Friday, September 30, 2005

Wasn't the Pacific Southwest Board Wrong to Vote to Withdraw from the ABCUSA?

An opinion piece
By Dennis E. McFadden

Since the vote earlier this month by the PSW board to begin the process of withdrawing from the ABCUSA, a number of criticisms against the action have been voiced. Rather than addressing "straw men," the following five points were taken from an actual letter sent to a rather wide distribution of persons. The quotes from the letter appear in italics.

First of all, our denomination, the ABCUSA, has not changed its position about homosexuality and, therefore, I do not see a need for separation. The statement adopted in 1992 declaring the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching is still standing and has not been changed.

While the statement is formally true, it certainly is not materially true. The ABCUSA does have a 1992 resolution on the subject which Rich Schramm of the ABC News Service loves to quote, particularly when deflecting the criticism of people such as Dr. Dobson of Focus on the Family. But, the real value of the resolution can be judged by how widely ignored it has been during the years since its adoption. Not only do the advocates for the more inclusive view sit in positions of power in the General Board of the ABCUSA but in many of the staff positions at Valley Forge as well. Dr. Medley’s own spouse is on record before her denomination’s ruling board (ELCA) lamenting the limited choices of heterosexual marriage or celibacy and advocating for church approval of some kind for gay unions.

I . . . do not agree with the idea of requiring uniformity in the matter of interpretation of Scripture, in this case, in the area of human sexuality. If there is one principle that drew [many of us] to become American Baptist[s], was the belief that each person can read the Bible and form his or her own conclusions without any imposition from others.

There is truth in the claim that Baptists have cherished and celebrated what we like to call “soul competency.” However, up until the last century, that value was always seen as subordinate to biblical authority. Only with E.Y. Mullins’ attempt to combine Schliermacher’s theological view of Christian experience with the philosophical strands of personalism and pragmatism did Baptists begin to treat “soul competency” as an individualized exercise of autonomy.

That we live in a “free country” and that a person may believe anything is not the same as saying that one can join a particular group and believe anything. As an American I am free to be a theist or an atheist, a believer in Christianity or Islam, a neo-con or a Marxist. However, each group has the right to set its own standards for acceptable diversity. As a Baptist, for example, I am not free to practice infant baptism, to teach transubstantiation, or to adopt an episcopal form of church polity. So, my American freedom to be an atheist may (and should) prevent me from joining the local Baptist congregation as a member and prevent me from becoming its pastor. Even the Rotary Club has specific rules and expectations for membership. While I am free to believe whatever I want; my convictions and commitments may preclude me from being accepted by any number of voluntary associations.

Among American Baptists, every congregation, institution, organization, and region enjoy complete freedom to act and govern itself, according to its own rules. No institution can impose itself upon another. Therefore, the decisions of the General Board or the Regional Board, for instance, are not necessarily binding upon the local churches or other organizations.

It interests me that those who maintain that American Baptists really do “have” a firm position on the subject of homosexuality are often the first to profess that in the ABCUSA “every congregation, institution, organization, and region enjoy complete freedom to act and govern itself.” One cannot “have” something if it does not mean anything. If we are made up of covenanting bodies that freely enter into agreements with one another for the purpose of united ministry and joint witness, than we certainly have the right to expect those bodies to profess what has been agreed upon by the body. For example, if a region no longer accepted believer’s baptism, they would be denying a fundamental tenet of Baptist life and identity in a way that would not be the case if they were merely disagreeing over eschatology or a particular strategy for achieving justice. At some point the exercise of one's "soul competency" will exceed the boundaries of belief and practice for every group.

The accusation that the ABCUSA has not implemented the resolution on homosexuality and that has allowed practicing homosexuals and lesbians in positions of leadership is not totally fair. This is asking for the ABCUSA leaders to do police work in checking out the private life of each individual. Besides, we need to be reminded once again of our belief in the autonomy of local churches and organizations.

If the matter were one of closeted gays or silent “advocates,” there might be some force to this critique. However, in the ABCUSA the voices for the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists are hardly closeted or quiet about their positions. One man served in virtually every significant denominational post, even after publicly “coming out” in August of 2000. He was a member of the General Board, the Executive Committee of the General Board, the Nominating Committee of the ABCUSA, the Biennial Planning Committee in both 2003 and this year, and even participated as a member in the General Secretary Search Committee! His coming out was a public event and was reported in both the secular and religious press. He was also a member of the AWAB Council with a bio posted on that official Web site. It spoke of his spouse, Dan, and candidly placed him as more than a mere supporter of the AWAB cause. MMBB similarly has a representative who has been part of the AWAB Council and also open about her sexuality in a bio summary on the AWAB Web site. On the General Board, the voices supporting AWAB include at least one GB representative who openly identifies herself as a lesbian and has written about her lesbianism, posting it on the Internet.

One hardly needs “police work” to be aware that the ABCUSA freely accepts such advocacy and presence despite the fact that the position we “have” affirms that such practice is “incompatible” with Christian teaching. It does not say that homosexual behavior is inconvenient, awkward, embarrassing, or problematic. The words of the resolution boldly proclaim such practice as fundamentally opposed and incompatible with Christianity, not just among Baptists but among believers of all stripes and denominational affiliations.

If, indeed, our denomination means what it meant when it crafted the words of the 1992 resolution, then how can we allow even a cherished value such as “soul competency” to trump what we believe to be incompatible with our common faith? People of good will may certainly disagree on questions of biblical interpretation. Many who oppose homosexual practice may even demur from the strong language of the 1992 resolution which virtually declared homosexual practice to be anathema for Christians. However, from the beginning of the Christian movement, principles of catholicity and apostolicity have been central to our definition of the church. We hold in common with our sisters and brothers in all Christian communions the one faith which has been delivered by the Apostles and which has been confessed by the faithful. One should be very careful about abandoning the unanimous teaching position of the church in virtually all of its official manifestations for the past two thousand years.

I do not want to believe in conspiracy theories but it seems to me that there has been an agenda behind the accusation that our denomination is not implementing its resolution on homosexuality. Since the early nineties, an organization was formed in order to “bring renewal” to the ABCUSA. The name of this organization was American Baptist Evangelicals or ABE. The renewal its leaders were talking about was mainly their desire for the denomination to expel those who believe differently in the area of homosexuality, and especially those who practice it. They wanted the ABCUSA to adopt a more firm stand on homosexuality . . . Now that our Region has taken this position and a few other regions are doing the same, ABE has decided to “phase out” and has called those like-minded leaders and pastors to meet in order to decide about their future, perhaps to form a new denomination. So, it seems to me that, from the beginning, there was another agenda behind the issue of homosexuality.

The purpose of ABE, as I saw it as a rank-and-file member, had to do with advocating for biblical authority in the ABCUSA. The issue of homosexuality has always been viewed as a symptom or merely a “presenting issue” (the description by Scott Gibson, ABE President). Indeed, many of the strongest ABE voices regretted that “the” issue quickly became the 1992 resolution. We are pastors, leaders, and lay people who care deeply for our sisters and brothers who are gay. Most of our ABE pastors have held gay men dying of AIDS in our arms as they were in the hospitals and hospices. However, the sharp point of the spear of secularism and the attack on God’s Word in this generation has fallen on this practice. Perhaps no debate among churches and denominations so typifies the conflict between competing worldviews as starkly as this one.

The decision by ABE to “phase out” was made following the Biennial, as a response to several decisions and directions articulated there, not in reaction to the vote by PSW which came much later. Many of the evangelicals present at the Biennial realized that the battle for the renewal of the ABCUSA had been lost and that it would be foolish to continue expending efforts to change such a hidebound organization with such an entrenched bureaucracy. This kind of fighting is not only unseemly, but probably a waste of time. After more than thirteen years of standing for renewal, the ABE leadership finally concluded following the Denver Biennial that such efforts were quixotic at best, and probably a misuse of time and resources.

Spiritual unity in the church of Jesus Christ must be maintained as a pre-eminent value. This is not the same as the organizational oneness of administrative units. Some of the same people using our Lord’s High Priestly prayer in John 17 to argue against institutional separation are the ones shouting the loudest that we must lift high our “Baptist” principles. If the holding of views certain to keep us separated from organizational unity with our sisters and brothers in the PCUSA, ELCA, UMC, etc. are not a violation of the spirit of our Lord’s prayer, then how can a strategic decision to go our separate ways be any more a breach of that same spiritual unity?

The arguments for separation are predicated on an honest evaluation of the clash of worldviews dividing us in the ABCUSA. The time invested in wrangling over these issues has proven distracting at least and sinful at most. Have we not reached a point where, as Pastor Glenn Gunderson puts it, “We need to bless each other and move on with our own ministries for Jesus Christ.” Well said, Pastor Glenn!

[This opinion piece represents my own position and is not in any way intended to be taken as an official statement of policy by any organization, institution, or entity in the ABCPSW]

1 comment:

Chip said...

Your response to this gut-wrenching issue between autonomy and biblical authority is one of the most well-reasoned, well-thougtt writing I have read in a while. I will be printing your copy to examine and absorb it more closely when I have a chunk of time.

As much as it pains me too see the PSW separate itself from our friends on the welcoming and affirming side of the aisle, I do respect the PSW's tenacious commitment toward biblical authority and our mandate to be a welcoming and transforming people. The PSW is a booming, growing region. They are reaching out to many differing people groups and seeing the Holy Spirit revive older, rickety churches. There may be some short term pain for this separation, but I think in the long-run their numbers in many areas will skyrocket beyond those other regions in the denomination wanting unity at any cost. If the battle is over a Green Lake idol; the failing Judson Press; the malnourished Doughnut; depleting endowments; inwardly focused, froo-froo theological seminaries--let them have them all. It's my hunch that as the PSW and like-minded institutions stay on mission, God will bless and reward those brave soulwinners with so much more than they ever desired.

I can't sacrifice soul liberty, and local autonomy, at the expense of biblical authority. My only crotchet is, if we must separate, lets do it with love and a tear in our eye as all eyes are on us.

Quick question:
What happens to those churches in the PSW who opt to stay welcoming and affirming?

Thanx, chip.