Thursday, February 26, 2009

Baptist Identity, Great Commission Resurgence and How We Read the Bible

Much has been written recently about "Baptist Identity (BI)" and a "Great Commission Resurgence (GCR)" As I previously noted, broadly speaking, those terms have emerged as representing two competing visions for the future of the SBC. However, it would be inaccurate to suggest those designations mean that the BI crowd does not care about the great commission or that the GCR crowd is indifferent to Baptist identity. The difference between the two lies at the point of emphasis and centrality. Perhaps we might say, the difference emerges from the way that one reads the Bible.

When Dr. Danny Akin called for a "Great Commission Resurgence" at the Building Bridges Conference co-sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (of which he is President) and Founders Ministries (and hosted by LifeWay) in November 2007, his words resonated not only with those present but with Southern Baptists across the convention who listened to the audio of his talk and heard about this call. Dr. Akin is widely known and respected as an outspoken proponent of expository preaching with a passionate commitment to getting the Gospel to the nations. Anyone who would question his devotion to either simply cannot be taken seriously.

The vision that Dr. Akin and those who stand with him are casting for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is one that arises out of a deep devotion to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. That devotion is what makes the Gospel central in the articulation of a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR).

Baptist distinctives are not ignored or forgotten by the vision that Dr. Akin has cast. They simply (and rightly) grow out of a primary devotion to Gospel. That is, after all, how Baptists developed in modern history. It was out of commitment to the Gospel that our 17th century forebears were led to form separate churches.

As I listen to and read what some BI guys are saying I come away with the impression that there is a lurking fear among them that a GCR-inspired future will lead Southern Baptists down an ecumenical path toward indistinct evangelicalism.

One of the clearest examples of the differences between the vision of the GCR and that of many identified with the Baptist Identity movement can be found in considering the issue that Al Mohler dubbed "theological triage."

Dr. Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an institution dedicated to training ministers for Baptist ministry, wisely recognizes "theological seriousness and maturity demand that we consider doctrinal issues in terms of their relative importance. God's truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis."

Mohler includes the Trinity, person of Christ and justification by faith as examples of "first-order truths" while the meaning and mode of baptism would be a "second-order" issue and eschatology a "third-order" concern.

What Christ-loving student of God's Word who is even mildly aware of the history of the church would not agree that belief in the deity of Christ is vitally more important than belief in believers' baptism? It is hard for me to conceive that any right thinking Baptist would disagree with this. As Dr. Mohler puts it, this is a matter of "theological maturity."

Contrast this way of reading the Bible, however, with that of one of the contemporary champions of the Baptist Identity movement. Dr. Malcolm Yarnell is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Theological Seminary. In an October 30, 2008 chapel message at Southwestern, Yarnell rejects of the kind of theological triage that Dr. Mohler says is necessary to theological maturity. He asserts,
You cannot perform theological triage on the lordship of Jesus Christ without severing His will into pieces and picking and choosing what you want to do. You will find out what he says and you will do it all because you know your life is totally dependent on Him.
Dr. Yarnell reads the Bible in such a way that there can be no allowance for theological triage. For him, making a distinction between first-order, second-order and third-order teachings of the Bible is a denial of the lordship of Christ. He says,
New Testament Christianity has no secondary doctrines when it comes to the lordship of Jesus Christ. That's why I say Baptism is not secondary nor is it tertiary. It is essential.
In Dr. Yarnell's vision of Christianity, baptism is just as essential as the deity of Christ or salvation by grace through faith. Nothing can be secondary if a person is truly committed to the lordship of Christ. He clarifies his meaning with the following words:
Now, does that mean that baptism saves you? No! But if you are saved then you will obey and you will be baptized according to Christian baptism not according to something of your own invention.
Note the distinction he makes. While believers' baptism does not save, "if you saved then you will be baptized according to Christian baptism." Do you see what he is asserting? If a person has not been baptized as a believer then that person is not saved, or at best, that person has no reason to hope that he or she is saved. Yarnell gives no room to the prospect that a brother or sister may be sincerely mistaken in their views of baptism and thus may fall short of complying with what is required, not out of rebellion or wilfull disobedience, but out of error.

That kind of narrow-mindedness strikes me as more than simple theological immaturity. It strikes me as dangerous to biblical Christianity. It makes no allowances for spiritual growth nor for the kind of apostolic charity that Paul displays in Philippians when he write, "Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you" (v. 15).

As a convinced Baptist I can fellowship with brethren who are right on the Gospel but wrong on baptism. While I wouldn't try to start a church with them, I can learn from them, respect them and rejoice in the grace of God in their lives while disagreeing with their understanding of the meaning and mode of baptism. I don't see how Christian love can do less.

There is a significant difference between the vision of those who believe that Baptist distinctives are just as important as Christian essentials and the vision of those who believe that Baptist distinctives are important precisely because they grow out of Christian essentials.

For the sake of the spiritual health and maturity of our convention of churches, pray that the latter vision prevails.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

What will we be in the SBC?

Competing visions for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention are coming to a showdown. While I do not pretend to know all of the ins and outs of the efforts to promote these visions and certainly not all of the nuanced versions of those that are in competition, I think a person would have to be rather disengaged or willfully unobservant not to recognize that, broadly speaking, there are 2 opposing agendas at work to shape what the SBC will become in the near future.

On the one hand are those who are energized by being identified as Baptist--particularly Southern Baptist--and want to make certain that this identity is not diluted in the future. They regularly praise the conservative resurgence and those who led it, often expressing themselves in ways that make it seem that any criticism of that movement and its leaders is, at best, disloyalty to the Baptist cause. This group is fearful that Southern Baptists will lose (or at least loosen their grip on) their Baptist distinctives by honoring and working with other Great Commission Christians.

This group takes the Word and the gospel seriously but finds their identity as Baptists closely bound up to such commitment, often to the extent that they question the spiritual health or even the salvation of other believers who are not baptistic. Much like what some Calvinists mean when they say, "Calvinism is the gospel," some in this group seem to believe that "being Baptist (or even Southern Baptist) is being Christian." Hence, they denigrate any kind of theological triage that recognizes the primacy of essentials over distinctives and charge their Baptist brothers who do make such distinctions as stepping on the slippery slope of evil ecumenism. Many in this group have identified themselves as those wanting to protect Baptist Identity (BI).

On the other hand are those who are energized by being Christ-followers and want to make certain that the Gospel is not diluted in the future SBC. They appreciate the conservative resurgence and its leaders but realize that the best of men are men at best and not above criticism. They also believe that if the conservative resurgence becomes an end unto itself and not a means to a greater end, then the whole movement will turn in on itself and will ultimately defeat the very purposes for which it was engaged. Many in this camp are calling for a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) that focuses on the gospel and seeks to be zealous in spreading it around the world.

This group is unashamedly Baptist but they do not see that as a reason to dismiss other Christians who do not share their Baptist distinctives. They recognize that Baptist distinctives are powerless if they are not animated by Christian essentials. Some in this group do not hesitate to say that they find a greater basis for fellowship with gospel-centered non-Baptists than they do with Baptists who are weak on Christian essentials.

The BI vision for the future of the SBC has little or no room for cooperating with gospel-centered evangelicals who are "not us." For evidence of this see how they have recenty tried to chastise Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in general and Danny Akin, Alvin Reid and Nathan Finn in particular for their unwillingness to throw Mark Driscoll under the bus (here, here & here).

The BI vision seems at points more concerned with publicly advocating Baptist principles than actually living by them. Too often some in this camp give the impression that as long as one professes to believe Baptist distinctives it doesn't really matter if he practices them. For evidence of this simply check out the way that some (not all) of their most ardent spokesmen actually do church as opposed to what they say about church.

Anyone who does not measure up to the BI level of baptistness is judged suspect if not dangerous. If their vision of the future prevails in the SBC then I fear the denomination will go on in a triumphalistic spirit that continues to blind us to many of the real problems in our churches--problems that can only be solved by the gospel.

The GCR vision for the future of the SBC is one where unity is built on the essentials of the gospel while maintaining the distinctives of our Baptist convictions. It recognizes that there are different ways of being Christian Baptists and is not threatened by the diversity of those ways within our confessional commitments. This vision is willing appropriately to utilize the gifts that God has given to gospel-centered churches that are not Baptist and believes that Southern Baptists can do so beneficially and in ways that do not threaten their own convictions.

The GCR vision is not so concerned with appearing to be right as it is with living as those who have been rescued by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ. Advocates of this vision are not content with advocating Baptist principles but also want to see them implemented in local churches. Because of the gospel-centeredness of this view diversity is not feared but embraced as a God-given means of spiritual growth. This is the vision that believes bridge building is not only appropriate but essential for the future health of the SBC.

As I said, there are nuances to both visions and those who advocate them. I am sure that I have not adequately represented everyone in each camp. I do not see these two competing visions as a contest between the good guys and the bad guys. I do, however, believe that the future of the SBC will be largely shaped by one of these two visions.

As a reformed, Southern Baptist pastor, my feet are firmly planted in the GCR camp. I believe that it is time for Southern Baptists to come together on the basis of our commitment to the gospel. I believe that where this solid, authentic commitment exists, we can find ground for cooperation and fellowship that will enable us to serve the purposes of God better than if we hold each other at arm's length because of suspicion, fear or disdain.

I invite both my Calvnist and non-Calvinist brothers and sisters to join me in encouraging and working for this kind of future in the SBC. Let's work together to come to deeper understandings and applications of the gospel. We may disagree at points, but such disagreements, if handled with gospel grace, can work to strengthen our grasp of divine truth rather than to further divide us. That is my hope, and that is my prayer.

I also hope that my Baptist Identity brothers and sisters will see fit to join in the pursuit of this kind of vision. The concerns that some in this camp have rightly articulated can be served through a renewed emphasis on the Great Commission because the healthiest streams of our Baptist heritage have always been gospel-centered. We need not give up our distinctives to major on essentials. In fact, Baptists have never shined brighter than when they have majored on the gospel.

I really do believe that, despite our differences, Southern Baptists can work together if we can agree on the centrality and power of the gospel for all of life. I am convinced that a growing number of Southern Baptists believe this, too. Because of this, I anticipate better days ahead.

For excellent articles that touch on various issues related to all this, put the Between the Times blog on your rss feeder. More than any other SBC blog, the writers there understand the issues and address them well. Also read the Baptist21 blog [link fixed]. Younger SBC leaders contribute to it and bring helpful insights and perspectives to some of these matters.

Here are a few specific recent articles that I highly recommend:

Third Generation Conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention, Part 1 by Steven McKinion.
An Open Letter to My Calvinist Friends in the SBC by Alvin Reid (this is part of an exchange between Dr. Reid and Dr. Nathan Finn that will be posted in full on the Between the Times site).
EDIT: An Open Letter to My Non-Calvinist Friends in the SBC by Nathan Finn
I Have a Problem by Alvin Reid

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Founders Podcast, Tom Nettles, pt. 3

The the third and final installment of my interview with Dr. Tom Nettles of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In it he addresses the issue of what constitutes genuine baptism. He also discusses the examples of Benjamin Keach and Abraham Booth as well-known Baptists from earlier generations who were baptized in Arminian churches and later moved to Particular Baptist convictions.

Dr. Nettles also provides an outline for defining true Baptist identity and gives his assessment of the last 30 years of Southern Baptist life, including the conservative resurgence and the more recent debates over Calvinism.

The first two parts of this interview have been posted previously (part 1) (part 2).

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Founders Podcast, Tom Nettles, pt. 2

The new Founders podcast has been posted online. It's about 20 minutes long.

The second part of my interview with Tom Nettles delves further into the question of Baptist identity. I ask him about Landmarkism, and learned one very good thing that J.R. Graves and the Landmarkers did for the annual meetings of the SBC. Dr. Nettles also gives a very interesting--some might even call it ironic--geographical delineation of early Landmarkism within Southern Baptist life.

The identity crisis that provoked the Landmark movement and the outcome of it are incredibly relevant to modern SBC life. Anyone who is interested in the contemporary discussions about Baptist identity should listen to Dr. Nettles' insights. He, more than any other living Baptist scholar, has explored and written about Baptist identity in helpful, historical and theological ways. His 3 volume work, The Baptists, is unparalled in our day.

Toward this end of this part of the interview, Dr. Nettles gives a wonderful argument for Baptists to stay in Baptist churches rather than joining Presbyterian churches, even when the latter may have a much healthier ministry than the former.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reflections on the Baptist Identity Conference, pt. 2

The recent Baptist Identity conference hosted by Union University has appropriately received a great deal of attention. As I mentioned previously, I came away greatly encouraged. Though I had to miss the presentations on Saturday (by Timothy George and Ed Stetzer, both of whom, I am told, did a great job), what I heard and observed gives me hope for the future. Not a giddy kind of wishful thinking, but a sober, longing-kind-of-hope. What took place there is an indication of what can happen and what ought to happen and what, I am convinced, a growing number of Southern Baptists genuinely long to happen within our denomination.

Beyond the value of each presentation individually and all of them collectively, the very fact that men from differing theological commitments (regarding Calvinism, for instance) and ecclesiological orientation (from "traditional" to "contemporary," for lack of better terms) could meet together, learn from each other and experience genuine fellowship around the Gospel was most encouraging. I spoke with several people who began their introduction with, "I am not a Calvinist" or "I am not Reformed" and then went on to extend genuine fellowship to me. The most notable of these conversations began with, "I read your blog regularly and do not agree with half of what you write." That wasn't said antagonistically but as a matter of self-disclosure, I think. The conversation that followed, however, focused significantly on the issue of reinstituting the principle of a regenerate church membership and church discipline in this brother's church. I was very encouraged with his commitment and plans to do so.

Here is my point. There was no pretense that everyone at the BID conference agreed on every important theological and ecclesilogical point. But there was an obvious agreement among participants concerning love for Christ and His church and that provided a basis for honest dialogue, including at points, strong disagreements. I find this very healthy. Brothers need to be willing and able to talk to one another about substantive issues without writing one another out of the kingdom and without misrepresenting those with whom we disagree. Paul recognized the possibility that not everyone in the church at Philippi would agree with his views even though he wrote as an apostle. But he did not reject them for that (as he did the heretics who were infiltrating the Galatian churches). Rather, he calmly and confidently wrote,
"Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you" (3:15). That humble, generous spirit characterized the conference and has set a standard for future Southern Baptist gatherings.

Another unexpected encouragement came in the form of admission that, by and large, the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention are in a real mess. They are spiritually unhealthy--even many of the ones that are held up as "flagship" churches. Several of the speakers specifically mentioned how we have lost the cherished Baptist principle of a regenerate church membership. This is a vitally important development. This problem has been with us for at least a couple of generations. Some people have been calling for the SBC to own up to it for decades, but without, apparently, gaining much traction. The refusal of the convention last year to vote on my resolution calling for integrity in church membership seemed to many to be an indicator of how resolute SBC leadership is to addressing this gargantuan problem. But at Union University last week, speaker after speaker addressed this issue. Two of the speakers told me privately that they supported the resolution last year and another stated the same thing publicly several weeks ago.

This bodes well for the future and not because we may get a resolution on regenerate church membership passed at the annual meeting. That might be nice, but, unless you are a state convention executive who selectively decides to make an exception, resolutions are not binding at all. Personally, I think that the failure of the resolution to make it to the floor last year may have better served the cause for which I submitted it than if it had simply passed. That cause is simply this: I want Southern Baptists to get honest about the obvious state of our churches! When 60% of your church never even shows up to worship with their fellow members it is time to weep. Yet, far from weeping, so much that has gone on in SBC life the last several years is more akin to strutting. Sometimes I ask myself, "What must this look like to heaven?" We have God's inerrant, infallible Word and have fought hard to maintain our corporate commitment to its authority. Yet, we regularly, blatantly, unrepentently ignore some of its most basic teachings, even when those very teachings are at the heart of our Baptist identity.

When respected denominational spokesmen and leaders begin not only to acknowledge the problem but call for it to be addressed, it is time to be hopeful. That is how I left the Baptist Identity conference. I am hopeful.

But, I am not naive. That is why I describe my hope as "sober." I will explain that more fully in my next and final installment of reflections.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reflections on the Baptist Identity Conference, pt. 1

After a few days to ruminate on the recent conference held at Union University, I am prepared to start offering some of my reflections. Audio recordings are available. First and foremost, I am greatly appreciative of Dr. David Dockery and the faculty and staff of Union University for sponsoring this conference. It is a reflection of the keen insight that Dr. Dockery and those who serve with him have into the current concerns and great needs of the Southern Baptist Convention. If we are going to see the SBC move forward without coming apart at the seams then we will need much more of the kind of wisdom that organized and planned this event.

The contrast between the sessions at the identity conference and the all-too-typical-fare that is regularly served up by various Southern Baptist leaders and spokesmen is stark. That is true in both spirit and content. Most of the speakers that I heard communicated with a contagious humility. That in no way suggests that they were convictionless. Quite the opposite was the case. All of the speakers addressed their subjects without the kind of arrogance and triumphalism that has become standard for denominational meetings. It was refreshing and very helpful in promoting genuine dialogue about important issues.

Each talk was also thoughtful. Though no one was called on to exposit Scripture (though Frank Page did draw his points from Philippians 1), each speaker used Scripture to direct and challenge our thinking, even when the main subject at hand was historical (Patterson and Dockery) and biographical (Moore). More than one speaker emphasized the importance of exercising care in not making secondary and tertiary issues primary concerns. And more than one warned against trying to impose personal preferences on others as if they were binding biblical commandments. That is a quite a contrast from the kind of legalism and unfounded castigations that are being championed from certain sectors of denomational life.

Thoughtful humility and humble thoughtfulness. We need huge doses of both injected into the life of the Southern Baptist Convention if it is to retain its viability in this post-denominational world.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Note from the Baptist Identity Conference, pt. 2

Thom Rainer and Mike Day were the 2nd and 3rd speakers on Thursday. Dr. Rainer spoke on evangelism and church growth and said good things about both. I especially appreciated his call for humility at the end. He demonstrated that for which he pled. He also called attention to the serious problem we have in the SBC with unregenerate church members, citing the sad fact that while we claim more than 16 million on our roles only 7 million come on Sunday morning. The repeated admission of this reality--including by more and more prominent SBC leaders--bodes well for the future. The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting that it exists and is serious enough to address. I think we are rapidly getting to that place.

Mike Day is the DOM of the Mid-South Baptist Association in Memphis. I have a confession to make. When I saw that a DOM was scheduled to speak on "The Future of Baptist Associations and State Conventions" I was, shall we say, less than excited. Boy, was I wrong. His talk was worth the whole conference. I encourage everyone who cares about the future of the SBC to order the CD from Union with his message. Dr. Day offered a very fine analysis of these two layers of Baptist organizational life, calling attention to their redundancy and need for change. He mentioned the need for a new way of thinking associationally, that takes some hints from the history of Baptist associations in America. He mentioned "affinity associations(!)," and called for them to be regionally based but not limited by strict geographical boundaries.

I was fully engaged by his words and could not believe that a DOM was actually saying them. The SBC is changing and needs to change for the better. Dr. Day gets that. This type of thinking can help move the denomination forward in very healthy directions.

Timmy Brister, Steve McKoy, Joe Thorn and Art Rogers are all blogging about the conference. Their observations are worth reading.