Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thankful for Jerry Barnes, who invested himself in my life
by Bill Jones, TBC executive director

Jerry Barnes passed away this morning.
Jerry was pastor of University Baptist Church in Shawnee when I was a student at Oklahoma Baptist University. He was key in giving me guidance and support during the faith struggle I experienced, which began early in my sophomore year (1970-'71) and lasted well beyond my OBU years.
It was my dear friend Ron Russey, who lived in the room adjoining that of my roommate Cary Wood and me in Brotherhood Dorm, who suggested I go see Jerry. Ron had grown up in Jerry's previous church in Hobart, OK. I'm forever in Ron's debt. Tragically, Ron was killed in the fall of 1979, when his car went off the highway and overturned. One of the greatest losses I've ever experienced. Ron was only 31.
In the spring of 1971, when I went to Jerry Barnes and told him that I no longer believed in God, much less that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, Jerry said, "come join our church."

Can you imagine a pastor welcoming a person who no longer believed but was searching? That's unconditional grace, something far too rare in our churches. That was Jerry Barnes.

Jerry knew that church was exactly where I needed to be. For the remainder of my time at OBU, Jerry met with me once a semester in his office, where I would update him on the progress of my faith struggle/search, and he would help me with the next steps along the way.
I regard Jerry Barnes as second only to my Daddy, Jase Jones, in helping me find my way back to Christ. Jerry's sermons were like nothing I had heard before - they made me dig deep for spiritual truth.
At University Baptist Church, I also had the benefit of a Sunday School class taught by Jim Hurley, the legendary natural science professor at OBU. Under Hurley in that Sunday School class, we studied books such as Vahanian's The Death of God - not your garden-variety Sunday School class - from which I still have some of Hurley's cut-and-paste handouts (back when cut-and-paste meant a pair of scissors, a sheet of paper, and a bottle of Elmer's).

Can you imagine the courage of a pastor who would encourage a teacher like Jim Hurley to help students confront their deepest questions and doubts in such a way? That was Jerry Barnes. 
Jerry's sermons were truly formative - transformative, if truth be told - for me, as were his friendship and wise counsel. A few months ago, at my request, Jerry's wife, Bobby, sent me 20 of Jerry's sermons. I'm currently working on putting those sermons online for a new generation to read. It won't be the same as seeing Jerry deliver them, but I pray that God can use Jerry's printed word to impact lives today, just as He used Jerry's spoken word in my life some 45 years ago.
On September 4 of this past year, our 40th anniversary, my wife Joanna and I drove up to Shawnee and worshipped at University Baptist Church, where we were married 40 years earlier to the day. In our wedding, Daddy performed the ceremony, and our dear friend Jerry Barnes read scripture. Joanna and I stood on the chancel where we had said "I do" 40 years earlier and recalled the events of that day.
I'll be driving up to Miami, Oklahoma, on Monday for Jerry's funeral at the First Presbyterian Church at 2 p.m., paying my respects to Jerry's wonderful family and thanking God that He brought people like Ron Russey, Cary Wood (Ron and Cary, in late-night bull sessions, challenged me to think for myself), and Jerry Barnes into my life when I needed them most.
Thanks be to God for Jerry Barnes.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

REALLY? One disagreement, and we throw away all that we share?
by Bill Jones, TBC executive director

As Christians, and especially Baptist Christians, we should be able to disagree and then go on to work together, in the many areas where we agree, to carry the grace of Christ to a hurting world. There is too much need in the world for us to keep pushing each other out of "the circle" of shared ministry.

Grace. We have a hard time with grace. Sometimes we have a hard time accepting it. But we have an even harder time giving it - sometimes we don't even try.

Tuesday, at our annual TBC Breakfast at the BGCT, I called BGCT leadership to account for what I consider a violation of local church autonomy. (See
Local church autonomy, inclusion, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.)

For almost six years as executive director of Texas Baptists Committed, I had never publicly criticized BGCT leadership until now. Even in staking out this position on Tuesday, I made clear that BGCT leaders are my friends and are friends of TBC.

Even in taking issue with them on this one matter, I made clear that TBC - and I - continue to celebrate the many wonderful things that BGCT ministries and institutions are doing for the Lord. This one area of disagreement doesn't diminish my support of all the good that the BGCT is doing.

For 5-1/2 years in the TBC Weekly Baptist Roundup e-newsletter, I have regularly highlighted and celebrated the work of the Christian Life Commission in advocating for ethics and justice, and feeding people worldwide through its Hunger Offering; Texas Baptist schools and their students; the remarkable ministry of Texas Baptist Men and Texas Baptist Disaster Relief and Recovery; the mission ministries led by Texas Woman's Missionary Union; the stories of people's lives changed by Buckner International; numerous church starts that have brought Christ into so many lives; the support provided our churches by the Connections and Interim Ministry areas, and I could go on.

And I won't stop doing that just because I disagree with the BGCT on this one matter.

Texas Baptists Committed has an almost 30-year history of supporting the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which has included preventing it from being taken over by hostile Fundamentalist forces in the 1990s and working since then to educate churches on Baptist principles and helping them find solid pastors who are committed to those principles, to help prevent them from leaving the BGCT and moving to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

Now TBC has stood up - after all that support - and said the BGCT is wrong on one issue.

This one instance neither overrides nor diminishes our support of the BGCT through all these years and in so many areas.

On Thursday, I received an email from a dear friend, a pastor who has supported Texas Baptists Committed faithfully through the years. He wrote to let me know that he disagrees with my criticism of BGCT leadership at the Breakfast, which he attended. Therefore, he informed me, he is withdrawing his support of Texas Baptists Committed.

REALLY? This one issue overrides all that Texas Baptists Committed stands for and all of the support that we have given - and continue to give - to the BGCT in all other areas? Was his support conditional that he must be able to agree with us on everything we do?

I ask the same question of the BGCT - REALLY?

Wilshire and FBC Austin have faithfully supported the BGCT through all these years, in so many areas; they have led other churches throughout this voluntary network of cooperating churches to give more; they have contributed, in more ways than I can count, to the ministries of churches throughout Texas; they are in agreement with the BGCT in every essential doctrine and then some. They have taken one step that happens to be out of step with the majority of BGCT churches.

And the BGCT and its cooperating churches can't - as Baptists - brook this one area of disagreement? They're willing to overlook - because of this one disagreement - all that Wilshire and FBC Austin have done for the Lord and for the BGCT? REALLY?

As Wilshire members prepared to vote on this matter 2 weeks ago (full disclosure - I'm a Wilshire member), George Mason said he had one thing to say to any who were thinking about leaving - then he simply said thank you to them for all they had given. In announcing the outcome of the vote this past Monday, in which over 61% voted for considering all members as part of a single membership "class," George assured those 39% who voted otherwise that they, too, were still equal, that all members could go forward and work together on the things on which we all agree - missions, ministries, advocacy, as we together build a community shaped by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Wilshire and Texas Baptists Committed can do ministry with those with whom we disagree. I'm not willing to throw away all I love about the BGCT over the one thing with which I disagree.

Would that my friend who sent the email - and BGCT leadership and messengers who voted Tuesday to impose their own "standard" on other churches - would find it in their hearts to exhibit the same grace.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Local church autonomy, inclusion, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas
by Bill Jones, TBC executive director

(The following is excerpted from the TBC Update that I delivered to the 2016 Texas Baptists Committed Breakfast at the BGCT Annual Meeting in Waco on Tuesday, November 15.)

Texas Baptists Committed continues to respond when Baptist principles are compromised.

In 2004, my wife and I left a church where we were longtime members. For 17 years, I had brought Baptist principles into Sunday School conversations - priesthood of the believer, soul competency, religious liberty and the strict separation of church and state, local church autonomy - and Southern Baptist leaders' violation of those principles, and got mostly blank stares, an occasional argument, but mostly blank stares. They either didn't understand or just didn't care, or both. The last few years we were there, I challenged the pastor on his violation - from the pulpit - of those principles. It didn't go well.

But I remember how lonely I felt when David Barton's video was shown in a worship service, a pack of lies about our nation's Founding Fathers, turning the principles of both our nation and of Baptists on their head.

I remember how lonely I felt when the pastor brought partisan politics into the pulpit.

I remember how lonely I felt when the pastor announced that - because of a revelation he had received from God - women would no longer be permitted to teach men in Sunday School in our church, and that, if you disagreed with this edict, God would soon prune you from that church.

I remember the loneliness I felt as others accepted and even applauded all of this.

So I responded with understanding and empathy when a longtime faithful TBC supporter contacted me recently to tell me about proposed changes to his church's bylaws and constitution, which will be voted on early next month. Changes motivated by what church leaders perceive to be threats from changes in the culture and the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. His church leaders propose to adopt the 1998 Baptist Faith and Message amendment on the Family, which places women in a submissive - and subservient - position in both the church and the home. Moreover, it places final authority for scriptural interpretation in a Leadership Council and requires all members to affirm that they agree with the church's stated doctrinal positions.

In other words, creedalism, which is anathema to the Baptist spirit, the Baptist movement, and our Baptist history.

We hold to these Baptist principles not to be contrary or to protect some personal privilege. We hold to these Baptist principles, because - ever since Thomas Helwys and John Smyth took their band of separatists from England to Amsterdam and, in 1609, formed the first Baptist church - Baptists have believed that it is these principles, which together distinguish us as Baptists, that enable us to be most faithful to the spirit, the teachings, the life of Jesus Christ, and to carry Christ's offer of grace, forgiveness, and love to a hurting world.

This faithful TBC supporter is experiencing the same loneliness that my wife and I experienced for 17 years, a loneliness that is inimical to the Baptist experience, because we have from the beginning been a minority, dissenters in a conforming world. I responded with my support and the feedback that he requested concerning these proposed changes, and I'm praying for him as he goes into what must be a lonely battle to call his church back to being Baptist.

This is what Texas Baptists Committed has been about from the beginning - holding Baptists accountable for being Baptist, holding fast to the convictions that together make us Baptist, and thus enable us to carry Christ to the world, as well as to our own neighborhoods.

There were a lot of actions that could have been the last straw for us at that church where we labored for 17 years, but we persevered through it all. Then one day, when the pastor and I were meeting on another matter, he casually told me that he was talking to New Orleans Seminary about partnering with them in starting a seminary in Russia - BUT the agreement was conditional on New Orleans Seminary dictating to our church which missionary organizations we could and could not partner with. That was the last straw. He was compromising local church autonomy, and I realized that the game was over. Any hope I harbored of moving that church to truly being Baptist was lost. So we left shortly thereafter.

Local church autonomy – a bedrock Baptist principle, a cherished Baptist principle. In Baptist life, each individual believer is a priest, and there is no authority over that person’s soul except Jesus Christ. As our dear friend James Dunn loved to say, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to believe!”

Authority flows from the believer to the local church. Baptist polity is that baptized believers make up the local church, and they collectively determine the direction of that church. The pastor takes direction from the people. This Baptist polity recognizes the primacy of the Holy Spirit’s work in each person and the Holy Spirit’s work through the body of believers known as the church. Churches then freely choose to cooperate with denominational bodies, through which they work together to carry out missions activities, benevolent ministries, and educational institutions such as these faithful Texas Baptist schools represented here today.

TBC has always celebrated – and we celebrate today – the ministries that Texas Baptists carry out together through the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The Christian Life Commission (and Gus Reyes is with us today, as well as Ferrell Foster and Kathryn Freeman) – including the Hunger Offering, Ethics and Justice initiatives; then there’s Disaster Relief and Recovery, Buckner International (Albert Reyes is with us today), Christian education, including theological education through our Texas Baptist universities and seminaries.

In fact, as I’ve published the TBC Weekly Baptist Roundup e-newsletter for the past 5-1/2 years, one of the greatest privileges for me has been the opportunity to highlight all of the good work being done through the BGCT.

That’s why it grieves us to have to now shift to our role as watchdog and call BGCT leadership to account for what we at Texas Baptists Committed consider a violation of that cherished Baptist principle of local church autonomy.

All of you know by now that BGCT Executive Director David Hardage has asked both First Baptist Church, Austin, and my home church – Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas – to leave the BGCT fellowship over, as the Baptist Standard headline put it, “the gay issue.” I’ve discussed this issue over the past 2 years with both David Hardage and Associate Executive Director Steve Vernon (who is with us today), and know their stand on this issue, so David’s letter did not come as a complete surprise to me.

Before I go on, I want to be very clear on one thing – David Hardage and Steve Vernon are friends of mine, and friends of Texas Baptists Committed, and our discussions on this issue – even where I have disagreed with them – have been collegial and respectful. Even where we disagree, I respect that their position comes from their desire to be faithful to scripture, and I hope and believe they respect the same on my part.

And I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of the position in which David Hardage, Steve Vernon, and the Executive Board find themselves. The BGCT is losing churches to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention – which, by the way, has since its beginning lied about the BGCT’s stance on this matter. So I understand and sympathize with the BGCT leadership’s sensitivity on this issue. The BGCT has been hammered hard for a stance it has never taken. So I respect, sympathize with, and appreciate their efforts to keep churches in the BGCT fold, not just for the convention’s sake, but because churches that leave for the SBTC almost inevitably wind up disillusioned and often find their fellowship destroyed and their witness for Christ a thing of the past. The BGCT is by far a better home for churches than the SBTC.

The crux of our disagreement is not where we stand on scripture regarding homosexual behavior; debating theology is not the role of Texas Baptists Committed. Standing for Baptist principles, however, IS TBC’s role. Our disagreement is over the need that BGCT leadership perceives to divide the BGCT fellowship – asking churches to leave – over this issue. Over the past few years, I’ve discussed what scripture has to say about homosexual behavior with numerous moderate Texas Baptist pastors. I’ve had several express adamantly to me that scripture calls it a sin; and I’ve had just as many express just as adamantly to me that it does not. I’ve heard persuasive arguments from both sides.

What I know is that churches all over Texas – well beyond Wilshire and First Austin – are struggling to minister to the gay people among their congregations and their communities. David Hardage acknowledged this to me in our first discussion of the matter; in fact, when I said that urban churches especially are having to deal with this, David volunteered that rural churches are as well. And different churches are finding different paths to carry out such ministry. Some, like First Austin and Wilshire, have chosen to include all people – regardless of sexual orientation – in what they call ‘the full life’ of their church. Other churches have chosen a different path.

I contend – on behalf of Texas Baptists Committed – that BGCT leadership is violating local church autonomy. Now some will say, ‘well, we’re not telling them what to do.’ But neither did the Fundamentalists who took over the Southern Baptist Convention force any churches to do anything – they just threatened loss of fellowship. In fighting the Fundamentalists’ attempt in the 1990s to take control of the BGCT, we called such threats a violation of local church autonomy. On that basis, Texas Baptists Committed – led by David Currie – fought to keep the Baptist General Convention of Texas free from Fundamentalist control. Yet now BGCT leadership is taking a similar path. Where does it stop?

TBC is not asking the BGCT to change its historic position that scripture calls homosexual behavior sinful. I’m well aware that the BGCT’s position reflects that of the vast majority of BGCT churches, and I respect their right to hold that position. In turn, however, if the BGCT is going to continue to call itself Baptist, we expect it to respect the right of its cooperating churches to disagree. That’s what makes us Baptist – we disagree, we dissent on those matters that are not central to our faith, and where we stand theologically on this issue is not central to our faith and should not determine whether we can faithfully cooperate with each other in sharing Christ with a hurting world.

There are churches and pastors in the BGCT who strongly affirm the BGCT’s stance on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior but who also oppose the disfellowshipping of those who disagree with them. They recognize that churches like Wilshire and First Austin are in agreement with them on the main things that the BGCT has always been about – missions, evangelism, ministries of compassion, educating students, training ministers . . . and they don’t want to lose such churches and all they bring to this fellowship of Texas Baptist churches. As I told David Hardage last year, Baptist churches all over Texas are struggling to find their own path to ministering to the gay people in their congregations and communities, and the current hard-line policy provides them no room to do that.

I love the Baptist General Convention of Texas; Texas Baptists Committed loves the Baptist General Convention of Texas. That’s why we call it to be true to its name: Baptist.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Roundup 5 years later - I didn't know what I was getting myself into!
by Bill Jones, TBC executive director

This week marks the 5th anniversary of TBC Weekly Baptist Roundup, originally titled TBC Midweek Baptist Roundup. TBC published the first issue on Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

I didn't know what I was getting myself into - a commitment that I would need to fulfill every week before I could rest. And that's no exaggeration! I have published the Roundup from Hong Kong (in September 2011, when Joanna and I were there visiting her family); and Israel (in April 2012, when we went there with a group from Wilshire & Temple Emanu-El in Dallas).

From April-June 2013, following our son's stroke, I was spending 15-16 hours a day in hospitals, so I published the Roundup from a number of hospital rooms for those 2-1/2 months. In the stress of that trying time, the Roundup was my therapy, my 'salvation,' if you will. And many of you joined us in praying for Travis's recovery, and we are deeply grateful for your prayers and concern. Three years later, Travis is doing well and ready to go back to work (in other words, he's looking).

But it IS a commitment, one that I feel very keenly. That May 11, 2011, issue was opened by 482 people; at present, around 800 people are opening the Roundup every week, and about 1,500 open at least one issue every five weeks. Over the past 5 years, as I've attended conferences throughout Texas and other states, I can count on several people coming up to me during the conference to tell me how much they appreciate reading the Roundup every week. So I have a commitment to people who are counting on finding the Roundup in their email every week.

In those 5 years, the Roundup has evolved drastically in content and format, but then so has the world of Baptist news and opinion, especially opinion, as the number of Baptist bloggers & op-ed sites has grown by leaps and bounds.

By a quirk of scheduling fate, the May 11, 2011 issue and the 5th anniversary issue coming up this Saturday share an almost identical item - in May 2011, we promoted, in Upcoming Baptist Events, the Baptist History & Heritage Society Conference being held in Texas, specifically at Dallas Baptist University. So, too, here in May 2016, we are promoting the upcoming Baptist History & Heritage Society Conference to be held in Texas; this one will be May 23-25 at Baylor University's Truett Seminary in Waco.

I began the Roundup with the purpose of keeping the name of Texas Baptists Committed in front of a wide audience every week, but it quickly became much more than that, as I realized its usefulness as a forum for promoting the good things going on in Baptist life and various opportunities for Baptists both to serve and to be served in their time of need.

So I added Did you know . . . ?, in which we highlight various Baptist resources and opportunities; and sections of student news, both in Texas and beyond, to highlight what our Baptist students and schools are doing. Of course, from the beginning, there was Upcoming Baptist Events to keep people informed of events both in Texas and elsewhere and provide links to schedules and registration.

From time to time, I receive requests to promote a special event or other newsworthy Baptist item, and I try to fulfill those requests whenever possible. I appreciate the opportunity.

What has been most fulfilling to me, as I read upwards of 75-80 articles each week for inclusion in the Roundup, is that I have been encouraged by the good things that Baptists are doing - disaster relief; advocacy on issues that affect the "least of these," such as payday loans and human trafficking; mission efforts at home and far afield, meeting the most desperate human needs in the name of Christ; and in-depth theological education, to name just a few. And I've been similarly encouraged by the good things that Baptists are writing - opinion and analysis articles that challenge Baptists to carry out the Gospel of Christ, that challenge us to go deeper in reading Scripture, to go beyond the comfortable understandings of faith that we grew up with.

My wife and I are members of a Sunday School class in which we all push each other's buttons. We challenge each other's suppositions and presuppositions, and we usually come out with more questions than answers, but that's good, because we have something to chew on all week; the discussion sets us to thinking. The Opinion and Analysis section of the Roundup seems to picture a similar discussion. The disparate perspectives show us that Baptists can't be pigeonholed; the old saw that 'where two Baptists gather, three opinions sit between them' may be inadequate these days. And that's a good thing! It shows the Holy Spirit uniquely at work in each of us.

I enjoy bringing all of this content together - or 'aggregating,' which I was recently advised is what I'm doing - but the real work is done before I get started. The real work is done by all of those reporters, editors, op-ed writers, bloggers, and other news service staffers who prepare all of this content upfront. All I do is link to it. So TBC and I - and you Roundup readers - owe a great debt to all of these who do such excellent work, week in and week out, and I say thank you to all of them.

Finally, thank you to all who read the Roundup regularly and especially to those who have made a point of expressing your appreciation to me. It means a lot.

Now, on we go to the next 5 years!