Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Question from a Pastor About Leaving the ABC?

Since the separation of the Transformation Ministries (formerly ABCPSW) congregations from the ABC several years ago, this barking dog has been uncharacteristically quiet. Most of my silence is due to the fact that I no longer have a “dog” in this fight. Now, however, with Dr. Dale Salico retiring from leadership as Mission Lead (aka Executive Minister) of TM this month and after receiving a telephone call from a pastor in New England, another post might be in order.

Yesterday a New England pastor asked me if I thought that it was “sin” to remain in the ABCUSA. My answer? No, of course not; at least not anymore.

ABCPSW separated from the national body for reasons of historic particularity now no longer as pressing. In a longstanding disagreement with ABCUSA, the PSW board attempted to “send a message” by voting to withdraw from the “budget covenant” with the denomination.

Dr. Medley, then as now the General Secretary of the ABCUSA, countered by insisting that such an option was not open to PSW. Either they keep the budget covenant or they would be in breach of the “covenant of relationships” as well. Taking Dr. Medley at his word, they (I was not a member of the board at that time), felt that the honorable thing was to withdraw entirely. This move was confirmed by an overwhelming percentage of delegates who also voted to leave the national body.

Since then, 155 congregations have signed the covenant to participate with TM. A number of mostly (not entirely) weaker congregations opted to stay affiliated with the ABCUSA and are now known as ABCOSH and administratively linked to the ABCLA. And, some of the churches, including a handful of the stronger ones, were alienated enough from ABC generally, that they took no action at all, leaving them technically in the ABC fold without meaningful involvement of any kind.

Since the PSW withdrawal, ABC responded by adopting policies of accommodation previously called for by Dr. Salico and rejected by the other Executive Ministers at the time. These changes, had they come earlier, would arguably have kept PSW from withdrawing in the first place. Chiefly, they relate to a common sense compromise hammered out by the Executive Ministers, meeting in Tucson several years ago. Since the denomination has a position on human sexuality that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” EM’s agreed not to send representatives to national boards, committees, and task forces who were openly gay or lesbian and not to issue contradictory statements on the matter. This preserved the conscience of conservatives and the freedom of each region to do whatever it wants to in its own precincts relative to the question. How Baptist!

And, since the time of TM’s withdrawal, the ABC has worked diligently on by-laws that will instantiate the de-centralization of the denomination that I have been dubbing the “Balkanization of the ABC” and predicting would come since the 1990s. Practically, each region will have a greater distance from Valley Forge, no longer looking to the national body to issue policy statements for the whole, at least not so easily. The proposed organization will transfer to the individual regional units far more autonomy and independence of action.

The fact that these changes were not adopted in the Pasadena Biennial owes to a number of other factors, among them the worst recession in decades and an unusually expensive venue for travel and lodging. This resulted in an historic low turnout of voting delegates dealing with a complex proposal without the kind of preparation that many of them deemed necessary. It does not, however, take away from the fact that the ABC is moving in a dramatically more decentralized direction and will, in time, certainly approve the enabling documents to legitimize it.

In light of all of these changes, most conservatives should not have conscience problems remaining within the ABC, although they are highly unlikely to effect systemic changes in the theological trajectory of the organization. Like the other mainline denominations, the course would seem to be set, with progressives in firm control of the national bureaucracy and many of the judicatories. Still, Baptist organizations, particularly highly decentralized ones, afford space for conservatives to be true to their values while maintaining selective involvement in the “family.” Indeed, the person who took a lead role in persuading the PSW region board to leave the ABC has since accepted a posting as senior pastor of an ABC congregation in the Midwest, evidently feeling that it did not involve a compromise of conscience.

Does this mean that TM should re-join the ABC after Dr. Salico’s retirement? No. There is a difference between upsetting the status quo in a bad and dysfunctional marriage by getting divorced and remarrying the spouse after the divorce is a fait accompli! TM has recently completed a comprehensive process under the auspices of a professional management firm, has a clearly defined sense of mission, vision, and values, and virtually never even mentions the ABC in board meetings, either negatively or positively, any more. Re-affiliation would prove almost as difficult as disaffiliation. And, from the reports given me by friends in the GEC, the denomination is happy to be “rid” of the problems associated with the PSW.

I still mourn the loss of the “family” that had been my home from 1955 until the separation of TM from the PSW. It is good to know that my friends in the east are able to stay true to the Gospel without leaving the ABC. And, those of us in Transformation Ministries rejoice in the opportunities afforded us for charting a direction without the stress and discord of our previous state.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Calvin 500

Few people have impacted Christian theology as much as John Calvin. His Institutes have stood the test of time and continue to inform and correct the multitude of errors that Christianity's enemies and uninformed friends continue to adopt. His commentaries were a masterpiece of brevity and clarity and provided a model for later generations. For Calvin exegesis was exposition, all about explaining the authorial intent and applying it to God's people today.

During this year of 500th anniversary celebrations of his July 10, 1509 birth, I have already availed myself of two scholarly symposia on the impact of Calvin and plan to travel next month to Grand Rapids for a third one. In an era addicted to fads and flaky trends, Calvin stands up rather well. He was right more than he was wrong. Lacking the sheer brilliance of Luther, he applied his lawyerly and literary skills to explaining the five solas of the Reformation without the drama of Luther.

For Calvin, Christianity was not about us (how non 21st century!). Instead, he declared that God was the sovereign of the universe and that we are called to live life to the glory of God. His arguments for election and predestination, so troubling to our leveling democratic values, were clear and convincing. They remain unanswered in any satisfactory way by his critics.

The photograph was part of a surprise party staged by my staff at Atherton Baptist Homes. They know my fascination with Calvin and wanted to have some fun with the old man (me, not Calvin).

Monday, June 29, 2009

ABC Biennial: A Case of the Law of Unintended Consequences???

I was shocked to learn from my brother, a volunteer at the ABC biennial in Pasadena, that the denominational structure plan did not pass. With observers such as Dr. Dwight Stinnett, I would concur that the plan being proposed was probably the best satisficing balance of competing interests under the circumstances. As Stinnett opines in his blog: “Given who we are, our competing interests, and our incommensurate values, I still believe it was the best we could do at the time.”

But, while musing on the shock of an electoral defeat this dramatic, a thought came to me. The vote was close, very close to passing. And, the numbers of delegates were few, less than 700! What if the decision to hold the biennial in the heart of the old ABCPSW, in the middle of the worst recession in decades, without pruning the rolls of old ABC churches now more TM than ABCOSH, was responsible for tipping the balance against the proposal? [Nothing in this posting is intended as asserting that this did indeed happen. I was not there and do not know. However, it represents an interesting possibility to consider.]

Certainly there were plenty of people motivated to be suspicious of authority, who felt underinformed about the proposal, or who did not relate to the electronic means of learning more about the details from an internet site. "Old School" Baptists would object that the proposal was more than a little unbaptistic in its decoupling of agencies and regions. Add to this the progressives on the left who were sincerely offended that the proposal would freeze in time all past resolutions (e.g., the one they find most odious of all regarding homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching). The material prepared by the folks at AWAB's Central Baptist Church (Wayne) offered articulate reasons to oppose the plan.

However, an often neglected factor may have played a role as well. When PSW voted overwhelmingly to withdraw from the ABC, Dr. Salico explained that he and Dr. Medley had agreed to give congregations 18 months to discern which affiliation they wanted to maintain. However, it was hardly a couple of months when that agreement was interpreted (abrogated? forgotten? modified?) as something very different. Congregations were told that unless they took an official vote to disaffiliate, they would continue to be counted as ABC churches in good standing.

Even in the old bastion of conservatism, ABCPSW, feelings regarding the ABC were sharply divided in most churches. Few pastors would necessarily want to be so controversial as to raise the issue in debate, lest dissent would sour into division. At this point, the website for ABCOSH lists MANY churches I personally know to be actively disinterested in all things ABC with pastors disinclined to continuing any relationship at all (other than one with BIM). However, many of these churches have not bothered (nor will they ever) to vote themselves “out” of the ABC. And, virtually all of them have members, many of them less informed about denominational politics, who still see themselves as American Baptists.

What if “old fashioned” Baptists who do not feel comfortable with getting their information over the internet from the ABC site, who never really understood what all the fuss was about with the ABC, who wanted to see old friends from around the country, prevailed upon their pastors to allow them to attend the biennial as delegates?

What if the recession reduced the attendance to 1,200? What if the numbers of registered delegates was closer to 600-700? What if some of these nominally ABC churches permitted their more diehard ABC types to go to Pasadena where, because their pastor had never mentioned it, the new structure was a completely new idea to them?

What if the discernment sessions did not adequately inform them about the seemingly radical deconstruction of the SCODS/SCOR structures that they did (finally after nearly four decades) understand? What if it sounded vaguely “unbaptistic” to them?

What if in a desire to be “positive,” nobody explained the financial drivers that made the reduction of the $400,000/yr. representative process price tag more of a decision of urgency and survival rather than merely a discretionary move?

Could enough delegates from basically non-ABC churches (i.e., TM congregations that had not formally withdrawn from the ABCUSA) have innocently mucked up the voting by registering the handful of negative votes necessary to result in a defeat? Could underinformed members of essentially non-ABC churches have shown up in enough numbers to have turned the tide on such an important issue?

Honestly, I do not know the answer. Someone smarter than I am (e.g., Dr. Jeff Woods) might be able to perform a statistical analysis of the numbers of delegates from southern California ABCOSH churches. Were there enough of them to result in the shortfall???

If so, it would be a tragic instance of the law of unintended consequences.

ABC Biennial - Whence and Whither

Being part of the ABC for more than a half century made this biennial a particularly painful one for me. Not being present at a "family reunion" in my backyard because you are no longer part of the family simply reinforces the fact of the separation. My organization, Atherton Baptist Homes, did provide free housing for numbers of BIM missionaries and even an executive minister out to save some money for his region.

For those who want to know what happened, I refer readers to the always excellent and reliable blog by Dwight Stinnett.

This morning he posted a very comprehensive piece, "Pasadena Biennial Results" ( Dwight has proven to be the best insider source for understanding the workings of the ABC. He is fair, balanced, exceptionally bright, and eschews "spin."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What is an "Executive Pastor" Anyway?

I have been absent from this forum for several months due to pressing work responsibilities and enjoying being part of a very active theological message board. One of my e-friends there hails from a Reformed church background. He asked a question about the title, “executive pastor.” Here is my reply . . .

BIG churches tend to have Executive Pastors acting as the COO of the organizational stuff. They handle managing the office staff, associate pastors, HR issues, deal with vendors and contractors, direct the custodial staff, take care of building management issues, sometimes act as staff liaison to the ruling board, and generally handle the operations function in the multi-million dollar corporation. This frees up the senior pastor to work on his sermons, write books, speak around the country, sit for radio interviews, and spend time in his vacation home far away from congregation members.

The phenomenon is almost universally prevalent in "seeker sensitive" congregations due to their deeply ingrained culture of being early adopters of the latest business and marketing models. It is relatively less common in Reformed circles due to the fact that requiring the memorization of Calvin's Institutes, thorough rote knowledge of the BCO and various Confessions and Catechisms, and requiring the identification and recitation of the dozens of acronyms for all of the micro-Presbyterian denominations . . . well, it tends to limit congregational size and the necessity for an Executive Pastor. That is why, among Reformed groups, they are most often found in PCA congregations, particularly those where the pastors have been Willowcreekified or Saddlebacked into a Purpose Driven posture.

Generally you can determine the statistical probability of a church having an Executive Pastor based on whether the senior pastor has more books by Francis Turretin or George Barna in his personal library. Turretin is a dead giveaway that this is NOT a place where you will find an Executive Pastor. The presence of copies of books by Kaspar Olevianus or Zacharius Ursinus (in the original) increases that probabilistic likelihood to a near certainty. Ten books published by Jossey-Bass would generally point to a strong correlation with having an Executive Pastor; more than that and this IS the office of the Executive Pastor.

One way to determine whether a church is likely to have an Executive Pastor is to engage the pastor in casual conversation. Ask him to explain the extra calvinisticum. If he responds by drawing intersecting circles representing the trinity and differentiating his view from Luther's communicatio idiomatum, you may safely conclude that he will not have an Executive Pastor. If, on the other hand, he draws three circles and begins to explain the crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of the following: 1. What you can be the best in the world at (and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at), 2. What drives your economic engine, and 3. What you are deeply passionate about, happens to mention the name of Jim Collins, or the "hedgehog principle," then you may pretty certainly assume that he will have an Executive Pastor.

I'm just old enough to find the name change a little too au courant or fashionably chic. Here in CA, we have adopted the new nomenclature even for relatively small congregations which sounds (to my jaded old ears) about as silly as watching a 5 year old dressing up in daddy's suit and tie and carrying an atache case to look "big."


Executive Pastor used to be Associate Pastor used to be Assistant Pastor.

Associate Pastor for Family Life Ministries used to be Christian Education Pastor used to be Director of Christian Education.

Pastor of Worship Arts used to be Minister of Music used to be Music Director.

Associate Pastor for Student Ministries used to be Pastor to Youth used to be Youth Pastor used to be Youth Director.

Minister of Building Management used to be Senior Custodian used to be Janitor.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Evangelicalism's Greatest Failure Redux

Several friends and even one daughter-in-law took offense at my indictment of evangelicalism. Suffice it to say, I did not intend for my earlier posting to dismiss the evangelistic intentions or pragmatic effectiveness of any of the evangelical leadership of today. They are, and have been consistently, quite adept at presenting the Gospel in a winsome and attractive way as witnessed by the geometric growth of some of their ministries (regardless of our intramural differences over tactics or style). Nor do I quarrel with their expansion to speak about Christian action in the arenas of poverty, injustice, or illiteracy. Most of the great social improvements of the 19th century (e.g., the abolition of slavery, establishment of hospitals and retirement communities, etc.) came through the sacrificial efforts of Godly evangelical leaders who saw their mandate as involving more than "church work."

My concern is not that evangelicals are unable to stage large scale evangelistic efforts, creative programs, or innovative small group/video campaigns. This is obviously one of our strengths in the evangelical wing of the church. However, if you will audit some of the sermons preached in evangelical churches today that are dealing with anything other than evangelism per se, I believe you will find a shocking misuse of Scripture, tendency to psychologize the message for the goal of "relevance," and moralistic readings of Biblical texts.

Despite what anyone might say, the purpose of the Noah narrative is not to tell us to love animals and avoid inflicting pain upon them. That may be true enough. However, such a "reading" of Genesis is wrong, not because the "moral" is not a true statement, but because it misses the clear point the biblical author is presenting to us.

Luther's greatest contribution is often taken to be the rediscovery of the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone. Luther, however, thought otherwise. He always opined that his greatest theological contribution was the differentiation of Law and Gospel, the Do and the Done. I am certainly more Calvinist than Lutheran and do not employ the Lutheran homiletic in my own preaching. However, his point is quite valid.

When we forget Luther's admonition, we will end up with a focus on feelings and good works. Schliermacher, father of modern liberalism, even defined true religion in terms of the interior life of the individual and the "sense and taste for the infinite" consisting primarily in feeling in Der christliche Glaube (The Christian Faith). When the liberals of the 19th and early 20th century following him left the grand theme of God and Gospel they ended up making it all about man, losing the Gospel in favor of Law. For them the "Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man" meant that our access to God is through our good works done in the service of our neighbor.

The fundamentalist explosion in the early 20th century objected that if religion were merely about "religious feeling" and our good works, it was no longer Christianity. J. Gresham Machen, in one of the most important books of the century, contended that liberalism was no longer Christianity at all but another religion entirely.

Against the control of the denominations by liberal scholars, the so-called "five fundamentals" put forth by the nascent "funamentalist" movement of conservatives held:

1. The Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1; John 20:28; Hebrews 1:8-9).
2. The Virgin Birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27).
3. The Blood Atonement (Acts 20:28; Romans 3:25, 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:12-14).
4. The Bodily Resurrection (Luke 24:36-46; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 15:14-15).
5. The inerrancy of the scriptures themselves (Psalms 12:6-7; Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20).

Another twist came in the 1940s when Carl F.H. Henry and Harold John Ockenga proposed the term "evangelical" (actually neo-evangelical) as a way of keeping the core of the faith in continuity with the Reformation and Puritan tradition while eliminating the anti-intellectual and judgmental elements of American fundamentalism. The founding of Fuller Seminary, Gordon-Conwell, and the National Association of Evangelicals was part of their effort. Again, the emphasis was certainly "evangelistic." However, the content of the Gospel determined the message of the evangel.

In contrast to some of my gloomy prognostications in the last post, theologian Allister McGrath has painted a fairly rosy picture of the future of evangelicalism. He observes that we come from three interacting historical traditions: Reformational Christianity, Pietism, and the Puritan movement.

My concern is that in recent times, the first and last are relegated to the dustbin of history and we follow an almost exclusively pietistic and subjective compass for navigating the troubled waters of modernity and post-modernity. In a pellmell haste to "get back to basic Christianity and to ignore all of the traditions," we have tended to forget the crucial elements of our evangelicalism that are made up of sturdy Reformation doctrine and the experiential Calvinism of the Puritans, accepting largely uncritically an unconscious acceptance of the pietist tradition.

My concern with much contemporary evangelicalism is not with our evangelistic sermons or programs. It is when we are talking about almost ANY thing else than "getting saved" that we tend to become adrift. Preaching law will be either painfully judgmental or will inevitably degenerate into moralism. And, moralistic preaching is what I was objecting to in my original piece.

Enough with self-help how-to bromides and platitudes. Hurting people sensing that they are drowning in their troubles need something sturdier and more stable on which to hold than a plank of pious good wishes and a life preserver of the latest evangelical self-help “classic.” Only the bold declaration of the grace of a Sovereign God towards us sinners, the mercy he shows to us in the atoning death of Christ, and the confident peace that comes from him as the Provident One who will sustain his creation (and us) will enable us to cross these rapids of post-modern waters safely to the other shore.

When a preacher reduces the message to a list of pointers on how to vet a presidential candidate, we have missed a golden opportunity to declare that the redemptive historical metanarrative of the Bible points to a reality larger than Caesar, even these current applicants for the post. Helping Christians think through concrete decision-making is a worthy enterprise and should be part of a sermon's application, not the substitute for it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Evangelicalism’s Greatest Sin: The failure of the evangelical experiment as illustrated in the recent Saddleback Civil Forum

Evangelicalism, not the classic meaning of the term in church history and theology, but the unique constellation of doctrinal, sociological, and historical characteristics that are part of today’s American religious life is a movement in trouble. For a few years now I have been struggling vainly to find the key to unlock my growing disquiet with a movement so broad as to encompass Bill Hybels and Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and that Lakeland Revival guy Todd Bentley, Robert Schuller and John MacArthur, Jack Hayford and Michael Horton, Fuller Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary.

Historian David Bebbington describes this movement, shaped by revival and molded by resistance against “liberalism,” in terms of its characteristic beliefs and emphases: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Some observers have noted that belief has less to do with the movement than technique. Mega church pastors like Rick Warren boast of “training” more than 400,000 pastors and sending out a newsletter weekly to 230,000, many of whom simply copy his sermon notes for their own Sunday messages. As evangelical Christianity has morphed in America, it has proven more ingenious and mutable than a pesky virus in a CDC laboratory.

Quick to embrace new technologies, whether Luther’s use of the printing press to flood Germany with Reformation tracts, Charles Fuller’s early employment of radio in his “Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” or the 24/7 coverage on numerous religious cable television stations today, conservative Christians have been among the first to adopt and adapt new technologies to the service of proclaiming their brand of Gospel. And, in the process, they have changed not only “how” they do church, but the very content of the Good News (the root meaning of the Greek “euangellion” or “evangel”) itself.

Shamed and scolded by “liberals” for decades for being so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good, evangelicals have begun to address these criticisms. In the past few years we have seen Bill Hybels invite Bill Clinton, ordinarily a pariah among religious conservatives such as James Dobson, and industry titans like Jack Welch to his annual Leadership Summit for church leaders. Warren has stressed AIDS relief, made common cause with U2’s Bono, and developed his own P.E.A.C.E plan to tackle the five “global giants” of spiritual emptiness, self-centered leadership, poverty, pandemic disease, and illiteracy.

The recent Saddleback Civil Forum reveals evangelical Rick Warren doing what socially conscious liberal Christians have long advocated: engaging the culture politically. But, in typical Saddleback fashion, it was done on a big scale, bigger than anything ever attempted by a pastor before now. The two presumptive candidates for our nation’s top office each sat for their genial hour long interview with the purpose driven pastor-in-chief, all before the glare of television lights and cameras.

A report on the event by Weekly Standard’s publisher, Terry Eastland, finally got to the heart of my growing discontent. Evangelicals have responded to the complaints of our cultured liberal interlocutors by selling, bartering away, and down-right squandering their birthright. In short, the evangelicals have no Gospel, no Evangel anymore. In place of the liberating good news of the Gospel, they have substituted the same tasteless recipe responsible for the decline in the liberal mainline churches over much of the last half century. Rather than Gospel, evangelicals have settled for Law, or as they practice it today, moralism.

Eastland reported that on the day after the forum, Warren preached to his 22,000 people a message “The Kind of Leadership America Needs.” Using 21 citations from the Bible, including 13 from Proverbs, two from the Psalms, three from the Gospels, one from Philippians, and two from James, he buttressed his case and supported his points.

However, as Eastland observes, something was missing? The Gospel!

"Notably absent from the message, however, was the distinctive content of the Christian faith, even though this was a worship service. Warren didn't discuss the verses he used in the context of the Bible's overall redemptive message. Had he done that, he would have made it to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Even when citing a text explicitly mentioning Jesus, Warren didn't go into what it was actually about. "When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36) is fundamentally not about how leaders need to be compassionate, though they do, but about how Jesus the shepherd has come for his lost sheep."

Then, in words as prescient as they are indicting, Eastland concluded that “Plenty of pastors mine the Bible for moral teachings and character lessons. Warren's approach to Scripture on this particular Sunday was hardly unusual. And taken as a civics lesson, his message was fine. But as a sermon for a church, it left something to be desired.”

“Leaving something to be desired” politely states the obvious: Evangelicalism, so full of desire to be relevant to the unchurched and frankly, so anxious to be taken seriously by both the secular and the liberal religious establishment today, has essentially become the liberal religious establishment of yesterday.

Rather than being the party of faith, Scripture, and Gospel, evangelicals have gradually become what they started out to oppose. The fundamentalists of the early 20th century took the Gospel seriously enough to withdraw from the mainline denominations where it had decayed into maudlin moralism. The formation of the neo-evangelical movement in the 1940s, with Fuller Seminary as its flagship, attempted to strip some of the more noxious and socially unacceptable attitudes from ugly fundamentalist extremism in America.

However, the most characteristic expression of theological liberalism has been Law, not Gospel. And, church history teaches us that when it decays, as surely as a radioactive isotope, Law leads inevitably to legalism and moralism. Evangelical moralism is no better than the fundamentalist flavor, which in turn is no improvement over the sappy moralistic nonsense of the liberals in the last century.

Now that the movement has aged to the point of feeling its power, staging a civic forum where candidates are summoned to make their appearance might make some sense. At least they are engaging culture rather than hiding from it. But, the lessons learned from their critics were learned both too perfectly and too inadequately. Following up on the liberal critique, evangelicals have begun to “care about” HIV, poverty, peace, and the qualifications for the next President of the United States.

But, rather than learning from the liberals’ loss of the Gospel, we seem intent on replicating it. Today, evangelical preaching, even the “Bible based expositional” kind tends toward moralistic, Bible laced versions of old liberal standbys. David becomes an example of five principles for having a good friendship. Elijah's battle with the prophets of Baal turns into a lesson on depression.. Ephesians becomes a formula for better marriages. And, as in the case of the Saddleback sermon, Proverbs and Jesus help us to choose a president.

Citing a lot of verses from the Bible does not a biblical sermon make. Quoting from the secular Weekly Standard again, “notably absent from the message, however, was the distinctive content of the Christian faith.” And, unless the verses used are put into the “context of the Bible’s overall redemptive message,” preaching will border on the shallow, the sappy, and the sentimentally self-help oriented. In this sense, slick Joel Osteen rather than smart and effective Rick Warren should be seen as the ultimate exemplar of evangelicalism today. Osteen’s “Become a Better You” more faithfully represents what evangelicalism has become in this post-Christian era than anything written by the affable and sincere purpose-driven pastor of Orange County.

As Eastland concludes,
The irony of Saddleback is that one of the two candidates--it was not McCain, but Obama, in his remarks about Christ dying for his sins and redeeming him--actually said more about the Christian faith in the civil forum than America's most influential pastor did in his message on Sunday to his congregation. Such are the oddities that attend the present moment, in which our faith-involved politics carries on, triumphant.

What is missing in the midst of all the Law is the redemptive sound of the Gospel. Until preaching recovers the victorious pronouncement “done” of the Gospel, the current preoccupation with reducing everything to a seeker sensitive mass of moral lessons and self-improvement “how to” applications will sound like a lot of “do.” Sadly, the man behind the Saddleback Civil Forum received his doctorate in ministry from Fuller, the school begun in 1947 as the new “evangelical” alternative to mushy liberalism.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Was Separation from the ABC Really Necessary?

Recently a friendly interlocutor quipped that since the withdrawal of Transformation Ministries (formerly ABC PSW) from the ABCUSA, His Barking Dog has been unusually quiescent. Actually, what Zack said was “Ever since the dog stopped barking at the ABC-USA, he seems to have very little to say.”

With several years between the separation of TM from the ABC, most of the extreme grief has settled into merely the dull sadness that afflicts those who have lost their first love through a breakup. And, TM has flourished to the point that as of the first of last month nearly 150 congregations have signed the covenant (no mean feat for a group of creedal-phobic Baptists!).

What sense does it make to carp about the ABC anymore? No ABC conservative regions joined TM in their departure. Evidently, the audience for this blog is quite satisfied with all things ABC. And, to the extent that they are not, several of the leaders have told me that they intend to marginalize the ABC by privately advising congregations to target their giving and by-pass Valley Forge, especially the Office of the General Secretary. But, with the sale of the headquarters building to the mission boards, OGS will be far less dependent upon support from the churches anyway. Endowments can last in perpetuity.

But now, a few years after the break, quipster Zack’s comment prompted me to look back and the ABC again and re-examine my decision to vote for departure. Was it the right thing to do? Was the ABC really on a trajectory into the depths of heresy as some of us had contended?

Confirmation for the wisdom of withdrawing comes from a strange source, the pro-gay Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Yes, those most responsible for pushing PSW to the edge of the precipice are also the ones bearing clear witness to why we believed that we had to jump in the first place.

In the June 2008 Associational e-newsletter, AWAB Executive Director, Ken Pennings, writes about a recent visit to the First Baptist Church of Madison (WI) by Dr. A. Roy Medley, General Secretary of the ABCUSA.

Dr. Medley preached in morning worship and also stayed for a luncheon at the church, a member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Remember that the national policy, adopted by the General Board of the ABCUSA, declares homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.” So what prophetic word would the chief executive officer of the ABC bring to a church committed to a proposition that his own board declares to be “incompatible with Christian teaching”? I cite at length the words of the Rev. Mark Clinger, pastor of the church, as printed in the AWAB newsletter (emphasis mine):

"Dear Friends:

Yesterday’s visit by the General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches, the Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley, was a very positive, inspiring and reassuring experience. In his sermon, Dr. Medley encouraged us to serve as the hands and feet of Christ, by strengthening our Christian practices of gratitude, generosity, and engagement in the wider world. He called us to live in a 'new ecology of relationships' begun by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“During the luncheon following worship, Dr. Medley spoke to a number of issues within our denomination, beginning with the 'recent unpleasantness' on matters surrounding the issue of sexual orientation. He upheld the twin historic Baptist emphases upon the 'authority of scripture' as well as the final role of the 'local congregation' in scripture’s interpretation. He recognized that standing for these principles cost the denomination the loss of one region but added that we could not surrender these convictions of conscience. Dr. Medley’s assertion of the primacy of these principles in the ongoing life of our denomination was deeply reassuring.

“Dr. Medley went on to share some other observations about our life together. He spoke of the 'catholicity' of the American Baptist family, recognizing we are the broadest and most inclusive band of Baptists in the country, spanning a greater diversity of theological belief, race and culture than any other national gathering of Baptists. He encouraged us to reclaim the joy of living together, out of this diversity, as we simply share in the work of God. He also celebrated the many relationships that are growing between us and other Baptists as seen in both the Alliance of Baptists and the New Baptist Covenant. He added, 'Excluding different views is not how we conduct our life.'

“Finally, I was keenly impressed by the leadership and initiative Dr. Medley is taking in building an 'ecology of relationship' between our denomination and the Islamic Society of America. He is particularly emphasizing dialogue on how we can work together to insure peace and dignity for all, a prophetic stance in this time of growing anti-Islamic prejudice.

“In all, I found in Dr. Medley, as I so often do, a genuine Christian spirit deeply committed to the principles of conscience that ground our denomination in the best of times. His visit, his presence, and his honest addressing of the issues at hand were deeply reassuring to me and should serve to strengthen our continuing relationship with our American Baptist family."

The prophetic edge of Dr. Medley’s words consisted in lamenting the “recent unpleasantness” over differences in understandings of human sexuality leading to the loss of one of the most significant regional units in the country and boldly stating that one cannot “surrender these convictions of conscience.”

Believing that one must cater to those who affirm what the denomination has already declared to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” makes about as much sense as affirming a square hole, Christian atheism, or a “Buddhist Baptist.” That Dr. Medley’s sincere and heartfelt vision of Baptist life includes such expansive horizons substantiates beyond any reasonable doubt what leaders of the old PSW were saying when they cried out for redress. In the end, we left. And, friends of mine within the ABC bureaucracy have since confirmed that our departure was not so much a cause for grief as one provoking a collective shout of “good riddance!”

Interestingly, in addition to the “core values and shared beliefs” of the church where Dr. Medley preached can be found the following: “Beyond these shared values and beliefs, a great diversity of personal faith, beliefs, and values is found and treasured within our community. We expect no conformity to any creed.”

Four hundred years ago Baptists were persecuted and died for advocating a freedom of church from state in order to follow what they saw as the clear teachings of the Bible. Now some of them just stand for freedom to believe any fool thing they want to, even when it contradicts the clear teachings of the Bible. And their titular head calls it all an “ecology of relationships” he claims to be rooted in the resurrection. Since when does the resurrection annul or overturn the Word of God?

In 1689 Baptists had no trouble affirming and submitting to an orthodox confession, the doctrinally sturdy London Baptist Confession of Faith. Here, in America, the 1742 Philadelphia Confession restated it for that time. But in 2008, and in a “very positive, inspiring and reassuring experience,” American Baptist leaders such as Dr. Medley have no problem developing an “ecology of relationships” with those holding beliefs incompatible with Christian faith, including Islam!

Did Transformation Ministries really need to leave the ABC? Ya think?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Why Every Self-Respecting What? Is a What?

Few contemporary writers have generated as many books as John MacArthur. With more than 26 commentaries, 43 books, and over a dozen study guides released under his name, the productive pastor of the Grace Community Church (Sun Valley, CA) has impacted today’s evangelicalism in many and varied ways. But, for many pastors, a highlight of the MacArthur ministry is the annual “Shepherd’s Conference,” held at the church. Last year, however, brought a surprise, as MacArthur variously delighted and outraged his standing room only audience of clergy. The topic? "Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Premillennialist."

The logic of the message was clear. Calvinists believe in the sovereignty of an electing God who acts monergistically. What eschatology better reflects the genius of such unilateral divine action than the one that is built on unconditional promises made to Abraham and to his descendents? In other words, what MacArthur was saying was that “every self-respecting Calvinist” should be a “premillennialist.”

But, here Dr. MacArthur uncharacteristically minced his words. For the oldest version of the view that Jesus would come to inaugurate a millennial rule on earth, the so-called “historic premillennialism,” has much in common with the other types of second coming schema popular in Christianity for the last two thousand years.

The historic premillennialist does not build a doctrine of last things upon a distinction between Israel and the Church, but upon the interpretation of a few verses in Revelation 20. Rather, it is only the dispensationalist type of premillennialism, with its unyielding differentiation between Israel and the Church that MacArthur thinks should be the position of every “self-respecting Calvinist.

Now a card-carrying Calvinist, DR. SAM WALDRON, one of the pastors of the Heritage Baptist Church of Ownesboro, Kentucky, and the Professor of Systematic Theology at the Midwest Center for Theological Studies, responds to MacArthur’s “manifesto” with a detailed analysis of the message. (MacArthur’s Millenial Manifesto: A Friendly Response, Sam Waldron, Reformed Baptist Academic Press (2008), 172 pages).

In one of the most irenic rebuttals ever penned, Waldron shows continual respect for MacArthur and his ministry and tackles his topic with great gentleness but systematically dismantles the logic of the much talked about Shepherd’s Conference address that is actually printed as an appendix to the book.

If there were ever a book showing what contemporary amillennialists (those who contend that Jesus will return in a singular way at the end of the age to resurrect the dead, to judge the world, and to usher in the new heavens and the new earth) actually believe, this would be it.
Waldron carefully sweeps away the accumulated misunderstandings, mischaracterizations of the position by opponents, and mean-spirited polemics. Relying upon a command of the Bible, hermeneutics, and two millennia of Christian theology, Waldron writes with simple clarity in some of the shortest chapters in memory. He details why he thinks that MacArthur's dispensational eschatology does not tally best with the teaching of the Bible. The cumulative impact is to make any honest premillennialist want to become, if not an amillennarian, at least a more careful teacher on the subject of the return of Christ.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Better Learn Some History Before It's Too Late - The Lessons of the Past for Current Practice

Henry Ford is famous for his frank assessment:
"History is bunk." The more I read of church history, the more it illuminates my current understanding of doing church. As we look at the bewildering array of spiritual movements and conflicting advice for pastors on how to "do" church, we might pause for a moment to look back.

In 1521, the Zwickau prophets had become extremely active during the time of Luther's forced exile in the Wartburg Castle. During the absence of the lion, the rats came out of the woodwork. Under their influence, the Bible became an unnecessary "paper pope," standing between the believer and the immediacy of Holy Spirit inspiration. Rather than accepting that God mediated his grace through the Word, they formed communities united in their sense that the Spirit spoke more freshly unfettered by the impediments of Scripture. Even the formidable Andreas Carlstadt, Luther's colleague at Wittenberg, fell under the spell of these enthusiasts. Carlstadt discarded his study of the Word in favor of circulating with the "people" where true truth could be ascertained--by osmosis evidently--in the context of 16th century version of "missional communities."

The Magisterial Reformers of the 16th century argued that the Lord speaks through the Spirit through the Word. Spiritual knowledge is, therefore, mediated, not immediate. The Zwickau prophets opted for the excitement of experience. Luther rightly condemned their heretical efforts and even said of his friend Carlstadt, "He has swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all." In an important sense the Zwickau prophets show a marked affinity for some of the trends within evangelicalism today. I am struck by the prophetic words of WSCAL's Scott Clark:

The evangelical convulsions over justification mean this: Van Til was correct. The fundamental principle of the evangelicals, at least in the Modern period, is religious enthusiasm. Because this is so, religious experience trumps truth every time.

If you follow the popularity of the New Perspective on Paul (cf. Sanders, Dunn, and Wright) in the academy and the reactions of evangelical scholar's such as Westmont's Bob Gundry (my former prof who gave me 32 semester units of his wisdom and officated at my wedding) who have disputed the Reformational sense to justification by faith in our day (cf. John Piper's entire book, Counted Righteous in Christ, written to counter Gundry), you can see how we are meandering toward the precipice again. Rejecting the objectivity of Reformational Christianity's solas, we inch ever closer to the chaos of seeking truth in immediate religious experience.

Without a confessional anchor (remember the old 1689 London BAPTIST Confession of Faith with its solid doctrinal core?), we have nothing left but religious experience (great shades of Schliermacher!). In such a context, "evangelicalism" will devolve into the shallowness of Osteen-esque "spirituality" without a cross, the exploitation of the latest in scientific technique (e.g. the wholesale appropriation of the most recent business school insights and methods to pastoral ministry), or an honest rejection of Christianity as vapid and devoid of rational content. The kinds of experience I recorded in the last post makes complete sense in a world where Reformation lessons are set aside for "quick fix" techniques governed only the omnipotent principle of "what works."

Somehow, rather than the quote by the great master of pragmatic application of knowledge to the mass production of automobiles, I prefer the prescience of George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Caught Inside a Seminar with a Consultant Man Again!

Today I experienced one of the most challenging, annoying, and disturbing seminars in a very long time. Firstly, with more than five decades of church life under my belt, there are few fads that have not ended up costing me time and money for some class or seminar someplace. In the 60s it was the charismatic renewal, in the 70s church growth. Spiritual gifts followed and then leadership and vision seminars. Lately, we have seen a spate of conferences dealing with the emerging church and ministry to postmoderns.

I have sat through more than enough sessions on “reaching the unreached,” becoming “seeker sensitive,” pioneering a contemporary service, and the like. Today was no different. With words like “missional community,” moving from an “attraction model to an incarnational model,” “apostolic leadership,” and a small rucksack full of specialty vocabulary, it felt like being force fed a year’s worth of Leadership Net material through a fire hose.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not immune to the appeal of this kind of material. Indeed, a quest to master this arcane literature led me to complete a masters degree in organizational management at a secular business school during the mid-90s. My more than 500 page thesis surveyed virtually every bit of leadership material then extant as well as conducting some major social science research on correlations between pastoral leadership style and ministerial effectiveness. However, I have come to believe that just as the CEO model for the pastor has proven disastrously unhelpful, so will this newest fad.

During the sessions today some familiar themes were sounded: replacing “church growth” with a vision for kingdom growth; developing disciples instead of members; encouraging a new apostolic leadership; moving away from a program centered preoccupation to focusing on spiritual formation; and shifting from planning to preparing for a challenging and uncertain world.

What I appreciated was the encouragement for church leaders to think “outside the box” and to find creative ways to impact their communities for Christ and to encourage their people to do the same. Some of the ideas mentioned were positively genius! Also, the humorous delivery and relentless teasing made the time pass quickly.

However, when we move beyond these helpful pointers, there was much that was disturbing in the day. With clear echoes of Barna and Viola, the speaker constantly carped on the superiority of missional communities and house churches as an answer to “Constantinian” Christianity. Evidently practically everything wrong with Christianity today could be solved by promoting missional communities, house churches, and “missionaries” doing intentional outreach in apartment buildings and labs instead of being part of a traditional church. Much as I felt when reading Barna’s Revolution, my mind kept wondering if this speaker was not working over much hard to justify the fact that he evidently does not like going to church and left the pastorate for the peripatetic role of seminar speaker and consultant.

In the estimation of some of the architects of what’s next, the church of the future will be multiform. Mega churches or “big box churches” will not fade away since there will always be “somebody” who likes that sort of thing. But, one gets the impression that the real action will be had in the trenches where the truly committed eschew conventional church involvement in favor of so-called pre-contstantinian “market place” Christianity without buildings, liturgy, or programs.

Rather than being a “project manager,” “cruise ship director,” or other demeaning description of contemporary pastors, spiritually alive folks will devote themselves to the kind of house church structures that are so in vogue in the minds of progressive church consultants today. And, even if these missional communities do not involve themselves in corporate worship, that is no great loss. Our leader explained that he has been to a lot of church worship services and “they ain’t so good.” He assured us that you “won’t be hurt” by missing weekly worship. As for the biblical admonition to "forsake not the assembling of yourselves together," that will take place in the various ad hoc missional activities that people "feel led" to engage in throughout their communities.

A more disturbing casualty of this churchless utopia would seem to be the Bible. The Corinthians did not have a Bible to read, preachers to sermonize, or programs to sign up for, we were told. Yet, they were able to experience a vital spiritual dynamic. They simply followed the mystical leading of the Holy Spirit.Church history instructs us at this point. I wonder if the seminar speaker ever heard of the Zwickau prophets, early 16th century Anabaptist enthusiasts opposed forcefully by Luther.

“What is the use,” said they, “of clinging so closely to the Bible? The Bible! always the Bible! Can the Bible preach to us? Is it sufficient for our instruction? If God had designed to instruct us by a book, would he not have sent us a Bible from heaven? It is by the Spirit alone that we can be enlightened. God himself speaks to us. God himself reveals to us what we should do, and what we should preach.”

Even Luther’s dear colleague, Andreas Carlstadt, “lost himself in the clouds of a confused mysticism and spiritualism, and appealed, like the Zwickau Prophets, to immediate inspirations.” Luther wryly observed of his friend: "He has swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all."

An evangelicalism untethered from the Word will soon dissipate into little more than social good works or theological irrelevance. And, if history teaches us anything, it demonstrates that diminishing the Word of God always leads to a denial of other core beliefs. Disciples of Christ without a church where the Word is faithfully preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is exercised are much like fish out of water. And, they will end up with the same fate.

Consultants always come with a brief case overflowing with ideas. But, any idea broker who dismisses the church of Jesus Christ as a "constantinian" error, depreciates the importance of Christian corporate worship, and uses immediacy of divine direction as an argument to dispense with the preached Word of God will not lead to a strengthening of God's kingdom or his church. No matter how humorous the delivery or winsome the personality, snarky put downs and non-stop examples of church problems do not a change agent make.

Frighteningly, this man is widely published, highly regarded, teaches D.Min. courses at my alma mater, and consults with several of the major evangelical denominations and many of the para-church agencies out there today.

My lingering questions at the end of the day: Why would church leaders pay outrageous sums of money to listen to this nonsense? And, if they did actually take the advice to heart, how well would most churches respond to proposals to eliminate buildings, stated worship services, and the like? Finally, what would prompt pastors to bring their lay leaders to a conference in order to be told by a man who no longers participates in an organzied church how to dispense with organized churches? I can only assume that the sponsors of this event either did not know what the speaker believed or thought that the listeners would simply go for the atmospherics and the show and ignore the actual advice.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Expelled Exposes Antipathy to God in the Academy

Expelled is the kind of documentary for those who like their highly technical information served up with a wry sense of humor, lots of creative use of old fashioned video clips, and an exposition of the topic using a relentless metaphor of the Berlin Wall as the intellectual backdrop. And, for good measure, process the whole thing through the sardonic Buster Keaton deadpan of economist, Yale Law valedictorian, White House speech writer, law professor, columnist, game show host, and actor famous for the words: “Bueller, Bueller.”

Expelled is the vehicle for Ben Stein to present a sustained call for freedom of thought and inquiry against the environment of academic totalitarianism. Exposed are the deans, PR flacks, and professors who are willing to deny tenure and ruin the careers of well educated science professors for the singular crime of suggesting that the Darwinian emperor has no clothes. Citing both the defenders of evolutionary ideology and those who have raised questions challenging it, we see more Cambridge, Berkeley, and University of Chicago trained PhD's than have probably appeared in any movie in history.

Stein traipses through the documentary in suit and tennis shoes, asking awkward questions, pushing fabulously educated scholars to affirm the logical conclusions of their pronouncements. Especially ill-served by the format is the narcissistic atheist Richard Dawkins. He actually says on film that Darwinism leads logically to atheism, that atheists make common cause with gullible mainstream Christians to win their support in the pro-evolution war, and that belief in God is irrational and virtually impossible but life on earth may have been “seeded” by space aliens.

Stein is no fundamentalist and he strongly denies young earth creationism. He simply argues that the complexity of life at the molecular level cannot be conceived of without some kind of intelligent design. And, his documentary parades scientists, journalists, and public intellectuals—some of whom are either agnostic or irreligious—through the film with cutouts to scenes of totalitarianism and repeated images of the Berlin Wall.

The “Wall” is Stein’s metaphor for what he sees as the storm trooper tactics of the academic establishment, the media, and the courts to stifle dissent. In his view, this kind of policy robs Americans of precious freedom of thought, speech, and religion. Indeed, for Stein, we are in danger of losing our freedoms at the hands of these intellectual fascists.

For those who rankle at the term “fascist,” the most difficult part of the movie may be Stein’s assertion that Darwinian thought motivated not only Hitler and his final solution, but the Eugenics movement behind people such as Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger. Here Stein uses interviews to make his point, one that might more convincingly have been made simply by citing chapter and verse out of Mein Kampf where Hitler drew the same causal line of association between Darwin and his own ideas.

Stein recognizes that behind the equations, talk of scientific method, and calls for progress one can often discern an implacable hatred of God. Some of those interviewed in defense of evolution seemed to harbor a visceral antipathy to God and condescending disdain for religious people. Near the end of the documentary when Stein pushes Dawkins to admit that the chances of God existing are less than 1%, he also goads him into saying that one of the more likely scenarios for the emergence of life from non-life would be aliens seeding this planet with the original organisms from which we all evolved.

Radio host and film reviewer Michael Medved reports that wherever the movie screens, there has been a tendency for audiences to cheer at the end. Indeed, Stein appears unperturbed by the height of the wall erected to keep out free inquiry. But, he has made this movie to challenge some to dare to scale it. The only question is who will do it?

Anyone? Anyone?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What About the "Non Violent Atonement"?

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr)

One of the truly great summaries of liberal Protestantism in the last century, Niebuhr’s quote has found new currency in the present church environment. A group called Preaching Peace ( has taken on the task of holistically reconceptualizing Christian theology in light of the insights of Rene Girard, the French anthropological philosopher, and the application of his “mimetic theory” or the observation that human desire and behavior involves deep levels of imitation. Essentially, we borrow our desires from others in an endless drama of mythic themes and human imitation.

Girard’s 1972 book, Violence and the Sacred developed Girard’s “second great insight: “the victimary process, which is at the origin of archaic religion.” In Girard’s thinking, the Gospels offer a typical mythical account with “a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd.” However, unlike the normal myth, this one proclaims the innocence of the victim.

In Preaching Peace’s perspective, the Gospels appear to present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — symbolic in this case — in the Eucharist. Yet the parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer.

For the Preaching Peace group, peace is a hermeneutic. When Jesus said, “Peace I give to you,” they see this as exposing “all of our theologies and faiths and religions where we fail to see that Peace is . . . an interpretive choice.”

Applied to the cross of Christ, the Preaching Peace folks want to strip away all of the violence-saturated language of Christian theology (getting rid of the shadow of Augustine and Eusebius) and apply the insights of Girard and the “hermeneutic of peace” to understanding it.

Take Romans 3:25, for instance. Paul says God presented Jesus to be the “propitiation for our sins.” Unlike other words for forgiveness which refer to wiping clean the slate or remitting sin, propitiation (hilastarion) has been understood as assuaging the righteous wrath of a holy God against sin. Jesus’ death satisfied God’s righteous anger or made him “propitious.”

The Preaching Peace view asks the questions: “Does Jesus reveal God's love for us, or placate God's wrath towards us? And doesn't this way of thinking presuppose that you can attain a good, loving result through violence? Does the end justify the violent means? Isn't this the sort of thinking that has fueled the endless cycle of violence that's characterized human history?”

In the last century, liberal Protestantism got around the cross by seeing the ministry of Christ as exemplary of divine love. Now, we have a sophisticated anthropological analysis of human history being used to empty the cross of any meaning other than a pyrrhic victory over violence through innocent suffering. And, major denominational groups are promoting the "non-violent atonement" seminars. I know of at least one denomination that has been sending e-mails to their pastors recommending the resources. And, it has been enthusiastically endorsed by Brian McLaren and other members of the emerging church.

Before I overturn Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards, and a host of Christian heroes, I will need more than Girard’s musings about mimetics. It's almost enough to make one want to echo the Apostle Paul: "For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" 1 Corinthians 2:2 (HCSB).

Sunday, March 09, 2008

What Motivates Us to Change Our Deeply Held Convictions?

One of the most difficult issues facing Christians in our post-modern era relates to the source(s) of authority and how we are to balance between competing values in coming to positions on controversial subjects.

Traditional evangelicals never tire of repeating, to the point of carping, the importance of the Bible (and time-tested consensus in the history of interpretation) in determining the “will of God.” Even self-avowed theological liberals typically mitigate (conservatives would say muddy) conclusions about biblical teaching by raising social, cultural, and historical reasons for contrary views. Few of them, Bishop Spong being a notable exception that proves the rule, actually come out “against” the Bible’s clear teaching per se. More often than not, they use the legerdemain of scholarship to “explain away” the uncomfortable seemingly plain biblical teachings.

Recently, however, I came across an unusually bald statement in favor of setting aside the “clear teaching” of scripture. Dr. Timothy Luke Johnson, R. W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, is straightforward about why he supports same-sex unions:

I think it is important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.

Again, hear the words of Dr. Johnson:

Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?

The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience-through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists-and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts. To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.

OK, so now we have an "evangelical-friendly" scholar who has been a frequent contributor (and interviewee) in Chrisitanity Today explaining that we don't have to follow the Bible or nearly two millennia of Christian interpretation because we have another source of authority: experience. Wow! When pushed, he admits that this is not in accord with the “weight of scriptural evidence.” However, we "trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through the written texts."

What motivates a much lauded New Testament specialist, known for his critiques of the historical skepticism of the Jesus Seminar and for his defense of the historicity of biblical accounts, to reach such an unusual conclusion?

My long-held view is that “cognitive dissonance,” that very human desire to avoid the pain of disagreeing with those we love and the internal conflict it creates, often precipitates a crisis of faith when our experience does not agree with our political theory or theology. Dr. Bart Ehrman, another famous NT specialist, has moved from a Moody Bible Institute student to an agnostic professor at UNC and author of the recent book, God’s Problem. It it he tells of his struggle to resolve doubts about the existence of God after grapling with the ancient “problem of evil.” When cognitive dissonance comes face-to-face with existential angst, the results can be explosive and unpredictable.

For Dr. Johnson, the cause of his crisis of cognitive dissonance was more personal. He writes:

In my case, I trusted that God was at work in the life of one of my four daughters, who struggled against bigotry to claim her sexual identity as a lesbian. I trusted God was at work in the life she shares with her partner-a long-lasting and fruitful marriage dedicated to the care of others, and one that has borne fruit in a wonderful little girl who is among my and my wife’s dear grandchildren.

A prodigal son, reverses in the lives of daddy’s girl, a chronic and intractable spousal illness, and a host of other very personal crises often precipitate radical changes in long-held beliefs. I know of pastors who now reject a belief in hell, not because of the weight of biblical data or due to a convincing exegetical argument, but because of a rebellious child or a reluctant parent. As long as we walk around in these “earthen vessels,” we will continue to struggle with the intersection of immutable truth and our personal pain.

The wise ones tell us that pain should drive us to God afresh for grace to bear up under it. But, sometimes, the vice-like grip of pain seems to nurture in us an urge to opt out, to reconcile our view of God with our view of the world in ways that do violence to our trust in the Lord and in his revealed truth.

Cognitive dissonance as a driver of belief. What a concept! Imagine the “cognitive dissonance” of a sovereign and holy, yet loving, God dealing with you and me!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Bishop Threatens to Suspend J.I. Packer from Ministry

It is one thing to face high level dissension bordering on schism in your church. But, when you threaten a man hailed by Time Magazine as one of the most influential evangelicals in the world . . . yikes!

Packer, the squinty-eyed, jazz-loving, octagenarian represents one of the great thinkers in the evangelical fold and an extremely irenic exemplar of Calvinist soteriology. Known to millions for his classic, Knowing God, he has maintained loyalty to his Anglican tradition while standing squarely in the eveangelical camp. The letter threatening him shows how much brinkmanship is involved in ecclesiastical politics today.

As evidence of the escalating crisis in the global Anglican Communion, today one of the of the world’s most esteemed Christian theologians, Dr. J.I. Packer, received a letter threatening suspension from ministry by the controversial Bishop of New Westminster, Michael Ingham. Bishop Ingham accused Dr. Packer, hailed by Time Magazine as the “doctrinal Solomon” of Christian thinkers, “to have abandoned the exercise of ministry” after the church where he is a member voted to separate from the diocese and join the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone under the oversight of Anglican Archbishop Gregory Venables. Dr. Packer, who was ordained in the Church of England, is the author of the Christian classic, “Knowing God,” and joined Billy Graham and Richard John Neuhaus as one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential evangelicals in 2005.

Dr. Packer, who received his theological education at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, was ordained a deacon (1952) and priest (1953) in the Church of England. He was Assistant Curate of Harborne Heath in Birmingham 1952-54 and Lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol 1955-61. He was Librarian of Latimer House, Oxford 1961-62 and Principal 1962-69. In 1970 he became Principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, and from 1971 until 1979 he was Associate Prinicipal of Trinity College, Bristol. In addition to his published works, he has served as general editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He currently serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.

He will be 82 in July.