Martyrs in a Modern World

Christians — especially those enjoying the safety of the West — often think of martyrdom as a part of the distant Christian past. But a recent barrage of headlines dispels that notion in a hurry. Over the past several weeks, Christians in Iraq suffered a series of church bombings, and experts in the region predicted a virtual evacuation of that nation’s Christian population. Approximately half of all Iraqi Christians have already fled the country. That represents a failure of the American ambition to leave Iraq with a government that would protect basic human rights and liberties. The murderous terrorism against Christians in Iraq amounts to a form of religious cleansing.

Meanwhile, oppression of Christians in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, intensified with a January 1 bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria. Twenty-one worshipers were killed and another 100 were injured. Analysts predicted a rise in the scale of these attacks, since many Muslims seem intent on eliminating Egypt’s approximately 10 million Christians.

In Pakistan, rioters took to the streets to insist that the nation’s draconian blasphemy laws stay in place — effectively allowing only Muslim practice and preaching. As The New York Times reported, “A crippling strike by Islamist parties brought Pakistan to a standstill on Friday as thousands of people took to the streets, and forced businesses to close, to head off any change in the country’s blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.”

There is no way we can determine the exact theological beliefs of these worshipers in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan, but there can be no question that they are suffering and dying in the name of Jesus Christ. They deserve our earnest prayers and advocacy. They also remind us by their witness that Christ has enemies — and so do His followers. The blood of the martyrs does indeed cry out their witness for Christ.

We must pray for persecuted Christians everywhere around the world.

“Through prayer we can be saved because of our Lord Jesus Christ, even after we have been punished. This will become salvation and confidence to us at the much more fearful and universal judgment of our Lord and Savior.” Justin Martyr

Confessionalism: The Past Meets the Future in Georgia

Well, it looks like Georgia Baptists had a debate worth having. Associated Baptist Press reports that the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to separate itself from a church that has called a woman to serve as co-pastor. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the recommendation that the convention oust the church, but the debate must have been interesting.

Meeting November 15-16 at Albany’s Sherwood Baptist Church, the GBC took the action in keeping with its adoption of the Baptist Faith & Message as its confessional basis. That confession of faith, adopted as revised by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, states: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

The church, Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, is one of the most venerable congregations in the state convention. For decades, it was the very epitome of the GBC establishment. Louis Newton (1892-1986), who served as president of both the GBC and the SBC, served for decades as the congregation’s pastor, beginning in 1929. Now, the church is considered no longer in fellowship with the GBC on the basis of its violation of the confession of faith. The recommendation to remove the church came from the GBC Executive Committee.

The debate, as reported in the press, got to the most basic and urgent issues. Michael Ruffin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, argued that the GBC was practicing “selective creedal application” of the Baptist Faith & Message. In his words:

There are many, many, many more provisions in the Baptist Faith and Message . . . . I don’t want the GBC to become even more creedal in its application of the Baptist Faith and Message than it has on this one score. We really should consider the arbitrariness of such an application. I think we also ought to consider the possibility that if we get serious about holding every Georgia Baptist Convention church accountable to every line in the Baptist Faith and Message as we are this one, we’ll soon have no churches left.

It appears that Michael Ruffin is right. This is an example of selective creedal application. The GBC removed another church, First Baptist Church of Decatur, for the very same reason just last year. The issue of a woman serving as pastor has been the only issue on which the GBC has taken such an action in recent years.

But, is selective creedal application wrong? The answer to that has to be both yes and no. No denominational body is equipped to deal with every issue in every meeting. The issue of a woman serving as pastor is a public statement that presented the GBC with an unavoidable decision. It would either stand by its own confession of faith, or it would, in effect, decide to abandon its own confessional identity.

Dr. Ruffin was honest in arguing that even as the GBC was undertaking a “selective creedal application” of the Baptist Faith & Message, he did not want the convention “to become even more creedal in its application of the Baptist Faith & Message than it has on this one score.” His argument is well recognized as stating the case against any regulative application of the confession of faith. His argument did not carry the day, nor should it have, but he presented his argument with consistency and honesty.

The truth is that denominational bodies will have to be more expansive in applying their own confessions of faith, or they will inevitably find themselves to have become an amalgamation of churches that are no longer standing together in common beliefs and doctrines. That would be a tragic abdication of responsibility.

The reality is that even greater challenges are certain to come. Doctrinal deviation is a real and present danger, as Southern Baptists have learned over the past half century and more. The future will require all Christians, Baptists included, to be more clear about our beliefs and common confession, or we will lose our theological integrity and Gospel faithfulness.

The application of confessional accountability undertaken by the Georgia Baptist Convention this week is a reminder of how Baptists hammered out their understanding of confessionalism in times past — and a sign of things even more difficult sure to come.

Bankruptcy in the Cathedral

It turns out that Robert Schuller offers the best analysis of this crisis with his own words. “No church has a money problem; churches only have idea problems.” The theological crisis in Garden Grove is far more significant than the financial crisis.

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The Prior Scandal — An Absence of Accountability

The expanding scandal now associated with Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta is only the latest to dominate the nation’s media attention. Four young men have filed lawsuits against Bishop Long, accusing him of trading gifts for sexual favors while they were still teenagers. Long told his massive congregation yesterday that he would fight the charges like David fighting Goliath.

But, as Tom Breen of the Associated Press reports, the larger issue here is the lack of accountability in many Christian ministries and independent mega-churches.

As he reports:

It’s too early to say whether the sex allegations against Bishop Eddie Long, the famed pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, will spur the kind of soul-searching that followed the downfall of the Rev. Ted Haggard in Colorado.

Regardless, pastors and experts say the Long case demonstrates how vulnerable the country’s independent churches still are to being damaged by the misbehavior — sexual, financial or otherwise — of leaders whose considerable influence often comes with temptation and little accountability.

The prior scandal in so many of these cases is the lack of accountability in these ministries. Many of these independent mega-church pastors are de facto dictators, totally without accountability structures. The congregations lack the discipline of a denomination, and the pastors or leaders often lack any accountability at all.

At the end of Breen’s article, Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School points to the congregation as the instrument of accountability. Breen writes:

“The main check on leadership that goes berserk is really the congregation,” said Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox, an expert on Pentecostal and charismatic churches. “You’ve got to keep the congregation with you, or they can toss you out.”

Well, the problem is that these ministries are built on charismatic leadership, so the congregation rarely tosses any leader out, regardless of behavior. In a confrontation with a Senate committee, Bishop Long was asked if he, rather than the church’s board of directors, was in actual control. We are about to find out.

What about at your church?

The Amazing Technicolor Multifaith Theology School

This move by the Claremont School of Theology illustrates what happens when churches and denominations allow their institutions to embrace theological liberalism. Watch this development carefully. Claremont may be the first multifaith seminary, but it will almost surely not be the last.

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