Some Southern Baptist leaders believe that the way to stop believers from straying into sin, or to keep church members living lives consistent with personal holiness, or to establish churches with a worthy 'Baptist Identity,' is to lay out for Christians 'the law' of proper behavior. Following the articulation of 'the law' (whatever it may be from church to church), comes the use of threats (see picture below) to keep Christians from violating the laws of the church. In this manner, some Southern Baptist leaders seem to feel comfortable that they have done all they can to perserve the purity of God's kingdom. However, in my experience, such behavior exhibited by church leadership contradicts the beauty of the gospel as an internal change of heart. To demand conformity through outward pressure is a tactic of religious cults, not Christian grace.
Years ago a young man named Eric was driving by the church I pastored in Tulsa. He had a pistol underneath the front seat, an open container of beer in the cup holder, and was on his way to an open field where he would drink himself to drunkenness in order to have the courage to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. As he drove south on Sheridan Road he saw our church sign that said, "Prepare to Meet Thy God." The words so rattled him he turned into our parking lot and prayed, "God, if you are sending me a sign, let someone be inside this church to help me." The Lord answered his prayer.
Eric came into our offices and our Worship Pastor began to talk with him about knowing Christ. I was soon called and within an hour we had the privilege of seeing the Holy Spirit regenerate Eric's soul, with the end result of Eric trusting Jesus Christ as His Savior and Lord. The transformation was enormous. Eric was excited about his new life in Christ and when we explained the purpose of baptism, Eric committed to be in church Sunday to make known his faith in Christ through believer's baptism. We explained that at the conclusion of my sermon, he would need to come down the aisle to be introduced to our church and he would be baptized later that night.
Sunday morning came and I closed the message with an invitation to make public the work God had done, or was doing, in the listeners' lives. No sooner did our Worship Pastor begin singing when Eric came running down the aisle, and in King James language, he came walking and leaping and praising God. When the appropriate time came I introduced him to our church. "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce you to a young man who this week was intent on killing himself, but God has intervened. This is Eric . . ." As I was speaking to the crowd I turned to look at Eric and to my horror, I saw Eric was wearing a Budweiser Beer T-Shirt that said, "Budweiser, King of Beers."
I knew some of the deacons would be upset. Sure enough, after church one of the older deacons came up to me and said, "Pastor, did you talk to Eric?" Acting ignorant, though knowing full well what he meant, I said, "About what?" "Did you tell him he ought not be wearing that beer t-shirt in church? It ain't appropriate."
I took a deep breath and said, "No, I didn't. He has just come to faith in Christ. If we begin to tell him what he can't do, shouldn't do, ought not do, etc . . . we quench the work of the Spirit by imposing a law. If we were to speak to him about the t-shirt, and he were to stop wearing it, he will confuse regulations of a religion with the reality of a relationship. Let's love him, get to know him, and encourage him - but let's stay away from the 'should nots' of religion and give time for his relationship with Christ to develop."
I can't say my deacon fully understood what I was saying, but to his credit, he listened quietly - and walked away without a response. We baptized Eric that night and the next Sunday Eric came to Sunday school wearing a 'Coors' t-shirt. The next week he came with a Michelob Light t-shirt. The following week he came to church wearing another beer t-shirt.
Eric was a beer t-shirt collector.
It was not easy staying quiet. Many were tempted to say something. I might have said something if the Bible addressed the subject, but nowhere in the sacred text does it say, "Thou shalt not wear a beer t-shirt to church." Eric himself had no idea that some people might be 'offended' at his clothing, and when a handful of church members came to me to talk about Eric's Sunday dress, I asked them if they were personally offended with this new Christian wearing beer t-shirts. Those who spoke to me about it, to a person, never said they were personally offended, but there was some, nebulous person 'out there' who might be. I told them when they could introduce me to this mysterious, offended person, whom I had not yet met, I would talk to Eric. Until then, our love for Eric would cause us to love him where he was in his walk with Christ.
About the fifth Sunday Eric came to church wearing a new t-shirt. It was a t-shirt with a Christian logo. He had found a Christian t-shirt store and, prompted by the Spirit, Eric purchased several t-shirts with a Christian message. That Sunday he had traded in his "Budweiser: King of Beers" t-shirt for one that said, "Jesus Christ: King of Kings." Christ had Eric's heart. The change that occurred happened within. There was not the demand for conformity imposed upon this young Christian by a Southern Baptist congregation, but rather, there was the powerful, internal work of the Spirit within the heart of a man that experienced the love, acceptance and patience of a people who themselves had tasted of the grace of God.
Because many Southern Baptist churches, contrary to historic Baptist principles, are often filled with unregenerate, lost people, Southern Baptist pastors are often tempted to impose LAW on the congregation to keep them in line. However, when churches recognize the beauty and power of the Holy Spirit to tranform lives, and receive people into membership whom the Spirit has already given new life in Christ (and not those convinced to 'join the church' through manipulation), then we pastors can simply trust in "He who began a good work". May God give us the necessary grace to resist the temptation to precede the internal work of the Spirit in His people. Patience allows us to feel the excitement of seeing the beautiful, internal work of the Spirit which trumps any work of the law.
In His Grace,