Saturday, June 14, 2008

Regenerate Church Membership

Since the beginnings of the Baptist denomination in the early 1700s, the idea of regenerate church membership has been a foundational Baptist principle. This was the concept that church membership should consist of the consciously converted rather than those baptized as infants. It was radical for its day because believer's baptism was radical in that time of paedo-baptism domination. This foundational Baptist principle has now spread throughout the free church movement and can no longer be considered exclusively Baptist. That is the good news.

The bad news is the decline of regenerate church membership among Baptists. The combination of shallow evangelism, a lack of church discipline, and general inattention has swelled the rolls of most Baptist churches to where the total membership figure is meaningless. It is not at all uncommon to find that active church members constitute only one-half or one-third of the total membership.

Over the past few years, a group of Southern Baptists have tried to introduce a resolution on regenerate church membership at the Southern Baptist Convention, calling for repentance for our past inattention and a renewal of the biblical practice of church discipline. Each time, the resolution failed to make it out of committee to be voted on by the convention at large.

This year was different. The recognition had grown across the Southern Baptist Convention that we had a problem that needed to be addressed. There were three competing resolutions on regenerate church membership. Predictably, the committee brought the weakest of the three to the floor for a vote. In the discussion prior to the vote, groups wanting a stronger resolution managed to add two amendments to the proffered resolution.

The first amendment called for the resolution to mention baptism by immersion. The second called for churches "to repent of the failure among us to live up to our professed commitment to regenerate church membership and any failure to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members."

The second part of that amendment stated: "We humbly encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, even if such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches."

Both amendments were accepted and the amended resolution easily passed. I applaud the messengers to the the convention for passing this needed resolution. I doubly applaud those who were not willing to accept the watered-down resolution and offered amendment that the convention accepted. This was a good day for Southern Baptists. Now, we must be diligent in following up on this action.

The full resolution can be read here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hankins' Thoughtful Response to Climate Change Declaration

David Hankins, Executive Director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention has written a wise and thoughtful response to last week's release of "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Cllimate Change" that appeared in the Baptist Press. I wrote of this declaration last week in my blog and had intended on dropping the subject but Dr. Hankins' article deserves to be mentioned. He correctly notes the unsettled nature of climate science and, especially, how our role as stewards of creation means using it for the good of man, not just for passive observation.

This is a very good article by Dr. Hankins.

Why I will not sign

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)--Recently a number of conservative Southern Baptist leaders endorsed the document, "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," which asserts: "We believe our current denominational engagement with [climate change] issues has often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice. Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better."

Although many of the signers are my friends and respected colleagues, I am writing to say why I will not sign the document, and why I wish they had not.

First, the fundamental assumption of the declaration is predicated on a seriously flawed understanding of the debate regarding climate change. It affirms the view that human-induced, catastrophic global warming is an undeniable fact. Some of the signers have implied that the declaration is neutral on the question of the imminent threat of global warming. The clear language of the declaration is anything but neutral:

-- "We recognize that if consensus means unanimity, there is not a consensus regarding the anthropogenic nature of climate change or the severity of the problem. There is general agreement among those engaged with this issue in the scientific community."

-- "Though the claims of science [affirming catastrophic global warming] are neither infallible nor unanimous, they are substantial…."

-- "... we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem…"

Hardly neutral, the declaration has staked out a definite position which is simply untenable. There is no "general agreement" in the scientific community on any facet of this subject. There is evidence of growing dissatisfaction in the scientific community with the claims that global warming 1) is caused by human factors; 2) has any alarming consequences; 3) can be altered by a change in human behavior; and 4) should provoke the kind of draconian economic and political actions being currently proposed by many environmental activists.

Second, the declaration gives little evidence of serious interaction with even the most basic arguments on the other side of the debate. For example, the declaration did not appear to take into account any of the analyses produced by the Cornwall Alliance ( -- a coalition of scholars and religious leaders that has addressed the flawed positions of the "Evangelical Climate Initiative" which preceded the most recent declaration and which meandered down the same errant paths.

If global warming is a catastrophic danger caused by destructive human behavior, then everyone, especially godly people, ought to act to correct it. If, however, global warming is only a naturally occurring weather pattern which has been blown out of proportion by politically motivated partisans misconstruing the data, then it is irresponsible to call for actions that will actually harm, not help. If the latter, this new declaration actually evinces the "reckless and ill-informed" behavior it worries Southern Baptists may be exhibiting.

Catastrophic, human-induced climate change 1) has insufficient factual basis and 2) already has been saliently addressed by qualified evangelicals, and the SBC has decided the issue is worthy only of caution. The declaration's assertion that climate change should occupy a more prominent place in Southern Baptist interests should be rejected.

Should Southern Baptists be more engaged with environmental issues? Any issue presented for action by the convention ought to pass at least two tests:

1) Is it a real and pressing problem? Is it right to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre? Only if there really is a fire. Otherwise, raising the alarm is the only real danger. Is climate change more important than, say, world hunger and economic stability in the third world? It is now clear that suggested solutions to the non-problem of global warming would have devastating consequences for national economies, especially in the poorest countries.

2) Is it the business of the church? Should Southern Baptists have a "unified moral voice" on the right to get prescription drugs from Canada? Or on the European Union? Or on the value of NAFTA? There are any number of weighty matters which could consume the attention of the church, but some things are off-message. Climate change is such an issue. Southern Baptists leaders should be careful not to rally our people to a cause that is not only suspect in its reality but also a distraction to our real work.

In appropriate measure, Southern Baptists should, especially in light of the confusion created by the climate change furor, carefully articulate an ecological theology. There is a wealth of theological resources in the Scriptures that guide us.

For example, the Bible states that "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" and that humans are "to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." This unequivocal assertion of God's Word puts humans in the role of stewards of the earth (not interlopers or intruders) whose duty is the maximum utilization of natural resources (not mere passive observation) for the glory of God and the good of men. A sound theology of creation-care will consider human achievement (building dams, erecting skyscrapers, mining for fossil fuels, etc.) as much a cause for celebration of God's creative purposes as a picnic in a virgin forest.

Reclaiming a proper theology is a task related to the environment that we can welcome.

But what about the concern that we are perceived as uncaring among those who are anxious about catastrophic climate change?

This reminds me of a poll reported in SBC Life last year that church young people believe the conservative church is mean to homosexuals.

Are we "mean"? Or could it be that the church believes homosexual behavior is sinful and, when it has addressed this highly volatile subject, it has said so?

Now, it doesn't matter how many ministries we have to homosexuals or how much we express our concern for all sinners, we are still considered "mean." Until we say homosexual behavior is acceptable, we will not be considered by the culture to be "caring." "Caring" means affirming their point of view, including their error.

So, how ought we, as Southern Baptists, minister in love to people who think that the sky is falling because of climate change? Sit down with them over a skinny latte at Starbuck's and gently tell them the truth.
David Hankins is executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

Monday, March 10, 2008

"Baptist Creation Care," If You Please

With the global warming debate continuing to hold headlines, often generating more heat than light, I guess it is not surprising that some Southern Baptists feel the need to weigh in or else we might be viewed as "irrelevant." With that, "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change" has been birthed. It is the brainchild of Jonathan Merritt, son of former SBC president James Merritt. Merritt credits a Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor who stated that destroying God's creation was like "tearing a page out of the Bible" with giving him this inspiration. This led him to lobby several SBC leaders, presumably using his father's Rolodex, to sign on to the initiative.

As a Southern Baptist pastor, I had been pleased that our denomination had not followed more liberal denominations in generating a knee-jerk response to the issue of "global warming." A few years ago, some evangelical leaders, including some prominent Southern Baptists, signed the declaration of the Evangelical Climate Initiative which declared that global warming was real, that it was detrimental, and that governments should immediately act to curb emissions. Many other Southern Baptists moved quickly to disagree with the sweeping statements of this declaration with the belief that the science of the question was far from settled.

This current initiative with its auspicious title,
"A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," aspires to be far more than it is. It is not an official Southern Baptist statement but rather simply a statement of the signatories. The Southern Baptist Convention passed an official resolution, "On Global Warming," in the 2007 convention which urged caution on climate issues because of the unsettled nature of the science.

In my opinion, the global warming issue is the biggest fraud ever foisted upon the public, both national and international. We are continually inundated with stories of impending and unabated global warming. We are warned in apocalyptic language that we might soon reach a "tipping point" where no amount a action could reverse runaway catastrophic global warming. In such a situation, we are told, many of the world's major cities would become uninhabitable due to rising ocean levels. This is to spur us into pressing our government leaders to take drastic actions to reverse the process without regard for economic consequences. The dangers are too they say.

History is replete with crises created so that the "annointed" can rush in and save everyone with, of course, the implicit understanding that this will take great sacrifice. Global warming is the latest "crisis" that requires immediate action. Never mind that there are many contrary voices in the global warming debate. Never mind that many accomplished scientists dispute the findings of those who warn us that the end is near. Never mind also that the drastic actions demanded will hold off the industrialization that many third world societies desperately need thus ensuring that they will remain in generational poverty. The risk is too great to waste time on debate. The time for action is now.

Thankfully, this Southern Baptist initiative falls short of calling for precipitous action as did the Evangelical Climate Initiative. However, it adopts much of the same language and circuitously advocates a scaled-down version of the same kind of action advocated by the more radical declaration.

Ironically, or sadly, depending upon your perspective, these Southern Baptists are rushing to board the climate change ship just as it seems that the wind is leaving its sails. Global warming skeptics receive more press than ever before. Global temperatures are actually falling right now. One Russian scientist has stated that global temperatures peaked in 2004 and were now dropping due to decreasing solar activity. If the previous global warming was due to the sun, and many scientists think it was, there is no amount of government action that can change that and all our precipitous actions will have had no effect; other than to enrich those trading in the carbon offsets they said we needed.

Southern Baptists, as well as all other Americans, will do well to exercise eternal vigilance when fads arise leading to calls for drastic action significantly affecting our way of life. Human "crises" will come and go but one thing remains constant, our need for reconciliation with God that can only come through Jesus Christ. If we do our job as the Church, proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world, we may not be "cool" but we will never be irrelevant.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A View from the Dumpster

Some years ago, on a crisp December morning, I wheeled my old, battle-tested Mercury Sable into the parking lot of Calvary Baptist Church in Garland, Texas. One of the odd jobs that I did to support my family while in seminary was to provide periodic custodial duties at the church we had attended for the past year. This usually consisted of arranging chairs to prepare for or recover from various meetings or parties with the following cleanup. We had the usual constant expenses and a baby on the way so I welcomed any opportunity to pick up some quick cash to ease the burden.

On this day, as I was taking out the garbage (the usual day-old cake, cookie fragments, and leftover punch) I paused beside the dumpster to tie the supersized trash bag before its final shove into the abyss of junkdom. My tying handiwork was interrupted by the brisk north Texas wind blowing the rolling trash can into me. So there I stood, trash bag in one hand, the other trying to keep the trash can from being blown down the parking lot. In my interaction with that contrary wind, I was battling the elements like so many had before me in the long history of mankind. My obstacles in this case were small by historic standards but my frustration was a microcosm of what has been felt by millions since the beginning of time. In the midst of this, strangely or perhaps not so strangely, my mind traveled back to the first time that a man struggled against contrary natural forces. He and his wife had been banished from their beautiful habitat with the promise that, before things got better, they would get much worse. Now, several thousand years later, in that chilly Saturday morning wind, I realized that I was facing…the CURSE.

It need not have happened. Our first father, created from the dust, was fashioned by the hand of God Himself. Our mother was skillfully crafted from a rib of the man who called her “the mother of all the living.” God had formed them in purity and placed them in an idyllic setting, a garden He planted which only required tending by the first couple. Accompanying this, God gave only two commandments. The first was, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Neither the couple nor the present six billion of their progeny have ever had a problem with this commandment. It was with the second commandment that the problems began.

There must have been a myriad of trees in the garden, species that could delight any palette with their delicacies. However, there was one that was very different from the rest for it was of this tree that God said, “you shall not eat of it.” Perhaps, it did not looked materially different from any of the other trees and, but for its central location and designation by the Holy One, would have remained unnoticed among the throng. However, there it stood, the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” There, our first mother, tempted by the serpent and captivated by her own lusts for godhood, partook of this “forbidden fruit.” Not being selfish (or, more likely, not wanting to be the lone transgressor), she shared her find with her husband who also ate. The response was immediate. They did gain the knowledge of good and evil that they sought. However, the evil they now saw was within themselves. They were naked and ashamed.

When confronted by God, the new change in their nature became immediately apparent. Where there had once been harmony, there was now self-seeking. Where there had once been submission, there was now self-justification. Each tried to shift the blame to someone else. Milton wrote Adam well in Paradise Lost:

She whom thou mad’st to be my help
And gav’st me as thy perfect gift, so good,
So fit, so acceptable, so divine,
That from her hand I could suspect no ill,
And what she did, whatever in itself,
Her doing seemed to justify the deed,
She gave me of the tree and I did eat

There were, of course, other consequences. The Fall ensured that there would be a gender gap. Man would rule over woman and women would chafe under this rule. Women would give birth in pain and travail. But, also, the earth was cursed for Adam’s sake. So much so that Paul himself wrote that the creation itself groans under this curse. Just as the nature of man’s heart changed from harmony in his obedience to God to that of rebellion and discord, so also, in like manner, the creation changed.

We will never know in this life what would have become of humanity had Eve not taken of the fruit and then shared it with her husband. And what would have occurred if Adam had not eaten and plunged the human race into ruin and the creation into chaos? Full answers to these questions must await another age. They must await a future earth in which righteousness dwells. However, for the present, this is the only world we have known and in it, cursed though it may be, we must dwell.

In a final note, as I was wheeling the garbage can out of the church before my encounter at the dumpster, I saw the Minister of Education driving away in his sleek Chevy Suburban SUV. I threw up a big wave to this fine man which he returned in an expansive fashion, displaying the friendliness that I had come to expect from him. We have a lot in common, both native Alabamians, both Crimson Tide fans, and both pursuing ministry, he with his two seminary degrees and me in my seminary quest for the Master of Theology. However, in that moment, there was the slightest twinge of … what was it?…was it shame? Deep within the recesses of my soul there was the slightest bit of embarrassment that I should be seen doing so menial a task, a task so beneath my obvious gifting and training. Praise and adoration doesn’t usually follow the garbage man. He goes about his task in seeming anonymity and, while we appreciate his efforts, we don’t expend a lot of energy complimenting him on his theological insights or “how he’s been such a blessing to us.” So, there again, I’m confronted with the effects of the Fall. My desire is to be exalted, not viewed as servile. So unlike our Lord who took on the form of a servant. So much like the Shining One who said, “I will exalt my throne above the stars of God.”

We live in a cursed world but we don’t have to live cursed lives. The great Apostle Paul once cried in anguish, “who will deliver me from the body of this death?” We can claim the same answer that he did, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Thanks be to our God that the curse is broken with the new birth, will be eradicated with the new body and will be banished from the new earth.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Destructive Pride

Pride and arrogance have been the downfall of many people. In ancient times, Alexander the Great was once trying to attack some enemies who had situated themselves on a high mountain that was almost impossible to get to. Alexander tried to negotiate with the enemy but was unsuccessful. He was so frustrated that he was almost ready to give up until one of the enemies uttered a statement of tremendous arrogance. The enemy told him that to defeat them, he would have to “find soldiers that could fly.” This so infuriated Alexander that he was stirred to action. He found a way to defeat this enemy despite the seeming impossibility. The enemy’s pride resulted in their defeat and death.

The Scriptures tell us the same thing. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” The next verse tells us, “Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.” God cannot use the proud of heart. The proud seek to glorify themselves rather than God. God does not bless the proud but he lifts up the humble as Isaiah 66:2 tells us:

“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

Let us always keep this in mind so that we will never be prideful and find ourselves of no use to God.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hope in Discouragement

A story was once told of a man lost in the desert. He had been out of food and water for days. His lips were swollen, his tongue was swollen and he was all beaten up and bloody. Some of his bones were peeking through. He had been scraped and beaten up by cactus, sun, and sand. He was blistered. As he was crawling over this little hill, he came across a small plant and propped himself up on one bloody elbow. He looked down at the plant and said, “You know, if things keep going like this, I might get discouraged.”

It is part of our human condition that we will grow discouraged from time to time. Perhaps we have experienced disappointment in our families or relationships. Perhaps we let the evil condition of the word get us down. Maybe, we just get beaten down with the rat race of life and grow discouraged because it seems that things will not get better and we will continually live with frustration.

A sure help for times of discouragement is to remove our focus from how small we are in the midst of life’s storms to how big God is. It is because of God’s greatness that we can be encouraged even though life is difficult. We can be encouraged because even though our problems may be big, our God is so much bigger. Isaiah wrote to a discouraged people of the greatness of God and how He is a sure hope for those who are down.

They will see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you. (Is. 35:2-4)