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.