Sunday, October 28, 2007

What's Important; What's Not

I sit here in the inter-service break, reflecting on the early service and planning toward the late. The early service was, by human analysis, a train wreck:

  1. My immediately-past Chairman of Deacons went unexpectedly into the hospital in McKinney, so I rushed over to check on him early this morning.
  2. I arrived back five minutes late for the early worship service, which was already in progress (thanks, John).
  3. The guy I went to see in the hospital is one of the choir's key tenors. Unforeseen circumstances also took out at the last minute the leader of our orchestra and our key sopranos. The combined toll eliminated two choral elements from the order of service.
  4. We're observing the Lord's Supper today, so the order of service matters more than it usually does—more people trying to figure out when to do what they're supposed to do. We wound up a song ahead of schedule while serving the Lord's Supper.
  5. I must admit, I was distracted the whole time.

Yet, as I initiated our observance of the Supper by reading I Corinthians 15:1-8, it occurred to me that the circumstances of the Last Supper were not pristine themselves. It took place in the midst of turmoil. Jesus' experience in the Garden just afterwards revealed the anguish He was feeling. The disciples were confused, having been confronted first with Jesus' act of service in washing their feet, then all the talk of betrayal, and now a discussion of broken body and shed blood during the Supper. Their circumstances that night…perhaps not that different from ours.

But 1 Corinthians 15 does the job for us of sorting out what is "of first importance" and (by implication) what is not. Together our congregation proclaimed the good news that Jesus has died and is risen, atoning for our past and demonstrating our future.

Life is messy. People get sick and go to hospitals. Tragedy strikes. Worship is, ultimately, not about leaving the mess "outside" while we think about God; it is about proclaiming the victory of God over the mess. In the midst of it all, it was a neat experience for me to come to that point in the service where I told myself, "These earthly concerns are not important. They fall vanquished by the gospel—all of them. That's what is important."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New Guidestone Discount for SBC Bloggers

DALLAS–Officials of Guidestone Financial Resources and Cigna announced Friday a new discount plan for Southern Baptist bloggers. Under the new program, SBC bloggers who have been blogging for at least a year as of December 31, 2007, will be able purchase insurance under Cigna's Premier Dental Care Plan while only paying the rates for the Choice Dental Care Plan. The move represents the first time that Guidestone has offered special incentives for subgroups within the convention membership. Guidestone President O. S. Hawkins, when asked about the novelty of the program, responded, "This plan came about not at Guidestone's initiative, but emerged during negotiations with the plan providers (dentists) themselves." A Dallas area dentist, appearing in a press conference with Hawkins, explained the rationale behind the plan: "We believe that SBC bloggers will be less expensive to treat. One of the great frustrations and complicating factors when providing dental care for the public at large is the difficulty that normal people have with keeping their mouths open."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Exposé

After a lengthy undercover investigation, Praisegod Investigations has unearthed the following shocking example of high-level corruption at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: President Paige Patterson has a reserved parking spot. The above photograph was taken by our hidden cameras earlier today. Our investigators have reason to believe that this parking space has been constructed and maintained by Cooperative Program dollars—thousands down through the years. What hubris! What waste! To think that, in the few short years of Patterson's tenure, we now have a presidential parking space! I ask you, my friends, did Jesus have a parking space? Furthermore, we have no record of anyone ever having heard the gospel on this parking space. And all of that asphalt is just contributing to global warming, by which the world may become a lifeless rock and the millennium be thwarted in just mere months from now. It just isn't like the old SWBTS any more, when Dr. Dilday parked his bicycle out in the student parking lots and hiked into his office like the rest of us. According to exclusive PGBB sources, no female president of SWBTS has ever had a reserved parking space. I guess this is just one of the perks for the "boys." Really, it just serves to illustrate the ills that plague the Southern Baptist Convention today. COOPERATION, my friends, is all about SHARING. Yet Dr. Patterson is apparently unwilling to share his parking space with anybody else. No wonder the seminary is in such an ungodly mess these days. Fundamentalists are all the same—misogynistic animals. We have been unable to confirm rumors that CP-funded seminary employees are required as a part of their job duties to keep people from parking in the wrong parking spaces, but rumors suggest that the employees in question may even be armed. With guns. Tomorrow I may take down my two SWBTS diplomas from my wall in shame.

Sam Pace Dead at 80

Time ran out on me. I had been planning to make the journey up to Antlers, OK, to meet Sam Pace—former chair of the SBC Executive Committee and stalwart participant in the Conservative Resurgence. Some of the present-day unrest, Sam Pace saw coming long ago. Even from a distance, I know that Pace was a consistent leader, a pious Christian, and a convictional Baptist. May he enjoy God's gracious reward. I'll finally meet him when time stops running out.

With the Mouth?

But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart"—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for "whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved." Romans 10:8-13 (NASB)

What do you understand to be the role of the verbal profession of faith in salvation?

The Bible seems to presume verbal identification with Christ to be intrinsic to salvation. The block quote above is quite pointed: "with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation." Along with repentance and faith, articulation of that faith is described as having a causal relationship with salvation. The practice of verbally articulating one's faith is highlighted in 1 Timothy 6:12-13 (NASB), "take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate…" Here Paul uses the shorthand of election and confession to refer to Timothy's salvation experience. The New Testament church had good reason to emphasize public spoken acknowledgement of one's faith in Christ as significant: Jesus Himself had said, "Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in Heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in Heaven." Matthew 10:32-33 (NASB)

As we were studying Romans 10 last Sunday evening, a member said, "My kids would ask this one: What if you can't speak? Will sign language suffice?" I do not believe that salvation is tied to any sort of physical ability on the part of humankind, nor, indeed, that salvation is contingent upon human capacity to achieve it at all. However, as one who seeks to be submissive to the Lord's commands given to us in the Scriptures, I find that the Bible marks as suspect and deficient any "faith" that does not bring forth the fruit of public articulation and do so incipiently.

Rather than the case of one who cannot speak, I offer this scenario for your perusal: A man is at home alone watching religious TV. He hears an appeal for the gospel. He "prays the prayer" internally in his own mind at the end of the program. He then turns off the TV, goes to bed, gets up the next morning, and goes on about his life without ever telling anyone about his "decision." Has this person received the New Testament gospel?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Blogging Doldrums

Art and Marty are pretty-much out. I was just over at Nathan Finn's blog, and he has a string of no-comment posts. SBC Outpost just held a poll, and both the number of votes and the number of views suggested not that many readers. I surely haven't blogged much lately, and I have the great blessing of having not the slightest idea how many people are reading. SBC Today continues to generate content, and I have no idea how many readers they are generating. Wade Burleson continues to blog with what are, essentially, the same three blog posts reassembled a little bit and reposted repetitively (right down to the same twenty comment personalities regurgitating the same thing over and over again in response). Southern Baptist blogging isn't over, but it seems to be groping along trying to figure out what is next. So what do you think? What's next?

I Like Mike

I'm favoring Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Republican primaries. I'll give you my reasons why as well as any reservations I might hold. I support Huckabee because he is pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-family, and pro-faith by conviction and personal example. I haven't the slightest doubt what kind of judges he would nominate. Regarding "culture war" issues, Mike Huckabee not only says it—I actually believe he means it when he says it. Also, Huckabee has performed well in every debate and shows little in the way of campaign warts. He's right on the war and national security. He hasn't really been tested yet by the media, who will despise many of his policy initiatives and attack with full force if he breaks into tier-one politics, but I'm coming to believe that he'll stick to his guns and perform reasonably well if this unlikely scenario attains. As a final, more personal, incentive I offer this: I would love to see Arkansas send one of her many conservative sons to the White House. Now, for my reservations. Simple observation reveals that the GOP in Arkansas has not fared that well while Huckabee occupied the Governor's Mansion. Democrat Mike Beebe has succeeded Huckabee in my native state. One Democrat friend confided in me that Arkansas Democrats won the gubernatorial election without breaking a sweat, largely because of extremely poor GOP organization at every level from the precinct on up. According to him, it was almost like running Beebe without opposition. Missteps by GOP nominee Asa Hutchinson didn't help, but these do not explain the Republicans' 14.3% deficit at the 2006 gubernatoral polls. Friends in Arkansas also suggest that Huckabee is somewhat of a loner…a do-it-yourself-er…ineffective at coalition-building even among people who agree with him ideologically. Although some have criticized him as a tax-and-spender for his record in Arkansas, perhaps that's just the result of peer pressure from being in the Republican Party lately—maybe he's been hanging around with President Bush and our Republican Congressional delegations ;-). In spite of these potential deficiencies, I'm confident that other national GOP leadership will easily supplement whatever weaknesses Huckabee might have in the area of political organization and coalition-building. Furthermore, my political priorities lead me to support a values-conservative who may be squishy fiscally over a fiscal-conservative who may be squishy culturally. As a postscript, allow me to offer my opinion on Mitt Romney. I am a believer in religious liberty; therefore, I will not object to the abstract concept of a Mormon President. Romney loses my vote because of his demonstrated lack of conviction on my core issues. Whenever, in any aspect of your personal philosophy, John Kerry has been more consistent than you have, you know that you have problems. At this moment, while running for the Republican presidential nomination, is just a little bit too convenient of a time to have decided rather suddenly that you are pro-life after all. For all of these reasons, I will be pulling the Huckabee lever (or…rather…touching the Huckabee square on the touchscreen) in the Texas primaries. Furthermore, great anticlimax that the Texas primaries are, I will do so knowing full well that Huckabee will not be the eventual nominee.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

On Baptist Origins

In my last post about the Amish, someone apparently misconstrued my assertion of theological kinship between Baptists and Anabaptists to constitute my advocacy of the Anabaptist Influence theory of Baptist origins. The Anabaptist Influence Theory is a respected academic theory, espoused by a number of respected historians, including the late W. R. Estep of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Historians debate the extent and timing of the influence that Anabaptists had upon the emergence of seventeenth-century Baptist congregations, but no academically published theory of Baptist origins denies the theological kinship and contact that has existed between Baptists and Anabaptists.

The debate centers around historians trying to explain the causes of the "origin" of modern Baptists.

But what does that mean? In some sense, the "origin" of Baptists is simply the willingness of people to be obedient to the scriptures. I don't believe that we can assertively identify any other "source" of Baptists as a movement.

In 1609, John Smythe and a group of likeminded believers in Holland established what became the mother church of English General Baptists. He and his congregation lived in a bakehouse owned by Dutch Anabaptists.

In the 1630s, a Baptist congregation emerged from an Independent congregation in London. This congregation became the mother congregation of the English Particular Baptists.

Also in the 1630s, Roger Williams and a group of likeminded believers in Providence, Rhode Island, formed a Baptist congregation. This congregation is not the mother congregation of all Baptist churches in the Americas, but neither is it (that we can identify) a daughter congregation of any of the English Baptist churches.

In 1753 a (roughly) Methodist congregation in Barton-in-the-Beans, Leicestershire, England, adopted Baptist sentiments, becoming one of the primary mother congregations of the New Connexion General Baptist congregations in England.

As far as the record of history reveals (or at least, as far as I know the record of history…I do not pretend omniscience even in my field), these churches were not planted by other Baptist churches and were not splits from other Baptist churches. What is the origin of Baptist churches? Well…which Baptist churches? Baptist sentiments sprung up almost spontaneously in multiple unrelated places among otherwise unrelated groups of people. The only thing they really have in common is some connection with English Separatism and a devotion to the teachings of the New Testament.

A related question asks whether Baptists existed prior to 1609. I answer that we will never know until we reach Heaven. We know for certain that dissenting groups existed throughout the Medieval period. Small, persecuted sects, worshipping in secret, trying to hide their existence from authorities, and populated by people other than the nobility—such groups deliberately left very little of a footprint. In my opinion, we can neither demonstrate the existence of medieval Baptists nor can we disprove their existence.

Again, if the origin of Baptists is obedience to the New Testament, then the question of Medieval Baptist existence really is not very important. The Roman Catholics do have an unbroken chain of existence through the Medieval period, but they are dead wrong with regard to the teachings of the New Testament. What legitimizes a church? Not its age or lineage, but its obedience to the God's Word. The churches listed above have no demonstrable earthly lineage, but their faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible give them all the lineage that they need.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Our Amish Cousins

Recently (October 7, 2007) the CBS drama Cold Case aired an episode investigating the (fictional) death of an Amish teenaged girl in Philadelphia during her "Rumspringa." The episode, in my opinion, was formulaic in its treatment of the Amish. Popular media portrayal of the Amish generally goes along the lines of "They're really odd at first glance, but when you get to know them, there's a lot in Amish life to respect or even envy" (with some exceptions). Contrast this with the usual media treatment of Southern Baptists or other evangelical groups. The same tension of surface perception vs. fuller understanding prevails, but in the opposite direction. At first glance, the evangelical appears to be respectable (even holier-than-thou), but deeper investigation always reveals a drug-using pedophile whose anger-management issues have led him to murder somebody to keep his secrets buried. So I'm wondering not so much why groups like Southern Baptists get such rough treatment, but why the Amish generally get such a free pass. The Amish are Anabaptists, our close theological cousins. They share with Baptists a belief that only the regenerate will go to Heaven. Their moral codes are stricter than ours. Just for good measure, they stir in an eccentric aversion to all things modern. They are the epitome of the "obscurantism" that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberals warned would lead to the demise of Christianity. Certainly Amish belief and practice is no friendlier to modern American life than is evangelicalism—quite the contrary. Maybe the "quite the contrary" is the answer to my question. I think that our culture, when it looks at most of Evangelicalism, sees people desperate to be accepted by the culture as cool. When the culture confronts something like the Amish, it encounters something truly interesting—a group of people (seemingly) entirely satisfied apart from any of the things that Americans think we need to have to find satisfaction. Thus the irony: I think that the desperation among some Evangelicals to "reach" the culture may be precisely the thing that provokes revulsion in some influential segments of the culture. It smacks of Madison Avenue dishonesty. Of course, the Amish are no example for us to follow evangelistically. They are so isolationist as to make very little substantial effort to present the gospel outside their environs. They are not "of" the culture, but neither are they "in" it. What Southern Baptists need is to learn from the Amish a biblical antidote to materialism without succumbing to their technophobia. We need to learn a confidence in the virtues of a Christian subculture (which isn't perfect, but which is better than non-Christian culture) without mimicking the Amish communalism that prevents them from significant interaction with people lost in secular culture. Perhaps Roger Williams is a good example for us to consider. No obscurantist, he nonetheless asserted that there ought to be a strong "hedge of separation" between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world (a phrase often misinterpreted to refer exclusively to church-state relations). Although he was quite strict—even persnickety—in his ecclesiology, Williams was nonetheless a powerful political figure and a thinker prepared to engage every facet of his contemporary culture. I plan to keep my iPhone, my pilot's license, and my t-shirts, but I think that the Amish have some things to teach us.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Most Pressing Issues of Justice: Take Two

The earlier misfire was Blogger's fault. Of course, Wes Kenney would demur at this point, asserting that it is actually my fault for sticking with Blogger. Now, inspired by Rich Mullins, I say, "This is the post as best as I can remember it." In most states there is one and only one legal contract that one party can break unilaterally without fear of consequence. In many states, there is one and only one medical procedure that a doctor can inflict upon a thirteen year old without notifying a parent. In a great many businesses and some states as well, there is one and only one extramarital relationship that can qualify a person to be included in someone else's workplace benefits. Divorce, abortion, homosexuality. Liberals have carved out for the dissolution of homes, the murder of innocents, and the depravation of human sexuality special legal niches to encourage this behavior. They talk about poverty, but the problem of poverty in America is no better today than it was in 1967. The war on poverty has been very successful at preventing poverty among graduates of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, but it sure hasn't done much to improve the lives of people in Desha County, Arkansas (2007 unemployment rate: 11.5%; 2004 poverty rate: 28.7%). They talk about health care, but four decades after the government's first steps toward socialized medicine, we are in a health care crisis (to hear liberals speak of it). On the other hand, liberals can provide a long list of accomplishments regarding divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. So, who's been obsessed with these "culture war" issues? Who has launched them into the public discourse? Until next year's election, you are going to hear incessantly that religious conservatives have been obsessed with these issues while liberals have been doing everything possible to make the world a better place. You're going to hear that religious conservatives are too cozy with the Republican Party (all evidence to the contrary...can anyone say James Dobson?...notwithstanding). Be not deceived—these are talking points designed to weaken the conviction of values voters (as though the 2008 candidate lineup were not a powerful enough elixir for that task). But these issues have become so contentious and so important not because of anything conservatives have done, but because of the way that liberals, in their bizarre, obsessive devotion to these ideas, have shoehorned them into our system of laws. These are the most pressing issues of justice that we face today. For all of its violence and duration, the Iraq war has barely eclipsed the single-day death toll of abortion in the United States alone. Divorce is among the most predictable causes of poverty in our country. Homosexuality has contributed to the spread of one of the worst public health plagues that the world has known. If we love people, we ought to advocate for laws that discourage people from aborting babies, abandoning their marital vows, and engaging in sexual behavior with people of the same sex. Instead, we have a set of laws that encourage them to do all of these things. Those who steadfastly call for an end to these things stand in the lineage of Elijah and Isaiah. Those who prefer nuance and sophistication to conviction will stand in the line of George McClellan—so mesmerized by the feints across the lines as to be caught unprepared in the critical moment and place of engagement.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Most Pressing Issues of Justice