FIRST-PERSON: The Ala. controversy & theological illiteracy
MADISON, Ind. (BP)--It is official: theological literacy in America has reached a new low. This was established Jan. 17 when new Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley created a firestorm of controversy through his comments at a Martin Luther King Day speech in the Montgomery church where King once preached. Speaking to a diverse gathering at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Bentley dared to appeal for the conversion of his hearers. In today's politically correct climate, that was taken as a scandalous act.
After clarifying that he was color-blind and that it was imperative for Alabamians "to love and care for one another," Bentley proceeded to make an appeal for his hearers to embrace Christianity. According to Fox News, the governor said, "There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit. But if you have been adopted in[to] God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you have been saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers." According to ABC News, Bentley went on to press his appeal: "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
Not that long ago, it would have been quickly recognized that the governor was using the family imagery of the New Testament. This metaphor for salvation flows from a central doctrine of the Christian faith: that everyone needs to be regenerated, or "born again." Bentley was echoing the words and theology of John the Apostle, who wrote: "But as many as received Him [Jesus], to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13).
The reaction that followed Gov. Bentley's remarks indicates almost no trace of recognition of the biblical background for his comments. Jewish groups said they felt "disenfranchised" by his words. An American Hindu group said the words were "intolerant, repulsive and wholly unacceptable." David Silverman, representing American Atheists, said Bentley's words were "disgusting and bigoted and reinforce Alabama's reputation for being backward and bigoted."
Clearly, given the context, the governor was not speaking about extending civil rights only to a select group, whether that group is identified by class, race or religion. Nor is there any indication that he "condemned the beliefs of non-Christians," as a FoxNews.com article summarized the matter. What he did was express his conviction -- in the pulpit of a Christian church no less -- that the Bible is correct when it says that the only path of reconciliation between a Holy God and sinful man is found by faith in the only Savior of mankind, Jesus Christ.
This is the single most scandalous teaching of Christianity today: We preach that salvation is available to all, but only through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross. An ABC News article reported that the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League centered their criticism on exactly this basis. Bill Nigut, the ADL's regional spokesperson, said: "On the day that he is sworn in as governor, he's sending a statement to the public saying if you're not Christian, you can't be with me. From our point of view, that is proselytizing for Christianity and comes very close to a violation of the First Amendment."
Gov. Bentley has since apologized for giving offense with his words. Perhaps he realized that when there is no biblical literacy, there would be no way to explain his comments. But the truth that salvation is exclusively found in Jesus still remains and the cross will continue to be a stumbling block to the pride of men. As a Christian, I am happy to be a fellow American with Jews, Hindus, atheists and more, but I do believe in the necessity of the new birth.
The great evangelist George Whitefield was reportedly criticized for always preaching on but one theme -- the new birth. Perhaps it is time Christians in America return to that emphasis today. Accepted or rejected, Jesus still spoke the truth when He said, "Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5).
Paul Brewster is pastor of Ryker's Ridge Baptist Church in Madison, Ind.