Born to Reform
While driving my car back to college, at the age of 19, I was converted listening to a preacher on the radio. I began to attend church regularly, something I never did before. The thing that seemed to strike me the most in the churches I attended was the obvious lack of passion, sincerity and obedience to Scripture. On Sunday mornings in my small town, I could look around the packed auditorium and count many who were living in open sin. There was never any effort of accountability or discipline within the church at any level. Adding to this, I was regularly questioned by well-meaning church members as to whether I had “prayed a certain prayer” to be saved. In my remembrance, no one opened the Scriptures and taught me the biblical evidences of the new birth. I began to pray the “sinner’s prayer” many times each day hoping one of them would be the real thing and I would be eternally fixed for heaven and not hell. I began to go “soul winning” and urging, if not forcing, others to pray the “sinner’s prayer.” Something seemed artificial about this, but I continued on because that’s what I was taught. From the beginning, I was troubled in my heart and was uncomfortable with the state of the church and the common understanding of conversion.
I was quickly becoming disillusioned by the shallowness and hypocrisy of the churches I attended. I observed coldness and indifference to spiritual things, and it made me wonder if these church members had experienced what I had experienced. My heart was burning with love for Christ and with a passion for biblical obedience in His church; however, I was unbalanced in my spiritual immaturity. A lot of heat and too little light burned within. Looking back now I see that I was too prideful concerning my walk and service to Christ. God is still growing me in these areas.
It was probably by the end of the first year of my Christian pilgrimage that I became so disappointed in the local church that I decided I would commit my life to “para-church” ministry, but that decision didn’t last long. Slowly, from the Scriptures, I was beginning to see that the local church was the center of God’s purposes on earth.
Then one day God spoke to my heart. I do not remember exactly when or where, but I distinctly remember a strong impression within my soul. It was as if God etched in my heart with a hot iron stylist these words, “I will do My work through My church. You can get on the inside and be used as part of the solution or arrogantly stay on the outside and continue your useless criticizing.” Again, I do not remember the specifics, but God impressed this upon my heart as surely as I’m breathing today! I had known within months of my conversion that I was to be in full-time ministry. Now I knew I was to be a pastor in one of God’s local churches. From that time onward I was totally committed to the pastorate and to leading a church to be truly biblical and to be a model of a true church. God had humbled me and spoken to me. Now there was no turning back; there could be no Plan B. It was as Amos said in Amos 3:8, “A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” Deep within my heart the lion had roared; my destiny was set. I was terribly ignorant of all this would mean. I just knew I was called to preach and pastor, and that I must fully trust in the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. One thing I did know was that my pastoral leadership would most likely be in contradiction to much, if not most, of the typical functions of the average church. I felt that if I took a pastorate and followed in the flow of the typical Southern Baptist Church, I would be as disobedient as Jonah sailing for Joppa. Today I understand as never before that God does not need me, but I am equally convinced that by His grace and certainly for His glory, I was born to reform.
Glory of God Focused
I have been on the pastoral staff of First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals for more than 25 years. Seventeen years ago I was called to be the Senior Pastor. That’s when I began prayerfully to put together a scriptural purpose statement for the church. I was convinced that we needed a clear purpose statement to help guide our journey together as pastor and people.
I was strongly convinced of two things. First, the primary truth of the purpose statement must be the glory of God. The church is Christ’s bride, born and sustained by His power, and all is for His glory (Ephesians 3:21). Second, the purpose statement must be thoroughly biblical. It must be totally and fully God’s will for His church as revealed in Scripture. The purpose statement we composed is:
The purpose of First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals is to glorify God by obediently making and equipping disciples of Christ in the Shoals and throughout the world by the power of the Spirit.
The focus on God’s glory and on being Bible saturated has sustained me “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” I’m convinced that with any lesser purpose, I would have left the ministry or run away in fear. The warfare of reforming a church is severe and seemingly, at times, unrelenting. A deepening and unswerving commitment to the glory of God and knowledge of His sovereignty was, for my life, the anchor that held the ship of reformation steady through the storms of opposition. A strong passion for His glory in the church is the only sufficient anchor to weather the storms of reformation.
Informed and Reformed
Several years ago I received a call from a dear brother I had never met. Most Founders Journal readers will probably know his name — Mark Dever, Pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Mark said he had heard about the ministry of FBC Muscle Shoals and would like to meet and discuss our mutual convictions. Shortly thereafter, during that sit-down conversation, some lights turned on in my mind!
The first occurred when Mark asked me if it was studying church history that led or inspired me to begin the reforms within my church. I actually had no idea that the reforms I had initiated made my church much like most Baptist churches of the 18th and early 19th centuries. But it was something I needed to hear. My response to Mark’s question as to what led me to reform First Baptist Church was a simple and honest reply, “It’s scriptural.” Today, partly due to Mark’s encouragement, I am a student of church history. This practice has edified my life and pastorate immeasurably.
The second light that flickered but did not come on until some time after my conversation with Mark was the concept of being “reformed.” I had only a shallow understanding of what the word meant as far as specific church movement historically or theologically. Over the next couple of years, as I deepened in my study of church history, I realized that for the most part (depending on who is defining the term) I am “reformed.” But more than reformed, I’d rather be viewed as biblical. Actually, they should be the same thing, but woe to the brother who strives after reformation as a system as his first passion and not for God and His glory. The order of these things is essential. Calvinism can be as deadly an idol as Arminianism. We must love God and use systems of theology and not love systems and use God!
I was well into the pilgrimage of reformation at First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals when I was informed that I was “historically and theologically speaking,” reformed. Actually, I think it was a gift from God that I was mostly ignorant of “labels” and “systems” until the majority of reforms were well underway in my church. I did not begin by looking to a system of theology as helpful as that may have been. I started with a desire to serve and glorify God by leading my church to be fully scriptural. If this is what is meant by reformed then I gladly wear the label. Yet in my case I had to be informed that I was reformed.
Theology and Methodology
As I mentioned previously, my passion for the local church began soon after my conversion. Early on I began to learn of those who were esteemed as role models within the Southern Baptist Convention. Yet as I examined their churches I found glaring unbiblical practices and seemingly no efforts to reform these areas. This is one of the reasons Dr. John MacArthur’s ministry was so appealing. His church genuinely seemed to strive after obedience in the totality of local church life. In many ways, Dr. MacArthur’s ministry was my role model. Yet, in the Southern Baptist Convention, the “great churches” that were held up as examples seemed (to me) to have an obvious disconnect between the theology their churches embraced and the methodology that was followed! Man-centered pragmatism seemed to rule the day!
Unfortunately and to my shame, there were far too many areas where, either in my pride or in ignorance, I, too, was functioning with a man-centered and pragmatic spirit instead of humbly yielding to sound scriptural truth. Yet, God was growing me and still is to this day.
Upon becoming the senior pastor, I immediately began reforming many policies and procedures, but God had an accelerated course in mind. On the fifth day in my role as senior pastor, a prominent church leader, who had strongly and openly opposed my becoming pastor, was found to be in open and scandalous sin. There was much pressure to “sweep the issue under the carpet.” I knew because of the person’s prominence and the scandalous nature of the sin that public correction was necessary. We lost close to one-third of our active membership. Some who left went about spreading lies throughout the community concerning the dismissal of the member found in scandalous sin. One very positive thing did happen. The commitment to deal with sin in the body in a biblical manner was well established. Over the next couple of years we developed policies and procedures for compassionate discipline. Since then, hundreds have been removed for the sin of neglecting church attendance. Many others have been removed for adultery, drunkenness, unbiblical divorce, abandoning their spouse and children, among other things. God has chosen to glorify Himself by letting us see several who were dismissed come back into church membership with humble, repentant hearts! I remember the first time a publicly disciplined member stood before the congregation in tears thanking the church for dismissing him from membership. He stated that God used the dismissal to bring him to repentance and give him victory over the sin in his life. Another member dismissed for unrepentant sin was at rock bottom, living in a roach-infested hotel room at the opposite end of the state. He was separated from his wife, his child, everyone. When he received word that he had been removed for his lack of repentance, he later told me his first thought was, “There’s something worth returning to. These people love me.” Within weeks he was restored, and God restored his marriage. Today he is faithful to the church and has even become an elected community leader! The effects of biblical discipline are powerful for the church family. An increased spirit of love and humility within the body always marks the weeks following a dismissal for sin. And usually an increased number of new believers are added to the church.
After the initial case of discipline, the church went through about sixteen months of decline and struggle. Eventually things really began to take off. The respect and admiration for me from the church body began to grow greatly, and I knew this was not healthy. I simply had almost no accountability. The deacons were only servants to the body and had no authority to oversee. The pastor was viewed as a benevolent dictator. I knew I needed help to lead and oversee the church. I was convinced that a plurality of elders was the most biblically healthy model of church leadership. I preached a series of messages on biblical elders and then asked the congregation to nominate men they discerned to be called and qualified for the office. I examined the top nominees, along with their wives, as to their sense of calling to the office and their biblical qualifications. Twelve men were presented to the congregation for a two-week examination period. If anyone had any concerns, they were given two weeks to bring them to my attention. After this time, the men, with their wives at their side, were unanimously affirmed as elders in the church. Originally, we called them “the Pastor’s Council” for fear the title “elder” might unsettle some. Since then we have matured greatly in our understanding of elder ministry and in our policy for selecting and installing them. Today those under consideration are required to complete a 50-page questionnaire on theology and church polity. For more than sixteen years now the love, encouragement, and accountability among our elders has been priceless to me. They have been the key, humanly speaking, to holding the church together in some very difficult times. Their leadership in doctrine and discipline issues greatly enhances my role as the preaching pastor.
During the first ten years of my pastorate, we experienced incredible numerical growth. In those early years, to join our church, you just walked to the front at the end of the service, received a three-to-seven minute counseling session and were presented as a new member. As it turns out, more of our growth was a curse than a blessing! Though our overall “numbers” kept increasing, so did our discipline problems. It took some time, but I finally figured out part of the problem. Many who joined by letter were either unregenerate or terribly shallow in their understanding of the biblical duties of church membership. Once the newness of church membership wore off, they were leaving off their dutes and returning to their sinful habits. We had already opened up the back door by exercising biblical discipline, but now we realized we must guard the front door! This realization led to a radically new procedure for receiving members.
Today most people attend for months before requesting membership. This gives many opportunities for them to fellowship with members and church leaders, learning both the blessings and duties of church membership. They attend a three-hour class that covers doctrine and church polity. The class places a strong emphasis on the biblical evidences of true conversion. If they desire to continue toward membership, they must meet with a church elder, who examines their conversion experience and their understanding of the duties of membership. After this meeting, if all is acceptable, they are asked to sign a covenant statement that places particular emphasis on our policy on discipline. Lastly, they are presented to the congregation and publicly make five affirmations of faithfulness and service. The congregation responds with an affirmation of love and support to them. This practice, which is continually being revised, has proven to be a great blessing to the spiritual health of the church.
“Salvation by Works” in Baptist Life?
First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals has always had an aggressive and passionate commitment to evangelism. We have averaged over 25% of our Sunday School attendance at weekly outreach Visitation for more than sixteen years. During the early years of my pastorate, we averaged about 180 baptisms per year! I remember so many, including prominent leaders in the Convention, praising these results! Yet no one that I can remember ever questioned the genuineness of these “conversions.” If most of these baptized converts were genuine and bore lasting fruit, we should be having close to 3,000 in attendance on a good Sunday instead of close to the 1,000 we have today!
Initially, we tried to combat this problem by developing a thorough follow-up and discipling program through our Small Groups. Still the percentage of those who fell away didn’t improve. And far too many had to be disciplined.
Then a light went on that was startling and shocking. We had actually been functioning with a shallow, if not outright unbiblical, understanding of conversion. The reason so many of those we baptized fell away was because they were not truly saved! Urging people to simply pray a prayer or walk down an aisle at the end of a service was vastly different from becoming a new creation in Christ Jesus. Without saying it outwardly, our evangelism emphasized the simple WORK of walking forward or saying a prayer. Actually, I was living as a dualist. I strongly denounced “easy-believism,” yet the methods I followed were clearly fostering this error.
I spent two years intensely studying the doctrine of conversion. I studied all the Baptist Statements of Faith I could find. I read many Puritan fathers along with Spurgeon, Dagg, Boice, Gill, Pendleton and others. I read the biographies of Edwards, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Wesley and many more! I could not find one example in Baptist church history or in any Baptist Statement of Faith that taught that one is assured of salvation by praying a “sinner’s prayer.”
We began to go through a serious reformation concerning our understanding of gospel preaching and personal soul winning, especially what constitutes true conversion. Today we never tell a person, “If you prayed that prayer, you are saved.” We certainly do not discourage lost sinners from calling on the Lord in repentance and faith to save them; however, assurance of salvation must be based only on solid biblical criterion. From the Scriptures we teach “seekers” of repentance and faith and the witness of the Spirit within the heart. Simple faith in Christ saves, but it is also a substantial faith that transforms the whole person (2 Corinthians 5:17). I’m convinced millions have prayed a prayer in the power of the flesh and have not been born again by the Spirit of God, yet these have been assured by well-meaning Christians and pastors alike that “the prayer” saved them. God help us!
Today we have many seekers who regularly attend church with us. I appeal to them, urge them, even command them, sometimes with tears, to repent of loving self, sin and this world and turn to Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, and God has been gracious to let us see a steady stream of new believers who give good biblical evidence of repentance and faith.
It’s powerful and gives glory to God when new believers testify before they are baptized of how God brought them to repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Just a couple of weeks ago, a lady shared before her baptism, “I see my sin. My sins are so wretched and bad, and I fall short of His glory. But I have come to Him in repentance. At times I cry and mourn over my sin. I am trusting Him. My hope is in what He did on the cross. He took the wrath of God on Himself and let me go free. I treasure Him more and more each day I live. I just want my love for Him to be greater and greater.” I simply do not remember hearing such a substantial testimony as this in the earlier years of my ministry. Today they are common—methodology flowing out of our theology. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Yet, most of our churches need thorough reform to get there. We did. And we are still reforming.