Sunday, June 20, 2010

Promises that shouldn't have been made

The following is a basic synopsis of a paper I wrote for a Spiritual Formation class I took through Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  I was, for a time, a student in their Semlink program, which I highly recommend for anyone pursuing graduate theological education.  Even if you intend to residence and graduate elsewhere, take 20-30 hours from GCTS.  Make sure most of it will transfer, but the added viewpoint will be of great value.  Especially for us Baptists---get a little bit from outside. 

Anyway, the paper had to do with a case study book we were using for the course.  The book featured various cases of situations that ministers were facing, whether personal or professional.  Many of them dealt with the crisis that happens when those two collide.  I selected a case study dealing with a minister that had gone through a divorce, and had been vaguely promised re-instatement of his ministry credentials after a certain time.

The minister, and the study called him "Pete," had stepped away from ministry after his divorce, and had been given certain steps he had to follow to be reinstated.  These were prescribed by his denominational supervisors.  (See why Baptists need to look outside a bit?  Most Baptist preachers will have nightmares about their Associational Missionary being able to suspend their ordination!)  At the end of the steps, done throughout 3 years, Pete was supposed to be eligible to receive his ordination back and be allowed to seek a place of ministry within the same group of churches.  The case study ended with Pete sitting outside the closed door meeting that was deciding if he should receive his credentials back and be allowed to return to ministry.

I had to answer whether Pete should be reinstated.  Why I felt that way.  What went wrong with the situation, how to handle it now, and how to prevent it.  This was, naturally, a challenge to deep South Southern Baptist.  Why?

We, typically, don't hold with divorced and remarried men in the pastorate.  Especially when the divorce happened while they were pastoring.  We're so certain of this that our seminaries are very hesitant to admit divorced students, and the one I intend just won't.  Not will maybe sometimes, will not.  At all.  And I agree with this viewpoint.  I think that the simple, plain reading of 1 Timothy and Titus give support to the viewpoint, and that the Lord Jesus Christ also had strong words prohibiting divorce.  I think that in modern American culture, with our convenient marriages and more convenient divorces, we should, as Christian ministers, marry in obedience to the Word and stay married in obedience to that Word, while behaving in marriage according to the Word.

So, naturally, my first thought is that Pete shouldn't be reinstated.  Pete's not qualified for the ministry.  He's not disqualified from the Kingdom, just from the pulpit.

Yet this was about more than Pete.  This was about a council of ministers and their word.  They told Pete he could preach again, even with the divorce.  They gave their word.  They shouldn't have done so.  The pulpit, the preaching of the Word, is not man's to give or take.  It is God's to give, and God's to take.  Man may be used by God to hold the people in the pulpit accountable, but the authority comes from the Word, not from anyone's preferences.  A minister that violates God's Word should be held accountable by God's people and removed.  A minister that isn't as exciting as you'd like or doesn't tickle your ears isn't yours to remove.  It's a line, not so fine of one as some would make it.

But they gave their word.  It doesn't matter if they actually "promised" or "vowed."  We're not supposed to be promising people, rather we are to be people of the promise, and people whose yes means yes and no means no.

The people of Israel, in Joshua 9, did the same thing.  They promised peace to the Gibeonites, though God had told them not to make peace with the people of the land.  Yet their promise was binding.  It was binding before God and man, whether it should have been made or not.

Likewise, I felt the district council had to reinstate Pete.  They had given their word.  Now, I think Pete should have disqualified himself from preaching roles, though probably not support roles, but that wasn't the point.  Though the promise shouldn't have been made, it should be kept.

Why bring this up?  Last week at the SBC, we had a discussion about promises that were made by a committee of the convention.  They promised to keep secrets related to their work.  As a result, they made some suggestions regarding changes in the SBC, and I believe more changes will come from this opening round.  Yet this group will not share any of the information that went into their processes, based on the promises they made.  An effort was made to compel the information, which I felt was ill-guided.  True, the promises should never have been made.  We're a convention of independent churches, and to ask pastors their opinions of denominational structure should have been risk-free, as no one in the structure can do anything to retaliate.  All of the agency heads that were affected by the change had already announced their intended departure. 

However, a promise was made to certain people.  It therefore became necessary to be a promise kept.  However, in an attempt to bridge the gap, I made an effort to moderate both positions, suggesting that the information be reviewed by 2 members of the committee and outside legal counsel (because attorneys can generally keep secrets, what with the threat of disbarment and all), and what was not promised as privileged be released.  This attempt failed.  The attempt to compel all the information failed as well.

The problem comes in that, when promises are made, there are sometimes tough decisions about keeping those promises.  Whether they should have been made or not, as God's people we've got to honor our word.  However, we must learn that, in the process, it may cost us and others dearly.  In Pete's case, I think the cost is the credibility of the pastorate and the denomination.  In Joshua's case, the Israelites had to fight a war to defend the Gibeonites, then some of Saul's offspring died because of Saul's attempt to break the promise.  In the case of the SBC, it will depend greatly on how those who made promises act in coming days.  If it is obvious they are not hiding an agenda or anything else, then all will be well.  They are only being people of their word. 

What promises do you make?  How often do you give your word?  Have you thought through the long-term impact of your word?  Anyone willing to share a time that keeping your word caused unintended consequences?



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