Editorial: Churches are afraid, what to do

Lifeway Research released study results Aug. 8 that find growing fear among Protestant churches in the United States. How many churches are afraid, of what and why?

Numbers and whats are quantifiable and definable, making them easier to handle than whys. Numbers and whats feel safe, because we can handle them at arm’s length without feeling implicated. But whys? Whys can get personal.

Like the squirrel that scampers to the other side of the tree trunk from us—because an unseen threat doesn’t exist—we’ll put numbers and whats between us and the whys so we don’t have to acknowledge the latter.

Like Grover despairing over the monster at the end of the book—almost moving heaven and earth to keep the reader from turning one more page, narrowing the distance to the end—we’ll do anything to avoid the whys.

Spoiler alert: There is a monster at the end of the book, and that monster is us. Like Grover, we don’t know yet if that monster is friend or foe. Unlike Grover, we’re not in a silly story. The story we’re in has some really consequential numbers, whats and whys.

We need to get to the whys, but before we do, I’ll answer the numbers and whats questions from above.

Fear by the numbers

Lifeway Research reported almost 70 percent of Protestant pastors in the United States see their churches growing more fearful “about the future of the nation and world.” About 63 percent are more fearful specifically “about the future of Christianity” in the nation and world.

The most fearful group in the survey were white respondents, at 71 percent. About 72 percent of Baptist pastors see this fear for the future in their churches. Churches with less than 50 in attendance were reported as the most likely to have “a growing fear about the future.”

Percentages are somewhat lower than they were in 2014 and 2010—even with the intervening pandemic years—but they’re still high enough to pass a motion requiring a two-thirds vote.

Furthermore, Scott McConnell—executive director of Lifeway Research—expressed what I take to be concern that even though percentages have decreased, “a large majority of pastors see their congregations moving toward fear rather than away from it” (emphasis added).

According to the numbers, there is a lot of concern in our churches. That concern is about the future. But “concern” isn’t the word used in the study. The word used is “fear.” And it’s growing—according to the research.

What’s so scary?

As already stated, churches are growing in fear about the future, but left unstated is what about the future is causing so much fear. The survey names the future of the nation, the world and Christianity, but it does not specify what about the future of those three is generating fear.

Could it be: (A) lower standard of living, (B) financial insecurity, (C) poor health, (D) political instability, (E) decreased safety, (F) church closure, (G) religious persecution, (H) all the above, (I) other: please specify?

I was a pastor of a small Baptist church in a rural, low-income and predominantly white community. People in my church and community were concerned—and plenty were fearful—about several of the options listed above. In the five years since, I doubt their concerns have subsided.

During the last five years, as I’ve been in regular contact with pastors, ministry leaders and churches all over Texas and beyond, I know many share the same concerns—especially during and after 2020 and 2021.

Many of us have enjoyed decades—generations, even—of prosperity, and we don’t want to experience life without it. Life without safety, security, stability, good health and an overall high standard of living entails some degree of suffering. No, we certainly don’t want that.

And now we’re to an important why—a reason so many churches are afraid.

Why churches are afraid

Many churches are afraid the future is going to be worse than the present, which many of them consider to be worse than the past. But here again, I’m at arm’s length with the phrase “churches are afraid.”

To be more precise: Many of us—you and I—are afraid the future is going to be worse than the present, and many of us consider the present to be worse than the past.

We know intuitively that safety, security, stability, good health and an overall high standard of living are not givens. None of them are guaranteed, and none of them are the natural state of things. Each requires commitment, hard work, cooperation and God’s grace.

Even with all of that, we also know intuitively whatever measure we have of any of these things isn’t going to and doesn’t last forever. We fear their loss.

Our fear drives us to all kinds of unproductive things—paralysis, fighting, obsession, to name a few. There is a better way.

Prepare for the future

We would do better to agree with our intuition, to celebrate what good we enjoy and to prepare ourselves for life without it.

Instead of the typical ways we respond to loss and the threat of loss, we would do better to train ourselves to respond with Christlikeness to our inevitable losses.

For example, while advocating for religious liberty, we should give equal time to practicing how we will respond to persecution in Christlikeness when persecution comes. While maintaining fiscal responsibility, we should imagine how we will “do church” to God’s glory if one day we no longer can afford a building.

Our preparation for our future should be greater than our fear of it.

Let us not be characterized by our fear about the future, which ultimately includes God’s complete restoration of all things, including us. Let us instead be known by our trust in Christ whose lived example can prepare us for the rough times before our restoration.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author.

Editorial: School’s starting, and teachers need our support

Teachers across Texas are preparing for school to begin. Parents are buying school supplies. Students are soaking up what’s left of summer. Legislators are anticipating another special session to address public school funding.

Texas public education needs to be funded properly and adequately. A state that ranked as the world’s ninth largest economy in 2021 ought to be able to pull that off. A state that wants to remain one of the world’s largest economies must pull that off—or import labor others educate.

That last clause was sarcasm. We should not rely on others to educate our future workforce; their education is our responsibility. But education is more than a means to the utilitarian end of creating a workforce.

We need to take responsibility for educating our children, not merely to benefit ourselves, but for our children’s benefit and so they benefit others wherever they go. That is quality education.

Quality education requires more than money, though we need to allocate more money to education. Quality education requires supporting the whole enterprise.

As Texas educators prepare to start another school year, I wanted to know if teachers are receiving the support they need. I asked them two questions: How do you feel about teaching going into this school year? What do you still need going into this school year?

Educators aren’t the only ones for whom these questions are relevant. They are relevant to all Texas Baptists, because many Texas teachers, administrators and educational staff come from our ranks.

I didn’t receive many responses, because those in public education are currently in training. What responses I did receive echo what I’ve heard regularly over the last few years from those in public education.

Support educators need

Sufficient funding is part of supporting the whole educational enterprise. We can advocate for this funding by contacting our state senators and representatives to let them know we expect Texas to fund public education properly and adequately. Such funding includes teacher pay raises. Texans can find contact information for their legislators here.

We can support our educators through our own direct funding. Teachers have been spending their own money for decades to buy pens, pencils, paper and other basic supplies for their students. We can purchase at least some of the school supplies teachers are having to buy themselves.

One church I know collected a short list of items from each classroom teacher in its local school district. The church then purchased the items requested.

Another part of supporting the educational enterprise is through giving our time to our local schools. In fact, teachers frequently say they need more time to do everything they are expected to do. Our time could be their “more time.”

Many teachers feel an expectation to be superhuman. One said she’s expected to be a teacher, parent, counselor, nurse, behavior specialist, intervention specialist and chef—all in one. I’ve heard variations of this feeling for several years.

One teacher said having more adults in her classroom would help immensely. In districts that cannot afford enough classroom aides—which is just about all districts—churches can enlist their members to volunteer as classroom aides or elsewhere on campus.

School administrators are glad to explain how you can become a volunteer. Give them a call, ask what they need volunteers to do, consider which of those needs you can meet, and commit time to do it.

Having served as a volunteer in our local school districts for most of the last 8 years—the exception being when our local district did not allow volunteers on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic—I can attest to how much educators value this kind of service.

We can and should support our educators by speaking encouraging words to them regularly. Educators receive criticism from just about every direction. We can be a source of more grace and less criticism.

Another simple thing we can do that goes a long way is to keep a school’s breakroom stocked with snacks.

You likely have at least one person in your congregation who is a teacher, administrator or staff member at a local school district. Ask that person the same two questions I asked, and be prepared to be the answer.

Support a teacher’s calling

Most teachers take their profession very seriously. They love teaching. They care about their students—enough to put themselves in harm’s way to protect them, enough to lose sleep at night worried about their “kids,” enough to shell out hundreds of dollars of their own money to buy even basic school supplies for their classrooms.

Most teachers can’t not teach; it’s in their bones. Many of them consider their profession a calling, in much the same way ministers are called to ministry. And like ministers can become burned out and leave ministry early, teachers can and are burning out and leaving education early.

All of this is true for teachers in public and private education. They all need encouragement and support.

So, I encourage you and your church to contact your local educators. Ask them how you can support them. Look at your available resources, and determine clear and concrete ways you can bring them to bear in serving your local educators, remembering many of them are your own brothers and sisters in Christ.

That last statement points to another reason we need to support our educators—many of them are fellow Christians. They see education as more than a job, more than a paycheck, more than just teaching. For them, education is their ministry. It is God’s calling on their lives. It is how they communicate Christ’s love for all the world.

We need to support our fellow Christians serving in education, because Christ’s love for all the world is our shared responsibility. None of us are to go it alone, and none of us should feel we shoulder the load alone.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author.

Editorial: Pastors have mental health needs, too

Let’s talk about pastoral mental health.

Perhaps this topic seems out of left field. After all, it’s not May—Mental Health Awareness Month—and the Baptist conversation seems to be about other things at present—such as women in ministry and where Southern Baptists and Texas Baptists are headed.

It doesn’t need to be May to talk about mental health any more than it needs to be Mother’s Day—also in May—to appreciate moms. And to think what Baptists are talking about most right now isn’t related to pastoral mental health is itself out in left field—says this former pastor.

We need to talk now about pastoral mental health, because it affects our team, every member of which deserves our attention and care. We need to talk about it now, because some pastors are enduring mental health struggles now.

Feeling ‘out of left field’

When it comes to our team, are pastors the pitcher, the manager or someone else? Based on the reactions pastors often receive, many feel as though they’re out in left field.

We know the expression comes from baseball, and we’re pretty sure it means something like “crazy” or “irrelevant” at worst, or “unexpected” at best. A little baseball history enriches the expression.

Center field used to be much farther out than it is today. If a left fielder was able to throw to home plate, the runner headed home—whose back is to the ball—could be surprised when the catcher came up with a ball thrown from way out in left field.

According to Chicago Cubs lore, the expression might point back to the Cubs original ballpark—West Side Grounds (1893–1915). At the time, Cook County Hospital was located close enough to that original left field that psychiatric patients supposedly could be heard by fans and players during games.

This second bit of history will not make pastors feel better about their mental health. But the reality is, too many pastors too often don’t feel like they’re even on the field. They feel like one of the patients outside the wall, while the people around them are trying to drown out their struggle with an afternoon’s—or morning’s—entertainment.

Struggling alone

Consider the irony. Today, we pay small and large fortunes—with little complaint—to watch a game. Part of that fortune goes to keep elite athletes in prime condition. Meanwhile, we often pinch pennies taking care of those who tend to eternal matters—those who teach us, guide us, baptize us, marry us and bury us.

We hardly expected Nolan Ryan to pitch every single game of even a single season, nor every inning of every game. We also did not expect him to be at the top of his game with every pitch. Or, maybe we did.

Pastors, however, are expected to be strong—mentally and spiritually tough, if not also physically—at all times. We don’t expect pastors to struggle with depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health challenges.

We might fear if even those we believe have a direct line to God have these struggles, what hope is there for us? In our false beliefs about pastors, we add still more strain on them.

So, when pastors do struggle, they struggle out in left field, far from the rest of the team. If they can afford counseling, they receive it secretly, because what would the church think? If they take medication(s), it must be more clandestine than their alcohol consumption—if they consume alcohol—because if the church spooks at counseling, it might bolt at medication.

And if a pastor needs more than counseling and/or medication? Well, we’re just not going to talk about that.

Providing care for pastors

Maybe your church isn’t like that. Maybe your church recognizes your pastor is a human being, with all that entails. Maybe your church is investing in whatever it takes to keep your paster in prime condition. May your tribe increase.

For the rest, consider another illustration from baseball.

If a pastor is like a pitcher: Every Major League Baseball team knows starting pitchers get a few days of rest between games in which they pitch. Someone else pitches those between games. Even the best pitchers are afforded and take this rest. In fact, the best pitchers don’t get to the Hall of Fame without the rest.

Church, we shouldn’t let a baseball team take better care of its players than we take care of our pastors. One way we can improve our care for them is by affording them the space and grace to process and heal mental illness.

This space and grace looks like withholding judgment and turning off nosiness and gossip about our pastor’s emotional and cognitive condition. Mental health is something to address compassionately; it is not something to stigmatize.

It looks like enlisting a safe, trusted and small group of people who compassionately stay abreast of the pastor’s total health—body, mind and soul—pastoring the pastor.

About this group: How much this group knows about the pastor should be judiciously and appropriately delineated in consultation with the pastor, as should the nature and degree of authority the group has in relation to the pastor. The group should not be an ecclesiastical Big Brother, nor should it have power over employment. Its role is to care for the pastor.

Space and grace also looks like allocating resources for the best mental health care the church can afford, and churches can afford more than they think. This care may include professional counseling, medication, retreats and more.

It looks like securing time on the schedule weekly, quarterly and yearly for the pastor to pull back, rest and recuperate—whether anyone, including the pastor, thinks it’s needed. Pastors, God love ’em, don’t always know what they need—says this former pastor.

Care for your pastor well

Pastors understand leadership requires them to be strong in ways and at times others are not. Pastors don’t typically shy away from that. But leadership does not require them to be strong in every way or at all times, and it definitely doesn’t require them to be the strongest.

Pastoral leadership also does not require complete self-sufficiency. Too often, our pastors struggle alone with mental health challenges, unsure how their churches will respond to their humanness. We won’t tolerate our pastors treating us that way when we struggle. They shouldn’t have to tolerate it from us, either.

Don’t go straight from this to your pastor with a bunch of questions about their mental health. Do go from this committed to caring for your pastor as well as you want your pastor to care for you. Giving your pastor a word of encouragement is a good start.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author.

Editorial: Women are integral to Texas Baptists’ mission

“We’re not an issue-driven convention; we’re a mission-driven convention,” Julio Guarneri, president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, told attendees at the end of the second business session of the 2023 BGCT annual meeting in McAllen.

Guarneri received a rousing response. His description of the BGCT as mission-driven was one of the most well-received statements made during the annual meeting, because it is a statement of identity that resonates with Texas Baptists.

I see in the floor discussion of motions about women in ministry evidence of Texas Baptists’ shared desire to take their mission seriously. And what is their mission? To communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, beginning in Texas and reaching around the world. Women are integral to that mission.

Discussing women in ministry

As reported by Ken Camp, both motions were ruled out of order and revised. Tuesday morning, during floor discussion on the first motion—made by Meredith Stone—an amendment was offered and passed. The main motion subsequently was passed as amended. Ellis Orozco—who made the second motion—withdrew his motion after Stone’s amended motion passed.

Stone’s revised motion read: “I move that the Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Board be instructed to have staff create programs, resources, and initiatives to assist churches in affirming, appointing, and employing women in ministerial and pastoral roles.”

After a handful of messengers spoke for and against Stone’s motion and time was called, a motion was passed to extend the time for discussion by 10 minutes, because the discussion of women in ministry is important for the BGCT.

Dustin Slaton, pastor of First Baptist Church in Round Rock, then brought an amendment to Stone’s motion: “I move that we request the BGCT Executive Board to resource BGCT staff to continue developing more strategies, resources, and advocacy initiatives to assist churches in affirming, appointing, and employing women in ministry and leadership roles.”

In explaining the amendment’s intent, he said many Texas Baptist churches love, empower and equip women while still holding to a complementarian position—the belief that certain leadership roles, such as pastor, are limited to men.

His amendment offered a middle way between completely rejecting both motions and approving a motion critics saw as infringing upon autonomy of the local church.

Support for the amended motion was strong, but it was not universal. An interesting coalition emerged, albeit small in appearance, to vote against it—those who thought the amendment did not affirm women strongly enough and those who oppose women in pastoral roles of any kind.

Both of these groups—the one for the original main motion and those strongly opposed to that motion in any form—were left in agreement over the amended motion. Neither wanted it.

What did all groups in the room hold in common? They all take seriously Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all people, teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. They agree Texas Baptists’ mission is to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, beginning in Texas and reaching around the world.

Where Texas Baptists want to focus

The majority of messengers in attendance affirmed the amended motion. The amendment expressed their desire that the BGCT not divide over the issue of women in ministry.

Like Guarneri, messengers to the 2023 annual meeting want to focus on mission, not issues—while understanding issues are important because they involve people. They want to take the issues seriously, and they don’t want the issues to supersede the mission.

For many who voted for Slaton’s amendment, they see the mission as so big and so important that it shouldn’t be scuttled over disagreement about whether women can be called to and serve in pastoral roles. The truth is, many Texas Baptists don’t believe women can.

For many Texas Baptists, the urgency and sheer scale of the work involved in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ is too great to wrestle over whether we have enough agreement about women in ministry to be able to work together.

Guarneri also received a strong affirmative response to his declaration that “doctrinal uniformity” shouldn’t distract from “missional fidelity.”

This doesn’t mean doctrine doesn’t matter. Doctrine matters immensely. But our devotion to doctrine shouldn’t outstrip our humility, and our passion for it shouldn’t exceed our passion for our mission.

But how often do we burn hotter when our doctrinal positions feel threatened than we do for communicating the good news of Jesus Christ?

As I see it, messengers to the 2023 BGCT annual meeting, by adopting the amended motion on women in ministry, sent the message women are integral to Texas Baptists’ mission.

Additionally, messengers communicated that churches who affirm women in ministry and churches who do not both have a place where together they can communicate the good news of Jesus Christ for all people, beginning in Texas and reaching around the world.

As we seek to communicate that good news, we need to consider the full reach of it. When we seek to communicate Jesus’ good news to women under duress outside the church, will they be able to see that same Jesus in the way we care for the women inside the church?

Following the vote, Baptist Women in Ministry posted an update to their Facebook profile expressing their concerns with the motion as passed. Among those concerns is that the motion did not make “clear if women in pastoral roles who are targeted by the SBC will be supported by the BGCT.”

What that support ought to be and how the BGCT can demonstrate such support warrants healthy and diligent conversation leading to God-honoring action. Doing so reflects on our mission.

We have one mission, a shared mission—to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to all people, beginning in Texas and reaching around the world. This is not a mission for some of us. It is a mission for all of us and needs all of us—men and women, boys and girls.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author.

Editorial: What to expect from the 2023 BGCT annual meeting

This year’s Baptist General Convention of Texas annual meeting is a Family Gathering, a fairly recent modification of the annual meeting format that occurs every five years. This year’s Family Gathering takes place in McAllen July 16-18.

Since Family Gatherings are held during the summer—as opposed to the regular autumn schedule—the first thing people expect is heat and sun. KRGV 5 News in the Rio Grande Valley forecasted a balmy 102ºF for Sunday and 101ºF for Monday and Tuesday, plus the heat index. Heat and sun we will get.

We can expect some singing, some preaching, some meeting and some voting. We also can expect to walk up and down the rows of exhibits looking for freebies and Minnesota-Wisconsin apples and cheese. In this way, Family Gatherings are no different than other BGCT annual meetings.

We expect to see old friends—whether they really are old or we’ve just known them a long time. For many, this is the highlight of each BGCT annual meeting—“a family reunion,” we call it.

So far, I’ve answered a different question than the headline asks. The things listed above answer the question of what to expect during the 2023 BGCT annual meeting. But if this meeting—and any other like it—is to be worth its salt, the more important question is what to expect from it.

Will we come from the meeting more Christlike?

Important discussions will take place during the annual meeting. We may even vote on some of them. When those discussions and votes are over, the matters that gave rise to them will not be finished. They will continue after we return home.

When we return home, will we have been formed in any way during the annual meeting for engaging those issues in a more Christlike way? I realize that’s a lot to ask of such a compressed and busy time.

If we are not so formed, then for us the annual meeting really is just business, not a time and place where the Holy Spirit—who is never compressed and busy—holds sway. For followers of Christ, such meetings are never “just business.” They always are times of formation. We should expect to come away from the 2023 annual meeting looking and living more like Christ.

Being open now to the voice and leading of the Holy Spirit before, during and after the annual meeting—wherever the Holy Spirit calls us and leads us—is a necessary posture toward that end.

Will our families come from the meeting stronger?

The intent of Family Gatherings is to bring families together in at least two senses. In one sense, the intent is for families—spouses, parents, children—to attend the gathering together.

For those families able to attend together, will they return from the annual meeting better for it? Will their relationships be sweeter, their love deeper, their commitment stronger? We should expect from the Family Gathering that they will.

To increase the likelihood of this happening, families planning to attend together need to commit now to have shared experiences during the meeting. They should commit to find within the busyness and business of the meeting life-giving things that will deepen their joy in Christ in ways transferable to the daily grind after the meeting.

In a second sense of gathering family, the Family Gathering is intended to bring together the churches of the BGCT, African American Fellowship and Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas—whose annual meetings normally are separate from each other—and the international and intercultural churches affiliated with the BGCT.

It’s not enough that we will be in the same building at the same time. Will we share meals together, sit together, talk together? Will we listen to one another? Will we come together on equal footing to worship our one Lord and to discuss ministry matters with equal concern?

I realize all the above are seemingly easy-to-answer “yes” or “no” questions. But there’s a hook in every “yes” and “no,” and that hook is barbed. The kingdom of God is contained in every one of those questions, and it’s not going to let go of those who claim citizenship in it.

Will we return home from this Family Gathering more unified as one body—Christ’s body? Will we be more united in advancing God’s kingdom together, for all people? We should expect that from this Family Gathering.

We can ensure such an outcome by preparing ourselves in the same ways I’ve already mentioned.

Will we come from the meeting changed?

We should expect to return home from the annual meeting changed, and not just in any way, but changed to be verifiably more like Christ. What good is a Baptist meeting if we don’t come away more like Christ?

The way we discuss challenging issues will reveal how much like Christ we are. We don’t even have to get to the point of agreement to demonstrate whether we are or are not like Christ.

The spirit of our families will reveal whether Christ is at the center of them. Our families don’t have to be perfect for people to see the love of Christ at work within them.

How we do life together with people unlike us—especially after we aren’t at the Family Gathering anymore—will reveal the fruit of the Spirit in us. Not every fruit on the tree has to be photogenic for others to see we really are not of this world.

We also don’t have to check off all three of the above all at this one meeting. We can leave that up to the One who changes us, but we ought to prepare to be made more like Christ in some way while we are together.

We may think we’re just going to attend another BGCT annual meeting. We need to expect more than that.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author.

Editorial: We need a new missions story

Baptists are “a missionary people,” Elijah Brown, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, told those gathered in Stavanger, Norway, for the 2023 BWA annual meeting.

For centuries, missions has been at the core of who we are. Missions is so important to Baptists that those in the United States split over the issue of whether slaveholders could be appointed as missionaries, birthing the Southern Baptist Convention—and all its subsequent history, good and bad.

Yes, when Baptists talk about missions, we talk about monumental things. But our talk about missions tends to be one-sided in the United States.

The story Baptists in the United States often have told about missions tends to go something like this: If it wasn’t for us and our missionaries and mission efforts, the world wouldn’t know about Jesus.

Put another way: If the world is going to know about Jesus, we have to go tell the world, we have to send our missionaries, we have to give our money. And if we don’t do it, it won’t get done.

This isn’t a verbatim recital of our story about missions. Rather, it is a distillation of the insinuated and perhaps also unintended message. A consequence of this message, however, has been the overestimation of our place in the world alongside a devaluing of other Christians around the world.

BWA provides a needed corrective to this problem.

True international relationships

I have spent the last three days with Baptists from all over the world. If you’ve never done that, you should make a point to do it at least once in your life, and sooner rather than later.

The annual meeting next July will be in Lagos, Nigeria, followed by the 23rd Baptist World Congress in Brisbane, Australia, July 7-12, 2025.

These annual meetings aren’t about the places, though. They’re about the people. Getting to be with people from all over the world is always a fantastic experience, especially if you don’t spend the whole time cloistered among compatriots but actually spend time with people from around the world.

When you engage in conversation or share a meal with someone from another part of the world, you learn, you grow, you are expanded. And when this person is a fellow follower of Christ in the same faith tradition as yourself, you gain new insight into your shared faith. I have yet to spend time with a fellow follower of Christ from outside the United States when I wasn’t challenged and deepened in my own relationship and walk with Christ.

But these annual meetings aren’t centrally about the people. They are centrally about the one Lord we share, into whom we are baptized, by whom we are called and who is the source and reason for our mission. In fact, there is no reason for all these people to come together once a year except for what God is doing in and through them.

That’s what these annual meetings are about—what God is doing in and through Baptists all over the world.

This week, as we have discussed missions, our brothers and sisters from around the world have been a source of joy and wonder. Consider a few examples from my time with them in Stavanger.

True international missions

I traveled with a pastor from the Middle East. He said I could tell you where he lives and works, but I’ve been programmed to use the general designation “Middle East” and can’t bring myself yet to name his location.

Anyway, we enjoyed our conversation on the flight to Stavanger and set aside time later in the week to eat breakfast together. Over breakfast, he told me his church of about 30 to 40 people planted a church in a far more difficult area of the Middle East than where he lives, and his church is funding the work themselves.

As mentioned in one of our news stories about the BWA annual meeting, Nepalese refugees living in Tasmania, Australia, and who became Christians there through the work of Australian Baptists, asked to be sent to Germany to share the gospel with Nepalese refugees living there.

Fernando Brandão, executive director of Junta de Missões Nacionais in Brazil, happily reported his convention has deployed more than 2,000 missionaries.

Elijah Brown told those who attended an information session about the newly launched Global Baptist Mission Network that Moldova—one of the poorest countries in Europe—has 20 missionaries, and Venezuela—despite its catastrophic economic collapse—has 100 missionaries who planted 50 new churches last year.

Baptists in Papua New Guinea—a country that has featured so prominently in so many tales of foreign missions, as Baptists in the United States used to call international missions—are about to send their first missionary, Brown added.

True mission story

If it ever really was up to Baptists in America to evangelize the world—in truth, it never was—it’s certainly not the case anymore and hasn’t been for 20 or 30 years or more. Some in the United States might count this to our shame. I would count this as joy.

Consider these numbers shared during the 2023 BWA annual meeting. Over the last 10 years, European Baptists have declined by 2 percent, North American Baptists have declined by 5 percent, Baptists in Asia and the Pacific have increased by 26 percent, Baptists in Latin America have increased by 27 percent, Caribbean Baptists have increased by 71 percent, and Baptists in Africa have increased by 102 percent.

Scott Pilgrim, executive director of Baptist Mission Australia, told us that by 2030, 70 percent of the world’s Christians will be in the Global South, and by 2060, 40 percent of the world’s Christians will be in Africa.

From what Baptists in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean are showing, not only will they be among the majority of the world’s Christians, they will be among those leading the way in missions. In truth, they are leading the way already.

As U.S. Baptists and Christians talk about missions, we need to tell a different story. We have told ourselves for too long tales of our own importance, and in our believing it, we have grown complacent. Our fire has gone out.

We need to tell a new story—the true story—about what we are learning from our brothers and sisters around the world. And we need to be inspired by them, that our own passion for Christ and what he told us to do will be rekindled. Lord, may it be so.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author.

Editorial: We need water

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems people are thirsty. We need water.

Ask people from Lubbock to Amarillo who endured record rainfall earlier this month and they might say, “No more water, please.” Plenty of other West Texans gladly would take some more.

But I’m not referring to the chemical compound H2O. I’m referring to a different kind of water and a different kind of thirst. Yes, I’m referring to something biblical.

People are thirsty for peace, but there is precious little peace.

We are thirsty for security, but fear propagates like zebra mussels in a Texas lake.

We thirst for economic relief, but the experts have managed only to slow inflation, not stop it.

We long for more constructive politics, but combative is the order of the day.

This is less an opinion about the issues we face than an echo of that pervasive cry: “We thirst.” It is also a call to wake up to our thirst and to carry more water to thirsty people.

Temporary water

When we aren’t thirsty, we can take all day to drink a glass of water. If we’ve been exercising or working outside in the summer heat, we can down a full glass of water in seconds without taking a breath. I’m referring to this kind of thirst, a longing in our bones.

I see this kind of thirst just about everywhere I look these days. I see it in local and global news. I see it in our denominational conversations. I see it in the kinds of videos that go viral.

One of those viral videos is Belgian shot-put and hammer-throw champion Jolien Boumkwo running 100-meter hurdles to save her team from disqualification. She took one for the team—as she put it—and provided a shot of joy in our cut-throat world. We’ll take sips of that all day.

Before too long, though, this shot of joy will be buried and forgotten under millions of views of other viral moments. Their momentary relief is heavy on the “momentary,” light on the “relief.”

Biblical water

Felisi Sorgwe, associate professor of theology at Houston Christian University, in his recent book I Will Be With You: God’s Favorite Promise, recounts the Israelites’ thirst in the wilderness. This wilderness was rocky, dusty, arid and barren, and they’d been in the middle of it for days, if not weeks. They were thirsty enough to fight about it.

Moses cried—complained—to God for help, and God said: “I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock [with your staff], and water will come out of it for the people to drink.”

Moses did as he was told (Exodus 17:1-7).

Amid lament over Israel’s unfaithfulness, Scripture recounts God providing water from that rock:

He split the rocks in the wilderness
and gave them water as abundant as the seas;
he brought streams out of a rocky crag
and made water flow down like rivers
(Psalm 78:15–16).

While celebrating God’s love for Israel, Scripture remembers God’s provision of water:

He opened the rock,and water gushed out;
it flowed like a river in the desert
(Psalm 105:41).

Paul reinterprets the literal water from the rock as spiritual water from the Rock:

They all … drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).

Paul’s description of Jesus as the source of wilderness water squares with Jesus’ own self-description, as well as Old Testament prophecy.

Jeremiah called God the fountain of living water (Jeremiah 17:13).

Jesus told the Samaritan woman during their conversation at Jacob’s well: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13–14).

When we’re in a desert wilderness surrounded by miles and miles of sand and rock, we’ll settle for a momentary stream. All too often, that’s where we are, and that’s what we do.

Everlasting water

What causes you to long for God? Maybe a better way to ask that is: What causes you to be aware of your longing for God?

Sometimes, busyness gets in the way of our awareness. Sometimes, fear or anger, bitterness or worry does. Often, satiation with lesser things gets in the way.

But then, I read a book like A.W. Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy or listen to beautiful songs of worship such as Fernando Ortega’s albums The Shadow of Your Wings or Come Down O Love Divine, and I am reminded what I most want and need—what I long for most profoundly—is God.

In those moments, I can’t help but turn to God to find fulfilment in God’s completeness—Father, Son, Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. And God meets my longing.

Do I have to continually return to God for this fulfilling water? Yes. But I’ve not found the bottom of the well yet, though I’ve quickly found the bottom of so many other promises.

The world needs us to be fully awake to our longing for this everlasting water, for us to know full well its source, and for us to be satisfied by it. Because when we are, we become directional signs pointing other thirsty souls straight to who will quench their deepest thirst.

The world is enduring a summer drought of the soul. The world is thirsty and grabbing for a glass of water, sometimes finding momentary satisfaction, often meeting a mirage.

May we be made awake to what we really long for, may we turn directly to God to be made complete in God’s completeness, and may we carry this water to a thirsty world.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author.

Editorial: To all women in ministry, I am sorry.

To all women in ministry: I made an unwise decision that affects you, and I am sorry. I did not stand beside you when I should have.

I published two op-eds—a Voices article on April 3 and an editorial on May 17—responding to and referencing a list of Southern Baptist churches with women as pastors in various roles. Prior to those articles being published, the compiler of the list sent it to pastors throughout the Southern Baptist Convention.

Some people used the list to harass women named on it. I made the decision to host a copy of that list on our website as a means of holding the list compiler accountable. In both the articles, I included a link to the list.

I don’t know if any harassment came as a result of the list being on our website, but the possibility is there. I did not intend for anyone to be harassed—least of all women in ministry—and yet it happened.

We removed the list and links to it from our website after one of you contacted me this week expressing concern about the list being on our website. I am grateful that person contacted me. It shouldn’t have taken that for the list to be removed.

Women should not be harassed—especially by fellow Christians. Women, who are created in God’s image and carry the breath of God just as men, should not be harassed. I am grieved and angry women have been harassed for following God’s call to serve in ministry.

It also shouldn’t take having a woman in ministry in your life to feel that way. But it did for me.

God called my wife to ministry, as well as one of her sisters. I know how seriously they take God’s call, and I’ve seen their dedication to God lived out over decades.

When I was a pastor, I affirmed women in ministry. Affirming women in ministry is important enough to my wife and me that when I left the pastorate to become editor of the Baptist Standard, we joined a church that shares our conviction and also affirms women in ministry.

To all women in ministry, whatever your title—pastor, minister, director, leader, missionary, deacon, teacher, musician, chaplain, communicator, assistant, volunteer, spouse, parent or otherwise—God’s call on you should not be doubted, mocked or minimized—certainly not more than God’s call on a man.

On the contrary, the fact you have endured hardships, questions, doubts, criticisms and more just for being a woman following God’s call is worthy of honor and respect.

Women in ministry, whatever your title or role, you need our encouragement. You need our prayer and support. You need us to work alongside you.

My decision to host the list did the opposite, and I am sorry.

My apology cannot be the end of the story. Affirmation of women in ministry must be born out in action. What must follow is for me to encourage you directly and to stand alongside you, taking hits with you and dividing the load. I encourage others who affirm women in ministry to do the same.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

Editorial: Ensure women in ministry is not a test of fellowship here

Messengers to the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting approved at least three items of business with a singular message. They couldn’t have been more clear in communicating they believe only men can be pastors—of any kind.

Texas Baptists with differing views of women in ministry have responded on social media with great grief about these actions by SBC messengers. Some who also believe only men can be pastors see these actions by SBC messengers as diminishing the SBC.

These Texas Baptists and many others want the Baptist General Convention of Texas to allow for difference over women in ministry while maintaining cooperation among churches who differ on this issue.

The actions taken by SBC messengers this week make clear we are past the time when such cooperation can be assumed. It must be stated clearly.

Many Texas Baptists celebrate that a church’s position on women in ministry is not a test of fellowship with the BGCT—a worthy thing to celebrate. The BGCT’s upcoming annual meeting in McAllen July 17-18 is a good place and time to make that position official.

Some Texas Baptists already are thinking along those lines. I applaud that and encourage appropriate actions before, during and after the 2023 BGCT annual meeting that maintain our current differences over women in ministry and that edify the whole convention.

Steps to excluding churches with women as pastors

For that purpose, the kinds of actions taken by SBC messengers to cement opposition to women as pastors is instructive. Three particular actions clearly communicate that opposition.

These actions were to exclude two churches with women pastors, to adopt a resolution about the office of “bishop/elder/pastor,” and to pass a constitutional amendment barring churches who affirm, appoint or employ women as pastors of any kind.

The exclusion of Saddleback Church and Fern Creek Baptist Church is straightforward.

The constitutional amendment also is fairly straightforward, though the wording was amended to state it in the positive rather than the negative. “Does not affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind” was amended to “affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”

The adopted resolution needs a little more explanation since it does not explicitly mention men or women. The last “resolved” of Resolution 6—an effort to make clear the SBC acknowledges only two offices in a local church: bishop/elder/pastor and deacon—was amended to remove “while autonomous churches may differ in their uses and categories regarding titles for staff members.”

In the larger context of all the discussion surrounding women in pastoral roles and what constitutes an appropriate title for a woman on a local church’s ministerial staff, this resolution as amended intends to communicate SBC churches cannot differ on the issue of women as pastors. In the SBC, the pastoral office is for men only.

In fairness, Resolution 5 also was adopted. It seeks to clearly praise, affirm, honor, equip and cultivate the call of women to fulfill the Great Commission.

Logical extension of stated position

Excluding churches with women as pastors is a logical extension of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message—also amended during the 2023 SBC annual meeting. “Article 6: The Church” states: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” “Elder/overseer” was added this week.

The BGCT includes churches who affirm the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message—which does not limit the role of pastors to men—and churches who affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message—which does, demonstrating it is possible to differ on this issue and still cooperate.

The actions taken to solidify the SBC’s opposition to women as pastors highlights the need for other cooperative bodies—such as the BGCT—to make clear their official position on women in ministry. If the BGCT wishes to maintain “harmonious cooperation” amid differences over women in ministry, that position needs to be clearly stated by BGCT messengers.

Clearly stating women as pastors will not be a test of fellowship with the BGCT will alleviate concern that exists currently among Texas Baptists. That concern exists as a logical extension of no official position being clearly stated.

State the position clearly

During his address to the BGCT Executive Board in May, Craig Christina—BGCT associate executive director and acting executive director—described the BGCT’s historic stance on women in ministry. We published his comments in our Voices column.

Christina began by noting he does not “see it as [his] role to speak on behalf of the [BGCT],” because BGCT messengers to annual meetings and an Executive Board between those annual meetings speak for the convention.

He laid out the biblical basis for the BGCT’s stance and pointed out the BGCT’s faithfulness to the Bible despite disagreement about women in ministry.

“Among Texas Baptists, conformity over the role of women in the church is neither a test of fellowship nor a condition of cooperation,” Christina stated.

“We neither insist on uniform practices or ministry titles, nor do we compel the conscience of any Baptist to adhere to the conclusions of another on this issue. Of the theological issues we consider worthy of defining harmonious cooperation in the BGCT, the issue of women in ministry is not among them,” he continued.

Messengers to the 2023 BGCT annual meeting July 17-18 in McAllen can and should make this position official and unequivocal.

State the position humbly

As BGCT messengers make their historic stance their official position, they should be committed to doing so humbly.

Throughout almost all the floor discussion about the three actions taken by SBC messengers, speakers in favor of the actions declared their position to be “God’s way,” “faithful to Scripture” and faithful to the truth. When the opposing view was labeled explicitly, it was disparaged as an “interpretation.”

The truth is both sides of the discussion are an interpretation of Scripture. To think otherwise and to say or imply only “their” view is an interpretation is itself a violation of Scripture, which instructs us to be humble.

So, let us make clear and official that Texas Baptists come to Scripture together, honestly and humbly, and agree to differ over the role of women in ministry. And let us welcome others who do likewise.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author.

Editorial: A way past the problem with local autonomy

Baptists are at it again, and once again, autonomy of the local church is being deployed in an effort to settle the dispute.

Autonomy of the local church is the historic Baptist principle—a core value—that holds each congregation governs itself with no outside interference. As a core principle held for hundreds of years and propagated around the globe, it makes sense for Southern Baptists to swing with it in their current fight over women in ministry.

There is a problem, however, that the principle can’t solve, because the principle creates the problem. The problem is that the independence provided the local church by local autonomy collides with the independence of every other local church, association or convention—each of which also is autonomous—when they try to work together.

For Baptists to continue working together without giving up the principle of local autonomy, I see one way forward.

Autonomy a historic Baptist principle

Before describing the way forward, a look at the historic understanding of autonomy of the local church is warranted.

E.Y. Mullins, one of Southern Baptists preeminent thinkers and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, published Baptist Beliefs in 1912. In the section on “The Church,” he describes autonomy of the local church as follows, starting with a reference to religious liberty. I will quote him at length because it’s that important.

[The church] must not form alliances of any kind with the state so that it surrenders any of its own functions or assumes any of the functions of civil government. Its government is democratic and autonomous. Each church is free and independent. No church or group of churches has any authority over any other church.

Co-operation in Christian work, however, is one of the highest duties and privileges of the churches of Jesus Christ. Yet in so doing they do not form or constitute an ecclesiasticism with functions and powers to be authoritatively exercised over the local bodies.

The voluntary principle is the heart of the Scripture teaching as to the individual and as to local churches. … [T]he organization and government of the local church proceeds on the principle of the voluntary association of free individuals in obedience to Christ and for purposes set forth by him.

Church discipline is simply the group protecting itself against the individual. The church has no power of coercion in the religious life of the individual. … The right of the church, however, to protect itself against the disorderly individual is an unalienable right in Christ.

Mullins then applies the principle to the relationship between local churches and “general bodies,” which he explains “are not composed of churches but of individuals.” Set aside that Mullins seems to equivocate on the composition of churches when he refers to how they relate to “general bodies.”

In all such co-operation or refusal to co-operate … the church neither assumes authority over the general body, nor submits to the authority of that body. The relation is voluntary on both sides.

Where a church is out of harmony with a general body it cannot legislate the general body into harmony with itself but it can withdraw if necessary without the consent of the general body.

… General bodies are themselves autonomous. No Baptist general body has authority over another. … Each body is self determining …

There are certain necessities which arise out of these principles of Baptist organization. 1. The necessity for clear thinking in order to avoid confusion in ideals and collision in the practical work of the Kingdom. 2. The necessity for well defined limits of function and aim in the general body to avoid the assumption of church functions. 3. The necessity for courtesy and respect as between Baptist general bodies (pgs. 64-67).

It is noteworthy that Mullins’ explanation of Baptist beliefs is predicated on the New Hampshire Declaration of Faith—a decidedly Calvinist document—which he notes was “adopted by the Landmark Convention and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary” prior to publication of his book (p. 84).

Recent skirmishes over autonomy

In the interest of “clear thinking” and “courtesy and respect,” Baptists—particularly Southern—need to reexamine their understanding and use of autonomy of the local church.

I raised this issue in a June 2019 editorial about boundaries. Then as now, I was concerned about what appears to be differing understandings of autonomy of the local church. The example I cited was the debate surrounding whether churches who affirm same-sex marriage should and could be excluded from the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Those who favored the inclusion of affirming churches argued the BGCT should not impinge on the decisions of a local church by excluding affirming churches. Ultimately, the BGCT messengers exercised their autonomy by voting in 2016 to exclude affirming churches.

Given Mullins’ description of the principle, one could ask, “Whose autonomy carried the day—the messengers or the local churches who remained affirming?” Some argue both retained their autonomy, but only up to a point. The affirming churches’ autonomy did not grant them authority to remain in the BGCT against the will of the majority.

The prior summer in a July 2018 editorial, I described the issue in relation to Southern Baptists being at odds over how to hold their churches and leaders accountable for sexual misconduct and abuse.

SBC denominational leaders insisted autonomy of the local church meant they could not hold local churches accountable. Many grassroots Southern Baptists weren’t buying that defense. Ultimately, the messengers overruled the convention’s top leadership in 2021 and called for a third-party investigation and the establishment of accountability measures.

A local church has the autonomy to employ a minister convicted of sexual abuse or assault, and SBC messengers have the autonomy to exclude that church from membership in the convention. Here again, the two spheres of autonomy seem to collide at the point of cooperation.

Present dispute over autonomy

The presenting issue for the 2023 SBC annual meeting is the denomination’s position on women in ministry. Specifically, messengers will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment proposed by Virginia pastor Mike Law that would exclude churches from the SBC who “affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”

Messengers also will vote whether to approve Saddleback Church’s appeal and reinstate the church to fellowship with the SBC. The SBC Executive Committee voted in February to disfellowship Saddleback for “having a female teaching pastor functioning in the office of pastor.”

Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback, released an open letter and a series of videos in response to what he characterizes as some SBC leaders’ denial of decline in favor of “in-fighting over secondary issues, like what you call your staff.”

In the first video of the series, Warren contends “the SBC has been ‘creeping toward a centralization where the local churches are losing their independence and autonomy, and we are increasingly controlled by our institutions and bureaucracies who have been systematically increasing their power to enforce uniformity.’”

In his open letter, Warren charges: “The current ruling of the Executive Committee … will open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences unless we reject [the ruling]. It will fundamentally destroy FOUR historic Southern Baptist distinctives upon which the Convention was organized by our founders.

“It will: 1) change the basis of our cooperation 2) change the basis of our identity 3) centralize power in the Executive Committee and take away autonomy from the churches, and 4) turn our confession into a creed, which Baptists have always opposed.”

To defend Saddleback’s position on women in ministry alongside its continued relationship with the SBC, Warren deploys autonomy of the local church. As with the two examples cited above, the question will come down to whose autonomous assertion will carry the day.

Recent history shows two autonomous bodies cannot maintain their full autonomy—as each understands it—and still cooperate. Autonomy is not boundless.

The way forward with autonomy

I’ll say it again: In the interest of “clear thinking” and “courtesy and respect,” Baptists—particularly Southern—need to reexamine their understanding and use of autonomy of the local church.

Such a reexamination is necessary because what may have made perfect sense to Baptists in 1912—enough so for it to be championed by Baptist apologists at least since then—no longer is understood clearly.

What seems clear is if Baptists are to maintain cooperation among and beyond local churches, a moderated autonomy needs to be described. A moderated autonomy would spell out what essential agreements are necessary for local churches to cooperate in such things as associations and conventions. SBC President Bart Barber has advocated for as much.

The Baptist Faith and Message—all three versions of which were adopted after Mullins’ Baptist Beliefs was published—used to be enough of a reference point for cooperation. The divisions within Southern Baptist life over the last 40 years, however, make it clear the Baptist Faith and Message no longer is commonly understood, as Barber himself suggests.

To get to this moderated autonomy, Baptists need to ask such questions as: “Does local church autonomy supersede the autonomy of associations and conventions, or are those autonomies equally authoritative? How should the autonomy of those ‘general bodies’ be defined to allow for cooperation?”

If Baptists are to cease fracturing into ever-smaller groups, they will have to agree to a moderated autonomy that holds the collective as important as the individual. Unfortunately, such a position seems an increasingly harder sell, especially for Baptists in America—where polarization is strong and fewer people care about denominational peculiarities.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

Editorial: Discerning what is true amid AI-generated ‘truth’

Truth is stranger than fiction.

With the recent release of GPT-4 and other artificial intelligence platforms, that assertion seems truer than ever.

The problem, however, isn’t that truth is strange but that we seem increasingly less able to know what is true.

We used to know truth by how well a thing matched our experience or our parents’ descriptions. We could trust our senses and know whether what we saw or heard was true.

But truth is getting harder and harder to discern. And that’s a problem we need to address.

Warnings about AI

Artificial intelligence is aggravating this problem, because all too often we lack the patience for discernment. Consider a recent example.

An image circulated May 22 of a supposed explosion at the Pentagon complex outside Washington, D.C. On May 23, fact checkers reported the image “had telltale signs of an AI-generated forgery.” But this correction didn’t arrive before stock markets reacted, however negligibly, to the initial report.

Geoffrey Hinton, a so-called “godfather of AI,” knew this and worse was coming. NBC News reported May 1 that he left Google, where he developed AI technology, so he could warn about the dangers of AI.

Then, this one sentence dropped yesterday, May 30: “Mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

This chilling warning reported in the New York Times and elsewhere “was signed by more than 350 executives, researchers and engineers working in A.I.,” including Hinton. Among their concerns is that AI soon could “be used at scale to spread misinformation”—or falsehoods and distortions of the truth that purportedly come from trusted sources.

If such warnings by the very inventors of AI are correct, we may be approaching a time when our age-old ways of knowing the truth fail us. Anyone who wants to be believed and trusted—especially those proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ—ought to be concerned about this.

An AI experiment

As an experiment with truth, I asked a friend with a ChatGPT account to send me “a 100-word opinion in the style of Eric Black on autonomy of the local church.” He sent it to me, along with a second produced by Bard, another AI platform. Both are included at the end of this editorial.

The text of each opinion is generally as correct as one should expect from a 100-word summary of autonomy of the local church. The problem isn’t so much with the words.

The problem is neither opinion was written by me, nor do they sound like me. But you might not know that if you don’t know me or I didn’t tell you. And then, you might be suspicious about the truthfulness of my confession.

If truth is so easily distorted, how are we to convince anyone we are telling the truth?

‘Truth’ as a useful thing

Some would have us dispense with the notion of truth altogether, or at least the idea of a truth that is true for everyone. Truth is relative, so they say. This school of thought holds sway over much of our culture. I wonder if it’s ready for radical relativity.

Others contend a more cynical view of truth, arguing truth is a function of power. Michel Foucault (1926–1984), a French philosopher who radicalized Friedrich Nietzsche’s view of power, contended those with power determine what is true. In this way, they create “truth” and wield it as a tool of control.

If Foucault is right, is AI just another tool of the powerful, and how does it serve those in power? Our imaginations can run wild with these questions. The less imaginative can watch movies and read books about the possibilities.

Meanwhile, some of those who developed AI are telling us to forget these kinds of questions altogether, and in utterly stark terms, they are warning us to shut down the whole thing now. They believe AI is becoming more useful to its own soulless self than it is to any human in power.

What are we to do?

Most of us are not AI developers. Most of us are not in seats of power where we can turn it off, slow it down or try to direct its course. Most of us are watching it all unfold, still trying to understand yesterday’s news as today’s news arrives, wondering what—if any of it—is true.

Amid the alarm bells, my mind goes back to a tent. Blind Isaac is lying in bed. He’s sent Esau for deer and promised him a blessing. Unbeknownst to him, Rachel has a plan.

She sends Jacob, covered in Esau’s scent, to Isaac with a bowl of stew. It’s too soon for Esau to be back, and Isaac’s suspicious … but not long enough. He knows the voice isn’t right, but the smell and the feel are Esau. The stew is good. So, he gives away the blessing … too soon.

Had Isaac waited for both his sons to be at his bedside, he wouldn’t have had to question his faculties. The truth would have been plain enough. There’s a lesson in there for us.

We may not be able to trust everything we see, read and hear as readily as we once did, but truth is still discernable if we will not give the blessing away too soon.

In a world where what appears to be true can be distorted so easily—and so quickly—we must leave room for and allow the Holy Spirit to do for us what all too often we cannot do ourselves. We must allow the Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16:13).

But to do that, we’re going to have to cede control to the Holy Spirit. And maybe that’s the real problem. We want control, and neither AI nor the Holy Spirit promises us that.


Opinion produced by ChatGPT:

Write editorial in the style of Eric Black, Editor of the Baptist Standard, on autonomy of the local church. Use one hundred words.

“In the rich tapestry of Baptist life, the cherished principle of the autonomy of the local church weaves a thread that holds us together. Rooted in Scripture and etched in our heritage, this bedrock belief empowers congregations to govern themselves and follow their own convictions under the lordship of Christ. It is a sacred trust, a divine gift that must be cherished and safeguarded. As we navigate a rapidly changing world, let us not forget the beauty and strength of this autonomy. May we embrace it with humility, honoring the autonomy of our fellow churches and joining hands in the shared mission of advancing God’s kingdom.”

Opinion produced by Bard:

A 100-word editorial in the style of Eric Black, Editor of the Baptist Standard, on the autonomy of the local church:

“The autonomy of the local church is a fundamental principle of Baptist life. It is the right of each local church to govern itself according to its own conscience, without interference from any other church or denomination. This freedom allows churches to adapt to the needs of their own communities and to be creative in their witness to the world.

“Of course, the autonomy of the local church is not absolute. Churches are still bound by the teachings of the Bible and by the principles of Christian love and justice. However, within these limits, churches should be free to make their own decisions. This freedom is essential for the vitality and growth of the church.

“In conclusion, the autonomy of the local church is a fundamental principle of Baptist life. It is a right that should be cherished and defended.”

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

Editorial: Dump the toxic brew creating gun violence

CAUTION: The contents of this editorial may be disturbing to some readers.

Gun violence is the asphyxiating fumes of a toxic brew. Our response to it has been anemic, at best.

What is this toxic brew? It’s not any one thing but is a cauldron of misplaced values, disregard for others, materialism, lust for violence, entitlement, hatred, suspicion, fear, illness and more. Rather than dumping out the pot, we hurl slogans: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

Slogans are a dodge from our shared responsibility. To say, “People kill people,” is to gloss over the fact a person with an AR-15 can kill more people more quickly and efficiently than someone with a pistol. We shouldn’t shirk our responsibility to deal with the shooter and the gun.

Such slogans also belie the fact guns really can kill you, just as so many other dangerous and regulated things can. The difference is those other dangerous things don’t have a Second Amendment protecting them. Nor do they have our slogans: “Fentanyl doesn’t kill people. People kill people.”

Another oft-repeated refrain—“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”—may evoke visions of American military victories and Old West justice, both of which we love. Nevertheless, it cedes the terms of the fight to the “bad guy.”

When we let the “bad guy” set the terms, we’ve already lost. It’s time for the “good guys” to set the terms. But this means we have to be clear about who are the “good guys.”

Defining “good” and “bad”

When we divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” we naturally designate ourselves as the “good.” But this is to turn a blind eye to how we are involved in the “bad.” We may not have pulled the trigger, but we are part of the toxic brew.

We are among those who have spread or encouraged demeaning views of other people. We are among those who can’t seem to get enough of violence. We are among those who demand our rights like the prodigal son calling for his inheritance early.

During his appearance on Fox News Sunday with Shannon Bream, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott laid responsibility for the May 6 mass shooting at the Allen Outlet Mall on mental health. He said people want a short-term solution—alluding to gun regulation—but what’s needed is the long-term solution of addressing mental health.

Abbott is partly right. We do need to address mental health, and we need all hands on deck. But it will be a tough row to hoe, because Abbott’s long-term solution will require nothing less than a cultural 180 in how we think about mental health. For we are among those who have belittled and underfunded mental health. Long-term solution, indeed.

Alongside mental health

Alongside addressing mental health, we need legislative action addressing gun access. We’re currently headed toward one of two possibilities—a continuing arms race with the “bad guys” or imposing a police state. We don’t want either of these.

During the summer after my sophomore year in high school—and two years after the U.S. apprehension of Manuel Noriega—my church’s youth choir went to Panama on a mission trip. Armed guards were outside businesses all over Panama City, their guns at the ready.

We stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s—as Americans are wont to do—and as we ate our hamburgers, a guard stood directly behind us holding a shotgun. As is obvious, that made an impression on me.

The same is true at the Texas Capitol this session, where Texas DPS officers are posted throughout the complex, one officer in each pair or group with an assault rifle at the ready. The message is clear: We aren’t safe, not if it takes another AR-15—or two or 10—to save us.

This is not the sort of society we want to live in in the United States or anywhere.

The other possibility—a never-ending arms race in which the “good guys” constantly are trying to stay ahead of the “bad guys”—should be just as untenable to us. There is an upper limit to that race—the stuff superpowers fret over—and to think we are willing to reach for that limit is proof we’re in a toxic brew.

There must be and can be a short-term and long-term solution to gun violence that doesn’t require us to aim for utopia and end up in the dirt.

During the most recent Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Board meeting, my friend Pastor Paul Kim addressed his fellow board members with a question he shouldn’t have had to ask.

In his opening remarks, he shouldn’t have had to remember the lives of three Korean American Texas Baptists killed May 6 at the Allen Outlet Mall. He shouldn’t have had to remind Texas Baptists about our commitment to the sanctity of life.

Furthermore, it shouldn’t have been the responsibility of someone from the Korean American community—or Uvalde or other mass shooting survivor community—to ask something so simple. It should have been all of us asking: “Can we as Texas Baptists make a statement about gun violence?”

But Paul was the one to ask, because we just keep stirring the pot.

Today needs to be different

Today needs to be different. Why today? Because today, May 24, marks one year since a gunman killed 19 children and two adults inside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

Less than one month ago—May 6—a gunman killed eight people at the Allen Outlet Mall.

May 18, 2018, a student gunman killed eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

Just six months before the Santa Fe High School shooting—Nov. 5, 2017—a gunman killed 26 people and wounded 20 others inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

Aug. 3, 2019, a gunman—from Allen, no less—killed 23 and wounded 26 people in an El Paso Walmart.

Before the month was out, another gunman killed seven and wounded 25 people in the Midland-Odessa area.

During a press conference following the Midland-Odessa shooting, Gov. Abbott said: “We know that words alone are inadequate. Words must be met with action.”

“I have been to too many of these events. I am heartbroken by the crying of the people of the state of Texas. I am tired of the dying of the people of the state of Texas. Too many Texans are in mourning, too many Texans have lost their lives,” he added.

Yet here we are.

Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, to borrow the title of Taylor Schumann’s book. We must do more. We must do better. And we can.

At a minimum, Texas Baptists can make the statement Pastor Kim called for. But we can do more. We have the Christian Life Commission addressing the issue. We also have among us lawmakers and judges, professors and teachers, pastors and business owners, children and adults and more—all of whom can join together to tip the cauldron over and dump out the toxic brew.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed are those solely of the author.