Friday, March 14, 2008

Well, it hit the fan on Monday when “A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change" was released. I have not been able to respond to all of the contact I have received because I was on the road. I appreciate all the correspondence--even the more negative words. I knew going into this that there would be a lot of differing opinions, but I would be lying to say that I have not been surprised by the volume of feedback it has received.

I have also been somewhat surprised at the way the press has spun this document. If you simply read the headlines, you would think that this was a divisive document about global warming. Just take a look at this headline in the New York Times: "Southern Baptists Back a Shift on Climate Change".

This is disappointing, because to characterize this as a “global warming initiative” is to mischaracterize the document. Let me speak with clarity:

-This is not a "global warming document"

-This is not an endorsement of any particular scientific data

-This is not a political document written to support a particular legislation

This is a document that was written to increase the conversation about important creation care issues among Southern Baptists. It is a biblical document, and it is a Baptist document. This is apparent when you actually read it. But I guess that is where some of the confusion has come from. Too many people who are criticizing this document and blogging about it ad nauseam would be well served to read the document rather than react to the media.

A lot of the blogging going on in Baptistland argues against points that the document isn’t making. There is a lot of talk about whether or not part of the changing climate is due to natural cycles, but the document doesn’t directly address that. The document’s statement on climate change can basically be boiled down to this: In the face of conflicting evidence, Christians should act prudently.
When people read that statement—which isn’t a controversial statement—they always ask, “So what does that mean? What prudent actions should be taken?” For a number of reasons, this document doesn’t answer those questions. One reason is because we are not policy makers, and since these things have not been a real part of our dialogue, it wouldn’t be wise to go that far. Instead, the document offers a theological basis by which people can evaluate creation care issues.

Interestingly, even with all the journalistic acrobatics, we have increased the number of signatories by a large margin. In the last few days, we have gone from 46 signatories to nearly 200 signatories on baptistcreationcare.org! The outpouring of support has come from dozens of church pastors, SBC seminary professors, a divinity school dean, SBC college professors, IMB missionaries from all over the world (as well as one strategic coordinator and one regional director), NAMB church planters and even SBC laypersons. I assume many of these people think a lot like Nathan Finn, a recent signatory and an Church History instructor at Southeastern, who has referenced this on his blog.

This has been encouraging, and it just reassures me of something I knew all along. These conversations are beginning to happen among Southern Baptists. Even though I thought it was poorly worded, I think the poll at SaidatSouthern.com illustrates that these things are not settled among Southern Baptists.

This is not a divisive statement and it is not being pushed in a divisive way (as documented in a recent article by the Christian Post entitled, "Green Southern Baptists Avoid Divisive Talk"). This is not a "global warming statement." In fact, only one of the four statements is about climate change. This is not all that controversial, and it certainly cannot be grouped in with the extremist "Chicken Little" movement. Actually, this offers a rational and biblical alternative to the extreme.

The SBECI is the collective voice of Southern Baptists who are excited to rediscover the creation care mandates we find throughout scripture beginning in the very first book of Genesis. The rest of the world is talking about these things, and I am excited to see my own denomination join the conversations in an effort to maintain a relevant, biblical voice and continue to fulfill our calling to be salt and light in a dark and sour world.

Plato said to “Never discourage anyone…who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.” It is clear these issues are going to be part of evangelical discussions as younger evangelicals increasingly participate-even small steps forward are positive. Southern Baptists are rediscovering biblical creation care and how it relates to our MOST IMPORTANT priority of fulfilling the Great Commission. I think our future will be brighter as a result.

8 comments:

Pfister5 said...

Jonathan,

My name is Bill Pfister and I also went to SEBTS. I pastor in western NC just outside Brevard. I want to begin by saying that the people I spoke with this week that know you personally were very complimentary of you. I congratulate your desire and drive. I also want you to know that I am writing to carry on the conversation, not to attack you in any way. That said, I was very dissapointed when I first learned of this initiative. It seemed as if every pastor I spoke with this week responded the same way and so I thought I'd write in case you wondered why anyone could be opposed to this. I hope this will help you see another perspective.

My primary trouble with the initiative is not the document itself (which I did read first) but the way it was handled. I'll try and be brief:

First, I learned about this on cnn.com. Why weren't Baptists first told about it through the state papers or Baptist Press? Our own NC editor was a signatory. It would have been nice to have been told.

Second, while I'm sure it was unintentional, the media spun this as the SBC bloc, as if all 16 million of us supported this and had voted on it. I think much more care should have been given to say that this was a small group of Southern Baptists who were not speaking for the denomination.

Third, how can the name Southern Baptist be used in the title of the initiative when it only represents a few Baptists at the time of release? Can I get a small group together, hold a press conference, and make a similar initiative for whatever issue is dear to me? Think about the precedent this sets for any small group to promote their issue.

Fourth, we have a convention every year that passes resolutions. We just passed one last year on the environment. Why not wait three more months and propose this at the convention so it can truly represent us?

Fifth, we have an agency that handles public policy issues for us so individuals won't constantly be going public with individual issues. I know how difficult it is to get an SBC agency to respond . . . but as in point number 4, does this mean we can go our own way in the name of Southern Baptists?

Sixth, Easter is coming next weekend. Why this issue at this time? More than anything else, I want to be part of a denomination known for being about Christ and the cross.

Seventh, I think most Southern Baptists are environmentally conscious. We recycle and do not litter. But since this is such a hot button politically, why go beyond what was already said last summer? Why go further? If anything, by saying this now, we look that much more out of touch by responding so late in the game. While you do not use the phrase global warming in the initiative, most people read that in. Since the verdict is still out and many earlier claims are being proven false, any response on our part, using the name or not, seems as if we are responding to their hysteria.

Eighth, The quote that came from the theology class, about destroying God's creation being equal with ripping pages out of the Bible, was very poorly worded. It made the seminary look bad in my opinion because the theology in it was so questionable. I don't think any of us would equate general revelation with special revelation. I live in a beautiful part if the world and care for the environment. I am a former missionary and saw what poor stewardship looks like - I'm not advocating a destruction or carelessness of God's creation. But I recognize that it is the creation and not the Creator. Let's focus more on Him.

Ninth, someone I emailed this week equated your initiative with Martin Luther's 95 Theses, and that shows me how far off track we are as a denomination. We do need a Martin Luther today to bring us back to the centrality of the Gospel, but instead we are chasing side issues. I know this is a huge issue for you personally, and I applaud your drive, I just do not think it rises to the level of denominational involvement. I wish it had not included Southern Baptist in the title. I even read on the website where a church was passing out compact flourescents door to door. Shouldn't we be taking the Gospel door to door? I can just see Lifeway creating a new 40 day study: light and Light, 40 days to spiritual growth and climate care. I'm sorry, but in my eyes, it just looks once again that as a denomnation, we just don't get it. We are here for the Gospel. We want to be Christ-centered, not responding to every story when it makes news.

I don't know if you understand where I am coming from, but I wanted to share my thoughts with you in love. I hope they are received with grace.

I want to champion the cause of Christ. I want to be in a denomination that does the same. Maybe we'll not have the loudest voice in society . . . but people will know we stand for Christ.

Much grace to you,
Your brother,
Bill Pfister
Brevard, NC

Jonathan Merritt said...

Bill,

Thank you so much for leaving a comment and for taking the Gospel to Brevard. I appreciate your words, candor and tone. I will try to answer all of your points in order:

The Baptist papers knew about this at the same time as the mainstream press. (Some ahead of time.) Unfortunately, when you release something, the first to jump on it is the first to develop a voice. In retrospect, I could have offered it to BP or state papers first, but at the time I didn't know it would be spun this way by the mainstream press. I think there is wisdom in your suggested approach.

Second, you mention that this was spun as being representative of the SBC. While I felt everything was done to make the distinction from including the indefinite article "A" before "Southern Baptist" to leaving out "Convention" to outright telling those reporting on this that we were not affiliated in any way with the SBC, it apparently wasn't enough. This is from Southern Baptists and by Southern Baptists. It was hard to figure out how to communicate the nature of the document while being clear about its origins. Again, had I known then what I know now, I would have probably done something differently here as well.

You asked the question: "Can I get a small group together, hold a press conference, and make a similar initiative for whatever issue is dear to me?" The answer to that is simply "yes." You could have a group of 2 Southern Baptist pastors at your church next week and call it a Southern Baptist Pastors Conference. While things would probably get sticky if everyone did that, it is the nature of an autonomous, voluntary gathering of churches as opposed to a denomination of hierarchy. On the flip side, I think there is much wisdom in what you are saying here.

As far as the resolution process, there were several reasons that this route was not taken. One being that the goal was to hopefully inspire real progress, so we sought to work through people rather than on paper. While the resolution is the main mechanism for developing a voice, it is a "top-down" mechanism. This is a "bottom-up" mechanism. While this may not have been the best route, I hope that explains the rationale.

As far as the ERLC, please know that we had many conversations, and many of their suggestions were implemented. The ERLC is a wonderful organization working to represent our general interests in Washington D.C. on specific matters of policy, and we are lucky to have them.

As far as Easter, the timing was not intentional. This would have probably remained a private document for some time, but then Robert Parham (moderate baptist, not SBC) somehow got a hold of an early draft and blasted it as too conservative in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Then things moved more quickly. With his article out there, people began to ask about it. And with the document remaining private, it was being left to conjecture. The timing was not intended to detract from either the cross or Christ, two things that are infinitely more important than environmental stewardship. Perhaps this was not the perfect choice, but it should explain the timing.

You make the point that most Southern Baptists are environmentally conscious. I have to disagree. In fact, I don't think most Americans or even most Christians are environmentally conscious to the degree we should be. Just take, for example, the issue of waste. As Americans, we produce about 4.5 lbs. of household waste per day (compared with about half that for the rest of the world). All of us--me included--purchase things everyday that no one needs. We can all do better in creation care matters.

The mention of global climate change was to communicate something that has not been communicated too clearly: In the face of conflicting evidence, we should be prudent. Just as we don't need to respond in hyteria, we can't put our fingers in our ears. Even still, the document clearly states that the jury is still out on this.

The quote from my professor was not fully quoted in context. Obviously, he was not making the statement that special and general revelation were equal. Just that they were both revelation. In retrospect, I could have been more careful. I think there is a lot of wisdom in what you are saying there.

I hope this explains, and I hope you trust the words of your firends that I am genuine person with positive intentions who simply wants to gather others from my denomination to rediscover the creation care mandates. Your words are all taken in grace, realizing that as a pastor ministering the Gospel in the trenches, I owe you much respect. Any mistakes that I may have made were mistakes of the head and not of the heart.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom on these things.


Blessings,


Jonathan

Pfister5 said...

Dear brother,

Your well thought-out reply and gracious tone is appreciated. Thank you for answering my questions and for listening to what I had to share. I pray the Lord uses this experience to prepare you for even bigger things in the future. To end, let's pray for our denomination and for the advancement of the Gospel worldwide.

Bill

ThinkItOut said...

I am frankly overjoyed that a group of SBC voices got together on this issue. My dad was a Southern Baptist minister from Alabama for over 40 years. Sure, biblically everything that the bible talks about from a "creation care" standpoint should be internalized to every believer anyway. But just like our founding fathers of this great country (USA), there is a time and a place to make a declaration... to throw the gauntlet down and say this is it. The way this was all done, well, it's water under the bridge. Learn from it and move on. Some of the best moments in history were the ones where God Blessed mightily! Just look at King David.

This has inspired me even more to start a new ministry. One that centers around conservation and the environment, wrapped in God's intentions for what we are to do. A website will be set up for this at www.shamrockcrossing.com. I actually started praying about this six months ago and all of this has just served as a catalyst to move on this. We need to do more.

Keep up the good work!

Garet Robinson said...

Good sir,

You are doing a fine job representing Jesus Christ and your voice within our denominational framework. It is truly a sad thing that we have had such a "firestorm" over such a common sense document.

Through the many mischaracterizations and outright defamations one might think we were asking people to vote democrat in the next election (which isn't a bad thing.) In reality this is a document which can bring us together with others for the glory of God.

Proper stewardship of creation is all over the Scriptures. To suggest that we can blow it all and wait for the rapture is akin to forgetting to save for retirement. Yes that day might come (depending on one's eschatology) but we must be mindful that even in the Scriptural passages about what might happen at the eschaton it is all done by God and not humanity.

I am proud to have been able to ad my meager name to such a groundbreaking document. It is truly a blessing to see so many leaders who can think outside of the box and challenge us to return to a biblical read of the Scriptures when it comes to our environment. Perhaps this will be turning of a corner in our fine denomination's life when we cease to tell others what we are against and begin to show them what and who we are for.

Thank you for being willing to be a courageous voice in a sea of negativism over a critical issue facing the entirety of our creation. May our unified prayer be for a recognition of the great task set before us and use this to leverage influence with those who otherwise might not hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace to you,
Garet Robinson

Melissa Strauss said...

Jonathan,

Wow. I can't believe all of the fuss raised over this "common sense" document, as Garet Robinson named it well.

I will always be proud of any of my friends who have challenged accepted thinking and with their voice, raised awareness on issues that have rustled the feathers of their colleagues. Your father said it best: the baton will always be passed onto the next generation. I am thankful to be a part of that generation.

I don't see how issues on the climate, or politics, or anything for that matter, can divert us away from the life of Christ. What effect does the publishing of your statement have on Easter? I am frustrated that a denomination is so worried about keeping such a uniform way of thinking, which they believe draws in more lives to Jesus. He doesn't need any perfect "timing" or "title" or "place" to be glorified.

I have one prayer and I do see it being answered: That our Christian community can be open to exploring how God is interested in our world today, not just the world we read about in the bible.

Anonymous said...

My name is Lane Salvato. I am a Southern Baptist, and a born again Christian.

I too was very disappointed to see that you released this document in such a way as to imply that it is the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention. As an individual who is a part of the convention, I feel that in a way you spoke for me without permission.

Also, you are on dangerous ground when you try and speak in broad terms about the environment on behalf of a large group of people. Clearly, your statements were interpreted to be those of the SBC, even though they weren't.

Man-made global warming is used as a political tool by the left in this country to undermine the American way of life, and on broader terms undermine freedom and individual liberty. Although I'm certain that this was not your intention, you gave them some fuel for their fire. The notion of man-made global warming is not based upon scientific data, but on flawed models that do not take into account solar activity, volcanic activity, and long term environmental cycles.

Al Gores recent movie, "An Inconvenient Truth" is being used in schools across the world to indoctrinate children into believing in man-made global warming, and it is fraught with outright lies.

You did not specifically address man-made global warming in your statement, but you certainly did imply that you believe it is an issue that needs to be addressed. I agree. It needs to be addressed by scientists, and those scientists must not already have a conclusion in mind.

Also, you implied that Southern Baptists are late arrivals to the party regarding environmental stewardship. Hunters, fishermen, ranchers, and farmers that sit in pews in small churches across this nation every year do more for the environment than all the high minded professors and political minds put together. We do it quietly, and without fanfare.

If you are moved to research the human affect on the environment, please proceed. In the future, however, please do it in such a way that it is clear that you are speaking for yourself and your signatories, and not the Southern Baptist Convention or me.

Micah's Mom said...

Hello Jonathan Merritt:

I am in Athens, GA ministering to families and communities who have and continue to face health challenges from abuse of the environment. Hmmmm...since we are getting a new earth, should I disband my ministry and tell my brothers and sisters to think about their heavenly homes... while their ones on earth are giving them and future generations cancer and asthma?

I was once a Southern Baptist. I was once a financial supporter of Focus on the Family. Then my son was diagnosed with leukemia at age 4 which was linked to environmental degradation near our home. I couldn't find a Christian ministry I supported that saw the connection between the quality of life of children and environmental stewardship. I was awaken to the fact that the church has missed a few boats in history to stand up for people, not politics, or economics, or worldly systems of doing business.

Jesus, the Master Teacher, of spiritual lessons by diving into environmental analogies, reminded us that unjust weights make Him very mad. If the issue of creation care is more about economic impacts of earthly kingdoms as Dr. James Dobson stated, then I suggest that Christian leaders building earthly kingdoms stop for a moment and reFOCUS.

I think Jesus made it perfectly clear that our relationship to the poor is to be high on our list of priorities. It is well documented, and even seen firsthand by elected leaders touring the world, that climate and environmental stewardship issues affect the poor disproportionately. Does loving our neighbor as ourselves apply here?

Tell me what is a modern day den of thieves? It will have something to do with robbing God's people while claiming to be helping them in spiritual matters.

Micah's Mom