I look forward to Rick Warren addressing the Southern Baptist Convention at its annual meeting in New Orleans, June 13-14. Warren deserves more credit for his decision to publicly dissent from the SBC ruling expelling the church he founded from the denomination than for all his many accomplishments.
For my money, Warren serves the function of a modern Gamaliel in warning Southern Baptists not to maintain their rigid stance against women in ministry. Here is a powerful dissent by a famous Southern Baptist pastor.
Dissent lives mostly a quiet life in the basement of the SBC and has for more than 30 years. Somehow, tragically, dissent is no longer a Baptist virtue there.
Formerly a key word in the vocabulary of Baptists, dissent has been replaced by uniformity. Once upon a time we believed a healthy church encouraged dissent as a right of free speech and an expression of the priesthood of the believer. After all, Baptists once loved the highly oxygenated atmosphere of a great argument.
Southern Baptists are now violating this basic operating principle by censuring, punishing and suppressing dissent. Yet Baptist churches cannot be true to the principle of what it means to be the “church” when dissent is stifled and denominational policy is interpreted by, manipulated by and controlled by the ruling elites. To lose dissent is to lose the church itself.
“Part of the genius of Warren’s argument is his attempt to recover the ‘Baptist vision.’”
Part of the genius of Warren’s argument is his attempt to recover the “Baptist vision.” Baptist theologian James McClendon argued that Baptist distrust of their own vision made them victims of ideologies of the left and the right.
Southern Baptists are now resistant to dissent. The powers-that-be are dubious of the ability of dissent to facilitate discernment through the practice of holy debate. The word “holy” is deliberate as I base it on my conviction that the story of the church engaged in dissent over the inclusion/exclusion of Gentiles in Acts 15 seems to provide a biblical model for how churches should approach difficult issues.
In other words, the paradigmatic moment of including Gentiles opened the door to the worldwide mission of the church. The church got there through the legitimate process of dissent.
Warren and Saddleback Church represent the dissent from the outside that came to the early church from Paul and his companions. The missionary force of the early church came to the first conference of the church armed with the power of witness, fellowship and relationship to Gentiles. Warren, in a genius rhetorical move, has announced he is lodging his dissent on behalf of Southern Baptist foreign missionaries.
Warren explains: “Today our missionary force has almost 1,500 fewer missionaries than we had 23 years ago when the revised Baptist Faith and Message was approved in 2000. With a renewed emphasis on the restriction of women, we’ll lose more godly female church planters and couples serving as pastoral teams in the mission field.”
What a powerful Baptist argument: the mission mandate.
“The idea of dissent as synonym for strife doesn’t fit with his narrative.”
Warren’s rhetorical action is not that of a single protest. The usual words that accompany dissent — discord, nonconformity, resistance, confrontation — do not figure prominently in his defense of Saddleback’s decision to ordain women and allow women to preach. The idea of dissent as synonym for strife doesn’t fit with his narrative. He is not fomenting a schism — the estrangement of a house divided against itself. He is not advocating that every Southern Baptist church should be required to ordain women.
Warren is inviting the SBC powers to a dance that allows everyone to participate — rather than a continuation of the dominant SBC motto that “life is a war.” Serious consideration of Warren’s case cannot take place in an atmosphere charged with warlike expressions.
Chances are Southern Baptist leaders will mistake Warren’s pastoral letter as a call for radical change rather than a call for denominational debate. If the leaders attempt only to manage Warren’s legitimate act of dissent rather than foster it, everyone loses.
What should be viewed as a civil debate, a spirited deliberation, a theological discussion among brothers and sisters, can easily be misconstrued as an outright attack on the citadels of male supremacy.
Warren attempts to create an enhancement of “democratic pluralism” that not only “contests that which is taken for granted but also bridges differences to generate constructive dialogue and deliberation.” As rhetorical scholar Robert Ivie puts it, “In the middle space of public life, consensus and dissent hold one another accountable, moderating their respective risks, ‘without forcing the reduction of one into the other.’”
Warren advocates for change within the SBC by speaking within the dominant ideology and using its vocabulary. He is creatively challenging rigidified conventions and practices. He has produced reasonable premises for making this an actual two-sided argument.
“His dissent offers a series of assertions that suggest a return to common sense — a long-standing Baptist principle.”
The sharp edge to Warren’s argument opens the door to challenge prevailing attitudes, beliefs and policies and has the emotional power to avoid alienation. His dissent offers a series of assertions that suggest a return to common sense — a long-standing Baptist principle.
Here is a reasoned argument that invites Southern Baptists to “think again” about the strictures against women in ministry. In biblical terms, Warren offers a window for repentance, and it is not possible to speak more clearly the language of Southern Baptists.
He appeals to what the New Testament calls metanoia, “repentance,” literally “change of mind.” He speaks directly to the messengers who will have voting privileges at the annual meeting rather than to the theological experts or powerbrokers of the convention. Warren is not attacking; he is addressing all his fellow Southern Baptists. He sounds like the Apostle Paul addressing the philosophers in Athens — although I would equate neither SBC leaders as philosophers nor New Orleans as a new Athens.
There’s also an ingenious little barb in his appeal to the “common man.” He aligns the current power structure of the SBC with “a Catholic magisterium.” Ivie might say Warren operates here like a “mythic trickster” as he speaks the common language of Southern Baptists and affirms his identity with them while calling for a disruption of the current policy against women. Rhetorical tricksters transform by a process of affirming and disrupting.
Ivie notes, “Dissenters must maneuver, like mythical tricksters, to sustain the vitality of democracy.”
“He offers Southern Baptists the opportunity to reclaim a crucial Baptist distinctive.”
Warren identifies his cause with the missionary force of the SBC, with the messengers to the convention, with “millions of SBC women,” as well as 300 fellow Southern Baptist pastors who have women serving on their staffs. Warren is not a renegade outsider. He offers Southern Baptists the opportunity to reclaim a crucial Baptist distinctive.
His attempt to recover the “Baptist vision” has the potential to lead SBC messengers to apply the ancient wisdom of Gamaliel to their present situation: “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
Only excitement can define the emotion I feel anticipating Warren’s legitimate, biblical, Baptist expression of dissent. I wish him not only well, but success.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor and writer in New York state. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy.
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