Bureaucracy, Reformation and The Southern Baptist Convention
There is a crisis in Baptist life today which cannot be resolved by bigger budgets, better programs, or more sophisticated systems of data processing and mass communication. It is a crisis of identity rooted in a fundamental theological failure of nerve The two major diseases of the contemporary church are spiritual amnesia (we have forgotten who we are) and ecclesiastical myopia (whoever we are, we are glad we are not like “them”).
These words, penned by Timothy George, are as true today as they were over fifteen years ago when he originally wrote them. Granted, much good has been accomplished within the Southern Baptist Convention over the last two decades—years which saw both the height of intensity and thorough conservative victory in the so-called “battle for the Bible.” The inerrancy of Scripture is now firmly established as the convictional norm and expectation of all denominational entities and personnel.
This is no small accomplishment and should be seen by all who recognize the Bible to be God’s Word written as a significant work of reformation. It is easy to forget or undervalue how much has been accomplished over the last twenty-five years. We no longer have professors teaching in our denominational seminaries who throw the Bible into a trashcan for shock effect. We no longer have convention executives speaking equivocally about culturally acceptable sins like homosexual behavior and abortion. These and similar changes are amazing in their breadth and depth. They must never be taken for granted and we should sincerely praise God for granting them to us.
But neither must they become the ground for triumphalistic self-satisfaction among those who rejoice in them. The work of reformation is like the labor of swimming against a tide. If you stop to congratulate yourself on how far you have come you will soon be swept back out into the sea you have been trying to escape. Few people see this as perceptively as Tom Nettles, who has done all reformation-minded Southern Baptists a great service by writing his recent book, Ready for Reformation? Bringing Authentic Reform to Southern Baptist Churches.
In the introduction to the book he writes,
“I assume that a genuine movement of God’s Spirit has initiated a reformation among Southern Baptists. Reformation involves much more, however, than the mere recovery of biblical authority. Reformation penetrates the deep recesses of self-perception and purposes of institutions. It involves time, patience, sacrifice, and honest self-criticism.”
Such penetration will not take place where denominational pride and self-satisfaction prevail. Instead, bureaucratic inertia sets in and the very Scriptures for whose authority so many fought so valiantly get inadvertently pushed to the background in the zealous pursuit of noble goals. In other words, the very Bible that is now loudly proclaimed and widely recognized to be inerrant is largely ignored in areas where it speaks with forceful plainness. Let’s look at only one example to illustrate this point.
Baptists have made their most significant contributions to evangelical Christianity in the realm of ecclesiology. Our forefathers suffered, and some died, for the truth that a local church should be comprised only of believers who have been baptized as believers. The Baptist ideal of a free church in a free state was influential on the founding fathers of the United States of America. Though Baptists should not think that they alone are concerned for biblical ecclesiology, they should be unwilling to take second place to any other community of believers in such concerns. If anyone should take churchmanship seriously, it is the people called Baptists.
Article 6 of the Baptist Faith and Message says this:
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.
These words accurately summarize what ought to characterize—at least partly—a local church. The members are to be “baptized believers,” “associated by covenant,” “observing” the ordinances, “governed” by the laws of Jesus Christ. When 60% of a church’s membership fails even to show up to the meetings regularly, then it miserably fails even to approximate this description.
It is tragic to stop and consider how far removed modern Southern Baptists are from the biblical teachings on the nature of a local church. We may chide our Presbyterian friends for granting church membership to “believers and their seed” but, in practice, the vast majority of our churches grant membership status to believers and their ghosts. It is a common-known, easily documented fact that the vast majority of our 16.3 million Southern Baptists show little if any signs of spiritual life. Most never even darken the doors of a church building. They do not worship with the church. They do not pray with the church. They do not serve with the church. They do not give to help support the ministry of the church. They do not witness with the church. Yet, whenever an important “business meeting” rolls around, they can show up and have their vote count just as much as the chairman of the deacons.
This all-too-typical state of affairs simply highlights the obvious: church discipline has been completely forgotten by most Southern Baptist churches. Yet, Jesus Himself commands this practice plainly in Matthew 18:15–17, verses which are cited as support to Article 6 of the Baptist Faith and Message. This is what our Lord says:
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
What I do not understand is how a pastor can claim to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and yet go on year after year refusing to obey what the Lord Jesus Himself clearly says a church must do. What good is an inerrant Bible if it is going to be ignored?
One of the quips that was used in the battle for the Bible to describe the inadequacy of the liberal and neo-orthodox views of biblical inspiration is that they see the Bible only to be “inspired in spots.” Is the willful neglect of portions of God’s Word functionally any different than this liberal malady? Perhaps we can describe those conservatives who willfully neglect church discipline as believing the Bible to be completely inerrant but only “important in places.” This error may ultimately do more damage than liberalism because it is perpetrated by those who profess loudly to “really believe” the Bible, thus teaching countless millions that one can supposedly believe the Bible while simply ignoring parts that indict our ministerial and ecclesiastical practices.
It is encouraging to see what appears to be a growing number of conservative Southern Baptist leaders speaking out about this issue over the last few years. Their voices are a welcome addition to the chorus. But one is left to wonder just how serious they are in raising concerns about our bloated denominational statistics when their own churches are complicit in padding the numbers with a large percentage of their membership rolls being “non-resident” and “inactive.” Furthermore, it is hard to take a man seriously when he decries the lack of discipline in our churches and calls our inflated statistics an embarrassment and then turns around and promotes churches and pastors who exemplify those very problems.
What is going on when conservative leaders say, “We need to see discipline reinstituted in our churches” … “Anytime you stand up and face a congregation these days in the average [Baptist] church you’re looking at 30–40% that have never been born again” … “A church that does not practice discipline is not a true church”… “A church that has less than 80% of its membership attending regularly is not a healthy church”… “We’ve been more concerned about numbers to report to the denominational press than we have been about genuine conversion,” and then speak in glowing terms of churches and pastors that cannot even get 50% of their membership to show up on any given Lord’s Day?
Here is what I think is going on: reformation stalled by bureaucratic inertia. It is OK to speak boldly about church discipline—in fact, it is almost becoming chic to do so in some sectors—but when it comes to taking the necessary and inevitably difficult steps to implement it, when it comes to getting particular in our assessments and honest in our self-criticism, then it suddenly becomes impolite or disloyal to speak boldly and plainly. Bureaucracy, if safeguarded by bureaucrats, becomes impervious to the kind of reformation that “penetrates the deep recesses of self-perception and purposes of institutions.”
The need is obvious. The challenge is great. But the Lord has given us His inerrant, infallible Word which is sufficient. Under the power of the Holy Spirit, with gentle firmness and patient wisdom, reformation can continue to move forward. It must.
Churches and church leaders must not wait on denominational leaders to set the pace. The Bible is clear. Jesus, the Lord of the church, places the responsibility for reformation squarely on the shoulders of each congregation. Read Revelation 2 and 3. Then read them again. It matters to Jesus how we conduct ourselves in churches that bear His Name. It should matter to us, as well.
Where we have neglected clear duty, let us repent and start over. Where we have made some gains, let us not sit back on our laurels as if we have arrived. Where we need help, may we in humility seek it from those who, perhaps, have greater experience and insight to lend it. Where we have been helpfully taught, may we be willing to pass it along to those who are just learning.
Reformation must come. We must not be duped into thinking that it will do so without real costs. May that reality not make us flinch, but make us resolved to endure hardship like good soldiers, for the glory and honor of our King.
1Timothy George and David Dockery, eds., Baptist Theologians (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 13.
2Thomas J. Nettles, Ready for Reformation? Bringing Authentic Reform to Southern Baptist Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), 2.