Last week I opened my discussion of Resolution 9 by suggesting that our cultural diversity has created much of the controversy that has surrounded it. I also encouraged you to review several web-links that give us a history of how we got to our current point of contention. Another area that has fueled the fire has been our definition of terms--and remember your culture informs your definitions.
In the early first century, the accepted definition for the Hebrew word Messiah was that of a conquering king. However, after the execution of Jesus of Nazareth as a blasphemer and a heretical teacher, there arose a sect of Judaism called The Way. They believed that this man Jesus was also God and that He rose from the dead. They pointed to a multitude of OT passages that described the Messiah as both a suffering servant and a conquering king, and claimed that Jesus would soon be coming back as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
This teaching was also viewed as heretical and it drove a Pharisee by the name of Saul to zealously pursue men and women who had become involved in the group called the Way. Luke describes his attitude and actions in Acts 9:1-2:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem
As Luke continues his narrative, we read of a miraculous encounter that transformed the persecuting Pharisee Saul into the great missionary to the Gentiles we call the Apostle Paul.As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. (Acts 9:3-5a)
Saul’s definition of the Messiah was forever altered. This self-identified Pharisee of the Pharisees began to tell everyone he encountered about The REAL Messiah. How we define things is important. Defining terms reminds me of my seminary days. Having enrolled in a Masters of Divinity program with my undergraduate Bachelors of Science in Agricultural Economics, I quickly discovered that my vocabulary was limiting me. I came to realize that the only college experience I had that really prepared me for seminary was the fact that I had learned the Greek alphabet when I pledged a Greek Fraternity. I found myself studying in the library and strategically positioning myself close to the thickest dictionary I have ever seen. The first year, I got a lot of exercise jumping up and walking to that dictionary. Unfortunately, there were times when the word I sought wasn’t there. A scholar had used a Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or German word “assuming” anyone who would be reading his thoughts would automatically know what the word meant. Sidebar comment: that dictionary had a ton of words, but I don’t recall a single one of them having only one definition.
That experience helped me to see that every area of study will have its own vocabulary. Each field of study is filled with acronyms and insider insights with accompanying stories that are specifically related to their work world. Each discipline develops a unique culture and language. This complicates conversations especially when different areas of study use the same word but assign a very different meaning. Because all of us tend to “assume” that everyone defines words as we do, no one stops to define terms in the middle of a conversation. A couple of simple examples: For someone in the Audubon Society a crane is a bird in the waterfowl family. If you’re a construction worker a crane is a piece of equipment used to reach high places. For a doctor, the word arm is a noun referring to a part of the human anatomy. While someone in the military will use the word arm as a verb to describe the process of providing someone with military equipment.
Let me suggest that part of our difficulty in discussing Resolution 9 is related to a difference in the definition of terms. Theologians are talking about terms developed and defined by Sociologists who are studying discriminatory laws: Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. I am NOT saying that we cannot understand theories developed by another field of study. What I am saying is that we can easily develop an incomplete definition if we have not taken time to dive deeply into theories developed by another academic discipline.
Pastor Stephen Feinstein submitted a resolution at the 2019 SBC Meeting which contained strong language stating his belief that “critical race theory and intersectionality (CRT/I) are founded upon unbiblical presuppositions descended from Marxist theories and categories, and therefore are inherently opposed to the Scriptures as the true center of Christian union.” Pastor Feinstein seems to view CRT/I as having been developed in the field of Political Science rather than Sociology. Remember, I suggested in an earlier article that politics DOES play a negative part in how Southern Baptists view current events.
The resolution committee, which was a culturally diverse committee, modified his original resolution to include phrases like “Critical race theory and intersectionality have been appropriated by individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith, resulting in ideologies and methods that contradict Scripture.” The final resolution, as approved, included four separate Whereas and four separate Be it resolved clauses that affirmed in one way or another the sole sufficiency of scripture. The strongest stated “That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, June 11–12, 2019, affirm Scripture as the first, last, and sufficient authority with regard to how the Church seeks to redress social ills, and we reject any conduct, creeds, and religious opinions which contradict Scripture.”
My guess is that if you began reading this article with a strong opinion on Resolution 9, then you still hold that opinion. I would just encourage you to hold it with humility, and I would remind you of the provisos I mentioned in my first two articles. My prayer is that as we encounter difficult topics and conversations in the future that we are more careful and kind as we begin to clarify the definition of keywords we are using. All words have multiple meanings!Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
One of the four changes I mentioned in my opening article in this series is that Southern Baptists have become the most ethnically diverse convention of churches in America. The good news is that we have done a great job of celebrating that reality. The bad news is that we have struggled to embrace it. If you have not read my previous articles, let me ask you to stop right now and read the first two before you move to the next paragraph. For the sake of time and space, I will not repeat the significant provisos I laid out in those articles.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. In it Jesus describes a young man at a low point in his life: “He began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate” (14b-16a). My question for you is, “What caused him to be in such dire circumstances?”
Having grown up in a culture that exemplified the Protestant Work Ethic, my answer has always been that “[He] wasted his possessions with prodigal living” (13). A few years ago I heard a missionary talk about how other cultures understand the same parable. It was only then that I was able to see that the parable actually contains three distinct reasons for his circumstances.
In SBC life, we increasingly find ourselves engaged in debates and at times divisive conflicts because of the differences created by our diverse cultural views of issues. I believe that a significant portion of the debate on Resolution 9 that was passed at the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting has been caused by our cultural diversity.
When I was sixteen, my family moved from northeast Wyoming to northeast Oklahoma. I had already accepted Christ and was an active church member and practicing young Christian, but I was quickly told that some of the things that were part of the social fabric in Wyoming were pagan and unacceptable activities for a Christian in Oklahoma. That experience and the privilege of serving the culturally diverse churches of Heartland Church Network have helped me to see that culture plays a significant role in how we view life and do church.
Resolution 9 specifically addresses two sociological theories: Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. For some of us, these were terms we had never heard before we read the resolution. For others, they were terms we had heard, but not topics that we have actually studied. For yet others, they are terms that evoke deep feelings; however, those emotions can be found at opposites ends of the debate. Cultural differences have generated vastly different definitions for the terms and thus reactions to the resolution.
But before I jump into the already heated debate, let me remind you how we got to where we are today.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Having laid out some principles we can use in sensitive situations in the last two articles, let me now begin to address the four major cultural shifts I mentioned. These changes provided us with opportunities that we have not always handled well. I will begin by addressing the impact that the huge political shift in the traditional SBC states has had on us.
In those states, we moved from a convention whose church members were overwhelming of the Democrat Party to a convention with church members from both major parties. It wasn’t that many years ago that in the traditional SBC states you could not get elected if you didn’t have a D next to your name on the ballot. In recent presidential elections, those states have voted primarily for the Republican candidate. I believe some of the conflicts surrounding the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) are related to this major political shift.
Remember, I said we would be talking about very complex issues in a relatively simplistic way. My purpose is to bring a broader perspective to avoid getting lost in the weeds, and my goal is to initiate constructive dialogue in emotionally charged contexts. I also admitted that my perspective is shaped by my life experiences. As a Wyoming native, my “heart language” is Mountain West. That means I will tell you what is on my mind and I expect you to do the same thing with me. And God is slowly teaching me how to say it with grace.
To the above provisos, let me add that the president of every SBC entity has stepped into a role where his personal opinions must be filtered by his leadership responsibility to the entity he serves. Also, I learned from a wise leader an important leadership principle: the higher my position of responsibility and the greater my authority, the less I can and should say on certain topics. That’s wise counsel for all of us. Just because it’s in your mind, doesn’t mean you need to say it. One last comment: We live in a politically charged and deeply divided nation. Actions and statements that can be viewed as political in nature WILL create division.
With this background, let me state the mission of the ERLC as specified in The Organizational Manual of the Southern Baptist Convention:
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission exists to assist the churches by helping them understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with the churches and other Southern Baptist entities.
With that four-part mission in mind, I would suggest that if the ERLC or its president takes a position or makes a comment that will be seen as primarily political, then they have knowingly and willingly stepped outside of their mission assignment. Some of the more vocal among us who are very upset with the actions of the ERLC are upset because of political positions or political comments made by President Russell Moore and the ERLC. Years ago, those positions might have simply received a quiet “amen.” Today, those actions will stand in direct opposition to the political opinions held by many across the breadth of SBC life, as well as many church members in the traditional southern states.
Because of an ongoing history of such actions, the SBC Executive Committee appointed a Study Task Force to “assess whether the actions of the Commission and its leadership are affecting Cooperative Program giving.” Six specific recommendations were listed in the Study Task Force’s report to the Executive Committee. (Click here to view the full report.)
For the sake of brevity I am listing the three that are most applicable to ERLC actions that have been viewed as political (emphasis added by me):
Ultimately, when leaders continue to give personal opinions that are negatively impacting their organization, and they seemingly refuse to acknowledge those errors in judgment, then that leader’s personal agenda has risen above their leadership responsibility to that organization. In the long run, every organization will falter (church, association, state convention, or SBC entity) if it does not hold leaders accountable for actions that are negatively impacting their organization. There are times when a leader becomes such a focal point or lightning rod that an organization’s mission becomes severely compromised.
I have intentionally avoided other issues that some people have raised concerning ERLC actions. My emphasis has been on the impact of political issues in the context of SBC life that is politically very different than it has been in the past. I also threw in some leadership principles that magnify the impact of such comments. My prayer is that all leaders will have a laser focus on the purpose of the organization God has called and equipped them to lead. And, if a time comes when their personal agenda becomes more important to them than the health of the organization, then the Holy Spirit will convict them so they will either amend their ways or find a place to serve where their agenda and the purpose of the entity are compatible.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Last week I began to share my perception of what is happening in SBC life. In so doing I began to list some principles that will help us transform the “Bad News” that occurs when we become polarized into “Good News.” I began by listing a couple of principles that can help us generate “Good News” in ANY situation. The first two were to keep your focus on the main thing and the other was to use your existing relationships to create healthy dialogue. Some additional ones are:
These reflections come in the midst of me leading another small group through Henry Blackaby’s study Experiencing God, and my attendance at the February 2021 SBC Executive Committee Meeting in Nashville as our state convention’s trustee. As I share my thoughts, I do so with some major disclaimers. First and foremost, you need to know that these are MY PERSONAL thoughts. I am not speaking in any formal capacity, nor on behalf of any other Executive Committee member, nor for anyone on the Executive Committee staff. Second, I share them with humility knowing that where you have three or four Baptists gathered together you have at least five or six opinions on any given topic. Chances are I could read this next week and wonder what kind of a nut wrote that! I also share them knowing that my reflections are an extremely simplistic way of viewing some very complex and integrally intertwined issues.
During the Nashville Executive Committee meeting, Dr. Ronnie Floyd recast his Vision 2025—a clear and compelling vision that was to be approved at the 2020 SBC meeting in Orlando, which was canceled due to COVID. Dr. Floyd’s passion was bolstered by the fact that we could hear him in person, and that we have the expectation of meeting in person for the 2021 convention this June in Nashville. Having a clear vision is “Good News!” However, at that same meeting, we had to deal with several issues that fall into the “Bad News” category. Those issues are significant enough that even a clear and compelling vision can be drowned out by the cacophony created by unrecognized and unaddressed conflicts. That reality reminded me of an old Hee Haw skit that Archie Campbell did. In the routine, he contrasted the “Good News” and “Bad News” that can arise out of any given situation: Oh that's good.
As I began to reflect on the Good News-Bad News contrast, I thought about the slogan General Motors used in their 1988 campaign to re-energize the Oldsmobile brand: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Stop and think with me for just a minute about some of the huge changes that have taken place in SBC life in the last fifty-plus years:
Before I suggest how the “Good News” in the changes I mentioned above are at the core of some of our “Bad News,” let me suggest some principles that can help us generate “Good News” in any setting.
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.