Friday, March 24, 2006

Red and Blue Politics: What Would Jesus Do?

With the Senate poised to take up the divisive issue of immigration next week, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York has become one of the leading voices against suggested legislation coming from the other side of the aisle. The fomer First Lady said that proposed legislation criminalizes undocumented immigrants (as if being here without documentation isn't already criminal according to existing laws), and boldy proclaimed that Republican-sponsored bills were not only in opposition to Democratic values, but were antithetical to the views of Jesus Himself. The proposed legislation, in her view, "would likely criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus Himself."

Needless to say, many in the evangelical community are shocked to hear Senator Clinton appeal to Jesus as an authority for anything! But Clinton isn't the only politician, and the democrats certainly aren't the only party, claiming God is on their side. And the propensity on both sides of American politics to play fast and loose with the person and message of Jesus Christ should cause His followers grave concern.

But efforts to shape Jesus into our own image are not new. In the 19th century, amidst the rise of classical liberalism and the demytholigization approach of Rulolph Bultman and David Strauss, German theologian Martin Kahler expressed concern that the "Quest for the Historical Jesus" was in reality simply a re-making of Jesus into the image of those who sought to critique His person and message. Though Kahler himself rejected the authenticity and historical accuracy of the New Testament Gospels, he was reticent to accept Bultmans approach of re-interpreting Jesus' message in light of history. As a result, Kahler sought to promote a total separation of the "Jesus of faith" from the "Jesus of history." As a liberal, Kahler understood that if one rejects the veracity of the Biblical text, the only other option is to separate faith from history, otherwise, the "re-interpreted" history that results would be far less historical and far more convenient to the views of those seeking to do such re-interpretation.

Kahler had a great analogy for this. He compared those looking for the "historical Jesus" to those looking down into a well, and claimed that it is no surprise to find that the Jesus they construct in the end looks very much like the reflection they have been observing.

In the case of the Jesus Seminar, our Savior comes out as an arrogant academic seeking tenure at an ivy-league school. Coincidental?

The above review of this small but significant part of Church History allows us to see a very similar parallel in remarks such as those made by Senator Clinton yesterday. Instead of starting with Jesus, and being conformed to His image, many start with themselves and seek to conform Jesus to their own image.

But there is no reason why evangelical Christians should have to even struggle through such an issue. We do not distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. We believe both are described with perfect accuracy in the text of the Bible. Yet so often, even Bible-believing Christians yield to the temptation to form their Savior in their own image. Though forthcoming descriptions have been published in similar form in far more eloquent fashion, it is helpful to examine the "Blue" Jesus, and the "Red" Jesus, and compare them both to the Jesus of Scripture.

The "Red" Jesus. This Jesus is a "gun-totin' redneck," and proud of it! His definition of a tax is "legalized theft." He cares little for the environment. After all, the whole planet is goiing to burn under God's judgement one day anyway, so why not help things out a bit? He is anti-abortion, but simultaneously anti-charity. If she got herself into that mess, then she can get herself out of it. The "Red" Jesus also takes his cues from John Calvin when it comes to church-state relations: The state should simply adopt policies as they are dictated by the church. This of course includes immigration policy, which, according to the Red Jesus, can be articulated clearly and sufficiently with two words: "STAY OUT." The preaching of the Gospel is accomplished through the acquisition and retention of power, and is spoken in the most offensive manner possible. Let's face it: most of the world is going to hell anyway, so why should we care about how our message "sounds" to them?

But what about the poor? Red Jesus doesn't care about them! Red Jesus writes them all off as simply lazy and uninitiated, Sure, they are the "least of these," but that is most likely because they contribute the least! This of course includes the people of China. Its not America's fault that they won't take the initiative to rise out from under their oppressors, so Red Jesus will normalize trade relations with them because it doesn't matter how the Chinese treat their women and children, so long as we can use strategic partnerships with them to make a buck. Heck, the Red Jesus will use those monies to fund "faith-based initiatives." Yeah, that's what we need: government using the tax dollars of Baptists to fund the work of Mormons! Makes perfect sense!

To be sure, what I have described represents only the worst of Republican politics. But the above should be well noted, and sufficient to substantiate that Jesus is not a Republican. This is admittedly troubling to me, because I am a Republican. As such, I'd sure be more comfortable if I knew God shared all of my political views. I could take the Hillary Clinton approach and define Jesus on my terms of course, but I think there is something about the second commandment that would make this wrong.

The "Blue" Jesus: This Jesus is a liberal, bleeding-heart, tofu-eating, PETA-supporting socialist who believes that government is the answer to all things. The blue Jesus doesn't need to carry a gun. Guns are dangerous, and if we could get rid of all the guns, we would get rid of all the violence. Of course, Blue Jesus can't afford a gun anway, because the politicians he has elected have raised his taxes to the point that he can barely afford groceries, let alone a gun!

Blue Jesus believes that the government needs those taxes to help the poor. After all, the problem of the poor isn't laziness, or sinfulness. Its a bad environment. In fact, that is everybody's true problem: bad environment, or abuse as a child, or not enough attention, or economic disenfranschisement. Therefore, Blue Jesus works dillegently to ensure that the government provides and access and funding to what these people need.

In the event of an unplanned pregnancy, this would of course include abortion. But this can't be limited to the first trimester. A girl should have the entire term of her pregnancy to decide whether she wants the baby . . .em, excuse me, I meant to say fetus. Actually, the later she makes this decision the better, because late term abortions, especially of the DNX (i.e. partial birth) variety provide huge amounts of grant money to doctors and research hospitals, as well as fetal body parts on which to experiment. Sure, this may involve piercing the back of a baby . . . .excuse me again . . . . fetus' neck and sucking out its brains, but we have to sacrifice the one to serve the many!

Blue Jesus also thinks the whole attempt to define marriage is stupid. If two men or two women want to get married, that should be their right. After all, people should be able to believe what they want, and act the way they want. Blue Jesus encourages Muslims to remain Muslim, Hindus to remain Hindu, and so on. Blue Jesus would certainly not claim to be the "only way" to God. How arrogant! And of course, Blue Jesus would say that, with regard to immigration (or any other area for that matter), that the law of the land really doesn't matter, so lets just keep ignoring the problem. We will not take the intolerant road of telling an undocumented worker that he or she has broken the law, and then enforce that law. Blue Jesus doesn't even bother with changing the law to make the immigration process less cumbersome for those who want to make a better life for themselves. Blue Jesus just ignores the law. Changing it would take up too much valuable time that could be spent saving another spotted owl.

"Red Jesus" and "Blue" Jesus are prime examples of what Dr. Kahler warned us about over one hundred years ago. Worse yet, Red Jesus and Blue Jesus are idols: gods that we have fashioned in our own image. So why is it that our culture, both inside and outside the church, continue to define Jesus only as they would like Him to be, like some wierdo spiritual angle on Extreme Makeover?

The answer? I believe it is because the real Jesus; the Jesus who historically existed, born of a virgin, dying in time and space for human sin, and being historically and literally resurected by God the Father, that Jesus is hard to handle! The Jesus of Scripture isn't confined to a political agenda or any other box. This Jesus is unplugged!

-He creates the entire world in six days.

-He destroys that same world by flood over forty days, violently drowning every man, woman, boy, girl, and baby not in the ark.

-He kills the first-born sons of an entire nation of people, including the Princes.

-He destroys Sodom and Gommorrah by fire.

-He is born in a barn, and raised in a blue-collar household.

-He hangs out with prostitutes, drunks, cheats, theives, and worst of all, employees of the Internal Revenue Service!

-He grows up within Judaism, only to vehemently condemn the leaders of His own faith, calling them "whitewashed tombs."

-He gets angry, REALLY angry, at those who use faith to take advantage of others. He gets a whip, cracks it across a few backs and trashes the entire joint.

-He calls out Judas in front of all the others, revealing in His omniscient understanding Judas' intent to betray Him. Then He basically says to Judas "Do what you gotta do, but when you're done, you are gonna wish you were never born!"

-He dies in a bloody mess on a Roman cross.

-He rises bodily from the grave, demonstrating that the "box" called death can't hold Him either.

-He advocates, as a nation-building strategy for His eternal and indestructable Kingdom, the suffering, persecution and death of those who follow Him.

-He is coming back as the strong, powerful, white haired, tatooed warrior to kill all His enemies.

To sum it all up: The Jesus of the Bible can't be domesticated! And since this is the real Jesus, any other "Jesus" who perfectly fits our understanding, worldview, or political persuasion is by definition a false god.

Hillary Clinton an idolater? Who would have thought that? But she isn't the only one. And this kind of idolatry happens every time we emphasize some things about the Savior to the exclusion of others.

Check the Great Commission. Jesus doesn't speak for us. We speak for Him. Jesus doesn't support our views. We support His.

And Jesus has no desire to identify as a Republican or Democrat. Rather, Jesus expects . . . .indeed commands . . . .those of all political parties to bow before His sovereign goodness. There will be no political parties in the Theocracy that Jesus will soon return to establish. Those who want to be counted as belonging to Him had better realize this, and begin living as if it is true.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Suffering and Martyrdom: Reflections on the Situation in Afghanistan

Four and a half years after the American invasion of Afghanistan, a people have been set free from the rule of the Taliban, a new government has been established, and the United States now has a new ally rather than an old enemy in the War on Terror. In this context, the shocking trial of Abdul Rahman is a surprise to many, especially to evangelical Christians in America who expected that our military efforts there would result in an atmosphere that included freedom of religion. But Islamic Sharia law recognizes no such concept, and a March 21 article in the Chicago Tribune quotes Judge Ansarullah Mawlawizada saying that if Rahman doesn't recant his Christian faith, the death penalty will likely be administered, sooner rather than later.

Still, while the American focus on religious liberty is being touted by everyone from the American Family Association to pastor-friends of mine who have sent me emails, and is an important argument to be voiced, there is a much greater issue that we in the west have predictably overlooked: Martyrdom as a missionary strategy.

Lets face it: The American church goes faint at the sight of blood. Our strong belief in the ideals of religious freedom, and our often litigious spirit that makes headlines on a regular basis in this country has often blinded us from that which the Scriptures declare is both a solemn responsibility, and an effective catalyst for the growth of God's church. From FOX News to explicitly Christian news sources such as The 700 Club, the journalistic angle given to stories like this one is the terrible plight of our brothers and sisters in other lands who do not enjoy nearly the same level of latitude toward their faith by their government. Whether the reports are describing the persecution of Christians in the Sudan (which has been taking place since 1988), the recent genocide in Darfur, or this latest story on our Afghan brother, the attention is always on the evil actions of a foreign government. Conspicuously absent from these stories is the "problem" which precipitated such persecution: the bold witness of Christ-followers and/or the rapid growth of God's church in those areas.

In short, the Christian media tells me that I should look on the Afghan government with disdain, and my persecuted brother in Christ with pity. . . .

. . . .but the Scriptures tell me I should actually be envious of Abdul Rahman!

Our western orientation often causes us to miss the fact that the Scriptures are permeated with the call to suffer. Isaiah tells us that the eternal, undefeatable, universal Kingdom of God (described in Isaiah 52) will not be built in this world in the same way that sinful humanity seeks to build Kingdoms; with power, intimidation, strength. The Kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, and the very foundation for this everlasting Kingdom (as given in Isaiah 53) is personified in the servant who comes to suffer on our behalf. Jesus reiterated this truth to His disciples when He declared "The Son of Man must suffer many things." (Mark 8:31), and He made clear that those who follow Him must do so in every way.

"A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you." (John 15:20)

Ananias was told this by God regarding Saul of Tarsus: "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and Kings and the sons of Israel. for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." (Acts 9:15-16 emphasis mine) Later, the Apostle Paul will speak to his converts in Thessalonica about their responsibility in suffering (1 Thess. 3:2-3), and John will write of his experience of the revelation of Jesus Christ within the context of Christian suffering.

But the Scriptures also record for us how the early disciples responded to such a solemn call. After being publicly flogged by the Jewish authorities, and admonished to stop preaching the Gospel, Luke tells us that the early disciples "left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name." (Acts 5:41). Frankly, when one observes the difference in perception between the 1st century church and its 21st century American counterpart, it becomes obvious that American Christians, myself included, are clueless!

All of the above does not mean I think it is wrong to seek reprieve for our Afghan brother. Paul certainly took advantage of the political system of his own day in order to prolong his life, so that he might have more opportunity to spread the Gospel. Similarly, it is only fitting that American Christians take advantage of the democratic system God has sovereignly seen fit to instill in our country, not to our own advantage, but to the advantage of the Gospel's advance. However, this is where most efforts by American Christians come to a halt.

But the most stinging realization of this truth for me is very personal. Two weeks ago, one of my church planters was bemoaning (rightfully so) his inability to minister to his community via the public school system because the county schools do not collaborate with "religious organizations." On my way home that day, I actually had the gall to think of this as "persecution." Again, we don't have a clue! Maybe that is why the American church is presently so theologically and missiologically impotent.

Our brothers and sisters in "closed countries," by contrast, are seeing the ranks of believers grow in almost every situation. In those countries, it actually means something to be called a "Christian." And as we survey Biblical history, we discover a pattern identical to what I have just described. It was the murder of a deacon that led to the spread of the church outside Jerusalem, and into Judea and Samaria. It was the suffering of Paul that led to churches being planted all over the First Century world.

Similarly, it is the genocide in Darfur, the unjust killing in the Sudan, the relentless persecution of Christians in Ambon, Indonesia, and the communist repression in North Korea that is the catalyst for the building of God's Kingdom in those countries.

For that matter, it was also the unjust, legally abhorrent, "good-ole-boy" justice of Judaism mixed with the convenient politic of a Roman governor that led to the substitutionary atonement of Christ in which all believers place their faith. And it is likely, tragic as it may be, that the martyrdom of Abdul Rahman will result in the explosion of the Christian church in Afghanistan. I can't explain how this happens. I only know that the Bible touts this as the primary way that God's Kingdom is advanced, and I see proof of it every time I observe the plight of my brothers and sisters in lands where far less freedom is enjoyed.

But such news is met by the American church with a great degree of squeemishness. For many American Christians, the Gospel of Christ and the coming Kingdom of God have been supplanted by "The American Dream." My goal is to put my sons through college so that they can have an even better life than the one I am currently enjoying. Don't even suggest that one or both of my boys might lose his head in the middle east for the sake of the Gospel! Don't speak about the neccessity of suffering and death to forward God's church on earth! Such talk is offensive to those who think of Christianity as a "step program" toward a more "successful" life! And I know this more intimately than anyone else!

As I write, I'm sitting in a hotel room at the Westin Hotel near the airport in Atlanta, GA. I am here for the next four days to meet with other Church Planting Missionaries from all across North America so that we can plan another year's strategy. Over the next 96 hours, I will be pampered with all of the trappings that one would expect from a Five-Star hotel. I will eat good food, drink good drink (non-alcoholic, of course. After all, this is a Baptist meeting.), and then fly back to Baltimore, get in my car, and drive back to my home near Mt. Airy Maryland, where I will continue to enjoy my "upper-middle class" lifestyle. If the weather permits Saturday night, I will climb aboard my Suzuki motorcycle and take a ride. I will enjoy the company of my wife and sons at about the same time my Christian brother in Afghanistan is being sentenced. All in all, when I compare my lifestyle with that of Abdul Rahman, I feel pretty pathetic. And maybe I should!

What bothers me about all of this? The Scriptures tell me that my brother Abdul's testimony of persecution is of more value than my own. What bothers me is that somewhere in my pursuit of the American idea of what is right and good for me and my family, I fear I have missed God's best merely because my cultural environment doesn't recognize it to be the best. Yet Abdul Rahman is called a "victim" and I'm called a "missionary." Ironic, isn't it? And in times like this I honestly wonder how truly significant I am to the advance of God's agenda.

American Christianity says victory is acheived through power, political victory, influence, and the acquisition of wealth.

The Bible says victory is acheived through weakness, suffering, persecution, and giving.

Looking at the article in the Tribune, we see what being a "witness" is really all about. Because he values Christ more than anything else, Rahman's wife has divorced him, his family has abandoned him, and Islamic law has condemned him. Yet Tribune reporter Kim Barker stated that this past Thursday, Rahman appeared with no attorney present to represent him.

"On Thursday, the first day of the trial, Rahman appeared in court with no lawyer. Prosecutor Abdul Wasi said Rahman had been told repeatedly to repent and come back to Islam, but Rahman refused. Wasi called Rahman a traitor. "He is known as a microbe in society, and he should be cut off and removed from the rest of Muslim society and should be killed," Wasi told the court. Rahman said he had surrendered himself to God. "I believe in the holy spirit," he said. "I believe in Christ. And I am a Christian."

My heart is full of sorrow for my Afghan brother. But after reflecting on this situation, I don't pity him. I envy him! The kind of faith and commitment to Jesus Christ he is demonstrating is virtually unknown to the materialistic, power-hungry, rights-conscious church in the west. And this puts me to shame!

I'm not yet ready to commit my boys to martyrdom if that is indeed where God calls them one day. I'm simply not there yet, and I recognize that as sin that needs to be dealt with. Moreover, I need a change in perspective that sees suffering and persecution exclusively through the lens of Scripture. Such a view confesses that ultimately, suffering is not sacrifice, but joy. John Piper describes this view well:

From the youngest to the oldest, Christ is calling His church to a radical, wartime engagement in world missions. He is making it plain that it will not happen without pain. But let their be no Christian self-pity, no talk of ultimate self-denial. It is simply amazing how consisent are the testimonies of missionaries who have suffered for the Gospel. Virtually all of them bear witness of the abundant joy and overriding compensations. Those who have suffered most speak in the most lavish terms of the supreme blessing and joy of giving their lives away for others.

A prayer:

God, grant me the divine wisdom required to understand such a marvelous thing, the will to choose such a path for myself and my family, and the love for you that only the Holy Spirit can produce in my heart, and that will bring endurance through the pain to the greatest of all blessings. Bless our brother Abdul, who is now before the authorities that you have sovereingly ordained in Afghanistan. If it pleases you, we ask for his freedom. But we ask even more for your glory in his life. And if in fact those in authority choose to take his life, that he will continue to see it as rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing you. We ask this in the faith that you are standing, even as you were in the martyrdom of Stephen, ready to receive your servant, and ready to use him in life or in death for the further propogation of your Gospel in that part of the world.

More than this, I ask that you give myself and the Christians in this country the perspective that my Afgahan brother has. As painful as it is to ask, I ask for this even if it comes through loss, pain, persecution, or even the fall of this great nation and the loss of freedom. Thank you for causing us to think deeply about such things, and may we leave behind our insignificant, inconsequential concerns over freedom, prosperity, money, family, and power, and clasp tightly onto those things that are tied explicitly to your coming indestructable Kingdom. I fear that to a large extent, much of what we do in North America in the name of Christ really doesn't matter. Almightly God, we want what we do in your name to matter! Empower us by your spirit to rejoice as we willingly build your Kingdom through suffering. And I make this prayer in the name of the Suffering Servant, whom you were pleased to crush for my sin. -Amen!


Piper, John. 1993. Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Spirit of "Emerging Baptists."

Three years ago in the midst of my church planting experience, I had the opportunity to meet, lead to Christ, and baptize a young couple who had no previous church background. These two had been coming to our church for several months, and being recent converts, they were excited about their new life in Jesus Christ, and wanted to continue to grow and serve the Kingdom of God in cooperation with our church. Subsequent to their baptism, they expressed a desire to join our church.

During the membership class they discovered that although our denominational label was not indicated on our signage, we were a church that was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The husband's questions were not only honest and heartfelt, but direct, and closely alligned with the predominant attitudes of his own generation: "Why can't we just be committed to the Bible and the message of Jesus? Why do we have to be affiliated with a label like 'Baptist' and be more divisive?"

Committed Baptists are such because we believe that those principles historically referred to as "Baptistic" are the closest one can find to those principles found in the New Testament. This is not a statement of hubris, but rather, of conviction. Just as we would expect conviced Presbyterians to say the same thing about their own tradition, we claim that we are what we are because our understanding of Biblical teaching leads us to call ourselves "Baptists."

But such confidence and conviction can easily degenerate into sinful pride, and recent discussions surrounding the doctrine of the church seem to suggest that committed Baptists who do not agree with exclusivist, isolationist policies that only legitimize those things that come from Baptist life and thought are promoting a weak and ecumenical ecclesiology. Still, those of us who pastor churches, start churches, and serve literally "in the trenches" believe that the heart of Baptist life is not a reclusive ecclesiology shaped more by modernity than by Scripture. Rather, we believe that if the heart of Baptist thought is made known first in the Scriptures, and second in our history, that there is an entire generation emerging that would be proud to call themselves "Baptist."

Observers both inside and outside the church have for years called attention to the waning effect of denominational labels and programs on emerging generations of young people. Richard Cimino and Don Lattin have recently published this assumption, stating along with others that in the near future "religious denominations will lose influence to local congregations and new coalitions of believers like Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Two words describe the future of religious denominations--downsized and de-centralized."

While this trend began with the "Baby Boomers," it seems to be reaching its zenith with that group affectionately known as the "Busters" or "Generation X." As George Barna well notes, the primary motivator has been the shift from "religion" to "spirituality." Quite unlike their parents and grandparents, the Busters "see faith as a framework for discovering important insights and developing lasting relationships. The institutions are irrelevant to them since their personal interest is in people, not trappings."

As is the case with previous generations, the attitude and outlook of Busters, as well as that of their millennial siblings, is largely affected by the world in which they grew up. This generation experienced the longest stage of adolescence (from 11 to 27 years of age on average). As a result, they possess an outlook on life that is very much "sit and wait" by nature. Due to cultural influences and attitudes such as these, Busters and Millenials are hesitant to commit themselves to any idea, concept, religious belief, political party, or special interest group very quickly. In fact, emerging generations are prone to multi-faceted commitments that transcend political parties, institutions, and even religious denominations. Tod Hahn and David Verhaagen accurately observe that "GenXers almost inveriably see no other option to subjective reality . . .This view of relative truth invariably translates to an emphasis on subjective, mystical experiences, or what we would call 'cut and paste' faith."

Hahn and Verhaagen go on to observe that even those in this generation "who grew up in the church and have received good teaching tend to cut and paste their faith, dismissing with ease bothersome doctrines and troubling tenets."

This "cafeteria method" of theological construction is but one facet of this generation's tendency to "pick and choose," and on a larger level translates into a worldview that is extremely non-institutional. While their Boomer parents werel largely "anti-institutional" (Vietman war protests and the reaction to Watergate are but two historical examples of this tendency among Baby Boomers), GenXers and Millenials are more "non-institutional." In other words, while they do not oppose institutions with the same voracity that their parents did, neither do they see much relevancy or usefulness in current institutions. This of course includes religious denominations, and the results have been obvious to observers of our culture. Cimino and Lattin assert that in North America "the loosening of denominational ties creates a free-market environment in which an entire Presbyterian church goes Pentecostal, or an Episcopal parish turns Eastern Orthodox."

With these cultural realities comes the responsibility of denominations to define themselves clearly and demonstrate their relevance to emerging generations. It is my contention that Southern Baptists are in the best position to do this very thing. The historical commitments and vision of Southern Baptists are, I believe, fundamentally Biblical, but they are also closely alligned with the values which are sought after by the very generational groups who see denominational commitment as irrelevant. But for such vision to be seen, the heart of Baptist life must be communicated clearly, and must overshadow the latest back-and-forth that has been taking place over issues secondary to the essence of our identity.

While questions like those coming from my church's new members may be a bit unsettling to denominational leaders, it nonetheless expresses the driving issue for this generation with respect to denominationalism: "What's the point?" Southern Baptists are not exempt from these lines of inquiry, and should welcome these types of questions as an opportunity to demonstrate the relevancy of denominational identity. But as our values are discussed, the precedent for those values must be expressly Biblical. If the proper hermaneutic is applied to each Baptist distinctive, the application of these distinctives to church culture will not only be easier, but also clearly supported by divine authority.

Distinctive #1: Local Church Autonomy. While the grandparents of the present generation were lifetime loyalists to political parties, workers unions, and denominations, GenXers and Millennials possess the capacity to switch denominations with the same degree of swiftness that many of them continue to switch programs of study while in college. This is a context in which this first Baptist distinctive will be welcomed with open arms. As the etymology of the term suggests, Baptist churches are "self-governing," meaning that no outside governing body, denominational or otherwise, has the right to impose its will on the local church.

This distinctive automatically makes null and void any attempt to impose a Presbyterian or Episcopalian hierarchy on Baptist churches. While this principle does not mean that Baptist churches must be exclusive, it does suggest that at its base, each Baptist church is an independent congregation, which exercises its independence through voluntary cooperation. For a generation that detests hierarchical power and influence, these key principles of congregational autonomy and voluntary cooperation are appealing principles that Baptists have always believed to be clearly taught in Scripture.

Distinctive #2: The Priesthood of Believers. Within Baptist life and thought, the proper understanding of this principle has been a recent source of contention. Timothy George states that the source of this debate is not whether the principle is valid, but rather "how it is to be understood, and how it is related to other, equally valid doctrinal concerns" In introducing this principle to emerging generations, Baptists must be careful not to be understood as promoting hermaneutical anarchy and the "right of private interpretation." However, the best way of displaying the merits of this principle is to emphasize the Biblical teaching of liberty in coming to Christ on one's own, without the neccesity of any human mediator. The appeal of such a doctrine to the personal exploration of faith and the participative nature of belief that is present in Busters and Millenials will be great.

Distinctive #3: Confessionalism. Historically, Baptists have been particularly skilled at striking an appropriate balance between doctrinal anarchy and doctrinal uniformity. The former happens no doctrinal parameters are set according to a consensus of belief delineated by the churches. The latter takes place when the common confessions of our churches are lifted to a level equal in authority to the Scriptures. Barna well notes that emerging generations likewise "want neither a predetermined plan nor a set of imposed facts. They want to inhabit the discovery process, so questions and dialogue are keys for them."

At the same time, Barna's observation must be balanced with what is known about the uneasiness of the Millenials concerning their own moral compass. Thom Rainer correctly states that this generation has "an inability to distinguish right from wrong. And many of the [Millenials] know that they do not know."

These juxtaposed realities can be met with confidence by Southern Baptists. As I continue to talk with those of emerging generations, I find that they do not want to be "indoctrinated" or in any way forced to believe something merely on the basis of its inclusion in a creed. They do however, desire guidance in interpreting the Scriptures, and a common confession upon which the essentials of the faith can be placed. As Baptists, our confessional approach to faith balances well accountability in interpretation of the essentials, freedom of interpretation in non-essentials, and charity in both areas.

Distinctive #4: Congregationalism. Camino and Lattin give a prognosis for the future of the church that includes "the decentralization of power away from clergy and into the hands of laypeople," and state that this shift of power "will have an impact both inside and outside congregations well into the new millenium." Much of this coming shift will be attributed to Buster and Millenial animosity toward autocratic approaches to leadership. As Barna states, emerging generations "want a life that is authentic and genuine--and they want leaders whose style and objectives reflect those same qualities."

This observation demonstrates the need for Baptists to strongly emphasize our belief in the congregational form of government. Whether a church follows a totally democratic paradigm of leadership, or employs elders of some sort, the understanding that all church leaders derive their authority ultimately from the entire congregation will certainly have appeal for emerging generations.

Distinctive #5: Cooperation in Missions. While there is no denominational hierarchy, the denominational structures that do exist, when they function properly, have one purpose: to unite Southern Baptist churches in a common effort to reach the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a purpose should be coupled with the emphasis that GenXers and Millenials place upon holistic mission.

While at first glance, emerging generations appear to merely be "slackers," over time one observes that these generations of young people are wholly committed to missional causes. As a result, the relevancy of Southern Baptist missions can be clearly communicated as the synergistic approach to world evangelization that combines the collective efforts of our churches. Such a vision will be attractive to those seeking to have a maximum impact on their world for the sake of God's Kingdom.

I believe that what motivates Busters and Millenials to service in God's Kingdom are those same things which are the heart and soul of Southern Baptist identity. As such, I believe it is possible for future generations of young people to see the relevancy of our denominational structure, and consequently commit themselves to our identity and purpose.

Hahn and Verhagen correctly note that "every generation is different from the ones before it." If the church hopes to reach any particular generation, and impact them with the Gospel in such a way that they in turn impact others, they must seek to understand how that generation most efficiently responds to the message of the church. That said, I firmly believe that if our SBC roots are revisited, and things that matter are promoted as they should be, the things about which emerging generations are passionate will be seen as lying at the very heart of what it means to be a Southern Baptist.

**This post is an abridged version of an article I wrote three years ago entitled "Baptizing Generation X: Bringing Emerging Generations to Denominational Commitment."


Barna, George. 2001. Boiling Point: Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

Cimino, Richard and Don Lattin. 1998. Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millenium. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hahn, Tod and David Verhaagen. 1998. GenXers After God: Helping a Generation Pursue Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What we are Doing Right.

Any entity as large as the Southern Baptist Convention will have inevitable times of contention, and the recent controversy at the International Mission Board is certainly an example of this. During those times, worthy debate must take place in order for iron to sharpen iron. Things that matter must be discussed, and debated. These are not unneccesary arguments. They are conversations that will no doubt define our Convention of churches for years to come.

Yet in the midst of such discussion, there is the temptation to miss the forest for the trees. We need to remember why some issues are worth a fight so that we don't end up fighting merely for the sake of fighting. Moreover, we need to remember why God has placed us at this juncture in history, and the contribution Southern Baptists are called to make in these critical times.

I was reminded of this today as I was preparing for an upcoming Missions Emphasis during which I will be speaking next week. It is that time of year in which our churches participate in the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. Named for the native Marylander who championed early missions involvement and giving among Southern Baptists, this offering will supply 44% of NAMBs operating budget for the coming year. Part of my role as a North American missionary is to travel to churches promoting this offering, and thanking them for their support of the Cooperative Program and their prayers for our mission efforts.

This year, such promotion is taking place within the context of skepticism regarding the trustees of our sister missions organization, the IMB, and a scathing critique of NAMBs effectiveness by Georgia's Christian Index. Such scrutiny is always hard to hear, especially when you are on the inside of the organization being taken to task. Yet scrutiny should be welcomed, especially by the churches that support our ministries.

At the same time, I realize that the present context of controversy could very well affect our overall missions efforts in Southern Baptist life. And while I find the current debates refreshing to some degree, I also feel the need at this juncture to remind us that there is much that is right about Southern Baptist life:

-We currently support over 5300 NAMB missionaries, and over 5500 IMB missionaries, who are spreading the Gospel and planting churches all over the world.

-Since the inception of the Annie Armstrong offering in the early 20th century, Southern Baptists have generously given over $1 billion to North American mission efforts.

-NAMB, along with state conventions, associations, and local churches, are working together toward the common goal of doubling the number of Southern Baptist churches by the year 2020.

-Over 30,000 people came to faith in Jesus Christ last year as a result of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, literacy missions, week day ministries, and hunger ministries operated by Southern Baptists.

-NAMB disaster relief volunteers served literally thousands of meals every day in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and SBC Disaster Relief continues to be the most effective relief organization in that region. All in all, over 10 million meals were served in the gulf region by Southern Baptists in 2005. Spend some time in Misissippi and Louisiana. The folks there will tell you that it isn't the government that is providing the greatest help. It is the churches, and more particularly, the Southern Baptist churches.

-Strategic Focus Cities emphases have resulted in over 48,000 conversions and over 420 new churches since 1998.

-World Changers and PowerPlant involved over 25,000 youth and adults in evangelism and church planting respectively last year alone, leading to over 1500 conversions.

-Aided by NAMBs support, the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware continues to aggressively plant churches in a state convention where less than 20% of the population has a relationship with Jesus Christ. As an associational missionary who works closely with this state convention, I am proud to say that the church planting process at the Maryland-Delaware Convention is second to none!

-In central Maryland, the area over which I lead church planting efforts, we saw God work through us to plant four new churches in 2005. And as I type, three of between five and seven churches planned for 2006 are already taking shape!

-Baltimore has just been named a Strategic Focus City, and this initiative will begin next year. Plans are already underway for community development and revitalization that we hope will serve as a model for how the church can transform the city through the power of the Gospel!

Southern Baptists are not perfect people. But there is much that we are doing right! Heated discussion on many issues is bound to be forthcoming, but let us not allow such discussion to divert our attention, or re-direct our prayerful and financial support away from the mission of God as it is accomplished through gifts to both the Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon offerings.

Greensboro will no doubt be an interesting Convention. But the debate that will likely grow larger during that time should remind all Southern Baptists that our approach to missions and evangelism is worth it! To those of you who continue to give generously and pray passionately, please accept my heartfelt thanks, and may God continue to bless the churches of our Convention by allowing us a continued place in His Kingdom's advance!

(*UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, I have received many requests to have it published elsewhere. As a result, I am granting permission for anyone desiring to publish this article in its entirety in another forum to do so, provided you alert me prior to publication. Also, anyone desiring to publish only parts of this article may do so after allowing me to review any proposed changes or deletions.)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Extremists: How to Identify them, and What to Do About Them.

Upon hearing the term "extremist,"' some envision a dark-skinned, Osama-like individual with a bomb strapped to his chest looking for the largest crowd of innocent people. Others immediately envision their version of the stateside terrorist who, in defense of his anti-abortion views, blows up an abortion clinic. Still others, hearkening back to the early nineties, think immediately of David Koresh.

Needless to say, we have laws . . . .and those who enforce those laws, to protect us from such forms of extremism. Yet there are many non-violent folks in our world who, while they would never murder anyone over their beliefs, carry such beliefs to what can rightly be called an "extreme." For two thousand years, the church has heard and answered such people via every means from confessions to anathematization, and the 21st century is no different. As long as depravity affects the mind there will be extremists. And the question that must be continually asked is this: How do we identify these peculiar people, and what do we do with them?

I ask that question primarily in light of all that is happening within the International Mission Board. Many supporters of recent policies that place much tighter restrictions on who can be appointed by Southern Baptists to carry the Gospel are grounding their support in a desire to keep out certain influences that they perceive to threaten the integrity of the Gospel and the credibility of our witness. Even in my casual conversations with some pastors, I get the occassional familiar remark:

"We are Baptists, and we want to be represented on the mission field by Baptists. We don't want any Pentecostal influence in our missionaries because that would damage the integrity of our identity."

The further conversations like this go, the more I realize that it isn't so much a difference of opinion on matters secondary to our faith that concerns those who support the new policies. Rather, it is a legitimate fear of an "extreme" form of Pentecostalism, or Calvinism, or some other "ism" that compels some to desire ever-more restrictive policies for our missions personnel.

But the question remains: Is this really the right way to "weed out" extremists? South Carolina trustee Alan McWhite, with whom I worked for four years at North Greenville University, assures me that there are already policies governing against extremes and abuses in the field regarding glossolalia, and that these policies are strictly enforced. So how would more restrictive policies help matters?

Widening the discussion a bit, how exactly do we define what is "extreme?" For some, it seems that a label in and of itself is extreme. A decade ago, the extremists were those who called themselves "Calvinists." Though that debate is still ongoing in some circles, it is a proverbial cakewalk compared to the latest back-and-forth over Baptist ecclesiology, or our understanding of the nature and purpose of the church. Those who became a part of the church growth movement were extremists who only cared about numbers. And presently, those who are learning from the emerging church movement are extremists who are nothing more than epistemological relativists disguised as evangelical preachers. As one surveys the past half-decade in evangelical and Southern Baptist life, it appears that "guilt by association" has been the rule of thumb when it comes to judging anothers belief and practice.
Basically, I want to ask two questions here: 1. How do we define "extreme?" 2. How should the church handle extremists?

How do we define "extreme?"

As I look back at the above paragraph, I realize that within each of the traditions I have mentioned there exist extremists. Nevertheless, we must be careful with our prejudice, lest we malign genuine brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let's start with a hot one, shall we? How about Calvinism? John Calvin, the second-generation reformer of Geneva, was a masterful theologian and systemitician. His emphasis on a Creation-Fall-Redemption approach to redemptive history has defined how the Gospel message is succintly presented in our own time, and his ecclesiological observations continue to define the Protestant understanding of church to this day. Furthermore, his emphasis on the sovereignty of God, while a bit heavy to some, underscores the strong belief that "salvation is of the Lord." Today, those who define their own theological understanding by claiming Calvin stress the depravity of man, God's eternal choice of His elect to salvation, and the perseverance of all true believers to the end. Others who are more closely alligned with Calvin's student Theodore Beza would also claim Christ's atonement as effectual only for those who believe (i.e. the elect), and the inability of the elect to resist the effectual call of the Holy Spirit.

Out of this theological camp have come "Calvinazis," (not a term original with me, but I'm not sure of the original source, so I dont' know who to credit. Whoever coined the term had a great sense of humor!) who make it their life's mission to transform any and every potential disciple into a TULIP-lover. Their legacy is seen in lethargic or non-existent evangelism, theological "hair-splitting," and churches torn asunder by needless doctrinal controversy.

And the problem is that when most people hear the term "Calvinism," they appeal to their own experiences, which are usually limited to people of the sort mentioned above. But Calvin left a much richer legacy than this. Whether or not one agrees with the system of soteriology that bears the frenchman's name, one could hardly discount the legacy of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, William Carey, Adonirum Judson, James P. Boyce, or Lottie Moon, all of which would have identified to a great degree with this system of thought.

But what about Pentecostalism? This movement, which began in 1900 in Topeka Kansas and then continued to flourish with its western expansion which reached its zenith at Azuza Street in 1906, continues to impact North America and the world. In terms of the legacy it has left Christendom, those with a limited sense of history will only think of present-day heretical false prophets: Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Paul Crouch . . .you get the picture.

Those less-informed will neglect to recognize the great men of faith Pentecostalism has given the church. From sound Bible teachers such as Jack Hayford to the brilliant theological mind of Gordon Fee, the Pentecostal movement has left more than its share of wealth from which all followers of Jesus can benefit. In addition, any missiologist will tell you that Pentecostals have been key to throwing open the gates of evangelism in Latin America. Are there extreme forms of Pentecostalism? Only if the Pope is Catholic! But I have met many Pentecostal brothers and sisters whose testimony, character, and lifestyle put many Baptists to shame!

Similarly, there are many Baptists out there who, borrowing from the Pentecostal movement, are "Charismatic with a seat belt" (to borrow a phrase from Mark Driscoll). Theologian Wayne Grudem and Pastor John Piper do not share a pneumatology identical with classical Pentecostalism, but their openness to the gifts of the spirit and rejection of cessationism have done nothing to lessen their Gospel witness to the world, or damage their faithfulness to their calling. Speaking as one who is much more "cautious" regarding what is known as the "sign gifts," I understand the concern that Southern Baptist missionaries might abuse such gifts and subsequently take the focus from Christ to the Holy Spirit. Still, I know many godly believers who disagree with me on this issue, and for the life of me, I can't understand why their practice of a "prayer language" in their own prayer closet threatens our "Baptist identity," or harms the witness of the Gospel.

Other movements have taken a severe beating as well. For the past two decades, many well-known pastors have become voluntarily identified as opponents of the "church growth movement," decrying the excesses that were admittedly embarrassing to the body of Christ, but neglecting to recognize the heart of the movement, which called for the church to once again engage the lost in the most aggressive ways possible. And today, many evangelicals shudder when the phrase "emerging church" is used, thinking immediately of the "new Yale hermaneutic" of Leonard Sweet, or the syrupy, non-assertive, disturbingly unclear writings of Brian McLaren. To those skeptical of this movement, the prophetic voice of Mark Driscoll, and the sound artistic approach of Erwin McManus aren't even on the radar screen, nor is the contribution of the wider emerging church movement to a more missional ecclesiology.

All of this is to say that extremists are out there! But they aren't identified by the labels they wear.

So how does one identify an extremist? A look at how Paul does this in his epistles is most helpful here. Paul easily identifies the extremes of legalism (Galatians), Jewish mysticism and proto-gnosticism (Colossians) and relativism (Romans), and each of these is also an example of how pointing to Christ reveals all that is not associated with Christ. Extremists come draped in all sorts of robes, but the problem isn't the robe, but rather, how that robe is used to draw attention away from Christ to something else.

But how do we deal rightly with one who has fallen prey to an extreme? There are several approaches out there:

Legalism: This is the approach that says "We will not appoint/hire those who possess a prayer language. We will not appoint/hire Calvinists. We will not appoint/hire anyone in sympathy with the emerging church." Again, such an approach is the direct result of "guilt by association" thinking. And what is the result of such an approach? With regard to the prayer language issue at the International Mission Board, the result has been the theological equivalent to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forces godly men and women "in the closet," and destroys trust between stateside and the field.

Scriptural Authority: Based on our common confession in The Baptist Faith and Message, we already have a tool for holding missionaries, seminary professors, and others accountable to our churches. Policies are good, but every policy should originate from our common understanding of what the Scriptures teach. Where there is room for disagreement, let us continue to disagree, and do so agreeably!

I am thankful that those elected to oversee our seminaries and mission boards are cautious when it comes to extremism in any form. But one is not a Charismatic extremist because he or she prays in another language. One is not anti-evangelism because he or she is a Calvinist. One is not doctrinally wishy-washy because he or she identifies to some degree with the "emerging church." In short, it isn't the label that makes a person an extremist. Rather, it is what one does to abuse a label and take attention away from things that matter that causes a move to the extreme.

And if we aren't careful, our efforts to weed out extremists will result in our becoming the very thing we hate. For example, though most supporters of the new Baptism policy would not call themselves "Landmarkists," the policy itself is rooted in just such a view. And Landmarkism, by its exclusive nature, is an extreme view of ecclesiology. In fact, Landmarkism is possibly the one exception to all that I have previously said because its essence is to deny the legitimacy of all things ecclesiological that are not Baptist. This form of exclusivism is an affront to the church, and its proponents ultimately seek to confer on others a title they themselves should be wearing: "extremist."

We can't go there.