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FIRST-PERSON: The leaven of culture

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–By virtue of Christian charity, one is loath to criticize another denomination in the midnight of its prophetic demise, but the recent action by the Episcopal Church in America to install a homosexual bishop cannot escape the sternest words of intemperate reproof.

I have listened carefully in recent days to the justification offered by those who have endorsed and supported the Episcopalian departure from a biblical ethic of sexuality. The new bishop of New Hampshire, for example, has exclaimed in interviews that “God is doing a new thing.” I have winced when he suggested that “the church needs to see what God is doing in our generation, and get in on it.” And I am left wondering what precisely he thinks is so new about sexual perversion and the attempt to rationalize it.

As I have listened, I have realized that the arguments in favor of installing homosexuals in clergy roles are grounded in a more fundamental and dangerous assertion, namely that the church must modernize if it is not to be marginalized. The leading advocates for this “new work of God” express heartfelt disdain for the historic values of Christianity and esteem the shifting sands of cultural peculiarity as a more solid ground for building the house of God than the firm rock of Christ and His unchanging Word.

So what are we to make of this assertion that the church must strip itself of archaic doctrinal formulations, adapt its ethical standards to reflect the culture, and modernize its traditions and liturgy? We need not be surprised, in fact, that Southern Baptists are just as susceptible to this line of reasoning. The same forces of cultural relevance that drive the Episcopalians to embrace homosexuality are chipping at the base of our own ecclesiological foundation.

To offer just one example, have you noticed the hermeneutic consistency between the argument to install homosexual clergymen in New Hampshire and the move to ordain women pastors? While ordaining homosexuals may reveal a more shocking rejection of biblical proscriptions, the shared pattern of culturally guided interpretation of the sacred text is unmistakable. The same argument is being used: The Bible is a culturally bound collection of prehistoric doctrines that any reasonable person would reject. Simply put, believe the Bible and kill the church, or at best render it irrelevant.

There are numerous reasons for caution over the effects of a little cultural leaven within our own denomination — and why Southern Baptists had better not look down our noses too quickly at the identity crisis in the Episcopalian Church. When church buildings look more like shopping centers designed to woo consumers, when pastors talk more like self-help gurus and mental-health therapists, when choral anthems sound more like Broadway musicals and marketing jingles, and when the greatest indictment of a church is that it is not contemporary, casual or creative, then be assured that we are not far from abdicating the biblical identity and moral ascendancy that Southern Baptists have forged through years of controversy and strife. We must never forget that the Bible we so ardently defend as inerrant is likewise infallible to define the worship and mission of the church in every generation.

So while the Episcopalians flounder in the tempestuous seas of a culture gone awry, Southern Baptists ought to be all the more vigilant that our prophetic salt does not become unsavory either by moral indifference or ecclesiological uncertainty.
Benjamin S. Cole is a master of theology student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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  • Benjamin S. Cole