Needed: Solidarity Not Stridency (by Todd Littleton)

by Guest Blogger on July 30, 2012 · 3 comments

Todd Littleton blogs at The Edge of the Inside. He wrote a four part series reflecting on the 2012 SBC Annual Meeting through the lens of offering his first ever motion on the floor of the SBC and its demise as Ruled Out of Order. While the nexus of his thoughts turn on a singular incident, Todd finds it illustrative for what ails us. Rather than post these in series form, Todd offers them as stand alone posts. His first post on the subject ran here at Voices, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.  Maybe what he offers is a Minority Report or as his chosen website title indicates, a perspective from the Edge.

Ed Stetzer once remarked that the Southern Baptist Convention had preached out its most creative leaders then turned and preached out its most thoughtful leaders. You do realize what is left? The SBC is bereft of creative, thinking leaders. I am sure that was not the intended conclusion Stetzer hoped we would draw. Instead, I believe he was saying enough is enough. The call for uniformity under the banner of unity would not win the day. And, it has not.

We now witness a growing number of younger leaders rising through the ranks to fill roles and be the public face of the SBC. Some are creative. Some are thoughtful. Some are both. But, they inherit roles that will require more. Of necessity they will need to trigger a move toward solidarity, not stridency.

Solidarity Not Stridency

Tom Ascol wrote a thoughtful reflection after this year’s Southern Baptist Convention. I have long admired Tom though we have never met, that I recall. My respect for Tom grew after his momentous encounter with lightning. Surprised? You see, what Tom illustrated in the aftermath of that event was how his system of theology informed his own interpretation of those events. You may disagree with his system, his convictions, but you cannot argue his consistency.

Reading his analysis of the SBC Family again left me both applauding his consistency and at the same time suspecting he did not look deep enough. Two things stood out to me. First, Tom couched his analysis in particular categories, all in some relationship to Calvinism. His analysis leads the reader to conclude the central issue in the SBC is Calvinism at varying points along a spectrum. An astute reader pointed out the way Tom set up his analysis problematized any person considered to be in the middle of his four points of distinction. Charitably Tom recognized how important phrasing and vocabulary are to the sort of unity he describes as intermittently present in the SBC. I do not believe Tom would want to contribute to an air of stridency knowing the delicacies and complexities of belief and the human beings that hold them.

Second, Tom revealed the deeper issue in his opening paragraph. He wrote,

Sadly, some others who have no doubts about such things [fault lines produced by questions about inerrancy and infallibility of the Scripture] also left because of weariness of political wrangling and ungodly behavior during the battle for the Bible.

The core issue rests in our manner more than our dogma. In fact, for some of we who observe the tit and tat in the SBC from the edge, this is the all-encompassing issue. Our manner undermines our doctrine on nearly every side of the multi-faceted denomination that is the SBC. There is something to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Ephesus, and Asia Minor. He instructs, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” Regardless how you outline the letter, Paul spends an equal amount of time on Christian decorum and ethics in relationships. We spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out our hierarchies and little time working out what mutual submission to one another looks like, especially in the SBC. We talk about humility and point to Jesus’ kenotic move but are still more instructed by our own egos and accompanying aspirations.

A friend and I were having a conversation over Tom’s article. If, we discussed, the issue in the SBC is something deeper than theological systems, how would we name it? I admit to struggling for jus the right way to frame the matter.

Fragmentation?

Maybe my Episcopalian/Theology Professor/Art School Instructor friend inadvertently provided a possibility. Barry suggested that any time Protestants write anything about getting back to the original Gospel he is chagrined. For him, fragmentation is in the Protestant DNA. We write and talk as if Church History began in the 16th Century. And, we often ignore the geo-political world in which the Reformation took place as if future Christian structures and systems would be not in influenced in any way by existing cultural forms.

Protestants easily target the Roman Catholic Church for its organizational resemblance to the Roman form of government. We Southern Baptists, for example, seem unfazed by any similarities our Convention takes to our National Political Conventions. Or, consider the shift in language about deacons after the rise of large U.S. Corporations and their “Boards.” We seem to think that since the Reformation all non-Catholic forms avoided the prevailing cultural influences and instead experienced Divine sanction. History demonstrates few, if any, Protestant groups have escaped fragmentation thereby calling into question any who claims his or her group represents original New Testament expressions. Our obvious kinship would be the Church at Corinth where fragmentation seemed ready to erupt around at most turns.

Biology?

If fragmentation is not the best way to frame the deep issues that divide, maybe my friend Steve – a church member – offers what ails us all the way down. Steve, who studied biology under the likes of Richard Dawkins back when Dawkins actually taught, regularly sees Christians at war with their DNA. Human beings, he regularly tells me, are like all other species and will do what it takes to survive. Put us into tribes and this internal necessity to maintain a particular identity is compounded. When there is conflict with competing tribal visions – what should the shape of the SBC take for instance – we will war to ensure our vision wins. Maybe stridency is our normal wiring. From birth we want what we want our way.

Maybe you can see how this works itself out as the SBC passes through its historical iterations. We bring to the table a penchant for our vision, Calvinist-Non-Calvinist-Traditionalist-Other – being the right and only vision? At all costs we move heaven and earth shunning manner and ethic to contend for the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Interestingly, we play to a singular direct Biblical reference to contending, but make ubiquitous appeals to said text when warring with culture or inspiring the home team.

Likely most will shun any reference to biology. What good are observations from science? We liked the way the world worked before Copernicus. Earth and human beings were at the center. We prefer the language of The Fall.

Fallen

Southern Baptists eschew illustrations from liberal Episcopalians. We would hardly listen to observations drawn from evolutionary biology. But, we Southern Baptists cannot avoid The Fall. Whether complete or partial, the effects of the Fall on human relationships and rationality tend to form at least one touch point of agreement among Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC. We prefer our Bible words even if they are derived from our systematizing efforts.

Fall it is. Not the season of course. But, when in the course of Baptist history one wants to look for the underlying culprit for incessant squabbling maybe some would agree it is our fallen-ness. Even as we are being redeemed we must stridently resist any other visions, we think. Our sanctification could not possibly be bound to working diligently through another’s claims having read the same Sacred Text, must less through relationships beyond the sycophantic. No! There is only “my” reading. Consider the first Adam. His action gives impulse to the my moment for us all – decreed or otherwise – at least that is how we re-tell it. When it therefore comes to the Scriptures we find it hard to we before my. In my discoveries, as it would go, I look to coerce the we accordingly. Any resistance must be protested. Stridency becomes the human default.

Solidarity

Could it be we still suffer the ill effects of “my?” Rather than move toward solidarity forged in the common experience of grace do we remain steadfast to move forward my way? I believe so. While most in the SBC would shun a hermeneutic of suspicion, we readily suspect others and bid them prove their credentials according to my vision long before a brotherly, or sisterly, embrace. What if we moved toward the practice of respect rather than suspicion?

Yes, it would take sanctifying patience and subversive humility but would that not be a better witness? Maybe our pursuit of holiness needs to be understood in relational terms like Thomas J. Oord contends. The “Be ye holy,” may need to be instantiated in the very ways we show God’s longsuffering even as we need others to suffer long with us. Could be a variation would be our need to both express and hope for the sort of self-emptying that would privilege the other person, or as a restatement from Paul, “Think more highly of others than yourselves.” We have years of trying it the other way. Why not something new for a change?

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1 dr. james willingham July 30, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Our problem, as I have been trying to say all along, is that we do not understand our theology and how it really works. Consider our ignorance of the period from approximately 1740-1820, the period of the First and Second Great Awakenings and the Launching of the Great Century of Missions. There is a mystery to and in that period of time which has utterly escaped virtually all of the historians that I have read, namely, how in the world did that calvinsitic theology produced such creativity, such a transformation of Protestantism from its lethargy and persecutorial nature into an outgoing, we will win you with persuasion movement with its lowliest and sorriest group as the avant garde of the whole affair, which I have called “The Climax of The Reformation,” and one that was felt and duly noted even by the common folks in “The Era of Good Feelings.”

Here we have the gaining of religious liberty, the ending of religious persecution, the dawning of world vision, the liberalism of biblical theology (a theology found in verbal inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility), that awed thinkers like Franklin and Jefferson and Madison, that galvanized the new people of God, the lowly, enslaved African Americans, to be first in the beginning of the Great Century of Missions.

There is here also the insights and understandings of how one could have more freedom and respect for one another as equals in the family and the house of God. Biblical, theological ideas for the mental workings of believers, ideas apparently contradictory and yet true, enabling believers to be balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic, ideas providing that tension in the human mind, a tension desirable, helpful, so that one does not become rigid and brittle and easily diverted. This is the theology of our future that shall take us through a thousand generations and to millions of planets for the next 20,000-500,000 years, producing the number of converts necessary to fill the quota of Rev.7:9. Wake up folks. The Book is inspired by Omniscience. Therefore you should expect to find in it a depth of profundity that cannot be fathomed, though its lucidity and clarity be ever so remarkably evident. We are in over our heads for a real struggle for comprehension and perspective that shall enable us to trump the opposition in all humility and joy for the Lord. Stridency might well just mean that we are alive. After all, a bunch of children having screaming arguments in the sand box or school yard are simply going through life and its changes on their way to maturity. Rome’s old problem was in trying to flash freeze everything in one form and mode for control (always a problem for the insecure), and then there is Babylon with its problems of buy all, take all, anything but a restriction and how it really fits, so open nothing is left in the end by emptiness.

We need intellectualists who have researched the 1500s-1900s, especially with a view to what is involved in the Awakenings and the Great Missionary Movement. Such thinkers must be born again, believers, sold on the Bible and its wisdom of painful perplexities that will in the end bring happier harmonies, symphonies of supernaturalism that utterly charm the skeptical hearts of hard headed so-called realists.

2 Christiane July 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm

I think ‘solidarity’ is a doctrine that is derived from the love within the Holy Trinity, in which we are invited to have a share

to be present to and ‘with’ someone who is ‘other’, for their good, possibly at our own risk, is an act of great compassion . . .
it may put us at odds with some critics,
but that act of standing with someone in need is a great witness to Our Lord which has pointed many towards Him. I give you the story of Paul, the Prison in Philippi, the Roman jailer, the earthquake,
and Paul’s words . . . ‘do not harm yourself, for we are all here’

The sacred Scriptures record this in the Book of Acts 16:
“3 And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:

24 Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.

25 And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.

26 And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.

27 And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled.

28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.

29 Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas,

30 And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?

31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

32 And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.

33 And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway.”

. . .Paul knew what would befall the jailer if the prisoners escaped . . . so he chose to stay with him, at his own peril.
Paul’s act of compassion for the jailer so surprised him that the jailer was opened to the power of the Gospel and was enabled by the Holy Spirit to turn towards Jesus Christ Kyrios:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qUW7IxapdU

to stand with and for others in need often comes with a cost to self . . .
but we have Our Lord’s example,
and His blessing on us

3 dr. james willingham July 31, 2012 at 12:40 am

Love without understanding often proves to be very ineffective. I spent two years of research on I Cors.13 in the Greek, and the depth there is seldom recognized or appreciated. For example, love and truth are companions: Love rejoices with the truth. I Cors.13:6.

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