After the failed vote on Sunday at Nashville’s Two Rivers Baptist Church to expel church members, one of the targeted members gave God the credit for the vote which allowed her to remain a member.
Seventy-one members sued the church last year over access to financial records. Their court efforts met with less than favorable results. The church’s pastor, Jerry Sutton, and the deacons asked the church body in April to vote on removing from membership the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs’ actions were called “sinful.”
After 1,000 of the 7,000 church members cast votes, the motion to kick out the plaintiffs failed by four votes, missing the needed number to reach the two-thirds majority vote required by church bylaws.
“The percentage of votes to dismiss was 66.3%. The percentage needed to dismiss is 66.6%,” wrote the church’s chairman of the deacons. “Please continue to pray for the TRBC family as we move forward.”
A former Southern Baptist Convention vice president (2005-2006) and presidential candidate in 2006, Sutton has yet to offer a public comment about the outcome of the vote.
“I’m just praising Jesus,” a victorious Peggy Lewis, one of the plaintiffs, told the Tennessean. “God is still on the throne.”
Lewis’ comment reflects the winner’s circle theology which implies: “I won. I give God the credit for winning. God’s in control.”
Championship athletes often say the same thing: “I give God all the glory for my victory.” Cancer survivors disclose a similar perspective: “God answered my prayers for healing. God’s in control and good to me.” Financially successful Christians share a parallel attitude: “God has blessed me.”
But what does the winner’s circle theology say about those who live in crushing, inescapable poverty, who suffer from painful and bankrupting cancer or who never even make the team?
Have you ever heard the last place runner say, “Because God’s in control, I lost. Give God all the glory?” Or do you known of a dying cancer patient who concluded: “Because God’s in control, God refuses to heal me and my family is now bankrupt. And we are so grateful for this blessing?” Or do you know of a church vote where the losers say, “We’re just praising Jesus. God’s on the other side, the side of the winners?”
Winner’s circle theology is an emotionally understandable theology in a culture shaped by a strong sense of predestination and a powerful belief that success shows divine blessing.
What is missing in our cultural narrative is a counter balancing note that God may be more on the side of the loser than the winner, the impoverished than the wealthy and the sick than the healthy. That thematic river flows through the biblical witness, even if it does not flow through our churches infested with positive thinking, prosperity theology and profiles of athletes, beauty queens and best-selling authors as the normative Christians.
Jesus’ “Nazareth Manifesto,” in Luke 4:18-19, expressed the moral vision that he was committed first and foremost to the marginalized, to the social outcasts, those in ill-health.
Through the years, I have heard folk criticize the notion that God may be on the side of the marginalized as Marxist theology. I’ve heard ministers to the affluent say that God’s is on everybody’s side as a way to water down the challenging thought that God may not be on the side of their powerful and wealthy members, freeing their congregants from needing to rethink how they obtain their privilege and what is their moral responsibility to do justice.
Christians have and will long debate the favor of God. Nonetheless, it is surely more right to be on God’s side than to claim God is on our side.
Equally so, isn’t it better to be extremely cautious about claiming that every vote, every health success, every athletic victory, every financial achievement means God is blessing us, and by implication failing to bless the loser?
Is there a way to acknowledge God with gratitude that lacks a victorious tone, the triumphant statement?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.