Southern Baptists, the Family, and the Rule of the Appetites

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For too long, Southern Baptists have maintained some right ideas about the family, even unpopular ones, while keeping those ideas segregated neatly from the broader picture of the gospel to which we witness. To engage this issue, Southern Baptists must walk away from modernism and see once again the universe as the Scripture unveils it: as an invisible conflict of the kingdoms, a satanic horror-show being invaded by the reign of Christ.

This means that a Baptist vision of the family must be grounded in what theologian Gregory Boyd calls a “warfare worldview” (without Boyd’s unorthodox doctrine of God). This worldview is particularly needed in an era when Western Christians are all too distant from the demon-haunted landscape of the Old and New Testaments, so much so that we unwittingly are blind to the personal and cosmic aspects of the struggle around us.

In his seminal study on thriving Christianity in the Global South, Phillip Jenkins attributes part of the resurgence of conservative Christianity in the Third World to the consonance between the biblical worldview of unseen spiritual conflict and that of African and Asian cultures. When the gospel comes with power and conviction, an African ex-animist or an Asian ex-ancestor worshipper is able to read the Bible better than an American ex-rationalist can, precisely because, at this point, their idolatries are closer to the truth of God than ours are.

This mindset explains why the Global South churches see such a connection between Christian orthodoxy and family stability. “This spiritual-warfare perspective helps explain the depth and fury and alarm expressed in recent sexual controversies within the Anglican Communion,” Jenkins writes. “When conservative African and Asian clergy invoked the name of the diabolical in these conflicts, they were not just indulging in overheated rhetoric.”

We have much to learn from our African and Asian brothers and sisters here. Yes, Southern Baptists have an “outrage” catharsis about the culture, but can we say that we have acted with “depth and fury and alarm” about our own divorce culture, about our own family breakdowns, about the loss of more and more of our baptized adolescents to post-Christian American culture?

Unlike our African and Asian and Middle-Eastern brothers and sisters, we fail to see reptilian eyes behind such things. Could it be that God will humble Southern Baptists by making the Bible belt a mission field for Nigerian and Indonesian Christian missionaries, who will explain to hurting families who their real enemy is–and how to crush his head?

If Southern Baptists were to embrace the supernatural perspective we say we believe, however, we would have much more to say.  We would seem much less sophisticated, much more backward, much less at home in modern America.  It is far easier, and yet far more costly, to keep our talk of demons and spiritual warfare locked away in our closed but inerrant Bibles, lest anyone should mistake us for Pentecostals.

A Kingdom warfare worldview–articulated in our pulpits, our Sunday school rooms, our dining room tables–would mean that Southern Baptists should walk away from a belligerent “culture warrior” tone when addressing the outside culture. If we remember–even in debates over the family–that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph 6:12), then we are less likely to see those on the other side of “family values” debates as enemies to be vaporized.

We will see that the enemy is not Hillary Clinton or Hugh Hefner, but a much less easily tracked foe. We will not mock with derision–even just among ourselves–the transvestites marching in the parade on Main Street of our community, nor will we sit silently as our sons don lingerie. We will be able, as the apostle instructs us, to be “kind to everyone” in order that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim 2:22, 24-26).

This compassion does not mean that we back down one iota from declaring the whole counsel of God on the family–or anything else. To the contrary, it means that we do so with vigor, but with tears in our eyes as we see our fellow image-bearers in the clutches of this era’s dragon-king. It does mean, though, that our public discourse will lack the “You kids get off my lawn” type of ethos that it far too often carries.

This warfare perspective means that Southern Baptists would be more attentive to the family, not less, because we recognize that it is a target for the demonic beings that see in it a symbol of their downfall drawing near. We then must equip our own congregations to see the subtlety and craftiness of the Serpent’s strategies “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor 2:11).

A biblically literate Southern Baptist church will be able to see that the demonic beings do not mind shifting tactics from generation to generation; wherever people are unsuspecting as to their own weakness, they will strike. If Bathsheba will not take down a son of Adam, then Babylon can; if not hedonism, then Pharisaism will do.  It is at this point that Southern Baptists are especially vulnerable, because we fail to see how the family chaos around us is directly related to our captivity to our appetites.

Philosopher Leon Kass identifies in the Genesis text the core of what it means that our enemy is called a snake in Scripture. “For the serpent is a mobile digestive tract that swallows its prey whole; in this sense the serpent stands for pure appetite,” he writes. “At the same time, the serpent is cold, steely-eyed, and unblinking; in this respect he is the image of pure attentiveness and icy calculation.”

It is no accident, then, that the Scripture warns us against the path of Esau, who sells the inheritance of his father for a pile of red stew (Heb 12:16-17), and that the Bible directs us away from the god of the belly (Phil 3:19).

From the tree in the garden onward to the wilderness beyond the Jordan to the present hour, the powers challenge the sonship of humans precisely by aiming at turning their digestive or reproductive tracts away from the Christic mystery and toward the self as god.

We have become the people that Jesus warned us about. Southern Baptists more and more want to distance ourselves from our blue-collar, economically impoverished roots, and more and more wish to be seen as affluent, suburban, and politically influential. But this comes with a cost.

The reason we have made peace with the sexual revolution is because we are captive to the love of money. Southern Baptist men and women want to live with the same standard of living as the culture around them, and, as the Spirit warns, we will grind our churches and our families to pieces to get there (James 4:1-4).

Why does the seemingly godly deacon in a conservative Southern Baptist church in north Georgia drive his pregnant teenage daughter to Atlanta under cover of darkness to obtain an abortion? Because, however he votes his “values,” when crisis hits, he wants his daughter to have a “normal” life. He is “pro-life” with, as one feminist leader put it three exceptions: rape, incest, and my situation.

Why do Southern Baptist parents, contra Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 7, encourage their young adult children to delay marriage years past the time it takes to discern whether this union would be of the Lord? Why do we smilingly tell them to wait until they can “afford” it?

It is because, to our shame, we deem fornication a less awful reality than financial ruin. Why do Southern Baptist pastors speak bluntly about homosexuality and X-rated movies, but never address the question of whether institutionalized day-care is good for children, or for parents?

It is because pastors know that couples would say that they could never afford to live on the provision of the husband alone. And they are right, if living means living in the neighborhoods in which they now live, with the technologies they now have. Christian pastors know that no godly woman will ever say on her deathbed, “If only I had put the children in daycare so that I could have pursued my career.”

But do Southern Baptist pastors ever ask whether it might be better to live in a one-bedroom apartment or a trailer park than to follow this American dream? Rarely, because it seems so inconceivable to us that it doesn’t even seem like an option.

When confronted with the challenge of a counter-cultural, family-affirming–but economically less acquisitive–life, too often we see what our inerrant Bibles define as the joyful life, and then we walk away saddened like another rich young ruler before us who wanted eternal life but wanted his possessions more (Luke 18:18-30).

Here Southern Baptists could stand to listen to some of our liberal critics, who deny a biblical understanding of the family but who seem to understand the connection between the whirl of familial destruction and the corporate culture we take for granted.

After all, they are not usually Greenwich Village bohemians in tie-dye shirts or eco-feminist Marxists with Darwin fish on their Volkswagen vans who are producing the cultural pornotopia that America is exporting around the world, and right into our churches.

They are more likely to be conservative Republicans in three-piece suits, and some of them know some Fanny Crosby songs by heart and know what a baptistery looks like from the inside. They vote their values too. Southern Baptists assume that consumer culture is morally neutral, and that American corporatism must be godly, since it is opposed so strongly by the culture warriors of the Left.

But the counter-culture there is an illusion. Both left and right in the American mainstream are captive to the ideology that the appetites are to be indulged; the heart wants what it wants, by whatever system will do it most efficiently.

Philosophers Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter are correct that the counter-culture and the consumer culture are symbiotic. As they put it, “In the end, it is just people fighting for their right to party.”  We should ask, then, whether Ralph Nader (yes, that Ralph Nader) is right that television advertising is a threat to the family order, since “corporations have decided that kids under twelve are a lucrative market, and they sell directly to them, subverting parental authority.”

Could it be that Ronald McDonald and digitalized talking “Christian” vegetable cartoons are just as erosive of the family as the cultural rot we are accustomed to denouncing? Could it be that the consumer culture we mimic in our own church and denominational programs is, in reality, just as hedonistic as a truck-stop “peep show” booth, and for the same reasons?

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).