Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Richard Land and the importance of ethics

This Friday, June 1, a committee of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission will issue a report on its investigation into remarks by President Richard Land regarding the Trayvon Martin shooting, as well as allegations that Land has carried on a pattern of plagiarism.

In an article that appeared in the Nashville Tenneseean a few days ago, Fred Luter - who is expected to be elected president of the SBC next month - is quoted as saying of the possibility that Land will be fired, "I don’t think you should throw out a lifetime of doing good because of one mistake."

I agree.

I agree, that is, with the principle as stated. But I disagree with the premise that what is being investigated was merely a "mistake." I also disagree with the premise that this was Land's only "mistake."

Ever since Land took over as head of the Commission 24 years ago, this body has continually trampled Baptist principles underfoot. What had previously been called the Christian Life Commission was renamed - in what proved to be a tragic irony - the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Yet SBC leadership disposed of the Christian ethics departments in their seminaries and made the ERLC a handmaiden of a political wing espousing a narrow and twisted view of religious liberty that promoted use of the public coffers to support a few favored faiths while denying the religious freedom of others.

Now Richard Land stands accused of personal ethical lapses.

That's what happens when Christian leaders seek power for power's sake while denigrating the importance of ethics.

After gaining power in the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1980s, leaders began dismantling the ethics departments in their seminaries. The names of T. B. Maston and Henlee Barnette, and those of their disciples, were spat upon and derided.

Why? Because Christian ethics stand in the way of power. Maston and Barnette followed the Christ who challenged the religious and political leaders of his day, the Christ who stood with the weak and powerless against their oppressors.

For those who sought and gained power in the SBC, Christian ethics were a threat, just as they were to the power-hungry in Jesus' day.

So this is where we wind up - with an Orwellian-named "Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission" that works relentlessly to undermine both ethics AND religious liberty. And with an ERLC leader whose many lapses are finally becoming inconvenient themselves even for the SBC. Seems to me, though, that the commissioners' concerns are too little, too late.

But it is not too late for future generations. With that in mind, it is essential that Baptists ramp-up our emphasis on Christian ethics in our seminaries and colleges. That should include strong support for the proposed Foy Valentine Chair of Christian Ethics at Truett Seminary on the Baylor campus, in memory of the man who for many years led the former Christian Life Commission to focus on the real ethical mandates of Christ. When we go back to graduating pastors and other leaders who are grounded in Christian ethics, our churches and institutions will reflect it, and so will our attitudes and actions.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"Heresy" along the journey to truth and faith

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of having lunch with four students from four different Texas Baptist universities. I asked them about their courses of study and their plans for using their degrees after college. To a person, their long-range plans involved ministry to those in need.

Then I shared with them my concern about the number of young people today who are leaving the church, and asked them what they think church leaders need to do to show young people that the church is relevant to their lives.

The dominant answer seemed to be that young people want to be given the opportunity to make a real difference in people's lives. But they also want us to listen to them and acknowledge that they might have some fresh ideas and thoughts that could make a positive difference in the ministries of the church.

And it's not only that. They also want the freedom to search the scriptures and wrestle with their meaning. One young man in particular said something that intrigued me:
"We want to be able to say things that might sound like heresy."
Okay, that in itself sounded pretty heretical, didn't it? But let's not overreact. Let's listen to what he was really saying. He wants the freedom to make his faith his own rather than his parents' or his preacher's.

Over 40 years ago, I entered college with a lot of dogma in my head. It wasn't until that dogma was knocked loose that I was free to find my way to a faith that was my own. Yet, when I declared my independence of that dogma, a "friend" (or so I had thought, before then) in the dorm replied, "well, the devil sure got hold of you," and turned around and walked away. To the best of my memory, we never spoke to each other again.

What I did next was very Baptist - I went searching, for several years, for truth; truth, that is, that I could confidently accept as such. I finally wound up with a faith that was stronger than dogma, because it was a living faith and a real relationship with the living Christ. But I got there only because there were people in my life who - rather than shame me, as my onetime "friend" tried to do - gave me the freedom to find my own way. They encouraged me and they listened to me. So the journey continues today and, for those 40+ years since, there have continued to be such people in my life. It's the only way I've been able to learn and to grow and to serve.

We need to listen better and to encourage better. We need to give each other the freedom to "say things that might sound like heresy." When that young student said that to me a few weeks ago, my first thought was, "that's very Baptist!"

After all, Baptist pioneer Thomas Helwys died in prison because King James considered him a heretic. Colonial Baptist preacher John Leland spent time in jail because the authorities accused him of preaching heresy. Southern Baptist pastors in the 1940s and 1950s branded T. B. Maston a heretic for teaching that segregation was neither biblical nor Christian.

Whether young or old, we need to listen to each other. We might learn a few things. By listening to others with an open mind, we might discover that God is trying to teach us something, open our minds up to a new truth . . . or, at least, a truth that is new to us. By listening to each other, we help each other think through the meanings and implications of scripture. By listening and encouraging, we help each other to learn, to grow, and to serve more effectively. By sharing our own perspectives with humility rather than certitude and arrogance, we affirm that we all stand before God as flawed priests, helpless without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So maybe we need to quit throwing labels like "heresy" around so loosely, "for now we see through a glass, darkly." (1 Cor. 13:12a, KJV)