Sunday, December 31, 2006

How Appropriate!

Today I turn thirty-seven (a.k.a. practically forty).

I have a Page-a-Day desk calendar at work that gives me a new vocabulary word every day, complete with a definition and a little story on the back detailing either the origin of the word or some bit of related linguistic trivia.

What word did they choose for my thirty-seventh birthday?

Methuselah.

Tomorrow I think I'll go shopping for nursing homes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Timely Case for Congregationalism

I promised not to post any more this year, but circumstances have afforded me something to say, and Sarah has awakened early this morning and afforded me time to say it.

I proceed somewhat without sufficient foundation, because I have not yet blogged extensively about my belief that congregational church governance is biblical polity. More on that at a later date. For now, I hope you will let it suffice for me to state without support a few conclusions I have drawn about New Testament polity:

  1. Christ is the one-and-only Head of the church.
  2. Four sources of authority are commended to us by Christ (although not equally commended)
    • Scriptural authority (consisting at the time of Christ of the Old Testament).
    • Apostolic authority (now enshrined in the New Testament scriptures).
    • Pastoral authority (more properly, presbyterian authority)
    • Congregational authority.
  3. Only congregationalism is capable of making room for all of those sources of authority.
  4. Not all congregationalism is the same—there are varieties of congregationalism that enshrine congregational authority without acknowledging the others—but the best and most biblical system falls within the broad boundaries of congregationalism.
Someday we'll have a good, in-depth conversation about these conclusions.

For the meantime, I wish to pose a brief discussion about the decline of congregationalism. Dr. Stan Norman, erstwhile professor of Baptist theology at NOBTS, has highlighted reasons that Baptists(?) are abandoning congregational church governance. I selectively restate them in my own words:
  1. They do not believe that congregational church governance is biblical.
  2. They do not believe that congregational church governance is efficient.
  3. They have witnessed the abuses of congregational church governance (i.e. ugly business meetings).
As I have stated above, some day Praisegod Barebones needs to host a discussion about whether congregational church governance is biblical. The reopening of this conversation is a sincere one, and I acknowledge that many of my readers will probably harbor questions as to whether congregationalism is biblical or merely cultural. Many will never have read or heard a strong case for the biblical foundation of congregationalism. When we have that conversation, I think it will be worth our while.

But I believe that other factors are at play here. The question of efficiency looms large over this discussion, especially as Baptists lust after the megachurch. Congregationalism becomes more difficult (in some ways) the larger the congregation. Norman posed the idea of congregationalism as discipleship, suggesting that efficiency is not the only (not even the most important!) measure of a concept's utility to the Kingdom. Who hasn't entertained the thought as a pastor that things would be much easier if we didn't have to mess with the trouble of a business meeting?

The question of abuse is another large issue. If you've been Baptist for very long, you've probably at least heard stories about horrible, meanspirited, congregation-splitting, Holy-Spirit-grieving business meetings. But I ask you, is this a problem of the format or of the participants?

Dealing with Congregational Conflict

The participants in our congregation are sinners. The leaders of our congregations are sinners. We are sinners—all of us individually. Because all of these statements are true, we are going to have conflict in our congregations. It seems to me that some short-sighted individuals have reached the erroneous conclusion that scrapping business meetings will do away with congregational conflict altogether or at least push it into the background and out of the public view.

But perhaps it is accomplishing the opposite. I have no way to know where the truth lies in the current woes at Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, TN (for more information on this situation, see Baptist Press here). As a fellow pastor I feel sympathy for Dr. Gaines's plight, but I know that he and I apparently hold widely divergent views of church and pastoral leadership. I refuse to draw a firm conclusion from all the way out here in TX. But I do know that a business meeting—even the worst, most contentious business meeting—is no uglier and no more public than this, or this, or other such sites that are springing up.

Are such websites coming soon to a church near you? To your church?

Christians are going to differ. Churches are going to face conflict. Neither you nor any guru that you might find will ever deliver up the magic potion to eliminate the ordeal of church conflict. The question is not whether your church will face conflict; the question is how your church will deal with conflict among its members.

Assuming that the Bible allows for such, wouldn't it be more productive and a better witness to allow believers to gather in…I don't know…some sort of meeting at which members had a forum to express their views and the church had an opportunity to resolve conflicts? Perhaps autocracy or oligarchy pose their own dangers for abuse—dangers as bad or worse than the inherent weaknesses of decision-making by a congregation of redeemed sinners.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Although It's Been Said Many Times, Many Ways…

I guess that phrase could apply to most of our major blog topics for 2006! :-)

But I wish to use it just as Nat King Cole did, to wish each of you a Merry Christmas. The current is picking up right now, and soon the Barber family will be within the rushing rapids of the Christmas season. This will include a trip to Tracy's grandparents' farms in South Central Missouri, where the Net is something you take fishing with you.

So, I'm going to go ahead and stop blogging for the year right now, because stopping is inevitable in a day or two. Thanks for all of the high-quality conversation. When next we interact, I'll be thirty-seven. So, if I can find enough Geritol to make it back to the keyboard, hopefully we'll start out a little older and wiser in 2007.

Look around at our blogs, our churches, our convention, our nation, and our world. Isn't it beyond belief that God would come here? Yet He did, and to receive the worst of it. What wondrous love is this! Joy to the world!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Splinting Theological Triage

Dr. Albert Mohler's commentary "A Call for Theological Triage" (see here) is a fine, thoughtful, timely piece of writing. I agree with every word. I do not agree with every way that it has been applied by others. I observe three ways that this article has been used improperly IMHO:

  1. It has been misquoted and misapplied by those who need to go back and read it more carefully. We all ought to make sure that we understand what each tier represents. Also, we ought to acknowledge that only Mohler's third tier is designed to contain doctrines that ought not to be matters of division within the SBC.
  2. It has been heralded as a solution, when actually it is only a description of the problem. Don't get me wrong: It is a great description of the problem. The tension in the SBC today is, essentially, a difference over what belongs in "tier two" and what belongs in "tier three." But knowing that this is the nature of the conflict does not provide any help whatsoever in deciding what belongs in what tier. I don't think Dr. Mohler was even offering this as such.
  3. It has been elevated to a level of precision that it does not deserve. In medicine, "triage" is a pretty blunt tool, generally reserved for catastrophic situations. In the course of day-to-day business, medical professionals like to take their time to assess and treat every case individually. In the same way, Mohler's three-category approach, while accurate, is very general.
I think that this concept, accurate and appropriate as it was in its initial offering, has been broken by misuse and misapplication. I would like to apply a splint and put it back out there.

First, let us recognize that these three categories describe ranges on a continuum. For example: I am
  1. A Christian.
  2. A Protestant (sorry, Bro. Graves).
  3. A Free-Church Protestant.
  4. A Congregationalist.
  5. A Baptist.
  6. A Missionary Baptist.
  7. A Southern Baptist.
  8. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist.
  9. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist A Posteriori Cessationist.
  10. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist A Posteriori Cessationist Premillennialist.
Obviously, this list represents more than just three tiers!

It is, I think, fairly easy to see that the first item belongs to tier one and the last item belongs to tier three. Everything down through 'A Baptist" definitely falls into tier two as employed by Dr. Mohler. But what about the rest of the list? What is the difference between a "Southern Baptist" and another "Missionary Baptist" of a different stripe? Do those differences belong in tier two or tier three? Ought those differences to preclude cooperation? I'll propose my answer later.

For right now, let us simply agree that the whole situation is vastly more complex than three categories can exhaustively describe.

The Tier in Question

Tier one is pretty airtight. Nevertheless, there are complexities and nuances even within it. Some things in tier one you must affirm to be a Christian. Others you merely must not deny. I was not thoroughly acquainted with the doctrine of the Trinity when I received Christ at the tender age of five, but once I became acquainted with it, I affirmed it.

Tier three is vast and multifaceted, but I think we all know what to do with adiaphora.

Tier two is the tier in question.

Mohler defines tier two descriptively, not prescriptively. These second-level issues are those which "will create significant boundaries between believers." That, ladies and gentlemen, is the voice of history rather than theology. How do we know which issues are the ones that will create significant boundaries between believers? We look to see which ones have created significant boundaries between believers.

Yet (in spite of how much I obviously love history) I'm not sure history is a good place to look for the answers here. Things change. Issues that were historically important have a way of fading into relative obscurity. New issues arise that the churches must address without the benefit of precise historical precedent.

Here are two examples:

In the seventeenth century, Baptists were all a twitter about "laying on of hands." This had nothing to do with ordination. Many (most?) Baptists allowed for the practice of laying hands upon a newly baptized convert to pray for Holy Spirit guidance for that believer in the life of the church. Some Baptists not only allowed for this practice; they required it. Congregations split over this practice. Denominations formed around this practice. It was, in the seventeenth century, definitely a tier-two issue.

Today, only boring old academics (and a few adherents to an obscure surviving sect) even know that the controversy existed. Most decidedly tier-three.

Today, Baptists face the various manifestations and daughter movements of the Pentecostal movement. This movement began around a century ago. Spiritual gifts were a tier-three issue in the seventeenth century. The Pentecostal movement has made this a tier-two issue in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (even though some of our readers will differ as to which parts of this movement belong in tier two or tier three, I think all of our readership will concur that the subject as a whole has components or implications that are unavoidably tier-two).

So, this second tier grows, shrinks, and otherwise readjusts as Christian history marches onward. I think that we are in the midst of just such a realignment today. And neither Dr. Mohler nor anyone else has given us any formulaic criteria by which we may predict where the boundary between these two tiers will land when we are done.

Better Than Tiers: Cooperative Expediency

Here's how I view the whole idea of cooperative parameters:

First, I am a strong believer in the primacy of the local church. I am much more concerned about intracongregational unity than intercongregational unity. It seems to me that the former is much more difficult to achieve than the latter and that the absence of the former is much more damaging to the body of Christ. Associations and conventions are, in my view, only slightly above the level of being a vendor to the local church. In no way do I regard the Southern Baptist Convention as a church.

The existence of the Southern Baptist Convention is not necessary. My church can preach the gospel, disciple believers, pursue missions, and do every necessary function of a church while remaining an entirely independent congregation. Furthermore, without one iota of institutional connection with any other church, my church can exist in Christian unity with other churches and other believers. Consequently, what the SBC does or does not do has no bearing, in my mind, on the concept of unity in Christ or the validity of my church.

Second, I approach SBC decisions with a sort of pragmatism. I believe that affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention helps my church to perform its tasks more effectively. The SBC is not necessary, but it is helpful. The SBC is not a church; it is a tool for churches. What doctrinal constraints ought we to have in the SBC? Those that make the SBC a better tool. Those that improve its effectiveness. Those that are cooperatively expedient.

Theological laxity is a danger to the effectiveness of the tool. If our institutions stray from orthodoxy, they will begin to harm our churches rather than to help them (e.g., by supplying them with pastors who do not believe the Bible). Also, if our institutions become seedbeds for the promotion or distribution of minority views, there is the danger of offending and driving away the majority of churches that provide support for the institutions.

Theological micromanagement is also a danger to the effectiveness of the tool. If the theological requirements for employment become too severe, churches may find that their pool of eligible denominational employees is so small that the SBC cannot employ enough quality employees to provide value to the ministry of churches. A seminary that cannot find and hire qualified professors is of little utility to anyone. A mission board without missionaries is less effective than an independent congregation.

Finding the right spot to mitigate these two dangers is an exercise in constant adjustment. The whole enterprise involves constant theological thinking, yet the final arbitrer is a sort of pragmatism. Often it boils down to political pragmatism.

In Southern Baptist life, the great complicating factor is the fact that the vast majority of people involved will not participate in the formal decision-making process. Most of the churches are unrepresented. Denominational employees are much more likely to participate. Thus, the inherent trend is toward laxity rather than micromanagement. We live in an exceptional age that has witnessed a strong push away from laxity. That age will not last forever. Some view the current troubles as a rescue of the convention from micromanagement. Others view it as the beginning of an inexorable return to laxity.

Dr. Mohler avoided specifics in his "Theological Triage" paper. Because of his position, he needed to do so. Lacking any position, I might as well go ahead and be specific.

Baptism is the ultimate tier-two issue. We ought to have our beliefs about baptism nailed down pretty concretely. I think that the IMB regulation really needs work, but in no way can I say that any serious aspect of the doctrine of baptism is a tier-three issue.

"Private prayer language" is a manifestation of the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave movement. Using Dr. Mohler's framework, this certainly is an issue that has created significant boundaries between believers. New denominations have arisen. Countless congregations have split. History suggests that this movement belongs in tier two. People will differ over the idea of including every aspect of the movement in tier two. I'm not sure that I include every aspect of the movement in tier two. But the alleged "gift of tongues" has been the core of this movement, and anything having to do with that concept clearly belongs in tier two, IMHO.

Using my framework, I think that the SBC is more useful to my church when it holds clear views on baptism. I also think that it is more valuable to my church when it remains clearly outside the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave movement. We are outside that movement, and we have no desire to subsidize it.

Splinting Theological Triage

Dr. Albert Mohler's commentary "A Call for Theological Triage" (see here) is a fine, thoughtful, timely piece of writing. I agree with every word. I do not agree with every way that it has been applied by others. I observe three ways that this article has been used improperly IMHO:

  1. It has been misquoted and misapplied by those who need to go back and read it more carefully. We all ought to make sure that we understand what each tier represents. Also, we ought to acknowledge that only Mohler's third tier is designed to contain doctrines that ought not to be matters of division within the SBC.
  2. It has been heralded as a solution, when actually it is only a description of the problem. Don't get me wrong: It is a great description of the problem. The tension in the SBC today is, essentially, a difference over what belongs in "tier two" and what belongs in "tier three." But knowing that this is the nature of the conflict does not provide any help whatsoever in deciding what belongs in what tier. I don't think Dr. Mohler was even offering this as such.
  3. It has been elevated to a level of precision that it does not deserve. In medicine, "triage" is a pretty blunt tool, generally reserved for catastrophic situations. In the course of day-to-day business, medical professionals like to take their time to assess and treat every case individually. In the same way, Mohler's three-category approach, while accurate, is very general.
I think that this concept, accurate and appropriate as it was in its initial offering, has been broken by misuse and misapplication. I would like to apply a splint and put it back out there.

First, let us recognize that these three categories describe ranges on a continuum. For example: I am
  1. A Christian.
  2. A Protestant (sorry, Bro. Graves).
  3. A Free-Church Protestant.
  4. A Congregationalist.
  5. A Baptist.
  6. A Missionary Baptist.
  7. A Southern Baptist.
  8. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist.
  9. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist A Posteriori Cessationist.
  10. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist A Posteriori Cessationist Premillennialist.
Obviously, this list represents more than just three tiers!

It is, I think, fairly easy to see that the first item belongs to tier one and the last item belongs to tier three. Everything down through 'A Baptist" definitely falls into tier two as employed by Dr. Mohler. But what about the rest of the list? What is the difference between a "Southern Baptist" and another "Missionary Baptist" of a different stripe? Do those differences belong in tier two or tier three? Ought those differences to preclude cooperation? I'll propose my answer later.

For right now, let us simply agree that the whole situation is vastly more complex than three categories can exhaustively describe.

The Tier in Question

Tier one is pretty airtight. Nevertheless, there are complexities and nuances even within it. Some things in tier one you must affirm to be a Christian. Others you merely must not deny. I was not thoroughly acquainted with the doctrine of the Trinity when I received Christ at the tender age of five, but once I became acquainted with it, I affirmed it.

Tier three is vast and multifaceted, but I think we all know what to do with adiaphora.

Tier two is the tier in question.

Mohler defines tier two descriptively, not prescriptively. These second-level issues are those which "will create significant boundaries between believers." That, ladies and gentlemen, is the voice of history rather than theology. How do we know which issues are the ones that will create significant boundaries between believers? We look to see which ones have created significant boundaries between believers.

Yet (in spite of how much I obviously love history) I'm not sure history is a good place to look for the answers here. Things change. Issues that were historically important have a way of fading into relative obscurity. New issues arise that the churches must address without the benefit of precise historical precedent.

Here are two examples:

In the seventeenth century, Baptists were all a twitter about "laying on of hands." This had nothing to do with ordination. Many (most?) Baptists allowed for the practice of laying hands upon a newly baptized convert to pray for Holy Spirit guidance for that believer in the life of the church. Some Baptists not only allowed for this practice; they required it. Congregations split over this practice. Denominations formed around this practice. It was, in the seventeenth century, definitely a tier-two issue.

Today, only boring old academics (and a few adherents to an obscure surviving sect) even know that the controversy existed. Most decidedly tier-three.

Today, Baptists face the various manifestations and daughter movements of the Pentecostal movement. This movement began around a century ago. Spiritual gifts were a tier-three issue in the seventeenth century. The Pentecostal movement has made this a tier-two issue in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (even though some of our readers will differ as to which parts of this movement belong in tier two or tier three, I think all of our readership will concur that the subject as a whole has components or implications that are unavoidably tier-two).

So, this second tier grows, shrinks, and otherwise readjusts as Christian history marches onward. I think that we are in the midst of just such a realignment today. And neither Dr. Mohler nor anyone else has given us any formulaic criteria by which we may predict where the boundary between these two tiers will land when we are done.

Better Than Tiers: Cooperative Expediency

Here's how I view the whole idea of cooperative parameters:

First, I am a strong believer in the primacy of the local church. I am much more concerned about intracongregational unity than intercongregational unity. It seems to me that the former is much more difficult to achieve than the latter and that the absence of the former is much more damaging to the body of Christ. Associations and conventions are, in my view, only slightly above the level of being a vendor to the local church. In no way do I regard the Southern Baptist Convention as a church.

The existence of the Southern Baptist Convention is not necessary. My church can preach the gospel, disciple believers, pursue missions, and do every necessary function of a church while remaining an entirely independent congregation. Furthermore, without one iota of institutional connection with any other church, my church can exist in Christian unity with other churches and other believers. Consequently, what the SBC does or does not do has no bearing, in my mind, on the concept of unity in Christ or the validity of my church.

Second, I approach SBC decisions with a sort of pragmatism. I believe that affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention helps my church to perform its tasks more effectively. The SBC is not necessary, but it is helpful. The SBC is not a church; it is a tool for churches. What doctrinal constraints ought we to have in the SBC? Those that make the SBC a better tool. Those that improve its effectiveness. Those that are cooperatively expedient.

Theological laxity is a danger to the effectiveness of the tool. If our institutions stray from orthodoxy, they will begin to harm our churches rather than to help them (e.g., by supplying them with pastors who do not believe the Bible). Also, if our institutions become seedbeds for the promotion or distribution of minority views, there is the danger of offending and driving away the majority of churches that provide support for the institutions.

Theological micromanagement is also a danger to the effectiveness of the tool. If the theological requirements for employment become too severe, churches may find that their pool of eligible denominational employees is so small that the SBC cannot employ enough quality employees to provide value to the ministry of churches. A seminary that cannot find and hire qualified professors is of little utility to anyone. A mission board without missionaries is less effective than an independent congregation.

Finding the right spot to mitigate these two dangers is an exercise in constant adjustment. The whole enterprise involves constant theological thinking, yet the final arbitrer is a sort of pragmatism. Often it boils down to political pragmatism.

In Southern Baptist life, the great complicating factor is the fact that the vast majority of people involved will not participate in the formal decision-making process. Most of the churches are unrepresented. Denominational employees are much more likely to participate. Thus, the inherent trend is toward laxity rather than micromanagement. We live in an exceptional age that has witnessed a strong push away from laxity. That age will not last forever. Some view the current troubles as a rescue of the convention from micromanagement. Others view it as the beginning of an inexorable return to laxity.

Dr. Mohler avoided specifics in his "Theological Triage" paper. Because of his position, he needed to do so. Lacking any position, I might as well go ahead and be specific.

Baptism is the ultimate tier-two issue. We ought to have our beliefs about baptism nailed down pretty concretely. I think that the IMB regulation really needs work, but in no way can I say that any serious aspect of the doctrine of baptism is a tier-three issue.

"Private prayer language" is a manifestation of the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave movement. Using Dr. Mohler's framework, this certainly is an issue that has created significant boundaries between believers. New denominations have arisen. Countless congregations have split. History suggests that this movement belongs in tier two. People will differ over the idea of including every aspect of the movement in tier two. I'm not sure that I include every aspect of the movement in tier two. But the alleged "gift of tongues" has been the core of this movement, and anything having to do with that concept clearly belongs in tier two, IMHO.

Using my framework, I think that the SBC is more useful to my church when it holds clear views on baptism. I also think that it is more valuable to my church when it remains clearly outside the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave movement. We are outside that movement, and we have no desire to subsidize it.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Week-End Wrapup

I've written two open-ended posts this week. Now that the week is up, I'll wrap up loose ends.

What If?...

I'm fine with the effects of both IMB policies. I think that the baptism policy is very poorly written. Speaking of baptism as a "testimony of identification with the system of belief held by Southern Baptist churches" is, in my opinion, defective theology. This particular language ought to go away. I think I would rather the whole regulation go away than to have such theology persisted in official IMB documents. But I don't know that scrapping the whole article is necessary—maybe just a really good rewrite. Landmarkism, in my opinion, would provide a lot better theology than this.

Nevertheless, it appears to me that even a scrapping of this article would provide very little resolution of current Southern Baptist tensions.

Differences of Scriptural Interpretation

We divide over differences of scriptural interpretation. We ought to divide over differences of scriptural interpretation.

Nevertheless, we ought not to divide over just any old differences of scriptural interpretation. In our polity, the people of the SBC get to decide which items merit division and which ones do not. The discussion to have now is how to tell the difference between division-worthy interpretations and all of the others.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Differences of Scriptural Interpretation

We have a new reader making comments here, Jonathan K. Welcome, Jonathan.

Jonathan holds significantly different theological points of view from the majority of our readers. I respect his right to hold and practice his views, and I am in no way singling him out to belittle him at all.

Your situation, Jonathan, just provides a great opportunity to illustrate a point.

Jonathan has contributed to two comment stream: This one about Joel Osteen, and my most recent hypothetical post about IMB policies.

Over the course of the past year, we've heard from a number of brothers that, although we had every right in the Conservative Resurgence to take strong stands over the nature of scripture, we must be careful not to codify particular interpretations of scripture so as not to exclude people who are honestly seeking to interpret the Bible.

I submit to you that the differences between Jonathan K's views and mine are strictly and solely differences over interpretation of the Bible. He has sought to present a biblical rationale behind his views in both of these posts. I think that his views are the fruit of a poor hermeneutic. He thinks that my views represent a poor hermeneutic. But he has never built any of his arguments on any concept of fallibility in the text.

If we are unwilling to divide over differences of interpretation of the text, then we have no doctrine. Anti-Trinitarians (and re-reading, I clarify that I am making no comparison between Jonathan and Anti-Trinitarians) build their viewpoint from the text, and many such people hold high views of the nature of the Bible. And by the way, the Trinitarian argument is not exactly the clearest and simplest one to make from the scripture, either.

But the importance of a doctrine is not determined by whether anyone else might have read the Bible differently. The importance of a doctrine is not even determined by how many times it appears in the Bible or how easy it is to interpret those occasions where it does appear.

So, the next time you read someone making a plea that we not divide over "differing interpretations of Scripture," ask yourself, what does that really mean, and what would our churches look like if we really followed that rule?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What If?…

…the IMB rescinded the rule on baptism but kept the one on "private prayer langauge"? Would that be a compromise that would bring peace? The preponderance of Southern Baptist churches do not practice speaking in tongues, nor do they advocate or acknowledge so-called "private prayer language." Southern Baptist thinking with regard to tying eternal security to baptismal validity is much less uniform. One might argue that one of these restrictions is more reflective of the Southern Baptist people than the other.

So I'm wondering, how many of you who support the baptismal rule would consider the preservation of that rule a hill on which to die?

And I'm wondering, how many of you who oppose the baptismal rule would be ready to lay down your weapons if the baptismal rule fell without the PPL rule?

And finally I'm wondering, how many of you who oppose both rules will settle for nothing less than total capitulation to your demands?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

An Evening with Joel

I'm guessing that "An Evening with Joel"…

…almost never involves…

…an evening with Joel.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Blog Re-Design

With seemingly every true-blue male in the Baptist blogosphere donning a pink hat, I felt a severe need to re-inject some testosterone into the system. Even out in North Carolina, Tim Rogers has succumbed to the trend. Since he lives in the Carolinas, does that make him a Pink Panther?

Anyway, I have re-designed my blog template to provide a little balance. [NOTE: Along with this post, I redesigned the blog in a desert camoflauge military theme with a picture of a tank in the header.]

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 limits...no 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.

Poster Boy for Church Discipline

I wonder: Is J. Davis Mallory still a member of a Marietta, GA area Southern Baptist church?

(HT: Big Daddy Weave)

By the way, Mallory is one of our recipients of that "Christian worldview" promulgated by a formerly-Baptist institution (Stetson University) that proclaims to exist "For God and Truth."

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

John Danforth's Silly Notion of Divisiveness

John Danforth's new book, Faith and Politics, is being championed as an "incredibly thoughtful book" in which Danforth "oozes sincerity and good sense as he excoriates 'Christian conservatives' (naming James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, among others) for corrupting religious doctrine on reproduction and marriage and inappropriately inserting it in government." In his appearance on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" Danforth made very clear the premise of his book: That the pro-life movement, the traditional marriage movement, and movements aligned with these in social conservatism, are uniquely responsible for dividing America.

Danforth's book will receive inordinate attention because of who he is. He is a Republican. He is an Episcopal priest (which puts him in the elite company of....let's see....John Shelby-Spong, Gene Robinson, and Catherine Jefferts-Schori. Yeah, I'd keep that prominently on my resume). And so, he represents the only solution for unity that so many can envision—for conservatives to sell out and for liberals to carry the day entirely.

It is funny the way that people view division. A person or movement can unilaterally introduce incredibly controversial or even offensive ideas, roil the populace with them, and then fling accusations of divisiveness upon anyone who dares not to acquiese to the controversial crusade that they themselves introduced. Somehow, the public often seems to forget to ask who threw the first punch.

  1. Who unliaterally amended the Constitution by unconstitutional means by inventing a right to abortion in 1973? Why doesn't the path to unity include a call for those who started the fight to overturn this hateful act?
  2. Who has provoked the controversy over gay marriage? About gay anything? Can anyone say with a straight face that cultural conservatives are the ones who have advanced these divisive issues to the forefront of the public square? Why isn't a return to the concept of marriage and sexuality that has dominated the entire history of our nation (with very little controversy, by the way) a good way to find unity?
  3. Who has started chopping up some human beings in the search for cures for other human beings? It seems like a good way to end the division over this issue would be to end the practice that serves as the cause of the division.
Of course, I think that this principle applies beyond the realm of politics.
  1. Who invented the modern-day idea of glossolalia around a century ago and launched crusades to spread the "full gospel" throughout existing churches and denominations? Why are not those who insist upon the promotion of such novel practices the ones who are guilty of division?
  2. Who started the talk of our conventions drafting official positions on doctrinal ideas like so-called "private prayer language"? If such resolutions are divisive, then why does the charge of divisiveness not fall upon those who instigated the idea?
  3. Many bemoan the tenor of blogging conversations, but who is the true genesis of the blogging battles? Why are the responders the ones charged with picking the fight?
  4. Why are the Episcopal dioceses that are seeking to remain Christian the ones who are charged with "schism"?
I suggest that the answers to most of these questions lies in a previous post.

Danforth's book is also troubling for its suggestion that tepid religion is the best religion and is somehow better for the nation. The pro-life movement is not inherently a religious movement. Indeed, it is no more religious than the emancipation movement or the civil rights movement was, and these three have much in common. Very passionate religious fervor has produced some of the greatest things about this nation, and usually when it occupied one side of a divisive controversy. One problem with the whole analysis offered by Danforth and many others is the assumption that divisiveness is always wrong. The emancipation movement was divisive, and thank God for it. It seems to me that the charge of divisiveness is a convenient one to level when one would rather not discuss the merits of one's own position on the real, underlying issues.

But Danforth's book will nonetheless enjoy tremendous appeal, both among those who claim to be protecting politics from the evils of faith and probably among some of those who claim to be protecting faith from the evils of politics. If either claim were true, it might be worthy of investigation. Instead, they are merely working to give political power to a different faith and to substitute one set of politics for another into faith communities.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Absent from the Roundtable

I had planned to attend the Roundtable today as an observer. Unfortunately, I've got a serious cough and some laryngitis this morning. J. R. Graves would suggest that I wouldn't have these problems if I would grow a great big beard. Tough luck, J. R.: I'm staying clean-shaven.

Anyway, I have consented to defend my views at the Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit in April. Today we'll find out who else will be on the panel with me. I'll be watching from home.

Also, I would encourage Wade Burleson (see here) to be careful in speculating as to the motives of attendees. Many of those attending are not seeking to model anything. Many probably would not have attended if they had suspected that they would be cited as a part of a number of people trying to model some new approach of theological leniency.

UPDATE: The live feed is not working at all for me. I guess I'll wait for second-hand reports of the meeting.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Appendix to the Lottie Moon Week of Prayer

I've decided as a part of the Week of Prayer for International Missions to add to my prayer guide the name of David Rogers. I'm praying especially for David this week for a number of reasons:

  1. Wierdo that I am, nothing endears someone to me like a good, old fashioned, good-natured, argumentative debate. This year I've had one or two of those with David, and I've enjoyed each one of them. He is articulate and gentlemanly, even if he is dead wrong at a point or two! :-) In a John Wayne, The Quiet Man, sort of way, I've developed a fondness for him. (If you don't know about John Wayne in The Quiet Man, then you have been shortchanged in your education)
  2. David has lost his father in the not-too-distant past. In some very poignant way, the death of Adrian Rogers was a loss for many of us. Nevertheless, my loss in no way compares to David's. It leaves a gaping hole in your life to send your father on to Heaven. This will be David's second Christmas without his father, and I will commit to praying for him and his family this season.
  3. David is serving in a difficult assignment for which few of us would volunteer. Spain is post-Christian. It is possible that the Spanish spiritual climate would have been more welcoming to Baptist missionaries and the true gospel in the days of Torquemada than it is today (only slight hyperbole indicated there). David's calling is a difficult one, and he deserves our prayers.
  4. Besides, I have to keep praying that David will kow-tow to my arguments in a few subjects. :-)
I'm sure that David would welcome the prayers of any and all. You can join me in praying for David, or perhaps you would substitute someone else. David's not the only one I'm adding to my LMCO prayer guide. Others I could not mention for security reasons.

But I invite you to do at least this: Commit this week to praying for International Missions, and personalize your praying by letting God put on your heart the specific names of missionaries that you might either know or at least know about. Even those of you who are missionaries, pray for one another this week.

And finally, in your praying for missionaries, don't forget to pray for more missionaries—for the one's who aren't there yet—to the Lord of the harvest. Who knows? You just might wind up praying for yourself.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Preaching: Evaluating the Evaluations

Art Rogers is one of the few people who (like myself) somehow missed the memo that the entire Baptist blog world was shutting down at precisely the same time. Thanks, Art, for giving us something worthwhile to read! What started as a a conversation about SWBTS chapel services has opened a conversation (mostly one-sided) about the proper tone of Christian preaching.

I commented over there, but the whole conversation had me thinking about something else, so I thought I would attempt to launch another conversation over here.

What counts as evidence to sort out what kind of preaching works and what kind of preaching doesn't? Of course, the most accessible indicator is the response of the hearers. We all get a report card of sorts from our congregations right after the service, right? And then there is the response shown during the invitation. Sometimes we take the growth or lack thereof in a particular church to be an indirect reflection on what is happening in the pulpit. The response of other preachers is another indicator that is easy to prize.

On "NOW with Bill Moyers" (nothing else on right now, otherwise I would be watching something else), Norman Lear and a professor at the Lear Center are talking about how religion, like politics and all else, is basically show business—that we are all competing for an audience. How much ought the audience to influence the message? How much ought we to let the reaction of the audience influence our preaching?

On the one hand, the Bible does speak of tremendous responses to, for example, Peter's message in Jerusalem, seemingly indicating that the massive response of the audience was evidence of a superlative work of God.

On the other hand, the Bible speaks of "itching ears" and gives us the example of Jeremiah. Jesus apparently preached Himself right out of several audiences. In much of Paul's writings, the idea of "pleasing men" is, remember, considered a bad thing.

Yet we all, from every corner of Christianity that I know, regularly use the response of the audience as one of the primary indicators of what constitutes good preaching. And I don't know that we can easily rid ourselves of it. I know that I've heard preaching that was exegetically sound, theologically orthodox, and technically correct, but homiletically poor. How else can we distinguish between preaching that is engaging and preaching that is boring without appealing to the response of the listener?

Also, doesn't missionary zeal usually effect some concern over how the listeners respond to the message? Is it possible to have a hot heart for world evangelization and simultaneously to take seriously the clear biblical teaching that few find the narrow way?

It seems to me that doctrinal standards ought to come first. I try to evaluate my preaching not only by trying to keep it exegetically sound, but also by looking at whether I'm preaching the whole Bible: both testaments, various books, different kinds of passages and genres. In the first seven years at FBC Farmersville, I've preached from every book of the Bible. That kind of thing is important to me.

But, the exact same sermon on the exact same topic embodying the exact same theology can be either engaging or dry (OK...so some topics are indeed inclined toward either "engaging" or "dry", making it a little harder to push them into the opposite category). And I don't know any way to evaluate such a thing other than by evaluating how the listeners evaluate the sermon.

So, the way people evaluate a sermon is a worthwhile indicator, but I think it ought to matter not at all in the topics we choose or the theology embodied in our preaching. Instead, it ought only to influence the format in which we present those topics and that theology.