By / Dec 7

In 2019, I was elected president of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists at 26 years old. Our state convention is much smaller than many others, so I’m under no illusion that being elected was some incredible feat. It was, however, an honor to be given the opportunity, and it has been an even greater honor to serve West Virginia Baptists in this capacity. As my term comes to an end, I’ve spent time reflecting on what I’ve learned over these last two years. I share these four thoughts in the hopes that they may be helpful as we navigate tumultuous days in Baptist life. 

  1. Disagreements are inevitable, but love is a choice

In denominational life, no one agrees with anyone on everything. Ideological camps don’t line up as clearly as it seems. I have found incessant gatekeeping simply exhausting. I’ve learned that my primary obligation to my brother or sister is to love them, not figure out what ideological tribe they really belong to. If they don’t love me back, that is okay. If they pigeonhole me into some particular tribe, so be it. My charge remains the same: love them. Love is the only way to survive for the long haul. 

  1. Institutions are frustrating, but institutions have value. 

We want institutions to perfectly reflect the sensibilities of our day. They simply do not. Institutions move slowly — frustratingly so. Now, this is no excuse for institutional dysfunction, obfuscation, or corruption; these things must not exist in healthy institutions. But in our institutions, the past and future collide. And therein lies their value. We must reckon with our institutions as they are, not as we wish they were. Good decisions and bad decisions made by scores of people across time and space have led us here, and the decisions we now make will shape those who will follow us.

  1. Our challenges are real, but so is God’s grace. 

I mentioned that disagreements are inevitable. To be clear, this does not mean all disagreements are created equally. We face real challenges in our day — challenges we must not downplay, trivialize, or spiritualize. Focusing on “the mission” demands a clear, biblical understanding of “the mission.” We may disagree about the biggest problems in our society. We may disagree about how we got here and where we should go. I do not offer a trite, overly spiritualized solution. I simply commend all of us to God’s grace as we discern these things together. His grace is sufficient for us.

  1. Falling from platforms is dangerous, but so is seeking them. 

We talk a lot about the dangers of falling, and rightfully so. But I think it’s important to talk about the dangers of climbing. Oh, I see this in myself! When I start asking, “What’s next for me?” I am in a dangerous spot. I want to be faithful; I want to utilize the gifts God has given me to serve God’s people. But it’s easy to convince myself that’s what I’m doing, when really, I am trying to grow my platform. It’s easy to talk about serving God’s people, when really, I want God’s people to serve me. 

That they may be one

We live at a time and in a culture that is fraught with division, even inside our churches. But this is not a time for Southern Baptists to mimic the cultural norms of our day. Now is the time for us to live into the words of Jesus in his high priestly prayer: “that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22).  

In a culture that is often hateful and ill-tempered on nearly every emerging issue, what might happen if Southern Baptists exercised an abundance of love and earnestly pursued the unity that Jesus prays for in John 17? He tells us: the world would come to know that Jesus has been sent by the Father who loves them like his own Son. They would come to know that John 3:16 is, in fact, true. The love and unity practiced and expressed in the church is a reflection of the love and unity practiced and expressed in the Godhead, and it is part of our witness to the surrounding culture. 

As my term as president of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists draws to a close, this is my hope: that we would take God’s call to pursue the love and unity that Jesus prays for seriously so that the watching world would know that God loves them and that Jesus has come to save them. 

By / Dec 3

I recently listened to a podcast of the White Horse Inn in which Michael Horton featured the ongoing transformation of Mackenzie University, a prestigious private university in Brazil with more than 40,000 students, into a Christian university.

Let me say at the outset that, even though I have serious questions, which I’m going to express in this piece, about Michael Horton’s two-kingdoms approach to the relation of Christianity and culture, I count him a gift to the church. When it comes to what goes on inside the church (except for obvious denominational differences), I tend to agree with him. But when it comes to how the church should relate to the secular culture, I disagree with his two-kingdoms approach, rather espousing a more positive transformational approach to cultural engagement more like that of a Wesley or a Kuyper. So don’t let these friendly critiques of Horton’s views on culture be taken as a lack of excitement about his views on other things.

His account of Mackenzie University was a very compelling story. Essentially, it is a story of reformation. The president of this historically Presbyterian university, now its chancellor, received his Ph.D. at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and he desired to reform the university and attempt slowly to return it to its Christian roots. Now the university’s divinity school has moved away from its formerly Protestant Liberal theology, and every faculty member now embraces conservative Presbyterian theology.

One of the reasons I found this story compelling is that I wondered to myself, “Is it even theoretically possible that Yale, my own alma mater, which was once committed to theological orthodoxy, could be reformed in this way?”

The reason I was so intrigued by this question is that Horton and others from the two-kingdoms approach to Christianity and culture demur from the view that Christians should be trying to transform culture. Yet here was a two-kingdoms advocate rejoicing in the ongoing, gradual reformation of Mackenzie University—a secularized university in a modern, secularized Western nation—back toward its Christian moorings.

A lot of questions came to my mind:

What’s the difference between reforming an institution or field of study or cultural system and transforming it?*

If the theological seminary of a secularized Western university can be reformed, would it be possible for the whole university to be reformed?

If the theological seminary of a secularized Brazilian university can be reformed, would it be possible for a theological seminary at a secularized American university to be reformed?

If the theological seminary of a secularized American university could be reformed, would it be possible for the whole university to be reformed?

It seemed to me that two-kingdoms advocates who would rejoice about the divinity school of a secularized Western university being reformed would think that it was, at least theoretically, possible for a whole university to be reformed. It would also seem that such two-kingdoms advocates would think such a reformation would be a good thing, a positively good goal—that they would laud the president’s attempts at reforming Mackenzie University.

More questions flooded my mind, like the following: If it’s a good thing for a prestigious university in a secularized nation to be reformed back to its original Christian roots, and that’s something we would laud a university president for attempting to do, then why would we not laud a government leader for attempting to reform a nation-state back to its more theistic roots?

Many conservative theologians have been invited to Mackenzie University to speak at the theological school. No doubt, while they are down there, they encourage the president in his work of reformation, even if they are two-kingdoms advocates. I asked myself:

What would a two-kingdoms advocate do at some point in the future if he were called in to a small nation-state in Africa—let’s imagine for a moment—whose prime minister and the majority of whose parliament was made up of conservative Anglican, Baptist, and Assemblies of God laypeople? What would his advice to them be regarding legislation about, say, abortion or same-sex marriage or sex-trafficking? How would he advise them? Would he say, “Don’t try to bring about change—transformation—to the culture based on the beliefs of the Christian church”?

And then I thought of so many of my good, faithful, evangelical friends who really want to engage the culture from a Christian perspective just as I do but shy away from the word transformation. In some cases, I think, this is because they think it must mean a total transformation—such that, if you want to see cultural change and transformation in the direction of Christian values, you’re necessarily talking about a complete Christianization of everything, in this life (but surely that’s not what most so-called transformationalists are aiming at).

Shortly before listening to the story about Mackenzie University, I had read an article at the Huffington Post about a new art conference, the TRAC conference, which is trying to bring representational art, or classical realism, back into prominence in the arts community. The convener of the conference, artist and professor Michael Pearce, said, “All of us, the people in this room, are slowly changing the direction of the cultural ocean liner. I want to thank you for participating in that. We really, really need to do that. We need to change the direction of the ship.”

What I wonder is, is an artist who wants slowly to change the direction of the “cultural ocean liner” in the art world attempting to bring transformation to the art world? I would think so. And let’s say that, after 20 years, the percentage of his kind of art sold at auction goes from 20 percent to 40 percent of the total art sold, as a result of such efforts for change. Does that count as transformation, even though the transformation is not total?

Another question that came to mind regards personal spiritual transformation: Those of us who don’t believe in entire sanctification or Christian perfection think that we are gradually being transformed spiritually, even though we will never be totally transformed in this life. Why then should we shy away from thinking we should be attempting to bring slow, gradual transformation to a given sphere of culture, whether educational, artistic, scientific, political, etc.?

These are questions that I think are worth asking, as more and more evangelical young people are considering the “Benedict Option” (which I briefly discussed in a recent post). Is it possible to have a broadly Augustinian approach to cultural influence and change—call it “transformationalism,” call it something else—from the vantage point of Christian teaching that is not triumphalistic or unduly negative (in the way that too much political rhetoric from the religious right has been)? And is it possible to embody that mentality in a way that respects the institutional separation of church and state and religious liberty, for which Baptists have been on the leading edge since the early seventeenth century? And is it possible to do that from an eschatological perspective that doesn’t necessarily see complete transformation as occurring this side of eternity?

I like to think it is.

*My guess is that two-kingdoms advocates would say that churchly things such as a school of theology can be reformed, which of course involves their (at least partial) transformation, but that something in the secular sphere cannot be. But would this rule out, say, the business or physics or political science departments at Mackenzie University? Could they be considered churchly and thus reformable / transformable?

By / Dec 2

Welcome to ministry from the margins of society—or what most Christians through the ages have called it, normal life. Ministering from the margins means that our values and ethics are no longer the majority view in American culture. What was once described as an American moral majority is now a prophetic cultural minority. One benefit of ministering from the margins is that it reminds the followers of Jesus that having the ‘right’ person in office will not restore righteousness to a fallen sin-devastated world and nation. Every believer should be engaged in seeking the welfare of the city and loving God and neighbor by actively participating in the political process and seeking the public good. Nevertheless, it is vital for Christians to always realize the limitations of politics and government.

God’s power is unlimited. Man’s power is very limited. This biblical thinking should frame all of our political engagement. Our hope is not ultimately rooted in cultural power and respect. We must not possess a fatalistic or apathetic attitude toward political engagement; rather, we must always energetically seek truth, righteousness, and human flourishing as a vital way we love God and neighbor. We are emboldened in doing so because we have promises beyond this world. This knowledge does not make us passive, but rather it makes us humbly aggressive and exponentially courageous.

Our cultural opponents are not our enemies; they are our mission field. Our goal is not to destroy them, but to love them and point them to the love of Christ.

You will be called a religious bigot

To be a faithful follower of Christ in the coming days will mean being accused of spiritual pride, religious bigotry and close-mindedness in ever-increasing degrees. This reality is inevitable when ministering from the cultural margins because of the authority and importance we ascribe to our biblical convictions. We cannot—and we must not— compromise our commitment to the truth of Scripture and the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While the cultural narrative will paint us as intolerant and harsh, it will often paint our cultural opponents as open-minded and benevolent. This cultural caricature should not hurt our feelings or cause us to withdraw from culture in self-pity. As a people who have experienced the grace of God in Jesus Christ, Christians know that true kindness flows from obedience to God. Genuine benevolence is honest about sin—it certainly does not ignore sin.

Whatever is represented as kindness, we must never admit to be genuine kindness, unless it constitutes love to God and love to man. If a man claims to love God, but hates his brother, he is a liar. If a man claims to love his brother, but hates God, he is a liar (1 John 4:20). John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 John 5:2). The faithful Christian unapologetically shows partiality to the wisdom of God as recorded in Scripture and revealed in the gospel over the wisdom of man. Likewise, it should not surprise the faithful Christian when those in the culture show partiality to man over God.

Our biblical commitment means that the destructive nature of sin, the atoning work of Christ, the Lordship of Christ, and the reality of eternal judgment apart from Christ are non-negotiable in our commitment as we seek to live as benevolent stewards of the gospel in our culture. It is self-centered, unloving cowardice that attempts to accommodate Christianity to the prevailing spirit of the age.

The fact that the Christian gospel is true means that we can never compromise biblical truth to curry favor of cultural powers, but it also means that we will never join the sky-is-falling cultural outrage doomsayers. None of the bad news we face in our cultural context overshadows the good news of Jesus Christ. As Charles Spurgeon said about his day, “What have you and I to do with the times, except to serve God in them? The times are always evil to those who are of a morbid temperament.”

You must not be a religious bigot

We must not cry, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace,” (Jer. 6:14, 8:11, Ezek. 13:10, 16) but we must also refuse to cry, “Hopeless, hopeless, where there is gospel hope.” We must not minimize sin or minimize the power of the gospel. The biblical witness authoritatively judges the validity of our thought and experience, never the other way around. Indifference to our faith commitments is not an option because it would mean a refusal to seek the good of our city and our neighbors. We must reflect the heart of Jesus who was clear and pointed about the sins and rebellion in Jerusalem, and yet “he wept over it” with compassion (Luke 19:41). Genuine benevolent love demands the truth.

It also demands that we seek to put the best construction on the words and actions of those around us whether they are Christian friends or cultural opponents, even as we remain obligated to the truth. If direct, plain, truthful speech constitutes a failure to love and respect to ones political, cultural, and ecclesial opponents, then Jesus and his apostles must be charged with guilt. Convictional kindness and truthful love are Christian virtues that are absolutely necessary in every era, but particularly when Christians find themselves as the prophetic minority in a culture.

Cruciform love demands that we remain hopeful about people and the power of the gospel to transform their lives; however, love does not disregard the truth or exchange the truth for a lie. Christians must stand firm in their gospel convictions when cultural opponents, who by their own profession do not believe the Bible, still wag their finger at us saying, Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1) as if Jesus was contending it is wrong to make any judgment whatsoever. Of course, such people are making a judgment themselves about the wrongness of our making judgments.

We know that such an approach is a grotesque twisting of Jesus’ words. A few verses later Jesus declares, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs” (Matt. 7:6), and in the same discourse, Jesus calls his disciples to judge both teaching and conduct (Matt. 7:15-20). If a man says, “There is no God,” the Scripture does not hesitate to call him a “fool” (Psa. 14:1). The language is not meant to insult his mental capacity but rather points out his moral corruption and wickedness.

If we consider faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ as essential to salvation, then we will be called religious bigots—Period. Yet, there is a world of difference between being called a religious bigot and being one. Nevertheless, we must follow the path of Jesus and his apostles and be willing to receive scorn without self-pity and without forsaking gospel love for the scorners.

When Paul preached to the Athenians amidst the cultural chaos at the Areopagus “some mocked,” (Acts 17:32). “But others said, “We will hear you again,” and “some men joined him and believed” (Acts 17:32-33). We must love Christ and love those to whom we preach the gospel, including our cultural opponents, more than we love reputation, ease, cultural standing, comfort, or putting them in their place.

The dictionary on my computer defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group with hatred and intolerance.” If we are attached to our principles to the neglect of Scripture, if we obstinately adhere to our convictions as an excuse to lack a benevolent spirit toward others, if we hold to our convictions simply as a way to exclude others, then we are open to a charge of bigotry. But, to hold our Christian convictions in such a way would be in opposition to the living word of Scripture and Jesus Christ our Lord.

If we are biblically faithful Christians serving on the margins in this post-Christian culture, we will inevitably be called bigots. But, if we are biblically faithful Christians, we will not be bigots. May we know and live the difference, and may we remember as we minister from the margins that we are traveling a well-worn Christian path.

By / Mar 30

The public debate over Indiana's new religious freedom law is (almost) enough to drive this Baptist to drink. The conversation has been the most uninformed and ignorant I've seen in years. This culminated in a panel on one of the Sunday talk shows suggesting that the law would return us to the days when signs would hang in stores detailing who would not be welcome to do business there. 

The law, of course, does nothing of the sort. Indiana merely passed a state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the law that passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in 1993 and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The act was supported by a coalition spanning from the far Left to the far Right.

RFRA, of course, does not grant anyone the right to "discriminate" or deny service to anyone else. All the law does is articulate that religious freedom is a factor to be weighed in making court decisions about the common good, that the government must show good cause in restricting someone's free exercise of religion. 

So where does all the ignorance come from in this case? 

Many of those leading the discussion of religious freedom have little or no understanding of what motivates religious people. This shows up in almost all of these conversations, whether over the Little Sisters of the Poor fight not to be compelled to purchase contraception insurance coverage or the legislative attempts to codify RFRA. If one cannot empathize with why defying conscience on a matter of religious exercise is a life-or-death concern, then one is free to impute all sorts of evil motives. Why doesn't the employee at Abercrombie and Fitch just ditch the head scarf to work there? After all, that's just fashion. Why won't the Amish just drive in cars down the road like "regular people" do? 

When secularized or nominally religious people don't understand religious motivation, then they are going to assume that, behind a concern for religious exercise, is some sinister agenda: usually one involving power or money. That sort of ignorance is not just naive. It leads to a breakdown of pluralism and liberal democracy. I shouldn't have the power to mandate that a Jain caterer provide wild game for some Baptist church's Duck Dynasty-themed "Beast Feast," just because I don't understand their non-violent tenets toward all living creatures. I shouldn't be allowed to require Catholic churches to use grape juice instead of wine just because I don't understand transubstantiation. 

This is particularly problematic when widespread ignorance of religious motivation is joined with a zealotry that can only be called religious: for the stamping out of all dissent against the sexual revolution. The sexual revolutionaries are, by all accounts, winning the public debate in American life on matters of sexual freedom, right down to the redefinition of marriage and family. But that's not enough. Many of them want not only to win, but to stamp out dissent with all the relish of a Massachusetts Bay Puritan. 

And, behind all of that, is the question, often backed by powerful corporate interests, of why the rest of America can't just get on board with a vision of the good life that is defined by economic stability and sexual libertarianism. Why can't the rest of us just be "normal?" That sort of political hegemony never ends well, for anyone.