I couldn’t help but think of some parallels to some of my own experiences over the past five years or so. My sense is that independent Baptists who think of themselves as fundamentalists assume that they are more conservative, more discerning, and certainly more biblically faithful than their Southern Baptist brethren. I think this is true on some points. I think the two groups are strikingly indistinguishable on many others. But on several points, it seems clear to me that some (many?) SBC folk are staking out ground that is clearly to the right of some (many?) IFBs.
Several examples come to mind. At Southeastern Seminary I was taught a much more restrictive position on remarriage after “exception clause” related divorce than the IFB church of which I was a member at the time. Seminary professors raised serious questions about the abortifacient nature of prescription contraceptives, which was quite the opposite of my experience in IFB circles. Most significantly, church discipline at Southeastern was not merely a biblical truth, but a biblical priority. Professors were not only teaching, but emphasizing—even indoctrinating—the application of biblical imperatives that I did not experience first-hand in the IFB world until two or three years later. My presumption is that men who had experienced the battles for the Bible in the SBC in the 80s and 90s knew experientially how essential is regenerate church membership to the health and faithfulness of local churches and broader partnerships between churches. I could go on. (And of course we all know that means the other illustrations I had in mind have slipped out of my brain at this moment.)
Let me be quite clear. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that because one position is perceived to be more conservative that it must be the correct position. Surely that is often false. Of the above examples, my personal convictions are neither monolithically with the more or the less conservative positions.
Now, I left out one other example, because it’s the one I really want to talk about. Anybody heard who SBC President Frank Page is endorsing for the 2008 presidential race? How about Al Mohler, the guy with the daily radio program that discusses the political scene all the time? Or surely there’s something definitive out there from SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, right? After all, he's the SBC voice in Washington.
Are those crickets that I hear chirping?
Of course, that could all change in a moment. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if Land in particular wound up offering some sort of thinly-veiled endorsement. And of course, I wouldn't suggest that IFBs and SBCs are monolithic. I'd be as stunned to hear Dave Doran or Mark Minnick endorse a candidate as I was disgusted to watch an SBC pastors employ all his rhetorical tricks on behalf of Ron Paul at a straw poll. But isn’t the silence of key SBC leaders even to this point downright striking given the fact that a former SBC pastor has an outside (but not unrealistic) shot at winning the Republican nomination? Huckabee may be no classical conservative, but he’s a fair bit more interested in traditional values than Al Gore and Bill Clinton, the past two nominees of a major party with SBC ties.
Now, I don’t know how to get around what I’m about to say any more than I know how to explain it. I suspect we all know by now that Bob Jones University has once again been thrust into the news, not because of a theological conviction or some offense caused by the gospel, but because of politics. And this time, certainly much more so than in 2000, the thrust has been deliberate. I don't think it would be at all unfair to call it strategic and calculated. So while the most prominent SBC leaders have been withdrawn even when the interests of one of their own are at stake, BJU officials have not only supported but encouraged others to support a rich Mormon with a mixed record on social issues.
The latest news is that BJU officials
Just color me puzzled.
I recognize that there is a rich history of relationships between religious leaders and government. But when I think of people who represent that marriage, I’m thinking about Constantine, various popes and Holy Roman Emperors, Henry VIII, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Kuyper. Now, a couple of those guys are surely spoken of positively on the campus of BJU (at least on occasion in some classrooms and no doubt frequently in some dorm rooms), but when I think of the Methodist-turned-mostly-baptistic background of the BJU presidents, I’m not associating them too much with the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Reformed traditions. Certainly not with their view of the relationship between church and state. (Granted, BJU probably doesn’t think of itself as a “church.” The thing students, faculty, and staff are required to attend on Sunday mornings goes by a different name.)
That doesn’t mean I think that a Christian leader endorsing a presidential candidate—even a Mormon candidate—is clearly incompatible with biblical Christianity. I am unaware of a biblical mandate or even an irrefutable principle that would prohibit such actions. I wouldn’t suggest that Bob Jones III or Bob Taylor (or Wayne Grudem or Justin Taylor) are in sin.
I would suggest that using credibility gained through one's preaching ministry to advance a political candidate is an unwise choice—a choice that’s particularly unhelpful to the gospel message.
A friend e-mailed me recently to ask about the "interesting ideas” about Christians and politics I was rumored to hold. Here’s how I responded:
I like Christians working in government. I don't much like churches working in government. I think there are two problems with churches getting involved in politics: First, it makes the world think that Christian churches are more interested in political power than the gospel. Second, it makes Christians think that we can transform culture through politics rather than the message of the gospel.At the end of the day, the question I'm left asking myself is, "What is it that is so compelling about a political campaign that would lead Christian leaders to attract attention to their presumably gospel-oriented institution over matters of politics?" An uncharitable response would be to imply that such decisions are driven by a lust for power. I simply don't think that's true at all.
So politics is a good and noble profession for a Christian to pursue, and we need Christians in government and politics to be salt and light in those places. Their presence reflects God's character and common grace to all society when they make good laws and advance the cause of justice, and it gives them opportunities to speak and live the gospel in front of non-Christians, just like in any other professions. But many Christians have concluded that we can transform society and culture by making good laws. I believe the Bible teaches that the only way to transform culture is by changing people's hearts through the power of the gospel. Any efforts by churches to accomplish that transformation through an ineffective means can only distract us from our central mission of the gospel.
That doesn't mean I think churches and pastors should have no voice on particular social and moral issues. I do think churches should speak out on abortion and marriage and other issues. But I'm not sure the way to do that is to lobby government officials, organize political rallies, or support candidates.
Perhaps I'm not thinking of possible explanations, but what I fear is most likely is a foundational misunderstanding of the relationship between cultural transformation, the power of the gospel, and the divine initiation of the regeneration of the human heart. I think we're seeing the application of a presupposition that using spiritual influence in political endeavors will bear desirable fruit in our culture. I fear that this presupposition betrays a distorted understanding of the gospel, in which moral laws and national leaders create an atmosphere that is conducive to the advance of the gospel message and the kingdom of God.
Put simply, the clear implication of this presupposition is that moral, unregenerate people can increase the likelihood that individuals in our culture will receive the message of the gospel.
The trouble is, this belief is antithetical to the biblical gospel. The biblical message of the gospel is that God makes the deaf hear, the blind see, and the dead breathe life. No President, whether Mormon or Fundamental Baptist, can advance God's kingdom in the hearts of men through political means. No President, whether nominal Christian or atheist, can hinder the advance of God's kingdom.
I'll close with a revealing anecdote from this article on SBC President Frank Page's conversations with the 2008 candidates:
"When I spent two solid hours in a private meeting with Rudy Giuliani, I shared Christ with him so much that at the end of that two hours I said, 'Rudy, I'm not going to leave this place unless I give you an opportunity to pray with me to receive Jesus as your savior. Would you do that with me Rudy?'" Page recounted.That is precisely the kind of clarity preachers of the gospel ought to introduce to men's hearts. Is there a compelling reason why Christian leaders can't stick to that simple message of new life in Christ through faith in Him, and stop creating gospel-killing confusion about whether our interests are grounded in this world or the next?
"He said, 'No, Frank, I'm not ready to do that. My daddy knows Jesus like that, but I'm not ready for that.'"
*[edit: This particular point has been contested in the comments and backed up with enough detail that I am not able to say confidently that my original interpretation of the published news reports is correct.]