briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, August 14, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, August 14, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Is There Really Widespread Evangelical Support for Women Serving as Pastors? A Closer Look at Recent Research

As you think about the great challenges facing the Christian church and Christianity in the United States, you have to consider that there are two alternative arguments about how to respond. The fundamental reality is the society is changing. No question about that. It is secularizing in so many terms, and it is increasingly embracing very liberal or progressive positions on moral issues.

Biblically-minded Christians find ourselves increasingly marginalized, not perhaps because of overt persecution, but because when you are looking at a vast change like this, the new begins to replace the old. And in this case, the messaging is very clear. The new is progressive and left. The old is Christian and conservative. That’s the basic narrative that is being trumpeted throughout the entire culture. And when it comes to the response from those who identify themselves as Christians, you see those two different responses.

One, change in order to stay relevant or stick with the convictions and pay the cultural price. There are different ways to express those two alternatives, but they still remain two rather stark alternatives. And as you’re looking at some of the most recent headlines, these issues really do come to the fore. When you consider the issue of women in the church, ministers, the question of gender and sexuality in the church, all of this begins to heat up to a rapid boil. And in order to consider these issues today, I want us to look at research as put forward by an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. He’s getting a lot of headlines on Religion News Service and elsewhere.

His name is Ryan Burge, and we’re going to be looking at three of the headlines, one from last year, two from this year, just in the last several weeks. Back in 2019 timed just about for the meeting in Birmingham, Alabama of the Southern Baptist Convention, Burge contributed an article at Religion News Service with the headline, “Most Southern Baptist Women Would Welcome a Woman Pastor. It’s Unlikely to Happen.” Well, that’s an attention-getting headline.

And if you just take the headline at face value, it tells us that the majority of Southern Baptist women, the word of the headline was, “most,” would welcome a woman as pastor of the church. That’s rather stunning when you consider the fact that out of the almost 40,000 churches associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, not one of them has a woman as pastor. But nonetheless, related issues have been in controversy throughout the evangelical world for some time. And they’ve been in controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention. But in order to understand that you have to go back to the 1970s and 80s when the building momentum from the left then of the Southern Baptist Convention was towards allowing and accepting women as pastors of churches. But the Southern Baptist Convention said a very loud No to that, first in 1984 in the form of a resolution. And then in the year 2000 with a rewriting of the denomination’s confession of faith, known as the Baptist Faith and Message. The Baptist Faith and Message, again, revised in 2003, makes very, very clear that the office of pastor is limited to men. In writing that article, however, back last year, Ryan Burge cited the 2011 Faith Matters Survey undertaken by people at Harvard and Notre Dame.

And according to this research, again, he is writing from 2019, looking back to 2011. We were told that this particular research asked 2,646 Americans questions, including whether or not they agreed with the statement, “Women should be allowed to be priests or clergy in my house of worship.” Burge then wrote, “Three quarters of Americans agree. That includes two thirds of Southern Baptist and Roman Catholics.” “That could accurately be described as strong levels of support,” he wrote.

The next sentence, “Southern Baptist women in particular seem ready to accept women as pastors.” The next line, “Three quarters (73.1%) of female Southern Baptists favor women in the pulpit, compared to just 58.1% of Southern Baptist men. And half of Southern Baptist women along with four in 10 men strongly support women clergy.” Now, there are a lot of questions about this, but one of the things we need to note is how so much social science is done and how it’s reported upon, how it enters into the public conversation.

You’re talking here about a research project that surveyed only–and I stress the word only–2,646 Americans, Southern Baptist, or those who identified as Southern Baptist are a portion of that. So you’re talking about perhaps hundreds of Southern Baptists, but you’re not really talking about that. You’re really talking about some sampling of people who identified themselves as Southern Baptist, and we are told–and there’s no reason to believe the researchers are lying to us. It’s just to say, this is a social science sample, and it is here interpreted in such a way as to say that a majority of Southern Baptist women strongly support women serving as pastors.

The problem with that is not one of those churches has a woman as pastor. And it’s not because of some kind of autocratic control by the Southern Baptist Convention. Congregations voluntarily associate with the Southern Baptist Convention. And again, the numbers are stark. We’re talking about 40,000 churches. And at the moment, I don’t believe that a single one of them has a woman as pastor.

And if a church does turn out to have a woman as pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention, well, the experience of the Convention’s very clear. That church is likely to be disfellowshipped by the local association and the state convention, and to withdraw from the Southern Baptist Convention, which has a right to determine the conditions and the doctrines necessary for its own congregations that are recognized as being able to send messengers.

That’s the definition of what it means to be a Southern Baptist church. A church that is in cooperation with and contributing to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention and qualified to send messengers–that’s the Southern Baptist word rather than delegate–to the Southern Baptist Convention. Again, the math, 40,000 roughly, and the other column zero. That’s not a close call. Though Southern Baptist churches not only individually have full authority to decide with whom they’re going to associate such as the Southern Baptist Convention, they have absolute authority to determine their own leadership and to call their own pastor and ministers. Again, 40,000 in one column, zero in the other.

That’s just to say when I look at this kind of report, I know what’s going to get a lot of traction in this society. And I know some people are going to look at it and say, “Look, the majority of Southern Baptist women, indeed the majority of Southern Baptists in one sense are open to having a woman as pastor.” Except, I don’t believe that it’s true. I don’t believe that it’s even close to being true, but in this context it does mean that it adds to the social pressure from the larger society saying, “Look, Southern Baptist, you actually do believe in women as pastors.” Except Southern Baptists do not.

Not as made very clear by the Southern Baptist Convention. Not as made very clear by the messengers elected by the churches sent to the Southern Baptist Convention, not in terms of consistent decisions over a course of decades by the Southern Baptist Convention. And in the context of controversy when those changes came about because the Southern Baptist Convention had to wrestle with Scripture, and understanding what Southern Baptists believe, I believe rightly, as the clear teachings of Scripture understand that the office of pastor is limited to men. Now beyond that the vast majority of Southern Baptist as evidenced by what they do, and when I say the vast majority of Southern Baptist, that’s an understatement if anything, not only believe that women are not to be pastors of churches, but rather that the office of pastor is limited to men. They extend that to the larger teaching function on behalf of the entire congregation. It is really interesting by the way that later in the article by Ryan Burge, he writes this: “For male Southern Baptists who are biblical literalists, the more that they attend church the less likely they are to support female pastors. In fact, support for women clergy is incredibly low among Southern Baptist men who are biblical literalists and attend church multiple times a week.”

Fascinating. So if you are a Southern Baptist, identify in the survey as a Southern Baptist, and you’re a man and you attend church regularly, and you believe that the Bible is literally the word of God–as a theologian I want to say, “literally,” here is not the best word, but it’s simply as a stand in, in this social science for someone who believes the Bible actually is the word of God–then you are unlikely for all kinds of reasons I think we can instantly believe that you are unlikely to believe that a woman should serve as pastor.

But Ryan Burge gets right to his point when he writes in conclusion, “Looked at from this view, a doctrinal change for the SBC on this issue would seem to please many more people than it would anger.” So he asked, “Why hasn’t it happened?” He then writes, “This reluctance to change seems linked to how often Southern Baptist men go to church.” But I raised this article from 2019 in light of two other articles coming from the same social scientists that are related to some more kinds of questions.

The point is, back in 2019, I discussed this on The Briefing. I’m returning to it now, because once again, the issue is front and center in a good deal of evangelical conversation. But I want to start all of this by going back to 2019 and saying, “I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.” If Southern Baptists want Southern Baptist churches to have pastors who are women, they can do it, but they don’t do it. I believe that they would be violating Scripture by doing it.

And I believe the vast majority of Southern Baptists are absolutely clear about that. But then earlier this summer, Ryan Burge wrote another article, this one published at Christianity Today. The headline, “Researcher: Most Evangelicals Support Women in Church Leadership.” In this article, he wrote, “Yet for all the debates around gender and leadership roles, for years researchers have found less of a divide on the topic among the people in the pews. The results of a recent survey once again indicate that most evangelical Protestants are in favor of seeing women take on more prominent positions in the church.”

Now there are all kinds of questions that Christians can struggle with when it relates to what would happen in a local church in this context or another. But when it comes to the pastoral role and the teaching function in the church when it comes to the exposition of Scripture, that’s where things are very clear in Scripture. And they’re overwhelmingly clear within the Southern Baptist Convention. In this Christianity Today article, Burge says that he cooperated with two other political scientists in doing a major research project back in March of this year. And as a result, he says, “8 in 10 self-identified evangelicals said they agree with women teaching Sunday school, leading worship at church services, and preaching during women’s conferences or retreats”

The next sentence: “Slightly fewer endorsed women preaching during church services, but 7 in 10 were in favor, according to the research, conducted by a team of political scientists in March 2020.” Now again, looking at this, there has been little controversy amongst evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular about women teaching at women’s conferences. I don’t know any live controversy about that. But Burge in this new article says that according to his research 72.8% of those who were surveyed agree with women preaching on Sunday morning.

Later he writes this, “This finding continues to persist even when theology is taken into account. When the sample is restricted to just those who believe that the Bible is literally true, three-quarters of those who attend services multiple times a week agree with women preaching during weekend services.” He pushes his argument further with this: “There has been evidence that support for women in leadership roles has led to some evangelical churches hiring female pastors.”

He cites Barna Research as finding that the share of pastors that are women “was 9 percent in 2017, up significantly from 3 percent in 1992.” He then says, “But clearly the vast majority of evangelicals would be comfortable with this number increasing more rapidly.” Again, I simply have to say, “Except apparently they don’t because if they did, they could. And if they could, presumably they would.” The reality is that the vast majority of evangelical churches are able to call whomever they wish as pastor or minister.

And as a theologian, I just want to remind us that these issues aren’t singular. They don’t stand alone. They’re not solitary. They’re not divisible. They’re part of a larger theological system and to the controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention over the course of say the 1970s and 80s into the 90s made those issues very clear. And not just singularly, but comprehensively clear. The Southern Baptist Convention’s revision of its confession of faith in 2000 was the capstone of bringing those arguments to an end. And since I’ve said that, I just need to acknowledge that I was a part of the committee that brought about that recommendation and that revised confession of faith back in the year 2000. But the larger issue I want to bring to our attention and looking to this research is the fact that research like this is not presented–either in the scientific context or especially in a context like Religion News Service, Christianity Today, current conversation, and controversy–without having a point.

And Ryan Burge makes his points very clearly in both of these articles. It is as if you have churches that morally deserve to have women as pastors. And you have a majority of evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular, he says, who want to have women as pastors, but they don’t have them. You see the point. Southern Baptists need to get with the program. Their own people, according to this research, are ready to get with the program. But again, I don’t believe it, and yes, even if I did believe it, I still would believe it is unbiblical. Just as a matter of conviction. I believe it’s a clear question as to whether evangelicals and Southern Baptists are going to obey Scripture.

Part II

Massive Challenges Facing Evangelicals: How Can We Reach the Lost and Our Own Children with the Gospel in a Secular Age?

But then that sets us up to understand the most recent of these articles by Ryan Burge. This one appeared on August 7, again at Religious News. Here’s the headline: “On LGBT and women’s equality, stark statistical reality is coming for white evangelicals.” Now to be fair, an author of this kind of article generally doesn’t get to choose the headline. So some editor chose the headline, but the headline actually does substantially represent the article that he wrote on LGBT, women’s equality, stark reality is coming for white evangelicals. Well, you understand the English language. Coming for is representative of a warning. Warning to evangelicals, a stark reality is coming.

Burge begins the article by writing about the fact that white evangelical Christians have had relatively stable numbers vis-a-vis the larger population over the course of the last several years, even the last several decades. But then he writes, “Evangelicalism is on a collision course, however, with a culture that is rapidly liberalizing on two areas that define evangelical theology: their view of homosexuality and the role of women in the life of the church.”

He goes on to say, “A tradition quite literally named for its ability to bring new people to the faith is finding that task harder each passing year, as the doctrines of the tradition move further out of step with the country at large.” Now let me just state at this point, I think that paragraph is fairly accurate as an objective description. I do believe, I assume we all now know, that the culture is moving away from us as evangelicals and our convictions.

And on these two issues, I think we can see the reality the culture is showing to us on the issues of sexuality in general, LGBTQ, we can understand this pattern. When it comes to the sexuality and gender questions, we can see this pattern. But the point is that this research, and in particular, this report, is not presented as if this is a time for evangelicals to understand our missiological and evangelistic strategy and our place, our challenge in the culture.

It’s rather coming with the warning, “You better change, or you’re going to get mowed over.” With clever language, his argument comes down to this: “From this perspective, the evangelical church is selling Blackberries while Apple has just begun shipping iPhones.” He then says this and these are the words to which we need to pay very close attention. “If the white evangelical tradition expects to maintain its share of the religious landscape, it has to do two things: keep the young people who were raised in the church while also attracting new converts. But making sales to this demographic is getting harder by the day. Nearly 80% of Americans under the age of 35 support same-sex marriage, and just 8.8% believe that women should not be able to preach.”

He says, “That leaves the white evangelical church a choice. First, it could stand on doctrine and say that fidelity to orthodox evangelicalism is worth the price of potentially shrinking in size.” He acknowledges, “There is integrity in this path.” He later writes, however, “Alternatively, evangelicalism could begin to slowly shift at stance on issues like women pastors and same sex relations.” He says there’s some evidence that that is happening. And as he brings the article to a close later, he writes this: “Imagine a church planter who is painfully aware that their church needs to grow large enough to support itself very quickly, but also knows that those two core doctrines will turn off many in the local community being reached.”

Here’s the point. There is no question that this challenge has been upon us for some time. There is no question that anyone with eyes to see has been able to see it for some time. And yes, the two paths that Ryan Burge has described here are the very two paths we saw throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The paths between theological liberalism that says, “Shift the doctrines,” and the conservative position, whatever you would call it, that says, “The doctrines are based in Scripture. They’re revealed by God. They are not ours to change.”

But if you detect frustration in my voice, and you probably do, it comes down to the fact that we’re seeing a pattern of these headlines coming again and again and again, stories telling us that basically we’re about to be mowed over by the culture. And if we intend to have any influence or evangelistic traction whatsoever, we better get with the program. But I’m even more irritated by being told that our own people believe otherwise than they act.

The clearest insights in this research come down to the fact that we know we have a huge, massive challenge in reaching the larger culture as it’s moving away from us. We understand that. It’s going to affect evangelism. It’s going to affect church attendance. It’s going to affect politics, policy, you name it. The second thing is we know, and we’ve known for a long time that we have an enormous challenge reaching younger Christians. And that has to do with the fact that they’ve been raised in a society with ambient conditions and influences that are pulling them away from biblical Christianity, rather than keeping them committed to it.

There are a lot of doctrinal and moral questions that Southern Baptists and all evangelicals, all biblically-minded Christians, are going to have to think about and clarify, and yes, defend and teach. But at the very least, we have to remind ourselves that if we really do believe in the faith once for all delivered to the saints, we don’t believe in a new and improved edition.

Part III

A Fractured Fairy Tale with Big Lessons for Today: Former King Juan Carlos I of Spain Flees Country

But finally, as the week comes to an end, I want to point to a headline that many people might think would not have deep worldview implications, but I think it does. And I think it helps to explain even so many of the current controversies we face in this country and the battle lines of contest over moral and political issues. The headlines tell us that the former king of Spain, former king Juan Carlos I has now left Spain presumably in order to avoid prosecution on criminal charges, having to do with massive offshore accounts that are alleged to have been given to him by means of graft.

He is already a person of controversy in Spain and has been for some time after a few years ago, he fell from an elephant on a safari in Africa–no, I’m not making this up–and was wounded. And yet all of this just pointed to the fact that he was out of touch with the people of his own nation. There has also been a series of sexual scandals around the former monarch, and in light of these scandals, Juan Carlos I abdicated in favor of his son who is now King Felipe, the head of state in Spain.

So you’re asking, where are the issues of vast worldview significance? Well, let’s look at it this way. Many of the now familiar political lines, not only in the United States, but in Europe, let’s just say in western nations, that divide liberals from conservatives, go back to an event most Americans don’t ever think about earlier in the 20th century, between the two world wars. And that was civil war in Spain. The Spanish Civil War lasted between 1936 and 1939. And it was a civil war between those who called themselves the Republicans–that was the left in that civil war–and those who called themselves the Nationalists.

The Republicans were allied against the Roman Catholic church and against the Spanish military. And they were allied with, in particular, more leftist streams throughout Western societies, including communism. The Nationalists sided with the then very conservative Roman Catholic church in Spain and with the forces, Nationalists in this case, meaning a strong Spanish identity. They identified with the Spanish military and, in particular, eventually with the leader who became known internationally as General Francisco Franco, eventually the strong man who ruled Spain for decades.

But here’s the extremely interesting thing. The Republican side, the leftist side, had a lot of attention from the literati, from the cultural elite. It had a lot of sympathizers from within the left in the United States. And it forged an artistic and literary revolution of sorts. In visual art, it brought attention to figure such as Pablo Picasso in the modernist movement, a Cubist as he was called, and his work Guernica, which made him famous from 1937 was rooted in the Spanish Civil War. In literature, you had all kinds of figures, including many in the English-speaking world who sympathize with the leftist cause including figures such as Ernest Hemingway. You also had the background reality of support from the Soviet Union for the Republican cause and from Nazi Germany for the nationalist cause. But moving to the bottom line, the Nationalists eventually won throughout most of Spain, and the Republicans lost the civil war. And General Franco became the de facto Caudillo or strong man who would then rule Spain in a military junta from 1939 to 1975.

By 1975, Franco was himself aging. And the reality was there was going to be some new leader in Spain. And Franco had a great deal to do with choosing who that leader would be. But by that point, Spain was once again riven by that left-and-right cleavage that threatened to pull the country into civil war once again. Franco, trying to preserve national unity and what he saw as a more conservative direction, even at the cost of democracy, chose Juan Carlos I.

Juan Carlos I wasn’t necessarily the natural choice for Spain to return to a monarchy. It was his grandfather Alfonso XIII who was the last Spanish king before he was basically deposed. Juan Carlos’ father was still alive, but Franco saw the younger prince as the opportunity to consolidate Spain, and thus a restoration of the monarchy came after Franco’s death. And Juan Carlos became Juan Carlos I in 1975.

He was born and baptized in the Roman Catholic church in 1938 as Prince Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor Maria de Borbon y Borbon-Dos Sicilias. That is the prince of Spain and the two Sicilies. But here’s the amazing thing. When Juan Carlos became king and there was the threat of civil war and there was a push for democracy on the part of Spain and then a push–back from the military, Juan Carlos famously and courageously stood in the breach for freedom and democracy in Spain.

That is to say, he actually did become the national leader, and he helped Spain avoid civil war, push back a military power that was oppressive, and incline Spain then towards a more democratic form of government. He even, showing courage, withstood a man holding a gun. And thus, and one of the strangest movements in the 20th century, King Juan Carlos I actually won the affection of just about everyone in Spain, and not only their affection, but their respect. And all of a sudden, monarchy that everyone had believed to come virtually to an end in any significant political sense in the west at the end of World War I was back in 1975 with the restoration of the Borbon King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

But it was King Juan Carlos who basically ruined that himself. And now he has left the country and Spanish authorities appear not to know exactly where he is, but he’s not in Spain. It’s a very sad end to one of the most interesting stories of the 20th century, and of course he’s still alive. So I guess the story really hasn’t ended. But the former king has left Spain, and that just about says it all.

But my point is to go back to what produced Juan Carlos I. Go back to the Spanish Civil War, 1936 to 1939, and you’ll see that many of the lines, indeed, most of the big political and cultural and moral lines that separate us today can be traced back to that conflict in Spain in the 1930s. So it’s almost like a fractured fairy tale, in this case with an exiled former king of Spain, whereabouts unknown, leaving his country and his son, the now-king King Felipe, to pick up the pieces and try to hold things together. The story of this king doesn’t end with happily ever after, but it does leave big lessons for us to think about.

Thanks for listening to the Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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