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apostle/pastor/elder/deacon and all that

November 2, 2011 2 comments

As I have mentioned many times here before, I came out of an independent Baptist background, was involved in one of the first modern megachurches, spent some time in a Calvary Chapel, and since then in a Presbyterian (PCA) church. Most of the churches I’ve seen have been, either de jure or de facto, run, owned, or ruled by one pastor, and there has been a relatively weak board of deacons or elders, as well as in some cases more than one paid pastor. I realize my experience is not exactly typical, especially when compared with that of people who attend churches with strong denominations.

The churches I attended growing up formed as splits off Southern Baptist churches, and were at least partly reacting to a theological liberal drift in Southern Baptist seminaries. They tended to associate with one another formally only to sponsor missionaries, in imitation of their SBC forebears. They were in almost all other regards independent, although there were a couple that always recruited pastors that went to the same school.

The megachurch was built around a single personality (Jerry Falwell) and is still sort of finding its way since his death. They’ve joined the SBC; I really have no feel for how that new relationship is going.

I loved my Calvary Chapel, but it more or less crumpled under the weight of pastoral misbehavior. Calvary pretty much has a “Moses model” of leadership and any accountability between churches was during my time there limited to a single sanction: “Big Calvary” could disaffiliate a local church, but that was about it. There were representations of other affiliations, but in a crisis they turned out to be over-represented.

Each of these churches had a way of explaining how their take on church governance lined up with the New Testament passages describing pastors, apostles, elders, and deacons. There was also in each case a kind of “folk theology” that was assumed but not stated that the pastor filled some sort of apostle/elder role, and our deacons or elders filled some sort of elder/deacon role.

We always understood that apostles were more than missionaries; their “apo-” prefix meant they were sent by someone, and we took that to mean God, rather than just sent by a church or group of churches. We knew at one level that all the real Apostles were dead, but we tended to give our local pastor a break when he sat in Paul’s seat, so to speak. This made me uncomfortable, and still does.

We also understood from the Scriptures that the original elders were appointed by the Apostles or their delegates (Timothy; Titus) but we sort of glossed over this because the Apostles weren’t available, and being Baptists we had soft spot for voting. We voted on our deacons and they served as elders. Because our churches were relatively small this worked reasonably well. We occasionally ran into problems because deacons had limited terms and pastors were in principle serving for life.

Every model is imperfect, and every model is liable to some kind of excess. I think lately we’ve seen more trouble from megachurches with superstar pastors who are not accountable, and it’s this situation that is causing some churches to move to elder-led structures. I have lately been listening to a 22-part podcast from an Albuquerque church that has elder leadership as described by Alexander Strauch [PDF, link].

This church has a formal group of elders, some paid, some not, and follows Strauch’s interpretation of various New Testament passages. This is the first time I’ve found a church (apart from the Brethren fellowship I mentioned in another post) that attempts to constitute their leadership according to all the various verses that talk about elders.

I’m about halfway through the series, and I’m putting off any analysis until I get through it. So far I’d call it fascinating. I was surprised to discover that they constitute themselves as an independent church and take a dim view of both head pastors and seminaries, but they have a single paid elder who does the bulk of the pulpit preaching. Twenty-three hours of anything is a lot to digest. More later.

 

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Jerry Johnston/First Family foreclosure

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s a great article [link] from the Kansas City Star, written by Judy Thomas and Laura Bauer, about the foreclosure on First Family Church in Overland Park, Kansas. It’s medium-long and full of facts, and it supports the thesis that even in hard times churches don’t fail financially unless there’s been some sort of pastoral malfeasance. Here’s an example:

Neither Johnston nor the church board has ever revealed his compensation. But a February court filing by Regions Bank related to the foreclosure put Johnston’s annual salary as of August 2010 at $400,000; his son, Jeremy, at $210,000; and son-in-law Christian Newsome at $180,000. Johnston’s wife, Christie, made $60,000, the document said, and his daughters, Danielle Newsome and Jenilee Johnston, earned $40,000 and $25,000. That totals $915,000.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if a pastor puts family members on the payroll it’s a good indication something fishy’s going on.

Oh and: as a Liberty University graduate I’m disappointed to see Jerry Falwell’s name mentioned repeatedly in this article, including

For example, Johnston referred to himself as “Dr. Jerry” for years until questions were raised, and the title was prominently displayed on a large sign at First Family Church’s entrance. It was an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree he received from Falwell’s Liberty University in 1998 when he was the speaker for a baccalaureate service.

Pelosi: Friends of God (2007)

September 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Over the weekend I got a chance to finish watching Alexandra Pelosi’s 2007 travelogue/documentary Friends of God. In the second half she spends a fair amount of time at Liberty University and at Thomas Road Baptist Church, and she visits a BattleCry rally. She also has a parting shot on Ted Haggard, whose sex-and-drugs scandal broke after Pelosi finished filming but before she finished production.

There’s some other stuff, too, but it’s mostly filler: a drive-through church, one of those guys who puts up crosses everywhere, etc. Pelosi’s take on most of these is pretty much live-and-let-live. I guess they’re supposed to soften the blow of the rest of the film.

Pelosi visited Lynchburg during the 2006 Congressional election cycle; Jerry Falwell had months to live, and the church was still at its Thomas Road location, before it moved to Candlers/Liberty Mountain. I’d forgotten how unwell Jerry looked the last few years of his life. It doesn’t help that he sits down to talk to Pelosi wearing casual not to say unflattering clothes, and of course she shoots him with the funny lens that distorts the shape of his head and makes him look even less well.

There’s also a brief introduction to Mel While, and footage of White crying while attending Thomas Road. Oddly enough White doesn’t get the eggplant-head treatment; I’m not sure why. It was a bit jarring for me to see White portrayed as the prophetic moral voice in his segment, engaged in some sort of peaceful protest by attending church at Thomas Road. And the footage of him sitting in church, apparently alone, crying, had a too-perfect feel. For some reason it reminded me of the orange juice scene in The Decline of Western Civilization II [link]. I wouldn’t say it was fake; it just looked and felt staged.

Her coverage of the BattleCry rally was essentially incoherent. All I really took away from the segment was that BattleCry rallies have slick marketing, a clear message of some sort, and are loud. I don’t understand why BattleCry and Rock For Life get as much attention as they do, and I definitely got the impression that Pelosi was appealing to a reference point she and I don’t share. I think the message was supposed to be something like “back in the Sixties rock concerts changed the world; now they’re in danger of changing it back again,” or some such. I’m not sure.

I think the definitive voice in the film was one of the short segments in the first half, where Pelosi visits Jeff and Susan Chapman: pastor, wife, and ten children with an eleventh on the way. Susan Chapman says directly to the camera that she though when she was in college she wanted to become a lawyer and eventually be the first woman President, but instead she got married and had ten children. To Chapman this is a clear sign of God’s work in her life; but I’m guessing Pelosi included her because she comes across like a character from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale [link], and Pelosi uses her deftly to suggest that the rise of the Religious Right and the appointment of justices like Samuel Alito [link] will bring oppression and the end of feminism. Or some such. I could be wrong.

Careful viewers may also recall that Alito was the embodiment of all liberal fears in the movie Jesus Camp, too. Why Alito gets singled out this way I can’t imagine; he’s not an evangelical, and if he’s part of the theocratic avant garde I can’t figure how. But that’s another topic for another day.

I would recommend seeing Friends of God if you get a chance; it’s not a good movie, but I found it interesting to see what Pelosi considers strange if not horrible about contemporary Evangelicalism in America. Hint: some of it really is strange, and some of it is horrible. I’m just not sure she and I would agree on what, exactly, and how.

 

Jonathan Falwell: TRBC giving away “VCRs”

This little clip from just prior to Independence Day surfaced on YouTube a couple of days ago. In it, Jonathan Falwell, pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church, describes a list of gadgets the church will be giving away at its Celebrate America rally.

To his credit Falwell thinks on his feet, comes up with a joke at his own expense, etc.

I’m including the clip here because it gives a sense of what an immersive experience a TRBC service is, with the full band, the video screens, the bright colors, the host in constant motion, etc. I couldn’t tell you what it reminds me of. A host segment from a Jerry Lewis Telethon? A game show? FOX News? I can’t quite put my finger on it.

There’s also a clue as to the content of a typical service at TRBC; the “55 years” doesn’t refer to Falwell himself, of course; he’s in his mid-forties. He’s reminding the audience of the continuity between himself and his late father, who passed away just over four years ago.

We here at Half a Bridge sincerely hope for Jonathan’s sake all the radiation he’s absorbing from those video screens is the non-ionizing kind.

 

it’s called staying on message

If I had to offer two helpful hints for someone who wants to be in the world and of the world in the day of the soundbite-driven twenty-four-hour news cycle, I might offer the following:

  1. In a crisis always blame your enemies.
  2. Always stay on message.

I’d offer this as an explanation for e.g. Jerry Falwell’s comments on the 700 Club after 9/11 [link], and of course the flap surrounding it.

And it’s about all I can offer as an explanation for Emir Caner’s recent comment on Twitter (I can’t quite bring myself to type “Emir Caner’s tweet” as if it means anything):

The military discovered a large stash of pornography in bin Laden’s compound. I was unaware that Islam had its own Acts 29 Network. [link]

See also [link], which adds some helpful analysis.

What can I say about this? I’m embarrassed for Dr Caner. I have to wonder if this is yet another example of Send Button Syndrome, or whether he tried this material out in front of some Truett-McConnell College buddies first.

becoming postmodern at Liberty University

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

A year or so ago I posted for a while about what it was like being at Liberty University in the mid-Eighties; recent events (some involving Liberty, some not) have me thinking about this again. The upshot is this: I entered Liberty as a kind of “early Modern” person, and left as a kind of modern person with postmodern tendencies.

I think it’s fair to say that despite the occasional claim that Jerry Falwell and Liberty University herald the end of the Enlightenment, etc. Liberty is a very modern place full of people who see the world in a very modern way. And by this I don’t just mean that the vast majority of graduates enter fields that are industrial or postindustrial; I mean, there are lots of Business and Psychology graduates. But there’s more to it than that.

If we think of the history of Christianity as stretching from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Modern Era to whatever we are today, we have to acknowledge that the New Testament was written during the latter part of Ancient history, and the Reformation occurring on the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, but we are/were thoroughly modern. We tended to think in terms of “absolute truths,” “propositional logic,” and finally “propositional truth,” it didn’t occur to us to ask whether e.g. Paul’s readers would have read his letters the same way we read them, or whether they would have thought the same thing we did when they read them. We read our understanding of Paul’s words back into the text, mostly because we didn’t know of another way to read Paul.

One consequence of thinking this way was that I tended to see the world as existing in a kind of fixed matrix of truth, anchored by fixed points of divine revelation. Or as we often put it “all truth is God’s truth.” And since God is omniscient, everything true can be known.

It was at Liberty, and in class no less, that I stumbled onto two problems: one from Kurt Gödel and the other from Thomas Kuhn. Gödel dealt with issues of decidability; he proved that if a logical system is of sufficient complexity then it is either inconsistent or incomplete. Kuhn was more of a historian or a philosopher of science, and he argued pretty convincingly that while most of the time science consists of problem solving, and so is fairly stable and logical, there are occasional crises where science as it is practiced jumps more for social reasons than for logical reasons. What’s worse is his claim that scientists before and after the crisis are not mutually intelligible to each other. Or as he puts it “they talk past each other.”

Gödel led me to question that everything that is true could ever be known; I still haven’t worked my way out of that one. I’m not entirely sure it has theological implications per se, but I think I’d have to say that before reading Gödel I believed the correspondence between revelation and “ordinary truth” was close; afterward not so much.

Kuhn in a sense was and is more of a problem; his recasting of “scientists do science” as “science is what scientists do” plagues me still. I tend to see a lot of theological discussions as being centered in the theologians discussing rather than in an observable external theological phenomenon being discussed. Strictly speaking it’s a misapplication of what Kuhn argued, but unfortunately it’s a perspective that’s hard to shake.

So there you go; I’m still very modern in a lot of ways. I still believe that an author’s intent matters when reading a text, for example, but I lost a lot of the fundamentalist (or if you which presuppositionalist) certainty I took with me to Liberty. And I’m not entirely sure I would have gone through the same transition if I’d gone to school elsewhere. There was something jarring about hearing respectable authority figures claim both

“All truth is God’s truth”

and

“These [people] believe that there’s only one moral absolute, and that’s there are no moral absolutes.”

While at the same time reading Kuhn and realizing that not only do thinkers organize themselves socially as much as logically, but also that how these thinkers think varies from one period of history to another, with grave implications for whether they are mutually intelligible. I suppose it’s entirely possible that if I’d been someplace less linear (for lack of a better term) I might never have reached my own crisis.

 

D’Souza: Falwell Before the Millennium

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

When most people talk about “the Religious Right” or “the Christian Right,” they’re talking generally about theologically and politically conservative Christians who can be relied upon to vote a particular way (most of the time) and otherwise participate in politics (through donations or working on campaigns) in a particular way (most of the time). When they state specifics they often resort to breakdowns by denomination; the “Christian Right” consists of conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons. Never mind for the moment that this misses conservative non-denominational types (Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, etc.) and considers Mormons Christians; the former is complicated and the latter makes sense because Mormons in one part of the country (the Mormon Corridor, AKA the Jello Belt) can be identified as consistent, significant voter blocks.

Anyway, the history of the Christian Right over several election cycles has experienced a sea change: initially the issues and leaders came from Protestants and evangelicals and the coalition-makers tried to sell them to Catholics; now it appears that process has mostly reversed. See e.g. the Manhattan Declaration. I think this is because initially the analysis focused on the big numbers (there are more Protestants than Catholics) but now it focuses on smaller numbers (there are more Catholics than Southern Baptists or conservative Lutheran or what-have-you). Never mind that Protestants seem to be short on idea leaders and charismatic leaders, while Catholics do at least have a scholastic tradition that can occasionally manage more than a soundbite.

Dinesh D’Souza’s book (the whole title is Falwell: Before the Millennium: A Critical Biography [link]) is from 1984, and while it is mostly a straightforward biography of Falwell through about 1983, and is reasonably well-written, it’s important to understand that at least part of what D’Souza is doing here is attempting to make Falwell palatable to his Roman Catholic brethren. Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. About 70 pages putting Falwell in context in American history (the Scopes trial, etc.) and another telling of his conversion story. There are several good versions of Falwell’s conversion story, each with differing anecdotes but for the most part consistent with one another. This is a pretty good one.
  2. 40 pages or so explaining Falwell’s fundamentalist credentials, his entrance into national politics, and how those two things were at variance.
  3. 40 pages or so describing Falwell’s involvement in Moral Majority, national politics, etc. through about 1983.
  4. 50-60 pages of miscellaneous topics, including a visit to Lynchburg, a description of the various ministries circa 1983, etc.

Highlights include

  • A rundown of the 1970 FCC decision that changed the way religious television was regulated, making it possible for some TV preachers to become popular without various media outlets being required to provide equal time to their less popular counterparts/brethren. Dinesh D’Souza says Falwell was especially grateful to FCC Director (and Reagan appointee) Mark Fowler. I’d never heard that one before.
  • The claim on the part of D’Souza that Falwell believed that the Watergate break-in should never have been exposed. I don’t know that I ever heard Falwell say anything like this, and it struck me as a Republican article of faith that sounded weird in 1984 and still sounds weird today.
  • A theme regarding Falwell’s disagreements with various people affiliated with the World Council of Churches/National Council of Churches. It’s easy to forget that WCC people were the voice of Establishment Christianity in the United States circa 1975 or so.

This is mostly a brisk read and an interesting period piece. Sometimes it gets bogged down with inside-the-Beltway (or is that inside-the GOP?) minutiae, but that’s to be expected given D’Souza’s perspective at the time. I do kind of wish he’d delved a bit deeper into Falwell’s racial past (e.g. his supposed relationship with Lester Maddox) or his relationship to the right-wing fringe in Republican circles (e.g. his supposed relationship to the John Birch Society), and while a book like this would have been a safe place to do so D’Souza has other fish to fry.

I’d recommend it to people who are interested in the history of the Christian Right and its entanglements with the Republican Party.