Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Two Most Important Issues Facing the Southern Baptist Convention---NOT!!!

There is an article in the Georgia Christian Index about Georgia pastor Bill Harrell, who serves as chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee. As he talks about the Executive Committee and the SBC, he mentions two specific issues that he believes must be resolved by the SBC---worship style and Calvinism. I cannot say with certainty that Harrell thinks these are the two most important issues facing the SBC, but the fact that in a major article he chose to mention worship style and Calvinism as "two important issues to solve in our Convention" indicates that they rank high on his list.

The article makes it clear that Harrell does not think very highly of contemporary worship styles. Indeed, he seems to believe that contemporary worship is some sort of threat to the church:

“I am afraid,” Harrell declared, “that the contemporary church movement gets people into a casual mindset, which can lead to a casual mindset toward spiritual things, toward God. People who have lowered the bar to attract the world, who have embraced a non-confrontational approach where sin is concerned in order to attract the world, have become so much like the world that they are losing their witness to the world.”
So, contemporary churches are dangerous because they are casual in style, which can lead to a casual attitude toward God. I suppose this is plausible, but no more plausible than saying that traditional churches are formal, which can lead to worship that is lifeless and ritualistic. Just because something is a possibility does not mean it is a likelihood or a certainty. For the record, in the contemporary services I have attended there has been a great deal of emphasis on the greatness of God and His holiness.

I agree that churches that embrace a "non-confrontational approach where sin is concerned" lose much of their witness. However, Harrell is sorely mistaken if he believes this is a problem only in contemporary churches. The gospel can be watered down in a traditional church just as easily as in a contemporary church. In fact, I personally have been in more traditional churches than contemporary churches where this has happened.

What about this idea of lowering the bar to attract the world? I don't see how having a contemporary style lowers the bar. If God is being worshiped in spirit and in truth, the Word of God is being faithfully proclaimed, and people are having real encounters with God, then the bar has not been lowered, whether the special music is a choral rendition of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" or a guy with long hair and faded jeans singing an acoustic version of "My Savior, My God." The bar is not about style; it is about substance.

I hope Harrell is not implying that churches should not want to attract people who are of the world. I would think that these are the people we would want to attract. Discussing his church's use of traditional elements such as a choir, orchestra, and singing from the hymnal, Harrell states, "The kind of people we attract are the people who want to go back to church." It is wonderful that this church attracts people who used to attend church. They need to be reached, and many of them relate to the traditional service this church offers. But what about those people who have no church background, who are secular and worldly? Should we not try to attract them, not by offering a watered down gospel, but by creating an environment that relates to them culturally?

Harrell's views on contemporary worship don't really bother me. While I find his worries about contemporary worship to be unfounded, I realize that different people prefer different styles. What DOES concern me, however, is Harrell's apparent belief that there is a proper style of worship that distinguighes Southern Baptists from other believers:
First, concerning the matter of worship style, we must decide what identifies us as Southern Baptists. This will be difficult, because we are autonomous, but I believe our Convention leaders need to make a more definitive statement about how we identify ourselves in worship and who we are as Southern Baptists.”

“We are never going to be homogeneous, never have been, but there are some lines we should never cross as Southern Baptists,” Harrell added. “There must be something distinctive about us or we will lose our identity."
Harrell pays lip service to the autonomy of the local church, but he then goes on to say that convention leaders should decide what constitutes acceptable worship for Southern Baptists. Uhh, when did we as Southern Baptists get bishops? Of course there are lines that we should not cross in worship, but those lines should be based on clear biblical principles. Somehow I get the idea that the lines that Harrell is talking about would be based on certain cultural preferences, traditions, and specific interpretations of Scripture.

Harrell apparently has the same level of respect for Calvinism that he does for contemporary worship. I am not a five-point Calvinist, but I don't believe that "too much of the New Testament must be ignored or radically interpreted to embrace the five points of Calvinism." I have a number of friends and acquaintances who are five-point Calvinists, and I assure you that they do not ignore or radically interpret the New Testament.

Harrell refers to Calvinism as a "problem" within the SBC. I don't understand why so many prominent SBC leaders have such a view of Calvinism. Their disagreement with a point of view does not make that point of view a problem for the convention. Calvinism is a legitimate system of theology that has a solid biblical foundation; it is neither heretical nor unorthodox. Calvinism has always been present in the SBC. In fact, most of the leaders of the SBC in its earliest years were Calvinists.

While I don't see Calvinism as a problem in the SBC, I do find Harrell's proposed solution to be very troubling:
Harrell further explained, “I think the problem of Calvinism in the SBC could be solved if we establish one ground rule. If a man wants to start a Calvinistic church, let him have at it. If a man wants to answer a call to a Calvinistic church he should have the freedom to do that, but that man should not answer a call to a church that is not Calvinistic, neglect to tell them his leanings, and then surreptitiously lead them to become a Calvinistic church. That is not to suggest that all of our Calvinistic friends do that, but when it is done it is divisive and hurtful."
It seems to me that the idea of church autonomy would preclude the establishment of a "ground rule" that interferes in the pastor search process. Harrell offers some good advice, not only as it relates to Calvinism but to other issues as well. However, churches and pastors should be the ones making these decisions; we don't need anyone else making a "ground rule" to govern the process.

In pointing to contemporary worship and Calvinism as two of the main issues that the SBC needs to deal with, Harrell has done the SBC a great favor. Not because these are problems that needs to be dealt with; they are not problems at all. Instead, Harrell has inadvertently pointed to some real issues that the SBC does need to address---the lack of respect for church autonomy, the effort to establish uniformity in practice and in doctrine, the belief that one's own views and preferences are THE right ones for everybody, an excessive focus on preserving a distinctive Southern Baptist identity, the inability to recognize the difference bewteen reaching out to people in a way that is culturally relevant to them and watering down the gospel. These are some of the most important issues facing the Southern Baptist Convention, and our response to these issues will determine the future course of our convention.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Which Road Will We Take?

Over the past year it has become obvious that not all Southern Baptists share the same position on every matter of doctrine. I suspect that this has always been true, but some people seem to have been genuinely surprised when they learned that there are Southern Baptists who are Calvinists, who believe that all of the New Testament spiritual gifts are valid today, who accept symbolic post-conversion immersions from non-Baptist churches, who do not believe that taking a drink of alcohol is a sin, who accept leadership by a plurality of elders, etc. Many, and probably most, of the Southern Baptists who hold these views also affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, support the Cooperative Program, and are grateful for the Conservative Resurgence. Basically, they are committed, conservative Southern Baptists. However, for some people these things are not enough to define one as a Southern Baptist; one must also subscribe to a particular interpretation on a whole host of issues not addressed in the BFM, including some of the ones listed above.

There is a strong segment within the Southern Baptist Convention that seeks to exclude, to varying degrees, people who do not subscribe to a certain interpretation on such issues as the ones listed above. Typically this exclusion is manifested in policies that disqualify Southern Baptists who hold such views from service or employment with some SBC entities. The policies passed by the trustees of the International Mission Board in November 2005 and the statement adopted by the trustees of Southwestern Seminary earlier this week are recent examples of this type of exclusion. Now, I'm sure that the trustees of these entities are more than happy to accept money from people and/or churches who hold to such views, but they do not want these people serving with them.

While many, but certainly not all, SBC leaders support the exclusion of these Southern Baptists from various types of denominational employment or service, there are some folks who apparently would like to see these people leave the SBC. Here are a couple of quotes that seem to reflect such a sentiment:

  • Paige Patterson, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram---"I have opposed [speaking in tongues] for all of these years because I think it's an erroneous interpretation of the Bible," he said. "Southern Baptists traditionally have stood against what we feel like are the excesses of the charismatic movement. All we're doing is restating where we've always been."

    Baptists are "the most intense advocates of religious liberty," Patterson said, defending the right of other Christians to believe in speaking in tongues.

    "But don't wear a Yankee uniform when you play for the Mets," he said.

  • Ben Stratton, in a comment on Art Rogers' blog---I stand with our Baptist forefathers and say that there is no place in Southern Baptist life for pastors or churches that believe in speaking in tongues, either publicly or privately.
While I try to refrain from putting words into the mouths of others (not always with success), I believe these statements speak for themselves. The implied message seems to be, "If you believe that speaking in tongues is a biblically valid practice, we don't want you in the Southern Baptist Convention." Nevermind the facts that conservative evangelical scholars do not agree exactly on whether "tongues" refers only to known human languages or to an entirely unknown/unhuman language, that there is no direct biblical statement that any spiritual gifts would cease before the Lord's return, that Paul said he rejoiced that he spoke in tongues more than any of the Corinthian believers, that the Bible specifically says not to forbid speaking in tongues, and that the BFM never even mentions the subject. Despite all this, some people have determined that all speaking in tongues is unbiblical and thus has no place in the SBC.

For a denomination that historically has championed the priesthood of the believer/all believers it seems unbelievable that certain individuals or groups would presume to declare that the interpretation they favor is THE interpretation that every Southern Baptist must hold to in order to be fully accepted in denominational life. It is even more remarkable that Southern Baptists have allowed them to do so. Does the priesthood of the believer/all believers allow us to interpret the Bible any way we see fit? Of course not. There are a number of core beliefs that define us as Southern Baptists. That is why we have the BFM---to list those doctrines that we as Southern Baptists share in common and that define us. While not every Southern Baptist, myself included, fully agrees with every clause in the BFM we accept it as the defining statement of what Southern Baptists believe. The way I see it, if the BFM does not address a specific issue then we have freedom to interpret what the Bible says about that issue and still be welcome in Southern Baptist denominational life. If we are going to exclude people from service because of their doctrinal views, we as a convention should be the ones making that decision by amending the BFM. That way there is no uncertainty about what THE Southern Baptist position on an issue is.

We have reached a point in the SBC where we are going to have to decide once and for all which road we are going to take when it comes to dealing with differences of interpretation on issues not covered by the BFM. We can continue down the road of excluding those who, although they affirm the BFM, have different interpretations on doctrines not addressed by the BFM. If we follow this road, however, those who are excluded from denominational service will undoubtedly begin to channel their support (including their money) toward other organizations that actually welcome their service as well as their money. Many will eventually leave the SBC altogether. But this doesn't have to happen. We can acknowledge that, while every doctrine is important, not all doctrines are essential to fellowship or cooperation. We can invite every Southern Baptist who accepts the BFM to be a full participant in denominational life, even if they have a different position on issues not addressed by the BFM. This road will strengthen the SBC by encouraging cooperation and allowing us to focus on the Great Commission rather than squabbling over nonessential doctrines. And this road will help our witness by giving us true unity, a unity where we work together even though we don't agree on everything. The choice is ours. Which road will we take?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Faith: A Hymns Collection from Avalon

Yesterday evening I got my copy of Avalon's new CD Faith: A Hymns Collection. All I can say is, "WOW!!!" I've already listened to it four times. Somehow Avalon has managed to take ten of the most well known and beloved hymns of all time, along with three more recent songs, and present them in a way that is new and fresh. Avalon has always been known for their dynamic harmonies, but on this album they really take it to a new level. They demonstrate a great stylistic versatility on this project---"Jesus Medley" ("Jesus Loves Me"/"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus") has a gentle acoustic sound; "I'll Fly Away" has a soulful camp meeting feel; they sing "Holy, Holy, Holy" a capella in a very reverential style; "How Great Thou Art" is done with a gradually building rock sound; "Amazing Grace" has a rhythm-and-blues tinged feel to it. The vocals on "It Is Well With My Soul" are simply amazing; their variations in volume and dynamics set the appropriate emotional mood for each verse. My favorites on this album are probably "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," "In Christ Alone," "It Is Well With My Soul," and "How Great Thou Art." This is simply a great CD.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Should We Get Rid of the Baptist Faith and Message?

This afternoon the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary approved a statement declaring that the seminary "will not knowingly endorse contemporary charismatic practices such as a private prayer language nor hire professors who advocate the practice." (Quote is from this article by Baptist Press.) The new statement was adopted at the request of seminary president Paige Patterson. On his blog Ben Cole has posted Patterson's remarks to the trustees in which this request was made. This action by the SWBTS Board of Trustees is just the latest example of the trend within the SBC of narrowing the parameters of cooperation by requiring adherence to a particular interpretation of Scripture, even on issues where our understanding of the Bible is less than perfectly clear, as a condition of working together.

Why did Patterson and the SWBTS trustees feel it was necessary to make such a move? I cannot say for sure. However, when this controversy first erupted a few weeks ago Patterson characterized the position of SWBTS trustee Dwight McKissic that private prayer language (PPL) is a legitimate spiritual gift, as "harmful to the churches" of the SBC. Apparently the churches of the SBC have never recognized this position as being harmful, because the subject has never been addressed in the Baptist Faith and Message. Many may not agree with this position, but that does not mean it is harmful or dangerous. Since the SBC has not seen it necessary to adopt an official position on PPL, should a seminary that is funded by Cooperative Program dollars---including dollars from churches which believe that PPL is a legitimate gift---adopt a position that excludes Southern Baptists who are in agreement with the BFM and who financially support the seminary? I think not.

Perhaps a motion should be made at the 2007 SBC Annual Meeting in San Antonio to do away with the BFM. If our entities are free to establish their own doctrinal requirements then how can we claim to have a common doctrinal confession? It seems nonsensical for the SBC to point to the BFM and say, "This is what we believe," if the IMB, NAMB, and our seminaries are all saying, "Oh, and if you want to be a part of our ministry you also have to believe. . ." The way things are right now, we don't have one statement of faith; we have several statements of faith.

On second thought, we should not get rid of the BFM. Instead, we should make sure that our SBC entities do not go beyond the BFM in establishing their doctrinal requirements. Any Southern Baptist who is faithful in his or her Christian walk and who affirms the BFM should be welcome to participate in the work of any of our entities for which he or she is qualified.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"Little Men with Little Ideas"

This week in the Editor's Journal section of the (North Carolina) Biblical Recorder's web site Tony Cartledge writes about the role that blogging continues to play in SBC life. While not an exhaustive analysis of how blogs have been helping to shape the conversation on a number of issues within the SBC, the fact that state papers and other traditional media outlets are writing about the blogs indicates that blogs are making some impact. Cartledge lists a few of the most prominent SBC bloggers (Marty Duren, Steve McCoy, Wade Burleson, Ben Cole, Nathan Finn) and points out that even SBC leaders Jimmy Draper and Al Mohler set up blogs (he forgot Morris Chapman).

Even though some of the most prominent and popular leaders in the SBC have their own blogs, a number of SBC leaders still seem to have little respect for the medium and/or those who use it. In a way, the criticism that certain leaders have directed at bloggers is also evidence that blogs are making an impact. The following quote from this article describes how one SBC leader, Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin, views the blogging phenomenon in the SBC:

Blogs are not universally popular, however. During a plenary session of the trustees at Southeastern Seminary, seminary president Daniel Akin was asked by a trustee to share his opinion about blogging. Akin, who posts many of his writings online, though not in the form of an interactive blog, said blogs are both a blessing and a curse, "a 21st century outlet for extreme narcissism."

Blogs require no accountability, Akin said, allowing people "to make scurrilous, false, untrue accusations against men that I believe are men of God."

Akin said he didn't know anyone who had been attacked more than former SEBTS president Paige Patterson. "Some people have personal agendas," he said, and do things that "are shaming the body of Christ."

"Even if they have legitimate concerns," Akin said, verbally underscroring the "if," they are not expressing them "in ways that are consistent with the Bible."

"I don't really give a rip what most bloggers think," he said. "Most of them are little men with little ideas and little agendas."
I have never met Danny Akin. I have always respected him, but these remarks of his have caused me to lose much of my respect for him. (I doubt he will lose much sleep over this, since he doesn't "really give a rip" what I think.) Ironically, two of the most prominent SBC bloggers---Brad Reynolds and Nathan Finn---are employed by SEBTS. I can only assume that he sees them as being part of that small minority of SBC bloggers who are not "little men with little ideas and little agendas."

To be fair, Akin does have some valid criticisms. There are far too many personal attacks made on blogs. Sometimes bloggers do fail to express themselves in a manner consistent with how the Bible says we are to treat one another. Too often accusations are made without being backed up by evidence. And undoubtedly there are some bloggers who are advancing their own personal agendas.

Unfortunately, these valid criticisms are overshadowed by the tone with which he expresses them as well as the disdain, or even outright contempt, he demonstrates toward most bloggers. The fact that, according to the article, he underscored the "if" when saying "Even if they [bloggers] have legitimate concerns," implies that our concerns are not legitimate. (If you're not convinced, just say it out loud, emphasizing the "if.") Also, I find it disturbing that the leader of one of our SBC entities doesn't "really give a rip" what we think. Akin then goes on to do the very thing he accuses many bloggers of when he describes most bloggers as "little men with little ideas and little agendas."

Akin's last statement indicates that he either has not read what bloggers have been saying or believes that those who do not agree with him and/or Paige Patterson are "little men with little ideas and little agendas." As someone who has been an active part of the SBC blogosphere for over a year I can say that such a characterization is completely off the mark. We may be "little men" in the sense that few of us pastor megachurches or serve in denominational positions, but as I recall Jesus is not too impressed by status. A cursory reading of the dozen most influential SBC blogs reveals that some of the sharpest minds in our convention are engaged in blogging. I have no problem with Danny Akin or anyone else disagreeing with what we have to say or even with how we say it, but I would think that someone as educated as Danny Akin, someone who is looked upon as a spirutal leader, would be able to express disagreement without being contemptuous.