Saturday, 24 June 2006
In a stunning development late last week, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to ban Jesus and other winebibbers from serving on denominational committees and boards. We sent our roving reporter, Jon Swift, to get the inside scoop. Jon met with denominational spokesperson T. Toatler and filed this report.
Progressive Theology: This is Jon Swift, reporting for Progressive Theology from the office of Mr. T. Toatler, denominational spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention. Mr. Toatler, your denomination's move to ban Jesus and other leading New Testament figures from your boards and committees came as quite a shock to many people. Is it something that has been in the works for a long time?
T. Toatler: As a matter of fact, we've been working on this recommendation for some time now, Jon. Although we haven't exactly telegraphed our moves, it really shouldn't have been a big shock to people. It's thoroughly consistent with other moves we've made in recent years.
PT: You mean like removing the statement, "The measure by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ" in the prolog to the denomination's creed, revised in 2000, the Baptist Faith and Message?
TT: That's right. We respect Jesus as the founder of our faith, but frankly, we have some concerns about some of his lifestyle choices. Removing the statement from the BFM put us on a little more solid ground theologically. Banning Jesus from serving on any of our committees because of his propensity for drinking and hanging around other boozers is a statement that we really had to make in this day and age of raging secular humanism. Demon rum is a worse foe today than it was in Carrie Nation's day. The godless forces that repealed the 19th Amendment--
PT: Prohibition, right?
TT: Right--prohibition. The godless communists and atheists behind that movement have led this country into ruin. I could go on and on . . . .
PT: I'm sure you could, but let's get back to the matter at hand. What are the specific acts of Jesus that you and a majority of the convention had such problems with?
TT: In terms of drinking?
PT: We'll start with that.
TT: Well, one of the things that soured us on Jesus right from the start was his miracle at the wedding in Cana, turning water into wine. What's that about? Why encourage people to drink, especially by creating the best wine the steward had ever tasted? That just sends the wrong message.
PT: As I understand it, drinking wine was an important Jewish custom, especially at times of celebration, like weddings. Couldn't you excuse Jesus' actions as simply catering to the culture of his day?
TT: I guess I could excuse it, if I was also willing to excuse the coke-snorters and the crackheads of today. "Do not be drunk with wine, for that is dissipation"!
PT: That's what Paul said, and we'll get back to Paul in a minute, but I want to follow up on Jesus first. Couldn't you argue that since Jesus was the founder of the religion and the Son of God, anything he approved of should thereby become normative for Christians of today? And therefore, drinking wine shouldn't be any big deal, right?
TT: (hotly) You couldn't be any more wrong! As Christians, we're responsible not only for our own actions but for the actions of people who see us. We must take care not to offend the weaker brother, as Paul said. Drinking wine or, God forbid, beer in the presence of a weaker Christian might lead him to ruin. Jesus should have known that!
PT: Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you are the weaker brother, and those Christians who drink might be the stronger brother or sister?
TT: (nearly insensate) Nonsense! It's obvious that the alcoholics and boozers and other kinds of people who engage in winebibbing are the weaker brothers, if they're Christians at all, which I doubt.
PT: That's interesting. So you're saying that Jesus himself might not have even been a Christian, because of his involvement with beverage alcohol?
TT: (nervously pulling his collar) That's really not for me to say. Who am I to judge the Son of God?
PT: Who indeed? Let's shift our focus to Paul. You quoted Paul earlier to the effect that Christians shouldn't be drunk with wine and that stronger Christians need to be aware of their effect on weaker Christians. It sounds like Paul is solidly in your camp. Why ban him as well from your committees?
TT: I'm sorry to say it, but the although the earlier Paul was firmly in our camp, the later Paul fell off the wagon. Remember when he advised young Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach?
PT: I seem to recall that, yes.
TT: Well, at the end of his illustrious career, Paul made a major mistake in advising Timothy to consume alcohol.
PT: You know, many scholars argue that Paul was not really the author of the so-called Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus. If that's true, then Paul should be off the hook on the morals charge as far as the SBC is concerned, right?
TT: (incensed again) What do you mean Paul didn't write them? It says right at the beginning of each of the books in question that he wrote them! Of course he wrote them! There's no doubt that he wrote them!
PT: So you'd rather say that Paul was a boozer than that one of Paul's disciples might have written books later attributed to Paul?
TT: (nearly beside himself) Of course! The Bible is perfect in every way, even if the people described in it are not!
PT: (triumphantly) Including Jesus?
TT: (sheepishly) Well . . . Of course Jesus was without sin, and it's true that the Jews in Jesus' day drank wine as a matter of course, but that's only because the water had germs in it that needed to be killed. (excitedly, with relief) Yeah, that's it! Jesus must have turned the water to wine in order to preserve the health of the wedding guests!
PT: So Jesus is back in your good graces and can serve on SBC committees?
TT: No, his actions still set a bad precedent for people today, who have good, clean water to drink.
PT: All right, so Jesus and Paul are on the outs with the SBC, committee-wise. What about Peter? I don't remember any explicit statements about him drinking in the New Testament.
TT: (condescendingly) That's because you haven't been paying close enough attention to the text. Remember on the day of Pentecost, when Peter stood before the multitude and preached a sermon to the people, explaining why all the disciples were speaking in tongues? It was such an opportunity, but he blew it at the very beginning, because of one remark: "These people are not drunk, as you suppose, seeing that it is only the third hour of the day." What was Peter really saying? "It's only nine in the morning, so they haven't had time to get drunk yet. Give them a few hours!" What kind of a witness is that? He should have said, "These people aren't drunk, because they never touch wine. They are filled with the Holy Spirit!" That would have been a much better opening to his message. Then the church wouldn't have started off on the wrong foot, using wine in the Lord's Supper, ignoring the sin of drunkenness, and so forth.
PT: (puzzled) That's interesting. I was under the impression that Peter's Pentecost sermon was quite successful, converting about three thousand people on that very day. Isn't that the way you read the second chapter of Acts?
TT: (exasperated) Of course, but you're missing the big picture. Sure, Peter's sermon led to the conversion of three thousand people, but what became of them? They became part of a church that actively encouraged the consumption of alcohol! Talk about getting off to a bad start! Imagine if Peter, or maybe a different spokesman, had preached a different sermon, as I suggested earlier. Instead of three thousand, maybe ten thousand souls would have been saved that day--and they would have formed a much stronger church, one not populated with winebibbers and drunks!
PT: Hmmm. That's interesting speculation. I'd never thought about it in those terms before. But if Peter hadn't jumped up to deliver the sermon, who do you think would have been a better choice?
TT: (hesitantly) Well, I do have a couple of people in mind, but unfortunately neither one was available.
PT: Really? Who were they?
TT: My first choice would have been John the Baptist. As you know, he lived the life of a Nazirite, avoiding wine and strong drink. He would have been a perfect candidate to preach the Pentecost sermon.
PT: If he hadn't been executed by Herod Antipas sometime earlier.
PT: Is there any connection between the name John "the Baptist" and your denomination? Did you choose your name because John wasn't a drinker?
TT: No, that's not the reason, but it wouldn't have been a bad reason, huh?
PT: Maybe not. What about your second choice to preach the sermon on the day of Pentecost?
TT: My second choice is going to come as a bit of a surprise to you, but I have my reasons for mentioning him, although like John, he wasn't available on Pentecost.
PT: (with anticipation) Who was it?
TT: Judas Iscariot.
PT: (astonished) Judas Iscariot? The traitor? The one who betrayed Jesus?
TT: That's right. I know what you're thinking: "Why would Judas have made a good candidate to preach the sermon on Pentecost?" Well, if he had just repented of his betrayal of Jesus instead of killing himself, he would have been the perfect candidate, even better than Peter with his pathetic "denying Jesus three times" shtick. So he denied Jesus three times. Big deal! That's not such a sin. Selling Jesus' location to the Jewish leaders for thirty pieces of silver, now that's a sin!
PT: (befuddled) I don't get it. Because Judas was a greater sinner than Peter, you think he would have made a better preacher on Pentecost?
TT: Of course!--assuming, as I said, that he had repented afterwards. He would have had the ultimate testimony. "I betrayed Jesus, but I'm here to tell you that he has forgiven me and saved my soul!" What sermon could have been more powerful than that? (furtively) I sometimes wonder if Judas didn't have a little "help" committing suicide, if you know what I mean.
PT: (shocked) The disciples? Peter? What are you saying??
TT: (hurriedly) Oh, no, I'm not suggesting that they really had anything to do with Judas's death. On the other hand, they didn't seem to go out of their way to bring him back into the fold. Jealousy, perhaps, over his potential dynamite testimony.
TT: And one more thing about Judas: as far as we know, he was a tee-totaler. While Jesus and the other disciples were (gesturing with his fingers) "celebrating" their last Passover with a cup of wine, Judas was out on other business. Yes, Judas would have been an excellent choice to preach the Pentecost sermon, other than that betrayal thing.
PT: I see what you mean. So you're convinced that God would have forgiven Judas and the other disciples would have accepted him back into the fold as a full-fledged disciple and minister?
TT: That's right. God is very forgiving, and people who have committed murder, fraud, burglary, wife-beating, almost any sin are welcome to be leaders in the church, as long as they sincerely repent. Except people who are divorced, of course.
PT: Of course. Well, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. It's been very enlightening for me, and I'm sure it will be for our readers as well. I do have one last question that is completely unrelated to our previous discussion.
TT: What is it?
PT: How did the Southern Baptist Convention convince SBC, the phone company, to change its name to AT&T, leaving the SBC moniker exclusively to your denomination?
TT: (glancing about, conspiratorially) It wasn't easy, let me tell you. The phone company that called itself SBC had been a thorn in our flesh for some time. They even had an arena named the SBC Center, where the San Antonio Spurs played, and they actually sold beer there! It was a terrible testimony. Fortunately, we have friends in the White House--the president is a tee-totaler nowadays, you know--and at the FCC, so we pulled a few string, called in a few favors, and now the SBC Center is called the AT&T Center.
PT: (amazed) Very impressive! The SBC--you Baptists, I mean--really has some clout in the federal government. . . .
TT: (proudly) And in the state governments, too!
PT: Absolutely true. But doesn't that raise issues concerning the separation of church and state? I remember reading somewhere that Southern Baptists used to be strong advocates for the separation of church and state. You're not any more?
TT: (scoffingly) Hardly! That was back when we didn't have the political connections we have today. But I think that's a discussion for another time.
PT: Right you are. Thanks again for your time. This is Jon Swift, reporting for Progressive Theology.