Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Liberalism Lives! A Review of Bishop Spong's "The Sins of Scripture"

Since the 1970s, research abounds showing the close correlations between ecclesiastical decline and "mainline" theology that seeks to syncretize the thinking of a godless culture with Christianity. Conversely, Dean Kelly's 1972 book Why Conservative Churches are Growing noted that evangelical groups were "moving at an amazing clip while there is an equally dramatic decline in membership in the mainline churches."

But liberalism doesn't die easily, and John Shelby Spong's vitriolic new book vindicates this fact.

The well-known liberal cleric, who was Bishop of Newark until his retirement in 2000, has always been a vocal opponent of evangelical theology. Beginning with 1991s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Bishop Spong attacked evangelical confessionalism on hermaneutical grounds, faining respect for the Scriptural text while asserting that fundamentalists fumbled the interpretation. But in his latest work this year, Spong moves from merely attacking Biblical interpretation to attacking the text of Scripture itself. His book, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love, seeks ultimately to discredit the Bible and its human authors as outmoded, outdated, homophobic, bigoted and narrow-minded propagandists.

Gone from Spong's work is the suggestion that we have misunderstood the meaning of the phrase "Word of God." In it's place is the assertion that Scripture cannot be understood to be the Word of God at all! Asks Spong: "How can a book that is called the Word of God leave such a trail of violence, hostility, and death throughout its history?"

No more does the Bishop contend that complimentarian evangelicals misinterpret Paul's teaching on women in the pastoral epistles. In Spong's new book, he simply states that Paul was a narrow-minded shauvanist.

Rather than performing hermaneutical acrobatics with Romans and 1 Corinthians in order to "respect" Scripture while rejecting its plain teaching on homosexuality, Spong simply declares the Apostle Paul to be a homophobe.

Well, at least he's honest!

Bishop Spong's latest book is the epitome of classical liberal theology in its most highly evoluted form to date, and the Bishop himself is the poster child for liberalism at its worst. His aim in writing this work includes the refutation of clear Biblical teaching that he considers dangerous and "sinful." Says Spong: "It is quite clear to me that it is the assumption that the Bible is in any sense the Word of God that has given rise to what I have called in the title of this book 'the sins of Scripture.' I mean those terrible texts that have been quoted throughout Christian history to justify behavior that is today universally recognized as evil." But which "terrible texts" does he speak of? To name just a few:

"“When Paul or one of his disciples instructs women to subject themselves to their husbands (Eph 5:22) slaves to obey their masters (Col 3:22 and Eph 6:5) and children to obey their parents (Col 3:20 and Eph 6:1-3) surely that is not the eternal ‘Word of God’ speaking. These are the reflections of a rather discredited cultural sexism, an immoral oppression of human life and an obsolete guide to good parenting being revealed here.”

Similarly, Spong reacts viscerally to Paul's condemnation of homosexual behavior, concluding by asking the rhetorical question: "Is there any reason why anyone should believe that this convoluted and bizarre understanding of the tortured Pauline mind could ever be called ‘the Word of God’? Is it rational to think that these words would ever be used to condemn or to oppress those who awaken to the reality of their homosexual orientation?”

But these assertions themselves are grounded in pre-conceived assumptions about the Biblical text itself. For example, the Bishop contends that "Moses had been dead for three hundred years before the first verse of the Torah acheived written form." This contention, commonly referred to as the "documentary hypothesis," assumes several things, cheif among them that the Hebrew people were somehow different from every other people group that lived in the ancient world. Rather than consider the possibility that Scripture has divine origins (in this case, God speaking through his servant Moses), Bishop Spong finds it easier to believe that while other ancient civilizations were writing down their history as it happened, the Hebrews were the only ones to say "why don't we wait 300 years before we write it down?"

The naturalistic assumptions about Scripture continue with Spong's assault on the miracle narratives. “If we believe these stories in any literal way, we have to presume that God suspended the laws of the universe in the first century to allow Jesus to demonstrate His divine origins.” But Spong's critique is not limited to the miracle narratives alone. The historical accuracy of the Gospels themselves is called into question. On Jesus' assertion that no one comes to God except through Him (John 14:6), Spong replies by saying "Of course, Jesus never literally said any of these things. . . . .the “I am” sayings are clearly the contribution to the tradition of the fourth Gospel.”

Predictable liberal positions on abortion, homosexuality, animal rights and environmentalism are the natural result of such assumptions about Scripture, as are overly simplistic attacks on evangelical faith. For example, Spong contends that evangelicals have simply ignored literary criticism and other exegetical tools in order to cling to our understanding of the Bible as "inerrant." Of course, evangelicals do not deny that "inerrancy" applies only to the autographic text of Scripture. Nor do we discount phenommenological and figurative language in the text, or pretend source criticism is a fairy tale. We freely confess the reality of all this within our conviction that a historical grammatical approach to interpretation is the plainest and most obvious avenue to arrive at the true meaning of Scripture. But to Bishop Spong, evangelical faith is a plague on the house of Christianity.

Therefore, his purpose in writing is to reestablish what he believes is the essence of what it means to follow Jesus. "We are to build a world in which every person can live more fully, love more wastefully, and be all that God intends for each person to be. In that vocation we will oppose everything that diminishes the life of a single human being, whether it is race, ethnicity, tribe, gender, sexual orientation or religion itself.” This is, he contends, what Jesus came to do. “That is the Jesus I hope to sketch out when the deconstruction is complete." In short, gut the Apostolic witness of all its major pillars, and you will arrive at this new worldview that the Bishop so desparately wants to identify as 21st Century Christianity.

The difficulty now is in defining how this new Christianity will accomplish the Bishop's goals within his own self-made liberal utopia. How can a "full life" be lived, or even understood, apart from a Biblical understanding of the imago dei? How can we know what God intends if we can't even know God through the Scriptures? How can we know how life is diminished when the very notion of human sin is eradicated from the human conscience? How can we accomplish the mission of Jesus when we can't even distinguish between what He said, and what He didn't say in Scripture? In the end, Spong, described by the inside cover of his book as "a deeply committed Christian," attempts to point to "dramatically different ways to engage the sacred story of the Judeo Christian tradition." Instead, the Bishop's vision of liberal Christianity is as empty as liberalism itself, and totally incapable of pointing humanity to the truth of Jesus Christ.

Can you imagine a liberal going on "evangelistic visitation?" What will he say? "Hi, I'm from the First Baptist Church, and I just stopped by to let you know that your relationship with God is just fine. There is no need for you to reject any idols you may be worshipping. And don't be too worried about the lifestyle you have chosen. God simply wants you to be happy." Is it any wonder that mainline churches are hemmoraging? Their message essentially says to the unchurched "You don't need us."

Over a half century ago, neo-orthodox theologian Richard Neihbur said this of the liberal Christian Gospel: "It presents a God without wrath, who brings men without sin into a Kingdom without judgement, through the administrations of a Christ without a cross." No statement could more accurately describe the bankruptcy of classical liberalism. Bishop Spong in his latest book has revealed this movement for what it really is; a feeble attempt to redefine the God of the Word by rejecting outright the Word of God! But Jesus will not be confined to the liberal agenda!

Make no mistake, the Bible is not to be worshipped! That is not the point of this post, nor the point of evangelical assertions of Biblical authority and inerrancy. But it was Jesus who claimed in no uncertain terms that no part of the Scriptures would pass away. (Matthew 5:17) If you want to find God, you must look to Christ. If you want to find Christ, you must look to the Bible. At stake in the liberal rejection of clear Scriptural teaching is a much more serious consequence than losing a political, intellectual or theological debate. To reject Scripture is to reject the Christ of Scripture!

In his closing lecture on Scripture over 100 years ago, Southern Baptist theologian John Dagg issued this challenge to young pastors: "Mortals, hastening to the retributions of eternity, be wise; receive the revelation from heaven presented to you in the Bible; attend dilligently to its instructions, and reverence its authority, as the word of the final Judge before whom you will soon appear." Solemn words for a solemn subject!

The deadly danger of theological liberalism is that at its heart, it is more committed to a modern human ideology than to God's revelation of Himself. True, liberal theology is far from dead. But the end result of its empty message will be many who remain dead in their sins. Ironically enough, their only hope is found in the very Bible they seek to discredit.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Public Education Resolution: Southern Baptists and Cultural Engagement

As Russ Moore has already so eloquently stated, gatherings of the Southern Baptist Convention over the past 10 years could be called many things, but "boring" is not one of them, and this year, it seems the controversy has begun before the gavel even hits the podium.

At the center of everyone's attention is a proposed resolution which, if allowed a vote on the floor and passed, would urge all Christian parents to pull their children out of the nation's public school system and either home school, or place them in private school. But while the philosophical underpinnings of this effort are commendable, it is the prescriptive aspects of this resolution that are so troubling. In short, it isn't the descriptive or "whereas" statements in the proposed resolution that are problematic, but rather the prescriptive or "therefore" statements that should make Southern Baptists think twice before raising a ballot in favor.

On the one hand, leaders who put together the latest version of the proposed resolution rightly point out serious problems with, as they describe it, "government school systems." Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observes that the resolution has much more support than in years past, primarily because "every week, new reports of atrocities in the public schools appear. Radical sex education programs, offensive curricula and class materials, school-based health clinics, and ideologies hostile to Christian truth and parental authority abound." Mohler is fair in his assessment of the situation, admitting that in "some school systems, the majority of teachers, administrators, and students share an outlook that is at least friendly and repsectful toward Christianity and conservative moral values." However, he also reports that in other areas, more notably in the nations cities "the situation is markedly different. In many metropolitan school districts, the schools have truly become engines for the indoctrination of the young . . . .Unless something revolutionary reserses these trends, this is the shape of the future."

This assessment of public school education is an accurate one, especially in places like Montgomery County MD, just minutes from my home. This county's administrators pushed hard for a radical sex education agenda that would be mandatory on all students, without the possibility of parents having their child exempted from such insane classroom practice as learning how to place a condom on a cucumber. In addition, the most radical segments of the homosexual lobby have tried for years to push their own indoctrinations into the minds of young children, and have seen the public school system as the primary conduit for transporting their propaganda to the youngest and most vunerable among us.

So in a sense, there is a serious situation regarding public education in many arenas. John Dewey's proposal was to make America's public schools the home base for bringing individuals to capitulate to the majority worldview accepted by the culture of their day, and this goal has almost been realized. Subsequently, there is a very real chance that our public schools could be lost. Our SBC leaders are right; much is wrong with public education in America. The question that remains is whether encouraging parents to "jump ship" is the answer.

My initial answer to this question is "no." Primarily, I object to the resolution because I believe it stands in opposition to the Great Commission, Great Commandment, and Jesus' ideal of a savoring, illuminating body of His followers given in Matthew 5:13-16. Although I don't believe it is their intention, some of our leaders are unwittingly giving in to an "isolationist" approach of how to engage these issues. Though he did not explicity state whether he would personally support the proposed resolution, even Mohler suggested that this year "is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools."

Exit strategy? I love Al Mohler. As a two-time allumnus of the seminary he runs, I thank God for his influence, and the way in which he courageously steered my alma mater back to its Scriptural foundations. I consider him a brilliant theologian, and our denomination's most eloquent spokesman. He is one of my more distant mentors, and I rely on his analysis of current issues often when time does not permit me to engage certain subjects as fully as I would prefer. Nevertheless, "exit strategy" makes it sound as though we are declaring our battle lost, and are simply resigned to walk away. But while such a strategy might make my children and me feel more secure, what would it do to those who remain? Here, I offer four principles as to why Southern Baptists should vote this resolution down:

1. False dichotomy between "secular" and "sacred" education. The solution suggested by the resolution is that parents pull their children out of public schools and either enroll them in Christian institutions, or teach them at home. Behind this is the belief that somehow, we will escape the "evils" of educational philosophy and simply give our students the Bible. This understanding is fundamentally flawed. Evil can take many forms. The more obvious ones before us are the pushing of a "secuarlist" agenda that includes the acceptance and affirmation of perverted lifestyles. But "Christian" institutions can have their own vices. While in elementary school on the campus of Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, my wife, who grew up in the Pentecostal tradition, was told that she was going to hell because she hadn't been baptized in a Baptist church. She was told that wearing pants or shorts was sinful. In short, slapping a "Christian" label on an institution doesn't cure all that ills education. And in some cases, matters could be worse. Although there are many fine Christian schools out there, there are also many that exist simply to make huge sums of money for the churches that sponsor them, while the students are forced to endure a "less than stellar" academic environment that will in no way prepare them for the real world.
Similarly, it must be admitted that even Christian schools and churches are heavily influenced by the same Educational Psychology that permeates the public school arena, and this isn't a bad thing. Even our modern "age-graded" approach to Sunday School, if traced back, can be credited in part to developmentalists such as Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and yes, even John Dewey. The fact that none of these men were followers of Jesus doesn't change the fact that God's general revelation was discovered in their work. The bottom line is this: The division between "Christian" and "secular" is largely an artificial one, and we do ourselves no service when we think that changing a label neccesarily protects us or our children from all harm.

2. The Absence of a Significant Christian Presence from Public Education will result in its Death. One commentator freely admitted that the runaway secularism present in many urban centers of America had no potency in more suburban and rural areas where parents are still involved to a large degree in their child's education. One has to wonder why the evil is stronger in the cities. Could it be because the church by and large abandoned the cities years ago? I think such things should be considered prior to Wednesday's vote. If similar action is taken in rural areas, and the presence of Christ's church is largely removed from the arena of public education as a result, what then will become of our schools, and subsequently, our culture? Let us not forget that the school systems belong first and foremost to the people, and I believe that instead of walking away, we should, slowly but surely, begin to take it back!
In addition, how will pulling out serve to support the many fine Christian teachers, principals, administrators and school board members who are serving on the "front lines" of shaping young minds? If we really want to support Christian teachers in the public schools, as the proposed resolution suggests, that support will come primarily from our personal involvement in the process, not our retreat. I know many godly teachers who are trying to make a difference. My younger brother is one of them. Let's not leave them "hanging on a limb" by making our absence more conspicuous than it already is.

3. The Scriptures Declare that the Religious Education of Children is Primarily the Responsibility of Parents. I love my local church, and though I preach in other areas almost every Sunday, I do so with confidence that my wife and children are receiving the godly instruction they need from our pastor and Sunday School teachers. Nevertheless, I also understand that my family's walk with Christ and development in the faith is something for which God will hold me personally responsible. We are blessed to live in an area that boasts the top public schools in the nation, so I have no doubt my children will be able to read, write, think and function. I am also certain that at some point I will have to correct my children's teachers concerning worldview issues, and that my sons will see the various viewpoints that exist in our culture and be able to clearly understand why a God-centered worldview is superior to all others. Throughout such discussions, my children will see (I hope) an example of gentle confrontation, love for those who believe differently than myself, and the way of influencing others in Jesus' name. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is clear that giving our children a strong Biblical worldview is a responsibility that belongs to parents first, with the church and others simply supplementing that effort. What this means is that if we do our job as parents, our children will develop spiritually, wherever we enroll them!

4. The Call of the Great Commission is to Engage and Transform Culture. At this point, I probably need to state that I have several friends who feel it neccesary to have their children in private schools, and I respect their decision as parents. Ultimately, I believe it is up to the parent to decide whether their child can handle the pressures that sometimes come with the public school environment, and I respect, and intend in no way to belittle the strong convictions that motivate some to either send their children to Christian schools, or teach their children at home.
Nevertheless, this resolution, if passed, would seem to subtely suggest that one is a less than exemplary parent if one leaves his or her children in the public school system. The fact is, if we are going to be obedient to God's call to reach the world, the world will need to be able to "taste the salt" and "see the light." Yes, there are serious problems with public education today. But the non-negotiable demands of our King should compel us to run toward those problems, not away from them!

My friend Rob Stephens is a great example of this kind of passion. Rob serves as the Youth Pastor at the church where my wife and I are members. He coaches track and wrestling at the local high school, and has made huge "in-roads" with students as well as faculty. It is my hope to help him as he starts a church on the campus of that high school that will first reach the students, and then, eventually, their parents. Now, what would it say to the culture if we pulled our children out of the very system where the people we are attempting to reach are found? In short, an "exit strategy" in our context would be counterproductive in our efforts at mission.

Therefore, when I read those words: "Exit Strategy," I couldn't help but ask myself a question that I hope each reader will ask of himself or herself? Wouldn't it be better if "responsible" Southern Baptists developed an "invasion" strategy? What if, instead of resolving to admit defeat at the hands of the secularists, we resolved to transform public education from within? Imagine just 10 short years from now what kind of difference could be made should followers of Christ bring their children, as well as their discernment, time, dedication, and service, back into the public schools to cooperate with born-again teachers, administrators, and board members? I have no clue what the end result would be, but I would bet the farm on it looking much better than the outcome that is most assuredly to come should Southern Baptists in masse adopt the proposed resolution, and then put it into practice.

Our calling is to influence, to transform, to disciple, to relate, and to win the world! The late Abraham Kuyper once said "there is not one square inch of creation over which Christ who is sovereign does not cry out "MINE!" The arena of public education is no different. And if we are to be obedient to our Lord, retreat is not the answer. Instead, we should by our actions and witness, point to ALL areas of our culture, including public education, and cry with a loud voice, "HIS!" Jesus is worthy of no less!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, and Father's Day

My parent's generation will remember him as the fresh-faced, "voice beyond his years" youngest brother and lead singer of the group "the Jackson Five." My generation of course, will remember him as the undisputed "King of Pop," who revolutionized both the audio and video aspects of popular music. Tragically however, these mental pictures will be replaced as emerging generations remember only a strange, bizzare, hermitic, and possibly mentally disturbed weirdo.

But what hath Michael Jackson to do with Fatherhood?

Actually, Jackson's story has a lot to say to today's fathers. So in fact, does the story of O.J. Simpson. Again, visions of the charismatic, Heisman Trophy winning pro-football hall-of-famer have been replaced by that of a sinister, underhanded, violent philanderer. Whether or not one accepts the 1995 "not guilty" verdict which gave Simpson back his freedom, the facts presented in that trial revealed a jealous and extremely violent side to the ex-football star.

These are two prime examples of the kinds of men our society is creating, according to Terrance Moore, who authored the 2003 book "Wimps and Barbarians: The Sons of Murphy Brown." Playing off the infamous sit-com plot of a single woman having a son, Moore suggests the "real life" version of Murphy's son (who by now would be a late teenager), would likely resemble one of two kinds of young men that exist today: wimps, or barbarians.

Quoting Moore in an article last year, Al Mohler suggested that the "barabarians" can be easily recognized "wandering about in parks, recognizable by their sloppy dress, their lack of linguistic ability, their crudeness of manners, and their treatment of women. . . .When barbarians actually use words, their speech is most likely to be laced with profanity." Like it or not, Simpson is the model "barbarian," as is illustrated in previous 911 calls by his late ex-wife Nicole Brown.

On the other side of this dismal picture is the "wimp." Moore states that "Many of today's young men seem to have no fight in them at all. Not for them to rescue damsels in distress from the barbarians." Mohler elaborates, stating that the wimp "is incapable of living up to his responsibilities as a man, and shows no valor in his public or private life . . . .The wimp is always looking for the easiest way out of a problem." Enter Michael Jackson!

The one time "King of Pop" is now, for all practical purposes, a reclusive, child-like boy in a man's body. His own self-admittance of his reticence to grow up is embodied in his actions with the young boys who stayed with him at his California home, and is further evidenced by the child-beckoning atmosphere that Jackson often avails himself of at his "Neverland" ranch. It seems that Peter Pan isn't such a myth after all!

But Simpson and Jackson aren't alone! Their respective approaches to how they cope with life are merely reflective of the wider populace. Terrance Moore's answer seems simple enough, when he states that "the prescription for what ails our youngest males might be reduced to two, simple instructions: Don't be a barbarian, Don't be a wimp. What is left . . . .will be a man!" But a sobering question remains: Who will give these instructions?

It is obvious that Jackson's father will not be among those to take this responsibility. Joe Jackson is described in MTVs biography of his son as "by all accounts an often ill-tempered disciplinarian." When he organized the Jackson Five, his famed temper became notorious, and his son's mortal fear of his retribution should they blow it on the stage made for stressful nights of performance. In short, this Gary Indiana steel worker seemed to care more about fame and money than his children. And we thought this all started with "Showbiz Moms and Dads!"

Studies abound that demonstrate how this kind of exasperating discipline can crush the spirit of a boy so that he grows up to be a wimp instead of a man. But even worse than the exasperative father is the absent one. Single parent households have grown exponentially over the past two decades, largely due to fathers who have refused to accept responsibility for raising their children. While this certainly has an effect on daughters, it is especially damaging to young men. A few years ago, Dr. James Egan, a child psychiatrist at Washington D.C.s children's hospital, cited qualitative research that constrasted the single parent home where the father had abandoned his family with the single parent home where the father had died. In the home of the deceased father, Egan asserted that Dad still has a place of authority and moral leadership. Negative behavior by the children could often be corrected with "Would your dad approve of that?" In the home of the abandoned child, this question would be met with "Who cares," or even worse, "Who?" Dr. Egan's provocative conclusion?

...."A dead father is a more effective father than a missing father."

Steve Farrar echoes these semtiments: "I believe that if you look at every major pressing social issue in this country, whether it's teenage pregnancy, child abuse, drive-by shootings, teenage suicide, or the divorce rate, and reduce each of these problems to its lowest common denominator, you will find in each case the same root cause. That cause is a lack of male leadership."

Bottom line: Boys need men to learn how to be men! And sons need their fathers to learn how to lead families!

-We should teach our sons to love God with all their hearts, and to be consistent and dilligent students of God's Word.
-We should teach our sons to see women, not as merely sexual objects to be possessed, but as lifetime companions to cherish, protect, lead, provide for, love, and respect. This of course begins with the inflexible demand that they respect their mother, and continues as we "coach" them through the dating process, and see to it that they become capable leaders of their homes.
-We should teach our sons to accept personal responsibility for mistakes and failures. Boys need to be taught once again to make wrongs right.
-We should set the example for our sons by bringing them rather than sending them, or taking them) to church to worship God with His people.
-We should teach our sons to have a good self image, but at the same time to not think too highly of themselves. Teach them that at the end of the day, they aren't any "better" than anyone else.
-We should model for our sons how to love our wives. We should teach them that God's ideal is no less than a lifetime commitment between one man, and one woman, and warn them that anything less than this ideal is a distortion of the picture God intends to paint in marriage of the relationship between Christ and His church.
-We should teach our sons that the world owes them nothing. Conversely, they should learn from us to appreciate the value of hard work, and demand their best efforts in academics, sports, and manual labor, so that they grow up with a sense of purpose, and won't be afraid of working hard to acheive that purpose.
-We should teach our sons that work, while noble, isn't an end unto itself, but rather a means of providing for one's family and making a valuable contribution to society. The hopeful result of this will be their eventual resistance to ignoring their responsibilities to family in order to climb a "corporate ladder."

To be sure, these are high marks to which we should aspire, and they don't guarantee results. Many a parent has misread Proverbs 22:6 as divine promise rather than as a universal principle of divine wisdom. But one thing is for sure: The return of Biblical fatherhood is something for which our society is long overdue. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to raise our children, and especially our sons, in this way . . . .

. . . .after all, we don't want to raise Michael Jackson, and we don't want to raise O.J. Simpsons. What we want are real men!

Earl Rainey was one of those who knew in the end what he wanted his sons to be. He wasn't a Biblical scholar, but my strong evangelical convictions have their genesis in his admonishments that I should revere the written Word of God. He wasn't an internationally known evangelist, but my love for the unchurched began while watching him, in the bottom of an oily pit underneath a broken down semi-truck, speaking to the mechanics who worked for him about Jesus. And he certainly wasn't perfect. But my views on God's sovereign grace were seeded by watching him grow in his own faith. And today, when I read Psalm 1, I see my dad. May God be pleased to allow all of us still raising our sons to leave an identical legacy.

Speaking of which, I hear my five-year-old boy calling! I better get to work!

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The SBC in 2035: What will it Look Like?

"Lots and Lots of candles!" That is how a colleague (tongue in cheek, of course) responded to me when I asked the question: "If the conversations about young SBC leaders result in their taking the reigns of leadership, what will our convention look like in 30 years?"

Regretably, many who know of the recent conversations between SBC and emerging leaders would reply in the same manner, without trying to be funny! Others would balk at the thoughts of where our denomination is headed should these "young bucks" get hold of the largest Protestant group in North America. But I have noticed very few, substantive conversations that seek to conjecture the question; "Where would young leaders take us?"

Below is my own feeble analysis of this question. Based on conversations I have had with young SBC pastors and church planters, as well as books and other resources I have read on the emerrging church, I believe the things below are a very real possibility! But before you explore my personal attempt at "futuring," let me throw up a two-fold preface:

1. I have listed things here which I believe, given the current trajectory of emerging leaders, WILL happen in our denomination should they be given the reigns of leadership. But although I am in favor of many of my predictions, the reader should not mistake my predictions for an endorsement of everything they read.

2. At the start, let me admit to my own ultimate ignorance of the future, and offer an open invitation for anyone to respond with critique of my predictions. My goal here is not to be an "autonomous knower," but rather, to foster discussion, which means of course, that I have failed if no discussion is generated from this post. You are encouraged to leave your own views on this post as a response.

And now; fast-forward with me about 30 years into the future:

-"Southern Baptist Convention" will no longer be used, as the multi-national and multi-cultural nature of our denomination is reflected in a new title. (anyone want to suggest what it should be?)
-Although the national convention will still convene, attendance will plummit, not because of any lack of interest, but due to the regionalization of annual meetings to different parts of the United States and other nations. The national convention will then be simulcast to these regional meetings.
-State Conventions by and large will continue to decline, as their influence continues to wane, and as newer churches opt to be resourced either by non-denominational entities outside the SBC, or by professional educational staff in their own churches. Eventually, state conventions will be 'streamlined' so that many both state and associational staff will include those who also work bi-vocationally as pastors and staff members in the local churches which support these entities. Continuing education and leadership training will move closer to the local level, as larger churches provide their own professional staffs to be at the disposal of the smaller congregations.
-Local associations; well, their fate depends solely on how relevant they are perceived to be by the churches they serve, which means that many will die, and die soon! Others however, will assume a place of prominence that was once held by the state convention, as localized equipping and training will be seen as more appropriate for their context. The "Director of Missions" job description will radically change, eliminating the idea of the DOM as a "bishop without power," and replacing it with the view of the DOM as a "missions facillitator." As these more traditional understandings pass, the DOM will be expected to fulfill a job more closely associated with a Church Planting/Church Growth Strategist, thereby resulting in the elimination of those positions at the associational level.
-Local churches will, by and large, adopt governmental systems that, while still "congregational" at their base, are much less "democratic." The use of "elders," church councils, etc. as administrative advisory arms to the Senior Pastor and staff will grow exponentially. The "team" approach to leadership (i.e. co-pastors, or plurality of elders) will also see a sharp rise. "Robert's Rules of Order" will be an unfamiliar term to the vasy majority of new churches. In addition, the title "Reverend" will go the way of the dinosoaur, as younger leaders eliminate the essential distinctions that have been made by the modern church between clergy and laity. Ordination will still exist, but only for legal and tax purposes. Those who lead God's church will prefer the Biblical term "Pastor" to "Reverend," "Preacher," or even "Doctor."
-The role of women in church leadership will rise. Many will serve as deacons, and a few will begin serving as elders. We will see a surge of single women volunteer as missionaries, and be sent out by their local churches to the ends of the earth.

-As the lines between methodologies in North America continue to blur with those in other parts of the world, eventually the International and North American Mission Boards will merge. In addition, those who are funded through this new missions organization will not be "missions administrators" but rather, practicioners who are "on the field" among the people he or she is attempting to reach. Many administrative positions will be eliminated, as local church pastors and volunteers from the business sectors assume these roles, thereby giving local churches more control over the decisions made concerning doctrine, qualifications for appointment, etc.
-Deputation will again enter Southern Baptist life for the first time since the inception of the Cooperative Program in 1925! Mission Boards will still underwrite much of the financial support for keeping a missionary on the field, but the missionaries will be required to raise additional support from the local churches that reccomend them for service to the field. In addition, the local church will have much greater control over who is and who is not appointed. The result of this will be a closer, more personal connection between the missionaries and the churches that support them.
-While the Baptist Faith and Message will remain the de facto confession for our churches, less rigid statements (Such as that used by the Evangelical Theological Society) will be employed as guidelines for working across denominational lines with other evangelicals in the field of mission. The result of this will be cooperative, joint efforts with Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and others whom our missionaries are now told to limit their cooperation with because of diferences on secondary issues (such as speaking in tongues, etc.).
-The SBC (under its new title, whatever that may be), will appoint missionaries from other nations of the world to come to the United States for ministry, as well as other countries. As multiculturalism eventually engulfs the planet, there will be an increased amount of "crossover" as Americans go to other nations as missionaries, and vice versa. The single, mission board will be charged with the oversight of all of these missionaries.
-Giving to the Cooperative Program will plateau, if not decline, but special mission offerings. (Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, and World Hunger) will skyrocket, as the churches participate wholeheartedly in direct missions giving and involvement.

-Seminary education will undergo major changes, as online and distance education becomes the norm rather than the exception. While the classical base curriculum for the basic degree programs (such as the M.Div.) will remain, many of the practical ministry courses will be re-written and contextualized to the world as it will be 30 years from now. Some of the courses that will undergo major overhauls include pastoral care and counseling, homiletics, leadership, and the practice of ministry.
-The sharp rise in bi-vocational and "tentmaker" pastorates will neccesitate that for many, the local association's training events become the primary locus for theological education. This of course, will mean "beefing up" the leadership curriculum.
-The whole basis of Theological Education is likely to be turned on its head, as the theological foundations of classical seminary education is replaced by a missiological emphasis. In effect, "Theology of Missions" will be come "Missional Theology."
-Retired Gen-Xers (sounds strange, doesn't it?) will return to the academy to learn theology and be equipped to start lay-led churches and house churches.
-Local churches will again assume the role of primary theological educator, as the seminaries once again simply act to augment this role.

-"Boycotts" will be history, as young leaders perceive these sorts of tactics to be unneccesarily alienating to those the church should be trying to reach. Instead, relational engagement will undergird the philosophy of how the church interfaces with culture. For example, instead of "boycotting Disney," Southern Baptists would purchase a showcase at Epcot Center and utilize it to speak to all who vacation there concerning the Gospel and how it relates to family values in the larger Christian worldview.
-The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission will continue to be a strong and conservative "prophetic" voice to our government. But while moral issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and embryonic stem cell research will continue to receive attention by this agency, other issues like taxes, gun control, the ten commandments on public property, and school prayer will largely be ignored, in lieu of subjects like the poor, and human rights throughout the world. (For example, many seem to ignore the fact that our "conservative" administration continues to advocate continued trade relations with China, which has an atrocious human rights record. Expect these issues to be addressed with much more strength.)

Obviously, this is a very incomplete list, and that is intentionally so! Where do you think we are headed, provided young leaders take the reigns of leadership. What I have left out? Where am I wrong?

The SBC is just a few weeks away, and I anticipate with excitement the conversations that I know will take place. But instead of simply complaining about the SBC as it is, why not begin discussion now of what it could be? Why not begin to speak now of how to honor its legacy? When we approach our esteemed present leaders, wouldn't it be great if, instead of a list of complaints, we brought our ideas of what could be to the table? I look foward to hearing your views. So let's get started building a vision together, shall we?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Young Leaders, Scripture, and Tradition: The "Unintended Consequences" of the SBCs Conservative Resurgence

Well, it's official! Young leaders and the emerging church have finally made it onto the "radar screen" of the Southern Baptist Convention (if you consider Baptist Press the radar screen). But where did these guys come from in the first place?

Opinions abound concerning the origin of the latest generation of Southern Baptist pastors and the views they bring to the denominational table. New Testament scholar D.A. Carson suggests that emerging leaders have their genesis in a combination of cultural savvy and protest. Some young leaders themselves think their ilk began with a desire to find the "historical church."

Missiologist Ed Stetzer however, suggests a totally different kind of fountainhead from which emerging leaders may have come, and his views make a lot of sense. Dr. Stetzer states that young leaders' questioning of tradition and establishement is no less than the result of the conservative resurgence within the convention, which brought our agencies, seminaries, and many local churches "back to the Bible."

While Stetzer admits that "there are a few bad [theological] apples out there," he also suggests that "it would be rather odd for them to stick around in a denomination known for its serious commitment to theology, evangelism, preaching, etc." In other words, while post-liberal hermaneutics and the re-writing of the meaning of atonement are prominent aspects in many corridors of the emerging church movement, these heretical concepts are largely rejected by young Southern Baptists.

Conservative young leaders, however, have other concerns as they relate to denominational life. And these concerns relate to many traditions and practices that they feel are "extra-biblical." Stetzer again contends that Southern Baptists "spent more than two decades telling young leaders that we must take the Bible seriously. Should we be surprised that they do? When younger leaders question some long-held traditions, we should not be surprised--they are the result of the theological resurgence."

If Stetzer is correct, there must be a few Southern Baptists scratching their heads and wondering if they have created a monster! I wonder if by the time of Leipzig, Staupitz felt the same way about Luther?

As Martin Luther's confessor in the Augustinian order, Johann von Staupitz is credited by the reformer as the one who germiniated his doctrine. This germination began of course, during Luther's early struggles with his own faith, followed by Staupiz's encouragement for Luther to go back to the Word of God, where He would find "Christ Himself." Luther followed the advice of his spiritual father, and the eventual result was the Protestant Reformation.

But not everyone was happy with the results of Luther's challenge to take the church "back to the Bible." Finally ordered to appear at Leipzig in July 1519, Luther, accompanied by his longtime colleague Professor Carlstadt, stood to face John Eck, the famed Catholic debater who was called the "hammer of the heretics." Eck came to this debate with one goal: to force Luther into a corner and prove he was a heretic. But while Eck was considered the "technical" winner of the debate, the authorities to which these two men appealed could not have been any more different. Eck argued on the basis of papal authority and church tradition. Luther countered from Scripture, and forcefully contended that popes and councils were to be tested by Scripture, because none are above Scripture. From this came the Reformation cry of authority, sola scriptura!

Fast forward 486 years, and we have a similar (though not at all identical) issue before us. While Southern Baptists would never make the same objective claims made by Eck, it must be admitted that sometimes in practice, tradition is held to be at least equal to the Bible. Young leaders, like Luther, aren't interested in dividing the house. But they are interested in challenging a few of our traditions, and asking for Biblical grounds for a few things, among them:

1. Where is the Biblical basis for saying that only ordained ministers can administer Baptism and the Lord's Supper?
2. Where is the Biblical basis upon which we call for a "tee-total" approach to alcohol consumption, but say little or nothing about the problem of gluttony that is so present in our churches, and not a few pulpits?
3. Where is the Biblical basis for stating that anyone who doesn't issue a formal "altar call" at the end of a sermon is not evangelistic?
4. Where is the Biblical basis for stating that the Great Commission can't be accomplished without the Cooperative Program?
5. Where is the Biblical basis for claiming that God has placed His unconditional approval upon the Republican Party?
6. Where is the Biblical basis for stating that "church" always looks the same in every context?
7. Where is the Biblical basis for shackleing the universal church rite of Baptism to membership in local bodies?

These are just a few of the questions I have heard. And they aren't being asked with the intent of proving their side of an argument. Most of the young leaders I speak with have a sincere desire to know the truth. But they will not accept something as true simply because it comes from Nashville. Like Luther, they simply want to be taken to Scripture.

But this requires that all of us go back to Scripture! And in the process, we may discover that some of what we considered "Biblical" is in fact only grounded in tradition.

To be committed to sola scriptura (Scripture alone is our authority), Southern Baptists must also be committed to the concept of semper reformanda (Always Reforming). If indeed Scripture is our sole authority for faith and practice; if indeed we are "a people of the book," then we must be equally committed to the continual task of reforming ourselves, and our practice, so that we are always sure to have our commitment to Scripture alone. I believe Dr. Stetzer is correct: The conservative resurgence has borne us these young leaders. They are radically committed to Scriptural truth, and to Scriptural truth alone!

My own hope is that articles like those appearing in Baptist Press last week will result in fruitful conversations between our esteeemed present denominational leaders, and the potential leaders of the future. Jimmy Draper has already exhibited a wonderful openness by starting his own conversation with emerging leaders, and this year's SBC would be a great opportunity to begin more such conversations.

So what would this mean for the future? What if young leaders are in fact, allowed a prominent place at the table. What will the SBC look like in, say, 50 years? More on this next week!