Monday, November 29, 2010

A Bloated Baptist Bureaucracy We Could Do Without

I prefer the SBC structure to any other that I know, but I do believe that we run the risk of creating bloated bureaucracies at all tiers of our cooperative efforts. "Bloated bureaucracy" has become a phrase of fighting words in the SBC, and that's not difficult to understand. Denominational employees understandably hear them as an attack upon their personal character, as though our denomination were some sort of a scheme intentionally designed to bilk churches of their missions money and to deprive missionaries abroad of their needed funding. People who employ the phrase to describe the collective SBC organizational chart understandably struggle to find other language to characterize accurately the fact that our denominational structure is not perfect such as to be beyond critique, and that historically we have had periods of time when we effectively advanced the kingdom with far fewer offices and a much smaller payroll.

In recent days, the bulk of this discussion has focused upon the bureaucracies at state conventions and at NAMB. I have commented before on the oddity of the GCR report acting as though the IMB could not possibly be improved. Our largest entity is the one considered to be free from bloat? Not likely. Not really. IMB could be improved, and it needs to elect a president who sees the need for some fundamental changes at our largest missions entity.

But that's really not the topic of this post.

With all of this talk about bloated bureaucracies at the national level and bloated bureaucracies at the state level, it is interesting that local church pastors have comparatively so little to say (a few exceptions notwithstanding) about bloatedness at the local church level. Let's change that with this post, shall we?

Criticizing the Local Church?!?!?!

It may seem strange that I, as such a staunch local church autonomy guy, would write a post criticizing bloated bureaucracies at the local church level. But let's not confuse the autonomy of the local church with an excuse for recklessness of the local church. Enormous swaths of the New Testament are dedicated precisely to the task of criticizing problems in local churches.

The preeminence of the local church over other cooperative structures is all the more reason to hold local churches to a higher standard than we apply to any other denominational or para-church structure. Christ has instituted the local church; local churches should operate in a manner worthy of the Lord.

With that goal in mind, I humbly submit the following as potential ways in which Southern Baptists might combat the bloated bureaucracies of the local churches.

Overplanting

If younger Southern Baptists are serious about getting resources out to where lostness is, then we will witness some stanching of the flow of young seminary graduates out to plant new churches throughout the Southland. If it is wrong for a local congregation to keep the preponderance of its money and if it is wrong for a state convention to keep the preponderance of its Cooperative Program receipts within a state, then it is equally wrong for seminary graduate after seminary graduate to cram their new church starts into wealthy Southern suburbs tighter than sardines in a can.

The guy who just planted a church in suburban Atlanta? I don't need to hear word one from him about the pressing need to get more resources out to the darkest areas of lostness.

Every one of those church plants increases the staff overhead, marketing overhead, and equipment overhead incurred for kingdom work on that area. Many of them increase the facilities overhead.

If the Southern Baptist Convention's leaders are really serious about getting more resources out to reach the most lost areas of the world, they ought to reject entirely the notion of widespread church planting (apart perhaps from language work) within the strength areas of the SBC and labor hard to curtail it—and yet a steady stream among our seminary graduates eschew established churches and choose to create yet another local church bureaucracy in communities already served by multiple congregations, reducing with each new work the funding available to send to the nations.

Multi-Site, Multi-Bureaucracy

I predict that you won't soon see the following multi-campus sites opening: Fellowship Church Wilmer-Hutchins Campus, Saddleback Watts Campus, NorthPoint Community Church Bankhead Campus, or Second Baptist Houston Third-Ward Campus. The multi-site movement and the preponderance of domestic SBC church planting is focused like a laser upon those areas where people with lots of money live in church-friendly cultures—places where it is easy to fill a church with rich people.

Do these facts reveal that our passion for money is at least as strong as our passion for spreading the gospel? You bet they do, but that's not the point of this post. Rather, one implication of this pattern is that our multi-campus churches are building multiple campuses in places where the real estate required to do so is expensive. Furthermore, the people who work for those campuses (and their name is Legion, for they are many), must buy houses in expensive suburbia and must survive in areas with high costs of living.

Of course, rich people need to go to church, too. I'm in favor of our having churches in rich areas. If we see things rightly, we recognize that every Southern Baptist church is situated in a rich area. But most of those areas being targeted already have churches in their midst. Most of them have had churches in the community for a long time. Indeed, if Prosper, TX, already has 8 Baptist churches within 10 miles of the town center, is the cause of the Great Commission really best served by another Prestonwood campus locating there? Forget the fact that this multi-campus business is nothing more nor less than the concoction of an ecclesiology from someplace other than the New Testament and just look at the economics of the thing. Yes, there are some lost people left in Prosper. Yes, the churches already there will not reach them all (nor will 1,000 churches if we plant them all there). But comparatively, can we really say that the wealthiest fringes of the urban South are the highest priority for the Great Commission?

Somebody will read this and think that I'm trying to be mean to my brothers who pastor large churches. Not at all. I admire them and learn from them in so many ways. Some churches get large by winning people to Jesus and preaching the gospel faithfully. And if we weren't in the midst of a discussion—provoked by other people—about how to rid the SBC world of wasteful bureaucracy, I would not be lobbing criticisms at sister churches, for there are better ways to use my time to pursue the Great Commission. But if we pastors are ready to ask hard questions about our denominational structures, it is only appropriate for us to ask harder questions of ourselves first.

Too Many Splits; Too Many Congregations

Just to be fair, let me pick on small churches for a while.

Has your church ever in its existence undergone a church split? If so, did the split result in multiple Southern Baptist congregations in your community? If so, when was the last time anyone bothered to ask whether that breach might be repaired? Some Southern communities are littered with a handful of tiny SBC churches that serve as eternal testimonies to our unwillingness to get along and our sinful rejection of Christ's appeals for unity within the churches.

I hope to open a conversation about whether many communities in the South ought to investigate the possibility of church consolidations. I can think of both positive and negative possibilities that could arise out of such a campaign.

Possible Pros
  1. The repair of congregational splits, no matter how long ago they took place, could be an exciting achievement in the arena of Christian Unity.

    I've never believed that Christian unity ought to be achieved at the expense of doctrine. But in many of our communities stand multiple congregations, sometimes with meeting houses within a stone's throw of one another, that formerly were united and still share the same beliefs—affirm the same confession of faith, even—but that divided in the past over some altercation. Can anyone say this is Christ's intention? Can anyone affirm this as good? If church splits are evil at their inception, when do they become acceptable? A month later? A year? 10 years? Why?

    I am convinced that many of our congregations were birthed in sin and strife and remain afflicted by their original sins, unrepentant for the offenses that brought them into being. Other congregations hastily bade a not-so-fond farewell to some amputated portion of their body because the majority who stayed stubbornly refused to repent of their own offenses that brought things to the breaking point. Refusing even yet to break under the chastening hand of God, they obstinately watch as year-by-year, letter-by-letter, God inscribes "Ichabod" over their doors.

    I am certain—as certain as I am that Jesus loves me—that it would delight the Head of the Church to see estranged congregations throughout our nation accomplish mergers that effectively put their differences into the past.

  2. The repair of congregational splits could impress a watching world and create opportunities for sharing the gospel with the lost.

    Guess what: Lost people know that churches all around them have undergone meanspirited splits. That fact is one of their favorite rationalizations to employ in attempts to silence the conviction of the Holy Spirit. "The so-called born again can't even get along with one another. Why would I want whatever they've got?"

    But imagine the stir it could cause across our nation if, in community after community, estranged congregations were able to come together. It would make the news. It would be the last thing that a watching world would expect. It would cause people to wonder what is different about those people.

    This could especially be true of congregations that are separated for no other reason than the project to segregate the body of Christ into ghettoes (a.k.a., the Homogeneous Unit principle of the Church Growth movement). We would bewilder even some hardened skeptics if we could very publicly bring into unity white-collar churches, blue-collar churches, young-people churches, old-people churches, white churches, black churches, and brown churches.

    I believe that such a phenomenon could provide many fruitful opportunities to share the gospel.

  3. The repair of congregational splits could greatly reduce local church bureaucracy and financial waste.

    Local churches have overhead too, you know. Payroll, facilities, administrative costs, and a whole host of other expenses are needlessly duplicated, triplicated, and quadruplicated throughout the South.

    Consider, for example, my home community. Lake City, Arkansas, demonstrates to us that this is not solely about split churches. In Lake City and its close environs are four Southern Baptist congregations. All four affirm the Baptist Faith & Message, to my knowledge. All four are a part of the same local association. All four originated in an era before reliable transportation. A century ago, a cluster of small farming communities surrounded Lake City. All of the outlying communities have shrunk greatly, and some of them have been obliterated. The congregations have dwindled as well, eking out numerical and financial subsistence. The majority of the people attending the outlying congregations no longer live near those churches. They drive out into the fields so that they can worship God in the structure where they did so as a child.

    I can relate to that, and I don't think that such nostalgia is a bad thing. I was saved at one of those churches, and I have powerful emotions associated with that place and with that congregation. The question is not whether such nostalgia is bad, but whether it is worth what it costs. Several of those congregations sit on valuable farmland. The liquidation of congregational real estate could produce financial resources that none of those congregations can use presently. The largest congregational facility in town could accommodate all of the people attending all of the churches, so 100% of the maintenance cost, 100% of the utility cost, and perhaps even some portion of the payroll cost of those churches could be money freed to accomplish other ministries. The outlying congregations are dying, not because they have been unfaithful, but because their communities died as people moved away. They struggle to keep a pastor, and upon every occasion when they lose a pastor, they enter a lengthy struggle to find another pastor. At some point, the needs of the future have to overcome the fondness for the past. The members of these congregations should at least embark upon a serious exploration of whether they could serve the Lord better as one congregation than as four.

  4. The repair of congregational splits could reduce the number of pastorless congregations.

  5. The repair of congregational splits could result in a dramatic increase in North American church planting.

    Reduce the number of churches and open pulpits in the South, and then all of those seminary graduates are going to be forced to look elsewhere for beginning pastorates. Isn't it handy that we have enormous concentrations of the American population in places like the Northeast Megalopolis where we also have a dearth of churches and pastors? The currency of the Great Commission is people, not money. Get more obedient people out to the darker areas, and you'll see a greater spread of the light.

Possible Cons
  1. The merger of previously split congregations could result in a disheartening display of Christian Disunity.

    That's the largest negative possibility that I can imagine. Maybe fights over the color of the carpet have trans-generational staying power. Maybe we are so committed to defending turf that we simply aren't capable of getting along. I believe better about us in most cases, but depravity is real and is really ugly. Certainly in some cases the churches trying to get back together would claw each other's eyes out.

  2. Fewer churches might struggle to be varied enough to reach varied communities with the gospel.

    The old, popular, unbiblical Homogeneous Unit principle would teach us that it is good to have at least one church for every demographic slice that we can imagine in our communities. Rather than identifying us as Christians, our churches wind up identifying us by our race, the kind of music that we enjoy, our age, our income level, our education level, how many horses we own, and how many tattoos and piercings we have.

    People are passionate about all of these things. It is harder to locate people who have become excited about Jesus than it is to locate people who are excited about their hobbies, so in that sense, yes, ministry in consolidated churches would be harder and would likely result in fewer people attending churches.

    And yet I hold out hope that the witness generated by being the one place in town that brings people truly together across a broad kaleidoscope of backgrounds and interests is like a rose garden: Somewhat more difficult to cultivate and tend than Bermuda, but infinitely more beautiful and savory.

  3. If we save money by merging congregations, we just might squander it on ourselves.

    Church mergers would result in larger churches. As those churches become larger, they might convince themselves that they have to have all of the expensive things that typically accompany being a larger church.

Conclusion

One enormous difference between changes in denominational bureaucracy and changes in local church bureaucracy is the authority and influence that I have to effect those two categories of change. In state and national conventions, I get one vote. In all local churches other than my own, I get no vote at all. I'd rather have biblically governed, less-efficient congregations than subjugated, less-wasteful congregations any day. In other words, I'm not complaining that I don't have the authority to make every local SBC congregation do according to my bidding.

I also realize that I am comparatively young and new to all of this. Christian ministry is 2,000 years old. I've been at it for a little over 20 years. I consider it a high likelihood that all of these ideas that I've put forward in this post are not 100% entirely right.

But neither are they 100% entirely wrong.

And I believe that at least some of the questions that I have posed are questions that we need to ask. Whatever the SBC is, it is what local churches have made it to be. Whatever ills you might diagnose in the SBC's various denominational entities, you'll find a breeding ground for that plague in at least some of the local churches in our fellowship. If it is time for judgment to come to the SBC, then it is time for judgment to begin in the families of God that are our local churches.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Great Commission: Baptize!

I know…I know…you thought I had forgotten about my Great Commission videos. But really, I was just wanting to do a little better job on the production side of these videos. I was recording some other items for the church today, and I just took a minute to record the next installment of the Great Commission series while all of the equipment was set up. I think it turned out to be much higher production quality than what I was doing before.

Enjoy!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Selfishness Masquerading as Church Discipline

There is a line across which discipline becomes abuse. This is true when it comes to the raising of children. Tragic stories of child abuse are all too common, ranging from horrific beatings to incestuous atrocities. On the other hand, I was spanked as a child, and I certainly didn't need any less of it. Never was it abusive.

Discipline is not just for children. In giving us the blueprints for Jesus' church, the New Testament introduces us to church discipline: The discipline of church members by the church membership. As with parental discipline, there is a line across which church discipline becomes abuse.

Enter the case of Libby Ashby. She took a job starring in a television commercial advertising a treatment for erectile disfunction. Such commercials are usually low-brow, and this one is no different, although I find some of those whistling Enzyte commercials to be more explicitly immoral. That fact notwithstanding, even Ms. Ashby stated, "I don't think the ad is honourable. It offends a lot of people."

In an interview with an Australian journalist, Ms. Ashby revealed that her home church has disfellowshipped her because of her participation in the ad. She did not reveal the identity of her congregation, and I have not been able to locate on the Internet any account of any journalist investigating the matter further. What follows is based solely upon Ms. Ashby's account, which is the only information that is available.

The actions of this Australian congregation, in my analysis, cross the line from biblical church discipline to abuse. Although other factors can make the difference between discipline and abuse, the most common difference between the two—whether we are speaking of parental discipline or church discipline—is that discipline works on the behalf (although without the consent) of the receiver of discipline, but abuse works to gratify the desires or needs of the abuser. Abuse is selfish.

  • Biblical church discipline tries to achieve repentance and restoration, not the elimination of a "problem."

    From 10,000 miles away, I wouldn't normally second-guess a local congregation as to whether Ashby is repentant, but she doesn't come across as somebody who is stubbornly unrepentant. About the commercial, Ashby said, "It was against my better judgement to it. I don't like to offend people." Her motivation for taking the job was financial: "My VISA was calling out for mercy." She is a single parent. Ashby further said, "The bible speaks very openly about sex in an honourable way, but I don't think the ad is honourable. It offends a lot of people."

    Does that sound like a rebellious, stubbornly unrepentant woman to you?

    But even if, by some measure not apparent in her public interview, Ashby actually is unrepentant, it doesn't appear that her repentance is the condition for her restoration to church membership. Ashby said, "[My church has] said I would not be reinstated until the ad comes off the air." Until the ad comes off the air? What if she is already repentant and the ad is still running. If she is presently unrepentant, what if she is still unrepentant when the ad stops running? Is the timing of this advertising campaign within Libby Ashby's control at all? I seriously doubt it.

    The focus of the church is on the ad campaign because the ad campaign embarrasses them. This is not an action of biblical church discipline; it is an exercise in public relations at the expense of a member of the Body of Christ. This is abuse.

  • Biblical church discipline addresses violations of God's commandments, not congregational emotions.

    When a church disfellowships people as a knee-jerk reaction to congregational embarrassment or outrage, the congregation is not practicing biblical church discipline. Don't get me wrong—violations of God's commandments often also involve extremes of congregational emotion. I'm not saying that a congregation should never exercise church discipline when it is emotional. I'm merely saying that a congregation should sometimes exercise church discipline when it is not amped up with negative emotions.

    I don't like the ad. I wouldn't want my wife or my daughter to have participated in the ad. Was Ms. Ashby's participation in the ad a sin? Here's what it wasn't. It didn't show or even insinuate that she was with anyone other than her husband. It didn't show or even insinuate that she and the man in the commercial had recently completed or were incipiently preparing for sexual intercourse. She was modestly clothed, as was the man in the commercial (as far as camera point-of-view was concerned...and he was probably wearing Bermuda shorts under that terrycloth robe). Nobody cussed. I've seen far more skin in the commercials for the World Series while I've typed this post.

    The plot of the commercial did amount to a crude joke. And it was a crude joke watched by an awful lot of people. But it isn't sinful for a married couple to use a drug to help with erectile disfunction. Serve as a pastor long enough, and you'll encounter people for whom this problem is real. I'm not comfortable saying that Ashby has not sinned in some way by making this commercial, for the Bible does encourage us to behave in a wholesome and dignified manner. My point is not to exonerate Ashby, but simply to highlight a fact: The embarrassing nature of the ad is more readily apparent than is the sinful nature of the ad.

    In the case of biblical church discipline, the first task is to determine that the offending Christian has indeed committed a sin. The second task is to make certain that the offending Christian understands precisely how she has committed a sin. Nothing about Ashby's interview remotely suggests that she knows what she's done wrong other than generally to embarrass her church.

    Wouldn't it be nice if, when Libby Ashby did something that turned out to be an embarrassment for her, she had some people around her who, seeing her realization that she has made a mistake, would love her and help her through her season of notoriety?

  • Biblical church discipline is congregational, not enforced by a single person or a small group.

    We don't know any details about the process used to disfellowship Ms. Ashby. For all we know, the entire congregation voted to sanction her. it is the kind of situation that might prompt a congregation to do just that.

    But I've known of other situations, even right here in the DFW Metroplex, in which pastors have summarily excluded members from the congregation, not by congregational vote, but by oligarchical fiat. The grounds for dismissal are sometimes not any alleged sin other than having disagreed with the pastor on some decision that was important to him. When the pastor can kick a member out of the congregation just for disagreeing with him, that's not church discipline, that's abuse.

Biblical church discipline is self-sacrificing. It means that a congregation subjects themselves to an ordeal that often would be much less trouble if left alone. Biblical church discipline often causes embarrassment—brings into the open an embarrassing situation that otherwise would have remained quiet—rather than covering it up. The congregation voluntarily endures the ordeal of biblical church discipline because unrepentant sin is dangerous to the unrepentant Christian. The congregation sacrifices their tranquility for the sake of the errant member's spiritual vitality.

Church abuse is, on the other hand, selfishness masquerading as church discipline. It resembles less the Gospel of Matthew than the Government of Machiavelli. It may aim to eliminate embarrassments, but it actually is an embarrassment, a disfigurement of the Body of Christ. The Chief Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. The undershepherds, and the healthy portion of the flock as well, ought to do likewise.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wade Burleson Quits Blogging, Promises Not to Return

Wade Burleson has announced that he will "[lay] aside blogging for good." I thought it might be appropriate for me to mark the occasion with a backwards glance and a comment or two.

  1. Wade Burleson's blog has been THE blog in Baptist life. Whatever people say about "Baptist bloggers," they say with Wade Burleson at least partially in mind. There is no doubt that the years 2006-2008 in SBC denominational life were defined more than anything else by what Wade Burleson wrote at his blog and his prospects for success or failure. So prominent has been his blog as to merit a category all unto itself—no other SBC blog even comes close. Indeed, for myself, whatever traffic I ever received at this blog (and I have deliberately never allowed any measure of that statistic), I'm sure that a great deal of it was produced by the popularity of Wade's blog and the fact that I was often a disagreeing voice.
  2. Wade Burleson has had impressive stamina. Those who started blogging in agreement with him—Art Rogers, Marty Duren, Ben Cole, and many others—long ago disengaged. Many of those who took up blogging in contention against him, me included, have at some point lost their zeal for the medium. Wade has sallied forth time after time.
  3. Wade Burleson's own theological migration is chronicled in his blogging. Particularly on the issue of biblical roles for women and men in the church, I think that later generations will detect movement in Wade's position over the latter half of this millennium's inaugural decade.
  4. Wade Burleson has stayed on-message with a determination that political campaigners must be able to admire. Although he has varied his terminology, his central message has remained unaltered, calling Southern Baptists to lay aside doctrinal contention in favor of a warmer, fuzzier, feel-goodier congeniality.
  5. Wade Burleson is eloquent. He knows how to tell a story. He knows how to cultivate a public persona. He is better with a lectern than with a keyboard, and he's pretty good with a keyboard. Yes, I think that all of this talent has been harnessed to the wrong yoke, but I admire the talent nonetheless.

The closing of Wade's blog seems to correspond with the closing of a chapter in Southern Baptist history. It isn't the major chapter—let's not overestimate the importance of our times. But it marks a season when technology was changing the way that Baptists operate in subtle yet dramatic ways. Wade's name will forever be associated with that.

His reasons for setting it all aside are good ones, and I have stepped back (although not entirely away) for very similar reasons. I genuinely, sincerely, earnestly wish that God will bless Wade's ministry and that more peaceful days will lie before him than behind him. I want to feel fondly in my heart toward him, and to leave things there. Jesus is just mischievous enough to put us next-door to one another in Heaven.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Historic Mending of a Denominational Split

If you are a fan of Christian unity, then you ought to be a big fan of this.

The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) and the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas (BMAT) are announcing an historic agreement (HT: Southern Baptist Texan, Baptist Progress) that will bring closer two groups of Texas Baptists who have been separated denominationally for a century.

This is progress toward good biblical unity—the "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" mentioned in Ephesians 4, grounded in the "one"s of Ephesians 4. Neither side is compromising itself doctrinally (read carefully the terms of the agreement). Instead, the innate centripetal force of doctrinal unity is pulling together cousins in the faith heretofore separated only by the legacy of the sometimes-cantakerousness of their sibling-fathers.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I write a monthly newsletter column for the church. Here is what I wrote last month.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Jane Austen (1775-1817) achieved through her novels an enduring fame, having altered the direction of English Literature by laying a foundation for nineteenth-century realism. Technical measures aside, she created characters like Elizabeth Bennet with whom readers have bonded powerfully for more then 200 years.

At a bookseller’s shop in London, I was caught off guard by a new version of Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice. Quirk Books has released an adaptation of Austen’s book entitled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance—Now with Utraviolent Zombie Mayhem! The concept is simple albeit perverse: Starting with the original Jane Austen text, Seth Grahame-Smith took out 15% of Austen’s novel that was unnecessary or incompatible and then inserted passages in which ninjas or English gentlemen, or even Elizabeth herself, engaged in gory duels with bands of bloodthirsty zombies.

This is why copyright laws are such a very good idea, but unfortunately Pride and Prejudice long ago passed into the public domain.

The sight of that book cover captured my attention and, later, dominated my thinking. What an incredible illustration of the nature of sin in my life and in yours. God, the consummate classic author, has written a timeless story for your life and for mine. He created us as flesh-and-blood lead characters in a grand narrative of goodness and glory.

We found it boring. We thought that the plot needed something more. We wanted to amuse ourselves and to try our own hands at writing the story of our lives. So, we set about to cut out a little bit of what God had written and we tried to stitch into the story some additions that were uniquely ours. Something exciting. Something more timely. Something more clever.

The indisputable destiny of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is to provoke a brief chuckle before spending some time in the 80%-off rack and then finding its way into the dustbin of bygone gimmicks. The one fact confirmed by the book is that Seth Grahame-Smith is no Jane Austen.

Likewise, your additions to the story of your life reveal clearly that you are not God. He created you and me to be a classic. I make of myself, when I disregard His plan for my life, the punch line of a joke. God knows the plans He has for you, plans to give you a future and a hope (from Jeremiah 29:11). Stick to the script, no zombies necessary.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why I Almost Never Blog Any More

Click the picture to see a larger version.

Each year from left to right represents an ACP reporting year, from September 1 of the prior year through August 31 of the indicated year.

The left vertical axis indicates the number of blog posts composed in the ACP reporting year, as indicated by the red line. The right vertical axis indicates the number of baptisms reported at FBC Farmersville for the ACP reporting year, as indicated by the blue line.

My analysis is that each increase in the number of blog posts composed in a year corresponded to a decrease in baptisms in the following year.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Preserving the First Freedom for Others As Well As Ourselves

I hope to resume my Great Commission series soon—the culmination of my hectic summer is at hand.

Furor has arisen over plans to build a thirteen-story mosque named Park51 (initially named Cordoba House) in Lower Manhattan in the vicinity of Ground Zero. Because the 9-11 attacks were inspired by Islam and were carried out entirely by devout Muslims, many people have objected to the idea that a mosque could be constructed in the neighborhood consecrated by our most recent date to live in infamy.

I'm in favor of there being no mosques anywhere. Islam is a false religion. The Islamic Allah is a false god. Mohammed was a false prophet who misled people. I do not agree with what the Qur'an says about Mohammed. I pray for the day when every mosque has been abandoned, replaced by a church (who clearly call themselves a church) populated by Christians (who clearly call themselves Christians).

But if we're going to have a mosque anywhere on Planet Earth, I can't think of any better place for there to be one than in the vicinity of the spot where the World Trade Center towers once stood. The attacks of September 11 cannot be characterized as Islam attacking Christianity. Islam was certainly attacking, but Christianity was not the target. Airliners were not flown into church meeting houses. Hong Kong may be more Christian than New York City is.

Rather, our recent War on Terror is best understood as a war between those who despise religious liberty and those who champion it. Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have lacked some something that they needed to characterize it in this manner—insight, honesty, courage? But this is the nature of the war nonetheless. We may largely disagree with Islamic theology. Let's face it: We may be suspicious of Muslims in our midst. But we still welcome Muslims to live among us while practicing their faith openly and building their mosques anywhere that we Christians might be able to build a church.

I can't think of any edifice that might more clearly exemplify this commitment on our part than the construction of an enormous mosque right where the shadow of the twin towers ought rightly to be falling. I also think that it speaks of the strength of Christianity. Islam is so weak that they have to threaten people with death if they convert. They can only keep adherents if their followers are terrified to leave. The gospel of Jesus Christ is strong enough to hold people even without the intimidation that comes from bullying and threats.

It might also serve as a good reminder to us, for we need to renew our own commitment to religious liberty. Today's Baptist Press feed included an article denouncing the Obama administration's covert support for the pro-abortion modifications to the Kenyan Constitution. The meddling of USAID and the State Department in internal Kenyan politics was a prominent topic when I visited Kenya earlier this summer. I even fielded a question in my Church History class related to the proposed constitutional changes.

As bad as the abortion provisions are, and as unseemly as it is for USAID to be pushing Kenya toward abortion, I think that Baptist Press buried the lead a bit in their reporting (and they did better than the rest of the press). The new constitution proposed for Kenya is a disastrous step backwards for religious liberty, establishing Sharia courts for the noisy Islamic minority in Kenya. It seems strange that our nation would, on the one hand, shun the construction of a single mosque in our own country while, on the other hand, we pressure a small African nation that presently enjoys religious liberty to adopt constitutional modifications that weaken religious liberty in that country and initiate the first step toward Islamic intolerance.

Baptists have a consistent history of defending religious liberty for four centuries. Where others have merely sought to manipulate the government to obtain religious privilege for themselves (such as the more Reformed folks in Massachusetts Bay), Baptists fought for religious liberty for ALL. May we avoid the temptation to let hot-button issues distract us from the importance of defending the First Freedom for others as well as for ourselves.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Johnny Hunt Campaign

Johnny Hunt never did campaign much for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention back in 2008. He entered the race late. I had already supported one candidate (Al Mohler), seen health problems cause him to leave the race, and then embraced another candidate (Frank Cox, a really great guy who ought to be in more prominent leadership in the SBC) before Johnny Hunt had ever even thrown his hat into the ring at all. And of course, off-year elections like the 2009 convention do not provide for much in the way of campaigning, either.

The fact that Johnny Hunt did not campaign much for the presidency of the SBC, however, does not mean that Johnny Hunt is not a campaigner. In fact, although Hunt is no longer the president of the SBC, he seems to be as much or more in "campaign mode" today as at any time in the past several years.

If Johnny Hunt is not running for anything, what's he campaigning for? The Cooperative Program.

I follow Johnny Hunt on Twitter. He retweets a lot of content from other people, and he pats a lot of people on the back, but when Johnny Hunt has something to offer from himself, it often resembles this tweet from 4:42PM on July 7, 2010:

Why I support the CP? I luv church planting, our seminaries, deploying of missionaries, do more together than alone. Is your CP growing?

I don't see anybody who opposed Component #3 doing as much to be a booster of the Cooperative Program as is Johnny Hunt. I didn't like Component #3 much myself, and I include myself in the comparison—my Twitter feed hasn't done much to support the Cooperative Program. I don't think that tweets like this one from Hunt are self-serving at all. His presidency is already completed. The GCR has already passed. I see very little "political" reason for him to be tweeting this sort of thing. I think his motivation is no more complex than a love for the SBC and a desire to see us move forward together through greater support of the Cooperative Program. Johnny Hunt is a high-profile pastor whose church is now doing more through the Cooperative Program and who uses his online presence to say positive things about the Southern Baptist Convention and to encourage churches to support the SBC through the Cooperative Program. We could all learn from him to do more likewise.

So thanks, Johnny Hunt, for using the influence that God has given you to promote CP Missions. Personally, I think we all ought to remember that one pastor or one local church supporting the CP with his enthusiasm, his speech, and by his example is probably worth 1,000 pamphlets, videos, or denominational speeches doing the same.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Great Commission: All Nations!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Great Commission: Make Disciples!

Disciples of Jesus Christ are the objective of the Great Commission.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ronnie Floyd: The Messengers Will Decide

In a press release dated June 1, Ronnie Floyd clarified that the GCR Task Force will bring its report and offer its recommendations as a unified whole. Floyd clarified, however, that the question of whether to consider the seven recommendations as a whole or separately "will ultimately be determined by the messengers of the convention" and that the Task Force "will wholeheartedly support their decision."

A few observations about this:

  • This meek deference to the will of the messengers has been laudably characteristic of the Task Force's operation throughout its existence, in my estimation. I do believe Ronnie Floyd when he promises his wholehearted support of the messengers' decision, and I applaud him for his attitude. As I have said before, I'm truly thankful for the attitude that the Task Force has employed while performing its work.

  • I predict that parliamentary efforts will be made to sever the seven recommendations into separate votes. I do not know what the outcome of those efforts will be, and I do not plan to offer any predictions.

  • The Task Force has a good point, in some respects, regarding the inseparability of some of the recommendations. In particular, I would say that the ideas of transferring CP promotion to the states, increasing the scope of IMB responsibility, and transferring 1% of the CP allocation budget from the EC to the IMB are recommendations that depend mutually upon one another. Whatever outcome may dawn upon one of these motions, it must logically come upon them all, or else we will have a chaotic result.

    It seems, therefore, that severance of the motion must at most be into clusters of recommendations, and not into seven standalone items.

  • Whatever decision that we make about the recommendations, I believe that it is important for Southern Baptists to come to consensus before we move forward. We don't need a 60/40 vote; we need an 80/20 vote or better, I believe. One of our key objectives here must be to bring greater unity to our convention. Although as a student of history I would say that we're no more divided today than in previous epochs of our history, I still believe that greater unity among Southern Baptists is an important ingredient for our progress from this point.

  • In consideration of the previous sentiment, I can see some potential benefit from allowing separate votes on the individual recommendations.

    It is no secret that the third recommendation, the proposed alteration of the ACP to change the name from "Total Missions Expenditures" to "Great Commission Giving," is the least popular of the seven recommendations. I know many good friends who would gladly support the entire recommendation but for this one component. Several of them are prepared to vote against the entire proposal solely in opposition to this one plank.

    In the light of our need to find greater unity in the convention, the great danger here may not be that the omnibus recommendation will fail, but that it will pass by a narrow margin. If the entire recommendation passes by a 57/43 vote, then the pall of that cliffhanger vote will be cast across the entire report, even though I believe that there are important recommendations in this report that could earn the overwhelming preponderance of ballots cast.

    The Task Force members, above all other Southern Baptists, ought to recognize the benefits of an overwhelmingly decisive vote. How many times have we heard about the overwhelming endorsement in Louisville for the creation of the Task Force? A vote in the high 90s carries weight that a simple majority does not bring, and these proposals need all the weight behind them that they can accumulate.

    A decision looms before those of us who support the GCRTF recommendations: How important is the third recommendation to us? Is it worth it to us to let Great Commission Giving lay down a bunt, allowing the other six recommendations to score, but running the risk that it itself will be thrown out at first base in the process? Would it be worth losing Great Commission Giving in order to obtain 80%-plus endorsements of the other components of the plan?

    For my part, I think that's a good trade. In the defenses of Great Commission Giving, "It doesn't really change anything substantial" makes for a great reason not to oppose it, but it makes for not much of a reason to defend it. Indeed, of all of the excellent articles that I have read endorsing the Task Force's report, I have yet to read one that gives a good reason as to why we need to adopt Great Commission Giving. I've been persuaded by the many good reasons why we shouldn't be afraid of the Great Commission Giving proposal, but I still don't know why we should be enthusiastically in support of it.

As a result of these factors, I think that I will vote in support of severing the Task Force recommendations from one another, not so that I might oppose any of them, but in the strategic hope that the more important recommendations—the ones that actually will accomplish some things that I believe will be substantively important for the future of the SBC—might pass by overwhelmingly decisive numbers that will not be possible otherwise.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Great Commission: Go!

Phone calls and visits broke into this recording several times, so I hope you'll forgive my obvious distraction at points. The first verb in the Great Commission commands us—all of us—to go.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Great Commission: All or Nothing

The syntax of the Great Commission transforms four verbs into a single all-or-nothing command.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Great Commission: Jesus Is Lord!

I'm no Cecil B. DeMille, but I decided to present this study of the Great Commission by video rather than by text.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

GCR: My Final Thoughts on the Final Report

I want to offer a heartfelt statement of gratitude to the GCR Task Force and to state my endorsement of the GCR Task Force Recommendations.

It was not always so. On Monday, April 27, 2009, I penned this post explaining why I would not add my name to an affirmation of the original GCR Axioms statement. Later, on May 29, when the website began to allow people to affirm the document with caveats, I clarified that, although I would not ask to be added as a signatory with caveats (and that only because of the troublesome outcomes I believed to come from the practice of affirming things with caveats as a general practice), I was indeed someone who agreed with the document just as much as did those affirming the GCR Axioms in that manner.

On May 14, 2009, I wrote in opposition to the abolition of NAMB, a theme that I developed on multiple occasions.

On October 17, I implored my readership to pray for the GCR Task Force and to give them input. Later that month, on October 29, I concurred with Johnny Hunt's public statements about the Cooperative Program.

On November 18, 2009, I somewhat nervously opined that the Task Force ought not to spring the recommendations upon the Southern Baptist people and expect them to rubber-stamp their work. This was the last thing that I wrote about the GCR Task Force's work before they began to release some of the fruits of their labors. As a result of these articles (or at least, as a result of the first of them), I was featured as a counterpoint critic of the GCR declaration in this article in the Florida Baptist Witness.

So, here I am, at one moment and in one article I was presented as the leading dissident criticizing the GCR, and now I am offering an endorsement of the final report. How did we get here?

They Listened

My reservations about the GCR (as they developed over time) can be summarized pretty tersely:

  1. I didn't think it wise to do away with NAMB.
  2. I didn't think it wise to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.
  3. I anticipated that the recommendations would be trotted out late and strongarmed upon the convention.
  4. I worried that the recommendations would undermine the Cooperative Program by redefining it.
  5. I didn't think that the GCR really had much to do with the Great Commission or could make a real difference. I regarded it as merely another round of bureaucratic reorganization that would waste our energy and passions over what is eternally trivial.

To put it simply, these people on this Task Force have suitably addressed every one of my concerns. They listened. They did not do away with NAMB. They did not change the name of the SBC. They brought forward their recommendations WELL IN ADVANCE and gave plenty of time for people to digest them and interact with them. Then, after everyone had their say, they ALTERED the recommendations somewhat to take into account people's feedback.

This may be the most Baptist thing that the Southern Baptist Convention has done in a long time. The entire process has sought, received, and respected the opinions of Southern Baptists in a way that just almost appeared congregational. And the result now is that I genuinely do not regard this recommendation as the personal recommendation of any of the individual personalities involved. This recommendation belongs to this entire Task Force as a team, and because the Task Force has responded to so much Southern Baptist input, I think we must say that in some sense it belongs to us all.

That's not to suggest that everyone got everything that they wanted. Quite the opposite. I know that I would have written a slightly different document...OK, maybe a profoundly different document...if I were High Potentate of the SBC. But I don't require that mine be the only voice listened to in the process, just that it be one among the voices heard, whether heeded or not. Certainly the GCR Task Force has demonstrated far more sensitivity to the input of rank and file Southern Baptists throughout this process than does the average experience of trying to make a motion from the floor of our Annual Meeting. In this age of the-Executive-Committee-decides-it-all-for-you and it's-all-cut-and-dried-before-the-first-gavel-falls, I have found it quite refreshing and encouraging to see the GCR Task Force process respond so much to public input.

They have bolstered my faith in what we can accomplish together.

They Found Some Things

I still believe that the most important things required for us to pursue the Great Commission are not contained in this report—could not possibly have been contained in this report. We will pursue or abandon the Great Commission this week based upon what you do in your life and in your local church, not based upon what any committee of the Southern Baptist Convention does or does not do. More about that later.

But I believe that the GCR Task Force has made some recommendations that can really help us. Our Byzantine flowchart of CP money could bedevil a career IRS bureaucrat. No, I don't mean that any entity or any servant touching that money is greedy or wasteful. I'm just saying that the pathway itself is unnecessarily bizarre and inefficient. Furthermore, it is embarrassingly connectional and undermines the autonomy of the local church, thereby violating our principles as Southern Baptists.

This is not a debate about whether the state convention needs money; rather, it is a debate about whether money destined for the state convention really needs to go to Nashville first before arriving at the state convention. It is also a question of whether I ought to be required to support state conventions other than my own. I support my state convention. I love my state convention. I support my state convention in a lot of different ways. I am not anti-state convention.

Nevertheless, my congregation has chosen which state convention we wish to support. In Texas, there are two state conventions. There is the state convention that is more supportive of the national SBC, and then there is the state convention of which the national SBC is more supportive, and they are two different state conventions. Why the SBC bites the hand that feeds it and licks the hand that slaps it I will never understand, but things are as they are. I love the SBC anyway. I'll continue to push for strong support of the SBC anyway.

You may disagree with or even dislike the sentiments that I just articulated. Fair enough. But that's not really the question. Rather, the question is this: Why should my church, having explicitly chosen to support one state convention rather than the other, be forced to have some of our money go to the support of the state convention that we have rejected, just to be able to support the Cooperative Program? Yet that is just what happens now. Some portion of our CP money goes up to Nashville and then to Alpharetta and then back to the BGCT.

That's just wrong, and unnecessarily so.

And it doesn't just have to do with living in a state with two state conventions. You're underwriting the operations of all of the state conventions with your CP funding, including any state conventions with which you disagree. Some portion of the CP giving of BGCT churches in Texas goes to the SBTC. Some portion of CP contributions in Arkansas goes to the Baptist General Association of Virginia. All of us are funding the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, the convention that gladly contains homosexual welcoming and affirming Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC. Did you know that you were subsidizing such as that? Thanks to Cooperative Agreements, you are if you are giving through the Cooperative Program.

My idea is a simple one: Let my church support the Baptist entities with which we have chosen to affiliate and in which we have an opportunity to have our voice heard and to hold people accountable. We say that we are non-connectional as Southern Baptists, but we have not been practicing what we preach.

Ask a dozen Southern Baptists if they see anything wrong at all with our Southern Baptist funding system, and more of them will highlight this strange course of sending money away in order to get it back than any other feature of the program. The existence of this cockamamie way of shuttling God's money hither and yon is eroding people's confidence in the Cooperative Program. I've had laypeople complain about this very thing at nearly every church I've ever served.

The whole thing needs to go.

Yes, some state conventions will readjust the amount of money that they forward to national and international causes in order to adjust for the lost NAMB funding. Fine. If it all comes out to equilibrium and if the elimination of the Cooperative Agreements means that no additional money is gained for national and international missions, I would still be in favor of this measure. The simplification of the system will, in the long run, make the Cooperative Program more winsome to the Southern Baptist people and will result in a rising tide that will lift all boats.

By making the SBC funding system make more sense and by answering one of the key criticisms leveled against our funding system, we stand the chance of garnering more support for the Cooperative Program. If we can do that, we will indeed have done something that will make a difference for the Great Commission.

I'm also supportive of the reallocation of funds away from the Executive Committee toward the IMB, as well as the other nuances of the new plan for NAMB. Although I do not see that these measures will have as direct a potential effect upon the Great Commission as what I highlighted above, I do support them for other reasons.

The Cooperative Program

I still stand by much of what I said about "Great Commission Giving" in this post. We must acknowledge that the Southern Baptist Convention has always received, tabulated, and celebrated designated giving. Designated giving is a bellwether used to measure candidates for office already (try to run for SBC President if you don't give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering). The third recommendation of the task force report really brings us nothing new in the way of designated giving.

Also, the Cooperative Program has not been redefined. At one point I worried that the Task Force might recommend that designated contributions actually be incorporated into a new definition of the Cooperative Program. They didn't do that, and for that I am thankful. The recommendation pretty much preserves the status quo with regard to the basic princples of our funding system.

It does, however, exclude non-SBC giving from our ACP reporting form. Now THAT, my friends, is a positive step. The Southern Baptist Convention should not be in the business of tracking gifts outside of the Southern Baptist family. It just isn't any of our business. The fact that the Great Commission Giving category explicitly excludes all but SBC-related designated giving is important and worthy of our support.

If Social Security is the third rail of national politics, the Cooperative Program is the third rail of Southern Baptist politics. Address it at your own peril. And I very much FEEL that in my own heart. This whole "Great Commission Giving" thing makes me nervous—perhaps irrationally so. I worry that if we pass this thing I'll look back 25 years from now and see it as the beginning of the end for the Cooperative Program (because here's where we demonstrated a feeling of greater openness to societal giving). I worry that if we DON'T pass this thing I'll look back 25 years from now and see it as the beginning of the end for the Cooperative Program (because here's where we failed to reinvigorate CP support among a new generation of Southern Baptists).

Where's a crystal ball when you need one?

In the end, I come to this conclusion—the Cooperative Program will be what we make of it, and if we determine to make the most of it, this recommendation can do nothing to harm it. The future of the Cooperative Program will not be determined by the design of the ACP. It will be determined by the design of your church's budget and mine.

Ronnie Floyd is right, the text of component #3 is actually quite pro-CP. We may fear what some people will do with "Great Commission Giving," but nobody has been able to tell me why those people (who obviously are already not committed to the CP) will support the CP better just because somebody votes against this component.

If there's a way that voting "No" stands a chance of increasing funding through the Cooperative Program, then I'll enthusiastically—rabidly even—vote in the negative. Apart from that, in what is a very contested election in my heart, the ballot goes in favor of this recommendation in order to support the elimination of contributions going outside of the SBC from our Annual Church Profile.

Conclusion

Does this report contain everything that I wanted? No. But I guess that's what it comes down to. I just don't have to have everything that I want in order to get on board. I won't violate my convictions. I won't offend my conscience. But I will compromise on practicalities for the greater good. This, in my opinion, is one of those times. Every substantial objection that I've raised over the past year has been addressed. What kind of a churl would I have to be to remain in opposition?

Well, I may be some kind of a churl (be gentle in the comments, please), but I'm not that kind of a churl.

In conclusion, the most disappointing aspect of this entire journey, in my estimation, is how little we've paid any actual attention to the Great Commission itself—by that, I mean the actual text of Matthew 28:16-20. I worried that the reorganizational aspects of this process would overshadow the Great Commission aspects of this process. That turned out to be a fear unfounded—there were no non-reorganization aspects of this process to overshadow!

This report is a good step. I plan to vote for it. I hope that you will do so as well. But it is not the answer to our problems.

And on that note, I have to offer you an apology. Rather than curse the darkness, I should light a candle, and I haven't done that. For that reason, over the next several posts I plan to set aside political intrigue and give full-time consideration to nothing but the actual Great Commission. I hope you'll join me, and then I hope that we'll join one another in obedience to what our Lord has commanded.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Step in the Right Direction for the BGCT

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that The Baptist General Convention of Texas has disfellowshipped Royal Lane Baptist Church over the church's stance regarding homosexuality. Royal Lane has apparently acquiesced to the BGCT's further request that the church cease to identify itself on its website and in publications as a BGCT-affiliated congregation.

This is a very positive step that ought to be celebrated. The disfellowshipping of congregations should be a matter accomplished at the associational level (and the Dallas Baptist Association has taken action alongside the BGCT) and then allowed to percolate up through state convention and national convention tiers. As more local associations and state conventions begin to take responsibility for these cases, the health of Southern Baptist churches will increase.

As positive a step as it is, it still remains, however, just a step and not the whole journey.

Royal Lane BC came under the BGCT microscope earlier this year when the Dallas Morning News put the church's espousal of homosexuality onto the public record. In this way, Royal Lane's situation is strikingly parallel to that of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, which the SBC disfellowshipped at last summer's annual meeting, but which remains within the BGCT. Broadway also gained widespread attention from a news media report about its stance regarding homosexuality—in its case for its ultimately abandoned attempt to photograph homosexual couples in its church directory.

The similarities between the two cases include:

  1. Both churches have been growing increasingly affirming of homosexuality for several years.
  2. Neither church has made any official change to the church's statement of faith regarding human sexuality (or, at least, no such change has been mentioned in the public record in either case, as far as I can find).
  3. Both churches have several openly homosexual individuals who not only attend but also are church members.
  4. Both churches have placed openly homosexual individuals into leadership positions within the church.
  5. Both churches have historically been influential churches in the life of the BGCT, having members employed by Baptist entities and having contributed several people to BGCT boards and committees through the years.

In the light of these similarities, it is curious to see the different manner in which the BGCT has handled these two cases. The BGCT did not disfellowship Broadway, but instead employed the church's failure to send messengers to the 2009 Annual Meeting as an excuse to do nothing at present. Today's action regarding Royal Lane clearly demonstrates what careful students have known all along—that Baptist cooperative bodies can indeed take disciplinary action to withdraw fellowship from member churches even apart from refusing to seat messengers from those churches.

Why the differences in the treatment of the two churches? According to the news report, the BGCT seems to have treated Royal Lane more harshly because the North Dallas church has taken the additional step of having ordained two openly homosexual individuals as deacons. Both the BGCT's statements and the rebuttal by Doug Washington, Royal Lane member and BGCT Executive Board member, suggest that the two homosexual deacons constituted the major point of contention in the discussion.

The BGCT's apparent position, divined from the respective treatment of these two churches, seems to be that BGCT churches may welcome openly unrepentant and ongoing homosexuals into membership and may promote those individuals into leadership, but those churches may not ordain those individuals into service as deacons or pastors, lest they be disfellowshipped from the BGCT. Ordination has become the BGCT line in the sand.

It seems to me a difficult thing to support this position biblically. The Bible certainly does propose to us a set of standards to qualify deacons and overseers, but none of them suggests that ordination is the point at which previously embraced homosexuality is no longer to be permitted. Indeed, although homosexuality is roundly condemned in Testaments New and Old, and although Jesus Himself in the gospels presents marriage as the union of man and woman, the concept of homosexuality is nowhere broached as a matter that pertains to service as pastor or deacon rather than as a matter that pertains to the basic sexual morality expected by God of all the redeemed.

So, whatever it is that the Bible says about homosexuality, it says it not to "the ordained" alone, but to all Christians. If any difference is made between deacons and pastors on the one hand and lay people on the other hand with regard to homosexuality, it cannot be a difference in what the Bible commands but can only be a difference in how seriously we expect Christians to take biblical commandments with regard to their own behavior.

Ironically, to draw the line at homosexual ordination is to do violence to the Baptist distinctive of the priesthood of all believers. To draw the line at homosexual ordination is to make two classes of believers in the church—a class of ordained "clergy" and "deacons" for whom obedience to biblical sexual standards matters, and a class of unordained "laity" who can be prominent and leading members of the congregation—celebrated members, even—for whom obedience to biblical sexual standards does not matter.

Any such system of distinction must be entirely a creation of human tradition. According to the New Testament, every Christian is a believer-priest and each Christian is called equally to holiness, for alongside the royal priesthood we are named as a holy nation in 1 Peter 2. Clearly, no biblical warrant exists for toleration of homosexuality up to the bright line of ordination.

Perhaps this lack of biblical foundation is why so many denominations, once they have decided to permit homosexuality except among the ordained, have inexorably kowtowed at that restriction as well. Refusal to ordain homosexuals who are otherwise welcome to belong and serve in a congregation has never constituted a destination, but always has been a mere waypoint.

The question before the BGCT today is simply which direction the denomination is going from this waypoint—which destination lies before them. My differences with the BGCT on other matters notwithstanding, I'm hopeful that the remaining conservatives within the BGCT are finding their backbone and that the direction of movement is toward a thoroughly consistent BGCT policy toward BGCT churches that abandon the biblical position on the question of homosexuality. Perhaps some of my readers will speculate to the contrary that the BGCT will eventually follow the trail blazed by the Episcopalians and so many others toward an entire embrace of homosexuality.

This much is certain: We'll know the answer to that question based upon what happens to Broadway Baptist Church's affiliation with the BGCT.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Vance Pitman To Be Nominated for SBC Pastors Conference President

See the story from the Florida Baptist Witness.

Of the two candidates so far, this one will have my vote.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

British Petroleum and Theodicy

In the Gulf of Mexico is presently transpiring what could likely turn out to be a grave environmental disaster. An April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused oil from the rig's bore hole to begin to spew into the Gulf of Mexico at an alarming rate. The rig was located approximately 60 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and the pollution resulting from its demise has already covered most of that distance as well as a farther trek northward toward the U. S. Coast (see official map from NOAA).

Particularly heart-wrenching among Southern Baptist reactions are the reflections of Russell Moore, a native of the soon-to-be-afflicted area. Moore uses the occasion to remind us rightly that God has charged us with the management of this earth. Moore also outlines something of the stakes involved, reminding us that we, who are creatures rather than Creator after all, survive by the bounty of this earth that we must manage.

So, I think we can all safely conclude that this disaster is something evil. Is this disaster properly to be characterized as an instance of moral evil or an instance of natural evil? Moral evil, as you may already know, is any evil that we perceive as being the direct result of the immoral action or inaction of a moral agent. Natural evil, on the other hand, is evil for which we do not perceive an argument attributing the evil result to any action or inaction of any moral agent. Those may not be precisely correct definitions, but they should serve our purposes well enough. The crux of the matter really lies in whose fault it is. If it is somebody's fault, then it is moral evil; if it is everybody's fault (Adam's fault), then it is natural evil. Which best describes this calamity, moral evil or natural evil?

Categorizing evil occurrences as moral evil or natural evil is one of those exercises that appears simple at first but quickly grows more complicated than one could easily anticipate. Once you have finished the task, the results may reveal as much about you as they reveal about the events themselves.

For illustration's sake, consider the two most infamous Gulf Coast tragedies of recent years: Hurricane Katrina and now the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Hurricane Katrina was clearly an instance of natural evil, right? Depending upon the ideological axe one wishes to grind, not everyone will quickly concede that point. From one end of the ideological spectrum, people asserted that we were embarking upon an age of larger and more frequent hurricanes because of human environmental misdeeds. Subsequent history, of course, has revealed this assertion to have been nonsense. Another end of the ideological spectrum tended to blame the people living in New Orleans. Who is so foolish as to build a house below sea level in a hurricane zone and then dare to be surprised when it floods? In each of these cases, the effect is to assert that the Hurricane Katrina disaster was actually an instance of moral evil rather than natural evil—that some person or group of people is to blame.

Likewise, with regard to the Deepwater Horizon explosion, all indications are that this is an instance of natural evil. The Deepwater Horizon explosion, at this point, appears to have little moral similarity to the Exxon Valdez spill. As you may recall, Valdez Captain Joseph J. Hazelwood had a serious alcohol problem, had lost his driver's license three times for driving drunk, and had consumed at least "two or three vodkas" the night of the accident (which is, of course, his liberty in Christ to drink vodka while piloting a supertanker full of crude oil). it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Valdez spill was an instance of moral evil.

In contrast, all indications at this point are that the Deepwater Horizon rig was operating with a blowout preventer and with safety equipment and procedures in place to prevent any explosion like this one from taking place. Those procedures and that equipment obviously did not prevent the disaster. If the subsequent investigation reveals that somebody did (or didn't do) something that contributed to this accident, then that will change the game entirely. But apart from such evidence, right now the explanation for the explosion is simply that something failed or went wrong in spite of, and not because of, what British Petroleum did. The company "is taking full responsibility for the spill" and will lose billions of dollars because of what happened April 20, but their taking of responsibility is, at this point at least, a consequence of the accident having happened to them, not a consequence of any specific action that anyone has yet alleged or that they have admitted. This appears to be an instance of natural evil, not moral evil.

Unless.

Unless you hold the opinion that the existence of the Deepwater Horizon rig was immoral to begin with. Just as some people have alleged that it was immoral for houses to exist in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans at all, some people will approach the present crisis from the presumption that it is immoral for oil drilling platforms to exist in the Gulf of Mexico at all. Such people will, long before the facts emerge (and regardless of what they reveal), forcefully conclude that this is an instance of moral evil.

Moral evil can be found most places if you strain hard enough to find it. Imagine that a school bus stalls on a railroad track in front of a train. Natural evil or moral evil? Well, why do we have grade-level crossings of roads and railroad tracks at all? Just because it would cost more money to build overpasses at every crossing? Are the lives of those school children not worth a few more dollars? Aren't our priorities ultimately to blame?

So, natural evil or moral evil? Most evil events are some combination of the both of them, although most are obviously more one than the other. And somehow we mysteriously assert that we are all morally responsible for the present state of affairs, and that we are living the least evil history that could ever have been possible.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Baptist Identity" Influences in My Life

How did I come to be a "Baptist Identity" sort of Baptist? Did I happen upon golden plates in my back yard inscribed by J. R. Graves? Did I have some furtive meeting over beignets with Dr. Paige Patterson?

I would like to say that the Holy Spirit and the New Testament have been the influences that have driven me to my position, and indeed this is what I believe. Nevertheless, I can identify a seminal influence in my life who is the most responsible for my more vigorous embrace of our distinctive New Testament beliefs as Baptists. That influence was Dr. Karen Bullock.

It was in one of my earlier Ph.D. seminar meetings that Dr. Bullock made a statement about the number of Ph.D. students in a Southern Baptist seminary who, when asked what were the distinctive beliefs of Baptists, were perplexed by the question and unable to provide a satisfactory answer. It was she who thereby gave me the initial indication that Southern Baptists were in the process of selling our birthright by abandoning our key doctrinal convictions without ever troubling ourselves to learn what they are and why we have held them so tenaciously and for so long. In two years of seminars to follow, it was Dr. Bullock's love for the English and American Baptists that so encouraged me to read them carefully and to learn from them. It was her supportive encouragement during my dissertation process that refined my views and provided helpful and necessary feedback along the way.

At least as far as this adherent is concerned, Dr. Karen Bullock is something of the Mother of the Baptist Identity Movement.

I do not mean that she has reached every conclusion that I have reached; I know for certain that we are not clones of one another. I simply mean that God used her to bring me to where I presently am. I am thankful for her.

Aaron Weaver has authored something of a kindly critique of some comments by Dr. Bullock in Associated Baptist Press on the subject of baptism. Also quoted in the BP article is Dr. James Leo Garrett, another powerful influence upon me in this area of thought. I do not find Weaver's post to be persuasive, but neither do I find it to be inappropriate. It is through such exchanges that academia moves forward. I speak to the matter not to scold the Big Daddy, but simply to go on the record in support of Bullock and Garrett.

I also think that BDW's post gives us a moment to consider what the Baptist Identity movement is and where it stands in our present context. Bullock's remark in that seminar meeting long ago and her comments in the ABP article give us an astute perspective on where Southern Baptist life stands right now. A tepid evangelical ecumenism crouches outside the tent, and its desire is for us. We are told by some voices within and some without that our only hope for survival is to embrace it. To some degree because of the influence of Bullock and Garrett upon me, I believe that we must master it and turn it back. To embrace it is to destroy ourselves, I believe.

The evidence to support my viewpoint is out there, I believe. I began blogging at a time when "Baptist Identity" bloggers were mostly involved in parrying against the thrusts of Ben Cole's pen. Ben is far my superior in intellect, focus, and eloquence. Ben was the brain and the soul of "the other side" of Southern Baptist blogging.

Ben is now, reportedly, a Roman Catholic.

That fact doesn't make Ben a bad person, nor does it cause me to question his salvation. The RCIA cannot undo what the gospel has done. The present state of affairs simply adds several more items of disagreement to what was already a sizable list of theological points of difference between myself on the one hand and Ben on the other hand. I suspect that Ben might say much the same had he not moved far on from Baptist blogging (something I may do myself at some point).

But Ben's movement is significant in one sense to our present discussion. Ben was authoring motions and crafting strategy in an attempt to shape the future direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, and it wasn't that long ago that he was doing it. So here's the question: Should the future of the Southern Baptist Convention be placed into the hands of people who have so little commitment to its core beliefs and so little stake in its future? Shouldn't the people playing central roles in the shaping of the Southern Baptist Convention be people who are Baptists by conviction?

Well, at least I believe that they should be, and so do those other brethren who are generally called "Baptist Identity" believers. Those who use the phrase use it to try to insult us. It is a politically calculated phrase. But that's OK—so was the word "Baptist" to begin with. The fact that we are being treated in the same manner as were the earliest Baptists and then the earliest modern Baptists is simply a good indication of the stock from which we descend and the historical side on which we stand. It's a proud heritage, and one I readily embrace. I learned about it from people like Karen Bullock and James Leo Garrett. The ABP article, and Aaron Weaver's post, reveal clearly that people like Bullock and Garrett see some of the same problems that I see in the present life of our churches and our convention. Political calculations notwithstanding, clearly there are a lot of people—and a lot of really smart and insightful people—who share a lot of these views with folks like me.

If that's true, then the "Baptist Identity" position cannot be nearly so radically narrow and obscurantist as some would have you believe.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Age of Light

Let the glory of the LORD endure forever;
Let the LORD be glad in His works

One interesting facet of the debate between Old-Earth Creationists and Young-Earth Creationists has to do with the age of light (not like "the Internet age" or "the Gilded Age," but like "What do you think is the age of that tree over there?"). Old-Earth Creationists point out that we see galaxies that are many millions of light-years away from the earth. Since a light-year is, by definition, the distance that a particle of light travels in the span of a year, the necessary implication is that events seen from many millions of light-years away must be events that happened many millions of years ago (which is when the journey of many millions of light-years must have been begun in order to be completed now).

Young Earth Creationists uniformly take refuge in the idea that the photons only appear to be that old but are not actually that old (not that photons in any way exhibit signs of age internally, but that the relative paths of protons from the same apparent source give the appearance of their having come a certain distance which implies that they are of a certain age). Theories advanced to reconcile this phenomenon with a young earth include the highly imaginative C-Decay theory and the idea that God created light already in-transit from galaxies far, far away.

I favor the latter explanation. One difficulty asserted against my position is that of God's motivation for such a thing. Why, the Old-Earth Creationist asks (as, indeed, do the non-Creationist and the C-Decay Theorist as well), would God create a deliberately deceptive universe? After all, the light-on-the-way created by divine word does not consist solely of static points of light. This is not just a Lite-Brite set. The light en route to Earth is depicting events in the Cosmos—explosions and implosions and astrophysical activity—that, if the light-on-the-way theory is correct, never really happened. Is God pulling a prank on us? Did He, foreseeing the birth of atheistic scientists, decide to dupe them with a little divine legerdemain? That seems out of God's character does it not?

I believe that this objection is really not a strong one at all, for I find it quite simple to imagine God's motivation in creating the Universe as He did—Beauty. The purpose given in Genesis for the creation of the stars is to provide light and to give a marking for seasons. The constellations only accomplish their seasonal tasks by their projection of an astrophysical drama upon the Earth—fixed and immutable stars simply do not mark seasons very well. But beyond that utilitarian perspective, fixed and immutable shafts of light from stars also are not very compelling visually. Is it possible that God just didn't like the way that would look?

A brief perusal of the pictures showcased from the Hubble Space Telescope (see link in the photo caption above) evidences few close-ups of individual burning balls of gas. Our predilection is for dramatic pictures of stars in motion. In our stargazing we have a penchant for verbs rather than nouns, desiring to gaze upon actions rather than upon mere objects. Even our scientists, hardnosed data sifters that they ostensibly are, seem to recognize what is beautiful in the nightly heavens.

Theologians have a tendency to minimize the topic of aesthetics in our treatments of God. Creationists, it seems, are vulnerable to the same weakness. Paley's watchmaker notwithstanding, we must allow for a God who is as much artist as artisan. For artists, illusion is not at all a bad thing; it is, as a matter of course, the objective.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Jimmy Jackson for SBC President

The Alabama Baptist reports that Jimmy Jackson will be nominated this Summer for President of the Southern Baptist Convention. (HT: SBC Today)

I was going to mention that I serve with Dr. Jackson on the SWBTS Board of Trustees. Upon reconsidering, I realized that such a statement did not nearly embody all of my feelings on the matter. Dr. Jimmy Jackson is not merely a trustee colleague at SWBTS; he is the elder statesman of the SWBTS board. He's the E. F. Hutton of the entire body. With an informed appreciation of the past and a bold vision for the future, Dr. Jackson is precisely the sort of man we need for this hour in the SBC.

The story in the Alabama Baptist listed above goes into some detail about Dr. Jackson's storied and long tenured history of work at Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville, AL. He has demonstrated his leadership abilities in his state convention, where he has presided for the past two years. Jackson is a committed personal evangelist. His own story of conversion and service toward the Lord is inspirational. I hope that it will become a part of the ongoing dialogue as we near Orlando.

Speaking of his decision, Jackson said, "I've been encouraged to be a candidate for the Southern Baptist Convention president. "As we move forward as a state convention and the Southern Baptist Convention to reach the world for Jesus Christ, I would like to be a part of that. . . . As I've prayed about the opportunity, I have a peace about it and have consented to be nominated."

Needless to say, I am delighted to learn of his nomination. And for those of you who are too young to make heads or tails of my "E. F. Hutton" analogy above, I present the following cultural history lesson.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Throw-Away Babies

I serve the congregation of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, TX. Farmersville sits at the northern shores of Lake Lavon. Earlier this week, a maintenance crew in the area found beside a dirty pond near the lake the body of a six-year-old special needs boy. He was significantly decomposed. His body showed evidence that he had been fed with a feeding tube for some period of time. Forensic examiners found no obvious evidence of trauma. Apparently, he died and then somebody just dumped him out at the lake (or dumped him out and left him there to die).

Learn more about the story here.

Dr. Russell Moore has recently reminded us that our treatment of a dead body says something about our attitude toward that body. I agree in part and disagree in part with Dr. Moore (grist for the future blogging mill?), but he is absolutely correct in noting that the treatment of dead bodies is loaded with significance.

To throw away the body of a child is to reveal one's heart in an incontrovertible way. To whoever dumped that body, that child was about as valuable as a broken-down washing machine. Each year, of course, millions of babies' bodies are thrown away into the trash, and the collective statement made by that fact is deafening and eloquent.

By the way, not only does our treatment of throw-away babies say something about us, but the something that it says about us it further says to God. Cain's blood cried out to God from the ground. From the medical incinerators and landfills and from a stagnant pond near Lake Lavon, a message rises to God that drowns out our formulaic prayers at official functions and our self-indulgent appeals to Heaven for materialistic largesse. Indeed, we ought to be ashamed, but we also ought to be fearful.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The One-Woman Man in the New Testament

Slowly, after much careful deliberation, I have begun to lean toward a new understanding of the phrase "one-woman man" (often translated "husband of one wife") in the New Testament. I am under no illusions that this position will ever gain any widespread acceptance among my peers, but I will not be reviewing my life with my peers when it is over.

I am coming to conclude that the phrase means to indicate a man who is married to no more than one women throughout his entire lifetime, no matter what may happen in that lifetime. To state it less technically, but perhaps more understandably, I have come to believe that the New Testament precludes the remarried widower from serving as a pastor (as well, of course, as precluding the divorcé and the polygamist).

I have come nowhere near the level of certainty with regard to this conclusion that I would lead our church to change our official applications of the biblical qualifications for pastors and deacons—that destination is not even within sight. . . not even on the map. But my personal uncertainty about the matter is strong enough that I think I would either remain unmarried or leave the pastorate if (Lord, please forbid it) I found myself facing the disastrous situation of losing my precious wife.

Doctrinal struggles sure do have personal consequences, don't they? And knowing that many of my readers will feel the personal implications of this question in their own lives, I'm obligated to make my case carefully.

It all boils down to this: It seems increasingly clear to me that the relevant passages are appropriating into the pastoral qualifications by the use of the phrase "one-woman man" a Christian male adaptation of the Roman phenomenon known as the univirae ("one-man woman"). This Roman concept explicitly referred to a woman who was never married a second time for any reason whatsoever. The phenomenon is very well documented in classical studies. There are a great many aspects of the univira concept that connect well with the particular subject matter of these Christian letters.

  1. Being a univira qualified a woman for certain ministry positions in pagan Roman temples. Thus, we see that the phrase "one-man woman" invoked an explicit concept in the Roman mind of the avoidance of second marriages as a qualification for religious service.

  2. The precise time when the concept of the univira was gaining its most widespread popularity was the time when Paul and other apostles were being inspired by the Holy Spirit to author the New Testament.

    Marjorie Lightman and William Zeisel's article "Univira: Continuity and Change in Roman Society" outlined the movement of the "univira" from its initial exclusive setting among the elite families of Rome proper to a widespread adaptation and adoption throughout the Roman Empire and among all classes of Roman society. The environment out of which the Holy Spirit brought forth the New Testament was precisely this environment in which the concept of the univira had attained widespread distribution.

  3. Although univira is a Latin phrase, the corresponding Greek phrase ("monandros") is strikingly similar to the phrase of the opposite gender, "mias gunaikos," that serves as the "one-woman" in "one-woman man." Even more similar is the wording of "one-woman man" in 1 Timothy 3:2 to the wording of "one-man woman" (henos andros gune) in 1 Timothy 5:9. In turn, the phrase for "one-man woman" in 1 Timothy 5:9 is strikingly similar to language on tombstone inscriptions from the period that extolled the virtue of women identified as univirae.

  4. To summarize these points in a conclusion, at precisely a time when the entire Roman world was extolling the virtues of "one-man women" who remained devoted to one spouse for a lifetime, and who consequently were qualified (at least in that respect) to serve in certain restricted religious capacities in Roman religion, the Holy Spirit led the Apostle Paul to identify being a "one-woman man" as a qualification for service in a certain restricted religious capacity in Christianity.

    That's a pretty tight parallel, in my estimation.

In addition to these thoughts, I point out that there is no Old Testament snippet of language or marital concept that seems to serve as the source of Paul's wording of "one-woman man." Paul does not seem to be alluding to any teaching of Jesus expressed in the gospels. What other compelling candidate is there to compete with univira as a source for Paul's wording?

I also note that this interpretation of "one-woman man" goes back at least to within 160 years of the life of Jesus. Tertullian held this view, for example, as did a great many others who lived far closer to the New Testament age than do we. The evidence of the Church Fathers alone does not compel us. Indeed, for quite some time, aware of these opinions, I wrote them off as the biased interpretations of people unhealthily obsessed with celibacy. As the exegetical considerations above have gained force in my reasoning, I have had to reconsider whether it was Tertullian who was biased against remarriage, or me who was biased against Tertullian.

My great objection to this interpretation, of course, is that I don't like it at all. If I were widowed at this age and with my children at their present ages, I would likely want to remarry. Indeed, I'm not saying that I wouldn't remarry; I'm just saying that I think I would need to leave the pastoral ministry in order to do so. I find that restriction quite onerous. I don't LIKE embracing this understanding of the text.

But my job is not to interpret the Bible according to my liking; my job is to love the Bible correctly interpreted, as an aspect of loving the Author of the Bible. Perhaps the true measure of our obedience as disciples is found in our doing of the things that we don't (at first) like but are nonetheless commanded to do.

Nevertheless, this much is certain—more than ever before, I'll be delighted for you to demonstrate to me where I'm wrong.

In conclusion, I would like to identify some of the interesting implications of this interpretation:

  1. The explicit and jarring transformation of an always-female-applied phrase to a made-up-for-this-instance male-applied phrase strengthens the already overwhelming case that the New Testament qualifications for elders and deacons are explicitly written to be applicable to men and not to women. Surely the female phrase would do quite nicely unless females are not at all in view here. Because Paul had to have a male phrase to apply to a male category, he had to go to the extraordinary lengths of creating his own male adaptation of this female phrase.
  2. The general Roman concept was quite the double-standard, with the "one-man woman" being praised and extolled while men were entirely within the bounds of respectable behavior to avail themselves of prostitutes and to marry a second time upon the death of a wife. The New Testament's application of this concept to men, therefore, represents a subjection of men to a binding commitment to their wives—to their wives having authority over their bodies—in a "turnabout is fair play" manner that was foreign to Roman culture.
  3. One need not go so far as to suggest that remarriage of widows or widowers is at all immoral (unlike divorce, which is always immoral on the part of at least one party). Indeed, 1 Timothy 5:14 mandates remarriage of at least one category of widows. In view here is not what is moral or immoral, but rather what qualifies one for service as an elder or deacon.