Friday, February 15, 2013

What Might We Call a Baptist College that Undermines Baptist Principles?

Recent decisions and discussions raised some questions in my mind related to Baptist colleges and Baptist polity. Let's start here:

How might we expect a Baptist Bible College to relate to Baptist churches in its sphere of relationships? By that I mean, if a Baptist college professes allegiance to Baptist principles, the autonomy of local churches among them, what are some rudimentary ways that college might demonstrate deference to autonomous churches?

From my familiarity with Baptist college admission procedures, I understand that they inquire about the prospective student's church membership, typically requiring a letter of recommendation from the church's pastor. Obviously, Baptist colleges admit scores of students each year whom they don't know, contingent largely on their trust in the prospective students' pastors.

I'd like to suggest that when a college admits one of those students, that student remains under the pastoral oversight of his home church as long as he maintains his membership there. I'm not sure why a college would object. The school trusted the church's leadership enough to admit the student. Why should it not trust the church enough to care for and counsel the student so long as his membership commitment to the church remains? For that matter, which is more fundamental—dare I say, more Baptist—the student's commitment to his church, or his commitment to his college?

Here's where the rubber meets the road: Baptist colleges regularly screen local churches and pass judgment on which churches their students may attend. This screening process may even delve into such "vital issues" of Baptist identity as pretribulational rapture, Sunday school, and midweek prayer meeting. (One wonders where the slippery slope might take a church that uses its Sunday evening service as a prayer meeting instead.) And yes, these are verbatim examples (right down to the designation "vital issues") from a real local church partnering agreement from two school years ago. I'm unaware whether these vital convictions have been maintained to the present.

This sort of school reserves the right to override the counsel of their students' pastors (and parents) and may even threaten dismissal if a student follows his pastor's counsel in opposition to the school's administration. And this is where the recent controversy related to an Iowa school and church isn't precisely equivalent. So even though I've disagreed with Faith's decision, I understand the piece of the decision that applies to college staff to be a bit different from what applies to college students who maintain membership in their home church. Their case is a bit more complex.

I find this latter policy to be utterly indefensible and contradictory to the very distinctives of Baptist polity that such an institution proclaim (market?) that it believes. Ironic, no? And yet I wonder if it might not be characteristic of some streams in the Baptist world, which happily abandon principles in exchange for control, under the guise of maintaining principles.

So I guess my question is, what might we call a school that functions this way? Maybe, "Barely Baptist College"?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Killing "The Gospel Isn't for Christians" with Simple Exegesis

Every now and then a really bad idea sends roots down into influential people's minds and gets propagated by their ministry platforms. Every now and then a really good book doesn't get the promotional buzz that it deserves (and that poorer books often do). And every now and then one of those under-recognized books deftly drives a stake into the heart of one of those really bad ideas. I'd like to tell you about one of them: Milton Vincent's A Gospel Primer for Christians.

I've never read a book like this before. Vincent writes with clarity and brevity that seldom appear in tandem. Page after page is sprinkled with gospel nuggets that made my heart brim with joy. Vincent unpacks what we might think of as exhausted gospel truth and shows how believers can apply the gospel to ourselves—and why we must. As much as I appreciated Mahaney's Living the Cross-Centered Life, this is better.

Now here's that stake I was talking about:
The New Testament teaches that Christians ought to hear the gospel as much as non-Christians do. In fact, in the first chapter of Romans the Apostle Paul tells the believers in the church that he was anxious "to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome." [Romans 1:15] Of course, he was anxious to preach the gospel to the non-Christians at Rome, yet he specifically states that he was eager to preach it to the believers as well. 
To the Corinthian Christians who had already believed and been saved by the gospel, Paul says, "I make known to you the gospel, which you have believed...." He then restates the historical facts of the gospel before showing them how those gospel facts apply to their beliefs about the afterlife. This is actually Paul's approach to various other issues throughout the book of 1 Corinthians. 
In most of Paul's letters to churches, sizeable portions of them are given over to rehearsing gospel truths. For example, Ephesians 1-3 is all gospel, Colossians 1-2 is all gospel, and Romans 1-11 is all gospel. The remainder of such books shows how to bring those gospel truths to bear on life. Re-preaching the gospel and then showing how it applied to life was Paul's choice method for ministering to believers, thereby providing a divinely inspired pattern for me to follow when ministering to myself and to other believers. [p.13]

Monday, February 04, 2013

What's In a Name? On Baptist Identity and Mission

A wise man once wrote, "It seems to me that what they separate over tells you what’s really important to them."

This recent episode involving the GARBC, Faith Baptist Bible College & Seminary, and Saylorville Church has offered us another enlightening scenario to test that hypothesis and examine the values of various groups and individuals. It's been a complex scenario, perhaps with more ways to handle it poorly than wisely.

Several matters related to Baptist identity and polity are quite reasonably in play—local church autonomy, connectionalism, soul liberty, and the role of the parachurch ministry. And of course, church names.

As it happens, I'm a pastor in what must be one of a very few churches in the nation that reinserted "Baptist" into its name after having removed it. Though I wasn't a party to that decision, I believe it was a good one. But I also believe that the mission of a local church is not primarily to maintain "Baptist Identity." I'd argue that the church's mission is far more closely related to proclaiming the Word in such a way that the gospel's power transforms pagans into disciples. The biblical principles that shape "Baptist Identity" are related to the mission—perhaps even advance the mission—but maintaining that identity is not the zenith of the mission. At most, it's a servant to the mission.

Now, I don't have a dog in the fight as to whether it is fruitful for the cause of Christ for FBBC&S students and faculty members to be members of Saylorville Church. There may well be reasons why it is not. I also don't know whether Saylorville's name change will help or hinder its fulfillment of its mission. I strongly suspect that this sort of decision will vary according to individual church context. Saylorville Church may make a bad decision on that point (or many others), but I'm not sure who or what institution is in a better position to make that decision than the church itself. My understanding of Baptist distinctives had led me to believe that Baptists would universally affirm that notion. Perhaps I was misinformed.

I was struck by this sentence in Faith's official statement [PDF]:
"We stand with our gospel-loving Baptist forebears of past centuries who loved all the brethren yet celebrated their unique Baptist identity."
As I reflected on our forbears who embodied that description, one of the first who leapt into my mind was Charles Spurgeon. No big surprise, right? Gospel-loving? Who was more so? Loved all the brethren? Not all professing brethren, but all who held fast to the Word! Celebrated unique Baptist identity? Well, there's a reason that such diverse strains of contemporary Baptists claim him as one of their number. And yet he pastored . . . "The Metropolitan Tabernacle."

Now, isn't it rather typical of fundamentalism to attach more weight to an individual or institution's public identification, rather than the substance of its identity and theology? It's been argued that Faith's decision is "reflective of who they are." I suspect that's true. But "who we are" is at least in part a reflection of "what's most important to us." And I'd suggest that's part of our problem.