Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Conscience and the Word of God

What is the relationship between conscience and the Word of God? To understand that we need some grasp of what conscience is.

No one image or metaphor is adequate to describe conscience. As much as anything else, conscience is the ability to put yourself in the place of others and to look at yourself through the eyes of others. This ability is presupposed by Jesus' injunction, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets." (Mt. 7:12 NIV)

There are at least three primary orientations for assuming a standpoint outside ourselves in relation to others. We can assume a standpoint above others, equal to others, or below others. Jesus commands that we exercise this capacity with humility (looking back on ourselves from a standpoint equal to or below others) and not with arrogance (looking down on others).

Arrogance was the chief sin of the Pharisees. They put themselves in the place of God and presumed to look down on others through the eyes of God. They succumbed to the temptation to "be as gods" in the eyes of others. (Gen. 3:5 KJV). Jesus set explicit parameters on this, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Mt. 7:1-2 NIV).

The source of the Pharisee's sin was their pride in the law. History demonstrated that neglecting the law would lead to judgment. The Pharisees were determined to defend the law. Forgetting the Spirit of the law, they adhered to its letter. That is why their eyes were veiled. Their consciences were shaped by the letter of the law and not by a Spirit of love. (2 Cor. 3:1-18)

For Pharisees, the law became an idol. It was their standard of perfection. Measuring fidelity to the law required increasingly detailed and narrow interpretations of its meaning. Then the interpretations were enforced as law. By the time Jesus came, their consciences were so insensitive to the Truth that they refused to believe that the age had come when the law would be written on human hearts. Jesus had rejected their interpretations and claimed to fulfill the law -- an impossibility, in Pharisee eyes, and dangerous. With the certainty of consciences shaped by law and measured by reason, they judged it better that "one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." (John 11:50 NIV)

With this in mind, it may be possible to identify the distraction that has been diverting Baptists' attention from the voice of God in our consciences. Baptists are people of the book. The Bible is the world in which we live and move and have our being. We take pride in the Bible. Too much pride.

The chief sin among Baptists is our inordinate pride in the Bible. History, we have been told, demonstrates that neglecting the Bible leads to judgment. Many Baptists have determined to defend the Bible. Forgetting the Spirit that gives life, we adhere to the letter that kills. (2 Cor. 3:6) Now, Baptist eyes are being veiled because our consciences are being shaped by the law more than by the gospel.

In essence, for Baptists, the Bible has become an idol. The Bible, more than Jesus, is our standard of perfection. Measuring fidelity to the Bible has required increasingly detailed and narrow interpretations of its meaning. For Southern Baptists, these interpretations have been approved as confessions and enforced as creeds. Many Baptists have become so insensitive to the Truth that whenever the Lord leads a professor or pastor or missionary to question an approved interpretation, they are deprived of opportunities to serve.

Baptists need to be reminded that the Word of God that speaks to our conscience is the Living Word. The best way to acknowledge the priority of the Living Word in our lives is to reaffirm that "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." Then we need to try to read the Bible with Jesus' eyes and look at others with the same spirit of humility and sacrificial love with which he looked at them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another Reason Why the Future Belongs to China

The San Francisco Chronicle has posted an article about one of the most important industries of the future: "China leads way for solar energy."

Oklahoma: The Land of Envy and Wrath

Wired Magazine has mapped the geography of the seven deadly sins in the United States.

According to their maps, the chief sins of Oklahomans are envy and wrath.

Whatever Became of Conscience?

Liberty of conscience used to be something that every Baptist held dear.

John Smyth, the historical founder of the Baptist movement, took exception to the church enforcing creeds. He believed that: "Christ only is the king and lawgiver of the church and conscience."

In 1608, Smyth and his church had to flee England for Holland to escape persecution. Four years later Thomas Helwys, a member of Smyth's congregation, led a group that returned to England to face it.

They founded the first Baptist church on English soil. Helwys then published England's first treatise calling for universal "freedom of conscience." Though it cost him his life, Helwys' convictions and the witness of his church exercised great influence on the mind of a young man who would emigrate to America.

When Roger Williams arrived in America, in 1631, he was offered the pastorate of the church in Boston. He declined because his, "conscience was persuaded against the national church." Williams was soon banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for holding the disharmonious conviction that those in authority "cannot without a spiritual rape force the consciences of all to one worship."

Williams went on to found the first Baptist church in America and the Colony of Rhode Island -- securing the first charter in the world that established "a free, full, and absolute liberty of conscience."

By the 1770's, Baptists churches had sprung up throughout the colonies and were welcome in none except Rhode Island. Particularly unwelcome were their refusals to pay taxes to support state churches on the grounds that "it implies an acknowledgement that the civil power has a right to set one religious sect up above another . . . [and] emboldens people to judge the liberty of other men's consciences."

Colonial governments dealt harshly with Baptists until the necessity for enlisting soldiers to fight the British outweighed the need to collect taxes for religion.

For Baptists, the War for Independence and the battle for Liberty of Conscience were one and the same. That is why they refused to vote to ratify the Constitution until an amendment was added to secure "liberty of conscience." As John Leland explained to George Washington in a letter written on behalf of Virginia Baptists:

When the Constitution first made its appearance in Virginia, we, as a society, had unusual strugglings of mind, fearing that the liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life, was not sufficiently secured. Perhaps our jealousies were heightened by the usage we received in Virginia under regal government, when mobs, fines, bonds and prisons were our frequent repast.
"Liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life" and opposition to judging "the liberty of other men’s consciences." Those were convictions that used to distinguish Baptists from other Christians.

Baptists used to be sensitive to the still, small voice of God that speaks within the heart and reverberates through every aspect of your being. Too often, Baptists listen to other voices today -- voices that speak in our ears and reverberate through our seats by artificial amplification.

Baptists used to look for Jesus in the eye of everyone we faced. Today we look for sin in the face of everyone we eye.

Baptists used to be able to look at themselves through the eyes of others. Today we presume to look at others with the eyes of God.

When did Baptists lose touch with their heart and soul?

What distracted us from the voice within that judges us alone and no other?

Whatever became of conscience?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reforming Baptist Identity

Everyone wants to be special. Everyone.

Some people think they are special. Especially Baptists in America.

Every Sunday in every church across our land, Baptists can be heard thanking God for blessing them with the high privilege and honor of being born in the U.S.A. Baptists in America are both patriotic and religious. We are fully aware that we are fortunate to have been born in America. We know that we enjoy political freedoms and have access to rich material resources that are unavailable to people born in other nations. Whatever our ancestors may have done to obtain and secure these things, and no matter what we ourselves have done to maintain these things, we know that we did nothing to deserve to be born with these advantages. For us, it is more than an accident of birth, it is truly the gift of God and a blessing of Divine Providence. This knowledge and awareness forms the practical meaning for the doctrine of election in the hearts of most Baptists.

More than anything else, what needs to be reformed in Baptist Identity is how we understand our chosenness. Baptist Identity needs to be reformed to give a clearer reflection of the image of Christ.

There is no denying that for most of us being born in the U.S.A. is a privilege and a blessing. Blessings, however, can become a curse if we fail to comprehend their purpose. The Jews at the time of Jesus misunderstood the meaning of election. More than anything else, they thought their election meant they were privileged in God's eyes and they were keen on preserving those privileges. They were quick to stand guard over the barriers they erected to keep the Gentiles at a distance from their blessings.

Jesus revealed that the meaning of election is not about privilege but about service. Everyone who is chosen by God is chosen for service. Jesus also revealed the meaning of service to God. Jesus set aside his power and privileges and submitted himself to death on a cross in the service of God. That is what he was chosen to do. When he died, the veil in the temple was rent from top to bottom. God himself tore down all the barriers that had been erected to keep people at a distance from his blessings.

Everyone who responds to the call of God has been chosen for service. Service to God always involves sacrifice. We have been commanded to take up our own cross when we follow Jesus. At the very least that means that we must be willing to share the blessings that God has given us with others.

Too many Baptists in America resemble the ancient Jews more than Jesus. They are more concerned about preserving the privileges of their nationality than with sharing the blessings of the good news about God’s love for all people.

Too many Baptists are among the armed vigilantes standing guard at our borders.

Too many Baptists are among the placarded protestors at tea parties blocking the entrance to our medical clinics.

Too many Baptists think God called them for pampering and privilege rather than for sacrificial service.

Blessings can quickly turn into curses when we insist on hoarding them all for ourselves rather than sharing them freely with others.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

SBC Annuity Board Exec Weighs In Against Health Care Reform

O.S. Hawkins, the fully insured President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Annuity Board, says denominational health insurance programs are in jeopardy if health care reform passes.

Health care through the SBC's annuity board has been exhorbitant for decades. Nearly 20 years ago my family was forced to seek coverage from another source because the monthly premium increased to an amount that exceeded the mortgage payment on our home by more than $250 a month. Those premiums secured a policy with a relatively high deductible for a minister under the age of 40 with a family of four -- and none of us had health problems.

If the SBC's health insurance program folds, there will be no great loss to the ministers of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Academic Freedom, Intelligent Design and Alien Intervention

Very well done!

Reinterpreting the Baptist Ethos

The aspect of Baptist Identity most in need of reinterpretation is the Baptist ethos.

Baptists have long cultivated an ethos of legalism. When I was a teenager, most Baptists were proud to be known as the people who don't dance, don't drink, don't smoke, don't chew, and don't go with people who do. Though the issues today have shifted to weightier matters, Baptists are still defined by a moral mood that is most often perceived to be negative, censorious, and legalistic.

The Baptist ethos needs to be reinterpreted in light of our emphasis on liberty of conscience.

All ethical decision-making involves learning how to make choices and exercise our freedom conscientiously. Conscientious decisions are made by assuming a standpoint outside ourselves and viewing the situation from different perspectives. We can look at the situation from the perspective of the law, from the perspectives of the various parties involved, from the perspective of an interested observer, from the perspective of an impartial spectator, etc. Generally, we weigh the value of the various perspectives in relation to one another until we arrive at a decision we believe to be fair, equitable and just.

The most basic guideline for measuring the conscientiousness of an ethical decision is the Golden Rule, "do unto others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). It presupposes two things -- the capacity to view things from the perspective of another and the ability to act in a manner that gives equal weight to the concerns of the other. The Golden Rule sums up not only the Hebrew law and prophets, but also most of the basic requirements for harmonious life in a pluralistic society and for peaceful co-existence in a world of religiously diverse and ideologically competitive civilizations.

Distinctive to the Christian understanding of the Golden Rule is an additional admonition concerning the spirit in which we are to exercise our power to assume a standpoint outside ourselves. Christians should exercise this power with humility -- looking back at ourselves with a contrite and meek attitude -- and not with arrogance -- looking down on others with a judgmental attitude (Matthew 7:1-5).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reasserting, Reinterpreting, and Reforming Baptist Identity

At the CBF General Assembly last July, Bill Leonard, Dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University, said:

"If Baptist identity is to be carried beyond mid-century, it must be reasserted and reinterpreted and reformed immediately."
I wholeheartedly agree with Leonard's concerns about the Baptist movement, but I was too busy preparing for the Norman New Baptist Covenant meeting to respond at that time. Now, in a series of blogs, I plan to offer my suggestions for Baptist Identity in the 21st Century.

I would begin by reasserting the Baptist emphasis on liberty of conscience. Baptists began by dissenting from the established church and asserting their right to a free conscience on matters of religion. Our appeals for liberty of conscience were made on behalf of all people and not for ourselves alone. 78 years before the enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote his first Letter Concerning Toleration, Thomas Helwys was writing:

Men's religion to God is between God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king 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.
45 years before Locke said it was "necessary above all to distinguish between the business of civil government and that of religion, and to mark the true bounds between the church and the commonwealth," Roger Williams warned that whenever "a gap" was opened "in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself . . . and made his garden a wilderness."

While John Locke could never bring himself to extend religious toleration to Catholics and atheists, revolutionary era Baptist evangelist John Leland boldly asserted:

Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three gods, no god, or twenty gods, and let government protect him in so doing.
Baptists were at the forefront of the movement that led Western civilization from intolerance and religious persecution to enlightened religious liberty. Twenty-first century Baptists should be at the forefront of a movement that will lead the world from a religiously suffused clash between Eastern and Western civilizations to a peaceful global civilization that respects liberty of conscience for all peoples.

More than anything else, liberty of conscience for all people is the bedrock belief undergirding Baptist identity that needs to be reasserted in our time.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bryan Fischer on the First Amendment

Peter Montgomery, Senior Fellow at People for the American Way, attended the recent "Values Voter Summit" in Washington, D.C. A post at his weblog calls attention to the Christian Nationalist definition of religious liberty given at the summit by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association:

According to Fischer's interpretation of the First Amendment, here's what religious liberty means: Congress has the liberty to promote religion in any way, as long as it does not single out one Christian sect or denomination and make it the nation’s official religion. That's it.

According to Fischer, "the only entity that is restrained by the First Amendment is the Congress of the United States." Thus, he says, it is "constitutionally impossible" for governors, mayors, city councilmembers, or school administrators to violate the First Amendment. Fischer said the "incorporation doctrine" -- the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment applied First Amendment protections against state governments, is the "most egregious" example of judicial activism.
It would be hard to find a clearer explanation for why these so-called "Values Voters" think they have a right to treat non-Christians are second-class citizens.

Friday, September 18, 2009

James Madison vs. Antonin Scalia

In a historic exclusive interview with Hamodia, a newspaper of Torah Jewry in Israel, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explains his view of church-state separation. After describing his commitment to constitutional "originalism," he said:

Whatever the Establishment Clause means, it certainly does not mean that government cannot accomodate religion, and indeed favor religion. My court has a series of opinions that say that the Constitution requires neutrality on the part of the government, not just between denominations, not just between Protestants, Jews and Catholics, but neutrality between religion and non-religion. I do not believe that. That is not the American tradition.
Note how Protestants, Jews and Catholics are named and personalized in Scalia's comments while the existence of non-religious persons can only be inferred from impersonal language. His comments appear to presume that non-religious persons have no rights of conscience.

Whenever the original intent of the constitution is discussed, I find it hard to understand how James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance can be ignored. Madison is the framer of both the Constition and the Bill of Rights. His Memorial and Remonstrance should be originalism's locus classicus regarding religion and the first amendment. Madison's comments presuppose that all American citizens have rights of conscience:

If "all men are by nature equally free and independent," all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all are they to be considered as retaining an "equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience." Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Obama Administration Asked to Reverse Bush's Faith-Based Rule

The Baptist Joint Committee, Americans United, the Interfaith Alliance and broad coalition of religious and civic groups have written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to reverse the Bush Administration's ruling that allowed religious discrimination in tax-payer funded faith-based programs.

The letter says the previous administration misinterpreted the language and intention of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act(RFRA). Most of the members of the coalition signing the letter to Holder were also members of the coalition that worked for passage of RFRA.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to Fix Social Security

The Economic Policy Institute produced this graph to demonstrate that most Americans are agreed on how the Social Security shortfall should be fixed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is God's Name Really Just Another Word?

Bruce Ledewitz, professor of Law at Dusquene University, argues that "God is Just Another Word" in a report from a Netroots conference posted at Religion Dispatches.

Fred Clarkson argues that what Ledewitz suggests would be offensive to people of sincere faith and he is right. Ledewitz suggestion is a profanation of the name of God. I've spoken about this often and written about this before.

Ledewitz is merely making explicit the logic of supreme court decisions affirming the constitutionality of using the name of God on our currency and in the pledge of allegiance.

Ironically, conservative Christians are the chief proponents for depriving the name of God of meaning in the public square. In my eyes, that literally makes the religious right the most profane people in our society.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Podcast: Interivew with Nandu Dayanand

Podcast (28MB Mp3) of Dr. Bruce Prescott's 9-13-09 "Religious Talk" radio interview with Nandu Dayanand, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Hyderabad, India. We talk about the work his congregation is doing among the Banjara Gypsys, the Koya Tribe, the Kondadora people, and those infected with HIV/AIDS. We also talk about his relationship with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches in the United States.

Time Lapse Video of Glacial Ice Melts

Friday, September 11, 2009

Southern Baptist Leadership Causing Increase in Abortions

A story today from Baptist Press, the propaganda arm of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Board, features the headline "Rep.: Health care plan would lead to abortion increase." The article is part of an ongoing campaign against health care reform by the fundamentalist leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. Central to that campaign was the delivery of more than a million signatures to congress opposing health-care reform. The petitions were delivered by Richard Land, head of the SBC's wed-to-the-hip-of-the-GOP, tax exempt, political action arm. Undoubtedly, many of those signatures were a knee-jerk reaction to false information about "death panels" and abortions.

The sad truth is that the fundamentalist leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention bears much responsibility for about 97% of the abortions that have occured over the past 30 years. They have long been at the forefront of the uncompromising pro-life people that caused former surgeon general C. Everett Koop to withdraw from the abortion controversy.

More than anyone else, C. Everett Koop, along with the late Francis Schaeffer raised awareness about the issue of abortion among evangelical Christians. Bill Martin, in his book With God on Our Side, quotes Koop's explanation for why he dropped out of the controversy:

If the pro-life people in the late 1960's and the early 1970's had been willing to compromise with the pro-choice people, we could have had an abortion law that provided for abortion only for the life of the mother, incest, rape, and defective child; that would have cut the abortions down to three percent of what they are today. But they had an all-or-nothing mentality. They wanted it all and they got nothing.
Before the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the position of denominational leadership, like the position of the majority of Baptists today, was that we support abortion when necessary to protect the life and health of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, and when the fetus is known to have severe physical deformities such as anencephaly.

Had the moderate position prevailed, abortions could have easily been reduced by 97%. Instead, for 30 years the SBC fundamentalist "all-or-nothing mentality" has swollen the ranks of those who are uncompromising on this issue.

Now that same "all-or-nothing mentality" is standing in the way of health care for more than 30 million Americans.

When will these people develop a conscience for life outside the womb?

The Truth About the Need for a Public Option

Remembering 9-11

I said all I care to say about 9-11 in a speech that I gave from the House Chamber at the Oklahoma State Capitol in February 2003.

Here's a link to the speech "And Justice for All: The Price of Freedom and Security."

The speech was a lot more controversial then than it is today.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Stepping Away From Fundamentalism, Step Seven

Before I went to seminary I took one more step away from fundamentalism. It was the step that caught me most by surprise. It was a time when Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth had stirred up a lot of interest in "end times" theology. It began when a group of young people at my church wanted me to teach them something about eschatology.

I was well aware that most of what Hal Lindsey was saying had been in the footnotes of the Schofield Reference Bible for more than 60 years. I carried a Schofield Reference Bible at that time because it was the only study Bible that the fundamental Baptist preachers I knew would approve. I also had a copy of Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come, John Walvoord’s commentary on Revelation and number of other books on eschatology by dispensational premillenialists, but I hadn’t read them. So I started reading them and that is when I ran into difficulties.

I soon discovered that, aside from a fairly broad outline of events, there was little consensus on details among the different authors that I was reading. That made me pay close attention to the scripture references they used to support what they were saying. Doing that made it obvious to me that they all were inserting a lot of things from the Old Testament, particularly from the book of Daniel, into the text of the New Testament. Most alarming to me, I couldn't find "the rapture" in the book of Revelation and I couldn't understand how John Walvoord knew it happened in the blank space between the third and fourth chapters of the book of Revelation:
"The rapture as a doctrine is not part of the prophetic foreview of the book of Revelation . . . From a practical standpoint, however, the rapture may be viewed as having already occurred in the scheme of God before the events of chapter 4 and the following chapters of Revelation unfold.” (John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 103.)
Premillenial dispensationalism was the only kind of "end times" theology that I knew. Supposedly, only "liberals" believed anything else. I needed some help trying to make sense of eschatology, so I turned to my Southern Baptist pastor and future father-in-law, Dr. Doyle Winters, for assistance.

Dr. Winters was a conservative New Testament Greek scholar with a Th.D. from Southwestern Seminary. He advised me that he did not hold to the dispensational premillenial view of the end times. That theology was invented in the late nineteenth century and has been promulgated mostly through the Schofield Reference Bible, he said. It is not the way that eschatology has traditionally been understood throughout the history of the church. As he spoke, I finally realized why he was so unimpressed with the white leather Schofield Reference Bible that I gave his daughter years before on the first Christmas we were dating.

Dr. Winters' understanding of the end times was best summarized by Dr. Ray Summers, a Southern Baptist Greek scholar, who wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation entitled Worthy is the Lamb. He loaned me his copy. I read it and biblical eschatology finally began to make sense to me.

Summers put the last nail in the coffin of dispensationalism for me when he explained how that theology believes that the church age -- all the time from when Christ died until his second coming -- is a "Great Parenthesis." In that view, the Jews at the time of Jesus put a kink in the divine plan for an earthly kingdom of God. Supposedly, 69 of the 70 weeks in Daniel's prophecy about the end times (Daniel 9:24-27) were fulfilled by the time of Christ. The 70th week, however, had to be postponed because the Jews rejected Jesus and put him to death. The 70th week is on hold until Christ returns.

In my eyes, Christ's atoning death is the very heart of the divine plan, not a kink in it. No one who understands that Christ was "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," should be inclined to accept dispensational premillenialism. (Revelation 13:8; cf. 1 Peter 1:18-20)

Note: The rest of the steps I made away from fundamentalism came during and after I went to seminary. I'm going to postpone tracing those steps until a later time. This is neither a kink in my plan, nor something that was preordained.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Stepping Away From Fundamentalism, Step Six

My first encounter with a "liberal" theologian came when I was in college. Beyond an introduction to philosophy and a comparative religion course, the University of Albuquerque required every student to take six hours of electives in philosophy and theology. I elected to take a course on contemporary protestant theology that was taught by a Father Crews, an Episcopal priest. The texts for the class were Karl Barth's Word of God, Word of Man, Paul Tillich's Shaking the Foundations, and Reinhold Neibuhr's Nature and Destiny of Man.

The first thing I learned was that during World War II neo-orthodox theologians had thoroughly discredited liberal theology. After Auschwitz, no one could ignore the reality of evil and naively affirm that humanity was advancing toward a higher stage of civilization. So, Fr. Crews was really introducing me to his version of neo-orthodox theology. It was not a pleasant experience.

I liked what I read in the textbooks a whole lot more than what I was hearing from my teacher. Fr. Crews was a fairly extreme communitarian. Katherine Jefferts Schori, the current presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, expressed this thinking in a nutshell when she recently declared that the belief that God saves individuals is "the great Western heresy." In such thought, Christ died for the church (community), not for people (individuals). It's hard to imagine a theological position more opposed to the thinking of a conservative "born again" Baptist.

Fr. Crews didn't assign papers or give tests. He just made comments and asked questions about the assigned reading in the textbooks. Grades were based on reading the assigned texts, class attendance, and participation in class discussion. Read I did. Attend I did. Participate I did. At least half of every class was an ongoing argument between Fr. Crews and myself over the authority of the Bible. The grade I received from Fr. Crews, however, did not reflect the effort that I put into his class.

Fr. Crews asserted that the community of the church was the primary source for religious authority. He argued that the Bible was written by the community, preserved by the community, collected into a canon considered authoritative by the community, transmitted from one generation to the next by the community, and could only be properly interpreted by a scholarly community trained in textual criticism and the historical-critical methods. For him, the authority of the Bible was subordinate in every way to that of the community.

Having just extracted myself from the dysfunctional community of Fundamental Baptists, I viewed all talk about the authority of the religious community and its clergy/scholars with suspicion. I reserved judgment on the role of community in relation to the Bible until a time when I could examine the issue more thoroughly for myself.

Meanwhile, I argued from the perspective of traditional Baptist theology peppered with a dose of the rationalist apologetic method that I had absorbed from reading Christianity Today and Moody Monthly. From that perspective, Fr. Crews' theology was hopelessly subjective and relativistic. In my mind, for the church to be sure of it message and mission, the Bible had to be the supreme authority for the church's faith and practice.

Class after class, week after week, Fr. Crews responded by demolishing the notion of biblical inerrancy, by attacking the authority of the Bible, and by ridiculing the idea that the Bible could be properly interpreted without the aid of a community of scholars. At first, I responded by defending biblical inerrancy. Eventually, I began conceding, as necessary, whatever point he would make about minor errors on matters of fact or history. I held firm in defending what I believed to be the major issue -- the authority of scripture on the essential matters of faith and practice. It was a long semester for both of us.

This experience taught me that I needed to know a whole lot more than I already knew about the way the Bible was written, preserved, canonized and transmitted. It also convinced me that, as a way to describe the authority of the Bible, the word "inerrant" is a dead end. It is not a biblical word. It is a word that claims more for the Bible than the Bible claims for itself.

I stopped using the word "inerrant" to describe the Bible. That decision would prove to be my most momentous step away from fundamentalism.

Henry Lyons Sues National Baptists

Ethics Daily has just posted a story about Henry Lyons suing to stop the National Baptist Convention (NBC) from holding an election for the President of that convention.

Lyons served as President of NBC from 1994 until 1999 -- when he was imprisoned for four years for fraud and tax evasion. Now he is running for President of the NBC again, but he appears to think that he will not be elected under the by-laws for the election.

I'm not a member of the National Baptist Convention, so some people might suggest that I don't have a dog in this hunt. I comment because I am a Baptist who is very interested in the work of the whole Baptist family. I comment because Lyons' challenge to the by-laws casts a shadow over the competency and effectiveness of outgoing President Dr. William Shaw's tenure in office. I comment because I heard Dr. Shaw's powerful and prophetic sermon at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta last year. I comment because I also had opportunity to observe Dr. Shaw as preparations were being made for that New Baptist Covenant meeting. I know Dr. Shaw to be a man of credibility and integrity. It grieves me to see the good work that he has done for all Baptists undermined and called into question.

Lyons needs to reconsider this misguided law suit. Precedents involving the First Amendment assure that the courts will want to steer clear from intervening on matters involving the internal governance of religious institutions. Lyons' contention that the National Baptist Convention "is not a religious body for the purposes of First Amendment immunity analysis" is hopelessly mistaken.

Henry, for the good of the Convention, please put an end to this law suit. It will do nothing to advance the work of the kingdom of God and much to retard it.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Stepping Away From Fundamentalism, Step Five

Once I graduated from high school I had a choice to make about the kind of education that I would pursue to prepare for the ministry. Independent Baptists encouraged me to go to Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. Jerry Falwell was that schools most famous alumnus. BBC, however, was not accredited. That meant that a degree from that institution was worthless for anything but ministry in a fundamental Baptist church. That held no allure for me. The Apostle Paul told Timothy, "Study to show yourself approved unto God,"(2 Timothy 2:15). I presumed that meant that I should expect to meet and exceed the highest standards set by the world. Graduate study at a seminary was already fixed in my mind and I knew I would need a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution to get in the door.

I enrolled at the University of Albuquerque, a small private Catholic school, and moved my membership to a Southern Baptist Church. I thought life in Southern Baptist churches would be more congenial than in those of Independent Fundamental Baptists. For a time, it was.

The most noteworthy difference between the two kinds of Baptists regarded literature. At that time, Independent Baptists produced none while Southern Baptists produced some literature of fairly high quality. My favorite was Student Magazine which was geared toward college students. Somewhere in its pages I learned about a series of pamphlets written by Southern Baptist educators that addressed the intellectual challenges that college students face. I ordered some of the pamphlets and read the one on faith and science because it dealt with the issue of evolution. I don't remember the author's name and I misplaced the pamphlet long ago, but it offered a fresh perspective about God and science that made a lasting impression on me. The earliest version of talks I have given about evolution and faith were based on perspectives that I first learned about from that booklet.

Evolution has always been a burning issue among fundamentalists. There is no way to reconcile the Bible and evolution as long as you insist on interpreting the opening chapters of the book of Genesis literally. All the Fundamental Baptists that I knew interpreted the creation accounts very literally. For them, the world was created in seven literal days six thousand years ago. Though the Bible itself says that with the Lord "a thousand years are like a day."(2 Peter 3:8), they refused to entertain any suggestion that references to the time of creation might be symbolic. "Creation Science" was the only kind of science palatable to them and I already knew that that was pseudo-science.

Young earth creationism is hopelessly inadequate for anyone who understands science and closely examines the mountains of factual evidence against it. Even modern fundamentalists have conceded this point. This concession is just about the only thing that distinguishes the modern proponents of "Intelligent Design" from the old "Creation Scientists."

On evolution, my step away from fundamentalism came when I realized that I needed to let God be God and stop trying to limit him. God is free to create any way wants. There is no requirement that God create human beings in a way that completely distinguishes us from the rest of God's creation. The question is not whether God could do so. He could do it that way if he wanted to, but he is not bound to do it that way.

Science indicates that we share most of our genetic structure with primates. What violence does that do to the Christian understanding of man? God is not an organism. He does not have a genetic structure. God is Spirit. The image of God in man does not refer to our physical form or body; it refers to our spirit. Our uniqueness is in our spiritual capacity to enter loving relationship with a God who loves us.

Ultimately, it makes no difference whether God decided to form our physical bodies through long stages of biological development or by a special creative act.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Stepping Away From Fundamentalism, Step Four

Roman Catholics can trace a direct line of institutional continuity all the way back to the first century. At times, Baptists have envied that heritage and have tried to supplant it. One of the most popular attempts to do so was written by J. M. Carroll, who served as President of Oklahoma Baptist University and was the brother of B.H. Carroll, the founder of Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth. Carroll's 1931 booklet entitled The Trail of Blood boasts on its front cover that it traces "The History of Baptist Churches From the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day." The booklet was wildly popular among fundamentalist minded Baptists for more than a generation.

I got my copy of The Trail of Blood from my mother. She wanted me to read it after she glanced through the textbook for my seventh grade New Mexico history class and found it full of glowing references to the Catholic priests accompanying the Conquistadores who laid claim to that territory for Spain. She was upset to find so many religious references in a public school textbook and thought I was being taught an unduly sanitized version of the role of Catholic Church in the subjugation of Mexicans and Native Americans. She believed in the separation of church and state and thought the public schools should steer clear of references to religion – whether positive or negative.

Carroll's booklet was my introduction to church history, Baptist theology, the history of religious persecution, and the Baptist legacy as advocates for religious liberty. Reading it at the age of thirteen, I swallowed it all -- hook, line and sinker. That lasted until I was assigned the task of making a presentation on the history of the church to my entire high school humanities class.

When I received my assignment I thought I knew exactly what I would be reporting. I got my copy of The Trail of Blood, made an outline, and was preparing to instruct my predominantly Roman Catholic friends that Baptists traced their lineage further back than even the Apostle Peter. I would show them that the roots of the True Church go back to John the Baptist at the Jordan river. All I needed to do, or so I thought, was to quote from their own history books to demonstrate my thesis. To do that, I needed to go to a bigger library than the one at my high school. So, I went to the library at the University of New Mexico and found shelves and shelves of books on church history. What I discovered was that historians who were Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and gasp, -- even the overwhelming majority of Baptist historians -- were all agreed. Baptists were but one branch, albeit one of the more radical branches, out of the Protestant Reformation. No lineage could possibly be traced earlier than the sixteenth century Anabaptists.

Looking more closely at J.M. Carroll's pamphlet, I concluded that all he did was trace the history of religious intolerance. Then he claimed that almost everyone who was persecuted for their faith was a Baptist. There were two kernels of truth in The Trail of Blood. First, the history of western civilization has been a bloody trail of religious persecution. Second, Baptists were at the forefront of those calling for an end to it. All the people who were persecuted were not Baptists. In fact, a lot of them were genuine heretics. None of them, however, deserved to be persecuted for their faith.

Preparing that high school report proved to be one of the most sobering experiences of my entire life. I still shudder to think of how ignorant and foolish I would have been had I merely trusted the reliability of my original source. The experience completely undermined the confidence that I had in the credibility and integrity of my spiritual mentors. If Baptists cannot trust the scholarly abilities of the preachers who rise to become presidents of institutions of higher learning, who can they trust?

I resolved then that I would never draw a firm conclusion on issues of religious significance without examining the matter from several sources and from multiple perspectives.

Undoubtedly, this is the most decisive step away from fundamentalism that I have ever made.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Stepping Away From Fundamentalism, Step Three

For me, the shortest step away from fundamentalism came with the realization that life within my family bore little resemblance to the idyllic paternalistic household that fundamentalist preachers portrayed as the biblical model for the home.

Father didn't know best at my home. Dad was more relational than analytic. He was great with kids and fun to be around when he was healthy and rested, but he was not the wisest decision maker in the house. For the most part, my mother -- who always worked outside the home -- managed the household and handled the finances and my father usually had the good sense to trust her judgment more than his own. Fundamentalism's sexist and patriarchal chain-of-command family structure never found a foothold at my parent's house. They had an egalitarian mutually submissive relationship that survived for more than fifty years while the complementarian, male-supremacist marital relationships of their fundamentalist friends crumbled all around them.

My own step away from fundamentalism's chain-of-command theology came while I was in high school. Teenage years are traditionally an age of rebellion, but I wasn't much of a rebel. Being a fundamental Baptist "preacher boy," I was a model of Christian conservatism. Nearly all my time away from school was devoted to my church, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Young Life. Those last two years of high school, however, were also my father's final two years of college. He was working full-time, taking extra jobs to make ends meet, attending classes and studying to complete his B.A. degree, and raising a family -- all at the same time. His health was not the best and he was getting precious little sleep. When he was awake, he didn't have a lot of time or patience and it was hard to reason with him. Our relationship was often rocky during this period. It wasn't until after dad graduated, began his career as a public school teacher, and assumed an ordinary schedule that our relationship returned to normalcy. By then I had moved out of the house.

I learned a very valuable spiritual lesson over those last two years of high school. I discovered that my relationship with God could still be strong, healthy and growing while, at the same time, my relationship with my father was strained.

Later, these experiences made it easy for me to see through the simplistic thought, shallow theology, and unrealistic philosophy that undergirded the seminars that Bill Gothard led on Basic Youth Conflicts in the 1970’s. Like other chain-of-command theologians, he focused exclusively on the command for children to honor their parents. He never seemed to notice the conjoining command that parents "not exasperate" their children.(Ephesians 6:1-4)

While I never had cause for exasperation with my parents, when I served as a police officer, I often filed reports and provided testimony on behalf of children who had some very real causes for exasperation. Those experiences make my stomach turn every time I hear some naïve, but well-meaning preacher describing parents as "chisels" who chip away the rough edges of children who are like "diamonds in the rough." They don't realize how many parents take that "chip away" metaphor literally.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Stepping Away From Fundamentalism, Step Two

My second step away from fundamentalism was set in slow motion before we even left youth camp. My pastor pointed the way quickly and decisively. On the same night that I responded to the call to ministry, just before the lights went out in our bunk house, he appointed me to be the Sunday School teacher for the fifth grade boys at his church.

"What will I teach them?" I asked. "The Bible." he said. Then he handed me my Bible and said, "Sunday's lesson is Romans chapter one. We read a chapter at a time, week by week. Just teach them the 'literal' truth of the Bible."

That was all the preparation I had for the teaching ministry. It was sink or swim on your own. At that time, Independent Baptists didn't believe in Sunday School lesson "quarterlies" or any kind of Bible study aids. In their eyes, those were ways devised by liberals to infect the minds of believers and steer them away from the “literal” truth of the Bible.

And so, for the next two and a half years -- until the preacher and I fell out over whether I could attend a school dance on Friday night and still be worthy to teach on Sunday mornings -- I taught the Bible, book by book, week by week, to fifth grade boys. In the process, I discovered that the Bible makes sense and that I could help ten and eleven year old boys make sense of the Bible.

I also discovered that I found things in the Bible that my fundamentalist mentors seemed to miss. When you believe that through centuries of time God was carefully dictating the Bible -- word for word – to insure its accuracy, it seems natural to suppose that those interpreting it would be careful to observe the word order and time sequences recorded there. That's why it came as a shock for me, then a senior in high school, to observe a discrepancy within the Bible itself over the sequence of events surrounding Peter's denial of Christ.

In Mark's gospel Jesus tells Peter, "before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice." (14:30) He records that Peter denied Christ three times, he heard the cock crow a second time, and then he remembers Jesus telling him, "Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice." (14:66-72) In Luke's gospel Jesus speaks emphatically, "I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me." (22:33). He records that Peter denied Christ three times, he heard the cock crow, and then he remembered Jesus telling him, "Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice." (22:54-62).

Obviously, if the Bible has been dictated word-for-word by God, or if God inspired the writers and they wrote with precision in their own words (the verbal plenary view of inspiration), something is wrong here. I thought about this discrepancy long and hard when I was in high school and decided that it didn't really make much difference whether Peter denied Christ three times before the cock first crowed or if his denials were actually before the second crowing. What was important was that Jesus knew Peter's faith and courage were going to fail him at this moment.

I concluded then that the notion that the Bible is perfect was in error. If the Bible had to be worded perfectly for us to believe it, God would have made sure that all of the gospel writers got their stories straight.

I was still an inerrantist at that time, but, in my mind, inerrancy was already being attached less and less to the individual words of scripture. Instead, it was being connected more and more with the overarching ideas and world view that I believed God inspired the writers to convey.

This step is described as being in slow motion because I was reluctant to make it and, in many ways, I'm still in the process of traversing all the implications of having done so.