Sunday, March 26, 2006

What About Dr. Roberts' Reasons for Staying in the ABCUSA? Giving His Ten Points a Closer Look

Dr. Bob Roberts is a great guy and a wonderful communicator. We have traded prayer requests and swapped stories. His ministry and stewardship materials have both blessed and challenged me. He has even used a dramatic incident in one of my children's lives as a powerful aid for his own sermonizing. But, in this dispute, we stand on opposite sides of the issue. The following ten points come from Bob's "Ten Reasons Why I Would Not Leave the American Baptist Churches USA" (edited for greater clarity). His reasons are bolded, mine follow in regular type.

1. A variety of evidences of God's blessing on the ABCUSA.

Roberts claiming that the ABC is the "fastest growing mainline denomination" is deceptive at best. Steep declines among the other six mainline denominations since 1960 have been a staple of religious commentary and sociological analysis. A news release last spring from the National Council of Churches (and authored by former ABC magazine editor Phil Jenks) reported that the ABC lost 3.45% in 2004.

One might suggest that ABC statistics are better than the other six mainline denominations in part because we are probably more evangelical than bodies like the UMC or UCC. Beyond that, the ABC counts dual alignments of congregations which come from among some large and healthy growing African-American churches. Yet even numbering congregations that participate in ABC life in minimal ways cannot erase the deficits. The 3.45% decline in the most recently reported year does not bode well for the future. Many more years with such declining numbers would "grow" us into oblivion.

Roberts' suggestion that we have a "cutting edge global ministry" masks the fact that our missionary force represents an anemic 1 missionary for every 12,000 members. In a few decades we have gone from hundreds of missionaries on the field to around 120.

Similarly, citing 2005 as a banner year in mission giving does not mention the influx of Tsunami and Katrina relief funds that swelled the totals. Nor does it tell about a decline in UM support so significant that the Executive Committee minutes from November sounded a warning that the lack of support for the Office of the General Secretary cannot be sustained beyond 2006. And, in this month's meeting of the General Board Executive Committee a proposal was endorsed to eliminate 50% of the General Board meetings as one way to deal with some of the shortfall.

Finally, holding up "thousands of testimonies" from the Seek It! hardly stands up to scrutiny. Use of the Appreciative Inquiry process forced respondents to offer only positive input and screened out negative feedback by design.

2. Confusion regarding continuing ABCPSW relationships (i.e., the problem of "schism a la carte").

Roberts predicts that "picking and choosing" rather than following the pattern where "most churches that have left the Region or denomination just leave" will lead to energy absorbing "confusion" and "conflict." In this His Barking Dog fully agrees. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is difficult to see how long-term relationships with the Board of International Ministries or MMBB can be sustained even if they can be negotiated effectively.

3. The call of stewardship as against mere consumerism.

Roberts suggests that the Biblical model for ministry engagement involves stewardship, not modern consumerism. Again, His Barking Dog fully agrees. However, the current situation is not one sought by the PSW or its Executive Minister. Dr. Salico endeavored to work out an accommodation with Dr. Medley and repeatedly proposed various mediating strategies to keep the PSW within "the family." Dr. Medley, buttressed by his Executive Committee and the GEC, refused to yield to the pleas for redress. In the long run, I doubt very much if the PSW will be able to operate successfully as a consumer of ABC services.

4. Baptist tradition rooted in Scripture.

Like Dr. Medley's Biennial message, Roberts claims that our present polity not only supports biblical authority, it is derived from it. This is not such a surprise since reliable accounts credit Roberts with having a hand in the crafting of the Biennial message by Dr. Medley. The pages made available at the Santa Ana debate attributed to Dr. David Scholer make a similar point, albeit even more eloquently. "Soul freedom," writes Scholer, "is actually, from a Baptist perspective, the commitment that guards and protects the commitment to biblical authority over against other kinds of authority." As Roberts and Scholer see it, only an absolute practice of soul competency stands against the encroachment of ecclesiastical tyranny in contravention of the authority of God and his Bible. Scholer goes so far as to say that biblical authority and soul freedom "have been Baptist distinctives since our beginnings" and that not only are they "not opposed to each other" neither one of them "trumps" the other.

This argument, especially supported by the claims of the venerable Fuller professor David Scholer, carries considerable weight with me. However, it proves too much. It substitutes a 20th Century shift in traditional Baptist polity for the position believed and practiced continuously from the 1600s. Biblical authority, not soul competency, was the norming norm among Baptist distinctives for the first 300 years. Only with a shift to "Christian experience" in the first decade of the last century did Baptists begin to see themselves as qualified to set aside clear teachings of Scripture in favor of various forms of revisionism.

5. At least seven specific (mainly) financial benefits are only provided by MMBB to those in ABC churches.

Here Roberts correctly identifies seven of the service advantages MMBB calls "non contractual" benefits. By this it is meant that "Thank You" checks, emergency assistance, educational grants for children of deceased or disabled members, Center for Ministry subsidies, premium aid, grants in retirement, and annual visits in retirement are all services provided by MMBB only to their American Baptist constituency. Any pastor withdrawing from the ABC will presumably lose all of these perks.

Frankly, Roberts is correct. And, if one's conscience can be purchased for the price of MMBB's non-contractual benefits, then he/she should not withdraw from the ABCUSA. Again, as in the case of #2 above, long term participation in MMBB would seem to be an open question. Since the 1% used for member assistance will be directed to administrative costs, former American Baptists may find their needs better met by contracting together with another financial entity (e.g., Christian Community Credit Union???) for pension, disability, death, and emergency services.

6. The tension between judgmentalism vs. service (i.e., God called us to serve one another in love not "judgmentally ruling people with whom I disagree out of the Kingdom of Christ").

My heart breaks under the weight of Roberts' quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?" We all face a continual call to humility and servanthood with respect to our service of the Master. But, claiming that the Bible may not be twisted like a wax nose into saying what it does not say and meaning what it can not mean has nothing to do with "ruling people with whom I disagree out of the Kingdom of Christ." Baptists, even those exalting in "soul competency," do not believe in practicing Catholicism or in accepting episcopal authority over their congregations. Without consigning brothers and sisters in other Christian communions to the nether regions, Baptists have no embarrassment in highlighting "Baptist" distinctives as against the practices of other believers. That I could not join a Roman Catholic or Presbyterian church for reasons of convictions does not imply judgmentalism, contrary to Roberts.

7. Freedom in Christ would be limited by restricting fellowship to those "who agree with me."

Again, Roberts explains too much. To argue that you "believe in the power of a large table so that many people who have accepted Christ can gather around it" misses the point. If we are talking about fellowship with Christians with whom we disagree, we already have that. The National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches already facilitate "fellowship" around a large (some would say too large) table. But, when it comes to our denominational family, those on the left who call for a "large table" while emphasizing "soul competency" and "Baptist freedom" are surely not saying that we surrender our Baptist distinctives and merge organizationally with Presbyterians with their infant baptism, Methodists with their episcopal polity, or Roman Catholics with their papal infallibility. To consider a belief repudiated by the church universal for nearly two millennia as out of bounds for a Baptist denomination is not equivalent to restricting fellowship to "only those who agree with me."

Roberts suggests that we need both conservative and liberal mindsets and that the door "must open both ways. If it doesn't, fix the door don't move to another house!" How disingenuous. For decades conservatives have been trying to "fix the door." It was only when the GEC, OGS, and General Board slammed the door in Dr. Salico's and PSW's faces that the proposal to withdraw was adopted. Events in recent years have made it abundantly clear that Valley Forge will not lead, cooperate with, or even tolerate major repair on the "door." Yes, it must open both ways. And, because it does not, and because national leadership has spoken unequivocally on the subject (e.g., Dr. Medley's first few paragraphs in his message at the Biennial), withdrawal is sadly the only viable alternative.

8. Diversity is enhanced in the ABC. Roberts fears that ABCPSW would end up affiliating with the SBC or might end up as "another isolated, small, homogeneous Baptist group."

As to the issue of diversity, it is ironic that PSW congregations are some of the most diverse in the entire denomination. And, unlike some of our eastern sisters and brothers who pontificate about racial inclusion while boasting 3% or less non-white membership, many PSW congregations are thoroughly integrated racially and have minorities of white membership! Only time will show whether the region's commitment to genuine diversity will be fulfilled.

9. Avoiding the errors of previous historical separations in 1932 and 1947 where "conservatives lost their commitment to social ministry, and the liberals lost their evangelical edge."

Bob is absolutely correct that the legacy of 1932 and 1947 was dismal. Schismatic actions often accompany angry, belligerent, ego-driven efforts by schismatics. The danger of any separation remains that the group withdrawing may be overcome with intoxication over their own righteousness. Salico and his associates show none of the evidence of egotism so often associated with separatist movements. Indeed, his Godly, humble, and gentle demeanor disavows the kinds of attitudes which worked against the GARB and CBA. Both organizations began with a negative vision. Salico has worked quite hard to project a positive vision for the region, not merely a negative one against the ABCUSA.

10. Good News "you don't have to leave! The newly forming organization of the Association of American Baptists in the Pacific Southwest will provide a way to stay in the ABCUSA as will Dr. Sam Chetti's willingness to provide "watch care" for that organization.

The "watch care" does not mean a panacea. Influential pastors in Dr. Chetti's region insist that the arrangement will only be temporary. Indeed, one pastor of a very significant congregation in the ABCLA predicted that if it is not, a number of the City congregations will withdraw from the region in protest.

And, what future would a subset of congregations in the PSW, many of them weaker, have if they were set up as their own region as Dr. Jeff Woods seemed to indicate in a meeting with church leaders at Redlands last fall? Would they have the financial strength to field an Executive Minister and be able to make any kind of contribution to the larger family?

Ultimately the arguments by Dr. Roberts fail to satisfy. However, one argument does resonate. And, the force of it tears at many of us on the right. Those of us who have been in the ABC for decades, some of us for a half century or more, deeply grieve the impending fracture of our denominational family. Dr. Roberts' reasons to stay are based on half-truths, inaccurate analysis, and well-intentioned, but inadequate arguments. The best reason to stay in the ABC is that as dysfunctional as it may be, we count each other as family. Those of us who feel compelled to withdraw for reasons of conscience do so with heavy hearts and gut-wrenching grief.

[His Barking Dog only barks with his own partially coherent yips and yaps and is not to be confused with the show dogs who actually run things in the PSW]

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