Grandma Littleton tired of the question, “Are you Catholic?” This came after she responded to, “How many children do you have?” She would reply, “Eight. Six boys and two girls.” Over time she developed a startling response to the question of her religious background, “No. Just oversexed Baptists.” Were she still alive I would have to tell her, “Well played Grandma, well played.”
I am not sure that Baptists are oversexed but we are sure interested in the subject. We Southern Baptists do not talk about it often, at least in public. When our national figures address the subject it is generally to decry something about the way it is practiced or who is practicing it. Sex, that is.
Yesterday our Oklahoma tribe of Southern Baptists gathered to talk about sexuality, sex. The occasion, “Same-sex Marriage.” No summit on the incidence of pornography in the Bible Belt. No conclave on teen pregnancy in the reddest of states. These are the matters that most often affect our local congregations. Hardly a self-identified gay person would care to enter a Southern Baptist Church, much less want to be married in one of our churches. Our rhetoric has done more to solidify that fact than any adjustment to doctrinal statements or by-laws could do.
Dennis Jernigan noted those well-meaning Christians whom he overheard as a young lad talking about homosexuality and how those people were going straight to Hell. It had a profound effect on him. He remembers still. Not much has changed. Maybe the overt talk is not as prominent. You may be sure the sentiment among the base lingers.
We play to the base. We want no trouble.
Panel discussions served as the means for conveying information at this event. A series of topics provided the nexus for questions. Except for an early breakfast, not one pastor served on any panel. Not one who is required to work these matters out on ground level with their congregations. We kept hearing how the issues we face are discussed in these forums are from 30,000 feet, not on the ground. Then told th work is done on he ground.
The closest moment came during the Breakfast Panel when Pastor Hance responded to the question, “How do you minister to a family whose son or daughter comes out as gay?” Maybe it was the public nature of the event that kept Hance from answering with specifics as to how he personally has responded. I respect him for that, and that he is a friend who does not often make of such moments an occasion for political theater, maybe never at all. Then again, maybe he has not faced the described circumstances yet.
Why not hear from a congregational leader the trials and errors, and maybe the successes, of helping a family with such an experience? We clamor for our denominational celebrities to tell us what to do. Mostly, we were told to preach better sermons on the subject. Fire up the pastoral content management system, get people to believe rightly, and then they will behave properly.
We are to follow that quickly with critical thinking, thinking theologically. Help congregations to think. So, I decided upon reflection to do just that with regard to this event, think critically that is.
1. We play to the base so critical thinking is really about maintaining tribalism.
We find it hard to have a conversation on nearly any subject without finding a group to other. Quickly, other-ing is a tribal practice. Find a group and use them as the scapegoat for all ills. For instance do we really believe the decline in the value of marriage rises from a “gay agenda?” If so, we have ignored statistics, turned a blind eye to how marriage is often treated in our own congregations, and ignored conversations we hear between spouses.
Our whipping post is generally lashed with Liberal Protestantism as our other/Other. For more than four decades every ill or potential ill we Southern Baptists have faced or will face is due to Liberal Drift. So when Dr. Mohler described his opinion that Liberal Protestants behave better related to marriage, unwed pregnancy, and fornication, I found his conclusion to reveal once again that we sometimes do not listen to ourselves.
“If we could get Liberal Protestants to preach what they practice and Conservative Protestants to practice what they preach . . . “
Such a situation would mean we might better address the problems with sexuality and sin of any sort.
By the time he preached his final sermon of the event, Tweets and Facebook posts replayed the his conviction that right beliefs is the answer.
“The message of the gospel is ‘to believe’ not ‘to behave.’” @albertmohler #BGCO @sbctoday
Maybe we should explore that contention.
2. We play to the our tribal identity that privileges belief over behavior.
Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 21. It falls after he rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, a beast of burden, who carried the new King into town. He clears the Temple Complex and faces questions over his actions. He then tells of two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One said no but then went. The other said yes but did not go.
“Which did the father’s will?” [asked Jesus] “The first,” they said. (HCSB)
The way belief functioned for the first son is represented in his behavior, his obedience. Belief functioned differently for the second son.
Apply Dr. Mohler’s description of Liberal Protestantism and Conservative Protestantism.
Maybe making the message of the gospel believe not behave is actually a false dichotomy. It could be our sword of Damocles.
But, when your tribal identity is predicated on getting your beliefs right, especially stating them correctly, then behavior takes some time, and gets a pass. It was the panel that noted Shades of Grey was highly popular in the Bible Belt.
What our tribe values is saying the right things.
I read a friends post about the passing of Fred Craddock. His piece called on Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, to retract his harsh comments until time had passed for the family to grieve. Deja vu.
In 2005, David Dockery took the occasion of Stan Grenz’s death to do the same thing. There had been no time to plan a memorial before criticizing Grenz’s theological project. No time to grieve before the Internet was used to point out how wrong Grenz was, at least to Dockery.
Saying the right thing trumps giving a family time to grieve. Take up Craddock and Grenz after a memorial, after a time of grieving. Point out your disagreement in your classes, to your peers. But publicly this looks calloused, if not arrogant.
And, when beliefs are held in such high regard as to trample the pain of people, you lose. Everyone loses. It is hard not to read Jesus’ challenge to the religious leaders regarding the proper role of the Sabbath.
So, if we are going to preach with authority, it should not be negated by our critical eulogies.
3. We play to the base by suggesting that our preaching represents the transcendent expression of authority.
We love this word authority. Even more we love it when we can talk about authoritative preaching. Dr. Moore suggested that today, sex is viewed as transcendent. It is an escape. He posits the reason we see such free for all, anything goes when it comes to sex, is that with postmodernism our culture lost the sense of the transcendent. Maybe he is right.
If the culture at large has decided for sex as transcendent, then Southern Baptists have decided for preaching as transcendent. When preaching right beliefs is disconnected from behavior we have made the same move. Preachers escape into their pulpits. Megachurch pastors retreat to their video venues.
When the platform figures at this recent event consider one, if not the, key cog in stemming the tide of aberrant sexual expressions to be preaching, particularly expositional preaching, then we have opted for preaching as transcendent.
The one thing a caricature of postmodernism misses is that many who would be lobbed into that category assert that transcendence is really an expression of radical immanence. Theologically we would describe this as Presence. To experience the Transcendent Other is to experience the radically Immanent Other. Our fear is that this brings God down.
But, is that not the Incarnation? Is that not the promise of the Revelation, “the dwelling of God is with people?”
The pastor who retreats to his pulpit as the location of transcendence prefers the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus told Peter there was more to do with the people rather than above the people.
What gets exposed is that we play to the base because rightly talking about how belief should be held means said base, and clergy, will be required to hold their beliefs in practice.
4. We play to the base, we want no trouble.
Most pastors avoid trouble by avoiding difficult topics. I recently remarked at our Men’s Breakfast event that so long as I tell people what they already believe, I can avoid trouble. But, trouble comes not only when those beliefs are challenged but when I suggest I do not believe what they need me to believe for them.
It is here that I will land in agreement with the panel’s conviction that we must teach critical thinking, theological thinking. We must model it. We may tire of hearing about our educations. We may feel timid to make reference to research and study since in our denomination there is still the undercurrent of suspicion of education at work in our congregations.
But, and I appeal to David Fitch here, if we hope to help make connections with and to the Kingdom of God in our world, in our day, then we should put down our emphasis on Christianizing the latest leadership principles and take up the practice of Jesus that is counter-intuitive and counter-revolutionary. We may need to read more of our critics, more outside our normal genres and authors.
Maybe, just maybe, we need to risk some trouble. I am sure I just have.