Thursday, December 26, 2013

Belonging and Giving

The Southern Baptist Convention faces few questions more important than that of cooperative giving. Not that I'm trying to categorize it as a crisis, the lugubrious tone of some of our prophets and sons of prophets notwithstanding. In the boomiest of boom years, there are still few questions more important for our convention than that of cooperative giving. The voluntary cooperative giving of our churches makes the ministries of the SBC happen. We never take our eyes entirely off of that ball.

Nevertheless, the question does become more acute when we come to it with a spirit of fear. Most of the writing and discussion on the subject of the Cooperative Program in the past decade has revealed that perspective in the author and has engendered it in the average reader. The statistics reveal that we have passed what was the zenith (so far) of Cooperative Program giving as a percentage of church budgets, although we are nowhere near the nadir (which would approach 0% for the first half of our existence). Pressed by frequent comparisons of annualized CP numbers and gloomy forecasts, as well as by the specter of unmet needs and unsent missionaries, among those who care about the Cooperative Program there looms a growing sense of Somebody Has To Do Something.

The connection may not be immediately obvious between this context and Dr. John Mark Yeats's motion in Houston this past summer that Southern Baptists review the membership requirements established in Article III of our constitution (see a mention of this motion buried in this article). Dr. Yeats is a friend and I was immediately interested in his motion simply because he offered it and I know how astute he is regarding the operations of our convention. In fact, I confess that he and I discussed this motion several weeks before he offered it. He is absolutely correct that we have a messenger allocation formula that has not been indexed for inflation in more than a century (although other adjustments have been made to that article). The only thing the status quo has going for it is that it is the status quo. It is time to revise this formula.

I was all the more interested in his motion because we faced the same questions in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention as we initiated the process of reviewing our own governing documents. For more than a year I've sat in committee meetings and participated in discussion from every imaginable perspective on questions related to membership and giving in Southern Baptist associational bodies. I'd like to offer some thoughts that arise out of that experience—convictions about the relationship between belonging and giving among Baptist churches. This motion provides the context in which these thoughts are important for Southern Baptists to consider.

I have observed that when we are concerned about declines in cooperative giving we almost instinctively consider imposing what are the equivalent of membership dues upon our churches. In other words, there is a way of approaching Baptist cooperation by which people give in order to belong. The rationale goes like this: "We have churches who are not doing their fair share. Why should we recognize them as peers alongside those churches who sacrifice in order to carry forward our work? Let's raise the bar! Only those churches who are contributing significantly to the work through their gifts will we consider to be member churches with us."

The present state of our constitution reveals both that we have tried this style of organization and that we have found it to be unprofitable. The constitution reveals that we have tried this style of organization because Article III presently awards additional convention messengers in proportion to contributions. Pay to play. But the nature of this requirement reveals that we were halfhearted from the very beginning concerning this approach. After all, any church can earn a single messenger simply by contributing a penny, as I understand our documents. Also, parallel to the "money track" of earning messengers is the "member track" by which churches can earn messengers simply by having large membership rolls without regard for their cooperative giving. Finally, the ten-messenger cap (no church can have more than ten messengers) also reveals our initial reticence about thoroughgoing pay-to-play Baptist associationalism—we weren't comfortable with the idea that our largest givers would be able to dominate the annual meeting with messengers. This system has served us through many valleys (the Great Depression) and peaks (the 1950s). It even served us well before we had anything resembling the Cooperative Program. But, as Dr. Yeats so accurately brought to our attention, although we have not voted to change this system, it has changed by itself. The fact of monetary inflation has changed it. A gift of $250 is not today what it was a century ago. Down through the years, although we have amended this article multiple times, we have never increased the amount of the gift nor set up automatic indexes for inflation. I submit that this is the case because we have not seen value in this pay-to-play approach, otherwise, we would have given attention to maintaining it.

To be fair, we all know a great many organizations that thrive under the pay-to-play system. For example, some of my readers will be members in a country club. If that's you, then you (or somebody) is paying membership dues for you to belong. Others of you are members of the Evangelical Theological Society. Yet others belong to Ducks Unlimited. Giving in order to belong is certainly not an approach doomed to universal failure.

And yet, organizations that thrive by requiring people to give in order to belong are generally those organizations that offer defined benefits to those members who will pay their dues. The country club offers you golf and the use of their facilities. ETS members get a subscription to JETS. Join Ducks Unlimited today and you'll receive a DU-branded fleece pullover, as well as a magazine subscription and various other member benefits. The Southern Baptist Convention has never been this sort of organization. We exist not to give benefits to member churches but to provide a framework through which they can give without getting anything in return. That's bad business…and great Christianity.

And yet it is easy for those who love the Southern Baptist Convention and who want to see an increase in cooperative giving to be deceived on this very point. It is easy for us to conclude (wrongly) that the SBC does indeed have something of value with which we can reward the good churches who give the most. Three "perks" come to the forefront in these discussions:

  1. We award messengers. As we have already seen, the Southern Baptist Convention awards proportional representation in our annual meeting according to (among other things) gifts made by affiliated churches to convention causes. This is the "perk" of convention membership. It is easy enough, as parliamentary actions go, to ramp up this scheme of proportionality by "charging" more and more to churches before we will award them messenger representation.

    But we ought to ask a question: How many of our member churches actually place much monetary value upon the number of messengers allotted to them? Not many, I think. How many churches actually send all of the messengers to which they are already entitled? Of those who attend, how many of them place a high priority upon being on the floor for the actual votes that we take (apart from those few items which attract some controversial attention)? Considering the fact that a person can attend the meeting as a visitor and can do everything a messenger can do, other than make motions and vote, how likely is any church to follow the (il)logical train of thought: "It's about to cost more to have our ten-messenger allotment to the SBC Annual Meeting: We've got to start giving more!!!"

    I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

  2. We place individuals in positions of responsibility (convention officers, committee members, entity trustees, etc.). Beginning in 2006 Southern Baptists began to emphasize the idea that elected officers and appointees should belong to churches who are giving higher percentages of their undesignated gifts through the Cooperative Program. This is the "perk" of convention leadership.

    Southern Baptist messengers have proven that they will elect whom they wish to elect. Statistics do not appear to play that important of a role in our elections. Any particular year may serve as an exception to that rule, but in my opinion SBC elections are becoming more difficult to predict by ANY metric. I do not observe that CP giving or any other measurable item is beginning to correlate more closely with election to convention office.

    With regard to our appointees as well as our officers, the rationale seems to be (and OUGHT to be, in my opinion) simply that we entrust with the leadership jobs of the convention's business those people whom we believe to be best fitted to discharge them with excellence. This makes sense—as churches we have the greatest confidence about the disposition of our gifts when we have confidence in the abilities of those who are putting them to use.

    I'm not saying that faithfulness to give is unimportant to Southern Baptists when we make these decisions. Rather, I'm simply saying that we have refused to make it the only important factor that we consider when we choose our leadership.

    I do not think it is likely that many churches would make their decisions about how to give based upon this "perk." First, the preponderance of churches in our convention never have anyone in their membership who ever receives any appointment or election to any position of convention leadership. This "perk" simply is not distributed widely enough to motivate many churches. This is particularly true for most of our smaller churches. Our largest churches tend to be enterprises unto themselves. If they want outlets for leadership for their members, they have lots of options. This might be more important to those churches in the middle, but only to those churches in the middle that are meaningfully engaged in the governance of the convention. A lot of those churches are already giving at higher levels.

  3. We hire and educate individuals as a part of the Southern Baptist Convention's family of entities. This is the "perk" of convention employment (or enrollment). Although not all of the gainful employment to be found under the auspices of the SBC and related entities requires membership in a Southern Baptist church, a good bit of it does. If a church successfully becomes an affiliated church, the members of that church become eligible to work for a few employers. In most cities and towns, this factor is irrelevant. In a few key locales, this "perk" is quite important. Also, when a church affiliates with the SBC its members can obtain an education at SBC seminaries at a deep discount.

    It is important to note that this "perk" does not cost the Cooperative Program a penny. That is, entities and seminaries receive the same CP allocations without regard to how many of their employees or students are members of Southern Baptist churches. Although the amount of money going to any particular SBC seminary changes based upon FTEs, this merely affects the way that our six seminaries divvy up a static pie—the aggregate amount of money going to seminary education is fixed by the budget, not by enrollments. The other SBC entities likewise receive their allocations from the CP budget without regard to the details of their workforces. This perk makes our seminaries a little poorer, but that's about the extent of its impact upon convention operations.

    A few churches might be highly motivated by this last "perk." If large portions of your church staff are receiving discounted seminary education by virtue of your church's membership in the SBC, then the church staff might push for that church to meet any heightened requirements for affiliation. Most churches in the convention, however, do not participate in this "perk" at all. Most don't have any members who work for the convention, and as students go, locally funded scholarships would be much cheaper for a church than would high "membership dues" for convention affiliation.

So, I conclude that the Southern Baptist Convention has little to nothing to offer the average Southern Baptist congregation in the way of a "perk" to generate increased cooperative giving. This is why our periodic flirtations with the concept of making churches give in order to belong have been ill-fated, not to consider the fact that they tend to inflame the negative passions of a body of autonomous and independent churches.

An Alternative

Here's what works better: Southern Baptists need to recognize that rather than belonging because we give, we give because we belong. If the Southern Baptist Convention wishes to see increased giving and participation on the part of affiliated churches, it ought to seek to enhance the sense of belonging among SBC churches. Here's why this works:

First, this is how the Christian life works. This is the gospel, right? I give (when I'm writing out my tithe check) not in order to belong to Jesus but BECAUSE I belong to Jesus. Of course, the gift of salvation is valuable enough to command a hefty sum. It is the pearl of great price! But I do not purchase it; I receive it as a gift. Out of my gratitude and my sense of belonging to Jesus I am motivated to give.

Second, this is how our local churches work. I remember how shocked I was as a seminary student to discover that at least some Jewish synagogues assess membership fees upon their member families. What a foreign concept to a Southern Baptist! Voluntarism is the model in our churches, and our members give to our local churches because they belong there. We all know (and bemoan) that a great many of our members give a pittance (or even nothing at all!), but we do not assess membership dues in our churches. Why? Because in a local Southern Baptist church you do not give in order to belong, you give BECAUSE you belong. This is a matter of conviction for us, not just a matter of convenience.

Third, our history has demonstrated that this has been the most successful strategy for promoting cooperative giving. The idea of requiring contributions to secure membership is a feature of the society method rather than the convention method of Baptist cooperation. Beyond the fact that Southern Baptists are distinctively committed to the convention method rather than the society method, one must take note of the fact that the convention method has historically been a revenue juggernaut compared to those Baptist entities eking out an existence by means of the society method.

In our relationships with Jesus, with our local churches, and even with our families, we give because we belong, not the other way around. The best way to get Southern Baptist churches to give more to our cooperative work is to give them a greater sense of belonging together in this work.

How to Cultivate Belonging

"OK, Barber, that's all well and good, but tell us how, exactly, the Southern Baptist Convention is going to make local churches feel a greater sense of belonging?" I'm so glad you asked!

My enthusiasm comes not because I don't see the challenges before us. Although our giving levels have been worse at some moments in our history, I don't think that our sense of belonging has ever been weaker. I'd better hasten to clarify what I mean: We've got great churches, and we get along better than people like to acknowledge in giving us credit for it. I'm not trying to say that we do not belong together or that we can't move forward together. I'm just drawing a conclusion from several measurable phenomena:

  1. An increasing number of our churches are hiding the fact that they are affiliated with us.
  2. The number of conclusions that you can safely draw about a church when I tell you that it is a Southern Baptist church is decreasing. One does not have to believe that diversity is bad to understand that diversity does not build a sense of belonging. Something else has to exist alongside diversity in order to build a sense of belonging among diverse churches. The more diverse the churches are, the more robust that something else has to be.
  3. Recent decades have witnessed the growth of sub-affiliations and dual-affiliations among SBC churches.
  4. Even among those churches that have long, historic relationships with the other churches of the SBC, active participation in those relationships has been declining. That is, the number of people interacting with sister churches at associational meetings, state convention meetings, and national SBC meetings is certainly not growing (and I'm including in this not only the official annual meetings but also the various conferences, camps, and other events that characterize our fellowship).

All of these phenomenon, unless they are offset by items that have somehow escaped my notice, bespeak an erosion of the sense of belonging that ought to characterize a church's membership in the SBC. It is no surprise to me that cooperative giving would not experience stratospheric increases in such an environment. I am aware of the challenges.

Here's Dr. Barber's prescription for increasing that sense of belonging:

First, I recommend that we embrace formally the confessional nature of our convention. Southern Baptist churches have associated with one another organically wherever three factors have overlapped: (1) doctrinal similarity, (2) geographical proximity, and (3) strategic commonality. In this Internet age, geographical proximity is becoming less important, but the cultural, linguistic, and governmental factors that often accompany geographical proximity keep it from going away entirely. Because of the factors that brought about the Conservative Resurgence, many Southern Baptist bodies have explicitly shied away from emphasizing doctrinal similarity as a basis for association. The idea that "doctrine divides" leads panicky denominational employees to try to de-emphasize doctrine in order to keep the base together. This kind of thinking is a poison pill.

After all, look at all of the new sub-affiliations (the 3:16 conference, Founders, IX Marks, etc.) and competing affiliations (Acts 29, Willow Creek, etc.). Most of them emphasize a specific doctrinal viewpoint even stricter than our Baptist Faith & Message. Several of them even adopt some methodological stackpole. Such "divisiveness" has not sapped their strength; it has made them grow!

It is not enough to give churches no reason to leave; we have to give them a reason to belong. That reason cannot be atheological if it will succeed. Churches are, at their essence, theological entities (or else they are not churches). For this reason, the SBC ought to embrace the confessional nature of our convention and do so formally.

Informally, we already are a confessional fellowship of churches. The Baptist Faith & Message already defines the work of our entities and defines the parameters by which churches participate in the convention, even though it does not yet define the parameters by which churches belong to the convention. Informally, a church has to be in agreement with the BF&M in order to participate robustly in convention work.

The time has come to take that next step and to state formally what we practice informally. My state convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, already exists as a confessional fellowship of churches. Although the Baptist Faith & Message need not be the formal statement of faith of a member church, all affiliated churches of the SBTC must, as a condition of affiliation, affirm the BF&M. This has been the approach of the SBTC since its inception, and the convention has grown both in population and in enthusiasm.

To accomplish this in the Southern Baptist Convention may require that we adopt a tiered approach to our statement of faith, identifying some subset of doctrinal ideas in the BF&M that are mandatory upon affiliated churches. After all, the BF&M was not drafted with this particular purpose in mind, and it may not perfectly articulate the items that constitute the bond of belonging among SBC churches. Of course, our periodic amendments of the BF&M could continue to adapt the document for suitable use as our statement of affiliation parameters, but the more we try to do with the BF&M (i.e., we use it as our terms of employment for seminary professors, rules of affiliation for member churches, apologetic document for interdenominational dialogue and for evangelism, etc.), the more difficult we may find that it is to craft a single document that serves all of those purposes equally well.

I'm comfortable with the BF&M exactly as it stands, but I'd prefer a confessional fellowship along the lines of some similar-but-not-identical faith statement than a continued dichotomy between our de facto and de jure parameters for convention affiliation. Accomplishing this would be hard work. The stakes would be high. Done poorly, it could cause trouble. Done well, it could be a B-12 shot in the Southern Baptist arm.

Second, we need to look to the activity of our churches to learn how to improve what we do with our convention.

  • People who don't yet feel a sense of belonging to our local churches but who participate in some of our activities and consume some of our services are called "prospects" at the local church level, not "freeloaders." Our approach to them is generally not to chastise them for not giving enough but to make to them the positive case for belonging. Where belonging takes root, giving will blossom.
  • In our local churches we have learned how to implement a warm welcome for people on the way in. Why don't we do that at the level of the Southern Baptist Convention? Where are the first-time attendee badges for messengers to the SBC? Why not host a meeting for them at the beginning of the annual meeting at which they get to meet all of our entity heads and hear about convention ministries? When was the last time you were given the opportunity to call a newly affiliated pastor and welcome him to the convention in the way that one of our church's members might contact a new member or a first-time visitor and welcome them? What are we really doing to cultivate a sense of belonging in those who are on the way into the SBC?
  • Our local churches know that the cultivation of belonging is a process, not a one-time event. The process takes more or less time for different people, depending upon their personalities and their past experiences. Consider, for example, the ethnic diversity that the Southern Baptist Convention has been cultivating in the makeup of its member churches. We have been able to see the new affiliation of larger numbers of non-anglo SBC churches than at any previous point in our history. But just because those churches have affiliated does not mean that they already feel a full sense of belonging to the convention. Draconian pay-to-play strategies designed with anglo churches in mind (to elicit stronger cooperative giving from them) might have disastrous unintended consequences among those churches, anglo or otherwise, who are on the way into the convention.

Third, we cannot be afraid of losing some churches along the way. We do not need to go on any sort of gleeful purge, but we need to acknowledge the fact that some of the churches who once belonged within the SBC no longer belong there. For example, alongside Dr. Yeats's motion in the article that I linked above you'll find a motion to disfellowship a church in Waco, TX. That church responded to the motion by stating that they long ago considered themselves to have departed the SBC. We know that they no longer belong here. They know that they no longer belong here.

It is an axiom of human relationships: Where everyone belongs, nobody does. Relationships are defined both by inclusion and exclusion. Your relationship with your spouse is both inclusive and exclusive. Your relationship with your local church is both inclusive and exclusive. Both inclusion and exclusion define the nature of the relationship. Skittishness about exclusivity will kill the convention.

Kowtowing to the most exclusive voices in the convention would likewise destroy it, of course. A sensible approach focused upon reasonable doctrinal similarity, geographical proximity, and strategic commonality is the winning move.

Fourth, we certainly do not need to reduce further the opportunities for involvement in the convention. The "Covenant for a New Century" in the 1990s eliminated and consolidated entities, reducing the number of boards and commissions on which Southern Baptists could participate. Doing things like consolidating our entities further (combining our mission boards, for example), whatever else they might accomplish, would result in reduced opportunity for involving individual Southern Baptists. Involvement fosters a sense of belonging. We ought not to dole out positions of responsibility to those who have given no indication of a sense of belonging and commitment to the convention, but we also ought to acknowledge the potential of involvement in convention ministries to deepen and solidify the sense of belonging that participants bring into the experience.

Fifth, we need always to make the phenomenon of belonging in the SBC (that is, the degree to which a person values belonging to the convention and is publicly associated with belonging to the convention family) one factor that we consider when we define success and promote heroes. If the platform at our meetings, the bookshelves at our stores, and the articles in our newsfeeds are dominated by people who do not belong among us, whatever else they communicate verbally, we are nonverbally communicating that belonging does not matter. I'm not advocating isolationism—I'm not calling for this to be the only factor or even the most important factor. But if denominational meetings and publications do not value belonging and commitment to the SBC family, who will?


Rather than writing all of the recommendations that I have just written, I might simply have spouted off this little axiom and left well-enough alone: The best way to cultivate a sense of belonging is to cultivate a reality of belonging. Belonging is more a state of affairs than a sentiment. The sentiment ("I feel like I belong") and the state of affairs ("I really do belong here") can and do get out of sync sometimes, but the mismatch will not long endure. It is in doubling-down on the three elements of our identity as Southern Baptists (doctrinal, geographical, missiological) that we rediscover the reality of why we belong together. Feelings will follow facts, and giving will follow belonging.

For this reason, we in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention have abandoned proportional representation and membership dues. Affiliated churches receive ten messengers, no matter what size they are or how much they give. In place of carrot-and-stick we have a confessional fellowship that cultivates a sense of belonging. This is not only the way forward for Southern Baptists in Texas; it is the way forward for Southern Baptists everywhere, I believe.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I Learned Something about Fasting Today

I'm about to break Matthew 6:16-18 in favor of Matthew 7:12.

OK, I really don't think I'm breaking Matthew 6:16-18, technically speaking, but I do try not to speak much about my personal practice of fasting, neither during the midst of it nor afterwards. But I've learned something about fasting that you might need to know someday, and I think it might be important for me to share it.

First, a little story.

In 2012 at my annual physical (which I had not been having anywhere CLOSE to annually), my doctor notified me that my cholesterol was a little high. He suggested that I consider taking a daily statin. I suggested that he consider taking a hike.

I do not like to take medicine. I certainly do not want to take DAILY medicine. And I'm not going to consent to taking daily medicine until I have explored every possible alternative to taking medicine. That's just me.

So, for a year I worked on losing weight. I was weighing in at something in the neighborhood of 216 when I went to that first appointment. In the ensuing months, I got my weight down to 199. How did I lose weight? Basically, I started to eat two meals a day instead of three. I'm not saying that's the healthy way to do it. That probably wouldn't work for you. But it worked for me.

In October 2013 I went back in for my next annual physical, prepared for plaudits and exuberant congratulations from my doctor. Instead, I received news that absolutely disgusted me: My cholesterol had GONE UP 30 POINTS!!! My doctor informed me that cholesterol medication was no longer a suggestion, but was now a strong recommendation.

How could this be? Sure, I hadn't pulled out all of the stops. I hadn't exercised at all. Although I was eating less, I was still drinking whole milk and eating real butter, etc. I could have imagined only slight improvement, or even no improvement at all, but how on earth could my body be DOING WORSE with regard to cholesterol levels after I had disciplined my eating for a year and had lost so much weight?

My natural inclination when faced with a troubling problem is to research it, so I began to research. What I discovered surprised me a little.

You see, my 2013 physical came just before a time of considerable activity on my part. In the ensuing days I was to make a major presentation at our state convention's annual meeting and then take an unanticipated journey to Africa as a part of our church's Embrace assignment. I was doing important work, as I saw it, and I had a lot on my plate. In light of these upcoming commitments, I had been fasting.

I knew that I would need to fast a little bit for the bloodwork anyway, so I just started early as a part of my prayer life leading up to these events. By the time of my appointment, I had been fasting for around three days.

My lipid levels were so disappointing that I began to search the Internet for any rationale that would justify them. What I found was this: "Effect of prolonged fasting on plasma lipids, lipoproteins and apolipoprotein B in 12 physicians participating in a hunger strike: an observational study. In this little study, "prolonged" fasting (three days, so that's hardly "prolonged" in the biblical sense) led to a significant spike in LDL cholesterol levels.

Armed with this study, I emailed my doctor and requested from him a re-test of my cholesterol levels along with other testing. Today those most recent results came in. Here are the three test results (last year, this year's first test, and the re-test) side by side:

 2012October 2013December 2013

So, here's the moral of this little story: If you practice fasting as a Christian discipline and you receive unexpected medical results from tests taken during a period of fasting, before you take action based upon those results, you might consider obtaining new tests at a time when you are not in the midst of what your doctor would consider "prolonged fasting."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

FBC and TBN: What Paul Crouch's Life Tells Us about Southern Baptists in the Twenty-First Century

Yesterday Paul Crouch, founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), died at the age of 79 (New York Times). Begun as a single Christian TV station in California, TBN is now a family of more than 20 television networks the span the globe. By the way, the Barber family has neither cable nor satellite television, but even our plain over-the-air TV antenna picks up at least five TBN-related channels. It is only barely an overstatement to claim that Paul Crouch founded an empire.

The pervasiveness of his influence, the opulence of his lifestyle, and the particulars of his theology necessarily mean that Christian blogs will heap upon him in equal measures both plaudits and opprobrium in the coming days. To speak specifically of Southern Baptist pastors, although a few have evidenced toward Crouch what might be termed approval or envy, a larger number (in my experience) have chosen their attitudes from among indifference, distaste, or anathema.

And so, confident that others will praise his accomplishments and criticize his failures, I choose to write today, to the best of my abilities, as church historian rather than as pastor-theologian. Furthermore, I write as someone who loves the Southern Baptist Convention, lives within the Southern Baptist Convention, and observes the Southern Baptist Convention. What does Paul Crouch's life tell us about Southern Baptists in the this century?

Paul Crouch, Southern Baptists, and Broadcast Media

In the story of Southern Baptist blogging since 2006, TBN has played a small, uncredited role. In 2008 the network broadcast a panel discussion consisting of Richard Hogue, Scott Camp, Dwight McKissic, and Dwaine Miller. The episode featured a characterization of non-Pentecostalism as "silly" (especially the views of Dr. Paige Patterson on the subject) and concluded with panel participants looking into the camera and imploring with Southern Baptist pastors to be converted to the gospel of Pentecostalism.

Also, a number of prominent Southern Baptists—influential pastors and denominational employees alike—have appeared on TBN programs in recent years. Perhaps the most recent is Ed Stetzer, who (if I understood his tweets correctly) has landed something of a repeating gig on the network. Paul Crouch and the network that he founded exerts some influence upon even the Southern Baptist Convention.

Whenever something like this happens, I hear about it from some of my friends. "Why are our SBC leaders appearing on TBN? Don't they realize what damage the Name-It-Claim-It Prosperity Gospel has done to American Christianity? Aren't they dragging the reputation of our entire convention down into the theological gutter when they do that?"

The question "Why are our SBC leadership appearing on TBN?" may be an interesting question, but here's what I think is a far more interesting one: Why isn't there anywhere else for them to appear? Southern Baptists leaders do not choose TBN from among some larger universe of successful Christian broadcast media empires because they prefer Paul Crouch's theology; if they want to appear on widely viewed Christian television, there simply are not many other options available to them. Paul Crouch monopolized the market.

Sometimes it seems to me that Southern Baptists aren't self-aware enough to mourn the loss of the Radio and Television Commission (RTVC). Of course, the RTVC was lost (in terms of hope that it would have any significant impact) long before it was dissolved. Whether the failure of the RTVC was a result of insufficient funding or insufficient dreaming I am not able to say. Perhaps it was a doomed venture from the start—Paul Crouch succeeded by way of entrepreneurial chutzpah rather than by means of a committee. But Southern Baptists never produced a media mogul—nobody but Pentecostals ever did. Whatever broadcast media hopes we had, we pinned them all to the RTVC and buried them with it in 1995's "Covenant for a New Century."

Dream with me for a moment: How would the story be different if Southern Baptists had somehow succeeded in Christian television? From the New York Times article linked above, "In 2010, donations to TBN totaled $93 million. The Crouches had his-and-her mansions in Newport Beach, Calif., and used corporate jets valued at $8 million and $49 million each." Certainly Southern Baptists would have exercised better stewardship than this. How might Southern Baptist missionary enterprises have been fueled by a successful SBC media venture? Southern Baptists would be in a position to harness the airwaves to promote responsible, sound doctrine rather than the epidemic of error for which TBN has too often served as a vector.

Why have we Southern Baptists failed so miserably in our feeble attempts to harness radio and television for our ministries? One can argue that Pentecostal worship is far more entertaining to watch than is the average Southern Baptist worship service. And yet even the Pentecostalest (I just made up that word) of Pentecostal worship services isn't all that entertaining either. TBN's stock in trade has been the studio program rather than the broadcast of worship services. Southern Baptists, who more than most ought not to have depended upon their worship services to drive ratings, could hardly think of anything to do with a TV camera other than to point it at themselves while they were preaching (I'm speaking here not so much about the folks who worked at RTVC as about SBC pastors).

Also, I think that TBN has understood and has (MIS-?)applied a truth that David understood and employed in the composition of the Psalms. The Hebrews sang Psalms prior to the life of David. David didn't invent the psalm. But during the prolific life of David the Hebrews began to sing psalms about every facet of life. Aaron and Miriam sang in times of celebration, but David sang in times of despair, or even in times of personal humiliation and contrition. David changed worship forever when he taught God's people how to sing honestly but hopefully to God even on the darkest of days. TBN, likewise, has spoken a word of hope to the poor, lonely, and downtrodden. Even if it has predominantly been a word of false hope motivated by an avaricious plot for self-enrichment, it has proven to be more than a match for "Seven Steps to a Superhero Faith" when it comes to what the world would rather watch on television.

If there is a bright spot in all of this for Southern Baptists, it is the promising strength that Southern Baptists have shown in the realm of new media. Of course, the apparatus of the convention has generally alternated between belittlement and toleration of blogging and Twitter (after all, the SBC is Microsoft, not Apple). But I think all of that is slowly changing, and it needs to change. New media is more propositional and less visual than TV. Twitter does not lend itself well to sermonizing, simply because of length. The SBC is well-poised to contribute solid content in the world of new media, and it has shown in the success of SBCers online. Southern Baptists have some rockstars and some potential rockstars in the realm of Christian new media. If we will be deliberate and visionary about it, we may find ourselves doing better in the coming media age than we did in the last one.

Paul Crouch and SBC International Missions

Of course, there is a wide world for whom their 2013 is our 1993, where TBN rather than Twitter is the new media. A few years ago I taught Church History in Kenya. I encountered there a student who presumed that I was a prosperity gospel preacher (of which he did not approve) simply because I was an American. You see, all he had ever encountered of American Christianity was TBN, which is beamed by satellite around the world. Likewise, just a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Africa defending the Christian orthodoxy of the Assemblies of God and of other tongues-speaking Christians against the attacks of a black Christian pastor (my friends will appreciate the delicious irony in this). For this man, his predominant exposure to American Christianity (and charismatic Christianity in general) had been TBN-related networks.

And so, I think we must acknowledge about Paul Crouch that he has affected the way that the entire world sees not only him but also us. The average member of a Southern Baptist FBC Somewhere may see a mighty chasm between his church and TBN, but to a tribal animist in the DRC, we're all the same thing. My experience with international missions is limited, but from what I've seen so far, Crouch's influence harms the broader Christian missionary effort. Missionaries face the challenge of getting themselves out from under the shadow of broadcast charlatans without inaugurating an internecine shooting war among evangelical denominations in areas where the Christian movement is young and fragile.

The Media Empire and the Local Church

Paul Crouch equated the growth of his business enterprise with the growth of the Kingdom. While reflecting upon the expansion of his network into more cities, Crouch said "All over the country, [people are] coming to know Jesus.…Church, I think we ought to rejoice ’cause the whole world is getting saved.”

And yet, Crouch's ascendancy has not resulted in any measurable growth of Christianity "all over the country." Worldwide, the statistics for Crouch's brand of Pentecostalism are rosier than in the USA, depending upon who is doing the counting and whom they are willing to count. But setting aside the question of statistics for a moment, there's no doubt that whatever the details of Crouch's ecclesiology, Crouch figured prominently in it. There are those who erroneously think that all of their countrymen are Christians because of their citizenship. It is an equally grievous error to think that all of one's customers are Christians because of their contributions.

Southern Baptists did indeed miss an opportunity by failing to take better advantage of radio and television. I'm more comfortable with making that mistake, however, than with the idea that we might have diluted our focus upon the local church in order to pursue broadcast media domination. Jesus Christ did not found a television network. We have no promise that TBN (or any network we might have started) will prevail over the gates of Hell.

It is therefore most accurate, if we will evaluate the contributions of Paul Crouch to the Kingdom of God (or of anyone else), to ask ourselves not how many nations his satellites reach nor how much money he made nor how many Christian celebrities have occupied a couch on his studio stage, but instead, we must ask ourselves whether churches are healthier and more numerous because of TBN. Because Crouch's doctrinal errors are of sufficient gravity to call his contributions into question, I would struggle to conclude that Crouch has made churches healthier through his endeavors, although the aftermath of the man's death is perhaps not an appropriate time to indulge in excessive criticism of his life's work.

Indeed, I only mention what I consider to be this critical failure on Crouch's part to make this appeal to Southern Baptists: Whatever we will do with new media—be it Twitter or YouTube—we must be careful to focus our efforts upon the strengthening and planting of local churches rather than upon the accumulation of personal wealth or the vicissitudes of fame. To the degree that we can harness media to the benefit of local churches we will have done something lasting and worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reflections upon Matthew 13:10-17

And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

Since I first encountered it in childhood, this exchange between Jesus and His disciples has fascinated me. In recent years it has accomplished more than that: Jesus' words recorded here have served as a corrective against some of the contemporary Christian writings that I have read and have served as a roadblock on the broad highway that leads away from humility concerning how much we truly comprehend about the Lord. The areas of insight provided by this passage are varied.


"Teach like Jesus," people say. "People will understand you better when you teach like Jesus. Jesus used stories so that His teaching was accessible to everyone. Use more stories. Be more narrative. Teach like Jesus, and you'll bring the world to Christ." I'm indebted to Dr. Adam Dooley for having finally put all of this together for me: Yes, Jesus taught in parables. But He told us why He did so, and His reasons were 180° from the reasons the people give today. Jesus used parables in order to be MISunderstood, not in order to be understood. Parables were a device by which He achieved desired opacity, not transparency.

And, indeed, now that I'm a parent, I see this all the more clearly. There is nothing quite so easy to understand as a simple, direct command. Haven't we all had the experience of trying to lead our children down the pleasant path of a good didactic anecdote, parenting in the path of Sheriff Andy Taylor, using homespun narrative to make some sagacious point—only to find in the end that our children missed the point entirely? Beating around the bush can provide good diplomacy in our relationships, but if the primary objective is to be understood, nothing trumps succinct frankness.

After all, you memorized a2+b2=c2, right? Not the whole story of how Pythagoras came to understand the ratio among the sides of a right triangle or the detailed proof of why the formula is true, right? Because, even if occasionally it is less satisfying as an experience, there is nothing more successful than the approach that says, "Here's the formula: Do this and don't worry about why."

So, whenever I use an illustration in my preaching (and I'm going to continue to do so), I do well to keep in mind that illustrations can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied. Good preaching will involve working hard to prevent those bad outcomes for those who hear my sermon illustrations. Stories and parables are, after all, a blessing to those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. But I should never presume that my sermon is clearer or more helpful just because it has stories in it. Illustrations generally provide entertainment and rapport; exegesis provides clarity.

After all, politicians use LOTS or stories, all the more when they want to keep you from understanding fully just what it is that they are saying.


This passage should give pause to people who get too enthusiastic about their Arminianism. Here you have Christ working to ensure that some people do not hear and understand His message. I think there is room in the passage to wonder whether by the past behavior of the Pharisees and Sadducees they earned for themselves this treatment (after all, Jesus didn't start His ministry this way, and however you understand the "Unpardonable Sin," Jesus was certainly condemning these detractors for it), but undeniable is the depiction of God Incarnate working to ensure that these enemies of the cross do not see, hear, understand, and return. This reads more like reprobation than mere preterition.

This passage should also give pause to people who get too enthusiastic about their monergism. Jesus' actions here are something of an antidote to the way that some people extrapolate the wording of Ephesians 2. You know what I'm talking about: "Apart from the regenerating work of Christ, people are dead in their sins—DEAD I tell you! What can a dead man do to bring himself back to life? NOTHING!!!!!!! And so, salvation is entirely the work of God without any response or activity on the part of the corpse that He quickens."…

…In which case it wouldn't have been necessary for Jesus to do anything at all to obscure His preaching from the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Don't get me wrong: This passage is shot through with the doctrine of election. There are those to whom it has been given to understand. There are those to whom God gives more until they have an abundance, and there are those from whom God takes away everything. There is the blessing of God upon those with the eyes to see. The sovereign hand of God is hard at work here.

But what is also part-and-parcel of this passage is a presumption that the external work of preaching the good news of the Kingdom is not without efficacy. There is a presumption that Jesus' public preaching of the Kingdom, apart from any private, inward, regenerating action of the Spirit, is a dangerous thing to put into the hearing of anyone whom God might have determined not to save. If they will remain lost and condemned, it is expedient for Christ to obscure the good news from their plain hearing.

Living in Post-Ascencion Christianity

Jesus spoke of the blessing that God had given to these disciples by permitting them to live during the days of Jesus' earthly ministry. Abraham and Moses and Isaiah looked longingly toward those days in Galilee. Peter and James and John were more blessed than they.

But take careful note of the basis of that blessing: The blessing comes in the knowing of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. Not in being there while Jesus fed multitudes and walked on water and healed the sick and raised the dead. Simply in understanding the truth that He taught.

The truth of the gospel and the presence of Jesus among us was always more important than a front-row seat for the miracle show.

And yet the truth remains equally well for us as for them. We find Jesus talking about the relative advantage of the disciples over those who came before them; but we never read that Jesus called the disciples more blessed than those who would come after them. No, quite to the contrary, we read that WE are even MORE blessed than they were, we who believe without having seen (John 20:29).

We devout Christians live with a temptation toward Era Envy. We tend to think we have missed out because we weren't born in first-century Judea. But to hear Jesus tell it, our opportunity to know the truth Jesus taught and to experience the presence of Jesus through the gospel—and to do so without the crutch of His bodily presence beside us—makes us most blessed of all.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Relative Unimportance of Redefining Marriage

Allyson D. Nelson Abrams has resigned from her pastorate at Zion Progress Baptist Church under pressure after she got married to another woman (also a pastor in an African-American church) in Iowa. Abrams was previously married to a man, whom she had divorced. She was more than just a mere pastor—she also resigned from the secretariat of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors as well as the editorship of the official magazine of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Abrams kept the marriage a secret at first, which was easier to do since the ceremony took place far away from Detroit. Michigan has not yet redefined marriage; Iowa has. This week New Jersey became the fourteenth state to legalize same-sex marriage, and as more states move in this direction, the states that do not recognize same-sex marriages will nonetheless find that every same-sex couple in the state who wishes to obtain a marriage license will have one. Marriage is being redefined for us all.

Don't let your sloppy reading of the title of this post fool you (OK…so I was actually TRYING to fool you in order to lure you in). I think that the redefinition of marriage is something quite important in an absolute sense. What makes the redefinition of marriage RELATIVELY unimportant is that something far MORE important is happening alongside this phenomenon—the redefinition of Christianity. Now, understand me carefully—although the redefinition of marriage is accelerating the redefinition of Christianity, it is more the effect than the cause of it. The redefinition of Christianity has been ongoing for decades now, and it is an unjust and dishonest violence done to the true faith.

Christianity Genuinely Defined: The Standard of the Revealed Christ

None of us has the right either to define or to redefine Christianity. Christianity was defined by Christ (hence the name). Christianity is neither more nor less than the way of following Jesus Christ. All that follows anyone or anything other than Christ, be it relatively malignant or benign, is not Christianity. Germ theory and inoculation, for example, I consider to be good things. I would not, however, call them Christian. Jesus had nothing to say about these things, not in any portion of scripture. I would encourage my children to be vaccinated, to drink pasteurized milk, and to use hand-sanitizer after a visit to the zoo, but I would not tell them that Christ commands any of these things.

Jesus Christ communicated His way to us by means of His apostles through the writings of the New Testament. You know not a single thing about Jesus that you did not learn by way of this medium, which He Himself chose. In the teachings that he gave to us through the apostolic witness, Jesus communicated that the way of following Him was also the way of accepting the writings of the Hebrew scriptures—the Old Testament—as the permanent and thoroughly trustworthy Word of God, which Christ's teachings make plain to us in ways that we do not properly understand the Old Testament when reading it alone. And so the black letters are the way of Jesus just as much as the red letters are. Why? Because the red letters tell us so, among other reasons.

Jesus' teachings during His earthly ministry as preserved for us in the New Testament were not all-encompassing, but they were quite extensive and provocative. Some of what Jesus said was popular in the first century; some of it was so unpopular as to provoke harsh reaction from people (including, at times, his own apostles). Today very little has changed: Some of what Jesus said is popular today, while some of it could hardly be less popular. His is a message of grace that only makes sense in juxtaposition to the severe things He taught about condemnation: Love revealed all the more starkly by its arrival on the heels of the just and damning judgments that He pronounced.

Unmistakeable in all that Christ has communicated to us is His individuality and His sovereign rulership over us. He is Christ the Lord, the Lord Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord whose coming we anticipate but cannot predict, the Lord who is faithful, the Lord of peace, the One Lord through whom we exist. Most frequently, the New Testament simply refers to him as "the Lord" without any need for further modification. There is no Parliament in Heaven; there is only a King. Christian ethics—hard test cases notwithstanding—is predominantly not about our deciding at all, but about our obeying (or rebelling). The worst perversion of the study and practice of Christian ethics occurs when, along the way, we make ourselves the judge rather than the bailiff or the accused, as the circumstance may dictate. We do not get to decide what Christianity teaches about what is right or what is wrong, because we are not the Lord. The way of Christ is the way of submission.

Indeed, even someone who does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord ought nevertheless to be able to acknowledge that Christ in his person and work in history defines Christianity. We do not get to decide what Christianity teaches about same-sex marriage any more than we get to decide what Plotinus taught about the nature of the Demiurge. What Jesus said and what Plotinus said simply are, and we do not bring them into being. We can dispute with either of them, but have wronged either of them when we begin to obscure them in favor of what we wish they had said. Accept Jesus or reject Him; do not edit Him.

Christianity Fraudulently Redefined: The Standard of the Rights-Bearing Interpreter

And yet Allyson D. Nelson Abrams regards Christianity differently. She attempts to reconcile her way of sexual behavior with the way of Christianity by appeal to a bizarre interpretation of a story in the life of Jesus (more on that later). Knowing that this is a, shall we say, innovative hermeneutical exercise, Abrams declares "People have a right to interpret scripture whatever way they please." And it is in that statement, rather than in her marital vows or her serving in the office of pastor although she is biblically unqualified to do so in at least three ways, that the redefinition of Christianity is unmasked: "People have a right to interpret scripture whatever way they please."

Well, no, Ms. Abrams, they do not.

And the thing about it is, liberals know that this is true when their polemics suit them to admit it. Consider the HuffPo's article on Senator Chuck Schumer's Being "Appalled" at Senator Ted Cruz's use of the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham during his recent filibuster. Schumer and a whole host of critics on the left were certainly not of the opinion that people have a right to interpret Dr. Seuss whatever way they please. No, they pointed out—and rightly so—that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was a political liberal who probably would have supported Obamacare, and that Geisel's point in Green Eggs and Ham was probably one more in line with what Democrats were trying to do that night than with what Cruz was trying to do.

Geisel may have been wrong, but Geisel was Geisel.

And so, when it suits them to do so, the left-leaning crowd in America are capable of recognizing the importance of authorial intent and the wrongful violence that is done when people take unto themselves the right to redefine people who cannot defend themselves from it. We have a right to define our own views; people do not have a right to redefine and interpret recklessly the views of someone else. The wrongfulness of that approach applies just as well to Jesus and the New Testament as it does to Dr. Seuss and Green Eggs and Ham.

And so, there is no such thing as a right to interpret scripture whatever way you please.


But don't we all have to interpret scripture every time that we read it?

Well, of course we do. Just as we have to interpret speed-limit signs every time we read one of those. Just as we have to interpret laws regulating warfare, manslaughter, and murder when we read them. But the inevitability of our job as interpreters does not amount to a right to discharge that duty any old way that we please. I do not disagree that there is always interpretation; rather, I simply assert that there is good and bad interpretation, and that these categories are objectively recognizable and amount to something different from "interpretations that suit me and interpretations that don't."

But isn't the right of private interpretation of the Bible the central tenet of our cherished religious liberty?

Absolutely not. There's all the difference in the world between, one the one hand, "People have a right to interpret scripture whatever way they please," and, on the other hand, "Government has no right to enforce rightful interpretation of scripture." A widespread conceit is the idea that government steers away from religious matters because matters of faith are inherently uncertain. This was not the rationale offered when Roger Williams brought religious liberty to Rhode Island, blazing a philosophical trail for the nation to follow later. Rather than relativism, Williams's argument was based upon limited government—government is not authorized to adjudge matters of faith."

Our legal system does not confer a right to private interpretation. Rights and legalities do not align precisely. Not all that is legal is your right, and this is why laws can change. You can, at present, drive eighty-five miles per hour on the new tollway around Austin, TX. Doing so, however, is not your right, and it may be the wrong thing to do if driving at that speed endangers the lives of others. If the government should lower that speed limit to 75 next week, it would not have infringed upon your rights.

I could take all of my trash out to sea and dump it there (as, indeed, New York City used to do with its sewage sludge). The ocean lies outside of all national jurisdictions, and therefore no national authority has the scope of jurisdiction to declare my action illegal. This does not mean, however, that I have a right to dump trash into the ocean. If I could build my own spaceship, refuse to "flag" it as a US vessel, land on the moon, and murder someone there, I propose that no governmental authority on Earth would have the authority to prosecute me for it, but that would not make murder my right.

In the same way, the government of the United States does not have the authority to govern my interpretation of scripture, but that doesn't amount to some cockamamie right for me to make the teachings of Jesus mean anything I want them to mean. This is true, we believe as Christians, because there is a superseding jurisdiction that applies to my ocean-going trash dump, my moon murder, and my shoddy handling of the words of Jesus—for those things I must answer to God.

There is no "right to interpret scripture whatever way [I] please" precisely because I must answer to Jesus for the words that I have put into His mouth. If I would redefine Christianity, I must explain that to Christ.

But has Christianity really been defined with regard to same-sex marriage? Jesus never said anything against same-sex marriage, did He? In fact, didn't I read on the Internet the other day that Jesus affirmed a same-sex couple?

Actually, with regard to same-sex marriage Jesus is very clearly on the record. Hear His words recorded in Matthew 19:4-5:

Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?"

Jesus, speaking about marriage, said that a man (ἄνθρωπος "anthropos", any adult male) shall hold fast to his woman (there is no Greek word for "wife" as there is in English; the word here is γυνή "gyne" from which we get the word "gynecologist" and which simply means any adult female). Jesus said that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

But just for those who like to engage in creative hermeneutics who might suggest that Jesus spoke in terms of man and woman simply because that was the only terminology and context that was conveniently available to Him, please note what He said immediately before this. Jesus tied the male-female design of marriage to God's intention in the creation of human beings as sexed, gendered beings. From the beginning, God created us "male" (ἄρσην "arsen") and female (θῆλυς "thelus"). Jesus tied the nature of marriage to the male-female nature of human biology as chosen by God in creation.

As teachings from Jesus come, they don't get any more specific and clear than this. God made human beings as males and females, and therefore a man should join with a woman and become one flesh in marriage.

Abrams's objective is to find some excuse to ignore what Jesus said that day. Joining with her are people from a wide swath of liberal and culture-chasing Christianity who are desperate to find a way to redefine Christianity to make it compatible with changing American sexual ethics. How will they escape Jesus' plain teaching?

Abrams thinks she's found a way out in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, in an episode in the life of Jesus in which He healed a centurion's servant. This bizarre and dishonest exercise in hermeneutical legerdemain has become popular in recent days. Abrams addresses it only obliquely, but you can see it in greater detail here.

According to this approach

In the original language, the importance of this story for gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians is much clearer. The Greek word used in Matthew’s account to refer to the servant of the centurion is pais. In the language of the time, pais had three possible meanings depending upon the context in which it was used. It could mean “son or boy;” it could mean “servant,” or it could mean a particular type of servant — one who was “his master’s male lover.” Often these lovers were younger than their masters, even teenagers.

Is it possible the pais referred to in Matthew 8 and Luke 7 was the Roman centurion’s male lover? Let’s look at the biblical evidence.

The Bible provides three key pieces of textual and circumstantial evidence. First, in the Luke passage, several additional Greek words are used to describe the one who is sick. Luke says this pais was the centurion’s entimos doulos. The word doulos is a generic term for slave, and was never used in ancient Greek to describe a son/boy. Thus, Luke’s account rules out the possibility the sick person was the centurion’s son; his use of doulos makes clear this was a slave. However, Luke also takes care to indicate this was no ordinary slave. The word entimos means “honored.” This was an “honored slave” (entimos doulos) who was his master’s pais. Taken together, the three Greek words preclude the possibility the sick person was either the centurion’s son or an ordinary slave, leaving only one viable option — he was his master’s male lover.

A second piece of evidence is found in verse 9 of Matthew’s account. In the course of expressing his faith in Jesus’ power to heal by simply speaking, the centurion says, “When I tell my slave to do something, he does it.” By extension, the centurion concludes that Jesus is also able to issue a remote verbal command that must be carried out. When speaking here of his slaves, the centurion uses the word doulos. But when speaking of the one he is asking Jesus to heal, he uses only pais. In other words, when he is quoted in Matthew, the centurion uses pais only when referring to the sick person. He uses a different word, doulos, when speaking of his other slaves, as if to draw a distinction. (In Luke, it is others, not the centurion, who call the sick one an entimos doulos.) Again, the clear implication is that the sick man was no ordinary slave. And when pais was used to describe a servant who was not an ordinary slave, it meant only one thing — a slave who was the master’s male lover.

The third piece of evidence is circumstantial. In the Gospels, we have many examples of people seeking healing for themselves or for family members. But this story is the only example of someone seeking healing for a slave. The actions described are made even more remarkable by the fact that this was a proud Roman centurion (the conqueror/oppressor) who was humbling himself and pleading with a Jewish rabbi (the conquered/oppressed) to heal his slave. The extraordinary lengths to which this man went to seek healing for his slave is much more understandable, from a psychological perspective, if the slave was his beloved companion.

Thus, all the textual and circumstantial evidence in the Gospels points in one direction. For objective observers, the conclusion is inescapable: In this story Jesus healed a man’s male lover.

Never heard anything like that before? Neither has twenty centuries of Christianity.

But let's take a look at these claims:

  1. First, does παῖς mean "the master's male lover"? The website cites two sources for this conclusion: Dover's Greek Homosexuality from Harvard University Press and Sergent's Homosexuality in Greek Myth from Beacon Press. These two sources both originate within the past thirty years, both come from Boston, and both are, essentially, homosexual advocacy pieces. These aren't exactly in the category of objective standard Greek reference works.

    But what happens when you DO go to standard Greek reference works? You find that the TDNT does not mention "the master's male lover" as an interpretive option. The BDB does not mention it, either. Louw-Nida does not list it. This interpretation does not appear in standard Greek reference works, although they do include the standard terminology related to homosexuality in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

  2. Second, does the use of the adjective ἔντιμος suggest a romantic relationship between the centurion and the servant? Again, none of the standard Greek reference works give any indication in this direction. The source cited is an article by Donald Mader in the 1998 work Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy. Again, this is an advocacy piece about homosexuality, not a scholarly piece about the Greek language.

    The word simply means "honored." The English translations get this translation precisely right. And the misinterpretation of this verse by people like Abrams reveals poignantly a key feature of the homosexuality movement—the wrongful sexualization of friendship and other emotions in favor of homosexuality. If David and Jonathan were friends who loved each other, then they had to be homosexuals who were loving each other sexually. If this centurion honored this (underage) slave, then he must have honored him because of sexual favors that he was receiving from him in a pedophilic relationship.

    The homosexual obsession is but one symptom of a culture that makes sex everything.

  3. Finally, although these interpretations are ludicrous on their face, what if they weren't? What would it mean? There's no doubt that the servant was the slave. Since Jesus healed him, does that mean that Jesus approves of slavery? There's no doubt that the servant was a minor. Since Jesus healed him, and if this was a sexual relationship, does that mean that Jesus approves of pedophilia?

    The only thing we can conclude from this story is that Jesus is opposed to sickness and approves of faith.


Homosexual advocates are certainly not the only people who have redefined Christianity. Not at all. And they do not pose any threat to Christianity, because Jesus is not so weak as to be damaged by our infidelity or to require our defense. But although we need not feel threatened by this effort to redefine Christianity, we nonetheless ought to be clear about it. To redefine Christianity is always to rebel against Christ. Nothing is more important than that.

If every state in the United States should redefine marriage, Christianity can survive—no, thrive!—in that environment. The Kingdom of our God, after all, can be differentiated from the kingdoms of this world, as of yet. In contrast, the redefinition of Christianity is something worthy of our most strident defense. May God give us the courage to undertake the task.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I'm Thrilled That You Can Earn Your MDiv Online…Now, Please Don't

I'm delighted to have played some tiny role in rolling out the myriad online educational options available to Southern Baptist seminarians today. (Excursus: My role? Other people dreamed it up, did all of the work to plan the specifics, climbed the mountain that is accreditation, named it, packaged it, priced it, sold it, and implemented it. I said "Aye" in a committee meeting.) It is a wonderful and amazing world in which a missionary kid living in Bhutan can earn a Masters of Divinity degree at SWBTS. Thank you, Lord, for redeeming the Internet to do a little good alongside the torrent of bad.

Now that these degrees are available, I'm writing to beg you not to avail yourself of them unless it is impossible (and I don't just mean "inconvenient") for you to attend an actual bricks-and-mortar seminary campus. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Most people don't learn as well online: Really, I'm just nearly comfortable saying NOBODY learns as well online, but having received a face-to-face education of some significant quality, I've learned to be wary of universals and superlatives.

    I'm thankful for online classes because I'm personally indebted to them. I would never have been able to take German face-to-face at SWBTS. I was in my first year at FBC Farmersville. Taking German would've required that I drive to Fort Worth daily. Not possible. So I took it online. I did well enough in German to pass the tests and gain admission into the Ph.D. program. In fact, I did well enough to read books and articles in German for a lot of my papers.

    And yet, out of the languages that I have studied (French, German, Greek, and Hebrew), there's no question that German is the weakest of them all. The fact that I took German online is a significant factor in that reality. I'm thankful that I was able to get German online, but I sure am happy that I didn't get anything else that way. Whatever you learn in an online class, you're probably not going to know it as well as you will know something you've learned in a classroom setting.

  2. A seminary education is about more than just the mere accumulation of facts. Last night I sat in Dr. Matt Queen's Personal Evangelism class at SWBTS. For the first fifteen minutes of the class session, I heard student after student as they told stories about the people with whom they had shared the gospel as a part of the "Second Mile" campaign on the SWBTS campus. Dr. Queen and a whole host of SWBTS faculty are out with students walking door-to-door throughout this region of Fort Worth sharing the gospel. That's difficult to replicate in an online class.

    There's the experience of chapel. As a student, the chapel experience at SWBTS blessed me many times. No, not every time, but many times! The online student is missing the entire environment of seminary. I think that environment, even for the commuting student that I always was, is quite an important aspect of a seminary education. Think twice—think twenty-two times—before you relegate that aspect of seminary education away to unimportance.

  3. Am I crass to mention networking? There's the network of friends you will meet in your classes. My seminary friendships endure to this day. For example, I commuted to SWBTS with Ken Miller, who now works at NAMB. I sat in seminars with Joe Early, James Egan, David Goza, Greg Tomlin, Rex Butler, Scott Maze, and a whole host of others who remain my friends to this day.

    But they are more than just friends. They are also the peer group to whom I often turn when I don't know what to do or when I just want to learn to do something better than I am doing it. Being a part of this cohort is an important part of my life.

    Beyond that, there are the relationships that I built with professors. I occasionally get to sit down to lunch with James Leo Garrett. I have an ongoing friendship with Malcolm Yarnell. I have gleaned much from the many who have taught me, and by the blessing of God, those gleanings have extended beyond my time with them in their classrooms.

    I could not name a single person with whom I shared an online class. Furthermore, when a church comes to a professor and asks for a recommendation of someone to fill their pulpit, I don't think that they very often reply, "You know, student 'godrules1384' in my Introduction to Philosophy of Religion class seems like a really sharp guy." I think they're going to mention someone into whose eyes they have looked.

  4. Enrollment Does Not Equal Graduation: Online ENROLLMENT is through the roof, not just in theological education at places like Liberty but also in the broader educational world at places like the University of Phoenix. But how many of those online enrollees make it all the way through to graduation? Not nearly as many as you might think. The dirty little secret of Internet education is that such an astounding number of people quit long before they graduate. Easy in; easy out.

    Whether it should or should not, the obstacle of moving to a seminary campus to pursue theological education is a testing point for many people with regard to how serious they are about their calling to ministry. The person who has left behind a job, sold a house, uprooted a family, and relocated to Fort Worth is a person who is committed. In moments of horrific sacrifice and despondency, that person can reach the point where it is easier to press forward and finish than it is to go back. Not so for the online student. It is so, so easy just to quit or postpone (indefinitely).

    Burn the ships, my friend! Burn the ships! Climb out onto the limb. No turning back; no turning back!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reflections on the Zimmerman Verdict

Tonight we learn the George Zimmerman has been acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin. The verdict is just minutes old, and we now wait to learn how people across the country and around the world will react.

As for me, I cannot help but think about Habakkuk. Yes, perhaps it is a strange sort of place for a mind to go from Sanford, FL, but Habakkuk perhaps has something to say to all of my friends tonight. I have friends, you see, who will decry this verdict, certain that a man got away not only with murder, but further with racially motivated profiling and a hate-crime. I have other friends who will celebrate this verdict, confident that a man who was merely defending his home and his neighborhood from a criminal was not punished for standing his ground.

All of my friends have some ground to stand on in their speculations, because all of these things happen. People in our world commit crimes motivated by pure racial hatred. People in our world get away scot-free with murder. People in our world presume guilt or innocence based upon nothing more than a person's appearance. We stereotype. People in our world kill other people simply because they don't like the group of which they are a part. This doesn't just happen occasionally. Somewhere in the world it happens every day. We've probably all seen Mississippi Burning, and that film cannot be categorized as "fiction."

People in our world who are innocent get swept up into witch hunts. People in our world sometimes find the truth and save the day using politically incorrect means like profiling or yes, even waterboarding. We remind ourselves that the ends do not justify the means precisely because sometimes unsavory means lead to the right ends. People in our world sometimes find themselves, though they are entirely innocent, with neither a good alibi nor a handy corroborating witness nor—what you've seen on television notwithstanding—a grain of pollen in their coat collar from the betula papyrifera that only grows in a three-block range in this particular city. People get railroaded, or sometimes they just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We've probably all seen The Shawshank Redemption, and although that film actually is a work of fiction, it is certainly not a work of fantasy.

Oddly enough, my groups of friends who will arrive at such different conclusions on this topic are actually searching for the same thing: justice. There are a few things that we all know about justice. And I mean all of us—every human being knows these things:

  1. We know that, even if justice may cut against us from time to time, we have a mysterious desire and need for it.
  2. We know our desire and need for justice is among the more compelling reasons why we endure having a government.
  3. We know that, however well or poorly our government delivers justice, none of us always receive it perfectly, nor has anyone ever.
  4. We know that, although all governments are imperfect with regard to delivering justice, they are not all EQUALLY imperfect. Our trial-by-jury system just may be the least-worst way out there.

But it seems to me that there is a fifth thing that we THINK we know about justice: We're pretty sure that we know what it is. That is, we tend to display a pretty strong self-confidence that we will know justice when we see it.

And that's why I'm thinking about Habakkuk tonight. If there's anything we ought to learn from Habakkuk, it is that we should be a little less confident that we would know justice when we see it. Oh, Habakkuk saw INJUSTICE clearly enough, particularly when perpetrated by others. Habakkuk was greatly perturbed by his observation that "justice comes out perverted." He came to God about it and asked the Lord to do something about it, right away, please.

"I'm right on top of that," the Lord answered. And then God outlined His plan for bringing justice to the situation. "I've got the Chaldeans warming up in the bullpen, Habakkuk. They're coming in next week to execute my justice upon Judah."

Well, I don't have to exegete the whole book here. Suffice it to say that God's justice didn't look like justice at all to Habakkuk. He did not like it one bit. Surely, we ought to be able to relate to Habakkuk's plight. After all, we live in a society in which God's plan for justice in marriage law looks like injustice to a lot of people. God's justice regarding forgiveness of debts in the Year of Jubilee looks like injustice to a lot of other people. God's justice on the subject matter of strangers and aliens among us strikes some people as unjust. God's justice on display in the substitutionary atonement of Christ is horrifically unjust in the eyes of the New Atheism. God's eternal justice in the twin realities of the New Jerusalem and the Lake of Fire is no justice at all in the eyes of Rob Bell.

Research seems to verify this idea that we're not very good at sorting out what is just. Whatever a leftist Berkeley professor will make of that, his conclusions actually validate the Word of God, which reminds us that our hearts are "deceitfully wicked" and warns us away from the "way that seems right" to us.

I don't know what happened in Florida that night, and so I don't know how to feel about this verdict. Other than sad, that is. A young man is needlessly dead. The question of whether you regard him as victim or assailant is merely a question of who played the greatest part in bringing his needless death to pass.

Habakkuk came to God on a quest for justice. He heard. He feared. He came back with a humbler appraisal of his own knowledge of justice. He learned. My prayer tonight is not so much that God will give us justice as that He will teach us what it is. But even that is not the most important thing. My heart longs for justice to be clearer to me and easier to find, but God told Habakkuk how we can survive that feeling. We righteous ones do not live by the timely delivery of perfect justice. No, but rather, we live by faith. I'm not entirely clear in my own mind about WHAT justice is, but I know beyond all reasonable doubt WHOSE justice is. This thing—my faith in Jesus Christ—is the most important thing. It is our Polaris on stormy nights of uncertain justice. We wait for justice; we live by faith.

I hope that we'll all make that clear in our conversations about this case, both online and IRL. Justice is found in the Way of Christ, as is mercy. That's where the living is. Cases of elusive justice down here below only make me all the more certain of that.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why FBC Farmersville Is Taking a Bus to Stand4Life: Thoughts about Political Engagement for Churches

I've served as a pastor at FBC Farmersville for 14 years. Those 14 years have witnessed some of the greatest political turbulence of my lifetime. Many of those political issues—Obamacare, Same-Sex Marriage, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—have had direct and significant impact upon my church or my personal exercise of my faith. And yet, in all of those years, I've never involved our congregation in any sort of a political (or even quasi-political) rally.

Until tonight.

Tonight the FBC Farmersville church bus will take a group down to Austin, TX, to the Texas Values Stand4Life Rally at 7:00 PM. I've invited people to go using the church mailing list. I've taken precious time out of the Sunday morning worship service to promote this event. I'm all-in.

I don't see this as any sort of a watershed event by which I've come to "see the light," such that now I'm going to become much more political as a pastor. I'm not changing in any way that I can perceive. It's just that this particular event at this particular moment compels me to become involved in ways that past events have not.

  1. Abortion is different from a lot of other issues. I wouldn't take a bus down to Austin to defend our tax exemption, for example. But abortion is a life-or-death question on which it is required that people stand up in defense of the weak and powerless. I, in my reading of Old and New Testaments, believe that I am commanded to be one of the people who does that. Those commands do not represent a special calling for me; they are binding upon all disciples. We cannot turn a blind eye to this issue while claiming to be following the way of Christ.

  2. This is a chance to do something positive rather than negative. Yes, it is possible that the two "groups" will clash in Austin tonight, but Bart Barber and FBC Farmersville will not be a part of that. Will. Not.

    I'm not going to Austin for the purpose of "defeating" anyone, although victory for this cause will unfortunately mean the defeat of people who are determined to serve on the side of evil. My purpose in going is simply to provide positive support. I know Jodie Laubenburg, for example, and she is one of the sponsors of HB2. She is sponsoring this legislation because she believes that she is called to use her influence as a Representative in the State House to do good. She is trying to stand up and abate the unrelenting slaughter of babies that is being perpetuated all around us.

    Along the way, she's being opposed and vilified and caricatured. The pro-infanticide legions are not failing to stand up against her. Will anyone stand up to support her? To encourage her? To let her know that she's doing the right thing? To give her that shot in the arm that will sustain her in the struggle?

    We will. That's why we're going.

    And we're likewise hoping to support Scott Turner and Craig Estes, who (after redistricting) now represent the people of FBC Farmersville in Austin. They are human beings. Like any of us, they could grow weary in doing good. They need encouragement, and we hope to give it to them.

  3. After what happened in the State Senate chamber last time, this is a question of justice and the rule of law. Mob rule is not a pretty thing. When legislation is passed by due process but shouted down by a few bitter, angry liberals, then chaos has won the day over civility. This special session of the Texas Legislature is not just about abortion—it's about having a functioning and peaceful system of government. It is imperative that this bill pass, just as it already really did, so that no group will be encouraged to throw the sort of juvenile hissy-fit that Wendy Davis and her henchmen threw down in Austin a couple of weeks ago.

And so, in just two hours we will board the bus and depart for Austin. If you're going, too, I'd be delighted to see you there. If not, and if you are a Texan, I hope you'll take a moment in your own way (by telephone, Internet, or even an old-fashioned letter), to speak a good and kindly word to a member of the State Legislature who is laboring in the face of tremendous pressure to defend innocent life in our state.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Unique Opportunities for Teacher Training

Within the past month, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has released a triple-whammy of historic changes that, I believe, add up to an incredible opportunity for churches. Let me spell it out for you.

First, Southwestern announced the debut of a new degree plan: The Master of Theological Studies (MTS).

The standard degree for the training of pastors is the Master of Divinity (MDiv). The MDiv is a 91-hour degree. I spent four years obtaining mine. It is one of the lengthiest Masters degrees around, and with good reason. The MDiv is actually something like a stretch limousine—take the material that you might expect to be in a Master of Arts (History, Languages, Philosophy) and then weld in the components of a vocational degree (practical training in Pastoral Ministry, Preaching, Educational Administration, Missiology, Evangelism, etc.) to lengthen the frame.

If the MDiv is a stretch limo, the MTS is a Smart Car. Only 36 hours of study will get you one. What's in it? You can look for yourself, but basically it contains a lot of the MDiv material sans the practical pastoral training and the languages. You will spend 18 hours becoming more adept at reading and interpreting the English Bible (B. H. Carroll would approve!), with classes in Old Testament, New Testament, and Biblical Hermeneutics. You will spend 9 hours in the study of Church History (I feel good about that), including a single three-hour course studying Baptist History. Twin Systematic Theology courses occupy 6 hours, followed by three-hour courses in Apologetics and in Ethics that round out the degree.

Second, Southwestern announced that this entire degree would be available online.

And so, access to Southwestern's world-class faculty and to the very same classes that have been training pastors, missionaries, professors, and denominational statesmen for decades are now available apart from the formerly attendant pilgrimage to Fort Worth. No matter where you live, you can obtain this degree so long as you have reliable Internet access.

Third, Southwestern has announced a new 30% discount for people who enroll in the MTS who are serving on a local church staff.

You can find out more of the details about this discount by looking here, on Dr. Thomas White's blog. Basically, this entire MTS degree is available to church staff members for a mere $7,200. That's a great deal in a market (higher education) that is remarkably devoid of great deals.

And so, here's the opportunity part for local churches.

Most churches have one or even several pastors who have completed the longer residential degrees at SWBTS (MDiv, MACE, etc.). Many churches, however, also have staff members who have arisen entirely out of the membership of their church (or even from another church) who serve without the benefit of any formal theological education. Sometimes these are part-time roles or lesser-paying roles in the church staff. These employees may not be at the stage of life or may not have the financial wherewithal to pull up roots and go to SWBTS for theological study. With the new MTS an opportunity exists for these staff members to take a significant step forward in their personal theological development, and to do so for amazingly little expense. Many churches will just want to underwrite the cost of the degree in light of the benefits to the church in having a better equipped staff member.

Also, although the cost would be higher (a little more than $10,000), an opportunity also exists here for churches to encourage non-staff teachers (Sunday School teachers, etc.) to obtain the MTS. Not every Sunday School teacher will want to do this, and indeed, it will be beyond the reach of some Sunday School teachers (an accredited Bachelor degree is prerequisite). Nevertheless, some of your master teachers would truly enjoy obtaining a degree such as this one and would benefit greatly from it. I can envision this even being a distinctive emphasis for some churches—professionally trained Sunday School teachers.

Some of your teachers might even find a benefit at their places of employment for having obtained an accredited Masters.

I'm interested to see what becomes of these developments. There is no doubt that the explosion of online educational options is changing the landscape of higher education. Also, it is indisputable that we are riding this roller coaster while they are building the track in front of us—no one knows what lies around the next curve. But the opportunities to open our seminaries to more people, to bring theological education closer to the local church, and to lower individual costs in theological education are major, unprecedented developments. The teaching ministry of our churches could be changed forever by such things.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Theological Triage and Statements of Faith

The following post refers extensively to the framework that Dr. Al Mohler articulated in his own blog post of 12 July 2005 entitled "A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity." You can find that article here.

The official statement of faith for the Southern Baptist Convention is the Baptist Faith & Message. I have signed this document several times. And, in point of fact, not only have I signed it, but I also have read it and I agree with it. My signing of this document has been a matter of informed consent.

And yet, agreeing entirely as I do with the content of our statement of faith, I'd still like to toss out something to consider about the document's format. Although it would make these documents slightly more complex, would it be a good thing to organize statements of faith according to the varying priorities of the doctrines listed therein?

At the very least, one might create a statement of faith that acknowledged Dr. Mohler's three-tiered system of theological triage by organizing the doctrines into three tiers. The document could begin by stating: "These are the essential doctrines of the faith. Whoever does not affirm these truths, let him be anathema. Any so-called 'church' not embracing these truths in teaching and practice is a cult." And afterwards, the statement could give a list of cardinal, tier-one doctrines.

In the next section, the preamble could go along these lines: "Following are the distinctive beliefs that identify a Southern Baptist. Any church not embracing these truths in teaching and practice, although it may genuinely be a Christian church, is not qualified to cooperate within the Southern Baptist Convention." The statement could then go on to list which are these tier-two doctrines.

In the final section, the document could stipulate: "The following can be identified as important Southern Baptist beliefs both in our history and in our current practice, and yet we acknowledge that diversity of opinion has and does exist within our convention on these matters, and that some level of cooperation is possible even among those who disagree. Therefore, although we require that the ministries of this convention be conducted in accordance with and not contrary to these beliefs, we do not believe that they rise to the level of importance that would warrant the breaking of fellowship among sister churches due to differences over these matters." And then the doctrinal statement could enumerate those matters that belong in this category.

Of course, I acknowledge that it would be an absolute political bloodletting in the Southern Baptist Convention actually to work through this process. Nevertheless, I want to make something absolutely clear: I believe that we ALREADY have and are using something like this. It's just that most Southern Baptists didn't get a say in how the tiers were created and applied, and the scheme (or schemes), however they exist in the minds of Southern Baptist leaders, aren't published for anyone's review or correction.

I know that significant discussion and disagreement might ensue in the comment section over which particular items belong where, and that's fine, but I hope that you'll also all make some statement about the overarching concept—whether a tiered statement of faith would be a good idea in general, presuming that doctrines were placed correctly. I think the idea would provide greater clarity than we now enjoy.

As a final note, I should acknowledge my own friendly interaction with Mohler's Triage (which I published here) in which I suggested that triage is a bit more complicated than a rigid three-tier system could accommodate. This being the case, I believe that a local church's statement of faith might include even more levels than these three.