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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Biggest Loser and Self-Sacrifice

            My wife and I occasionally watch The Biggest Loser (NBC, Mondays 8/7c), a show about the physical and emotional transformations of people who are significantly overweight and who undergo intense training and counseling by coaches trying to get them to a breakthrough.
            This show has been important to me for two reasons. First, I constantly struggle with my weight and self-image. I’ve always been a large guy, but I constantly wish I were thinner, more in-shape, and (vainly) better looking. The Biggest Loser is a reminder of the struggle necessary to be transformed and the hard work that can lead to great accomplishments. The show is something of a drum-beat that motivates me to get up and get moving.
            Secondly, The Biggest Loser offers pastoral insights into the spiritual and emotional lives of people who are struggling, depressed, and out of control. They are counseled and pushed to the edge of what they think they can handle by increasingly demanding coaches Jillian Michaels, Bob Harper, and Dolvett Quince. Although there is not an explicitly spiritual overtone to the challenges and encouragement that the coaches offer, this is most certainly a spiritual program. Its goal is no less than the transformation of the contestants physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I do well to witness these admittedly edited transformations; they help me consider the raw emotional hurt of people that is so often masked at church.
            On a recent episode[1] the characters faced the challenge of leaving the ranch (the place where they live, eat, and workout in front of the cameras) and moving into a rented house where they would have to shop for themselves and develop a workout routine using normal consumer equipment rather than that at the ranch’s gym. One contestant willingly accepted this challenge, leaving the routine of the ranch to test his willpower and commitment once he was on his own.
            The good news is that this contestant (as well as the teammate he took with him off site) lost a good amount of weight once they returned to the ranch. What struck me as odd, though, was an exchange between this contestant (his name is Jackson) and two of the trainers. The conversation[2] at the weekly weigh-in went something like this:

Jillian: “I’m proud of you…but you did it as a martyr. You did it like you were saying “I have it together; none of you do. I will fall on the sword.””
Jackson: “This wasn’t about falling on the sword. It didn’t matter who I was “saving””
Dolvett…”You’ve gotta save yourself.”
Jillian: “THANK YOU!”
Dolvett: “Jillian’s right; make sure you do things for you, first.”

Let me firstly say that I get it. There is a good tradition in ministry that self-care and the spirit are related.[3] We must, as believers, maintain a healthy level of self-care and self-respect in our developing discipleship to become the people we are called to be in Christ. There was something about the above interaction that seemed wrong to me, though.
            In weight loss it is essential to break through the emotional and spiritual boundaries that people build up to protect their hearts from harm. A significant portion of The Biggest Loser season is dedicated to the back stories and emotional baggage of the contestants. After all, watching people work out for four hours wouldn’t make for a good reality program. I can attest to the reality of eating to feel better and to get through stressful situations. The comfort of eating is an easy way to feel better about a rough season in life.
            What Jillian and Dolvett consistently mean in their “take care of number one” advice is that in many cases, people who are severely overweight have fallen into a pattern of self-disrespect and externalization of stress and relationships to the exclusion of their own health, both physically and emotionally. This is good, sound advice for people struggling to gain control of their addictions and self-image.
            In the episode in question, though, the issue was not about the internalization of emotion and personal responsibility. Rather, the issue Jillian and Dolvett had with Jackson was something related to his “gameplay” as a contestant on The Biggest Loser. Jackson decided to “sacrifice” himself during a challenge that ultimately sent him from the ranch. His plan went something like this: if he, rather than another contestant, were exiled for the week to fend for himself, it would protect some other, weaker contestant from that fate. Further, if Jackson was successful as an exile, it would demonstrate how much he had learned and give him some evidence of how he would perform on his own should he be sent home for good. So there was some altruism involved as well as some personal evaluation.
            Jillian’s concern was that Jackson’s sacrifice endangered his presence on the ranch and was an unnecessary risk. Jackson, in her view, should have done everything possible to guarantee his place on the ranch with the trainers for another week. The self-sacrifice of the contestant is a bad thing: the trainers’ fear is that Jackson is still in an emotional pattern of taking care of those around him before he meets his own needs.

            My reaction to the Biggest Loser situation comes from my Christian commitment to self-sacrifice. If the life of the disciple of Jesus is anything, it is the “taking up” of a cross to follow the Christ.[4] There is a sense of self-sacrifice in the nature of discipleship because there is definite self-sacrifice in the Incarnation. We must remember, if we are following Jesus, that he is walking toward the cross.
            When Jillian Michaels berates Jackson for his “falling on the sword,” she is not attacking the altruistic and kenosis of Christianity; rather she is being true to her desire for the contestants to deal with their own internal issues before they address those of their neighbors. She is doing the same thing every flight attendant in America does – she reminds us to secure our own oxygen mask before we see to the masks of the people beside us.
            From the perspective of a disciple of Jesus, though, such advice is unacceptable. The nature of following Jesus is, by definition, the giving up of our desires to do something other than follow him. It is the giving in to the leading of the Spirit, the painful giving up of our sinful habits and the turning toward the new life we are offered in Christ Jesus.
            Two issues surfaced in my mind while considering that conversation on The Biggest Loser. First, there must be room in the discipleship planning of our congregations to address the internal self-care issues of those on the discipleship journey. Self-sacrifice is the very essence of the Gospel, but it does not necessarily mean caring for others to the exclusion of caring for oneself. Before we can deny ourselves we must know ourselves. Self-care is the avenue by which the faithful discover their weaknesses, their gifts, their habits, and their addictions. It is through the contrast of our hearts’ desires and the truth demonstrated in Jesus Christ that we learn what repentance is. We would rather not, though. Jillian’s warning to Jackson is as real for us as for him, if even wrong-headed: we must care for our own spiritual houses lest they be overrun as soon as we turn our backs.[5]
            Secondly, we must not flee from suffering in the name of altruism. The self-giving savior did not live, die, and live again to avoid some unpleasant situation. The incarnation is testimony of just the opposite: Jesus came to a world that neither knew, wanted, or understood its God and suffered on that ungrateful world’s behalf. When Jackson volunteered to leave the ranch, he was indeed practicing altruism by protecting a different, potentially weaker contestant. However, it was not a choice that prevented his participation in “suffering.” His exile from the ranch guaranteed a harder path than those he left behind and risked his eventual dismissal from the contest. In choosing a harder path, Jackson demonstrated something that Jillian couldn’t see – he was placing compassion for his neighbor above his own progress, even his “success” as a contestant. There is far too much in the New Testament about the disciples giving up life for the sake of Jesus for us to miss the point of that sacrifice – we are called to faithfulness even through suffering. When we avoid the difficulties of faith in the name of not hurting someone’s feelings or in the name of not rocking the church boat, we have radically departed from the self-giving example of our master.
            I’m not usually one to find much of a theological point in reality television (other than clear examples of the doctrine of Total Depravity!), but in this case I couldn’t resist. We must walk the line, much like Jackson, between arrogance and self-awareness[6] in our discipleship. We need to deal with our hearts as they are laid open before God as well as living the self-sacrificing altruism he demonstrated in Christ Jesus.

[1] “Face Your Fear,” originally aired on 2/25/13
[3] Among other things, pastoral self-care is essential to survival in ministry, especially in area dealing with mortality on a regular basis. See Michael R. Stuart, “Practicing contemplation for healthy self-care” in Chaplaincy Today 28 no. 1 and Sally Canning, “Out of balance: why I hesitate to practice and teach “self-care”” in Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 30 no. 1.
[4] Cf. Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34.
[5] Cf. Matthew 12:45.
[6] See Casino Royale, my favorite Bond movie yet.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Are Baptists "Mainline Protestants?" or "On the Installation of Suzii Paynter as CFB Executive Coordinator"

            I’ve come across two independent sources this week that have both made an interesting assertion regarding Baptists. The first is Kenneth Cauthen’s book I Don’t Care What the Bible Says[1] and the other is an article[2] by Jim Hinch that appeared in The Orange County Register on February 15th. In both documents the authors include Baptists in lists of “Mainline Protestants.” This seemed odd to me, as I have never seen my theological relatives listed in such a way with Episcopalians, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Methodists. I was led to wonder if I had been wrong in my assumptions of just where my denomination fit into the grand scheme of the American Religious Landscape.
            The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life actually lists[3] Baptists under both the “Evangelical Protestant Churches” and the “Mainline Protestant Churches” headings. These broad categories are then broken down into sub-groups, for example the SBC is the largest Baptist group under the Evangelical list, while the ABC is the largest among the Baptists in the Mainline group. What gives? How can one theological denomination have such a split identity?
            I realize that these categories, much like the denominations listed within them, are relics of modernism. As we move into whatever is next in American Protestantism, we must realize that we are not only witnessing the development of post-modernism, but also of post-evangelicalism.[4] In the same breath, though, we have to understand that as we move to something like post-evangelicalism we will inevitably move toward post-mainlineism.[5]
            Baptists do not, by definition, fit into the categories that organizations like the Pew Forum try to fit them into. Baptists are not centrally-directed like other hierarchical denominations. We believe in the Autonomy of the Local Congregation as a bedrock Baptist principle. That means we cannot so neatly be categorized as “Mainline” or even as “Evangelical,” whatever that word means. Both Cauthen and Hinch imply in their writing that Baptists are just another group that can be generalized in the way that the PC(USA) or the UMC. Unfortunately, this is probably perfectly reasonable for the purposes of sociology. Whether or not Baptists are just another mainline denomination probably never crosses the minds of most members of our churches.
            Whether or not we are counted by Pew Research or other entity as Mainline or Evangelical is not really the point – it’s whether or not we count ourselves in those categories. Baptists have a long history of not allowing themselves to be included in the mainstream of society or religious life, and for good reason: our heritage is one of dissent, resistance, and martyrdom. We forget this heritage when we cast ourselves in with either mainline denominations or with evangelicalism. Baptist churches and the believers that constitute them, are autonomous and independent, participating in denominational activities out of a spirit of cooperation and mutual leading by the Spirit. Therefore it is largely impossible to authentically count Baptists as one counts Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or other groups with less-independent church structure.
            Consider the case of the historic installment[6] of Suzii Paynter as the CBF Executive Coordinator. While this event will understandably draw scorn from more Fundamentalist Baptists, the election of a woman to the Fellowship’s highest office reflects the very nature of Baptist life. I celebrate her election, though I doubt that her leadership will have an immediate impact on the day-to-day operations of my congregation. I doubt anyone joins or leaves the Fellowship simply because she was elected.
            What does matter is the nature of cooperation that the CBF is modeling by Paynter’s election. She has not been elected to a presidency or to a bishopric; the CBF Executive Coordinator is a post of vision-casting, of cooperation, and of vocal leadership. We remember, though, that the Exec. Coordinator does not make policy for my church, nor does she interpret Scripture or make doctrinal pronouncements that become orthodoxy.
            I do not believe that “Baptists” can rightly be pigeon-holed into either the Evangelical or Mainline categories. Certainly sub-groups of Baptists can be so categorized. However, to declare that “Baptist” churches are on the decline or that “the Baptist Church” did such-and-so is incorrect. If one congregation sees itself as Evangelical or another as Mainline is fine – to group all of us into one or the other is not.
            The beauty of Suzii's election is that it models exactly what the CBF stands for and, I believe, it indicates what being a Baptist is all about. Her job is to coordinate the mission of the CBF, to make partnerships, to grow and maintain the Fellowship. That is the essence of Baptist life - different congregations uniting in purpose and mission to reach the world for Jesus Christ while maintaining a firm grasp on their own local responsibility to do just that. Thanks be to God for Suzii Paynter, and thanks be to God for Baptists. 

[1] See Kenneth Cauthen, I Don’t Care What the Bible Says: an Interpretation of the South, Macon, GA: Mercer, 2003.
[4] This word has been thoughtfully developed and explored by my dear friend Roger E. Olson in his book Reformed and Always Reforming, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
[5] I know this isn’t a word, and as far as I know has not been explored as a corollary to the definition of post-evangelicalism.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Priesthood of the Believer in Extreme

It is important to remember our Baptist roots and heritage, especially in a season with so much discussion of such things in light of the increasing frequency of Ash Wednesday and Lenten observations among Baptists.[1] What is essential for us to understand, though, is that neither the Lenten observance nor the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful are essential, or even related to the fundamental Baptist principle of the Priesthood of the Believer.
            Alan Rudnick has argued, “each Baptist church has the freedom to worship however the church sees fit.  Since we Baptists do not have a book of worship or order, like other denominations, Baptists are free to worship as they feel led.  This of course does not happen in a vacuum.  I have always believed that Baptists must be led by scripture, reason, tradition, and experience …with scripture being the final authority.”[2] I understand the corrective that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral provides against the license and liberty implied in his statement about Baptists and worship, but worship is not the issue when it comes to the Priesthood of the Believer (or local autonomy and soul liberty, as he says earlier). This is a corruption of the meaning of the term and a misunderstanding of the theological construct behind it: the Priesthood of the Believer has to do with the individual’s access to God through Jesus Christ as mediator rather than through another individual or agency.
            I get that Ash Wednesday and the entire Lenten tradition usually wear the most flesh during corporate worship experiences, but we must not confuse the ability of a local congregation to participate in a Christian holiday with a Baptist distinctive that served to birth the theological tradition that we have inherited.
            Martin Luther tried to restore the Priesthood of the Believer by attacking the institutional clerical positions of the Catholic Church. Luther wanted to break down those things he saw as man-made barriers between man and God. While Luther maintained a distinction between clergy and laity, he rejected the idea that such a distinction affected a person’s access to God through Jesus Christ.[3] Rogers points out that Luther’s understanding of the Priesthood of the Believer is “derived from their union with Christ, the Great High Priest.”[4] He continues: “Luther's understanding of the priestly functions of all Christians was also based in part on their union with Christ in his work. Like Christ, Christians were to intercede for one another, teach the word to one another, and bear one another's burdens. For Luther, the priesthood of all believers was much more than a teaching that all Christians could approach God without a human mediator. Instead, Christians were supposed to minister and act as priests for one another.”[5]
            This is a critical distinction that is lost in the conversation about the Priesthood of the Believer. Sadly, this distinction is lost on many of our own Baptist leaders, as well. Dr. J. Terry Young locates the Baptist distinctive of the Priesthood of the Believer within our commitment to religious liberty.[6] The fight for religious freedom is a crucial and formative element of Baptist heritage, however the state of American Baptists is hardly that of the dissenting martyrs in years gone by.
            Here is the distinction: when we locate the Baptist principle of the Priesthood of the Believer in the category of religious liberty, or if we couch the ultimate meaning of that Priesthood in terms of worship, we miss the point that the Priesthood of the Believer concerns the access of the individual to God. Luther, and later Mullins, argued that the individual’s access to God as a believer is the foundational principle on which all of the faith rests.[7] Soul Competency, the Priesthood of the Believer, and the Autonomy of the Local Church, are easily interchanged and confused. However, we must not allow the distinct idea of the Priesthood of the Believer to be taken over by the framework of worship or even of political independence.
            The Priesthood of the Believer is a theological foundation for the manner in which Baptists see themselves in relationship to God. Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season, and all of the other celebrations of the Christian Year are expressions of that identity, freely chosen by a congregation, and uniquely meaningful for each participant. Expressions of devotion, of worship, of service, or of tradition cannot infringe upon the Priesthood of the Believer. Let us be on guard that we do not allow this sweet, precious, principle of Baptist identity to be reduced to individual expression – it’s much more powerful and profound than that.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Mark Rogers, “A Dangerous Idea? Martin Luther, EY Mullins, and the Priesthood of All Believers,” Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010), pp 119-34.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] J. Terry Young, “Baptists and the Priesthood of the Believer,” The Theological Educator 53 (Spring 1996), pp. 19-29.
[7] See Rogers, 317. “Mullins argued that all Baptist distinctives flow logically from the idea that each Christian is competent, under God, to carry out all matters of religious life. Soul competency led logically to democratic church government, the priesthood of all believers, the right of private judgment, and the separation of church and state. In each case, Mullins was jealous to maintain the integrity of religion as a personal experience between the individual and God, uninterrupted by bishops, priests, creedal enforcement, or government power.”