Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Going It Alone

Yesterday while enjoying some Labor Day relaxation, I stumbled onto what personally may have been the most eye-opening blog post I have seen as a layman.  The September 1, 2012, post titled “Should a Pastor Have Close Friends in His Church?” was written by Dave Miller at SBC Voices.  The blog caught my eye as I was expecting some kind of tongue-in-cheek piece based on the title.  I could not have been more mistaken.  Pastor Miller was quite serious when he stated:

What I discovered is that people did not want to come face to face with their pastor’s flaws. Worse, I found that whenever there was conflict, people were using those things as weapons against me – throwing back in my face that which I had admitted to (or sometimes demonstrated). And frankly, through the years some of the deepest hurts I have received have been from people I thought were my friends.

Gradually, through the years, I have pulled back a little. I have friends in the church and try to be friendly with everyone. But I do not have “soul-friends” – people with whom I share my soul. I have found it preferable to have my closest friends outside the church and to maintain a pastoral relationship with people inside the church.
I have to admit I was taken aback. It had never crossed my mind that a pastor would not want to be close to at least some people in the church.  My initial reaction was that Dave was alone in left field, but I could tell from the way the piece was written that he believed he was not.  Frankly, I was amazed that the general consensus of the pastors in the comment stream (the vast majority) was that keeping some distance between themselves and church members was the best course of action.  When I realized the number of pastors who took this as a truism, I was really stunned.

I know how from my side, I’ve always valued a close relationship with my pastor.  I’ve always wanted to support him and help him to minister and be successful any way I could.  I honestly felt hurt, misunderstood and stereotyped by this attitude in the comments, even though I don’t personally know any of these pastors.  Then I began to reflect on it.  Have I ever heard rumors about my pastor’s private information?  Yes, many times.  Have I ever seen people once close to the pastor turn on him?  Yes, many times and often for no good reason I could see. Have I frequently heard gossip, or judgments or innuendo against a pastor?  Yes, many times.  Have I always fought for him as I should?  Not always.  It's no wonder they feel the need to be guarded!

Having served in some highly visible lay positions, I have experienced my share of misunderstanding, gossip, slander and outright lies.  But there was always an end in sight and light at the end of the tunnel for me.  I also had the knowledge that if things got too bad, I could just walk away from the controversy (though I never did).  I couldn’t help but engage some of the pastors in the comment stream of this blog post out of a genuine desire to understand and to try to give a different perspective.  I stated:

I have witnessed the pain and trouble resulting from pastors trusting laymen, staff, or essentially anyone else in the church. Something “juicy” about a pastor seems to be almost impossible to hold in. Inside knowledge of the pastor is the “significance currency” of the church. My observation is that for many, if you are “in the know” you believe your importance in the church goes up. I’ve seen the unrealistic expectations and nit-pickiness of the congregation. I hear the grumbling and griping about this and that, and the constant criticism about the way things are handled.
So, I get it. I’ve even experienced some of it as a layman myself. But I would like to say this: there are people in the church you can trust – they just may not be the ones pounding your cell phone with texts to meet for lunch or breakfast. They may not be the ones begging you to go to dinner, or to take you to lower arena tickets at the game or to let you use their lake house. My advice to any pastor, particularly at a new church, is to be cautious with those who press hard and who press quickly. You experienced pastors already know that.
But I also want to emphasize, there are members in your church who don’t expect perfection, who love the Lord, who pray for you, who defend you and who will extend tons more grace than you may think. They are just not the ones clamoring for your attention, even though they desire to know you. They are focused on God. If you will allow these people in, you might just be surprised at what an encouragement, and at what true friends they can be to you. You won’t find them at the front of the line to get your attention. It’s always going to be risky to be vulnerable, and that’s true for anyone. I posit that the rewards are worth the risks of cautiously letting people in. It seems to me (and I think I hear you pastors saying this) that is really difficult to go it alone. It also points out to me how I need to be even more vigilant to make sure you know when I support you.
While my comments created some interesting dialogue, I don’t think I changed any minds.  The general pastor’s feeling seems to be that the risks outweigh the rewards when it comes to getting too close to church members.  The sad fact is that these pastors may be right.  This realization concerns me greatly, and it also explains a great deal.  It explains why there so often has seemed a wall, a divide, between me and my pastor and staff that is hard to breach.  I want to be there to help them.  I want to know them.  Yet they always seemed somewhat aloof for reasons I could never understand.  Now I think I at least understand a little more than I did.

This leaves me puzzled as to what to do.  My last comment on the blog included the following:

This has been an “aha” day for me. I never before comprehended that it was common pastoral wisdom in general (based on how I’m interpreting this thread) to keep church members at a distance in at least some sense. I’m not judging it – I even think I kind of understand it – but I had never before realized it. My mind has been spinning on it all day. It makes so many things make more sense to me now.
Pastors, how can we break down this wall? There are always going to be folks you can’t trust and who may attack you, but there will also always be something missing between you and the genuine believers in your church if they don’t know you. When they don’t really know you, they won’t go fully to bat for you.
It’s a catch 22 – you don’t know who you can trust so you keep people at arm’s length. People at arm’s length can’t quite put their finger on what the issue is, but know they’re missing something. An invisible, but real, barrier exists and when the time of trouble comes, you don’t find anyone fully in your corner. You move on, convinced that you should never again trust a church member. Church members view the next pastor with suspicion assuming he’s got something to hide too.
I’ve witnessed and experienced this since I was a child (and that’s been a few years). The cycle continues. How do we break it?
The question remains.  How do we break down this wall?  It seems to me that believers are not supposed to live this way.  I’m really pondering this one.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Daffy Duck and Total Depravity

While responding in a recent comment stream to an article in SBC Today, one commenter ("T.R.") suggested that a blog written by Chris Roberts regarding total depravity was so convincing (http://www.seektheholy.com/2012/06/08/why-god-must-first-change-the-heart/) that there was no argument available in response.  The very first point of the blog in question was that Genesis 6:5 and the story of Noah shows that men’s hearts are totally depraved.  Roberts used Hebrews 11:7 to show that Noah was one of the elect and he further used Ephesians 2:8-9 to show how Noah could only have been elect by God’s gift of faith.

Genesis 6:5 (ESV)
5  The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 
Hebrews 11:7 (ESV)
7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. 
Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

In what follows, I reproduce my response (with a few edits for clarity as a stand-alone piece) to the challenge to respond to Roberts' blog post linked above:

T.R.  I did read Chris’ post.  It’s well-written and a clear articulation of the Calvinist view.  It’s biblical and thoughtful.  And for me, it is uncompelling.  There’s far too much in his post to respond to in a single blog comment.  But just to assure other readers who may still be forming their views that there are answers to each point, I will respond to the first regarding Noah.  I say this because I do not expect to change your view T.R. or Chris’ view, and I do not expect you to change mine.  I didn’t form my beliefs overnight, and I suspect you didn’t either. 
The righteousness of Noah completely destroys the argument Chris is making.  Hebrews 11:7, which he quotes, clearly says that Noah was considered righteous, because he believed God.  There is not one hint here about particular election or monergistic regeneration.   Chris jumps to Ephesians 2:8-9 to prove his point, but certainly he knows that his interpretation will be hotly contested and rejected as a proof text for his order of salvation.  As that great theologian Daffy Duck said (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6e1hZGDaqIw ), what we have here is ”Pronoun Trouble”.   I’m no Greek scholar, but those who are tell me the Greek of Ephesians 2:8-9 does not demand that faith is the gift of God (rather than salvation).  I don’t believe there are many people who arrive at the Calvinist interpretation (that faith is the gift rather than salvation) without being influenced beforehand to see it.  At best for the Calvinist view, Ephesians 2:8-9 is neutral on the order of salvation.
Note a following verse regarding  Noah, Genesis 7:1, where God says that he has “found” or “seen” (from the Hebrew ra‘ah – to see)  Noah to be righteous.  Why didn’t he say he made Noah righteous?  Am I saying that Noah was righteous because of his actions?  No.  As the verse Chris referenced (Hebrews 11:7) clearly points out, he was righteous because he believed God.  Ultimately, it is the same for us.  We believe what God tells us about ourselves, that we are sinners.  That we can’t live up to God’s standards.  That we can’t save ourselves.  That only Jesus can.  We turn from our sin, believe in Christ, and God counts us righteous.
Chris’ strongest proof for Total Depravity in this section is Genesis 6:5 – that every intention and inclination of the heart was evil, yet that verse still leaves us lacking.  For the sake of argument, let’s grant that this expression was intended to be literal and not a figurative statement about the general state of man.  Let’s further grant that if every thought is wrong, every action is wrong as well.  Where does it follow that because man’s heart has become totally depraved it must necessarily be this way?  Is not the whole point of the passage to show that though God started man out in perfection, not only did man sin, but he sinned more and more to the point that he was totally consumed by sin.  Every child who reads Genesis gets this.  Even the Calvinist friendly ESV titles this section of Chapter 6 as “Increasing Corruption on Earth”.  That’s quite a statement from a Reformed-leaning translation.  If man increased in sin, then he wasn’t totally depraved from the fall.  You can’t get more depraved if you already totally depraved!
If man sinned more and more, there must have been a state in which he sinned less.  The story of Cain and Abel points that out.  Abel made the right choice.   God accepted his offering.  Cain did not.  God showed him his sin and encouraged him to forsake it.  This is one of those spots where a Calvinist view of depravity requires real hermeneutical gymnastics and interpolation to support its position (also later in Chris’ work), because a plain reading of the text just doesn’t do it. 
No, far from supporting the Calvinistic view of Total Depravity, the Genesis 6 account shows something different.  It shows that there were individuals who, though still sinful, were not totally depraved (in a Calvinistic sense) as shown by the examples of Abel and Noah.  If a Calvinist here rebuts with claims that these individuals were clearly elect as shown by their actions, they have entered into a circular argument for which I have no other response.
Regarding Chris’ other points, I see more of the same.  Chris strings together many verses which do clearly speak to Universal Depravity from which he infers Total Depravity.  It seems to me Calvinism goes farther than Scripture warrants.  This is why I reject much of the teaching of Calvinism.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Is it time to Pick Luter’s Successor? (Does Anybody Have a Light?)

SBC politics are very interesting and sometimes quite disheartening to me.  I wonder who the boys in the smoke-filled-room (cigars are coming back into vogue you know) are going to put up for president post-Luter.  Does this sound premature? Cynical?  It isn’t intended to be – just observant.  In case you didn’t know it, there really is the equivalent of the smoke-filled-room in the SBC.  I don’t know if Joel Gregory’s description of early 90’s power brokers meeting in a hotel room to agree on the next pick for President still applies literally or not (it may).  Regardless, the equivalent of the smoke-filled-room happens today virtually if not physically. 

There is little doubt that SBC insiders compare notes before the annual meeting.  There is little doubt that a consensus pick for President is arrived at.  There is little doubt that directional agreements about the Convention are made beforehand.  The part that is most unclear is who gets included in the discussion.  Last year, the consensus pick was announced well ahead of time in order to head off any competition.  When, before the 2011 annual meeting was even vacated, Danny Akin tweeted his expectation of voting for Fred Luter at next week’s 2012 annual meeting, it was clear that the smoke-filled-room had already been in session.

I do not ever remember hearing a succeeding candidate announced before the term of the current year even started.  Why did this happen?  I know that a group of SBC leadership believes the SBC to be still tainted with past racism.  Changing our image is behind the SBC name change, and it also explains the timing of the announcement of Fred Luter’s candidacy last year.  Luter’s candidacy appeared to be arranged in such a way as to preclude any other name.  No viable Southern Baptist is going to run or nominate anyone else to run for fear of appearing racist.  The name change timing seems to be for similar reasons and handled in a similar way.  This year, 2012, is the year that the SBC power brokers determined to be the year we are going to shed our racist past in an overt and grand way. 

It was interesting to watch what happened politically when Richard Land made his unfortunate (and wrong-headed) remarks.  Every SBC insider spewed their coffee through their noses when they heard what Land said.  Talk about a way to derail the year the SBC ends its racism!  Land got pressure from every quarter until he had sufficiently repented.  I have no doubt that Land’s ERLC job was hanging in the balance (not just his radio show) as the plan from the smoke-filled-room was at risk of coming apart.  In fact, I expect to hear any day of Land’s retirement and replacement with another “insider”.  Never mind the fact that Land was an insider himself up until his ill-conceived comments.  I bet he will have plenty of space at his lunch table in New Orleans next week.

Why am I talking about all this?  Do I want the SBC to hang on to its racist past?  Am I a closet racist?  Absolutely not!  There’s no denying that the genesis of the SBC could have been under better circumstances.  I want the SBC to do whatever is necessary to demonstrate Christ’s love to the world regardless of race – just as Christ does.  Does changing our name help that?  I don’t know.  I never heard people associate “racist” with the SBC until the SBC started talking about it.  If it does help, then I’m all for a name change, but I remain unconvinced. 

What about the presidency of Fred Luter?  Will that fix our image?  It will certainly help.  I didn’t know much about him until his name was tweeted as the presumptive candidate last year.  He seems to be a very well respected, well qualified and Godly man.  He’s got great pastoral credentials and he’s been very active in SBC life for a long time.  He seems to be a steady and thoughtful pastor.  I’ll be honored to have him as our next SBC President based on what I know – which isn’t really that much.

So if I don’t necessarily have any real issue with the actions themselves, what is my issue?  My issue is with the way these things are done; the smoke-filled-room itself whether virtual or real in space.  I do not like it.  I do not like a self-selected group of people assuming they know what is best and working behind the scenes to orchestrate an outcome.  I do not like power-brokering, good-ole-boy networks and having an “inside crowd”.  If you’ve got an agenda, say so, and then let the Convention decide what to do with it.  Let opposition speak.  Manipulation is not leadership.  I want to see our Convention trust the body of Christ to do the right thing –  to trust that God will speak through it.  I want to see our leaders step forward and make their case to persuade.  Then I want them to step back and listen to the response.  I want them to accept what the messengers decide.  I don’t like stealth agendas.

Does this quiet cartel of power exist anywhere except my mind?  I am convinced it does exist, and not just in my imagination, but I suspect it could be about to fracture.  The new wild-card is going to be what happens between the “Traditionalists” and the Calvinists.   I know there won’t be a new pick for the 2013 President announced next week since it will be assumed that Luter serves his maximum two years – that’s normal.  It’s the year after that I want to watch.  Who will the candidate be?  In the smoke-filled-room, names put forth by either side may now be contentious.  The problem as I see it is that any serious candidate will come from one of the warring tribes, and the other tribe may not be easy to persuade.

Regardless of the factions, I want to see agendas come out into the open.  Light truly is the best disinfectant.  If you can’t be up-front about what you are doing, there may be something wrong with your plan.  If your positions can’t stand the scrutiny of the whole group, then you may want to reconsider them.  Maybe we need to get back to something like 2006 when for the only time since the conservative resurgence, the messengers rejected the insider, spanked the power-brokers, and chose Frank Page.  I think that worked out just fine, as well as sending a clear message to the occupants of the smoke-filled-room:  “Open the windows and let the smoke clear!”

Will a candidate from the smoke-filled-room for 2014 President be announced at next year’s convention?  I don’t think so, but time will tell.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Dead Man Walking

The soteriology wars are heating up as Southern Baptists react to the document released May 31 titled: “A Statement of the TraditionalSouthern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”.  It’s been interesting to watch the back and forth.  It was one of these discussions that prompted this post.  One commenter on a blog asked an honest and insightful question of Calvinists:  Is there one lynch-pin that you see for your soteriology that is critical and upon which the system would fall if it were removed?  There were various answers, but I think there is at least one lynch-pin to Calvinism that I want to talk about in this post.

I believe the understanding of exactly how the word "dead" is to be interpreted in Scripture is a core concept in Calvinism.  How you understand particularly Paul’s usage of “dead” impacts your view of sin and atonement.  How many times have I heard a Calvinist brother say to me, "Paul tells us we are completely, spiritually dead.  Dead men don't give themselves life!  Dead men don't do anything!"  What did Paul mean in Ephesians 2:1 when he said, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world…”?  I believe there is a risk in Calvinistic interpretation to dive right in to understanding certain words – like “dead” – in light of their systematic theology rather than stepping back and seriously looking at the context.

How much can really be said about what Paul intended about being dead in Ephesians 2?  What did Paul mean?  Who was he writing to and what was he trying to say?  He was writing to Ephesians, gentiles most of whom had come from a pagan background.  But these gentile believers were also influenced by the Jewish converts around them.  That was the occasion of his writing.  In Chapter 1, Paul is explaining to them that it is no accident that God is accepting gentiles – on the contrary, it was a part of God’s plan from the beginning of the world!

Paul continues on in Chapter 2 to give them more understanding of how and why they have been saved.   I find it interesting that he said “…And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world.”  How could they be dead while they walked (translated "lived" in some versions)?  I believe, as in other places, he’s using death to speak metaphorically to describe the effects of their sin and transgressions on their life. 

What can be said confidently about this verse?  Only that Paul is drawing a sharp distinction between the condition of being a believer as opposed to being separated from God.  He’s saying that before they were in Christ, they did not have real life.  What did that entail?  Paul does not tell us.  We get no details of what he means by the use of “dead” in 2:1.  From this point, each of us has to build our Biblical case for what Paul meant.  Paul does tell us that we are raised up with Christ and he talks about being saved - implying that while we are still dead in trespasses and sins we are lost.  That's obvious enough, but I see no hint of the Calvinist idea of total depravity. The Calvinist fits this verse within his system and states that there was no God-given spark, no ability to sense God’s drawing, no spiritual capacity whatsoever prior to regeneration.  The Calvinist excludes metaphor altogether here, and appears to fit the verse to a systematic theology.

Why?  Why do Calvinists ascribe elements of “death” to this verse that Paul never delineates?  Why do they not do the same in Romans 6:2 where Paul tells us we are dead to sin?  Why not use the same characteristics?  These would necessarily include the inability to respond to sin, a life of sinless perfection to be consistent with a Calvinist view of death as used in Ephesians – why isn’t this interpretation correct?  Maybe because it is clear that Paul uses death as a metaphor there to show a truth.  Why cannot Calvinists even fathom that death as a metaphor may apply in Ephesians 2?   It appears that it’s because metaphor doesn’t fit the system.  If Total Depravity means not one molecule of our being has any goodness remaining due to the fall, then “dead” must mean complete lack of any spiritual content whatsoever.  It’s proscribed, not derived.  I know, I know – the Calvinist will flip to Romans 5 and show me we are all born guilty because of Adam’s sin. 

But is that what Romans 5 says?  Not when I read it.  All I can say for certain is that sin entered the world with Adam and the result is that we all now participate in it.  That’s all the Scripture says.  Doesn’t say I’m born guilty.  Doesn’t say every thought, action and motive is wholly, completely depraved.  All this passage tells us without question is that we are all sinners, we are all guilty, and it all started with Adam.  In fact, if you are going to take these verses in a Calvinistic understanding of total depravity, you’ll have to wind up as a Universalist!  That should make some Calvinist heads explode about now! 

In Romans 5:15, Paul says “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”  To be consistent, if “many died” here means every single human being is automatically guilty of Adam’s sin by lineage (not by action), then why wouldn’t “abounded for many” in the latter part of the verse mean every human being as well?  There is no basis to make a distinction here defining “many” as “all” in the first part of the verse and as “some” in the latter.  In context, it seems clear to me that we are on shaky ground when we go beyond three things in these verses:

1) Adam brought sin into the world,
2) We are all guilty of it and
3) Christ has paid for it! 

I see clear unlimited atonement here – Paul is making the case for sufficiency of Christ’s death in these verses.  Anything more is extrapolation.

So what does Paul mean when he says we are “dead” in our sins and trespasses without Christ?  What we can say with confidence is that we are like the proverbial death row inmates.  We are “dead men walking” in that though we are alive, a certain fate awaits us if we don’t find someone to pardon us.  Paul is telling us we are ultimately dead without Christ.  If the Calvinist interpretation of what Paul means by "dead" falls, then their concept of total depravity falls.  If total depravity falls, then the whole system falls.  Is the Calvinist wrong?  Only God knows, but I would certainly hold those views tentatively in light of what Scripture actually says.  There are too many blanks that have been filled in by the "system" from my standpoint.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Calvinist or Not - Could You Possibly Be Wrong?

Over the last five days since SBC Today released “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”, I believe we have witnessed a watershed moment in Southern Baptist Life.  As soon as I saw Tom Ascol’s attempt at a pre-emptive framing of the statement, I knew this was going to be big.  From the literally thousands of responses, it is obvious we have a big divide not just in how we view soteriology within the SBC, but also how we view those who don’t share our soteriology.  The reactions and counter-reactions have been swift, strong, and often vitriolic.  Sarcasm, straw-men and contempt have been the currency of the realm in much of this discussion.  I’ve been trying like everyone else to understand why.

On one blog written by David Miller at SBC Voices, he asked the question:  What do “Traditionalists” (as they have started calling themselves) want from Calvinists?  While I am not ready to call myself a “Traditionalist”, I am close enough that I felt I could answer that question.  I stated in a comment:

This is easy for me. After 20+ years of searching, studying, seriously considering, teaching and interacting directly with many, many people on this topic, I’d only like to see one thing. I’d like to see the general, normal response of Calvinists to the “Traditionalist” view (or anything less than 5 points) to be: “I still believe the stronger case is made for Calvinism, but I see how you can be consistent and Biblical and view it that way. Maybe you’re correct.” That’s all I want. 
If that became the standard response, any issues I have are solved. If that can’t be said, then it’s hard to cooperate.
I didn't give a lot of explanation as I thought the comment spoke for itself.  I've thought about it some more as I've seen the explosion of opinion and controversy on this.  I can genuinely reverse the statement above for my position - I really don't think Calvinism is the strongest Biblical view of soteriology, but I can see how Calvinists get there.  I don't agree, but I see they are working to be Biblical.  I think they miss the whole of Scripture, but I hear them.  I leave room to be wrong myself, but I don't see changing my views.  

Can my Calvinist brethren say the same?  Can you say that you see how I can be Biblical and not accept your view of soteriology?  Can you admit you may be biased and may be seeing things incorrectly?  I think if everyone could show some humility in their positions and a little respect for others, we might be able to get past some of the rancor.

Is it possible?  I don't know.  My fear after reading all these posts is that many on both sides don't even think it possible they could be wrong.  The truth is, Calvinism and "Traditionalism" are significantly different in their views of the ultimate purposes of God.  Calvinism sees every action, predestined as they are, designed in purpose to bring glory to God through his Sovereignty.  "Traditionalism" sees God's sovereign purpose as bringing human beings freely into relationship with Him.  I know, I know -- you can poke at these generalizations in a thousand different ways and show me how wrong I am, but stay with me on the point I'm trying to make:  this much difference in our views of ultimate purpose makes it difficult to admit the possibility that the other side could be right.

I call this statement a watershed moment because for the first time in my lifetime, I'm witnessing the non-Calvinist side show a significant level of organization.  I'll admit, there's a part of me that understands why.  The Calvinist side has been organized and methodically working to change minds for some time.  They've made enough progress that that the non-Calvinist side has taken notice.  In many ways, this is quite a victory for Calvinists.  In many other ways, it has led to a potential loss for us all.  I believe the organization and forming of tribes is just beginning.  This much effort snowballing this quickly into a new movement does not bode well for cooperation.

If we don't all put down our sabers soon, a battle may be inevitable.  If cooler heads don't prevail, we've got the late '80's on our hands all over again.  So Calvinist brothers, can you say it?  Can you even fathom that others could be right?  Same for you "Traditionalists" - is it possible God's sovereignty works in ways that your view of freedom can't conceive?  Better yet, can we all admit that we're probably all wrong about God's workings?    Can you or I take the high road when the other "side" takes what we think are cheap shots?  Can we follow Christ's teachings and forgive?  Can we show some humility, or should we just go our separate ways now?

If you really can't admit that the other side has a Biblically defensible and consistent view, I fear we're in big trouble.  That much dogmatism in this much Biblical ambiguity is just not warranted.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cooperative Program, NAMB and other Brain Teasers

Have you ever tried to explain to someone unfamiliar with the SBC what we are?  Why we exist?  What the Cooperative Program is?  It usually starts with something like this:
"Southern Baptists exist to cooperatively spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Cooperative Program is the giving mechanism that makes Southern Baptists distinctive.  It epitomizes why the SBC exists - to pool our resources together for the most efficient missionary mobilization and support the world has ever known."
After such a statement, a new Southern Baptist, let's call him "Newbie", asks the natural question, "How exactly does it work?"  You reply, "Uh, well, let me try to explain.  You see, churches send a percentage of their budget to their state convention to send to the Cooperative Program."  Newbie asks, "How much does a church send?"  You reply, "Well it depends.  Some churches may send 1% and others may send 10%.  Some churches may just take up a special missions offering and send whatever they collect from that.  Some do both.  Each church decides for itself.  Oh, and there's also the special Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings."  Puzzled, Newbie interrupts, "Why are we giving offerings to individuals?"  You reply, "We don't.  Stay with me.  The Lottie Moon offering goes to the International Mission Board and Annie Armstrong offering goes to the North American Mission Board."  Newbie replies, "Why don't we just say where it goes?"  You reply, "Never mind - I'll explain it later."

You continue, "Churches may also send more if individual church members designate gifts to the Cooperative Program."  Newbie asks, "Designate?  What does that mean?"  You reply, "It means that a church member wants to make sure his money goes to the Cooperative Program and not the general church budget."  "What's the Cooperative Program again?" Newbie asks. You take a deep breath, "I'm trying to explain that."  Newbie responds, "OK, sorry."  You continue, "Anyway, once the money is sent to the Cooperative Program through the state convention, the state decides how much to send to each of the SBC entities."

Newbie interrupts, "What are entities?"  You reply, "I'm getting there.  Entities are things like the IMB, NAMB and the like."  "What?" Newbie asks.  "The International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, Lifeway Resources - stuff like that," you answer.  "Oh yeah, you said something about those things already," Newbie replies.

Newbie tries to summarize, "So do the states send all the money they get from the churches to the SBC entitlements?"  "It's entities, not entitlements," you answer.  "And no, the states don't send all the money they get to them."  "Oh," Newbie answers.  "So how much do they send?"  You reply, "Um, somewhere around thirty five to forty percent is typical."  "Thirty five percent!?" Newbie repeats back in amazement. "Is that all?  What do they do with all the rest of the money?"  You answer, "Well, the states have ministries of their own that they fund and it takes a lot of money.  I'm not sure what all they do, but I know it takes a lot of money."  "OK, I didn't know that," Newbie answers, seemingly satisfied for now.

"Let's get back to the Cooperative Program," you continue.  "The entities then decide how to fund all the things they have to do."  "Like what?" asks Newbie.  "For instance, the IMB funds all the foreign missionaries that Southern Baptists send all over the world to share the gospel," you explain.  "I like that," says Newbie.  "That sounds good."  

You continue, "And they have to fund a lot of things like our six SBC seminaries."  Newbie replies, "Wow, I didn't know we had that!  So we pay for all those seminaries?"  "No, I didn't say that," you reply. "They still have to generate a lot of their own funding.  You'll hear from them soon enough concerning the amount we don't fund, so let's go on."  "OK," says Newbie. You continue, "Oh, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission."  "The what?" asks Newbie. "The ERLC with Richard Land," you say.  "I think I've heard of it.  Has it been in the news lately?" says Newbie.  You say, "Uhh, let's move on."

You continue, "Then there's the North American Mission Board, NAMB.  They send money to the state conventions to spread the gospel."  "I thought you said the state conventions kept money to do that," says Newbie.  "They do, but so does NAMB" you reply.  "NAMB decides who needs funding the most and they send money back to the states."  "Huh?" says Newbie, completely confused.  "You're telling me that the state conventions get money from the churches, keep most of it to do work in the state and then send some to NAMB.  Then NAMB sends money back to the state.  Did I get that right?"  You reply, "Well, sort of.  Look, it's all kinda complicated and you're new to the SBC.  You can't expect to understand all of this right off the bat.  You just need to trust that our leaders know what they are doing and are using the money wisely."  Newbie replies, "I sure hope they do 'cause this doesn't make a bit of sense to me.  I guess it takes a lot of complexity to have an efficient missionary force.  I didn't realize that before we talked."

Sunday, May 27, 2012

News Flash: Pastors and Laity See Things Differently!

I have some shocking news:  I have learned that staff and laity view things differently in a church.  If you’ve spent much time in any church, you’ve witnessed conflict.  Where does it come from?  What are its causes?  In James 4:1-2, he says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something, but don’t get it.”  Even when a goal is noble, how it is obtained can lead to trouble.  Let me illustrate what I’m talking about.

After spending time seeking God’s will, a pastor concludes a new vision is in order for his church.  The pastor sees a more effective way to reach people in his community while at the same time strengthening his church.  He shares this vision with his staff.   They become excited about the possibilities for a greater impact, and get on board with this new direction.  In short order, a well-done multi-media explanation is presented to the church during worship.  The video explains the new vision, as well as the significant sacrifice that will be required of the church to make it happen.  The pastor follows the video with a sermon about reaching the lost and making disciples.  When the vote is taken Wednesday night to “affirm” the endeavor, there is no dissent, but neither is there much excitement.

Two years later, giving has not increased but expenses certainly have.  Attendance is down.  The church is not meeting budget.  The impact on the community has not been realized.  Few church members volunteer to be involved, and the staff is carrying an extra load trying to make this endeavor happen.  Squabbles have broken out all over the church.  Even the staff is fighting now.  The pastor sits in his office and prays, “God, what is going on?” 

Sound familiar?  I’ll bet all you have to do is insert your particular “endeavor” and you have a story about a church that could fit this pattern.  If not, you are blessed indeed.  So what went wrong, and how do the different church players view it?

What is the pastor's view?  Maybe his assessment is that the church members just aren’t serious enough disciples -- that they don’t understand that God expects a commitment out of us.  He may believe that this church is no different than so many others and that it has grown cold, complacent, and contentious.  The pastor wonders if he should entertain that inquiry from a search committee after all. 

What is the view from the pew?  What are the church members thinking?  Undoubtedly, some of them will cringe and withdraw anytime they hear the words “sacrifice”.  Others will say, “OK, I’m good if that’s what the pastor thinks is best” knowing they will never be involved anyway.  Mature believers want to listen to the pastor, but they want more to hear from God – individually and corporately.  They know that pastors can sometimes be wrong.   Serious disciples will follow their church's leadership, but not at the expense of silence from the Spirit. 

There is a big difference between leading and just getting your way.  Leadership brings people with you.  Leadership waits when the congregation is not ready.  Leadership reassesses when mistaken.  Leadership persuades by the weight of God’s Word and through earned trust.  So, am I saying it’s always the pastor’s fault when things go wrong?  No – absolutely not.  But what I am saying is that the pastor and staff can save themselves a world of trouble by honestly dealing with people’s concerns before embarking on big endeavors.  

Church leadership is often a messy business.  There are always contentious people who will pick at any decision, but a pastor doesn't have to go it alone.  Mature believers will swat down the trouble-makers for the pastor when they see his humility and trust his heart.  My point is this:  it does a pastor no good to wrangle an approval if the people aren’t with him.  It just creates resentment and guarantees conflict down the road.  Even a pastor's supporters have a hard time defending a good thing handled the wrong way.  If God is in an endeavor, the people will get on board.  It's true for small churches and large churches alike.

What is a big decision that warrants the church’s involvement?  Where should the pastor have freedom?  How should a layman go about seeking what he wants to see in the church?  I’ll explore these questions in subsequent posts.

SBC Layman