Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thoughts on Hyles and First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN

As a native of northern Indiana I can remember hearing people in the Christian circles I grew up in refer admiringly to Jack Hyles, the charismatic pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond located just outside Chicago. I hadn't thought about this for years until today when the Gospel Coalition linked to an article in Chicago Magazine -- Let Us Prey: Big Trouble at First Baptist Church.

I'm not going to quote from it. If you're interested you can read the whole sordid story yourself, and I do mean sordid. I'm not easily shocked, but some of the stuff detailed here is almost beyond belief. Clearly, this is another in a long line of tragic examples of the dangers of cult of personality and unaccountable ecclesiastical power. In a church that claims the name of Jesus: the embodiment of grace, truth and servant leadership -- this takes on an infernal aspect.

So there's a lesson here in church government, something most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about. One reason I'm a convinced Presbyterian is I actually believe its form of elder-led government is the best at taking into account the depravity of the human heart that makes clerical power and authority potentially corrupting. We have a system of checks and balances. Not that abuses like these cannot happen at Presbyterian/Reformed churches (I'm sure they have), but at least there are structures that when working properly prevent the kind of things that have been going on for decades at this church and its spin-offs.

But there's a doctrinal lesson here too that the article only hints at. Hyles and his followers intentionally cut themselves off from the centuries-long stream of orthodox creedal Christianity. Even as they railed against aspects of modern culture (rock music, short skirts, non-KJV translations of the Bible) they demonstrated a very modern impulse to create an island in which individualistic readings of scripture became authoritative. What seems on the surface a very traditional brand of religion is actually unmoored from tradition. In effect they said we don't need the communion of the saints. The scandal of First Baptist Hammond isn't only a scandal against the women and children who were tragically exploited and abused, it's a scandal against the faith once delivered to the saints and passed down to us by faithful men and woman, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who creates and sustains the church in its many expressions.

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