Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Biblical Warrant for Corporate Repentance

Tom Ascol discusses the matter on the Founders blog, in reference to the recent passage by the SBC of a resolution that urges corporate repentance for failure to apply the biblical principle of regenerate church membership and for dishonesty in reporting statistics.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bob Jones University and Racial Discrimination: An Appeal for Honesty and Repentance

Last week I signed an online petition "to request that [a public statement of regret and apology for Bob Jones University's historic position on racial discrimination] be made, backed up by concrete actions that demonstrate its seriousness." I don't know who's behind it, and I don't know enough about the effort to encourage others to sign. I do appreciate what I've seen of this initiative and hope it bears good fruit. Other similar appeals of a more private nature have not.

In any case, fundamentalists from the Bob Jones camp think that today's conservative evangelicals need to publicly repudiate and apologize for the errors of previous generations of evangelicals. Though I believe that's a misguided demand, it seems to me as though people in the Bob Jones camp who want that kind of apology ought to set the example. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

One of the compelling aspects of the site is the historical documentation that's provided in the links on the front page. It's absolutely fascinating, and perhaps a bit chilling. Though I'd seen some of it previously and have mixed emotions that it's been exposed, perhaps it's better for alumni to do so rather than hostile media.

Here's what I wrote:
In 1995, four years before BJU dropped it's "no inter-racial dating" policy, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution formerly repudiating and repenting of its racist and racial discriminatory past.

When I was growing up in BJU circles, "What in the World" and other fundamentalist publications frequently instilled in me the notion that the BJU brand of fundamentalism was a far more accurate manifestation of historic, orthodox, biblical Christianity than the "house of sand" that was the Southern Baptist Convention. Since part of historic, orthodox, biblical Christianity is acknowledging and repenting from past wrongs in a circle as broad as the offense, this sort of public expression is simply the right thing to do. But the sins of others are always easier to see than our own.

It's the right thing to do, not primarily so alumni have an easier time getting jobs, or so more African-American students feel welcome attending the school, or so the school gets dragged through the mud less often in an election year.

It's the right thing to do, first and foremost, because the public sin of believers distracts from the message of the gospel and displays a distorted image of Jesus Christ.

What Is a Healthy Church Member?

Many of you have already benefited from 9Marks publications. The newest, Thabiti Anyabwile's What Is a Healthy Church Member, is available now. I doubt you'll find it cheaper than you will here.

The difference between this and other 9Marks publications is that this is the kind of book you can easily put in the hands of the average person in your congregation. It's the kind of material that will explicitly apply directly to them, not merely to the role of the pastor or more abstract matters of church leadership structure.

Here's another similar kind of resource.

No Unity Without Truth: Anglicans and Separation

Words from Peter Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria and leader of a conservative Anglican alliance:
"There is no longer any hope, therefore, for a unified Communion ... Now we confront a moment of decision ... We want unity, but not at the cost of relegating Christ to the position of another wise teacher, who can be obeyed or disobeyed. We earnestly desire the healing of our beloved Communion, but not at the cost of rewriting the Bible to accommodate the latest cultural trend. We have arrived at a crossroads; it is, for us, the moment of truth."
Here's the full story.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

September Weekender

I'm pretty sure that everyone who's ever read this blog has been to a Weekender by now, but just in case you haven't, registration just opened for September.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Disengagement doesn't solve anything. Direct conversation might.

The more I see theological evangelicals engaging with theological fundamentalists, the more encouraged I am. I realize they're fairly narrow slivers of the two movements, but many sense that they're growing. One thing is sure: The disengagement and mutual grenade-lobbing of the past 50 years has not proven healthy to either group.

Well, the latest installment of this nascent conversation is taking place in public, here on the 9Marks blog, where Dave Doran and Jeff Straub have responded to Mark Dever.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Somewhere Between Jesus and John Wayne (Part 3): On the SBC Resolutions

I’m not a big fan of resolutions passed by associations of churches. More often than not, I think they do more harm than good, and they often give the impression of having accomplished something when they’re really nothing more than spitting in the wind.

From time to time there are exceptions. For example, I think the SBC resolution from several years ago expressing corporate repudiation of and repentance for its slave-holding, racist origins and long-standing culture was worthwhile. This year’s SBC resolutions contained at least one of that helpful variety and a few that were unwise and counter-productive.

Just as food for thought, here’s my take on each of the resolutions that passed last week:
  • #1 on appreciation for the fine hosts in Indianapolis: FOR. Pretty much a no-brainer. Indy’s got a nice downtown. Someone should clue in the chamber of commerce to encourage restaurants besides Chick-fil-A to serve sweet tea when the SBC comes to town though. And even CfA’s was noticeably sub-par.
  • #2 on celebrating the growing ethnic diversity of the SBC: FOR. A fine thing to do even if it’s never noticed.
  • #3 in celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary: AGAINST. I think the vote was about 7,214-3 in favor of this one. Not even any of the amillennial and similarly prickly people from my church voted with me here. It’s not that I have anything against Israel. I’m a big fan, though not for theological reasons. I just think the resolution is unhelpful, and I say that from the perspective of a person in a church in a city where we regularly have opportunities to evangelize Muslims. Though I agree with the words of the resolution, I don’t like the idea of making such a statement one of our priorities.
  • #4 on affirming the use of the term “Christmas” in public life: ABSTAIN. I can see arguments for and against. Again, I’m not sure it should be a priority, but I’m not going to gripe that it passed.
  • #5 on political engagement: AGAINST. Like the Israel resolution, I agree with the words and think it was surprisingly innocuous. I just don’t think this is the kind of thing pastors should be prioritizing. It further politicizes evangelicalism and the SBC in particular, advancing the perception that Christians are about political power, particularly Republican political power. This is the kind of resolution that the secular media picks up on. It’s difficult for me to see how this is consistent with the consensus calls for a “Great Commission Resurgence.”
  • #6 on regenerate church membership and church member restoration: FOR FOR FOR FOR FOR FOR FOR!!!. This was a decent resolution as reported by the committee, and a stellar resolution after it was twice amended. But it’s just a resolution. Why does it matter? As a pastor friend told me, this resolution gives him the opportunity to go back to his church and use the resolution as a tool to teach his skeptical church the importance and validity of church discipline and removing non-attending members from membership rolls.
  • #7 on the California Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex marriage: FOR. I’m skeptical about speaking to specific legislation or court decisions, but I think it’s appropriate to address this kind of issue directly.
  • #8 on Planned Parenthood: FOR. See #7.
  • #9 in recognition of the centennial of Royal Ambassadors: ABSTAIN. I hear this is basically the SBC version Boy Scouts. I imagine they’re fine folks, but I just know nothing about them.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Somewhere Between Jesus and John Wayne (Part 2): Why I Came Down from a Ledge in the RCA Dome

Just before I finished the previous post, messengers to the Convention had cast their first ballot for the presidency, and the results had not yet been announced. I don’t think anyone expected one candidate to gain a majority on the first ballot. But if anyone had a chance, it was Johnny Hunt, and he did.

Hunt was not the candidate with whom I would have the most in common, but folks who’ve heard him more than I say he’s consistent in his emphasis on the gospel and he’s crystal clear in his explanation of it. Although I sense that several of the candidates would have made good presidents, I’m not sure than any is more likely to maintain the SBC’s trajectory of further entrenching a conservative foundation. Hunt is a self-professed Native American who grew up in the projects of Wilmington, North Carolina. The work of God’s grace in his life has been profound. And like I said earlier, this man who used to take shots at Calvinism quoted A.W. Pink in his sermon. Others know him to be, as all pastors should be, a growing student of theology. I’ve never read a word of Pink in my life, which means he’s kicking my tail on that point. So that’s the first reason the third 24-hour period at the Convention was more enjoyable than the first two.

The second is that the group I was with was given the great gift of a couple hours with two leaders who gave us a great deal more context to think about what was eating at us. One emphasized the positive theological developments under the surface (contra the “public face” I talked about in the previous post. The other shed a bright light on the history of the SBC, particularly on the past nature of its public meetings, why some of the most frustrating parts are the way they are, and why they might get better soon.

Third, a resolution on regenerate church membership passed overwhelmingly, after being barred from the convention floor the past two years. Even this year, the Resolutions Committee presented something of a Frankenstein resolution that emerged from four that had been proposed. Unfortunately, it gutted some of the most important parts, including Tom Ascol’s call for corporate repentance for widespread dishonesty in reporting membership figures due to bloated membership rolls that exist because so few churches practice meaningful discipline.

Fuller accounts of the resolution’s passage are available elsewhere, but here’s the bottom line: A fine resolution became a stellar resolution with the attachment of two amendments, including one from Ascol that draws attention to the statistical dishonesty and the need for repentance. These amendments took the Resolutions Committee to the woodshed a bit for their emasculation of Ascol’s initial offering. Perhaps it might also expunge from the record the opposition to the resolution offered a couple years ago by the committee chairman that we shouldn’t remove non-attending members from church rolls because we need the names for evangelistic efforts.

In any case, the passage of this resolution and how it reached its final form renewed some belief in the wisdom of the rank-and-file membership of the SBC (again, in contrast to its “public face”). It also impressed upon me the differences between the different kinds of bloggers in the SBC. Ascol, the theologian-blogger failed for a couple years, but his cause gained momentum and ultimately triumphed. Others, who may have played a crucial role in electing the previous SBC president, were eventually rebuked by him for the vicious nature of their personal attacks and now seem to be marginalized. It’s still early to draw historical conclusions, but I wonder whether the end of the story won’t point toward the power of a meek and gentle argument over the blogposts of personal destruction.

Fourth, Al Mohler’s SBTS report always seems to follow providentially some momentous event on the Convention floor. This year he immediately followed the regenerate church membership vote, and he used it well. As he does year after year, Mohler pointed out that the SBC was discussing regenerate church membership while other denominations this summer will be debating homosexual marriage and other issues that are dominated more by contemporary culture than biblical fidelity.

Fifth, on Wednesday the Gaithers were replaced by the Gettys. ‘Nuff said.

Sixth, Al Gilbert’s sermon was excellent. It was expositional. It had direct, relevant application. And he busted the state conventions in the chops. He was a breath of fresh air. I wish he’d pushed a little past Ephesians 3:2-6 to the later verses that show how it’s ultimately the church that displays God’s wisdom to the world, but that’s niggling around the edges.

Seventh, on Wednesday I attended the Southeastern Seminary (my alma mater) alumni and friends luncheon. I cannot begin to express all the reasons that I respect and appreciate Danny Akin. In the course of his five years or so as president of Southeastern, he’s said and done quite a few things people didn’t like, and he took quite a bit of heat for it. Even though there may have been a time or two I disagreed myself, I think he was dead on the vast majority of those times. And of course it’s quite possible I was wrong when I disagreed. Akin is one of those rare kinds of individuals who will confront serious issues that everyone else wants to ignore, and he can do it with the kind of spirit that doesn’t create unnecessary offense. His main point at the luncheon is that he intends for SEBTS to be a “missions monster,” essentially an arm of the International Missions Board. My sense is that the foundation for that mission existed when I was a student, and it’s only advancing as his presidency matures.

Johnny Hunt also spoke. What stuck out most to me were his reservations about the regenerate church membership resolution. He said, “If we spend all our time tidying up the ship, we might arrive at port with no one on it.” My hope is that at some point, the message of Ephesians 3 will take root. The church is a display of God’s glory to the world. SBC hand-wringing about falling numbers and ineffective evangelism is a reflection of the fact that SBC churches (and the public face of the Convention as a whole) don’t yet grasp what the church is all about. Without healthy churches, all the evangelism cheerleading in the world will only lead to more failures.

Clearly, what needs to happen is that people who not only recognize the problem, but also perceive the solution, need to become the public face of the SBC. They need to be the ones who are teaching pastors how to get their churches on track. My guess is that anyone who’s still reading this pretty much knows who those men are. At the same time, we all can and should respect and appreciate the present leaders who were the foot-soldiers of the Conservative Resurgence. What they accomplished with theological instinct and the Holy Spirit, without the benefit of a sound, conservative theological education, ought to direct us younger folk towards a bit of humility and dependence on God.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

“Somewhere Between Jesus and John Wayne”: My Week at the Southern Baptist Convention

As I’m writing this, I’ve been here in Indianapolis since Saturday, and since the time the Pastors’ Conference kicked off Sunday evening I’ve been searching for words that could paint a picture of the experience.

But when the Gaither Vocal Band took the stage to perform their song by the above name, my search was over.

This has been a surreal experience. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the SBC you can probably tune in online. I’ve done that in the past, and it was quite instructive. When a couple friends joined me in sharing online running commentary, it was also quite enjoyable. (Note: I'm NOT encouraging it as a wise investment of time.) But that was another day.

Today I’m here. To this point I haven’t been able to formulate a coherent, big picture analysis. Perhaps in the process of sharing some snapshot observations a metanarrative will emerge.

My SBC experience began with the Pastors’ Conference, which was formerly an strategic tool of the SBC Conservative Resurgence, but is now essentially a series of sermons preached by men chosen by the leader of the Conference for whatever reasons he chooses.

I’m not going to lie. My expectations were low as the whole thing began. But when Johnny Hunt kicked off the Pastors’ Conference quoting A.W. Pink, twenty ears way on the left side of the room perked up. Later he busted out some Spurgeon and J.I. Packer.

Those moments of encouragement were fleeting. The Pastors’ Conference incarnates the steep price the SBC must pay for years of theological indifference. Sadly, the sermons that interacted most faithfully with the text of Scripture and advanced the fewest unhelpful theological and methodological notions were the ones preached either by non-SBC pastors or by men who gained their theological foundation when liberalism in the SBC was less pervasive and therefore less stifling to conservative students.

Here’s a taste of the Pastors’ Conference:

We heard the “biblical theology” for a come-forward invitation: “I believe the invitation is God’s idea.” God invites people into the ark in Genesis. In the last five verses of Revelation, the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Time and again, Jesus says, “Come.” Therefore, we should invite people to come down the aisle to an “altar” to do business with God because biblical faith is always accompanied by works (true) and the invitation is a great way to demonstrate that (false).

We heard, “Laughter may be the best message you’ve ever preached.” Sadly, I fear this may be true for most of those who "Amen"ed.

We heard interminable appeals to win souls in order to get our numbers up. “Every number has a story.” We heard little if any mention (I’m trying to be charitable) of the fundamental biblical motivation for evangelism of proclaiming the glory of the name of Jesus Christ to all the nations.

We heard three shout-outs to bloggers so far. One encouraged us to use blogs to fight for a Word-centered reformation. Two suggested that bloggers are one of God’s chief tools in bringing unjust trials on pastors. Interestingly, the pro-blogger speaker was also one of few to this point who adopted the novel approach of interacting with the Word of God in his sermon. And even he spoke at a parallel event, not on the official program.

While the guys from my church were chatting at one of the tables in the cafeteria area, a couple friends of our church stopped by and listened to our frustrations. One of them quite plausibly pointed out that the men who have been in the pulpit to this point were the men who received their training in the darkest days of the SBC. They were drawing nourishment while they were in seminary from whatever sources they could find. Though those sources were evangelical, they weren’t theologically sound. So I’m grateful that God equipped those men to reclaim lost ground in the SBC in the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, I fear that their ongoing influence is undermining the future.

Let me close with a few observations, some of which I’ll articulate in words borrowed from the friends with me. First, in the SBC God is a means to an end. We need to seek his presence because he is the source of revival, which is a way for us to get our numbers up. Second, last year Executive Committee President Morris Chapman berated Calvinists. This year he went after sex offenders. Hmmm . . . Third, SBC preaching is pervasively typological. Every character in the Bible is a type . . . of us.

Finally, the public face of the SBC is functionally atheological. The good news is that I was able to observe some very clarifying evidence that theology does matter in the convention. In particular, the issue of women in pastoral ministry has popped up in a couple of different contexts, and when the chips are down people are making decisions to guard the SBC’s cooperative statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message. Surely there is backbone encased by all the flab, but I wonder how long it can survive under such unhealthy conditions.

So the SBC is in a precarious position. The preaching put on display is counter-productive to the principles of the Resurgence. It’s not that anyone denies the authority, inerrancy, or sufficiency of Scripture. It’s not that anyone would explicitly reject expository preaching. The problem is that the prevailing majority of the preaching that’s on display reduces biblical authority to (at best) a trite series of mottos and (at worst) a jumping-off point for man-centered theology or a comedy routine.

Just as I’ve argued that fundamentalists who profess allegiance to Scripture are hypocrites when they tolerate (and even elevate) preaching that undermines it, so is a fundamentalistic SBC Conservative Resurgence that tolerates what we’ve seen and heard this week.

There aren’t many young people here. There will be fewer the longer the status quo continues. But some with the will and capacity to change that status quo are energized to do so. Keep your ears peeled for an alternative pastors’ conference in 2009 that features preaching that focuses on the good news about Jesus Christ from the pages of Scripture to the glory of God. To the glory of God ALONE.

P.S. As I was typing the above paragraph, an SBC presidential nomination speech referred to salamanders as “fish.” The more I think about it, “somewhere between Jesus and John Wayne” may be too charitable.