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My Heart Is Breaking: Blogging and the SBC

I wrote an email to a friend of mine the other day stating that I was becoming a little discouraged over the attention that several SBC issues were receiving in the national media. He responded by assuring me that God was in control, and He would work things out in time. Then I read some of the various blogs that I track on a daily basis. The result is that I am no longer discouraged—my heart is now breaking.

I am certainly not an emotional person, and rarely do I get "worked up" about anything—good or bad. The current situation in the blogosphere, however, has really gotten under my skin. I read entries and comments demanding this and that from various people whom the writers do not know. I read accusations and innuendo regarding the motives of professing Christians that would make a "bar-hopping, wife-abusing, pagan ne’er-do-well" blush. I see misstatements, overstatements, understatements and everything in between that are used to push any number of agendas, perspectives, opinions, and the like.

The overall result of all this "in-house" bickering is that the name of our Lord is being slandered. Look at the media—they are eating this up. Every time a fellow believer publicly ridicules another, they jump at the opportunity to spread it across the AP newswire. The fact of the matter is that if someone looked hard enough at any of our lives, something would most certainly be found to give cause for embarrassment and/or heartache. The problem is that we have forgotten what it means to talk to each other. Posting a blog entry calling for answers or calling the local news reporter to share a "juicy tidbit" does not count as working out our problems as fellow believers. We are so focused on our own demands that we forget to "do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (Phil 2:3–4).

Is the Southern Baptist Convention perfect? No. Are Southern Baptist churches perfect? Not a chance. Are the leaders and pastors within the convention and churches perfect? No way. Am I perfect? Not hardly. Are you perfect? Perhaps closer than me, but what difference does one step up on the depravity scale really make when you see that we are both at the bottom?

Here is my solution for what is ailing the SBC and our churches, and it has nothing to do with making demands, calling motives into question, or seeking answers. This is a four-part solution:

1. Be humble—"Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time." (1 Pet 5:6)

2. Live out your imputed righteousness—"Likewise urge the young men to be sensible; in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach, so that the opponent will be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us." (Titus 2:6–8)

3. Love one another—"Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor." (Rom 12:9–10)

4. Serve one another—"For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." (Gal 5:13–15)

My heart is breaking over these issues because we are apparently unable to handle our problems as Christian brothers and sisters. Brennan Manning is quoted as saying, "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." I find it unbelievable that we would publicly humiliate one another with no concern for the cause of Christ. Blogs have certainly raised the level of information access in this world, but they should also raise the level of personal responsibility for the bloggers. When we post something, it is not simply available to our friends and family, or even our Christian family—it is available for the world. We need to remember that.

I leave you with a few more words from the Apostle Paul: "Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:1–3). Let us heed the inspired words of our Lord—He gave them to us for a reason.

Oprah on Marriage

I am currently attempting to finish notes for my upcoming class that I will be teaching at Southwestern Seminary. The class is entitled "The Christian Home" and the catalog description states that it is a "study of the biblical and theological foundations of the Christian home. Students will be equipped to apply sound moral standards in their relationships at home and to build strong families." As a result my life for the last few weeks has been consumed by all things family. Everything I have read deals with the family. All my thoughts have considered family. Even my Sunday School class has been dealing with marriage and family issues. Typically, I keep my resources on marriage and family pretty reliable; however, I found a new one today—Oprah.com. Go ahead, insert snide remark here!

Actually, while perusing CNN.com, I found an article entitled, "Questions to ask before you get married." While linked to CNN, it was attributed to Oprah.com (the author is Susan Piver, not Oprah). Reading the article caused my mind to return to the premarital counseling that my wife and I had with our pastor prior to our wedding (by the way, he required it in order to perform the wedding ceremony). Even though I would not recommend Oprah or her website as a legitimate source for marital counseling, I am encouraged by many of the questions posed in the article. Here is a sample…

Question 1: What percentage of our income are we prepared to spend to purchase and maintain our home on a monthly or annual basis?
Question 2: Who is responsible for keeping our house and yard cared for and organized? Are we different in our needs for cleanliness and organization?
Question 3: How much money do we earn together? Now? In one year? In five years? Ten? Who is responsible for which portion? Now? In one year? Five? Ten?
Question 4: What is our ultimate financial goal regarding annual income, and when do we anticipate achieving it? By what means and through what efforts?
Question 5: What are our categories of expense (rent, clothing, insurance, travel)? How much do we spend monthly, annually, in each category? How much do we want to be able to spend?
Question 6: How much time will each of us spend at work, and during what hours? Do we begin work early? Will we prefer to work into the evening?
Question 7: If one of us doesn't want to work, under what circumstances, if any, would that be okay?
Question 13: What place does the other's family play in our family life? How often do we visit or socialize together? If we have out-of-town relatives, will we ask them to visit us for extended periods? How often?
Question 14: If we have children, what kind of relationship do we hope our parents will have with their grandchildren? How much time will they spend together?
Question 15: Will we have children? If so, when? How many? How important is having children to each of us?
Question 16: How will having a child change the way we live now? Will we want to take time off from work, or work a reduced schedule? For how long? Will we need to rethink who is responsible for housekeeping?
Question 19: Do we share a religion? Do we belong to a church, synagogue, mosque or temple? More than one? If not, would our relationship benefit from such an affiliation?
Question 20: Does one of us have an individual spiritual practice? Is the practice and the time devoted to it acceptable to the other? Does each partner understand and respect the other's choices?

Now I admit that the spiritual questions toward the end get a little hokey, but at least they are being asked. Here are some questions from our premarital counseling with Pastor Bill Bowyer…

1. Have you come to the place in your spiritual life where you are certain that if you were to die today, you would go to heaven?

2. How long have you known your fiancée? On a scale of 1–20, how well would you say you know your future mate?

3. Have you been married before?

4. Why do you want to marry?

5. What do your parents feel about your relationship and this potential marriage?

6. How would you define marital love?

7. What is your opinion on divorce?

8. Are you financially prepared for the financial costs of marriage?

9. What does the statement, "Lordship of Christ" mean? How should this concept affect a marriage?

10. Are you currently building a pure relationship? (i.e., Are you living together? etc.)

11. Can you honestly say that you want God’s perfect will for your life and that this marriage fits in that will?

Those questions came during the first session as well as the following points of a premarital and marital covenant that included…

1. I will remain celibate (sexually pure) until our wedding day and from that day forward give myself only to my spouse.

2. I will never divorce my spouse.

3. I will never physically or emotionally abuse my spouse.

4. I will, unless providentially hindered, be in church worshipping with my family on the Lord’s Day.

5. I will raise any children that God gives us to love the Lord Jesus Christ and His church.

6. I will, in the event that my spouse and I have problems or disagreements that we cannot seem to resolve, seek with my spouse Bible-based Christian counseling to help us resolve our problems.

7. I will attend premarital counseling sessions with a pastor.

I believe we had a total of five sessions (I could be mistaken) with our pastor, and once those were concluded, he approved of performing our wedding ceremony. Other sessions included questions and discussions on character traits that we appreciated about each other, the biblical concept of marriage presented in Gen 2:18–25 and Eph 5:22–33, communication, financial goals and expectations, and other items related to the first few years of marriage.

The reasons that premarital counseling, and even the questions that Oprah raises, are important are abundantly obvious in our culture. Just look at the prevalence of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, adultery, etc. It is out of control, and not just in "secular" society—it is out of control in the church. Here are some statistics that I gathered for my class:

· In 2006, 9.8% of American adults were currently divorced (and not remarried) and 2.1% were separated. (US Census Bureau)

· In 2005, 5% of all American households were composed of unmarried couples of the opposite sex. (US Census Bureau)

· In 2001, 21% of all adult American men and 23.1% of all adult American women had been divorced. (US Census Bureau)

· In 2005 there were 3.6 divorces per 1,000 people in the US. Given that there were 7.5 marriages per 1,000 people, the divorce is around 48%. (US Census Bureau)

· In 2001, 13% of Protestant pastors had been divorced at least once. (The Barna Group)

· In 2001, 25% of self-identified born-again individuals had co-habited. (The Barna Group)

· In 2004, 35% of self-identified born-again individuals had been divorced, which is incidence among non-born-again individuals. (The Barna Group)

· As of 2004, 23% of married born-again individuals get divorced two or more times. (The Barna Group)

· In 2004, only one out of every seven adults (15%) strongly agreed with the statement "when a couple gets divorced without one of them having committed adultery, they are committing a sin." A similar percentage (16%) moderately agreed with the statement. The vast majority (66%) disagreed with the statement, most of them strongly dismissing the notion. (The Barna Group)

· In 2003, compared to married couples who did not cohabit before marriage, couples who cohabited before marriage were 65% more likely to separate and only one-third as likely to reconcile following a separation. (Heritage Foundation)

The statistics are sad and show that even many Christians do not take marriage and family issues seriously. We need to change our perspective and get serious about recovering the priority of marriage and family.

Playing God in the Womb

GodIn a recent article, NY Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof discussed the concept "When we play God with our own species." Kristof brings back to the forefront the ever-changing status of medical technology for genetic screening of embryos.

The opening premise of the article was a trip that Kristof took to India where he encountered Americans looking for potential surrogate mothers. The potential savings is tremendous to have an international surrogate, even if a little questionable. The money quote follows the opening context. Kristof writes, "Ultimately, that kind of surrogacy could be mixed with genetic screening of embryos—to weed out babies of the ‘wrong’ gender or with the ‘wrong’ characteristics—to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance. Yes, all this gives me the willies, too."

I for one am glad that Kristof gets the "willies" from the idea of combining surrogacy and genetic screening "to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance." I hope the rest of us get the willies at that idea as well. Kristof then presents one of the most pressing issues in ethics today as he writes, "So some of the most monumental decisions we will face in the coming years will involve where we draw the line making some genetic tinkering legal and some illegal."

At this point in the article, it looks like Kristof is quite in touch with ethical issues, especially for a newspaper columnist. My problem is that he moves from description to prescription as the article unfolds. Kristof presents one of the newest ethical challenges in the realm of the unborn as he describes preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This procedure "allows a couple to test embryos that have been created in vitro when they are roughly 3 days old. PGD is now used principally to test for serious genetic diseases, including Down syndrome and Tay-Sachs. But it could equally be used to test for milder risks." While this procedure is exclusively for in vitro embryos, similar types of tests exist for babies in utero. Such tests can also determine the gender of the baby and potentially other genetic predispositions. The end result is that some parents might "opt out" of continuing the life of the child in hopes of getting a "more suitable child" the next time.

Near the end of the article, Kristof offers his vote for the role of PGD and other genetic screening. He writes, "As for genetic screening, I would accept PGD to cull embryos at risk for medical problems. And my vote is to allow parents to use PGD to choose the sex of a child in the United States, although I would feel differently in countries like China and India where the son preference could create a huge shortage of girls. What should cross the line into illegality is fiddling with the heritable DNA of humans to make them smarter, faster or more pious—or more deaf. That is playing God with our species, and we should ban it."

I appreciate Mr. Kristof’s effort in establishing some sort of ethical standard in this controversial realm; however, I believe he has missed the mark in a few of areas. Let’s first look at the rationale used in the argument and then draw some biblical perspective into the debate. First, I get the "willies" when I read the words "I would accept PGD to cull embryos…." Wow! Are we to the point of culling humans? Merriam-Webster defines "to cull" as "to reduce or control the size of (as a herd) by removal (as by hunting) of especially weaker animals." I did not realize we had reached that point with the human race. To Kristof’s benefit, I do not believe he meant it entirely in this sense, but the other definitions of the word do not fit the context. On the other hand, he very well may have intended exactly what he said.

Second, the PGD test and others basically can only tell that the child is "at risk" of having a certain condition—they cannot confirm the existence of that condition. Thus, "well-intentioned" parents could end the life of a perfectly healthy child who only showed signs of a certain disease but did not actually have it. Again, this is a tragic situation.

Third, why is it right to end the lives of children who have certain medical conditions? Is a child with Down syndrome more likely to have medical issues and learning disabilities? Certainly. Does that mean that such children cannot live productive lives? By no means! We recently reconnected with some friends from North Carolina after having moved away 7 months ago. They have a child with Down syndrome. I only got to see him in the church setting, but my wife was able to observe him in a preschool setting during the week as well. Having not seen him in over 7 months, I fully expected him to be the same, hard-to-control but loving child I knew before we left. To my surprise, he had advanced significantly in the span of several months. He was able to feed himself without difficulty and perform simple tasks without immediate supervision. I was astounded. Even though his parents were encouraged to terminate the pregnancy upon finding out that he would probably have Down syndrome, he has proven to me that children with serious medical conditions can lead fairly normal lives. It may take extra work and a few more tears, but isn’t that what parenting is all about?!

Fourth, Kristof offers a situational approach to gender selection that is based upon regions of the world. Gender "culling" would be appropriate, in his opinion, in countries like the US where parents are typically open to having both boys and girls. However, it would be inappropriate in China and India where girls would almost always be eliminated due to the population controls already in place from those governments. Now why in the world would this be right in some parts of the world and wrong in others? I propose that Kristof sees it this way because he employs some form of consequentialist ethics in all areas. In essence he is saying that our decisions regarding right and wrong should be based on the circumstances at the time and how the consequences of that decision will play out. In this case, the consequences of gender selection in the US would be minimal (he assumes); however, the consequences of gender selection in China would be devastating to the subsequent generations because there would not be enough females to continue the Chinese population into the next generation. While this may seem reasonable on the surface, let us turn the question around. What if it were determined that a certain abnormal gene predisposed someone to be a journalist? Since we know that journalists (especially of the blogging type) do little more than stir up trouble, it is in the best interest in the US to cull out children who are predisposed to be journalists because we already have plenty to keep the profession going. However, China is lacking journalists to stand up for freedom of speech; therefore, it would be wrong to cull out those children. You say that’s ridiculous! Of course it is. But there is little more logic in Kristof’s reasoning. If we apply a consequentialist approach to ethical decision-making, then we could justify almost anything we want.

What does Scripture say about PGD, genetic screening, and gender selection? Well, not really anything. Suffice it to say that such technological advances didn’t hit the streets during the times of the prophets or apostles. Scripture does speak, however, to the issues of life and death and speaks specifically about life in the womb. In Psalm 139:14 the psalmist says, "I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well." The prophet Jeremiah records God’s proclamation, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer 1:5).And in Isaiah 49:1, the prophet states, "Listen to Me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb; from the body of my mother He named me." These passages clearly speak to God’s knowledge of the child in the womb and His handiwork in crafting them together. Thus, it is not man who forms the child, but the Father himself who does the handiwork. Who are we to play God in the womb (or in the Petri dish)?

For those who would consider following the advice of Mr. Kristof and being open to the idea of gender selection, then admonish you to consider who is the author of life. Is it man or is it God? If it is God, then let Him do His job.

*While not the point of this post, there are also issues related to in vitro fertilization that should be taken into consideration as a part of the argument. I will attempt to address those issues in a later post. Suffice it to say, we need to be grateful for technological advances in modern science and medicine; however, not all things are profitable.

Hell: It Is Real!

On July 13, ABC aired a special on their program 20/20 dealing with the subject of hell. A little over a week ago, I posted about the upcoming program and promised a review/critique of the program in a forthcoming post. Well, here it is.

I watched the program last Friday and recorded it with the intention of watching it a second time prior to writing a response. However, after watching the program, I didn’t find any real necessity in watching it again. There was one obvious agenda in the program, and it came through loud and clear. The agenda was to affirm that hell is real—sort of. The overarching message was that hell exists on earth. We have all experienced, witnessed, or at least heard about horrendous circumstances that show the apparent inequitable distribution of pain and heartache around the world. As a result, the producers of the program were hoping to show that we can all agree that hell exists in one form or another right here among us. The two goals surrounding this "reality" should be to avoid it if possible and provide relief for those who are suffering through "hell on earth" whenever appropriate.

Numerous examples were cited during the program, including Nazi extermination camps in World War II, military torture at the hands of unjust captors, genocide in Sierra Leone, and other horrific events. Certainly these events and others mentioned in the program could be considered hell on earth. Perhaps some would even believe that a literal hell could be no worse than these actual events experienced on earth.

Three extended profiles of individuals and their views of hell were striking. The first involved Ulysses Handy, a man convicted of a triple homicide that involved an unpaid debt. Upon his arrest he pled guilty and was sentenced to three consecutive life terms, avoiding the death penalty due to his guilty plea. At his sentencing, he stated, "I know there are people up in here that are hurt. Pain is a part of life. Deal with it. Get over it." Interestingly, he grew up in the Catholic church and remembers being taught about hell. He has since dismissed the teachings of Roman Catholicism and denies the existence of hell. In addition, if there were a hell, he said that he is not afraid to face it.

The next profile was about a man, Matthew Dovel, who claims to have been to hell and lived to tell about it. Actually, he claims to have experienced two near death "voyages." The first one as a boy took him to heaven where Jesus told him that he needed to return to earth. The second experience took him to hell where he experienced pain and burning until he was lifted up out of hell by the back of his neck. The second experience changed his life, and he shares his experiences with anyone who will listen.

The final profile featured Carlton Pearson, a former charismatic minister who shared pulpits with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. While watching a news report about atrocities in Rwanda, he had a crisis of faith and could not understand why a loving God would eternally punish sinners in hell. The final step came with the death of his grandmother. At that point he gave up on the doctrine of hell. "I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that’s customized for unbelievers," he said. "You can't be happy. And how can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother?" He sums up his new view of hell by stating, "People who believe in hell create it for themselves and others. Religion won’t let you love yourself. Religion is the accuser of the brethren…. It’s religious dogmas that tell you [that] you are not good enough—not God enough." As a result of his new understanding of hell, and ultimately his endorsement of universalism, Pearson lost his congregation of 6,000 and now ministers to a congregation of 300 in space leased from the local Episcopal church.

So what should we believe about hell? Revelation 20:11–15 gives the most vivid picture of final judgment and unbelievers being cast into the lake of fire. Jesus referred to hell and judgment a number of times, including in Matt 25:30, 41, 46; Mark 9:43, 48; and Luke 16:28. Wayne Grudem defines hell as "a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked" (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1148). The argument laid out in the program against a literal hell of eternal punishment was that a loving God could not send someone to an eternal hell. This is probably the most common argument against a literal hell. Ultimately, such an argument pits the love of God against the justice of God as if the two attributes were mutually exclusive. So how do we affirm both God’s justice and his love when it comes to hell?

The question of simultaneously affirming God’s love and justice warrants no simple answer, but we do not have time to write a book either. In essence, both love and justice are communicable characteristics of God that are further defined by his perfection. Thus, both love and justice (or righteousness) are perfect in God. Grudem defines God’s attribute of love as "God eternally gives of himself to others" (Grudem, 198). He defines God’s justice as "God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right" (Grudem, 203). Looking at these definitions, we see that God’s love manifested itself in the most perfect way through the sacrifice of his Son for our sin (Rom 5:8). His justice is most clearly manifested in his hatred of sin and his love of holiness. But how do these work together? B. B. Warfield offers an interesting description of the work of God’s justice in relation to his love:

While reiterating the teaching of nature as to the existence and character of the personal Creator and Lord of all, the Scriptures lay their stress upon the grace or the undeserved love of God, as exhibited in His dealings with His sinful and wrath-deserving creatures. So little, however, is the consummate divine attribute of love advanced, in the Scriptural revelation, at the expense of the other moral attributes of God [e.g., justice], that it is thrown into prominence only upon a background of the strongest assertion and fullest manifestation of its companion attributes, especially of the divine righteousness and holiness, and is exhibited as acting only along with and in entire harmony with them. God is not represented in the Scriptures as forgiving sin because He really cares very little about sin; nor yet because He is so exclusively or predominatingly the God of love, that all other attributes shrink into desuetude in the presence of His illimitable benevolence. He is rather represented as moved to deliver sinful man from his guilt and pollution because He pities the creatures of His hand, immeshed in sin, with an intensity which is born of the vehemence of His holy abhorrence of sin and His righteous determination to visit it with intolerable retribution; and by a mode which brings as complete satisfaction to His infinite justice and holiness as to His unbounded love itself. (Warfield, Studies in Theology, 111–12)

Following Warfield, God’s love works within the bounds of his other moral attributes and is accomplished through their perfection as well. Thus, God’s love does not trump his justice, nor vice versa. Millard Erickson notes the infinite nature of sin that deserves infinite punishment because sin raises "a finite will against the will of an infinite being" (Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 1247). As a result, we can hold to a literal, eternal punishment for sin in hell and a perfectly loving God at the same time.

One point that the commentator of the 20/20 program correctly asserted was that when you pull hell out of the equation for religions that believe in it, the rest of the religion unravels. This is very true of Christianity. If we dismiss hell, then we might as well dismiss the substitutionary atonement, the righteousness of God, heaven, the nature and value of suffering, the value of life, and a handful of other doctrines. The remaining "religion" would be a man-made system of beliefs with little need for divine revelation. Those that dismiss hell have created a religion in their own image.

I, for one, acknowledge a literal hell, described in Revelation as the lake of fire. I believe that Scripture teaches this doctrine, and that we do not have the right to pick and choose which teachings of Scripture we will believe. For those who dismiss the doctrine of hell, I point you to Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Tim 4:3–4, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths." May we not be ear-ticklers in an age that doesn’t want to believe in hell.

Hell: Is it real?

ABC will be airing an interesting story called "Hell: The Fear and Fascination" this Friday, July 13 on their 20/20 program. It will include interviews with an assortment of people including an unrepentant murderer who says he is not afraid of hell and a United Church of Christ minister who says that people who believe in hell create it for themselves and others.

The UCC minister is Carlton Pearson, and he once shared pulpits with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. According to Pearson, his study of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures led him away from a belief in hell and the substitutionary atonement. "I couldn't reconcile a God whose mercy endures forever and this torture chamber that's customized for unbelievers," he said. "You can't be happy. And how can you really love a god who's torturing your grandmother?" He also believes that the Bible is not "the literal word of God, but a book by men about God, with primitive men prone to mistranslations, political agendas and human emotions." His current efforts include promoting his new book, The Gospel of Inclusion, which is his take on universalism. A quote from his website reads, "The closest to knowing God you will ever get in this life, is knowing the innate divinity of your own Self and Soul."

ABC’s website has a teaser story that ran on Good Morning America Sunday morning. The full 20/20 story will run Friday, July 13 at 10:00 EDT/9:00 CDT. I hope to run a follow-up after the program airs.

“Clueless in Seattle” finds a clue in Rhode Island

In his June 20 blog entry entitled Clueless in Seattle — Can You Be Both a Christian and a Muslim?, R. Albert Mohler brought attention to an article in The Seattle Times about an Episcopal priest, Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, who claimed to be a practicing Muslim as well. The most perplexing issue raised in the article was the response of Redding's bishop. The article states:

Redding's bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, says he accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim, and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting.

Well, it appears that "Clueless in Seattle" has received a clue in Rhode Island. According to a follow-up Associated Press article, Redding has been suspended by the Bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island, Bishop Geralyn Wolf. Wolf stated that Redding should, "reflect on the doctrines of the Christian faith, her vocation as a priest, and what I see as the conflicts inherent in professing both Christianity and Islam."

Apparently, Redding is still subject to discipline by the Diocese of Rhode Island since she was ordained in that diocese. In a year, Wolf and Redding will discuss the situation again to determine whether or not Redding can continue as a priest.

Redding claims, "I am both Muslim and Christian, just like I'm both an American of African descent and a woman." I hate to inform Ms. Redding, but her analogy does not hold water. There is nothing contradictory about being African-American and female. They are two unrelated categories–one dealing with race and the other with gender. Being a Muslim and a Christian, however, is a different story. Affirming two mutually exclusive faiths is impossible because each one claims the other is false.

In this situation, I am thankful that the Bishop of Rhode Island had a clue and gave it to Clueless in Seattle. I just wish she would share it with the Redding's bishop in Seattle as well.

Mormons reach milestone

In this article, the Associated Press reports that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) has reached a membership milestone of 13 million worldwide. To put this in perspective, that is only 3 million less than Southern Baptists claim to have. Also, more than 1 million Mormon missionaries have served since 1830, including about 53,000 currently serving. In comparison, total number of missionaries for the IMB (as of 5/07) and NAMB (as of 12/05) is 10,548. If this trend continues, Southern Baptists will probably be outpaced in membership by the end of this decade.

I believe most Baptists (and all Christians for that matter) do not serve as missionaries for two reasons. First, it is inconvenient. Many do not want to pick up their family move to the next city, state, or country, or even around the world–even if it is only for a week. Second, many are unwilling to make the financial sacrifice. In response to that, read the following assessment of the Mormon missionary force: "Much of the church's growth comes from aggressive outreach by young missionaries, who typically serve two-year terms that they fund mostly by themselves. 'They face rejection and sometimes verbal abuse. But they soldier on,' said M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a church governing group."

How sad it is that members of a false religion built upon twisting the truth of Scripture are more adamant about sharing their faith than we are. We should feel shame for not going. I pray that we are spurred to more action.

Ethics and the SBC (Part 4)

In this final post of the series, I hope to outline a different approach to teaching ethics in the church, especially as we train our children in the area of moral theology. This method is not revolutionary in the sense that the idea has been around for centuries (and I would argue is ultimately the biblical model). It is revolutionary in the sense that Southern Baptists have little grasp of this concept from my perspective. Thankfully, there are professors at two or more of our SBC seminaries teaching this approach to ethics to the future pastors, teachers, counselors, and educators in their classes. The catchphrase is "Ethics as Worship." The technical description is a deontological-virtue ethic.

Taking what we have already discussed regarding deontology and virtue ethics, we can put these together to give a definition to this approach to ethics. At the end, we will see how this works itself out in worship. As previously stated, virtue ethics focuses on the character of the person rather than the act. It emphasizes a life of excellence in light of the character of the person. Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas have given definition to the virtues, and the latter two have placed them within a Christian context. The key to virtue ethics is the development of the character of the person. This teleological (looking toward the end) approach looks past the minutiae of everyday life and seeks the end product. Virtue ethics provides a good foundation because it shows us that there is more to life than just the basic decisions we make each day. Virtue ethicists are not so blinded by the forest so as not to see the trees—they recognize that the trees make up the forest. However, the downfall of virtue ethics is that it often gives little direction on how to "build the forest." How does one build the character of a man without knowing the basic steps of how to get there? This is where deontology comes in.

Deontological ethics focuses on the act and the duty, or obligation, fulfilled by performing (or not performing) that act. In contrast to virtue ethics, deontology focuses on the here and now—what do I do in this situation. There are some forward-looking elements of deontology, but the focus is certainly on rule-keeping. Deontology falls short in its reliance upon human reason and its inability to address the necessity of supererogatory acts. Deontology greatly assists virtue in the way of putting some concrete steps to aid the journey to the virtues. It’s easy to say, "Be a wise person." But the steps of getting there are difficult. Deontology shows us the way by putting rules, duties, and obligations before us whose end is wisdom. Virtue gives deontology a forward-looking aspect by making one look to the character that is being built.

Let’s take a biblical example and show how this works. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) is probably the best example of how this works. Jesus begins with statements such as these: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God….Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God….You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world." That is all well and good, but how does one become poor in spirit or pure in heart or the salt and light of the earth? Well, Jesus then moves to address some of the Old Testament commandments. In some senses, he places greater restrictions upon those who seek to follow the commandments. However, I would argue that Jesus is showing his listeners that there is more to the commandments than a simple duty to keep. He is showing that a true understanding (and keeping) of the commandments leads to a virtuous life—one that is poor in spirit, pure in heart, and the salt and light of the world. Thus, the commandments give us specific duties to uphold but also point us to a virtuous life.

Now let’s consider how this relates to worship. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas develops an intriguing theme for all of theology and life. This theme has been called "exitus et reditus." This is a Latin phrase that basically means "coming out and returning to." For Aquinas, this meant all things come from God and, in their proper response, return to God. For us, it means that the actions we take are leading us to God if they are performed with the proper focus. We can look at it as being properly aligned with our compasses pointing due north (toward God) when we act. Otherwise, our actions are merely splendid vices. Thus, every action is an act of worship when it is properly aligned toward God.

Although the concept of ethics as worship is an enticing approach to the study of ethics, it is not without its own problems. First, this approach must define worship. While the Christian ethicist may certainly have in mind a biblical approach to worship wherein God is glorified in all things (1 Cor 10:31), worship could also be defined in numerous other ways. In essence, any approach to honoring a person, being, or object above all others would be a form of worship. Contemporary culture could be accused of worshiping man or material possessions. As a result, the ethical standards of a society may reflect such worship "practices." For a rightly ordered concept of ethics as worship, one should first look to the Shema of Deut 6:4–5, which reads, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." Thus, the primary expression of worship is the complete love for the Lord from every part of the person. This is expressed in speech, behavior, and ethical mores; however, there is more to the concept of worship than mere behavior. Above all, it is an attitude of the heart and mind toward God that is expressed in ethical behavior. This attitude is also expressed in Rom 12:1, as Paul writes, "Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship." Again, the emphasis is not on a particular set of behaviors for worship; instead, the focus comes on the attitude of the worshiper. Admittedly, worship is a difficult term to define, but one’s attitude of response toward God for who he is and what he has done is the foundation of worship for the Christian.

The next issue that needs to be addressed by the proponent of ethics as worship is to determine whether worship or ethics comes first. Some believe that ethics is the primary expression of worship, thus leading to the idea that ethical standards come before worship. Others argue that ethics is just one part of the expression of worship. Part of the difficulty stems from a false bifurcation of the two concepts. For a biblically aligned system of ethics, one must have both worship and ethical standards—one cannot separate the two and speak of one as if the other did not exist. Thus, proponents of the concept of ethics as worship are partially at fault for presenting a possible division between the two ideas. Even if a bifurcation of these two ideas is a false concept, one must still address the issue of which one comes first. In John 14:15, Jesus says, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments." In John 14:21, Jesus repeats this concept in a different fashion, saying, "He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him." So, which one actually takes place first, love and worship or obedience? These verses do not offer a distinct division between the two, which should be noted for any discussion of ethics and worship. However, one can look to another biblical passage for further insight on the difference between ethics and worship. In Exodus 32, Moses had been on the mountain speaking with the Lord for an extended period of time. The people became impatient for Moses to return, so they asked Aaron to make them an idol to worship. In verse 8, the Lord informed Moses that the people had fashioned a golden calf and had worshiped and sacrificed to the idol. The people had not received a set of ethical standards from the false god and had no way to determine right and wrong based upon the "reality" of this new god; therefore, it would be difficult to say that ethics preceded worship in this circumstance. As a result, I believe that worship actually precedes ethics and that ethics is a response of worship to the one that we worship.

I believe this pattern of worship to ethics is also affirmed in the New Testament in 1 Peter 2. In verses 9–10, Peter encourages his readers, "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 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." Following this proclamation of being the people of God and the response of proclaiming God’s excellencies, Peter urges his readers to live morally upright lives "so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation" (v. 12). Regarding this passage, David Horner writes, "This picture, rich in ethical content, is grounded in worship from beginning to end. We are called to be a worshiping people, to glorify God, and to point to His worth. And we do that in many ways, in fact, in all that we are and do. How we live ethically is actually an expression of worship. And the result, according to Peter, is not only so that other people will want to live ethically, but also that they will worship and come to glorify God themselves" (David A. Horner, "Speaking Freely: Dr. David Horner on Ethics and Worship," With All Your Mind 8 (2003), 4). Thus, an ethical lifestyle is a part of worship, but does not comprise the entirety of worship.

With a properly defined concept of worship and a forward-looking gaze to the character of the ones we are trying to teach, we can effectively instruct those in our church with how to live in this world. We receive from God and return our actions to God in love and worship, seeking to be virtuous people for his glory, not our own. When we teach our people about ethics, we show the end as well as the means, and the focus is on loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. It is in the last two (mind and strength) that I believe we find our ethical actions, but they are informed by the former (heart and soul).

Ethics and the SBC (Part 3)

In my last post, I discussed what I believe to be the basic approach to moral instruction/moral theology/ethics in the typical, conservative SBC church. I described it as the historical theory of deontological ethics, and then I brought out some of the critiques of deontology. In this post, I will discuss where I believe some SBC churches and many mainline denominations are heading in moral theology. These directions, I believe, are directly influenced by the culture in which we live.

The first direction I see is the path of utilitarianism. In my opinion, utilitarianism serves as the guiding principle for how ethics is done in the Western world. Utilitarianism seeks to provide the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people. Initially introduced by Epicurus, utilitarianism found its greatest exponents in Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham describes the principle of utility as follows: "By the Principle of Utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question." (Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, chap. 1, par. 2). Utilitarianism is employed through the use of "moral calculus" which requires the decision-maker to determine which action will bring the greatest amount of utility to the greatest number. Since there is no uniform way to quantify utility, the decision-maker is faced with a subjective choice between two or more options. Utilitarianism, though a system of ethics in itself, is little more than another form of deontology. The difference is that there is only one rule—do the most good for the most people.

Utilitarianism is how our government works. What program will give the most support to the most number? Legislate that one. Now, of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that politicians do not have their own personal agendas and that their end goal is not to look out for ol’ number 1. Yet, utilitarianism is typically our expectation of the government, and now it is infiltrating our churches. Church members expect the pastor to "meet the needs" of the most number of people in his sermons. They expect the music minister to increase the pleasure of the majority by picking songs, hymns, or styles of music that meet the personal preferences of the majority. They expect the programs of the church to reach the needs of the most number of people (i.e., let’s sacrifice the needs of the elderly for the needs of the young adults because there aren’t many elderly left—of course this example could be just as easily reversed; or let’s neglect the minority communities in our area because we are mostly a "white" church). Gone are the concepts of sacrifice and service—slaughtered on the altar of utilitarianism. I am not suggesting that utilitarianism is being taught in the SS classroom or from the pulpit. I am saying that it is the dominant system of ethics by which many act in the church.

Another movement of ethics that has infiltrated our churches is much more subtle, but perhaps much more dangerous. This one is the communitarian ethics movement. This system of ethics is much less defined than deontology, virtue, natural law, or utilitarianism. It is amorphous because it is attached, in part, to postmodernism. Communitarian ethics asserts that the ethical mores of a group are established by the community. What constitutes a community? At this stage it appears any group of two or more people could be deemed a community. This system takes into account that various cultural groups could have different moral standards that they have developed through their own rational (or irrational) worldviews. This accounts for how cannibalism could be an accepted practice in the remote jungles of South America, but the Western world sees it as an atrocity.

From a Christian perspective, communitarian ethics has found it greatest proponents in Stanley Hauerwas and the late Stanley Grenz. It rears its head not so much in the poor ethical standards of those in the church, but instead in the response of the Christian to the culture when morality is out of whack. Take for example the homosexual marriage debate. The communitarian in the church is the one who says, "I would never support homosexual marriage personally, but who am I to tell another group of people what they should and should not do?" In making such a statement, this person is validating the idea that (at least) two separate moralities coexist in his world without opposition or contradiction. The subjectivity of this approach is debilitating to the Christian message, and completely shreds any sense of cultural impact for the church and the gospel.

Where do we go from here? What do we teach our children in the home and in the church? What can our SBC churches do to stem the tide of these movements? Those items will be the content of part 4 in this series.

Ethics and the SBC (Part 2)

In my last post, I surveyed three major ethical systems that, in my opinion, summarize the history of ethics in a broad fashion. Yet, I probably frustrated some of those who took the time to read the post because the content of the post had little or nothing to do with the second half of the title—the SBC. Well, this is the follow-up to the first post where I will attempt to make observations and draw some conclusions about ethics in the SBC. I am particularly interested in observations from the churches of the SBC rather than the seminaries. My goal is not to draw conclusions about the ethical behavior of individuals within the denomination. Rather, I intend to address general observations from my own experiences in churches across four different states in which I have been a member, served, taught, and preached as well as observations made known to me by others.

How are ethics, or perhaps the term moral theology fits better, taught in the typical, conservative SBC church? I propose that the typical approach is that of deontological ethics. Imagine with me for a moment a fourth grade Sunday School classroom at FBC Somewhere. As the teacher attempts to address the finer points of moral theology to this group of 9 and 10 year-olds, he/she will probably say something along the lines of this: "God wants you to obey your parents. You need to do your best in school. Stay out of trouble. Pick the right friends…." Then little Johnny asks, "Why?" Typical responses: "Because it is the right thing to do. Because God says so. Because the Bible says so. Because it honors your parents…." The list could go on, but you get the point. Fast forward 5 or 6 years to a high school SS class, and the tactic does not change that much—only the issues change. Now the teacher says, "Don’t do drugs. Don’t have sex outside marriage. Graduate from high school and go to college…." The now bitterly sarcastic teenager responds, "Why?" The answers are much the same: "Because it is the right thing to do. Because that is what God commands in his Word. Because when you get married your spouse will appreciate it…." One last time, let us move forward 20 years to a married adult SS class. This time the teacher proclaims, "Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t steal office supplies from your job. Discipline your kids with love…." In response to the now probably sincere question of rationale, the teacher responds, "Because God teaches us these things. Because you owe it to your boss. Because it is the right thing to do…." I am confident that I am not far off the path of moral instruction in the typical, conservative SBC church. If your experience was different, I suggest that it was the exception rather than the norm.

So, let’s evaluate these statements and answers in moral instruction from an ethical standpoint. I argue that almost every single example falls in line with deontological ethics. Now before I go too far in my evaluation and critique, I want to be clear that I am not dismissing deontological ethics. It still has a valid role to play, but that discussion will come in another post. The focus of the aforementioned moral instruction is on what is right. It also bears the burden of duty and obligation. When the fourth grade SS teacher tells the students to obey their parents because God says so, this is unadulterated divine command theory of ethics, which is a form of deontology. Divine command theory understands that God made the universe and that God made the rules about right and wrong. Our creaturely nature, therefore, obligates us to rules that are part of the created order. And, while there may be logic to God’s action and decrees, it is presumptuous for humans to believe that our finite minds can discover it. In essence, our duty is to God and that should be enough. Even if God had given the rationale for his commands in Scripture (which I believe He does), it would not be necessary because we are bound by this duty to obey. This divine command theory is, in essence, a form of deontology. Some of the other responses focus on the "rightness" of the action or the obligation to one’s neighbor (boss, spouse, parent, etc.). Again, these responses are duty-based and duty-bound concepts of moral theology. Are they wrong? Not necessarily. Do they miss out on something greater? I would argue that they do miss it. Why?

Deontology is worth its weight in gold when used to evaluate the shortcomings of other systems of ethics. It usually provides a consistent, objective standard from which to evaluate actions because it draws the individual back to a set of rules and/or principles. However, deontology also has its drawbacks, especially from a Christian perspective. First, deontological ethics relies upon reason to the extent that the individual must evaluate the action in light of a set of principles/duties. In this sense, individual reason is raised to a similar standard as the set of rules or duties. Therefore, a person who is looking for the best way to fulfill an obligation must use his own reason to determine what is best. Unfortunately, as Christians we believe that man’s reason is fallen. Now is not the time to get into a debate over how much man’s reason is fallen, but we can at least agree that it is not perfect. Therefore, man must depend upon a faulty cognitive ability to determine what is right in relation to a set of duties. Granted, most of the time, this should probably work, but it is not free of error. Second, deontology has little or no means to determine the necessity of supererogatory acts. Supererogatory acts are those acts performed to an extent not required. The best example of this would be going the second mile. In Matthew 5:40–41, Jesus said, "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two." Deontology has no way to deal with such statements. The deontologist would say, "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give him exactly what the court requires but nothing more. Whoever forces you to go one mile, do not go a step farther because the law only requires one mile." Of course, someone could argue that the command is here in Matthew 5 and now becomes a duty. My response is that it certainly does but only to the extent to which man’s reason can carry him beyond the two specific examples given here in Scripture. At its heart, deontology is missing something—it needs more information.

Even with its lack of fully working out moral theology, deontology is where we have traditionally stood as Southern Baptists. I cannot speak for the entire history of our convention, but I would venture to say that deontology has dominated the day for most of this span. So this is where we stand as far as ethics are concerned within our convention. I know there are pockets within our convention that offer a fuller understanding of moral theology, but again, they are the exception rather than the rule.

As I make these observations and critiques, I am aware of movements in the realm of moral theology and ethics that have dismissed deontology for something new and different. Some of our SBC churches have also latched on to these new movements. That will be the subject of part 3.