Friday, March 24, 2006

A Primer for Fellow Conservatives - How Do We Understand the ABC Leadership Anyhow?

A Primer for Fellow Conservatives
By Dennis E. McFadden

In the midst of the current ABC crisis, many of us conservatives in the Pacific Southwest simply do not understand why the ABCUSA officials act as they do. For evangelicals, it is often a simple matter of asking themselves: "what is 'biblical'?” Many report that they cannot even comprehend why the issue of human sexuality, so often discussed in scripture, is even an open question in the denomination. Here are some of the mitigating factors as I see them, offered as a kind of "primer" for fellow conservatives. The windows chosen are "templates" for viewing and understanding the current debates.

The Template of Justice – many of the leaders of the ABCUSA were formed and shaped in the environment of the civil rights struggle. For them, the most significant accomplishment of their adult lives was the creation of the most ethnically diverse mainline denomination in the country. Never mind that it exists by means of Rube Goldberg like structural artifices, buttressed by quotas, complicated rotational schemes, and representational formulas insuring minority participation. They fear that if the ABC deconstructs to a pre-1907 society model, we will inevitably drift back into racist, even Jim Crow, patterns.

This helps explain why an ardent defender of civil rights such as my friend, the Rev. Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins III, went out of his way on January 29, 2006, to affirm the “progressive” nature of the Seattle First Baptist Church affiliated with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Preaching there he explained that upon arrival at the church he asked his wife to take his picture in front of the sign reading “A Welcoming and Affirming” congregation. This brought the expected hearty applause from the congregation. Then, during the sermon, Aidsand repeatedly thanked and affirmed the church for who they are and for their progressive vision. He assured them that we are a better and more just denomination because of the presence, the witness, and the efforts of Seattle FBC.

How progressive is Seattle FBC anyway? This is a church which advertises itself as having a distinctive of incorporating the "eastern-leaning" nature of the spiritual quest of many of our members. Many members rooted in Christian faith seek illumination from Buddhist, Hindu, and Eastern sources.”

And, when it comes to marriage, they believe in strict equality:

"At Seattle First Baptist, we believe in marriage equality. We support marriage for all couples, same sex couples and opposite sex couples. We do not discriminate. We plan unique weddings for each couple. Your wedding will be designed to reflect your own relationship and the commitment the two of you are making. On the day of your wedding, all couples will be given a "Certificate of the Covenant of Marriage" by the church. We look forward to the day when all couples can be licensed to marriage by the State of Washington."

It might be taken as somewhat anomalous that the Executive Director of a national board in the ABCUSA (i.e., the Board of National Ministries), presumably bound by the 1992 resolution on human sexuality, would go so far out of his way (e.g., the photograph in front of the AWAB sign and the comments to the congregation) to affirm what national policy calls “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Aidsand’s enthusiastic endorsement of Seattle FBC, however, does not mean that he necessarily agrees with the particular beliefs of the congregation on human sexuality. Indeed, he has gone out of his way to say that the homosexual fight is not “his issue.” Rather, we should see this as part of a belief shared by ABC upper level management that justice requires us to accept a very broad and inclusive table theologically as well as ethnically.

Unless conservatives attempt to view life from the perspective of "justice" as the progressives understand it, we will be continually left scratching our heads in bewilderment at their actions. Seen from their perspective, even suffering the loss of the entire denomination would be better than surrendering ground on the issue of "justice."

Evangelicals should substitute the word "biblical authority" for the word "justice" and do a thorough "gut check." How open would we be to yielding on an issue of biblical authority, even if refusing to give in would lead to terrible consequences? The left has just as great a visceral commitment to "justice" as we do to "biblical authority."

The Template of Inadequate Generalization OR Seeing Only as Far as the Horizon. Many years ago a famous columnist was reported to have objected to the election of Richard Nixon by saying, “How could he be elected President, nobody I know voted for him?” Obviously, we are all prone to see the world as only as large as the part we inhabit. We often generalize that the whole is just like “here,” only bigger.

Such erroneous assumptions animate many of the conservatives when we wonder how this could even be a live issue. Nobody we know believes that the Bible is to be interpreted in such a revisionistic way. So too, ABC leaders are often hamstrung by the same phenomenon from the opposite side.

In the northeast, for example, many ABC congregations are weak and forced into dual alignments for reasons of survival. One of the most popular arrangements has ABC-UCC linkage. The infamous precipitating cause of last year’s arguments in the Ministers Council Senate was the marriage of a Massachusetts senator to her lesbian lover. That minister serves a church affiliated with both the ABC and the UCC. Arguably, the UCC represents the most liberal and progressive mainline denomination in America. They have already endorsed gay marriage, for example.

Following my maxim, “Where you sit has a lot to do with where you stand,” national leaders can hardly be expected to see the genuine theological diversity of the ABC when the environment in which they serve is so laden with center-left churches and pastors.

Consider the State of the Region Address (September 24, 2005) delivered by the Rev. Alan G. Newton, Executive Minister of the left-leaning American Baptist Churches of the Rochester/Genesee Region of New York State. Writing about the contemplated PSW withdrawal from the ABC, he said:

"We have a deeply fractured denomination as evident in the decision of the region board of the Pacific Southwest this past week to withdraw from the ABC-USA. Other regions or clusters of churches in regions may follow. The claim is that the divisive issue is biblical authority. In truth the issue is biblical interpretation and the determination of a sizeable minority to impose their interpretation of scriptures on others" (emphasis mine).

Note that Newton apparently believes that the “interpretation of scriptures” respecting homosexual marriage and ordination held by conservatives represents the position of a “minority,” albeit a “sizeable” one in the ABC. One might still possibly argue that Newton thinks a majority of American Baptists hold to a traditional view, but that only a sizable minority actually seeks to act on that belief.

What exactly Dr. Newton meant must be left for further exploration. However, the pattern among many Valley Forge leaders has been to explain the diversity of attidues in the denomination by a 10-80-10 rule. Repeatedly I have heard that we are a party of the center with a left fringe and a right fringe. Since most VF leaders view themselves as centrists, they expect 80% or so of the people to be where they are, give or take a few percent. By definition, then, if some conservative objects to the party line or acts adversarily, he must be part of the 10% that can safely be dismissed.

In the 1990s I conducted a statistically based survey of ABC pastoral leadership as part of a thesis for a graduate degree in management. Using a systematic random sample of ABC leaders (secured by Dr. Craig Collemer), and receiving a 49% response to my survey, yielded interesting results. Less than 20% (19.7% if memory serves me) of ABC pastors had any willingness to support the ordination of practicing homosexuals. When one considers that many of these were people who opposed homosexual practice but demurred from interfering in an ordination for “Baptist polity” reasons, the statistic becomes all the more significant. The evangelical position on this subject is NOT a minority view within the ABC no matter how it appears to national leadership.

Unless conservatives recognize the skewed perspective of the left, bolstered as it is by the insulating factors of the northeast milieu, we will never begin to grasp why they hold so insistently to their point of view. Quite simply, they truly believe that we are the minority trying to foist our will upon the majority of the denomination.

The Template of “The Myth of the Center.” Dr. Glenn Layne, a trained political scientist with a graduate degree in the same, was the first to tip me off to the reality that in America, everyone wants to believe that their view is in the “center” of the political landscape. Due to our rich history of democracy and its leveling influence, nobody likes to see themselves as out of the mainstream. Valley Forge personnel continually affirm that they are a “centrist” lot. None of them, it seems, can come to grips with where they stand vis a vis the full demographic diversity of the ABC. Psychologically this becomes a very difficult temptation to resist. Particularly when one has friends, colleagues, and family members who hold strongly more progressive viewpoints, one can easily assume that one’s own position is all the more centrist by comparison. Dr. Medley, in particular, has regular association with mainline leaders in his circle of family and peers (e.g., NCC) who stand considerably to the left of him.

Unless conservatives take note of the very human (or at least American) tendency to view oneself as being in the "middle," we will not be able to penetrate the mindset of the left. They, like those of us on the right, are absolutely convinced that their point of view is reasonable and fair.

Having tried to "walk a mile" in the shoes of our friends on the left, what are we to do? Love them, pray for them, seek to understand them, and recognize that we can no longer do mission with them.There are a few other windows through which we may see and more fully understand the ABC mess. As time allows, they will appear in a future blog.

[His Barking Dog avoids even talking with Dr. Salico these days lest someone misunderstand that these viewpoints are strictly my own and do not represent any official entity within the PSW]

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