Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Fellow Baptists, What Next?

So, not that enough people will read this for it to make a difference, but somewhere I need to flesh out where I think we are, currently, as Southern Baptists, especially on the area of responding to the cascading numbers of sexual abuse reports in our fellowship of churches. It is an area that I have learned a lot more about in the last decade and I have, most likely, said things in other venues that I am about to contradict. 

But as I heard today, attributed to Maya Angelou, "When you learn better, do better." The guy who shared the quote may have gotten it not right, but I think the principle is valid. I am learning better. I need to do better.

And this goes double for us as Southern Baptists.

What is the nature of the problem?

Quite frankly, it is this: we have far too many men in positions of authority within Southern Baptist life who have used that position to sexually abuse people they have authority over. While it is true that "one is too many," one can be an anomaly. We have enough of this that shows we have a systemic problem: if 1 person in your hospital gets a staph infection, such things happen, it is tragic, and you do your best to care for that one person.

If 1 person in 500 gets a staph infection, you start looking for where the system is breaking. And you care for those people. Since we can start pointing to statistics that show numbers of abusers, and repeated incidents of abuse by the same perpetrator, we have a broken system. 

One of the major problems we have, though, is how to handle the highly independent nature of every SBC-affiliated church. We are built, historically, on the idea that individual churches can tell the cooperative system what to do, but they cannot tell each other what to do--and neither can the system. It's structured that way so that a failure in one church does not bring the whole thing down. It's structured that way because, initially, there were not communications practices that enabled doing anything more. What are you going to do about a church in West Texas if you are a church in Virginia, and it took 3 months to get information? Or to follow up with questions? 

You just could not. Our legacy is distributed work. That, however, has made it very possible for predatory individuals to easily slide from end of the SBC to another and evade responsibility. Those who do so with utter stealth may be beyond catching.

The real problem has been when churches and cooperative organizations have enabled those types of moves. Sometimes quite overtly: a seminary actively trying to silence testimony against a star student, a publishing company terminating a victim for being a distraction, a church "planting" another church to send out a predator, just to get him away from his first victims.

And then the further actions of collectively helping to keep these problems quiet. We've done that through bad training over the years. One aspect of Baptist ministry training is this: most of our classes in seminaries are fact-based: Biblical Studies, languages, theology studies. The practical courses are very direct skillsets: how to preach, how to make a budget, how to think you're an effective counselor when you probably aren't (not the actual course title). 

The nuts and bolts of how to handle a sexual abuse accusation? That learning comes from hands-on lessons from other pastors, whether mentors or associational folks or denominational leadership. So, while we can readily get the latest edition of Steps to the Sermon and so pick up how to make digital slides alongside our exegesis, we are still dealing with sexual abuse issues by word-of-mouth training from generations past. 

And we did not handle it right in generations past.

So we keep recycling the same issue: a predator comes along, eventually someone brings an accusation, and then...the system tries to protect the reputation of the church, the denomination, the pastors that have enabled and encouraged the predator (not in his predatory behavior, just in his ministry overall). And to do that, we put our cooperative effort into crushing the person who had to put herself (and himself) together enough to bring that accusation.

Then it makes the news, we look to someone in leadership to address it, apologies are made, committees formed, and nothing happens. This has never been good enough, but too many of us normal Baptist preachers have been willing to fade back and hope there's a better result someday. Making waves hurts our chance of being on cool committees or preaching annual meetings or getting help from the Important Baptists when we need it for our church or for our own job advancement.

This cannot continue. We have enough blood on our hands simply for our inaction. I have enough on mine simply for suggesting we stick with the slow process for the last 15 years. Time to say some things; eventually, when I find them, time to do some things. Here they are:

What do we do about it?

First and foremost: we need to use our cooperative system, work with experts in the field of providing restorative care to victims and survivors, and provide for their needs. We cannot claim that we are only supposed to fund "mission" when we are also crushing people. There are ways to figure that out--constantly we are told inside the SBC that our seminaries are filled with the brightest minds in all of evangelical life. We constantly have things to say claiming to hold the solution to every other problem in America.

We either need to acknowledge we're not that bright or use our brainpower to fix our problems. This one ought to come first: bandage the wounded. And do so in a manner that is driven by what is best for them, not what is best for us. We may expose ourselves to liability by doing the right thing. Better that than leaving a trail of victims in our wake.

Second, we need to revamp our cooperative systems to cooperate to lock predators out of churches. That will require using some standards to determine what constitutes "predatory behavior." Again, we claim to have a great deal of brain power. Surely we can do this, right?

And remember: someone can use position and perception and authority in ways that violate another person's ability to make free choices. In some churches, pastors are seen as having that authority. I have served in churches where there were other members who held that authority--and in fact, while not being sexually abusive, were spiritually abusive even toward the pastor's family--but the perception of power is what matters here. We claim to not have authority in our churches, but while that may be the way we talk, it is not the way we act.

This will require more open information sharing. Yes, that means more people will know about our mess. At this point, though, the only people that do not know are those willfully ignorant or who will not care anyway. It's past time for the sweet little old ladies who have raised millions for the SBC to know what's been done with some of it.

Third, we need to find a way to use our cooperative systems to have updated, mandatory training on dealing with matters like sexual abuse. And not presented by the same good ole boy network that currently delivers 90% of the post-seminary training in the SBC: this should not be done with the "well, you know, whatever" attitude that usually shows up in associational and denominational gatherings. Our failures here are harming people now and harming our ability to make disciples.

We are killing people and killing our witness but won't take it seriously. Instead, most of our together time is the same old self-congratulatory, "We're awesome" talk it always has been.

I do not have all the solutions, but I know this: we're not going to find them with the same leadership that has perpetuated them. The same systems that have victimized people will have to be radically rebuilt to prevent it from continuing to happen. If we keep looking to the same "great men of the SBC" that we have looked to for decades, we will continue to do it all again, and again, and again.

And if we do that, the least of our worries will be civil judgments and social media outrages. The Lord God Almighty may have patience, but He will not tolerate this forever.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Sermon Addendum: John the Baptizer

This past Sunday's sermon was focused on John the Baptist, or as the NET translates his tag: John the Baptizer. There could be several volumes written about John, even without trying to fill in details with some imagination. Historical fiction works could get really crazy with developing a hold plotline around his life, because there is so little narrative material around him.

What we do have are some Old Testament prophecies about God sending a "messenger" ahead of the Messiah, then the short moments shown in the Gospels. Those promises seem vague, as they occur sporadically across the Old Testament prophetic material--and that only if you count Exodus as being prophetic material! 

One of the passages, Malachi 3, that is seen as a promise of a forerunner to the coming Messiah is kind of interesting in its translation: the phrase "my messenger" can also be translated as a name, and that name is "Malachi." So the promise that Malachi reports is the promise that God will send..."Malachi." 

And yes, I do think the Lord Almighty does pun occasionally for the fun of it. You may not think so, but that's between you and Him.

What we do know is that the time of Malachi is 400 years, roughly, before the time of John. Isaiah is about 700 years, and the Exodus is around 1400 years prior to the time of John. That's a long time to wait. And yet wait, the people did. Some of them did not wait well--they jumped into this, that, or the other. Some folks came along claiming to be the promised messenger, claiming to be Elijah returned--but none of them were. In truth, no one really held John to hold that role until Jesus clarified that in Matthew 11.

Is there a lesson there? Yes. Do what God puts in front of you, and let God define who you are. That's not the easiest piece of advice to follow, but it is valuable to consider.

A side note about the promised return of Elijah: it is promised in Malachi 4, but that is the only location. Further, it should not be taken as any sort of odd one-off moment in the Bible suggesting reincarnation. Instead, remember that Elijah is recorded as being taken away behind a chariot of fire (reread 2 Kings 2, Elijah goes in a windstorm, the fiery chariot is what separates Elijah and Elisha), so he is considered to have not actually died. The idea was that he would return, not be reborn. Reincarnation never shows up in the Bible.

Now, other tidbits on John the Baptizer: well, let's take the "Baptizer" in translation vs. the traditional "Baptist." What's the difference? The latter reads like an identity group: we have churches that are labeled "Baptist," we talk about "I'm a Baptist," and so forth. "Baptizer," though, reads like an action that someone participates in: John is one who is known for baptizing, not one who joined a Baptist group. After all, there are many who are members of a Baptist group that have never baptized someone. (Or consider "Baptist Hospital" which does not, in fact, baptize people.)

As a lifelong credo-baptist, one who believes that the religious action of baptism involves completely immersing a willing believer, I will lose some Baptist Points for this, but honesty compels me to admit that, at times, the Greek word which becomes "baptize" refers to ceremonial washing of various sorts, so pouring water over the head of an individual or other methods may be involved. Still, I think the full-body dunk is the best approach.

One last note on the whole shebang: we see Mark 1 reflect that the Biblical authors were often not as careful with their citations as we would like in our setting. Mark compresses three different verses and authors to make the quote he ascribes to Isaiah. Is that wrong? No, it would have been well-understood by his original audience. Those of us with Logos Bible Software may like more precision, but we have digital search functions to keep it all straight. 

That's some add-on thoughts for the sermon!

Monday, December 11, 2023

Sermon Recap December 11 2023

Sermons! Get your sermons here!

If I were to use AI, it would be to automate this part of my week. This is just a monotonous part of the process that ties up time. I'd love to be able to build the skills to write a program to just take the raw file, make the audio file, the video file, upload them, and generate the boilerplate text that introduces sermons in the blog page. 

Since I do not know where to learn that, it's on me to publish and sometimes...I'm not so good at that!

If you track the YouTube channel, you can find any sermons I haven't linked here. The LibSyn Player will automatically pull up audio.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Book: 40 Questions about Bible Translation


40 Questions About Bible Translation by Mark L. Strauss is another entry in the incredibly useful 40 Questions series from Kregel Academic. The series aim, overall, is to provide essentially a FAQ section on the given Title Topic. Entries include questions about the text of the New Testament, other religions, ministry patterns, and issues in Biblical interpretation. This is a handy series to have on-hand, whether you have it on your shelf or in print. The works are, naturally, all in print, and most are available for Kindle or your Logos Library.

The specific focus for today is the volume on Bible Translation. Now, I should start by being clear that all the ins-and-outs of Bible translation are the pursuit of years, but this is meant to be an introduction and explanation of some of the basic information. Mark L. Strauss, author, is a New Testament scholar and is on the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version. His other works include introductory textbooks on the Gospels and works on Biblical interpretation and translation. He is a qualified scholar for this subject. (Unless, of course, you're a partaker of the King James Only view of English Bible translation, but if so, you're not going to like this book.)

First, I would note that about a dozen of the questions and answers are English-specific, so these are not as helpful for non-English speakers. However, the rest of the book is broadly-based and applies to any language. There is value here for understanding missional work that groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators are involved with, and what the challenge is for that work. 

Second, each of the question/answer sections is followed up with comprehension questions. Strauss is a professor, after all, and there's nothing like a good quiz to make sure you got the point. 

The organization of the book moves from broad questions, like "Why do we need Bible translation?" to the final question, the quite specific and thorny, "What is the Controversy in Translating 'Son of God' in Muslim Contexts?," the latter being one you may have heard something about even in mainstream media, though it bears little impact on how you read your Bible in English.

Strauss approaches the entirety of the work from a perspective that respects the Bible as the Word of God, but acknowledges that people's hands have been on it and therefore, some parts of its transmission and translation may be problematic. He does not delve deeply into textual criticism or the more in-depth questions of just what Greek verb tenses are doing, but provides enough initial insight to help the reader understand why you cannot just make a one-to-one word swap to translate. He also provides the best short-form answer on textual criticism I have seen, and one that I will be using next time the question comes up in the church I pastor.

I would definitely put this more in the undergraduate student or deep Bible study participant category than I would in the "just buy copies and give them out at church" category. The information is well-presented, but it does presume some basic working knowledge of New Testament studies. There are places where some help connecting to other materials will be necessary, so a group setting is the ideal usage here. 

And, on a personal aside, we do get the necessary mention of the Venerable Bede on page 205 as well as Caedmon! The chapter on Earliest English Bible translations looks great to me, but I'm partial to that area as my first research paper was on pre-Reformation English Bible translations. So I'm always happy to see these familiar friends and to read scholars restate what I wrote back then, because I like knowing I was right. (it was all footnoted facts, hard to get wrong ;) )

This may be the last book I review here--I'm rethinking my blog and don't really have the traffic to claim I'm worth the freebies--but it is necessary to note Kregel Publications gave me this in exchange for a committed review. Am I positive? I am, because I get to choose the books I review and the publishers, and I've yet to find a bad part of this series. So...main point is that I did get the book free.

Sermon Recap for June 9 2024

 Good morning! Here is yesterday's sermon from Mt. Olive Baptist Church