Southern Baptists pride themselves as literalists. The tendency is to employ a rabid love for the meaning of words until it does not suit the purpose. Southern Baptists are then rigid pragmatists. In both instances stridency becomes virtuous, even in the face of withering contradictions. Most people face this oxymoronic existence at least once in life.
Before proceeding with Part 2, Ruled Out of Order or, A Pusillanimous SBC, let me point to an intentional word play and one deliberate word choice that might have gone un-noticed in Part 1. This does not mean other words were flippantly selected.
First, the title of this series, Ruled Out of Order or, A Pusillanimous SBC, uses the indefinite article, a, to describe the SBC. Had I used the definite article, the, I would have been making a sweeping generalization. Dr. Clarke taught us in freshman philosophy all those years ago; this would be considered a logical fallacy. Embedded in the critique is the hope the SBC will not always express a pusillanimous faith.
Second, Aaron Weaver picked up Richard Land’s plagiarism as he found the word, thereby, to be troublesome for a radio show. Twice in my presented motion I used the word. In the course of Part 1, I found other opportunities to use thereby. It is understandable that some would miss this subtle reference to the entire debacle. But, it may be worth keeping a keen eye out for other possibilities.
Prophesy Not Protect
One of my first books as a young wanna-be-preacher-boy was Dr. W.A. Criswell’s, Why I Preach the Bible Is Literally True. The First Baptist Church of Dallas cast a long shadow north into my world in Oklahoma City. We believed every word of the Bible from cover to cover including the notes and the maps.
Listening to the arguments in favor of the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC during my latter years of high school prompted me, and many a young preacher-boy like me, to take up arms in the effort to win the Battle for the Bible. A victory would rid the SBC of skunks. And, who really likes skunks?
Years passed. One of my good friends read that literal Bible and found a reference to Memphis during a moment of devotion. He headed east. I went south. We kept in contact by phone. One day I learned my friend decided to go to work on a PhD. Along the way he planted a church. My friend drafted the guiding documents for this new work. He included instructions in the event church discipline was needed. Many believed some, if not all, ecclesial conflicts could be mitigated with a well-understood church covenant and accompanying guidelines in the event ever there was a breach.
Some time after the church began to whir and grow, my friend became the subject in need of church discipline. I listened as he told me the story. We had not talked in some time. I hurt for my friend and his family. But my friend he was. He told me he willingly submitted to the prescriptions for those who violated the church membership covenant. To say he lost would be an understatement.
During the days of the CR we young fellows were told stories of those whose ethics and decisions were so far beyond the pale of the Word of God we needed a good cleansing. The promise at the other end was a purer church, greater integrity, and growth. Statistics of every other denomination who suffered leftward drift became standard fare when rallying the troops. Unless we wanted to go the way of . . . we needed to remain vigilant; the dominant theme of this year’s Baptist21 Luncheon.
Somewhere along the way we learned the standard did not apply to everyone. These stories got shuttered. Then, a young black man walked home from a convenience store in Florida. From there the details remain under debate. Trayvon Martin was killed. Dr. Land went live. He spoke into these events on his radio program. Following the pattern established by Limbaugh and Beck he seized the moment to assault others with accusations including the President of the United States. Another barnacle broke loose from the SBC ship and surfaced on the electronic sea.
Who on earth would ever read a transcript? But read it was. A young PhD student noticed thereby used in said radio transcript. Aaron Weaver thought it odd to use thereby in spoken word. The rest is recent history. Shortly it was clear Dr. Land had cobbled together paragraphs from op-ed pieces with his own words and failed to give due credit. His subject was the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case.
Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece for the Huffington Post wondering when or what would become of such an action. I wondered too. Over the course of a couple of months I wrote a number of posts thinking through various angles and implications. The one thing that I could not escape was the feeling betrayal by literalists. Words mean something. Or at least that is the brand of conservatism proffered we who cut our teeth during the Takeover.
What was good for my friend is good for any leader. In the same way my friend patterned his new work with a higher bar, those who planned and carried out the CR made promises they too were raising the bar – the Bible. Those who led and spoke did not mind being referred to with the prophetic reference, “he who troubles Israel.” Some CR leaders launched a conference and others a school under the banner, “The School of the Prophets.” Cleary the aim was to train young prophetic leaders. Today we protect our leaders.
The inerrant Bible became an empty signifier. It is fine for a pastor to suffer the consequences of violating a church membership covenant based on an inerrant Bible. He should step aside. But, there is a different standard for our entity heads. A local pastor’s years of faithfulness are wiped away. A prominent figure in the CR is credited with his faithfulness even if he stumbles and falls.
David Platt demonstrated the prophetic. I had never heard David preach. I am glad I did at this year’s SBC Pastor’s Conference. Knowing the undercurrents at work leading up to the Annual Meeting left me thinking, “Someone forgot to tell this young fellow the history of the CR?” Maybe there are yet a few prophets among us I mused. Just maybe they will weather attempts to keep from being tamed. But, it will not be easy.
The lure of power, prestige, and panel positions make strange bedfellows. Dr. Rankin calls attention to the illusion of unity. Some of the one thousand of us may have witnessed quite the sleight of hand over lunch. Prophetic voices gave way to protective voices. “We must keep what we have won,” the tagline for the B21.
Some committee somewhere needs to rule that opinion out of order. A movement built on our insistence on the meaning of words suffers violently when our leaders equivocate. We suffer the weight of the implications. It begs the question just what was won long after victory is declared. Somewhere someone is listening. And, when we witness theft we cannot call it anything less. The CR leaders taught us such.
There is a story in that Authoritative Book. A shepherd boy became king. He daringly warded off would-be thieving animals that sought his father’s sheep. Once he reached ascendency a thief became he. All might have gone unnoticed were it not for the meaning of theft. The prophet of God would not protect the king but remind him what stealing meant. What began in hope ended in tragedy.
Tragedy appears to have been avoided but at what cost. We lose our prophetic voice when protection becomes our choice.
Part 3, Conviction Not Procedure
Image Credit: Prophet Ezekiel