Friday, June 23, 2023
It's Friday, June 23rd, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Controversies, Theological Debates, and the Need for Denominational Faithfulness: Considerations of the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting
It seems right today to talk about the Southern Baptist Convention that met last week in New Orleans, Louisiana. The reason I did not speak about the issues leading up to the convention is because I had a designated role in one of the controversial issues that hit the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention and I did not believe it was ethically right for me to have that discussion before the Southern Baptist Convention until I made those arguments at the Southern Baptist Convention.
It was a meeting in which there was a lot of invested energy and anticipation because everyone knew that when Southern Baptist gathered for our annual convention in New Orleans just last week, some kind of big headline news was going to be made because there were big issues landing at the responsibility of the convention. They would be decided one way or another. We would come to New Orleans with open questions that would be at least to some degree answered By the time we left.
By the way, we went to New Orleans, very historic city in the United States, thousands of Southern Baptists, nearly 20,000 not just as messengers to the convention, but also those who were family members and others who were there at the event. And we were also there in New Orleans, a very famous city for its cuisine and for its culture, but also because of some other aspects of its cultural life and we were there right very close to the French Quarter during Pride Month. You asked the question what could go wrong. Actually, many things did. But it was also an opportunity, let's just put it this way, for Southern Baptist to be reminded again about what is at stake in gospel ministry and trying to reach the great cities of the United States with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The big issues before the convention basically had to do with the presidential election that turned out not to be a major event that needs our headline attention today. The current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bart Barber, a Texas pastor, was overwhelmingly reelected. So the first question turned out to be a clearly decided question.
The next question had to do with questions related to the service of women in the teaching office of the church, and in particular, women identified as pastor. Over the process of the last couple of years, the fact that there were Southern Baptist churches or churches that had been sending messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention had been identified with the convention that had either a woman as the senior pastor.
Or in the case of Saddleback Community Church in Southern California, you had a church that had a woman as a campus pastor, you had an evolving discussion with the church changing its own understanding and its policy. You had women who were teaching and holding basically the teaching office there in that church even though it was not a woman who was serving a senior minister.
And you also had the founding pastor of the church, one of the most well-known names in American evangelicalism, Rick Warren, who was making the argument, which basically by the end was calling for the Southern Baptist Convention to reverse its understanding on these questions, and in particular on the statement in our confession of faith that says the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
Over the course of the last several months, this process came to a conclusion when the credentials committee of the Southern Baptist Convention recommended to the executive committee of the SBC in invested with this authority to disfellowship three congregations, two of them on the question of women serving as pastors. The third church was a question related to the handling of sex abuse and the honesty or dishonesty of the church in reporting those issues. And that church was not successful on its appeal of its disfellowshipping by the executive committee.
That left two churches with the question of women pastors, one of them Fern Creek Baptist Church right here in Louisville, Kentucky, where a woman, Linda Barnes Popham serves as the senior pastor, and then Saddleback Community Church, sometimes identified as the largest church at one point in the Southern Baptist Convention. Again, with Rick Warren as its founding pastor, a bestselling author and someone with a lot of influence in the larger evangelical world.
The Southern Baptist Convention just hasn't taken the action of disfellowshiping very often in its entire history. This was actually the first time that the convention went through the process of churches seeking to make an appeal to overturn a disfellowshipping decision by the credentials committee and the executive committee.
The way it worked is that the church, in this case, the three churches, the two related to women pastors, Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville and then Saddleback Community Church in California, Orange County, each of the churches had the opportunity to make its case in three minutes. And then a designated person would represent the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention in making the case to sustain the judgment of the credentials committee and the executive committee. I was asked to take that role with respect to both of those churches on the question of women pastors, I respected that role specifically leading up to the convention and did not make public comment.
Ethically, it was right that I make those comments on the floor of the convention and not prior to the convention and some other public context. But the convention is now over and has been for several days and I just want to offer an explanation to listeners of The Briefing of what happened and why. The fact is that the vote was taken by ballot on all three of those churches, the two related to women pastors as well as the third. And so we had to wait until the next day actually to find out how the messengers to the convention had voted. In both cases related to women pastors, we were talking about a very clear vote. About 90% of those present voted to sustain the disfellowshiping of the two churches on that ground.
There were other votes related to the same question. Most importantly, a vote about a proposed change in the bylaws to the Southern Baptist Convention that would establish the fact that a church having a woman pastor meant that it was not in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention, that is not in right fellowship with the Southern Baptist Convention. That was a controversial motion, but it not only passed, it passed overwhelmingly meeting the bylaw minimum to forward the action for the next year's convention and setting up the question to be revisited next year.
It was for many observers, an unexpected show of support and solidarity on the issue. You had two votes about two churches, then a bylaw revision. But then rather unexpectedly, a third issue arose at the convention and that was a proposed revision to the convention's confession of faith known as the Baptist Faith and Message on this issue. And that motion also passed. It passed very quickly. It passed overwhelmingly and it simply went back to define the word pastor in terms of pastor/elder/overseer.
That, by the way, is not only biblical language, it is also language that is drawn from the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, which is a precursor Baptist confession. In other words, it is old, well-recognized, well-worn, time-tested confessional language.
I do have to say as a theologian and as a Baptist churchman, I was troubled by the speed with which the revision was made that sets up a bad precedent for the SBC. It is under most conditions advisable that the convention adopt some process to consider a proposed revision to the Baptist Faith and Message rather than to have such motion arrive quickly at the floor. Just imagine opportunities for bad things to happen as well as good things under such a process.
But I want folks to understand, number one, why this issue is important. Why would the Southern Baptist Convention actually sustain the disfellowshipping of what had been identified as the denomination's largest church? Why over the issue of women holding the Office of Pastor or holding the title of pastor? Why would that happen? It is because, as I explained to the messengers, about 30 years ago, this was an issue that threatened to tear apart the entire Southern Baptist Convention.
It became apparent between three and four decades ago that it really is not possible to sustain a denominational fellowship with some persons, admittedly a minority to be clear, who believe that women should serve in the office of pastor and others believing that that is an unbiblical practice based upon a wrongful interpretation of Scripture and ultimately a denial of biblical authority. It simply is not possible to have the so-called big tent in which those two positions can exist, coexist, side by side.
The Southern Baptist Convention came to that conclusion, and in the year 2000 adopted a revision of our confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, to make that clear. I was a member of that committee, I supported the change. The office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture. Now, we should note something. That doesn't say that no woman should be a pastor and every man in the church should. It says that the Scripture says that the office of pastor, it is an office and it's biblically defined, especially in the New Testament of Epistles.
But it is not held by all men. It is to be held by men as qualified by Scripture. In other words, when you look at 1 Timothy, you look at Titus, you see clear affirmation of the fact that it is men who are to hold this teaching office. That is simply a clear teaching of Scripture. But secondly, it's not all men. It is men who meet the scriptural qualifications and in whom the congregation recognizes the call to that office. The congregation responds with affirmation.
As I made the argument to the messengers in New Orleans, I felt the weight of history, I felt the weight of doctrine, I felt the weight of Scripture, but I also perceive the absolute necessity of saying this isn't just a doctrinal question, it is a question of biblical authority. That makes many people angry. It makes many people who hold contrary positions on this believe that it's unfair to say that they are in violation of Scripture. But here's what we need to understand, we really do believe that a woman serving in a role that Scripture does not allow is a violation of Scripture. We do not believe that Scripture is ambiguous or unclear on this question.
Now, I did not make this argument in New Orleans because it was outside the parameters of my assignment. You've heard me make it before on The Briefing. I'm going to make it again. Where you see denominations that follow the trajectory of finding a way around the biblical texts on the question of women serving as pastor, you see a trajectory that in more cases than not sets those same denominations on a trajectory of finding a way around clear biblical statements on gender in general and human sexuality in more specific terms.
There are some people who looked at the action by the convention and they asked the question, "Aren't Southern Baptist committed to congregational autonomy? Don't we believe that every church has full authority to establish its own understanding of doctrine and order?" The answer is, of course we do. The convention has no power whatsoever over churches. We have no one to send into Saddleback Community Church or Fern Creek Baptist Church or any other church and say, "We are here from the Southern Baptist Convention and we're going to tell you how you must organize your ministry, what you must believe, what your confession of faith must be."
No, the Southern Baptist Convention has no such power. But at the same time, the Southern Baptist Convention has full authority and full responsibility to establish the parameters of its own membership. We can't tell a church how it must order itself. We can tell a church you are not in good order with the Southern Baptist Convention. That's not just a hypothetical power of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a responsibility of the Southern Baptist Convention.
I'm going to share this much with you today because I received a lot of questions related to the actions undertaken by the Southern Baptist Convention. I think some of them will require some further attention in future editions of The Briefing as we talk about these things. There are a big issue here of course not related just to the Southern Baptist Convention, but to Christ's Church wherever it is found. Just about everywhere it's found these days, there are the same questions that are erupting and they require a biblical response. They require Christians to think these things through biblically and then come to a biblical conclusion and then translate those biblical conclusions into practical action and policy.
Now, just in case you were wondering, this doesn't mean that this is the last time these issues will be discussed by the Southern Baptist Convention. Or for that matter, by the entire world of evangelical Christianity. These are ongoing discussions. And the way the world is, the world is going to see to it that we have to discuss these same issues, the same questions, the same convictions over and over again.
If the church of the Lord Jesus Christ ever gets tired of dealing with these issues, it will simply surrender and capitulate to the spirit of the age. That is the one thing we do know we must not do.
Will Our Daughters With Severe Intellectual Disabilities Go to Heaven? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Next, we're going to turn to questions.
Listeners to The Briefing send in such good questions. I want to thank one mom for writing in on behalf of herself and her husband.
She speaks of listening to The Briefing and thinking of questions, and then she writes, "We also have the privilege of raising two beautiful daughters with severe intellectual disabilities, both of whom are nonverbal. Both girls are active in our church and love to be there. One in particular loves to listen to praise music and worships in her own way. Both recognize Jesus' stories and their Bible and know they go together and go with church. Both can sign Jesus. In their own special way, they love Jesus. However, they cannot, in any way, acknowledge their sin and their need for savior. My husband and I have talked a lot about what that means for their salvation and would love your input."
Well, my heart goes out to this sweet mom and dad. I'm just so thankful for this question and I thank God for this sweet family. I thank God for these two beautiful daughters given to this very sensitive, very committed, very loving mother and father. I thank you for this family as a gift to Christ Church. I'm so thankful that they're involved in a local church. And by they, I mean the parents and their beautiful daughters. This mom raises a huge and very important question, and I address that question in an article entitled, "The Salvation of the Little Ones." I'm going to ask that that be sent to this mom who asked this question.
But the bottom line in this is that I believe the Scripture is actually clear about God's intention for those who are born without the opportunity to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ in terms of the fact they die in infancy, that's one category, or they have profound intellectual disabilities as they are often defined and never have the opportunity cognitively to respond with repentance and faith.
I think one of the key issues here is understanding in the Old Testament, the distinction made even in terms of the generation of rebellion in the desert where God's condemnation came upon the adults who had rebelled and then God says, "But as for your little ones who know not the difference between good and evil," in other words, I'm making a distinction here, but I believe it's a distinction that God makes in Scripture, between those who have the cognitive ability to know our sin and those who do not.
Now, nowhere in that does it say that those children are not sinners. The Bible actually says they are sinners, they're conceived in sin, they are born in sin. But the reality is that I believe the distinction that God himself makes between those who know of their conscious sin and those who do not, I think that's theologically important. And I think there is abundant biblical evidence to believe that those who are described there as the little ones, and I mean that chronologically and intellectually, are indeed safe with Jesus.
And I think biblically understanding our necessary affirmation of the biblical truths of all the soul laws and of the doctrine of sin and of our understanding of the exclusivity of the gospel of Christ and this centrality of faith, I think the importance of that underlines what you actually reference in your letter here, mom, and that is that you are showing Jesus to your daughters. You are teaching and preaching Jesus to your daughters. You are surrounding them with the gospel. And under every single condition that is exactly the right thing to do.
By the way, I want to shift this to address not only this mom and this dad and this family, but the church of Lord Jesus Christ. We have a fundamental point of decision to make and it reveals our understanding about the entirety of God's plan and purpose in Scripture. When we meet persons who have what are identified as intellectual disabilities, and that would include for example, down syndrome, we have to ask the question, "Are these individuals made in God's image burdens to us or gifts to us?"
I think the church of the Lord Jesus Christ must answer unequivocally that every single human being given to us, every one of our children given to us, every member of our fellowship given to us, every person, regardless of intellectual ability or disability, every single person given to us is sheer gift and is to be welcomed as sheer gift.
Can Christians Write Horror Stories? How Christian Does a Story Have to Be to Glorify God? — Dr. Mohler Responds to a Letter from a 12-Year-Old Listener of The Briefing
I love questions from young people. Today I want to take a question from Isabelle. She's 12. She writes, "I love the Lord and I like the arts. For example, I like to act, draw, sing, and write my own stories. I know everything I do should honor God." She then asked the question, "Can Christians write scary or horror stories? How Christian does a story need to be and still glorify God? For example," she says, "if I were to write a story like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, does that honor God? How do I know if my artwork is appropriate?"
Well, she goes on, but let me just tell you, that's a great question. And it's an even greater question coming from a 12-year old. How wonderful it would be if all of us were as thoughtful as Isabelle is. She asked the question, "Can Christians write, for example, scary or horror stories?"
It's an interesting question and people have actually answered that question. Russell Kirk actually made the argument at the end of the 20th century that basically only Christians should be able to write good horror or scary stories. But we need to understand what he was talking about. He wasn't talking about stories that glorify evil or the demonic or even danger, but those who show the human drama in the midst of it and the understanding that the moral world is real.
I wish I had more time to talk about this on The Briefing today. In the same sense, there are many who made the argument. And Isabelle, I promise I'll talk about this more on an edition of The Briefing, maybe we should talk about reading and the Christian faith and some of the questions that come with it.
There are those who made the argument that the rise of the detective story in the true crime genre actually owes just about everything to the Christian worldview, and those stories emerged in the English-speaking world largely among Christian writers. You asked the question why? Well, if you are trying to demonstrate the reality of objective evil, objective right, then Law & Order is just about the perfect way to do that.
Again, Christians have understood you can't glorify evil. So in other words, it's not dark literature. Instead, Christians should present honestly and accurately, and even in a biblical proportion, good and evil. But we understand that in a fallen world, both are present. One of my favorite pieces of literature to look at this is Robert Louis Stevenson's work, the Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You look at that and you recognize from a Christian perspective that is an extremely powerful story. Now, I'm not talking about the cartoon version, I'm talking about the actual piece of literature.
And I am not morally satisfied with the piece of literature. I simply want to say it raises some of the deepest questions of humanity. When you have the individual who at times is Dr. Jekyll and others is Mr. Hyde, when he is in Dr. Jekyll's house and he looks at himself in the mirror and he understands that in reality he is both men, that is an incredibly biblical affirmation.
So Isabelle, you are right to understand that we're accountable for the arts. We are to do all things to the glory of God. We are to seek, and this is crucial to the biblical worldview, the intersection point, the union of the good, the beautiful, and the true. But the good means morally right. And the beautiful means that which bears the truth. And the true? Well, that speaks for itself, a true depiction of humanity.
And that's true for the visual arts, it's true for the literary arts, it's true for every dimension of the arts. And if we tell the truth about creation and we tell the truth about ourselves, I think that's a real contribution to the arts and something for which Christians should be thankful. And Isabelle, thanks for your last sentence. I'm very thankful you listen to The Briefing.
Do Children’s Bibles with Depictions of Jesus Violate the Second Commandment? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Okay. Beth then writes a question, and this is one of the questions that makes me slightly nervous when I get it, but I must take the question. She asked, "Do children's Bibles that include cartoon illustrations of Jesus, do they violate the second commandment or are they permitted since Christ became incarnate as a man as long as these depictions are in line with how he is revealed in Scripture?" Beth, I need to answer this honestly and say I don't believe there is an absolute categorical answer.
But Beth, I have to tell you, there's enough of the Puritan in me that I believe that the use of such images is dubious. I'm not saying they're categorically wrong, particularly for children. I grew up in Sunday school where I was shown all kinds of pictures, put up on an easel, helping me to understand Bible stories. The incarnation does change everything. But let me just point out, we do not have a photograph of Jesus Christ. So that means that every single depiction of Jesus Christ is in some sense dependent upon human imagination and is also susceptible to human misrepresentation.
So I am not on a crusade to go from church to church taking books out of the library and crashing stained glass windows. I am saying I believe such depictions of Christ are dubious. I'll simply say that sometimes given our biblical worldview, that is not the wrong category. It's just to say that's dubious.
We look forward to taking more questions next time.
Until then, thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You could follow me on Twitter be going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.