Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Let's Talk Israel: New Creation Eschatology and the Land by Steven L James

One of my favorite fringe benefits of maintaining an ongoing relationship with my seminary is that I am frequently in the company of people who know more about theology than I do. One of them, Dr. Steven James, has written New Creation Eschatology and the Land: A Survey of Contemporary Perspectives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017). I just finished reading it, and I enjoyed it enough to recommend it to you. I found it for sale online at a number of locations. Amazon is selling the Kindle edition for under $10.

The book is an adaptation of Dr. James’s Ph.D. dissertation. For a lot of people, the only way to acquire a taste for reading one of those is to write one, but you shouldn’t let that chase you away from this book. Although it follows the format of a dissertation, it poses a simple research question for which most Christians will understand the relevance and follow the line of thinking. He held my interest from the first page to the last.

People who believe in New Creation Eschatology want us to pay close attention to Revelation 21:1-22:5 and take those words literally and seriously. God hasn’t suggested that we will spend eternity floating among the clouds in Heaven, they remind us; He has promised us eternity under the New Heavens on the New Earth, living as a new creation in a new creation. Living as a new creation, I will be the same, but different. I will be the same because I will still be Bart Barber, and the body I inhabit will be the body I have now, resurrected to eternal life. I will be different because I will have been changed—purified from the residues and consequences of sin. According to New Creation Eschatology we should expect the same thing from the world that we inhabit. The earth beneath our feet will be the same, but different. We will not be whisked away to Kolob or shipped off to rule our own respective planets. We will live forever on earth. The earth that we inhabit, however, will be purified and pristine, cleansed from the effects of sin and made to be very good.

Why do people believe this? As it turns out, they have a pretty strong basis in biblical teaching consisting of passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament promising the restoration of the cosmos in the last day.

Steven James believes that if all of those who have embraced New Creation Eschatology will apply consistently the same theological method that has led them to take literally the promise of a restored earth, that approach will lead them to take literally the promise of a restored Israel (both demographically and territorially, although the emphasis is upon the territory) as one part of the restored earth. James concludes, however, that a number of those who decry the spiritualization of what the Revelation says about the new heaven and the new earth are the same people who spiritualize what the prophets say about the restoration of Israel.

James interacts with the writings of prominent exponents of New Creation Eschatology and with the major scriptural arguments that they make. Determined to offer more than just a negative case, he proposes an interpretive framework by which the key passages advanced by both sides of the Israel question can live in harmony.

It’s not hard to know more theology than I do. Frankly, I like Historical Theology better than Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology more than Historical Theology, and being a pastor better than the whole business. Nevertheless, the people whom I serve as a pastor ask questions about Israel and Heaven more than all the other places of the world combined. I’m thankful that Steven James has helped me to think more carefully about these two places and about what the Bible says about them.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tragedy and Injustice

Earlier today I tweeted the following:

How tragic! The death of #PhilandoCastile, no matter the officer's state of mind, is a great injustice.

It's a deep and controversial subject, and the subsequent conversation has motivated me to teach a bit more about the question of tragedy and injustice. I'll start with a table and some examples.

  Just Unjust
Tragic Branch Davidians Michael Morton
Not Tragic Nadir Hamid Soofi Wayne DuMond

Just, but Tragic

The use of deadly force against the Branch Davidians was just. I do not mean to offer an opinion about their initial entry into the compound. That's above my pay grade. But after the police say, "Come out with your hands up," and you shoot back at them, whatever happens next is on you.

That having been said, this situation is nonetheless tragic. Women and children died because they had been deceived by a religious huckster. Even if the situation is just, it is tragic.

Just and Not Tragic

Nadir Hamid Soofi went to shoot up a Garland conference dedicated to drawing cartoons of the Mohammed. Killing non-Muslims was his goal, but he failed. Instead, his final action on this earth was to learn some interesting and relevant facts about Texas.

His death was just. He was trying to kill people in the commission of a felony.

His death was not tragic. He was an evil man caught being evil. Although there is a deeper level at which I mourn the existence of false religion and the wayward state of mankind, Soofi's death was, in the simplest and most superficial sense, a thing worth celebrating (and celebrating the death of the wicked who pose harm to others is not a matter without biblical support).

Unjust and Tragic

Michael Morton went to prison for 25 years for the murder of his wife, although he did not murder his wife. He has subsequently been exonerated (story here). I know people who know him. I know of no reason to doubt his story.

Morton has suffered an injustice. Twenty-five years of his life he was deprived of his freedom for a crime that he did not commit.

The injustice that Morton has suffered is tragic. Almost all injustices are going to wind up being tragic, although…

Unjust, but Not Tragic

Wayne DuMond raped a Forrest City, Arkansas, cheerleader in 1984. Not long afterwards, men broke into DuMond's home and cut off…well, he never raped anyone else after that. Sheriff Coolidge Conley had something of a reputation in the area (I grew up in Northeast Arkansas). He kept in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk DuMond's…uh…evidence. Local opinion was that Conley had something to do with what happened to DuMond. I'm in no position to say one way or the other who assaulted DuMond, but for the sake of our thinking exercise here, let's assume that the Sheriff's office actually did this.

DuMond suffered an injustice. We do not try crimes in this way. We do not execute cruel and unusual punishment like this. What happened to DuMond was unjust.

There is nothing tragic about it. Although I do not affirm Hinduism or Buddhism, every once in a while even I want to say, "Karma, baby!"

Tragedy and Injustice

So, the major point of this blog post is to show that tragedy and injustice are separate things, somewhat independent of one another.

The death of Philando Castille is, I think, both an injustice and a tragedy. It is an injustice because I think the evidence leads us to conclude that Castille had not committed a crime and was not actually trying to draw his gun to shoot anyone, yet he is dead. It is a tragedy because here is a person who was just driving down the road one moment and was dead the next.

It is helpful to identify injustice like this because (a) justice is a biblical and theological concept that we need to learn, (b) it builds unity when we know that we all see the injustice in this matter, (c) we ought to want a society that is more just (right?), and you can't improve if you can't identify what needs improving.


We cannot easily assign blame for all injustice. Some injustice happens because we are not good enough. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Sometimes people perpetrate injustice on purpose because their hearts are evil.

Some injustice happens because we are not wise enough. The more complicated the situation, the more wisdom we require to accomplish perfect justice. But eventually we face a situation complicated enough to make us realize that we are not God and that we are not capable of accomplishing perfect justice. We will have to wait for Heaven for that. Thus, there is a level of injustice that happens even when everyone tries their dead-level best. Some of these DNA exonerations have proven this point.

When should police officers face criminal prosecution for an unjust death? People who knew and loved a victim feel one way about this question. Police officers tend to feel another way about it. I'd like to address the question in terms of what accomplishes the most justice overall, and I'd like to do it in terms that move things away from police officers (who make up only a portion of the population) toward an experience common to most of us.

In the Michael Morton story told above, a jury sentenced him to prison. Should those jurors be held responsible for his unjust imprisonment? Knowing that you might very well serve on a criminal jury some day, under what circumstances do you think that a jury member ought to be liable to criminal prosecution?

A juror can be convicted of juror misconduct in a number of scenarios. All of these involve explicitly violating the orders of the presiding judge. But we do not prosecute jurors criminally for simply getting it wrong. This is true in spite of the fact that we know (from pretty compelling statistics) that juries get it wrong in predictable ways. This is true in spite of the fact that real people suffer real harm when juries make mistakes. This is in spite of the fact that not all jurors serve equally well and not all jurors try equally hard. Why don't we put jurors in jail when they cause injustice?

The answer is pretty simple: Would you ever agree to serve on a jury if you could be imprisoned for making an unintentional mistake? If you could not avoid serving, would you ever vote to convict anyone of a crime if there were a chance that five years from now you wound up in prison because something shed some new light on the case? Probably not.

And so, the overall effect of harsh punishment against jurors for their mistakes would be less justice. Some particular defendant might get more justice in his individual case (those jurors who took away 5 years of my life will have to pay for what they have done), but the resulting damage to the justice system would mean less justice in the aggregate (Wow! Nobody gets convicted of ANYTHING any more! Especially not people with the monetary or political resources to get charges brought against jurors in the future).

In the same way, if we start sending police officers to jail left and right for honest mistakes that they make on duty, who's going to want to serve as a police officer? And even if some people take the job, are they going to stop responding to calls that they think might lead to difficult choices? Are they going to stop going into neighborhoods where they worry that they are going to face extra scrutiny? If that happens, does life become better or worse for everyone in society? Does everyone get more justice or less justice in that scenario? Who suffers the most from an understaffed or under-confident police force: people who live in high-crime neighborhoods or people who live in low-crime neighborhoods?

I do not think that Philando Castille was trying to do anyone any harm. The evidence does not support a claim to the contrary. Any fear or bias that keeps us from mourning his death is a bad thing. I do not think that Jeronimo Yanez was out looking to do anyone any harm that day. The evidence does not support a claim to the contrary. This looks quite different from what happened in Balch Springs, for example. It is possible for an unjust death to happen when a police officer does everything by the book. I think that both Castille and Yanez were frightened. I think that the end was tragic. I think that what happened to Castille was not fair and was not just. He didn't deserve it. Let us strive to do better. But I accept the verdict of the jury, and I do not think that imprisoning the police officer in this case would have given us greater justice.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Considering SBC Polity in Light of the Alt-Right Resolution

In May 2017, Pastor Dwight McKissic published to the Internet a proposed resolution in condemnation of the Alt-Right. At some time before the deadline mandated in the Southern Baptist Convention's bylaws, Dwight submitted that resolution to the convention's Committee on Resolutions. That committee can do one of three things with proposed resolutions. First, they can decide that they like the resolution so much that they will publish it without any alterations whatsoever. Second, they can change the resolution in any way they like (delete sections they do not like, add language that they think is missing that would be helpful, merge one resolution with another resolution, etc.) and then publish an alternate resolution inspired by the proposed resolution. Third, they can decline to consider the resolution, publishing nothing at all related to the resolution's content.

At this week's Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the report from the Committee on Resolutions indicated that the committee had declined to take action on Dwight's proposed resolution. Dwight challenged the report from the floor. The messengers voted twice NOT to heed Dwight's challenge but instead to honor the committee's proposal. Then, late Tuesday night, the committee changed its mind and recommended that the convention consider a revised resolution inspired by Dwight's original resolution and submitted in a newly added second report from the committee. The convention overwhelmingly agreed to receive the second report and then overwhelmingly voted to approve the new resolution.

The bigger issues in play this week are those of racism and the alt-right. Not familiar with the alt-right? Joe Carter's explainer gives you all the information that you need, or you can go visit Twitter and see how these cretins have dealt with SBC Pastors' Conference speaker Chris Davis…

…with Micah Fries…

…or with Thabiti Anyabwile…

The SBC has voted overwhelmingly to reject and condemn the alt-right movement, which these tweets exemplify.

And yet, is the Convention's stand clear? We took four votes. Two of them overwhelmingly (in effect) opposed Dwight's resolution. Two of them overwhelmingly supported the very similar substitute resolution offered by the committee. These votes contradict one another, yet they came from the same messenger body within the same 24-hour period. How can we explain this? Which vote actually represents the viewpoint of the SBC?

I will start with the obvious: Any time any deliberative body experiences an outcome like this, something is wrong with the way in which it makes decisions.

That doesn't mean that everything is wrong with the way in which it makes decisions. But polity (the way that a group makes decisions) has malfunctioned whenever a group makes decisive, self-contradictory decisions in response to a situation, the basic reality of which has not changed. If things like that happen regularly—and they do at the SBC—then it is time for the group to examine how well its polity is working for it. I believe that Southern Baptists should consider making changes to the way that we presently conduct our resolutions process.

How Our Polity Currently Works

Some of what I am about to describe is our formal polity (that is, the rules that are written in our governing documents). Some of what I am about to describe is our informal polity (that is, where our written rules give us freedom to do things in more than one way, the preferred way that we almost always choose to follow). This is the way that we pursue our resolutions process.

  1. When you go to a microphone, you lose more than you win. My personal batting average from the microphones on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention is .000 and I'm in good company. Our messengers are highly skeptical of affirming things from the floor that they aren't expecting and that they haven't fully considered.

  2. The messengers approve whatever the Committee on Resolutions recommends. Do you want to make sense of those four self-contradictory votes? Here you go: On each occasion the messengers voted to sustain the committee's recommendation.

    This reality, you might think, makes the people on the Committee on Resolutions very powerful. In a way, you'd be right. These are people who get to tell the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention what they should say that their collective opinion is, and the messengers do as they are told.

    And yet, there is a way in which this reality makes the Committee on Resolutions less powerful. How? Because fiascos like what happened this week, although they leave the Committee on Resolutions pretty much in charge of the resolutions that we adopt, make those resolutions less significant. Resolutions are important only to the degree that they represent the considered opinion of the aggregation of messengers who attend the convention's annual meetings. If that idea is a farce—if the messengers are lifting their ballots mindlessly, solely as a show of solidarity with the personalities on the platform or the institutional momentum of a committee—then the more widely that farce is revealed to be a farce, the less power our resolutions (and by extension, our Committee on Resolutions) actually have.

    Already we have resolutions on appreciation and other resolutions that messengers approve with about the same gravitas that we intend when we begin conversations with "How are you doing?" How many of the ballots cast for other, weightier resolutions are waving in the air with the same level of consideration behind them?

  3. The resolutions report comes too late for the messengers reasonably to do otherwise. Messengers arrive at the Annual Meeting each year with nary a clue as to what resolutions the Committee on Resolutions will recommend that we adopt. Often, the messengers do not receive the text of the resolutions to consider until the morning of the very day on which they will be expect to vote on them. Resolutions can be numerous. Resolutions can be lengthy. The text of proposed-but-declined resolutions (like the one Dwight submitted) do not appear in the report at all, nor does any rationale for the decision that the committee reached.

    The messengers do usually have at least an hour to read the proposed resolutions, research the issues raised therein, and form an opinion. Of course, every minute of the time that they have is time with which they are supposed to be doing something else. They are supposed to be praying. They are supposed to be listening to a sermon. They are supposed to be voting on other matters that come before them. They are supposed to be watching a video or singing a worship song. They have breakout meetings and group luncheons to attend. Time allocated in the annual meeting for people to read proposed resolutions before voting on them? Zero minutes.

    And so, almost everyone voting on Resolution #6 has not read Resolution #6. Our messengers, generally speaking, are voting on our resolutions in the dark.

    Next year I think I'll submit a resolution against Congress's voting on measures that the members of Congress haven't read, just to bask in the irony of it all.

  4. The Committee on Resolutions meets too late to propose resolutions any earlier. This year the Committee on Resolutions met on the Thursday before the Annual Meeting began. They met and met and met up through and including the arduous session on Tuesday night just to discharge their duty.

    I have never served on the SBC Committee on Resolutions, but I have both served on and chaired the SBTC Committee on Resolutions. If you haven't done so, do not hastily conclude that it is not much work. We considered the theological aspect of each resolution. What does the Bible say? What have Christians written and thought about the relevant issues down through the ages? We asked whether our convention had previously gone on the record with a viewpoint about the issue in question and about whether a new statement was needed. We explored the political implications of each resolution. Would the adoption of this resolution amount to the taking of a partisan stand by the convention? Sometimes it is appropriate to do so—is this one of those times? We explored the impact of the resolution from the vantage point of our diverse family of churches. How would the various sub-groupings within the convention react to the resolution? We explored the impact of the resolution from the vantage point of people outside our convention. What effect would it have on our relationships with other denominations? With lost people?

    And then, after all of that work had been concluded on each and every resolution, we went over the final products reviewing grammar, syntax, rhetorical effect, and logical consistency.

    I completely used up a red pen.

    This kind of work takes time. It also takes down-time to do it well. If done straight through in marathon sessions, this process does a grave disservice to the twenty-third resolution that the beleaguered committee considers. There is simply no way, meeting on the schedule that it presently follows, that the Committee on Resolutions can bring a report to the convention body any earlier than it presently does.

  5. The deadline for the submission of resolutions comes too late for the Committee on Resolutions to work much earlier. The convention president does not have to create the Committee on Resolutions until 75 days before the convention. This year, that works out to March 30. So, the committee does not even have to exist until March 30.

    Once the committee is in place, the Executive Committee can start to receive resolutions as early as April 15, but the deadline for receiving resolutions is not until 15 days before the start of the Annual Meeting. This year, that works out to May 29, or Memorial Day. The members of the committee hardly had any time to meet prior to their pre-convention meeting starting on June 8.

    These committee members already come to the Annual Meeting at least three days ahead of everyone else. They are already in the convention city for more than a week. I don't know about you, but for my part, prior to being out of town for a week on convention business, I need a few days in the office to try to get things ready at home for my absence. We cannot expect that the Committee on Resolutions should schedule another meeting between May 29 and June 8.

    Furthermore, even if they did so, I do not know how much of a difference it would make. If they were to have released the resolutions report on June 9, by that time the preponderance of messengers who are going to attend the convention are caught up in their own preparations to attend the convention or travel to the convention site. They are already busy.

How It Could Be Different

I offer the following just as a thought-exercise. How could our resolutions process look different? How could we have better, less confusing, less-likely-to-grab-the-wrong-headlines processes each year in the development of our resolutions?

Concept One: The only resolutions worth passing are those that represent the carefully considered position of the messengers.

What happened at SBC17? We voted first, then considered the vote second. That's the wrong order in which to do things, and that SBC17 transpired in this order is indisputable. That's why we wound up voting again. When we operate in this way, we delegitimize the whole process.

Instead we need to operate in this order: Careful consideration of each resolution comes first, then comes voting. Operating in this order empowers the messengers, and I believe that our system needs to work harder to empower the messengers. If anything ever tempts me to get more involved in the work of our Annual Meeting it is the idea that by doing so I would be able to empower messengers.

Once upon a time people started a discussion at SBC Voices proposing my name as a candidate for the presidency of the SBC. I demurred, but along the way I stated that if I ever were president of the SBC, my focus would be upon performing well the constitutional duties of the presidency rather than devoting all of my time and attention to the bully-pulpit or public-relations aspects of the job. When I said that, Dwight McKissic very kindly said that he would be supportive of the idea of my serving as president, but not if I solely wanted to be a "caretaker president."

Dwight, might I offer a kindly rebuttal at an opportune time? I think if we did a little more of what you have termed "caretaking"—if we would work a little bit on our process and if we would try hard to make our process empower the messengers more, remove barriers, and advocate for a fair hearing of their sentiments—without becoming an agenda-driven president, our presiding officer might free the messengers to become more effective as agenda-driven messengers. Isn't that how things ought to be in a deliberative body like our own, with the messengers setting the agenda and the president protecting their rights?

President Steve Gaines did a masterful and statesmanlike job of steering our ship away from the icebergs this week, but the better system is the one that doesn't often require such craft at the helm, is it not? Wouldn't it be better to avoid these chaotic situations from the get-go by having a better process?

I think we need to alter our process such that the good deliberation that took place Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning could have taken place before we had ever taken the first vote.

Concept Two: The deliberations of the Committee on Resolutions should take place much earlier and with greater transparency.

Let me cut to the chase: I don't see any reason why the Committee on Resolutions couldn't publish their full set of recommendations in May.

I think that the Committee on Resolutions should meet in conjunction with every SBC Executive Committee meeting. The committee should accept resolutions throughout the year. The deadline for the submission of resolutions to the Annual Meeting should be one month before the Spring meeting of the Executive Committee.

Two weeks before each Executive Committee meeting, the Committee on Resolutions should publish the full text of all proposed resolutions that it has received since its last publication and should solicit public comment from messengers from SBC churches, providing a form through which churches could submit their feedback. That form should employ some of the same safeguards that presently are in place for online registration of messengers.

At the Spring meeting of the committee, based upon the feedback that they have received and based upon their own deliberations, the committee should adopt their report. This they should submit for grammatical review. They should be able to take an electronic vote to affirm changes in grammar or style. Then they should publish the entire report well in advance of the annual meeting. I think a May 15 submission deadline would be well within reach.

What about late-breaking matters? What if we needed to speak to a major event that happened only in the latter weeks of May (for example, to express sympathy in the wake of a major terrorist attack)? The Committee on Resolutions should meet with the Executive Committee on the Monday before the SBC Annual Meeting convenes on Tuesday. Any last-minute resolutions that they wish to propose should require the approval of two thirds of the Executive Committee before being allowed onto the floor of the convention for consideration. Only those resolutions about which we are overwhelmingly agreed should be able to short-circuit the process.

Concept Three: We should only have dispute about resolutions when we are genuinely divided about their content.

Southern Baptists are not divided about the white supremacists in the alt-right. The latter two votes revealed that. What has been damaging to our convention is the fact that we wound up having a dispute over matters about which we are not genuinely divided.

The procedure that I have suggested above would not eliminate all dispute over resolutions within our convention. Sometimes we do not at all agree. When we face resolutions related to our disagreements, we will still dispute with one another over those disagreements. Even in those circumstances, however, our disputations will be better informed, and perhaps we will conduct them in the light of careful consideration rather than in the heat of partisanship and misinformation.

In general, we messengers to our conventions give too little consideration to our polity, I think. We tend not to give it credit when it helps us to conduct business well. We tend not to give it due blame when it hinders us from conducting our business well. We tend to heap plaudits or condemnations upon the people involved rather than ask whether we could organize better and achieve better outcomes.

Certainly, there is a place to praise or criticize the people involved. The best people will make a bad system work better; the worst people will make a good system work worse. But all other things being equal, even the best people will face problems when they are working through a flawed system. Sometimes I think that description fits well the people of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Monday, April 17, 2017

About the Johnson Amendment

In 1954 Lindon B Johnson persuaded the United States Senate to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, requiring 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to refrain from participation in campaigns for elected office. The rule remains to this day, and we call it "The Johnson Amendment."

President Trump has promised to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment." This has become a central theme of his administration's approach to religious liberty issues. President Trump is not alone in his determination to eliminate the amendment. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has long identified the repeal of the Johnson Amendment as one of their top priorities. A lot of organizations would like to see it go.

As for me? I'm pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. Here's why.

  1. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will have no impact upon what my church (or most churches) do. It is an empty gesture. The ADF already hosts a "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" encouraging pastors to endorse or oppose candidates as an act of civil disobedience. No church has ever been prosecuted for participating, to my knowledge. Every church who wants to endorse or oppose candidates for electoral office is already doing so.

    Most of our churches do not endorse candidates for office at present for reasons that go a lot deeper than the Internal Revenue Code. I can identify a number of reasons why I am unlikely to endorse candidates from the pulpit no matter what happens with the Johnson Amendment:

    1. My pulpit time is full already, thank you very much. I'm preaching God's Word, attempting to give my congregants sound, expository preaching, which I generally provide by preaching through books of the Bible. I don't preempt that content for elections. Period.

      In fact, once upon a time at an ADF event—and the ADF are good, good, good people. I thank God for them—I mentioned that the kind of preaching they were suggesting was difficult to integrate into a schedule of text-driven preaching through books of the Bible. In the conversation that ensued, it became clear that none of the pastors present who were using the pulpit to endorse or oppose candidates were preaching in that text-driven manner. I'm not saying that it doesn't exist anywhere; I'm just saying that the combination is difficult to achieve and therefore rare.

      What do you get when you mix religion and politics? Politics. There are plenty of examples demonstrating how political preaching, once it gets its nose under the tent, crowds out gospel preaching. Since my readers are mostly conservative (both theologically and politically), perhaps you can see this more clearly by looking at the churches on the left who have abandoned the gospel and betrayed biblical morality in order to preserve their political alliances. Well, if the gospel is supremely more important than the next election, then letting "good politics" shove the Bible out of the pulpit is really not that much better than letting "bad politics" shove the Bible out of the pulpit.

      Let's just preach the Bible and let God do whatever He wishes with its political implications.

    2. Preaching politics can shut doors for preaching the gospel. Sometimes you have no choice but to preach politics. There's a political aspect to the gospel. It comes to suppress a rebellion and change people's allegiances, after all. But when those times come, you learn that many people will not listen to a spiritual message if it starts messing with their political ideas.

      That shouldn't make us cowards when preaching the Bible steers us into political collisions. It should, however, make us unwilling to seek out political controversy that biblical preaching does not require us to address. Why offend people about lesser things and lose opportunities to speak to them about greater things?

    3. Even candidates with the right positions on the issues can become liabilities to the churches. When that candidate gets caught in an airport men's room or an FBI sting operation—that candidate whom you used your credibility and reputation to endorse, pastor—what then? The church is certainly safe when she stakes her reputation on Jesus. She's safe when she takes a stand on biblical morality and truth. When she ties her credibility to the behavior of human politicians, she is taking a serious gamble.

    Other churches feel differently. Other pastors passionately believe that they should be making endorsements of candidates from their pulpits. I take into account that reality in this point. Those churches and those pastors are probably already endorsing and opposing candidates. I don't think that repealing the Johnson Amendment will make much of a difference in what they do.

  2. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will have no impact upon what the IRS does. The IRS does not enforce the Johnson Amendment. In the 1970s part of my dad's job was to take Democratic candidates around to worship services at black churches to pick up endorsements. The IRS does nothing about that. As I have already said, the IRS does not prosecute those who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, who are overwhelmingly Republican and white. So it is a little difficult to understand why some religious liberty establishments (generally on the political Left) are going apoplectic about the possibility that Congress will repeal a law that nobody enforces.

    Take a chill pill, guys. The only active process that this repeal would shut down are those annual missives from Barry Lynn, and reasonable people everywhere should rejoice in that.

  3. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will change what politicians do. And it is here that the measure should give us all some pause. What we really need is protection for conscientious objectors against SOGI laws and against pro-baby-murder zealots. Instead, politicians make it their top priority to make it easier for them to get political endorsements from us.

    "Religious liberty? Why, yes! I want you to have the liberty to endorse me in my next campaign!"

    I'll give this to them: They know which side their bread is buttered on.

    Personally, I do not look forward to a future in which politicians are pressuring me to gain the official endorsement of our congregation. I mean, I can answer, "Not in a thousand years!" as quickly as the next guy, but it is nice at present not to be bothered with the question at all.

  4. Government shouldn't engage in viewpoint discrimination against churches. But if the Johnson Amendment ever were enforced, there's no doubt that's what it would amount to. The IRS's recent history of targeting conservative groups (which had nothing to do with the Johnson Amendment) reveals that we may not be wise to entrust such power to a government that so easily engages in selective prosecution.

In conclusion, it does not violate religious liberty for religious groups to have freedom of expression. American religious liberty thrived from 1833 (when Massachusetts disestablished the Congregationalist church) to 1954 without a Johnson Amendment. It can do so again. Part of the benefit of religious liberty to society at large is to have spiritual organizations free to critique the government and the culture. Almost all of the time we can do that best without endorsing or opposing candidates from our pulpits or through the official auspices of our churches, but not always. I'd like to think that in a hypothetical electoral choice between Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler my church would have something definitive to say. Most elections don't quite rise to that level of clarity, and most of the time most churches will stay out of the candidate-endorsing business. But both civil liberty and religious liberty remain intact and healthy even when churches have the freedom to speak about elections.

I'd rather President Trump devoted his religious liberty thinking to the many actual threats on the horizon, but if he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment, I'm OK with that.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Pragmatism, Partnership, and Politics

It seems to me that a great many of our conflicts among Southern Baptists at this moment in time come at the juncture of pragmatism, partnership, and politics.

Sometimes we have spiritual convictions that lead us to adopt political goals. I have a spiritual conviction that I should not use coercive force to try to strong-arm anyone into false conversion by persecuting him for his aberrant faith. This spiritual conviction is soundly biblical. Holding that spiritual conviction leads me to adopt a political goal: maintaining First Amendment guarantees of universal religious liberty.

Pursuing political goals often drives us to practicing a little pragmatism. Pragmatism often leads us into strange partnerships. I know that there are enemies of religious liberty in our country. Preponderantly, they are people on the academic left who hold the views expressed by Chai Feldblum. There are enemies of religious liberty in our nation, and they are prepared to wage war against the First Amendment in the courts.

If I want to defend religious liberty against these foes (and I'm sort of assuming that when it comes to Chai Feldblum's agenda, we're all pretty much on the same page in this forum), it doesn't make much sense to say, "If the battle happens on this battlefield over here, I'll fight against the enemies of religious liberty, but if it happens on that other battlefield over there, I won't." No, if you want to defeat an enemy, you have to be ready to fight wherever they bring the war to you.

If Southern Baptists say that we will defend religious liberty in court cases so long as there isn't a mosque involved, Chai Feldblum and her ilk will simply file all of their cases against mosques. Want everyone to open their ladies rooms to men? Don't file that zoning case requiring open bathrooms against a Baptist church. No, if you do that, the Christians will fight you in the courts. File it against a mosque. Then the Christians will remain silent, and you'll get the law changed with a minimum of effort. After you win in court, the law will apply to all of those Christians churches just as much as it applies to a mosque, and you'll have won the war while the bulk of the forces arrayed to defend religious liberty sat in their tents at camp.

So, if defending religious liberty law means that I inadvertently benefit false religions, I'm prepared to do that. I don't see that as a partnership with a mosque; I see that as a partnership with likeminded Christians who are trying to defend the law. But I understand that my work to help churches winds up helping mosques, too, and I can see how some people could view that as an unholy alliance.

Sometimes our pragmatic pursuit of political goals (even those rooted in spiritual convictions) can lead us to strange partnerships.

If you think of it, it's a bit like deciding that you need to vote for a Mormon or a skirt-chasing, LGBT-affirming, New York non-Christian because you want better Supreme Court picks or hope to see some Executive Orders reversed. You have spiritual convictions about abortion or marriage or even religious liberty. These spiritual convictions lead you to adopt political goals. In pursuing those political goals, you find that you can only achieve them if you form some partnerships with people who are not a good match for you spiritually.

In the past two years we've had a lot of people on one side deriding the pragmatic choice of religious liberty advocates to defend religious liberty laws when they happen to become vulnerable in cases that happen to involve mosques. In the past two years we've had a lot of people on the other side deriding the pragmatic choice of other Christians to form partnerships with Donald Trump or Mitt Romney. In the one case, people have (falsely) alleged that the religious liberty advocates have endorsed Islam or otherwise gone soft on the exclusivity of Christ. In the other case, people have (falsely) alleged that the GOP advocates have endorsed sexual assault or have otherwise gone soft on the difference between Mormons or nominal Christians on the one hand and true Christians on the other hand. If one of these situations is an unequal yoking with unbelievers, the other is. If one of them is merely coincidental co-belligerance and therefore not a violation of 2 Corinthians 6:14, then there's probably room to seek to understand the other in the same light.

These problems and these accusations are made worse by the fact that sometimes we struggle to think clearly and communicate well when we're in the middle of verbal wars with one another.

Perhaps there's a way forward for us along these lines.

Perhaps we could all engage in a little repentance for ways that we've refused to grant to others the grace that we've sought for ourselves. I've expected people to understand my pragmatic actions in defense of religious liberty against threats that I believe stand poised to make life very hard for believers in the United States. If I will have those expectations, I ought to be more understanding of other people's pragmatic actions as they chose to vote for Donald Trump.

Perhaps we could all extend a little goodwill and benefit of the doubt toward people who actually share both our spiritual convictions and the preponderance of our political goals when they choose different pragmatic methodologies by which to achieve them. Honestly, if we can't live at peace with people with whom we share so much in common, it speaks poorly of our relationships with Christ.

Perhaps we could try not to be offended personally (or to lob charges of heresy) when people advocate for pragmatic strategies that differ from our own. Why don't we just make our case and try to let the strength of our positions persuade or fail to persuade? Why don't we recognize that the brother who is trying to make us all succeed together by a different plan than my favorite plan can be differentiated from the enemy who wishes to conquer us all?

Perhaps we could dial back our tendencies to assign nefarious motives to people who think differently when we advocate for our own pragmatic strategies. After all, none of us like it when others do likewise to us.

Perhaps we could recognize a bit of wisdom, even when it comes from the bizarre source of a deceased former Soviet Premier: "We and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it." Of course, Nikita Khrushchev, not President Kennedy, was the one who had tied the knot of war in the rope to begin with (this communique took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis), but his observation about what happens when we pull hard on the rope is nonetheless both picturesque and instructive.

The Southern Baptist cooperative relationship, like any relationship, only functions for as long as the people in the relationship say they're sorry when they wrong, forgive when they are wronged, and labor to permit both freedom to advocate for our various views and determination to cooperate graciously both when our ideas win the day and when they do not, for so long as we share a common commitment to the biblical convictions that we have articulated in The Baptist Faith and Message and around which we pursue our common Great Commission work.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Does Denying Religious Liberty to Muslims Violate the Baptist Faith and Message?


OK. I was just going to leave the body of the post at that one-paragraph, one-word response, but after a few minutes' reflection, I've decided that when nothing more needs to be said, I'm just the guy to say it.

Here is the full text of Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message (emphasis mine):

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.

So, I intend to demonstrate three points (being a Baptist preacher). First, I intend to show that Article XVII explicitly affirms religious liberty for all people, including Muslims. Second, I intend to show that all of the information that we have about Islam today is information that was available to Southern Baptists in 2000, 1963, and 1925 when they drafted and revised The Baptist Faith & Message (and, indeed, was even available before then, when Baptists first developed their articulation of the biblical doctrine of universal religious liberty). Third, I intend to demonstrate that affirmation of religious liberty is not an area at which The Baptist Faith & Message departs from Baptist confessionalism, but that this is a sentiment broadly affirmed by other Baptist confessions of faith.

All of this will take me more than a single post to complete. Also, I write this series of posts leaving unsaid some important things because I am depending upon my readers to look to what I have already written on this topic. For example, it hardly matters what The Baptist Faith & Message says if we have not first considered what the Scriptures say. Fortunately, I have already made that case in a way that no one has yet been able to answer (not because I'm so good, but because the biblical witness is so clear and the arguments against religious liberty are so specious). I don't feel any need to republish what I have already published about the biblical justification for our belief in universal religious liberty.

I will therefore turn my attention to the first point. The Baptist Faith & Message explicitly affirms religious liberty for all people, including Muslims.

Consider the wording of Article XVII.

  1. "The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind." These words are plain enough on their face. Examining where they stand in the historical development of Baptist doctrine makes them even plainer.

    1. "The state has no right to impose penalties…" John Leland authored The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, in which he put forth the view that every person's religious conscience lies beyond the scope of governmental authority. That's an important point and I don't want you to miss it: If the government gives you the death penalty for going one mile an hour over the speed limit, it has abused authority that it rightfully possesses. The government has the authority to govern aspects of your behavior, including the way that you drive an automobile on public thoroughfares; it just shouldn't abuse that authority by doling out extremely harsh punishments for minor infractions. But Baptists have long said that religious liberty doesn't belong in the same category as that. When it comes to my theological convictions, government has no authority at all. Government does not grant the right to religious liberty and it cannot take it away. It is an inalienable right, alongside life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Before we even talk about what the penalties are and before we even talk about what the opinions are, from the get-go, the state has no rights over anyone's religious conscience.

    2. "…to impose penalties…" Here is religious liberty defined simply: Changing my relationship with God doesn't lead the state to change its relationship with me. The history of Baptist persecution at the hands of other American Christian denominations and the history of Baptist responses advocating for religious liberty make clear what has counted as inappropriate "penalties" for us. Imprisonment? Yes. Executions? Yes. But also, inappropriate taxation and inappropriate restrictions on the construction of houses of worship have long been misdeeds that Baptists have opposed as a breach of government's obligation to leave unfettered the religious consciences of men.

      If you went to seminary and studied Baptist History, you may recall learning about The Clarendon Code. The Church of England employed these laws to persecute Baptists. Among them was the Five-Mile Act, which denied Nonconformist pastors the right to reside (and have their house-churches) anywhere within five miles of locations where they had previously been caught worshipping. Baptists rightfully opposed these efforts to regulate away religious liberty.

      So, back-door attempts to use governmental regulation to restrict religious liberty have long been on Baptists' radar as inappropriate "penalties" used to quash religions that the state did not favor. The Baptist tradition of opposing these inappropriate penalties runs straight through The Baptist Faith & Message.

    3. "…to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind." I submit to you that "of any kind" means…wait for it…of any kind. Does "of any kind" include Islam? By any plain reading it does, but we need not speculate. Leland wrote "The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, [Muslims], Pagans and Christians." Here Leland has given us a list of what "all" means, and it includes Muslims (to use the old terminology, "Turks"). Roger Williams wrote "It is the will and command of God, that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most Pagan, Jewish, [Muslim], or Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries" (spelling updated). Williams has told us what "of any kind" means, and it includes Muslims.

  2. "and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power." Again, the wording of the article is not difficult to understand. Religious opinions can change over time. People form their own religious opinions and they propagate them, influencing the formation of other people's religious opinions. We are conversionists; our entire system of belief is based upon the idea that people's religious opinions change.

    That includes lost people. Lost people sometimes get saved. Amen? You know, Muslims are not beyond the power of the gospel. The Lord's hand is not shortened so that He cannot save Muslims. But even apart from the salvation of lost people, lost people sometimes shuffle among systems of religious belief while they form their own religious opinions.

    To suppress religious liberty for Muslims is to suppress religious liberty for every American. The lost American who is nominally Presbyterian (but spiritually lost) today might choose next week to convert to Islam. From the moment that you restrict religious liberty for Muslims, you restrict it from Presbyterians, too. Yes, they have the freedom to continue as Presbyterians without fear of governmental reprisal, but the liberty they had once enjoyed (to convert to Islam without governmental interference) even Presbyterians no longer enjoy. Although I know as a theological truth that I, having been genuinely converted, cannot (by means of spiritual boundaries) convert to Islam, so far as the government is concerned, I presently have the full religious liberty to do so if I so choose. If the government were to take away religious liberty from Muslims, I myself no longer have the religious liberty (as far as the government is concerned) to choose to convert to Islam without suffering reprisals from the government.

    The Baptist Faith & Message supports my right to form my religious opinions. I have the right to form them in both bad ways and good ways. God may interfere with that formation. My parent may interfere with that formation. By God's grace a church might interfere with that formation. Government, we believe, must not interfere with it.

So, this is what The Baptist Faith & Message says about religious liberty—it affirms it as pertaining to all religions without exception, and the authors of those words penned them in an environment in which no Baptist was arguing that Islam was not a religion. I do hope that Southern Baptists will not treat The Baptist Faith & Message (not to mention the New Testament) in the same manner that Ruth Bader Ginsburg treats the Constitution. The Baptist Faith & Message cannot mean today what it cannot have meant in 1925, 1963, and 2000. It meant then, and it means today, that we support religious liberty for all religions, Islam included. Anyone who denies that religious liberty should extend to Muslims is in strong and direct opposition to Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message.

This series of posts is occasioned by reports that An IMB trustee from Tennessee has resigned from the board because he disagreed with the IMB's affirmation of Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message. Really, the story goes no deeper than that. We had somehow elected an IMB trustee who did not affirm The Baptist Faith & Message. The aftermath has illustrated for us why a confessional basis for denominational service is both helpful and necessary. That we had governing one of our institutions a trustee who opposes the IMB's confessional standard is a situation that is bound to lead to conflict, and it did. He resigned, and that was the right thing to do. We should be careful to replace him with someone who agrees with our denomination's statement of faith.

I presume that the pastor in question is a good man, a good pastor, a devout Christian, and a man with whom friendship would be a blessing. Those things are true of a whole lot of people in the world who cannot affirm The Baptist Faith & Message.