Listening to Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speak on the issue of harsh language coming from the evangelical pulpit I was once again reminded of why I look up to this man so much. Of all the great men doing God’s work in the seminaries and pastorate today, I do not believe there is any one person more in tune with the heart of God than Dr. Mohler.
The particular theme of the discussion that he was engaged in this day was about the rising usage of harsh, coarse, and even potty-oriented language in the sermons of evangelical pastors. This, as Dr. Mohler pointed out, is a highly charged issue right now among certain commentators and against certain preachers. However, in dealing with this topic, Dr. Mohler did not just run to the party line of conservative evangelicalism and denounce any and every use of questionable language. Instead he provided thoughtful, biblically-based analysis of the issue and offered his conclusions on just how far we can take this.
Now, the point of this post is not to discuss what Dr. Mohler said per se but it is to consider how he handled this situation and apply it more broad brushed to the whole of evangelical, and specifically where I’m concerned, Southern Baptist life. The issue of language is just one among a slew of issues which have Southern Baptists in a tussle right now, two other major ones being alcohol use (particularly among ministers) and Calvinism (which we’ve beat to death here, no?).
The problem I see is this: we, as Southern Baptists, have been blessed with a vision and the resources to execute a global missions onslaught, taking missionaries and supplies to just about anywhere in the world we want to go. However, though we have such a global scope, I fear that we get dangerously locked into a local mindset. What I mean is, while we are exporting the Gospel to many places abroad, I fear that we are trying too hard to export our culture along with it onto others that won’t necessarily be as receptive.
This issue really started coming into focus for me as I was talking with several NAMB church planters on a fact-finding trip recently. With each one of them I got to casually discuss many of the issues involved with church planting and working for the SBC, and in just about every conversation the matter of alcohol use among ministers came up. As I understand it, any pastor who receives funding from the SBC is required to sign an affirmation saying that they will not consume alcohol while being funded (In fact, I think this applies to all SBC employees, but I could be wrong). Now, though some of them disagreed with this practice, everyone I spoke with said that out of the integrity of their commitment they happily abide by it.
Why, you may ask, might they disagree with it? Well, as most consistent Southern Baptist theologians will tell you (including Dr. Mohler), there is no biblical prohibition for drinking alcohol. There are restrictions imposed upon its practice, but nowhere do we find a call for strict abstinence. Then why is the SBC so firmly entrenched in their position here? Is it because they misread the Bible? No, I don’t believe so. The reason I think they hold to strict abstinence (at least among pastors) is because of issues of reproach and accountability that arise from the culture, which is a matter that the Bible does address (cf. Titus 1.6). However, the problem is, these planters I was speaking with are not in an area where these concerns are shared. Thus, this raises an interesting question: how does the SBC attitude towards drinking, a view most particularly held in the American South, translate into other contexts outside of the southern United States in which the SBC is doing work?
We have the same question with language as well. Dr. Mohler noted on his show that one example often cited is Martin Luther, who used pretty severe language at times in his works. But, he went on to argue that Luther was also in a context where this type of language was most likely not as offensive as it would be were he to say it today in Nashville, TN. Thus, I believe we also must evaluate how fruitful our declarations on use of language are when taken outside of the southern United States.
It is all about understanding where you are ministering. My fear, as someone who hopes to be heading into the pastorate with SBC help along the way, is that the convention will be so fixated on pushing the American South mindset into the areas I wish to go (which are not in the southern United States) that it will be a hindrance to my ability to be effective there. Now, I’m not saying I want to stand up on Sunday morning, cuss out sinners, and then throw back a brewski kept cool inside my pulpit-fridge, but what I am saying is that, as the nation and the world grow increasingly secular, always operating missiologically as if we are in the American South may lead, in some places, to the same isolation which Paul is speaking against in 1 Corinthians 9.19-23, and which we should be wont to avoid.