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.


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 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.