Friday, January 27, 2006

McLaren, Morality, and Moratoriums: Should we be Silent Where Scripture Speaks?

For the years that I have been aware of his work, my normal reaction to the views of Brian McLaren has been that of "uneasy appreciation." I have appreciated his work because of the potential it has to serve a prophetic function inside evangelicalism, but have been somewhat uneasy concerning his sometimes seemingly cavalier treatment of Biblical truth.

This past week in an article written for Leadership Journal, my uneasiness with McLaren has regrettably been vindicated. The January 23 article entitled Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question: Finding a Pastoral Response ( the pastor of Cedar Ridge Church calling for a "moratorium" on "making pronouncements" about homosexuality. But although McLaren's concerns about homosexuals are rightly grounded in the sinful way they have often been treated by those in the evangelical church, his refusal to speak decidedly on a subject clearly addressed by God's Word is ultimately the result of the same mistake: a failure to look to the clear teaching of the Bible as the final authority of our belief and practice.

On the one hand, McLaren raises some very relevant issues in the article. Beginning with an example from his own church of a couple wanting to know Cedar Ridge's "position" on homosexuality, McLaren recalls that his response came in the form of another question: "Can you tell me why that question is important to you?" McLaren continues with the following: "I hesitate in answering 'the homosexual question' not because I'm a cowardly flip-flopper who wants to tickle ears, but because I am a pastor, and pastors have learned from Jesus that there is more to answering a question than being right or even honest. We must also be. . . .pastoral." So far, so good! Certainly there is wisdom in knowing not only the concerns, but also the motives of those who inquire about the Christian worldview so that both sides understand each other.

Other legitimate issues that McLaren raises are the political side of this debate, which often sidetracks Gospel preachers from their true calling, and the propensity of Christians in earlier years to treat homosexual people with such disdain as to treat sin and sinner alike. "We fear that the whole issue has been manipulated far more than we realize by political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency. We see whatever we say get sucked into a vortex of politicized culture-wars rhetoric--and we're pastors, evangelists, church planters, and disciple-makers, not political culture warriors." He then goes on to state that even with the assumption that homosexual behavior is sinful, "we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do." In short, McLaren is calling for caution in the area of "political speech," and reckless abandon toward treating all persons, including homosexuals, as human beings created in the image of God. No genuine follower of Christ would seek to contradict either of these contentions.

But then comes the bombshell: "Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality."


Are we really hearing a pastor admit uncertainty on where he stands regarding the question of homosexuality? For starters, how about the most obvious understanding of Romans 1:26-27? How about moving from there to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

And yes, I've watched the "hermaneutical acrobatics" performed by the theological left in an effort to neuter the clear teaching of these texts. If these are who McLaren is referring to when he says he wants to keep his ears atuned to "scholars in biblical studies," I'd rather take the authorial intent of Paul and run with that.

Nevertheless, McLaren concludes in the article that perhaps we need a "moratorium" on any pronouncements related to homosexuality for at least five years. But what if no new answers come in that time period? "If we have clarity, we'll speak; if not, we'll set another five years for ongoing reflection." In the end, McLaren's suggestion is for five years of silence on a subject the Bible addresses with clarity, followed by . . . .most likely . . . . another five years of silence!

Having grown up within evangelicalism, and having borne witness to the many "unChristian" things said and done to homosexuals, I share McLaren's concern that this particular group might be mistreated. But the answer to our concerns is not to ignore the Biblical passages that address it. Instead, the answer is to further expound on the truth God has given us. The 1 Corinthians passage, for instance, paints a very balanced picture of how the church should view homosexuality:

I. Homosexuality is a Sin. In verse 9, Paul cleary states that the "unrighteous" will not inherit God's Kingdom, and then proceeds to give a broad range of examples concerning what it means to be "unrighteous." The list is not exhaustive, nor is it intended to elevate action over nature. In other words, Paul isn't saying that someone is unrighteous because they are a fornicator, adulterer, or theif. He is saying that someone is a thief, adulterer or fornicator because he or she is "unrighteous." In short, in listing these behaviors, Paul means to give a description of behaviors that are reflective of our fallen nature. Found clearly in the center of his list are two words: "homosexuals" and "effiminate." Both terms refer to same-sex activity as a raw perversion of God's intention for human sexuality. Therefore, homosexuality, among other things, is a reality because sin is a reality and our sin nature is a reality. But the resulting conclusion is clear: Homosexual behavior is an "abomination" (Leviticus 18:22), and "unnatural function" of human sexuality (Romans 1:26-27), and an affront to God's design in marriage that perverts the picture that union should portray of the union between Christ and His Church (Genesis 2:24-25, Ephesians 5:22-33).

McLaren's primary concern in this article was that pastors remain "pastoral." Yet a pastor who will not share lovingly the truth of God with his sheep is in the end, anything but pastoral.

II. Homosexuality is not the only sin. Obviously the text in 1 Corinthians isn't primarily about homosexual behavior, but sinful behavior in general that points to an unredeemed nature. This stresses the point that the issue isn't just homosexuality in particular, but also all sin in general that is an affront to a holy God. Although I have never personally struggled with homosexual urges, my flesh has often reared its ugly head in the form of greed, covetousness, and gluttony, which means that from God's perspective, my unredeemed nature is just as pronounced as that of my homosexual friends.
In addition, the Romans passage dealing with homosexuality continues with another Pauline list of sinful behaviors, among which are included those who are "unloving, unmerciful," and "murderers." Much media attention was given several years back to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual young man from Wyoming who was severely beaten by two others and left to die while tied to a fence. Followers of Jesus Christ should be the first in line to condemn outright such an atrocity! But the answer to such violence isn't laws that demand stricter punishment for "hate crimes." The answer is the Gospel, and the Gospel cannot be clearly spoken unless the need for the Gospel is also clearly spoken. This means that Christians who see homosexuality in Biblical balance will state clearly that it is sinful, while at the same time being careful to always cast that statement against the backdrop of all human sinfulness. McLaren's concern that many evangelicals have "singled out" homosexuals, and that this particular form of sin has become the new conservative "whipping boy" is largely legitimate. The answer however isn't a moratorium on truth, but rather a more comprehensive presentation of it.

III. Homosexuality is a sin Jesus died for. One of the great things about this Corinthians passage is how Paul describes all these sinful expressions of human depravity in the past tense. "Such WERE some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God." (6:11 NASB). In the midst of our morally relativistic culture, the church must contend earnestly for the truth that homosexual behavior is sinful in order to proclaim the good news that Christ delivers from such sins!

McLaren's concern is essentially the same as Paul's in Ephesians 4:15, "but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ." That passage occurs within the metaphorical context of church growth as a building project (cf. 4:16). In short, Paul is saying that disciples are made by the proper balance of speaking God's truth in the spirit of God's love.

Let's play a bit more with that analogy, shall we? I'll be the first to admit that in our earliest opposition to homosexual behavior, evangelicals became too comfortable with speaking "truth" with no regard for love. In a sense, that is very much like trying to build a house with hammer, but no nails. The result is that no joints get fitted, no walls get held together, but the wood gets badly bruised in the process, as one simply hammers away.

But the "moratorium" approach called for by McLaren is analogus to the other extreme: trying to build a house with no hammer. In this scenario, we want to build the body, but not in any way that requires the "piercing nails" of God's truth. Someone might get hurt! Someone might get offended!

McLaren correctly states that "being right isn't enough." However, being right in one's own mind concerning what God says about homosexual behavior is a neccesary start to correctly engage those trapped in sinful lifestyles. I believe McLaren is genuine and earnest in his suggestions. But given what the Scriptures teach about this subject, his silence on this matter is no less than cruelty to the church he serves, and no less than treason against God's truth!

Responding to sin in love is a lesson evangelicals have learned slowly, and in regard to homosexuality, our understanding of how to face it has been progressing. But our understanding of it as sin has not, and must not change, for the good of the homosexual, and for the glory of God.

Further resources:

Read other responses to this article by:

Mark Driscoll;

Steve McCoy;

Doug Wilson;

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

33 Years of Holocaust: The Sinister Legacy of "Roe v. Wade"

"In years to come, historians will look back on these days, and as they seek to identify the pivotal turning point of the history of America in our era . . . . they will focus on one bleak winter day, January 22, 1973." So wrote the Lutheran pastor Dr. Lawrence White some years ago in correspondence to the annual meeting of Concerned Women for America, and though as each year passes we have to look farther back to remember that moment, the "Culture of Death" legacy resulting from this landmark Surpreme Court decision has never been more imminent.

"Roe v. Wade" was decided exactly one day after I turned one year old, which means that my generation is the first in America to have grown up entirely in a culture that views the infanticide of the preborn as both legal, and socially acceptable. This of course speaks only of those in my generation who managed to survive this decision, as over half of those born between 1973 and 1976 (The "buster" generation lasts from 1965 to 1976) were murdered before they were even born! Today, one of every three children who are conceived are murdered by abortion.

"Murder?" Isn't that language a bit strong? After all, when we speak of abortion, we are speaking of the most frequenly performed outpatient surgery in America today. Every year in America, 1.6 million children are aborted (That's 4383 children per day, 183 children per hour, 4 children every minute!). This of course, is the uncomfortable side of the "pro-choice" argument. Interesting to me is that those who trumpet a "woman's right to choose," never elaborate very much on what that choice is. And in my estimation, their reticence to deal with the fundamental questions of life are the result of the convoluted logic that has permeated this debate for over three decades. On this anniversary of that dark January day, I want to speak of the legacy this court decision has left us. But I want to begin by addressing the primary questions and objections raised by those who would take issue with my assertion that the termination of unborn life is no less than an act of homicide.

We aren't sure when life begins: Though this one is used less often than in the past, it still, from time to time, is raised in the effort to question our epistemology of life. Yet since a 1981 Senate subcommittee meeting on this issue, Geneticists, Biologists and Academic physicians have been uniform in contending that life's beginning coincides with conception. World class scientists and physicians from the Mayo Clinic to Harvard Medical School have confirmed these contentions, but possibly the most compelling evidence comes from a Professor of Genetics at the University of Descartes in Paris: "After fertilization has taken place, a new human being has come into existence. This is no longer a matter of opinion. It is not just a metaphysical contention. It is plain in experiential evidence; each individual has a beginning at conception."

Still, for the follower of Jesus Christ, such evidence, though helpful in our discussions with the culture, should ultimately be unnecessary. God's Word speaks clearly to the issue of when life begins:

"It is you who brought me forth in my mother's womb . . . .you have been my God from my mother's womb" -Psalm 22:9-10

"You formed myinward parts, and weaved me in my mother's womb" -from Psalm 139:13-16

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; I concecrated you, set you apart as a prophet to the nations." -Jeremiah 1:5

The question of life's beginning is ultimately a "smokescreen" designed to introduce doubt. But in the end, this objection is on the same intellectual level as, say, those who question the meaning of the word "is." Science is clear. Physicians are clear. The Scriptures are clear. Life begins at conception. Therefore, no other description can be given to the act of abortion. It is, without a doubt, the taking of a human life.

A woman should have the right to choose what she does with her own body: I honestly find this argument amusing. For one, society has already stated to both men and women that there are certain things you can't do, even with your own body. Indecent exposure, public defacation, and prostitution are all illegal acts, not to mention the use of illegal drugs, or the refusal to wear a seat belt while driving.

But this objection ignores the most obvious of its stumbling blocks: If life begins at conception, (and it does), and if human life is created in God's image (and it is), then abortion isn't about what a woman does with her own body, but rather, what she does with the body of another. John Wilkey of National Right to Life speaks eloquently to this issue: "Since when did someone's right to live depend on someone else's wanting them? Killing the unwanted is a monstrous evil. A person's 'right to choose' stops when it injures or kills another human being. The pivotal question is; should any civilized nation give to one citizen the absolute right to kill another to solve that first person's personal problem?" The truth of this matter is hard to face, but it nonetheless remains: To be "pro-choice" about one person's right to kill is, by default, to be "anti-choice" about another's right to live.

What about the "hard cases?": Although they represent less than 5% of the abortions performed in America, the so-called "hard cases" demand serious reflection.

The Mother's Life is in Danger: This is possibly one of the most heart-wrenching situations in which a mother can find herself, and certainly most mothers would gladly give their own life for that of their baby. A 1996 story about a Georgia woman still inspires me. Diagnosed with a fast-spreading uterine cancer, she chose to have the baby and give her own life. Her courage and conviction are the kind of which this world is not worthy!
It can be said that most cases where the mother's life is in danger are precipitated by medical situations that will prove fatal to the child regardless, and in those situations, it is certainly better to save one life than to lose two lives. Yet anytime an abortion takes place, even if for this reason, it is still a tragedy, and followers of Christ should be prepared in such circumstances to rally around the woman and minister to her needs throughout what will be a neccesary grieving process.

The Preborn Child is Handicapped: Statistics over the last decade bear out that children aborted for this reason were discovered later to be perfectly normal children in over 1/2 of the instances where the doctor reccomended abortion due to a severe handicap.
But what if the child really does suffer from a severe handicap? In Luke 14, Jesus told His disciples that a certain blind man was created "for the glory of God." I find it interesting that many of the same "pro-choice" individuals who would push for an abortion in the case of a handicap would rightly oppose with all their might any move to discriminate against a handicapped person. This demonstrates our righteous societal consensus that a person's worth is not measured by whether they are handicapped. And this premise, along with the above premise that from conception unborn children are human beings created in God's image, lead to this singular conclusion: Being handicapped does not warrant the death penalty!

What about Cases of Rape and/or Incest? Obviously this is a very sensitive issue, and followers of Jesus are commanded to respond to situations like this with the greatest humility and concern for the victim. Rape is a most abhorrent crime. It denies the woman a place of equal worth with the man as also created in God's image, viewing her as a "piece of meat" created only for exploitation. It violates every Biblical mandate concerning how women are to be treated, and deserves the harshest punishments that civil government is allowed by its people to administer. In crises moments like these, the church bears a great responsibility to suffer with the victim, and to walk with her throughout the entire healing process.

But if pregnancy results, who then is the guilty party? Admittedly, this is a very difficult question to ask at a juncture like this. But if abortion is the taking of a human life, then how can it possibly be seen as the response to pregnancy that results from rape? Along with exhibitng true Biblical compassion, the church is charged with helping the woman as she makes decisions regarding whether to give the child for adoption, or raise it herself. And if she chooses the later, the church's responsibility is to serve her by giving her the support she needs to fulfill this calling. At the same time, the church must speak clearly that life is life, regardless of how it is conceived. The life created by a rape is just as precious as that created by love. As difficult and agonizing as it may be to carry that child, abortion will not heal the effects of a rape. It will however, complicate matters further by creating a second victim.

I'm personally opposed to abortion, but I'm still "pro-choice" and it is the law of the land: This of course is the false dichotomy set up by many politicians who want to play both sides of this issue. It is the position of our supposedly "conservative" governor here in Maryland, and it is the epitome of political cowardice.

The one question I always want to ask someone who makes this statement is "WHY are you personally opposed to abortion?" The only reason one has to be opposed to it is that they believe it to be the taking of a human life. If abortion isn't the termination of human life, what possible reason would one have for being opposed to it? But if it is the taking of human life, only a political coward would be "personally opposed," yet still committed to keeping it legal.

I thank God today that a century and a half ago, Lincoln did not say "I'm personally opposed to slavery, but one man ought to have the right to own another if he so chooses." Lincoln stood on moral principle when he said that its not only wrong for one person. It is wrong for America. And in doing so, he was forwarding essentially the same argument that those who are pro-life should be making today. In a very real sense, slavery, racism and abortion, through distinct, are similar. At the root of each of these evils is the propensity to look at a human being created in God's image, and contend that he or she is somehow less than human.

For example, take a look at this 1857 statement of "law": "A black man has no right that a white man is bound to respect." Does this sound morally reprehensible to you? If so, then consider that it was the United States Supreme Court that made this statement. The "settled law of the land" in 1857 was an outrageous insult against the Creator of all races. "Roe" is no different.

Even in light of all the above, I admit that the overturning of "Roe" will not stop abortion in America. The church has a responsibility that it has by and large ignored in this area, and changed minds begin with changing hearts. As with all social issues of this nature, the truest, deepest answer is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the overturning of court precedent. Nevertheless, these facts do not negate the neccesity of demanding that our leaders speak clearly to these moral issues, and write and adjudicate our laws accordingly.

The legacy of "Roe v. Wade," is a culture that has minimized the meaning and value of life created in God's image. The "domino effect" of this court decision can be seen daily in the issues of asisted suicide and euthanasia in our own country. But the culture of death has spread its tentacles even further in other regions of the world. Certain forms of infanticide for instance, are now legal and socially acceptable ways of dealing with ill children in Holland. And rest assured, as the conscience of America continues to be seared by our increasing disrepect for life, we will soon join the ranks of those that approve of such atrocities.

But the real danger of these issues lies in the truth of the imago dei. When an unborn child is murdered, God's image is insulted, and a blow is struck against His sovereignty. This is what makes this issue such a deadly serious one to our culture: God takes the treatment of His image with extreme seriousness!

But the most personal effects of this legacy are found in the homes of those who have fallen victim to this twisted worldview. Perhaps someone reading this has chosen to have an abortion. Perhaps you are a man who encouraged it, or even paid for it. Perhaps you have had many sleepless nights as you now wonder what that child would have been like at 5, 7, 14, or even 20 years old. To you I say abortion is sin. But it is not an unpardonable sin! And the good news of the Gospel is this: The same God who created that unborn life can heal the hurt and restore you, if you will only come to Him.

The legacy of "Roe" is far-reaching, but the power of the Gospel can turn it back, beginning with each individual touched by this plague, and ending with an entire culture who has turned to God through Christ, and embraced all life created in His image.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Conviction, Cooperation, and the International Mission Board

This year marks the 161st year of service that the International Mission Board has given to the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. During this time, godly men and women have been supported by this agency as they sacrificed their lives in Gospel service to the nations. Though it is many years old, the IMB continues to impact the nations for the Kingdom of God unlike any other missions organization of its kind, and this impact has historically been undergirded by two balanced pillars: conviction, and cooperation. Given recent policy developments at the Board, the question that now faces IMB trustees is one of whether this delicate balance will remain, or be disturbed in a way that rolls back its advances into the Kingdom of darkness in a way damaging to the Kingdom of light.

The recent policy changes at the Board regarding tongues and baptism have caused a firestorm of discussion, particularly in the blogosphere. While there have been, shall we say, less than charitable statements made by both sides of this debate in cyberspace, I have found the trustees on both sides to be overwhelmingly cordial, and willing to both listen and honestly speak their minds. As providence would have it, I am in Richmond Virginia this week in meetings with a few pastors and University personnel from different parts of the country to talk about the recruitment of church planters and the sponsoring of new churches in my mission field of central Maryland. As such, I have also had the privilege of attending the plenary sessions of the trustee meetings that are taking place at the IMB headquarters in Richmond this week. I have heard incredible stories just today of what God is doing through this agency, and have rejoiced at the fruit that is being borne due to the heavy spiritual labor of our Southern Baptist missionaries.

Most notably, I have had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Wade Burleson. Serving his first term as an IMB trustee, Wade serves the Immanuel Baptist Church of Enid, OK as Senior Pastor, and has just finished his second term of service as President of the Oklahoma Baptist Convention. A strong theological conservative who is passionate about missions and missionaries, Wade is the kind of man who I am proud to have represent our churches as he serves in this capacity. While he speaks with great respect for those who differ with him, Wade is opposed to the new policies, and has made his displeasure known though his weblog Grace and Truth to You ( In addition, I have had the opportunity to speak with those who voted in favor of the new policies. For those of you who are unaware of what these new policies entail, below is a summary:

New Policy on Tongues. The old policy forbade a Southern Baptist missionary from practicing glossolalia in public worship, but allowed for "private prayer language." Under the new policy, those claiming to possess a private prayer language will not be appointed.

New Policy on Baptism. The old policy required those appointed to be members of a Southern Baptist church for at least three years, required that they be baptized by immersion subsequent to their conversion, and that they understood this baptism to be a picture of the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit and of their identification with Christ. They must also acknowlege that their baptism was not regenerative. The new policy adds to the above that the missionary candidate be baptized by a "qualified administrator," defined as either a Southern Baptist Church, or a church which believes all of the above about baptism, and in addition, affirms the eternal security of the believer. If a candidate was baptized elsewhere, even if he or she has been a Southern Baptist for years, he or she would be required to submit to a "re-Baptism" in their Southern Baptist Church as an affirmation of all of the above doctrines.

While I strongly believe that all of our trustees want to maintain the balance between conviction and cooperation, I fear that these new policies, particularly the new policy on Baptism, superceeds the Scriptural requirements and creates a needless barrier that could potentially disqualify many godly and otherwise worthy candidates from serving. At the same time, I respect and admire their desire to maintain Baptist convictions. Yet Baptist convictions are Baptist principlally because, as "people of the Book," we believe those convictions to come from Holy Scripture. The ordinance of Baptism was given by Christ as a tool of identification with Himself, not with any particular denominational group. It was given as a metaphorical picture of 2 Corinthians 5:17, and the new guidelines, in my view, distort that picture by claiming that those from certain other traditions who have experienced Biblical immersion after conversion didn't really receive Scriptural baptism because it wasn't under the authority of a church that believes everything Southern Baptists believe.

Certainly the IMB ought to have standards for our missionaries, and those standards should reflect no less than the convictions of our churches as found in the Baptist Faith and Message. But if conviction and cooperation don't continue to be held in balance, the Gospel witness will be harmed, and for the following reasons:

Cooperation without Conviction = Ecumenism: The danger that comes with not setting doctrinal standards has already been experienced (and the results are drastically obvious) within mainline Protestantism. I am thankful that IMB trustees have put in place certain doctrinal safeguards to ensure that those appointed as missionaries actually believe the Scriptures are the Word of God, actually believe that those who die without Christ are eternally separated from God, and actually believe that the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth is the non-negotiable demand of the Great Commission.

In addition, our understanding of Christian baptism is central to the preached Gospel it accompanies. We believe immersion to be the only mode of baptism, and we confess baptism to be symbolic and not regenerative, not because these are "Baptist doctrines," but because our thorough exegesis of the text brings us to these conclusions. If we do not speak where Scripture speaks, then our "cooperation" is ultimately meaningless! Imagine a British soldier and a Nazi soldier trying to "unite" during World War II. They may both be well-trained, and they may both be armed and ready for battle, but each is fighting for a radically different cause! Cooperation is neccesary, but it is only potent when all involved in the process share the same basic convictions.

Conviction without Cooperation = Isolationism: As threatening as Ecumenism is to the larger body of Christ, I believe the more imminent danger we now face as Southern Baptists is that of isolationism. The recent IMB issues are merely one part of a larger tendency among some in the convention toward isolation. Conservative historian Richard Bailey has stated that Southern Baptists "hardly represent evangelicals," and that in our history we have mostly exemplified the principle that "the people who generally tend to work best alone want to keep working alone." Bailey bases his assumption on the fact that a modern understanding of "evangelical", "has to do with a common identity that crosses denominational lines, leaders, publications and institutions. Here, I find 99.9% of [Southern Baptists] unwilling to go." Although I take issue with Bailey's contention about the percentage of Southern Baptists who are unwilling to work with others, the tendencies he describes are tragically sad. It is the refusal to believe that one can stand firmly in his or her own tradition, while at the same time cooperate with others who share his or her basic Gospel convictions.

Similarly, the recent issues at the IMB are, I believe, the refusal of those who hold to a "landmarkist" position on baptism and a "cessationist" view of glossolalia to believe that he or she can stand firmly in that position, while at the same time recognizing and respecting his or her fellow Southern Baptist who shares his or her belief in other Scriptural principles as delineated in the Baptist Faith and Message.

-The SBC Calvinist should be able to work with the SBC Arminian.

-The SBC Covenant Thinker should be able to work with the SBC Dispensationalist.

-The SBC Sabbatarian should be able to work with the SBCer who holds to a "Lord's Day" view of Sunday.

-The SBC premillenial should be able to work with the SBC amillenial.

-The SBC landmarkist should be able to work with those who don't share his or her convictions.

Six years ago, I heard John Piper say that if we only recognize that which we perceive to be totally doctrinally correct as a move of God, we will miss out on most of what God is doing in the world. If we continue to isolate ourselves and narrow the parameters of cooperation in the SBC, I fear we will miss even more!

Bottom line: We need conviction, and we need cooperation! But while I am appreciative of the recent emphasis on conviction, these issues have me convinced that genuine cooperation is at risk!

I'm afraid Burleson is right when he claims that there is a "narrowing [of] the parameters of fellowship and cooperation to the point that real, genuine conservatives are being excluded as unfit for service in the SBC." And it appears that the new IMB guidelines are already fleshing out this reality.

I read day before yesterday of one of our missionaries who oversees a vast area among many unreached peoples. After many years of praying and searching, they finally discovered a young couple who were called and distinctly qualified for serving in this region. They have been members of a Southern Baptist church for many years, are both seminary graduates, and have met every other requirement for appointment. Unfortunately, they were never presented to the Board for approval as missionaries, and because of this, thousands of unreached peoples will have to continue waiting before someone reaches them with the Gospel. Why is this?

Because the husband is from a Pentecostal background. Although he affirms the Baptist Faith and Message, the church that performed his Scriptural baptism rejects eternal security. Oh, and he also has a private prayer language.

Southern Baptists introduced me to Jesus Christ, discipled me through some of the hardest times in my life, ordained me to the ministry, educated me twice in their seminaries. And presently, they have commissioned me as one of their North American missionaries. I am proud of my heritage! I love the Southern Baptist Convention, and I'm proud that many of our esteemed leaders love it as well. But if we are to continue having a maximum impact on the Kingdom, we had better love the Gospel more!

Update (January 11): It appears from early reports that while in Executive Session yesterday, IMB trustees voted to reccomend that the Southern Baptist Convention remove Wade Burleson from the trustee board during the Convention's annual meeting this June in Greensboro, NC. Our prayers should be for Wade and his family during this very difficult time. In addition, now more than ever is the time to pray for the International Mission Board.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Joel Osteen and the Prevalence of "Pop-Evangelicalism"

In just a short time, Joel Osteen has risen to become one of the most recognized religious figures in North America. His weekly TV program, aired from Houston Texas' Lakewood Church, attracts an audience of millions, in addition to the over 40,000 who attend services at its newest campus in the former home of the Houston Rockets. His book Your Best Life Now has been a consistent best-seller since its publication early last year, and his engaging pulpit personality and charismatic eloquence leave few listeners bored.

When Osteen's wife Victoria was perceived to be the cause of an altercation on a December 20 Continental flight to Colorado, news sources both secular and Christian speculated and criticized. And when Joel appeared in what he himself admits was a failed opportunity to assert the truth of the Gospel on Larry King Live, the result was a dismally unclear and inaccurate articulation of the deity and exclusivity of Jesus Christ.

While the Osteen's recent behavior is currently a hot topic within Christendom, the above events are merely symptomatic of a greater problem within evangelicalism at large. I call it "the rise of the pop-evangelical," and this phenommenon, more than any other, is a clear indication that it is time for the church at large to re-examine the meaning of Christian preaching.

Not too long ago, Evangelicalism as a whole recognized the true focus and impetus of the preaching task. In a somewhat dated commentary, Al Mohler points to the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter as an example of what motivates and clarifies the message being delivered. Mohler quotes Baxter as saying "I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." He then comments by saying "With vivid expression and a sense of gospel gravity, Baxter understood that preaching is literally a life or death affair. Eternity hangs in the balance as the preacher proclaims the Word." Such a view of Gospel proclamation is undergirded by a conviction that nothing less than the expounded Word of God can truly be legitimized as genuine preaching.

Contrast this with the prevalent mood among Evangelicals today, which motivates many to focus on providing "needs-based" preaching. These preachers may eventually get to the text, but the text in no way sets their speaking agenda. Instead, there are three new foci present in "pop-evangelicalism":

1. It is always Positive and Simple: This of course is a chief concern of Osteen. Over and over in his interview with King, he asserted that he just wanted to be "positive," and make people feel good. Certainly the Gospel is a positive message! But the Scriptures don't just command that pastors "exhort," but that they also "reprove and rebuke," and do so "with great patience and instruction." (2 Timothy 4:2 NASB) Instead, many of the most popular preachers in our day sound more like Tony Robbins clones at an Amway Convention than prophets of God's truth. These men don't deny the truthfulness of God's Word, but by their practice they minimize its influence in the hearts of their parishioners. Commenting on Osteen, one blogger put it this way: "He's just a motivational speaker. At least that's what his sermons sound like. [I] don't hear a whole lot of scripture being tossed around; just "feel good" Christianity."

One shining example of this is seen in how Osteen opens up every message at Lakewood Church. With his Bible held high above his head, he leads his standing congregation in boldly declaring the following: This is my Bible. I am what it says I am, I have what it says I have, I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess that my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I will never be the same, in Jesus name. This is indeed a powerful declaration of both the nature and potency of Holy Scripture. Yet after this declaration, Osteen never again approaches the text with any degree of depth. It never sets his agenda, but is merely used as an authoritative "peg" for Osteen's own thoughts.

Can you imagine someone promising you a steak dinner, only to serve you M&Ms at the table? Your mouth waters at the thought of the sweet nourishment that is coming, and your soul cries out "feed me!" Then the candy comes and leaves you with a slight sugar buzz, but your stomach is still empty. Spiritually, that's how I felt after watching an Osteen broadcast. But Osteen isn't the only one to blame here, simply the most visible. When I think of the churches I have visited while on vacation during my 14 years in the ministry, I have fond memories of a few, but shudder still at what is passed off for Biblical exposition and Gospel preaching, even within my own denomination! Pop Evangelicalism wants preaching to be Positive and Simple. The Scriptures call for Gospel proclamation to be Transforming and Profound.

2. It is Man-Centered: Let us here contrast the powerful view of preaching espoused by Richard Baxter with that of another, earlier pop-pastor; the late Harry Emerson Fosdick. To Fosdick, preaching was simply "personal counseling on a group basis." Mohler asserts that, "Enamored with trends in psychological theory, Fosdick became liberal Protestantism's happy pulpit therapist." Of course, Fosdick was an unabashed theological liberal, and given his low view of Scripture, one should scarcely be surprised that he saw its content to be of little use in the modern pulpit. The shock should come when those who espouse a high view of Biblical inerrancy and authority marginalize the importance of Biblical content in the sermon, and replace it with man-centered psychotherapy. The problem with this approach is that ultimately, it can never provide the only solution to what ails us. God and God alone heals our hurts and reforms our lives, and thus, only a God-centered worldview will serve as adequate ground for Christian preaching.

In a lecture given to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary over a decade ago, John Piper speaks to this need eloquently: My burden is to plead for the supremacy of God in preaching--that the dominant note of preaching be the freedom of God's sovereign grace, the unifying theme be the zeal that God has for His own glory, the grand object of preaching be the infinite and inexhaustible being of God, and the pervasive atmosphere of preaching be the holiness of God. Then when preaching takes up the ordinary things of life--family, job, leisure, friendships; or the crises of our day--AIDS, divorce, addictions, depression, abuses, poverty, hunger, and, worst of all, unreached peoples of the world, these matters are not only taken up. They are taken all the way up into God. Man-centered, self-help focused pulpits such as those occupied by pop-evangelicals will never be able to provide this powerful cure for souls.

3. It is atheological: Missiologist Paul Heibert makes the astute observation that when preaching and defending truth, evangelicals should adopt a posture of epistemological realism, recognizing that while truth is absolute, none of us will ever know all truth absolutely! Sinful hubris is at the heart of anyone who believes they have it all figured out!

Still, assuming this epistemological posture doesn't mean that there aren't certain things we can know for sure! When asked by Larry King about the fate of those who don't know Christ as Savior, all Osteen could respond with was "I don't know." Since that agonizing night on CNN, Osteen has issued an apology to his congregation and supporters, admitting that he did not accurately represent the Gospel, and this is commendable. Any of us, when called upon to speak the truth of the Gospel, are prone to inaccuracies and unintended compromises because, in the heat of the moment, our sinful nature gets the best of us. The problem however, is that Osteen admits to never having been a serious student of Scripture. He has never been to seminary, which in and of itself is not a problem. Yet he hasn't seemed to compensate for his lack of formal education by being self-motivated enough to study theology on his own, and he isn't the only pastor out there with such a skeleton in his closet!

I can't count the times I have heard a seminary-trained, Baptist pastor say "I'm just not a theologian." In the formal sense, there are indeed very few "professional" theologians. But every pastor should be a practicing theologue. To preach the Word, we must know what it says. To know what it says, we must study it with dilligence, and hold the truth statements it puts forth with clarity as non-negotiable and axiomatic. But for this to be realized, we have dire need for theologians to return to the pulpits of evangelical churches!

With all of this said, I must say that as a person, I like Joel Osteen. I'm sure if I ever had the privilege, I would enjoy his company. Also, Osteen isn't the issue here, but rather, the larger problem of pastors who are valued more for their charisma and winsomeness than for the content of their overall message. No amount of eloquence or positive energy can compensate for the spiritual loss that occurs when the Gospel is truncated and Biblical truth is marginalized.

So what is the answer to pop-evangelicalism? I believe Piper gave us this answer long before Joel Osteen became a household name in Christian homes: People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow. Preaching that does not have the aroma of God's greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: "Show me thy glory."

Imagine for a moment the result of such thinking permeating the mind and preaching ministry of a man like Joel Osteen! The Kingdom possibilities would be endless. As such, I think the real answer here is not to attack, but rather, to pray earnestly for men of such visibility. If Osteen began preaching the "whole counsel of God," millions of viewers would benefit, as would the people of God at Lakewood Church in Houston.

But such prayers begin in the first person! As I think back on my experiences, there have been times when I know God wanted me to speak as a prophet, and instead I spoke as a salesman. May that never be true of my ministry in 2006! And if you are a pastor, I pray it is never again true of yours either. Instead, let our hidden criy be made audible: "Show us your glory, that we may in turn proclaim it to others."

Further Resources:

John Piper. 1990. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House

Robinson, Haddon W. 1980. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Rowell, Ed. 1998. Preaching with Spiritual Passion: How to Stay Fresh in Your Calling. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.

York, Hershael W. and Bert Decker. 2003. Preaching with Bold Assurance: A Solid and Enduring Aproach to Engaging Exposition. Nashville: Broadman and Holman.