Learning to
Number Our Days

A Chink in Our Baptist Armor . . . Baptists and Our Creeds—Do We Or Don’t We Need Them?

A Chink in Our Baptist Armor . . . Baptists and Our Creeds—Do We Or Don’t We Need Them?

This week, I finished proofreading an essay I read at the Evangelical Theological Society last November on the conflicted history of Baptists and freemasonry. It will soon be published in two slightly different forms, but if you are dying to read it, click on the link here. As I reread through the paper for the umpteenth time, I reflected on a perennial problem Baptists have wrestled with over the past four hundred-plus years of our history. Do we have a creed or a confession that governs what we must believe or do our confessional statements merely reflect what a group of Baptists believe at the time it is drafted? Baptists in general and the SBC in particular has sent out conflicting signals on freemasonry. Some Baptists vigorously oppose it while others leave it to personal conscience or a particular local church to decide, thus while Southern Baptists attempted to warn churches against membership in masonry in the 1990s, there is still a significant number of masons among SBC church membership. Baptists, who argue that there is no creed that binds us, argue that your church can decide what your church should do, but our church will decide what we will do.

This question was implicitly behind some of the controversy at the recent SBC annual gathering in Anaheim about which I wrote last week. Among the contested questions left unresolved this year was the membership of Saddleback Church, founded in Lake Forest, CA in 1980 by Rick Warren. Last year, Saddleback ordained three women to pastoral ministry, prompting the SBC Credentials Committee (CC) to review their membership as a church in friendly cooperation with the SBC. Rather than coming forward with a recommendation that the SBC disfellowship Saddleback based on the clear statement on the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, chapter seven which reads in part While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture, the CC suggested the SBC commission a study to determine just how SBC churches use the term pastor. This elicited a strong opposing reaction from the floor because the SBC, it was asserted, settled this more than twenty-years previous. R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern, used the strongest of language to state this but his younger colleague Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Seminary offered an alternative suggestion that the SBC should do a study on just how much of BFM2000 a church in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC must believe. Greenway was born in 1978 near the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence, while Mohler, twenty years his senior, lived through those years as a student and budding SBC leader. He knew well the issues that surrounded the revision of the BFM in 2000, on which committee he sat, as it sought to address the ambiguities and weaknesses of the previous iteration of the BFM (1963). Because many Baptists believe that confessions and creeds have no real authority over what Baptists must believe—“the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement,” (countermotion made by Cornelius Woelfkin, pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church, NYC, after WB Riley, pastor of First Baptist Minneapolis, read the entire text of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith [1833] into the record at the 1922 annual meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention), many Baptists argue they are free to decide for themselves what is necessary.

As I watched the floor debate unfold in Anaheim over this issue, I texted my PhD mentor, Tom Nettles, a Baptist historian, that it was occasions like this that made me consider becoming a Presbyterian . . . briefly. While Presbyterians do have a confessional standard—the Westminster Confession of Faith (1644)—that standard is no stronger than the commitment of those who are charged with insuring compliance. The Presbyterians experienced the effects of rising liberalism in the early part of last century because many Presbyterians refused to be bound by the Westminster statement. Infamous Baptist liberal, Harry Emerson Fosdick, preaching from a Presbyterian pulpit in New York, threw down the gauntlet with his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, asserting that times had changed, and theological belief needed to change with them.

Whether it’s freemasonry, theological liberalism, women as pastors, or some other yet to be disputed issue, Baptists will continue to feel the pull of theological drift because many refuse to adhere to a doctrinal standard. I lived through the Conservative Resurgence, moving away from the SBC into independent Baptist life, but happily returning to the SBC world in 2000 when I began work on my PhD. I read widely on the “battle over fundamentalism” in the SBC both pro and con so that I might understand the world in which I was studying. I entered Southern less than a decade after a very young Mohler took the reins, but by the time I was studying there, it was a bastion of conservative thought. Nearly all of the progressives had either retired, moved on to other more liberal schools or flew quietly under the radar. Molly Marshall is an example of progressives who saw the handwriting on the wall and were forced off the faculty. In 2001, the former journal of the seminary, The Review and Expositor, published a volume “Sexuality and the Church.” SBTS Old Testament professor Joel Drinkard Jr. was the business manager of the journal and was asked by Mohler to sever his relation over the content of some of the articles. Drinkard quietly left the journal and was allowed to work a few more years until he “retired” quietly in 2008. In 2011, he became the scholar in residence at Campbellsville University. Southern seminary’s faculty are required to adhere to its articles of faith, The Abstracts of Principles, pledging to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” its clear doctrinal declarations. Despite that pledge, Drinkard remained under the radar at Southern a few more years.

This is part of the challenge of theological orthodoxy. A man may claim to believe one thing, but in reality, he believes something else. As the fundamentalist-modernist controversy raged in the Northern Baptist Convention, convention president Helen Barrett Montgomery urged Shailer Mathews to encourage seminary professors from the University of Chicago Divinity School to preach something “safe” in the local church pulpits. Divinity School theologian George Burman Foster was notorious for creating controversy among the churches promoting liberal views. In the same way, Ralph Elliott tells of “double speak” that some Southern Baptist liberals used to cover their true views and conceal their theological drift.

So, what should the SBC do with the issue of women pastors? Rick Warren said recently that it was a peripheral issue, and that Southern Baptists should keep the main thing the main thing. Reminds me of what Shailer Mathews, Chicago Divinity school dean and prominent liberal placed on a banner which was hung over the platform at the annual meeting of the Northern Baptist the year he was president—“Let’s Get Together By Working Together.” Implication—let’s ignore our differences for the greater good. If the SBC took a narrow view of the BFM2000 and requires strict, literal adherence it would surely split the convention. No one is gonna tell my church what they must believe! As I warned my professor so long ago, the Conservative Resurgence wouldn’t last because the seeds of decay were never really removed. As the world saw at Anaheim, a generation has arisen that “knew not Joseph” and the same issues are being discussed again with a finger to the wind to see which way it is blowing.

Maybe it’s time for Baptists to rethink our credal commitments and let the chips fall where they may.

Baptists and Their Polity – Reflections of the SBC Anaheim Meetings Day One

Baptists and Their Polity – Reflections of the SBC Anaheim Meetings Day One

     Any student of Baptist history knows that Baptists are a diverse lot—Calvinist, Arminian, independent, interdependent, women in the pulpit, no women in the pulpit, progressive, fundamentalist, liberal, missionary, antimissionary, Seventh-Day, etc. Yesterday proved no exception as Southern Baptists met in Anaheim, California for their annual convention. Watching the events unfold was an interesting exercise in viewing denominational politics and perspectives.

     The annual meeting promised to be stimulating this year for a number of reasons. First, current president Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church of Mobile, AL, has been under fire since it was discovered soon after his election last year that he plagiarized sermons of his predecessor, J. D. Greear, and at least one by Tim Keller, causing him to remove sermons from his website. Despite calls for him to step down from the presidency over this ethical breach, he determined to remain but indicated that he would not seek the customary second term as president. That was not enough for his detractors as several times from the floor, the subject of sermon plagiarism was broached, only to be ruled out of order by Litton in the chair.

     Also raised from the floor by Tom Buck, pastor of First Baptist Lindale, TX, and his wife Jennifer was their grievance with Danny Akin and Karen Swallow Prior. The Bucks had struggled in their early marriage and had used their story to encourage others struggling with their marriage. At one point, Jennifer considered publishing an account of their challenges and sent a draft to Prior for comment. Someone shared the draft with others and they in turn recently weaponized it against Tom, an outspoken critic of some aspects of SBC life, by releasing it for public reading. The Bucks had been trying to discover how the private essay, not ready for public view, could have seen the light of day. Both Tom and Jennifer tried to raise their grievances in connection with the sexual abuse issue from the floor of the SBC meeting but were immediately ruled out of order by Litton.

     Among the big issues on the table at the SBC this year was the membership of Saddleback Church (Rick Warren) in the SBC after their ordination of three women to pastoral ministry positions, the response of the Convention to the Sexual Abuse Task Force (SATF) report recently released by Guidepost Solutions, and the presidency of the convention. As to the first issue—Saddleback’s membership in the SBC, the Credentials Committee (CC) under the leadership of Linda Cooper, submitted a recommendation to the SBC that the convention needed to further study what was meant by the use of the title “pastor” in SBC churches. Clearly the CC believe that senior pastors or preaching pastors needed to be men, but it seemed to the committee that SBC churches used the title pastor for a wide assortment of ministry positions. The recommendation was rejected at the Convention after vigorous discussion including remarks from R. Albert Mohler, a member of the revision committee of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM), and Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Seminary. Mohler argued that this had been settled in SBC life more than 20 years earlier. Greenway proposed an amendment that the SBC do a study to determine just how much of the BFM a church had to hold to be in friendly cooperation with the SBC. The Greenway amendment was received as a friendly amendment by the CC, but a vote by a show of hands on the amendment was too close to call, therefore it was put to a ballot necessitating the extension of discussion on Saddleback’s relationship with the SBC later in the day. Ed Litton, after announcing that the SBC rejected the Greenway amendment, permitted Rick Warren to take the microphone and defend his life and ministry. What followed was a recounting of Warren/Saddleback’s achievements including more than 56,000 baptisms, 90 churches started in Orange County, CA, the sending of nearly 57,000 members to do overseas work, and training more than one million pastors, more than all the SBC seminaries combined. Warren, in the end, appealed to Southern Baptists to keep the main thing the main thing and not to get distracted by secondary issues. The CC ultimately withdrew their recommendation for a study on the use of “pastor” among SBC churches, leaving the Saddleback issue unresolved.

     As to the recommendations from Guidepost Solutions, attention was drawn to the fact that Guidepost had tweeted support for the LGBTQ agenda at the beginning of Gay Pride month resulting in calls from Southern Baptists to separate from Guidepost over this association. Despite these calls, the convention forged ahead to strongly adopt the report’s two recommendations—first to form an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force and second to create a Ministry Check website where the names of those credibly accused of sexual abuse can be listed as a way for churches to attempt to ensure sexual abusers cannot simply move to a new church undetected. The debate on these recommendations lasted some thirty-five minutes. Mark Coppenger, retired professor from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Louisville provided the “most full-throated” rejection of these recommendations, arguing that they were inconsistent with Baptist polity.

     Finally, on day one of the convention, the presidency for 2023 was decided when Southern Baptists elected Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, TX on the second ballot. Originally four candidates for president were nominated, including Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist of Cape Coral, FL, Robin Hadaway, a former International Mission Board missionary and professor of missions at Midwestern, and Frank Cox, pastor of Olive Baptist Church of Pensacola, FL. Cox was a last-minute nominee and received few votes with Hadaway receiving less than one thousand votes cast. (While there were in excess of 8000 delegates registered, less than six thousand votes were cast in either ballot.) Barber received the most votes on the first ballot with Ascol a distant second. In the run-off vote, less messengers voted than in the first election with Ascol receiving about 150 less votes the second go-around and Barber receiving about the same number of additional votes. Barber subsequently was declared the winner with an excess of 60% of the votes cast.

     The defeat of Ascol for president was among a series of defeats more conservative Southern Baptists would suffer in the early part of the convention. At the Pastor’s Conference (PC) on the previous day, Voddie Baucham, dean of African Christian University of Zambia, a strong critic of Critical Race Theory but not a Southern Baptist, lost the election for the presidency of the PC. The PC is separate from the SBC annual meeting but held in conjunction with the annual meeting. His rejection as president of the conference was a harbinger of things to come.

     The question of Baptist polity came up at several points in the discussion. It is a worthwhile discussion but not one likely to be settled in the SBC any time soon. To achieve an association of the largest number of people, distinctions must be kept at a minimum. For example, one could have a club limited to left-handed men over thirty with blue eyes and blond hair. Obviously, this necessitates a smaller number of members than if removing the gender restriction of only men. Theoretically, removing that would double the possible size of the group. If the hair color requirement was removed and the left-handedness requirement, the group’s potential size grows larger.

     What does this have to do with the SBC? As was clear yesterday, there is great diversity in the convention even with the BFM. Adam Greenway’s failed amendment suggests that the SBC has an identity crisis. How much of the BFM does one have to affirm to be a church in friendly cooperation? Who can be a pastor? What does pastor even mean? Apparently within the SBC, a pastor can be a man or a woman . . . at least as of today.

     As for the SATF and the Guidepost recommendations, Mark Coppenger said that the procedure was not in keeping with Baptist practices. Well, apparently Baptist practices were insufficient to protect the numerous sexual abuse victims within the ranks of the SBC. Now, to be clear, sexual abuse isn’t simply an SBC problem. Coppenger, while rejecting the Guidepost recommendations offered no clear statement of how Baptist polity could fix this problem nor any explanation as to why Baptist polity had, up to this point failed to address the issue. When I first went to Canada, the Catholic church was in the midst of the Christian Brothers scandal. Independent Baptists have had their share of these problems also.

     Clearly the SBC has no settled rubric for determining what a cooperating church must believe, nor any clear way to deal with a non-cooperating church. By giving Rick Warren the floor yesterday to thumb his nose at SBC concerns, the convention demonstrated its broad diversity. Even Warren’s recent announcement of his designated successor seems very unBaptistic. Isn’t pastoral leadership a church body issue? What biblical warrant is there for a pastor to unilaterally appoint his successor? Granted the church ultimately endorsed the Warren choice, but the process seems unBaptistic.

     Surely Baptist polity as it developed in the 17th and 18th century did not envision the egregious sexual abuse controversy. The SBC has to wrestle with how to protect their churches from predators. This may mean Baptist polity must be adapted to a new era. After all Baptist polity was formed in the crucible of history.

     Afterward: This is my first essay in about two months. I had a serious bout with kidney stones that kept me down for over a month and we took an 11-day trip out west from which we returned last Wednesday.

Are We Living in the Last Days? Thoughts on Matthew 24:1–14

Are We Living in the Last Days? Thoughts on Matthew 24:1–14

I must admit, I have several potential blog essays underway. But somehow, in the light of global events, these essays just don’t seem that significant. Having been to Ukraine twice and to Russia twice on teaching junkets over the past twenty years, I have been burdened about the war Russia is waging on Ukraine. I understand the historical dynamics. Russia’s “take no prisoners” approach to this war is criminal. What to do about all this is another matter. This essay will not weigh in on the political issues. Rather, I pose the question, Are we living in the last days?

Whatever your eschatological sensibilities, if you are a Bible Christian, you believe in the reality of what the Bible calls “the last days.” Jesus, quoting Joel, spoke of “the last days” (Acts 2:17) as did Paul (2 Tim. 3:1) and Peter (2 Pet 3:3). These days connect to the coming (return) of Jesus to do something. For this essay, I do not intend to make a full-throated defense of any particular eschatological system, just attempt to address the question that is on the minds of many believers today—are we living in the last days? I mentioned on Facebook last week, that I was preaching in a couple of churches last Sunday on this text and one FB friend asked if I was “Jeff Van Straube,” a takeoff on Jack Van Impe, the late prophecy preacher who died two years ago. I had occasion to hear Jack in person a number of times in the 70s at various conferences. He, like so many preachers, talked a lot about the “last days.”

I decided to preach on the early verses from the Olivet Discourse this last Sunday because it has long been my practice as a preacher to be sensitive to the world situation and to use world events on limited occasions to prompt some sermons. Global events are heavy on people’s minds, so why not use the things they are already thinking about to draw them into the Scripture? I did this at the beginning of COVID with a sermon on Ps 90 “Learning to Number Our Days,” coincidentally the name of my blog. With the very real prospect of World War 3 at our doorstep, a sermon on the last days is certainly appropriate. Nor was I alone in my consideration. Pat Robertson has already come out with a statement that we are preparing for Armageddon. Robert Jeffress dealt with a similar topic this past Sunday at First Baptist Dallas. And I saw on FB that a Romanian colleague, a leader among the Baptists there, preached on Mt 24–25 in one of his churches. Asking if we are living in the last days seems like a reasonable question given world events, especially since “wars and rumors of wars” as one possible indicator is located in this passage that also speaks of “earthquakes in various places.” This week, Japan experienced a 7.3 earthquake off the coast of the Fukushima prefecture at 11:36 PM local time. Tsunami warnings were issued along the east Honshu coast. Are we seeing Bible prophecy come to life?

This is a reasonable question to ask, and since the disciples asked a similar one, let’s consider what Jesus answered them. In looking at Matthew 24, we need a bit of context. Jesus and the 12 have been in Jerusalem for one last preaching tour before his crucifixion. The triumphal entry has already happened and Jesus finishes up teaching in the Temple, departing with the 12 for the Mt of Olives, a Sabbath day’s journey from the Temple (Acts 1:12). As he departs, Jesus warns the 12 about the coming razing of the Temple—one stone will not be left upon another. Whether this is hyperbole to say that the building will be unusable once it happens or whether it is literal, the point is the utter destruction of the Temple (which will happen in 70 AD when Titus besieges Jerusalem and destroys the Jewish center of worship). Troubled by the prophecy, the disciples ask Jesus the logical question—when will this happen and is this connected with his coming and the end of the age?

Obviously, this will require a longer answer than this blog essay can provide but by looking at the next few verses, we can get a good idea of how to think. You will notice the very first thing Jesus says in reply to their question—don’t be led astray, by false Christs (v. 5) and, later on, by false prophets (v. 11). When we talk about the last days, we need to exercise caution lest we be deceived. There have been many false Christs—Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshal Herff Applewhite, Jr (Heaven’s Gate) that preached prophetic messages that led to the deaths of their followers—918 at Jonestown in 1978, 76 at Waco in 1993 and 39 in 1997 at Rancho Santa Fe, CA. A very real consequence to following false Christs or false prophets is death if their delusional teaching is embraced.

So, what is Jesus telling his disciples here? Yes, wars and rumors of wars will occur in the days before the end. Famines, a natural consequence of war, and earthquakes will also accompany the end time. But these are the beginning of birth pains. Just how long it will be from the beginning to the end is unclear. We simply don’t know if we are at the end of the beginning or at the beginning of the end. Is it five minutes to midnight or three minutes after midnight on the clock of human history? We don’t know and it would be dangerous to speculate. What are we then to do?

Well, what we should not do is sell our goods and move to a mountain top and wait for Jesus. We might wait along time. Two things from this text emerge that we can do and should do immediately. First, we need to endure . . . persevere to the end, whenever that may be. Perseverance is a most important doctrine for the Christian. Perseverance is something that we work at (Php 2:12) and it is something that God does in us (Php 2:13). The second thing that concerns us is the preaching of the gospel—the Gospel of the Kingdom. There is only one gospel—the good news that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead. People need to be pointed to Jesus during these uncertain days (John 3:3).

So in answer to the question I posed in the title, are we living in th last days, I don’t know. Are we at the end of the beginning or at the beginning of the end? We might even be at the end of the end; God only knows. One of the last things Jesus told us was that knowing the times or seasons is not for us to know (Acts 1:7). We are just to be ready! Lord help us to be ready for your return.

Grieving for Ukraine

Grieving for Ukraine

I have been to the Ukraine twice, teaching students and preaching in churches. I have walked the streets of Kyiv, broken bread with believers there and elsewhere in the Ukraine, witnessed the work of God in the country and seen its beauty. I stood on the banks of the Dnieper River where Vladimir the Great in 988 had his subjects baptized into Christianity, marking their official break with paganism. Regardless of what one may think of this mass baptism, today there is a robust evangelical movement in the country led by many fine men and women, some of whom suffered under the old Communist regime, though now they are aged. Younger brothers and sisters have risen to the occasion, trusted Christ and sought theological education so that they may evangelize and disciple their country men and women.

My heart is heavy with the recent news. After weeks and months of posturing, Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into the Ukraine this week. He did not want Ukraine to join NATO. As a member of NATO, the west could not have just stood by and watched Putin’s troops roll into the country. Putin’s agenda for a long time was to make the Ukraine a part of Russia. In 2014, Russian troops entered and took the Crimea in southern Ukraine, laying claim to it as historically Russian territory, whether it was or not. Now Putin’s forces are closing in on Kyiv. For those with historical perception, we are witnessing another Hitler marching into the Sudetenland all over again. In 1938, Adolf Hitler, under the pretext of uniting a part of Germany back with the motherland rolled into an area of Czechoslovakia without firing a shot. Of course, there is a principal difference between what we are seeing now and what we saw then—the Ukrainians are fighting back. Another principal comparison to what happened in 1938 is the posture of appeasement by Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister and others. American president Joe Biden, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and others are issuing sanctions against Russia and Putin, limiting financial opportunities, seizing assets, attempting to intimidate Putin into backing down. This seems unlikely to provide the necessary incentive for him to order the troops home, to suddenly leave the country. This has been a long time in coming, and Putin was ready. Not so much the west.

Putin thinks that Russia and the Ukraine should be reunited . . . They do have a shared history which is certainly complicated. Nevertheless, does a group of people, 44 million strong, have the right of self-determination? It is not like Ukrainians are welcoming Russian troops into their country with open arms. While some Russian Ukrainians might welcome the military action, most are resisting this aggression, with guns, Molotov cocktails, at times paying the ultimate cost, the destruction of their homes and death to their persons.

What does the future hold for Ukraine? Unless God intervenes, Russia seems poised to enter Kyiv and topple the legitimately elected government. President Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky is a wanted man who seems likely to have a price on his head. Even if he flees the country for reasons of self-preservation (who could blame him, but today he said he needed ammunition, not a ride!), his career as president may be headed for a very sudden end. Sanctions will not stop what is happening. What will? Will military action? Just over seventy-five years ago, the world saw the end of the last global conflict. Deaths are estimated at 75–80 million or 3% of the global population in 1940, estimated at 2.4 billion. Today, we stand on the precipice of another global conflict. As the world saw with Adolf Hitler, the only thing that might stop Putin is overwhelming military superiority.

Yet with the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, this will be a last resort. Hitler was a bully who had to be taught a lesson. Will Putin be the same? It’s beginning to look like he will. How should believers respond to the current crisis? What can we do? What should we do?

Let me offer some suggestions. You may think of others.

  1. Recognize that proceeding the coming of Christ, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Remember Matt 24:6 “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” (ESV)
  2. Pray for our brothers and sisters affected—both in Ukraine and in Russia. Things may get very difficult for them. Prayer is the least we can do. Pray for them individually that God would protect them. Pray for them corporately that God will give them strength to be a witness. Pray for their children, often casualties of war; pray for the women who may be brutalized by their oppressors. Pray for the men who will be called up for military service. One of my Ukrainian brothers has a church on a military base. His wife was my translator during my first visit there in 2003. He may see his entire congregation wiped out in military action. Pray for the pastors to have wisdom to know how to shepherd their flocks during these difficult times.
  3. Pray for our own political leaders. Will they take us to war? Should they take us to war? It could happen. Maybe it should if sanctions do not work. Our leaders need divine guidance, even if they do not know the Lord. The king’s heart is in the Lord’s hand. Prov 21:1
  4. Pray for the Ukrainian political leaders—esp. President Zelensky.
  5. Pray for Russia and Putin . . . God could deal with him as he dealt with Nebuchadnezzar. He could repent. Pray for those who surround him. He is not alone in this tyranny.
  6. Pray for world leaders—Boris Johnson, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Schultz, and others. It may take a united effort to bring this tyranny to an end.
  7. Pray for the stability in neighboring countries. Romania, once under the Soviet thumb, is receiving refugees now. Christians there are ministering as they are able. Maybe we can help them!
  8. Pray for a harvest of souls—among the Ukrainians, esp.
  9. Pray for the mission agencies that help the Ukrainian churches. One agency with which I am familiar is heavily invested in both countries. Things may look significantly different in the days ahead.
  10. Pray for the soon coming of Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can set this world straight and bring lasting peace.

May God be merciful! We need God now more than ever! Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Christians and Suicide – Do I Have the Right to Choose the Timing of My Own Death?

Christians and Suicide – Do I Have the Right to Choose the Timing of My Own Death?

Over the last few weeks, I have been finishing a series of essays, longer and shorter, that will constitute entries for a new dictionary of Christian history under construction. My initial forty essays were submitted last Tuesday, and I heard almost immediately from the editor about writing some additional entries by the end of the month. I have begun the process and one topic—suicide—I consider this week on my blog. Below is the entry I have written as it now stands. I still have a couple of weeks for revision, but my word limit is about 500 words. Obviously so much more could be said. As with my entry on MLK Jr from several weeks ago, this is a work in progress, and as I was editing this last night, I thought I would address this important topic on my blog for several reasons.

First, we live in a world filled with despair and one recognized alternative to ending the despair is terminating one’s life—suicide. It can take many forms, but the goal is always the same—the end of life and its suffering. Suicide is real and constantly being studied to determine how to curtail its practice. According to one recent report, suicide rates in the US were down by 3% from 2019 to 2020. While the suicide rate declined minimally, there were still nearly 46,000 suicides in the US in 2020. A second reason to consider suicide on my blog is the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide, now expanding around the world. In 2016, Canada, our home for 19 years, passed Bill C-14 permitting medical assistance in dying (MAID). Last March, Bill C-7 expanded MAID to permit “euthanasia for those whose psychological or physical suffering is deemed intolerable and untreatable.” This is frightening. Suicide is irreversible. Once chosen, there is no going back. Third, ministry individuals are choosing suicide as a way out of their troubles. Recent examples are tragic. Also here and here. I have known several men who committed suicide over issues of sin. One man, a leader among his peers, led a double life that was about to be exposed. The other, an area pastor with whom I had some relationship, chose suicide when his sin was about to be made public through his arrest. The suicide prevented that arrest, but in its wake, left havoc, devastation, immense sorrow for his family, and lots of questions. Fourth, even if ministry leaders don’t commit suicide, they often experience it close to home. I know one man whose wife committed suicide, another who had a son die at his own hand. And well-known CA pastor Rick Warren also lost a son to suicide. How could a Christian commit suicide? How could a pastor? Was he even a believer? What hope is there for me if pastors commit suicide?

Below is my entry (minus the hyperlinks) followed by some concluding remarks. I welcome feedback.

Suicide, death by one’s own hand or actions; self-killing. There are examples in the Bible depicting suicide, the most prominent of which is Judas who hung himself after betraying Jesus (Matt 27:5). Old Testament examples include Abimilech who instructed his armor bearer to kill him with a sword (Judg 9:52–54); Ahithophel who hung himself after the rejection of his counsel (2 Sam 17:23); Israelite king Zimri who burned his house down with him inside (1 Ki 17:18); Saul who fell on his sword followed by his armor bearer (1 Chr 10:5); and Samson who died when he brought the building down killing his enemies (Judg 16:30). Christians debate whether Samson’s death should be called suicide since it was a death in a conflict with Israel’s enemies and God blessed his action. It is significantly different from the story of Judas, who killed himself over his own treachery. Some have even suggested that Jesus’ death was a suicide since he willingly chose a path that led to his demise.

 

Many Christians view suicide as “self-murder.” If murder is the willful killing of another human, capital punishment and war excepted, then the willful killing of one’s own person would be self-murder and a violation of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV), “You shall not murder” (ESV). Nevertheless, debating the entailments of suicide raises problems for many believers.

 

From the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have grappled with suicide. A Donatist extremist group of the 4th century, the Circumcellions, had adherents who provoked Roman soldiers or others to kill them that they might become martyrs. However, Christians opposed self-murder from the beginning. Augustine (354–430) in City of God rejected suicide vigorously, even in cases where no other sin occured, such as a woman ravished who bore shame from the act but no guilt from sin. “It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’” (City of God, 1, 20). Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) followed Augustine on suicide (Summa Theologica II, II, Q. 64) and both suggested that Samson’s death, while technically a suicide, was justified by God since he enabled Samson to do what he did (City of God, 1, 21).

 

Roman Catholicism has been strong in its rejection of suicide as acceptable for a Christian, punishable by eternal damnation in most cases as a mortal sin, often leading to the denial of a Christian burial. In the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, suicide is “contrary to the moral law,” but provision is made for mitigation for those who commit suicide under extreme conditions. “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC, 2282). Since Vatican II, denial of Christian burial has been applied infrequently.

 

There are two additional difficult questions for believers to consider which ultimately relate to each other. Can a genuine believer commit suicide? (Also, here.) Or put another way, is suicide evidence that the one who commits it was lost? A second question raised, is suicide the “unpardonable sin”? Suicide is irreversible. Counseling should be sought and hope in God offered. The discussion on Christians and suicide is particularly relevant with the increasingly common practice of euthanasia, terminating the life of an individual with an incurable disease, or ending the life of someone who simply wishes to die. Euthanasia goes together with assisted suicide, helping someone terminate their life for whatever reason.

What can the church and believers do about suicide? Obviously, believers are called upon to minister to those left behind when a suicide occurs. Great care must be offered as the grief involved is deep and will be lasting. Beyond what is done after the fact, the subject of suicide needs to be a part of our preaching and pastoral care before is occurs. In pastoral care, someone may express a desire to commit suicide. These threats should not be taken lightly. Intervention may be a first priority. What is contributing to these feelings? How can we help the individual involved?

More broadly, we should address suicide from our pulpits, directly or indirectly. We need to write about it, talk about it, pray about it, and seek to mitigate it where ever possible. This is a good start. What are its causes and what are its cures? Why do believers consider it? How can we mitigate its potential practice among our congregation? People need to know there is hope in Christ. “My hope is in the Lord!”

Getting the Facts Straight

Getting the Facts Straight

Remember old Sergeant Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb) of Dragnet? He was famous for saying to a witness, “All we want are the facts, ma’am!” Joe the detective, like Jeff the historian, is after the facts. While historians reflect on things like causation—why was Archduke Ferdinand murdered and was his death the contributing factor to the beginning of World War 1?—the facts of the story are of primary importance for the historian because, without them, the interpretation of the events will suffer.

Last week, shortly after I published my essay on MLK Jr., I was alerted to an error in my post by a keen-eyed reader. I wrote that King was murdered in Montgomery, AL, when he was actually murdered in Memphis, TN. I immediately corrected the error on the blog but not before the essay was forwarded to my list of readers. Ugh!!! How did that happen? Talk about a major blunder! There are two major issues that writers seek to avoid—plagiarism, using another’s work improperly; and errors, misstating the details. I committed the latter.

Just how this mistake crept into my prose, I am not quite sure. I had written an entry on MLK Jr. for a new dictionary of Christian history that I am contributing to and, somehow, I made that error in the essay. Did I copy the error from one of my sources? Or did I just get confused in my mind with events in King’s life that happened in Montgomery vs. what happened in Memphis. I am not what you would call a “King scholar,” but his life does create a certain fascination for me, particularly as I have worked on Baptists and race. I had the opportunity to visit the MLK site in Atlanta a few years ago and tour the church. Very important landmarks. But I’ve never been to Memphis (or Montgomery for that matter). I’m sure there are equally important landmarks in those places that highlight the King story. I know that the Lorraine Motel is one such place.

Getting the facts wrong is easy to do, especially for historians. Facts are our burden, our stock and trade. Ferreting out the fine details of a story is part of our craft. Coming up with corrections in the historical record is part of what we do. In some sense, we are always trying to set the record straight, especially in our own writing. No one wants to put something in print that is later proven to be factually in error. Mistakes do happen, hopefully to others but to me? Yea, they even happen with me. Unfortunately.

As historians, we remember when we discover through reading the significant factual errors in another writer’s work. It happens to the best of us. A number of years ago, I was asked to write an essay on Squire Boone, the brother of the legendary Daniel Boone. I was told he was an important Kentucky Baptist. Would I write a biographical essay on his life? Sure. I was sent a box of material that the editor of the series the essay was to be published in had collected on Boone and began my work. Writing on the Boone family is challenging. Daniel Boone is an important figure in American history and there’s a society of Boone descendants that keeps his memories alive. As I began to assemble a narrative on Squire, I learned that the father of Daniel and Squire was a Squire also as was a nephew, the son of a different brother of Daniel. I would eventually learn that there are no less than thirty-two Squires in the Boone genealogy. Keeping them straight was a challenge. To complicate matters, the nephew Squire was a Baptist. Anyway, I eventually wrote an essay that Kentucky Baptist history had wrongly considered Squire, the brother of Daniel, an early Baptist preacher in the state. I argued that the uncle and the nephew had their stories conflated in the historical record. Once one historian of note confused the two, later historians repeated the error, or so I surmised. You’d have to read the essay to see the evidence, but I made a pretty good case for correcting KY Baptist history.

Another error I discovered was in a book that attributed Strong’s Concordance to the Baptist Augustus Hopkins Strong rather than to the Methodist James Strong. It was a surprising error and easily corrected. Not I’m sure how or why my brother historian made the error, but made it he did. Generally, to correct errors such as these, authors need informed readers to read the work and point out the errors to their authors before they are printed. This is often the role of editors and outside readers. Or perhaps some other friend or colleague may be invited to read the text and will note the mistake. I appreciate the brother who alerted me to my error.

So why do errors creep into texts of even trained, careful historians? Let me suggest several reasons why I have seen errors in my own writing and that of others. First a historian is only as good as his sources. Sometimes the sources themselves contain errors and sometimes they are merely vague or spotty and the historian makes a judgment as to proper conclusions. In today’s internet world, access to a diversity of sources offers a much greater opportunity to cross check facts and compare details. Sources that were inaccessible to the researcher without travel or depending on interlibrary loan, can now be located through a variety of online websites—Google Books, Archive.org or HathiTrust.org—plus any number of narrow collections on particular topics. The quality of research today has been significantly improved from just a quarter of a century ago.

In the case of the location of the MLK murder, there is a plethora of material online that specifically notes the location of the sad act. There is even a museum located at the Lorraine Motel, which obviously I have never visited. So, I likely didn’t copy someone else’s mistake. Likely my error was simply my own. So much of MLK’s history took place in Montgomery AND King protested injustice in there, I likely transposed in my mind Montgomery for Memphis and the error slipped by me! No one’s perfect and we all make mistakes. In this case, I simply wrote down the wrong city. Statements are accepted a true but upon careful investigation, the facts reported are wrong.

T.T. Shields is a case in point. Many today think that Shields had an affair with his secretary Edith Rebman. The accusation was made in 1929, partly because Shields and Rebman were at a Des Moines University meeting in Waterloo, IA and happened to be in adjoining hotel rooms. The enemies of Shields (possibly Harry Wayman, president of Des Moines U with whom TT was having conflict over Wayman’s bogus academic bona fides) floated the possibility of the affair to the Des Moines board which ultimately exonerated them after a lengthy meeting. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and rumors of the alleged affair appeared in newspapers far and wide. What didn’t appear in print far and wide was the testimony of the hotel in which the alleged affair allegedly took place. While it was true that they had adjoining rooms, the room choices were assigned by hotel staff and had not been requested by either Shields or Rebman. In fact, according to hotel staff, if they had requested such an arrangement, they would have been told that it was not possible. The rooms had already been assigned and those assignments couldn’t be changed. This same situation happened to Shields/Rebman twice in 1929. In Waterloo, IA, at the Hotel Russell-Lamson and in Buffalo, NY at the Hotel Touraine. In both cases, hotel staff selected the rooms which happened to be adjoining simply because they were in the same party, not because of a tryst they wished to enjoin. But as is often the case, news of a rumor spreads far and wide, while the news of the correction is often not passed on. (There is independent newspaper corroboration of these details if anyone wishes to contact me.)

So Shields is tainted with a suspicion of infidelity, although there was absolutely no credible evidence presented. Historians with a natural dislike for TT Shields disparage him by calling Rebman “his purported paramour,” a scandalous slur given the paucity of actual evidence to support it and given that the hotel in question is on public record explaining the situation. An error has been repeated and repeated. How sad. Could Shields have had an affair with Rebman? It’s certainly possible. I have a copy of a letter from WB Riley, courtesy of David Elliott, “Studies of Eight Canadian Fundamentalists” (PhD diss, University of British Columbia, 1989) in which Riley was concerned that there may have been more to their relationship but nothing of substance has ever been discovered. Did they have a relationship? No clear evidence, so no relationship. Just because we don’t like the guy, this doesn’t give us the right to believe a slanderous accusation without evidence. I recently wrote to an author who called Rebman Shields’ paramour and his excuse was that he simply used a few published sources. Too bad he didn’t do real research before he slandered Shields.

Yes, errors do make it into academic writing, for a variety of reasons. Some are simple to explain, others are more difficult. Some errors are easily corrected while others do serious damage to someone’s credibility, even those long dead. Slandering someone who is deceased is no less evil than slandering a living person. Our duty is to the facts . . . just the facts—the good, the bad and even the ugly. But let’s not make them uglier than they really are. Soli Deo Gloria!