Category Archives: Essay

How Textual Criticism Resembles Geology

A geology major in my New Testament Survey course asked about textual criticism. This gave me an excellent opportunity to combine two of my passions: Theology, and science.

Geology fascinates me, and has since I studied earth sciences in eighth grade. I enjoyed learning about the geological processes that continue to mold our planet.
Over the years, I’ve learned that geology relies on the knowledge of other fields of science to understand those processes more thoroughly. For instance, chemistry explains the chemical composition of minerals and the bonds between elements that compose minerals. Physics explains how certain processes work; for instance, physics tells us the effects of gravity in a landslide. Chemistry and physics together help us learn the age of the planet and the rocks we study.

However, chemistry and physics have their limits. A geologist understands how to take the knowledge of those two fields and incorporate it into an explanation that makes sense. Geologists also understand other areas of the field that chemists and physicists simply don’t try to explain, e.g. seismic faults, lava flows, magma chambers, and such. A physicist may explain the results of an earthquake, but a geologist can explain what caused it in the first place and what happened during the earthquake.

Now, let’s turn to textual criticism.

For centuries, people assumed the Scriptures belonged only to the theologians; theology was considered the “queen of sciences” in the Middle Ages. If anyone else ever touched the Scriptures, it was the philosophers. Philosophers and theologians vigorously studied the Scriptures and debated the lessons they found there. If you’ve taken Western Civ I or a Church History course, you’ll remember hearing about some of those debates.

In the Enlightenment period, beginning in the 18th century, people began to realize other fields could contribute to the study of the Scriptures. History, especially, can greatly enhance our knowledge of the Scriptures. After all, the events recorded in the New Testament actually occurred. Jesus really did live: He was really born of the Virgin Mary, He really walked through the land of modern Israel and taught the people, He really clashed with the Pharisees, and the Romans really crucified Him. Jesus really died.

Jesus also really rose from the dead. I’ve seen the empty tomb. I’ve walked into it. You can go to Jerusalem and visit the tomb.

History helps us better understand the New Testament.  I required my students to read a lot of history about the “Intertestamental Period.” Why should a New Testament course involve a study of things that happened centuries before anyone wrote a word of it?

Think about it for a moment. Who were the Pharisees? Where did they come from? What did they believe? We don’t find Pharisees anywhere in the Old Testament; they didn’t exist. However, we turn to the New Testament, and we see Pharisees everywhere. One of them (St. Paul) wrote most of the books of the New Testament. A Greek physician (St. Luke) wrote more of the New Testament by content than anyone else. Why does a Greek doctor care about this stuff?

History answers these questions. History tells us the story of the Pharisees. History explains why everyone in Jesus’ time spoke and wrote in Greek. History tells us why and how the Romans ruled the entire region with an iron fist. Therefore, any serious student of the Scriptures must first understand the historical context in which those events occurred. Textual criticism emerged when historians began trying to understand and explain the events in the context in which they occurred.

However, while every field can contribute to another field, the contributions can go only so far. At some point, those better versed in the field must apply what they’ve learned from other fields and — just as importantly — remember that every field has its limits.

History records the miracles of Scripture, but many historians, influenced by others, refuse to believe in anything they cannot explain. I found a good quote on that: “Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” If you’ve ever read the book Dracula, you recognize the line. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897. People were already debating the limits on certain knowledge in certain fields.

I love science. I’ve studied it since I was in elementary school and earned an Associates Degree in Chemistry before I changed my major. I want rational, scientific explanations for everything. Unfortunately, those explanations don’t exist; the science hasn’t progressed far enough yet. We have more to learn. Faith tells me we may never fully explain the miracles that baffle so many people.

Here, we can return to geology. Imagine trying to explain continental drift to a chemist who doesn’t believe (and refused to believe) in plate tectonics. Frankly, I couldn’t do it.

Now imagine trying to explain miracles to someone who flatly denies the possibility of a miracle. Theology, based on the authority of the Church, believes in the miracles recorded in Scripture. We believe in the miracles by faith, because we see so much of the Scriptures verified by other fields. We apply the contributions of history and other fields to the studies of the Scriptures, but we also have to explain to the historians that the lack of an explanation they’ll accept in no way eliminates the reality of the event.

Therefore, I believe in the miracles. The fact I cannot explain them merely reminds me again of my ignorance. I believe in the historical accuracy of the Scriptures because I know the history of the first century A.D. I also know the history of civilization since the first century A.D. No one can explain the history of the past 2,000 years without accepting the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’m reminded of this story:

“The Age of Reason was dawning, and an anti-Christian intellectual named Lepeau was desperate for advice. He had created a rational new religion, Lepeau told French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, but, despite its superiority to Christianity, it had failed to catch on. Might Talleyrand have any suggestions? ‘M. Lepeau,’ the diplomat dryly replied, ‘to ensure success for your new religion, you need only two things. Arrange to have yourself crucified, and three days later rise from the dead.’” — Source: http://gregorycrofford.com/2014/03/16/edward-fudge-on-the-resurrection/, Last accessed 7 June 2014

Salvation: Is God Counting Tears?

Whom did God consult when Pope John Paul II died?

I grew up in rural, Baptist, Fundamentalist churches of Alabama, USA, with everything that upbringing implies: dinner outside (because it was a sin to have a kitchen in the church), outhouses behind the cemetery (because it was a sin to have a restroom in the church), fervent revivals, impassioned sermons, and urgent altar calls closing every service. Every sermon was evangelistic, because every service was revivalistic. The fact that most of us were already born-again Christians in the Fundamentalist sense never dampened the ministers’ enthusiasm for winning souls.

Being “born again” in these churches was not an easy task. My father, like all the pastors in the area, implored us to “come to the altar” to make things right with the Lord. The process was as elaborate as any formal confirmation service: the penitent sinner (you) would walk down the aisle (no luck trying to talk to God at your pew), ask Jesus to come into your heart to forgive you of your sins (accompanied with begging and pleading to escape the fires of hell), all to the strains of the invitation song (usually “Just As I Am”). And by the way, this was expected to be a very emotional process, replete with tears and wails; if you didn’t cry hard enough, someone might think you didn’t really mean it. Once done, you were assured you were “born again.” Everyone would come around and shake your hand on the way out the door. People measured the presence of the Spirit in the service by the presence of tears in their eyes as they stood for the closing prayer. A conversion was certain to please everyone.

Over the years, I saw many people walk the aisles to be “born again” in this fashion. Many, to their credit, are still fervent, devoted believers who seek to demonstrate their salvation by their lives. However, I was always puzzled by those who did the right things, said the right words, showed enough remorse — and then fell back into their old lives as if nothing happened. The old timers would chalk it up to “backsliding” and carry on as if the person had never been to church at all. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a thinker, and I’ve often wondered what really happened when the “backsliders” prayed to Christ for salvation. Did Jesus fail them? Was there something missing on their part?

This last question caused me great anguish for years regarding my own salvation. I wasn’t born again in a church; I didn’t answer an altar call. I didn’t pray the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Instead, I was dramatically drawn to Christ at my parents’ home, and all I could say to Him was, “Jesus, I’m sorry.” Was that enough?

This question came back to me this week with the death of John Paul II. Immediately after the announcement of his death, those of the Church who believed John Paul II to be a born-again Christian thanked God for his leadership and expressed complete confidence that we will meet him again. The Fundamentalist camp immediately retaliated, stubbornly refusing to believe that any prominent Roman Catholic – or any Roman Catholic, actually – could be “born again.” Even worse, the Fundamentalists immediately and vociferously proclaimed their assurance that this successor to St. Peter never met St. Peter at the gates. The resulting flame wars scorched plenty of earth and electrons, but I doubt God read any e-mails before deciding the pope’s eternal fate.

Now that the dust has settled, I think we should re-visit our pre-conceived notions of salvation.

First, we should consider the words of our Lord Himself. Jesus says in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Note that Jesus does not mention the Sinner’s Prayer; He doesn’t mention responding to an altar call. He simply says that “whoever comes” will find acceptance. C.S. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy of his own conversion:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling… the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.”
Our Lord could have told Nicodemus the complete, definitive, clear answer for what to do, how to stand (or kneel), and the exact words to say to insure salvation. Instead, He told him that “…God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Whoever believes. How much simpler can it get? As Lewis discovered, Jesus accepts all who come, regardless of reluctance or relish, regardless of emotion or lack thereof. Jesus accepts all who come in faith.

Secondly, we should remember that nowhere does Scripture teach that our spiritual birth will be consistently accompanied by dramatic emotional experiences. Many of us betray our Pietistic heritage in this regard. Yes, my spiritual birth was emotional, but I assure you my experience was far from normal. Scriptural witness does not support the necessity of an emotional experience. St. Paul simply says that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” St. John the Apostle says that “whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” Both apostles consistently speak of confession. This may be uncomfortable to those of the faith who instinctively recoil from confessions and creeds, but we cannot ignore Scripture.

And this brings me to the issue of John Paul II specifically and those of the creedal confessions generally. Since I left my rural upbringing, I have met many devoted Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox believers who have fulfilled the teachings of St. Paul and St. John. These people demonstrate their spiritual vitality through their works, as St. James commands in his epistle. Furthermore, I’ve found many believers of these traditions who lack the emotional experience of the “backsliders” but possess graciousness, devotion, and spiritual endurance that doesn’t exist in many Fundamentalists I know. These people also lack the theological, soteriological arrogance to believe that everyone must be born again according to their own experience. They possess what the “backsliders” lacked: faith. When these people spoke the words at their confirmation, they took Jesus at His word that He would accept them.

I’ve wondered why the question even arose about John Paul’s salvation in the first place. Why do people care so passionately about the process of someone’s salvation? Is it because they seek desperately to validate their own experience? If life has taught me anything, it’s that I cannot trust experience and emotion alone in my faith. Scripture defines our faith, and we must interpret our experiences through Scripture, not vice versa. And, like it or not, Scripture gives very few guidelines on the process of salvation other than what the Apostles recorded. God preferred to speak more about the evidence of the inward change than on the process of the change itself.

When I saw John Paul II in action, I saw someone who knew the doctrines of the faith once delivered to the saints and who consistently defended them. In this week’s “Newsweek,” Kenneth L. Woodward wrote that “from his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, [John Paul II] proclaimed to a worldwide audience that ‘Christ, Christ is the answer.’” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like someone who knew Jesus. For 26 years, we saw a devoted man demonstrate commitment to the cross, even in his own suffering. We saw a man who eloquently and firmly espoused orthodox doctrine in areas of sexuality, morality, and social justice. We saw a man who inspired the youth of nations to come to Christ and the Church for eternal salvation rather than try to seek temporary gratification in the materialism of Western society.

Frankly, it never occurred to me that my opinion regarding the Holy Father’s salvation mattered at all. As long as Karol Wojtyla met the standard set by Divine love reinforced with Divine humility, our standards don’t count.

I think it’s time for some of us to realize that our salvation experience isn’t required of everyone. If Jesus loved us enough to die for us, He loves us enough to accept us where we are and use us as He will. He accepts all who come to Him in faith, believing He will save them. Baptist or Roman Catholic, Methodist or Anglican, independent or Orthodox; Jesus looks on the heart, not on the church sign. And He doesn’t count the tears shed in the process.

Sources:

All scriptures are from the English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Scriptures quoted are John 6:37, John 3:16, Romans 10:9, and 1 John 4:15.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, quoted in The Essential C.S. Lewis, Lyle W. Dorsett, Editor. New York: Touchstone, 1988, p. 50.

Kenneth L. Woodward, “Beloved and Brave,” Newsweek, April 11, 2005, Volume CXLV, No. 15. Harlan, IA.

The Radical Act of Faith: The Lord’s Prayer

When’s the last time you said, “Our Father”?

Posted: June 2, 2005

I’ve been a Christian for 27 years now, but only recently have I begun to realize the significance of the disciples’ question: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

We’ve all heard others pray, in some form or fashion, and wondered to ourselves, “to whom or what is that person praying to talk that way?” Sometimes, in our honest moments, we admit to ourselves that our own prayers fall short of the simple form Jesus taught in response to that request.

One of my seminary professors taught me much about prayer, both in spiritual formation classes and by his personal example. This professor once said something that convicted me: “Most prayer services today are too concerned about keeping sick saints out of heaven.” I once heard that a Japanese student visiting the U.S. learned the medical term “hysterectomy” at a prayer service when she heard it in a prayer request.

When I started my current pastorate, I initiated a novel idea for a Southern Baptist church: leading the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”) each week in the Sunday morning worship service and at the closing of our Wednesday night prayer service. As far as I know, we are the only non-liturgical congregation in our area that recites the Lord’s Prayer on a weekly basis.

Why would we do this? Actually, there are several reasons why I believe every church should use the Lord’s Prayer regularly in worship.

Every Christian needs to know how to pray. When’s the last time someone told you, “I don’t know how to pray”? Anyone who knows the Lord’s Prayer, knows how to pray.

The Lord’s Prayer focuses solely on God. We’ve all heard (or worse, prayed) some rather selfish prayers. There’s no room in the Lord’s Prayer for the selfish requests so indemic in most prayers today. Everything in the Lord’s Prayer focuses on the person of God and what is important to Him. As Christians who have confessed Jesus as Lord, we must place His will, not ours, foremost in our thoughts, our actions, and our prayers.

The Lord’s Prayer is scriptural. It’s amazing that most churches claim to believe and teach the Bible, yet their worship services have no public reading of Scripture beyond the verses on which the minister preaches. As another professor once said, “When you’re reading Scripture, you know the people are hearing the word of the Lord.” The people hear the word of the Lord when they recite the Lord’s Prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is common to all Christians. Whenever we visit a church of another tradition, and that church includes the Lord’s Prayer in the liturgy, we’re reminded of our bond with believers from every race, nation, and tradition. Although the form of the prayer may vary in some traditions, every Christian that knows the basics of the Lord’s Prayer can participate in some way.

Personally, I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer at least daily for many years, and each time I say it, it means more to me. It makes me realize the privilege of my relationship with God: “Our Father.” It leads me to confess that I live for His glory and His pleasure: “Hallowed be Thy Name.”

The Lord’s Prayer reminds me that God will return to establish His rule on earth: “Thy kingdom come.” I’m reminded that I must join myself to the will of my Lord: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer without recognizing that the salvation lifestyle means total, complete, instant submission to the desires of Almighty God.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” There is no other phrase in this prayer that speaks of our material needs. There is no mention of finer homes, faster cars, more powerful computers (or even that new G5!). Jesus teaches us to pray only for the needs of the day. Our Lord, after all, knows what we need.

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” None of us is innocent; we trespass against others and our God. We cannot cry for forgiveness from God and simultaneously hold a grudge against others. Those who have been forgiven are required to forgive.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” So many people believe our society is getting worse. I’ve only recently realized that the world is not getting worse; depravity has characterized this world since the Fall. The Church is the only glimmer of hope in the world. Yet, even those redeemed from sin must still face temptation. We cannot overcome temptation alone without the help of God.

“For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever and ever.” There is no greater confession of the omnipotence of our God. Our God reigns! Nothing is too great for Him! His glory — His honor — exceeds anything we can offer. In the eternity to come, we will see God’s glory in all its splendor and beauty.

Yet, this God cares enough about His creation to redeem us through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, who even now intercedes on our behalf. He chooses to share His glory with us for eternity. He chooses to draw sinful humanity to Himself and then to justify, sanctify, and — in time — glorify us.

This prayer accomplishes far more than most of the prayers we pray each day. Jesus wasted no words in His model prayer.

As I mentioned, I know of no other non-liturgical church that regularly recites the Lord’s Prayer. I hope this situation changes. When Jesus had to teach His disciples the most important exercise of the Christian life, He gave them these words:

Our Father, Who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy Name;
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil;

For Thine is the kingdom,
And the power and the glory,
Forever and ever.

Amen

Can a “Great Commission Resurgence” Succeed in the Scots-Irish South?

The SBC will need more than another plan to overcome what ails us.

The National Interest published an article entitled “The Jacksonian Tradition” in the Winter 1999/2000 issue of the journal. In this article, historian Walter Russell Mead described the ancestors of the Scots-Irish population of the American South as “a hardy and warlike people, with a culture and outlook formed by centuries of bitter warfare before they came to the United States.” This outlook carries on in their modern descendants. Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle summarized this observation more succinctly: “The Anglo-Saxon-Scots-Irish people are the most warlike people in history, and their enemies forget it at their peril.”

This warlike mentality continues to define Southern culture, leading us to destroy friendships and relationships with little hesitation when we consider it necessary. Mead aptly described the Southern concept of war, even in personal relations: “The first Jacksonian rule of war is that wars must be fought with all available force…. They do not like the idea of violence on a dimmer switch.” Mead also described another typical Southern trait regarding warfare: “honorable enemies fight a clean fight and are entitled to be opposed in the same way; dishonorable enemies fight dirty wars and in that case all rules are off.” When arguments get personal in the South, Southerners tend to group their adversaries in the latter category.

Unfortunately, our passion for war and violence deeply affects our religion as well. The Southern mentality does not tolerate limited war, driving even Christians to pursue total victory in every situation. The denomination of my birth, the Southern Baptist Convention, originated in this culture and continues to exemplify its mentality. While most historians date the beginnings of the secessionist movement in the South with the end of the Mexican War in 1848, I believe it possible to move the date to 1845, the year the Southern Baptist Convention’s “seceded” from older Baptist organizations over the issue of slavery and missions. Southern politicians did not originate the idea of secession; Southern Baptists had already paved the way.

There’s little reason to recount our turbulent history here. Suffice it to say that the decades since 1845 provide nearly countless examples of Southern Baptist warfare, both within the congregations and on a Convention-wide level. Our inability to accept less than total war over the slightest differences may finally, in this decade, have weakened our Convention beyond any hope of recovery.

One last fact points to the failure of the SBC to overcome its Scots-Irish heritage. In spite of recent efforts that include a formal apology for the SBC’s role in slavery in racism and attempts to expand its base both ethnically and geographically, the SBC’s constituency and leadership are overwhelmingly constituted of white Scots-Irish Southerners.

I thought of our passion for war when I read the latest attempt by SBC leaders to, as president of Lifeway Research Dr. Ed Stetzer described it on Twitter, “end the sniping” that currently pervades our denomination. In the document “Toward a Great Commission Resurgence” (http://www.greatcommissionresurgence.com/), SBC leaders including current SBC president Johnny Hunt and Dr. Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, have called for SBC members and churches to transform ourselves into “Christ-centered, ‘Jesus-intoxicated’ people who pursue all that we do by God’s grace and for His glory.”

The authors also call on the SBC to rethink our relationships with those outside the Church who disagree with us: “Though we believe that God calls believers to speak out against moral ills, this must not be done in a way that is hateful toward unbelievers.” It also briefly mentions our need to replace cultural norms with the dictates of Scripture: “We must recommit ourselves to the full sufficiency of Scripture. It is not enough to believe that the Bible is inerrant; we must also be willing to submit to all of its teachings, even if that means we must relinquish our own preferences or human traditions.”

This document only briefly refers to the cultural issue that underlies the worst problem we face. Unfortunately, a reading of the document reveals that the leaders who formulated the document have still played to our worst passions instead of trying to resolve the dilemma we face: How to tame the warlike culture instead of exploiting it. In Point IV, the authors refer to the Christian responsibility to preserve the Scriptures of our faith as the “War for the Bible.” The leaders proclaim, “Southern Baptists must not retreat one inch from the non-negotiable doctrine that the Bible is without error, lest we squander the gains of recent years.” In Point V, the authors allude to our current debates when they call on Southern Baptists to rally around the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000 “to discern the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary issues, an endeavor that lies at the heart of many of our present tensions.”

Frankly, I doubt that using military terms in the document helps us to address the central issue, and the term “tensions” serves only as an unhelpful euphemism to describe what the SBC faces today. Instead, we find ourselves almost as divided as in 1979, but today’s issues include topics as diverse as Calvinist doctrines and the roles of women in ministry. Some would think the latter topic resolved by the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000, but this document settled little in the Convention; instead, its use by the SBC leadership to enforce doctrinal conformity within our missions organization resulted in a great deal of resentment and mass resignations of professional missionaries. The loss of more than a collective century of experience still hobbles our mission efforts.

Unfortunately, it seems that Southern Baptist Fundamentalism always needs an enemy. I’m not surprised that, after purging the SBC of “moderates,” the conservatives turned on each other regarding Calvinism and the role of women. If these two issues did not exist, the Fundamentalists would have found someone else to fight.

Can anything help the SBC abandon our warlike mentality? How can we transcend our cultural penchant for combat and turn instead to transforming the culture in which we live and minister in Jesus’ name?

Recent discussions with a fellow Southern Baptist over events in his church sent me to the Scriptures to help him answer questions about the direction his church will take in the near future. These discussions have led me to explore a much ignored aspect of Scripture: The necessity of gentleness in our witness.

In the longest recorded set of teachings we find in the Gospels, Jesus used the Greek word “praus” in His list of those whom God blesses: “Blessed are the meek (”prous”), for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Jesus later called Himself “gentle” (”prous”) to refer to Himself in His call to all who “labor and are heavy laden,” promising that all who would come to Him would find that He is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and that trusting in His gentleness would result in “rest for your souls.”

St. Paul also included gentleness in one of his earliest letters. When writing to the Galatian churches in c. A.D. 48-53, St. Paul used some rather violent language against the Judaizers (even expressing his wish they would emasculate themselves!) and their insistence on circumcising Gentile believers. However, this letter also contains one of the most beautiful expressions of the Christian life in the passage we call the “fruit of the Spirit.” When listing those traits that would define the Spirit-filled believer, St. Paul included “gentleness” (using the Greek word “prautes”) as a key indicator of the Spirit’s presence in a person’s life.

St. Paul would later commend gentleness in the most extreme of circumstances. The Corinthian church had degenerated into a faction-riddled mess, complete with show-circus worship services, class-conscious Communion celebrations, and at least one member openly flouting his sexual immorality before the entire congregation. Most Southern Baptists, in St. Paul’s shoes, would have blown into the church like a Texas Ranger of the early 20th century on the frontier, with metaphorical guns blazing, bodies flying, and sinners thrown on their faces in proper humility before their disciplinarian – and loved every conflict-ridden minute of it.

We wouldn’t expect St. Paul to ever consider gentleness in this situation. Yet, St. Paul actually offered the Corinthians a choice no self-respecting Southern Baptist would offer such a crowd. In his first letter to this troubled body, St. Paul asked the Corinthians, “Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” The premier Apostle to the Gentiles, the founder of the church at Corinth, clearly preferred gentleness in resolving the issues he knew awaited him in one of the Empire’s most sinful cities.

St. Peter also contributed to the discussion of gentleness, in another unlikely passage. In a passage dear to the Christian warrior’s heart, St. Peter’s instructed believers that we should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Nothing stirs a soldier like a good defensive stand (unless it’s a better offensive drive). I’ve heard many preachers exhort their congregations to defend their faith before the unbelievers and seen many Christians enthusiastically accept the challenge.

I’ve noticed that far too many sermons with 1 Peter 3:15 omit the next verse, and I believe I know why. St. Peter did not finish his thought in only 1 verse in our Bibles; his instruction regarding the defense of our hope continues in the next verse. The entire sentence reads thus: “[Be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

St. Peter clearly linked gentleness and respect for our accuser with the defense of our faith. We cannot defend our salvation without gentleness, and we must respect those who unjustly accuse us or who ask us hard questions regarding the beliefs we hold essential to attain eternal life.

This passage from St. Peter’s first letter especially came to mind when my friend and I discussed the current search for a new pastor at his church. Many of the “Old Guard” in the church grumbled that the previous pastor accommodated the younger generations in the congregation by “softening” his messages. The term “hell fire and brimstone” was overheard more than once when these members began discussing how their pastor needed to improve his sermons. The implied suggestion was the pastor was too “soft” in his delivery of the gospel message. Nothing short of a combative presentation would satisfy these members.

I’ve spent a lifetime as a Christian Southerner in the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve observed many defenses of the faith and regret to admit I’ve participated in my share of them. I’ve also witnessed the fallout from these “defenses” as the Southern Baptist defender, in a fashion that would have stirred George Patton’s heart, quickly abandoned the defense and shifted to the offensive at the first possible opportunity. As I pondered those encounters, I realized I had never seen anyone argued into the faith, nor did I see anyone led to visit the church as the result of these debates.

I’ve also thought about the aggressive tone of many of the sermons I’ve heard in my lifetime. My father, also a Southern Baptist pastor, often said of those who joined the church because of a fear of hell, “If I can scare salvation into someone, Satan can certainly scare it out.” To paraphrase him, “If I can fight salvation into someone, Satan can certainly fight it out of them.”

If Scripture teaches that the SBC needs to abandon our warlike mentality and embrace gentleness, can we find any instructions in Scripture to help us? How could the call to a “Great Commission Resurgence” have gone further in calling us to more responsibly work for unity within our Convention and a more reasoned witness to those outside our denomination?

For one thing, we must realize that Scriptural gentleness does not contradict Southern values. According to the Louw and Nida Lexicon, the Greek term “prautes” implies “mild and gentle friendliness.” However, the Lexicon clarifies, “The Greeks value this virtue highly so long as there is compensating strength.” Scriptural gentleness, therefore, calls for personal strength of character and self-restraint, traits highly admired in Southern culture. Gentleness does not imply weakness; instead, it demonstrates a self-confidence possessed only by those fully aware of God’s calling in their lives and who know without a doubt that they are living that calling before Him and the world.

If we wish to demonstrate gentleness and self-confidence, we must resolve to respect our opponents as the pinnacle of God’s creation. Scripture teaches that God created humanity in His image, and we must remember that Scripture gives no categories of decreasing importance in this regard. Those who disagree with us still bear the “Imago Dei,” the image of God. As such, they deserve our attention as they present their case. Our opponents also deserve the respect we expect them to show to us. Our Lord clearly taught, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). We want people in the world to hear our point of view, and rightfully so; the Church alone possesses the words of eternal life through Jesus Christ (John 6:68-69). Our opponents will listen to us only if we first show them the proper respect.

We must also remember the true adversary in all spiritual conflicts. In a passage dear to Scots-Irish believers, St. Paul wrote about spiritual warfare in his Letter to the Ephesians. Most Southern Baptists have at least a basic idea of the “spiritual armor” passage, and many can name the basic parts. (The fact that St. Paul employed Roman armor as an allegory escapes us at times.) However, before St. Paul mentioned any part of the “armor,” he first warned the Ephesians of the real conflict: “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Southern Baptists need to remember that all believers, including those who disagree with us on the so-called “secondary and tertiary issues” (Point V), stand together against the forces of darkness that threaten our society and now define our culture. We may disagree with one another on these issues, but we cannot allow our disagreements to distract us from the real enemy. Our adversary works incessantly to divide the Church because he knows that only our unity will convince unbelievers of Jesus’ love for them (cf. John 13:34-35). Our disunity and contentiousness serves only to distract us from our mission of guiding others to the truth of Christ and His resurrection.

Finally, I believe that we must remember our calling to transcend our culture. The history of the Church reminds us of other times in our history that believers have found themselves in circumstances in which cultural norms contradicted with Scriptural commands. Few commands of Our Lord oppose the Southern culture as much as gentleness in our relationships with one another and in our presentations of the gospel to unbelievers in our midst.

I commend the authors of the call for a Great Commission Resurgence. Finally, someone in the SBC recognizes the damage we’ve caused by succumbing to the warlike characteristics of our culture. Even the party currently in charge of the Convention has finally acknowledged the last war – a war that weakened the SBC by resulting in the founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship – succeeded only in convincing many potential pastors and leaders of the newer generations to quit the Convention in disgust over issues never discussed below the national level. They see the hostile mentality of the current SBC leadership as blatantly opposed to the gospel of a gentle Christ. Rather than play the game under the current rules, the new leaders choose to leave the SBC entirely and rewrite the rules along Scriptural lines, abandoning the Scots-Irish mentality altogether. In the process, however, I fear the weakening of our missions efforts. The new ministries started by those who leave will perceive no value in the one thing the SBC manages to do well: The Cooperative Program.

I see signs of hope in my own experience. The church at which I currently serve as pastor once held a reputation in our county Baptist association for its business meetings, and not because of the potluck dinners held afterward. The current generation of leaders observed the acrimonious debates (to use another euphemism) of their parents and grandparents, watching as Bible-believing Christians nearly came to blows over issues. The generation that now leads the church decided early in their service that they would hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior. While we still have disagreements within the church, the leaders never allow matters to approach the level of passion they still remember witnessing as children and teenagers.

The Southern Baptist Convention must transcend our history and our nature. We must follow the commands of Our Lord and teachings of Scripture in our relationships with others. In the Christian classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote to believers regarding those who disagree over the so-called secondary or tertiary issues: “If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. This is one of the rules common to the whole house.”

Sources:

Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Editors. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Copyright © 1988, 1989 by the United Bible Societies, New York, NY 10023 Second Edition.

Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Tradition,” The National Interest, Winter 1999/2000. Available online:http://www.denbeste.nu/external/Mead01.html, last accessed 7 May 2009.

Jerry Pournelle, “Chaos Manor in Perspective,” October 25-31, 2004. Available online:http://www.jerrypournelle.com/archives2/archives2view/view333.html