The Southern Baptist Convention & Local Churches Must Change

As we think about our own local church (her challenges, goals, and resources), I believe it may be quite helpful to put things into perspective. We are a Southern Baptist (SBC) congregation, and we have been since 1919. We are also a rural congregation of about 110-150, depending on the Sunday. These metrics place us in the heart of the SBC.

Our church’s membership (more than double our average attendance) is numerically larger than 60% of all Southern Baptist churches (see charts and data HERE). That means we are in the top 40% of SBC churches right now. This may be one way of reminding ourselves that we are not an insignificant congregation.

However, as you may or may not know, a church’s membership roster is not always an accurate measurement of actual involvement. Our own members-to-attendance ratio (not quite 3:1 right now) is not unusual among SBC churches. In fact, churches across the SBC have been actively raising the expectation of cleaning up and maintaining more accurate membership rolls (see the 2008 resolution HERE). I have been slowly-but-intentionally doing this hard work among my congregation.

While numerical involvement is certainly not a trustworthy measurement of spiritual health, the numbers do not look good for our church or for the SBC in general. Even with our padded membership roster, the trajectory is downward.

The president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary recently wrote about the current state of affairs among the SBC (see article HERE). He pointed out that the 2015-16 Annual Church Profile (ACP) reports marked the lowest number of baptisms since 1946, the lowest number of church members since 1990, and the lowest number of people in worship service attendance since 1996.

Dr. Kelly said, “Consider it official. The SBC is in decline, and it has been so for a number of years. The typical SBC church is struggling mightily to reach people for Christ in its city, town, or community, and it is struggling mightily to keep engaged the members it already has.”

While this is no encouragement to us, it does help us to take a breath regarding our own local “struggles.” Any time there is a perceived lack of success, the right thing to do is look for the hindrance. In our case, at FBC Diana, the decrease in membership involvement and lack of membership growth is certainly influenced by some local causes, but we are foolish to ignore the broader factors.

We do face the challenges of a small-town church who is experiencing a fairly dramatic leadership swing. The pastors before me, so far as I can tell, were men who loved Christ and loved this church family; but it is clear that the gifts I have and the things I emphasize are not the same as what they did.

Our many local challenges are significant, but they are not complicated, nor are they hard to see.

We live in a community full of people who think the local church is irrelevant. Those who still have a positive view of the local church, see the church very much like they see a grocery store… “The church that provides me with the best service and produce is where I will shop, but I will spend as little as I can to get what I want.”

People who faithfully commit to serve Christ in the common bond of the Gospel and in covenant with one another are extremely rare, and I praise God for each of those in my congregation.

So, what do we do? Where do we go from here?

Do we just keep doing the same old stuff, and watch the decline continue?

I don’t plan to… not by a long shot.

Dr. Kelly, the seminary president I mentioned before, said some other stuff in his article that I think is important to note in our attempt to make a plan.

He said, “Every strategy for evangelism from the first century until today assumes the life with Jesus is different from the life without Jesus. We must live distinctively if we are to be fruitful in reaching people for Christ. There will be no growth in evangelism without a growth in Christlikeness…

I could not agree with Dr. Kelly more. He is saying that we must live like Christians – distinct from the world around us – if we are to have any opportunity to tell people that Jesus and His Gospel are life-transforming. If our lives are not transformed, then we are lying, and the people we live with know it.

Distinct living is the mark of true faith, and we must be willing to acknowledge our sentimental notions of Christianity for what they are. Jesus said, “if you love Me, you’ll obey me…” (Jn. 14:15).

Dr. Kelly also said that once we establish ourselves as distinct from the world, we should intentionally engage our friends and neighbors with the Gospel.

He said, “Southern Baptists must be intentional in seeking opportunities to have Gospel conversations with people outside the walls of the church… It takes focused attention to make and keep evangelism a priority in your own life…” He went on to say that we all should be asking ourselves, “What is my plan for evangelism, and what am I doing today to execute that plan?”

Again, I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Kelly here. He seems to understand, as I do, that the “Come and See” model of evangelism is not the way forward. We do not see many people turning away from sin and trusting in Jesus through events or by simply attending a church service with a friend. While event evangelism has its place, and your friend may be willing to attend a service with you, it is not the primary way forward in our culture today. Instead, we should employ a “Go and Share” model.

Go and Share” is personally going to meet those who are not now following Christ where they are. And, we do this all the time… They are beside us at the ball fields; their kids and grandkids play with ours; they wave at us when we drive by their yard, and sometimes they even sit at our dinner tables.

The “Going” is something we already do, but the “Sharing” probably isn’t.

What is your plan for personal evangelism? When will you move the conversation from the weather to the Gospel? If you don’t feel equipped to share the Gospel, then when will you make an effort to become equipped?

What are you waiting for?

To quickly recap the plan being proposed here (both for local churches and the SBC generally), we must (1) live holy lives of gratitude before God, as we learn to trust and obey Christ all the more; and (2) we should feel the personal responsibility to share the Gospel with those we know.

One last thing will be the key to our success as a church family: We must pray.

We must pray like we believe we really need God… like we know that we cannot do this ourselves… like we are truly desperate to see people know and love Christ.

God is still in the business of saving sinners; He still delights in giving life to dead things, and He is still the gracious God who offers His salvation to all who will love and trust Him. God is also still in the business of shaping and shepherding saved sinners; He can easily give life to our church family, and He will bless our faithfulness.

 

He may or may not cause us to grow in great number, but He will most certainly cause us to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ… I know He will because He has promised to do it (2 Pet. 3:18; cf. Rom. 8:29).

The Goal: Real Unity

To my surprise, Brad Reynolds (professor and Vice President of Academic Services at Truett-McConnell University) and I (a rural Texas pastor) have engaged in public discourse for nearly a month now. The exchange of ideas has likely been more interesting to some and less to others, but I have certainly benefitted from the interaction. In this, my third contribution to the discussion, I’d like to attempt a significant movement towards my own end-goal.

In his most recent article, Mr. Reynolds offered our exchange as a teaching tool for the interested reader. He believes, it seems, we have been exemplary. I am not entirely sure, however, if he thinks my example has been one to follow or one to avoid. At any rate, my hopeful posture is the same as his in regard to the benefit our exchange may provide other Southern Baptists.

Cutting to the chase, I want to argue that the disagreement we should be focusing on is not the one Mr. Reynolds seems intent on highlighting. Instead of continually bantering back and forth about our distinct perspectives on political engagement or community involvement, I believe the more important disagreement is over the real inclusion of a different voice in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and its various entities.

First, Mr. Reynolds’ article that began this whole discussion insisted on the removal of Russell Moore from the ERLC. The basis of Dr. Moore’s removal, in the mind of Mr. Reynolds, is that he does not “represent us” (the “us” referring to the average member of the SBC). In my response, I argued that the “us” Mr. Reynolds tried to describe was a much broader group than he initially postulated.

I presented a perspective that I believe exemplifies a significant group of SBC members who agree with and are encouraged by many of Dr. Moore’s words and actions. The point of my response to Mr. Reynolds was not to argue against his views, but instead to argue that his views do not fully represent the SBC. He has but one perspective, and there are indeed others.

Second, Mr. Reynolds’ response to my initial contribution was a doubling down on his previously articulated perspective. It seemed to me that Mr. Reynolds felt as though I was mischaracterizing his position, and his chief purpose appeared to be further clarity. This is an admirable goal, no doubt, but it is not what I believe is the most important matter at hand.

I responded to his second article with another of my own. Unable to resist the urge to punch a couple of holes in what I believed to be an obfuscation of some major concerns, I engaged Mr. Reynolds’ views on political and social matters before I reaffirmed my basic desire for agreement on the deeper issue. I now regret the first half of my second article, not because I would pull away from the substance, but because the banter is beside (and a distraction from) the more important point.

Third, and finally, the more important point is our disagreement concerning the very existence of different views inside of the SBC. I say this is a good and necessary thing, Mr. Reynolds says something different. He asserts that Russel Moore should remove himself (or be removed) from the ERLC since he does not represent those in the SBC like Mr. Reynolds.

Mr. Reynolds says that he does allow for different views and he gladly welcomes such variant perspectives from his own among the SBC. However, he is simultaneously calling for the removal of an SBC leader who represents a different view. It appears that Mr. Reynolds does not understand that he is denying and affirming the same thing at the same time. I am no seminary professor, but that sounds like a contradiction to me.

Mr. Reynolds seems to demand that Dr. Moore represent a perspective he does not have, but a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. This is a ridiculous expectation, and it is the primary reason for my entering this discussion in the first place. If Mr. Reynolds is only willing to allow a different voice in the SBC when it has no real influence or platform, then this is no real allowance.

Either Mr. Reynolds (and others like him) will abide the voice of those like me in the SBC (including when those voices are in leadership positions), or he (and they) will not. If there is a willingness to coalesce around more important things (such as the Gospel and several Southern Baptist distinctives), then we shall see great days ahead. If there is only the desire for an echo-chamber regarding a full range of practical issues, then the SBC will continue to slowly drift into irrelevance and obscurity.

Once again, my hope and prayer is for genuine unity among the SBC.

May God grant us the kind of lasting unity that is strong enough to allow disagreement on lesser things.

Barnabas Baptist & Bobby Baptist

Russell Moore has been the focus of concern over recent months. His sharp criticism of President Trump before he was elected (during the primaries and the general election) and especially his analysis of fellow Evangelicals has drawn a lot of fire. Dr. Moore repeatedly warned conservative Evangelicals (particularly Southern Baptists) about a moral responsibility to speak and vote honestly and consistently. Whatever one thinks of Russell Moore, and whatever one thinks of his tone, the criticisms and the warnings are at least worth hearing.

I recently read an article by Brad Reynolds that sought to simplify and explain the growing rift between the ERLC and the average Southern Baptist. The author cleverly created a fictitious character named “Bobby Baptist” to tell the story.

“Bobby is a contractor who works 8-10 hours a day, five days a week. He and his wife (Bonnie – an elementary school teacher) have four young grandchildren. Bobby and Bonnie both have Facebook accounts as they endeavor to keep up with their grandkids. This medium is where they get most of their news (not CNN or NY TIMES).”

Bobby is “frustrated” with Dr. Moore and the ERLC because of a misunderstanding, said Reynolds. The misunderstanding is not on the part of Bobby Baptist, however.

According to Reynolds, Bobby “saw the concern of a presidential nominee with a very immoral past, he saw the concern of race relations, and he certainly understands hypocrisy [three concerns Dr. Moore said many people do not see, which he is trying to highlight]. It is not that Bobby Baptist didn’t see these concerns; rather it is that Dr. Moore misunderstands Bobby.”

“What frustrates Bobby,” the author continued, is Dr. Moore’s inability to grasp, affirm, and promote Bobby’s position. Bobby believes it is his “Christian duty” to “trust” and “forgive” a man who is imperfect – like President Trump. Moreover, Bobby believes that the issue of abortion outweighs all others combined, and he thinks other issues are not worthy of discussion until this one is resolved.

I think there is some merit to Reynolds’ article, and he should be commended for his honest attempt at clarity. However, I think Reynolds has depicted the confusion and frustration from only one perspective, and this (as I see it) is precisely the problem.

Baptists are an arguing bunch. This has been true from the beginning, and it will remain true as long as there continue to be congregational Christians who believe in the responsibility of each Christ-follower to stand upon his/her biblical convictions. We don’t have a presbytery or a synod or a council to decree from on high what our denominational position is going to be on a given subject. We hold fast the essential confession of faith in the Gospel and the Christ who saves, but on the non-essentials we have much liberty. This means there is going to be disagreement, and such intermural debate does not have to divide us.

That said, “Bobby Baptist” may be the average Southern Baptist, but he will not be 10 or 15 years from now. Those younger (age 18-49) Southern Baptists who are coming up under and alongside “Bobby Baptist” are going to be the average Southern Baptist soon (as they move into the older demographics). They are a large number now (see Pew Research HERE), and they are increasing their activity in the SBC (see 2014 SBC statistics HERE).

For the sake of the simple storyline, let’s call this up-and-coming average SBC member “Barnabas Baptist.”

Barnabas is a married father of three children. He works hard at his job, but he values leisure and family time much more than vocational prestige. Barnabas’s wife, Beatrice, homeschools their young children, and she tries to carve out a night each week to open their home to a few neighborhood families. They are slowly building relationships over dinner, with discipleship intentions. Barny and Bee don’t watch TV, they carefully choose news outlets that will give them a broad perspective on the issues, and they do not like the partisan politics of American culture. They faithfully attend weekly worship services, and they see local time and energy investments in their community as their Christian duty and privilege.

Barny and Bee care very much about the more than 1,800 babies aborted each day in America, but they believe that they can make more of a difference locally than nationally. They have become licensed foster parents, and one of their children was adopted a couple of years ago. They are gracious to those who do not love and serve Christ, and they have high expectations for those who do. Barny and Bee have watched nominal Christianity become a real-life comic strip, and they are ashamed of the reputation Christianity has earned in America. They are doing their part to live as pilgrims, with citizenship in a kingdom that is yet to come.

When Dr. Moore points out the foolish efforts of many evangelicals today, who offer excuses for a despicable man simply because he is a Republican and he says he is against abortion, Barny and Bee hear words that resonate with their own thoughts. They would end abortion today if they could, but they also realize that how you do the right thing will have an impact on the future too. They wonder why “Bobby and Bonnie Baptist” are unwilling to listen to their concerns about the Christian witness of those who associate themselves with pompous political populists for the sake of partisan conquest.

You see Barny and Bee do want many of the same things Bobby and Bonnie want, but Barny and Bee simply do not believe that political power is how to make them happen. In fact, they believe political power is working against their biblical and moral goals at the moment, and they think that opposition is likely to grow. Therefore, they are disheartened by Bobby and Bonnie’s staunch grip on what appears to be a failed idea. Barny and Bee do not hope in the rise of a silent moral majority, they do not await a political rescuer, and they do not think “Republican” is the Christian party.

Therefore, Dr. Moore’s criticisms ring a clear bell that needs to be heard… at least from the perspective of Barnabas and Beatrice Baptist. While Bobby and Bonnie may not like that Dr. Moore is poking at some of their long-held comforts, they would do well to stop shouting down a man who is the public voice of so many Southern Baptists beside them. This is especially disheartening since Bobby and Bonnie should care more about the future of their denomination than the future of their political party.

From my perspective, Barnabas and Beatrice and Bobby and Bonnie all have great points on which they agree. The focus should not be on shutting one side down in favor of the other, but to encourage an ongoing discussion (and even debate) about how the two perspectives can help each other see one another’s blind spots. I think Paul says something about this in Titus 2, but I wonder if Southern Baptists are still “people of the book” as they once were.

Time will tell…

Southern Baptist Identity | A Book Review

One of the most recent books I have read is “Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future.” It was highly informative, candidly thought-provoking, and engagingly eclectic. I am thankful for the book form of these many essays from varying leadership among the Southern Baptist Convention.

You’ll read my full commendation at the end of this article, but I will go ahead and tell you that I believe every Christian would benefit from reading this book. Furthermore, I believe every Southern Baptist should read this book in order to contribute to the necessary discussion about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

 

Introduction

David Dockery, a proven unifier in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), edited essays from several leaders and thinkers in the SBC. The content is well introduced by Dockery himself.

He opens the book by writing,

“The SBC is the largest evangelical denomination in the country, with over 44,000 churches in all fifty states. Southern Baptists have often functioned separately from the rest of American Christianity because of their sectionalism, their inability to separate from Southern culture, their parochialism, and their self-sufficiency, though there are some indicators that these things are beginning to change. For almost three decades the Convention has been embroiled in controversy regarding theological issues and denominational polity. We now find ourselves asking important questions about the future and identity of the SBC” (p. 13).

With this introduction in mind, the rest of the book seeks to explain and propose how Southern Baptist might rediscover their identity and forge ahead into the future.

Summary and Interaction

The book has two larger perspectival sections: Theological and Historical Perspectives and Ministry and Convention Perspectives. I will provide a brief overview of each section below.

Theological and Historical Perspectives: Chs 1 – 7

Albert Mohler (ch. 1) begins the theological and historical section by asking the question, “Is there a future?” This is a good question. It seems that many Southern Baptists have simply assumed the answer is, “Yes, of course there is a future for the SBC!” This assumption would be foolish, however, given the changing culture around us and the declining numbers (statistically speaking) among us.

Mohler points to the historic roots of Southern Baptist identity in three theological principles with practical implications. First, one essential mark of Baptist churches has been the understanding that only genuine Christians should be embraced members of a local church (regenerate membership). Second, believer’s baptism has marked the affirmation of a Christian profession of faith and one’s entry into the visible membership of the local church. Third, covenanted church members of a local church are responsible for ordering the mission and function of the church according to Scripture.

Mohler, like all the authors in this first section, celebrated the “Conservative Resurgence” among the SBC and the positive results that have come from it. One should certainly read this book and others on the matter (Wills provides an excellent overview of the history and context of the Conservative Resurgence in chapter 3), but the Conservative Resurgence was essentially a massive shift in the SBC (1979-2000) away from liberal and moderate theological positions toward conservative ones.

Obviously, the history may be perceived through differing lenses, but there is no doubt that what Mohler says here is true. “Southern Baptists are now exceptional in the broader theological world” (p. 29). Marriage, abortion, and gender identity are all issues upon which Southern Baptists generally stand against the rest of the Western world (including other Christians). But, Mohler concludes his essay by reminding us, “Baptists are always better when we are outsiders. When Baptists are forced to be nonconformists, we are forced to go back home” (p. 40).

R. Stanton Norman (ch. 2) asks another crucial question in the discussion, “What makes a Baptist a Baptist?” Surveying the vast landscape of Baptist writings, Norman isolates what he calls “constituent elements of Baptist distinctives.” These are the essential or fundamental legs upholding the proverbial stool of Baptist identity.

First, the sufficiency and authority of Scripture is the starting block for any discussion of Baptist distinctives. While other Christian denominations also affirm the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura, Norman says, “Baptists distance themselves from other denominations… by claiming a complete dependence upon Scripture as the principal foundation for their beliefs and practices” (p. 44).

Second, Baptists are intentionally polemical. This is not to say that Baptists must be cantankerous (though some have earned the moniker deservedly), but it is to say that Baptists consistently “highlight the supremacy and uniqueness of the Baptist position in contrast to the theological deficiencies of other positions” (p. 46).

Third, Baptists are very interested in the way church is done. Ecclesiology (especially regenerate membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational polity) is essential to the identity of Baptists. Fourth, Baptists are blatantly volitional. From the necessity of an individual commitment to follow Christ to the liberty of all people to freely believe and practice religion without coercion, Baptists place personal responsibility on the individual.

Norman concludes his essay by naming two major challenges for Baptists today. One, Baptists must be “faithful to the heritage that is uniquely Baptist;” and two, Baptists must take on the “task of articulating our distinctive identity to our contemporary culture” (p. 62).

Russell Moore (ch. 5) highlights a 19th-century Baptist figure to draw out some lessons we might learn from those who have gone before us. Moore says,

“T.T. Eaton is not a hero; nor is he a villain. He was a hell-deserving sinner who often gave the world empirical proof of his theology of total depravity. He was also, however, a man of the church – who… ‘stood athwart history, yelling, Stop! with a Bible in his hands’” (p. 106).

Some of Eaton’s concerns are Moore’s concerns today. Moore claims that we have generally lost the faithful witness of past Baptists in the areas of (1) regenerate membership and believer’s baptism, (2) celebrating the Lord’s Supper, (3) practicing church discipline (led by pastors, and practiced by faithful congregations), and (4) the centrality of the local church (rather than parachurch ministries). With piercing words, Moore says,

“The decline of Baptist identity is not the fault of Joyce Meyer or Joel Osteen, Wheaton or Colorado Springs. It is the fault of local congregations who refuse to teach and mentor. If more churches taught Titus 2 women’s discipleship, there would be less need for Beth Moore DVDs. If more churches taught men to keep their promises, there would be less need to rent stadiums. If more pastors preached the Bible with passion and insight, if more churches actually crusaded for Christ on the campuses in their community, there would be less need for Campus Crusade for Christ” (p. 111).

Moore advocates for a return to essential Baptist principles. His candid and biting transparency may be offensive to some, but his voice merely echoes the thoughts and words of many younger Southern Baptists – at least many of those who have not yet given up on the SBC.

Paige Patterson (ch. 6) traces these same themes of Baptist identity from those common among the dissenting Anabaptists. While there in no direct line of heritage, there are many similar identifying marks. James Leo Garrett Jr. (ch. 7) looks back even further to the earliest councils, creeds, and church fathers for the themes and marks which Baptists hold dear today. Only the Landmark Baptists would see a need for a unique Baptist line all the way back to the 1st century, but Garrett shows us that Baptists may indeed claim a long Christian legacy.

Baptists have been around a long time, and we share the Christian heritage of those who came before the time when anyone was claiming to be a ‘Baptist.’ The essential and common practices of those who came before us did not arise from societal pressures or mere preference. These practices were built on theological foundations, and Baptists today must rediscover and recommit themselves to the essential doctrines that have made Baptists what they are. It should go without saying, but Baptists of today (and tomorrow) should not think, speak, and act out of step with the Baptists of yesterday.

 

Ministry and Convention Perspectives: Chs 8 – 14

This second section deals more pointedly with the current activities and structures of the SBC, including the national and state conventions, the various SBC entities, local associations, and local churches. The first section was focused on “Who we are,” though there were significant implications for activity, and the second section focuses on “What we do and how we do it.” Both sections contain a strong call for reform, but this second one will likely be perceived as the greater assault on the status quo.

Morris Chapman (ch. 8) lays out some axioms of cooperation among Southern Baptists. He provides six in all – a theological, a societal, an ethical, an ecclesiastical, an attitudinal, and a political – but first Chapman sets the stage and lists some problems. Tracing the formation and methods of associations in the past, Chapman ably demonstrates that cooperation is a precarious thing.

So many things lead to the decay of cooperation, and he lists three worldviews that we may recognize among Southern Baptists today. One is “perfunctory performance” (p. 162). Chapman says, “Hundreds of our contemporary churches have fallen into this pattern. They value their human traditions over the movement of God” (p. 162). The second is “pragmatism” (p. 163). This is a methodology based on a single question: “Does it work?” Chapman identifies the third problematic worldview by calling it “politics” (p. 163). This is the worldview that confuses Southern Baptist (even Christian) identity with partisan political affiliation.

Chapman offers six axioms as solutions. One, the theological axiom of Confession. Chapman argues that we must, as Southern Baptists, cooperate with one another based on a common confession of faith. He says, “If we must choose between heresy and schism, we always, always, chose schism” (p.166). Two, the societal axiom of Courage. Chapman says, “God honors the man who has not only convictions but also the courage of his convictions” (p. 168). Three, the ethical axiom of Character. Chapman says, “Consistent character is a necessary component of the Christian life. No admonition is more useful to those of us who highly value sound doctrine than the phrase ‘practice what you preach’” (p. 168).

Four, the ecclesiastical axiom of Collaboration. Chapman says, “We can do more together than separately. We, as Great Commission Christians, elevate cooperation of Christians as a core value” (p. 169). Five, the attitudinal axiom of Charity. Chapman says, “Cooperating conservatives believe it is entirely possible, in fact necessary, to maintain an irenic (peaceful and reconciling) spirit without bending one iota on basic doctrine” (p. 170).

Six, the political axiom of Co-belligerency. Chapman says, “Cooperating conservatives cooperate where it is possible… we can join together with folks whose theology we do not share in order to accomplish good works, as long as we do not compromise our theology. Simply working with them is not a compromise itself” (p. 170). These axioms form basic principles for moving ahead. As Chapman also acknowledges, the SBC is certainly in need of some intentional work.

Ed Stetzer (ch. 9) and Thom Rainer (ch. 11) both advocate for much the same thing, but regarding different aspects of Southern Baptist life. Both of these men hope for and invite others to act on a spirit of fundamental solidarity and gracious liberty. Solidarity among Southern Baptists should be found on the goal (missional living – evangelism), and liberty should be enjoyed and granted as to the precise methods we use to achieve it.

Stetzer, the quintessential SBC missiologist, urges all Southern Baptists to understand their role in this world as missional. Stetzer says, “’Missional’ is used in most Southern Baptist contexts to describe the attitude of obedience to sharing the Gospel around the world that all believers should possess” (p. 175). He goes on to say, “’missional’ does not refer to an activity or a program, but rather to the very nature of true, God-honoring, biblical, missions-focused, contextualized church” (p. 181).

Stetzer sobers his reader by saying,

“Day after day, as the culture around us becomes more unfamiliar and even hostile toward Christianity, many Southern Baptist churches separate themselves further from the culture they are called to reach, with a self-affirming and predictable comfortable denominational subculture contributing to this widening distance. This chasm of cultural understanding makes it increasingly difficult for our ‘church culture’ to relate to ‘prevailing culture’” (p. 185).

Stetzer argues that churches must intentionally resist becoming communal silos, but instead plan and train themselves to be missional. Missional churches, Stetzer says, must “(1) contend for the faith, (2) contextualize their ministries, and (3) cooperate with other churches for the kingdom of God” (p. 190). As churches seek to be missional, he says, “our task is not to listen to those who love church culture more than they love Christ’s commands” (p. 197).

Jim Shaddix (ch. 10) does a masterful job of conveying the predicament and the possibilities of the ‘traditional’ church. I believe any attempt I make to summarize his chapter would diminish the very potent work he has produced there. I urge the reader to read Shaddix’s essay in full.

As mentioned above, Stetzer and Rainer have much the same goals in mind, but Thom Rainer (ch. 11) focuses especially on evangelism and church growth. His statistics are heartbreaking, citing the number of baptisms as having decreased in 2005 when compared with 1950. While baptisms are not the only measurement by which we gauge our success as a church, as Rainer acknowledges, there is certainly cause for concern when we are seeing less conversions among a growing population. Rainer says that the lacking evangelistic zeal and activity among Southern Baptists might be due to a few things, but he boils it down to a matter of personal responsibility. Rainer says, “when evangelism is not my responsibility, it does not happen” (p. 220). This is certainly worth our time and consideration, and Southern Baptists must change course on the matter of personal evangelism.

Michael Day (ch. 12) gets down to the nitty-gritty of Southern Baptist structure in his essay on the nature and future of associations and conventions. This content will likely only be of interest to those who are in leadership in the SBC (including pastors of local churches), but I strongly encourage the laity to at least engage with these matters on an elementary level.

Day first points to the foundation of associations before there was a Southern Baptist Convention. It is informative, to say the least, to know how the structure we have today developed, and this will certainly help us to make a wise assessment about how we bring about positive change for the future. Day explains that associations were originally formed around common faith and practices, and they understood themselves to be responsible for defending their unity in such matters. In the early 1900s, however, there was a redefinition of associations, when state conventions and other cooperative entities were formed. Quoting Glynn Ford, Day wrote about the shift among associations. He wrote,

“The changes involved shifting from a doctrinally based fellowship of churches to an implementing agency of the denomination; shifting from a guardian of the fellowship to a denominational promoter; and shifting the initiative for mission from the churches to the state convention and national convention” (p. 227).

Day helpfully summarizes the history as follows:

We were birthed by biblical Baptists who embraced biblical models of the church and the mission of God in the world;

We were nurtured by believing Baptists who were certain the mission of God in the world was too large for a single body and demanded cooperation among the many;

We were shaped by bureaucratic Baptists who have worked long and hard to guide and administer what have become large and often bulky organizations;

We have been defined by battling Baptists who have fought most often for the right things, occasionally for the wrong things, but always toward producing the refinement and redefinition necessary in cooperative bodies; and,

We are questioned by befuddled Baptists who are confused and concerned about the future of our cooperative efforts. As Frank Page (past president of the Southern Baptist Convention) said at a chapel address at Union University, “There is a lot of what we have been practicing for a long time that needs to be questioned” (p. 230).

Day candidly admits that a new operational model for state conventions and local associations is still emerging and not yet fully developed. The new paradigm, Day says, is developing as church-driven, priority-based, resource-focused, institutionally free, strategically managed, geographically unfettered, and Kingdom-conscious. Day also makes clear the fact that local churches and pastors are the driving force and strategists behind the development and implementation of the new paradigm. This is certainly an interesting chapter that deserves close reading and much discussion.

Richard Land (ch. 13) articulates what many Southern Baptists seem to know, but do not want to concede. We are no longer living as cultural drivers, and we are often not even welcome in the vehicle. Southern Baptists must learn to engage the American (and Western) culture as it is, rather than simply lament what it has become. Indeed, our ability to do this will have a huge impact on our very existence in the future.

Nathan Finn (ch.14) helpfully lays out three priorities for Southern Baptists as we move into the future from here. He also lists some specifics under each. First, we must renew our Baptist Identity. This includes an uncompromising view of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, a renewal of our unity with Baptists and non-Baptists alike regarding the Gospel, and a renewal of our distinctive Baptist commitment to regenerate church membership (which has an implied commitment to believer’s baptism).

Second, we must renew our commitment to the Great Commission. This includes recovering a “robust understanding of the Gospel.” Finn says, “In too many of our churches, the Gospel is being downplayed, confused, dumbed-down, or redefined” (p. 265). With a renewed understanding of the Gospel message, Finn writes, “Southern Baptists must believe that the Lord is a missional God and that His church is a missional people” (p. 268). This, of course, will motivate us to be personally evangelistic and engaged in church planting efforts as well.

Third, we must renew our commitment to Confessional Cooperation. As of today, there is no confessional statement of any kind to which a church must adhere to be a Southern Baptist church. Cooperative Program giving is the only requirement.[1] Finn leans on suggestions from other Southern Baptists (David Dockery and Jim Richards) and proposes a way forward. He writes,

“I would propose that post-resurgence Southern Baptists adopt a brief abstract of the Baptist Faith and Message that affirms a high view of Scripture, an orthodox statement of the Trinity and Christology, an evangelical understanding of salvation, and a basic Baptist understanding of ecclesiology. This would form an adequate confessional basis for churches cooperating with the SBC” (pp. 274-275).

I believe that this proposal is a wonderful idea, but it will be interesting to see how other Southern Baptists perceive this same proposal.

These three priorities do indeed provide thought-provoking substance for a discussion about how the SBC meets the future as a post-Conservative Resurgence denomination. Only time will tell where we will go from here.

Conclusion

Danny Akin (Concluding chapter), desiring to send us off with marching orders, lists ten mandates for Southern Baptists in the 21st century. These are as follows:

1) Regenerate Church Membership. Southern Baptists must understand church membership is a privilege (not a right), guard against easy ‘believism,’ and cautiously baptize professing believers.

2) Believer’s Baptism. Southern Baptists must desire evidence of regeneration before one is baptized, cautiously baptize younger children, emphasize baptism as obedience to Christ, refuse admission into church membership without believer’s baptism, and uphold baptism as the public profession of one’s faith (not merely walking an aisle or saying a prayer).

3) Church Discipline and Disciple-Making. Southern Baptists must know and teach what the Bible says about church discipline, lovingly and wisely implement church discipline, and apply discipline to areas like absentee membership as well as the specific list provided in 1 Corinthians 5.

4) Genuine Word-Based Ministry. Southern Baptists must preach and teach the content of the Bible (not psychology, felt-needs, self-help, or any other popular content).

5) Faithful and Biblical Ecclesiology. Southern Baptists must guard the membership of the local church, expect the marks of (1) the Word, (2) ordinances, and (3) church discipline to be visible and practiced, and apply the biblical model of elder/pastor led and congregationally governed local church bodies.

6) Missions and Evangelism with Healthy Theology. Southern Baptists must live missionally in their own contexts, give charitably to missions abroad, and ground all missions and evangelism in a healthy theology that will guard against compromising truth for the sake of partnership or methods.

7) Church Planting. Southern Baptists must focus prayer, planning, money, and resources on densely populated areas to apply the 1st century Christian model of church planting.

8) Biblical Marriage. Southern Baptists must understand the divine covenant of marriage, affirm the value and necessity of premarital counseling and mentoring, acknowledge the gift of singleness that God gives to some, and affirm the gift of children as a ‘heritage from the Lord’ (Ps. 127:3).

9) Seminaries and Churches. Southern Baptists must view seminaries as servants of the churches, hold seminaries to a serious confession of the faith, and seek to form partnerships between seminaries and churches for a more well-rounded educational experience.

10) Remembering as we move Forward. Southern Baptists must remember who we have been, understand who we are now, and fervently seek to live authentically as Southern Baptists in the future.

 

My Commendation

This book, more than any other I have read thus far, has renewed my own hope for the future of the SBC. Whether all Southern Baptists agree with the proposals and conclusions found within, I am encouraged by the fact that such things are being discussed among those with platforms as influential as these authors.

I commend this book to any Christian who wants to know what it looks like to thoughtfully consider your place in the world and the right way forward.

I especially commend this book to Southern Baptists. I look forward to the conversations that must take place over these topics, and I pray that God will help us to be faithful on those matters that are essential to our survival as a people of the Book.

God does not need Southern Baptists to accomplish His work of redeeming a people for His glory, but I am glad He has used Southern Baptists in the past, and I long for Him to revive us as useful tools again.

 

Bibliography:

Dockery, David S., R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Gregory A. Wills, Timothy George, Russell Moore, Daniel L. Akin, Nathan A. Finn, R. Stanton Norman, Paige Patterson, James Leo Garrett, Jr., Morris H. Chapman, Ed Stetzer, Jim Shaddix, Thom Rainer, Michael Day, and Richard Land. Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.

Get it HERE at Amazon

Footnotes:

[1] Recent cultural controversies have caused the open acceptance of homosexuality to disqualify a church’s participation in the SBC, but this is much more indicative of our remaining conservative values and not necessarily our strong theological convictions. There is simply no clear theological standard by which the SBC admits or dismisses churches. We may claim the Bible all day long, but so did Marcion, Arius, Joseph Smith, and nearly every other heretic.

What is an Arminian?

Arminians and Calvinists have coexisted in the Southern Baptist Convention from its inception in 1845. While individuals from both camps have not always played nicely with each other, the general cooperation among the majority has been arguably quite productive over seventeen decades. I celebrate such cooperation, and I acknowledge that secondary matters (those doctrines that are not primary or essential to the Gospel) do not have to divide us.

In an earlier post, I argued for patience and kindness among Southern Baptists who might disagree on some secondary matters of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). In addition, I also suggested that deeper investigation would be helpful for anyone seeking to participate in the ongoing conversation. In an effort to spur on such investigation, I offer this brief introduction to the Arminian position.

Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian during the later period of the Protestant Reformation. Arminius and his followers opposed Calvinistic theology. His followers (the Remonstrance) organized their opposition to John Calvin’s system around five particular disputed points, which became the five-pointed dividing line between Arminianism and Calvinism. Interestingly, the “five points of Calvinism” were not a bulleted theological structure until the Remonstrance made them the focus of their opposition (more on this in an article to come).

The Remonstrance presented the Arminian case at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), and codified the theological position. The Five Articles of the Remonstrance are:

1) Conditional Predestination: God predestines some sinners for salvation, and this predestination is conditionally based on God’s foreknowledge about each person’s anticipated faith or unbelief.

2) Universal Atonement: Christ died for all humans, and God intended His sacrifice for all humans, but only those sinners who accept this atoning work will be saved.

3) Saving Faith: Sinful and Fallen humanity is unable to attain saving faith, unless he is regenerated and renewed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

4) Resistible Grace: The grace of God is effective, but it is resistible, so man must cooperate with God’s grace to bring about personal salvation.

5) Uncertainty of Perseverance: Although God’s grace is abundant, the sinner can lose that grace and become lost even after he has been saved.

Arminianism has enjoyed both a minority and majority position among Southern Baptists over the years. It is also important to note that some Arminians may not affirm all five of these articles, or they may not affirm each of them with the same fervor. In recent history, the Arminian system (or some variation of it) has been the most commonly held view in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Arminian view is widely embraced among Methodists, Nazarenes, and Wesleyans today. C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tower, and Adrian Rogers are three notable men who affirmed (at least generally) an Arminian position. There are others, but these are significant voices, and each represents a distinct platform among culture and Christianity.

This brief article is only intended as a very simple introduction to this theological system. I suggest much further investigation for the interested Christian, and there are numerous books and articles that might be a help. In my estimation, Wayne Grudem’s book, Systematic Theology, does a good job of explaining the various views of biblical salvation. This would be a great starting point for further study.

Whether you embrace this view or not, it is vital that all believers look to the Bible as the ultimate authority. It is also important that we humbly and graciously investigate the Bible alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.

May God correct, shape, and encourage us all as we dive more deeply into His Word.

Southern Baptists, Arminians, and Calvinists

Within Southern Baptist churches there exists a variety of people who claim to be Arminians or Calvinists. In my experience, many of these individuals do not actually affirm many of the propositions that are included in the historic theological systems represented by those names. Instead, the shorthand references seem to have been drained of some substantial theological cargo. More often than not, “Calvinist” and “Arminian” now simply float as hollow battleships representing differing views on the doctrine of salvation. This is unfortunate and less than helpful.

The rise in number and influence of those who might call themselves Calvinist has also caused no small amount of concern for many Southern Baptists. The reasons for all of this heartburn may be many, but I think that one major contributing factor is unfamiliarity. Anytime something is unfamiliar, it tends to make us uneasy – at least a little.

Ask the average Southern Baptist what he or she knows about Arminianism or Calvinism, and you are likely to get a puzzled look followed by a confused reply. Moreover, if some Southern Baptists do seem to know something about either or both of these camps, they will often have only a truncated or twisted perspective. If the Southern Baptists of today were as disinterested in theological investigation as the Southern Baptists of the 1950s-1990s (activity was their greater focus), then this misunderstanding would not be as much of a problem. However, there has been a dramatic rearrangement of the American cultural landscape, and the congregations who live and work on this new terrain have changed as well.

Since the Southern Baptist Convention was first formed in 1845, there have been both Calvinists and Arminians in the family. Particular Baptists (Calvinistic) and General Baptists (Arminian) both joined in cooperated efforts to proclaim the Gospel far and wide. Because of this diversity in the SBC, there have also been various times in which each theological camp has enjoyed the more prominent role in the convention. Of course, there have been vigorous debates and even family fights, but Southern Baptists have never shied away from a healthy debate or fight. The point is that the disagreeing sides of this particular theological debate have cooperated significantly in the past. I believe that we would be childish and foolish to think that this kind of cooperation cannot continue.

In order to work towards clarity and civility in the current situation, it will be helpful for everyone to investigate, think, and then speak (with patience and humility). By God’s grace, Southern Baptists (Arminians and Calvinists alike) can continue to unite under the banner of the Gospel, and we may continue to defend those Biblical distinctives that have made us Baptists.