The Kuyperian Commentary

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Down South: Southern Baptists convene amid declining overall numbers

By Thomas Kidd

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) held its annual meeting in Houston in June, and although the assembly did not witness any of the spectacular controversies that have marked previous SBC meetings, it nevertheless confronted some hotly debated topics.

The meeting’s most anticipated issue concerned the SBC and the Boy Scouts. Some had predicted that the SBC would endorse a full-fledged boycott of the Scouts for the group’s recent decision to admit openly gay boys as members. But the actual resolution stopped short of a boycott, expressing “opposition to and disappointment in the decision” and calling for the removal of Boy Scouts executive leaders who supported the change.

SBC representatives (called “messengers”) also passed a resolution exhorting member congregations about their “legal and moral responsibility to report any child abuse to authorities.” Its sponsor, Peter Lumpkins, crafted the statement in response to a lawsuit alleging abuse cover-ups by leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), including its founder, C.J. Mahaney. A judge dismissed the case against SGM pastors in May, citing statute of limitation requirements. Mahaney stepped down as president of SGM in April. Prominent Baptist leaders Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church expressed their individual support for Mahaney in a public statement in May. Read more…

Roots of a British Awakening?

A guest post by Thomas S Kidd

My family and I just returned from two weeks in the U.K., and while we were there, several major British religion news events transpired. First, on a day we happened to be in Edinburgh, Church of Scotland delegates voted to allow gay ministers. Then, when we returned to London, came the appalling murder of a British solider by two Muslims, one of whom was arrested in Kenya in 2010 for seeking al-Qaeda training. Finally, a new study of U.K. census data indicated that within a decade, perhaps less than half of all people in Britain will identify even nominally as Christians.Michael-Adebolajo-1912414

These disparate developments suggest several religious patterns: first, prominent churches in the U.K. seem generally inclined to follow the lead of mainline denominations in the U.S. and Canada on issues related to gender and homosexuality. The Church of England has recently decided to ordain celibate homosexuals as bishops, and has issued a new plan to ordain women bishops within two years. These developments make inevitable more difficulties between the shrinking mainline churches in the west, and the burgeoning ones in the global south, which are generally more traditional on issues of sexuality.

Second, the U.K. (like much of Eurjeffertsschori_2_300(1)ope) has a pressing problem of how to handle its growing Muslim population, some fraction of which are jihadist sympathizers. (Anecdotally, I was struck by how ubiquitous the signs of Islam are in the U.K., from mosques to burqa-clad women.) While America’s Muslim population remains proportionately low, especially outside of large cities, in the U.K. a tenth of the under-25 population is now Muslim, and the self-identifying Christian population is stagnant and aging. If it were not for Christian immigrants to the U.K. from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, Christianity would be in utter free-fall as a percentage of the British population.

Abandoned_ChapelThird, the legal establishment of the Church of England looks increasingly strange and antiquated, when you consider how Christianity (Anglican or otherwise) is losing even a nominal hold over much of the population. It is hard to imagine how the church will survive calls for its disestablishment (meaning withdrawal of state financial support and other trends toward stronger separation of church and state) unless a very different pattern emerges in the next generation. In a democratic country, it seems impossible to justify an established Christian church when so few actively practice Christianity, and when even nominal Christianity seems destined to command no more than a plurality of the population’s  adherence. Yet the British government – particularly the monarchy – is still closely identified with Christianity. They still pray “God save the queen” in Anglican liturgies.

Given all this, is there hope for Christian revival in Britain? Christians, of course, always believe there is hope for redemption and renewal, because of God’s power. The observable facts are not promising, but there are certainly pockets of flourishing Christianity in Britain. The Kingsway International Christian Centre, an African Pentecostal congregation which is London’s largest church, attracts as many as 12,000 attendees every Sunday, and there are many other growing immigrant-dominated congregations across the U.K. Evangelical renewal efforts within the Anglican Church include the Alpha Course, pioneered by Nicky Gumbel (see more on the Alpha Course in this Anxious Bench post by Philip Jenkins).

While my family was blessed to attend Evensong services at both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the most vital church we visited was an evangelical Baptist congregation in Stirling, Scotland, which sits prominently in the city center. While nowhere near the scale of Kingsway, it is filled with young Scottish families. The worship is heartfelt, the preaching biblical and accessible, and community life and prayer support are vibrant. Those factors, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, would seem to be essential ingredients for revival in the U.K. and beyond.

@ThomasSKidd on Twitter

Thomas Kidd is a contributing scholar to The Kuyperian Commentary. His newest book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, published in 2011 with Basic Books.

[This article first appeared at The Anxious Bench. Read more from Dr. Kidd there.]

What Does Jesus Look Like?

The History Channel’s hit miniseries “The Bible” offers us yet another on-screen depiction of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The honor this time goes to Diogo Morgado, whom the New York Post calls “a kind of surfer Jesus.” The Portuguese actor’s Jesus is not exactly Anglo (although his on-screen accent is); but basically, this Jesus is white. And therein lies a problem.

My thoughts on what Jesus looks like were spurred by a fascinating lecture at Baylor by the University of Colorado’s Paul Harvey, author with Edward Blum of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. In spite of the Ten Commandment’s ban on “graven images” (and the worship of them), many Christians have become so used to visual representations of Christ that we often don’t give them a second thought, nor consider what they say about our mental picture of the Son of God.

The medieval church also produced artistic representations of Christ, but many Protestants assailed these icons, tapestries, and paintings as violations of the second commandment, smashing and burning many of them as they had opportunity. The Puritans and some other early settlers of America tried not to employ visual representations of God, although they surely must have had some mental image of God or Jesus as they spoke to him in prayer.

During the nineteenth century, visual images of Jesus became more common among American Protestants, and they were almost always ‘white’ – or at least not distinctly Semitic/Middle Eastern/North African, which one would think would be the preferred choice if ethnic accuracy were a priority. These images became more common – and insistent – in the years following the Civil War. Perhaps the most disturbing use of the white Jesus was in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), in which Jesus blessed the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

Most depictions of a white Jesus were more innocuous in intent than Birth of a Nation, and the most common one in American homes was Warner Sallman’s 1941 The Head of ChristThe commonplace depiction of Jesus as white led to indignant reactions, with some African Americans and other Christians claiming a “black Jesus” or some other Christ of their own ethnicity.

I don’t mean to go all ‘Puritan’ here, but should churches promote any visual depictions of Christ? Do the images of a white Jesus risk making God in our own image? Would a more Semitic Christ solve the problem? Or should we return to the full Reformed skepticism about using any images of God at all?

Whatever our answers, the fact remains that Christians do normally imagine Christ’s appearance as we read the Bible and pray (reported visions of Jesus have often seemed Anglo, too). Scripture, however, gives us precious little guidance about his appearance. If not the Jesus of Warner Sallman or The History Channel, then what should he look like?

Thomas Kidd is contributing scholar to The Kuyperian Commentary. His newest book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, published in 2011 with Basic Books.

This article was originally published at Patheos.

Mahaney Steps Down

C.J. MahaneySovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) President C.J. Mahaney announced yesterday he will leave his position on April 12 to focus on pastoring his new church in Louisville, Ky. The announcement follows months of controversy related to the ministry, including a lawsuit against SGM that alleges cover-ups of child abuse in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mahaney’s announcement came after the resignation last month of SGM board chairman John Loftness and board member Craig Cabaniss.

Mahaney took a leave of absence as SGM president in 2011 but the SGM board reinstated him in early 2012. Following his reinstatement, Mahaney relocated SGM’s offices from Maryland to Louisville and started a church there.

In a blog post, Mahaney cited an imminent SGM transition to a “new polity” as the reason for the change and said plans for his resignation began in October 2012. Mahaney said he is “eager to once again devote my attention to pastoral ministry. Returning to the pulpit of a local church last September has only confirmed for me what I believe God has called and gifted me to do: pastor, preach, and fulfill a role in building the local church for the glory of God.”

In a November response to the lawsuit, SGM spokesman Tommy Hill noted that “the suit does not allege child abuse by any current or former pastor of SGM or any church associated with SGM. The suit does not allege child abuse by any employee or staff of SGM or any church associated with SGM. The suit does not allege any child abuse occurred on any SGM property or any church associated with SGM. SGM leaders provided biblical and spiritual direction to those who requested this guidance.”

Thomas Kidd is contributing scholar to The Kuyperian Commentary. His newest book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, published in 2011 with Basic Books.

This article was originally published at WORLD.

Calvinist Controversy at Louisiana College

The latest front in the Baptist battle over Calvinism and Arminianism has opened at Louisiana College, where the administration has decided not to renew the contracts of three faculty members – Jason HilesKevin McFadden and Ryan Lister. The latter two have doctorates from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, while Hiles’s doctoral degree is from Southeastern Seminary. While President Joe Aguillard has not addressed the non-renewals directly, a recent blog post by him acknowledged that his “love for all Baptists including Calvinists, does not constitute our approval of its being advocated at Louisiana College.”

Critics also allege that the college has blocked websites critical of the administration, including The Daily Bleat and lcstudents.org. Two current students, Joshua Breland and Drew Wales, have said they are under investigation by the college for violations of the student code of conduct, specifically for “making disparaging comments” about the college and administration.

The college’s board of trustees held an emergency meeting regarding the controversy Monday afternoon, but apparently no press coverage was allowed. Reports Monday evening indicated that Aguillard will remain as president.

Former faculty members have spoken out against the administration and its policies, their complaints and charges often predating the latest non-renewals. Scott Culpepper, a Louisiana College alumnus and former faculty member, calls for Aguillard’s immediate dismissal for “public and private dishonesty, spiritual manipulation and intimidation, irresponsible anti-intellectualism, and presumptuous attempts to implement poorly conceived pipe dreams rather than responsible planning.”

Given my WORLD Magazine coverage of the David Barton controversy, I found fascinating Culpepper’s account of a dispute over Barton’s address at a college commencement:

My first direct encounter with Aguillard’s style of managing subordinates came in the spring of 2009 when I voiced concern…about comments made by David Barton at the spring commencement.  Mr. Barton made several comments at the ceremony that were erroneous…I had already communicated to the administration before the event Barton’s well known reputation for distorting facts and his nearly universal repudiation by Christian academics.  I requested that Aguillard allow us to present the other side of the argument…The response was bizarre.  Dr. Chuck Quarles had also written a letter in which he echoed some of my concerns about Barton’s presentation.  Aguillard requested that his personal assistant, Joseph Cole, vet my letter and Dr. Quarles’ for factual accuracy because we probably “misunderstood Bro. Barton.”  Cole was a music major with no background in history who had not even completed his undergraduate degree.  Aguillard finally called me in for a rather strange conversation in which I tried to convince him with historical evidence that Barton was incorrect, and he responded by continually asserting that I would believe otherwise if I felt the spiritual vibe at Barton’s headquarters in Aledo, TX.  The meeting ended with Aguillard saying that he forgave me for my letter.  When I tried to diplomatically say that I stood by the letter and was not apologizing for its content, Aguillard said it would be best for my long term future at Louisiana College to forget about Barton. [read Culpepper’s whole letter here]

As I have written previously, the debate over Calvinism’s place in the Southern Baptist Convention is one of the most fractious since conservatives took control of the denomination and its seminaries by the 1990s. If (as is widely alleged) the dismissals of Hiles, McFadden, and Lister are motivated partly by hostility to Calvinism, then we have a test case of whether a theological dispute will translate into faculty purges of those not supporting Arminianism. But as Culpepper’s letter makes clear, the accusations against Aguillard’s administration go far beyond just the Calvinist and Arminian divide.

For more, see The Town Talk (La.), “Louisiana College president’s comments, loss of theologians, prompt spirited debate” 

The Town Talk“Former Louisiana College Board Member: ‘Restore Integrity to Office of President’”

Thomas Kidd is a contributing scholar at Kuyperian Commentary. He teaches history at Baylor University and is Senior Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Article Originally Published at Patheos.

Homeschooling: A Fundamental Human Right?

Thomas S. Kidd is special contributor to the Kuyperian Commentary

A remarkable political asylum case has raised questions about whether the U.S. government should defend the right of families to homeschool.  The case concerns the Romeike family of Germany, where homeschooling is illegal, and where families who attempt to homeschool their children can face heavy fines and even have their children taken from them. An American immigration judge granted the Romeikes political asylum in 2010, but the Obama Justice Department has been working to overturn their asylum status and have them returned to Germany. Administration lawyers say that the German law does not represent any kind of specific religious discrimination (which would warrant asylum), but only a general legal requirement that all children attend public or state-supervised schools. Thus, in the administration’s view, German authorities punish families like the Romeikes not because they are Christian homeschoolers, but because their children are not attending a governmentally-sanctioned school.

I understand that this issue is more complex than whether Attorney General Eric Holder likes homeschooling or not. And I very much hesitate to designate a political good as a “fundamental human right,” because such notions have become distended and overused in modern American politics. Furthermore, it is not “homeschooling,” per se, that is a fundamental human right. What is fundamental, however, is the right of parents to raise their children according to their consciences, without interference from the state. The Obama adminstration hopefully has no inclination to infringe upon this right in America, but in this case they obviously have more sympathy for Germany’s rigid education policy than the rights of parents, including parents of dissenting religious sensibilities.

The effect of Germany’s law (which, thankfully, is almost unique in western Europe) is to ban parents from taking primary responsibility for educating their children. The most common reason parents would want to do that is religious conviction. This is certainly the case with the Romeikes, so they deserve political asylum as refugees from religious persecution by the government of Germany. Other German Christian homeschoolers have already been fined, and even jailed, for acting according to their conscience with regard to schooling, and the Romeikes can reasonably expect similar treatment if the Obama administration forces them to return. Reasonable fear of such persecution is clear justification for political asylum.

Originally posted here.

For more coverage, see:

Joseph Knippenberg, “Federal Government Tries to Block Homeschooling Refugees,” First Things

Mary Jackson, “Christian homeschoolers losing deportation fight,” WORLD Magazine

Napp Nazworth, “Homeschooling Not a Fundamental Right, Justice Dept. Argues,” Christian Post

Joe Carter, “Homeschooling Not a Fundamental Right Says Justice Department,” Acton Institute

Michael Farris, “Sobering Thoughts from the Romeike Case,” Home School Legal Defense Association, which is representing the Romeikes

Rod Dreher, “Romeikes as Canaries in Coal Mines,” American Conservative

Culture-Changing Christians

By Kuyperian Commentary Special Contributing Scholar, Dr. Thomas Kidd

Many disappointed Romney supporters have suggested that his defeat spoke to an American culture in decline. For politics to change, they say, culture must change. Glenn Beck, for example, tweeted that “the time for politics is over. I’m doubling down on my efforts to shift the culture.”

Evangelical Christians are especially attuned to talk of changing culture. But what culture is, and just how it changes, is often less clear. Books such as Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World should be required reading for any Christian making plans to change culture. Both books show that culture, or “what human beings make of the world,” in Crouch’s words, is extraordinarily complex, and not susceptible to quick change, especially through politics.

We can certainly point to Christian politicians who have helped change culture in explicitly Christian ways. The great abolitionist William Wilberforce is an excellent example. But think over the past century: many of the culture-changing Christians that jump immediately to mind have not been directly engaged with politics. For example:

C.S. Lewis, the Oxford professor whose greatest influence came through writing children’s books.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian martyred for his resistance against Nazi tyranny.

Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born nun who devoted her life to caring for lepers and AIDS patients, who testified to the dignity of all human life, including the outcast and unborn.

Each of these heroes had things to say of political consequence, but they did not see politics as their method of Christian witness or culture change.

So before we plunge headlong into changing the culture before the 2016 election, let’s think about a few principles for how evangelicals can influence culture.

1) James Davison Hunter argues that culture is shaped most by institutions that have great “symbolic capital,” including universities such as Harvard and Yale, and newspapers such as the New York Times. Popular Christian books may sell millions of copies, but they do not have the symbolic capital or cultural influence of a Pulitzer Prize winner. Christians not only need to engage with institutions of high symbolic capital, but we need Christian voices to be present in those institutions, as professors, journalists, and artists. Christian parents and teachers need to cast a winsome vision of Christian cultural engagement for children and students.

2) Christians should worry as much about preserving orthodox Christian culture as they do about changing secular culture. Indeed, preserving traditional Christian culture is an essential precondition to any wholesome changes in the broader culture. If American Christian culture is infected by theological vacuousness and historical ignorance, by shallow consumerism, or by ethical corruption, then on what basis can we hope to transform the broader culture? As Christopher Dawson’s classic Religion and the Rise of Western Culture demonstrates, Christians have often found themselves having to preserve the heritage of biblical Christianity from a hostile surrounding culture. There’s nothing especially new in our situation today.

3) While some Christians may be called vocationally to institutions of high symbolic capital, all of us can take responsibility for the mini-cultures of our family, church, and neighborhood. I’m afraid that I can’t do much about the voting patterns of Ohio, but I can sure do something about the culture of my dinner table. When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize, she was reportedly asked what we can do to promote world peace. She answered “Go home and love your family.”

Evangelicals can certainly participate in politics, but we should remember that politics tends simply to reflect culture. And culture is not easy to change, especially at the broadest levels. Christians can (and must) do more to bring a witness into institutions of high symbolic capital, but we should never underestimate the sanguine influence we can have, by God’s grace and prayer, on the little cultural spheres we inhabit on a daily basis.

(Article first published at Patheos)

Not All Turkey and Touchdowns

By Kuyperian Commentary Special Contributing Scholar, Dr. Thomas Kidd

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony weren’t the first Europeans to settle in North America, nor were they the first permanent English colonists. But because of our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, and our hazy images of their 1621 meal with Native Americans, the Pilgrims have become the emblematic colonists in America’s national memory. Although modern Thanksgiving has become largely non-religious—focused more on food, family, and football than explicitly thanking God—the Pilgrims’ experience reveals a compelling religious aspect of our country’s roots.

Although people often refer to the Pilgrims as “Puritans,” they technically were English Separatists, Christians who had decided that the state-sponsored Anglican Church was fatally corrupt, and that they should found their own churches. (The Puritans, who would establish Massachusetts in 1630, believed in reforming the Anglican Church from within.) Establishing independent churches, however, was illegal. Under heavy persecution, some Separatists decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands around the same time that the Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607.

The Netherlands offered the Separatists religious liberty, but the Pilgrims also became concerned about the negative influences of living in such a culturally diverse society. So in 1620, 102 settlers sailed to America on board the Mayflower. Their final Old World port was Plymouth, England, which supplied the name for their new settlement in what became southeastern Massachusetts.

All adult men on board the ship signed the “Mayflower Compact,” which many consider the first written constitution in American history. It is a very brief document, but it powerfully articulated the colonists’ commitment to God and government by common consent. It reads, in part:

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.

Documents such as the Mayflower Compact leave little doubt that the New England colonies were founded primarily for religious purposes.

The Compact noted Plymouth’s legal connection to Virginia (they shared the same charter), but their southern neighbors were less motivated by religion than were the New England colonists. Some today may exaggerate the secular nature of Virginia, however; among the first laws of that colony was a demand that the people honor God, to whom they owed their “highest and supreme duty, our greatest, and all our allegiance to him, from whom all power and authoritie is derived.” The recent news that the foundations of the oldest Protestant church in America have been discovered at the site of the Jamestown fort also reminds us of the southern colonists’ faith.

Although our records for the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth are sparse, we do know that in 1621 the Pilgrims held a three-day celebration with allied Indians, in observation of a good harvest and in gratitude for God’s help in passing through the trials of the first year of settlement (half of the settlers had died in that scourging winter). And yes, they had a “great store of wild turkeys” to eat for the festival.

The American colonies, particularly in New England, continued the tradition of holding thanksgiving days into the Revolutionary era, when the new American nation also picked up the practice. The Continental Congress and American presidents, beginning with George Washington, regularly proclaimed days of thanksgiving. In 1789, the first year of his presidency, Washington declared that the last Thursday of November would be a “day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

Thanksgiving became an annual holiday in America during the Civil War, and Congress made the fourth Thursday of November an official national holiday in December 1941, shortly after America’s entry into World War II.

Thanksgiving historically was about “thanks-giving” directed to God. This is an instructive lesson, not only for better understanding our history, but also for curbing the temptation to make Thanksgiving into a holiday of over-consumption. The Pilgrims remind us that Thanksgiving is not all about turkey and touchdowns.

(Article first published at Patheos)

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