Religious Liberty and the Gospel

91cer-paj4lReligious liberty has become a major topic of discussion in this current political cycle. There are worries about presidential candidates or potential Supreme Court justices who may scale back the freedoms that have been enjoyed by Americans for more than two centuries. However, not everyone understands the full extent to which religious liberty should be applied.

Many people consider religious liberty to mean the freedom to worship at whichever house of worship you choose. However, the free exercise of religion extends to all aspects of life, especially the right to share your beliefs with others. In the second edition of First Freedom (which becomes available on Oct 15), I write:

With the First Amendment’s promise that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” adherents to all faiths were guaranteed the right to the free exercise of religion. As a result, religious groups were free to take to the highways and byways to proclaim what they believed. The right to religious liberty ensured that Christians and others would have the freedom to gather for worship, change their religious beliefs, and proselytize. However, such freedom is a delicate balance. No one religious tradition can be privileged over another. The predominant religion of one generation may be the minority in the next.

The religious liberty we enjoy today is much like the unique features of the Roman Empire that aided the spread of the gospel in the first century. The network of roads between major commercial cities, the common Greek language spoken throughout the empire, and the relative peace brought by Roman military dominance assisted the early believers in taking the message of Christ throughout the empire.

Today’s political landscape is vastly different from first century Rome, but the religious nature of society is similar. We live in a syncretistic culture where people pick and choose what they want to believe. While this may seem like a detriment to the overall religious health of our American culture, it can also serve as an aid in sharing the gospel. Christianity should not be privileged in an environment of religious liberty, but I believe it can win the day in the marketplace of ideas when we take the opportunity to proclaim its truth.

In the closing paragraphs of my chapter in First Freedom, I note:

Religious liberty does not give Christianity a privileged position in the culture. In theory this freedom puts all religions (or even the lack of religion) on equal footing. Consider this for a moment. The next time Mormon missionaries knock on your door and try to convince you that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the restoration of the true church and that you need to be baptized in their church in order to enjoy the benefits of salvation, remember that they are exercising religious liberty. The next time that the Muslim community decides to build a mosque in your neighborhood (or even next door to your church), remember they are exercising religious liberty. Since religious liberty guarantees us the right to exercise our faith freely, the government cannot coerce what we believe to be false religions to give up their beliefs or plans for worship. Thus, religious liberty ought to motivate us to share the gospel. In a country where religious liberty is currently protected, we should take advantage of this freedom and reason with others, persuading them to hear and receive the gospel.

This is the unique connection between religious liberty and the gospel. May we not take for granted our liberty and fail to share the truth with a lost and dying world.

If you want to read more about religious liberty, let me encourage you to pick up a copy of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty from Amazon or any other book retailer starting October 15. To see more about the book and contributors, visit the page of one of the editors, Jason G. Duesing.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously . . . And Other Admonitions: Traits for an Effective Administrator

800px-bh_carroll_memorial_building_rotunda_28southwestern_baptist_theological_seminary2c_fort_worth2c_tx29A few weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, to ask a question I had never heard him answer. I wanted to know what skills and traits he believed are necessary to be an effective academic administrator.

Dr. Patterson is uniquely gifted to address these qualities because he has served as a college or seminary president for over forty years (Criswell College, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). But more interestingly, many people who have served under him have gone on to serve as administrators at other institutions. Some would say that he has launched some of these “sons in the ministry” on their own paths to success in academic administration.

With no advanced preparation or notes, he described to me ten essential traits for an academic administrator (and there was an apparent hierarchy to this list in the order presented below):

  1. Good husband and father. For those unfamiliar with Dr. Patterson’s focus on the priority of the family, it may come as a surprise that this trait lands at the top of the list. However, a family man fits the Pattersonian mold for leadership. In much the same way that Paul describes the pastor as “one who manages his own household well” (1 Tim 3:4), Patterson believes the lessons learned as a good husband and father serve an administrator well. In addition, a man who is faithful to his wife and children demonstrates the commitment to lead with integrity.
  2. Commitment to inerrancy. If one could boil down Patterson’s legacy to a single word, it would be “inerrancy.” The complete truthfulness and authority of the Bible serves as the foundation for everything he does. His work in the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention helped change the course of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. If an administrator is not committed to the Word of God, he is not really committed to anything.
  3. A faithful churchman. The local church is vital to the life of every Christian. Unfortunately, some Christians believe that they don’t need the body of Christ. For Patterson, however, he wants to know if you are committed to your local body of believers. Do you support the church with your time and money? Are you plugged into the ministries of the church? Do you exercise your gifts for the edification of the body of Christ? These are essential questions in determining one’s fitness for administration.
  4. Courageous. I have been on the receiving end of a few variations of Patterson’s questioning regarding courage. They are usually posed as ethical dilemmas that require tough decisions. What will you do when you find yourself between Scylla and Charybdis? Will you demonstrate courage or cower in fear? If the candidate lacks courage, then he is not qualified.
  5. Ability to assess himself. This is perhaps the most difficult trait to attain. Those being considered for an administrative post are clearly good at what they do. The question is whether they know what their weaknesses are. If you have an exalted opinion of yourself and cannot assess your own strengths and weaknesses, then you are probably not ready for this type of leadership. Those who can accurately assess themselves will then place people around themselves to supplement areas of weakness.
  6. Good with people. By their very functions, administrators deal with people. An academic administrator may have to wrangle faculty, shepherd students, and engage the community. In addition, some administrators may also be tasked with fundraising. In all of these functions, the administrator will have to interact with people. Some people who transition from faculty to administrator may find this difficult. Faculty are often stereotyped as contemplative, introverted hermits, who think about concepts that the average person cares little about and then cannot understand why they put people to sleep when talking about them. While this may be an unfair mischaracterization, there are elements that hold fairly true. However, an administrator cannot function without good people skills because the job requires interaction with living, breathing human beings, not just books.
  7. Ability to disengage. What do you do for fun? If your answer is to read a book in your academic discipline on an obscure topic, then administration is probably not for you. Patterson is an accomplished hunter with a penchant for showcasing his impressive trophies in his office. For someone else, it might be baseball, fishing, hiking, or another hobby. Because administration requires long hours of deep deliberation, there must be something that helps the administrator turn the switch off for a while. Otherwise, the administrator who cannot disengage will burn out.
  8. Reads widely. This trait and the next go together. Because an administrator deals with faculty across a multitude of disciplines, he must read widely in order to have an intelligent conversation with those outside his academic field. The president of a seminary needs to engage in biblical studies, history, philosophy, ethics, education, music, etc. A university president has an even wider field that includes the sciences, literature, political science, and more. To be an effective administrator in these settings, Patterson contends that you must read beyond your discipline.
  9. Be a generalist. Due to the nature of the job, an administrator does not have the time to devote to intense study within his academic field. As a result, he tends to be a generalist (as demonstrated by the previous trait).
  10. Have a sense of humor. Patterson is notorious for his practical jokes. I have often heard him say that you cannot take yourself too seriously. This does not mean that you have to take great pleasure in seeing a colleague squirm after being the target of a prank (although Patterson finds such a circumstance to be quite enjoyable). What it does mean is that you must have a side that is not so serious. The culture around schools under Patterson’s leadership has always included an undercurrent of humor. And the president is always fair game for a humorous barb. Just watch one of our faculty introduce him at a recent chapel service to see what I mean.

Interview with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Back in November I had the privilege of sitting down with Scott Corbin from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) for an interview. The interview is now available as part of the CBMW podcast series.

Over the course of about 20 minutes, we covered topics ranging from why I chose to study and teach ethics, the nature of marriage, the place of friendship, and the work of the church.If you endure to the end, you can even here a quick synopsis of the paper I presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (aka, my nerd convention) about third-party gamete donation in assisted reproductive technology. Is the use of donor sperm and/or eggs adultery? Listen to find out what I concluded.

You can listen to the interview at the CBMW website or download it here.

Religious Liberty as the Foundation for Pro-Life and Pro-Family Policies

Just over three weeks ago, I spent several days in Salt Lake City attending the World Congress of Families IX. I was privileged to speak during one of the plenary sessions on the closing day of the congress. The title of my session was “Religious Liberty as the Foundation for Pro-Life and Pro-Family Policies.” Video from my session (and many others) is now available on the WCF YouTube channel.

As part of my presentation, I noted that there are three distinct areas where we can see the influence of religious liberty in support of pro-life and pro-family policies. These three areas are marriage, healthcare, and education.

In my conclusion, I noted the following:

At the end of the day, religious liberty sets the foundation upon which we can build the best pro-life and pro-family policies. However, these policies are not simply going to come about because a nation has religious liberty protections. Such policies are still dependent upon people of faith exercising their beliefs in the public square to give a convincing argument for why God’s design for life and family is the most beneficial for the good of society. It is when people of faith practice their faith in a society that respects their right to freely exercise such faith that we will see the most effective pro-life and pro-family policies.

I was honored to be a part of the program for the World Congress of Families. The mission of WCF is to “provide sound scholarship and effective strategies to affirm and defend the natural family, thus encouraging a sustainable and free society.” This was the first congress held in the United States. I attended my first congress in Warsaw, Poland in 2007.

On a personal note, it was fun to “teach” a little Baptist history to such an ecumenical group. In fact, most of the questions I received throughout the rest of the day related to church history. It reminded me how little people know about the history of Christianity and how important it is to continue teaching our history as Christians (and Baptists).

Adrian Rogers: Prince of Preachers

Two of my worlds will collide later today. The days of my youth growing up at Bellevue Baptist Church will intersect with my current ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. When I heard that SWBTS had secured the Adrian Rogers library, I was excited. Today that library will be dedicated on our campus.

There is much I could say about the influence of Adrian Rogers on my life. He was my first pastor. I learned how to follow a sermon by listening to his carefully articulated and cleverly alliterated points projected by his uniquely resonant voice. He captured my mind with his intellect and my heart with his passion.

In the days following his death, I wrote my reflections on what he meant to me as a pastor. The two memories I shared then I still cherish today.

As a 16-year-old, I had been called to ministry but did not know what to expect. At the advice of my parents, I scheduled a meeting with the pastor. It was a Wednesday night when Dr. Rogers was not preaching, so I skipped the youth Bible study and went to his office. I figured that I would get about 15 minutes of his time before he had to move on to “more important things.” Instead, he gave me all the time I wanted. I walked into his office, where he was sitting on the sofa with his feet propped up on the table in front of him. He asked me what was on my mind and we talked for nearly an hour.

I don’t remember all his advice on that day more than 21 years ago, but I do remember one item in particular. He asked me if I had any preaching opportunities coming up. Since I was leading a Bible study at my school in a couple of weeks, I responded with an excited “yes.” He asked me what text I had chosen, and I told him Romans 1:16.

I can still vividly remember his response. He leaned his head back, looked toward heaven, and gave me a perfectly alliterated four-point sermon for my text. Only then realizing what he was doing, I asked him to repeat it and grabbed my Bible and a pen and wrote the sermon outline in the margin next to Romans 1:16. I “preached” that sermon a couple of weeks later and fell into the long line of preachers who not only tried to emulate Dr. Rogers but who also tried to preach one of his sermons.

My other memory came just months before he passed away. As a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, I was given the opportunity to pick up Dr. and Mrs. Rogers at the airport in April 2005 as he was flying in to preach for a chapel service. After a few weather delays, their flight landed shortly before midnight, and my wife and I were greeted by a notably energetic Dr. and Mrs. Rogers.

We got in the car and started heading toward the school when Dr. Rogers asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I gave him a couple of answers, and then I heard that famous voice speak up from the back seat of the car and say, “Well, my dear boy …”

For what seemed like an hour but was probably only 10 or 15 minutes, he described the joys of the pastorate and the impact someone can have by spending years in one church pouring himself into the people as their pastor. I could tell that he had spent his life doing what he thought was the most important role he could ever have.

During that drive to campus, he asked me about some of my professors, specifically wanting to know who I had taken for preaching. After telling him about my preaching class with Dr. Stephen Rummage, I attempted to compliment him by saying that the best preaching class I ever had was listening to him preach every week at Bellevue. The car got silent, and I halfway expected a response along the lines of “that’s too kind.” Instead, I got a glimpse of the humor many others had told me about. After a few moments of silence, he said, “You’re right. That probably was the best preaching class you could ever have.” That memory still makes me chuckle more than a decade later—but he was right.

My life has been forever shaped by the ministry of Dr. Adrian Rogers. After spending a few years in seminary, I realized that I knew what expository preaching looked like long before I knew what the words meant. I witnessed what it meant to be a man of integrity in the pulpit, even in the face of trying times and difficult circumstances. And, personally, I learned the impact that a man can have on a young preacher boy just by taking a few moments out of his schedule to sit down and talk.

I am so thankful that Southwestern Seminary will be the home of his library. I look forward to perusing the books and notes from which he developed the sermons I heard from my childhood until I left home for seminary. Adrian Rogers impacted my life in ways that I cannot even articulate. I am grateful that my students at Southwestern will be able to get a glimpse of this man I greatly respected and admired.