In recent months there has been renewed discussion over what exactly constitutes a “Southern Baptist” church, and despite suggestions by some to the contrary, this issue is relevant because of its relationship to the increasing discord and waning cooperation we are experiencing within our convention.
In fact, so much of the chaos and confusion we see these days can be traced back to this very point, that it should be THE key consideration in such decisions about:
— whom we allow to share Southern Baptists’ platforms at state and national events
— which church planters receive Southern Baptists’ funding (whether from the CP or a special missions offering)
— what level of cooperation is appropriate with those who might be like-minded on social issues or even on some Gospel basis, but not actually “friendly” or a “bona fide contributor to the convention’s Kingdom work.”
I would dare say that this question is THE question that must be answered openly and honestly in order for there to be any hope of restoring strength, stability and success in our fellowship. For pastors like me and churches like the one I serve, there must first be a genuine self-identification with Southern Baptists before there can be any official recognition or support from Southern Baptists.
There are those with an agenda who are attempting to remake the Southern Baptist Convention in someone else’s image. They continue to tell us that our fellowship of churches must radically change in order to remain relevant in terms of current social and denominational trends. We are constantly counseled that Southern Baptists must hold to a very open view — one in which only a scant few essentials must be agreed upon in order to cooperate with each other AND one in which THEY tell us whether someone meets these bare qualifications.
They gloss over the actual beliefs of some of the platform personalities they raise up before us, choosing instead only to describe them in general terms such as “conservative,” “inerrantist” and “complementarian.” They do so because most Southern Baptists vehemently disagree with the particular theological positions of these “outsiders.”
Now we are learning that Southern Baptists’ collective resources are actually being used to jointly fund Acts 29 network churches – despite the fact that the Acts 29 network covenant requires participating churches/church plants to (1) exclusively embrace a “Reformed” gospel; (2) set up a plurality of elder-rule type of church governance; and (3) favor giving 10 percent of their collections to establish other “Reformed” church starts exclusively. In other words, they are organized around a particular theology, form of governance and church planting emphasis that excludes 90 percent or more of Southern Baptists, yet Acts 29 Network church planters actively seek our funds.
As I have prayerfully researched and considered the question in my context as a local church pastor — one who was raised in the home of a pastor who dedicated more than two decades to helping return our convention to its foundation of biblical inerrancy — I believe that there are three essentials (three strands of one cord that bind us together, if you will) that the majority of Southern Baptists would no doubt agree define what is a Southern Baptist church.
The first strand is a COMMON THEOLOGY. Our shared and agreed upon theology is the bedrock of our faith tradition and our fellowship.
Don’t misunderstand; I’m not simply talking about dead, lifeless, meaningless, abstract religious philosophy. However, without a shared faith in the person and purpose of Christ, and belief in the inerrancy and authority of scripture, nothing else really matters. If we can’t agree on who Jesus is, what He did, what He said, the nature of the Gospel, and how that should affect our behavior as believers then obviously there is no common ground on which we can stand. Without a shared belief in biblical theology, you do not have a church.
This same core of theology is essential for fellowship AMONG churches. Even Acts 29 has made common theology [albeit Calvinism] THE central tenet of fellowship within its network. They should expect that we would make common theology a condition for fellowship as well. Obviously, there can be small areas of debate or discussion within any body, local or otherwise. Adrian Rogers used to tell us that if two people always agreed, one of them wasn’t necessary. I understand that. As a convention with some forty-five thousand churches and multiple millions of members we are not always going to see eye to eye on every single theological issue. However, on the essential tenets of the faith, there must be agreement … and nothing is more bedrock among our beliefs than our view about the very nature of the Scripture and salvation.
The second is a COMMITTED ECCLESIOLOGY.
Don’t miss that.
We are living in an age where many see this as indeterminable and thus unimportant. However, the nature and structure of a church is vital to our being able to accomplish Christ’s will for us on earth. Scripture even gives clear instructions on how we are to relate to each other as well as how we are to conduct ourselves within these local assemblies. Each local church is so important to the whole body that the Holy Spirit inspired men to write letters to give very specific guidance as to who should lead and serve a local church and how it should conduct itself congregationally; what its ordinances are to be; even how it should cooperate with other like-minded churches in missions, ministries, and theological training.
You see, in spite of what some of our leaders are teaching, these issues are not tertiary or secondary matters, but indicate whether or not a local body of believers is following the model that the New Testament set up for us. As a matter of fact, these are such important matters that Southern Baptists constructed a specific article (Article VI. The Church) in our consensus statement of faith (Baptist Faith & Message 2000) to define what we commonly believe about each. The article emphasizes the necessity of the “democratic processes” of congregational polity; and, declares the only biblically authorized offices to be those of deacons and pastors (a unified view of the functions of pastor, elder and bishop). No amount of theological triage can alter the fact that Southern Baptists have identified this ecclesiology as an essential belief in our consensus statement of faith.
I’m sure there will be those who will counter with the point that local autonomous churches have the authority to determine their own structure and appoint such officers as they see fit. I agree with them. I would not dare deny a local church’s right to do as they feel the Scripture and the Savior lead them to do.
However, other local autonomous churches have just as much right NOT to fellowship with such churches if they believe that they have stepped outside of scriptural precedent and historic Baptist practice.
The third is a COOPERATIVE MISSIOLOGY.
From the beginning, Southern Baptists have placed great emphasis on missions — reaching the world with the hope found in the message of Christ. In fact, this emphasis is so great that it has become part of our spiritual DNA. But in the past it has always been conducted within the bounds of our theology and ecclesiology — which also are intertwined in the genetic strands that define who we are in the faith. Now we are being pushed toward what could only be interpreted as some sort of religious gene therapy to change the very nature of who God made us in our beliefs.
Some denominational leaders, conferences and even our literature are now pushing us to overlook drastic differences in theology and ecclesiology for the sake of “new church starts” (but only of a CERTAIN kind). And on top of that there are rumblings from these same agents of CHANGE to alter the very title of the SBC. Make no mistake, if the trend continues, we will see the end of the Southern Baptist Convention in both name and nature.
Missiology was a key focus of the New Testament church from the start. In the prophecy about the coming dispersion found in Acts 1:8, Christ instructed his disciples to share the message with “all nations” as they go, no longer reserving it for the Jews only but sharing the Gospel freely with everyone, taking to heart Romans 10:14-15. And church planting went hand-in-glove with missions sending efforts. Moreover, cooperation in missions was the standard among first century churches, but not at the sacrifice of biblical theology nor at the expense of scriptural ecclesiology.
Southern Baptists have followed this same scriptural pattern, regarding the local church as the heart of the Great Commission, but opting for a cooperative strategy coordinated through our domestic and foreign mission boards to most effectively reach our nation and the world. We have found we are most effective when we disregard who gets credit, doing more together than what any of us could do alone. However, we cannot allow so much centralization that the local church is co-opted from its role as the final authority in who qualifies as pastor/church planter and what qualifies as a Southern Baptist church plant. And recent developments — greater centralization of funding and decision making in the hands of a narrowing few combined with public statements to the effect that the controversial Acts 29 network and Redeemer Presbyterian Church are the “theologically vibrant, healthy models” Southern Baptists should emulate — suggest such a shift is underway.
To be sure, there are areas of moral, social and physical good in which Southern Baptists can collaborate with those who might be unlike us in any or all of the three spiritual/scriptural areas discussed above, but who share like-minded values. Right now we are collaborating with the Salvation Army, Red Cross and a number of other denominations to provide relief to the hurting from the deadly tornadoes that ripped through the South last month. Likewise, Southern Baptists with conservative Catholics, Mormons, Lutherans, Methodists, Assemblies of God and Presbyterians, among others, have been pushing for the legislation and public policies that support a culture of life and defend the biblical notion of marriage in our society. However, we have not allowed our collaboration in these areas to compromise the theology, ecclesiology and missiology that define us uniquely as Southern Baptists.
The Bible tells us that a cord of three strands is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12); suggesting anything less threatens the strength and stability of the rope. That’s why as Southern Baptists we must fight the prevailing calls to separate the strands and drop our distinctives to the lowest common denominator. We must pull together on that three stranded cord of a common theology, committed ecclesiology and cooperative missiology. The world is too dark; the days are too short to do anything less for the sake of the Gospel.