Thursday, March 02, 2006

Where is Solomon When We Need Him?

Recently the discussion of withdrawing from the ABCUSA has been elevated to a new level by the persistent questioning of the ethics of the move. ABCPSW pastor and ethicist Dr. Joe DeRoulhac (Ph.D., USC, in Social Ethics), and bloggers Rev. Timothy Bonney and Rev. Roy Donkin have all contributed significantly to the discussion on the left with PSW Executive Minister Dr. Dale Salico and evangelical blogger Dr. Glenn Layne answering from the right. What is the state of the argument?

In essence, those on the left have challenged the ethics of withdrawing from the ABCUSA and, perhaps more so, alienating congregations from the denomination. Pointing to the Code of Ethics still used in the PSW and which all ordination candidates are asked to affirm, they say that the matter is inescapably clear.

The portion of the Code of Ethics that is in question states:
I Will ... hold in trust the traditions and practices of our American Baptist Churches; I will not accept a position in the American Baptist family unless I am in accord with those traditions and practices; nor will I use my influence to alienate my congregational/constituents or any part thereof from its relationship and support of the denomination. If my convictions change, I will resign my position.


During at least the past quarter of a century, the issue has been put to candidates for ordination in the PSW. When we have asked them what they would do if their convictions changed and they could no longer support the denomination, the "right" answer was always understood to be: "I would resign from my office and allow the congregation to decide for itself what the most honorable and faithful course of action would be. Under no circumstances would I use my pastoral authority or influence to alienate them from the denomination."

One of my successors in a local PSW congregation, for example, began a process of study which led him to believe that Roman Catholicism more faithfully represented the biblical ideal than Baptist beliefs. He duly resigned from his role as pastor and relinquished responsibility without attempting to lead the congregation to come with him.

To deny the force of this objection is to enter into the world of Alice in Wonderland logic where meaning means whatever one wants it to mean. Any evangelical leader who does not acknowledge the prima facie weight of this argument plays fast and loose with his/her own conscience. Indeed, virtually all of those who have been ordained in the PSW during the past 25 years have not only been confronted with this form of the ethical obligation but many have even been asked what it would take to convince them to leave the ABC for doctrinal reasons.

My recollections (fuzzy due to jet lag, but still fairly functional) are that during the last 15-20 years, the specific question has often been raised with exactly this scenario of approval of homosexual ordination in mind. So, how can one be honorable and ignore one's own solemnly affirmed assent to the Code of Ethics?

This question has been posed in Roy Donkin's blog (http://roydonkin.blogspot.com/) and the FAQs of the newly formed "Association of American Baptists in the Pacific Southwest (http://www.abpsw.org/). Attempted answers have been given by Dr. Dale Salico in the FAQs of the region (http://www.abcpsw.com/tfaq.html#A28) and by Dr. Glenn Layne in his blog, Durable Data (http://www.durabledata.blogspot.com/).

Dr. Salico's case is formed by several points:

1. The operative document is not the Code of Ethics but the Covenant of Relationships which envisions an ethically acceptable withdrawal from the ABCUSA.

2. If the Code of Ethics operated the way Donkin, DeRoulhac, Bonney, et. al., think it does, "I would be forced to conclude that the Code of Ethics established an almost diabolically dysfunctional denomination. Your interpretation would mean that any time a church decided to withdraw, it should lose its pastoral leadership. The denomination would be saying in effect, 'We'll keep you loyal by stripping your leadership away if you choose to exercise your prerogative to leave.' If this is the denomination's method of holding churches within it, it is guaranteed dysfunctionality."

3. Salico sees the pressure coming from the congregations upon the regional board, not from the pastors.

4. The concerted action of an entire region in leaving for reasons of conscience is not to be equated with the "lone ranger" actions of a single pastor who has had a change of heart (e.g., my successor converting to Roman Catholicism).

Unfortunately, although I fully agree with Salico that we must separate from the ABCUSA, some of his arguments fail to convince me. Listening to pastoral griping (and participating in a good bit of it myself for 30 years), it simply cannot be said with a straight face that pastors are innocent bystanders in this move. Yes, lay people are demanding the action. However, they are doing so at least in part because pastors have "informed" them of what is "going on" in the ABC and confronted them with evidence of doctrinal aberrations for years. Indeed, much of the condemnation of His Barking Dog since its inception has been directed at exactly this point: "McFadden, by printing all of this negative material about the denomination, you are alienating congregations from the ABC (in violation of the Code of Ethics)."

To say that the Covenant of Relationships allows for withdrawal by covenanting partners (i.e., in this case, the region) is not the same as saying that pastoral leaders who have pledged to uphold the Code of Ethics may agitate for churches under their care to disaffiliate with the ABCUSA. Diabolical or not, I have always understood the Code of Ethics to mean exactly this: deciding to leave the ABCUSA may be done, but individual pastoral leaders promise to resign first if it comes to that.

So, is the Code of Ethics so clear and so binding that only resignation may be contemplated by dissenting pastors seeking to be honorable? I think not. Glenn Layne raises an argument which Salico touches upon in his fourth point: a concerted action by the majority of an entire region is not to be equated with the lone ranger actions of an individual pastor. The Code of Ethics was intended to bind the conscience of an individual pastor should his/her beliefs migrate from those of the historic Baptist position. It was never viewed as preventing a mass exodus by those who continue to hold the historic Baptist position against a corrupt or degenerate national leadership which has itself departed from the true Baptist principles.

Layne states the case well in response to Donkin:

"What you envision are pastors muzzled--controlled--put under the thumb of Valley Forge, by the Code of Ethics--owned, body and soul, by the ABC. Sorry, last I checked I am owned by Another.

That is where the analogy of the military officer is relevant. The pledge I made is superseded by a another pledge. If I were in the Marines in Iraq and I was told to shot an unarmed captive, I would disobey even though I had pledged to obey my commander. I have a conscience, and I have a higher Commander. We do not come to this point willy-nilly, but in sorrow. The greatest sorrow of all may be the realization that the human "commander"--the ABC as exemplified in the Code of Ethics--has left the circle of orthopraxis."

So, on balance, does leaving the ABC involve a pastor in a violation of the Code of Ethics? I feel that it does. And, it does so in the same way that civil disobedience necessarily implicates one in breaking the law. Denying this only makes us appear as if we embrace the relativistic nonsense of those we oppose. To make words mean what we want them to mean rather than what they actually mean participates in the kind of subjectivism we assail in the left.

However, all sides (including the ethically sensitive Dr. DeRoulhac) acknowledge that there are times with serving justice (or following Christ) may involve actions that would ordinarily be considered ethically suspect or even "wrong" (i.e., illegal or unethical).

If a criminal seeking to murder your family asked you if they were in the house, would you "tell the truth" or "lie" to him? We are bound by the ethical obligation of truth-telling. Actually, though, we are bound by a call to justice even more stringent. And, a criminal may not justly ask me to cooperate in the murder of my family.

Are we bound by the Code of Ethics of the ABCUSA? Certainly! And, may I agitate to remove a congregation so as to join another church body? No, of course not. However, in certain extraordinary cases, "violating" the Code of Ethics may be required for the reason Layne gave, "we are 'owned' by Another." Peter said "I must obey God rather than men." At times, our loyalty to our Lord who bought us may compel us to take sides against even those who claim to represent him.

The concerted action by the PSW, if informed and directed by up to 1,800 delegates from the churches voting on April 29, to withdraw from the ABCUSA would seem to supersede the otherwise rightful claims of the Code of Ethics on the conscience of the individual pastor. This decision should not be made lightly or by verbal legerdemain. However, because we are "owned by Another," no one should hesitate to take the step.

Should the PSW withdraw from the ABCUSA, does the parent body have a right to use its power to make PSW pay for the decision? Absolutely. Whether in denial of MMBB non-contractual benefits or the loss of some other perks, just as civil disobedience has a rightful price, so does denominational withdrawal. While one might hope for equitable treatment, it cannot be assumed. Answering to the demands of a higher authority often carry a price tag.

[His Barking Dog is obviously not espousing anybody's party line here. It is not to be confused with official-speak by any of the legitimate authorities or entities in the PSW]

3 comments:

revdrron said...

Well said grasshopper (Solomon)! Following Christ always has a high price and Jesus paid it all!

Gotta serve somebody, ron

Ernie Shipe said...

Far be it from me to disagree with a barking dog but we are not violating the code.
"The portion of the Code of Ethics that is in question states:
I Will ... hold in trust the traditions and practices of our American Baptist Churches; I will not accept a position in the American Baptist family unless I am in accord with those traditions and practices; nor will I use my influence to alienate my congregational/constituents or any part thereof from its relationship and support of the denomination. If my convictions change, I will resign my position."
This discusses the "traditions and practices of our American Baptist Churches". I was in agreement with those traditions and practices when I first agreed to the code in 1984 and remain in agreement. Even on the subject of homosexual behavior, I remain in agreement with the traditions and STATED POLICY of ABCUSA. The behavior of VF leadership is what is out of agreement with the "traditions and practices of our American Baptist Curches". My "convictions" have not changed, the denominational leadership have left those convictions, kidnapping the denominational apparatus in the process. By leaving we are staying true to the code since those who have willfully violated it will not do the honorable thing.

Ernie Shipe

Dougbeyer said...

You bring integrity to a debate so often characterized by partisan propaganda. Thanks, Dennis.

Doug Beyer