Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Church Discipline, Abraham Lincoln, Jim Crow, and Religious Freedom

Ethnic tension, religious liberty threats, and the anniversaries of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination have stirred up my mind to ask a few "what if's":

What if Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches in the antebellum American South had 1) exercised discipline on members who participated in the evils of slavery and 2) proclaimed a biblical theology of all people created equally in God's image?
  • Would the Civil War have ever happened?
  • Would the size and power of the federal government have exploded exponentially, as it did through the events and aftermath of the Civil War?
  • Would Jim Crow laws have ever gained traction? Would the Civil Rights movement have even been necessary?
  • Would the 14th amendment have been enacted? Its "equal protection" clause vastly expanded the power of the federal government over state governments. That amendment is a key reason the federal government, particularly the Supreme Court, is able to overrule state provisions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom. What if that amendment never made it into the Constitution? Could Roe v. Wade have even become a federal issue?
  • Would theological liberals, who often opposed slavery and racial discrimination sooner and more forcefully than theological conservatives, have gained less credibility and moral influence in American society?
  • Would African American pastors have had access to theological training in conservative schools, rather than only liberal institutions? Would African American congregations be more theologically healthy today?
  • For that matter, would there even be "African American congregations," or would churches be far more ethnically integrated than they are today?
  • Would gay rights activists be able to make the case that discrimination against homosexuals is as morally repugnant as the Jim Crow South?
  • Would we be staring in the face the precedent of the Supreme Court's Bob Jones University v. United States decision as a threat to churches' tax exempt status
And here's the kicker: Is it possible that threats to religious freedom have ultimately and ironically emerged from the widespread failure of churches to practice church discipline and recognize that all people are created in the image of God?

Of course I can't answer those questions with any real certainty. But this much I will say:

Don't tell me that ecclesiology is peripheral, or irrelevant, or simply a matter of what works best.


Dan said...

Mark Noll has written an excellent book on the Civil War as a theological failure, not a political failure. Bible believing churches in the south had solid Biblical support for the practice of slavery. The issues was settled at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives. Making this a question of church discipline just seems hopelessly naive and dishonors the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought for the north.

Why have Bible believing churches been on the wrong side of history on every issue of civil rights and social justice in this country?

Don Johnson said...

Where the various problems you allude to with your questions are isolated to the USA (Jim Crow laws, for example), you might have a point. However, since a lot of those problems have also arisen in countries without the history of slavery, Civil War, etc, I think you are committing a logical fallacy of some kind.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Kent Brandenburg said...


I really do appreciate all this water under the bridge. I too like to point out what has made its way to the ocean on my blog, but what is to be done about it, because it looks like there is a lot of capitulation among Southern Baptists, in their fellowship. And, by the way, I don't mean that in an antagonistic or belligerent way.

All of the things you point out would have taken courage to practice separation, right? Some of these root causes that you say come from other root causes now bloom in the Convention, evangelicalism, and in fundamentalism. How does one make a point? Do we just write blog posts? Do we hold conferences? Should we protest, practice civil disobedience, like a kind of Westboro Baptist, except further to the liberation side of things? Are those the biblical reaction?

Or do we just not know? We lack the certainty to say anymore. We just ask questions and have discussions.

Unknown said...

What a nimble brain to come up with such a vision of alternative history. Gosh you could be novelist. What if Jean Calvin had been Bible doing instead of "Bible believing?" There might have never been a Mayflower. Oh now I'm sad.