Friday, October 30, 2009

The Heart of Biblical Restoration Displayed in Song

Having now passed our church covenant and then our constitution & bylaws, in January we embark upon a massive enterprise to reach out to every member family of FBC Farmersville. Like most SBC churches, we have a number of members on the roll of the church who are either not very active in the life of the church or not active at all.

The easiest thing to do, of course, would be nothing at all—to ignore those folks and focus our energies upon the people who are active in the congregation as well as new prospects. The second easiest thing to do would be to conduct a massive purging of the congregational rolls, giving a few seconds of attention to each of these wayward members before returning our attention once again to our active members and prospects.

However, a few words from 1 Corinthians haunt me enough to drive us to a different course. In chapter 5, discussing the man having an illicit affair with his step-mother, Paul castigated not the sinner but the church, saying, "you have become arrogant and have not mourned instead."

Clean rolls can be accomplished without any correction of congregational arrogance. God calls us to congregational mourning over the sinful lifestyles of wayward members. Mournfully we hope to go out after those who have fallen by the wayside.

The lyrical nuances of this song will likely drive some of you crazy, but I hope that you'll permit me a musical flashback to my college days. The general emotional feel of this song represents a sentiment under-articulated in Christian music produced during my lifetime—biblical mourning over the backslidden and an accompanying longing for restoration. Enjoy…or rather…don't enjoy. Mourn.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Good Thoughts All Around on the GCR

I'll summarize my thoughts under two heads:

Johnny Hunt Was Right On the Money

Pun intended.

In an interview published in Baptist Press yesterday, SBC President Johnny Hunt said something to the effect (as the headline characterized it) that the Cooperative Program is not the only door into the Southern Baptist Convention. I believe that he is correct and that his observations are worthy of our consideration.

Let me state first of all that I am not at all supportive of any changes to the Cooperative Program. Only undesignated gifts should count as a part of CP calculations. I'd prefer that everyone have good opportunity to give through a state convention rather than giving in any sort of a designated manner. That's the ideal.

Support of the Cooperative Program in an undesignated manner is valuable to the Southern Baptist Convention, and it ought to be recognized and encouraged in ways that designated gifts are not recognized and encouraged. Designated gifts can be recognized and encouraged in other ways (and already are), but we ought to put a premium as Southern Baptists upon encouraging Cooperative Program giving.

However…

CP giving is not the sine qua non of Southern Baptist identity. The messenger body of the SBTC wisely fended off a proposed resolution amendment that would have made the Cooperative Program THE distinctive feature of being a Southern Baptist. You sure can't make that declaration historically, since the SBC existed 80 years with no Cooperative Program at all! Ours is an ecclesiological identity and not a programmatic one.

Let me be clear: Southern Baptists who give entirely differently than the Cooperative Program ought to be welcomed, respected, and appreciated for their giving. They shouldn't be described as people who support the Cooperative Program, but they should be described as people who support whatever it is that they support. And if they are supporting the whole SBC package, just in a different way or by a different formula, then they should be described as people who support the SBC.

What's more, Southern Baptist elections and nominations should not be tied slavishly to any analysis of CP giving percentages. Is it a fiction to say that we pray about these matters and follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit? Would we tell the Holy Spirit that we will not follow His leadership unless He leads exclusively to people who have given through the Cooperative Program?

Cooperative Program giving should be A factor duly considered in these matters, but it should not be THE factor controlling the process. A few years ago the CP veered dangerously close to being emphasized too much in the process, IMHO.

I do not take the election of Johnny Hunt as the convention saying that the CP needs to be scrapped or that the SBC needs to be torn apart and put back together from top to bottom. But his election most certainly does represent the people of the SBC saying that they'll elect whomever they wish as the officers of this convention, and they will neither tie their own hands nor surrender their own ballots to anyone else's determination of who gives enough by this method or that method so as to be qualified to serve.

The sole qualification to serve as president of the SBC is that you have won the confidence of the people of the SBC for service in that role. The same principle ought to be applied to nominations all the way down the line. During the Conservative Resurgence, we rightly concluded that doctrinal integrity is more important than financial conformity to a single favored giving plan. We make a terrible mistake if we determine that faithfulness to support the Cooperative Program is unimportant, but neither is it all-important.

David Hankins Was Also Spot-On With His Remarks

In a separate article in Baptist Press yesterday, David Hankins presented four affirmations from state convention executives to the Task Force. I will present and interact with each of them:

First, Hankins opined that "the structure that has served Southern Baptists in the past is well suited for the future." I believe that Hankins is speaking with regard to our macro-structure. In other words, we have local churches, local associations of churches, state conventions, and then the Southern Baptist Convention. Hankins is stating that we ought to move into the future with all four of those tiers still intact. With that sentiment I agree.

Now, within those tiers, I do not know that we must stay with precisely the same structure. For example, I believe that some helpful refinements could bring us a brighter day for NAMB. I don't take Hankins to be saying that no minor changes in structure can be considered. If he were saying that, I would disagree. But with him I affirm that our basic structure is precisely the structure for our future as Southern Baptists.

Second, Hankins reminded the task force that "state conventions are necessary, crucial partners for a Great Commission Resurgence among Southern Baptists." Do I agree? Sort of.

I would re-word the whole matter thusly: "State conventions are as necessary and crucial as partners for a Great Commission Resurgence among Southern Baptists as is the Southern Baptist Convention." It goes too far to include the word "necessary" in an unqualified sense in either case, IMHO. The local churches are the only necessary component to a Great Commission Resurgence. I believe that both the state conventions and the SBC are helpful, maybe even crucial, partners in this endeavor, but they are not necessary.

Nevertheless, I believe that Hankins means by his statement exactly what I said when I reworded it. He's comparing the necessity and cruciality of the state conventions to the task force and the SBC that inaugurated it. In that context, the state conventions are just as important.

Third, Hankins stated that "the NAMB serves a vital role in a coordinated, comprehensive evangelism and church planting movement for Southern Baptists." I agree entirely, and have said as much on several occasions. Southern Baptists must not emerge from this reorganization without a board separately tasked for evangelism and church planting in North America.

Fourth, Hankins suggested that "the Cooperative Program should be the vehicle of choice for funding Southern Baptist initiatives related to a Great Commission Resurgence." Again, I agree entirely, and have been busily writing along those same lines myself.

Conclusion

It just goes to show that there are good ideas on all sides. If we humbly listen to one another and fervently pray, we just might be able to accomplish some worthwhile things in all of this.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

An Errant Bible: The Gateway Heresy

One of the things I most appreciated about Dr. Danny Akin's sermon about the Axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence was his bold statement that there is no room in the Southern Baptist Convention for people who do not agree regarding the inerrancy of the Bible. It is an utterly unenforceable concept, but nonetheless a welcome clarification of what it means to be a Southern Baptist.

Inerrancy-fatigue has meant that there has not been much discussion in the blog world about the nature of the Bible. Indeed, inerrancy-fatigue may mean very little response to this blog post. Nevertheless, I have decided to reproduce a paper that I wrote some time ago on the topic of inerrancy. The paper amounts to an attempt to interact with the thoughts of James Denison, the official theologian of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and his attack upon inerrancy in a self-published paper entitled, "The Errancy of Inerrancy." It is longer than my standard post, so if such things bore you, I won't be offended if you just don't bother. Otherwise, enjoy.

An Errant Bible: The Gateway Heresy

Dr. Jim Denison has served as the official professional theologian of the Baptist General Convention of Texas since being installed as Theologian-in-Residence at BGCT by the administration of Dr. Randel Everett in January 2009. Dr. Denison’s ministry as theologian-in-residence, according to Everett, will “[reflect] an innovative approach to serving the needs of our churches in Texas while also being involved in ministry beyond the state.”

Mentioned in the press release, and doubtless a factor in his selection, are Denison’s past labors in communicating theology to lay people. Among his better known efforts in this regard are his published books, such as Wrestling with God: How Can I Love a God I’m Not Sure I Trust? Far less known, but perhaps more important, is a paper Denison published in 2005 entitled “The Errancy of Inerrancy: Historical and Logical Examinations.”

The nature of the Bible is a foundational point of Christian theology. Denison serves in a rare and prestigious position as the official resident theologian of a large state convention of Southern Baptist believers. The inerrancy of the Bible has become a topic of significant historical importance. Denison’s writings are factually flawed and tend toward sophistry. For all of these reasons, this paper will offer a critique of Denison’s denial of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Two possible approaches exist for refuting Denison. One approach would involve the authorship of a footnoted pedantic rebuttal fit for the academic community. I believe that this type of rebuttal is the less important of the two options. Denison authored his paper in order to take the denial of inerrancy down from the ivory towers of liberal academia (its indigenous habitat) and plead his case “in common-sense terms” for the benefit of “anyone confused by this issue” for whom “too little of [the denial of inerrancy] has been explained or made relevant to the church member.” Because Denison has made this argument for the lay community, the rebuttal also needs to be addressed toward the lay community. Besides, Denison’s paper is merely a regurgitation of points long since addressed within academic circles, making an academic rebuttal superfluous. It is appropriate for this rebuttal to take a non-academic, common-sense tone in setting forth the simple logical flaws of Denison’s main arguments.

Those main arguments are six in number:

  1. Denison argues that the word “inerrancy” has been defined and qualified in too many different and highly technical ways to be of any theological use; therefore, we ought to prefer to speak of the “trustworthiness” or “authority” of the Bible.

  2. Denison argues that the concept of inerrancy, since it is applied exclusively to the original Bible manuscripts, actually undermines the faith of believers in their own copies of the Bible.

  3. Denison argues that inerrancy is a recent doctrinal innovation not shared by those in Christian history whom we ought to emulate—that it is not among our theological “roots.”

  4. Denison argues that rather than the denial of inerrancy's leading to other heresies, the affirmation of inerrancy leads to unwarranted divisiveness.

  5. Denison argues that inerrancy is a philosophical position not supported by the statements of the Bible itself.

  6. Denison argues that the Bible actually is not inerrant; therefore, to apply the test of inerrancy to the Bible is to set the Bible up to fail at a test that it does not and would not apply to itself, and thereby to undermine one’s belief in the “trustworthiness” of the Bible.

FIRST, we consider Denison’s claim that the word “inerrancy” has been defined and qualified in too many different and highly technical ways to be of any theological use. In Denison’s own words: “it seems clear to me that any word with at least eight definitions and twelve qualifications has lost its value as a simple, common test of anything.”

Actually, Denison’s argument works against him, not for him. Yes, many different people have defined “inerrancy” in different ways. And yes, several inerrantists have offered a number of qualifications of the term “inerrancy” in order to forestall misunderstanding regarding the meaning of the term. Denison has suitably demonstrated that people with an impressive array of varied beliefs about the precise nature of the Bible can all claim to be an “inerrantist” in some fashion or another. Denison’s suggestion is that this complex state of affairs makes it not very meaningful for one to affirm that he is an inerrantist.

Yet even if this fact makes it mean less when someone affirms that he is an inerrantist, then it necessarily makes it mean more when someone cannot affirm that he is an inerrantist. The denial of inerrancy then means that, out of all the various definitions of inerrancy and with all of the various reasonable qualifications of inerrancy applied, a person still cannot find a way with all of that flexibility to affirm the word in any sense.

By the way, although Denison protests in this first section of his paper that the word “inerrancy” is so variously defined and over-qualified as to be meaningless, he seems to have no problem defining inerrancy while he is arguing against it in the remainder of the paper. Thus, shortly after declaring the word meaningless and excessively complex and qualified beyond repair, Denison simply states that “’Inerrancy’ may be defined as the view that ‘1. When all the facts are known, 2. they will demonstrate that the Bible in its autographs 3. and correctly interpreted 4. is entirely true 5. in all that it affirms.’” There you go. That’s precisely what I and so many other Southern Baptists mean when we speak of inerrancy, and Denison has defined it in a simple sentence. What’s so difficult about that?

Finally, we should observe that any word used to describe the nature of the Bible is going to wind up being subjected to a number of definitions and qualifications. The complexity is not a feature of the word; it is an aspect of the subject matter.

Denison doesn’t want to use “inerrant” but he does want to use “trustworthy” as an adjective to describe the Bible. Yet, is he suggesting that every last person who describes the Bible as “trustworthy” always means precisely the same thing by that affirmation? If so, he is wrong. I affirm the trustworthiness of the Bible, but I mean by the word something different than the belief that Denison articulates in his paper. By my meaning of the trustworthiness of the Bible (i.e., that you can trust anything you read in the Bible to be true), Denison does not believe in the trustworthiness of the Bible. Denison’s favorite word obviously has multiple definitions and is just as complex as “inerrant” ever could be.

Furthermore, just as clarifications and qualifications exist for the definition of inerrancy, Denison likewise qualifies his understanding of biblical trustworthiness. His trustworthy Bible actually is not trustworthy, according to Denison, for “an involved scientific explanation of the origin of the universe” or “a detailed system for the future” or as a chronicle of the reigns of the kings of Judah or as a narrative of what Judas did after he betrayed Jesus. In all of these respects, according to Denison, the Bible (whether the original manuscripts or the Bible you have on your shelf) is definitely not trustworthy. Denison’s concept of a “trustworthy” Bible is a highly qualified theory.

If these flaws so deeply damage the utility of the word “inerrancy,” they why do they not bother Denison in his use of the term “trustworthy”? Even after rigorous definition and careful qualification of both terms, to call the Bible inerrant is still to say something higher about its nature than to call it “trustworthy”—something higher about the nature of the Bible that not every proponent of a highly qualified and watered-down concept of the “trustworthiness” of the Bible is willing to say.

SECOND, we move to a consideration of Denison’s imaginative notion that the affirmation of inerrancy actually works to undermine Christian faith in the text of the Bible that the present-day believer actually holds in his hands. Again, to use Denison’s own words:

To summarize the threat which inerrancy poses to your Bible:

  1. By this doctrine, the Bible must be inerrant to be trustworthy;

  2. Only the original documents were inerrant;

  3. The copies on which we base our Bibles today are therefore “not entirely error-free”;

  4. Our Bibles therefore cannot be inerrant, and by definition are thus untrustworthy.

Denison’s assertion is entirely theoretical. He cannot produce teeming masses of people whose faith in the text of a modern Bible has been spoiled by the deleterious effects of having affirmed biblical inerrancy. On the other hand, the repeated experience of Southern Baptists in the real world has been that those who lack a trust in the truthfulness and accuracy of the Bibles in their hands are universally people who deny the inerrancy of the Bible rather than inerrantists. The person who is an inerrantist with regard to the original manuscripts but more skeptical with regard to the Bible he holds in his hand than are those who deny the inerrancy of the Bible? He’s a phantom existing only in Denison’s mind.

If Denison has never encountered anyone afflicted by this malady, then how did Denison come to identify and diagnose it? This portion of Denison’s argument is pure sophistry. Denison weaves an abstract philosophical argument by which he and those who deny biblical inerrancy are the true guardians of the trustworthiness of the Bible, while those who outwardly affirm the inerrancy of the Bible are the covert opponents of its trustworthiness and reliability. For someone who spends so much time arguing against Christians being confined by Aristotelian logic, Denison certainly seems insistent that his readers follow his purported logical framework to beware some danger of inerrancy that has proven to be entirely unrealized in actual existence!

How do inerrantists deal with the manuscript question? Both inerrantists and people who deny biblical inerrancy know that typographical and copying errors have been made in the production of Bibles down through the ages. We have thousands of manuscripts of the Bible, and the occasional differences are there for all to see. So, the fact of textual variants (another term for these typographical and copying errors) is not something that separates inerrantists from those like Denison who deny biblical inerrancy; rather it is a fact that we acknowledge together in the same way.

For some verses in the Bible, therefore, some manuscripts read one way and other manuscripts read another way. Only three possibilities exist for understanding this reality. First, perhaps in this postmodern relativistic age I could somehow choose to believe that each and every different reading is equally the entirely trustworthy word of God (to use Denison’s preferred term). Second, I might believe that the original wording is the trustworthy word of God, and that the later mistakes are not the trustworthy word of God. Third, I might believe that neither the original wording nor any of the later mistakes are the trustworthy word of God—that no reading is inerrant or trustworthy.

Which of those three positions do inerrantists advocate? We affirm the second option, believing that the original wording is the inerrant and trustworthy word of God, while the later mistakes are just that—human mistakes. It is at this point that Denison is attacking inerrantists for embracing the second option.

Which option does Denison affirm? From what Denison has written in the paper, we can rule out the first option: Denison does not believe that the later mistakes constitute the trustworthy word of God. He explicitly points out that he does not consider the “longer ending” of the Gospel of Mark to be trustworthy. He also indicates that he does not consider the typographical error that resulted in the “Wicked Bible” to be trustworthy. Denison does not believe that textual or typographical errors in the Bible are trustworthy.

Which of the other two options has Denison chosen? Either he believes that the Bible from which he preaches each Sunday is trustworthy where the translators have chosen the right readings and not trustworthy where they have not (the second option), or he believes that his Bible is not trustworthy anywhere (the third option). Denison seems not to choose the third option, so we can presume his affirmation of the second option.

If Denison agrees with this second option, then one wonders why he is criticizing inerrantists who hold the same viewpoint as his own. Wherever your Bible might contain one of the later mistakes, both Denison and I believe the same thing—that those words are neither inerrant nor trustworthy. Wherever your Bible contains the original wording, I affirm that those words are the inerrant word of God, while Denison somehow apparently believes that the original wording of the Bible may at places be erroneous yet somehow at the same time is trustworthy. These facts define our two positions.

THIRD, Denison argues that inerrancy is a novel doctrine of recent development and that we cannot legitimately claim it to be a part of our “roots” as Southern Baptists. This is among the weakest sections of the paper.

One of those weaknesses involves the criteria that Denison employs for evaluating figures in church history regarding their views of the nature of the Bible. For a person who lived in the past to be considered an inerrantist, Denison requires that he either employ the exact word “inerrant” or articulate something similar to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.

Denison’s ploy only succeeds if the inerrantist is willing to accept the entire burden of proof during the examination of the history of Christianity. Let Denison bring forth the history of those using precisely the word “trustworthiness” to refer to the nature of the Bible, and those who employ precisely the words that he favors to define trustworthiness and qualify it. Furthermore, let him produce those who speak of errors in the biblical text and discredit its treatments of the origins of the universe and human life. His standard for judging Christian History would cause any view of the nature of the Bible to fail, including his own.

When one is not straining at gnats and swallowing camels, the historical search is much less complex. For example, consider this comparison. Denison quotes Augustine as saying:

…none of [the biblical] authors has committed an error in writing. If in that literature I meet with anything which seems contrary to truth, I will have no doubt that it is only the manuscript which is faulty, or the translator who has not hit the sense, or my own failure to understand.

The simple definition of “inerrancy” that Denison himself quoted earlier says:

“Inerrancy” may be defined as the view that “1. When all the facts are known, 2. they will demonstrate that the Bible in its autographs 3. and correctly interpreted 4. is entirely true 5. in all that it affirms.”

The definition allows for the possibility that the Bible might not be interpreted properly or that all of the facts might not be known. Those possibilities correspond with Augustine’s statement about “my own failure to understand” or “the translator who has not hit the sense.” The definition speaks of the Bible in its autographs, corresponding with Augustine’s statement about “the manuscript” possibly being “faulty.” The definition states that, these conditions being met, the Bible is “entirely true…in all that it affirms.” Augustine says that “none of [the biblical] authors has committed an error in writing.” These two statements are different? I submit that it requires years of advanced study and careful indoctrination not to be able to see that these two quotations are essentially saying precisely same thing. Thankfully, most Southern Baptists are bereft of the necessary training to deprive them of their common sense.

A second weakness is present in this section as well. Denison takes great pains to place before us people in Christian History who have held a high view of the nature of the Bible, but who have also been guilty of holding erroneous positions in other areas of their theology. Denison summarizes, “In short, many of the so-called ‘inerrantists’ of church history interpreted the Bible in ways which would bother most Baptists and ‘conservative’ Christians today.” In making this important and often overlooked point, Denison is doing us a great service. A right view of the nature of the Bible does not guarantee a right practice of the interpretation of the Bible. Furthermore, the right interpretation of the Bible is as important as the right view of the nature and authority of the Bible. Some inerrantists have forgotten this truth, claiming that so long as a person is committed to inerrancy, inerrantists ought not to quibble over differences in interpretation. Denison’s arguments assist us greatly in correcting this na├»ve view.

However, it escapes me how Denison sees this point as undermining inerrancy. Yes, believing in inerrancy will not automatically make you a good interpreter of the Bible. Believing in inerrancy also will not cure warts, make your hair grow back, or enable you to make millions of dollars buying and selling real estate. These truths do not mean that affirming inerrancy is not valuable at all; they merely mean that these things are not the particular benefits of inerrancy that give value to the affirmation of inerrancy.

Denison has the formula backwards. It is not that affirming inerrancy is important because it makes me a good interpreter of the Bible; interpreting the Bible is important because I affirm inerrancy. God authored the Bible. He meant to communicate something through the words that He Himself chose when He caused men to write the Bible. Those words constitute the inerrant word of God, who finds me worthy of His message. The quest of seeking to find the one-and-only rightful interpretation of the Bible is an exercise in hearing the voice of God. Hearing the voice of God is an inordinately more important endeavor than is hearing the voice of “the Yahwist.” Therefore the inerrantist has far greater motivation to interpret the Bible rightly than does the modernist.

FOURTH, we look at Denison’s claim that the denial of inerrancy does not lead to a slippery slope of the compromise of other doctrines. Denison offers a fourfold rebuttal of the slippery slope theory. First, people can affirm inerrancy and still espouse doctrinal error. Second, there are instances of people who deny inerrancy and yet still manage not to apostatize completely. Third, because Baptist churches are autonomous, the teaching of an errant Bible in seminaries will not necessarily affect Baptist churches at all. Fourth, in real life one can question the accuracy of a statement or work partially without being compelled to reject it entirely.

Denison either misunderstands or misconstrues the concept of the “slippery slope.” Personally, rather than using the phrase “slippery slope,” I prefer to speak of the denial of biblical inerrancy as a “gateway heresy,” deliberately drawing from the characterization of marijuana as a “gateway drug.” Those who argue that marijuana is a “gateway drug” are not claiming that every person who smokes marijuana must necessarily move on to heroin. Neither are they claiming that every heroin addict also is a marijuana user. Rather, they are attempting to demonstrate that marijuana use leads to the use of other drugs often enough to be statistically significant.

Likewise, history demonstrates a clear statistical pattern of people who first reject biblical inerrancy and then reject other important Christian doctrines. One could cite individual anecdotes such as Southern Seminary Professor Crawford Howell Toy, who abandoned biblical inerrancy and eventually left orthodox Christianity. Another approach would be to analyze such groups as the homosexuality-affirming Alliance of Baptists and compare the percentage of their membership affirming inerrancy with the percentage of Southern Baptists affirming inerrancy. In doing this, the objective would not be to demonstrate that no exceptions exist, but simply to show that most who become heretics deny inerrancy first, and that the denial of inerrancy strongly predisposes one to deny other important Christian doctrines as well. One can agree with Denison that it is possible for a person to deny biblical inerrancy and yet cling to some of the Bible’s important teachings, yet we can also say that however possible this state may be, it often does not endure over the span of generations in the majority of those who deny the inerrancy of the Bible. The well-beaten path, trodden by Mainline denominations and institutions all around us, is from the denial of inerrancy to the denial of other vital Christian doctrines.

With regard to Denison’s argument from Baptist polity, he has the matter backwards. I agree with him that Baptist churches are normally quite resilient against the influences of liberal effete academicians. Nevertheless, even if we can guarantee that churches could remain impervious to the influences of liberal seminaries, our polity also requires us to guarantee that liberal seminaries should not be able to remain impervious to the influences of the conservative churches from which they once wrongly derived their income.

Denison’s statements about the tenability of rejecting the trustworthiness of the Bible in part, but not in whole, merits our attention. Consider his wording:

Fourth, the “slippery slope” theory rests on faulty reasoning. We’re told that if we admit there are questions with the biblical text regarding geography or science, we’ll soon slide into questioning vital areas of faith. If we cannot be sure how many angels were at the resurrection, soon we’ll be questioning the resurrection itself.

However, this reasoning doesn’t work in life. When you find typographical errors in a newspaper, do you question everything the paper contains? If you disagree with your pastor regarding his interpretation of a particular text, do you reject every part of his theology? By the “slippery slope” argument, once you’ve started down the precipice there’s nothing to break your fall. But the fact is, the slip doesn’t necessarily lead to a slope at all.

Denison’s argument fails at several points. First, his case only survives if one makes a stark and artificial separation between “geography or science” and “vital areas of the faith,” but such a neat division is unwarranted. Did God literally create Adam and Eve? Does the entire lineage of humanity trace back to one primeval couple? Were they created sinless? Did they fall into sin? Did their sin somehow affect the nature of their progeny? Is the nature of the universe itself affected by their sin? These are questions of cosmology, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and even astronomy. These are scientific questions. Yet they are also spiritual questions, the answers to which affect the very gospel itself.

Denison’s case is further flawed because the nature of my newspaper or the nature of my pastor’s hermeneutics are not intertwined with the nature of God. The way I treat a publication or message is always intertwined with what I know about the character of the one who produces it.

Sometimes I encounter publications produced by those whom I know to be fallen, imprecise, errant people who are genuinely trying to produce a good and accurate publication. My local newspaper fits into this category. When I find a typographical error in my newspaper, I know that it is an error, but I do not conclude that the error was intentional, and its isolated presence does not make me any more skeptical as to whether the newspaper correctly reports the President’s activities yesterday. I conclude that the newspaper is generally accurate but occasionally flawed because I presume that the people who publish it are trying to be accurate but will make inadvertent mistakes.

Other people are deliberately dishonest. If I receive an email from a person I don’t know telling me about a vast fortune that he needs to transfer out of Nigeria, then I receive that message differently. I presume that the person involved is deliberately trying to deceive me. If I should enter into a subsequent conversation with the sender, I would presume every word to be a lie, simply because I know the sender to be a liar trying to deceive me.

Other people I consider honest but generally irresponsible. If they forward to me emails about FCC Petition 2493 and Madalyn Murray O’Hair and other similar matters, strongly chiding me that WE MUST ACT NOW, then I will soon conclude that they are well-meaning people but a bit reckless in their research. As a consequence, when they forward me an email about a missing child for whom we really need to be on the lookout, I am immediately skeptical.

On the other hand, if a friend calls me on the phone stating that her own daughter is missing, then I’m not skeptical at all. My friend is in a position to know the truth and it is too important a subject for her not to have given the matter careful thought. My estimation of the messenger’s credibility, competence, and character determine entirely my expectations of the message.

If tomorrow I have the experience that Isaiah had, and I see the LORD high and lifted up and hear Him speaking to me, then I’m going to presume that every word is entirely inerrant. I will make this assumption apart from Francis Turretin, apart from any intent to divide the Southern Baptist Convention, and apart from any acquaintance with The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. The cause of my presumption is solely and entirely what I know about the nature of God. I heard God say something, and I will die before anyone convinces me that it was not true. Denison understands this connection between God’s nature and His message well enough to articulate it himself:

It all seems so simple. God inspired the Bible and he doesn’t make mistakes, so there can be no errors in the Bible. The Bible is therefore “inerrant.”

Denison rejects this argument, but he never bothers to refute it. The question is simply whether the Bible is like the newspaper or the Nigerian fraud email or the FCC Petition email or the phone call from the friend or Isaiah’s vision. The answer to that question hinges entirely upon who God is and what role He had in the production of the Bible. It not only seems that simple; it is that simple.

FIFTH, we consider Denison’s argument that the Bible does not claim inerrancy for itself. Denison opines:

…inerrancy is neither a word nor an argument found in the biblical text itself. Does it seem right or wrong to create a question the Scriptures nowhere ask, and then make one answer to this question the only “biblical” position?

Once again, it becomes important at this juncture to bring forward the simple definition of inerrancy quoted by Denison:

“Inerrancy” may be defined as the view that “1. When all the facts are known, 2. they will demonstrate that the Bible in its autographs 3. and correctly interpreted 4. is entirely true 5. in all that it affirms.”

Does the Bible make this argument, or does it not? Denison claims that the only way to arrive at this argument is to “extend the argument beyond the text.” In one sense, Denison is correct. Inerrancy is a matter of systematic theology. In other words, to understand the entirety of the biblical claim of inerrancy, it is necessary to consider not just what the Bible says in one place, but to consider the aggregate of what the Bible says in several places.

Perhaps the most intriguing way to address Denison’s argument would be to take his own admissions about what the Bible teaches of its own nature, and see that Denison’s interpretation itself essentially adds up to inerrancy! To do so we take Denison’s argument in our own sequence, looking at how his own chapter builds an argument in favor of inerrancy.

Denison acknowledged in his chapter than the Bible has come to us by the inspiration of God. Every word of the biblical autographs is God speaking. Inspiration tells us about “the origin of the text,” Denison says. “This text and others like it guarantee that the Bible came from God.” Denison favorably quotes a passage that goes even further: “the Spirit of God rested on and in the prophets and spoke through them so that their words did not come from themselves, but from the mouth of God.”(emphasis mine)

The paper also analyzes the text of Numbers 23:19, which says, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.” So far, Denison has told us that every word of the Bible comes from God, and that God does not lie. This seems to be a solid case for biblical inerrancy! How does Denison not agree?

The flaw in this logic is that “lie” and “error” are not the same thing. Webster defines “lie” as “to make a statement that one knows is false, especially with intent to deceive.” It defines an “error” as “something incorrectly done through ignorance or carelessness; mistake.” Thus Number 23:19 does not speak to the question of error/inerrancy, but rather to the trustworthy character of God.

If a person does not subscribe to inerrancy, this does not mean that he or she accuses God of “intent to deceive.” Even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy claims that the Bible we have is “not entirely error-free” (Exposition E), but this does not mean that it deliberately deceives us. The author of Numbers 23:19 in no sense intended to address the issue of inerrancy.

So according to Denison’s very careful argument here, the words of the Bible may not be a “lie” because every word comes from God, and God cannot be accused of “intent to deceive.” However, “‘lie’ and ‘error’ are not the same thing,” and although the words of the Bible may not be a “lie” they may indeed be an “error.” God, according to Denison, is not someone able “to make a statement that [He] knows is false, especially with intent to deceive,” but He apparently is someone capable of “something incorrectly done through ignorance or carelessness.” God is not bad; He is merely incompetent!

The inerrantist, agreeing with Denison that God is the author bearing the responsibility for every word in the biblical autographs, maintains that our God neither lies nor makes mistakes. For this reason we believe the Bible to be inerrant. Denison has catalogued several (but not all) of the biblical passages that bespeak the high view we hold of the nature of the Bible. He employs several arguments to attempt to show that words like flawless, true, perfect, and faithful can be construed to allow room for errors in the Bible. What he cannot do—what no person has ever been able to do—is direct us to any portion of the Bible alleging flaws, weaknesses, or errors in any portion of the Bible in any sense. Once again, Denison’s only hope for success is to shirk the burden of proof and place it entirely upon his opponents.

Looking back to our simple definition of inerrancy, we concede that the Bible does not make statements about its own “autographs” or manuscripts. This is hardly surprising, since no book of the Bible had a manuscript problem while that book was being written. It also is no impediment to affirming inerrancy. Rather, it is because the Bible, speaking of itself in its original state, affirms its own inerrancy that we speak of the inerrancy of the autographs. Otherwise, just from the texts cited by Denison, without bringing in 2 Peter 1:15-21 and a dozen other passages, we find an excellent case for inerrancy right within the Bible itself.

SIXTH, and finally, we consider Denison’s chapter naming some of the specific assertions in the Bible that he considers erroneous.

Denison believes that “any clear reading of [the accounts in Matthew 27:1-10 and Acts 1:18-19 of Judas’s post-betrayal actions] shows that the two accounts do contradict each other in several places” and that one, or both, is in error, disproving biblical inerrancy. I have attempted in this paper to maintain a conversational tone and to avoid the inclusion of footnotes and the invocations of experts. To refute Denison’s characterization of the accounts of Judas’s actions in Matthew and Acts, however, I must call upon an expert. The expert whom I summon to refute Jim Denison is…Jim Denison. In his online article entitled “Isn’t the Bible Filled with Contradictions?” Denison defends the Judas narrative against the charge that it is contradictory:

"Matthew says that Judas hanged himself; the book of Acts says he fell down and died. Which is it?" Matthew's gospel does indeed record Judas's suicide by hanging (Mt 27:5). In Acts 1 Peter says, "Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out" (v. 18). It may be that Judas's body decomposed, so that when the rope broke or was cut, it fell as Peter describes. Or it may be that the Greek word translated "hanged" is actually the word "impaled" (both meanings are possible), so that Peter describes more vividly the way Judas killed himself. Either option is a possible way to explain the apparent contradiction.

The body of written work struggling with the problem of being self-contradictory is not the Bible; it is Denison’s own writings. When writing for the lost, he defends the Bible against the charge that it is self-contradictory. When writing for Christians and against inerrantists, he himself charges the Bible with inconsistencies and errors. I say this neither to be uncharitable nor to make unduly personal what is a discussion of ideas. Rather, I think that Denison’s online article is a stellar example of the fact that apparent contradictions in the Bible are reconcilable. I think it further reveals Denison’s instinctual understanding (as a good pastor) that the inerrancy of the Bible is indeed important, and that successful evangelism often requires showing that the Bible is God’s perfect word and is not in error.

Just as Denison has been able to reconcile the Judas accounts to his apparent satisfaction, his other supposed contradictions that disprove inerrancy are not so problematic as he would suggest. I carried off to college with me a copy of Gleason L. Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Other similar works probably sit on the shelf of a bookstore near you or are available online. Each believer who is troubled by some alleged contradiction in the Bible owes it to himself to examine the strong evidence in favor of inerrancy before succumbing to the soothsaying of a document like Denison’s “The Errancy of Inerrancy.”

IN CONCLUSION, none of Denison’s six arguments disproves biblical inerrancy. As a Baptist, I’m thankful to live in a nation in which every individual is free to embrace the inerrancy of the Bible, to regard it as riddled with contradictions, or even to refuse to read it altogether. I affirm Dr. Denison’s right to come to his own conclusions regarding the nature of the Bible. I affirm his right to teach those conclusions and to publish them for the perusal of others. I affirm the right of the Baptist General Covention of Texas to hire him as their Theologian-in-Residence and to consider his attempts to undermine belief in biblical inerrancy as a service to the churches of the BGCT.

Thankfully, religious liberty in our nation also involves the right to consider Denison’s arguments, interact with them, and offer a vigorous critique. BGCT Theologian-in-Residence Jim Denison disagrees with what both the 1963 and the 2000 versions of The Baptist Faith & Message say about the Bible—that it has “God for its author…and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” His authorship, dissemination, and use of this paper represents his attempt to get Texas Baptist churches to join him in his error. In a land of religious liberty he thereby opens a conversation in which I may humbly disagree with him, point out his errors, and hopefully pray that the Holy Spirit will, as promised, lead him to all truth.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Handling Criticism While in Leadership

When you're the leader, how do you handle criticism? I believe that the answer to this question goes a long way toward revealing what is in a person's heart as well as doing much to determine what kind of outcome any person will have in leadership. A proper response to criticism will arise out of an optimum combination of internal security and humility. These two concepts are not really in tension with one another for a Christian. A Christian avoids insecurity not by abandoning humility, but by humbly acknowledging that my many failings and weaknesses are amply corrected by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Don't let the voices of your critics dominate your thinking. I'm especially speaking to those of you who, like me, serve as pastors. It is easy, depending upon your personality, to drift into the delusion that your critics speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. However, that's rarely the case. Even if there is truth to what your critics are saying, it usually isn't the whole truth. Did God call you into the ministry? Did He call you into your present position of service? If so, then in addition to whatever shortcomings your critics may see in you, there are the good things that God is doing in you to equip you for the calling that He has given to you. The criticisms also may not fit the category of "nothing but the truth." Sometimes critics will take what is a real weakness in your life or your ministry and push it too far for their own reasons. A wise person listens for the encouraging voice of the Holy Spirit for support in the midst of attack.

On the other hand, don't shut out the voices of your critics entirely. Your critics often will not be speaking lies and nothing but lies, either. Not always, but most times, criticisms that have no basis in the truth whatsoever will also be no threat to you whatsoever, and you'll know that instinctively. For example, if someone were to allege that I, Bart Barber, drink up all of the coffee at the church and leave none for the rest of the staff members, then that allegation wouldn't make it very far—I don't even drink coffee. Only the plausible accusations gain a foothold, because they have some basis in the truth. Sometimes, there is information in an accusation that can be helpful to me, even if the person delivering that information wishes to harm me with it.

I think that there are many mistakes that people often make in dealing with criticism:

  1. Automatically moving all critics to my "enemies list." If you have this habit, you'll quickly wind up with a full list of enemies and an empty list of friends. The person who disagrees with you or criticizes you on topic A may turn out to be your strongest ally on topic B.

    Make this mistake, and you are doomed to finding a new church every few years.

  2. Demeaning valid criticism. When people have reasonable criticism to offer, you must respond to it reasonably. If you do not, other people will perceive it as a weakness on your part and you will wind up strengthening your critics with your actions rather than weakening them.

    A prime example of this is President Obama's treatment of Fox News. Obama's dismissiveness toward Fox News gives an impression of him as imperious at best and unable to answer his critics at worst. I wish I could say that pastors or denominational leaders never act the same way, but that's just not the case. It is hard—really hard—when passions rise to treat critics with dignity, but that remains the best course of action in defense of a worthy cause. I have failed often in this regard, but I try to remind myself of this truth.

  3. Failing to spot the difference between criticisms and questions. Sometimes you will encounter people who are just trying on the opposing viewpoint as an exercise in making up their own minds. The difference between a questioner and a critic is one of certainty. Unloading both barrels on someone who is just trying to make up his mind is a great way to make up his mind in the wrong direction.

The best steps for overcoming criticism, in my opinion, are understanding, explaining, and trusting. Your first obligation in dealing with criticism is to demonstrate that you truly understand the rationale that the critic is putting forward. The right kinds of sentences in this regard might begin with, "I can see why Fred might wonder about that, because…" You're helping to demonstrate that Fred (your critic) doesn't know something that you don't know. Ideally, you'd like people to believe that you have already considered exactly what Fred is talking about, and that you've nonetheless come to a different conclusion. Indeed, you want people to conclude that you know everything that Fred knows, and that you still know a little more besides that, which is why you've come to a different conclusion.

Well, actually, ideally you don't just want people to draw that conclusion—ideally you want that actually to be true. If Fred is presenting a point of view that you don't understand or that you haven't considered up to this point, do yourself the favor of taking a moment to consider it.

Once you have come to understand your critics point of view, and have demonstrated to everyone that you do understand it fully, you need to explain why you have still, even understanding all that your critics say, have come to a different conclusion than they have. It may not be iron-clad syllogistic proof. Most things in life aren't quite that clear-cut. But it needs to be a sound bit of reasoning that people can grasp for themselves. Good sentences along these lines often start with, "Even though I understand all that Fred is saying, I think we've got to give careful consideration to…"

Finally, there comes a time to trust in the Lord and in the people. Do so internally and communicate it externally. Tell people, "I'm glad that we're looking carefully at all of the points of view. I'm confident in the case that I've made, but I'm even more confident in the leadership of the Holy Spirit and in the way that each of you can listen to Him as you weigh all of this prayerfully and we decide together what to do."

Really, I believe that President Obama is a great illustration of this whole concept (and if you hold a different opinion of President Obama, don't let that make you miss the point of this little essay). Dictatorial leaders who demand adoration and will not brook any criticism may be very successful for a while, but they are ultimately doomed in any free society. Great leaders will be able to learn from criticism and grow through criticism, demonstrating thoroughly to the people whom they lead that they have no interest in protecting themselves at the expense of the mission. If this is true for political leaders and business leaders, how much more ought it to be true for people who claim that their own selves have been buried together with Christ and are beyond protection anyway?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem on the Brazos

The administration of Baylor University has requested the Baylor Alumni Association to dissolve itself in favor of an alumni relations program administered by the university itself. This is a controversial request that comes as the culmination of several contentious years (although things somewhat incorrectly appeared to be improving) between Baylor's administration and largest alumni body.

The Baylor Alumni Association will likely remind you of the importance of independence as opposed to control. The BAA ought not to be some sort of a perpetual "watchdog," but neither should it be a "lapdog" subservient to the vicissitudes of the administration. To dissolve the BAA, many alumni feel, would represent a dangerous consolidation of power in favor of the administration and the regents of Baylor.

I agree with this point of view. Of course, I can say so with a straight face.

I was not among the folks who favored consolidation of power when Herb Reynolds was stealing Baylor University away from Texas Baptists and placing it into the hands of a self-perpetuating board of trustees—the power grab of the Baptist century. Among BAA's champions will be a great many people who loved the idea of consolidating control of Baylor, so long as they were the ones in control. Now, on the outside of the circle of power and looking in, they're the advocates of a greater voice for the people. Quite convenient, if you ask me.

Nevertheless, Baylor is my alma mater, the university has sent out so many people who have been used so greatly by the Lord in its 164-year history, and a great many of the people involved in this situation are my brothers and sisters in Christ. For all of these reasons, and because God put some good things into my own life during my years in Waco (one of whom will be teaching Kindergarten Sunday School today), I am praying for the peace of Jerusalem on the Brazos.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What Can You Do to Support the Great Commission Resurgence?

Presuming, that is, that you are not a member of the reorganization task force.

Is there a role for the rest of us, other than sitting at the base of the mountain and awaiting the tablets? Sitting idly at such moments has been known to lead to bad results (see Exodus 32). Ours is not a polity of idleness and ignorance. We believe that God has called every believer-priest to be active and informed in the collective seeking of God's will. So here's a list of things we all ought to be doing between now and next June:

  1. Pray for the task force. Prayer for them is your obligation. You might also register officially as a prayer supporter at the official website for such things, but confuse not website registration with actual prayer. If you pray and do not bother with signing up, good for you. If you signed up, but aren't praying, then repent and begin to pray in earnest.

    We do not have conventions and votes because we believe in the power of the people. We believe in the depravity of the people and in the weaknesses of the people. Even for those who share not Dort's understanding of that depravity, neither do we embrace the dangerous fictions of Pelagius. Let the politicians talk about the rightness of the people, but that is not the theology behind our voting.

    Rather, we are a people who have conventions and votes because we believe in the wisdom of God and in the work of the Holy Spirit in every believer. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, Baptist polity degenerates into mere democracy. Pray. Pray consistently for the task force. Pray about next Summer. One month ago I did something that would even seem silly to the world—I sat in a car near the actual convention center where the meeting will take place next Summer, and I prayed for the task force and for our convention meeting even there, on that spot. God hears my prayers from Farmersville just as well (perhaps even better, since Farmersville is in Texas and that's pretty close to Arkansas), but there was something more intensive and real in my own heart while praying from that location.

    Prayer is an the important catalyst to our polity. Please don't forget it.

  2. Give input now. Send an email to a task force member, or even to them all. Start a blog. Attend a meeting. Talk to your friends.

    The good folks on the task force have asked for input from Southern Baptists now, before they make any public statements or recommendations. We have no way to know whether, after they have made public statements or recommendations, they will permit any further input to influence their actions at all. The scope of the task force's work is virtually unbounded. If you care about anything at all in the Southern Baptist Convention, whatever it is, it apparently is not off the table. Therefore, if you care about anything at all in the Southern Baptist Convention, it is your duty to make sure that the task force members know that somebody cares about whatever that is.

    You may be maligned as a myth-maker or a miscreant of some sort, and certainly such critters exist within the SBC. But the structure of this process really gives you no other good option but to speak up now. If you aren't speculating or fearmongering about the eventual contents of the task force's recommendations, then you aren't doing anything malicious. There is nothing untoward about standing up and declaring simply, "This is something that I love about the SBC, and I want our leadership to know it."

    That's why I've been posting of late about the Cooperative Program. Do I believe that the task force will be discussing possible changes to the Cooperative Program? I do, because they have said as much. Do I believe that their discussions will yield any actual recommendations to change the Cooperative Program? Who knows? Contra Greg Boyd, I'm willing to assert that God knows. Beyond that, none of the rest of us knows for certain what the task force will recommend. God very well might employ the robust discussion of Southern Baptists right now to influence the task force recommendations next year. I'm willing to believe that what I say and write about the Cooperative Program, if many other Southern Baptists say and write similar things, could be used by God as positive reinforcement to help our task force make good decisions in their meetings.

    If you care about North American evangelism and missions and believe that NAMB ought to continue to exist, then you ought to be speaking up about it now. Because I know that the task force is going to shut NAMB down? No. Do I have any idea what they would do with, for example, Disaster Relief if they did so? No. Farm it all out to Baptist Global Response? Who knows? God does. But the point is simply that it is on the table (for nothing is off the table, I don't think), and that the task force has set aside this time right now for input. Give it. Don't let anyone dissuade you from giving it. Don't let labels and blog posts cower you into a corner. Now, you be respectful. Don't you speculate beyond what you know and then label it as fact. Smile. Laugh. Remember that the joy of the Lord is deeper than the politics of Southern Baptists. But you stand up and be counted.

    To do so is not to disrespect or demean those who serve on the task force—it is simply to do what they themselves have asked us to do. They're good, godly people. Even those of us who genuinely believe that they are good, godly people deserve to be able to speak with our own voice and have our own opinions about these important matters. And even those who do not agree that they are good, godly people (if any such critics exist at all) are still entitled to speak their mind and contribute to our process of making decisions. The task force members have asked for our help. Give it.

    And if you sit on your hands now and say nothing, then you may very well get precisely what you deserve. I promise you, every sourpuss, every rebel-without-a-cause, every ne'er-do-well in the SBC will speak loudly. Let's drown them out in support of the great things in the SBC.

  3. Attend a task force meeting if you get the opportunity. I want to applaud Ronnie Floyd for inviting state convention directors to attend the upcoming Dallas meeting. I disagree sometimes with the actions of some of our state conventions, but it is a bad process that disregards their involvement. If that meeting were not taking place right in the middle of the SBTC's annual meeting in Lubbock, then I would love to attend, even if it meant sitting out in the hallway and praying while they were meeting behind closed doors.

    Wouldn't it be great if, after they have developed their recommendations, the task force would go to every state convention annual meeting next year and host forums to give the opportunity for every Southern Baptist to give feedback on the specific recommendations? I'm sure that the entire task force couldn't possibly attend every one, but surely at least one task force member could represent the task force at every state convention meeting. How far would that go toward showing respect for the people of the SBC and genuinely soliciting grassroots buy-in for the recommendations, whatever they are?

    Maybe they'll do that, or do something like it. And if they do, whatever opportunity you get to interact with the task force, you should take it. Their work is important.

  4. Read the recommendations for yourself very prayerfully and carefully whenever they come out. Afterwards, read the analysis of the recommendations in your Baptist newspaper or newsmagazine. You can't participate in the process unless you keep yourself informed.

    Read good blogs from a variety of viewpoints in Southern Baptist life. If in doing so you don't find different opinions of the recommendations, then the task force will either have done an unbelievably good or an unbelievably bad job. The likely outcome is fanboys on one side and critics on another side and a great many of us who have been waiting to see the specifics will start to come down on one side or the other as we finally learn whether the fanboys or the critics were right all along on this one. Follow that whole saga and listen carefully to the substance of the arguments made, and you'll wind up pretty well informed.

  5. Go to Orlando. Go to the meetings, too, by the way, and not just to your theme park of choice. But right now is the time to book a hotel room and make your plans to attend the convention meeting in Orlando next year (click here). It would be a good thing for you to go every year. A lot of the people who spend your Cooperative Program check are there every year. Don't you think that the people who write those checks ought to outnumber them on the messenger list? I do, not because those are bad people, but because I just believe that it is right for the contributors to be the ones holding everyone else accountable.

    And especially this year, with likely major changes on the agenda, you owe it as a fiduciary duty tied to all those CP dollars that your church sends out every month to attend the meeting. That's something that you can do.

Some of my very astute readers may be able to think of other things that you can do. I welcome hearing those sentiments in the comment thread.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Random Thoughts About Death

I'm ending the Cooperative Program series prematurely. I have other thoughts to include, but I'm going to save some of my powder for another forum.

Twelve years ago today my Dad passed away from gastro-esophageal cancer at the age of 57. Death is somewhat on my mind today, and I share with you these few thoughts, none of them very profound, really.

  1. Changing medical technology has destroyed the phenomenon of "last words." Dad died, like most people do today, in a drug-induced stupor. His last words, whatever they were, were the product of a bad reaction to Dilaudid—nonsensical and disturbed ramblings that gave way to insentience at a switch from Dilaudid to Morphine.

    I'm not entirely sure that I like this phenomenon. I'm not some Superman with a high tolerance for pain—not at all. At the first sign of struggle, I'm sure that I'll demand the good stuff. However, sitting at a desk at the age of 39 and presuming to be a long, long way away from the big moment, the curious researcher in me wants to know what it is like to die—doesn't want to miss the unrepeatable experience of a lifetime—and the wordsmith in me admittedly yearns somewhat for a final moment to turn the appropriate phrase at just the right time.

    I'm ever impressed by Stonewall Jackson's feat in that regard: "Let us cross over the river and rest beneath the shade of the trees." Whatever God was showing him at that moment must have been as serene and palliative as anything flowing through an I.V., and he was able to communicate it to the comfort of those whom he left behind.

  2. I wonder sometimes whether there's actually as much inequity in health care as there is mere appearance of inequity in health care. Don't get me wrong, for I am not alleging that there is no actual inequity in health care in our country. Certainly there is. But here's what I'm talking about:

    My father had done well at business by the time that he died. He was a man of means. He received his cancer diagnosis from the oncologist in our simple nearby city of Jonesboro, AR. I'm not trying to demean my hometown at all by suggesting that Jonesboro, AR, is not Johns Hopkins—neither is the place where I live, nor the place where you live (I'm taking the huge leap here in presuming that I don't have a high readership at Johns Hopkins). Dad's prognosis at a garden-variety oncologist in Jonesboro, AR? You'll be dead in six months (said much more courteously, of course).

    But my Dad had the wherewithal to go to Johns Hopkins if he so desired. He didn't go there, but only because that wasn't really the place to go. He jetted halfway across the country to attend appointments with the leading researcher and physician for his kind of cancer in the world (as best as we could identify him through our research). We met incredibly intelligent and sensitive people. We got for Dad the best care available in the world. We spared no expense. We prayed together daily. We saw miracles of both the medical and the heavenly kind.

    And Dad was still dead in six months. By slightly different means, and after a far better Summer than we had been led to expect, but just as dead nonetheless.

    Does money make a difference in health care outcomes? Of course it does. But do we or do we not believe in the sovereign and loving hand of God in such things? I believe that God had set the appointed time of my father's death and that it transpired as God intended. It is, I believe, actually appointed to a man once to die. None of us has enough money to change that fact.

    Could it be that a great deal of our health care money is spent in a successful bid not to postpone our deaths, but to strengthen our denial about their inevitability?

  3. People's behavior at death-related crises can make a powerful impact.

    Some of you will know already that my Dad worked in the 70s as a mid-level Democrat bureaucrat in Arkansas (he ran our congressman's home office). I was raised to be a stalwart Democrat. Arkansas is a pretty small state (several times more people live in any decent city in the US), and among the things that happened during this period in my Dad's life is that he developed a relationship with an up-and-coming Arkansas politician named Bill Clinton. Yes. I know. Everybody who's driven through Arkansas in the middle of the night has some sort of a way that they are intimate best-buddies with Bill Clinton. The world is sick-to-death of hearing about it from every Arkansan who comes down the pike. My apologies for the name-dropping. There's a point, I promise you.

    Dad remained a Democrat throughout my entire childhood and until after I went off to Baylor (where I arrived on campus as a Democrat myself, being one of the few people on the planet made more conservative during their Baylor education). Later, entirely as a consequence of the issues of abortion, socialized medicine, and the homosexual agenda, Dad became a card-carrying, contribution-making, straight-ticket-voting Republican, which he remained until the day of his death.

    So, there's my Dad, lying on his deathbed in Baptist Hospital East in Memphis, twenty years removed from his political career, a renegade from his former political allegiance. Into the room strolls a nurse saying with rolling eyes, "Down at the nurse's station we've got some crackpot on the phone who says that they're calling from the White House because the President wants to speak to your Dad."

    "That's probably the real deal," my sister said as the blood drained from the nurse's face.

    And then the call was transferred and my sister spoke briefly with President Clinton before holding the phone up to my father's ear and letting Dad listen to a few words from an old friend. The medicine had long since removed from my Dad the capacity for speech (see point #1 above), but as the President concluded his kind words, tears traced a trail down my Dad's cheeks.

    God help us both if President Clinton and I were to try to engage in any serious discussion about politics. But you do not catch this blog lobbing gratuitous shots in the direction of President Bill Clinton, nor will you hear its author doing so in other venues. If I can avoid it at all, I just don't say anything negative about Bill Clinton. He had nothing to gain politically, monetarily, egotistically—nothing at all to gain that I can discern from calling a friend from so very long ago and in such relative obscurity, with whom he finally was not even able to speak. I can only presume that President Clinton acted entirely out of compassion and love.

    And so, as a pastor, this phenomenon reminds me that my behavior in ministering at the time of death (and I don't claim to do any better a job than average on this score, so I need to remind myself) is behavior that can make powerful and lasting impressions upon some people in some circumstances.

  4. I don't like all funerary traditions equally. When Dad died, we broke with the standard course of events in our area. I've since learned that every different community seems to have slightly different traditions regarding what people do to mark deaths. Here's what we did, which I really liked:

    First, we received visitors at the funeral home by standing in front of the closed casket and making a receiving line of sorts. We all got to visit with each person without wondering whether we had missed anybody, those who visited had a clear picture of their night's agenda (i.e., make it through the line, speak with the family, and then leave if desired), and the fact that we had no gawking at Dad's embalmed remains seemed to take nothing away from the night.

    Second, we had a simple semi-private burial early the next morning. Family and close friends were there. We had no mile-long parade of headlight-burning vehicles to meet there. We simply gathered at the cemetery in the morning and delivered the casket to the plot.

    Finally, we held a celebrative worship service as an early-afternoon memorial gathering. The service came complete with praise music, beautiful solos, multiple preachers, and an uplifting experience for the overflow crowd. Many were business associates, not all of whom we knew to be Christians. They heard the gospel that day, but perhaps more importantly, they saw it in our response to Dad's death and in the things we highlighted about his life.

    When I die, if anyone cares to know what now pleases me to anticipate as a belated send-off for me, allow me to say now that I wouldn't do things any differently than we did them for Dad.

Like I said, just a few disjointed thoughts rattling around in my brain today. They may not be very useful in and of themselves, but maybe they'll collide with some of yours and fuse into something of value.

P.S.: And not very much related to the subject of death, I want to note finally that I was blessed with a truly wonderful Dad. He wasn't perfect, but he never stopped growing in Christ until he died and was completed. Never one time in all of my life was I ever anything but proud that he was my Dad. Not everybody gets that, and I'm thankful for him.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Intermission: Recalling Early Recommendations for the Task Force

Way back in May 2009, before we met in Louisville, before we had a Reorganization Task Force, and back when all of our agency executive suites had names on the doors, Gary Ledbetter wrote the best article so far on the subject of the Great Commission Resurgence. The time has come, I believe, to revisit Ledbetter's wise words; therefore, I am providing for you a link to his article.

For those of you who are too lazy to click the link (you know who you are), I provide a summary of Ledbetter's main recommendations to the yet-to-be-created task force. Reading my executive summary is no substitute for reading the whole article, but it would provide a good starting-place for you.

  1. “The makeup of the task force must be broadly representative of those who will actually attend the SBC annual meeting and participate in the convention’s business more than once or twice.”

  2. “I suggest that the members of the task force commit that they will not, for at least two years, accept any vocational ministry position (job) or be paid for writing a book related to or growing out of the work of the task force.”

  3. “The committee must find a way to do its work in the sunlight” (by which Ledbetter was suggesting that the press and the public be invited into the meetings). Golden line in this section: “Presenting the convention messengers with a fait accompli next spring will be less effective than keeping us all in the loop. Surprise us and we may still endorse it, but many of us will not support it.”

  4. “It would be timely and responsible to put a cap on what this task force can cost the SBC.”

Questions: Do you agree with me that this is good advice? Do you believe that the task force is following this advice? However you answered the previous question, how do you believe the task force's following or ignoring of this advice is affecting their effectiveness?