(Sometimes writing is “risk-taking.” Pastors writing on sensitive subjects on the interwebs may have dire consequences when words fail to stir healthy conversation. I write this post on my website. I am expressing my convictions not those of my church. The church I pastor is comprised of people who tend to see these issues as I do. There are also people who see them differently. We all aim for the kind of fellowship where we learn from one another and know how to make central issues central. On those matters where we all admit to a bit of a “cloud of unknowing” we practice love and charity. I offer this caveat having witnessed another pastor suffer the whipsaw of extreme stridency. Fortunately his integrity and character won the day and the grace and mercy of God gained a beautiful, if painful, illustration.)
Southern Baptists practice apophatic morality. Our history seems to be replete with illustrations of what we don’t do. That is, the best vision we seem able to offer when it comes to morality is best described in the via negativa. While it may be an unfair over-simplification to those who practice apophatic theology, it is not too far removed from reality when it comes to we Southern Baptists and our assertions for personal morality. Growing up we learned the mantra well. The moral fabric we learned was to not – smoke, drink, cuss, play cards, go to R-rated movies, or dance.
Now let me say from the outset, life may be enjoyed without any of these activities. The problem was we Southern Baptist young people became some of the most judgmental snots on any campus as we maintained the party line. While adults were steadfastly ensuring we avoided hangovers, fornication, and movies that portrayed those habits in all their Hollywood splendor, mentoring us to show kindness, patience, gentleness and self-control slipped through the cracks. Ethical behavior, as it were, was nearly reduced exclusively to these matters of “personal holiness.” So, I did not go to my Senior Prom. There would, after all, be dancing.
Our position on dancing was reinforced by my Dad’s experience. He had gone to his high school Senior Prom and been questioned not long after arriving, “What are you doing here? I thought you were a Christian.” Good for me that our moral instruction was reinforced by my Dad’s experience. I was spared what surely would have been a horrible embarrassment. My two feet would have surely been exposed. I missed the rhythm section. And, what would surely have led to adolescent sexual curiosity was avoided as I did the “bump” with no one.
Even though that was nearly 30 years ago I still rest well knowing I did not add to other embarrassing behavior – at least by intention. Years later, both our girls attended their Senior Prom. And yes, they may have danced and done so quite well. Their attendance at said event created a bit of dissonance. I tried to resurrect my Dad’s story as, “Let me tell you about your PaPa’s experience.” They were non-plussed. Quickly they noted we had raised them to make the kind of decision that was more Footloose than Dirty Dancing. You know, the Kevin Bacon film where they just wanted to dance. “David danced before the Lord,” Ren, Bacon’s character, intoned. Yep, that’s right. There it is. In that all sufficient, without error Sacred Text of ours. The authoritative word described dancing before the Lord – and in less than Kingly attire. Explain it away. Give it special status, not a normative or regulative designation.
Marty stirred these matters yesterday. He said he could not help himself. Drat his lack of self-control for pushing the send button on the email with the link! For what it is worth, the proposed motion to study the social use of alcohol by the North Carolina Baptist Convention is their prerogative. To determine to deny participation in denominational affairs, deny appointment, or election to those who find it acceptable to share a glass of wine or drink a beer with dinner is also their decision. I still think life may be lived well without these beverages at meals.
The real issue that struck me was less about the decision to choose a path that would surely keep one from being impaired by alcohol. No, it was the reasoning. More specifically it was the reference to J.D. Greear’s blog post on the subject. Finally, in a public way, a pastor grapples with the complexities of the issue. Oh that it were as easy as some suggest. Ah what luxury to point to a verse about lying, stealing, bearing false witness or any number of more specific injunctions or commands. But, the Sacred Text is sans “Thou Shalt Not Drink.” We may argue inferences but let’s acknowledge they are just that. Here is a young pastor with hundreds if not at least a thousand college students who are learning to think critically. They read texts week in and week out. Learning to parse a text, words, and meaning is part and parcel of a Liberal Arts education. These college students hear the strong conviction of Pastor Greear as to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. They are aware of college life and its temptations. Then in an attempt to make informed decisions they ask the hard question, “What about the use of alcohol?”
J.D. posted his thoughts on his website. He risks thinking in public rather than hide it in private. It is in response to his “Ask anything” personality. He often seeks to learn as well as teach. He did not tell his audience the best choice is to use alcohol socially. He did not give a green light. In fact, he actually set tight parameters – if it would advance the cause of the Gospel he would drink. His assertion was with the likely understanding that such a decision would not be necessary. For those familiar with koine Greek, we should consider J.D.’s “if” as something of a Third Class conditional. And, if the New Testament offered a Fourth Class, J.D.’s formulation would likely fall there. Call it something akin to a once in a lifetime possibility, if that.
I know some will argue that point. But, reading J.D.’s post left me thinking he was attempting to be more true to both the Scripture and his personal conviction in both its sufficiency and authority. Rather than assert an ethical position that stemmed from an argument based somewhere other than Scripture, at least a direct connection, he chose the hard road, and obviously the more controversial. J.D. is a big boy. He can handle the mis-use of his words as support for this motion. He does not need me to chime in. But, while I do not know J.D. extremely well, I have spent some time with him as I have noted before. He is bright. Gregarious. And, he possesses one of those degrees that makes mine something of a second class doctorate according to Jason, another friend who does not chide me too often. But, degrees do not necessarily make thinkers any more than pastors make the best ethicists. My contention in all of this. I did not go to the prom. I did not dance. I avoided all the pitfalls as to what it might have wrought in my teenage loins. But, I did not go to the prom and dance because the Scripture told me so.
Let’s do more than operate out of an apophatic morality. Consider a helpful and healthy theology of work, play, rest, and relationship. If we opt for our earlier mantras based on our preferred sensibilities, let’s do so helping our young people to be hospitable to those with whom they disagree rather than haughty. Let’s develop an apprenticeship model of disciple-making that takes into consideration humanity made in the image of God and the tension created by those same human beings “not knowing what they are doing” as they put to death the vision for people in Jesus, the Christ. Could we help our young people engage the difficult questions rather than develop “preaching points” passed around among high profile figures quashing conversation in favor of some anti-Baptist-esque magisterium. What would it look like to say we – deem every human being owed dignity and respect, work to create economic/social/judicial/political means to demonstrate the reconciling love of God described in Colossians 1. Hopefully you get the picture for the project. Maybe something growing out of McClendon’s Ethics as a pattern.
J.D. – if you should stop this way – Thank you for being a young pastor willing to acknowledge the complexities of the Way of Jesus, for mentoring young college students to self-control in all things and, even when some old pastor guy like myself should disagree at some point, you know well enough we share in the grace and mercy of God or we might too be working the power games of extremism in our own denomination. Peace Friend.