Thursday, June 15, 2023

Good for them

The James P. Joyce Library, where I spent many long hours
The Southern Baptist Convention, my old stomping grounds, has voted to expel two churches that went ahead and hired women pastors

OK, here's the thing. I'm Catholic, so the last thing Catholics can do is complain about this.  Orthodox as well.  In fact, most traditional Christian traditions (and other faiths in general) still draw distinct lines between various clerical roles and the sexes.  Still believing, at least on paper, that gender differences mean something.  Most reject the modern notion that there is no difference between men and women, except for when there clearly are differences or when gender doesn't even exist - depending on the ideological needs at the moment. 

Why the SBC was a lighting rod for what was common elsewhere likely had to do with its rather open and zealous fight against liberal incursions through the 70s and 80s and into the 90s.  Contrary to media stereotypes, all evangelicals are not alike.  Nor were Southern Baptists.  In any church I attended, you could bet the stats would be about the same as most polls indicate.  That is, about 1/3 of those in the church would be democrats.  Not necessarily liberal.  But prepared to defend the Blue as much as conservatives would defend the Red.  Republicans and vague independents made up the rest.  

That included the emerging liberation theologies and liberalizing of the Faith that hit high speed in the 20th Century.  When I came to seminary in 1993, we had plenty of left to far left professors - most Southern Baptist by identity.  Many would eventually leave, or join the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (essentially Southern Baptist for liberals).  They tended to hold liberal views on everything from the historicity of the Christian faith to a variety of issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, socialism, ecumenism, feminism, racism and the positive or negative assessment of the greater impact of the Christian West.  That included the positive or negative assessment of the United States.  Hence there were plenty of fireworks within the denomination for the national press to investigate and take sides. 

Things came to a head when Dr. Al Mohler came on board as president. A young Calvinist sprout in his early 30s, he set about with the winnowing fork, separating the conservative wheat from the liberal chaff.  He often went too far, IMHO.  And sometimes those conservatives who bemoaned just how intolerant and unfair liberal administrations were to conservatives, had no problem turning on a dime and doing the same thing to the liberals of the day.  A big lesson I learned about consistent ethics.  If you say something is wrong when you don't have power, then don't do it when you do have power. 

In any event, while this was happening, it seemed the SBC was in every news story out there.  Each year something happened, the SBC met, and the news media pounced.  I recall in the late 1990s when the SBC said it would put a special initiative on reaching out and evangelizing the Jewish community.  Whew.  Hard to believe people that late still thought Jewish individuals had need of Jesus. Talk about your media firestorms.  But that was par for the course in those days.  As it still appears to be. 

FWIW, one of the churches in question is Rick Warren's famous Saddleback Church.  I have a soft spot for Rev. Warren.  It was his book The Purpose Driven Church (published before The Purpose Driven Life) that helped me become Catholic.  It was not the only reason of course.  And it wasn't really the book itself.  It was the reaction among so many of my colleagues.

Again, during the 80s and 90s the 'Battle for the Bible' was in full swing.  The conservative coalition to stop the madness of the Left was digging in. There were a variety of issues that became non-negotiables.  Issues that we were told to die on the hill to resist.  For Sothern Baptists, this included some theological issues as well.  For instance, against my preferences, various state conventions began insisting that anyone joining our church must be baptized again, no matter how they were baptized before.  I fought that losing battle for years.  But it was one of many battles the denomination was prepared to wage.

Until The Purpose Driven Church.  Rick Warren came out of nowhere with a megachurch that defied even Willow Creek standards.  And he wrote this 'how to book' for all church leaders to know how to do it, too.  It was simple.  Follow a set of basic strategies and procedures that smelled and awful lot like what you would do if you worked on Wall Street or Madison Avenue.  Theology was irrelevant.  Liturgy was irrelevant.  Doctrine was irrelevant.  You follow these steps and you, too, can have a storefront church that ends up with thousands of people hanging out of the windows.  What your actual church is doesn't matter. 

Almost overnight, I saw my colleagues immediately begin shifting their focuses.  Suddenly baptism or church liturgy or even some social issues had a place in the discussion, but do we really need to make those the deal breakers? Come on.  We have the blueprint for the next megachurch after all.  That was when I told a ministry conference I spoke at that too many of us judged a pastor by the size of his gymnasium, and that needed to stop.

Needless to say, my opinion and four bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  The same then as now.  Nonetheless, it's nice to see that the SBC, amidst withering attacks by the press, the World, and former luminaries like Russ and Beth Moore (no relations), decided to take a stand.  You might disagree with how they did it (though be careful of your own traditions here).  But you have to admit, religious leaders and institutions with the moxie to withstand the worldly juggernaut are in short supply today. I say applause is in order, no matter my thoughts about the details. 


  1. (Tom New Poster)
    You may be familiar with the book (@1974) "Why the Conservative Churches are Growing", by an admitted liberal minister whose name I cannot recall. Studying contemporary American Protestant communities, he concluded that growing churches had the following traits:
    1. A defined doctrine that drove policies of worship, teaching, hiring and (yes) firing of personnel.
    2. Use of the "power of the gate" to encourage those whose did not accept said principles to leave.
    3. Control of their property and programs based on said principles, without influence or control allowed to outsiders or external politics.
    He conclusion was that liberal Protestants should do likewise; the irony being that he could not see that they never would.

    1. I think that is true today. Ross Douthat wrote years ago that at least monotheistic faiths of the West that attempt to compromise with the secular Left invariably die. You can't combine the two, and those liberal approaches end up being nothing more than the world without the ability to sleep in on Sundays. Plus, as a former agnostic I can attest to this, most who are earnestly seeking something beyond the world instinctively know (and want) their final religious choice to be different than the world they left. They don't want a faith that changes with the winds. If they did, they'd remain unbelievers in a secular world.


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