Monday, April 17, 2006

A Pundit's Barking and Chasing After Wrong-Way Denominational Automobiles

Last week several important folks in the ABC accused this blogger of trafficking in deception and half truths, glorying in division and discord, manufacturing quotations out of whole cloth, preferring anonymous and dubious sources, and even misunderstanding the distinction between offering factual reports and spewing forth vitriolic opinions. Someone even suggested that there might be a way to call me to account for my release of information regarding recent ABC meetings.

For the benefit of my readers, His Barking Dog does not pretend to be a newspaper, nor its editor a journalist. I am a pundit, a purveyor of opinions, a commentator on things of church and culture from a strongly perspectival standpoint. My role is not to report the news but to reflect upon newsworthy items. The only "news" you will discover in these blogs comes because others have withheld information, managed the "story," or worked hard to "spin" the truth into unrecognizable forms. Even my reprinting of "news" pieces is done for the purposes of disseminating the accounts more widely or, more typically, in order to provide the background for my own comments. Otherwise, virtually everything contained herein consists of things already written about elsewhere for which I am providing commentary and perspective from my own point of view.

Generally those who hold back information do so for the highest of motives. They see themselves as "protecting" people from unnecessary details; as giving ideas time to be "worked out" between principals before releasing the finished decisions to the public; as protecting the necessary confidentiality of work product so that participants will feel free to share openly without fear of premature disclosure; as exercising leadership's responsibility to lead and not to become a mere echo of the will of the people. However, I do not see these commentaries in His Barking Dog as either a toxic addition to the political life of the denomination, nor something intended to poison the discourse. My sincere desire remains the same as it was when we began last year: "to present news, commentary, and opinion from an Evangelical and Baptist perspective."

Last week Dr. Dwight Stinnett, executive minister of a Midwest regional judicatory in the ABC and co-author of the moderate blog, ABC Views from the Middle (, provided an excellent and very thoughtful piece highlighting the work by Thomas Oden, Turning Around the Mainline. In it, Stinnett cites with apparent approval, Oden's plea to engage and discipline errant denominations rather than disengaging and defecting from them. "Confessing Christians seek to maintain the unity of the church through discipline, not through division," Stinnett quotes approvingly.

One demurs from Oden's wisdom only with reluctance. How can a Christian interested in the unity of the body object to a plea for discipline over division? What the use of Oden misses, however, comes from the history of this issue in the ABCUSA, if not in other mainline denominations. As an American Baptist now for more than half a century, the issue of traditional orthodoxy vs. revisionist versions of Christianity has been with us for as long as I can remember.

The Green Lake Seminarians' Conference in 1976, for example, revealed in as stark terms as possible how utterly divided our visions were for the church, the faith, and the denomination. At that time cooperative conservatives insisted that they wanted to remain engaged in the larger body and to reform it from within. But, even then, we told ourselves that if the denomination changed its view of Jesus Christ or tolerated/embraced some manifestly unbiblical position such as the ordination of homosexuals separation would become the sad but necessary response.

The direction of the denomination since that time has only shown how utterly impossible renewal efforts would be in the ABCUSA. Read widely enough in the writings of the Roger Williams Fellowship, the now defunct ABE message board, or the executives of the more progressive and more traditional regions and you will see why the problem has become so intractable.

Perhaps only a full-court press with a sustained political campaign like that undertaken by SBC leaders such as Patterson and Pressler could possibly effect such a seismic change at this point; and that is the one strategy nearly universally rejected by almost every responsible person on the right (including me!). Even IF it could work, conservatives typically have little interest in running the bureaucracy of the ABCUSA.

Following the recent GEC meetings, conservatives were reported as feeling a mixture of emotions. But, near to the surface for many was the sense of being weary, worn out, and disappointed by a process that appears endless and shows few signs of eventual success. The willingness by Cheryl Wade (Associate General Secretary and Treasurer) to speak so candidly of the financial difficulties was an encouraging sign. But nobody reported much forward movement toward conjointly working on a solution to the underlying problems facing us.

The unilateral decision by the PSW to proceed to withdrawal (if affirmed later this month and in May by the board) will leave the conservatives within the ABC without some of their most able and effective voices. While the PSW decision may be affirmed for other reasons, both strategic and tactical arguments have been mounted, it must be admitted that the likely impact upon remaining evangelicals will be deleterious and harmful to the cause.

Evangelical executives are described as ranging from "fit to be tied" to cautiously willing to "hang in there" for the "long haul" in what might be described as a fragile process of denominational change. Truly, they have embraced Oden's notion of "discipline" over "division." However, after so long a time, can anyone blame some, like PSW's Salico, for deciding that the project simply cannot be accomplished? While Oden correctly advises that "No one corrects a family by leaving it," what if the family has no interest in being corrected?

Ultimately the question remains: can this union be salvaged? And, what will we have if compromises can be cobbled together to create some kind of continuing organization? Most likely we will have an institutionally unstable Rube Goldberg like creation. We will be left with structures and processes that only further exacerbate the divisions that we find so distracting and enervating.

Quite simply, we were called to pursue mission with passion. Since our competing visions differ so markedly, should we not admit the fact honestly and move on with the most amicable organizational separation possible? We need to be free of acrimony, recriminations, and the fruits of bitterness.

Instead, let us purpose to bless our sisters and brothers in their unique sense of calling and go our separate ways in a spirit of cooperation. When Paul and Barnabas could not reach resolution on a personnel matter, the issue of taking John Mark with them on another missionary journey (Acts 15:36-39), Luke records that their disagreement degenerated into such sharpness that he called it a paroxusmos (cf. English "paroxysm"). Let us at least do better than this!

The cheerful, yet weary, words of executives on both the left and the right cannot be faulted for their abundance of Christian hope. Hope is after all, a Christian virtue. But there is a difference between hope grounded in the reality of Christ and his resurrection, and mere "whistling past the graveyard" wishful thinking.

In 1964 Walt Disney unveiled his Carousel of Progress at the World's Fair in New York. Walt partnered with General Electric to create an attraction highlighting the advances of progress in America and the optimistic prospects for the future. He commissioned the Sherman Brothers (responsible for the incessantly cheerful "It's a Small World") to create the theme music. Their "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" sounds more like the press release from the American Baptist News Service regarding the recent General Executive Council (GEC) meetings than it does any recognizably Christian hope or eschatology.

There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow's just a dream away

Man has a dream and that's the start
He follows his dream with mind and heart
And when it becomes a reality
It's a dream come true for you and me

So there's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Just a dream away

[His Barking Dog, an exercise in evangelical Baptist punditry, claims no connection to (or authorization from) official entities. I merely opine as an exercise of my "soul liberty." Can I get an "amen" for that one?]

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