Sunday, January 30, 2005

The head of Mississippi's Baptists on the tasks of the church

The head of Mississippi's Southern Baptist Covention (SBC), Rev. Gene Henderson, gave an interview to the state's largest newspaper that appeared on the first day of the new year.  The editor points out in the introduction that the state SBC "includes 2,000 Southern Baptist churches and more than 700,000 members."  And notes as well that the SBC is "the largest Protestant body in the United States."

The SBC is also the largest Protestant group in the US that adheres to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian faith.  But that requires some clarification, both doctrinally and organaizationally.  On the doctrine side, over the last 20 years there has been a notable hardening or polarization in the positions of the SBC.  The national disputes dealt with things like whether no professor should be allowed to teach in an SBC seminary who didn't take a complete "literalist" approach to Scripture (the hardline position) and those who agreed with the literalist approach but who wanted to allow professors at the seminaries the freedom to teach something slightly different (the "moderates").

It's always important to keep in mind with an interview like this, that rank-and-file churchgoers may differ significantly in their attitudes from official statements of church leaders.  Among American Catholics, for instance, attitudes toward abortion laws and the death penalty tend to mirror the national average, despite the church's very public and official emphasis on different stances.

Baptist Convention leader shares goals Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger 01/01/05.  (Jean Gordon interviews Rev. Gene Henderson.)

According to the editor's introduction, the SBC in Mississippi includes "2,000 Southern Baptist churches and more than 700,000 members."

Q: How do churches balance the tension between serving their congregations and reaching out to new people?

A: There's a bigger question with that issue. Studies have been done in which pastors were interviewed about what they think is the major mission of the church. They said evangelism, reaching people outside the church. When they interviewed members, they said ministry to church members.

That's the reason there's a conflict in the church. Most times it's because the pastor and the leadership are focusing outwardly, but the membership is focusing inwardly. Churches inevitably turn inward. The big challenge for pastors is how to maintain fellowship in the church and challenge the church to reach out to the community.

This is an interesting dilemma for all evangelical/fundamentalist Christian churches.  Because the church doctrines emphasize proseltyzing (evangelism) and put a heavy emphasis on celebrating the conversion experience, the notion of Christianity as a path of life does not received as much focus in sermons and church Sunday School classes as it does in other Christian denominations.

Henderson's awkward response to a question about the SBC's outreach to the growing number of Latinos in Mississippi is noteworthy:

It says a whole lot about the changing demographics in the state of Mississippi. There are many more Hispanics now than in the past. A number of our churches are beginning churches with Hispanics or have a mission ministry there. That's one of the reasons Brother Medina [a Latino SBC vice-president] is in the state. His election also says there's an openness in this convention. You don't have to be like us, or dress like us, or look like us. As long as you have the same Lord and savior and you're committed to the same purpose and ministry, then leadership is open. (my emphasis)

The "us" in the sentence I've bolded is, of course, native-born white people.  The SBC, not only in Mississippi, remains overwhelmingly white.  For public-relations purposes, conservative Protestant churches like to have visible minority figures.  (Not unlike the Republican Party.)  Christianity as a religion, after all, is a non-racist doctrine, despite the conduct of many of its adherents.  But the SBC in particular remains overwhelmingly white.

Henderson also gives the readers a glimpse of the SBC version of ecumenism:

I'm interdenominational in terms of our involvement with people and churches. But I was reared in a generation in which I recognized the Baptist distinctives and I maintain those. The denomination is important to me. But for some reason, it's not as important for the younger guys. [He apparently means pastors here.  The SBC generally opposes women ministers.] For example, given a choice of going to the Southern Baptist Convention or going to a leadership conference at Willow Creek Community Church (a nondenominational megachurch outside Chicago) or with Rick Warren (author of A Purpose Driven Life), they'd choose to go to one of those. Because in their minds that is giving them value. They do not see the convention giving them the same value.

While the SBC is the leading fundamentalist denomination by far, it definitely has competition even within that (ecclesiastical) market niche.  The SBC has also historicall emphasized local church autonomy, which complicates enforcement of denominational discipline.

The following was a telling question about mission work.  Unfortunately, the interviewer apparently was content with this one completely softball question.

Q: Do you have any concerns about international mission work during a time of war?

A: Historically war has never kept us from being involved in missions. From 1845 until now we've been involved. It may mean Southern Baptists are limited in certain areas but it doesn't prevent us from continuing in other areas. The war creates some circumstances that are difficult to work with. But it also offers a time when people are desperate and in need. As long as God continues to call these people they're going to answer and go to those places, despite the danger.

In fact, the Protestant missions in Iraq are a serious problem.  Forone thing, despite what Jerry Falwell may be hearing on Fox News, security for foreigners, and even for Iraqis, is particularly tenuous in Iraq.  Sending missionaries into a war zone like that, however much we might admire their personal bravery, is certainly ethically questionable.  And the blunt fact is that American national interest in the Middle East requires promoting some kind of decent relationships with Muslim governments and Muslim publics.  Christian desires to win converts among Muslims there conflict with that national interest in some very practical ways, not least in Iraq.

The SBC and other Christian groups that have insisted, with the support of the Bush administration, in expanding missionary efforts in Iraq at this time have not made our troops any safer or their jobs any easier.  Nor have they contributed anything positive to the urgent need for political arrangements that can stabilize the situation there.

Henderson addresses politics in a more classic fundamentalist way than most politicians would allow themselves in a newspaper interview:

The people in the political framework underestimated the morality of people. People will vote for their conviction instead of their economic benefit — though there's not always conflict between the two. Some things are more important than money, and there are people in this country who have that belief. You can always get more money but you can't always get freedom, community standards. You need to protect those. I think there was a very definite demonstration that Christian values are something that the American people hold dearly, and they expressed it. (my emphasis)

Politicians normally aren't so blunt in publicly saying that Christian Right voters are often voting against their own economic issues.  Henerson also uses "Christian values" here instead of the more, uh, politically correct (for Republicans) "moral values."

Again with a softball question from the interviewer, Henderson talks in a general way about the church and politics, again neglicting to use preferred Republican Party terms like "faith-based" instead of "church."

The church has to be the conscience of the community. If it ever loses that role then it's going to lose a large part of its viability and its necessity. The Gospel is our primary goal; introducing people to Jesus Christ our Lord and savior. But in doing that we have to minister to the needs of the people. We have to answer those felt needs of poverty, racial discrimination and social injustice.

You don't legislate morality but you do keep it before people so they understand the community benefits when people hold life sacred and when people honor the commandments of God's word. The Bible says marriage is sacred and you're not to commit adultery. Those values need to continue to be emphasized. The world out there is always going to try to push the limits. The church needs to be political not in the sense of going out and doing political campaigns but in the sense that Christians need to be in politics and theyneed to let their values be seen.
(my emphasis)

If the reporter hadn't been so lazy (although in fairness, some parts may have been edited out), that comment screams for follow up questions.  Does the head of Mississippi's Southern Baptist churches want to see criminal penalties enacted for adultery and "fornication"?  Why can conservative Christians not opposed abortion on moral and religious grounds but accept laws allowing abortion to be safe and legal?  What stand does he take on the militant groups that picket and blockade abortion clinics?

It's also striking, and something a reporter who was not nodding off during the interview would have noticed, that Henderson describes "poverty, racial discrimination and social injustice" as "felt needs."  Say what? "Felt" needs?!?  This is in Mississippi, with its chronically low per capita income, usually the lowest in the nation, with a significant degree of racial polarization and one of the worst if not the worst maldistributions of income of any state.  It would have certainly been worthwhile to ask Henderson what concrete steps the SBC is taking in Mississippi to address those "felt" needs, and how that compares with efforts of Christian churches and charities who see "poverty, racial discrimination and social injustice" as real needs that Christians need to take seriously in and of themselves, and not just as props for religious proselytizing?

And what does the Rev. Henderson think of the increasing respectability of the racist White Citizens Council in his state?

Q: What issues do you hope people keep in their minds this year?

The dangers we face are this: We have to hold on to the integrity of the Scripture. If people begin to question or negate the Bible — the word of God as their leading guide of faith — there is no foundation. Great denominations that once held to the integrity of the Scripture through critical studies have now questioned the Bible. That's the reason you have people denying the virgin birth, denying the resurrection of Jesus. When you jettison the Bible, then what do you have? You have nothing.

Again, a reporter not sleepwalking on the job should have probed this answer more carefully.  The use of "critical studies" in understanding the Bible ( I prefer the term historical-critical studies myself) is not controversial in most Christian denominations.  Even the Catholic Church, which had been especially hard-headed about historical-critical approaches to the Bible since their beginnings in the early 19th century, has formally accepted that approach for decades.

And it's just plain silly to equate "critical studies" with "denying the virgin birth, denying the resurrection of Jesus."  A secular history, of course, can't take either of those events as historical occurrences.  Christians can and do make use of the findings of historical-critical studies while also accepting events like the virgin birth and the Resurrection as parts of their faith.

It's especially frivolous for him to imply that non-fundamentalist Christians deny the Resurrection. The reporter really should have pressed him on that.  The Resurrection is the central theological event of Christianity, as the Exodus from Egypt is the central theological event for Judaism.  You can't really have Christianity without the Resurrection.

But it's also important to recognize that for Christian doctrine, the Resurrection itself was a faith event.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus after the Resurrection describe him appearing in a spiritual body, not a physical one.  Although I'm sure the popular understanding among many and probably most Christian churchgoers doesn't distinguish between a physical resurrection of Jesus' body and the spiritual event, Christian doctrine does.  The Christian belief in the Resurrection does not require one to accept a physical return of Jesus' body from the dead.  And even if one does see it as including a physical return the dead, the Resurrection still has to be understood as essentially a spiritual event, not a phsycial one.

We need to continue to emphasize those values that we find in the Bible: the sanctity of human life. That speaks not simply to abortion but it speaks to the aged population, situations with the family, the role of husbands and wives, heterosexual relationships. Those things are all biblically based. The church has a responsibility to continue to be conscious of the community. Where the church has compromised, that's where the church is losing.

Why would a reporter (or an editor) refuse to get more specific responses from the most senior official of what is far and away the largest denomination in the state?  What about the "aged population"?  Is the SBC in Mississippi fighting for better services for the elderly?  Because I can tell you for sure from my own family experience that they are grossly inadequate.

What about the roles of husbands and wives?  Does Henderson think that women should just keep their mouths shut and do what their husbands say?  Does he think it's a sin for women to work outside the home?  I recall a number of years ago seeing an article in the state Baptists newspaper, the Baptist Record, on physical abuse in the family, aka, wife-beating.  (I don't have the specific reference; it was at least ten years ago.)  The fool writing that particular article said outright that the reason most physical abuse in marriages occur is because wives nag their husbands too much.  Does Henderson hold to that particular "Christian" view?

And what does he want to see done to promote "heterosexual" relationships?  Ban gays from employment?  More militant enforcement of anti-sodomy laws?  Does he want to see those criminal penalties for adultury and sex outside of marriage to promote heterosexual relationships?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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