Saturday, November 04, 2006

Hypocrisy in the Evangelical and Republican Ranks

O.K. So, I am driving home from my nightly workout at the gym Thursday night (I walk 3-5 miles on the treadmill) and I hear on the radio the breaking news that Rev. Ted Haggard has resigned as the President of the National Association of Evangelicals and temporarily stepped aside as pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. To give you an idea of how powerful this man was in the Evangelical community, the NAE boasts a membership of more than 30 million Evangelical Christians. His church alone has a membership of 14,000. And, Evangelical Christians have been the centerpiece of Karl Rove's strategy to win elections on behalf of George Bush ever since Bush first ran for Governor in Texas. Haggard himself had regular contact with the White House and for the last several elections, the Rove-Bush political machine could always count on millions of Evangelical Christian voters to turn out on election day. They pushed Bush over the top in 2000 and again in 2004.

I cannot predict what will happen on Tuesday in the election. But, I think Evangelicals need to do some serious thinking and reevaluation of their true allegiances. Evangelicalism is a movement which can trace its beginning back to the 19th century in America. It gets its name from the Greek word for "good news." Though it encompasses a variety of different Christian traditions, everything from Fundamentalists to Pentecostals, it has two central ideas shared by all: the importance of a personal conversion experience with Jesus Christ and supreme devotion to the Bible as the only source of authority for a Christian.

Evangelical leaders such as James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, became enamoured with secular political power back in the 1970s as a way to foster change in America. And that is where I would argue the movement needs correction. Randall Balmer, a professor of American Religious History at Barnard College in Columbia University, who grew up in the Evangelical tradition and still identifies with it, has written a new book that I recommend. It is called Thy Kingdom Come, an Evangelical's Lament: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. The first sentences in the Introduction of the book is hard-hitting:

"I write as a jilted lover. The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of the First Amendment."

Which brings me back to Rev. Haggard. When the male prostitute who claims to have had a sexual relationship with Haggard for three years and provided a contact for drugs went public with the story Thursday night, Haggard was interviewed and he denied everything. He denied evening knowing the man. But Then, yesterday he admitted that he had gone to the man for a "massage" and had purchased methamphetamine once, but he "threw it away." Does anyone think that sounds a bit like Bill Clinton's assertion that he tried marijuana once but he didn't inhale? Who believes that? And besides, why would he call a male prostitute and go meet him in a motel for massage? There are plenty of legitimate massage therapists (reputable) out there.

The reason that Rev. Haggard is news is that he has taken such a strong stand on gay marriage and homosexuality. And so, what do I think Evangelicals need to do? Well, I certainly don't think they need to give up their crusade for better morals in America. One of the bedrock principles of the Gospel is that when a person meets Christ, that person's life will change. We are to become more like Jesus. And, in doing so, we experience transformation. The old life passes away and all things become new. I believe that Evangelicals should continue to speak out in favor of life. Of course, I would broaden the anti-abortion rhetoric to include anti-war and anti-death penalty. And, I also believe Evangelicals should work for better ecological principles to be practiced by large corporations. And, I believe Evangelicals should continue to encourage stronger families. So, although I disagree with Evangelicals on some of the issues for which they strive, I do not want them to stop.

What Evangelicals need to do, however, is get out of bed with the state. They need to completely reevaluate their priorities and realize that ultimately the things they seek can only come through changed hearts and lives and not through secular politics. Jesus eschewed the secular politicians of his day. Evangelicals should concentrate on preaching the Gospel and let God change the lives, not the government.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Pray for the Amish Community in Nickel Mines, PA

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about the Amish in Nickel Mines, PA, and the horrific loss of life of the little girls in the shooting at their school. As I predicted, the Amish response to their grief is the answer to the question "What would Jesus do?" They have responded by offering forgiveness rather than hatred and resentment.

Hatred is like a cancer that will ultimately eat a person up from the inside out. Back in the 1980s Don Henley, after he left the Eagles for a solo career, wrote a song called "The Heart of the Matter." It is a song about a love affair between a man and a woman that went wrong and is over. The refrain of the song says,

'Been tryin to get down
to the heart of the matter
But the will gets weak,
and my thoughts seem to scatter,
But I think its about, forgiveness, forgiveness
Even if, even if,
you don't love me anymore."

There is another line in the song that says, "You keep carrying that anger, it will eat you up inside."

Although it is unimaginable to most of us, the way of Jesus is not the way of hatred and revenge. And, the world was reminded of that yesterday as the grandfather of one of the little girls stood over her lifeless body and said, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Pray for the Amish community today as they bury these innocent little girls. Pray that the grace of God will sustain them in this horrible moment. But, also pray for your own community, state, nation and the world. Pray that the way of Jesus will be followed in the face of evil rather than the way of violence, hatred and revenge.

"And the world will live as one!" --John Lennon

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Pennsylvania Amish School Shooting

The nation has been horrified once again by a shooting at a school. While all of the school shootings in recent years have been horrible and should remind us that there are way too many guns out there for people with psychological problems to use, this particular case is especially disturbing. It is especially disturbing because the Amish are a very close-knit community of Christian believers who have pacifism as one of the hallmarks of their faith. Therefore, to have this level of violence instigated by an outsider who came into their community is indeed a major tragedy for their community.

Violence is not new to the Amish tradition though. They are the descendents of the 16th century Anabaptist tradition. The Anabaptists (who got their name from their refusal to accept infant baptism and their decision to "re-baptize" themselves as adult believers in Christ) were perhaps the most biblical of all of the 16th century reformers, yet were the most persecuted of that century. They denied the biblical validity of infant baptism. Whereas the other reformers went a long way toward reforming the church on the basis of sola scriptura, the Anabaptists took sola scriptura to its logical conclusion denying infant baptism. With the church and the state tied together as closely as it was in the 16th century, to deny infant baptism was tantamount to denying one's citizenship. As a result, Anabaptists became the scourge of both Protestants and Catholics in western Europe. They were hunted down, tortured and hundreds were executed for their religious beliefs by burning at the stake and even drowning (a cruel method of mocking their emphasis on adult baptism).

The Anabaptists were distinctive for several important beliefs. (1) They believed that baptism was reserved for adult believers who had experienced a personal conversion. (2) They placed great emphasis on Christian discipleship, instructing that Christians should live like Jesus lived. (3) They were pacifists, refusing to take up arms even to defend themselves. (4) The practiced separation from the world, meaning that their communities tended to be separate and to themselves, a tradition that the Amish practice today. (5) They were strong supporters, perhaps the most vocal in the first 16 centuries of Christianity, of the notion that the institution of the church and the institution of the state should be separate. (6) They had a very strong sense of community, again a concept practiced by the modern-day Amish. (7) They had a distinctive ecclesiology, meaning that they believed that the church is not made up of every citizen of society (the belief in Europe in the 16th century) but the church is only made up of those baptized believers who have had an experience of personal converstion. (8) They believed in restoration of the NT ideal of the church rather than in a reformation of the 16th century church.

The modern-day Amish (as well as the Mennonites) are the inheritors of this Anabaptist tradition. Pacificism, living like Jesus lived, strong sense of community, etc. has characterized the Amish for centuries. These were peaceful people. They did not look for trouble. They kept to themselves as much as possible. And, so that is what makes the killings of these little girls in one of their schools so tragic.

But even more interesting is the question of how the Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania are going to respond to this. In fact, their response which will probably be articulated only in their community and not to the world, will most like be to simply return to their simple lives and deal quietly with their grief in their community with the loving support of their neighbors.

We live in a very violent world. And the foreign policy of our president has not contributed to peace in the world, but rather has stirred up the anger of many people in the world toward each other and toward the United States. In such a time as this, it is sobering to be reminded of the simple question "What would Jesus do?" I suspect that if we watch the Amish of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, we will get a good indication of how that question is to be answered.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Incompetence of President Bush

The anger exhibited by former President Clinton toward Chris Wallace this past weekend on a FoxNews interview has been news itself for the weekend and the first of this week. I can't really blame President Clinton for reacting angrily to what many of us perceive is a deliberate distortion of history in order to sway public attention away from the incompetence of the Bush Adminstration. In fact, the same idealogues who continue to attack the Clintons now (did you see Jerry Falwell's comment yesterday about Mrs. Clinton?) are the very people who have absolutely loathed them since they first stepped into the public arena in 1991. So, I don't really expect anything different from them. Ultimately, they will probably get their wish and Hillary Clinton will not run for president, or at least not be elected if she runs. She will remain in the Senate as a very powerful force for years to come though. And, if she ever becomes majority leader, watch out!

But, what President Clinton said in his anger with Chris Wallace must be kept in mind. Here's a quote from the transcript:

"What did I do? What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since. And if I were still president, we'd have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him. Now, I've never criticized President Bush, and I don't think this is useful. But you know we do have a government that thinks Afghanistan is only one-seventh as important as Iraq. And you ask me about terror and Al Qaeda with that sort of dismissive thing? When all you have to do is read Richard Clarke's book to look at what we did in a comprehensive, systematic way to try to protect the country against terror. . . And so, I left office. And yet, I get asked about this all the time. They had three times as much time to deal with it, and nobody ever asks them about it. I think that's strange."

He tried to get Bin Laden and when he bombed Bin Laden's camp, Senators and Representatives from Ashcroft to Coats, to Specter blamed him for trying to take the national attention off of the Lewinsky scandal ("Wag the Dog"), a scandal created I might say by the extreme right wing in the country.

All that aside, let's assume Clinton didn't do all he could to get Bin Laden. Let's assume everything said about him is completely true. The fact of the matter is that when President Bush became president in January, 2001, the nation knew that Bin Laden was an imminent threat. They were getting daily intelligence briefings indicating that he was a dangerous risk. And, the one person in the govt. who knew more about it than anyone else was Richard Clarke, certainly not a partisan politician. And, they demoted Clarke and paid no attention to the Cole matter or to anything related to Bin Laden. When 9/11 happened, instead of embracing the world's compassion toward the U.S. and asking their help in going into Afghanistan to get Bin Laden, President Bush and his administration turned the nation's attention toward Sadaam Hussein, who had no direct ties to Al Queda. And, it as it turns out now, had absolutely no weapons of mass destruction. And, then after 9/11, even to this day, we have more troops in Iraq fighting a war that now the NIE says is creating more terrorists rather than less terrorists, and not nearly that many troops in Afghanistan trying to kill Bin Laden. So, who is the real incompetent president?

Go figure!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Gospel According to Archie Bunker

(Hebrews 11: 1-4)

During the 1970s one of the most popular critically acclaimed television shows was “All in the Family,” starring Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, and Sally Struthers. “All in the Family” was indeed a ground-breaking television show, because, it brought to audiences a hard-hitting, realistic satire, rather than the na├»ve comedy escapism of the 1960s.

The main character of the show was “Archie Bunker.” I have always enjoyed the show. But, what I have particularly enjoyed is the theology of Archie Bunker. From time-to-time the show brought in themes of religion because Archie’s son-in-law, Mike Stivic was an agnostic. Although Archie himself never attended church in the storyline, he was an opinionated expert on theology. Here are just a few of his theological “Archieisms.”

In the famous episode which guest-starred Sammy Davis, Jr., Archie said, “Now, no prejudice intended, but I always check with the Bible on these here things. I think that, I mean if God had meant for us to be together he’d a put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, and put the rest of us in all the white countries.” Then, Sammy Davis, Jr. said, “Well, he must’ve told’em where we were because somebody came and got us.”

Once, in an argument with his son-in-law Mike, Mike reminded Archie, “Remember that Jesus was Jewish.” To which Archie replied, “Yes, but only on his mother’s side.”

Concerning the divinity of Christ, he said, “All over the world they celebrate the birth of that baby, and everybody gets time off from work. Now if that ain’t proof that he’s the Son of God, then nothing is.”

On the nature of God, Archie said, “God don’t make no mistakes, that’s how he got to be God!”

Concerning the inferiority of women (in Archie’s theology), he said “God made Adam first, and then he made Eve out of Adam’s rib—cheaper cut.!”

But my very favorite Archieism that leads to the point of this sermon is the one statement theologically that I believe Archie got right. Talking to Edith on one episode about faith he said, “It ain’t supposed to make sense; it’s faith. Faith is something that you believe that nobody in his right mind would believe.”

What a profound statement! “Faith is something that you believe that nobody in his right mind would believe. The passage of scripture cited above is the Bible’s definition of faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” The NIV puts it this way, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see.” The CEV translates it “Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see.”

There are two points to this definition of faith.
I. What Faith Has

The first part of the verse explains to us what faith “has.” “It already possess in the present what God has promised for the future.” (Tom Long, Interpretation (Hebrews), 113).
There are two aspects to this, both an inward and outward aspect according to Tom Long. Long says, “Inwardly, people of faith have a confidence today, here and now when all hell is breaking loose around us, that the promises of God for peace, justice, mercy and salvation can be trusted.” (Long, 113). Faith therefore becomes a response to the trustworthiness of God. It is like swinging “out on the vine of God’s promises over the chasms of life, trusting that the vine will hold.” (Long, 113)

But, faith is more than just an inward assurance. It is the very being of God’s promises. “It is more than the inner confidence that the powers of the world that press down and destroy human life will eventually yield and that God’s promises will be fulfilled someday; it is the reality of those promises moving as an advance force and operating behind enemy lines.” (Long, 113).

Therefore, “faith inwardly sings “We Shall Overcome.” Faith as an outward reality marches at Selma. Faith as an inward reality trusts God’s promise that “mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Rev. 21:3). Faith as an outward reality prays boldly for those who mourn, serves tenderly those who weep, works tirelessly to ease the pain of those who are wounded. Inwardly, faith moves hearts; outwardly, faith moves mountains.” (Long, 113)

I read once about a woman who was called to serve as a missionary to the Apache Indians out west. She packed her belongings and drove out in the desert to her post. She was so excited that she drove past the last gas station for hundred miles without noticing that she needed fuel. She ran out of gas about a mile down the road past the station.

She walked back to the station. The attendant came out of the office and met her to see what he could do to help. She explained that she had run out of gas about a mile down the road and didn’t have anything to transport the gas back to her car in. The attendant went around back of the station to an old shed to see if he could find anything with which she could carry her gasoline. The only container he could find was an old hospital bedpan. She told him that it would work just fine and that it would give her enough that she could get back to the station.

So, she carried it back down the road to her car careful not to spill any of the fuel. When she got to her car, she carefully poured the contents of the bedpan into the tank of her car. A truck driver pulled alongside the car just as the lady was emptying the bedpan into the tank. He rolled down his window and shouted to her, “Lady, I wish I had your faith!” (SermonCentral.com, Sermon by Michael Luke, www.sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=62412&ContributorID=6734)

The great theologian Augustine once said, “Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe.” Clement of Alexandria said, “Faith is voluntary anticipation.” Faith is that quality of assurance that when life tumbles in on us, that ultimately there is still a God on control. And, that while we do not have the answers right now, we can still trust that God will bring about calm in the midst of the storm.
II. What Faith Perceives

The second aspect of faith is the evidence or conviction of things not seen. This points to the capacity of faith to see things beyond the naked eye. In 2 Corinthians 4:18 and 5:7 Paul says it this way: “What can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” “We walk by faith, not by sight.” (Long, 114)

To the person of faith, the universe has purpose. It is not just a random swirl of matter. John Calvin says, “If God should withdraw His hand a little, all things would immediately perish and dissolve into nothing.” (Quoted in Long, 114)

The naked eye sees trouble all around. But to the eye of faith, through toil and adversity another reality can be perceived. “What the naked eye can see is a world of suffering and setback, violence and hardship. Given the harsh realities of the world, faith is the ability to see with the inner eye, to see what cannot be seen with the natural eye.” (Long, p. 114)

Martin Luther said it this way in the 3rd verse of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God:”
And tho’ this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph thro’ us,
The Prince of Darkness grim
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

Charles Swindoll, in his book Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, tells the story of a man lost in the desert, about to die from thirst. He came upon an old, run-down shack and went inside to try and find some shade. As he looked around he saw an old water pump on the other wall of the shack. He grabbed the handle and began to pump up and down. But nothing came out. Disappointed, he staggered back to a corner, but then noticed an old jug off to the side. He looked at it, wiped away the dirt and dust and read a message on the jug that said, “You have to prime the pump with all the water in this jug. P.S. Be sure to fill the jug up before you leave.”

He popped the cork, and the jug was full of water. Now he had a decision to make. If he drank the water, he’d have his thirst quenched and he would live. If he poured the water into the old rusty pump to prime it maybe it would bring fresh, cold water from down deep in the well, perhaps all the water he wanted, and even enough to allow him to complete his journey. But, what if the pump no longer worked? And, how long had the jug of water sat in the old shack anyway.

He studied his options and reluctantly decided to pour all the water into the pump. Then he grabbed the handle and began to pump. He pumped, he pumped, and he pumped. Finally came a little trickle of water and then it all began to gush. Cool, fresh water from deep in the ground below. He filled the jug and drank from it. He filled it again and drank it again. Then he filled the jug to the top for the next traveler. He put the cork back on and added this to the note, “Believe me, it really works. You have to give it all away before you can get anything back!”

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Baptists and Religious Freedom: The Courage to Confront the Establishment

Introduction
Tuesday, we celebrate the birth of our nation. The United States is a nation that stands for freedom. One of our most basic freedoms that we cherish is the freedom of religion. Within the first sentence of the first amendment to the Constitution, we find the words that spell out the doctrine of the separation of church and state. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For more than two centuries Americans have enjoyed the fact that they can exercise their faith any way they please and can even have no faith at all, all without any coercion from the government. That, in my opinion, is one of our most basic of freedoms and it has served us well. It certainly explains why religion thrives so well in America.
There is a very long tradition of Baptist attention to religious liberty and separation of church and state. In his book, The Baptist Identity, Walter Shurden indicates that frequently, Baptists have been a “Romans 13 people,” recognizing that God ordains the government and they have been supportive. Other times, Baptists have been a “Revelation 13 people,” living under political circumstances where they consider the government to be the “Beast” and having to “oppose the state with their very lives.” But, most of the time, Baptists have been a “Matthew 22 people,” able to “render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar and to God what is God’s.”[1]
One of my favorite Baptists was Thomas Helwys, a member of that very first congregation of Baptists established in Amsterdam by John Smyth. Eventually, Helwys took part of the group back to England and helped establish the first Baptist church on English soil. The little band of Baptists ran into great difficulty in England, though. King James was not accommodating to dissent from the Church of England. Baptists were not free to promote their faith. And, so Helwys wrote a wonderful little book called The Mistery of Iniquity. Listen carefully to these clear, concise, and prophetic words Helwys used to address the king:
We still pray our lord the King that we may be free from suspect, for having any
thoughts of provoking evil against them of the Romish religion in regard to
their profession, if they be true and faithful subjects to the King, for we do
freely profess that our lord the King hath no more power over their consciences
than ours, and that it is none at all; for our lord the King is but an earthly
King, and if the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all h
human laws made by the King, our lord the King can require no more. For
men’s religion is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it,
neither may the King be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics,
Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish
them in the least measure.[2]
Two important things should be noticed here. First, Helwys wrote this document and sent a personal copy to King James. He was immediately arrested and spent the rest of his life in Newgate Prison. Second, notice that Helwys was arguing not only for Baptist freedom, but also freedom of religion for Roman Catholics, Muslims, atheists, and Jews, a concept almost considered blasphemous in their day! But, we need to understand that it is the Baptist way!
My great fear today is that religion in America is so free, that we have been lulled to sleep and are not able to recognize threats to religious liberty that are all around us today. Even many Baptists are unaware of the danger of some of the things they say and advocate. There is a philosophy going around today in Religious Right circles that basically argues that the founding fathers were all Christians (in the way that we define Christian) and that the philosophical underpinning of the founding of our nation is Biblical Christianity. That is almost totally false. It cannot be denied that the Founding Fathers were “Christian” to some degree or another. But, coming from 18th Century Enlightenment ideals, they conceived of a nation and a government that would be totally “secular” and “neutral” when it came to matters of religion. But, many fail to recognize this today.
In 1984, in an interview with Bill Moyers that was televised nationally, W. A. Criswell, longtime pastor of FBC Dallas made a historical blunder of epic proportions. He made the statement that the notion of the separation of church and state is “the figment of some infidel’s imagination.” In that one statement, W. A. Criswell was casting off centuries of Baptist witness, including that of his own predecessor George W. Truett, as being full of “infidels.” Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!!!
The passage that we read a few moments ago from Amos is a story about one prophet and his refusal to go along with the establishment. It was the 8th century B.C.E. The nation of Israel had been divided between the northern kingdom, which retained the name “Israel” and the southern kingdom which was called “Judah.” Amos was a farmer, a layman, from the South who was called by God to go to the North and prophesy. Following his conscience, he did just that. And, his prophecy was pointed, harsh at times, and for the most part rejected. The northern kingdom was doing well financially and politically. The shrine at Bethel where Amaziah served as priest had good attendance. And here came this “doom and gloom” prophet, an outsider, claiming that God’s judgment was coming upon Israel for its mistreatment of the poor and its general disobedience. This was a message they did not want to hear.
This encounter between Amos and Amaziah represents the conflict between priestly religion and prophetic religion.[3] I want to suggest to you today that we do not truly have freedom of religion until there is the freedom for the “prophets” to challenge the “priests.” And, I would contend that this dynamic is at the heart of the Baptist tradition when it comes to matters of the state and our faith. Can this story teach us anything today about the freedom of religion we enjoy in our nation? Indeed I believe it can.
I. Priestly Religion: Comfort But No Freedom
In this passage of scripture we see an encounter between Amos and Amaziah. Amaziah was on the king’s payroll. He represented state religion, the establishment, the majority opinion. He was a priest at Bethel, the religious center of the Northern Kingdom. Amaziah seems to have had some type of personal acquaintance with King Jeroboam II by the fact that he reported to the king what Amos was prophesying and he seemed to speak for the king in forbidding Amos to prophesy any further. He was paid to keep the king happy. He dared not cross the king! Furthermore, one could say that a part of his job was to sponsor the state religion. He exemplifies “establishment” religion. He was a prototype of John Calvin of Geneva, John Cotton of Massachusetts Bay and Henry VIII. Amos spoke his conscience and dared speak against the establishment.
The kind of priestly religion as exemplified by Amaziah is always accountable to someone other than God. It is never truly free. It is either controlled by a governmental power, some type of social structure, or its own spokesperson. Roy Honeycutt says, “Whenever religion is institutionalized there is always a “Jeroboam” rather than God to whom it is responsible.”[4]
Priestly religion always demands that things stay as they are and is chaffed by criticism. In fact, it frequently does not allow for criticism at all. When Amaziah encountered Amos he reported to the king that Amos was “conspiring” against Israel. Then, he told Amos in verse 12, “flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” In other words, go back home and do you prophesying but leave us alone!
On July 16, 1651 John Clarke, pastor of the Newport Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island, along with Obadiah Holmes and John Randall, made a pastoral visit to the home of a man named William Witter in Lynn, Mass. Witter was elderly and near death and was probably a member of the Newport church. John Clarke apparently led a worship service and preached at the home. The established religion in Mass. was Puritanism and the Puritans forbid Baptist preaching. Clarke, Randall, and Holmes were arrested for illegal preaching. They were tried and sentenced to be fined or publicly whipped.
Clarke’s fine was paid by an anonymous donor. Randall paid his own fine. A donor offered to pay Holmes’ fine but he refused and insisted on taking the whipping. And so, after several weeks in jail, on September 5, 1651 Obadiah Holmes’ hands were tied to the post in Boston Commons. He was stripped to the waist and he received thirty lashes across his back. It was reported that throughout the whipping Holmes continued preaching to the crowd as a witness. He was so brutally injured that he was unable to leave Boston for several weeks and for much of that time he could rest only crouched on his elbows and knees. His back remained scarred for the rest of his life.[5]
What was their crime? What had Holmes done to deserve such brutal treatment? Holmes, Randall, and Clarke dared challenge the establishment. One of the hallmarks of the early Baptists is that they dared to challenge the establishment, whether in England or in the American colonies. Baptists were at the forefront of efforts to secure religious freedom, not only for themselves, but also for all. Early Baptists were opponents of established religion.
It concerns me that many modern Baptists tend to be part of the establishment rather than the challenge to the establishment. I’m not advocating here that we all go out and become gadflies. However, I do think Baptists need to remember that our tradition was born in the fires of controversy and that the earliest Baptists were courageous enough to challenge the standing order.
There is a certain religious mindset in our culture today that seems to want the government on its side to do its bidding. Priestly religion! Regardless of political party, when the church starts courting government support and vice-versa, we find ourselves in danger of becoming more and more like Amaziah. Religion in America has thrived because it has had the freedom of Amos rather than the government identity of Amaziah!
Martin Marty once said that the Southern Baptist identity was so closely identified with Southern culture that the Southern Baptist Convention could be described as the “Catholic Church of the South” because of its pervasive influence on Southern culture.[6] We all know the sins of slavery and segregation that many Southern Baptists one time were guilty of. Perhaps it took Baptists such a long time to recognize their sin because like Amaziah, our religion had become too identified with the standing order.
II. Prophetic Religion: Freedom But No Comfort
The kind of religion exemplified by Amos is free. The only authority that Amos had to respond to was God. In verse 14 Amos made it clear that he was not a member of the “prophetic guild.” He was not a professional prophet. Other places in the Old Testament indicate that there was indeed a guild of professional prophets that the kings of Israel kept on the payroll. They functioned in ways similar to Amaziah. They were hired to keep the king happy. They never challenged the king. They never critiqued the king. And, they kept the king thinking that he was within the will of God.
Amos was different. “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go prophesy to my people Israel.” Amos let it be known that he was beholden to no one except God. He was not on the king’s payroll so he could say what he believed God wanted him to say. And, this freedom allowed him to speak God’s true word to the people in the Northern Kingdom.
One of the most powerful images I have ever witnessed on television occurred in June of 1989. It was the image of that one, lone, Chinese man, unknown to this day, who stood in defiance in front of Chinese tanks and held his ground, holding up the progression of those tanks in the street near Tiananmen Square in Peking, China. There had been days of rioting and student protests. Hunger strikes had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students wanted one thing: Freedom. Ground Zero was Tiananmen Square. Finally, fearful of losing complete control, the Chinese government ordered tanks into the Square to put down the rioters. What happened to this man, no one will know. Who he was no one will know. But, that one image completely captured the essence of the Baptist tradition of dissent. There used to be a time when Baptists were symbolized by that one lone man standing in the face of insurmountable odds.
Like Amos 800 years before Christ, and this one man in Tiananmen Square, Baptists have a tradition of being prophetic when we need to be. I don’t know of a time in my life when a Baptist prophetic voice of dissent is more needed. We need to remember that God loves the entire world, not just America. And, when the temptation comes to identify God only with America, good Baptists need to stand up and say “no!”
As we celebrate our nation’s birth tomorrow, let us be reminded that in this great land we have the freedom to challenge the standing religious order. And let us also be reminded that we should never get too comfortable in our religion to the point where we become like Amaziah and are unable to listen to the Amoses of the world!
[1] Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 45.
[2] H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, (Nashville: Broadman Press: 1990): p. 72. (I have “Americanized” the English wording and spelling from the original quoted by McBeth).
[3] See Roy Honeycutt, Amos and His Message, Broadman, 1963, 132-144.
[4] Ibid., 133.
[5] Taken from Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, p. 140.
[6] Bill Leonard, God’s Last and Only Hope, p. 3.

Our Senate and the Flag

This week, the United States Senate came from within one vote of kicking into overdrive the process to amend the U.S. Constitution to outlaw something that is not a problem in our society: flagburing. Amazing! In the 1970s, women all over our country were being denied equal rights in the workplace and everywhere else and yet, the Equal Rights Amendment could never get passed. H. Ross Perot unsuccessfully ran for president in 1992 partly on a platform of advocating for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution which would prohibit deficit spending by the U. S. government. He got nowhere! And, now our Senate, if it had had one more vote, would have probably initiated an amendment to change the 200 plus year old Constitution to outlaw something that most of us have never witnessed! All I can say is these Senators are terrified to stand up for what it right and are cynically using our flag to play politics in the face of the upcoming November election. Shameful! And, as a Democrat, I am even angrier at the 14 Senators from my own party who voted for the Amendment.

Dennis Rogers, a columnist for the Raleigh News and Observer had a great column on this issue this week. I will include it below:

Dennis Rogers, Staff Writer
There comes a moment in every military funeral when the emotions are almost too much to bear. For many, it begins when pallbearers gently lift the American flag from the casket.
It is a choreographed display of military tradition and respect. Time seems to stand still as stoic young soldiers slowly and reverently fold the flag.
There must be no wrinkles or creases in this, the last flag. At the end, when the flag has been folded exactly 13 times, there must only be a constellation of clean white stars showing on a field of bright blue.
The senior officer cradles the flag gently against his chest as he steps forward to present it to the family. Then there is a final, lingering, farewell salute. Often the only sound is weeping.
Seven times this year I have witnessed this painfully beautiful ballet. Seven times I have watched as broken-hearted wives or parents, with trembling hands, took the flag. They almost always clutch it to their heart, as if it is the last embrace of the young son, daughter or husband they sent off to war.
America's respect for our flag is heartfelt. That's why it's so sad to see politicians exploit that love for their political gain.
Just as surely as mosquitoes arrive in time for Fourth of July celebrations, so does the annual attack on the Bill of Rights. Last night, the Senate narrowly defeated yet another proposed constitutional amendment to give Congress the authority to outlaw desecration of the American flag.
The amendment is aimed at those who would burn the flag as a form of protest. Sens. Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina supported the measure. The House had already passed it.
Be honest now: When is the last time you saw someone burn an American flag?
That's what I thought. Once again, politicians are creating a problem that doesn't exist so they can score political points by solving it. By forcing a vote on the proposed amendment, they hope to embarrass those with the courage to stand against it.
The Supreme Court has said for more than 15 years that flag burning, however irritating, is protected by the Bill of Rights. So, says Congress, let's change the document that has guaranteed freedom for two centuries.
The flag is not in jeopardy. There has been no rash of flag-burnings -- but you can bet there will be, if this amendment passes. The only thing really at risk is Americans' right to express what they think.
You can callously use a flag to draw customers to your used-car lot. You can drape it around your sweaty shoulders when, stoked on steroids, you win a sporting event. You can print it on a beach towel and sit on it.
But burn an American flag because you're mad at your senator and have chosen a dramatic way to make your point -- the very essence of political speech -- and some politicians want to put you in jail. It's not what you do, it's what you think that bothers them.
More than 2,500 American service members have been killed in the past three years. Perhaps if lawmakers spent more time at their funerals and less time creating straw enemies, they would know these Americans are more important than a flag made in a Chinese factory.
If politicians want to protect our real symbols of freedom, they can start with soldiers being sent into harm's way.Dennis Rogers can be reached at 829-4750 or mailto:drogers@newsobserver.com

How My Christian Faith Enlightens My Politics

One line that I hear from Republicans and Republican talk-show hosts is that we need “less big government.” In fact, I believe some might go so far as to argue that all government social programs should be disbanded. So, let’s pretend that happens. Theoretically let's completely disband the government. No government regulation of any business interests. No taxes. I guess we have to work out something about that military which is supposed to protect us (although I don't think we're being protected very well right now by their energies being diverted in the "splendid little war" in Iraq!). They don't want any taxation taken "from the citizens by force" so how are we going to sustain a military? Private donations? I don't know.

Anyway, let's keep going. Let's just depend on the good will of all American citizens. No one will be prejudiced. No racism. After all, it’s the government's fault. It's all the government's fault because the government makes us benevolent racists. So, African-Americans (is it all right if I use the politically correct term?), Latinos, Arabs, and all the other many nationalities of people would get a completely fair shake in our society because without the evil government messing up everything, the playing field would be level and utopia would be with us. No racism. The Civil Rights Act, Americans With Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave legislation, minimum wage laws, occupational safety laws, and a host of other laws designed to protect people from being taken advantage of by the powerful (all programs vehemently opposed by Republicans by the way) would be gone because we'd no longer need them. Wow. I'd love to live in a society like that.

No one will be poor because all Americans will take care of the poor. There will be no orphans because all the good American citizens will adopt all the unwanted children. This one is particularly close to me because Pam and I are adoptive parents. We oppose abortion and have done something about it. My wife and I would take in a 1000 unwanted children if we could afford it. We've seen orphanages overseas. We've seen poverty. We've seen the conditions that some children live in and my heart breaks about it. The problem is that there are people in America who can afford to support 1000 unwanted children, who are opposed to abortion, but who don't lift a finger to help those children out. But, we don't want any government programs to help them do we? That makes those children "dependent upon the government." And we can't have that because that would make those children grow up to be lazy. And they'd never get a job. And they'd just depend on the government for the rest of their lives. They'd just be out there sucking off of the rest of us. Because that's what the evil government does isn't it. If we follow the Republican Party line on things like Welfare, they argue that it creates a class of people who are leeches on the rest of society. And we don't want our tax dollars going for them do we? Heaven forbid.

There will be plenty of college students for us here at Campbell because out of the generosity of wealthier Americans, millions of dollars will be given to colleges (more than what is already contributed by government loans, grants, etc.) so that the poorer students can go to college. And there will be no public universities (which might be good for us in the private colleges because we'd all be on equal footing!). The colleges would be busting at the seams because of the money flowing into them out of the generosity of the good American people who without the government interference and without being "forced to give up their money" would generously give to the colleges.

Furthermore, there would be no hungry people. Everyone has enough money for retirement from their 401Ks and their careers (Oh yeah, there will be no greedy executives like the Enron crowd that rob the retirements of their workers because we all know that the government made Ken Lay do it anyway!) And there are no worker's compensation programs. No Social Security. No disability because we all know that everyone on disability cheats anyway. They're just lazy people who don't want to work. So, like the orphaned children, they're just leeches sucking off the rest of us hard-working Americans who don't want our money forcefully taken from us. Besides, if a person is permanently disabled on the job, we can trust the good generosity of that factory or corporation owner to provide for that person and his/her spouse and children for the rest of their lives. I guess his children could go into the factory and work because now there are no child labor laws! "Better for them to be working than to be hungry after all." (A professor here at Campbell actually told me that once when I asked about child labor laws!) Great line. I've always remembered it. It is a great example of Christian compassion!)

There are no public schools. No fire departments, no police stations. Because once the government gets out of the picture, everyone behaves. And all the neighbors chip in out of the generosity of their good hearts and gives millions necessary to build and equip fire stations. And the schools, my goodness, without the government involved, how they will blossom! You'd never have to worry about the poor or the minorities being shut out of those private schools they can't afford to attend. Because the generous American citizens who now have all their hard-earned money will provide scholarships for them to attend. And, since there is no racism, they will be treated fairly and will have an equal place at the table won't they?
What about the food we eat? We would no longer need a Pure Food and Drug Act or any regulation of the food industry or the pharmaceutical industry. Let's just depend on the good generosity of the corporate executives to "do the right thing." They would never risk the safety of the American public to make a profit now would they? So, we would need no government regulation in those areas either. No meat inspection. No FDA.

What about the airwaves? We wouldn't need the FCC would we. (Glory to Jesus, Madelyn Murray O'Hair would finally be defeated because without the FCC she would never successfully get religious broadcasting off the air and maybe that stupid petition would go away!) We could just trust that all radio broadcasters and television broadcasters would realize that there are young minds in the audience. And Janet Jackson's breast would never been seen again by the American public. Quite frankly, I'm glad for the FCC because I don't want to have to explain those kinds of things to my 10 year-old and 5 year-old. I'd rather for the government just to outlaw such things. Maybe we can agree that this is one place we'd allow government regulation! I don't know. It seems like the Republicans want the government to regulate personal morality but when it comes to fiscal morality or business morality they seem to shy away from it. And, in all honesty, it works the other way for many on the democratic side too.

Now, I know that there are millions of good, well-meaning, praying Christians who vote Republican. And, I know that many of these people are very generous with their money. They give to their churches. They give to charitable organizations. And, if they saw a person in need, I trust that many of these people would give to help that person. The problem is that many Americans are not so generous. In fact, I would venture to guess that greed is a common human trait. And I'm not willing to trust the generosity of Americans to care for the underprivileged. I'm not willing to trust the corporate executives to "do the right thing." I'm commanded by Jesus to care for the underprivileged in our society. I take Matthew 25 quite literally. I believe God wants us to provide for the widows and orphans and underprivileged. I believe I'm called to make life better for those in society who don't have what I have. And furthermore, I believe I'm called by God to speak out loudly when I see injustice done. When I see the poor taken advantage of by the Ken Lays of the world I believe I'm supposed to fight it! When I see hungry, unwanted children I believe God wants me to act. When I see unjust war being waged in the name of all Americans I believe God calls me to speak out against it. So the bottom line is that I believe I can best follow the call of God on my life by supporting Democratic candidates. I believe the Democrats have been the party through the years (at least in the 20th century) who have attempted to put programs in place to care for the underprivileged. They have worked to end racism with the Civil Rights Act. They have been the party of the average wage-earning worker supporting unions and organized labor. Yeah, I know the labor unions make the product cost more. But money is not my god. So, the cost of an item I purchase is not the number one thing I care about. If I can't afford it, I don't buy it. And, (even though the Progressive Movement had Republicans at the turn of the century) they have consistently worked for legislation like the Families and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Social Security, and a host of other things which have been fought by Republicans. And, perhaps most importantly, I fear that if Republicans had their way unchecked, they undo all these programs. But, these programs make life better for millions of Americans. And I just can't trust that those people will be cared for if the government programs go away.

I do not understand how Christian people can support the party which wants to make life easier for the wealthiest of the wealthiest among us and which has consistently worked in the 20th century against the very programs I mentioned above (Great Society, New Deal, etc.) which were clearly designed to help people have a better life. For these reasons, I believe that the Democratic Party, even though it has its share of “crack-pots” is the party which affords me the greater chance of helping the kind of people that Jesus calls us to help and identify with.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Baptists and the Church

Matthew 16:15-20; Ephesians 1:20-23

Introduction
There is a wonderful story about a Baptist who was the only survivor from a shipwreck out in the Pacific Ocean. For hours he drifted with the current on a piece of wreckage from the ship he was on. Fortunately, the current carried him to a small, deserted island. For months he was on the island. Finally, rescuers found the island and rescued him. As they arrived on shore, they noticed that the man had built three huts. They asked him why he had three huts. He said, “Well, that one over there is where I live. The one beside it is where I go to church.” They said, “Well, what about the third one?” He responded, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church!”
How should Baptists understand the concept of “church?” First, I think we should understand the meaning of the word “church.” It comes from a Greek word ecclesia which literally means “the called out ones.” Therefore, from the New Testament understanding, the word “church” has nothing to do with buildings. We tend to think of it that way though. Do you remember the little children’s game, “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the door, there’s the people?” We learned that as a child. But, theologically and biblically, we were taught that the church is a building. “This is the church.”[1]
The “church” is not a building. The church is people who have committed their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ. We are “called out” on the basis of our commitment to lives our lives by the values and example of Jesus and not by the values of the world. We who are a part of the church should have different values than those who do not confess Christ as Lord.
How, then, should Baptists understand the concept of church? I believe there are three important lessons about the church that Baptists need to understand to be true to our tradition.
I. A Baptist Church is a Local Fellowship of Believers Who Have Committed Their Lives to the Lordship of Christ
In Matthew 16, in the conversation with his disciples, a very important theological understanding of the church is conveyed. Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him. “Who do people say that I am?” Their response, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asked, “Who do you say that I am?” It was Peter that responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
A confession of Jesus as Lord is at the very heart of the proper Baptist understanding of “church.” It was an individual confession, yet it was made within the community of disciples. Last week we talked about the Priesthood of Believers and its relation to the Baptist tradition. A correct Baptist understanding of “church” is a corrective to an over-emphasis on individualism or “Lone Ranger Christianity, which misunderstands the concept of Priesthood of believers. Peter made an individual confession but did so within the context of the community of disciples.
I got my first taste of pastoral ministry within the loving hands of the good people in Cego, Texas. You have heard me talk lovingly of this congregation before. The church no longer exists. However, for most of the 20th century, it was a local fellowship of believers who had committed their lives to Jesus Christ.
Several years ago, I got the church records and simply wrote a little history of that congregation. It was a labor of love for me but I think also helped to establish a lasting memory of that wonderful fellowship of believers. In 1911, the church was organized this way:
Rev BJ Patrick acting as mod. and J. T. Hardcastle acting as clerk, The Baptist people of Cego went into the organization of a Baptist church Bro. L. C. Garrison Pasto [sic] reading from Col. 3 chapter after Clerk recording the names and calling them Bro Patrick read the articles of faith a motion and second that we adopt them carried Then _____ he read the church Covinant [sic] motion and second that we adopt it motion carried. Motion and second that we recognized the church duly organized.[2]
What was that body of believers doing? They were doing exactly what those who constituted this church 175 years ago did. They were coming together as a fellowship and organizing themselves together into a church, Baptist style. Notice that there were no representatives from the Association present. There no representatives from the state convention or the national SBC present. The church chose later to affiliate with those entities. But, the church was created by the people, not by the denomination.
II. A Baptist Church is a Part of the Universal Fellowship of Believers Who Confess Jesus as Lord
The New Testament speaks of the local fellowship of believers quite frequently. But, there are also a few places where it mentions the universal church. One such place is Ephesians 1: 20-23. Here Paul is talking about all believers, not just a local fellowship of believers. A proper understanding of the concept of “church” should recognize both of these aspects.
During the last half of the 19th century, within the Southern Baptist Convention, a movement called Landmarkism took hold and almost destroyed the young convention. Landmarkism starts with the basic belief that the only true church is a local, body of Baptist believers. In other words, Landmarkists believed that the only true church was a local Baptist church. They denied that Methodists or Presbyterians, or any other group of Christians could have a legitimate church because Baptists were the true inheritors of the New Testament tradition. In fact, if you asked a Landmarkist (and there are some still around in Fundamentalist Baptist churches!) when the Baptist tradition began, that person would tell you that it began with Jesus, John, and the Jordan River.
But, we know better today. Baptists are a part of the larger universal fellowship of believers. The early Baptist confessions of faith were modeled after other confessions of faith. For example, the Second London Confession of Faith, written by British Baptists in 1688 was modeled after and sounds very similar to the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith. Why? Because the early Baptists wanted to show that they were not an aberration from the mainstream. They wanted to show that they were a part of the universal church. They understood baptism and church polity differently. But, theologically, they were in the mainstream of the universal church.
On July 11th, 1905, almost 101 years ago now, in Exeter Hall, London, England, the 74 year-old Rev. Alexander MacLaren, a Scottish Baptist, stood to delivering the opening address of the gathering of Baptists which constituted what we know today as the Baptist World Alliance. In the middle of MacLaren’s speech, he did something unusual, he said:
there should be no misunderstanding on the part of the English public, or the American public either—before whom we are taking a prominent position . . . as to where we stand in the continuity of the history Church. And I should like the first act of this Congress to be the audible and unanimous acknowledgment of our Faith. So, I have suggested that . . . it would be an impressive and right thing, and would clear away a good many misunderstandings and stop the mouth of a good deal of slander—if we here and now, in the face of the world, not as a piece of coercion or discipline, but as simple acknowledgment of where we stand and what we believe, would rise to our feet and following the lead of your President, would repeat the Apostles Creed.[3]

The entire assembly, thousands of Baptists from around the world, rose and repeated together the Apostles Creed to signify their affirmation of the great doctrines of the Christian faith and their affirmation that they belonged to the universal church.
You know, it wouldn’t hurt local Baptist churches to repeat the Apostles Creed once in a while as a reminder that we are a part of something much larger than we. We are a part of the universal church.
III. A Baptist Church is Free To Govern Itself
In the Baptist tradition, we talk about something called “Autonomy of the Local Church.” By that we mean that the local church in Baptist life answers to no one but its membership. A Baptist church can call its own ministers without interference from the outside. It can ordain for leadership whomever it chooses. It can affiliate with whomever it chooses. It can give money outside of itself to whomever it wishes and in the amount that only it determines. A Baptist church is truly free to govern itself.
It is sad that many Baptist churches today have forgotten that. A local Baptist church is beholden to no one save Jesus Christ and its own membership. When the Southern Baptist Convention passes a resolution at its annual meeting which generates a lot of press coverage, it has absolutely no bearing on a local church. When the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina passes a motion which might attempt to force a local church to do something against its will, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina needs to be reminded that it has NO control over local congregations. And a local congregation can say to the Baptist State Convention, to the Southern Baptist Convention, or to any outside entity “we will have nothing further to do with you and there is nothing you can do about it!” You, the body of Christian believers in this place have the power in Baptist life.
On August 9, 1964, the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham did a very courageous thing. It was something that no Southern Baptist Church had ever done before. It ordained a woman by the name of Addie Davis to the Gospel ministry. The pastor of the church, Warren Carr, received almost 50 letters criticizing his church’s action. Addie Davis received criticism as well. One letter referred to her as “a child of the Devil.” It was a courageous act taken by a church that believed it was doing the right thing.[4]
In March, 1992 Pullen Memorial Baptist Church voted to bless the same sex union of two of its members. Also that month, the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill voted to grant a license to the Gospel ministry to a man who was openly gay. I realize that I am making some of you uncomfortable here. But, what I’m illustrating is the Baptist concept of autonomy of the local church. Most of us would probably agree with the ordination of Addie Davis and might disagree with the actions taken by Watts Street and Binkley. But, all represent local Baptist churches being “Baptist” and like my friend and colleague, the late Don Keyser used to say, “a local Baptist church always has the right to be wrong!”
So, where does this leave The Memorial Baptist Church? Well, I think I know you well enough to know that you are probably more willing to ordain a woman to the ministry than you are to bless the union of two gay men. But, I do want you to always cherish your freedom to govern yourself.
I can’t think of a time in the 400 years of Baptist history when it is any more important for Baptist churches to know their heritage and value their freedom than it is now. And, it is also vitally important that you educate yourselves about what is going on in the Baptist world beyond yourselves and in the broader Christian world beyond Baptists. You need to make informed decisions.
You are about to exercise your autonomy in calling a pastor. I pray that God’s Spirit would lead you as you do just that!
[1] William Powell Tuck, Our Baptist Tradition (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 48.
[2] Minutes of the Cego Baptist Church, Book I, 3 November 1911. There is very little punctuation visible in many of the church entries due to the age of the materials.
The existence of these church records is actually an amazing story. I served as pastor of this congregation from 1987-1991. The church treasurer, Mrs. Edith McKee once told me that she went to the church one morning (several years before I became the pastor) and found a former pastor cleaning out some closets. In the trash she found the church minutes and other record books. She asked him what he was doing and why he had thrown the minutes away. He said, “Oh, they were just some old records we no longer needed.” Mrs. Mckee then took the books out of the trash and gave them to the church clerk, Mrs. Lorene Wittner for safe-keeping. The first week after I became the pastor of this church fire destroyed Mrs. Wittner’s house. By an interesting coincidence, just that week Mrs. McKee had taken the books to her house to look up something. Amazingly, they were preserved once again. When I heard this story, I received permission to take the church records to the Texas Collection at Baylor University in Waco, Texas to have them microfilmed. The Texas Collection currently has a microfilmed copy of the church minutes from 1911-1986.
[3] Walter B. Shurden, ed., The Life of Baptists in the Life of the World: 80 Years of the Baptist World Alliance (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985): p. 17.
[4] Addie Davis’ story is told well in Pamela R. Durso and Keith E. Durso, Courage and Hope: The Stories of Ten Baptist Women Ministers (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2005): pp. 17-30.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Baptists and the Priesthood of All Believers

(Luke 23:44-45; I Peter 2: 9-10)

Introduction


Chuck Swindoll, in his book, Improving Y our Serve, tells a story called the “Keeper of the Spring.” It seems that an old gentleman was hired by the city council of a small Austrian village in the Alps to keep the pools clean that fed the spring which flowed through their town. The old man regularly kept watch over the pools, removing debris such as leaves, tree limbs, silt, or any other impurity which would inhibit fresh water from flowing into the town. Because of this man’s devotion to his task, the small town became a tourist attraction with people. The clear water flowing through the town presented a very picturesque view for the town’s businesses, restaurants, etc.
Years went by. Eventually, one evening at a town council meeting, questions about the budget were raised. One man asked about the money paid to this obscure “keeper of the spring.” He wanted to know why the town kept the old gentleman on the payroll. He complained that no one ever saw the old man much. “How do we know that he is really doing the work?” Then, by a unanimous vote, the city council decided to terminate the old man’s services.
Several weeks later, nothing had changed. But after a few months, the trees began to drop their leaves as Autumn was arriving. Twigs also began to fall into the pools and one afternoon, someone in town noticed that the normally clear water had a colored tint to it. Several more days went by and the water began to turn browner. Finally a slim began to cover the water and it began to smell bad. The vacationers left and the businesses began to suffer.
The town council called a special meeting and hired back the old man. Sure enough, within a few weeks the water began to clear up and things returned to normal.[1]
I am of the opinion that the traditional Baptist concept of the “priesthood of all believers” is akin to the “keeper of the spring.” It is a concept that has served us well during our 400 year history. Perhaps many of you have heard the phrase before. But, perhaps you don’t know exactly what it means. This morning I’d like to make four suggestions as to the meaning of this phrase, “priesthood of all believers,” and what it means for our understanding of who we are as Baptists.
I. The Priesthood of All Believers Means that All Believers Have Direct Access to God
In the passage of scripture I read to you from Luke, the context of course is the crucifixion of Jesus. And, Luke doesn’t miss the significance of this event. The veil in the temple separated the people from God. It surrounded the holy of holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The only human allowed in the holy of holies was the high priest and he was only allowed in once per year on the Day of Atonement to offer a sacrifice on behalf of the people. In the temple environment of ancient Israel, the average Jew did not have direct access to God.
But, with Jesus’ death on the cross, the veil’s tearing symbolically indicated that the barrier between God and human beings was torn in half. We now have direct access to God. We no longer need an intermediary. We can approach God directly.
Dr. Jann Aldredge Clanton, a hospital chaplain, tells the story of receiving a phone call one night while she was on duty from a nurse in the Coronary Intensive Care Unit. The nurse indicated that a patient was in critical condition and the nurse wanted the chaplain to come and pray. She said that when she arrived at the room, the patient was asleep. The nurse said that the patient had been in distress and had asked him to pray for her. “Well, what did you do?” Chaplain Clanton asked the nurse. “Well, I prayed with her. But then I called you as soon as I could. I felt I needed to get a chaplain to pray with her also. Was it all right for me to pray with her?”[2]
Now, of course, the obvious answer is “of course. All of us can pray.” And, I’ve got a secret for you today. Don’t tell anyone. I might get in trouble with my other friends in pastoral ministry. Your prayers are as good as mine. Perhaps even better! The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers gives all of us direct access to God.
II. The Priesthood of All Believers Means that All Believers Have Responsibility to Minister to Each Other
Related to the first point, is the concept that all believers are ministers. In I Peter 2, on two different occasions, Peter alludes to this concept. In verse 5 he says, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And, then in verse 9 he says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Of course, he is talking about believers in Christ here. He calls us“priesthood.”
It is important to note that Priesthood of all believers does not mean that we are “lone ranger” Christians. In fact, it means the very opposite. We are community and dependent on each other. Luther, probably the first to coin the term said it this way:
[Paul] shows that all Christians are priests, and that the sacrifices they offer are not money or cattle, as prescribed by law, but their own selves . . . . He then describes the outward conduct of Christians under the discipline of the spirit; how they must teach, preach, rule, serve, give, suffer, love, live and act towards friend, foe, and fellow-man. These are the works which a Christian does, for, as I have said, faith is not an inert thing.[3]

There is a responsibility inherent, therefore, with this doctrine. Every believer is in the “ministry.” Every believer has the responsibility for ministering to those around us who need ministry.
III. The Priesthood of All Believers Means that All Opinions Should Be Valued
Baptist churches should be run democratically. Of course that means that the majority rules. But, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should also mean that all opinions are valued. Because we have direct access to God, that means that no one of us has a corner on Truth. It means also that the majority opinion can be wrong at times. That has been the case from time to time in history. There was a time when the majority in the South believed that slavery was divinely ordained by God. But, we don’t believe that anymore and wonder how anyone could have believed it 150 years ago.
No one has a corner on Truth. Liberals don’t have it. Fundamentalists don’t have it. Democrats don’t have it. Republicans don’t have it. We can, and should learn from one another and value each other’s opinions.
We live in a day and time when there is not much civility in our public debate. We see this in Washington. We see it on talk radio. We see it on point-counterpoint debates on TV. We see it on blogs. Our mindset today is to win your argument at all costs. But, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers should allow for the unpopular opinion to be valued because, it may just be the case that the unpopular opinion on an issue, whether it be what color carpet to order for the nursery, or what form of worship we should observe, can teach us all something and inform us in our communal understanding of Truth.
Carlyle Marney, a Progressive Baptist of a generation ago, used to tell a joke about Jewish rabbi, a Catholic Priest and a Protestant minister. The rabbi says, in good monotheistic understanding, “Thus saith the Lord.” The Priest, in good institutional fashion says, “As the church has always said.” The Protestant minister says, in good individualistic fashion, “Now brothers and sisters, it seems to me.” Buddy Shurden says that this represents a serious distinction for Protestants. And, it is even more so for Baptists. In a Baptist church, all opinions should matter.[4]
I have mused from time-to-time on Sunday mornings about the fact that Carl Grantham’s Sunday School class is right beside the pastor’s study in your office complex. And, I have listened to the opinions and discussion from that class on Sunday mornings. You guys sometimes disagree. But, you seem to value all opinions. And, I think it is a good reminder to the pastors of this church, that all opinions matter.
IV. The Priesthood of All Believers Means that All Believers Have the Freedom To Read the Bible for Themselves
Related to the previous point, the priesthood of all believers allows the Bible into the hands of the laity. The Bible is not controlled by the pastor of the church. All can read and interpret the scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It was a Sunday evening sermon. Admittedly, I did not usually spend as much time preparing Sunday evening sermons as I did for the Sunday morning sermons. But, a sermon on baptism would be no problem and certainly would not create any controversy in the church. So, I preached the message about the Baptist concept of baptism. In the sermon, I elaborated on why we don’t baptize infants, why we baptize believers only, why we baptize by immersion. I tried to explain the biblical and theological meaning of the baptismal experience. I thought it would be a “refresher” course for the members present that evening.
At some point during the sermon, I made an off-hand comment like, “our congregation will received members from any other Christian group without re-baptizing them as long as they receive believers’ baptism by immersion from that group.” That was the traditional understanding of our church and our by-laws even stated such.
Unknown to me, one of my deacons named “Jack,” who was present that evening was a Landmarkist. Among certain distinctive ideas he held was double-closed communion and an opposition to “alien immersion.” My sermon had just stated that our church was open to “alien immersion.” And so, at the conclusion of the service, Jack made a beeline toward me to let me know how wrong my theology was about the practice of baptism.
You probably ought to know that Jack was a retired drill instructor from the army. So, when he talked, people listened, especially the person he was talking too! I listened, and then calmly reasserted my ideas which I believed to be in accord with the rest of the church. At the meeting of the diaconate that month, Jack brought up the same issue and confronted me once again on it. This time, after a discussion among the deacons, the deacons voted to affirm that what I had preached in that sermon was indeed in accordance with our church’s long-standing practice. In other words, FBC Crawford was not a Landmarkist church!
This was not the only time that Jack and I had discussions on theology or some of the finer points of scripture interpretation. But, in that experience, what was it that Jack was doing? I would contend (and I used to tell him so!) that he was exercising his freedom as a Baptist and member of my church. Even though I think Jack had it wrong about Landmarkism, I do believe he was right on target with his understanding about one of our most cherished doctrines as Baptists, the Priesthood of Believers. Jack understood that he had every bit as much authority as a child of God to interpret the Bible and speak his mind in the church as I did as pastor. In fact, being pastor did not give me authority over Jack’s conscience. I could disagree with Jack but ultimately, could never control his conscience. He understood and exercised his Priesthood in the best of the Baptist tradition.
I don’t know if any of you have followed the press coverage preceeding the SBC meeting in Greensboro this week. It seems that younger, conservative pastors in the SBC are blogging away in opposition to the entrenched leadership in the SBC. One of these pastors, comparing the current SBC and its leadership to the Warren G. Harding administration said, “The Southern Baptist Convention is rank with nepotism, cronyism, favoritism and a network of political spoils distribution that would make Old Warren blush with shame.”[5]
Could it be that Baptist blogging is a new way of exercising this cherished doctrine of Priesthood of all Believers? Perhaps so. But, it is incumbent upon us to protect, promote, and preserve this doctrine if the Baptist witness is going to continue to be an important voice in the coming century.

[1] Chuck Swindoll, Improving Your Serve, as told by Gary Parker in Principles Worth Protecting, p. 14-15.
[2] Jann Aldredge-Clanton, “Make Plain the Vision,” in Walter B. Shurden, Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: The Priesthood of All Believers (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 22.
[3] John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Anchor Books, 1961), p. 33, as cited by Thomas H. Graves, “A Priest for Others,” in Walter B. Shurden, Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: The Priesthood of All Believers, (Macon, Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 116.
[4] Walter B. Shurden, “Addicted to Applause, in Walter B. Shurden, Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: The Priesthood of All Believers, p. 125.
[5] A quote from Benjamin Cole, cited by http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/religion/stories/DN-baptistmain_10rel.ART0.State.Edition1.3d9d395.html, (site visited 6-10-06).

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Tribute to a Special Lady

Last Saturday, (June 3) my aunt Loraine Jonas passed away at the age of 94. She, along with her older sister Jessie (who passed away 15 years ago) never married. They lived with my Grandmother Jonas, effectively giving me 3 grandmothers.

My family asked me to eulogize my Aunt Loraine at the funeral yesterday. Here are my comments which are truly from my heart as a tribute to her.

The Measure of a Person
Revelation 14:13

Introduction
We gather here today, to remember and celebrate the life of Miss Loraine Jonas, or “Own” as I and my family always called her. I guess I get blamed for the nickname for when I was just a small child, I couldn’t say “Loraine” and so she forever will be remembered by us simply as “Own.”
This is also a great honor for me and I am appreciative of the opportunity to say a few words about my aunt on behalf of my family. Her life was so important to my life, particularly when I and my sister were children. Most of you know that “Own” never married. Neither did her sister Jessie. They both lived with my Grandmother Jonas, effectively giving me, my sister, and my cousins three grandmothers. I always thought I was blessed in that way. And, today, it is with a heavy heart that we come together, but also with a grateful heart for the many ways she touched our lives. In that wonderful movie, “Forest Gump,” starring Tom Hanks, there is that terribly sad scene at the end of the movie where Forest is standing at the grave of his beloved Jenny and he says, “Momma always said “Dying is a part of life.” I sure wish it wasn’t.”
I guess all of us are here today saying the same thing Forest Gump said. Dying is a part of life, but we sure wish it wasn’t. Nevertheless, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t, we all know that death is one of the few certainties in life. And, for that we grieve, because “Own” is now gone from us.
When Methodist Bishop Warren Candler died, a friend said of him, “When he left us, it was as if a great tree had fallen in the forest, and left a lonesome place against the sky.” Carl Sandburg wrote about Lincoln, “A tree is best measured when it is down.” And so, we are faced with an empty sky and a tree that needs to be measured.
Ever since Saturday night, when mom called me about Own’s passing, I have been reflecting about her life. And, there is one thought keeps running through my mind. The measure of a person’s life is best determined at the end of life. And, we should measure a person, not on the basis of what she accumulated in life that can’t be taken with her, but rather we should measure a person on the basis of what she accumulated in life that continues on after her. There is a sense in which “eternal life” has both an existential and a corporate quality. The great hope of the Christian faith is that we will live on beyond the grave. But, in the memories of the community of faith and especially in the love of our families, we also live on eternally. And so, our hope and our comfort this afternoon is that “Own” is alive “in a land that is fairer than day,” and she is also still alive in our love and memories of her.
And so, what is the measure of Own’s life? Ultimately, of course, that has to be determined by God alone. There is a passage of Scripture that I would like to take from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. It is found in chapter 14, verse 13. It says very simply:
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labors, for their deeds will follow them.
There are three points that I’d like to draw very quickly from that verse.
I. Blessed Are the Dead Who Die in the Lord
I have no doubt about the life of faith that “Own” lived. She was active in this church. She sang in the choir as long as she was able. I can still hear her voice singing the songs of faith around the house or even in worship services I attended in this church as a child. She also taught children in Sunday School for years and years.
She was also an active member of this church. She did not just attend every now and then like so many people today. She was a regular. She could be counted upon to be present. She gave of her time and limited resources to this church and never grumbled or complained. In short, she was a model church member.
All of that was an outgrowth of her faith. And so, when her life on this earth ended Saturday evening, indeed she was blessed to die “in the Lord.”
When Isabel Coleman, a longtime missionary to China died, her funeral service was conducted by some of the Chinese to whom she had ministered. One man read a brief biography of Miss Coleman’s life. When he concluded, he said, “For those who did not know Miss Coleman, no words are adequate to describe her life. For those who knew her, no words are necessary.”[1]
Indeed, if you didn’t know Own, no words are adequate to describe her life for those of us who loved her. But, if you knew her you know that no words are necessary either.
II. They Will Rest From Their Labors
Loraine Jonas worked hard all her life. Much of her working life when I was a child was spent working in textiles, in cotton mills. I spent one summer working in the textile industry, only 12 weeks. And, I learned firsthand how hard that work is. She spent years working shift work in the textile industry.
She also worked in her family. But this work was joyful. At some point in her life, and I am not sure when, she made a decision not to marry, leave and have children of her own. We became her children. And for someone who never had children of her own, she sure did understand children and treat them well. My sister and I spent lots of hours at her house during our childhood, as did some of my other cousins. And she did not just sit us in front of the t.v. and then go about her own plans. She actually interacted with us. She was interested in us.
One recent story I will share with you. The last time I saw “Own” was the day after Christmas. I took my two daughters Hannah and Gracie down to see her. I sensed that this would perhaps be the last time I would see her and I had not seen her in some time. So, we went. I brought my guitar and let Gracie sing “Away in a Manger” for her and then Hannah played her recital piece on the piano for her. She enjoyed that. But do you know what I believe she enjoyed most? I think she enjoyed playing “dolls” with my girls’ new American Girl Dolls. She held the doll, stroked its hair easily and softly. And then Hannah and Gracie asked her to put the doll’s hair up in a rubber band.
She then took us to her room to show us her doll collection and even gave Hannah and Gracie their own dolls from her small collection. She was 94 years old. But, she was glad to see us and she interacted especially with Hannah and Gracie. I will never forget that last visit.
Now she rests from her labor, a rest well-deserved from a life well lived serving others.
III. For Their Deeds Will Follow Them
I guess this phrase brings me back to the beginning of this eulogy. What lives on after us is not really those things that we can’t take with us. What lives on is love and joy we create by the people we love. Those deeds are the deeds that live on in the memory of those we love. And it is so with Own. She leaves behind a legacy that none of us will ever forget. That legacy includes a lot of things. Her smile and laughter. Her peaceful demeanor. Yes, her pride. Her grace and elegance as a lady.
She taught us how to love. She taught us not to worry. She taught us to eat cornbread crumbled up in sweet milk. And, she had the best sugar cookies at Christmas that I have ever eaten and probably ever will eat. She modeled for us how to live with loss after Grandmother Jonas died and then Jessie, and then her other brothers and sisters.
I believe she liked poetry. Indeed, she did seem to have a flair for the aesthetic side of life. I don’t know if she had a favorite poem. But she did have some poetry books on her book shelf and several years ago she gave them to me. There is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that I think sums up her life quite well. It goes like this:
Within the maddening maze of things,
When tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
I know that God is good!

No offering of my own I have,
Nor works my faith to prove;
I can but give the gifts He gave,
And plead His love for love.

I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.

And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from Him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.

I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
[1] Paul Powell, Gospel for the Graveside, p. 62.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Baptists and the Bible

There are many of you that went to years of Vacation Bible School when you were children. And, many of you continue to work with Vacation Bible School each summer through the ministry of this church.
For those of you who are alumni of Vacation Bible School in a Southern Baptist Church, you will recognize this:
I pledge allegiance to the Bible
God’s Holy word
And I will make it a lamp unto my feet
A light unto my path
And will hide its words in my heart
That I might not sin against God.
Do you remember? Perhaps you had the honor of being selected one day to hold the Bible up at attention. What were we doing with generations of children when we taught them that pledge in the opening or closing ceremonies of thousands of Vacation Bible Schools? We were teaching them an important concept that is at the heart of the Baptist tradition: the concept that our “ultimate authority for our faith is found in Jesus Christ as mediated through the Bible.”[1]
All Baptists treasure the Bible. Through the years we have disagreed about the nature of the Bible. It is inerrant? If so, which theory of inerrancy do we follow? There are at least five types of inerrancy according to David Dockery and some theologians argue for more.[2] Many Baptists, including this one, believe that “inerrancy” is not a good word to describe the Bible. All Baptists treasure the Bible, but sometimes we have disagreed about its nature.
All Baptists treasure the Bible. Not only have we disagreed about its nature at times, but we have also disagreed about how to interpret it? Are the creation stories in Genesis 1-2 literal history or theological saga? Should we understand God’s salvation through a Calvinist lens or an Arminian lens? Will the world ultimately come to an end along the lines of Dispensational Premillennialism, Historic Premillennialism, Post-Millennialism, or Amillennialism? Each of these areas has produced significant battles among various Baptist groups at different times during our 400 years of history. All Baptists treasure the Bible, but sometimes we have disagreed about how to interpret it.
So what is a healthy Baptist understanding of the Bible. Using the text from 2 Timothy 3:16, I’d like to suggest three things which I believe instruct us on the proper understanding of the Bible as Baptists.
I. A Healthy Baptist Understanding of the Bible Recognizes it as a Witness Rather than a Rulebook
Back when I was “young and foolish,” I used to umpire Little League Baseball. Yes, I know, I was out of my mind during those days. But, I also needed to eat, and the job paid me enough one summer to do so. But, when I umpired Little League Baseball, I frequently carried a copy of the rules of Little League Baseball to the games with me. Fortunately, I never had a dispute serious enough to need to consult the rulebook. But, if I ever needed it, I had it there to consult.
I love golf. I don’t play it well. But, I love to play it. But, the way I play golf, I have never needed to call for a ruling on my lie in the rough. In fact, I don’t even carry a copy of the rules of golf in my golf bag. If I ever have a question, I’ll simply ask the people I’m playing with and get their opinion. But, if I was on the PGA tour, you better believe that I’d know the rulebook legalistically because one mistake could cost me thousands of dollars.
Baptists should view the Bible differently. The Bible is not a rulebook. It is a witness. I realize that statement might be shocking to some. “You’re lessening the value of the Bible,” someone might say. No, actually, I view the Bible much more comprehensively than being just a rulebook.
Are there rules in the Bible? Of course there are. We could mention with the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount for starters. But, the Bible is more than that. It is it mostly a witness of God’s activity with creation and human beings. The Bible most importantly bears witness to the Christ event and its significance for humanity. If we see it just as a rulebook, we run the risk of becoming legalistic and missing the deeper purpose of the Bible.
Paul Fiddes, the Principal of Regent’s Park College at Oxford University tells a story about three men who witnessed an elderly woman being mugged on a street in London. They chased after the man who, in an effort to escape ran into a train station and onto the platform. The men who were chasing tried to follow but were stopped at the barrier by the ticket collector because they did not have a ticket. They tried to explain what had happened and asked if he’d let them continue their pursuit. The ticket collector adamantly refused to let them pass without a ticket. They asked to use the phone in his office. Again, he refused. Finally, they purchased tickets, went onto the platform, caught the man and used a pay phone to call the police. The judge who tried the case sentenced the mugger to 5 years and then added that “the incident should be brought to the notice of the railway authorities.”[3]
You see the point? Some people view the Bible only as a rulebook and their Christian life becomes a maze of legalistic rules. Now, I believe there are things we should and shouldn’t do as Christians. However, I believe the Bible is about more than rules and I believe the Christian life is about more than legalism.
II. A Healthy Baptist Understanding of the Bible Seeks Proper Interpretation Rather Than Ignorant Idolization
It is important for Baptists to recognize as they read the Bible, that it is a collection of literature, some of which is almost 3000 years old. The oldest portions of the Bible to be written down date to around 900 B.C. The most recent portions of the Bible date to the second century A.D. It is literature from different cultures and different historical periods. It is important to realize that we live in one era and to understand properly the literature from another era sometimes takes work at interpretation.
Furthermore, the Bible is not a superstitious good-luck charm. Have you heard of the “Bible Code.” It is a silly notion that hidden in the text of the Bible in its original languages, almost like a find-a word puzzle, there are messages from God that predict the future. What a silly notion! Can you imagine why, if God had such an important message for us, he’d hide it in the original language of the text? It makes no logical sense. God’s message in the Bible is for all to understand, certainly using good rules of interpretation.
Most of us are tempted to read the Bible this way. We form an idea or opinion about something, perhaps an ethical dilemma or a theological belief. Then, we search the Bible looking for verses to support what we believe. We then take those verses as proof-texts to argue our point. That is not the proper way to interpret. That is called isogenies, reading into the text what we want it to say. We should rather attempt to do good exegesis, taking from the text its message as we interpret the verses in their context.
Hardy Clemons, pastor of FBC in Greenville, SC, tells about a trip through Albemarle, NC with his wife one day when they stopped at a restaurant for a quick lunch. The waitress rang up the tab. The total was $6.66. He said that she then made the statement, “I can’t charge you that. I’ll have to charge you either $6.65 or $6.67.” Clemons made a joke about the matter. She said, “This is no joking matter, Sir. Don’t you know what that means? 666 is the mark of the beast in the Bible. This means that if you pay me $6.66, we could both have bad luck. God could get us!”
Clemons told her, “I interpret the Bible differently than that. I don’t think that 666 means that God is out to get people.”
She then replied, “Look mister, there is no interpretation. Either you believe the Bible or you don’t!”
I remember when we lived in Waco, TX, there was a suburb of Waco named Hewitt, TX. The prefix on the telephone numbers of Hewitt was, you guessed it!, 666. There was a woman in that little town that actually brought legal action against the phone company and forced them to allow her to change her telephone prefix for fear that the 666 would bring her bad luck.
The Bible is not some superstitious idol that brings us good or bad luck. To understand it properly, we need to interpret it.
III. A Healthy Baptist Understanding of the Bible Recognizes that It is Both a Divine and Human Book
The Bible did not suddenly fall out of the sky to humanity. It developed and was written down over hundreds of years. The Bible is the cooperative effort of both God and humans. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that it is “inspired.” Again, Baptists have differed over what this word means. Some believe that every single word is divinely dictated by God, a verbal inspiration. Others hold to dynamic inspiration, the concept that God inspired the writers’ ideas but they used their own words to write out of their fully human capacity.
Therefore, when we have a healthy understanding of the Bible as both divine and human, we can avoid two pitfalls. Those who think the Bible is only divine run the risk of bibliolatry, the notion that the Bible, because it is divine, should be worshipped. But, those who think it is only human run the risk of skepticism, saying that it has no true spiritual relevance because it is only humanly produced. Both of these notions are problematic for thinking Christians.
The best way to view the Bible is the way we view Christ, the message of the Bible. The Bible proclaims that he was both divine and human. And, so, our understanding of the book that witnesses to the work of Christ should be viewed similarly.
What if this summer when Pam and the girls visit Texas for a month, they write me a letter. I am so happy to receive the letter that I carry it around with me constantly. I read it several times a day. I draw strength and love from the letter. But, wouldn’t it be ridiculous if when they returned home, I ignored them because I was too busy reading the letter? Sometimes, I fear that good, Baptist people have such a skewed view of the Bible that they actually worship it more than the one that the Bible points to. I don’t worship the Bible. I worship the one the Bible points me to. The Bible carries the message.[4]
Conclusion
In 1988, at the SBC in San Antonio Texas, Southern Baptists were at the peak of our Civil War about the Bible. Dr. Joel Gregory preached a sermon at that convention in which he described the strange destruction of an old, Irish castle. The castle owners no longer lived there and it began to fall into ruins. Weeds and wild animals eventually took up residence in the old castle. The local village people began to use the stones for their own needs such as roads, or to build or repair their own homes.
One day, Lord Londonderry, the only surviving member of the family that had originally occupied the castle, returned to his ancestral home. He was shocked to see the castle’s gradual destruction. He immediately hired a contractor and ordered him to build a wall around the old castle to keep out trespassers. He then returned to the city.
Three years later he came back to see the castle again. What he saw shocked him. The castle had completely vanished. But surrounding the spot where the castle had once stood was a high, thick wall that enclosed nothing. Londonderry sent for the contractor and asked him, “Where’s the castle?” the contractor replied, “The castle? I thought you wanted a wall! I built the wall with the stones from the castle. Why should I travel many miles to pay good money for rock when the finest stones in Ireland were right here beside me?”
Gregory opined that sometimes Baptists, in their attempts to defend the Bible, actually run the risk of building an orthodox wall but they lose the castle in the process. The Bible is basic to Baptists as a witness to Jesus Christ. As Baptists, we need a healthy understanding of this wonderful book.
[1] Buddy Shurden, The Baptist Identity, p. 10.
[2] Gary Parker, Principles Worth Protecting, p. 26-27.
[3] Paul Fiddes in Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: The Bible, p. 52.
[4] This concept was taken from an illustration used by William Powell Tuck in Our Baptist Tradition, p. 41.