MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)–A new interpretation of Mark’s Gospel, character slams on the late Jerry Falwell and rejection of Jewish evangelism were among the topics aired at workshops June 19-20 during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Memphis, Tenn.
Dozens of workshops were presented during three timeslots at the meeting. Baptist Press attended six of the workshops in order to gain a sampling of the material presented.
A statement in the General Assembly Guide says, “The opinions and views presented in General Assembly ministry workshops are those of the workshop presenters and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of, or endorsement by, The Fellowship or its members.
“Holding to the principles of soul freedom and church freedom, General Assembly workshop presenters do not speak for the Fellowship as an organization or for any of the Fellowship’s members. The ministry workshops are a time for learning and exchanging ideas and are not indicative of personal or organization doctrinal positions.”
NEW INTERPRETATION OF MARK
The Gospel of Mark was probably a Gnostic gospel that made it into the canon of orthodox Christian Scripture because either early church leaders failed to recognize it as Gnostic or because it was too popular to suppress, John Killinger said June 20 in his workshop “A Dramatic New Interpretation of the Gospel of Mark.”
Killinger, executive minister and theologian in residence at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, suggested in a workshop the previous day (covered by Baptist Press) that in the current age, the church should no longer preach that Jesus is God incarnate.
“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I am convinced — now hold onto your chair Baptist Press if you’re here — I am convinced that this Gospel is a Gnostic Gospel, that Mark was one of those thousands and thousands of Gnostic Christians,” Killinger said.
Gnostics were a cult during the first three centuries of Christianity who taught there was certain secret spiritual knowledge to which only a select group had access. Killinger pointed out that many other Gnostic gospels were written but not included in the Christian canon.
“You know, the Gnostics lost,” Killinger said. “The orthodox Christians won. They were the Nashville of their day. They overpowered and took possession of the property. They had the orthodox faith. But all over the empire, there were little pockets of Christians who didn’t see eye to eye with them.”
The evidence that Mark was a Gnostic gospel is the resurrection account is hidden throughout the book rather than at the end, he said. Especially in Mark 4-6, there are several stories about dramatic transformation that could be hidden resurrection accounts, Killinger said.
Interpreting Mark as a Gnostic gospel helps explain several puzzling features in Mark such as Jesus’ insistence that His followers keep His identity a secret, the book’s high regard for women and the truncated resurrection account, Killinger said.
Killinger’s church affirms homosexuality as normative and not sinful, and on its homepage has a link dedicated to the “gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered community.”
DEMEANING FALWELL’S MEMORY
Killinger, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Va., from 1980-86, also led a workshop called “My Life with Jerry Falwell” during which he told story after story disparaging the memory of the late evangelical leader.
One of the most disturbing moments came near the beginning of the session when Killinger suggested Falwell was in some way responsible for the death of his former financial consultant, William Menge. Menge’s body was found mutilated under a bush hog on Menge’s farm in 1980. The death was ruled an accident, but Killinger shared a conspiracy theory with the workshop audience, claiming two hit men killed Menge on Falwell’s behalf.
Killinger told of how he was one of the first people to question Falwell’s ministry on the national scene, being interviewed by such popular news outlets as People magazine and NBC Nightly News. He preached sermons in the early ’80s with titles such as “Would Jesus Appear on the Old Time Gospel Hour?” and “What Is Wrong with TV Evangelists.”
Falwell reacted by saying “We don’t need his kind around here” [referring to Killinger], and that death threats soon followed, the CBF workshop leader said to a crowd that seemed fully convinced of his claims. Killinger also insinuated Falwell, pointing to Falwell’s strong Washington connections at the time, was behind three years of IRS audits that Killinger and two other religious leaders in Lynchburg endured.
Killinger said his phone was tapped, his trash was stolen from his curb and he was otherwise harassed for months as he publicly criticized Falwell, who was pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg. He said Falwell then suddenly called a truce and wanted to meet with Killinger at least once a month for a year so the two could get acquainted.
To rounds of laughter from the packed room, Killinger told stories and provided negative character assessments of Falwell and his wife Macel based on his monthly social meetings with the couple. Killinger concluded that Falwell did more to divide conservatives and liberals than any man in U.S. history.
The stories Killinger shared will be available in a forthcoming book he has written about Falwell called “My Friend, My Enemy,” he said.
REJECTION OF JEWISH EVANGELISM
The Baptist Center for Ethics offered a screening of its DVD “Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships with Jews,” which said Southern Baptists historically have remained quiet or spoken out of turn concerning Jews, often through “harsh rhetoric” and “damaging actions.”
Some Baptists have lacked wisdom in addressing the religion, the DVD said, pointing to examples such as then Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith’s comment in 1980 that God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews, the 1996 SBC resolution to pray for the salvation of Jews, and the International Mission Board’s 1999 prayer guide focusing on Jewish evangelism.
Rabbis featured in the DVD thanked so-called “goodwill” Baptists for their positive and healing actions toward Jews by following Jesus’ admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Such Baptists, one rabbi said, don’t allow theology to get in the way of common values.
A panel discussion followed featuring Mike Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and John Finley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., who said one way his church developed a relationship with local Jews was to take them along on a mission trip to Cuba in February.
An audience member asked Finley how his church members witnessed to people during the trip, and Finley said they spent much of the time learning about each other’s religion by visiting historic Baptist and Jewish sites in Cuba. He didn’t directly address how they handled what is traditionally the most important component of a mission trip: sharing the Gospel with unbelievers.
Another audience member followed up by asking whether it is ethical to share Christ with Jews, and Finley said his rabbi friend understands that Christians want to talk about who Jesus is to them, but Finley said, “I don’t want to do a number on him,” and the friend would object if it were done in “great violence.”
One of the most distressing memories Finley said he had from attending a Jewish confirmation ceremony was that Jewish students said their Christian friends at school told them they were going to hell.
Smith said his rabbi friend has made known that he will never become a Christian, and Smith said, “I don’t have that agenda.” The two value their relationship and leave eternity up to God, he said. To say Christians ought to evangelize Jews is to inherently do violence to “love your neighbor,” Smith said. “What’s going to happen to my neighbor just isn’t my call,” he said.
Kevin Heifner, chairman of the Baptist Center for Ethics board, said at the end of the session that he would “love to see this discussion multiplied a thousand-fold, because I think it would be helpful for a lot of churches and individuals and congregations.”
“You could basically insert Islam or Hinduism. It doesn’t matter in a sense what the other religion is,” Heifner said. “We need to find a more sane approach coming at it from our Baptist background and then the neighbor part becomes fill-in-the-blank for me.”
THE NEW SOCIAL GOSPEL
Studying the teachings of Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the Social Gospel movement, can teach churches how to be more effective and biblical in their missions and evangelism, Rob Sellers said June 20 in a workshop entitled “Missional Churches and the New Social Gospel.”
Rauschenbusch “wrote that faith in the Kingdom of God is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven but transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven,” Sellers, a professor at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology in Abilene, Texas, said approvingly. “And for Rauschenbusch, transforming the life of individuals on earth meant addressing every aspect of their lives, not just their spiritual lives.”
Rauschenbusch, who lived from 1861 to 1918, argued in his 1917 book “A Theology for the Social Gospel” that traditional Christian theology must be replaced with a theology that supports the Social Gospel. He added that society had turned toward addressing social problems and so must Christianity.
While stressing that Christians must still do evangelism, Sellers said doing social work qualifies as Christian missions even if the story of Jesus is never mentioned.
“The problem for many Baptists has been that we talk about ‘soul winning’ as if we somehow could save people’s souls despite losing their bodies,” he said. “At first glance this idea sounds entirely logical because it’s so traditional. But the concept is based on an unbiblical body/soul or matter/spirit dualism that denies human wholeness.”
Sellers concluded, “The Social Gospel isn’t anything really other than the authentic Gospel.”
SEEING WOMEN AS PASTORS
Another workshop titled “Opening our Eyes: Seeing Women as Pastors” featured a panel including three women pastors who told of their experiences in overcoming traditional Baptist barriers on their way to the positions they hold today.
Andrea Dellinger Jones, pastor of Millbrook Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., said she believes her church called a woman pastor because the congregation is more progressive than most, having ordained women as deacons beginning in 1941.
Jones said she feels affirmed in her role as pastor and is pleased that she can be a role model to little girls who in the past didn’t have anyone of their gender in church leadership to follow.
Amy Mears, co-pastor of Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., said churches that are closer to calling women pastors are those congregations that will take risks, can have difficult conversations, have a stable recent history and have had good experiences with women in leadership roles.
Glendale Baptist was disaffiliated from the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 2003 when it hired April Baker, an open homosexual, as an associate pastor. In 2004, Baker was promoted to co-pastor and Mears was hired.
Mears told the workshop audience she was pleased recently when she heard of a 5th grade boy from her church who remarked to his mother that he found it odd that two churches on a street corner in Nashville both had men pastors. She also said that at Glendale the women in leadership roles make a point to involve men in decision-making.
Robin Norsworthy, pastor of University Baptist Church in Montevallo, Ala., said she was miserable in ministry for many years because she didn’t feel like she fit in any of the roles women traditionally fill in churches. Now she is surprised by how happy she is as a senior pastor.
David Roach is a correspondent for Baptist Press based in Louisville, Ky., and Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.