James L. Evans|
What preachers will or won't say
A new book by a Baptist minister is sure to stir debate among Christians of every stripe. According to the author, Oliver "Buzz" Thomas, there are "10 things your minister wants to tell you, but can't because he needs his job." By the way, that's the title.
Thomas, who in addition to being a minister also holds a law degree, is former general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee. He is regarded by many as the foremost authority on church and state issues in America. He is presently executive director of the Niswonger Foundation — a group devoted to providing financial assistance to students in Tennessee.
In his book about 10 things ministers can't talk about but really want to, Thomas argues that an authentic biblical faith has absolutely nothing to fear from science or other faiths or even women.
In his opening chapter, for instance, he writes about "how it all began." Thomas makes it clear he believes that God created the universe, but that such claims are religious claims. The idea of a creator should not be part of a public school science curriculum, sneaking in as either creationism or intelligent design. However, Thomas also believes the controversy surrounding the evolution/creationism debate should be taught in public schools as history and social studies.
Thomas also takes on the issue of women serving in ordained roles in churches. He believes the Bible fully supports women in ministerial roles, including priests or senior ministers.
However, he also believes the First Amendment allows churches under the free exercise clause to make their own decisions about these matters. The law cannot prohibit churches from barring women from serving in ordained capacities. He does write, however, that "there's something inside every American that is offended anytime discrimination takes place. Especially in the name of religion."
On the issue of homosexuality, Thomas believes the separation of church and state might be served best by regarding all matrimonial covenants as civil unions. The issue of "marriage" could then be left for individual faith communities to determine and discharge.
In a chapter called "Other faiths," Thomas takes on the issue of America's religious diversity. As a Baptist, Thomas understands the evangelical impulse to "make disciples of all nations." However, he also points out that "the nations" have the right to say no. Jesus did not practice nor allow coercion in his instructions to spread the faith.
In our setting, Thomas writes, the "failure to protect anyone's right to religious freedom diminishes everyone's religious freedom."
He wraps up his long essay, appropriately, by taking a look at end time theology. He chides those who take the Bible's apocalyptic writings literally by pointing out they were never intended to be understood that way. Early believers did not read them as literal. The books of Daniel and Revelation are written in code for persecuted communities. Thomas reminds us that not even Jesus knew the day or the hour.
It is not at all clear whether Thomas is right about ministers wanting to say these things. He is certainly correct that in some settings saying such things would result in termination — which is sad. Faith should never be an obstacle to the pursuit of honest, critical thinking. After all, almost all of the great heroes of our faith — from Jesus on — started off as dissenters from settled orthodoxy.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church. He can be reached at faithmatters@mindspringcom.