Throughout much of the book of Judges a consistent pattern emerges: the Israelites disobey God, find themselves oppressed for many years, a judge arises to bring peace for a few decades, and then they start the cycle all over by disobeying God. Reading the book, it’s easy to look down on those foolish Israelites who keep making the same mistakes over and over. And yet, as I watched the recent annual meeting of the Missouri Baptist Convention, I realized Christians sometimes do the same thing today.
Seventeen years ago, the MBC sued five Baptist ministry organizations — including Word&Way — and then later sued multiple banks, businesses, and individuals. Then the MBC spent more than 16.5 years in litigation. Initially, they claimed their lawsuits didn’t violate the clear biblical teaching in 1 Corinthians 6 that prohibits suing brothers and sisters because they were suing organizations and not individuals — and then they sued individuals, too! During this litigation, the MBC spent millions of dollars from Cooperative Program gifts — despite promising at the start they wouldn’t use CP money. And they lost their suits against most of the defendants they sued.
When the lawsuits finally ended earlier this year, many Baptists in Missouri breathed a sigh of relief. And yet, here we are just a few months later as MBC leaders again implicitly threaten legal actions against another Baptist organization, this time Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.
As Ronald Reagan famously quipped, “There you go again.”
Or perhaps Proverbs 26 puts it better: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”
Do Missouri Baptists really want to rush back into court? Do Missouri Baptists really want to send more missions money to lawyers instead of missionaries? Do Missouri Baptists really want to continue to sully the Christian witness to an unbelieving world that finds our legal squabbles unbelievable?
“The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already,” Paul wisely warned in 1 Corinthians 6.
Unlike the cycles in Judges, the MBC seems willing to rush back into the bad part of the cycle after just a few months of liberation instead of decades. Is there nothing better to do? Are there no more communities who need new churches? Are there no more lost people who need to hear the Good News? Are there no more of our neighbors suffering from oppression and injustice?
We could argue about whether or not the MBC could even win its lawsuit against SBU. Their case seems hurt by a 1983 lawsuit in which the MBC claimed it didn’t own or operate SBU and thus cannot overturn decisions by SBU trustees. The legal concept of judicial estoppel — which means a party cannot take a position in a case contrary to a position it took in previous legal proceedings — would likely impact the accepted arguments today.
But that’s missing the point. If the argument is about if the MBC can win and not if it should even sue, then, as Paul said, we’ve already lost. It is, after all, hard to view anyone as having won from the past 17 years of litigation. Even as giving to the Southern Baptist Convention rose from 17 years ago, giving to the MBC is down dramatically to levels from the 1980s (though if adjusted for inflation today’s numbers would be worse than the 1980s). During that time the MBC also shed about one-third of its staff. And they threw away millions on cases they lost. Even the defendants that won their cases were hurt by legal bills, false attacks, and unethical interference in business dealings.
No one won.
Except the devil.
So, why in God’s name would we do it all over again?
Perhaps the condemnation found in 2 Peter 2 applies yet again: “Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.’”