether they think that paying for the promotion of charismatic practice is a kind of diversity that would strengthen the SBC. I would be voting no on that.

Regarding the "Resolved"s, I think I've said enough to give you a clue as to what I think about the first one. I won't beat that horse any more.

I agree completely with the second "Resolved" as worded.

Of course, the whole controversy right now is skirted over in the phrase "spiritual practices consistent with the teachings of Holy Scripture." If Southern Baptists really believe that what passes for "speaking in tongues" these days is "consistent with the teachings of Holy Scripture" then there should be absolutely no restrictions upon the practice either in private prayer or in public proclamation. Indeed, not only should there be no restrictions upon it, but we should be actively promoting whatever is "consistent with the teachings of Holy Scripture." But that's the big question.

If the resolution were straightforward, it would just come out and say "private prayer language is consistent with the teachings of Holy Scripture." Or it could say, "if a denominational employee thinks that his or her practice is consistent with the teachings of Holy Scripture, that's good enough for us." But instead it presents to the SBC the false dichotomy: Agree with us or disagree with the Bible, your choice.

With regard to the third "Resolved" I simply note that the individual conscience is free to believe and worship as it wishes with or without the guidance of the Holy Spirit or the Word of God, to worship or not, whomever, however (within a few extreme human sacrifice).

With regard to the final "Resolved" I entirely agree. Of course, "full partnership" means that you get to send messengers to the meeting. There is no promise, explicit or implied, that anyone you suggest will be suitable for any position of denominational employment, nor that anyone from your church will ever hold any position of leadership in the convention. Indeed, a vast number of churches have never had anyone fit into either category, yet have been in "full partnership" all along.

In conclusion, allow me to say in all sincerity that someone will be able to tear apart anything that any individual writes. I do not doubt the sincerity or intelligence of whoever wrote this resolution. I do think that they need to think more carefully about what religious liberty means. I also think that they are wrong about some things. Necessarily, that implies that they think that I'm wrong about some things. So be it.

The reason that we have Resolutions Committees is to fix resolutions or do away with them if they are beyond fixing. I guess we'll all see soon enough what happens to this one.

By the way, the author (whoever it is) and the supporters of this resolution are free to comment here. Unlike some places that decry censorship while practicing it, I allow free discussion here at Praisegod Barebones.

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