(reflections on the 2009 Currie-Strickland Lectures in Christian Ethics)

On April 27, we assembled in the Campus Theatre at Howard Payne University in Brownwood for the 2nd annual Currie-Strickland Distinguished Lectures in Christian Ethics. These lectures were begun – and have been funded – by Gary and Molli Elliston in honor of David R. Currie, TBC executive director; and in memory of Phil Strickland, longtime director of the BGCT Christian Life Commission.

We were a diverse crowd – preachers and laity, professors and students, young and not-so-young. But we had one thing in common – we wanted to hear something we hadn’t heard before, to learn something we didn’t know before, to be challenged to do things we hadn’t done before.

And so we did, and so we were.

This year’s lecturers were Dr. Bill Tillman and Dr. Jim Denison. Dr. Tillman serves Logsdon Seminary as T. B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics; and Dr. Denison serves the Baptist General Convention of Texas as Theologian in Residence, and the Center for Informed Faith as its founding president.

Dr. Tillman spoke on “The Bible and Hunger”; Dr. Denison followed, speaking on “The Church’s Response to Hunger.”

What we heard that day was rich and full – and I cannot do it justice. But, in case you weren’t able to make it that day, please let me share with you just a taste of what you missed . . . and just a smattering of what you will hear when you watch the videos, which are available – beginning today – on our Web site.

Threading the Lectures
Each speaker began by laying out a theme that he then threaded through the rest of his lecture.

For Dr. Tillman, it was “Why the Bible and hunger?” This was an extension of a question – “Why the Bible?” – that, he explained, Professor Yandell Woodfin first posed to him during his oral exams at Southwestern Seminary in the spring of 1977.

“That question,” Dr. Tillman said, “has never left me.” It is a question, he said, that should cause all of us to consider “the Bible’s relationship to social issues, spiritual formation, and evangelism . . . the basic components of Christian life.”

The central theme of Dr. Denison’s lecture was “The church must respond to hunger if it wishes to reach the culture.” He shared what he called “a prophetic moment for me,” which occurred last year, when Dr. Randel Everett, BGCT executive director, said to him, “I don’t believe I have the right to preach to someone who’s hungry. I don’t have the right to preach the Gospel to a hungry person.”

“Jesus believed that,” Dr. Denison said. “That’s why Jesus took a small boy’s lunch and used it to feed 5,000 families and would do the same with our lunches today. . . . Because Jesus understood . . . that a hungry body is as much a concern to a heavenly Father as a hungry soul.”

Threading the Bible
Early in his lecture, Dr. Tillman asked, “If the Bible is so important, how do we get . . . into it?” His answer? “Hunger is one of the best places to start.” He asserted that the Bible emphasis on hunger is woven throughout and that, to miss it, “one nearly has to read around the passages.”

Dr. Denison made the same point in his own way. “A response to hunger is required . . . in every category of biblical revelation. . . . the Law, the Prophets . . . the Writings. . . . Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation.” This led to what he cited as his first imperative – “The church must respond to hunger to obey the Scriptures.”

Threading Hunger with the Whole of Life
In approaching ethical issues, Dr. Tillman said, we should keep a balanced focus. “Too much on the Bible side, and the Bible can become one of the idols that the Ten Commandments warned about . . .; and too much on the issues side . . . and a kind of faddish ‘issueism’ ensues.”

Dr. Denison said that Christians’ tendency to separate the spiritual from the secular – labeling the spiritual as “good” and the secular as “evil” – derives from ancient pagan tradition. This theology, he said, teaches that “the real point of life is to purify the soul” while denying the physical. The result, he asserted, is an evangelical tradition that is today concerned more “about preaching to the soul than preaching to the body. . . . (but) if flesh was inherently evil, how could Jesus have been sinlessly incarnate? Why was it that Jesus always started with physical need and moved from that to spiritual need?”

He then told about a west Dallas ministry that provides for a variety of needs of the “neighbors” in the community who come seeking help – among those needs food, computer skills, job training, résumé-building, and ESL classes.

“Then it almost inevitably happens,” he said, “when the ‘neighbor’ asks the volunteer why they do what they do. And by now the volunteer has earned the right to share the Good News. And so, many come to Christ – out of a ministry that feeds the hungry so it can feed their souls.”

Threading the Bible with Christian Ethics
Dr. Tillman said that he asks his students to critique articles presenting different ethical approaches. His students typically wind up doing little more than “perhaps a good descriptive resaying of the articles.” He challenges them to go beyond that. “What about specific, incremental, subjective, concrete application?” he asks them.

“Because of those puzzled looks I get,” he continued, “I decided to build my own approach. And I call it, simply, ‘Tillman’s Overly Simplified Approach.’ I begin with the Bible – surprise!”

As he explained, Tillman’s Overly Simplified Approach contains five options, or approaches, to doing Christian ethics: Thou shalt not – Thou shalt – I must – I will – I am.

Dr. Tillman developed this list “by watching how real people interpret and live out Scripture.” The parts, he said, “build on each other, and sometimes they do depend on all parts being in any particular one.”

He then cited specific Scriptures to show how these approaches are developed in the Bible. When he got to I must, he noted the change of subject from thou to I: “from an external directive that now I . . . have heard the directive from God. I’ve got a choice about it – but there’s also an expectation of a response that’s hanging there. I must.”

But I will, he said, brings “perhaps a newly found internal motivational level. . . . the application of Scripture becomes intentional, willful.”

“Then, finally, I am. . . . the Leviticus passage (19:1-2; 9-18) is at the core of . . . ‘the holiness code’ of the Old Testament. . . . ‘I am God, . . . and if you’re going to go by my name, you’re going to do these things. . . . in the spirit, the character that I do them.’ . . . And one of those acts of integrity is to make sure people have food.”

Dr. Tillman continued, “I have no idea, specifically, who heard that narrative that Jesus gave, that Matthew (25:31-46) wrote down. There most certainly were people there . . . who had heard the other discourses. . . . quite probably, most of those disciples that followed Jesus closely had . . . sat in on all of those dining experiences with Jesus. . . . a whole array of character conversations around food – ethical lessons – food and ethics.”

Threading Rightness and Relevance
Dr. Denison noted a dramatic change that has taken place in Western culture – “You and I,” he said, “are called by God to reach a culture that is more skeptical of orthodox Christianity than at any time in Western history. . . . a culture which no longer sees truth as absolute. . . . which thinks of truth as personal and subjective.”

He cited the recent America Religious Identification Survey, which found a decline – in those characterizing themselves as Christians – from 86% in 1990 to 76% today, “the largest decline in the history of religious polling in America.”

As for Western Europe, “today in England, four times as many Muslims go to mosque on Friday as go to church on Sunday.”

But, Dr. Denison added, “the good news is that we are today right back where we started. In the 1st century, everything that I said of this culture could be said (of that one).”

First-century Christians, he said, operated among a great diversity of faiths – “followers of Zeus and the gods . . . disciples of Aristotelianism . . . Neoplatonism . . . Stoics . . . Epicureans . . . Cynics . . . Skeptics . . . all this variety of ideas, Judaism and Christianity only one of them.”

“In the 1st century,” he continued, “the church demonstrated the rightness of its faith by the relevance of its ministry. . . . unwanted babies were usually birthed and then abandoned. So the church went to the trash heaps each night and rescued the babies, and adopted them as their own. . . . Christians bought slaves in the marketplace and set them free. In 1st-century Rome – where women had no means of employment outside the home except prostitution, at least most of them – the church would welcome the prostitutes into their families, adopt them as members of their own, and teach them a different craft. First-century Christianity demonstrated the rightness of its faith by the relevance of its ministry – and, by Acts 17, they had turned the world upside-down and birthed the mightiest spiritual movement the world has ever seen. We’re back where we started.”

“When we feed the hungry, we earn the right to reach the culture.”

So Why the Bible and Hunger?
As Dr. Tillman came to the end of his lecture, he stated his conclusion that “‘Why the Bible and hunger?’ still remains as a question. . . . Stanley Grenz – in his Theology of the Community of God – said, ‘The Spirit gave us the Bible through inspiration and for illumination.’ . . . put those two words alongside Scripture – (it) can inspire us with regard to hunger in this world; it can illuminate our hearts and minds.”

Then Dr. Tillman added, to Grenz’s inspiration and illumination, two key terms of his own – “integration and implementation . . . faith, belief in Scripture, living life, feeding the hungry – they’re one and the same. . . . extending literal food to another, in the name of Jesus, demonstrates an extraordinary understanding of God’s message to humanity – of how we should be related to one another and how we should be related to God. Nothing can be so authenticating – to ourselves, to others – as to what it means to live the Christian life.”

Making It Personal
Jim Denison closed by relating the story of how he came to faith in Christ, saying that he would never have come to Christ if the church had waited for him to come knock on its door. Instead, the people of the church came knocking on his door. As he put it, the church “demonstrated the rightness of their faith by the relevance of their ministry.”

He then issued a closing challenge: “The church must respond to hunger if the church wishes to reach this culture. And if we do not wish to reach the culture, we have no reason to be.”

So How Will We Respond?
The discipline of Christian Ethics was never intended as an abstract discussion of the great social issues of the day. It is, rather, a prickly reminder that Christ calls for a personal response from each of us – and that taking up our cross daily means ministering to “the least of these,” that we might so minister to Him. So it is with the Currie-Strickland Lectures, and Bill Tillman and Jim Denison were more than true to that purpose.

Before the two lecturers made their presentation, Carolyn Strickland – 1st vice president of the BGCT – spoke of her own passion for feeding the hungry, a passion that was shared by her late husband, Phil (longtime director of the BGCT Christian Life Commission, as mentioned earlier). She quoted him as saying, in 1996, “Hunger is not just a historical or political misfortune – it’s a moral outrage!” That year, the Texas Baptist Offering for World Hunger was birthed.

If we are to respond personally to the outrage of world hunger, the 2009 Texas Baptist Offering for World Hunger is a good place to start. This year’s theme is Give Texas Something to Say Grace Over. Every Texas Baptist is being challenged to give one meal once a month. That’s not a lot to ask, is it? There are five ways that you can give to this offering:

I urge you to watch the videos of the Lectures, listen to God’s call, and respond as He leads you.