Memo to my Fellow Southern Baptists: Might Is Not Right

First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’s comments about President Donald Trump (for whom he is an official surrogate) and North Korea are deeply irresponsible, even if interpreted in the most charitable light imaginable. In remarks to The Washington Post, Jeffress said:

When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-un. I’m heartened to see that our president — contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors — will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a president who is serious about protecting our country.

Note carefully that Jeffress doesn’t simply assert just war theory, or argue that protecting American citizens is paramount for the government. Instead, he baldy assumes the role of Old Testament prophet and says that God has specifically given President Trump a specific moral clearance to wage war against a specific leader and country. This isn’t just political commentary from a pastor. It’s Urim and Thummim.

I thought this was exactly the kind of partisan, divisive rhetoric that Southern Baptist leadership was so concerned about with regards to the ERLC and this summer’s resolution on the alt-right? Wasn’t Russell Moore pressured by megachurch pastors and SBC personalities to tone down what they felt was his too-assertive critique of the Trump campaign? Wasn’t the problem with Moore allegedly that he was not “staying in his lane” as head of the moral and public policy arm of Southern Baptists, that he was over-politicizing his platform?

“Ok,” you may respond, “but Moore is the head of an SBC entity, and Jeffress is merely a pastor of an SBC church.” To which I say: Yes, he’s the pastor of a 12,000 member church, in the most Southern Baptist state in the country. Does Southern Baptist leadership really not think that when Americans hear or read Jeffress offer blanket endorsements of war, they think he speaks for Southern Baptists? If Moore’s comments were problematic in that they confused people as to the official position of the denomination (which is precisely what many of his loudest critics claimed was the issue), there is no reason why Jeffress’s comments shouldn’t be viewed as equally problematic–unless, of course, the right people in the denomination agree with Jeffress and disagree with Moore.

And I certainly hope that’s not true, because if it is, I fear my denominational home may be slouching toward Zarathustra. What Jeffress told the Washington Post is a thinly veiled appeal to “might is right.” Why are we so confident that President Trump has God’s green light to start a war? Well, it’s because—wait for it–he’s President. It’s because he can. That’s the message we’re getting from one of the most influential SBC pastors in the country. God has become Thomas Cromwell, rewriting revelation so the king can do as he please.

This is a disgrace.

Southern Baptist leadership needs to take these comments as a serious error signal as to the health of the denomination. When prominent pastors whose political alliances can cause people like Russell Moore to be on the defensive for their job are talking like this in public, something has gone drastically wrong. Many Southern Baptist seminaries and colleges teach just war theory, insisting that because all people are made in God’s image, the burden of proof for military violence is very high. That’s a noble tradition, a biblically responsible one. It’s a far cry from the shameless Nietzschean call to arms we’re hearing right now.


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Orthodoxy, Sexuality, and the Local Church

James K.A. Smith’s post about orthodoxy, Christian creeds, and sexuality has provoked much commentary, most of it far more thoughtful than anything I could write here. I agree with Smith’s critics that his case against labeling revisionist sexual theology as “heresy” is weak and relies on a reductionistic appreciation of doctrinal formulations. I don’t necessarily agree with some who say Smith obviously is bowling to knock down the traditionalist pin. We must read others as we would like to be read. Prying into hidden motivations is always tempting when we encounter something we feel strongly is wrong, but it’s a temptation we should resist.

Since most of the commentators in this exchange are far more learned on the historic Christian theology than I am, I’m not going to pretend to add anything revelatory to the discussion. But I want to make one quick point, one that everyone in this exchange, from Alan Jacobs to Alastair Roberts, probably agrees on, but one that gets easily lost in theological disputes online.

There is an inextricably pastoral purpose to defining orthodoxy and declaring what’s outside it to be anathema. Smith is right that being wrong is not necessarily the same as being heretical. One major reason this is true is that the assembled congregation, the covenanted local church that is guided by overseers and whose members exercise the keys to the kingdom, must respond to the wayward member(s) in a particular way, according to the error. Church discipline does not exist to make every member agree on every theological dispute. But it does exist to enforce the boundaries that demarcate the embodied faith of the church. And it also exists to do practical spiritual warfare on behalf of the wayward member.

When Paul calls on the Corinthians to expel the man who is sleeping with his step mother, he is calling the church to protect its boundaries by executing its one appointed means of disenfranchisement. In doing this, the church also wages spiritual warfare that is intended for the man’s ultimate redemption and restoration. By throwing the member outside the camp, the Corinthian church was to assert its identity, its authority, and also its mission.

The proper end of heresy is excommunication. When the Christian faith is betrayed, the body of Christ must respond the same way that the Corinthian church, threatened by a member’s unrepentant immorality, did. The relationship between orthodoxy and ethics is more tight than we might assume, particularly if the local church is to protect both its confession and its purity by exercising the same power–the power of church discipline.

What does this mean for this particular debate? Three suggestions:

  1. The idea that we can infer from silence in historic Christian creeds what doesn’t rise to the level of “heresy” is a nonstarter, because the responsibility of the local church, as explained by Paul to the Corinthians, does not end merely at examining members’ personal doctrinal statements. The man whom the Corinthians excommunicated may not have failed a test of the Apostles’ Creed, but by being thrown out of membership on account of his unrepentant immorality, he was subjected to the same key-wielding power that governs his confession. The practical responsibility of the church with regards to heresy is the exact same as it is to unrepentant sin.
  2. Therefore, it follows that the real question is not whether homosexual sex is a violation of Christian creeds. The question is whether or not it is sin. Because the embodied community of God has the same obligation toward the heretical member as it does toward the unrepentant member, dividing orthopraxy from orthodoxy is simply kicking the theological can down the rhetorical road. For the covenanted people of God who wield the embodied authority of Jesus, heresy is sin, and sin is heresy, and the practical response to both depends not on sophisticated distinctions between belief and behavior, but on the question of doctrine itself.
  3. The reason this is important is not only that we can have an orthodox confession, but also so that we make practical distinctions between churches that have irreconcilable differences. Smith’s proposition is so attractive partially because it appears to relieve the hostility between churches that are “LGBT affirming” and churches that are not. If we can simply agree that this is a theological disputation, but not a fault line in basic Christian confession, we can, perhaps, start bridging personal and institutional gaps. But I submit an alternative thesis. I believe one reason there is so much heat and rancor in the Christianity and LGBT debate is because too many people, on both sides, are trying to behave as if this is a family skirmish amongst people who really do belong in the same pew. It is not. This is a fundamental question of what it means to be human. There is no reconciliation possible between churches that teach disparately about this, because there is no reconciliation possible between a church and a non-church. Embracing this, and quitting once and for all the delusion that this is a matter of some brothers and sisters being mean to other brothers and sisters, might actually relieve some of the anger and bitterness.

No Divination Against Israel

When Balak the king of Moab sees the victory of the Israelites against the Amorites, he calls for one of his oracles, Balaam (Numbers 22-24). “Curse this people for me, ” he says, “since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed.” Balak offers Balaam an alluring reward: “Whatever you say to me I will do.” The king has offered the authority of the crown. There is no greater bribe. Surely Balaam will acquiesce and curse Moab’s enemy.

But there’s a problem:

“From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. ‘Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’ How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?”

Furious at Balaam’s blessing of Israel, Balak invites him a second time to call down a spiritual curse. But it won’t work. It can’t work. Not because Balaam is too faithful, not because Israel is too righteous (more on that in a second). It’s because there simply is no curse to call down:

“He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them…For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel.”

There is no enchantment, no divination, no curse for Balaam to bring down. It’s not just that the weapon has no ammo. It’s that there’s no weapon there at all. There is no spiritual power of the air that can thwart the granting of the promised land to Abraham’s seed.

C.S. Lewis said there were two mistakes that Christians could make in their thinking about demons and spiritual powers. One was to disbelieve in them, to ignore them. The other mistake was to take an obsessive  interest in them. Both are harmful. But if I’m guessing, I’d say that for most readers of this blog, gravitational pull is toward the first more than the second. There’s a tendency for Western Christians, and especially us Reformed types, to talk and think and pray and preach as if there are no spiritual forces at work in the world–as if the sum total of what we mean by spiritual warfare is our Bible reading and prayer time pitted against our temptations.

That’s not the worldview of the Bible. Scripture plainly teaches there are invisible, spiritual forces at work right now. There are realities that transcend the physical and powers that we cannot hear or see. This episode in Numbers is not given to us 21st century readers by the Holy Spirit in order that we can laugh at how primitive pagan kings were. The Bible treats this narrative with soberness; a spiritual curse is a real thing, and Balak is not a fool for asking for one for his enemy.

But what Balak doesn’t understand is that there is no spiritual curse to call down on God’s covenant people. There is no demonic force or metaphysical malice that can arm wrestle God and win a round. “For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel.” God’s people were united around God’s presence (Ex. 40:34-38), and in God’s presence all other spiritual strongholds are subdued.

This doesn’t mean that no harm can befall God’s people. God can discipline his sons and daughters, and suffering doesn’t take Him off guard (Joseph: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”). But it does mean that even when the Ark of the Covenant is captured, the idols of the nations must bow before it (1 Sam. 5:3). Dagon kneels before the King of the cosmos, who will bring His people, adopted into His beloved Son, into their inheritance. There is no divination against Israel.

God Is & God Does

I’ve been reading Joe Rigney’s The Things of Earth: Treasuring God By Enjoying His Gifts, and cannot recommend it too highly. For me Joe’s contemplations have been like cold spring water on a thick August afternoon. For years I have felt like something was missing in my understanding of how to love the things God gives in the context of loving God himself supremely. Well, actually, it would be more accurate to say I’ve felt like everything was missing in my understanding! It’s one thing to hear John Piper say that God himself is the best thing, not his gifts, and to affirm it because of course. But it’s another thing entirely to then turn from that truth and look with love and joy and thankfulness at the universe, rather than with contempt or paralyzing anxiety. Joe’s book is about how to do that.

One thing Joe’s work has illuminated for me is a carelessness in evangelical talk. Growing up I frequently heard Bible teachers say something like the following: “Worship is adoring God for who he is, while praise is adoring God for what he does.” This makes all sorts of sense as long as you don’t go digging in the Bible to find it. It makes sense because it’s our nature to separate who God is from what God does. Part of that I imagine is due to a good desire to avoid idolatry. God gives us the universe but God himself is not one with it. Of course that’s true.

But I suspect something else is going in this way of speaking, and it’s precisely what Joe has in his crosshairs in this book. Separating who God is from what God does can be a lazy way of admitting that we don’t know how the two actually relate to another. It can mask a serious misunderstanding of the things of earth. It’s much easier to say “God is holy and loving” than it is to say, “God has created a physical universe and human beings whose very existence tell us that He is holy and loving.” The first sentence exists in the attic, away from the messy problems of evil and suffering and decay. The second sentence invites uncomfortable further inquiry.

But what if it’s actually not good–what if it’s actually sub-Christian–to think of God’s nature abstracted wholly from the things he has made? What if, as Jonathan Edwards said, God’s “supreme excellencies” are known through His works? What if the things of earth do not, in fact, grow strangely dim in light of his glory and grace? What if they ARE the light of his glory and grace?

Of course none of this means that God IS the Milky Way. In fact, it would be silly to talk about glory and grace if all we mean is pantheism. The universe has no grace. The universe has no begotten Son to send into the world. It has no cross to bear. The important point here is that Jesus of Nazareth was very man of very man, and very God of very God. His incarnated deity is what John calls the “exact representation” of the Father. There is no understanding God that is abstracted from flesh and blood, because whoever denies that God has come in the flesh is the anti-Christ (1 John 4). God’s works are not cordoned off from his glory. God’s glory shines in His works.