Dr. Miranda : July 1, 2005 Key Note Address to American Baptist Evangelicals
Thank you so much for inviting me to share some thoughts with you this evening. I am deeply honored by this privilege. I also feel a great sense of responsibility as I stand before pastors and denominational leaders who rightfully expect to hear a word from the Lord, and who give so much each day to the cause of the Kingdom.
We live in momentous times. God’s Spirit is moving in powerful ways across this land and across the world. Clear lines are being drawn in the sand in the areas of doctrine and morality. It is becoming increasingly difficult for believers to remain aloof and undecided concerning matters of biblical truth and practice. Entire denominations are convulsed over the need to define themselves, particularly over issues of sexuality and biblical inerrancy. More than ever, and particularly in the urbanized Western world, Christianity is fighting for its institutional soul, threatened from within by the leaven of rationalism and doctrinal relativism, and from without by a culture that is increasingly hostile and resistant to its teachings.
American Baptists are by no means sheltered from these winds of controversy. The very fact that we are gathering on this occasion under the rubric of American Baptist Evangelicals speaks subtly to this very issue. We also as a denomination are fighting for our soul, and the decisions that are made in the next couple of years over these very issues of sexuality and biblical inerrancy will determine whether American Baptists enter a time of revival and growth, or proceed to irreversible spiritual and institutional decline.
This is why I feel such a sense of responsibility as I address you tonight. On the one hand, I do not want to sound strident or unnecessarily conflictive. On the other hand, the time for superficial, ceremonial words is past. We must speak to each other honestly and straightforwardly. We do each other a great disservice by dancing around the issues, by speaking diplomatically and superficially to each other in our gatherings, while ignoring the huge white elephant that sits contentedly in the middle of the room, eating the carpet and the flowers, and contaminating the entire space. In many circles we are expected to speak placidly of love, unity and tolerance, while the ship sprouts more holes and sinks deeper into the water.
This is a far cry from the honest, plain spoken communication that we can observe all over the pages of Scripture, where doctrinal conflicts are acknowledged and brought openly to the surface, and discussed with integrity and clarity, and where the declarations of the Word of God serve as sole arbiter and point of reference.
The apostle Paul wrote an entire letter to the Galatians over the seemingly insignificant issue of circumcision. Today, many of us are accused of obsessing and giving too much importance to the issue of homosexuality. One of the things that impact me most in this letter is the clarity of the apostle’s tone, the serious way in which he frames the terms of the dispute: "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called You by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- which is no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into con- fusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! I say again: If any- body is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned." (Galatians 1: 6-9)
I’m afraid that if the apostle Paul were to speak today on a similar issue in such clear, passionate tones, in many Christian circles across this land he would immediately be accused of intolerance, self-righteousness and lack of love.
And yet, what propelled him to speak in such stark terms was precisely his love for the Galatians, his concern for the health of their souls, his Spirit-inspired intuition that behind the seemingly innocuous issue of whether gentile believers should be expected to circumcise lay much deeper, pervasive theological issues such as the superiority of grace over Law, the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, and the relationship of faith and works.
Today, when we are emotionally pressured into keeping silent or acquiescing over issues related to human sexuality, gender, the nature of marriage or the inerrancy of Scripture, we must exercise the same spiritual lucidity evidenced by the apostle Paul, and discern the systemic implications of these various issues, the potential power that each has to threaten and weaken the moral edifice of Christianity, and to introduce even greater chaos into the present cultural scene.
It is love precisely that compels us to speak truth to our brothers and sisters, love that will not allow us to stay silent as they follow a path of spiritual impoverishment and error. It is respect for their humanity that forces us to take them seriously and honestly engage their words and beliefs, rather than patronize them in public while criticizing them behind their back.
In this respect, I much prefer the heroic honesty of Paul when he confronted the venerated and senior apostle Peter: "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, 'You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?'"(Galatians 2: 11-14)
Today, we honor Paul’s painful honesty toward a beloved friend and colleague. Also, we are thankful that he forcefully resisted the encroachment of doctrinal error upon a key aspect of the Christian experience. In like manner, I suspect that if we remain steadfast and do not waver, future generations of believers will bless us for our integrity as we “contend forcefully for the faith that was once entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3)
Nowhere in the world are the issues that we are discussing more starkly displayed than in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where I presently pastor. During the tense confrontations that took place last year over the State Supreme Court decision to impose same-sex marriage, I was able to experience first hand the spirit of arrogance and self-assurance that pervades the homosexual community. It was as if we Christians, exercising our constitutional right to express our views in the public square, were somehow trespassing on terrain that had already been lawfully and irreversibly claimed by the opposing side.
I was angrily told that I should keep my religion within the four walls of my church. I was repeatedly accused of hating gays and of violating the loving spirit of Jesus and the gospel. A member of my congregation who was also a justice of the peace had to relinquish her commission since her Christian beliefs would not allow her to officiate at homosexual marriages. Parents have been harassed by school authorities for refusing to have their children indoctrinated and desensitized under the guise of diversity education. The town of Brookline recently allowed the general distribution of a pornographic pamphlet in its high school supposedly in order to promote safe sexual practices among homosexual youth.
Today, when gay marriage is debated in public forums, homosexuality itself is often kept out of the discussion by both sides, since that particular issue in many quarters no longer seems open to discussion. It is simply assumed that this is a matter of personal conscience, and that the Church’s voice has been permanently exiled from that area.
I mention these things because this sad state of affairs begins within the confines of the Church. When the doctrine of the Church becomes diluted and uncertain, when God’s leaders cease to speak with one voice on such crucial moral issues, the general culture becomes confused and disoriented, and the Enemy finds fertile soil to wreak havoc and destruction. And it all begins with doctrinal shoddiness, lack of vigilance on seemingly small matters that, like insidious viruses, attach themselves to the spiritual DNA of the Body of Christ and proceed to replicate themselves until they permeate the entire organism. As the apostle Paul graphically put it, “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” (Gal. 5: 9)
This is why we must not waver in our resolve, why we must firmly, patiently and persistently keep reminding our brethren of the clear declarations of Scripture on these matters. The eternal destiny of countless lives hangs in the balance. The spiritual vitality of our churches and denominations will be permanently affected by the outcome. We will one day have to give an account before the throne of God regarding our stance during this crucial time of definition. Did we promote and abet these aberrant teachings, or did we honor God’s Word and sound the alarm, resisting the Enemy until he was forced to flee?
We certainly must not find ourselves providing comfort to the Enemy, and giving a false sense of peace and security to the spiritually ignorant. We must never cooperate with a posture that blesses and affirms practices that the Scriptures condemn in the most graphic and persistent terms. Otherwise, we risk falling into the category of false prophets when we condone that which the Lord condemns, when we declare peace upon those with who the Spirit of God is really at war. This is the kind of holy fear that every preacher must cultivate every time he stands before the pulpit. We must declare God’s truth even if it first cuts through us who preach it, even if every carnal and selfish impulse in us inclines us to repress it. We must always fear much more God’s displeasure than the disapproval of men.
The words of the prophet Ezequiel constitute a terrible warning to every spiritual teacher who would ingratiate himself with a culture that is in a state of spiritual rebellion: "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! ...Because of your false words and lying visions, I am against you, declares the Sovereign Lord. My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations… Because they lead my people astray, saying “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash. Therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. When the wall collapses, will not people ask you, “Where is the whitewash you covered it with?”…So I will spend my wrath against those who covered it with whitewash. I will say to you, “The wall is gone and so are those who whitewashed it, those prophets of Israel who prophesied to Jerusalem and saw visions of peace when there was no peace, declares the Sovereign Lord." (Ezequiel 13: 3, 8, 10-12)
This tendency of certain Christian leaders “to declare peace when there is no peace” comes from a misguided desire to project to unbelievers a gospel of extreme grace at the expense of God’s holiness and justice. It emasculates God’s stern love and turns it into something amorphous and without structure. It forgets that we will never be able to improve on God’s marketing strategy.
Important sectors of the Church have capitulated to the demands of the secular culture for a watered down version of the gospel. We have chosen the insights of pure reason rather than the principles of faith to govern our strategies and institutional life. We have ceased to trust in God’s counterintuitive principles and have instead placed our trust in the strategies of men. God therefore has abandoned us to our own devices, giving way to the dramatic crisis that can now be observed all over Western Christendom.
Small wonder, then, that American evangelicals are feeling more besieged and impotent than ever. In light of the prevailing conditions, talk of a post-Christian world doesn’t seem to be pessimistic at all, but rather an inevitable conclusion that results from a realistic appraisal of the present culture and spiritual climate.
Nevertheless, not everything is lost. Christ has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church. While I acknowledge the seriousness of our present predicament, I am firmly convinced that the most glorious era for the Christian Church in America, or even in the entire world for that matter, is still ahead of us. Someone has said that the darkest moment of the night is right before dawn, and in the case of our present condition vis-à-vis the prevailing culture, I believe this is applicable.
First of all, we need to be reminded that God loves to intervene on behalf of His people at the moment of their most intense need. There is ample biblical precedent for this view. We only have to think of Moses and the Israelites suffering for many years under the yoke of Pharaoh, until their cry ascended to heaven and God finally sent a deliverer. Then, after finally being allowed to leave Egypt they find themselves before the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army at their back. Only when Moses cries out in despair does God intervene and provide clear instructions on how to proceed.
We also have the image of the disciples, rowing desperately the entire night in the midst of the storm, until Jesus finally appears near dawn, walking on the water to save them. We can also see Jesus sleeping calmly on the boat, while the disciples cry out in panic, fearing that they’re about to drown. Finally, we see him postponing his visit to see his seriously ill friend Lazarus, in order that he might die and be resurrected by the Master.
All these delays, and many others in Scripture, are designed for dramatic effect, to make God’s power more evident, and to force God’s people to become utterly reliant on Him. God reduced Gideon’s army to a fraction of its original size in order to make it totally clear that it wasn’t their military prowess that won the day, but rather God’s gracious intervention. The apostle Paul makes it clear that Jesus entered the world in humanity’s darkest hour, when we “were dead in trespasses,” “that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” He further points out that we have been “saved through faith” and that “it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2: 5, 7-8)
God’s intention is to crush man’s pride, and to emphasize the need for His grace. I believe that God is waiting for the precise, strategic moment to intervene on behalf of the Church in America, as well as in other parts of the world such as Europe and Australia, where secularism and humanism seem to have taken over. The severity of our situation places us squarely within the biblical paradigm of God’s intervention at the moment of greatest need.
God is seeking to crush the pride of the Church in America. He wants to thoroughly discredit our dependency on money, programs, human strategies and scholarly credentials, and to force us to fall on our knees and cry out to Him like the Israelites in Egypt. Like Elijah, He wants to bring us to a point of personal and institutional crisis, where we are confronted with our inherent frailty, and are graphically reminded of our utter dependence upon Him alone. He wants us to internalize the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel during the rebuilding of the temple: "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts." (Zechariah 4:6)
Many churches in America are desperately fighting to get out of the rut that they find themselves in. All kinds of clever strategies and programs are being tried by individual congregations as well as entire denominations. Many of these initiatives are well founded and reflect a wise acknowledgement of social and spiritual realities that must be considered in order to make the Christian experience more accessible to modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, despite the apparent sincerity of many of these efforts, at times they seem designed to avoid the inevitable crucifixion and death that needs to take place within the American protestant psyche, before God can truly resurrect us into a new life of spiritual power and effectiveness. Like the rich young ruler, we want the life, resolution and peace that Jesus gives, but we do not want to abandon the religious and intellectual crutches that we love so much.
In order to develop this thought further, we need only take a look at the astounding growth of Christianity in the Two Thirds World, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Talk of a post-Christian world, as writer Philip Jenkins eloquently points out, only reflects the anachronistic view of Europe and North America as the present center of Christianity. In fact, the real center of vitality and growth in the Christian world no longer lies in the North or in the West, but in the South and in the East, where a powerful wind of the Spirit is sweeping over the land and bringing in millions of converts each year.
While many North American evangelicals lament the onset of a post-Christian era, and like Elijah often think that they are the only true believers left to carry the torch, Southern Christianity is celebrating the most spectacular harvest of souls in human history. Philip Jenkins writes: "Over the past century, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. If we want to visualize a `typical' contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti has observed, `the centers of the church's universality (are) no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila.' Whatever Europeans or North Americans may believe, Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global South - not just surviving but expanding."
North American Christians should be encouraged and energized by what God is accomplishing through His Church in areas of the world that until relatively recently were engulfed in the darkness of paganism, witchcraft and nominal Christianity. If Third World Christians could overcome such formidable forces in so spectacular a manner, then surely there is great hope for North American Christianity.
Orthodox Christianity in America, despite its profoundly counter-cultural components, is far from becoming extinct. Fears about its waning or demise are totally unjustified and premature. They are supported neither by historical analysis nor by biblical principles. The temptation of certain sectors of the evangelical world to water down the proclamation of the faith, and to deemphasize some of the distinctive elements of our worship and theology in order to supposedly make our churches more relevant and palatable to the postmodern generation are misguided at best.
The harsh truth is that many American churches are dying not because their First Century message is alienating the postmodern masses, but because in many cases they have ceased to boldly proclaim it, and to incorporate it into their programs and practices. People are not as easily alienated as some tend to think by strange theology and symbolism. We need only observe the dramatic growth of the Mormon Church among the most affluent circles in America to understand this. The challenge for the Christian Church in America is the Church itself, not the people outside of it. Like a self-doubting baseball player who has lost his former self-confidence, the American Church has fallen into a slump and needs to find the way back to its former glory. Trying to change its outward stance or to get a different size bat is just not enough. Cosmetics will not do. There has to be a change of essence, a change of heart.
A chapter from Elijah’s life illustrates this. God allowed Elijah to fall into the pit of depression and self-doubt because He wanted to perform a deep work in his soul. God wanted to break the hardened soul of the war-weary prophet, and to bring him into an experience of the love and tenderness of the Father. In his physical and emotional exhaustion, he is allowed to rest and is graciously fed by an angel. Later, God reveals His tender side through His presence in the still, small voice, not in the fire and strong wind that he was accustomed to experiencing God; Only after this paradigm shift does God clarify some of his doubts and send him off into ministry again.
Like Elijah, American evangelicalism needs to experience deep inner healing at the level of the spirit. It needs a renewed understanding of itself and of the nature of God and His dealings in history before it can again engage the culture and carry out effective ministry. Ironically, however, the aspect of God's nature that it needs to be exposed to may be the opposite of what Elijah experienced. Elijah didn't need to experience God in the consuming fire, the great strong wind or the crushing earthquake. He lived and ministered within that violent spiritual paradigm all his life.
For him, it seems, the new thing was God's tender, feminine side. This is the element that God needed to reinforce in his psyche. For many North American evangelicals, the situation would seem to be the opposite. They require a personal confrontation with the powerful, sinister side of God's personality.
The placid, orderly nature of many evangelical services desperately needs to be contaminated and upset by the moving of God’s powerful wind. The one scant hour that many evangelicals dedicate to their services on Sunday needs to be expanded and made more flexible so that God might have some room in which to move as He wants.
God will not bring revival in evangelical, middle-class terms. As always, He will do things His own way, and He will not limit Himself in order to fit into our neat, rational paradigms. God has always operated by offending the mind, by turning our neat mental models upside down. Actually, scandal seems to be His preferred method of operation. The love for order and predictability that pervades the typical middle-class, evangelical service will not be able to contain the new wine that God wants to pour down upon His people in the 2lst century. As always, God will offend the mind in order to affect the heart. He will not give us what we want, but what we need. And what American evangelicalism desperately needs right now is a confrontation with God's power and the sovereign unpredictable moving of His Spirit.
We already have enough aesthetics and theological nuance to last us for several generations. What we need now is for God's rain to fall upon our religious altars and bring spiritual healing and emotional health to our parched evangelical souls. When the Apostle Paul went to the overly intellectual, carnal congregation in Corinth, he purposely withheld his considerable intellectual skills in order to wean them from their addiction to rhetoric and oratorical skill. Instead, he says, "my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." (I Co, 2:4.5)
As American Baptist Evangelicals, we must do everything in our power to help our churches enter into this kind of renewal. As we continue to contend for the faith that has been delivered to us, “let us not grow weary of doing good.” (Gal. 6:9)
The feelings of isolation and emotional and spiritual exhaustion that this kind of protracted struggle produces in us can be extremely dangerous. We must therefore always remain in Jesus the true Vine, and replenish our freshness and spiritual strength through intimate communion with him. Prayer and meditation in Jesus must saturate all our efforts and strategies. We must be diligent and conscientious like Martha, but we must also take time to rest and delight in Jesus, like Mary. We must never become sterile and duty bound, flashing our fundamentalist credentials to anyone who will pay attention.
Rather, we must cultivate more than ever the fruit of the Spirit. We must cling to love, kindness and goodness, and be possessed of infectious joy. We must avoid at all costs the sterility of the letter and the Law, and embrace instead the freedom and light-heartedness of God’s gracious Spirit. Finally, we must remain humble, and painfully aware of our own sinfulness, and our own continual need of God’s grace and forgiveness.
I leave you with the words of the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain…Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love.” (I Corinthians 15: 58; 16:13)