Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Learning Some Lessons from the Acts 29 Network

A confession: I generally really like the Acts 29 Network. They're a pretty good denomination. I prefer them over the United Methodists. I prefer them over the United Church of Christ churches. I prefer them over the PCUSA. Yes, I prefer nearly any Baptist denomination over the Acts 29 Network, but as non-Baptist denominations go, Acts 29 is definitely in the upper few percentiles of quality.

In fact, I believe that there are several things that many of our Southern Baptist leaders need to learn from the Acts 29 Network:

  1. Denominations ought to be confessional communities. Do you want to be a member church of the Acts 29 denomination? Then your church will have to be in agreement with their statement of faith. This is also the principle at work in my state convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. A church can only be a member congregation of the SBTC if that church affirms its agreement with the Baptist Faith & Message. This is not presently the case within the Southern Baptist Convention—churches can disagree entirely with the BF&M and yet still be member churches of the SBC.

    Our confessional identity need not go as far as that of Acts 29. They require a particular viewpoint on the question of soteriology in order to participate in their network. I think that the present text of the BF&M says all that needs to be said about soteriology, and I would not be in favor of tightening that deliberately vague portion of our statement of faith, but every Southern Baptist church ought to be in agreement with the BF&M as far as it goes.

    To have a confessional community of churches is no violation of local church autonomy. Part and parcel of the autonomy of each local church is its autonomous right to choose which churches, and which kinds of churches, are those with which it will affiliate. We've always had conditions of membership, and these have not been considered by Southern Baptists to be violations of local church autonomy. It has always been thus with money: Autonomously decide to cut the SBC entirely out of your church budget? We'll send you along your merry autonomous way.

    We ought to be prepared to value our theology at least as much as we value our money.

  2. Ecclesiology is important enough for our churches to take a stand on it. The first requirement of the Acts 29 Covenant is an ecclesiological requirement. I do not believe that their particular understanding of ecclesiology is the best understanding of biblical ecclesiology (as is often the case when I interact with non-Baptist denominations like Acts 29), but I agree entirely with them that ecclesiology is important enough to the health of a church that we are wise to stipulate and enforce ecclesiological convictions within our fellowship.
  3. There's nothing wrong with restricting membership in our denomination to only those who care about it enough to support it financially. The Acts 29 Covenant rightly recognizes freeloading as a sinful habit to which churches are sometimes tempted. Acts 29 churches give 10% of their receipts away. There are benchmarks for how much of that money they ought to give through Acts 29. There are strong suggestions that Acts 29 efforts should have a better-than-average chance of earning the full 10%. That's what Acts 29 ought to do. It only makes sense. I don't know why the SBC wouldn't consider doing the same thing.
  4. Promoting our own heroes within our denomination is essential to our long-term health. Some decry Acts 29 as a hero cult—the house that the Cussing Pastor built. I think that's a misguided criticism, as though denominational heroes are a bad thing. When all of your young pastors' heroes are people outside of your denomination, then your denomination is in trouble. That's why the Southern Baptist Convention ought to work deliberately to highlight the ministries of men who are comfortable within and committed to the Southern Baptist Convention. Specifically, we need to advance leaders who are not double-minded as to whether the Southern Baptist Convention is their preferred Great Commission alliance.
  5. Conservative theology builds strong churches. With Peter Masters, I agree that conservative behavior coupled with conservative theology will do even better, but I'm thankful that Acts 29 is a conservative group in its theology, as other denominations go. As our SBC nominations process slowly slips its conservative moorings that were solidly in place just a few years ago, we would do well to learn from Acts 29 not to be ashamed or reluctant about the conservative stands that we were once willing not only to talk about but also to put into actual practice.

This list of accolades may seem to be coming from a strange source—you might have easily concluded in the past that I regard Acts 29 as Enemy Number One. What am I doing writing a post praising Acts 29 and urging Southern Baptists to learn from them?

Well, the fact is that I've never harbored hard feelings against Acts 29. I just recognize that Acts 29 is another denomination of churches, outside of the Southern Baptist Convention. Compared to anyone who would make the Southern Baptist Convention a wholly owned subsidiary of Acts 29, that makes me look like an Acts 29 hater. But that's just a function of juxtaposition, and not a good, absolute measure of my feelings.

Acts 29 churches are preaching the gospel. People are now going to Heaven rather than Hell because of Acts 29 (and Acts 29 believes that Hell exists). Acts 29 is planting churches at an admirable rate. Bravo for them. We could learn a lot from them, and as long as we learn the right things from them, we could be much better off for it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Nadir of the SBC?

The headline is inherently ominous: " Phoenix SBC attendance lowest since '44." Like most people, I was prepared to see a slight dip in SBC attendance, just because we were going all the way to Phoenix. But as the headline makes clear, the paucity of messengers in Phoenix cannot be explained by the vagaries of geography and political cycle that normally cause messenger count to oscillate: This was historic: Many of our churches could have hosted this annual meeting in their own facilities.

The proposed explanations are predictable. "It's too far away!"

But the last time we were in Phoenix we had 47% more messengers.

"It isn't a 'real' election year."

But in 2003, the last time we were in Phoenix, it was a re-election year (Jack Graham) just as it was this year. In fact, this year's elections were MORE contentious than they were the last time in Phoenix: all of the offices went unopposed in 2003, but not all elections were uncontested this year.

"It's the economy(, stupid)."

But the previous record was in 1944. The economy has not been waxing continuously since 1944. We've had more economic downturns in that span of years than I dare to count: Three that I remember myself.

"It's the bitter fruit reaped from that evil Conservative Resurgence."

<sarcasm>Yes, if only we could experience the robust growth of non-conservative Baptist groups like the BGCT or the CBF.</sarcasm> I'm willing to concede that controversy can drive people away from a group. For the sake of discussion, allow me to grant temporarily that we are declining in messenger count entirely because of the Conservative Resurgence. If so, then why would the blame fall only on conservatives? It takes two to tango. The Conservative Resurgence was caused by a century-long pattern of responding to grass-roots concerns about denominational liberalism with a disingenuous "There, there" mouthed by doublespeaking denominational bureaucrats. If the SBC apparatus had demonstrated some willingness to respond to messenger concerns in 1925, 1963, and 1970, then 1979 would likely have looked much different. We were headed down the same road as the ABC, compared to whom our messenger registrations totals look like Pentecost. I am not moved by claims that the Conservative Resurgence has killed our denomination.

"It's because our meetings don't reach out to 'younger leaders' in the SBC."

But this was THE 'younger leader' convention year, as the stereotypes go. This was the year of the Necktie Nazis. This was the year when there were more Acts 29 folks on the platform than Southern Baptists. A deliberate campaign is underway to woo a certain caricature of 'younger leaders' into our annual meetings.

Fact are our friends. The facts are coming in. The more that we bend over backwards to try to interest people who really aren't that interested in the SBC, the more that we accomplish two things: (1) We fail to bring in a category of people who are never going to be interested in the SBC (more on that below), and (2) we drive away people who really are interested in the SBC by showing them the backs of our hands. The SBC really needs to consider the old proverb about the bird in the hand.

This was the year that nobody came. I was cajoled in a friendly fashion on Twitter earlier this week (when I said that I would watch the live-feed while wearing a tie) to embrace "the new normal." Are sub-5000 messenger counts the "new normal," too? We're soon to be told how this was actually a good year of attendance, but the numbers say otherwise, unless you have an agenda to construe them.

Of all of the younger folks around us, why is it so hard to court the particular group for which our convention has such passionate, unrequited stirrings? By an unscientific analysis of tweets coming from the convention, I would highlight a few things:

Our Annual Meeting is going to be a hard sell to anybody who doesn't like congregationalism. It is the epitome of congregationalism, and that's not going away any time soon. People at our meetings are going to speak their minds. Some of them will speak their convictions about right and wrong without running it by a press secretary first.

Our Annual Meeting is going to be a hard sell to anybody who considers himself or herself "post-denominational." Although our structure is different from that of the more hierarchical, non-locally-autonomous groups, to a post-denominationalist, we certainly are a denomination.

The Southern Baptist Convention is going to be a hard sell to people who are ashamed of being Southern or ashamed of being Baptist. Or, if they are neither Southern nor Baptist, it is going to be a hard sell to those who despise Southern-ness and Baptist-ness. People want to change the name sometimes—I think that's a surrogate for changing the makeup of the convention. The name fits us pretty well, or at least it has done so. We have redneck roots. Some of us are proud of them; some people are mortified by them. But Just for Men has never manufactured enough dye to cover those roots up. That's who we are.

Pandering is unattractive. I don't like dye-jobs anyway. "Hey, Southern Baptists! I'm a younger leader. Who are you?" The correct reply is not "Who do you want us to be?" I'm not a star-studded analyst of the generations, but I think that younger people are not moved by disingenuous branding and marketing. I'd much rather that the SBC be a genuine something than a malleable, Potemkin anything.

I hope that this year was the nadir of the SBC. A nadir marks a bottom point from which you rise. Some very positive things are at work in our midst. I hope that we can go another 70 years of never hitting this low point again. I believe that our North American Mission Board needed a fresh start, and although my antennae are up against intermingling with Acts 29 (although I am working on an upcoming post about things we need to learn from Acts 29), I believe that Kevin Ezell is making some hard, healthy changes at NAMB. He has my prayers and my support. I am really excited about Tom Eliff at the International Mission Board. I look around me and see a rising coterie of good, dynamic, convictional Southern Baptists who are well poised to lead this family of churches into the coming decades.

Let's invest in who we have rather than pining for who we do not. Let's design our Annual Meetings with those in mind who are committed to attend them. Let us not make the mistake of trying to bring in those who don't come by driving away those who do. It would be far easier to succeed at the latter half of that project than the former, and it would be a shame to wind up entirely empty-handed.

Surely, we won't do that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Unity and Cooperation in the Southern Baptist Convention

Tomorrow will be the first time in their lives that my two children have failed to attend the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. In my own twenty-four years of service as a Southern Baptist pastor, I have missed the meeting many times, having often lacked the funding to attend. Since 2001 in New Orleans, however, I have attended every year.

Not this year.

My reasons are manifold. The economy is not good, and we've made budget cuts at FBC Farmersville. I chose to number my convention allowance among them. I do not believe that this would be a wise long-term strategy, because attending the convention is important. If we can afford to send nearly $100,000 through the Cooperative Program each year, we can spend a few hundred to have our voice in how that money is spent. But, in response to a short-term financial need, I think that it can be wise to miss the meeting for one year.

Also, the arrival of their newest child prevented my brother- and sister-in-law from attending, and they are constant members of our party. Phoenix is a lengthy distance from Farmersville. It is an "off" election year. The meeting has good opportunity to be tranquil. I saw nothing listed in the program that I couldn't enjoy as well over the Internet, if not occupied otherwise. As I said, I had many reasons to choose not to attend.

Today the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention have signed an Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation. The statement is a nice indication that people care about or wish to have unity and cooperation. Fine. But I have to admit that I'm impressed little by the drafting of documents and the publication of statements.

Here's what impresses me. By email, text message, Twitter, Facebook, phone call, and indirect contact, more people than I could possibly count have contacted me to try to locate me, set up a meal with me, or express their regret that I am not present. I'm a person who is passionate about ideas. I've passionately advocated for ideas that contradict other people's ideas in our convention. And yet, among those who have looked for me this week have been people from a wide variety of geographical regions, educational pedigrees, ecclesiological convictions, soteriological convictions, ages, and temperaments.

I could live without the speakers. I could live without the travel inconvenience. I could live without the music. I really miss the people. There's my statement of unity and cooperation: These are my friends and my brothers and my sisters. Some of them are dead wrong on a thing or two, but I've not given up hope of convincing them (grin). And ultimately, whether I agree with them or not, I cannot escape the fact that I love them.

If the Lord is willing, I hope to be in New Orleans next year. I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Chairs and Benches Alike Seat Errant Souls

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.

-Vatican I

By this document in 1870 the Roman Catholic Church formally affirmed what it had informally embraced long beforehand: the belief that the Pope, when he speaks ex cathedra (literally, "from the chair"), speaks infallibly. This doctrine was not received universally even among self-identified Roman Catholics (e.g., Hans K√ľng). Of course, Dissenters have rejected the notion of papal infallibility for as long as there have been Dissenters. To be a Dissenter is, ipso facto, to reject papal infallibility. Martin Luther warned of Roman Catholic apologists who "with insolent juggling of words…would persuade us that the pope, whether he be a bad man or a good man, cannot err in matters of faith," in his "Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate."

Asserting infallibility for one's leaders initially seems to be a strong position from which to lead. It stifles dissent, and dissent is rarely productive or efficient while it is actually ongoing. But in the long run, infallibility cripples leadership rather than enabling it. Among the most necessary tasks of leadership is the recognition of past mistakes and their correction. One could adopt the Mormon solution and just presume that nobody is paying close attention—Mormons have an office of living prophet, supposedly delivering authoritative revelations from God, which subsequent prophets then contradict or rescind entirely. If Harold Camping can get away with what he's done, what, in comparison, is a little difference of opinion over whether the moon is inhabited by Quakers?

But the Roman Catholic Church is too large, too well organized, and too closely watched to get away with such tactics. Modern-day popes and priests have to make certain that their teachings comply with former ex cathedra teachings. Therefore, there is no hope for Roman Catholics to correct their errors regarding such things as the immaculate conception or the bodily assumption of Mary unless they correct the error of having embraced papal infallibility first. Even if they come to be 100% aware of having departed from the truth in these matters, they cannot fix what is broken so long as Vatican I's error on papal infallibility shackles them to an errant past.

And yet, harmful as the doctrine of papal infallibility may be, it has done far less danger in recent years than the even more ludicrous notion of judicial infallibility, styled under the name of stare decisis or "precedent." Because of the notion of stare decisis, our court system struggles to right itself when it makes grievous errors.

Of course, judges and legal theorists are like neither Roman Catholics nor Mormons. They do not believe that judges are actually infallible, guided by God in all of their decisions to perfect and timeless wisdom. They know that judicial decisions are often wrong, and occasionally they find a way to reverse themselves. An interesting paper available on the Internet details some of the situations in which the United States Supreme Court has abandoned stare decisis and has overruled its own rulings (see here).

Reversals of "settled law" are, nonetheless, rare. Even the most strident originalists (like Clarence Thomas, maybe…contrast Scalia's characterization of Thomas with Thomas's rejoinder) often assert that legal decisions ought not to be overturned merely because they are wrong. Thoughtful discussions of the doctrine of stare decisis usually quote at some time Justice Brandeis's 1932 dissent in Burnet v. Coronodo Oil & Gas, which reveals poignantly the flawed theory behind stare decisis:

Stare decisis is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right…This is commonly true even where the error is a matter of serious concern.

So, the regnant philosophy of our judicial system is that it is better to be consistently wrong than to be inconsistent in order to be right. The structure of our judicial system is designed in opposition toward one of the most fundamental (and most demonstrably true) tenets of Christianity: The fact that men err and must often repent of their errors.

Consider, as foremost example, the 1973 case Roe v. Wade. When you hear a Supreme Court nominee answering any question about stare decisis, you can just substitute "Roe v. Wade" for "stare decisis" to get the true intent of the question. The pro-abortion crowd do not want to have the debate about whether Roe was right constitutionally or morally; they just want to have a debate over whether it is "settled." For those who think like Brandeis, the important thing is that cases like this one be "settled" even if they are not "settled right."

I believe that there are at least two flaws in Brandeis's thinking.

  1. Brandeis overestimates the degree to which judicial "settling" accomplishes societal "settling."

    If anything, the Roe v Wade decision has accomplished a massive unsettling of American society. Most of the presidential elections since 1980 have turned to some degree upon the unsettling and polarization of American society that Roe caused. When a court makes a political ruling, usurping the legislative function along the way, and then tries to lock in its gains by appeal to stare decisis, the result is to undermine public confidence in the justice system and to unsettle society.

    What is soothing to society is a feeling of trust that those who wield the power of government are committed to doing the right thing, even if doing so should require enduring the embarrassment of correcting one's past mistakes or might inconvenience one's political agenda.

  2. "Settled" is more important than "settled right" to whom?

    Certainly, the victim is more concerned about a ruling being right than being settled. The cause of justice is served better by right decisions than by mere stability. When "settled" is not "settled right," then it is nothing more nor less than obstinacy. Obstinacy in rulers is a key ingredient in the fomenting of rebellion.

    This kind of obstinacy is recognized as poor leadership in every area of human endeavor except jurisprudence. When leaders don't have to revisit their decisions, they feel peace. When those who suffer under bad decisions have no hope that their leaders will revisit their mistakes, they feel at least despair, sometimes anger, and occasionally determination to effect change.

Whether in matters of faith or in matters of law, irreversible rulings are incompatible with liberty. Unless the one delivering the rulings is indeed infallible, irreversible rulings are also contrary to justice and progress. Whether it is the chair of St. Peter or the bench of John Jay, the fallen and fallible human souls who sit in them ought to have enough humility to realize that sometimes they need to be corrected.