Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Baptists and Democracy: Messy and Difficult

There are two things that have been worrying me recently: the state of the Baptist church and the state of our national government. Believe it or not, I am beginning to think the problems in these organizations are more similar than you may think.

Let's first consider the question of leadership. Where does the power in both of these systems really lie?

Historically, Baptists have always practiced congregational polity. This means that the congregation, not the pastor or deacons (the misunderstood role of deacons will be the topic of another post), should be the final authority on ALL matters. In my experience, the constitutions of most Baptist churches have a clause that says exactly that. However, it has also been my experience that many Baptist churches fail miserably at putting this into practice. There seems to be a feeling that if the pastor and/or deacons decide something, the church must follow it. Interestingly, even if the decision violates the church constitution, it is often allowed to stand. Sadly and more importantly, even if the decision violates the teachings of the Bible, it is often allowed to stand. The pastor acts more like a CEO than the shepherd of his congregation and the congregation put their faith in him (or her), rather than in the Lord. Congregations like these often place "congregational health" above the truth. I prefer to side with Martin Luther who said, "Peace if possible, truth at all costs." Secrecy and lies only poison a congregation; they do not, and cannot, heal.

Congregational polity does have a weakness, however. It requires a very educated congregation. It requires a congregation that knows the Bible -- a congregation that is willing and able to listen to its leaders with a critical ear. Christianity is not as simple as some would like for us to believe. For most questions, there is not "an answer," rather there are multiple answers. This makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. They want to come to church and be told what the answers are -- they don't have the time or desire to study themselves - that's what pastors and Sunday School teachers are for. This is why congregations follow leaders who are not following the Bible: they simply do not know better.

In the next post, we'll move from local churches to the national government.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Christian Fighting...

I don't mind admitting that I have been discouraged lately. The church can be a very discouraging place to be sometimes. I have been involved in two congregations that seem to spend more time fighting than doing anything else and where truth was far down on the list of priorities.

There are two ways that the problem can be fixed. First, Christian ministers and laity can learn how to talk and, more importantly, disagree with each other without resorting to name calling. I was talking to a deacon in another church recently who told me that one of the board of deacons stood up, pointed his finger at people and started calling them liberals, post-moderns, etc. While these labels may have some useful academic purposes of identifying different theologies, I do not believe they have a place in church meetings when they are being used to degrade others. (Also, I think most people only have "stereotype" understandings of these terms, and have no idea what they really mean.) None of us has all the answers, and we have to be able to admit that.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
The above quote is from 1 Corinthians 13 commonly known as the love chapter and it is familiar to most Christians. However, many Christians do not realize is its context. It immediately follows Paul's discussion of spiritual gifts. When considered in that context, the message becomes apparent. Even if I am the most spiritually gifted person in a deacon's meeting, if I do not have love for my fellow Christians, I have nothing. I think it is also a pretty strong condemnation of Christians acting like Children. How do Children act? Well, when children disagree, sometimes you hear them say they are going to take their toys and go home because they don't agree with something that is going on. Ever hear a Christian say he or she is going to take his tithe to another church that will appreciate it? Or a pastor say if you don't do it his way, he won't do it at all? We have to remember who we serve. We are not serving ourselves or even our pastor; we are serving our Lord.

Don't get me wrong. There are times when Christians can and should disagree, but there is a right way to do it. For instance, one should always stand up for the truth (something that seems to happen all too seldom), but he can do it in a way that does not demean others.

The second way this will be fixed is very simple. People will simply stop coming to church. Whether it is fair or not, people hold their church leaders, whether they are ministers, deacons or other leaders, to a higher standard. This is especially true of non-Christians. Many are just looking for a reason to ignore Christianity or support their conception that we are all just a bunch of hypocrites.

Churches have to realize that this childlike behavior is not only driving away church members, it is also discouraging people from going into full time Christian service in the local church.

Friday, July 06, 2007

A Letter to the President from Pastor Amy Butler

The following was posted on Amy Butler's, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., blog on July 4th. I thought it was very well written, and expresses the sentiments many of us feel.

Democracy in the Dust: A Letter to George Bush

It's a little dangerous for the preacher to get political, I know.

It's risky to speak truth to power, but the fact of the matter is, while government needs to keep itself out of institutional religion, our faith informs who we are as citizens of this country and of the world. If our faith doesn't compel us to speak out, what will?

The commuting of Scooter Libby's sentence this week was the last straw for me. Today, on the birthday of our country, I thought I'd write a letter to our leader to let him know what I think.

Opinions expressed here are solely my own, as you know.

Dear Mr. Bush:

Happy birthday to us, and all that.

Truthfully, I’m rather wary of this holiday, as it seems more and more to me that we’re celebrating a distant dream rather than a hopeful reality. You know what I mean?

I didn’t think so.

I have to tell you, I know being a leader is not the easiest task, especially when effective leadership means bucking the status quo, challenging current systems and ushering in new hope for the future.

I feel for you, really I do.

I know it’s not easy, but I must ask: is there really a need to up-end democracy in such a flagrant manner as you have repeatedly, consistently done during your time in office?

We must take responsibility, I know, for putting you there (twice). Although I myself did not contribute to that effort either time, I’m wondering if I didn’t sit by too idle and uninvolved while others did?

This most recent decision of yours, to make sure Scooter Libby escapes a prison term, while not surprising, seems to be the last straw for me. I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines while you destroy our country’s international reputation, alienate our neighbors, and slowly chip away at the freedoms that have made our country great.

Maybe you feel you’re protected enough to behave in whatever manner you want, to leave democracy and the American people in the dust while you keep your friends happy, but I want you to know I’m tired of it all. For the first time in my adult life I am genuinely alarmed about the kind of country I will be handing off to my kids.

I’m not hoping, of course, that you will see the light, change your ways, fix the damage you’ve done . . . it’s, frankly, far too extensive by now. I just wanted to say: I am disappointed in you . . . disappointed that you don’t have the courage to be a visionary leader to a country with such promise. You missed the boat, but I, for one, will not stand by anymore while you leave democracy in the dust.

Happy birthday, America. May the world remember the promise of this country and stand by us as we try to pick up the dream, dust it off, and reinvent it for the future.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Who or what do we worship on July 4?

The following article appeared in the Lakeland Ledger last weekend. This is an issue we have discussed several times in class, and I agree with the sentiments of the author. Disagree? Leave a comment and let me know why.

Does 'Old Glory' Belong in Church?


Some time back, after church one day, I was talking with some visitors. One gentleman, who was clearly a military veteran, asked - or rather demanded to know - why the American flag was standing off to the side at floor level rather than up front on the elevated chancel.

I knew the answer because at the time I was serving on the church's governing board, and we had to make a decision where to put the flag in our newly built sanctuary. I explained that the board had decided the chancel was reserved for the holy sacraments and the preaching of God's word. But rather than leave the flag out of the sanctuary altogether, it was placed, along with the Christian flag, beside an entrance visible to most of the congregation.

The gentleman went on to complain that the American flag was on the left when it should be on the right, but I declined to argue further. I didn't tell him that in my opinion the flag shouldn't be in the sanctuary at all.

I know that many, like the gentleman visitor, don't agree with me. On Sunday, in anticipation of Independence Day, I'm sure that in many churches the American flag will be paraded down the aisles and placed front and center in celebration of God and country. I certainly am not ashamed of the American flag, but I'm uneasy about putting the symbol of the nation so prominently in a church, or any place of worship. I think it encourages a dangerous idea: that the causes of America are also the causes of God, or worse, that America can be worshiped just like God. Putting the flag in the sanctuary flirts with idolatry.

We hear a lot about American exceptionalism, which holds that we have a special place - even a sacred place - in history, that we are God's chosen people. What we don't realize is how many other nations, in other times and places, have said the same thing before us. I'm afraid Christians have been particularly susceptible to this temptation. For some reason, patriotism and Christian belief are easily fused.

Early 20th-century Europe was chockablock with nationalistic fervor, and every nation competed with the other to claim God was on its side. In Anglican churches, there were cries of "God save the king." In Lutheran churches, it was "God save the Kaiser." In Orthodox churches, it was "God save the Tsar and holy mother Russia."

Even after World War I put an end to most of those monarchies - and millions of lives to boot - this patriotic Christianity didn't go away. I have read that the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was married in a church with a Nazi flag draped over the altar.

We rightly recoil at that, but there were plenty of Germans who saw no difficulty with putting the national symbol prominently in the church. "Why can't we worship God and honor our country?" they might have asked.

Ah, but America is different, we say. What about the Pilgrims? Didn't they found Massachusetts as a Christian colony? Somehow I think that those men and women who suffered under the state-sponsored Church of England wouldn't take much comfort from seeing an American flag in a church. They might say we have simply traded one flag for another.

Well, it's not my intention to offend. In general, I can live with those who disagree with me on this. I've never walked out of a church because it had the American flag standing next to the pulpit, although I could imagine doing so if it were draped around the cross.

Like most of you, I am thankful for the blessings of our country, and I pray they might continue. But I also try to remember that God is not nearly as impressed with us as we are with ourselves.

Have a safe Independence Day.

Cary McMullen is religion editor for The Ledger. Read his blog, The Scriptorium, at religion.theledger.com. He can be reached at cary.mcmullen@theledger.com or 863-802-7509.