Saturday, June 17, 2006

Baptists and the Church

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

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)


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, (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

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]
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.