This week saw the launch of another bout of drama on the world of Southern Baptist twitter. This time it was centered on a letter written by Paige Patterson in 2012 that called the doctrinal stance of minority pastors into question, with no apparent grounds for the concern except that they were members of minority groups. Now this was almost certainly part of a dialogue and there may be more clarification in sources beyond this letter, but it is hard to see how that clarification could really improve the situation. It is worth noting that this post will not be specifically about that letter or the current discussion surrounding it, but rather on a larger issue that I believe informs this situation as well as many others that have been coming to the front in recent years. However, for the sake of clarity and information, here is the letter in question, and I would like to point out the part of it that I think is most telling for the topic I would like to address.
There is a lot to be said regarding racism in the church, and much of it is being said by people much closer to the topic than I am. As much as I would love to contribute something of value to that conversation, I think right now my time would be better spent looking at a picture that I'm not hearing about as these rounds of drama come and go. To do that, allow me to highlight one sentence from that letter.
"Under Fred's leadership it would be possible for us to slide a long way back toward where we once were, and that would be devastating."
"Where we once were" is a reference to the Inerrancy Controversy, which I believe is the ghost haunting every major controversy today.
A full history of what I will be calling the Controversy or the Inerrancy Controversy, known by the two major sides of it as the Conservative Resurgence or the Fundamentalist Takeover, is beyond the scope of this post. However, to make my point, I must give a brief overview of it and highlight the most relevant facts.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of Christian denominations had to wrestle with the role of scripture in the revelation of truth. The primary camps this usually fell into were those who held that the Bible was fully true in both its concepts and facts (called inerrancy), and those that held it was only fully true in its concepts. The former, for instance, would hold that Jonah literally spent time in the belly of a whale or great fish, while the latter would hold that the lesson taught by Jonah's story was important but the details were probably fictional. The SBC's turn to wrestle with these issues began with commentaries and books published as early as 1961, but kicked into a real fight in 1979. Guided by men including Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, and Paul Pressler, the churches which held to inerrancy (which was the vast majority of them) sent messengers to the SBC annual meetings and elected Convention Presidents and entity trustees who also held to inerrancy, thereby slowly shifting the seminaries and ministries of the SBC in a conservative direction. The matter was considered functionally resolved with the publishing of the updated Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. Most of those who opposed inerrancy left the denomination.
During the controversy, nearly everything had to be called into question. People seeking to keep their jobs while opposing the shift were very careful about their wording to suggest that they believed in the truth of scripture while avoiding making any solid statements on the details of scripture. Those who considered themselves liberal or moderate described the conservatives as lusting after power and causing unnecessary division in the denomination just to claim control. Some churches that seem to have actually agreed with the inerrantists ended up opposing them out of a belief that the resurgence or takeover was about a political agenda rather than a doctrinal difference. Those who took the side of the conservatives, which ended up winning the day, were those who saw past careful wording or caricatures to look for the doctrinal root of everything that was being said and done. An entire generation started as children, went to Bible college and/or seminary, and then took posts at Baptist churches and colleges during the controversy. That generation, and the one that was leading the controversy, spent over two decades training to see the world along very specific doctrinal lines and to look for the opposition that wore the masks of allies. This was necessary, the whole fight was necessary in my opinion, because ultimately the cause of inerrancy warranted a defense and this was the defense that needed to arise at that time.
The problem comes when you take combat strategies into a time of peace.
My central claim is this: too many of those who spent so long in the thick of the Controversy have never really left it. This is to be expected, to a degree. For an entire generation, the most formative years of their lives were spent preparing for or engaging in a specific fight that had known rules. This is likely true in some degree or another in every denomination that has had some form of this fight. The cultural generational divide would say that some of those involved in the SBC's Controversy were Baby Boomers and some were Generation X (maybe even some Millennials who, like me, would have spent our youths in this and been graduating high school around the time it ended), especially those within the Southern Baptist Convention or connected to its battles; for my purposes I will refer to this group collectively as the Controversy Generation, regardless of which denomination's controversy they were actually raised in. The theology, practice, ethics, and political agenda of the Controversy Generation are defined by the fight over inerrancy. The impact of these events resonates through every aspect of their lives.
So what does that have to do with the letter, or my earlier post about the Founders Ministry dispute? The short answer is that a generation who views the world in terms of finding hidden enemies will always see enemies hiding among their friends.
The Controversy taught that generation that any difference in belief or practice is a signpost indicating a deeper attack on scripture. Those who raise questions about how the SBC handles things are trying to undermine the work of the Controversy Generation in reestablishing the authority of scripture. Those who come from a different perspective and therefore see a different application for the truths of scripture are substituting secular ideologies for the gospel. Every doctrinal or practical difference that can be associated with a different treatment of scripture must be viewed as an attack on inerrancy.
And this is what Patterson was expressing in his letter. Whether conscious or not, the fear was that minority pastors, who have a tendency to view the SBC and the Bible in light of a different set of life experiences than white pastors, are in fact interpreting the Bible as subject to those experiences. That the interpretation of scripture does not begin with the claim that the Bible is factually true and the ultimate source of truth, but rather that the truth claims of scripture can and should be measured against a different standard. This is the same complaint of Founders Ministries, and the same fear that pushes against reform in the treatment of abuse victims, and the same understanding that led John MacArthur to misrepresent the actions voted on by the SBC over this past summer, and the same standard that demanded Kanye West to display a certain level of doctrinal maturity before his conversion can be seen as valid. It is present in churches, ministries, schools, conferences, and online spaces. And the thought process can be shown by example.
Liberation Theology is a school of thought largely held in black churches and present among other minorities that sees a certain relationship between the slavery to sin and the slavery of their ancestors (and/or ongoing issues and oppression they face), and therefore read the liberation from sin and its effects as a particularly notable promise in their lives. While individual views may vary, the core idea of the theology is that freedom in Christ is an important aspect of the gospel that has specific and unique application in their lives. Patterson's letter does not cite the existence of this framework as part of his concern, it is merely being used as an example. Detractors of liberation theology, however, view the emphasis on freedom from sin as a replacement for penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that the primary purpose of the death of Christ is to take on the weight of our sin on our behalf) and, as such, a false gospel. And, of course, a false gospel must come from a different read of scripture; and a different read of scripture, to the Controversy Generation, is probably a sign that inerrancy is being denied. Therefore, by this logic, allowing liberation theology to have a place in the SBC is a challenge to inerrancy and a reversal of the Controversy's achievements. That some opponents also believe the claims of ongoing oppression are false is relevant when it comes up, but on a doctrinal level this is the actual issue.
But this mindset, while a very good tool during the fight for inerrancy, causes more problems than it solves when it is applied to differences that do not come from the issue of inerrancy. Black people who hold to liberation theology, by and large, are not wrestling with what the gospel actually is or how the Bible defines it; they are wrestling with what that gospel looks like as it interacts with their lives and communities. Disputes about the nature of the manifested Kingdom of God do not generally arise from a dismissal of the authority of scripture, but from different attempts to piece together the authoritative clues that scripture contains. Allowing for the use of secular tools designed to help victims of abuse is rarely an attempt to reject the Spirit speaking through scripture as the primary means of healing, but an attempt to understand what specific needs a victim may have and therefore what parts of scripture or aspects of the gospel will best speak to those needs, and how to apply them in a healthy manner. But when these issues are handled with the mindset instilled in the Controversy Generation, the natural response is to oppose good things being handled by righteous servants of God out of fear that anything different is an attack in disguise. This pushes people away who are actually allies, causes continued pain in people who come to the church seeking healing and find only rejection, and damages our witness to those watching how we shoot at each other over every minor dispute.
Brothers, this cannot stand. I have said before that I support the work carried out by inerrantists during the Controversy, and I stand by that; I also believe it is necessary to see the impact the Controversy has had on the people who fought in it, and the ways their scars can cause unnecessary division now. We have had to fight for inerrancy before, and it is possible we shall have to again; but the question right now is what a church that holds to inerrancy will look like in a hurting world coming to grips with a host of problems that are being brought into the light. If we will not fight the battles that really exist because we are too focused on those fought decades ago, we will face a much greater loss than the roughly 1,900 churches who left during the Controversy. It is time to lay these weapons down, pick up the scriptures we fought so hard for, and begin exploring what it looks like to live them out today.
During the 2016 election campaign, I expressed concern about Donald Trump for a number of reasons, most of which were fairly widely shared by people who didn't vote for him. But there was one I said at the time I was concerned about more than any of the others, because I was concerned it offended a more important party than ourselves and would be, I believed, the hardest to counter once he was in office.
I stated that putting Donald Trump in the White House would legitimize a practice calling itself Christianity that has little, if anything, to do with Christ. That his election would not only encourage the false teachers he surrounded himself with during his campaign, but that it would embolden a host of problems that the church was harboring and failing to address. This past Sunday, the sermon touched on one of the ways I feel that concern has been realized.
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing [mother] tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
The big question of the sermon was, do we reach out to the people around us with the same love and passion that Paul is here describing? He noted that churches in America have a particular opportunity of world evangelism based on the fact that the world is coming to us, rather than requiring we go to it. And when they come here, we have an opportunity to reach out and build relationships and show the love of Christ to them by sharing, not only the gospel, but our lives with them. But, of course, that relies on us actually welcoming them. So the sermon reminded me of some things.
God of our Sojourning
"Thus has the LORD of hosts said, 'Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.'
Zechariah 7:9-10 (NASB)
In Deuteronomy, God repeatedly makes the case that part of the reason Israel should remember to care for the sojourner among them is that they were, themselves, sojourners in Egypt. It's worth noting that, during this address, Moses isn't speaking to people who were adults in Egypt; this is after the forty years of wandering, when the generation that came from Egypt had died out. This is not a command given to the generation that remembers Egypt. Israel as a body was a sojourner, and is told here that it must never forget that fact.
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God's] OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
There are two grounds on which this argument stands. The first is that, while we are not under the Mosaic law as a people redeemed by grace, the ordinances given to Israel nevertheless point to some understanding of who God is and what His people should look like and we can learn from that; in this particular case, we need not conceptualize the lesson being given, as we may with laws like those banning mixed fabrics, since the reminder to care for the foreigner is given an explanation already.
The second is the nature of that explanation, and the fact that it has not changed. That the heart of God goes out to the foreigner remains equally true as long as God's heart remains the same, and we know that He does not change. And His call to remember the days of sojourning are true for Christians who sojourn in a fallen world just as much as it was true of Israelites who sojourned in Egypt.
How can we be the people of God if we will not act how God calls us to act, and love how He has loved us?
Of the first, it should be noted that our government is not actually set up to operate that way. Whether or not the apostles would have been at the borders of the Roman Empire welcoming travelers is hardly relevant when their relationship to government was fundamentally different from ours. The simplest way to put it is this: in a governmental system designed to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, what we task the government with doing is something we are doing. This also comes up in matters of social welfare, the claim that we are called to support the widow and the orphan and help the poor, sure, but we are never called to empower a government to take our money and have them do the supporting.* But this creates a division where one does not exist. When we vote for or against a program or a candidate, we are telling the government how we want it to operate on our behalf. We are directing it to function as our arms in carrying out large-scale operations beyond the scope of what we can do individually. It is no different from giving money and input to our church, or our denomination, about things we want to see happen.
As such, there is no division. If we are going to show God's love to the sojourner among us, we have a direct responsibility to support programs that allow sojourners to exist among us. Our attempts to support programs that restrict or remove sojourners from our midst are nothing less than an act of rebellion to the mission of our God.
The second is personal/national safety and, while literally all available data shows that there is no considerable threat from allowing refugees (or immigrants in general) in, the main focus for us as Christians is that our nation ultimately doesn't matter and our lives are already lost. We owe our nation no more allegiance than we owe Kazakhstan, because, as stated above, this is not our home. We have certain obligations to respect the authority that we live under, but that does not mean we give that authority more power and worth than it deserves. Nor will it be eternal. America will fall someday, whether to mortal forces or to the coming Kingdom of our Lord. What, exactly, are we preserving? And is preserving it more important than obedience to God?
As for personal safety, this is never guaranteed to us. We walk the path of martyrs. It is better for a terrorist to walk into a church and be greeted with the gospel than to allow him to continue in ignorance of the offer of salvation, even if he destroys that church and everyone in it. It is better to lose our lives by opening our doors to the unsaved than to live a long life and stand before God having never carried out His commands because we were more afraid of man than of Him.
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28 (NASB)
To this end, I have watched for a couple decades as white churches have made strides toward integration. These were mostly had through visible invitation to community; singing the occasional worship song in Spanish or Afrikaans to show unity with Christians abroad, making a point of inviting people from other ethnic backgrounds to become members, having major denominations make apologies for former racist practices and beliefs and expressing interest in moving forward together. Some of it was just different styles of church that non-whites were interested in trying out. It seemed to be working. Formerly all-white churches across the country had more ethnic diversity in their seats, and that was that.
Then, a few years ago, it fell apart.
Social Justice in the Church
So they left. Because what had become apparent was that they were never anything more than guests. What so many white evangelical churches had done was welcome people in who didn't look like them, but then kind of expected those people to start looking like them. White churches continued to have white leadership that talked about the desire for reconciliation but did not ask what it was that had kept people away to begin with. There were no changes to the culture of those churches, no involvement of new ideas about practical issues secondary to the gospel. Sermons would look at abortion debates and rail on and on about the value of life and the need to protect it at all costs and then turn away any discussion on black youth laying dead in the street because they felt racial discussion was divisive; or worse, they would condemn the dead and pray for protection of the shooter from the trials they faced for killing someone. I've known some who have left the faith, or at least the church, entirely; but many simply walked away from a place they came to understand they never really belonged anyway and went looking for the places that had always looked like them.
Recently, a group called Founders Ministries released the trailer to a new documentary called By What Standard? which boasted input from a wealth of Southern Baptist leaders and theologians. The description the documentary offers for itself is that it is attempting to reveal and counter views seeping into the church that threaten to water down the gospel. While the documentary has not been released, so no one outside of the production team really know what it will say, the trailer focuses on those who have criticized how the church has handled issues like racial turmoil and sexual assault.
There are two things about which everyone involved, even the leaders being presented as attacking the church, seem to agree on. One is that the existing attempts at racial integration have not worked and probably can never work; the debate is about why it didn't work and what to do about it. The second is that there is nothing that should be allowed to take the place of the gospel at the heart of the church; the difference is whether or not other things have any place in the church.
You see, when someone comes along and says that we need to seek input from the people who feel hurt by the church, to find out how the church hurt them and if it can do anything to fix that, they are not necessarily saying that the church should then use that input as the fundamental basis for their activities. They can, of course, there are cases of that happening; but most often what is actually being suggested is that we learn how to apply the gospel in a way that more accurately shows the love of Christ and our unity in Him to the people around us. It is not a compromise of the gospel to ask how different people are hearing the gospel and what we can do to help them better understand it in their own lives.
It is true that we should not allow anything into our churches that contradicts the Bible. I would argue it is just as true that we should not allow ourselves to reject things that work alongside the Bible simply because they weren't born in the church. Social justice is not evil; it can become an idol, but so can everything else. I daresay our idea of a perfect church can be just as much of an idol. The desire to preserve the culture of the church, a culture that so often looks far more American than Christian, is not less of an incursion than allowing work to be done about real issues people in the community are facing.
And this is why racial integration didn't work. It's also why so many victims of abuse have left. It wasn't because the black people or the assault victims in the congregation demanded too much, it was because none of their requests or desires were considered important enough to try. We had decided that the culture of the church needed to look how we had designed it and then called any concern or idea that came from outside the white male experience as being a distraction. And any distraction was labeled an attempt to subvert the good work of the church, a "godless ideology." The white church was white to the core and made the mistake of thinking that anything black came from outside the church and had to be guarded against. We sought to bring them in so we could see they were there but never gave them the means to make it their home as well. The abused cried out for us to help them, to show the compassion of Christ on them and condemn the work of their abusers for their violence, and we told them they mattered and were important but refused to behave in any way that would show this to be true.
And now that they're leaving, we're bickering over whether or not it would be Christian of us to set our ideal experience aside and allow the changes that would make us look like the first century church we were trying to emulate in the first place. We told them their presence mattered but never allowed them to feel as though they mattered as people, let alone as siblings in Christ, as equal participants in a church that can cross cultural divides. We opened windows in our cultural walls and then cried foul when people on the other side pointed out that the wall was still there. We silenced people who had something uncomfortable to say and then condemned them for feeling invisible and unwanted around us.
It is true that we must not let the gospel, or the Bible that delivers that gospel, to be dethroned from the core of who we are. It is also true that in our treatment of people who have come to us asking for action regarding pain in their lives, we have been wrong. And we have people now standing up and calling us to repentance for our arrogance and dismissal of people who we invited in and then hurt. And if we will not at least be humble enough to ask if we were anything less than perfect, to even briefly consider the possibility that we are failing to live out the call God has placed on us, then we cannot expect God to have much patience with us.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Gods At War
Gospel Of John
Gospel Of Matthew
Small Town Summits
Stanley E Porter
The Good Place
Who Is Jesus