Friday, December 30, 2011

Aaron Weaver's "James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom" and Baptist Identity

Aaron Weaver. James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom. Macon, GA: Smythe & Helwys, 2011. List price is $18.00, but you can get a better deal than that at…just over $14.00 at the time of this post.

Weaver's seminal work has received strong reviews already from a diverse group. Here is a brief bibliography of online reviews:

Lumpkins gives the best classical review of the book, providing a good chapter-by-chapter summary of the book's content, critically assessing the most important aspects of the publication, and then concluding with his recommendation. Knox's treatment is terse. Moore's piece is more of a reflective essay upon having read the book than a detailed review.

My post today is, stylistically, more like Moore's than any of the others. I will pay Weaver's book the highest compliment: It has made me think and has prompted me to write. Before settling in on the main theme of my article, I'd like to pose a key question to my readership: How will you account for James M. Dunn in your own Christian history? I'm speaking primarily to Southern Baptists here (or erstwhile Southern Baptists, as the case may be). For those on the left in Southern Baptist life like Weaver, Dunn must be placed (ranked?) within a cadre of those ousted by the Conservative Resurgence…consequently, the Founding Fathers (er…Initial Guidance Personages?) of a new Baptist Left. Among Dilday, Valentine, Parks, Sherman, and Vestal—and a whole host of others from the Gatlinburg Gang and beyond—where does Dunn rank? For Southern Baptists on the right like myself, will we make some caricature of Dunn a stock-character bogeyman for our history, or has enough time passed for us to undertake a more objective assessment of men like Dunn as a part of our history, too. Moore's essay, by the way, represents in my view a good step toward the latter, superior, alternative.

Aaron Weaver and I have a lot in common. We're both Baptists who care about our Baptist identity. We're both alumni of Baylor University (although his Baylor athletic experience has been a great deal more enjoyable than was mine in the late 1980s). We're both staunchly committed to religious liberty. We both have a keen interest in politics, both secular and denominational. We're both academics, both focusing upon Baptist History. We're both bloggers. We both know where we fall on the ideological spectrum, and we both appear to be comfortable with that.

What fascinates me is the strange juxtaposition of these commonalities and our significant differences. I haven't voted for a Democrat since I left the party of my grandfathers in college. I'd be willing to bet that elephants are less endangered in the urban Northeast than they are on Aaron Weaver's marked ballots. He voted for Barack Obama; I voted for the candidate who was not Barack Obama. He attends the CBF, the BGCT, and the New Baptist Covenant (while supplies last); I attend the SBC, the SBTC, and the occasional BMAT meeting. He spends quality time with James Dunn; I furtively slip the occasional bite of food under the table to Paige Patterson's dogs.

We're both passionate proponents of Baptist identity, but we each understand what it means to be a Baptist with a slightly different nuance. Upon the occasion of Aaron's excellent book, I'd like to identify what I perceive as three approaches to Baptist identity, interacting significantly with the life of James Dunn as represented in the scholarship of Aaron Weaver, particularly in this book.

Soul Freedom as the Core of Baptist Identity

This is James Dunn's position. It clearly appears to be Aaron Weaver's position. Weaver accurately identifies E. Y. Mullins as the source of this emphasis in Dunn's theology. I'm content to call this the Mullins/Dunn/Weaver viewpoint. Both Mullins and Dunn explicitly identified Soul Freedom (for Mullins, "Soul Competency") not just as a plank in the Baptist platform, but as THE doctrinal conviction defining what it means to be Baptist. According to this viewpoint, all other Baptist concepts flow out of the idea of Soul Freedom.

To put it another way, this approach essentially makes anthropology (the nature of man…that he is free) the core doctrine of Baptist Christianity

One can easily see how local church autonomy and religious liberty might arise out of a conviction about the freedom of the soul. The scope of this theory, however, reaches beyond these ideas. Baptist conversionism, from this vantage-point, arises from an emphasis upon the individual choices of free souls either for or against the gospel. Baptist church membership in this tradition emphasizes individual voluntarism in the gathered church. The primary emphasis of congregationalism in such an approach is upon the "democratic processes" mentioned in the BF&M. Although I admire Weaver for his fair and consistent use of the more biblical phrase "priesthood of all believers," this is a tradition of thinking that has at times emphasized explicitly the idea of the "priesthood of THE believer."

The Mullins/Dunn/Weaver approach of elevating Soul Freedom has had a distinguished history in Southern Baptist life. It harmonized well with previous similar, if not exactly identical, Baptist emphases upon religious liberty. It held utter hegemony in Southern Baptist theological thinking for most of a century. It established a platform upon which widely disparate Baptists were able to unite through organizations like the Baptist World Alliance.

Nevertheless, this approach faces challenges today. The most important challenge that it faces is the fact that Soul Freedom, in the sense that Mullins, Dunn, and Weaver seem to employ the word, is difficult enough to support as a biblical doctrine at all, much less as a doctrine that ought to serve as the central, defining conviction of any group of Christians. Dunn considered the concept of Soul Freedom to be "axiomatic" (and Mullins's approach to theology involved identifying such axioms). Dunn did volunteer the imago dei in Genesis 1 as the unnecessary biblical justification for the doctrine of Soul Freedom, but this is hardly satisfactory—how, precisely, people exist in the "image of God" is a topic with a wide variety of interpretations and with very little guidance from the text. No strongly persuasive reason exists to conclude that this doctrine relatively absent from the remainder of the Bible is, in fact, the real meaning of the imago dei.

The waxing influence of Calvinism among young American Christians also poses a threat to this philosophy. Although the Mullins concept of Soul Freedom seems to entail something more than a mere psychological freedom—a sense that the freedom of the soul is, if not the highest good, at least one of the great goods of creation and is an umbrella doctrine in the Bible—Soul Freedom does depend upon an idea of human freedom and an emphasis upon human freedom that seems to be at odds with most understandings of Calvinistic determinism.

Even if a concept of the freedom of the human soul were retained as a theological conclusion drawn from other premises, I do not see a robust future among Baptist biblicists for Soul Freedom as an axiomatic postulate from which to draw all other conclusions.

The Gospel as the Core of Baptist Identity

If Baptist biblicists cannot enthusiastically embrace Soul Freedom as the core doctrine of their common faith, whither shall they turn? One answer that is presently increasing in popularity is to emphasize the gospel as the bedrock concept of Baptist identity. Perhaps the clearest articulation of this point of view has come from Nathan Finn, who, although he was never a Baylor Bear, shares every other commonality with Aaron and me that I listed earlier in this post. Finn authored a nine-post series developing a framework in which the gospel is the core doctrine of Baptist identity. The best starting-point for the series is here.

Like Soul Freedom, the gospel as the core of Baptist identity depends heavily upon the individual experience of conversion. The concept of Soul Freedom approaches this experience explicitly from the human side of the equation, emphasizing human autonomy and choice. Finn's theory, in contrast, emphasizes the transformation of the individual by divine initiative and power. God's transforming action in the gospel, rightly understood and fully realized, adapts people to be members of Baptist churches. Baptist baptism best illustrates the gospel. Finn's series suggests that religious liberty can only claim biblical support by means of (presumably eisegetical) proof-texting, but affirms it nonetheless on other-than-biblical grounds. Religious liberty is not the highest good, but is instead a mere adaptation to sinfulness, destined to perish along with the rest of the curse at the final restoration. Religious liberty is good in a utilitarian sense—because we have discovered through the lessons of history that the best opportunity to spread the gospel occurs in contexts of religious liberty.

Soteriology, not anthropology, becomes the core doctrine of Baptist Christianity in this approach.

I predict that Finn's approach will increase in popularity. The major challenge that it faces is that many people who want to emphasize the gospel are also people who view Baptist distinctives as threats to the form of evangelical ecumenism that they desire (as Finn himself acknowledged in the series). Also, the clear implication of making the gospel the core doctrine of Baptist identity is that those who are not Baptists are defective, not merely in their ecclesiology, but in their soteriology, in at the very least some secondary way.

The Lordship of Christ as the Core of Baptist Identity

Malcolm Yarnell shares many of the same commonalities that link Barber, Weaver, and Finn. He has argued for the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the central doctrine of Baptist identity (for example, see his essay here). According to this theory of Baptist identity, the experience of regeneration in the gospel is coupled with a surrender to the lordship of Christ. Church polity is an exercise in following Christ's lordship. Local church autonomy is a refusal to put in lordship over the church any office other than those instituted by Christ. Religious liberty, in the style of Roger Williams, arises out of the question of the boundaries of authority given by Christ respectively to the state and to the churches. Because Christ is Lord over all and over everything, those to whom He has delegated authority (the state, the churches) must not overstep the boundaries of authority that He has set for them.

This is my own view, although I appreciate the strengths of the other approaches. I must confess that some elements of the preceding paragraph arise as much out of my own thinking as out of Dr. Yarnell's writing. The effect of this approach is to make Christology, and specifically the intersection of Christology and ecclesiology, the central doctrine of Baptist Christianity.

I believe that this approach has the strength of allowing for a strong biblical defense of religious liberty, rooted in Jesus' own statements about the extent and location of His kingdom, as well as in passages like the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Because Jesus has made statements about His authority and the manner in which He has delegated it in matters of faith and politics, we can derive from those statements a doctrine of religious liberty.

I will leave it to others to identify the weaknesses of this approach.


In many cases, I believe that those who follow any of these three approaches might arrive at precisely the same conclusions on various questions with approximately the same fervor. Should the United States of America have an official established church? Should the proclamation of the gospel and conversion to Christianity be considered capital offenses in Afghanistan? Should churches be required to follow all federal anti-discrimination practices in hiring pastors? Dunn, Weaver, Finn, Yarnell, and Barber would all arrive at the same conclusions on all of those questions.

A few more difficult cases would probably put on display the nuanced differences among the three approaches.

This much is important to me: Conservative Southern Baptists must be no less vigilant in embracing and defending religious liberty than are our more liberal brethren. Aaron Weaver's excellent homage to James Dunn challenges us who support the Conservative Resurgence and who remain in the vital core of the post-1979 SBC: Who are our zealots for religious liberty? Names certainly come to mind, for Richard Land is committed to religious liberty and Paige Patterson refers to it as the First Freedom. Nevertheless, the historic Baptist commitment is vulnerable on both the left and the right flanks, and Southern Baptists must take care that the move away from the thought of E.Y. Mullins does not result in any erosion of our historic defense of the liberty of all people to practice their faith, even if they do so wrongly, or not at all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The True Church and the True Bible

I had an interesting conversation recently with a brother who had been reading my blog and had gone out of his way to make telephone contact with me. Knowing that I am an inerrantist, as he is, he wanted to discuss our common convictions and to lead me to consider his opinion that the Textus Receptus is the One True Bible. One implication of this point of view would be to suggest that the King James Version and its derivatives (like the NKJV) are the acceptable translations of the Bible into English.

His line of reasoning was easy to follow: God's Word cannot pass away, so it cannot have needed restoration. The Bible speaks as clearly about the preservation of scripture as it does the inspiration of scripture. Isaiah 40:8 reads "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever" (perhaps a bit ironic that I'm doing this out of the NASB). Peter does not hesitate at all to apply this promise to the New Testament as well as the Old (1 Peter 1:22-25).

Recent translations of the Bible mostly take advantage of textual criticism (the "lower criticism" in juxtaposition against "higher criticism" that was all the vogue in nineteenth-century continental Europe). Prior to the advent of textual criticism, not many translations of the Bible had been attempted subsequent to Jerome, but the brief history of modern translations used the "Received Text" (in Latin, Textus Receptus, which I'll abbreviate as TR), a Greek text assembled by Desiderius Erasmus relying principally upon the favored manuscripts of the Byzantine church.

The controversy over the TR is at least 304 years old. In 1707 John Mill published a Greek New Testament that documented the many other Greek manuscripts that read differently from the wording of the TR. Daniel Whitby replied by claiming that the TR is identical to the wording of the autographs (the original piece of paper on which, for example, Paul's Letter to the Romans was penned). The central question of the debate hasn't changed much since Mill-Whitby: Is the Textus Receptus, or is it not, a 100% perfect clone of the original manuscripts of the New Testament?

Now, back to the brother with whom I was conversing. His position is that the promise of the endurance (or preservation) of the Word of God necessarily requires that the Textus Receptus be the perfect representation of the original manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Here is his line of thinking: The Textus Receptus is older than the critical editions produced by Mill or by Hort & Westcott. If Mill's work or Westcott & Hort's work are the perfect preservation of the Word of God, then they represent a restoration of something lost, for we know that they represent new beginnings in eclectic texts. The Byzantine text type (which he equates with the TR), having a mysteriously long history prior to Erasmus's use of it, and having been used mightily by God during the Reformation years, can be the perfect, sequentially unbroken preservation of the Word of God in a way that these other texts cannot possibly be. Therefore, since such a thing as a 100% perfectly preserved text is promised by the Bible, and since only the TR can possibly be what the Bible has promised, the "Received Text" must be the One True Bible. This summary does not encapsulate all of his rationale, but I believe that it responsibly represents at least one of the primary planks of his rationale.

So, what are we to make of this? A number of ideas.

  1. The King-James-Only position does not have a monopoly on belief in the preservation of the Bible. The manuscript problem of the New Testament does not suggest a failure of preservation, but an undesirable multiplication of it. God's word has been preserved. Unfortunately, a number of corruptions of God's word have also been preserved. These preservations—all of them—have alike been made by Christians in churches, of a sort.

    Certainly, those who advocate the TR as the True Word of God will universally be people who believe in the preservation of the scriptures. Certainly, those who deny the preservation of the scriptures will be people open to textual criticism. And yet, these two positions, to speak in terms of logical fallacies, do not rightfully exclude the middle. There are people (including the author of this blog) who believe that the Word of God has been preserved but do not identify the Textus Receptus as being that preserved Word of God.

    Some of the literature advocating for the KJV on the basis of the doctrine of the preservation of scripture does not accurately and adequately acknowledge this middle position. Belief in the preservation of scripture neither proves nor requires the acceptance of the TR as the perfectly preserved New Testament.

  2. The biblical promises about the preservation of scripture do not require that the Bible be preserved in English, or in any other secondary language. A great many languages do not yet, even today, have ANY translation of the Bible. God has not obligated Himself to provide that any English translation of the Bible should be the perfectly preserved transmission of the scriptures.

  3. Preservation is not necessarily popularity. So many of the defenses of the Textus Receptus depend basically upon the popularity of this textual family within the Eastern Church prior to the life of Erasmus. Conceding that the Byzantine texts were the most popular Greek manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, one wonders how much weight this evidence deserves? What if the perfectly preserved autographs of the New Testament are lying buried in the sands of the Egyptian desert somewhere? What if, like the Qumran scrolls, the perfect autographs of the New Testament have eluded detection for centuries and are not in our collections at all today. Is that possible? Would the preservation of the scriptures allow for such a thing?

    Of course it can happen. The Bible says so.

    Although the Word of God will not pass away, we know that the Word of God can certainly pass out of favor and can even pass out of use…entirely. We know that this is true, because in 2 Kings 22, a portion of the Bible was found in the temple after having been lost entirely. God's preservation of the Bible did not fail at that time. People wandered about without the preserved Book of the Law, but the book itself remained preserved, and then God used Hilkiah to bring it back before the people.

    There is nothing in the Bible to deny that this could happen again. I do not necessarily believe that it has, but the fact that this is possible at all demonstrates the problem with the presumption that the preserved Word of God must not only be preserved but must also be in use—must be the manuscripts most popular for use over the longest period of time.

    Maybe, just as God preserved dissenting churches as a minority remnant down through the ages, God also preserved the Bible in dissenting readings as a minority textual family down through the ages. It would not be contrary to the character of God as revealed in the Bible and in church history for Him to have done this.

  4. God has used flawed people to preserve His inerrant Bible. Both sides must acknowledge that this is true. If the TR is the perfectly preserved New Testament, then it was preserved perfectly by people who venerated and worshipped the statues of saints. The KJV-only theory depends heavily upon Eastern Christianity as the conservators of the Bible.

    Those of us who engage in textual criticism, on the other hand, are indebted to liberal continental scholars who did not share my view of the inerrant nature of the Bible. We depend heavily upon Westcott & Hort.

    Neither side is likely to be entirely comfortable with the arrangement. And yet, neither side can escape it. Both sides stand in the position of having received the Bible at least to some degree from the hands of people who could have benefitted from reading it a bit more carefully and submissively.

And so, as I do with my Landmark brethren regarding ecclesiology, with my KJV-only brothers on the subject of the Bible I find myself agreeing that God has preserved something throughout the corridors of time, and yet disagreeing with them as to HOW God has accomplished that preservation and as to what are the implications of that preservation for identifying God's hand at work today. In doing so, I see our close kinship and I welcome our fellowship in the gospel with one another, hoping that they will see the same.

The New Testament, in its every good translation, teaches us that we ought to do so.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Why I Would Support a Name Change for the SBC

I've yet to hear any good reason articulated in support of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. The data do not support the idea that changing our name will make us any more effective, and the present process is transpiring in direct and willful defiance of a prior, yet-unrescinded vote of the messengers of the SBC.

Nevertheless, I can think of a circumstance in which I would entirely support—even advocate on behalf of—a name change for the Southern Baptist Convention.

There are a number of smaller Baptist groups around the nation that are biblically conservative and convictionally Baptist. Some of them might not regard the Southern Baptist Convention as conservative enough (even now!) for a partnership, but some of them would. Some of these organizations historically came into being as splits from the SBC, and others of them are refugees from the unabated leftward decay of the ABC.

What would happen if the SBC made active overtures toward these fellow Baptists in the interests of mutual cooperation and merger? Would some of them say no? Probably. Would all of them move slowly and have concerns? Likely. But could such an effort lead to a greater synergy of Baptist effort in the United States of America? I think it could.

Consider, for example, the recent rapprochement between the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas. This is a bold, exciting new detente between the two parties of what was a virulent debate in our grandfathers' days. It took place without any movement whatsoever beyond the bounds of the Baptist Faith & Message.

Why is this happening only in Texas? Why is this happening only with the BMAT? There are similar groups of Baptists throughout our land! Our Executive Committee should place a high priority upon this kind of outreach to other inerrantist Baptist groups in the USA.

If we were to accomplish something substantive like such an alliance, I'd be delighted for us to adopt a new name for our expanded fellowship (so long as we honored the will of the messengers and worked honorably through our polity to do so). A name change would be highly appropriate in such a circumstance, and would be something higher and more inspirational than the empty Madison Avenue posturing that plagues our fellowship on occasion.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Gift of Church Membership

The discipline that I chose for my studies is known by several names, each with a slightly different emphasis. Perhaps the most famous practitioner is Martin Marty, whose University of Chicago Divinity School teaches "History of Christianity." That's a nice, detached, secular sort of title for an academic discipline, indicating that Christianity is a thing of which this program studies its history. Boston University prominently employs the phrase "Christian History," a term that could describe either history produced by Christians or history describing individual Christians.

At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I studied, we used the name "Church History." It is a fitting title, I think, for a seminary situated in a theological tradition that has rightly emphasized the local church. Church History is the history of the churches, including the ways in which prominent individuals or social movements have impacted the churches.

What I would like to propose in this essay is something that fits within Church History but is rather more focused. This is an essay on the subject of Church Membership History.

A Gift from the Church?

By the third century AD, church membership had come to be regarded as a gift that the church gave to the individual member. Cyprian of Carthage, in the middle of the Novatianist Controversy, authored a treatise "On the Unity of the Church" (De Unitate Ecclesiae). In that text, Cyprian famously declared "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother. If anyone could escape outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church."

In Cyprian's mind, it was foolish to speak of "the churches." Cyprian knew only one Catholic Church, institutionally united by the undivided episcopate. This episcopate—these bishops—exclusively controlled the gateway into church membership. Obtaining church membership from the bishops was of unparalleled importance, since, according to Cyprian, "outside the church there is no salvation."

Cyprian's position became the default position of the Roman Catholic Church. Although people sometimes cite Augustine's statement, "How many sheep are outside; how many wolves within?" as support for a medieval view within Roman Catholicism that supported the idea of salvation outside the church, this is a misreading of Augustine. The ongoing context of the quote clearly requires that one read Augustine's statement on predestination as though it said "How many sheep are outside; how many wolves within [as of yet]?" Augustine had no doubt that even the presently wayward sheep would all eventually (as he had done) wind up within the Roman Catholic Church

The zenith of the concept of church membership as a gift from the church to the member came in AD 1077 at an alpine village called Canossa. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV marched through the snow to Canossa that year, shoeless and wearing only a hair shirt. For three days he stood outside in the snow, begging to be admitted into Canossa Castle and into the presence of Pope Gregory VII. The Pope had kicked Henry out of the church, and the Emperor was there to beg to receive back the gift of his church membership.

A Gift from the Member?

If your church were to require that people stand shoeless in the snow for three days in order to gain membership, how many members do you think you would have? Obviously, things have changed somewhere along the way!

Pinpointing a time when the change took place is difficult. At least the beginning of the change probably occurred in 1517, when Martin Luther launched the Reformation by which the German people (for whom the experience of the German Henry at Canossa had come to represent the subjugation of Germans to Italians) broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and formed their own Lutheran Church. However important the Lutheran Reformation may be in understanding this change in the nature of church membership, it is possible to overstate its importance. The result of the Lutheran Reformation in 1555 was the assignment of state churches according to the religious beliefs of each state's respective monarch. For the individual Christian, it makes very little difference whether one's religious convictions are dictated by a King or a Pope.

Instead of 1517, I think the turning point of the Christian concept of church membership is the First Great Awakening in America and the accompanying Evangelical Awakening in England (1740 - 1776). As a result of this period, a vast multitude of people who had been born into one denomination of Christianity died as members of a different denomination of Christianity by means of nothing more than their individual convictions about which denomination most appealed to them (hopefully by being the most true to the teachings of the Bible). So widespread and uncontrollable was this spiritual migration that evangelist George Whitefield famously lamented, "my chicks have become ducks!"

What ensued was a period of competition among churches to win the membership of individual believers. At first, the medium of this competition for membership was inter-denominational debate. Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Presbyterians went at it with a fury. Within a few decades, Campbellites and Stoneites gleefully entered the fray. Eventually the effectiveness of theological debate waned and churches turned to the new advertising techniques pioneered by corporations and made possible by technological developments like radio and television.

Canossa was a dim memory. Church membership became a gift that the individual member gave to the local church. Standing barefoot in snow now are the pastors, shuffling from house to house in the cul de sac, penitently begging for individual Christians to grant to the pastors' respective churches above all others the great bestowal of their membership.

Indeed, the gift of a commitment to church membership (like the gift of a commitment to marriage in this culture) is on the way to becoming the gift so precious and hard to obtain that pastors no longer dare even to ask for it. Calvary Chapel venues explicitly do not have church membership. A wide variety of other start-up congregations are eschewing church membership entirely. What ensues is what I call "casual worship," defined not in parallel with "casual dress" or with "casual style" but with "casual sex." Without commitment or expectation, people attend a weekly entertainment event to which they may or may not return, entirely dependent upon their momentary whims.

Like casual sex, casual worship does occasionally give rise to a long-term relationship. But like casual sex, casual worship is both the symptom and the cause of a lethal erosion of healthy relationships signaling a headlong plunge into widespread disfunction.

A Gift of the Spirit

Both of these models of church membership are defective. The appropriate way to understand church membership is to see it as a gift from Christ both to the individual Christian and through the individual Christian to the brotherhood of Christians that is a local church.

Four items in the New Testament require local church membership:

  1. The relationship that local pastors/elders/overseers and deacons are required to have with the membership of local churches. Individual Christians are commanded to follow the individual leaders that they know are theirs (Hebrews 13:17). Individual pastors are commanded to shepherd specific sheep that are located among them and are allotted to their charge (1 Peter 5:1-5) and are warned that they will give an account for those particular sheep (Hebrews 13:17). Each Christian is required to know precisely who is his or her pastor, and each pastor is required to know precisely who are the Christians for whom he has responsibility.
  2. The process of biblical local church discipline as indicated in the New Testament. In the apostolic implementation of Matthew 18, Paul sternly commanded the Corinthian church to cease in the judgment of "outsiders" but to reinvigorate their exercise of church discipline toward those who were "inside the church." This commandment is nonsensical if a church does not bother to know who is inside and who is outside.
  3. The evidences of structure within the local churches mentioned in the New Testament. It is difficult to imagine that the church that kept a strictly qualified list of widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16) did not bother to keep a careful list of members.
  4. The stated purpose and operation of spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians 12, we learn that God's rationale for the appointment of the various spiritual gifts and offices within the Body of Christ and the placement of those gifted believers within the body is for the common benefit of the churches according to the will of God. It is from this passage and others like it that we have come to call the individuals in the church by the name "members."

All of these are good reasons, and in conglomeration, they constitute an invincible case. For the purposes of this essay, let us consider solely the last of them.

The word "member," where it refers to a whole individual Christian, always appears with reference to the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is not synonymous with a local church. Rather, the Body of Christ is composed of all human beings who ever have and ever will be born again. These are not infinite beings; they are finite humans restricted to life at a particular time in particular places with particular roles and particular attributes. These particularities of their existence are assigned by God.

For example, I am alive from 1969 forward to some end-point known at present only to God. I live in the United States of America. I have been brought to Farmersville, TX. I am a pastor/elder/overseer. I write and speak a lot. I teach. These are the particulars of my life. Some of them are entirely out of my control. All of them are under the control of God. Some of them (teaching, for example) the New Testament has specifically enumerated as spiritual gifts.


Why do I live now? Why do I live here? Why am I all of these things? Why do I have the spiritual gifts that I have?

My placement within the Body of Christ with regard to time, location, aptitude, and giftedness has been determined by the hand of God. "But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired." (1 Corinthians 12:18, NASB). For what reason has God done this? God's overall plan for common good of the churches and for His own glory and eternal victory involves my placement in precisely this way. I must remember that "…the same God…works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." (1 Corinthians 12:6b-7, NASB)

My membership in the Body of Christ came by Christ's gracious regeneration of me when I believed. My membership in a local church comes by God's will and by His assignment. This is no less true for any member than it is for me as a pastor. God not only makes the members of the body, but he also places the members within the body.

Are there "unplaced" members of the Body of Christ? Roving shortstops without commitment to a local church? "Body-only" Christians who are not intended by God to be a member of a church? Certainly location does not preclude relocation. Aquila and Priscilla moved from one church to another, apparently. One might argue that the apostles and missionary church planters moved among the various individual churches without membership in any particular one (although Paul seems to have retained a special relationship with the Antioch church). One might point to the Ethiopian eunuch (although we know not what he founded upon reaching Ethiopia). And yet to find in the New Testament an individual Christian believer who could have participated as a member of a local congregation but who (with divine approval) chose to remain aloof, one must be resigned to a lengthy search with little hope of ever reaching a eureka-moment.

And so, membership in a local church is an assignment from God that accompanies gifting from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives me particular spiritual gifts for the purpose of their particular application within my particular context. The purpose of those spiritual gifts is the increased common good of the overall Body of Christ, accomplished first by the increased common good of this particular local church.

The local church is the setting for every mention of spiritual gifts in the New Testament. The most common context in which spiritual gifts receive mention in the New Testament is the context of their disfunction. Both in Rome and in Corinth, something had gone awry with regard to spiritual gifts. In both cases, what was suffering from the abuse of spiritual gifts was the local congregation. Individualistic egotism with regard to spiritual gifts had eroded local congregational unity. Specific instructions for the use of spiritual gifts are, every one of them, instructions for how to use them among a local congregation.

I ought not to ask whether my local church is worthy of my membership. As a pastor, I ought never to ask whether any member of my local church is worthy of my pastoral care. Rather, I ought to remember that I am unworthy to be a member of my church. I ought to remember that membership in my church is a job. It is a job to which God has entrusted His amazing, universe-defining plan. No job is more important than my job as a member of my church. I ought to remember that it is a job for which I am entirely unqualified. I qualify for this position only by means of the gifts of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This position—this placement within the Body of Christ—is itself a gift from God made according to His desire, not mine nor my pastors'. I am unworthy of this. That's what makes it a gift. It is a gift worth cherishing.


The giver of the gift is the one with the power. The first act of this story (church membership as a gift from the church to the member) gave incredible power to bishops and other church leaders. The second act of this story (church membership as a gift from the member to the church) gives incredible power to the members of the church. The Bible, in contradistinction to both of these approaches, declares that all power belongs to Christ, the only Head of the church. Jesus is Lord, and biblical church membership can only take place when we are surrendered to His lordship over our individual lives and our local churches.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Beauty of the Personhood Amendment

Finally, somebody did it.

Instead of diddling around the margins of the abortion question, playing elaborate political chess with parental notifications and ultrasound requirements and waiting periods, the Sovereign State of Mississippi has placed on the ballot for November 8 an amendment to the state constitution that would simply clarify:

The term “person” or “persons” shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.

I humbly submit to you that this is exactly what the pro-life movement needs to be doing…needed to be doing all along.

It's Philosophically Sound

Perhaps the greatest beauty of the Personhood Amendment is that it does nothing more than to state simply and succinctly the core truth—the beautiful, life-affirming truth—of the pro-life movement: A human being is a person even before she or he is born. Even Horton the Elephant can understand this simple, timeless truth.

Detractors really don't know how to respond to the profundity and simplicity of this amendment. The best that they can do is to refuse to enter the conversation about whether your baby was a person while she was in your womb. I've read scores of articles and heard or watched dozens of interviews and panel discussions about the Personhood Amendment, and I've yet to come across a single one that ever featured any serious attempt by the pro-abortion crowd to assert that an unborn baby is not a person and to offer any biological argument as to why that might be the case. They just don't have an answer.

Consider, for example, today's article in the New York Times entitled, "Mississippi's Ambiguous Personhood Amendment." Before delving at all into the text of the article, let's consider the implication of the title. You just read the complete text of the amendment. Was "ambiguous" the word that came to mind when you read that simple sentence? Liberals never cease to amaze me; liberal lawyers all the more so. There is a class of people in our society who will defend socialist texts like the 907-page Obamacare act, containing gems like:

For years after 2014, if the Secretary of Health and Human Services determine it to be appropriate, the Secretary may incorporate participation in a Maintenance of Certification Program and successful completion of a qualified Maintenance of Certification Program practice assessment into the composite of measures of quality of care furnished pursuant to the physician fee schedule payment modifier, as described in section 1848(p)(2) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395w—4(p)(2)). [As added by section 10327(b)].

A sentence like that one doesn't strike these authors as ambiguous, or at the very least not as ambiguous enough to motivate them to pick up their pens, but the simple sentence given above—entirely unmistakeable in its meaning—merits an entire article in the New York Times to explain how "ambiguous" it really is. In fact, these lawyers are not satisfied to call this amendment merely ambiguous; it is, somehow in their minds, "profoundly ambiguous."

I submit to you that it is only after years of law school that you can see "profound ambiguity" in simple truths like those expressed in the Mississippi Personhood Amendment. Profound? Yes. Profoundly ambiguous? Not at all. That's what they find so scary about it.

Moving beyond the title, what are the specific arguments advanced in this article? First, the authors suggest that we can't declare human beings to be persons from fertilization onward because we don't really know what fertilization is (my high-school science teacher is in BIG trouble the next time I see him). Fertilization, they say, is actually a gradual process rather than an instantaneous occurrence. For a more rigorous treatment of this question, see Phillip G. Peters Jr., "The Ambiguous Meaning of Human Conception", in the UC Davis Law Review. The case being made here is that the law is ambiguous because the phrase "the moment of fertilization" is ambiguous.

I find this argument to be disingenuous for several reasons.

  1. It's a bad argument because, until language achieves perfection, there will ALWAYS be some small level of ambiguity in EVERY law. The question is not whether some cloistered activist legal-academic team can find a way to argue ambiguity; they question is whether this law is more ambiguous than other laws—than the legal status quo that it replaces.

    Fertilization is a process? I submit to you that BIRTH IS A PROCESS. Why are our authors not bothered by using the ambiguous process of birth as a demarcation for personhood when they are so troubled by the use of the "ambiguous" process of fertilization?

  2. It's a bad argument because, if you want to get downright picky about it, every natural phenomenon is a process rather than a momentary event. You turned on your light switch? What ensued was a process, not a momentary event. You ran a stop sign? Process. You murdered your boss? Process. You refused to pay your taxes? Process.

    If we can't mark moments in time that are actually, in arcane technical analysis, processes in some way or another and then base laws upon those "momentary" occurrences, then we can't have laws at all.

  3. It's a bad argument because we have a great system for resolving minor ambiguities in law—our court system. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was, in some sense, ambiguous. By that, I mean to say that we've had to have a lot of court cases, many of which have gone all the way to the Supreme Court, that have had to define the precise meaning of the First Amendment as applied to actual cases. Would Cohen and Will throw out every "ambiguous" amendment? Goodbye, Bill of Rights.

    And perhaps this is the worst indictment of this terrible article: Law professors should know better…have to know better, really. They TEACH their students every semester about the beauty of this legal system that works out over time the unavoidable ambiguities of legal language. Real ambiguity is something that law professors love. Ambiguity is to a constitutional lawyer what water is to a fish.

    Indeed, the ambiguities of the process of "birth" have been worked out in case law. A person has been born and is a person (at least in some jurisdictions) when she or he is completely outside of the mother's body and has taken a first breath. That definition isn't in the Fourteenth Amendment, but these authors aren't decrying the Fourteenth Amendment as "profoundly ambiguous." We worked out the details along the way. That's the way our legal system works. Law professors ought to know that.

  4. Finally, this first argument is a bad argument because alignment with truth and justice is a higher purpose for law than is the elimination of ambiguity. This much is clear in science: Attaching personhood to the first drawing of breath outside the womb is dramatically too late. Human beings are human beings LONG before then. Even if birth were less of a process—less ambiguous—than fertilization (and I've shown pretty conclusively that it is not), an ambiguously just and true law is superior to an unambiguously unjust and false law.

    The authors don't want to interact with that idea. They devote not even a sentence to address the question of whether these are living human beings deserving of basic constitutional protections due to persons. That's the key underlying question, but they must avoid it at all costs.

Second, the article argues that the implications of this amendment are not entirely known beforehand.

OK. Again, I submit that this is true about EVERY amendment and every law. Do Cohen and Will believe that the Founding Fathers anticipated a ban on school prayer when they adopted the First Amendment? The federal government wasn't involved in education at all in 1791. Do they believe that the Fourteenth Amendment was written with a right to abortion in mind? What doublespeak! Defenders of Roe are all about celebrating the opportunity for unelected, unaccountable jurists to create new "implications" of law that were entirely unanticipated by the authors of legal prose.

What frightens these people about the Mississippi Personhood Amendment are the KNOWN implications of the amendment, not the mysterious ones. The amendment doesn't necessarily make abortion illegal in Mississippi. It is legal to kill those who are legal persons, in some circumstances. The law simply has to spell out the legal reasons why it is not a denial of due process to kill a legal person. If the amendment passes, pro-abortion hacks will set about immediately to craft laws that spell out when it is legally justifiable to murder an unborn person.

But it will be the lasting impact of this amendment that in order to do so, they will have to tell the truth: They will have to acknowledge that they are murdering an unborn person, for whatever reason. THAT is the major implication of this amendment. And with their second argument, Cohen and Will rested their case.

By the way, if you are a Southern Baptist in Mississippi, this anti-Personhood-Amendment article that we've been discussing is an example of your Cooperative Program dollars at work: Co-author Jonathan F. Will is a professor at CP-supported Mississippi College.

It's Pragmatically Sensible

This amendment is not a new idea. Elements within the pro-life movement have resisted ideas like this one for years, endorsing instead a strategy of incremental changes to existing abortion law (waiting periods, parental notification, mandatory ultrasounds, mandatory counseling, etc.). Their rationale has been that it is not pragmatically sensible to try something as "radical" as constitutional amendments defining unborn human beings as legal persons.

This fact reveals the lack of common-sense wisdom that plagues so much "political science" these days.

Here are the pragmatic realities: Any pro-life legislation, no matter how incremental, is going to face the unrestrained wrath and campaign prowess of the pro-abortion lobby in the USA. No matter how small the action, opponents are going to brand every action as "just one step toward the ultimate goal of reversing Roe." And they're right! And people know it!

The result is that the pro-life movement looks disingenuous. We face no weaker an opposition force for these piecemeal attempts, and on those occasions when we win, we gain very little, if anything at all.

This amendment is a stroke of political genius. Simple truths are the easiest ones to sell, and this amendment embodies a very simple truth. It is reminiscent of the efforts to extend civil rights to African Americans and gains strength from that fact. It places opponents in the unenviable position of having to argue which human beings aren't really persons in order to mount any strong campaign against the amendment.

It's Politically Achievable

Because this amendment simply states a profound truth, it is inspirational. People who love life and love babies can rally around this amendment, because it so beautifully states something that we know to be true and about which we are passionate. I would support a "parental notification" law, but I wouldn't fall in love with it. This amendment is beautiful and life-affirming. I have fallen in love with it.

So have the people of Mississippi. Even DEMOCRAT officials in Mississippi are lining up in favor of this amendment. When that happens, you know that the politics are on your side.

It's About Time

I think a lot of people have dismally concluded that abortion, like the poor, we will always have with us. The pro-life movement has been very successful since 1980 in getting presidents elected. Saving babies from the abortionist's murdering grasp? Not so much.

What a breath of fresh air to see bold new steps like Personhood Mississippi! What a beautiful thing! Who will now bring it to Texas, so I can vote for it?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Robert Jeffress Endorses Rick Perry

By now perhaps you already know that Robert Jeffress has endorsed Rick Perry. Rick Perry is the Governor of Texas and is a candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Robert Jeffress is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. I believe that Dr. Jeffress's endorsement was a mistake.

I like Robert Jeffress and have admired his unflinching courage. He and I agree about many things. Also, I find that there is much to admire and appreciate about the Perry candidacy. I am not finding fault with the man, and I am not finding fault with his particular choice of candidate.

First, I do not believe that this is an election in which pastors should be endorsing a candidate. I am not one of those who would say that pastors should never endorse political candidates. If Adolf Hitler were running against Billy Graham, I hope that I would be one of those with the courage not only to express a personal opinion but also to lead my church to take sides, and decisively so. Sometimes it may be appropriate for a pastor and a church to make a candidate endorsement.

This just isn't that time.

Second, I do not believe that Jeffress's reason is the right reason to use for endorsing a candidate. If Nebuchadnezzar was God's choice to lead Babylon, if Cyrus was God's choice to lead Persia, and if Nero was "God's agent" as the Emperor of Rome (Romans 13), then I don't see how we can declare that God couldn't possibly be supporting Mitt Romney over Rick Perry (or even, just possibly, Barack Hussein Obama over the entire GOP field?). God does what God does for God's own reasons.

I don't see myself voting for Mitt Romney, but neither do I believe that we ought to have any religious test for office, either formal or informal. If I were to impose such a test, I imagine that I would be throwing out some baby with the bathwater. I don't know how much confidence the New Testament leads us to have in the eternal salvation of the average person who is "religious without going to church," and yet that was the way that Ronald Reagan described himself (and was the obvious practice of his life).

Figuring out how to live and to lead as a Christian in these crazy times is often difficult. Dr. Jeffress is a thoughtful man, and I'm sure that he has given careful thought and prayer to his decision. Although I think that he heard wrongly during his prayer time and that he has made the wrong decision, I feel many of the same struggles and do respect him greatly still. Nevertheless, I would encourage my readers to refrain from making political endorsements like this one except in the most extreme circumstances.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Have We Remained the Southern Baptist Convention?

Faced with the question of the abolition of slavery—which was everywhere and in every way a religious movement—many Christian denominations in the United States of America experienced bitter factionalism over the question of slavery. Before long, the splintering of denominations into branches North and South was a widespread and common phenomenon. In 1860, over 80% of Southern Christians self-identified with one of just four denominational families: Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. The Episcopal church was prominent predominantly in the South, and had been since Colonial days, so it had no major North-South tension. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were the three major denominations transcending the Mason-Dixon Line. All three of these denominations split in the years leading up to the War Between the States.

We sometimes think about Southern Baptist history with blinders on, as though the histories of other denominations do not matter. But they DO matter. The fact that every major denomination of Christianity in the South made a break with abolitionists and sided unequivocally with manumission is tremendously important. It shows that the explanation for this phenomenon is nothing unique about Baptists. This is a story about Southern culture, in which Southern Baptists have participated deeply, but only as one culture-bound denomination among others.

That the Southern Baptist Convention came into existence over the question of slavery and adopted for itself such a regional name is, you see, really not that interesting of a question and says very little that is unique about the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists, to their shame, and in the same way as every other denomination, were swept along with the culture to embrace racism. All we Southern Christians became Jonah.

The cause of the SBC's racist past was, at its root, the intense longing to keep pace with culture that is ever our temptation. The great need of the hour in the 1840s was for Southern Baptists to dare not to do what would make the denomination more acceptable in the culture and gain us favorable ratings from the outside. We needed to take a poll, find out what people wouldn't like for us to do, and then do precisely that.

The Methodist Episcopal Church South remained separate from 1844 until 1939, when it reunited with Northern Methodists (among others) to form The Methodist Church (a precursor of the present-day United Methodist Church). The Presbyterian Church in the United States lasted longer, waiting from 1861 to 1983 before merging with the PCUSA. Of course, one might argue that the Presbyterian Church in America represents a continued separate existence of Southern Presbyterianism.

For a while, some Southern Baptist leaders seem to have been presuming that Baptists North and South would eventually repair the breach. It might be accurate to label this the "Southern Baptist Theological Seminary" faction of the convention, although such a name would necessarily refer to SBTS in the long-ago past and would be no reflection on the current state of the seminary. Southern relocated after the war to Louisville, a border-state city just a vigorous swim from indisputable Yankeedom. Edgar Young Mullins came to the helm of Southern from a lengthy tenure among the Northern Baptists. Southern Baptists authors at the Louisville campus around the turn of the century sometimes published works with the northern American Baptist Publication Society, from which a number of Southern churches purchased material as well. Mullins's adaptation of the New Hampshire Baptist Confession to serve as the SBC's Baptist Faith & Message came just as Northern Baptists were considering the adoption of the New Hampshire Confession themselves (a proposal which eventually failed on the floor of the Northern meeting). The New Hampshire confession was the most likely doctrinal statement to serve as a reunification platform for Baptists North and South.

Southern and Northern Baptists jointly negotiated their missions work through comity agreements at Fortress Monroe, VA; Washington, DC; and Old Point Comfort, VA. Although the breaches of these comity agreements by the SBC's membership probably contributed to the widening gap between Southern and Northern Baptists, the initial negotiation of them revealed the desire among the SBC's leadership to maintain more than harmony with the Northern Baptists—a desire to keep the door open for eventual reunion.

But, although the other North & South denominations reunited, Baptists remained separate. Why?

That, in my opinion, is indeed an interesting question. If you came to this post expecting an essay arguing against or for a name-change for Southern Baptists, then I guess you're beginning to be disappointed at this point. As interesting as the question of our name might be, I'm far more intrigued by the question of why we've managed to maintain this separate existence for so long (and with such apparent success). A number of explanations are possible.

  1. Maybe it's still about slavery, and we Southern Baptists are just more perniciously and persistently racist than the Methodists and the Presbyterians in the South. Certainly, there are any number of people who think this of the Southern Baptist Convention (among those both without and within our denomination). There's a certain desperation today to wash our denominational hands clean of the blood of the slaves. And although measure after measure passes in the affirmative by the strength of just that promise, none of those adopted measures ever seem to satisfy anybody. "We need to do something! Let's apologize. OK, good. But I'm still not satisfied. We need to do something! Let's adopt quotas for representation in our leadership. OK, good. But I'm still not satisfied. We need to do something. Let's change our name to break with the past…"

    And if any of these things would really undo the past, they would certainly be worthwhile. Of course, if they would successfully cover over past sin, then the cross of Christ would be only one among other options. The only remedy for past sin is found in the grace of Jesus Christ, and not in resolutions or programs. The best response we could make to those who recall what past Southern Baptists did would be to proclaim that, by the grace of God, we've been forgiven, and that in that, praise be to God, we're not alone.

    Does our past racial sin explain why we never reunited with the Northern Baptists? To explain our separate existence as Southern Baptists, one must demonstrate that Southern Baptists have been and are significantly MORE stubbornly racist than are Southern Presbyterians and Southern Methodists. One must show that Southern Methodists in 1939 held remarkably progressive views on race vis-a-vis their Baptist neighbors, and likewise for Presbyterians in 1983.

    That's a tall order, and I've never seen any evidence supporting such a theory. I don't think this is the answer.

  2. Maybe it's just a function of our polity Methodists and Presbyterians are more hierarchical than Baptists are. Maybe it is harder to get the masses to agree to reunion (which Baptists would have to do) than it is to convince the relatively few people in leadership to do so.

    There's some evidence to support this theory. Certainly the idea of reunification with Northern Baptists has been, at times, far more popular within certain circles of the SBC elite than it has been among rank-and-file Southern Baptists. E.Y. Mullins and our other leaders might have stitched us back together with the Yankees a couple of generations ago if it had lain within their power (although such speculative history is dangerous).

    And yet, our polity has, in most cases, tended not to make us move in a totally different direction from the Methodists and Presbyterians. Usually it just makes us move more slowly than they do, but in the same direction. In the case of reunification with the North, Southern Baptists are steadily moving away from the slightest possibility of that ever happening, and have been moving in that direction for well more than a century. Whatever might have been the case once upon a time, at this moment not even the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention gives evidence of any support for reunification with Northern Baptists.

    Polity is not the explanation.

  3. Maybe the factors that caused us to BECOME the Southern Baptist Convention are different from the factors that caused us to REMAIN the Southern Baptist Convention. And I think that's the correct answer. At this date, the dissimilarity between the average Southern Baptist church and the average ABC church is striking.

Being Southern Baptist has, over the past century and a half, consisted of much more substance than simply being "the Baptist group who supported slavery." We derive a portion of our identity from the fact that we are Baptists, and these are items that all Southern Baptists who are true Baptists share with all true Baptists in other places and in other groups. Over the course of our history, however, we have accumulated a number of things that constitute a distinctively Southern Baptist identity. These things exemplify what it means to be Southern Baptist.

  1. The Cooperative Program. The only people I know who don't value the Cooperative Program and recognize it as one of the major distinctives of the Southern Baptist Convention…are people INSIDE the Southern Baptist Convention. This manner of funding cooperative endeavors has been the genius of our missionary efforts—a great gift from God to our convention.

    Anyone who does not wholeheartedly participate in the Cooperative Program either does not understand what it means to be Southern Baptist or disdains what it is to be Southern Baptist.

  2. Biblicism. Even in our liberal days, Southern Baptists have (generally) been more conservative than our Northern counterparts, seminally with regard to our view of the Bible. John D. Rockefeller rebuffed repeated attempts by E.Y. Mullins to persuade Rockefeller to make a major donation to Southern Seminary. One factor involved was that the Rockefeller family (eventually pastored by Harry Emerson Fosdick), regarded Southern Baptists as too conservative.

    Certainly since 1979 Southern Baptists have earned a strong identification with biblicist, conservative theology. And yet even if one were to take the position that 1979 was the birth of this movement among Southern Baptists, one must concede a lengthy and highly visible period of gestation (and I think that it was something more than that).

  3. Revivalism, Evangelism, and Missions. Northern Baptists have been more closely identified with liberal "social justice" pursuits. Southern Baptists have, since the earliest days of the denomination, been more zealous for the conversion and spiritual vitality of the individual person than with the reform of society or the physical well being of the individual.

    There is no nice way to say it: Northern Baptists have been abysmal failures at the spreading of the gospel. Southern Baptists spread (somewhat) into Northern Baptist "territory" not as an army breaches a wall and invades a stronghold, but as nomadic tribes wander into empty space and occupy it. Southern Baptists have come into many of these areas at the invitation of those who lived there and were entirely underserved by Northern Baptist apathy.

    Southern Baptists have done much better, now realistically pursuing a goal to adopt every known unreached people group and to mobilize our members to reach them with the gospel. Such an attempt is hard to imagine within the ABC.

  4. Education. Yes, it's true that many people will lampoon Southern Baptists as an unlettered, anti-education people. Such caricatures are not based in fact; they are simply the natural function of Southern Baptist conservatism. The default position of an unthinking liberal is always to denounce conservatives as stupid.

    And yet, the fact remains that even today Southern Baptists have one of the most robust and well-populated networks of seminaries in the Christian world. This denomination that does not require ANY educational minima for people to serve as pastors has nevertheless placed a very high value on the formal training of those who serve our local churches.

These passions may not describe every individual Southern Baptist, but they have become part of the fabric of our collective identity. However and why ever we began, we remain and are vital today because of these things (and perhaps others that I did not have the energy to catalog in this post). In our origins, we were wrong. God chose to redeem us and the bless us anyway. There's something of the story of the gospel in those facts, isn't there? Certainly that's my testimony as a believer: a wrong start intercepted by the grace of God and turned into something else.

As an individual believer, it would be anti-gospel and disrespectful of the work of Christ if I were to dwell constantly on the sinfulness of my beginnings. My job today is to praise Jesus Christ and to honor Him for what He has done in my life subsequently, as well as to rejoice in the hope of what is to come. I feel the same way about the Southern Baptist Convention. I do not wallow in remorse over the wrongful things done by Southern Baptists who were my great-grand-ancestors in this family of faith. I celebrate the grace of God. I praise His name for what He is doing among us, and for what He has promised to do among us as we remain faithful. Forgetting what lies behind, I want to press on.

I'm thankful that the Southern Baptist Convention still exists separately. I'm thankful to be a part of this Southern Baptist story. I hope that I can remain faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ and fall asleep in Christ someday as a faithful and grateful Southern Baptist.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Uphill Climb for a Name Change

The name-change effort in the Southern Baptist Convention faces a long, uphill climb. Allow me to sketch out some of the obstacles it will have to overcome in order to succeed:

  1. Voting Requirement

    Any change to the name of the Southern Baptist Convention will necessitate a change to the convention's constitution. To accomplish this, a supermajority of two-thirds of the convention messengers would have to vote in the affirmative for two consecutive annual meetings.

    As recently as 2004, it was not possible to find a simple majority (50% + 1) even willing to have a task force to STUDY having a name change. Has the makeup of the convention changed so dramatically in a mere eight years that two-thirds of the convention will now support what was such a minority position so recently?

    Perhaps it has, but I have seen no evidence yet of such a dramatic sea-change in the convention.

  2. Annual Meeting Locations

    If one were interested in accomplishing this political feat, the time to have done it would either be two years ago or two years from now. This is the worst possible time to attempt this simply because of the location schedule for the annual meetings.

    If one had attempted this starting in Orlando, then one would be trying to win a supermajority out of crowds in Orlando and Phoenix. Winning in Orlando might have been slightly touch-and-go (and there was the risk that this divisive issue would have harmed the GCR push), but the odds for this proposal would have been far greater in Phoenix, simply because of depressed messenger count. In general, the less of a voice Southern Baptists have in this process, the better its chances of success.

    Two years from now, the convention will begin a two-year tour through Baltimore (2014) and Columbus (2015). Maryland and Ohio are probably places where convention turnout will be low and where the hurdle of obtaining a two-thirds supermajority will be much, much lower. A serious attempt to push the name-change through would have been wise to delay itself for two years. And, indeed, perhaps some strategy of delay is still possible for proponents to implement.

    But at this time, Bryant Wright's proposal will face messenger bodies in New Orleans (2012) and Houston (2013). Two worse locations could hardly have been imagined. Messenger turnout will be high and will contain large numbers of the same people who have defeated these measures over and over. I'm willing to predict the odds of clearing the 66% threshold in both New Orleans and Houston as being well lower than the odds of President Obama's attending the Collin County Lincoln Day gala.

  3. A Poison-Pill Process

    The way that the will of the messengers has been sidestepped in the beginning of this process has been divisive. It divided the Executive Committee, with many EC members not learning about this until the press releases were being distributed in the public meeting, after the story had already gone out on Twitter. It has scandalized some of us to see how this initiative is being railroaded through. As was discussed in the Executive Committee meeting, this comes at a time when many Southern Baptists are still a bit bruised and tender from the way that the GCR report was pushed through with high-pressure political tactics that are still fresh in the memories of Southern Baptists and that are unprecedented in our polity.

    The GCR was not so bad of an idea (with the exception of Great Commission Giving) that it deserved such heavy-handedness from the platform. Good ideas can rise on their own merits. God's people can be trusted to seek God's will. Missing from the process seems to be faith in the action of the Holy Spirit to build consensus among SBC messengers around those things that are His will. Tell the truth and trust the people, I say.

    What President Wright ought to do, instead of bringing a report from this task force in New Orleans, is to backtrack and ask the convention to approve the formation of the task force to begin with. Such a humble, conciliatory, and congregationalist move would do much to counter criticisms and to pour oil on the waters of this process. The inherent delay would also, by the way, cause his proposal to come to more favorable locations for the annual meeting, as outlined above.

    That's not likely to happen. Apart from something like that, the procedural aspects of this initiative will make it less likely to gain a broad and dispassionate hearing. The discourse up to this point has included plenty of people who falsely presume that I got so worked up about this just because I don't favor a name-change. Not so. My previous post on this topic is the kind of post that I produce when we're just exploring the possibility of changing the convention's name. It is the disregard and disrespect for the convention's messengers that bothers me most about President Wright's task force initiative and that catapults me into a more energetic and confrontational mode of writing.

  4. The Paucity of Alternatives

    Southern Baptists were eyeing the name "American Baptist Convention" back before the Northern Baptist Convention snapped it up out from under us in 1951. That would have been a good name, but it is no longer available. "Baptist Convention of the Americas" is also gone. Nothing with "Cooperative" in it will be feasible, because of the CBF. A few alternatives remain that still communicate a gathering of Baptists, but not many.

    Of course, a great many Southern Baptists will want to ditch both "Southern" and "Baptist" (and probably even "Convention"). "Convention" speaks of a business meeting, and anti-congregationalists will want something warmer and fuzzier. "Southern" is, of course, the most offensive label, and a strong argument can be made for ditching Southern. After all, our churches that happen to be in the South really aren't Southern any longer, by and large. As I wrote in a post last year:

    As a historian I would assert that the distinctiveness of Southern culture is at its lowest point since the Colonial period. Everything from media to chain restaurants and big box stores have made it more true than ever before that Boston = Atlanta = Houston = Los Angeles. Of course, these equations are not absolutely true, but they are more true than they have ever been before.

    Moving from culture-at-large to church culture, a Cowboy Church movement has arisen largely because the standard Southern Baptist church culture has almost nothing Southern about it. The music is Rock, the marketing is Madison Avenue, the platform dress is Abercrombie & Fitch, and the A-V technology is Times Square.

    What's Southern about that?

    So, with a convention full of churches in the South that are embarrassed of their Southernness, one can see a rationale for eliminating the word "Southern."

    But the word "Baptist" will be examined as well. Just yesterday a Southern Baptist from Idaho reported that, in his state, "Baptist" presents far more of an obstacle than "Southern" does. One cannot ignore the phenomenon that an alarmingly growing number of Southern Baptist churches is removing the word "Baptist" from church signs throughout the nation. Many of the agitators for change are people who have already taken this action in their local churches—not all of them, but many of them.

    Now, what makes all of this interesting is that we probably can't go about changing the name of the denomination every decade (although it seems that we can reorganize it on that timetable). The safe bet is to keep "Baptist" in the name and go for changing only "Southern" (or, at the most, do away with both "Southern" and "Convention"). And perhaps that would be a sufficient change for those who wish to do away with "Baptist" as well, so long as they thought they could easily work incrementally. But multiple changes of the denominational name are likely to weaken it over the long run, and so I think there's going to be an inclination to see this as the one, best opportunity to do this thing all the way.

    Moderation and incrementalism are often successful political strategies, but it remains to be seen whether a moderate, incremental change to the name will really satisfy anybody. A good alternative would need to be a name that enjoyed broader support than the present name enjoys. Maybe such an alternative exists, and we probably won't know until people are finished dreaming up the options, but the selection of the right candidate name remains one of the more difficult obstacles for this process to overcome.

For all of these reasons, I predict that it is going to be very difficult for the task force to succeed at their objective. Certainly, there are members of this task force who have accomplished the improbable before, and we do well not to count them out before the first bell has rung. Nevertheless, if they will change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention, all of these are among the more prominent obstacles that they will have to overcome.

Monday, September 19, 2011

SBC Name Change Proposal

Tonight at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, President Bryant Wright led the Executive Committee to appoint by fiat a task force to study a name change for the denomination (BP). In a matter of hours, Twitter is already alive with discussion over the proposal. People are likely to take sides on this matter based upon their opinions of the idea of changing the name alone. I'll give my opinion on whether we should change the name of the SBC at the end of this post. For now, I'd like to direct your attention to the procedural intricacies of this proposal.

First, it might be helpful to give a brief review of the history of this concept. The messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention are not as clearly on record in our opposition to Satan and Hell as we are in our opposition to changing the name of our denomination (not necessarily a good thing). It has been voted down and voted down and voted down, starting since long before I realized that I was either Southern or Baptist—since long before anyone discussing this matter today was ever born. In 1974, W. A. Criswell came to the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention and asked them to appoint a study committee to explore a possible name-change. The messengers approved the committee, the committee chose not to change the name, and Dr. Criswell honored the will of the messengers.

In 1999, an attempt was made by members of the Executive Committee to initiate the name-change process within the EC rather than on the convention floor. The Executive Committee declined to do so. An excellent report by Augie Boto outlined the advantages of retaining the historic name of the convention.

In 2004, SBC President Jack Graham asked the messengers in the convention meeting to appoint a task force to consider a name change. Graham, astute president that he was, noted that by 2004 this question had come to the convention floor "seven or eight times" and opined that our convention needed in 2004 "to stop meeting and just talking about this…We need to either put it to bed forever or get on with it."

The convention chose to "put it to bed forever" by a considerable margin.

Here's hoping that, when we use "forever" in speaking about the promises of the gospel, Southern Baptists mean something longer than eight years!

The question of a name-change arose during the GCR debates of recent memory, but no name change task force arose out of the GCR report.

And now, SBC President Bryant Wright has chosen to lead the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention to take an action that the messenger body of the SBC has explicitly and repeatedly refused to take—to appoint a task force to study a name change. The normal course of affairs is for SBC Presidents who desire the appointment of task forces to ask for the approval of the convention's messengers before doing so, especially on questions of such importance. Why not follow that time-honored process now?

On Twitter, Dr. Albert Mohler reported that Wright had indicated that he followed this process "out of respect for the SBC Executive Committee." I can understand how it would be an indication of respect for the Executive Committee to make them the people from whom Wright sought authorization to take this action. And yet, if it is an action of respect to seek this consent from the Executive Committee, is it not therefore, by Wright's own definition, an action of disrespect of the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention to decline to seek their consent for this action, especially since the seeking of messenger consent is the standard operating procedure of the convention in matters such as this? Certainly, it may be inadvertent disrespect, but it is disrespect nonetheless.

Southern Baptists on various sides of the issues that we face in this day and time are demonstrating what I believe is a dangerous inclination to belittle and disrespect the messenger body in order to accomplish at all costs the will of the empowered few. This threat was evident during the GCR process when anti-GCR voices were privately expressing the opinion that the messengers of the convention COULD NOT instruct the Executive Committee to do anything—that the Executive Committee was not beholden to the messengers of the convention to follow their instructions. This threat was evident during the GCR debate itself in Orlando when the rules of order were violated and the rights of a messenger were trampled underfoot as he attempted to amend the GCR recommendations. But for the courage of a bold lady standing at a microphone, our convention might have done something possibly illegal that day. This threat is evident tonight, when rather than poll the convention messengers to see whether their opinion has changed on the question of appointing a name-change task force, the action has been taken to short-circuit the expressed will of the SBC and to have this task force after all, messengers be…disrespected.

Let no one supporting such a thing ever breathe a word of criticism about unelected, unaccountable activist judges wresting legislative authority out of the hands of the people where it belongs. Let no one supporting such a thing ever utter the slightest complaint about Presidential Czars and Executive Orders bypassing the will of the Congress. People on all sides of SBC debate have adopted an "ends justifies the means" approach to our denominational polity. We need to repent of it. We need to quit it. We need to start acting in good faith.

Now, I promised to offer my opinion of the name change idea itself. Here it is. If this process goes forward to the messengers of the convention, then I will fully support a name-change so long as it removes the word "Baptist" from the name of our denomination. When the will of the messengers has become an obstacle to get around by any means necessary rather than the sacred core of our polity, then we are no longer Baptists, and we no longer deserve to own that name.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Key to Success in Ministry?

Proposition: Everything you need to know to succeed in ministry—everything you need to be excellent at preaching the gospel, planting churches, pastoring churches, or whatever—is contained fully in the Bible. If you were to read no other book, you would be at no disadvantage in any ministry enterprise.


Friday, August 26, 2011

What Defines Drunkenness?

A person who grew up in this church recently attended another church in our metropolitan area. While he was there, one of the new friends that he made invited him to come to an event after church with several of the young singles there and serve as the designated driver.

I was just wondering why you need a designated driver to enjoy alcoholic beverages in moderation?

It would seem to me that every Christian should be able to agree that any recreational use of a substance that would result in your being unfit to drive a car would be a sin. But I would love to hear from those who celebrate the recreational use of intoxicants among Christians: Would you mind telling me how I as a pastor can know when a member of my flock is guilty of drunkenness? Or is that none of the pastor's business?

Abstentionists are not invited to participate in the thread. Only those who support the recreational use of intoxicants may post comments.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Difference between Efficiency and Effectiveness

In his book, The Baptist Way, Stan Norman countered several objections to congregationalism. One of those objections—the idea that congregational decision-making is not efficient—Norman countered by asking his readers to consider whether the slower, more complicated process of congregational decision-making might be more effective in making disciples, albeit less efficient in making decisions. By prompting the members of the congregation to address and struggle with seeking out God's will for the congregation, aren't pastors of congregationalist churches leading their congregations to do something substantive, spiritual, and important. Couldn't the model of seeking God's will as a congregation become rehearsal for a skill that these congregation members could transfer to their careers, their families, and their personal lives?

I agree that many business meetings do not accomplish that goal, but the best ones do. I agree that this pragmatic hope, in and of itself, is no good rationale upon which to build a system of congregational church polity, since the polity of churches ought to be built upon the foundation of the New Testament. But I believe that congregationalism does have a New Testament foundation (as does Norman), and I see no reason why a completely pragmatic objection to congregationalism should not be answered, after a biblical rationale has first been supplied, with a pragmatic reply.

Greater efficiency simply does not always lead to greater effectiveness.

God did not take the shortest, most efficient route to get us to the gospel. There's the garden. There's the flood. There's the promise. There's the law. There are the prophets, and the kings, and the exiles, and the returning remnant. Centuries passed while God patiently prepared the world for the gospel.

Jesus did not take the shortest, most efficient route to get to the cross. He came as a baby. For thirty years He did nothing but live among the people. Upon having begun His ministry, He preached and worked miracles for three years before going to the cross. He deliberately delayed His confrontation in Jerusalem. He zigzagged across the Levant, disciples in tow, preparing them for the cross with patience and longsuffering.

Phillip's evangelistic tour was so haphazard that the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit was necessary to get him from point A to point B. Paul's missionary journeys were no model of efficiency. I can find no New Testament church praised for its efficiency. Efficiency simply doesn't rank highly as a New Testament virtue.

Of course, INefficiency is no New Testament virtue either. The Bible doesn't take a pro- or con- position on the question of efficiency; rather, it points us to something other than efficiency. We are to seek gospel effectiveness in people's lives, whether it is efficient or not to do so.

A Simple Example

I've been thinking about this as I've mulled over my schedule for the coming week. FBC Farmersville has become involved in an effort to plant a Southern Baptist church in Montana. A couple of months ago, as I was meeting with our Missions Committee and as we were deciding to give an initial monetary grant to this church, I mentioned that I would need to being to shop for airline tickets to travel to Montana and to meet with the church planter and with the supervising pastor. One of my committee members said, "You don't have to do that. I'll take you up there."

This church member is one of my deacons. He's among the more faithful soul-winners in my congregation. He loves missions and has been the leader of several of our mission trips in the past. He's also an entrepreneur with an earth-moving business and a trucking company. He proposed to bid for a load moving in the general direction of Montana on a week that I could go up there. He would take me to Montana in his eighteen-wheeler. I said, "Sure thing!"

I don't have a CB handle yet, so if any of you have any ideas…

The most efficient way to travel to Montana is to fly United (since I'm not packing any guitars), but I think that it is more effective for me to go by eighteen-wheeler. I will get to spend sixty hours this week with one of the key leaders in my church in a confined space. I will get first-hand exposure to the demands of his job and the life that he leads during the week. We will have time to pray together. We will study God's word together. We will have time to laugh and to enjoy one another's company. He will experience his pastor with a five-o'clock shadow and smelling a bit gamy after a couple of days in the truck.

When I get to Montana, I won't be meeting there by myself. I will have a key leader in my congregation who will have experienced this opportunity and the people involved for himself. An opportunity is there for this Christian to feel God placing a burden upon his own heart for the lost people of Montana, and from past experience, I know that if God places such a burden on his heart, this believer will act upon it. I think that's worth four days worth of driving.

Indeed, I think it is worth more than that. In anticipation of the trip, I went to the Texas DPS and sat for the exams for my own Commercial Driver's License. Although I'm woefully inexperienced and expect him to perform the vast preponderance of the driving, I'm now able to help out just a little bit on my own. Like tent-making Paul, I can do a little bit myself to contribute to the journey.

As a wonderful bonus, the load that we've located is going to help people. We're moving an oversized excavator from one disaster-relief location (Joplin, MO) to another disaster-relief location (Minot, ND). Our noble labor will help people in need.

I'm finding it hard to imagine a LESS efficient way to go to Montana (although I suppose I might have hitchhiked). It's an inefficient route, an inefficient process for me (getting the CDL), an inefficient speed of travel, and perhaps an inefficient voyage to begin with (we might have web-conferenced). But I believe that this is the most effective way that I can travel this week and interact with people for the sake of the gospel. I want to be the kind of pastor who takes off his green eyeshade from time to time and who stays on his knees. I want to follow God's leadership and take God-given opportunities even when they may not make perfect sense to me.

Because ultimately, effectiveness in ministry comes more from following than it does from leading.


Monday, August 8, 2011

The Beginning of the End of Multi-Site?

Praise the Lord for Mark Driscoll and the folks at Mars Hill.

Pause while you check to see whether you're at the right blog.

Praise the Lord for Mark Driscoll and the folks at Mars Hill!

In a blog post today, the folks up at Seattle have announced that there will be "No More Mars Hill 'Campuses'." Instead, citing the Bible and what it teaches about ecclesiology, Mars Hill has announced that every erstwhile "campus" will now be known as a "church."

And with that we witness the beginning of the end of the multi-site fad.

Perhaps some of you will say, "Bart, it's only a change in terminology. These "churches" are no different in nature than they were yesterday when they were called "campuses." Ah, but terminology matters, and what matters more is the fact that the folks at Mars Hill have been searching their souls over whether their multi-site ecclesiology is biblical. Having weighed it in the balances, they obviously found it wanting. Now they are making correction. I think this is the first of many steps.

The fact that they are doing so speaks ENORMOUS VOLUMES about the character of the people involved in this church and the Acts 29 denomination with which they are affiliated. I've been a critic at times in the past, but I laud them today for their decision. This is good news. May the Mars Hill decision percolate throughout the Acts 29 denomination, and may this influential church be a trendsetter in this regard.

I think that books like Franchising McChurch, the work of people like Mark Dever…

Multiple Sites: Yea or Nay? Dever, Driscoll, and MacDonald Vote from Ben Peays on Vimeo.

…and questions from people like Micah Fries (see article here) represent the direction of the future away from multi-site and in the direction of biblical church planting.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Blossoming Flower of Conservative Scholarship

God called me to be a pastor when I was eleven years old. In the thirty subsequent years, only one thought has given me pause about that calling. I have passed through seasons of my life when, although I knew that my calling was to pastoral ministry, I have felt some obligation to serve as a professor in a seminary or in the religion department of a Baptist university. As the Conservative Resurgence progressed and as SBC seminaries began to return to the denomination's conservative roots, I heard others wonder aloud where Southern Baptists would ever find enough conservative, Bible-believing, qualified professors to be able to staff six seminaries.

I fretted over the question as much as anyone else. Having gone to Baylor, I naturally assumed that the ratio of liberal professors of religion to conservative ones must approach 10 million : 1. Having heard the story of C. H. Toy repeated ad nauseum and having spent many sessions subjected to the patronizing musings of professors who were absolutely certain that, as I matured, I would certainly come to see things their way, I wasn't even optimistic that the one professor in ten million wouldn't be a Schleiermachian before all was said and done. Believing that I was capable of becoming qualified as a conservative scholar and professor, at times I succumbed to fear and worried over the thought, "If not you, Bart, then who?"

As it turns out, this concern is not unique to Southern Baptist conservatives post-1979. In a recent article by John Tierney in the New York Times entitled "The Left-Leaning Tower," the Gray Lady considers the plight of the conservative academic and actually dares to contemplate the possibility that the stock liberal explanation of the phenomenon ("that conservatives are just too close-minded and dimwitted") might not be a self-evident truth.

I no longer worry. As it turns out, it is not difficult at all to find or to make good conservative scholars. As a trustee and member of the Academic Affairs subcommittee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I meet a new crop of conservative scholars twice a year when we consider new faculty. They have terminal degrees from institutions like Princeton. They write about things like the appropriate classification and understanding of Dead Sea Scroll 4Q174. As it turns out, if you create a place where conservative scholars will not be vilified and ostracized, conservative scholars will come to you.

For The New York Times to scratch its head and wonder why the dearth of conservatives in academia is a bit like Captain Ahab trying to figure out what became of all the sperm whales. Before 1979, a conservative scholar couldn't get a job in the SBC system. Today, a conservative Ph.D. graduate of an SBC seminary still will be blackballed from the vast preponderance of the universities that Southern Baptists have founded. Like the desert flower erupting into color at the least bit of rain, with just the slightest encouragement conservative scholarship blossoms and flourishes. It's just that so few environments will, even grudgingly, allow those precious few needed raindrops to fall.

But the rain is falling in our SBC seminaries, and the resplendent flora reveal the glory of God. That so many of these scholars are now so young and so capable is reason to be hopeful about what is yet to come. May God give me the years to see it for myself.