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Most Southern Baptist Pastors are not Real Protestants
A report from George Barna and Associates reveals that many pastors supporting Republican politics have a false biblical worldview.
By Ed Knudson
A survey of Protestant pastors by George Barna and Associates demonstrates that what is called a "biblical worldview" is affirmed by over two-thirds of the pastors of the Southern Baptist denomination in the United States. But this worldview, as detailed in the report, does not correspond to the confession of the historic Protestant Church of the Reformation nor the orthodox tradition of the whole Christian church as understood in the Apostles Creed. This denomination has apparently created its own form of religion separate from the historic faith of the church of Jesus Christ. It is an Americanized religion which has politicized itself and thereby placed itself outside the traditional confession of global Christianity. It can no longer be called the largest Protestant church in the nation because it can no longer be called Protestant.
What the report called a "biblical worldview" is not biblical at all, but mostly a modern creation just in the past century. The report defines such a worldview "as believing that absolute moral truth exists, that it is based upon the Bible, and having a biblical view on six core beliefs (the accuracy of biblical teaching, the sinless nature of Jesus, the literal existence of Satan, the omnipotence and omniscience of God, salvation by grace alone, and the personal responsibility to evangelize)." Only one of these items represent a historic confession of Real Protestants.
Only twenty-seven percent of Methodist pastors affirmed this false biblical worldview, making them the most Protestant group of pastors among the seven denominational groups of the study. Only half (51%) of all Protestant pastors affirmed this worldview, but most of those were the Southern Baptists (71%), so that means the great majority of other Protestant pastors rejected this worldview, which means that most Protestant pastors, excluding the Southern Baptists, are, in effect, real Protestants, at least in terms of the limits of this particular study.
Though not all Southern Baptist laypeople agree with this worldview, it is that group's pastors who have adopted what is an alien conception of the Christian faith, alien to the history of Protestant orthodoxy. We will show this by discussion of each of the items making up what this study claims is the biblical worldview.
1) Absolute moral truth exists.
Only God is absolute in Christian faith. To place something other than God in the position of the absolute is a violation of the first commandment which says not to have any other gods before you. To claim that moral truth is absolute is a philosophical statement arising more from Greek philosophy than biblical faith. To claim anything is higher than God is blasphemy and heresy. It is to worship a false god. Seventy one percent of Southern Baptist pastors affirmed this statement, which means they apparently are teaching their people to worship a false God.
Notice that this statement comes first. That is because it is the battle cry of the fundamentalist movement which began at the end of the 19th century. Why it has become so important to Southern Baptists will be explained later.
There is a long debate within Christian history over the status of what is called "natural law," that is, that human beings apart from revelation can know moral truth. Roman Catholicism puts great stock in natural law but both of the primary Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, moderated that emphasis, especially Luther. He taught that there is a natural law knowable by all through reason wihout revelation, but it is clouded by sin, and Christians can claim no better knowledge of it than non-Christians. So, fundamentalists who claim that they are the only ones who know moral truth do not stand in the best traditions of Protestantism, they are not what we are calling here "Real Protestants". Real Protestants reject the claim of Rome or fundamentalism to be the final arbiters of what constitutes natural law or so-called absolute moral truth.
2) Absolute moral truth is based upon the Bible.
This is not a statement emerging from the actual bibilical worldview. The bible is not first and foremost a legal code or set of moral principles. It is a history of the faith of Hebrews and Christians. Moral behavior for Hebrews and Christians arises not from rules but from a relationship with God. The bible is constantly saying, "I am your God, you are my people." It is in that context of relationship that the ten commandments are given to the people, they do not float above the world as abstract philosophical principles.
The church through its history has made itself known through such brief statements as the Apostles Creed which is meant to be a summary of the biblical message. It is the creed, not "moral truth" that presents a biblical worldview. To claim otherwise is a massive distortion of the whole meaning of the bible.
The Apostles Creed begins first with a declaration of belief in God, not abstract moral truth: "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth."
In the bible Jesus fiercely opposes the Pharisees, a group that tried to enforce ritual and moral purity by instructing people to obey detailed religious codes. Jesus himself broke the rules and got in trouble. He summarized his moral perspective with the phrase "love God and neighbor," the neighbor meant the one who was different from one's self, the foreigner. Jesus brought a whole new spirit to morality, one based on loving relationship, not rules and codes by which to judge others. He specifically instructs his followers not to judge others but to love them. This is the spirit which the Protestant Reformation tried to recover from a church which itself had become at the time so powerful over the religious and moral life of the people. Current Southern Baptists and others of the religious right who answered this survey affirming these statements about absolute moral truth are like those Pharisees of old and the Roman church of the medieval age.
To misunderstand the "biblical worldview" and the primary message of Jesus and the Protestant Reformation means that these people are placing themselves outside the boundaries of the real fundamental meanings of Christian faith.
3) The accuracy of biblical teaching.
This is an innocuous statement by itself, but probably refers to the false view of the bible as inerrent, true in every moral and scientific detail. This is a mechanical view of the bible, as if it is like a machine, every part works perfectly with every other part, as if it dropped out of heaven fully formed. Anybody who actually sits down to read the whole bible sees it is book of history, not a book of laws or a scientific textbook. There is not one form of family life in the bible, for example, there are many social forms, there is a learning process throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The Christian Old Testament presents the hope for messiah fulfilled in the New Testament with Jesus, the news of which is called the "gospel message," the good news of God's love in sending Jesus into the world. To say this is "accurate" as if it is something to be grasped by reason is to miss the whole nature of the message which can only be received through faith.
It should be noted that this mechanical view of the bible emerged only in the modern debate between the faith and science in the late 19th and early 20th century. Those who maintain this view are stuck in the intellectual presuppostions of that period. Most of the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have moved far beyond that debate. In fact, the real Protestant tradition has importantly encouraged and opened itself to the results of scientific study. There is nothing in the Apostles Creed about this mechanical view of the bible, it is not a historic confession of the church. The real church confesses Christ, not the accuracy of a book.
And Martin Luther clearly says that what's important about the bible is not the moral law as given to Moses but the gospel message of Jesus which results in love of neighbor. To use the bible to falsely attack others on the basis of morality or science is a complete negation of the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
4) The sinless nature of Jesus.
This item claimed for the "biblical worldview" comes out of the debate over the divinity and humanity of Christ which has severely divided the church at major periods. The statement accents the divinity of Christ over his humanity and whenever this is done, whenever one is placed over-against the other rather than both together, that is a heresy.
This statement about sinlessness is not in the Apostles Creed. What is in the creed is that Jesus "was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary..." Now, modern folks have difficulty with the "virgin" part of this, the way Mary was conceived with Jesus. But at the time the Apostles Creed was being formulated, maybe the eighth century or so, the real problem was not the divinity of Jesus, that idea was in people's consciousness at the time. The real problem was the "Mary" part of the creed, that is, that a divine Jesus could be born of a human Mary. It was a material, physical Jesus, a real human Jesus, that was the problem because of an eclectic religion called Gnosticism at the time which devalued material creation. Gnosticism rejected that Jesus could be born of a human Mary. So the creed should be read actually as an affirmation of the human Jesus as much as a divine Jesus.
So anyone who would say yes to this statement of Jesus' sinlessness and his divinity, without also affirming a statement about his humanity, is placing a wrong emphasis on one side of the fullness of Jesus. But this is what the Southern Baptists have done by raising this issue so high on their list of priorities, their new creed which they use to distinquish themselves from other Christians. In fact, to do so in this way is to remove themselves from the historic confession of the church. The gnostics believed the material world was evil, God could not become a part of it. The Apostles Creed states by saying "virgin Mary" that the material world is so good that God can become a part of it directly. Not to so confess means that the Southern Baptists and others who affirmed this item in the survey are actually gnostic heretics, outside the historic confession of the church.
5) The literal existence of Satan.
This is a statement claiming the ontological reality of evil in the form of something or someone called "Satan." To claim the "literal existence" of something means to claim some realm where this something lives and moves and has its being. There is no such statement in the Apostles Creed, the creed just assumes a realm into which Jesus descended called "hell" but exactly what that means in an onotological sense is one of the most contested issues in theology and has been a very long time. The bible is simply not clear about the origins of evil, whether evil was a part of God or God's heaven and the devil is a fallen angel, or whether the devil was spontaneously generated or whether evil is a force within the world which can only be grasped symbolically. There are many different views within the biblical narrative, and within the history of the church.
Martin Luther lived with a very lively concept of the devil but he also believed that the descent of Jesus into hell was also a sign of the power of God conquering the power of evil. For him, the battle with the devil occurred inside his own consciousness and "one little word" of the gospel "fells" the devil as Luther writes in a hymn. Finally Luther lived with a sense of the cosmic victory of God over the forces of evil which redeemed the possibility of the fullness of life in the world. There are many ways to talk about this.
But what does it serve to lift up one answer to the question of evil as the criterion of what makes for a true biblical worldview, that the devil literally exists in onotological form? The Southern Baptists apparently feel they are the ones who themselves have come together to decide that their view is the only view. I do not remember reading where Jesus uses such a belief as the criterion of whether he would accept someone into his community of faith.
Much more important is what one considers actually to constitute evil in the world today. Southern Baptists call names, they have called secular humanists evil, they see abortion as an evil based on a false reading of science, they see the changing role of women in society as an evil. Well, I would see racism and segregation as evils, hysterical nationalism as an evil, militaristic imperialism as evil. On what basis can the church as a whole come together and define these matters? The fact is that the Southern Baptists and others on the religious right have rejected the ecumenical movement in this country and around the world, they have refused to participate in this movement and created for themselves their own view of what Christianity means, and that view is, as we are seeing, not in the true heritage of either the Protestant Reformation or Roman Catholicism. I will claim below the Southern Baptists have created their "biblical worldview" not from the bible but from their cultural experience in this country
6) The omnipotence and omniscience of God.
These two terms come not from the bible but from Greek philosophy, referring to God as all-powerful and all-knowing. It is actually quite strange that an American denomination would put into its creed something like this, especially one which claims to follow the bible. These words are not in the Apostles Creed, which presents a three-person understanding of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If people reject the revelation of God in the bible then, of course, they often make up their own idea of God from other sources, or their own imagination. We should realize that a concept of God is not God, God is, in real Christian faith, always other and beyond any particular concept of God. A "concept" of God is a philosophical proposition, not a revealed truth of the bible. The bible doesn't really speculate about God, it just tells what God does, and that God is most fully revealed in a person, Jesus Christ. To know God is not to philosophically contemplate eternal absolutes but to get close to Jesus Christ.
So what does this mean that Southern Baptists want to emphasize so highly that God is powerful? Well, my own suspicion is that they associate God and country, a big powerful God complements the idea of a big and powerful country. It is, in a phrase, "religious nationalism." The Southern Baptists have lost their faith in the true God and placed their faith in the god of false nationalism. The nation itself has become their god. This is a big claim and cannot be fully demonstrated here but it does follow from the notion of a big and powerful god.
The bible speaks about God in ways that maintain the holiness of God, as out and away from human understanding in any complete way. In the bible God is always surprising human beings. Jesus himself is always surprising his disciples, it takes them a long time to figure him out, if they ever do. The church can talk some about the Trinity, as the Apostles Creed does, but it is far from a complete and fully satisfying explanation of God. Both of the major Protestant reformers held to a very high sense of the distance of God from human beings, the holiness and set-apartness of God. God is other than the world and corresponds to nothing in the world which is why there should be no graven images made of God. Hebrews were careful not even to name God. Those who speak of God in such easy-going ways as if they can claim to know absolutely what or who God is are not placing themselves in the tradition of historic Protestantism. That is especially true of the pentecostal movement, more so than the Baptist movement, but both have some tendancy to claim more from their "experience" of God than is warranted by real Protestant theology.
In fact, the bible speaks of the kenosis of God, the self-emptying of the power of God revealed in Jesus and on the Cross, the very image of powerlessness. Luther talks about God as hidden other than as revealed in Jesus on the Cross. The full meanings of this should be the stuff of great wonder rather than quick claims of knowledge of the divine reality. Recent theology even speaks of the kenosis of God in creation, that by creating the world God is creating that which is intentionally beyond God's control so God can be surprised by what the world becomes. God gives up omnipotence and omniscience in creation. Such a view explains how it is possible for human beings to have been able to create contemporary cities and civilizations. The old idea of mechanical providence is a 19th century notion of God which no longer makes any sense, except for those Southern Baptists who want to remain in that century rather than accept responsibility for preaching the real gospel into the society of today.
7) Salvation by grace alone.
Finally we reach the one item which does, indeed, represent the central theme of Reformation theology for both Luther and Calvin. But this one negates all the others. That is, salvation is by the grace of a loving God alone, not by moral works, not be intellectual works, not by having the correct view of God, not by any human action at all. The Roman church had by Luther's time built up a huge system of religious oppression by which the people were dominated in hearts, minds, and lives by the demands of the church. The church was enriching itself and building big cathedrals by literally selling salvation. Luther's ninety-five theses nailed to the church door in 1517 opposed this religious oppression and began a huge debate and conflict in the church.
His Heidelburg Disputation later attacked the whole philosophical grounding of medieval theology and opened the church to a new spirit of preaching the gospel to ordinary folks freeing them to live their lives in the community in service to neighbor. He urged monks and nuns to leave their cloisters and go into the world to do some honest work building up the community and thus began the process of what we today call "secularization." He urged a separation of law and love, law was the province of the government, since it is finally based on the power of violence, and love the province of the church since God is revealed in Jesus Christ as not a violent but a loving God. The church has no business telling the government how to govern since God gives wisdom to all, some more than others, but not based on whether or not a person is a Christian.
So here we need to call the Southern Baptist pastors to focus on this most important Reformation principle, salvatin through the grace of God alone. But to affirm this principle is to give up all the others in their so-called biblical worldview.
8) The personal responsibility to evangelize.
There is no question that when a person receives the gospel of God's love the response is to be able to love the neighbor. But to phrase this as "personal responsibility" is to miss the main dynamic in the first place. God acts first and human beings are able to respond, they are "response-able" because of what God has already done for them. This is what can be called "living in the power of the Spirit," the spirit of a loving God. That is not rules, rules often get in the way, though they are always needed to some degree since human beings are always failing to fully live in the spirit of God's love. What is lifted up in the gospel is the possibility of a new way to live and that is why it is necessary to preach the gospel again and again inside and outside the church.
But I am not sure this is what is meant by this survey item to "evangelize." This is a technical term for the religious right and it tends to mean to go and dominate the hearts and minds of people in the ways indicated by the other survey items, to preach morality rather than Jesus, to promote Greek philosophical notions of God rather than the loving God, to claim they know what is right and wrong for everyone else to do rather than participate with the ecumenical church in the constructive formation of a gospel and ethics for our times based on the bible and confessions of chuch history.
The problem for Baptists is this: they have boiled everything down to what they call making a personal decision for Christ, as in the Billy Graham crusades. Graham is Southern Baptist and the model for evangelizing. Graham himself has moderated his message and his worldview which at one time was a hostile anti-Communism. He was a chaplain of the Cold War, preaching that the communists would send nuclear bombs to drop on New York and Los Angeles unless American turned to Christ. It was such preaching that associated accepting Christ with nationalism and it was, and is, a heresy. God, the maker of all nations, can not be associated with one nation. This kind of evangelizing has become a major problem in a world where the United States has become the dominating power and is tempted to use its power in ways that kill and destroy the lives of others and steal from them.
Making a personal decision for Christ, then, also focused not on justification by faith alone but on the power of each individual to make a decision. This, of course, is the classic idea of liberalism, the freedom of the individual to choose, but Baptists have raised it up as the central tenent of their faith. Calling themselves conservative today, they are really hyper-liberals, thinking that salvation depends not on the grace of God but the decision of the individual. The decision of the individual is totally efficacious. This is not the historic faith of Protestantism of either Luther or Calvin.
The Southern Baptists have created their own god. Mark Noll tells the story in his long book called America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, not only about the Baptists, but for all Protestants. In the last three or four decades the primary Protestant denominations have been seeking ways to retrieve their heritage in the Reformation. But the Southern Baptists and Pentecostals have found themselves favored by certain political and economic institutions and thus become the dominating presence in the religious culture of this country. The history of the Cold War is central to understanding how this came about. But there is one other most significant factor.
To get at this let me ask the reader to feel along with me here. Let's say I come up to you and say to you that you are doing something morally wrong, and you believe what you are doing is right. You would be angry with me, say, for making a moral judgment about you. But what if I have the power over you to also force you to change your behavior. You may change, but you are going to be then very, very angry with me.
That is what the North has done to the South, first in the Civil War, then in the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The South was forced to change its ways of segregation by the power of the federal government. People in the North have no idea what a trauma it has been for white citizens of the South, a trauma that is, indeed, still be played out in the politics of the country today.
Furthermore, it is the Southern Baptist denomination which is the primary social vehicle through which the anger of the South has been carried into the politics of the country. They have been so angry over this that they have created their own "moral" framework, their own "biblical worldview" with which to attack the earlier dominant forms of northern Protestantism in this country which supported the civil rights movement. They have done this in a way to capture the meaning of patriotism and nationalism which is equated with their own views of "absolute moral truth" which is opposed to the prevailing standards which have developed in northern culture and educational institutions. They oppose science, they oppose higher education, they oppose what they call secular humanism in public schools, they oppose everything the federal government stands for since it was the whole northern culture and federal government which forced them to change their practices of segregation. The preaching of "absolute moral truth" of the Southern Baptists is the way they are getting back at the North for what they believe the North has done to them. This is the reason that the "biblical worldview" in this survey is so far from the historic Protestant faith as we have seen in this article.
It is time to see this clearly, to expose these non-Protestants who continue to strongly exert their influence in the politics of the country. The Republican Party has adopted the Southern Baptists as its own religious expression along with others who hold to the false biblical worldview. The whole South turned Republican after the Supreme Court forced integration in schools in 1954 and the civil rights legislation the 1960s. The South hates the Supreme Court and the power of the federal government. They hate paying taxes which support schools for black children. The abortion and gay rights issues are fueled by the anger of defeated racism. Real Protestants who have been Republicans, no matter their particular church, need to either work to change the Republican Party or must now separate themselves from it. The Republican Party is itself practicing a false form of religious faith, outside both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. It is time to stand up to this new alien form of religion that no longer can be called real Protestantism.
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