For the very first time the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has elected a black President. And I am happy about it. As someone who has historical roots in the SBC, it’s a happiness borne out of relief. But I am a little puzzled why many are wearing it as a badge of honor. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought Christians should be at the forefront of equality movements, the first in every sphere of life to declare “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Are we really excited and proud that it has taken 60 years after the Civil Rights Movement to put a black person in charge of the largest Evangelical denomination? At least take the time to be humbled by it and learn from it, rather than simply tossing it in the trophy case.
Okay, rant over. What I found most interesting as I thought about this “historic moment,” was how it seems to fit a certain pattern in Evangelicalism* We have to walk a fine line between “preservation” and “relevancy.” If we do not preserve, we will lose our identity as Evangelicals. If we do not stay relevant, we will lose our voice in the culture. This tends to lead to a pattern where we eventually change our views to fit the culture but we do it more slowly. That way we seem to be preserving while getting to stay relevant. There seems to be three distinct movements:
Stage 1: The culture moves in a particular direction and Evangelicals knee-jerk reaction is to reject it. They write books about how the culture is headed in the wrong direction and how we need to “return to our historical roots” or something like that. In this stage we are pretty well unified in our rejection. This may last a few decades.
Stage 2: At some point, some Evangelicals start to play with the idea that perhaps the culture is onto something and that the Bible can be compatible with it. Our books no longer sound like harsh criticism but stepping our toes in the water to see what we can come up with. In this second stage, there becomes internal discord while we duke it out and figure out which side we will stand on, what we think the Bible actually saysand then align our alliances accordingly. This too may last a few decades.
Stage 3: Finally, once the broader culture is onto something new and no longer really debates the matter, most Evangelicals make the same move the culture did 40 years before. Some groups and individuals do it gradually over time while others make a proclamation that they are now “this type” of church or person. At some point in this stage, if you don’t capitulate you become a “fringe group” and are labeled “fundamentalist” or at least we say that you no longer “speak for us as Christians.”
Let’s take a look at this pattern and see if there is something to it.
Divorce. Evangelicals held out that divorce was a sin, and not allowed, for many years. Of course, they were just following a few thousand years of Church Tradition. But eventually divorce became widespread in the culture and biblical scholars began to wonder if maybe they had the Bible wrong on this issue. With the work of folks like David Instone-Brewer and when the cultural pressure reached a tipping point, we simply found acceptable divorce in the Bible and then baptized it.
I am not interested, for my point here, in whether or not we “got it right this time,” that is, what the Bible actually says about divorce, but about why we keep holding things so dogmatically when history shows that we will likely change our minds about it when culture does? We are so tied to our need for an “unchanging foundation of Christian ethics” that we seem to suffer from memory loss when it comes to all the times the Church has changed its mind on all sorts of ethical areas and categories.
Women in Leadership. Let’s look at another example, one that we are still in the middle of as Evangelicals: women in leadership. Again, this position has been popular and assumed in broader culture for several decades while Evangelicals largely rejected it. After a while, scholars began to wonder if maybe we had it wrong, maybe the Bible was okay with women, you know, being equal to men. The first step was to allow women to work outside the home. Then it was to allow women to actually be in charge of men in the workplace. And unfortunately, we are still in Stage 2 (see above) when it comes to women in leadership in the church.
As a church, there is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but there is still certainly male and female (see Gal. 3:28). But, based on what I see in other areas, this is my prediction: 25 years from now if you don’t allow women in leadership you will be a “fringe group.” We are now entering into stage 3 where it will no longer be debatable. You either capitulate or you lose relevancy and get relegated to the fringe of conversation.
Racial Equality. To bring us back to the topic at hand, let’s look at a more relevant topic. The Civil Rights Movement was mostly rejected by conservative Christians. It was led by “liberals” like Martin Luther King, Jr., who was implicitly reprimanded by Jerry Falwell (who was an evangelical and became a member of the SBC in 1996, before which he was an Independent Baptist) in a 1965 sermon entitled “Ministers & Marches.” Jerry Falwell, one of the figureheads of the Evangelical movement before he passed away, even preached a sermon in 1958 titled, “Segregation & Integration: Which?” I’ll let you imagine which one was biblical.
My point is not to criticize Falwell. I am actually a Liberty alum and have always respected Falwell. My point is that he changed his mind, like a majority of Evangelicals in the South, once the culture had decided to go in a different direction. It was either that or he lost his platform and became a “fringe” voice. And now, with this issue in particular, racial equality, we are well into stage 3. No one in Evangelicalism questions it anymore. And if they do, we consider them “fringe” and “not representing us.”
Homosexuality. I wonder if we will follow this pattern. I know that by including the GLBTQ community into this post I am opening up an entirely new conversation. But as something that represents the very early stages of Stage 1, as I have defined it above, I am interested to see if this moves into Stage 2 (it already has for mainline denominations but not yet for Evangelical denominations) or to Stage 3.
But whether or not homosexuality fits, there does seem to be a pattern. Reject, Debate, & Accept. But maybe if we are to represent the God of grace we have it backward. Maybe, the pattern of the God we find in Jesus Christ is to accept first, debate later.
*I am still processing this. Since I have not done any hard research on this, I hold these thoughts lightly. And I have no idea what the implications are yet. Any thoughts or critique is welcome.