Monday, April 27, 2009

I Would Love to Sign the Great Commission Resurgence, But. . .

Dr. Danny Akin recently preached a very engaging sermon on the axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence. I found myself, even sitting in an empty office with nobody to hear them, belching out a chorus of amens to so much of what he said. In the aftermath of the sermon, which he from the beginning stipulated to have been something he coordinated with others among the grandees of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Akin has launched a web site seeking endorsements and affirmations for a statement along similar lines of his sermon.

As someone who loves the Lord, loves the Great Commission, and loves the Southern Baptist Convention, I would also love to sign on as a proponent of a resurgence of the Great Commission among Southern Baptists. As someone encouraged and enthused by so much of what Dr. Akin preached, I would further love to have some way to affirm the good truths to which he has directed our attention.

But, as someone who reads such documents carefully and who takes very seriously the act of affixing my name to something, I am genuinely disappointed and saddened that I cannot add my name to those affirming this particular plan for a Great Commission Resurgence. I cannot do so because this particular plan for bringing about a Great Commission Resurgence is, in my opinion, a flawed plan that will not bring to the Southern Baptist Convention any substantial resurgence of the Great Commission.

I elaborate my thoughts "axiom" by axiom:

  1. Dr. Akin has called us first to an affirmation of the Lordship of Christ. Amen and Hallelujah, Dr. Akin. This is not only the right idea, but it is also listed in the right position—first place. Certainly we must indeed put Christ's lordship first, and Dr. Akin rightly notes that none else will succeed apart from it.

    Would to God that the website provided a means to sign axiom one without having to sign each and every remaining axiom!

  2. Dr. Akin has also rightly called us to a central affirmation of the gospel. And I agree. I would gladly affirm axiom two were we simply to receive some specific clarification as to what are the "styles, traditions, legalisms, moralisms, personal preferences, or unhelpful attitudes" that we are exhorted by this second axiom to abandon in favor of the simple gospel. Given the differences of opinion among Southern Baptists evidenced in just the past few days over such topics as homosexual civil unions or decriminalization of marijuana, it would be important to me to have some clarification on that point before going on the record in favor of that language. The simple gospel does, after all, have something to do with morality, unless our recent lurching as Southern Baptists toward Antinomianism has progressed further than I have realized.

    I have every reason to hope and expect that Dr. Akin would mean by the "styles, traditions, legalisms, moralisms, personal preferences, or unhelpful attitudes" precisely what I would mean were I to use such language—that one can never become moral enough to earn salvation. By extension, I'm certain that we would both affirm that it is our initial effort as proclaimers of the gospel to call people to come to Christ "Just As I Am." We are not in the business of making people presentable to God through moral reform so that they may then receive the gospel. We are in the business of calling immoral people to receive the gospel first, but we are confident that this is a gospel with a profound effect upon one's morality. Thus it is entirely appropriate for Southern Baptists to talk about morality, to talk about morality in pointed specifics, and to talk about morality a great deal. On these principles I have every reason to believe that Dr. Akin and I are in agreement.

    But the public record of Southern Baptist discourse demonstrates plainly that not all Southern Baptists share that agreement. I would be uncomfortable in affirming this second axiom, therefore, not so much because of what it says as because of how it could and will be construed by some who will affirm it.

  3. The third axiom calls us to affirm and live the Great Commandments of loving God and loving people. This axiom I gladly affirm. It is a loving thing to rebuke error and to call the lost away from destruction. Our love for God and for people should stand behind all that we do, and when the world will not acknowledge that love, we should make certain that they do not see it because they do not wish to see it, not because it is not there.

  4. The fourth axiom calls us to the inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture. My next post this week will indicate why this remains an important and timely topic for us WITHIN the Southern Baptist Convention, for there are people who currently hold positions of high influence within denominational structures that are a part of the Southern Baptist family, but who are explicitly opposed to inerrancy. Dr. Akin's language on this subject in the sermon was even more explicit than the text of the website. I not only affirm this axiom; I cheer its inclusion.

  5. The fifth axiom calls upon Southern Baptists to "look to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as a sufficient guide for building a theological consensus for partnership in the gospel."

    Here again, I think that I can affirm this axiom. In its wording I have no disagreement. But I note that it is nearly the precise wording of the ill-fated Garner Motion that, in the end, amounted to little more than a Rorschach test dealing with what role the Baptist Faith & Message should have in the governance of our entities. If Dr. Akin means by this axiom that the Baptist Faith & Message is the minimal doctrinal floor for our Southern Baptist entities, then I agree with him. If he instead means what Rick Garner apparently meant to say—that our Southern Baptist entities should have no "narrowing" of theological "parameters" beyond the explicit text of the Baptist Faith & Message, then two problems have emerged. One is Bart Barber's problem, and it is not all that important: I would not be able to affirm this axiom. The other is Dr. Akin's problem, and it is a much more grave one: He would not be able to affirm the Abstract of Principles as an additional theological governing document for his SBC entity beyond the Baptist Faith & Message.

    So, he cannot mean what some have construed the Garner Motion to mean, and he and I are in probable agreement. But especially since this particular wording has been so contentious among Southern Baptists in the immediate past, to think that the bald assertion of such a consensus-destroying phraseology would lead to the building of consensus among Southern Baptists is unwise.

  6. The sixth axiom is a Baptist Identity affirmation. I gladly endorse it. Since we are talking about ecclesiology, I would acknowledge the fact that Southern Baptists do still at this moment affirm two ordinances rather than one, but I'm in no mood to quibble. I'm enthusiastic about this axiom.

    And my enthusiasm is not entirely a matter of arcane discussions of the nuances of ecclesiology. I'm enthused about this one because it rises above the plane of jingoistic national denominational programs. We've had so many (Bold Mission Thrust, A Million More in '54, Encouraging Kingdom Growth, Great Commission Resurgence), and we've seen so little from them (except for the "Million More" campaign). The reason for the impotence of these endeavors, I believe, is that they have tended to arise from the employees of our para-church organization known as the Southern Baptist Convention and have seemed to presume that re-jiggering the mechanics of the para-church organization will somehow hold the key to some great advance for Christ.

    In contrast, I believe that it is when we throw up the hood of the local church (founded by God rather than by W. B. Johnson) and begin to tighten and adjust whatever in the local church is out of alignment with clear surrender to the scriptures—it is at that moment that we start to do something that really matters. I'm greatly enthusiastic about the Great Commission Resurgence's inclusion of good Baptist Identity ecclesiology as necessary to any advance whatsoever in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. It is, after all, a Commission given to and for the churches.

  7. The seventh axiom calls us to sound biblical preaching, and I affirm this article entirely.

  8. The eighth axiom calls us to biblically informed methodological diversity. Who can disagree with that? Certainly I do not. Being biblically informed will keep us from foul language and asserting specific sex acts as the commandment of Christ and convening in taverns and bars to hold church. Methodological diversity will only strengthen our efforts to win the lost. I'm in complete agreement with this axiom and affirm it.

  9. The ninth axiom is one of the primary reasons why I cannot sign this document. That's the stuff of an entirely separate post, which I'll have to submit sometime. Suffice it to say two things at this point:

    First, for reasons I'll detail later, I think that some of the ideas being bandied about under this heading have the very real potential to be the most disastrous mistakes that the Southern Baptist Convention has ever made to eviscerate our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission.

    Second, and most to the point of this post, why would one require the affirmation of organizational reshuffling to determine who is or who is not in favor of the SBC growing in faithfulness to the Great Commission? I disagree entirely with axiom nine. Does that mean that I am anti-Great Commission? Will that be the branding and ostracism applied to any who do not toe the line on these axioms? Yes. Absolutely it will be. Perhaps not by Dr. Akin, but by some. Mark my words.

    Indeed, it may begin in this comment stream.

    Therefore, count me as one who sees it as a mistake to include matters of tactical and organizational bureaucracy in a document that should stick to the highest ideals—that should trade in goals rather than objectives. It is a mistake if for no other reason than the fact that those who might otherwise embrace the heart of the movement will be held outside the gate merely because they have different ideas about how to accomplish it.

    Before leaving this axiom, I should mention that there are aspects of it that I strongly affirm personally. For example, I believe with Dr. Akin that the apportionment of Cooperative Program funds by some of our state conventions is no less than shameful. And I do believe that this phenomenon is related to the Great Commission and our attempts to obey it. Nevertheless, I still do not affirm that the redrawing of organizational charts will do anything substantive either to bring about or to hinder a Great Commission Resurgence.

  10. The tenth axiom calls us to distinctively Christian families. I affirm this axiom in its entirety.

So, I will let each reader judge how much real distance exists between myself and the Great Commission Resurgence. Because integrity precludes me from the dishonest and specious practice of affirming things with "caveats," I will not place my name on the web site as a signatory of this document (not that my signature will matter much in either its inclusion or exclusion from the list). But perhaps my willingness to offer my perspective in detail will occasion a move from drum-beating to a thoughtful discussion of the contents of this important document.

On Being the Church

A sister church in our area has announced an initiative to "be the church" rather than "going to church." According to press coverage (which I always take with a grain of salt), the capstone of this initiative is the cancellation of all Sunday worship services for a given Sunday in favor of a number of community service projects.

First, I want to commend the concept of emphasizing "church" as someone who we are rather than someplace that we go. It is a needed and biblical correction in our day. And yet, having determined to be the church rather than to go to the church, I can't help but wonder whether a set of community service projects can constitute being the church in any New Testament sense.

In the New Testament, although I find the careful attention of the church to the needs of church members, I find it difficult to build an exegetical case for the policing of city park litter and the changing of old motor oil as the essence of ecclesiology. One might pretty easily argue that the New Testament church not only did none of those things, but further that they did nothing which might be construed as the first-century equivalent of them. Or perhaps I misread the scriptures.

The only hermeneutical basis I can conceive for defining the being of the church thusly is to exalt (a selective reading of) the Minor Prophets over the Pauline Epistles and to build more of an Old Testament social movement than a New Testament church. Starting off each morning with a daily passage of Rauschenbusch would go much further in building such a mindset than would a daily encounter with Acts.

Community service projects might be a great public-relations move for a church. They might present opportunities to share the gospel with new people for a church. I've led our church to participate in similar ventures. I do not write to express any personal opposition to the activities in and of themselves. Rather, I object to the labeling of community service projects as the church actually coming to be itself. The history of The Salvation Army has demonstrated, I believe, that warm-hearted and caring people can actually allow a passion for community service to get in the way of a church being a church as biblically defined.

When I think about FBC Farmersville coming to be the church rather than going to church, I think about the Church Covenant that I will be presenting to the congregation in May for a vote on it (along with our new Constitution & Bylaws) in July. It is as we two or three (or more) gather together in covenantal agreement in the name of Christ, worshipping Christ, with Him gathered with us, and we fulfill the "one anothers" of the New Testament that we are being the church which Christ founded.

Note: I comment on this matter because I believe that it addresses important questions that we can all benefit from considering. I neither name the church in question nor link to the mentioned press releases out of my fraternal love and respect for a sister congregation in our local area. Although we may answer these questions differently, and even if the topic merits our consideration, I have no desire to be gratuitously derogatory toward a sister church with whom we cooperate.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

On Mandatory Age Thresholds for Believer's Baptism

I am opposed.

First, my misgivings. Although I hold my viewpoint adamantly, I do so with some measure of fear and trembling for the following reasons:

  1. I do encounter people who convincingly argue that the churches should indeed refuse to baptize anyone younger than some threshold age. Some of these people are beloved to me. Some of them are inordinately smarter than I am. The very fact that I am so outgunned intellectually in this debate makes me tremble to bring it up, but I bring it up nonetheless as a learning opportunity for us all.

  2. I do see powerful demographic and anecdotal evidence in our churches that we are baptizing enormous numbers of people who give very little evidence of having experienced conversion (or who even testify of themselves later that they were not converted at the time of their baptism). I do agree that this is a bad thing and that churches need to take action to stop it. I do not know that setting a threshold age for baptism is the right action, nor that it will be an effective action, but I agree that we must do something else if we do not do this.

  3. I do agree that churches are sometimes under inappropriate pressure to baptize children who have not yet been converted. Sometimes it is the pressure of a desire for higher numbers of baptisms. Other times it is the pressure of parents who are eager for their child to “make a decision” right away. The clarity of the gospel and the spiritual well-being of children demands that we beware those pressures upon ourselves and that as pastors we do not inflict them upon others. Simply saying that nobody under the age of, say, 15 will be baptized is indeed one way to remove that pressure entirely.

  4. I do agree that there is no foolproof way to sit down with any given six-year-old and effectively determine whether that child is merely curious about all of that splashing in the water up there on Sunday morning or has genuinely experienced conversion.

  5. I do agree that the predominant New Testament narrative is one of adult conversions, that a church unable or unwilling to reach adults with the gospel is unhealthy, and that the unhealthiness of some churches in this regard has been masked by their increasing dependence upon the conversion of a younger and younger set of prospects.

All of these things I readily admit, not only with regard to their veracity, but also with regard to their gravity. Nonetheless, I am opposed to setting a threshold in age for baptism. Here's why:

  1. I see no biblical warrant for it. Where in the New Testament do we find instructions for limiting baptism by age? Nowhere. The Bible associates baptism with conversion. It is the sign of the burial of the old man with Christ and the raising up of the new man to walk in newness of life with the risen Christ. It is the spiritual circumcision marking those who have just been spiritually born through conversion. It is the immediate action of obedience for those who repent, believe, and are saved in the New Testament narratives. Baptism is too important for me to impose upon he or she who is not a believer; and likewise it is too important for me to forbid it to he or she who is a believer.

  2. Young children can indeed experience genuine conversion. I was five (nearly six). I was genuinely converted. I was genuinely convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit. I was genuinely repentant. I was genuinely trusting in Christ for my salvation. I genuinely understood that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins and that He rose again the third day. I genuinely understood that by God's grace I could go to Heaven but that apart from it I was bound for Hell. I genuinely experienced a powerful, inward, spiritual new birth at that moment. My commitment to Christ genuinely issued forth in changed behavior in my life.

    In all of this I eventually grew and matured, but all of it was present from the beginning.

    So, I confess that I come to all of this with personal baggage, good and wonderful baggage that it is. Might I suggest that others may come to the question with baggage of their own? Isn't it possible that some of those who were not converted as children—perhaps especially those who experienced some false profession of faith as a little child—might approach this topic with the presumption that God operates in everyone's life in the same manner as He has worked in theirs? Is it not possible that they are wrong?

  3. I see no strong indicator that false professions of faith are any less likely at 16 than they are at 6. If our records are any indicator, a great many people profess conversion in late youth or young adulthood without any lasting evidence of genuine conversion. I can say that I have only one demographic category of people in which every individual whom I have baptized has turned out to be undeniably the real thing: People over the age of 65. Each and every senior adult that I have baptized (and I've had the privilege of doing that several times) has given every ongoing indication of having been entirely sincere and truthful in the testimony of what God had done in their lives. Now please understand, I'm no more able to see the inward hearts of 75-year-olds than I am able to see the inward hearts of 9-year-olds, but I'm just reporting on the fruit that I've seen.

    Given that experience, should the threshold be 50 or so?

  4. Refusal of baptism is a sin. If I refuse to baptize a genuinely converted child, I am forcing them not to do what Jesus has commanded them to do. Nay, all the worse, I am refusing to do what Jesus has commanded me to do in the Great Commission. Those who have been made disciples are to be baptized. No, their salvation is not dependent upon their baptism. Yes, if they are genuine believers, they will still be around to be baptized later. But none of that contradicts the plain biblical commandment to be baptized upon conversion. I want to be obedient, and I want to encourage new converts to be obedient, and so I have no artificial, unbiblical policy to prevent the genuinely converted from being baptized, merely because of how many birthdays they have or have not celebrated as of yet.

  5. I think that another, better, alternative exists. Baptize only those who can and will give to the church a credible and orthodox testimony of having experienced conversion. It may be videotaped. It may be live and in person. But however it takes place, let the churches hear the testimonies and determine whether the content of the gospel and the evidence of the gospel's work in conversion is genuinely there. Baptize those whose testimonies give every indication of sincere and informed embrace of the biblical gospel. Do not baptize others. Practice this consistently regardless of age. Where the church decides wrongly (and we will indeed err), then correct the error when it become evident, either by excluding from membership those who give no appearance of having been genuinely converted or by baptizing those who give every appearance of having the indwelling Christ.

Thanks to all for your patience in hearing me on this topic.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Southern Baptists and Sex

Caution: This post contains some language more explicit than my standard fare.

Until I sat down and thought it through, I hadn't realized how much the topic of sex has dominated the online conversation of Southern Baptists in recent months. In a speech in Scotland Mark Driscoll promoted fellatio to the status of Christian ordinance, to which John MacArthur reacted recently, drawing the attention of Southern Baptists. MacArthur in the same series of articles took aim at the daily sex challenges promoted by people like Ed Young, Jr. Jonathan Merritt finagled an op-ed spot in USA Today ostensibly announcing a softening of the Southern Baptist position on homosexual activity and all-but-endorsing homosexual civil unions. Southern Baptist blogs reacted to that, as well. Sex, sex, sex! If we could just inaugurate a good reprise of the alcohol debate (drugs) and follow on with some wrangling over styles of worship (rock-and-roll), then we could have a blogging trifecta.

On the one hand, it is good that Southern Baptist voices are up-in-arms against Merritt's half-baked essay, but on the other hand, I don't know why anyone is at all surprised. Merritt is merely applying to homosexuality the arguments that long ago entirely defined the position of his father's generation toward divorce. And what has the outcome been? Divorce rates within the church have skyrocketed. From ignoring the implications of divorce upon spiritual health and church membership we've moved to an impending compromise of biblical limitations upon divorce in church leadership. Merritt's philippic against past Southern Baptist intolerance indirectly broaches the subject of divorce, reminding us that Southern Baptists already fall short of God's design in marriage. He rightly sees that the widespread acceptance of divorce as no big deal in Southern Baptist churches puts us in the place of the hypocrite when we dare to raise our ire against those engaged in homosexual acts. Not that divorce and homosexuality are biblically equivalent—Moses authorized no certificate of sodomy in the Old Testament. But specific exegetical questions aside, our general laissez-faire attitude toward carnality in Southern Baptist pews makes it disconcerting when we find our collective backbone.

Merritt's argument amounts to a call for us to treat homosexuality the way that we've been treating divorce. I think we might be well advised to do the converse and treat divorce a bit more in the manner that we've been treating homosexuality. Certainly any objective analysis would reveal that the de-facto Southern Baptist policy toward divorce has been an abject failure (unless one's entire goal is accomplished in the mere seduction of people to attend).

Driscoll, Young, and Merritt are the vanguards of an SBC that will talk exponentially more, and more freely, about sex and yet say all of the wrong things. In the midst of a culture full of people who so desperately need to find their solitary hope of genuine identity and fulfillment in their spiritual potential for a relationship with Christ, we're busy about showing the world that we, too, are capable of obsessing over our genitalia just as well as the next person. At least Augustine knew enough to pray for chastity, on whatever timetable. It would be better, I think, for us to look down at the ground around us and see where 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 might have fallen when we excised it from our Bibles. We should paste it right back in there and ponder a moment to see whether it doesn't offer us some important truth to balance out our mirthful contemplations of Hebrew 13:4 and the Canticles.

A healthy Southern Baptist attitude toward sex, I think, would make us neither Arthur Dimmesdale nor Larry Flynt. I'm impressed by the treatment of sexuality that C. S. Lewis gave in his autobiography Surprised by Joy:

One thing…I learned, which has since saved me from many popular confusions of mind. I came to know by experience that it [Joy] is not a disguise for sexual desire.…I learned this mistake to be a mistake by the simple, if discreditable, process of repeatedly making it.… I repeatedly followed that path—to the end. And at the end one found pleasure; which immediately resulted in the discovery that pleasure (whether that pleasure or any other) was not what you had been looking for. No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly nonmoral on that subject as a human creature can be. The frustration did not consist in finding a “lower” pleasure instead of a “higher.” It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. The hounds had changed scent. One had caught the wrong quarry. You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. I did not recoil from the erotic conclusion with chaste horror, exclaiming, "Not that!" My feelings could rather have been expressed in the words, "Quite. I see. But haven't we wandered from the real point?" Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.

We need to show the world that sex is not a bad thing, but neither is it the thing. There is something more important than sex! Paul apparently thought that the highest and most fulfilling aspirations of life could be had without sex at all—an heretical statement in our culture and in a great many of our churches today. But it is a statement that needs to be made not only in words but in action. Depraved and perverted souls all around us need not so much to learn how Christ relates to their sex life as to be led away from the poles of Asherah and introduced to something more eternal and more real…to be called to discover something so high and pure and beautiful and joyful that they would gladly abandon sex altogether, if needs be, just to have it in their lives.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Letter to a Soldier I Love

Not knowing for certain the security aspects of it all, I'll leave the names out of this. But here is the text of a letter I just wrote. I know that many people have loved ones in combat in Iraq, so I thought this might turn out to be something of an encouragement to someone else if I were to share it.

Besides, if I've forgotten something major since my introduction to Biblical Backgrounds nearly two decades ago, it will doubtless give someone great pleasure to point out my archaeological ignorance!

Dear _____________,

FOB Kalsu lies just south of a canal, if Google Earth is correct, not far southeast of Al-Iskandariyah. It is a very historic place that you occupy.

Somewhere nearby, perhaps under your very feet (for the site has never been excavated or even located yet), is Agade, the great city of Sargon the Great, ruler of Akkad, conqueror of the Sumerians and eventually many others. As far as we know, Sargon was among the very first persons in human history to build anything resembling an empire. He reigned the territory from as far as Turkey to Oman. He lived and reigned sometime around 2300 BC. So, for at least 3,000 years the soldiers of great empires have stood where you stand and have carried some sort of a weapon.

A mere eighteen miles south of you is ancient Babylon. This was the civilization that built old Babylon and Ur. Long afterwards the Neo-Babylonian Empire under the capable hand of Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC and carried away men like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Ezekiel into captivity.

Somewhere in your vicinity is the likely location of the Plain of Dura, where the three resolute young men refused to bow to the great statue and found themselves in a fiery furnace, yet very much alive. You may find yourself wondering whether the furnace is still burning when the Summer comes in full force. I hear that the sand in Iskandariyah is fine enough to make most barriers permeable to it and coarse enough to make any garment uncomfortable.

Approximately twenty miles north of you was the Nahr Malcha (if its ancient location is that described by Xenophon in the Anabasis), Nebuchadnezzar's great canal between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Many scholars believe that this was the body of water identified by Ezekiel as the "River Chebar" where he saw a vision of God in his great battle chariot and received a great many revelations from God.

So, ___________, although you will likely feel very far from home at some point before this thing is concluded, you actually stand in a spot that is the home of much of your faith—the ancestral lands of your spiritual family long-long ago. My prayer for you is that you will know the supernatural protection of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; the dogged commitment to your faith in a foreign land of Daniel; and the bewildering and awe-inspiring encounters of Ezekiel with a very real God. He can find you there; He knows the area well.

Love in Christ,

Friday, April 17, 2009

Religious Liberty and the Disturbing Case of Taha Abdul-Basser

(HT: SBC Today)Dr. Emir Caner, the new President of Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Georgia, has posted an excellent article on his new blog (here's his RSS feed) touching upon the disturbing case of Taha Abdul-Basser, Islamic chaplain at Harvard University. An email from Abdul-Basser has leaked into the public domain in which he expresses a coziness with the idea of capital punishment for those who leave Islam for any other religious faith.

It is my considered opinion that the ongoing (regardless of what the White House may tell you) war on terror is indeed a religious war. It is not, however, a war between Christianity and Islam, as some like to style it. Rather, it is a war between those who believe in religious liberty and those who spurn it.

Abdul-Basser's situation raises an interesting question: Does religious liberty include the liberty not to believe in religious liberty?

A differentiation between religious toleration and religious liberty is in order at this point. Religious toleration is the situation in which the government does not punish a person for his religious convictions, but may endorse a particular religious conviction through subsidy or preferential legislation. Religious liberty is the situation in which the government neither persecutes nor endorses any of the competing religious points of view. Baptists have historically been champions not only of religious toleration but further of religious liberty.

So, does religious liberty include the liberty not to believe in religious liberty? In posing the question, I'm not so much asking whether Abdul-Basser ought to be thrown into the clink for his willingness to countenance an "off with their heads" response to Islamic infidelity. I think that religious toleration certainly should be extended even to those who support the idea that Islamic infidelity merits the death penalty. After all, Abdul-Basser is simply being faithful to the clear teachings of his scriptures and his religious tradition. For that he ought not to be punished.

And yet, I do not believe that opposition to religious liberty should enjoy the benefits of religious liberty. In other words, I do believe that the United States of America can establish, should establish, and has established an official position on the admittedly religious doctrine of whether there ought to be liberty of religious conscience. At this point, the Constitution of the United States of America says that Abdul-Basser and the Hadith and Mohammed are all wrong. And Abdul-Basser knows it, citing "the absence of Muslim governmental authority" as one of the practical factors (along with "the hegemonic modern human rights discourse") making it impractical for Moslems actually to execute infidels in the West quite yet.

The United States of America should not be alone in her position; Harvard University should take a stand for religious liberty as well, by censoring Abdul-Basser for his remarks.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Motion for Louisville

At this year's convention I will propose that the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention compile a comparison of professorial salaries at each of our six SBC seminaries on the one hand with the most recent statistics from the Association of Theological Schools on the other hand and publish the raw data of their findings at next year's annual meeting.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On Fair Shares in Taxation

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who runs a successful business. This person employs around forty people. His is not the largest business in his small town—not even in the top five. Wherever you live, your local school district employs more people, maintains larger facilities, and spends more money than does this person's business. He lives modestly in a middle-class neighborhood in his suburban town.

As required by our current tax code, this person pays his taxes four times a year. Every three months he sends around $300,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. Today he will file his tax return and will pay any amount not covered by his quarterly estimated tax payments. That amount for this year will be $900,000! Please remember, this does not represent his entire tax burden, but only considers the cost of his federal income taxes.

Considering these numbers, I think it appropriate to ask the following questions:

  1. Is he yet paying his fair share? Is he patriotic enough yet? Standard socialist philippics attack people like this for being oppressive toward the poor. Somehow he is considered something other than the group labeled as "working people" although he works far more than forty hours every week. He is a generous giver. I'm thankful for his gifts to the local church, but I also know that he has contributed to local, state, and international charities.

    A large percentage of people who live in his neighborhood give nothing to charity. They pay no income taxes. They may drive more elaborate cars or live in more expensive houses or have a more expensive cable TV package. Some of them have overextended themselves in subprime mortgages to purchase homes they could not afford (although the Dallas-Fort Worth region hasn't had as much a problem with that phenomenon as some other regions of the nation). Yet he pays nearly $2 million in federal income taxes and they pay nothing. And then they complain about the greedy rich people who stick it to the common man.

    Is this fair?

  2. Is this good for the country? Is it good stewardship? Looking at the numbers above, it is easy to determine that, for every one of this man's employees, there's an amount of money equivalent to her salary that is being paid to the federal government in income taxes. Do you want to talk about creating jobs? Were he not paying federal income taxes, he could nearly double his workforce.

    Rather than paying employees in the region, his money will go to Washington, D.C.

    Have you ever been to our nation's capitol? I have a recommended outing for you. Journey to Washington, D.C. Get up early on a weekday morning. Turn on the news and look at the traffic report. See how many cars are on the Beltway. Then go get an early spot on a bench on the Mall or in Lafayette Park. Take a couple of hours and watch the unending throng of suits and ties streaming into those government buildings and lobbying firms. Imagine the salaries. Then, when you've tallied it all up in your mind, remember that this vast army of bureaucrats produces not a single product. The entire organism is, technically speaking, parasitic.

    That vast economy in the Washington, D.C., area is funded by money taken OUT of your town. No doubt, that's a good deal for those people in D.C. Is it good for you? Is it good for our country?

  3. Finally, I ask you to try to consider objectively this question: Is this nation still the best place to find the opportunity to start a business? Our wages are high. Our taxes are high. The chances that your business will be sued in some kind of product liability lawsuit or trumped-up employment discrimination lawsuit or worker injury lawsuit or environmental complaint is higher than in some other places.

    We have some things going for us. You generally don't have to bribe people in order to do business in our nation. The United States of America contains some very nice places to live. All of the modern conveniences are at our fingertips. And America still stands for some things that are noble and worthwhile. I'm proud to be an American, and I don't want to sell this great nation short at all.

    I also believe that it is unethical and in direct contradiction to the teachings of Christ for anyone not to pay every penny of taxes required by the law. Whether God approves of the nation sending him such a bill or not, God expects this guy to write that $900,000 check.

    But looking solely at the question of whether our nation is a good business environment, I think that the massive flood of jobs to the Pacific Rim is an ominous indicator that we may be poisoning our own well. Granted, most of those who own businesses in the United States are patriotic people who want to live here and do their share. It would take something pretty traumatic and life-altering to convince them to go anywhere else.

    But, then, the act of signing your name to a $900,000 check? That's got to be a pretty traumatic experience.

My degree is in Church History. I know very little about economics. So, take my musings about these matters with a large grain of salt. But, if there's anything valuable for you to take out of this little essay, perhaps it is this: You should be extra considerate and nice to your employer today. He just might be in a really bad mood.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Closer Look at the Iowa State Supreme Court Marriage Ruling

As you likely already know, American liberals are hard at work to cram same-sex marriage down the throats of the American people. By that I mean that, with complete disregard for the will of the people expressed at the polls, and in some locales in direct contradiction of that balloted will, liberals are turning to the judiciary to force same-sex marriage upon the American people. The latest manifestation of that effort was the work of activist judges in Iowa to deny Iowans the right to develop their own system of laws regarding marriage. The Iowa Supreme Court recently legalized same-sex marriage in that state by the dictatorial falling of a gavel.

Have you read the decision? If not, you can do so here.

I would like to point out something particularly offensive about the decision. Although the arguments offered against same-sex marriage were legal in nature, and although religious beliefs were no component whatsoever of the state's case in defense of Iowa law, the court went out of its way to include (starting on page 63) the jurists' theory that religion is the covert cause of opposition to same-sex marriage in a section entitled, "Religious Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage."

This theory of the Iowa Supreme Court is deeply flawed.

First, let me split some rather important logical hairs for you. People arrive at the same position sometimes from different causes. I am opposed to malfeasance for religious reasons. An atheist might equally be opposed to malfeasance, but for reasons other than any religious motivation. Furthermore, the same person might hold a belief for more than one reason. Were the atheist to tell me why he is opposed to malfeasance, I might very well agree that the same reasons (i.e., a pragmatic recognition that malfeasance poisons our system of commercial interactions) also make me oppose malfeasance all the more.

My religious convictions also are sufficient in and of themselves to make me oppose same-sex marriage, but that doesn't mean that the case against same-sex marriage is necessarily a religious one. Consider, for example, the fact that Russia and China—states with strong historical ties to atheism—both forbid any sort of same-sex civil union or marriage. The mere fact that the vast preponderance of human civilizations have come to the same conclusion about same-sex marriage, regardless of their variegated religious makeups, demonstrates soundly that the argument against same-sex marriage is not essentially religious in nature.

Indeed, a rather profound anatomical case exists to keep marriage between a man and a woman.

For the Iowa Supreme Court to include a gratuitous section of dicta aimed at opponents of same-sex marriage who are religious says more about the covert agenda of the Iowa Supreme Court justices than it says about the movement opposing same-sex marriage—these justices wanted to send a harsh message in this ruling to American religious conservatives.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Kudos to President Obama

We are receiving reports that the United States Navy has killed three pirates and rescued Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama (see Fox News report here). Navy SEAL snipers reportedly shot and killed all of the pirates holding Phillips and then brought him back aboard his ship.

President Obama has done the right thing. The next right thing that he should do is to go on television and announce that any piracy inflicted upon an American flagged vessel will receive precisely the same treatment.

How do we determine that this is the right thing to do? Pacifists will not be pleased. And indeed, there is a place for pacifism of a sort. Had First Baptist Church of Farmersville organized an armed band to sail out to the Somali coast and execute the pirates, then we would have done wrong. But government stands in a different role than do individual believers. Those who do evil are to be afraid of the government, "for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who practices wrath on the one who practices evil." (Romans 13:4b) The purpose for which God has ordained government to bear this sword of warfare and capital punishment is for "the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right." (1 Peter 2:14b)

Did the United States of America have authority in this matter? Yes, for the Maersk Alabama is an American flagged vessel.

Were the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama people "who do right" who are worthy of governmental "praise" and protection? Yes. They were doing their jobs. Incidentally, the Alabama was carrying 400 containers of food as relief supplies destined for Mombasa, Kenya. That's a pretty noble purpose, but any person pursuing any worthy line of work would be equally worthy of the praise and protection of the government.

Were the pirates "evildoers" worthy of meeting the governmental "sword" of "punishment" as they did? Yes. They are thieves and extortionists and murderers.

So, President Obama did exactly the right thing, and having done good, he deserves praise just as much as he owes it to innocents and those who do good under his domain.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Ten Reasons to Call Satan As Your Next Pastor

  1. From the book of James we learn that Satan believes in the same monotheistic Creator God that we do.

  2. From his encounter with Eve in the garden we learn that Satan does not practice an overbearing, hyper-authoritative leadership style, but is delighted simply to put options before people and let them make choices.

  3. Satan has a profound influence upon this culture, and has demonstrated a giftedness for relating to this generation.

  4. Satan has had astounding ecstatic experiences, having even been caught up to heaven to interact with God, as we learn in the book of Job.

  5. It is likely that Satan has a correct understanding as to what the gospel is.

  6. Even if Satan is not perfectly obedient at all points, it could be healthy for our churches to be engaged in dialogue with him. We need to hear what he has to say. If our faith is strong, what are we afraid of? It will be healthy for us to overcome our intolerance and have our prejudices challenged.

  7. Satan has been marginalized and demeaned by the powers-that-be in the Southern Baptist Convention for decades. The present conservatives preach against him and defy him. The liberals in power before them were no better, questioning his existence. It is high time for somebody to give him a break.

  8. Satan is recognized not only by Christians, but by Jews and Muslims as well, and this common ground (as well as his extensive experience around the world in other cultures) makes it likely that he could teach us many things about good cross-cultural evangelism.

  9. Satan is no legalist.

  10. Satan has an impressive résumé of past work in Southern Baptist churches and denominational institutions.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fools Day 2009

Someone just asked why I didn't put up some sort of an April Fools Day post this year to serve as a successor to last year's effort. A couple of reasons come to mind. First, such a post is either expected or effective; it cannot be both. Second, the idiosyncrasies of the calendar have placed this day upon a Wednesday in 2009, and I have elected to turn my limited comical resources toward the flock whom I undershepherd.

At tonight's prayer meeting and Bible study, I announced that we were going to be studying not Daniel 8 (as expected) but Hosea 1. Puzzled looks appeared on everyone's faces. Then I explained my reasoning. The book of Daniel switches from Aramaic to Hebrew after Daniel 7:28. This fact, I told the assembled congregation, clearly reveals a change in authorship and date for the material starting in chapter 8 through the end of the book. These chapters, I firmly asserted to them, do not belong in the Bible, and therefore we're not going to bother to study them.

You should've seen their faces before I let them off the hook!

So, I had my April mischief today, just not where you might have expected it.