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Culture, Law, and the Church: A Pastor's Perspective

R&L:Would you tell us a little bit about how you became the General Secretary of the Assemblies of God?

Wood:I'll give you a couple things that I think might have contributed. For several general councils, I wrote the spiritual life committee report. These reports had wonderful acceptance in the general council. Also, I serve on a number of different committees within the fellowship. So I have a long history of going to general council microphones as a delegate and engaging on a wide number of issues. I guess I had been up in front of people long enough through the years, people thought they knew me well enough to take a chance on me.

R&L:And what do you do day-to-day as the General Secretary?

Wood:First of all, no day is the same.

R&L:I wouldn't think so.

Wood:About forty percent of my time is travel. I'm always headed off to district councils, ministers' retreats, and in excess of forty weekends a year, I'm preaching or teaching in churches on the weekend. The General Secretary is also the custodian of records, so my office handles all of credentialing and discipline matters for ministers as well as recognition of churches. We have almost 33,000 credentialed ministers and 12,300 churches, approximately. As the person who oversees the credentialing and discipline process, that is a good share of my responsibility. In addition, I serve on somewhere between thirty and forty boards and committees. Some of those are the major policy boards of the general council.

R&L:The major policy boards? What are they?

Wood:There are several. There is a board of administration, which is the day-to-day operational board. There is the executive presbytery, which is equivalent to a board of directors. They meet five times yearly for several days at a time. There is the general presbytery, which meets once a year. It's a group of about 250 people, roughly, from all of our representatives of fifty-nine district councils and various constituencies within the Assemblies of God.

R&L:What happens at these meetings?

Wood:There's always matters related to vision, and what we're doing to revitalize churches, plant churches, and provide effective ministry resources to our churches and to our ministers.

R&L:So it sounds like you're pretty busy. How do you manage your personal faith life with all the busyness of your career life?

Wood:Well, one thing that helps is that my children are both grown. I wouldn't do this kind of a job if I had children at home. The travel and duties are too much. I could not successfully cope with that. I would be shorting out my family. What I do is I'll work a number of weeks on end and then I'll take a number of days off. Our retreat place is in Southern California where my two grown children are. I do a lot of reading. I use travel time on airplanes for enjoyable reading which stokes my personal life. Of course, first thing in the morning, I always have personal devotions. I will also say, though, that I receive a lot of pleasure in working. My work is for me, in a way, a form of relaxation and renewal. I like to be engaged.

R&L:What do you think are some of the biggest cultural problems out there?

Wood:One of the biggest challenges today is the disintegration of the family unit. Just look at the effects of this disintegration in the church. There is always a shortage of volunteers for ministry in churches because of the busyness of the American lifestyle. Fifty years or so ago, that was never a problem. I also think the permissive culture in which we live is another serious problem. It increasingly expresses either hostile or antithetical values to the Gospel and virtuous living. The impact of alcohol, drugs, and pornography combined with this permissiveness is a recipe for disaster. So many people buy into this permissiveness, casting off moral constraint, and proceed to ruin their lives. I can't even tell you how many testimonies I have heard like that.

R&L:Another thing that seems much more permissible today than it was fifty years ago is litigation. It can hardly be denied how often people are so willing to sue each other. What do think is behind all of this?

Wood:I think this comes out of a victim mentality. It wasn't my fault; it was your fault. People need to assess their own responsibility for actions that have happened to them. Always blaming others for what has happened to you shows a lack of character. If someone has truly been wronged that is one thing, but every single person who has fallen on some kind of hard times is not a hapless victim.

R&L:Please expand on that.

Wood:Because of my legal training and background, I have a great appreciation for our legal system. Because we have civil redress of injury, we have the opportunity to police the market ourselves. Civil redress, for example, gets things like safe products and helps to prevent further injury. But like all good things, the court system can be abused. It's regretful that in many cases it is abused. There are many cases where plaintiffs sue for damages that are ludicrous. I think it would be helpful to have a cap in some kinds of court actions on the amount of certain types of damages. Otherwise insurance premiums will just keep soaring and soaring for everybody.

R&L:Has the church been swept up in all this?

Wood:We have been marvelously free of that in the general council and the Assemblies of God. The general council, the parent corporation, has never been found liable and there have been very few lawsuits against our local churches.

R&L:That is certainly not the experience of all denominations. What tips do you have for others?

Wood:One of the reasons, I think, why we have been so immune is that we have been extremely proactive in taking steps to protect our laity against injury. As a church, we try to focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ, the present day work of the Holy Spirit, the baptism of the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit. Hitting on those things with our preaching and discipleship, I think, creates a clientele of ministers and lay people who are less inclined to do things that injure other people and give rise to lawsuits. I think churches need to start there. Of course, churches need to take other precautions too. We have strongly recommended for years that our churches do a background check on all those who will be working with children or young adults. Effective January 1 of this year we've begun background criminal screenings, social security verification, and a sex offender registry screening and county courthouse screening for all those who are applying for ministerial credentials. Very few religious bodies have taken that kind of step.

R&L:So you really see that educating people about the Christian virtues will have a positive impact on our society?

Wood:Absolutely. If you're living the life that Jesus taught, you're not going to go around injuring people, nor are you going to go around doing negligent acts that harm people. You're going to be a loving, more careful, caring person. Your character results in your conduct. That's obvious. If you have a significant relationship with Jesus Christ that is reflected in how you live on a daily basis, the chances of you becoming involved in that which is displeasing to the Lord—the kind of behavior that results in legal action—is going to be significantly reduced.

R&L:Certainly that's true for believers, but how does this have an impact on the whole of society?

Wood:The question is to what extent Christians should try to transform society through legal and political means versus the influence of example. I think that when the church goes overboard on trying to transform society through legal and political means, it risks being characterized as a censorial, finger pointing, accusatory, pharisaical group of people. This is certainly the caricature a lot of evangelical Christians have in the media. One of the difficulties that I think the American churches have related to culture is that they try to lecture to the culture, rather than follow the example of Jesus who loved and served. I don't think you can lecture the culture unless you've earned the right to do so, unless you've exhibited a caring love. I think we have to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ and earn the respect of the community. Then we can take credible positions that are helpful to preserve the virtue of the community.

R&L:In a free society, like the United States, how important is it to preserve the virtue of the community.

Wood:It is critical. You can have all the freedom you want, but if you take away virtue—that is, good, moral living—that freedom won't do you much good. The fabric of society begins to come undone one person at a time. And this is not just academic. It gets back to the cultural challenges I was talking about earlier. That is why the generally permissive attitude that is so prevalent is such a cultural challenge. It leaves people with no good reason to refrain from doing the things that will destroy their lives.

R&L:What do you think about the place of the market within the community? There are a lot of clergy members out there who think that operating as an entrepreneur in a free market context is morally wrong. What are your thoughts on that?

Wood:The early church initially tried a kind of socialistic experiment, but they did not follow through on it. It's clear when you read the New Testament that they had to abandon that practice. In fact, interestingly, the church in Jerusalem ended up in such poverty that Paul had to raise offerings from the missionary churches to supply their needs. I've often wondered what happened. Maybe they were so joyful in their newfound faith that they squandered their resources on a big party. Maybe, for whatever reason, they just didn't make adequate provisions for the future. Maybe it was because of persecution that they lost their houses and had to be helped by the Gentile churches. I don't know. We know that the other churches in the New Testament did not practice the same communal effort that the Jerusalem church did.

R&L:So whether a society is organized according to a free market economy is sort of neutral morally?

Wood:Yeah. I'm not sure that matters a whole lot.

R&L:What does matter morally when it comes to wealth and business?

Wood:It's not about what you have, but what you do with it. There is plenty of evidence within the New Testament that the membership of local churches was comprised of all classes, everything from the poor to the wealthy. The wealthy class was told to be generous, but was not told to abandon their wealth. Remember the rich young ruler? The reason Jesus told him to give everything to the poor was because Jesus knew that the young ruler valued his riches too much. Zacchaeus was wealthy too, but Jesus never tells him to give everything away. I think that if executives in business are honest, ethical, hard working, they will probably prosper in their industry. That's fine as long as they make their income in an appropriate, lawful, and moral way. They will then be in a position to be able to turn around and share with those who have need on a voluntary basis. To me, that is the more Christian ideal.