Moral Licensing in the SBC?

You are on a diet. For the past week you’ve been exercising like a professional athlete and eating nothing but rabbit food. Then you walk by a kid selling strawberry pies. You buy three of them hoping to share with your family. You eat all three. But you justify this by saying, “I’ve done so good on my diet that I deserve to cheat a little”.

Sociologists have coined a term for this behavior. It is called moral licensing. And it extends to far more than just eating strawberry pie while on a diet. Studies have found that when we humans do something that we consider a good deed rather than backing that up with more good deeds we tend to go the other way and give ourselves permission to do something less than favorable.

I first learned about this concept listening to Malcom Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History. Gladwell weaves together stories of outsiders who broke through a barrier only to have the door closed behind them. Rather than seeing the door remain open what often happens is that accepting one “outsider” serves as justification for the status quo to close the door again. There are exceptions to the rule, like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the MLB, but more often than not the door closes after an one outsider breaks through.

I’ve been wondering a bit lately about where the SBC will land on this issue. In my mind we face a bit of a crossroads as a denomination. We have seen significant growth over the past decade in terms of racial reconciliation. In 2012 Fred Luter was nominated as the SBC’s first African-American president. Was this opening a door for wider representation by minorities or will this serve as a license to slowly shut that door?

I’m a nobody with only one set of eyes, so take my observations for what they are worth. Yet, I must voice my concern that I see and hear a bit of moral licensing. I hear folks touting voting records on resolutions, raising a ballot for Fred Luter, and the like. What I’m hearing is the ol’, “I have a black friend, so I cannot be racist” schtick. It’s really no more than giving ourselves permission to not look deeper into potential vestiges of racism. It’s blinding our eyes to the pervasive whiteness on our committees and our stages.

In my opinion, a massive part of the problem with the recent dust-up concerning the alt-right resolution was the lack of minority representation on the resolutions committee. Our resolutions committee absolutely misread the situation and the importance of this resolution. I cannot help but think had there been more representation by minorities that the committee would have had a better read on our need to bring this to the floor.

Then we heard the names of those appointed to a personal soul-winning, evangelism task force. Look at the list of names. Notice a trend? The group is mostly comprised of white seminarians and white mega-church pastors. The wise words of Walter Strickland (our newly elected 1VP) are not being heeded, “Superior theological development results from the diverse collection of the church (across ages, genders, races, and cultures) rather than from an individual or believers isolated in their cultural context”. (Removing the Stain, 58)

There is one other thing I’ve noticed in the past few years that has me both encouraged and discouraged. I am happy to see more representation by minorities on our panel discussions. But I’m also discouraged that for the most part the only questions they are asked on these panels are questions related to race. To me this reeks of moral licensing. We are doing the good deed of having at least one minority represented on our panel and then giving ourselves license to not do the greater thing of considering them intellectual equals and asking for their perspective on significant theological issues not related to race.

In order to move forward we must be intentional about representation on our boards. This is not virtue signaling or affirmative action. It is about intentionality. It is about recognizing that unless I’m intentional about not doing this I will look at a pool of people and pick those who look like me and think just like I do.

I’m encouraged that the way forward has already been modeled by the 2017 Pastor’s Conference and hopefully will continue with H.B. Charles at the helm in 2018. We were blessed by hearing from a diverse selection of voices. We need this to continue. I was part of that selection process, and we had to be intentional about pursuing diversity. We had a pool of many qualified men to preach. We could have easily filled it with 12 white guys who were gifted preachers. We could have just as easily filled it with 12 minorities. But we chose to be intentional about hearing from many different voices.

Until a healthier balance is achieved we have to look at every committee and board and make certain that we have a diversity. We cannot let things like the 2017 resolutions committee misreading that alt-right resolution happen again. We cannot pretend that we are going to get the best ideas on personal evangelism and soul-winning when we are mostly leaving out smaller churches and minorities from having a voice. And why not have a panel of nothing but minority Southern Baptists talking to us about something like ecclessiology or pneumatology? Why not intentionally do something like this?

Here’s to praying that the open door or racial reconciliation and minority representation/leadership swings open wide and doesn’t slowly begin to close by way of moral licensing.

Should We Move On From Talking About Our Racist Past?

In 1845, when the American Baptist Home Mission Society, refused the nomination of James Reeve (a slaveholder) the seeds were planted for the birth of a new denomination. By May 1845 white delegates from the deep South gathered (293 in all) together and formed a new mission society—The Southern Baptist Convention. Yes, our beloved denomination was founded because our forefathers wanted to own slaves. Al Mohler is even more pointed when he says:

In fact, the SBC was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument. (Williams & Jones, 3)

We Southern Baptists have a racist past. We cannot get around this fact. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the SBC, the messengers overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning racism and apologizing for our past. So is that the end of the story? We asked for forgiveness—now is it up to our African American brothers to grant this forgiveness and bury the past in the past? Shouldn’t we just move on at this point and work towards the future?

Certainly it takes two parties to live in full reconciliation. Unless someone asks for forgiveness and the other person grants that forgiveness you cannot live in reconciliation. But this issue is a bit less black and white (pardon the pun). None of those presently living can truly apologize for the sins of our ancestors past. Nor can another group of people accept that apology. Reconciliation will be a bit more complex than simply passing a resolution and burying our past in the past.

But I want to make an argument today that for the glory of God we should not even want to bury our past in the past. And I want to use the words of a former slave ship captain to make this point.

John Newton was haunted by his past. Nothing he could do could remove the stain of racism that was on his life. Even though he passionately fought to end the slave trade in Europe, Newton was still haunted by the screams which came from the slave ships he captained. On one particular occasion Newton was asked in a letter about how folks could have happiness in heaven when we are fully aware of our sins in the past. This is Newton’s response (and keep in mind that his own involvement with slavery is likely on his mind):

I think those are the sweetest moments in this life, when we have the clearest sense of our own sins, provided the sense of our acceptance in the Beloved is proportionally clear, and we feel the consolations of his love, notwithstanding all our transgressions. When we arrive in glory, unbelief and fear will cease forever: our nearness to God, and communion with him, will be unspeakably beyond what we can now conceive. Therefore the remembrance of our sins will be no abatement of our bliss, but rather the contrary. (Read entire letter here)

When the gospel redeems (and is still further redeeming) an issue in our past we do not want to bury it. We tend to want to bury sins which aren’t yet fully repented of or perhaps those sins which still carry the burden of shame. We want to bury what isn’t yet healed. But our racist past is a stain which Christ is in the process of removing. And every time we see racial reconciliation taking place it is fitting for the glory of God for us to be brutally honest about our past. No need to gloss over it and pretend like our ancestors were not engaging in “scandalous theological argument”. The light of Christ shines bright against our darkened past.

We don’t get sick of hearing about our racist past because we are confident in the provision of Christ. We don’t encourage folks to move on because we see our own sinfulness as a door way to savoring Christ even more. We encourage the light to shine upon our racist hearts (yes, racism for folks of any color of skin). We welcome the “clearest sense of our own sins” because we know it will only further glorify the God who can redeem and rescue such wicked hearts. We don’t tire of fighting for racial reconciliation because we love seeing the work of Jesus.

I’ve still much learning to do in this area, but I’m thankful that no matter how deep things like racism have settled into areas of my heart I know that Christ is always deeper and always sweeter. Even though we might be shocked at what we find in our hearts—he never is. And once He has captivated our hearts they belong to him. In that we can rejoice no matter what is dug up from our past. This and this alone is the foundation of our union with one another.

A Community Built On Grievance Will Never Last

We are community makers.

I see this in my daughter all the time. The other day she had a group of friends, a flashlight, a cape, and their imagination. They’d only been playing for about five minutes and already formed a club—the Ghost Hunters. About ten minutes into this little charade community rules developed. They were having the time of their lives and plotting out their ideas for world domination….and then the whole thing blew up.

We are community destroyers.

I assume that somebody called someone else a doody head or tried to grab some power that wasn’t theirs and the whole thing came unglued. Factions started and Ghost Hunters took a few steps backwards. It wasn’t fun anymore. The community was destroyed. Apparently hunting ghosts in the scary crevices of a creepy old church wasn’t a big enough vision to bind them together.

Are adults really any better?

I’m preaching on Proverbs 1:8-19 this Sunday and I cannot help but think this is a tremendously accurate picture of our political engagement. If my Facebook wall is any indication “let us lie in wait for blood” is the modus operandi of political engagement. Wait for the other party to mess up, ambush them, and then take their stuff. Swallow them up like the grave swallows up people. That’s the strategy.

And we form community around this. It’s appealing to us. We like to belong. Every time we share one of those political posts on Facebook we are trying to expand our community and lob grenades at the other one. This is why it feels good whenever we get likes and hearts and shares and retweets on social media. We are forming community.

But it’s a mirage. Ray Ortlund is correct:

“A cause, even a negative cause, provides a group to belong to. It is one way we nurse our grudges, and it feels good. But whenever we gather around grievance rather than Jesus, that is counterfeit community, black-market relationships, and that negativity is on a collision course with reality. It cannot succeed long-term.” –(Ray Ortlund, Proverbs Commentary).

I understand why those who do not have a relationship with Jesus could so easily slip into counterfeit community. It’s all they really have. But what baffles me—and this is true of my own heart—is how we believers who have tasted of the true community of Jesus could so easily be duped into pursuing false community. We gather around grievance rather than Jesus and then blame God for the rancid fruit this produces. We blame him for the church who chose the stew instead of the birthright.

A community who bears the name of Jesus but is gathered around grievance instead of Christ is still a counterfeit community. It won’t hold.

The same thing happens with these communities that happens when you start a friendship based on juicy gossip. A person who gossips to you will someday gossip about you. It’s the same thing with those who lie in wait for another’s blood while promising a shared purse. It’s good now but eventually you are going to be on the other end of that equation. You’ll end up in a ditch. This is why churches which started because of a church split seldom grow and end up splitting over and over again.

This is also why our nation will not ever truly be united while we are stuck in this cycle of greed. A lust for power—even if its to use that power for good ends—will never end well. If you grab power by ungodly means its going to come back on you. You’ve created a culture that is going to swallow you alive.

Our only hope is to step off the cycle and devote ourselves to a community which is increasingly dedicated to Jesus. Only Christ at center is big enough and powerful enough to bind together diverse people. Step away from Christ and you’ve stepped away from the community you so deeply desire.

Is It Just For the Innocent to Pay for the Sins of the Guilty?

Is it just to allow an innocent person to pay for the crime of a guilty person? Let’s try that out in story form.

A wretched woman stands trial for murdering a husband and wife. The jury finds the woman guilty of all the heinous crimes she is accused of. It is now the day when sentencing will be handed down. The prosecuting attorney was going for the death penalty. The judge agrees that someone deserves to die for these crimes. But everyone in the court is shocked when instead of passing sentence on the guilty murderer the punishment is handed over to an innocent son of the victims.

Hopefully if you were in the courtroom you’d cry out against this miscarriage of justice. An innocent party should not be punished for the guilty actions of another. But what if we added a bit to the story? What if the innocent son of the victim offered to take the punishment upon himself? What if he volunteered for the job?

Such a story would be noble—and it’s the thing of many sermon illustrations—but is it really just? According to Scripture (Proverbs 17:15), “acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both.” No judge in the land would allow for such a thing—especially in a murder trial where the death penalty is in play.

So how in the world can we say that it is not injustice for God to accept such a deal in the death of His Son? If we did the crime, why don’t we have to do the time? To say that God poured out His wrath on His innocent Son, who willingly took the place of sinners, is a bit much for some to swallow. No matter if he volunteered or not, it is unjust to punish a righteous man for the guilt of unrighteous people.

But what if we added something else to our story. What if I said that the innocent son was actually the husband of the murderer. Now, I understand that at face value this does absolutely nothing for our argument. Why should an innocent spouse pay for the crimes of a guilty husband? But such a thing is to misunderstand a fundamental principle of our union with another.

It’s not as difficult of a thing to grasp if we are talking about finances instead of the death penalty. It’s not considered unjust to transfer debt to a husband once he marries a spouse. The justice system have no problem making a willing husband financially responsible for his wife’s student loans. In this regard they consider the two as one.

Now I understand that when we start talking about death penalty instead of student loans it gets a bit trickier. I suppose this is where the analogy might break down a tad. But biblically speaking we are united to Christ in such a way that he actually becomes responsible for our debt. This in part is what 2 Corinthians 5:21 is talking about. When Christ took the church as His bride he took upon Himself her debt.

How can God the Father punish His innocent Son for the sins of an unrighteous people? Because by His willingness to marry this unrighteous bride he was “made to be sin”. Though not guilty of any sin of His own, by His union with a sinful bride, in a very real sense He is no longer the innocent Son.

The man upon the Cross is bearing the punishment of His beloved bride. That is the only way that He could be among the cursed hanging upon that tree (Galatians 3:10-14). Any other reason would be a gross mishandling of justice. I appreciate this point in Pierced For Our Transgressions:

The only way to explain how Christ could have died at all without compromising God’s justice is to say that our sin and guilt was imputed to him. Although Christ was sinless in himself (he bore no guilt for his own deeds), he nonetheless did bear the guilt of our sins. It is ironic that criticism of penal substitution, which claims to be concerned to uphold God’s justice, actually ends up undermining it. (Pierced For Our Transgressions, 248)

Take heart, he has paid our debt in full. This is why he cried tetelestai from the Cross. Through our union with Him and His perfect work, we are debt free and living in His positive righteousness, all by the Father’s good plan and good pleasure. This is great news!