Baptists ponder Clinton's sins Denomination is split over Lewinsky scandal

September 27, 1998|By Pam Parry

I FORGIVE Bill Clinton. I deplore his behavior and feel betrayed as a citizen and as a Southern Baptist - the denominational affiliation that I share with the president. Our Baptist doctrine condemns sexual sin. But it also tempers righteousness with mercy and grace, leaving judgment to God. So, on a personal level, I forgive him as one Baptist to another.

But, with Southern Baptists, things are never that simple.

Southern Baptists, like the rest of the country, are split over how to respond to the president's admission of an "inappropriate" relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Some Baptists have called for his resignation and church discipline. Others have spoken of forgiveness and redemption. Others have remained silent.

The debate was sparked by an Aug. 24 commentary by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., who pointed a finger at Clinton's church in Little Rock, Ark. The commentary, written for Religion News Service, said that Immanuel Baptist Church had failed to exercise proper church discipline - a practice that often entails pulling church membership until the congregation is convinced a person has truly repented. (Though still practiced, church discipline has not been prevalent in Baptist circles in about a century.)

"How can President Clinton claim to be a Southern Baptist and persist in this public display of serial sin?" wrote Mohler. "Only because the congregation which holds his membership has failed to exercise any semblance of church discipline. Southern Baptists will be watching the Immanuel Baptist Church in Little ,, Rock to see if it musters the courage to make clear its own convictions."

His words drew fire from those who said Mohler was trampling on the bedrock Baptist belief in local church autonomy. Unlike other denominations with a hierarchy, Baptist churches make their decisions independent of national conventions. The Southern Baptist Convention can expel churches from its membership, but it cannot tell them how to conduct themselves or whom they may accept as members.

On Sept. 15, leaders of a Little Rock association of Baptist churches unanimously passed a resolution that outsiders should not instruct Immanuel Baptist Church. The resolution did not support the president or address church discipline, but it emphasized that Immanuel should be free from interference.

Clinton's pastor, Rex Horne, has said that Immanuel plans no formal action against the president. But the Little Rock congregation can bank on more outside pressure from Southern Baptist Convention leaders.

Those leaders trampled on historic Baptist principles for nearly 20 years in taking over the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Where Clinton is concerned, their motives appear more political than spiritual. For example, Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson has been calling for Clinton's resignation as president. Patterson is not alone; many across the country have called for Clinton to step down. But Patterson's words would have more credibility if the Southern Baptist Convention had not been at political odds with the president throughout his administration.

In 1993, the Southern Baptist Convention was unsuccessful in an attempt to expel Immanuel because of Clinton's stance on homosexual rights, according to the Associated Baptist Press. As recently as June, the Southern Baptist Convention voted on whether to ask Immanuel Church to discipline Clinton for a policy that protects homosexuals who hold federal jobs. But the votes fell short. At the same Southern Baptist Convention meeting in June, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, an organization that stresses family values, received a supportive response when he ridiculed Clinton in a sermon.

Because of the long-held political opposition of some Southern Baptist Convention leaders to Clinton, their public discourse smacks more of political opportunism than of moral courage and leadership.

It is appropriate for the citizens of a democracy to voice their opinions, and everyone is entitled to a voice, including Southern Baptist Convention fundamentalists. But those Southern Baptists tempted to jump on the church-discipline bandwagon should stop for three reasons.

First, Clinton admits his behavior is "indefensible." His spiritual judgment belongs to God, while Congress should mete out the Constitutional judgment. Neither needs outside assistance from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Second, Immanuel Baptist Church should be free to operate without fear of retribution or expulsion.

Third, the practice of church discipline is aimed at redemption, but too often human beings do a bad job of it, because they emphasize punishment to the exclusion of healing.

Those who merely want to punish Clinton should reread the story of King David in 2 Samuel. In the Bible, David is decribed as a man after God's own heart, but like many biblical characters, David was flawed. He let sexual desire best him, and he murders a man. Yet the biblical account speaks not only of punishment but also of redemption.

While not minimizing the seriousness of Clinton's actions, I believe that most of us - including Southern Baptists - are in no position to judge his heart or decide his fate.

Pam Parry is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va., who is a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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