Wednesday, September 14, 2005


If you want to know how the other side thinks, read this example of naked liberal arrogance.

Baked Clay Pots:
A Reflection on the Crisis Facing
American Baptists
William R. Herzog II

It is probably just a sign of aging. You know how our minds can play tricks on us. Or I could be deluding myself into thinking that I am seeing something that really isn’t there. I suppose that could happen easily enough. But the more I study the first century, the more it begins to look like the 21st century. Oh, not in the particulars, of course. The distance between then and now is immense, and I wouldn’t want to diminish the distance except for this nagging doubt that won’t let me go. I know that our technology is far superior, and our cultural mores are not the same. Still, in other ways, we are much more alike than different.

So it didn’t surprise me – although it probably should have had I been more alert to my environment – that, as I was reading the April 2005 issue of the ABE Connections,i I said to myself, “so, the Judaizers that once haunted Paul and the fledgling house churches in Galatia have returned but this time they are calling themselves `American Baptist Evangelicals (with a capital E).’” As Yogi Berra would have said, “it was deja-vu all over again.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Consider this slip of the tongue a preview of coming attractions, or distractions if you prefer. It is much more important for you to learn how I came to this conclusion than to hear the conclusion itself, although it is – I have to admit even to myself – a bit unexpected, to say nothing of being a bit startling. So let me step back from the precipice I have created and explain myself to you. I certainly owe you that much, at the very least. So here we go.

Most of you are familiar with the conflict between Paul and the so-called Judaizers in Galatia. Paul argued that the gentiles did not need to keep Torah, although it was just fine with him if the Judeans voluntarily chose to do so. After all, for Paul the Torah was simply one cultural way to live out faith, and if Judeans wished to express their faith through Torah obedience, then let them do so. But gentiles could not be forced to keep Torah because, to do so would imply that Torah was more than a cultural way of living out one’s faith. It would imply that keeping Torah was a prerequisite to living by faith. To obligate gentiles to keep Torah would mean that all peoples had to become Judeans first before they could become Christians, and Paul rejected that argument lock, stock and barrel (see especially Galatians 3).

With regards to salvation, one thing was essential for Paul – the righteousness of God, revealed apart from the law could now be appropriated by faith in Christ Jesus. Christ alone was sufficient for salvation; everything else (and I mean everything else, even one’s stand on controversial issues) was secondary. Just as the Judeans had the Torah to guide them, so the gentiles had the Spirit to guide them (see Gal. 5:16-26). But, once they were “in Christ” (by which Paul meant (1) spiritually in Christ and (2) in the body of Christ, the house church) both groups faced a similar task of spiritual discernment. Both Judeans and gentiles had to sort out what in their culture was compatible with their faith in Christ and conducive to it, and what cultural trends clashed with faith and undermined it. But it was the same task for each group. Talk about culture wars. They are nothing new.

The Judaizers took a dim view of Paul’s “gospel,” especially its exclusive emphasis on the sufficiency of faith in Christ. What isn’t always noted is that their disagreements with Paul and other early church leaders (see Acts15:1-35) were rooted in a particular – some might even say a peculiar – view of Scripture, and this is where they begin to look like American Baptist Evangelicals (with a capital E). Like their ancient counterparts, the ABEs are certain that they have the real Scripture, the whole Scripture, and nothing but the Scripture, unadulterated and uninterpreted, and like their contemporary counterparts, the Judaizers believed that the authority of their Scripture was so complete that believers should sacrifice their freedom in Christ for obedience to their Scripture, which meant their view of Scripture. More insidiously, the ancient Judaizers, like their contemporary counterparts, had imported a humanly devised theory of inspiration to elevate their interpretation of Torah/Scripture and to press its demands.

Just exactly what did that look like. The Pharisees who appear to be the primary group among the so-called Judaizers held to an “oral Torah” whose authority was equal to that of the written Torah itself. They even devised a story to authenticate its elevated position. The first time Moses ascended Mount Sinai and came down from the mountain (so the story goes) , he brought the Torah, but when he saw the people worshiping the golden bull, he dashed the tablets on the ground (or if you follow Mel Brooks’ version of the event, he was a klutz who dropped one of the tablets on the ground). The second time Moses ascended the mountain, he remained long enough to have a conversation with Yahweh about the meaning of the Torah, so when he descended Sinai the second time, he brought not only the tablets of the Torah, the written Scripture, but also the conversation with Yahweh, the basis of the oral Torah. On his second ascent of the mountain, Moses received not only the tablets of the law but a set of clarifying interpretations, the Torah and the oral Torah, which the Pharisees/Judaizers packaged as one.

Of course, the oral Torah provided a convenient way for Pharisees to pass off their own interpretation of Scripture as Scripture itself, a practice continued down to the present day, and one to which (you will be shocked toknow) I am not immune. Now the Pharisees could claim that they were just reciting the meaning of the Torah when they were, in fact, passing off their interpretation of Torah (their oral Torah) as Scripture itself.
To catch the significance of this tale, take the recent statement by Bill

Nicoson entitled, “A Clarion Call,” in the April issue of ABE Connections.ii We have become, he argues, a denomination with two different religions:

(1) one that follows the belief and understanding of biblical authority in the evangelical tradition and (2) another that believes in superceding biblical authority with the American Baptist practice of soul liberty.iii

Notice the difference between the two statements. The first religion propagates a view of biblical authority (Torah) in the evangelical tradition (oral Torah), but in the second statement the two are collapsed into one, soul liberty versus biblical authority (used without qualification). Even more disturbing is the authoritarian agenda implied in Nicoson’s statements. He issues a dire warning that “soul liberty and Baptist polity are being used to usurp biblical theology and authority,”iv though, curiously enough, he defines neither biblical authority nor biblical theology. This omission reflects a regrettable tendency among so-called evangelicals to invoke biblical authority, rather than to define it, to talk about Scripture rather than engaging Scripture.

Notice again the unqualified use of biblical authority which suggests that there is a single view of biblical authority that happens to be the one assumed by the ABEs, though what this means is never spelled out. What frustrates Nicoson about soul liberty and Baptist polity is that, if followed, they mean that “you cannot tell an ABCUSA church what to do.”v Hello! Is anybody home? [I want you all to know that, though I was sorely tempted, I did not say, “duh!”] That is the glory of soul liberty and Baptist congregational polity! And its significance has never been clearer than at moments such as this when a group of Baptists, who have lost their way and their identity as baptists, attempts to impose their cultural agenda on everyone else. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to imagine what kind of polity Nicoson and his ilk would impose on every church in this denomination while hiding behind a thoroughly humanly
constructed view of biblical authority that justifies their every move.

Nicoson evidently fails to see the irony of his own position, and his entire clarion call suffers from an absence of doubt. He is frustrated because Baptist polity prevents him from forcing his agenda on local churches who do not share his view of the issues dividing our denomination. This is the complaint of a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, not an American Baptist. What troubles him is what makes Baptist polity and soul liberty indispensable to our Baptist principles. They are intended to protect the minority from the tyranny of a majority.

But let’s be clear about this much: The issue is not, as Nicoson puts it, “when biblical authority is replaced by `soul liberty’ or any other man-made invention, unity is sacrificed.”vi The doctrine of biblical authority implied but never spelled out in this article leads directly to making less than 10 verses of Scripture into the sole issue that preoccupies the denomination. This is what happens when fundamentalists talk so much about the Bible that they don’t bother to deal with its great themes of judgment, justice and justification, righteousness and redemption, forgiveness and empowerment. Since theology abhors a vacuum, when the great themes of Scripture are ignored, any nuisance can fill the vacuum that should have belonged to the living core of Scripture.

The fundamental issue and question is this: What happens when a malignant view of biblical authority replaces a healthy one? Just what is this malignant view of biblical authority? It is a view of the Bible as an inerrant document whose every word must be as authoritative as every other word. This is why the zealots in ABE can focus on less than ten verses or so and hold them up as a litmus test for every church in the denomination. If Scripture is inerrant, then it doesn’t matter whether the Bible treats an issue in a dozen verses or a hundred chapters. This undifferentiated view of the Bible takes the Bible as a completed product requiring no interpretation except the culturally constructed interpretation that the American Baptist evangelicals have passed off as the Scripture itself. It is as though each verse was chiseled in stone, like the decalogue, and only needs to be invoked and repeated. The so-called position paper from the First Baptist Church of Keokuk, Iowa, is an example of this view of biblical authority in action.vii The framers of the document write:

As deacons of our congregation we have spent much time in prayer and Bible Study of God’s Holy Word and based on the following scriptures – Lev 18:12; Lev 20:13; I Cor 6:9-10; Rom 1:26-27; I Tim 1:10; II Peter 2:1-2, we are taking the following position:

The First Baptist Church unequivocally rejects homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, ordination of homosexual pastoral leadership, and same-sex marriage being contrary to scriptural teaching. (Just what teaching is not mentioned, a regrettable omission since Scripture knows nothing of same-sex marriage or ordination or homosexual lifestyles.)

Seldom has so much been condemned based on so little! (With apologies to Winston Churchill!) The non-engagement with the Scriptures is stunning, even more, it is insulting to Scripture. And this from people who presumably view themselves as clothed in biblical authority. The Position Paper (non-position paper would be a more apt description) says not a word about the language used in the passages, their contexts in Scripture or the practices to which they are addressed. They are simply invoked to set up a blanket condemnation of what the deacons have already decided to condemn. This sounds something like the Jesus Seminar in action. Surely, we can do better than this!
In light of this misuse of Scripture, it is refreshing to read the latest

“Resolution of West Virginia Baptist Churches For Biblical Truth in the ABC/USA.”viii At least, they make no pretense about engaging biblical texts. They have decided that threats should replace Bible Study and denominational discussions. The only reference in the document to the Bible is this:

Whereas, God’s Holy Word I Cor 5:11 says that we should not “... keep company with anyone named a brother who is sexually immoral ...” etc.
This is exactly what Simon the Pharisee said to Jesus after the woman anointed Jesus’s feet with her tears and alabaster ointment. (Luke 7:36-50) Jesus kept table companionship with toll collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Of course, to make a point, I have done the very same thing that the “biblical truth” folk are doing, citing proof text for proof text. What point am I making? Just this: the principle of Paul and the practice of Jesus conflict. One does what the other condemns. If we take a flat, so-called literal reading of Scripture, we will either have a psychotic break or figure out some scheme to make the contradiction go away. The solution of many of the ABEs would, no doubt, be to invoke a pre-millenial, dispensational approach to the Bible. This view of Scripture relegates Jesus’s teachings to the dispensation of the kingdom. They are irrelevant to the dispensation of the church which is covered by Paul’s letters and the other non-Gospel material in the New Testament. How is that for a “literal” reading of Scripture?

By contrast with this approach, it would be possible to place each text in its context so that we may ask why Paul said what he did and what he meant to accomplish by issuing the warning. When we do, we discover that Paul is addressing a case in which “a man is living with his step mother” and having sexual intercourse with her. This violates sexual taboos, including Torah, and Paul condemns this perverted heterosexual behavior. Now we come to the verse from which the “West Virginia Baptist Churches For Biblical Truth” took their snippet of Paul. The whole verse reads as follows,

But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother [or sister] who is sexually immoral or insatiably greedy, or is an idolater, an abuser, drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such a one. (I Cor 5:11, author’s trans.)

It is clear that the West Virginians for Biblical Truth have provided their own abridged, Readers’ Digest version of the text, conveniently omitting the behaviors that we hallow in our capitalist society, such as cultivating insatiable greed through tax breaks and swindling workers out of their retirement funds. Nowhere does the passage refer to homosexuals. This isn’t biblical interpretation! It isn’t even a responsible use of proof texting. It abuses Scripture and beats it into submission to a previously set agenda. No wonder these West Virginia churches are reduced to threatening to get their way. If this is the best they can do, they haven’t got a biblical leg to stand on. So much for biblical truth, West Virginia style.

Respecting the context of the passage from I Corinthians helps us to see that Jesus’s behavior of eating with toll collectors, prostitutes and sinners serves a different agenda. Jesus sits at table with the poor and the outcast who have been forced into demeaning behavior (prostitution) or swindling others (toll collectors). They are the last, the lost and the least. He includes them in this dramatic gesture of table companionship to indicate the covenant love of God who gathers the outcasts of Israel (see Isa 56:1-8). Jesus goes to the outsiders, not the insiders, whereas Paul addresses the corrupt insiders who continue to practice exploitive and abusive behaviors, taking advantage of others or making a mockery of the life of discipleship. Paul is trying to protect the boundaries around the house church, whereas Jesus is extending the boundaries of God’s covenant love. So, using a context sensitive approach to the biblical texts helps us to understand the Word they speak to us. On closer scrutiny, what appears to be a contradiction disappears.

Before we finish with I Cor 5:11, I want to return to the way that the West Virginians for Biblical Truth used the text. When Paul condemned the heterosexual behavior of the man and his step mother, was he condemning all expressions of heterosexuality? Of course not. But suppose, by analogy, that the only contexts in which Paul did see heterosexual relations were temple prostitution, porneia (screwing around or indiscriminate heterosexualrelations) or the sexual abuse of adolescent girls by older heterosexual men. Under these circumstances, what would he have said about heterosexuality? He probably would have condemned it as unnatural, exploitive and abusive. This is, in fact, what was the case for homosexual relations in the ancient world. The only contexts in which Paul saw same gender sexual relations were temple prostitution, pederasty (the sexual abuse of pre-pubescent boys by their tutors), porneia or screwing around, and crossing over (constitutional heterosexuals crossing over into homosexual behavior in Roman orgies; see Rom 1:26-27). We would expect Paul to condemn such expressions of same gender sexuality, and he did. All the passages cited by the First Baptist Church of Keokuk, Iowa, refer to these kinds of sexual abuse. This is what Paul condemned – sexual abuse, not same gender relations. So, in an ironic way, the West Virginians and the Keokuk Iowans have shown the way to undermining their own position, and I thank them for their assistance.

All of this means that the issue is not soul liberty versus biblical authority, as the American Baptist Evangelicals would have it, but two views of biblical authority and interpretation. One view sacrifices the soul liberty of the biblical interpreter on the altar of biblical authority, an authoritarian view of the Bible as a static book in which every word (in what language is never clear) is inerrant. This leads to so many quandaries and contradictions that the biblical authoritarians must devise schemas for interpreting Scripture (like pre-millenial dispensationalism) while they deny what they are doing Their purpose seems to be to present their positions on controversial issues as divinely inspired truth and to force others to adhere to their position. In fact, these positions on issues represent the “oral Torah” of this contemporary version of the Judaizers who are trying to pass it off as the Torah itself.
To this approach, the adherents to soul liberty say, with the apostle Paul, “for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1) even when that yoke of slavery is presented as an inerrant Bible. Those committed to soul liberty acknowledge that Scripture requires interpretation. Indeed the very character of Scripture as Torah (God’‘s instruction in the meaning of covenant) invites us into this very task. God encourages us to join this lively and liberating conversation, even respecting our interpretations, partial and incomplete though they be. Because our interpretations are partial and incomplete, they are always arguable and subject to dialogue and debate.

When we acknowledge that soul liberty invites us to become biblical interpreters, we can understand the statement of John Robinson, “God hath yet more light to break forth from His holy Word.” That light breaks through as the result of our interpretive work. Soul liberty opens up the Scriptures as surely as biblical authoritarians close Scripture to inquiry and exploration.

But here is the heart of the matter. Just like the Judaizers before them, the ABEs are arguing that something more than faith in Christ is required. The Judaizers saw that something more as circumcision and Torah obedience. The ABEs believe we must condemn and purge gays and lesbians from denominational life to purify American Baptists. But, as Luther knew so well, the equation of faith that begins with Christ + (fill in the blank) = salvation, is doomed to failure. Just now, the formula seems to be Christ plus homophobia equals saving faith, that is, the ABEs are arguing that faith in Christ is inadequate for salvation and maintaining koinonia. To John 3:16 we must add the sentence, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian faith.” It is no longer enough to say “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” we must add to that sublime truth the sentence, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian faith.” We cannot affirm as the bond of our unity “so if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation; behold, the old has passed away, the new has come” without adding, as a statement of faith as important as Paul’s writings (what happened to the authority of the Bible here), “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian faith.”

The issue of biblical authority is little more than a presenting problem that masks a larger agenda. The attempt to force Welcome and Affirming churches out of the denomination is the most visible part of a larger picture. Dr. Larry F. Johnston’s advice to the General Board (as reported inConnectionsix) was to rid the denomination of these menaces. Nicoson comments that “it is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot keep everyone on the bus.” So the consultant’s clarion call was to throw the GLTBs under the bus. Sacrifice them for the good of the denomination. Just what kind of denomination we would be if we followed this sage counsel and pursued the purge, no one seems willing to discuss. Make no mistake about it. If the ABEs win, this purge will be a prelude to a full-blown pogrom against women in ministry and other undesirables and persona non grata, like the members of the Roger Williams Fellowship.
The purpose of these remarks was to say of the American Baptist Evangelicals (with a capital E) and their view of biblical authority – “the emperor has no clothes.”

But more than that, I want to suggest that the time may well have come for a denominational split. Do we want to spend the next decade arguing with zealots who believe their cultural theology is an inerrant word from God? Do we really believe that we can begin any serious conversation with thepremise: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” or is it, “I’m OK but you’re no damn good. Let’s discuss it!” Do we want to spend the next decade deconstructing the work of the Judaizers or would we prefer to engage in more constructive tasks, like proclaiming the gospel of God’s justice and justification revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord? Jesus once said,

No one puts new wine in old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine in fresh wineskins. (Mark 2:22)

Perhaps we are feeling the levels of frustration we are because we sense that the new wine fermenting in our midst is about to rupture the boda bags in which we have, to this point at least, kept our wine.

We were once foolish enough to accept a one sentence resolution, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian faith,” even though it violated American Baptist Resolution 8175 that had stood since December of 1988. The resolution explicitly identifies sexual orientation as one of the areas where prejudice manifests itself. That resolution stood on a policy base, the American Baptist Policy Statement on Human Rights, adopted in December of 1976. Through our own carelessness, we have admitted a statement that reeks of prejudice and bigotry and, in some quarters, is already being used in efforts to deny basic human rights to the GLTB community. We are in danger of moving from a denomination that values liberation to one that is becoming oppression. Once we have abandoned our own policy statements, we endanger our policy statement on racial justice and anti-semitism. What is next?
As Paul learned in the house churches of Galatia, the price of a liberating gospel is eternal vigilance. So he engaged the Judaizers and refused to let them redefine the gospel so that it included Christ + other stipulations. Christ plus homophobia is no gospel at all. Christ alone is good news. The time has come to make clear that we are following Paul’s lead, and we will not turn the Bible over to modern Judaizers.

Finally, what image shall we use to describe our ministry. I like the way Paul puts is in II Cor 4:7-12.

But we have this treasure in baked clay pots to show that the
extraordinary excess of power is God’s and not from us. In all things, hard-pressed but not depressed, at a loss but not at wit’s end, hounded but not deserted, knocked down but not shattered, at all times carrying in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus might show more clearly in our bodies. (author’s trans.)

Not bad for baked clay pots. This is worth exploring. This is what we are called to do and to become. The boda bags may burst, but the baked clay pots will see us through this change.

Thank you for your time, your patience and your attention.

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