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Religious leaders: Clinton speech not confession, but there is still hope

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Clinton’s acknowledgment of an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern failed as a confession of sin, but he still has an opportunity to make things right, a majority of church leaders participating in a panel discussion said the day after his historic speech.
Representatives of a variety of Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church met Aug. 18 to consider the pastoral advice they would provide the president and others involved in the moral crisis surrounding the country’s chief executive. All but a handful of the 17 panelists, who were invited to participate by the Washington-based National Clergy Council, described Clinton’s five-minute address to the country as inadequate biblically, noting it lacked an apology and a request for forgiveness while it included blame for others, including Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.
“This was not a confession; this was an admission,” said Martin Eppard, a charismatic Episcopal Church priest.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “He did not apologize to the American people for lying to them. He did not ask for the forgiveness of the American people. I think if he had, the tenor of the remarks today, both here and around the country, would be far different than it is.”
David Adams, head of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s office of government information, said the president’s speech was, as someone said on television, the “work of a lawyer, not a poet and, we might add, not a penitent.”
A few panelists refused to reject Clinton’s speech as confessional.
C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of The Interfaith Alliance and a former Southern Baptist pastor, said he does not “think you can say it’s not confession unless you use the words I use, it is not confession unless you use the tone of voice that I use. Confession is a very personal act … .”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and an ordained United Church of Christ minister, said, “President Clinton, I daresay, has apologized to America, is seeking peace with his family and has already been granted the grace of God.
“What we heard from the president last night was an appropriate response by a public official to an admission of wrongdoing,” Lynn said. “I think what was done last night was as close as the United States of America comes to a public confession.
“And I think we should expect and require no more of the president in his time of trouble and sin than we would of anyone who would come to be our counselee in a similar time of crisis.”
Robert Brantley, a specialist in biblical conflict resolution from Baltimore, said he counsels people there are seven A’s, or elements, in confession:
— Address everyone involved;
— Avoid “if,” “but” and “maybe;”
— Admit specific offenses;
— Apologize by expressing sorrow;
— Accept the consequences;
— Alter behavior;
— Ask for forgiveness.
The president has to deal with his sin before the body of Christ and the American public, some panelists said, because he has made a public profession of being a Christian and because he denied to Americans on national television the allegations of sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, respectively.
Sin “should be dealt with within the circle in which that sin or wrongdoing has had an impact,” said Charles Nestor, an Assembly of God pastor from Manassas, Va. “If this situation had been purely private, never discussed in public, known to the spouse and the person who was the partner in this failure, then I believe it should be confined within that situation.”
Land said, “The presidency is a unique office with unique privileges and unique responsibilities, and being focused on goes with the job. And I think the president has an enormous opportunity here to lead us through a redemptive process through his own personal example.”
By the appropriate response, Clinton could help further the opportunity for “moral and spiritual renewal” in this country, said Ben Sheldon, a retired Presbyterian pastor and executive director of the National Pro-life Religious Council.
“I would ask everyone to pray for the president,” Land said in his closing comments. “I pray that God would speak to the heart of President Clinton and he will tell the truth and experience the forgiveness, the absolution and the redemption that our Savior has promised to those who confess their sins and throw themselves on his mercy and his grace.”
The president needs to ask forgiveness of his family, his friends, Lewinsky and the American people, Land said.
Paul Schenck, a Reformed Episcopal pastor in Baltimore, said from a pastoral perspective he would recommend a man in the president’s situation resign in order to repair his family.
“I simply don’t believe that it’s possible to restore his relationship with his wife and his daughter while he’s in the office of the presidency, and he’s said that’s the most important thing,” Schenck said.
While the National Clergy Council’s officers called for Clinton to resign, most panelists did not. The National Clergy Council is an informal network of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant church leaders who seek to provide biblical guidance in the public-policy arena.
The meeting was scheduled before Clinton’s Aug. 17 speech was planned. While the majority of the time was spent in a discussion of the president, panelists also considered the guidance they would provide Congress, Lewinsky and Starr. Starr is expected to send a report on his investigation to Congress in several weeks.
Congress has a “moral obligation to the nation to limit its own desire for political advantage,” Adams said.
Land called for a “vote of censure” of the president by Congress if there is no evidence of perjury by Clinton.

Christ, not culture, must be focus
of churches, black prof contends
By Linda Lawson

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–The church that most closely matches God’s ideal is not centered in white European culture or black African culture.
It is centered in Christ.
“I’m a professor of black church studies, but I really don’t believe there’s a black church. I don’t believe there’s a white church either. We’re part of the church of Jesus Christ,” T. Vaughan Walker, pastor of First Gethsemane Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky., and a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. He led a conference, “Is Christianity a White Religion?” during Black Church Leadership Conference Aug. 17-21 at Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center.
Walker acknowledged culture is a powerful force both in white and black churches.
“The question is, Has the dominant culture so overwhelmed the faith or religion that we have a hard time seeing Christ?” Walker said.
The predominance of European culture in Christianity has often led to a limited understanding of Scripture, he noted. “We have been inundated in America with a Eurocentric view of history. It has blinded all of us. There is a need for some correction.”
For example, he said little emphasis has been given to the fact that the Ethiopian eunuch whose conversion is told in the 8th chapter of the book of Acts was a black man, perhaps the first non-Jewish convert. He returned to Africa with his faith.
Christianity was present in Africa before Islam, Walker said.
“We need to understand and be able to defend black people in the Bible. We need to understand the importance of Christianity on the African continent,” he said.
Walker warned African American Christians can make the same mistake many Europeans did, emphasizing culture over Christ. For that reason, he said he prefers the term “Afro-sensitive” over “Afro-centric.”
“There is a problem with anything that is in the center (of the church) that is not Christ,” Walker said. “We need to be sensitive to our heritage as people of color when we consider the Scripture, think about ministry and teach about God. If we had done this better, fewer young people might be questioning Christianity.”
The bottom-line issue, Walker said, is “one of our fears is that we’re playing on a Eurocentric court rather than a Christocentric court. I really do believe God wants us to have a Christocentric church.”
Because their history includes slavery and oppression, a unique issue facing African American Christians is “how far can we go for the unity of the race,” he said.
For example, “As a pastor of a Christian church, I am not inviting a member of the Nation of Islam to speak at our church. My brothers and sisters are Christians,” Walker said.
“We cannot play games with the culture and miss the only way to salvation. God died for everybody — the Klansman, the Panther, the racist. No other religion makes that claim.”
Images of God must not be limited to a race, black or white, Walker said.
“God will not be confined to a box. He is too big for that.”
Black Church Leadership Conference was sponsored by four Southern Baptist entities — LifeWay Christian Resources, the North American Mission Board, the International Mission Board and the Annuity Board.

Book & CD-ROM ease
pronouncing Bible words
By Linda Lawson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–So your Sunday school teacher calls on you to read a few verses aloud.
No problem! You turn confidently in your contemporary translation to Judges 10.
Suddenly, the request that seemed so easy a moment ago looks impossible. Every other word looks like a foreign language.
There’s Abimelech, Issachar, Tola, Puah, Dodo, Shamir, Ephraim, Jair and Gilead. And that’s only through verse 3!
Do you stumble through it, making up pronunciations the best you can? Make a joke and use “duh” for every word you don’t have a clue about? Claim that your Bible doesn’t have the Book of Judges and someone else will have to do the reading?
This fictional character could represent all Sunday school teachers, members, preachers or professors who have found themselves in the position of needing to pronounce aloud from the Bible that which appears unpronounceable.
Broadman & Holman Publishers, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, released in 1997 “That’s Easy for You to Say: Your Quick Guide to Pronouncing Bible Names” by W. Murray Severance. The book and accompanying CD-ROM include the pronunciations of more than 7,000 words.
When preparing a sermon, a lecture or Sunday school lesson, persons can look up words from the alphabetized listing and find them spelled phonetically. And, using the CD-ROM, they can type in the word, see the phonetic spelling and hear it pronounced aloud.
Severance, a LifeWay retiree and longtime audiovisuals producer, said he got the idea for the first edition of the book when a Bible scholar and fellow employee stopped by his office one day several years ago. He was about to tape a Sunday school lesson for radio and inquired about the pronunciation of an obscure Bible name.
“He, like preachers, teachers and other lecturers, realized that a successful presentation depends as much on how materials are presented as on what is said,” Severance wrote in his book’s introduction. “After I offered my opinion, it dawned on me that if an educator of his stature needed help, what about others with less training?”
The original version of Severance’s book was released in 1983, with an expanded edition in 1994, followed by the CD-ROM version in 1997.
Severance acknowledges that the message of the Bible is more important than how the words are pronounced. However, he emphasizes, “mispronunciation of any word always affects the listener’s continuity of thought.”
The variety of Bible translations in use today compounds the problem of spelling and pronunciation, Severance says, noting that some names have five different spellings or spacings.
That’s Easy for You to Say includes words and names from the Bible text as well as names of Bible books and hundreds of names and terms from biblical archaeology, cities, lakes and rivers that appear in Bible reference books but not in the Bible text.
Severance realizes that some will disagree with pronunciations he has listed. He describes the book as “a guide, not the final authority.”
While the Sunday school class member called on spontaneously to read from Judges 10 would not be able to check pronunciations before tackling the passage, a savvy teacher could plan ahead and write them on the board for the reader and all class members. For the record, the names from Judges 10:1-3 are pronounced, according to Severance, as: uh BIM uh lek; ISS uh kahr; TOH luh; PYOO uh; DOH duh; SHAY muhr; EE fra ihm; JAY uhr; and GIL ih uhd.

71-year-old pastor to deaf
earns diploma in ministry
By Amanda Phifer

UNION, S.C. (BP)–Alvin Biggerstaff received his diploma in Christian ministry in May.
That doesn’t sound so unusual until you know the rest of the story. First, Biggerstaff is deaf. Second, he pastors the deaf mission church of Mon Aetna Baptist Church, Union, S.C. Third, he’s 71 years old. And fourth, it took him three years of traveling to Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center to earn the degree.
Biggerstaff is a member of the first graduating class of the Tri-State School of Theology for the Deaf, has been a part of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Boyce Bible School (now James P. Boyce College of the Bible). Every semester, he and 10 other students from North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee made the trek from their hometowns to Ridgecrest every third Friday night for an all-day Saturday class, eventually completing six courses for their diplomas in Christian ministry.
This school of theology was a far cry from Biggerstaff’s initial experiences in the classroom. At the North Carolina School for the Deaf, where he was sent as an elementary student, Biggerstaff endured three years of sitting on his hands because the teachers would not let students sign. They wanted them to learn how to speak and read lips.
In his fourth year at school, he had a teacher who used some sign language. “I learned fast,” he says — in fact, he went through two grades each year until he withdrew to care for an ailing father.
That same aptitude came into play shortly after Biggerstaff accepted Christ in 1956. In 1976, Biggerstaff and his wife, Frances, attended a conference for the deaf in South Carolina; a year later, he was asked to be the conference’s vice president.
“I was insecure, even though I wanted to do it,” he says. “I started to study harder for my Sunday school lesson, to teach better. I completed several correspondence courses for the deaf. My deaf Sunday school class saw me taking these courses and teaching.”
In 1980, Biggerstaff began to lead revivals, deaf awareness days and emphases, and Sunday schools for the deaf in towns all across South Carolina. Frances, who is also hearing-impaired, went with him.
By 1985, Biggerstaff says, they were referring to him as “Reverend,” even though he was not ordained. That changed in 1994.
“Billy Sistrunk, a member of Mon Aetna Church, suggested to our pastor, ‘Deaf people want to ordain Alvin as preacher to the deaf,'” Biggerstaff says.
As pastor of a deaf church, Biggerstaff’s responsibilities are much the same as any pastor: preaching, studying, visitation, teaching, administration. It’s his audience that is so different. He and Frances face an uphill battle in visitation and outreach to the small community of deaf in Union.
“Many parents of deaf refuse to accept that their children are deaf and refuse to let them come to the church,” he says. “We face resistance.”
The Biggerstaffs also lead a monthly club at the South Carolina School for the Deaf in Spartanburg — G.L.A.D., “God Loves All Deaf.”

EDITORS’ NOTE: In (BP) story titled “President’s ‘regret’ called short of true confession,” dated 8/18/98, the following can be added as the 11th paragraph:
Reccord encouraged Southern Baptists to pray the following verses for the first family: 1 Timothy 2:2; Psalm 51:6,17; and Proverbs 4:23. He then led the group in prayer for the Clinton family, asking the Lord to “restore them, heal the damage done … draw them back to yourself.”
Baptist Press