Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Southern Baptists Unwilling to Reason Together?

Memphis Declaration

We publicly repent of having forsaken opportunities to reason together with those who share our commitment to gospel proclamation yet differ with us on articles of the faith that are not essential to Christian orthodoxy.

The Memphis Declaration alleges that Southern Baptists have forsaken opportunities to reason with other orthodox Christian groups. I really wish I knew what this means. When I read "reason together" I guess I imagine my Methodist brother down the road and me sitting down over cookies and discussing our differing views over sprinkling babies. I'm willing to do that, and I have done it (without the cookies and with this pastor's immediate predecessor), but I've got to tell you, not much new came out of that. I already knew the unscriptural Methodist error at this point, and he already knew what I believed. Personally, I think that Southern Baptists have pretty much plumbed the depths of our theological interactions with other denominations. Are we under some obligation to rehash the same old thing on some sort of a regular schedule? Count me out of that. If there is some sort of a change and an opportunity to convince other denominations of biblical truth, then we certainly ought to seize those kind of chances. But why don't I think that's the kind of dialogue that this document has in mind? But maybe the declaration is barking up a different tree. The commitment part that follows the repentance here speaks not of reasoning together, but of "building bridges", "listening more and talking less", and "extending the hand of fellowship." Trying to think this through, I can come up with four broad categories that this point may be trying to address:
  1. Maybe the Memphis 30 think that we aren't friendly enough to non-Southern-Baptists.
  2. Maybe the Memphis 30 think that some of our doctrinal convictions are offensive to non-Southern-Baptists.
  3. Maybe the Memphis 30 think that we are too organizationally aloof from non-Southern-Baptists.
  4. Maybe this point is not about our relationship with non-Southern-Baptists, but with Southern Baptists whose views diverge from that of the majority.
So, not knowing which charge they are levelling here, I guess we'll need to address them all. Are we unkind toward other denominational groups? Well, what constitutes unkindness? Presbyterians are great folks, as far as I know. I would love to have dinner with a good, devout Presbyterian family. I think an envigorating discussion about where on earth they came up with the idea of a divided presbytery would be a lot of fun with an astute Presbyterian. But if kindness toward a Presbyterian requires that I...oh, I don't know...hire one as a missionary, then I'm unwilling to rise to that level of kindness. If the local church is the primary instrument of the Kingdom (as the Memphis Declaration affirms), then missionary activity has to be focused on planting and sustaining local churches. Presbyterians build bad churches...unbiblical ones. I will not pay a Presbyterian to plant a Presbyterian church anywhere. Period. Paragraph. It will be great if they win a lot of people to the Lord while they are planting their Presbyterian churches. I'll cheer with them. Let them do it with Presbyterian money. I don't think that makes me unkind; it makes me Baptist. Are our doctrinal convictions offensive to non-Southern-Baptists? If so, they need to learn about religious liberty. Live and let live. I don't hold any grudges against the UCC folks for being so enthusiastic about gay marriage. They're dead wrong, but they have the right to be dead wrong. Christ's removal of their lampstand will take care of their heterodoxy. That's not my job. I defend their right to be whatever they want to be in their own churches. I merely expect them to extend the same courtesy to me. I'm sure that SBC doctrinal convictions do occasionally offend other Christian groups. That's their problem. I care about my relationship with them, but I care about my relationship with God more. Are we too organizationally aloof from other denominations? I'll refer you to the previous post on Arrogance, where I discuss the folly of official entanglements between the SBC and other denominational entities. I also refer you to the post on Triumphalism and Narcissism, where I disabuse us of the notion that Southern Baptists are isolated from the remainder of Christianity. Have we forsaken opportunities to reason together, build bridges, listen instead of talk, and extend the hand of fellowship with other Southern Baptists? I imagine that there has been some unreasonableness in our recent turmoil. I've witnessed some on both sides. We ought to do better. But I would stipulate an important principle that I will not compromise to accomplish that goal:The SBC has full and unabrogated freedom to state its beliefs and determine its policy. Although it ought to pursue free and full discussion, it need not remain paralyzed from action merely because somebody somewhere disagrees. In other words, my failure to agree with you and do what you want does not necessarily indicate my failure to listen to you. Perhaps we had a great discussion in which each of us communicated our positions perfectly, but we just hold different opinions. If my opinion happens to be a minority view, then the SBC has the obligation to implement the wishes of the majority without regard to my opinion. I do not speak hypothetically—this has happened to me in my lifetime. I just didn't get all bitter and go off somewhere to pout and compose declarations. To sum up: I'm not quite sure whether this complaint translates to "The SBC isn't ecumenical enough" or "The SBC isn't tolerant enough." It either of these is the point, I disagree for reasons already stated.

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Condemning Without Loving?

Memphis Declaration

We publicly repent of having condemned those without Christ before we have loved them, and that we have acted as judge of those for whom Christ died by failing to live with a redemptive spirit toward them.

The Memphis Declaraion alleges that we have condemned sinners without loving them. Point well taken. We need to do better. So does everyone else. This is no worse a sin than abandoning biblical morality to "love" sinners without warning them that they are sinners and must repent or spend eternity in Hell. But, one point doesn't negate the other. By the way, did somebody in the SBC disagree with this, and I missed it? I mean, we all fall short, but do these thirty people think they are taking some kind of a bold stand against some sinister, unknown cabal of people who are secretly pursuing some sort of a deliberate agenda to refuse to love people?

Arrogance Hindering the SBC in the Spread of the Gospel?

Memphis Declaration

We publicly repent of an arrogant spirit that has infected our partnership with fellow Christians in the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, without the hearing of which men are incapable of conversion.

The Memphis Declaration alleges Southern Baptist arrogance. Arrogance is essentially the same attribute as Narcissism, or at least must be so with reference to an institution. Narcissism tends to imply an obsession with one's own appearance, but then, the SBC doesn't really have a physical appearance, does it? The delcaration employs the term metaphorically (or imprecisely, if you prefer), to imply simple arrogance. The apparent difference between the two paragraphs lies in effects, not causes. In the first paragraph, the declaration is alleging that Southern Baptist arrogance renders us incapable of evaluating our ministries. In the second paragraph, the declaration is alleging that Southern Baptist arrogance prevents us from spreading the gospel effectively enough, specifically by alienating us from the partnerships that we supposedly need to pursue more vigorously in order to accomplish this goal. So, what do we make of this allegation? I've got to say, I just don't know. My question is, "What partnerships?" Some folks we don't need to be in partnership with. Some folks, each of our local churches can partner with just fine without dragging the entire convention along with them. Are there partnerships out there that we ought to be pursuing but aren't because of our "arrogance"? Maybe. I don't know who they are, but I didn't write the declaration. With more data, I might be able to come to a conclusion. Burleson's comments offers a little more data—something of a hint as to what the declaration is trying to say. He highlights Wiley Drake's partnership with Pentecostals. So, I guess Burleson is suggesting that Southern Baptists could do a whole lot better spreading the gospel if we cooperated more with Pentecostals (perhaps among others). I disagree. First, Drake's behavior illustrates the flaw to this thinking: Drake is a Southern Baptist, but his affiliation with the SBC has in no way limited his freedom to cooperative with Pentecostals. Burleson is free to partner with Pentecostals or anyone else to any degree that he likes. At the church I pastor, we partner with churches of several denominations in our ministerial alliance. I think a lot of Southern Baptist churches are involved in local ministerial alliances (I am not drawing a conclusion from sound data, nor do I know that anyone has ever comprehensively surveyed this phenomenon). So, where's the problem? Second, and following from the first point, why do I need my missions partnership to enter me into further missions partnerships? I wonder whether Burleson's polity and ecclesiology are clear in his own mind. According to good Baptist ecclesiology, the SBC is only a quasi-denominational entity—it is secondary to the local churches. The convention is our missions partnership (among other things). Do we really need this missionary partnership to enter secondary partnerships, which maybe in turn enter into tertiary partnerships? Is that a sound organizational structure? Why not simply let each local church ally itself as it sees fit? I submit that local churches are already doing so, and the Memphis Declaration simply amounts to dissatisfaction with other local churches that have chosen a different set of partnerships than those chosen by the Memphis 30. Or, perhaps it reflects dissatisfaction for the way that other churches select their partnerships—a conviction that it is evil for churches to be more theological than pragmatic. Third, it is difficult enough to maintain a partnership among ourselves as Southern Baptists. If Burleson is proposing that the Southern Baptist Convention as an entity ought to entangle itself in some sort of official partnership with other denominations, then that has to be the worst idea I've heard in a long time. Different denominations exist because we have serious theological differences with Christians from other denominations. Those differences are going to matter to some people if a formal denominational partnership is in view—some of us aren't so sure that rampant pragmatism is a good foundation for churches. Why sow division in the SBC without any solid ideas about what we would accomplish thereby? Or, Burleson is not suggesting that sort of formal partnership, in which case I really don't know what this point of the Memphis Declaration is trying to accomplish. Perhaps someone will enlighten me.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Triumphalism and Narcissism in the SBC?

I've often said with regard to pastoral leadership that there are two common mistakes that we pastors make with regard to criticism. One mistake is to take to heart all of the criticism that comes our way. The other is to take to heart none of the criticism that comes our way. Regarding the recent "Memphis Declaration" offered by a group of Southern Baptist self-appointed gadflies, perhaps a semi-disinterested appraisal of the merits and failings of the criticism would be in order. I'm largely following and responding to the Thursday, May 4, 2006 post at Wade Burleson's blog entitled "The Memphis Declaration and Personal Repentance." I've decided to spend the next several days looking at the allegations one-by-one.

Memphis Declaration

We publicly repent of triumphalism about Southern Baptist causes and narcissism about Southern Baptist ministries which have corrupted our integrity in assessing our denomination bureaucracy, our churches, and our personal witness in light of the sobering exhortations of Scripture.

The Memphis Declaration alleges Southern Baptist triumphalism and narcissism. Do these two words describe Southern Baptist life? Triumphalism is "excessive exultation over one's success or achievements." As Southern Baptists, we do talk about our achievements—a practice that is probably necessary to keep millions of people motivated to complete a common task. The question is, do we exult over our achievements excessively? What, exactly, constitutes excess in this area? I suppose that exultation would be excessive if it took place over circumstances that really weren't successes or achievements. One of our students at the church recently had the misfortune while playing varsity basketball to score a basket in the opponent's goal. The student was guilty of triumphalism of a sort, celebrating his accomplishment for a moment before he realized what he had done. Are Southern Baptists guilty of this type of triumphalism? Maybe on occasion we are. We count and celebrate our baptism numbers, for example, when our own internal studies have revealed that a large percentage of our baptisms are not connected to actual conversion experiences. Nevertheless, this is not the kind of triumphalism that at least one of the Memphis drafters is alleging. Another way that exultation can be excessive is if, although it is celebrating something genuinely worthwhile, it expands out of proportion to what it is celebrating, becoming unseemly. But who decides the proper proportion, and what factors make exultation ( a very biblical concept) unseemly? From a broadly Christian perspective, I would suggest that exultation is excessive whenever it threatens to obscure God's glory or our sinfulness. Also, if we are too busy exulting when we ought to be working, our exultations might be excessive. This kind of triumphalism seems to be Burleson's target. He appears to believe that we have made more of our successes than we should, "as if God Himself were unable to save His people if were it not [sic] for our missionaries, our seminaries, and our work." The heart of this particular critique seems to be a perception that Southern Baptist preoccupation with our own successes have prevented us from being able to acknowledge the successes or achievements of others. Are Burleson's criticisms valid? Certainly I could not begin to prove that no Southern Baptist anywhere has been guilty of this level of excess. The question is whether triumphalism of this nature is characteristic of the SBC. I suggest that it is not. Southern Baptists have partnered with several other denominations on items of common interest. The list of non-Southern-Baptists whom I have personally heard speak at Southern Baptist meetings is impressive: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Tony Evans, Charles Colson, Jim Cymbala, and John MacArthur all come immediately to mind. Southern Baptists are more than willing to acknowledge the achievements of those who are not Southern Baptist. Also, I think that Southern Baptists, including the leadership of our convention, are more than prepared to face the weaknesses of our own people. The "Memphis Declaration" alleges that our triumphalism and narcissism have "corrupted our integrity in assessing our denomination [sic] bureaucracy, our churches, and our personal witness." Yet, at this moment we are in the midst of a campaign to address the flagging evangelistic zeal of Southern Baptist churches. We are only eleven years away from a thoroughgoing reorganization designed to address our burgeoning bureaucracy. My state convention, the SBTC, has done a great job of addressing the problem of bureaucracy. Prominent Southern Baptist scholars have called for SBC churches to reinstate biblical church discipline and to pay renewed attention to ecclesiology. The spirit of reform and healthy dissent—the prophetic element—is alive and well within the SBC. Ironically, Burleson's own movement, while speaking of the alleged triumphalism of the SBC, builds a significant following by profiting from the absence of triumphalism in the SBC—the willigness of Southern Baptist to look realistically, even harshly, at our faults and failures. Burleson speaks admirably about his repentance from "being concerned about how [his] church compares in numbers and statistics with other churches." If by speaking about triumphalism in the SBC, the "Memphis Declaration" is actually trying to put into its crosshairs the egotism that sometimes possesses prominent leaders, then the document's point probably has some merit. The battle against runaway egos is an incessant one. We lose our share of battles with this foe. But I do not see how this is a convention problem, per se. It is a human problem. I suggest that Baptist polity, with its absence of supercongregational bishops, popes, and prelates, does more to keep egos in check than any other system of Christian belief. So, although I think that we might have a thing or two to learn from this notion of triumphalism in the SBC, overall I think that the allegation in the "Memphis Declaration" is unfounded. Narcissism has several defintions, but the "Memphis Declaration" probably employs the word in a sense most resembling "extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type." Is this who Southern Baptists are? Ask the victims of Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita whether Southern Baptists are "extremely selfish." If Southern Baptists are craving admiration, I'd hate to see what we do when we are courting rebuke. We're regularly vilified and rebuked. I personally measure the health of the convention each year by looking to see whether we have a good crop of protesters at the meeting. Do we have a grandiose view of our own talents as a convention? Do we overpromote ourselves? Considering the fact that most Southern Baptists know very little about what the SBC does, I would say that we are guilty of underpromotion. Burleson himself is willing to suggest indirectly in another post that the SBC struggles to achive "good communication with the grass roots worker." I think he agrees with me, that the SBC needs to do a better job of communicating its objectives and successes to the Southern Baptist people. But when the SBC tries to do that, somehow it becomes guilty of "narcissism." What are they supposed to do? Get up on the platform and say, "Well, folks, we've got a lot of things that your convention is doing that you ought to know about. None of them are very good, but we'd like you to support them anyway"? Is that what Burleson and the others of the Memphis 30 are doing in their churches? If so, I'd really like to know how that is working for them. I'll admit that Southern Baptists have not signed up to compete in the Postmodern World Toleration Olympics, hoping to win the gold medal by seeing if we can be the loudest voice proclaiming that all religions, cultures, denominations, etc. are really the same—none better; none worse. As for me, I'm willing to say that Christianity is right and all other faiths are patently false (and I'm sure that Burleson agrees). I'm also willing to say that all denominations of Christianity are not equal. I don't think that Baptists are perfect, but I do believe that a properly organized and functioning Baptist church is the best and most biblical church...better and more biblical than other Christian churches. I believe this not from a desire to insult anyone, but as a part of a personal quest to practice biblical Christianity. I think that the Southern Baptist Convention represents a pretty good assemblage of Baptist churches, and I'm willing to be proud of who we have been and who we are. If thirty people in Memphis can't be comfortable with that heritage, then I hope that they can resolve those issues for themselves without pretending that their problems somehow constitute problems for me and the remainder of their Southern Baptist brethren.