Month: February 2003

The Demand of Justice

When Illinois Governor George H. Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 156 inmates on his state’s death row, he reopened the debate about capital punishment in America. The apparently thoughtless way he opened the discussion was a grandstand play. It worked; Mr. Ryan got some headlines and resurrected hundreds of opinions among writers and professional spokesmen. George Ryan did not add anything new to the discussion or actually make any compelling argument by his action. He just applied a blunt instrument to a complex issue.

Christians need to take matters of life and death more seriously. Matters related to God’s character are pertinent to this discussion. We also have a stewardship over the making and practice of law in our nation. We must start by affirming the things we know to be true.

First, capital punishment is not unbiblical or extra-biblical. In fact, we can reasonably say that it is a biblical mandate from Genesis 9:6. Old Testament commandments consistently exalt the sovereignty of God over the lives of men. The New Testament does not vacate those commandments and priorities. As Genesis 9 establishes the role of human government in the administration of justice, Romans 13 continues that theme in the New Testament.

Second, capital punishment in America is not fairly administered. Some victims are more emotionally compelling than others. Some of the accused also have greater luck tugging at the hearts of jurors. Additionally, the poor often lack the resources to obtain competent legal defense. Those who oppose the death penalty for these reasons have a valid point.

How do we address this valid point, though? Inequity is more likely to acquit the guilty than condemn the innocent. Poor legal defense could result in a false verdict. Some say we should ban laws and penalties being badly administered. Alright, but the tax code is not applied fairly either. Some get away with paying too little, some ignorantly pay too much. Too tough to fix? Let’s ban it, too. And so it goes with traffic laws, welfare and a lot of other things that we will not do away with.

Better that we do the hard thing. Put the blindfold back on justice and provide adequate defense for all the accused. The burden must remain on our legal system to provide equal treatment under the law. Doing away with problematic penalties (and they all are, to some degree) takes the burden to reform off those we have assigned to do just that thing.

It also seems that a sentimental concern for the possibly innocent does not properly include the certainly innocent?the victims. One problem with sentiment is an unreasonable focus. Sentimentality causes us to make judgments based on matters irrelevant to truth. It is sentiment that causes us to grant leniency to those like us or pitiable to us and harsh justice to those fearsome or different. It is sentiment that causes some to suspect that capital punishment is about revenge. To some it is about revenge and it shouldn’t be.

This brings us back to the biblical mandate. God told Noah that a reckoning for bloodguilt was demanded by the image of God in the victim. It is thus the person of God who is offended by murder as man wrongly takes the prerogative of God on himself. God specifically assigns this mandate to governments in Romans 13:1-7. We should not, in anger or sorrow, despise the image of God to spare our own feelings. A nation that determines a penalty for a crime and does not regularly assign that penalty breaks faith with its people and the God that established it.

Think of the substitutionary atonement. God is holy and thus, by nature, offended by my sin. He must be. God also tells us that only the shedding of blood can bring the remission of sins and my sin requires my own death. Every man must die for his own sin, then. It sounds good to us that God would just grant us all pardons. Who would God be then? Not holy, not just, only the merciful grandfather that most people hope he is. Instead he made a way for the only perfect, innocent man to pay for my sin so that I might be justly forgiven. He doesn’t wipe out the penalty, he provides for its payment in the only way that lets me live.

Christian nation or not, a government owes its authority to the only God who lives. Even natural revelation demands that the ruling authority of a land be just and yes, holy. Don’t the people of every nation want their laws to be better and more righteous than even the people who administer them?

Capital punishment makes me squeamish. I know my own faults and the idea that I would approve the death of another sinner seems hypocritical. It’s not about me or about my feelings, though. It’s about law, God’s law written on our hearts and on the books of most nations. The death penalty will always be administered imperfectly. This does not justify our surrender to imperfection. Neither does it mean that the only moral high ground belongs to the abolitionists. Conservatives must never stop demanding equitable justice for all men. Liberals need to be less dismissive of the sound biblical foundation for our law’s ultimate penalty.

Urban Myths about the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention

Urban myths seem to never die. There are still some who believe that renowned atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare is trying to outlaw gospel broadcasts over television and radio. Of course this is not possible, because Mrs. O’Hare has been dead several years. Procter and Gamble lost millions because the symbol on some of their products was tied to “Satan worship” by some. The company has done all it can to set the record straight. Heart-wrenching photos appear on the internet, saying a little child is desperately ill and needs email sent to his address to provide encouragement. Often the email address is a dead-end, an agitated recipient or even worse, some type of junk email list.
Baptist life is no different. There are all types of denominational urban myths:

  1. All Baptists believe the Bible.Truth: There is a difference between authority and inerrancy. Something can be authoritative without being totally true and trustworthy. The nature of Scripture demands an affirmation that all the miracles occurred in time and space as literal events, that the narratives are historical in nature and true, and that the authors of the biblical books are the authors to whom the books are ascribed. What you believe about the nature of Scripture is the foundational element of any belief system.
  2. The Cooperative Program is whatever an individual, church or state convention wants it to be.Truth: The founders of the Cooperative Program intended for churches, state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention to be partners in an undesignated giving channel. Since the SBC created the Cooperative Program, state conventions are obligated to honor the definition. To say the Cooperative Program is an undesignated giving vehicle is like saying a circle is round.
  3. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has more money than it can spend.Truth: The constitution of the SBTC requires the convention to be debt free. Messengers at the 2001 annual meeting authorized the Executive Board to purchase property and build a permanent facility as a means of better stewardship. Surplus funds have been retained in order to pay cash for the facilities as mandated by the governing documents.
  4. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has no real ministries in Texas except The Criswell College.Truth: Virtually every area of local church ministry is facilitated through the SBTC. Conferences, workshops, and seminars are funded to provide training opportunities for associations and churches. Beside events, everything from assisting small church pastors in crisis to providing funds for a sonogram at a crisis pregnancy center, SBTC in-state Cooperative Program is at work in Texas. Over 175 church planting missionaries have been supported through the SBTC-CP. Total missions and evangelism expenditures make up 37% of the in-state operating budget. Contributions to the retirement accounts of qualified SBTC church staff members enable those who serve the Lord to prepare for an active retirement. Over 100 church ministries are facilitated through the SBTC.
  5. The SBTC is creedal.Truth: Churches desiring fellowship around certain theological truths affirm a statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. The churches do not have to adopt the BF&M 2000 as their document. Nor are churches required to sign the BF&M 2000. Churches are asked to affirm (state affirmatively) that they are in agreement with the BF&M 2000.
  6. Churches cannot designate funds through the SBTC.Truth: Churches may designate the percentage they desire to go to the Southern Baptist Convention. The vast majority of churches give in the traditional, undesignated manner. Churches may give to over 30 different institutions or ministries through the SBTC by designating their gifts.
  7. Churches surrender autonomy by having fellowship within doctrinal parameters.Truth: Churches are free to associate with whom they wish and in whatever manner. Churches choosing to establish a minimal set of doctrinal positions as the basis of fellowship has been practiced by Christian churches in general and Baptist churches in particular for centuries. Baptists retain their autonomy while choosing to relate to other churches through a doctrinal covenant.

I doubt these truth statements will put to bed all the denominational urban myths, but the truth needs to be told anyway. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”