Four Days among Southern Baptists: A Lesson in Diversity
I’ve spent the last few days on a Southern Baptist site, interacting with a pastor named Chris who was asking for advice about how to pursue his campaign to pass “marriage protection” legislation yet be viewed as compassionate, and not a bigot. While there were moments when I thought I might actually be able to communicate with him, he was totally unable to engage in anything approaching an adult conversation. I was disappointed. He resorted to caricature, slogans, and buzzwords instead of engaging in a conversation that was on topic.
He said my exegesis and hermeneutic were wrong. He said he was unwilling to discuss Scripture with me because I had the wrong “view of Scripture” and an “unbiblical worldview.” My interpretation of Romans 1 and 2 were “blasphemous” because it said “homosexuality is okay.”
“To be frank I don’t want to understand that way of thinking for it is not of God.”
It’s been a while since someone has been so frustrating to interact with. I was disappointed that a pastor would be unable to have an adult, Bible-centered discussion with another Christian. It was easier for him to ”compassionately” dismiss me as a man “desperate” to use the Bible to legitimize his son’s sexual orientation, easier to launch a rant than have an actual conversation.
I was working on a reply to this Southern Baptist pastor, trying to find the words that could get him to reflect on his inability to have an adult conversation with someone with whom he differs seriously, and how that inability restricted his ministry. He didn’t seem to understand the value the Bible itself places on insight and understand. Then I thought about my blog, and about the lesson I learned almost eighteen months ago that started me blogging in the first place.
The Pastor’s Occupational Hazard
I have observed that some pastors are unable to have reasoned conversations. Some don’t know how to talk with you. I attribute this in part to an occupational hazard related to a central clerical task: declaring God’s truth from the pulpit as his chief spokesman in the church. Some congregations don’t require careful reasoning, but prefer robust exhortations, bold preaching that is emotionally rousing and leaves them feeling guilty.
Pastors like this aren’t used to being called on their outbursts too often. This habit of playing to your audience, of knowing what your congregation really gets off on, has brought North Carolina Pastor Sean Harris a degree of acclaim and notariety.
If you are puzzled and frustrated by some people’s inability to intelligently discuss certain issues like intelligent adults, part of the problem is the kind of religious talk they listen to the most: preaching. On a few occasions, I have ventured into a conservative discussion thread and someone lays into me with a vengeance. I’m sure a lot of them are just mimicking their pastors. Their pastors are unable to have an actual adult conversation, and their people are copying the only kind of religious discussion they have ever seen modeled. They only know how to only know how to issue forth pronouncements laced with buzzwords like “secular worldview,” “blasphemy,” “eisegesis,” “God’s law,” and “abomination.” Sad to say that in some places, if a man is holding an open Bible and uses these catch phrases, people know that he’s their kind of people.
Recent research suggests that analytical thinking is not conducive to the life of faith.
Go Where You’re Wanted
Two things happened a couple of months before I began this blog in November, 2010. In two different groups, one of them a fundamentalist website, it was made unmistakeably clear to me that my continued participation was not welcome. They were an emotional one-two-punch, the two rejections coming so close together.
After the website experience, I decided I was finished with venturing into the middle of “enemy camps.” That was the third such prolonged engagement engagement. Each site was different, each having its own quality of debate and variety of participants. I don’t regret my participation, but I finally decided that I needed to focus in an area where my writing would be appreciated. Instead of these continual battles, I needed to write for an audience that might appreciate what I have to share.
The last thing that made me decide not to revisit the Southern Baptist group was reading an African-American pastor’s description of our likely options in the presidential election. Of course Romney was a Mormon, but he called President Obama a “closet Muslim.” I thought to myself, “I don’t need to be here.”
A Biblical example of going where you’re wanted is Paul’s “Macedonian Vision” in Acts.
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
When Jesus sent the disciples to share the gospel, he instructed them to not force their message on people who didn’t want to hear it. Jesus’ direction is repeated in all three synoptic gospels, and says, in effect, to not waste their breath.
If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.
Generally speaking, Jesus did not want us wasting our time tilling “rocky soil.” Better to go where we are wanted, where we can make a contribution in cooperation with our companions. This is not meant to be a blanket statement. There will always be people who endeavor to reach out to unreceptive people, and their efforts, fueled by optimism and hope, should not be criticized. No one is hopeless. Nevertheless, these persistent, compassionate people should know that Jesus allowed and encouraged his friends not to exhaust themselves in such situations.
I happen to be the kind of person who wears himself out in unpromising situations. I’ve stayed far too long in churches where my giftings and convictions were unwelcome. I’ve persisted in small groups where things just never came together. Heck, I believed in Santa Clause till I was ten years old, if that tells you anything. For some, hope springs eternal.
This word could easily be more for myself than others. Groups like Lutherans Concerned and the Reconciling Ministries Network are working for inclusion and justice in their congregations and denominations, and are making progress, though it may be slow and difficult.
I was surprised and impressed at the Gay Christian Network 2009 conference by the message brought by pentecostal preacher Sister Evelyn Schave. Basically, she said that if gays and lesbians were unwelcome in their home fellowships and subject to a continually oppressive message, that they should not feel obligated to remain in those churches. For their own spiritual health, they need to find supportive fellowship.
Today I ventured back onto the Southern Baptist group to see what was going on. I was delighted to find that one of the Southern Baptist pastors posted a topic that seemed written especially for me. His question:
Are the issues of Homosexuality and Marriage really the most pressing issues facing the world today, or are they merely an excuse to address the sins of others while ignoring our own sins?
The question was definitely slanted in favor of the second option, so I replied.
Romans 1 includes twenty-six sins. The majority of them are habitually practiced by us Christians. These include: lust, fornication, idolatry, greed, envy, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, arrogance, boasting, being senseless, heartless, merciless, and ruthless. (Rom. 1:28-32) I would include outburses of rage and wrath.
As Christians, although we “know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, [we] not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
This is why Paul warns us religious folk against judging others. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
Paul says we stubbornly insist on singling out certain sins, judging them as more worthy of focus and public action than our own. We focus on sins we are not tempted by and have no insight into. “Because of [our] stubbornness and [our] unrepentant heart, [we] are storing up wrath against [ourselves] for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”
Peter said: “It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God.”
The question posed by this pastor is proof that some SBC pastors are willing to question the main currents of thought in their denomination. He is similar to the sort of conservative that Lynette Cowper discussed: “Conservatives can be reached, but only by those who respect their worldview and approach discussion with an understanding that the Bible doesn’t have to be dismissed before dialogue can begin.”
In another discussion thread, a young pastor made the following remark:
I think it is amazing that the new testament church did not have the new testament to explain the new covenant.
I took this opportunity to direct his attention to his mistaken idea of the New Testament.
Paul, the actual O.T. description of the New Covenant (or New Testament–the phrases have the identical meaning) appears in Jeremiah 31:31-33. The New Covenant differs from the Old Covenant in that the New is written on our hearts and minds, but not on stone or with pen and ink.
The New Covenant, or New Testament, is written directly on our hearts and minds.
When the early church fathers began labeling our 27 letters and gospels as “the New Testament,” they did so in complete disregard of the prophesied character of the New Covenant in Jeremiah.
The church went for roughly 300 years, THREE CENTURIES, with no official canon, and during that time experienced it’s era of greatest growth and vigor.
We were truly more healthy, vigorous, and growing without the canon and the interpretive bickering that resulted. “Wow” is right!
Jeremiah’s description of how the New Covenant differs from the Old Covenant is entirely quoted in Hebrews. That “written on the heart and mind” understanding of the New Covenant appears in II Corinthians 3.
“You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant —not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
In this discussion of Scripture I use the Bible itself to encourage the SBC pastors to see what the Bible says, or doesn’t say, about itself. As Lynette discussed, I try to not violate their worldview or their view of the Bible. I use the complexity of the Bible itself to get them to think about the book that is central to Christianity. Dan Savage does good work and understands his target audience, but I would not talk about “the bullshit in the Bible about gay people.” We all speak to different audiences and have different goals.
I have over 1800 FB friends, including a number of conservative Christians, some of whom I know personally, and others not. When one of these voiced his belief in the tradition “definition” of marriage, I got this reply from someone else. “Hey Ronald Goetz, what are you doing being friends with gay bashing trolls? I will unfriend you now because friends don’t let friends hang out with gay bashers. Cya.”
It really does take diverse approaches and attitudes for any broad-based social movement to succeed. In the anti-war movement, there were people willing to go to maximum security prisons for burning their draft cards. Others were willing to be tear-gassed and beaten by the police. There were people who walked in mass marches, while others were able to write letters or support anti-war candidates.
Diversity is everywhere, creating the same conflicts everywhere. All of us really are in this together. Disagreement is okay.
If this was interesting, you might want to check out the student-run Sexual Identity Forum at Baylor University, the Southern Baptist’s flagship school.