Monday, February 15, 2010

New Baylor President Ken Starr needs to be as clear about his theology as he wanted Bill Clinton to be about his sexual activities

Back in the 1990s, when the flame of Southern Baptist interest in establishing better relations with other Christian denominations was flickering and getting ready to go out, our home was practically ground zero for Southern Baptist ecumenical dialogue.

At that time Southern Baptists had only two official dialogues under way with other Christian groups—Roman Catholics and Churches of Christ. I served as one of the 10 Southern Baptists on the Roman Catholic-Southern Baptist dialogue; my wife Kay served as one of the 10 Southern Baptists on the Churches of Christ-Southern Baptist dialogue team. Kay at one time was the only female among the 20 Southern Baptists, 10 Roman Catholics and 10 representatives of the Churches of Christ—40 people all total—serving on the two teams.

To say we had a ringside seat on these discussions would be an understatement. Both dialogue teams each met for dinner and discussion in our home for one of their meetings.

I was invited to be on the RCC-SB dialogue team because of my extensive interest in the Roman Catholic Church and the fact that as religion editor of the Houston Chronicle I had traveled with Pope John Paul II on some of his many trips abroad and had spent about a month working in Rome covering the Vatican.

Kay was invited to be a participant in the Churches of Christ dialogue because of her extensive knowledge of and interest in the Churches of Christ. Her paternal grandfather was a minister in the Churches of Christ and her father was a lifelong member of a Church of Christ congregation. Only the fact that her dad's particular Church of Christ in their hometown in the late 1940s did not have an air-conditioner and the local Baptist church did kept Kay from growing up a member of a Church of Christ. Instead her mother—with Kay's father's blessings—chose to remain a Southern Baptist and to rear Kay in a Southern Baptist church which had a wonderfully cool church nursery for Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday-night services.

Recently we were reminded of how these two strains--Baptist and Churches of Christ--flowed into our own lives when our alma mater, Baptist-born-and-bred Baylor University in Waco, TX, announced that Judge Ken Starr, a born-and-bred member of the Churches of Christ, would be the new (14th) president of the school. While most alumni are fixated on Starr's controversial—and some say divisive—political life, we were intrigued and puzzled by his Churches of Christ heritage and affiliation and the odd statement in the Baylor press release rather deep in the story announcing that Judge Starr plans to join a Baptist church on arrival in Waco.

(News reports say Starr is officially a member of non-denominational mega-church McLean Bible Church in Virginia where Evangelical politicos often have their memberships. Church of Christ sources say, however, he was a "weekly attender" at the University Church of Christ on the Church of Christ-affiliated Pepperdine University campus in California where until February 15 he was the dean of the Pepperdine Law School.)

This brought back memories of some of the most controversial points in the Southern Baptist-Churches of Christ dialogue. Most interesting was the fact that the 10 members of the Churches of Christ team did not fit at all the traditional Southern Baptist stereotypes of members of the Churches of Christ. These were not people who were against just about everything progressive in church life—such as pianos, organs, Sunday School, nurseries, homes for the aged, and so forth. The Churches of Christ team members were erudite, articulate, positive, and surprising in their receptivity to new things and in their presentation of their theology—a far cry from backwoods locales in which Churches of Christ members were stereotyped for the things they were against more than for anything positive.

Southern Baptists on the COC-SB dialogue team also were surprised at the many negative stereotypes the Churches of Christ members had of their denomination, too.

Theologically the biggest sticking point between Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ has traditionally been the matter of baptism. Southern Baptists believe salvation occurs through faith in Jesus Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior. Southern Baptists believe baptism is a symbolic act after salvation and illustrates what has occurred inwardly in an individual. Members of the Churches of Christ, on the other hand, believe salvation occurs through baptism. COC members believe salvation occurs in the actual act of immersion. Thus, COC members are more in keeping with Roman Catholic theology and mainline Protestant theology which link salvation and baptism together. Though those may sound like technicalities to some people, these are major theological dividing points in Christianity.

During the dialogue, Kay found some of the COC team members hedging on whether salvation is through baptism alone. (Members of the Church of Christ team almost universally confided that the very oldest Churches of Christ members--people in Kay's grandfather's generation--were far less adamant about baptism for salvation than younger members were and documented how that particular controversial tenet increasingly "gathered steam" as the movement progressed). She often returned home from the dialogues reporting that some of the participants sounded more like Baptists than the stereotypical COC members. She was particularly fascinated by COC participants who insisted COC members are more diverse in their theology than most people believe.

And of course we know Southern Baptists who are equally as diverse and who also hedge on whether they think immersion in water is actually necessary for salvation to occur.

From our experiences on these dialogue teams and other life experiences, we both learned that one needs to listen carefully to what a member of a particular denomination says he or she believes before assuming that the person falls in lock-step with whatever the prevailing theological stereotype is of the person's denominational beliefs.

That's why we are eager to learn more about what the new Baylor president actually believes about theology as well as other important issues. We hope in the next weeks and months Judge Ken Starr will articulate as clearly as he wanted President Bill Clinton to articulate in the courtroom and that he (Starr) will state emphatically what he truly believes about baptism and salvation as well as about minor issues such as whether a church ought to have instrumental music in its worship center, whether a church ought to celebrate Easter, and whether he agrees with the traditional Churches of Christ viewpoint on the role of women in public worship.

Baylor University's presidential announcement puzzling

I'm puzzled by the way Baylor University made the announcement of Ken Starr as the next president of Baylor.

I heard about it in an email from a friend who is editor of the national Church of Christ publication. He wrote wanting to know if Starr would be the first non-Baptist president of Baylor.

With no Baylor announcement to Baylor alumni in any of our email inboxes, Kay and I then checked out Starr on Wikipedia, which already listed Starr as the 14th president of Baylor University.

Finally about 30 minutes later the announcement from Baylor arrived in our inboxes. The fact that Starr is Church of Christ was buried deep in the story. The story also noted that Starr promised to join a Baptist church as soon as he arrives in Waco.

Absent in the story was anything that truly connected Starr to Baylor past or present. Now he is the future of our alma mater! He was until a few minutes ago the dean of the law school at Pepperdine University, the Church of Christ West Coast school.

So do you get hired as Baylor president by promising to join a Baptist church? Or when you become Baylor president does your theology suddenly shift from C of C to Southern Baptist? Interesting development.

For more on this development watch this blog later tonight.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Time for SBC leaders to step forward to take responsibility for their actions in preaching the message of "go"

The news media is riveted to the story about the 10 Idaho Southern Baptists who are engulfed in the legal melodrama in Haiti. And well they should be. The issues involved in this case are fascinating, complex, and illustrative of the difficulties people wanting to do good sometimes encounter in today's world.

Don't think, however, that this is the first time individual Southern Baptists have been caught in messes such as this one. What makes this escapade so unusual is that it's out there for everyone to watch and comment on. The media seldom has gotten hold of other sticky situations like this one involving Southern Baptists. Usually the denomination has managed to skinny by some really troubling scenarios. This time it got caught in the glare of the public's headlights.

Take, for instance, the case about 11 years ago when a team of Southern Baptist volunteers from the Chicago area were detained in North Korea. Yes, North Korea. Unbeknown to most Americans, including rank-and-file Southern Baptists, the SBC has been working—sometimes openly, sometimes clandestinely—in that area for at least a decade and a half.

The case to which I refer to involved a volunteer team much like the one from Idaho, with approximately the same number of people. Well-intentioned, these Chicago Southern Baptists went to North Korea full of idealism. Also like the Idahoans, the Chicagoans were apparently naive about the circumstances in which they found themselves.

And blunder they did. Even though they were warned to be discreet in their witnessing, the Chicagoans stood on street corners in Pyongyang and handed out evangelistic tracts—a great big no-no in the world's most reclusive communist-atheist nation. That was like waving a red flag in front of a bunch of already-suspicious bulls. North Korean police hauled off the volunteer group and "detained" the visitors for several days, while Southern Baptist bureaucrats worked feverishly behind the scenes—and out of the public limelight—to obtain the release of the Chicagoans.

Since the U.S. has no official diplomatic ties with North Korea, these Southern Baptist officials had to work through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang to get the volunteer team released.
Before the whole mess ended, the situation with the Southern Baptist prisoners was the first—and a highly secret—item on the agenda during one of the Clinton administration's official talks with North Korean representatives.

After days of agony, the Chicago Southern Baptists were freed and quickly dispatched across the North Korean-Chinese border through which they had entered the reclusive country.

My hunch is this is how the Haiti situation may end. Or will it? In the case of the volunteer team in North Korea, members of the media and the public never knew what was happening. They also didn't know even after the situation was over. Because of that, no one was able to raise questions about what that team thought it was doing and why members behaved in such a reckless manner.

The Haiti situation is front-page news around the world, so people of all kinds of religious persuasions, political leanings, and legal backgrounds are now involved. Perhaps this is good, because questions need to be asked about how situations like this happen and how they can be avoided in the future.

I don't believe incidents like this occur in a vacuum, nor do I buy the idea that such happenings always are the work of the devil. Also, these things happen too often to be considered a novelty.

Southern Baptist leaders quickly note that what happened in Haiti was the work of individuals from an autonomous, independent congregation. You can almost hear them throwing in the disclaimer "overzealous". Technically correct, these leaders act shocked and bewildered over the situation. For political as well as legal reasons, they are trying to stay aloof from the embarrassing circumstances while offering compassionate prayers for the 10 people and their families.

Nevertheless, someone needs to ask the central question here—Are denominational leaders truly innocent and non-culpable in this and other situations? The policy of the SBC is for volunteer mission groups from autonomous, independent congregations to go worldwide to witness to any and every people group in the world—and they truly mean to every people group in every country in the world, with no exceptions. This has been the policy of the SBC for at least 15 years. SBC leaders over and over preach the need for presenting the gospel to every people group on the planet.

The natural corollary of that dogma is that people are going. Individual Southern Baptists from autonomous, independent congregations are streaming overseas at ever-increasing numbers. Denominational leaders are not even sure how many are going; they just know large numbers are heeding their pleas. The question is, are Southern Baptist leaders truly preparing these hoards for the inevitable conflicts and difficulties volunteers such as the Idahoans and Chicagoans have encountered?

Back in 1985, as a religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I went to the former Soviet Union to clandestinely interview Jewish citizens who wanted to flee their homeland for Israel or the United States but were denied exit visas by their communist masters who feared the brain drain such an exodus would create. Given the times and circumstances, this was a tricky and dangerous assignment for me.

I went knowing full well the dangers and possibilities I might face. I also went having been briefed thoroughly by lawyers and other leaders of the American B'nai B'rith Jewish organization, which was working to free the Soviet Jews.

I will never forget one question and answer during that extensive briefing.

"What happens if we get arrested by the Soviets?" one of my traveling companions asked.

The lawyer leading the briefing gave an amazing answer: "Try to get word to me any way you can. I then will fly to where ever you are and use every legal skill I have and every resource I can muster to get you freed."

I found his words reassuring. If we got into trouble, he said emphatically neither he nor B'nai B'rith would leave us dangling at the far end of a long tether. They would be there for us. Fortunately, that adventure went off smoothly without any legal or political incident. I was able to write my series on the Refusniks--a series the Houston Chronicle nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

I doubt seriously that any Southern Baptist leader gave either the Chicagoans or the Idahoans such an assurance. SBC leaders often prompt their members to do things they later act like are merely the actions of "independent, autonomous church members".

Now is the time for SBC leaders to step forward and to take responsibility for their actions in preaching the message of "go" but not providing the proper training to keep missteps such as the ones in Haiti from happening. Better yet, some ranking SBC leader, who has been preaching the "go" message, ought to step up to the plate and volunteer to be imprisoned in the place of the 10 people now being held in that country.

With leadership goes responsibility for one's actions. Political as well as church leaders need never forget that fact.