Number Our Days
The story was told by Spurgeon of his visiting a small country church one morning, slipping in the back of the service unnoticed, just wanting to hear the Word for himself. A workingman stood up and delivered a respectable message, after which the great preacher went forward to express his appreciation for the preached Word. The man looked up to see the famous preacher in front of him. Spurgeon thanked the man for the message. The preacher stood aghast. Did Spurgeon know what he had just heard? The man had read one of Spurgeon’s own printed sermons to the congregation apparently without mentioning the origin of the message. Spurgeon heard his own sermon “preached” back to him. He thanked the man nevertheless in a rather self-effacing way. “Yes, I knew it was, and it was good of the Lord to feed me with food that I had prepared for others.”
We’ve all done it in the past—used something said or written by someone else without careful and proper attribution. Students do it in school either by accident or on purpose. When they do it on purpose, it is cause for serious academic consequences. Once I had a doctoral student from a two-third world country that submitted a paper to a fellow professor. The professor called me, as program director, and suggested that he thought the paper was not this student’s own work. The prose was too good. Foreign students often struggle to write in English if their mother-tongue is something else. This paper just sounded too good to be the student’s work. Doing a little research, we discovered that the paper had been “borrowed” (plagiarized) in large sections from a similar paper by one of the student’s former professors. When confronted, the student prevaricated, which made matters worse. There was no choice but to drop him from the program. First plagiarizing (not just ideas but paragraphs of prose), and then, lying to evade the truth. It was an easy decision to make on one hand. This was a flagrant violation of academic standards. It was also a hard decision, on the other hand, and a sad day, to end this student’s doctoral work, but there was little choice.
When I taught research and writing, I labored to help the students understand what plagiarism was and how to avoid it. For the most part, they did. Having done a considerable bit of writing myself, I am always alert to document carefully ideas, phrases, and particular statements I wish to use in my prose. Sometimes other writer’s ideas slip by the most careful of authors. I remembered working my way through John’s gospel for a sermon series and using two particular commentaries. I read something in an older one, then I read the same idea from a newer commentary. I was struck by the similarity of expression between the two sources. Well, how many ways can you say something, anyway? I passed over the likenesses as an odd coincidence. Later while studying a different passage in John, a ran across another pair of coincidental similarities . . . two strikingly comparable statements in the same pair of commentaries. So, I marked the second occurrence, more out of curiosity. Then I found a third and maybe a fourth such comparison. As I recall, I only noted three or four places in these two books where there were similar statements, so there was not enough evidence to suggest the newer commentator had plagiarized the older work—just a series of oddly similar statements. But it made for a good illustration with my students. Everyone is in danger of plagiarizing, even accidentally. Recently there was an incident of an eminent commentator that had his books pulled by his publishers because it was discovered that there was too much coincidence between his writing and some of his sources to be overlooked. Another equally prominent scholar described how and why this kind of thing happens and took a sympathetic posture toward the discredited scholar and his material. Plagiarism happens, whether unintended or on purpose.
But what about borrowing another man’s sermon, in whole or in part? Using the man’s outline, his exegesis, even his illustrations, including personal ones, without attribution or even with attribution? Can I preach another man’s sermon? To use the material without attribution is plagiarism. This very charge has roiled the SBC world since the election of the new president. Someone put up two sermons stitched together to show that the recently elected president preached a very similar sermon, “borrowing” ideas, structure, and even illustrations, from a similar sermon on the same passage by the former president of the SBC, all without acknowledging the origin of the material. His integrity has been called into question and many of his sermons, apparently, have been removed from his church’s website. Though the brother has publicly apologized and though the man from whom he took the message claims that he had given his permission for him to use the material (“I told him that whatever bullets of mine worked in his gun, to use them.”), there have been calls for the brother to step down from the presidency. The story made national news. As this was about to be published, The New York Times also ran the story. It is yet unfolding. Who knows what the fallout may be?
This problem is certainly not new, and it has been written about before, again and again, by well-known authors. News stories crop up about its regular practice all too often. But this kind of thing needs to be written about repeatedly for new generations of preachers and in the light of new technologies that make it easier to “borrow” material and use it as our own. We need to carefully avoid using another man’s sermons without attribution lest we become personally disqualified, or our message is ridiculed. Plagiarism is theft of intellectual property. How can a preacher do that with a clear conscience?
Truthfully, we have all borrowed sermon material from someone else. You’re sitting in a service, being blessed by the Word and something catches your ear. “Ya! That’s good! I’m gonna use that myself!” It might be an idea from a particular text, a catchy title, a unique way to outline a passage, a sermon illustration, any number of things. When I was first in ministry, I had an outline on Christian growth that I gleaned from someone else that I would occasionally preach myself. Only the outline, the content was my own. But I gave credit, as best I could, to the unknown man whose idea, written in the margin of my Bible without the source, I had borrowed. New preachers have little material of their own, so “borrowing” someone else’s thoughts seems like a good idea. But this must be done carefully and done in such a way that is honest and above board. Also, we should be reluctant to merely preach someone else’s sermon because sermon preparation is important for the one who delivers the message as well as the one to whom it is delivered. I get ready to preach by studying for the message. I want the Word to soak into my own soul so that it might bless me before I deliver it with the hopes of blessing others! My esteemed theology professor, Rolland McCune, often made his way into my sermons when I was in seminary. I would jokingly tell him on Mondays that we had preached a good sermon the previous day. With his content and my delivery, we knocked it out of the park. My parishioners knew that I was studying theology under him, and I regularly gave him credit when such was due. But even then, I never preached a McCune sermon.
Let me suggest several reasons why borrowing someone else’s sermon is a bad practice. Note here, I am not using any other essay on this topic that I have read in the past or linked to in this article. These are my thoughts, though doubtless some of my thoughts were someone else’s thoughts first! So, why should we avoid merely borrowing a ready-made sermon even with attribution? First, sermon preparation allows the preacher to personalize the text. As I work through the passage and discover its flow, it become personal to me. I understand its meaning, its thrust, its goals. I can then tailor my message to direct those ideas to my hearers. Preaching is a personal discipline, and it needs personal involvement to be effective. As Philip Brooks said so long ago, “Preaching is truth through personality.” Second, our auditors have a right to expect that we have engaged the text before we deliver it. Anyone can recite what someone else has written without thought. But the process of laboring over the text implies effort on my part and, by my doing so, I suggest that it was important enough for me to choose this text, to study it, to understand it. It is, therefore, important for the audience to listen to the text. Third, merely borrowing someone else’s sermon could be a sign of laziness. Of course, it doesn’t have to mean laziness, and someone could study to master someone else’s message so that the text becomes “personal” to them but there is still the danger that taking the easy way out for sermon preparation may be tempting to make as a regular practice. Especially if it works well. If I think it works, then I may be inclined to do it again, and I will justify my lack of effort by arguing that I can preach better sermons if I just preach someone else’s material. To these reasons, others could be added, but these are sufficient to argue that the practice of simply preaching another man’s message with or without attribution is wrongheaded. Without attribution is both wrongheaded and sinful.
I once read where a well-known mega-church pastor argued that he needed to hit a homerun every time he entered the pulpit. He didn’t have time to do that much studying and the only way he could guarantee doing so was by using someone else’s proven material. Well, preaching isn’t a performance art. Not every batter can hit a homerun like Hank Aaron and not every preacher can preach like C. H. Spurgeon. The outcome of the sermon is in the hands of the Holy Spirit anyway. We are not responsible for the result, if we have labored well at the Word. Since I began to write this essay, a very good article citing Spurgeon’s view on sermon plagiarism was published. It warrants a careful read. Even as I read what the author has written about Spurgeon, there is more that I could say, that I should have said. But he and Spurgeon said it well, so I will simply leave it there and encourage you to read that essay. May God give us grace to stand with integrity in the pulpit. And now, thanks to Newsweek and The New York Times, apparently the world is watching. But even if they weren’t, God certainly is.
In the aftermath of the Nashville meeting of a few weeks ago, SBC pundits are still musing on the successes and failures of the 2021 convention. On the plus side, the meeting was the largest in a quarter of a century, since the end of the Conservative Resurgence (CR) (1979–2000). With 15,726 messengers (4928 less than 1995 which registered 20,654 messengers), the meeting will be remembered for several major reasons. It will go down in history first for what it didn’t do. Despite preconvention efforts to prepare for this, no resolution was adopted that specifically named Critical Race Theory as anti-Christian. While a resolution was made on racial issues (Resolution 2), it made no mention of CRT. Efforts were made from the floor to repeal the infamous Resolution 9 of 2019 but to no avail. Also, important for this year’s convention, and again, despite efforts to the contrary, there was no significant shift to the right. Not in the presidency, and not in other issues such as the pulpit presence of women preachers in SBC pulpits, with the possible exception of Abortion Abolitionism which I addressed last week. I think that resolution passed because messengers liked the sound of what they heard (NO ABORTIONS, PERIOD!), without appreciating the entailments of the position which was adopted. IMO, look for a counter resolution next year—one that is less harsh on the criminality of women who abort their babies. Are they murderers in the same way as Jack the Ripper or Aileen Wuornos (1956–2002), an American serial killer executed by lethal injection for killing seven Florida men between 1989–1990? On my last trip to Russia, I was told by my host that abortion is the preferred method of birth control, with some women having upwards of twenty abortions in their lifetime. If we call the women who abort their babies murderers, then wouldn’t we call some women serial killers? What should we do with serial killers? Does AA intend that a woman with multiple abortions for whatever reason be tried, convicted and executed as a serial killer?
However, this essay is not a further discussion on abortion and the SBC, as interesting as that might be but an essay on the aftermath of the convention and the presence of an apparent fundamentalist element within its churches. The presence of fundamentalists in religious movements is certainly not new but defining fundamentalism is a difficult task. Just what constitutes a fundamentalist and whether someone is a fundamentalist even though they may be actually unwilling to own that moniker is a matter of considerable disagreement. Is the term descriptive or pejorative? Does it really matter? If someone refuses the label but otherwise owns the position, are they de facto fundamentalists, whatever they choose to call themselves?
The term itself was first used in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of the Watchman and Examiner, a prominent Northern Baptist newspaper, in the aftermath of the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) annual meeting, to suggest that those who would do “battle royal” for the fundamentals should be called “fundamentalists.” Hence the first to use this term of themselves were Baptist conservatives who held to the fundamentals of the faith, taken from a series of essays distributed about ten years earlier by Milton and Lyman Stewart, California oilmen, who paid for the publication and distribution of ninety pamphlets sent to clergymen by the hundreds of thousands. These essays dealt with important matters of Christian orthodoxy.
At first, the fundamentalist element, primarily through the Fundamentalist Fellowship of the NBC, tried unsuccessfully to rout the progressive (liberal) elements from the convention, returning the NBC to historic orthodoxy. For a fuller history of this conflict especially what caused it, see my book, The Making of a Battle Royal. Here is a review by Owen Strachan. When the battle royal failed, conservatives left the convention in droves, forming new movements. See Kevin Bauder’s One in Hope and Doctrine for part of that story.
That was then and nearly one hundred years has passed since the battles in the NBC. What about the use of the term today? Many reject the descriptor fundamentalist, thinking the position is “no fun, too much damn and not enough mental.” Who wants to be described with that name? Calling one’s opponents fundamentalists is certainly not new, especially in Southern Baptist life. As the CR was winding down, books (also this) and essays (also this) were written by those who lost their battles to maintain their grip on the reins of power over SBC agencies, castigating the winners—their adversaries—as fundamentalists. Yet fundamentalist was not a title that Southern Baptist leaders embraced. (See Al Mohler’s essays and response in The Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Also, his summary here.) So too, after the wins and losses of Nashville 2021, the specter of SBC fundamentalism is again making news. Is there a new fundamentalist movement in the SBC or perhaps a dormant movement awakened? Will there be an effort by fundamentalists to retake the convention again?
In order to even begin to answer this question, one needs an understanding of the core issues. Is fundamentalism an ideological movement or a theological position that one is forced to take under times of pressing need? As Martin Marty and his colleagues demonstrate, fundamentalisms exist across religious faiths. There are Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, etc. The idea of being a fundamentalist is the idea of strict adherence to one’s core beliefs without accommodation to modernity (cultural pressures) or theological accommodations. For instance, there is a real fear that when the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalists (aka the Taliban) will undo twenty years of American presence, returning the country to Islamic law which is particularly repressive for women. Fundamentalisms are a global presence. And fundamentalism, because of these iterations, which are often militant, has taken on a very negative connotation.
Perhaps this is the reason why Southern Baptists and even former self-identified Christian fundamentalists have distanced themselves from the term fundamentalist. Even Christian fundamentalism has taken on a very negative connotation from its original use in 1920. Today, the number of those who self-identify as fundamentalist is dwindling. Some still own the name but their dogma does not represent early 20th century Christian fundamentalism. The KJV controversy is a part of the negative legacy of Christian fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism was never necessarily KJV only, though in the past forty years, KJV onlyism has pressed its claim to being the heirs to early fundamentalism. For more on KJVO, see this Bill Combs essay. Peter Ruckman was perhaps the most well-known proponent of the KJV only movement. There are also those (often ex-insiders) that believe that independent fundamental Baptists (IFBs) are a cult movement. This view was further enforced by Topeka, KS Pastor Fred Phelps, whose rhetoric was notorious for its anti-gay condemnations.
So, for all practical purposes, calling someone a fundamentalist today, at least in Christian terms, is only useful as a pejorative term. It is in this sense, that the SBC observers have been discussing this year’s convention of a few weeks ago. Is the SBC struggling with a new or resurrected form of Christian fundamentalism? Some of those present were castigated as fundamentalist pirates, as if being a fundamentalist wasn’t a severe enough accusation, or “toxic fundamentalists.” Is there another kind in the minds of adversaries? I watched a webinar just before the annual SBC meeting in which one of the participants described the conservatives as espousing “the heresy of hateful faith, which is a global phenomenon, whether you’re talking about (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi in India or whether you’re talking about the hateful faith of the Taliban, or you’re talking about the hateful faith of the SBC, or hateful things someplace else.” This person linked the SBC conservatives with the strongest examples of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism. Militant fundamentalism!
So, do we see a new fundamentalism taking root in the SBC? SBC historian Nathan Finn recently addressed that very question. According to Finn, fundamentalism is “militant conservative dissent against progressive trends in the church and the culture. Fundamentalism is first and foremost a reactionary posture born out of concerns about real or perceived drift away from orthodox theology and faithful piety.” By this definition, then yes, what is happening within the current SBC is a kind of fundamentalism, even if conservatives abhor the label. Frankly, the Church will always have its fundamentalists—whether Roman Catholic fundamentalists or SBC fundamentalists. There will always be those who reject the diminishing of theological commitments and the liberalizing of Christian practice. But Finn warns against “a reinvigorated fundamentalism that would divide us over personalities, preferences, and politics.” He rejects the efforts at a new CR because there is the danger of following “the spirit of J. Frank Norris, not Adrian Rogers.” So . . . is every lover of truth in the SBC who laments perceived drift like Norris? Of course not, but what current SBC person wants to wear the Norris legacy? Norris shot DE Chipps in Norris’ office at First Baptist of Fort Worth claiming that Chipps threatened him with a gun. Militant fundamentalism!
Perhaps Finn is correct that the SBC is still on a conservative pathway, although I think he is overstating his case—there are significant issues still before the SBC such as CRT and women in the pulpit. However, a question must be asked. At what point in a theological conflict does one cease the discussion and take further action? Endless debates seem pointless. As the conservatives found out one hundred years ago with the NBC, the progressives are only too happy to keep the ball on the court, so long as they control the referees. They can continue to score points, while the other team accumulates fouls. Without a fair game, what is the point of playing? Who gets to pick the rules to be followed? One would think that all Christians play by the same rule book—the Bible. But clearly this is not the case. Well known in the fight within the NBC was a plea by Jasper Cortenus Massee at an annual NBC gathering inviting the progressives to “depart in peace” since they were interlopers. Lesser known was the response, published later in The Baptist, a Chicago Baptist paper and strong ally of the liberal cause in the NBC, by Baptist progressive H. C. Vedder—“we believe everything you believe. We just define the terms differently! We’re not going anywhere. Like it or lump it!” (He didn’t say it exactly this way, but this is a loose paraphrase.) Endless debate solves nothing. At some point decisive action must be taken. Consider Neville Chamberlain the British Prime Minister at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. His policy of appeasement was summarized in the phrase “Peace at any price.” Did James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church near Atlanta, affirm this position when he blasted those who were more worried about CRT than evangelism? In the early days of the proto-fundamentalist (pre-1920) agitation in the NBC, Shailer Mathews, dean of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School and president of the NBC (1915), placed a banner above the convention platform. “Let’s get together by working together.” Hummm. It seems that appeasement works, except when it doesn’t. Eventually the conservatives in the NBC could surrender no more ground.
UPDATED 6/24/2021 Last week, I summarized my takeaway from observing, via the internet, most of the 2021 SBC annual meeting in Nashville. It was the largest attended convention since the end of the Conservative Resurgence, twenty-five years ago, in part because of its location in the heart of the SBC world, in part because the SBC missed meeting last year, and in part because there were some important issues on the table that will set the tone and direction of the SBC for the coming years. With prominent departures of SBC power figures Beth Moore and Russ Moore (no relation) to issues of racism and sexual abuse among the churches, the SBC has been grappling over its direction in recent years.
Conservative movements within the SBC include the Founders Movement led by Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Cape Coral, FL and the Conservative Baptist Network, led by a council that includes prominent pastors, present and former seminary presidents and politicians including former US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Mike Stone, senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church of Blackshear, GA, is also on this council. He lost the election for the presidency of the SBC this year in a runoff with Ed Litton. Insiders and outsiders have been assessing just what happened last week in Nashville and what all this bodes for the future of the nation’s largest Protestant group. Also this essay.
Ed Stetzer, former SBC insider, currently Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership, and a teaching pastor at High Point Church, a Harvest Bible Chapel, is a regular commentator of all things SBC. Before the annual convention last week, Stetzer, writing in Christianity Today, warned that the SBC was at a fork in the road. Issues on the table included racial reconciliation and the sexual abuse scandal. Summarizing his afterthoughts this week, Stetzer stated that the SBC took the proper fork in electing Litton as president and in rejecting the repudiation of CRT. Strangely, however, Stetzer failed to mention one significant resolution that passed—a very strong resolution on abortion, with the most strident language ever used against abortion in any SBC resolution.
Behind the resolution for the abolition of abortion is a relatively new movement in the anti-abortion cause—Abortion Abolitionism (AA). Taking their cues from the abolitionist movement that fought to end slavery in the 19th century, AA has a “take no prisoners” approach to the question of abortion. Nothing short of the complete and total outlawing of all abortions, irrespective of the circumstances of conception, the mother’s health or the viability of the fetus, is acceptable. All abortions are murder and all who participate in them from the doctors and nurses who facilitate abortions to the women (and men) who seek them, are committing murder and should be prosecuted.
The internet presence of the AA movement is growing. I have been trying to ascertain the origins of this movements and it appears to be about ten years old, but it is expanding as the SBC vote suggests. Many states now have state-wide AA organizations that are lobbying hard to persuade state governments to totally and completely overthrow abortion, in every case, with no exceptions permitted (e. g. Florida, North Carolina, Texas). The Texas group is particularly strong, claiming 90,000 members in 2019. No abortions, no exceptions. Many reasons might be suggested as to why AA is on the rise. Roe v. Wade is now nearing its fiftieth anniversary. The National Right to Life estimated earlier this year that 62.5 million abortions had occurred in the US since the passing of the landmark Supreme Court ruling. While abortions are decreasing, they are decreasing incrementally, an important concept in the abortion debate and a word at the center of the abortion resolution in Nashville last week. The proposed amendment as submitted by Bill Ascol, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church of Owasso, OK, was passed by the SBC last Wednesday with a one word inclusion into the original resolution, inserting the word alone. The amendment to insert alone carried and the amended resolution passed, but Southern Baptists for Abolishing Abortion, co-sponsors of the resolution, repudiated the amendment. Even with the insertion of the one word, the resolution was still filled with anti-incrementalist language. So much debate over so small a word. What is at stake and why all the fuss? For a discussion on incrementalism in the abortion debate, see this essay by Scott Klusendorf.
The main tenets of AA can be found on numerous websites and they vary in articulation. Here are the core beliefs according to Southern Baptists for Abolishing Abortion. Perhaps the overriding tenet governing AA is its claim to being “biblical.” It doesn’t really matter what other prolifers argue, the argument that counts for Christians is how the Bible addresses an issue like abortion? “Abolitionists begin with the fundamental presupposition that the Bible is the Word of the Living God (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:21). Accordingly, we do not seek to leave the Bible out of the discussion. Instead, we unapologetically stand on the Word of God as our final authority.”
From this first core belief, others emerge. AA is dogmatic in its assertion that the prolife movement is ultimately “bad.” Prolife is driven by the wrong motives, it accepts too much compromise along the way (any compromise is too much), and it often fights with the wrong weapons. “The pro-life movement has opposed abortion by seeking to compromise with it. Pro-life strategists have accepted Roe as the ‘law of the land’ and have focused on trying to regulate the murder of children in the womb to the greatest degree the courts will allow.” The ultimate issue for AA is that despite nearly 50 years of opposition to Roe v. Wade, prolifers have failed to eradicate abortion. Also, abolitionists are immediatists as opposed to incrementalists. It is incongruous to permit abortion while seeking to overthrow it. “Abolitionists submit to God as our Ultimate authority while pro-lifers submit to the Supreme Court as their Ultimate authority.” “Abolitionists believe that abortion should be abolished immediately without exception or compromise. We believe legislation that regulates when, how, and which babies die, may be well-intentioned, but ultimately promotes evil and dishonors God.”
From this flows another tenet of AA—no exceptions permitted. Not for the life of the mother, not for rape or incest, not because the child will have a disability. No exceptions. “If abortion is murder, and we all know it is, it must be abolished entirely.” Also, AA members are nullificationists. “No government possesses the rightful authority to legalize child sacrifice.” “The Bible tells us to ‘rescue those being led to slaughter’ (Prv 24:10), ‘bring justice to the fatherless’ (Is 1:15), and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:39). You can do these things or you can submit to Supreme Court opinions stating that murdering certain humans should be legal, but you cannot do both.” Finally (there may be other tenets that other groups add), AA wants to criminalize abortion, in every case, and for all involved. This includes criminalizing the parents. “If abortion is murder, and we all know it is, it ought to be treated as such. Pro-lifers, attempting to put forward legislation more palatable to the public, are committed to a strategy of giving automatic immunity to the parents who have their child murdered in all cases.”
The question that must be asked is whether the SBC as a convention now affirms AA as suggested by the Ascol motion that carried, though amended, in Nashville last week? It seems doubtful to me that the SBC, as a large and gathered group, now embraces all those affirmations listed above for several reasons. First, the resolution, as passed, allowed for the possibility of incrementalism, stating that “incrementalism alone” was insufficient for the cause, but this amendment has been rejected by the very group of individuals that put forth the original resolution. Second, a large group of leaders within the SBC tried to stop the passing of the resolution, not because they affirm abortion in any way, but because they think that the resolution says too much. Denny Burk and a group of SBC ethicists, issued a very strong statement contra the resolution and by extension AA, yesterday. They identified two problems with the resolution. First, there was no exception for the life of the mother. While admittedly a rare occasion—ectopic pregnancies occur at a rate of 19.7/1000 pregnancies and are a leading cause of maternal mortality—and despite the fact that the last ten SBC resolutions against abortion offered between 1980–2018 make an exception for the life of the mother, this recent resolution allows for no exceptions. (I nearly lost my wife to an ectopic pregnancy 33 years ago when her tube ruptured. Thankfully, she was at the door of a hospital, in the care of EMTs, having been medevacked out of northern Alberta, when the rupture occurred.) Second, by rejecting incrementalism (an ultimate goal of those who put forth the resolution and the reason why they continue to oppose the amended version), AA, the movement behind the resolution, does not recognize that it takes many battles to win a war. Burk used the Allied invasion of France as an illustration. The taking of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 was one victory along the road that led to the ultimate defeat of the Nazis in Berlin; the war against tyranny was eventually won. Immediatists allow for no such strategy. It’s all or nothing. But if the Allies had followed such thinking, there would have been no battles that, in and of themselves, didn’t guarantee final victory. Incremental victories, like the Hyde Amendment which prohibits the funding of abortions with tax dollars and concerning which a resolution of support also passed the SBC this year, is the wrong strategy to follow and ultimately compromises the cause.
Burk and his colleagues aren’t the only Southern Baptists disconcerted with the strong resolution last week. See Denny’s full thoughts here. The resolutions committee itself refused to put forth the resolution because it was too strongly worded. Dana Hall McClain, a member of that committee, wrote that “the fringe group that authored the resolution labeled the legions of godly, hard-working pro-life advocates—attorneys and faithful legislators who have curtailed abortion as much as possible while Roe v. Wade stands—as part of the actual problem. It suggests that the people who have strategically reduce [sic] abortion to nearly nothing in many states, saving millions of lives in the process, are sinners who need to repent.”
So, while the SBC is on record as supporting abortion abolitionism, there is yet another fracture in the delicate coalition that is the Southern Baptist Convention. The ultra conservatives (some would call them fundamentalists or fundamentalist pirates, though I think the title fundamentalist would be a mistake) won some but lost more. What they did do was drive a wedge into the SBC opposition to abortion. What will these individuals do in the days ahead? Were they genuine fundamentalists, exiting the SBC might be an option but that doesn’t seem to be on the table, although in recent years the SBC has seen churches leave over some of the very issues that weren’t addressed in Nashville (e. g. CRT). Will the SBC fully align with abortion abolitionism? Time will tell, but this seems doubtful. Will those who have taken an AA position be content to stay within a movement that they think compromises on the sanctity of life as they think the Bible warrants? These are indeed strange days. May the Lord be gracious to us all.
No, I wasn’t present in Nashville this week, so technically I didn’t attend, but thanks to the modern technological advances, I was able to watch much of the meeting from the comfort of my home in Minneapolis. I tried to follow the elections, the resolutions, and the reports given, although I didn’t hear the convention sermon or the worship parts much. As an SBC baptized, married, and trained church historian, I would like to offer a few outsider thoughts on what I observed. I will try to be objective, though doubtless, objectivity is hard to come by.
Entering into this convention, the SBC had a number of major issues before them, some left over from 2019 (the convention did not meet last year due to COVID), e.g. the infamous Resolution 9, and some more recent issues, e.g., the public departure of Russ Moore from the leadership of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, ERLC, and his public letter (ostensibly written as a private letter) outlining abuse and criticisms he suffered as he tried to do his job. Also before the Convention was controversy over the work of the Executive Committee (this is the group of people who manage the convention affairs between annual meetings) and its actions (appropriate or insufficient) in dealing with the very ugly side of SBC life—sexual abuse among partnering churches. Secondary issues before the Convention included the alleged misconduct of former Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson which was set out by Southwestern in their annual report, included in the SBC 2021 Book of Reports. These are in addition to new issues that SBC messengers chose to raise such as a resolution for the SBC to take an absolute stand against abortion, rather than approaching its mitigation incrementally. All of this was almost secondary to the major issue of the convention—the presidency. Who would be chosen to lead Southern Baptists for the next two years? Presidents serve annual terms but ordinarily get a second term without contest.
The question of the presidency loomed large this year for a couple of reasons—complementarianism/egalitarianism was on the table in the background because of the public departure of Beth Moore and because of the announcement that Saddleback, an SBC church, recently ordained three women. Will the next president lead the Convention toward reaffirming its complementarian stand or will that individual take another posture? Of the four men nominated, two men were unequivocal in their stand for complementarianism—R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and Mike Stone, a GA pastor and former chairman of the Executive Committee. Ed Litton, who was elected with a greater than 50% majority on the second ballot, affirms the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which does not allow for women as pastors, but in his AL church, Litton has occasionally shared his pulpit with his wife Kathy. The question of women preaching in the church pulpit has been agitating in recent SBC life since Beth Moore’s Mother’s Day sermon of 2019. Mohler argued that the biblical restriction against women as pastors includes women in the preaching role. Yet Litton appears to disagree with this position, despite his affirmation of the BFM2000. Tom Buck, pastor of First Baptist of Lindale, TX highlighted on Twitter Litton’s views here and here. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, is a strong supporter of Ed Litton.
A second issue that did not sit well with strong conservatives is the refusal by the Convention and its leadership to repudiate CRT. Resolution Two (see p. 7) was adopted but without any clear language contra CRT. James Merritt, former president of the SBC and pastor of Cross Pointe Church in the Atlanta area declared “I want to say this bluntly and plainly: if some people were as passionate about the gospel as they were critical race theory, we’d win this world for Christ tomorrow.” Those who wished for a separate amendment to revoke Resolution 9 from 2019 were overruled because those responsible for following proper meeting procedure declared that a previous resolution was the view of those present at the time it was passed and therefore it couldn’t be reversed by a later generation. The resolution against CRT and Resolution 9 in 2019, seeking to rescind it, was presented by Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist of Cape Coral, FL, on behalf of 1300 co-signers, but this never made it to the convention floor. You can read about the issues here. There was a heated exchange on day two of the convention when Ascol’s motion was ruled out of order.
Another contentious issue was a resolution from the floor by Bill Ascol, Tom’s brother, calling for the SBC to demand “immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise.” Considered by the left leaning Baptist News Global as the resolution against abortion with “the most strident language ever used,” it was initially not brought forward by the resolutions committee. Bill took the microphone and moved that the chair call for a 2/3 vote that would bring the motion forward. That vote passed and the motion was put before the messengers. After extensive debate for and against, many over the issue of incrementalism in anti-abortion activity, the motion carried. The original resolution was amended, in part to read, “RESOLVED, that we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion,” inserting the single word alone. The amended motion passed. However, many thought that the resolution as passed was wrongheaded. “It would state plainly and unequivocally that any measure, any method, any move that falls short of total abolition of abortion is to be taken off the table,” said Josh Webster, chair of research at the ERLC. For a discussion on the implications of the resolution, see here (start at 31.30). The early part of the video has Tom Buck sharing his views on the issues at the convention.
Finally, the convention endorsed an outside investigation of the Executive Committee and the SBC leadership. This investigation was announced immediately before the convention as a consequence of Russ Moore’s very public letter, ostensibly intended to be private, charging many around him of essentially driving him from the convention. At issue was the handling of sexual abuse allegations in the highest levels of SBC leadership. Last Sunday, eight sexual abuse survivors called for an open and transparent investigation by an outside agency. This action was partially precipitated by a refusal of SBC leadership to deal with a GA church whose former minister perpetrated sexual abuse. The allegations against the church were dismissed by the officials, despite credible evidence of sexual abuse presented to them. Although the motion for the investigation passed, some spoke against it arguing that the churches should be sufficient to handle their own sin issues. Just days before the motion passed, the executive committee itself refused to take more action in self-investigation.
The convention this year was an intense one. Whatever one thinks of JD Greear, he handled the pressure well, even if he didn’t please everyone. Now the gavel (Greear replaced the Broadus gavel because Broadus was a slave owner) passes to Ed Litton. It remains to be seen just where the SBC is headed. Will the strong conservatives like the Founders men, who really saw few of their goals accomplished this year, remain loyal to the SBC? Will the SBC become more welcoming of women in their pulpits? Was enough done in Nashville to keep prominent African American pastors in the convention? Dwight McKissic threatened to leave if Mohler or Stone was elected. Will the SBC change its approach to the handling of sexual abuse within its ranks as survivors demand? There are many good and godly men and women in the SBC. Any group as large as their movement is bound to have problems. I hope the SBC will strengthen what remains.
This week has been an extraordinary one for writing topics. On a personal level, Minnesota is in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave and we were without air conditioning over the weekend. On Saturday, Minneapolis broke a high temperature record, hitting 100! We were able to get an HVAC man to look at our unit on Monday. The good news is he got it working. The bad news is that the whole system needed to be replaced. Well, it was fifteen years old! Not a cheap repair! The new unit was installed yesterday.
As for Christian topics worthy of consideration, there is the leaked letter to SBC president J. D. Greear from Russ Moore, former president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission outlining his reasons for departing the SBC recently and serious charges against Paige Patterson, former president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, of theft of property and financial misdirection. Both issues are sure to make for a tense 2021 SBC meeting in Nashville in a few days. Add to this, news out of Canada that James Coates has lost another round in his fight with the Alberta authorities over efforts to keep GraceLife Church open as normal despite a potential public health crisis. I have been following both stories very closely because of my history with both the SBC and Canada.
However, the subject for my essay this week is yet another iteration of modern Christianity that I have studied, observed personally, and written on over the past decade—global Pentecostalism. On Saturday, June 5, “Prophet” Temitope Balogun (aka T. B.) Joshua died at the age of 57, following a service in Lagos, Nigeria. No cause of death has yet been released. Joshua was the founder of the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN), home to Emmanuel television station. Joshua was among the wealthiest African Pentecostal Prosperity-Gospel preachers, purchasing a $60 million G550 Gulfstream jet in 2015. Nigeria is home to a number of high profile Prosperity preachers including David Oyedepo of Living Faith Church Worldwide International, Chris Oyakhilome, founder of Believer’s Love World in Lagos who was recently fined £125,000 by the UK broadcasting regulatory authority over COVID misinformation, and Enoch Adeboye of Redeemed Christian Church of God. The stunning reality is that though preachers like Joshua promise cures for a variety of maladies including blindness and HIV, (Joshua once claimed that he could cure homosexuality, but YouTube canceled his channel as a result), and even raising the dead, they have no ability to stop the death angel from visiting them at their appointed hour (Hebrews 9:27). In passing from this life, Joshua joins all other faith healing preachers who were unable to cure the ultimate human disease—death—including Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, and the recently deceased Reinhard Bonnke, etc.
Having taught in East Africa for the past dozen years, I have had numerous opportunities to visit Prosperity Gospel churches (including two different Winner’s Chapel sites in Nairobi) and listen to the messages delivered by their stage personalities. The preachers were impeccably dressed and coiffed, men as well as women. The system of money collection is nothing short of amazing in these churches. In one church I visited, large, wheeled garbage cans were brought into the auditorium, and ushers walked through the crowds passing out “tithing” envelopes for the faithful. Tithers stood to be recognized and they were given the first opportunity to come forward, very publicly, bringing their tithes to the Lord and placing them into the awaiting wheeled carts. While they were coming, there was singing and exhortations for others to grab an envelope from an usher and join them in their processional. In the large church, throngs of people made the journey, from across the auditorium, out of the balcony and down to the platform to contribute. This tithing ritual is a key component of the Prosperity Gospel. PG teaches that if you want God to bless you, then you must be faithful to God and bring your tithes and offerings to him (in the person of the PG preacher). According to David Oyedepo “All financial testimonies in the Body of Christ are rooted in consistent tithing.” “Any believer who is not a tither will remain a financial struggler.” “It is impossible to be in command of financial fortune without being a tither.” This teaching prompted one well-known historian of the PG, himself raised as a Pentecostal, to suggest that the only ones who really prosper in the PG are the preachers, as the recipients of the peoples “tithes.”
Just how is it possible for PG preachers to thrive in the poorest country in the world? Nigeria is considered the poorest country because of the percentage of its population living in poverty (40% as of 2019). Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, with a current population of 209 million, is projected to become the third most populous country in the world by 2050. Currently it is estimated that nearly 87 million people live in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 per day. Of this number, 73.5 million people live in rural areas, while 13+ million in urban areas. Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product was measured at 448 billion in 2019, equating to $2230 per capita, but in Nigeria, people in extreme poverty are living off less than $400 per annum.
Why does Nigeria have such extreme poverty? At least three reasons have been offered—corruption which includes mismanagement of its resources (oil), unemployment (estimated at 50%) and inequality, “Nigerian women are subject to unequal treatment in terms of labor, education and property.” Corruption is the single greatest threat to the Nigerian poverty level. It is estimated that by 2030, 37% of the country’s GDP will be consumed by corruption. OXFAM estimated that $20 trillion was stolen from Nigerian coffers by corrupt officials between 1969 and 2005. Sadly, while many government officials enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens, PG preachers follow the same greed-filled pattern, taking advantage of some of the most vulnerable.
The richest man in Africa (for the past ten years, with a net worth of about 12 billion USD) is a Nigerian, Aliko Dasngote, who made his fortune in cement, Dasgote Cement, Africa’s largest producer. So where do the PG preachers fit in? The wealth of the ten richest pastors in Nigeria (Joshua is fourth on the list) totals about $700 million. Rather than these individuals using their influence to fight the tragic cultural and economic situation in Nigeria, they are wolves living off the sheep in the worst sort of way—living luxurious lifestyles in the midst of immense poverty, making promises they are not able to keep, fleecing the few resources that Nigerians have at their disposal for their own personal gain.
The state of Joshua’s soul is beyond my certain knowledge. It is difficult to believe that he knew the God of the Bible given his pronouncements and very public lifestyle, but this is really a matter for the Lord to determine. Africa is in great need of the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. I thank the Lord to have been affiliated with Central Africa Baptist University and the men and women there who are doing their part to bring the truth of God’s word into the midst of darkness. May God continue to bless their efforts to the praise of his glorious grace!
Last week a friend wrote to me drawing a loose comparison between Rosa Parks (1913–2005), the courageous African-American woman who refused to yield to the racially-constructed, Jim Crow-era rule that required blacks to sit in certain seats on a bus and to move if a white patron wished to claim the seat they were sitting in, with Edmonton, Alberta pastor James Coates, who has repeatedly denied the seriousness of COVID and has since last year, defied the Alberta Health Association’s COVID mandates at every conceivable turn. My friend wrote,
The case was made on this side of the border that one legit pathway to change improper laws and regulations was to put them to a legal challenge (e.g., Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat set in motion a legal issue that confronted an unjust law). It seems that is what these men have done quite successfully. Is that contrary to the Canadian system? Is it illegitimate for believers in democratic societies?
Well, to my friend’s question on the legitimacy of believers protesting an unjust law in a democratic society, I answer yes, . . . er, well, no. Am I answering as an American (or Canadian) or as a Christian? There is a difference. What I can do as an American or Canadian may not equate to what I should do as a Christian. Two passages are particularly germane to this discussion, here quoted from the ESV. Rom. 13:1-7
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Peter exhorts in 1 Peter 2:13–14 “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
These two passages ought to govern our interaction with civil authorities. Taken at face value, they seem self-evident. But, there are examples (e.g., Daniel at prayer, the apostles after their release from jail) that show believers, OT and NT, who defied government orders clearly contradictory to biblically revealed duty for the believer. For Daniel, to pray even temporarily to Darius would have been a violation of the 1st commandment and for the disciples to refuse to testify of Christ would have been direct disobedience to what Christ told them they were to do in his absence (Acts 1:8). Ordinarily, Christians are to submit to their government to the point of paying taxes and rendering them honour. Disobedience seems only justified when clear biblical teachings are violated. Were they in the case of GraceLife?
Christians are commanded to worship God as a gathered body. This seems to be the clear teaching of Hebrews 10:25. But what does this mean? What does it entail? How does this take place in every circumstance? During the days of the Soviet Union, churches met illegally in the forests. Gatherings were routinely broken up and pastors were arrested. I had the privilege of meeting and hearing the testimony of Peter Rumachik who served eighteen years in the gulags of Siberia for his faith. I have met numerous brothers in Romania who were persecuted. Churches were shuttered for very specific reasons. The government wanted to suppress their Christianity. Christians met anyway and paid the consequences. There were few alternatives. And there was no end in sight. The closure of churches was a permanent goal. In 1931, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a prominent Russian Orthodox church in the heart of Moscow, was demolished to make way for the Palace of the Soviets. This was persecution, unmistakable.
But is this what was put upon churches in Canada? The COVID rules were heavy, harsh, somewhat arbitrary (some stores were considered essential services but not churches) but Christians were not singled out per se for persecution. No one told pastors what to preach. They could even criticize the government, publicly. Christian ministry could take place in different forms—limited attendance, drive-in services, the internet—but churches could still minister to people. Was it ideal? Of course not! Was it necessary? Time will tell. Was it lawful? Let’s see what the courts decide.
There is a group of churches in Canada that have protested the closure of churches by signing “The Church Must Gather” petition. It is a public outcry against the harsh measures. But many churches, though signing the petition, have still complied. I selected a random church with which I have some familiarity years ago. They signed the petition, but they are meeting via drive-in services, apparently lawfully.
Christians are reminded that governments are God’s servants given for our protection. Only when governments usurp God and his prerogatives, can Christians resist. Did governments in Canada usurp God? Was this “crisis” merely an attempt to wipe out Christianity from Canada? The annals of Christian history are filled with the records of persecuted Christians, even in today’s world. From Polycarp to the executions of Christian pastors in Nigeria (one man was executed just this week), persecution is real. What is happening in Canada cannot rightly be called Christian persecution. About the same time Tim Stephens was arrested, others who defied the lockdowns were also arrested including a mayoral candidate for Calgary, the owner of a restaurant and organizers of a rodeo.
Getting back to Rosa Parks and James Coates, while both were bold in their respective acts of defiance, the comparison of these two individuals really ends there. Rosa was objecting to a systemic, wicked structure (Jim Crow racism) that imposed “slavery by another name” on African-Americans living in the era before the Civil Rights movement. Her act of resistance to a rule whose only purpose was to keep her in her place as a black woman, not suitable to sit with the white folks was an act of self-identity. Moreover, it was not “religiously” motivated that I am aware of. On the other hand, James Coates is using Christian categories to justify his defiance of the civil orders whose sole aim is to curtail, at least ostensibly, a potential health risk, a health risk that James has repeatedly denied based on his own standards of investigation. He may even be right . . . the pandemic may not be as severe as the authorities initially believed. But is that the issue? Stories continue to be spread about individuals suffering from COVID. I read a prayer request for a missionary in Bolivia that is not expected to live because of his COVID related illness. COVID is real, whether James thinks it is or not.
At issue is what some are doing or not doing with respect to governing officials. Last week, James sent me a link to a book on the “Lesser Magistrates doctrine,” a Reformation era defense of actions like Fredrick the Wise who “disobeyed” an order of Charles V to arrest Martin Luther.
The lesser magistrate doctrine declares that when the superior or higher civil authority makes unjust/immoral laws or decrees, the lesser or lower ranking civil authority has both a right and duty to refuse obedience to that superior authority. If necessary, the lesser authorities even have the right and obligation to actively resist the superior authority. (Matthew Trewhella, The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates, 2013, 1).
Assuming the truthfulness of this doctrine, how does that impact what is happening in Canada? Provincial governments are grappling with a potential global health threat, something unprecedented in the last one hundred years. As they do so, they make rules, pass laws, issue decrees, flawed and poorly executed in some cases to be sure, in an attempt to protect the citizens under their authority. How can these rules truly be immoral or unjust on their face? There is no doubt that when this current crisis passes, as it surely will, studies will be undertaken by governments, universities, think tanks, healthcare professionals, politicians, students, denominations, etc. to examine the crisis in its totality—its causes, its cures, its severity, the responses, their effects, both on the disease itself and upon those collaterally impacted. Mistakes will be identified, flawed responses will be noted, improper motives, collateral damage, and yes, the impact that the crisis had on constitutional issues will all be scrutinized and, in some cases, litigated. Did the masks work? Was social distancing effective? Did closures of stores, restaurants, houses of worship, schools, parks, golf courses, sports events, etc. do more harm than good? Did governments act too soon (or not soon enough), too quickly, too severely? Remember that hindsight is always 20/20.
Since my last essay, Alberta Health acknowledged that the actions against Tim Stephens were improper and charges against him have been dropped. This is great news. Like I said about James Coates last week, I believe that Tim is a man under whose ministry I could sit. Even if I disagree with his position on this issue. We all make mistakes.
So, getting back to my friend’s initial question, can believers in democratic societies practice civil disobedience? Historically, many have. Conscientious objectors have refused to serve in the military (witness the life of Desmond Doss whose story was captured in the films The Conscientious Objector  and Hacksaw Ridge ). As was the case with Doss, he persevered long enough to get a change in classification, permitting him to serve in the military without carrying arms. Are these Canadian brothers merely conscientious objectors? Sure. But the entailments of their actions, opening churches that have been temporarily closed due to a perceived health threat poses a potentially greater health risk. Time will tell.
In summary, does the Bible allow Christians to resist their divinely appointed government? If so, where? If you are going to argue on the basis of Hebrew 10:25 that there is some form of biblical requirement that large corporate worship is biblically required, you will need more than this text to do so. If you are going to insist that defying your divinely appointed government who, however imperfectly, is trying to do its duty in fighting the unseen threat of COVID-19, you will need a more compelling argument. Most churches in Canada are complying, whether they want to or not. So, you want to argue it’s not the business of government to protect its citizen’s health? Ok, then whose business is it? A potential national health crisis isn’t the business of government? That’s a pretty narrow view of civil government.