Thursday, December 19, 2013

The SBC and Cedarville's Return from the Brink

How ironic would it be if SBC influence turned back Cedarville University from the sharp leftward drift that began and progressed when it was tied to the GARBC? Read <a href="">this story</a> for details on some of the early tremors in the turnaround that's only beginning.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Imagine There's a Heaven...

A few days ago a thesis congealed in my simmering pot of mental stew. Maybe it was the serendipity of listening to a performance of a Christian musical group from the Caribbean at the same time I was reading D.A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited. I'm just naïve enough to imagine that this thesis might be widely affirmed—perhaps even reach consensus—but my latent inner realist reminds me that I'll be dispossessed of that notion in the comments section. Here's my thesis:
The cultural expressions that emerge from any given culture will invariably reflect the strengths and weaknesses of that culture. In other words, every culture will reflect an image of God that consists of a unique combination of fidelities and distortions.
The panel discussion embedded below, recorded by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches at its recent Worship of God conference, has opened a conversation about matters related to that thesis. I'm grateful for that conversation, but I'm unconvinced that the present direction of the conversation will be productive.

In my judgment, most of the comments in the panel were ignorant, irrelevant, indefensible, or unsubstantiated. Those arguments that were true and helpful are so tainted by their immersion in and apparent indifference to folly that they've been rather easily dismissed. Again, I haven't read everything, but I've seen enough blog responses, tweets, and reader comments on the blog of one of the participants to see one particular theme emerge: Our cultural differences are inevitable, and that's okay. Except I don't think it is.

In other words, many responses say that as long as God can use a form to advance Christian mission, our cultural preferences are matters of indifference. After all, they're just preferences. One theologian both affirmed and denied that cultural forms are neutral. In the same paragraph. One group says, "Rap is bad because I said so." Another says, "Form doesn't matter. It's all good."

I'm arguing that those approaches—reductionism, shame, misrepresentation, slogans—those approaches are way too easy. I'd like to think we could choose the more demanding, narrow path. That would require us—assuming we could embrace my thesis or something better—to shine a bright light of scrutiny on all our cultural expressions. Dissect Johann Sebastian Bach, Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Mac Lynch, Chris Tomlin, Keith Getty, Scott Aniol, and Shai Linne. Every one of them. Not to mention all the men and women across the centuries and around the globe who likewise deserve to be mentioned.

Each of those individuals produced(es) works of art intended for Christian worship, and each of those works of art emerged from a complex and unique cultural milieu. What's more, each individual artist produced works of varying quality in different phases of their own artistic and spiritual maturity.

So what if old, godly, theologically astute white men from Grand Rapids sat down with young, godly, theologically astute black men from Philadelphia? (And yes, the black men are godly. Godly enough not to impugn the character, courage, and motives of people just because they disagree on musical form.) What if everybody at the table agreed that every culture represented at that table (along with all the rest) both reflects and distorts the image of God? That every culture is better suited to communicate certain aspects of Divine truth than it is others? And that no human culture produces optimal cultural expressions, because no human being or human culture is yet fully conformed to the image of Christ?

What if those old white guys and young black guys really tried to listen to and understand one another, and then—instead of simply singing an ecumenical "kum ba yah"—they helped each other understand the aspects of the other group's culture that are incompatible with Divine truth? (I have in mind more or less how Thabiti Anyabwile and Doug Wilson interacted extensively on slavery, race, and history.) And what if the forms that different cultures find accessible and meaningful were refined as a result, increasingly capable of reflecting the image of Christ? I actually think it'd be a good thing for us white people to hear from some non-whites how our idealized cultural forms might actually undermine aspects of the gospel in ways we'd never have perceived.

My guess is that one of these two groups would welcome a conversation with that purpose and tone. I'm not so sure the other would see any such need, let alone display genuine desire to listen and learn. I'd love to discover that my cynicism is unfounded—merely an illusion created by my culture, or perhaps my own sinful heart.

Will we praise Jesus' name in heaven in a variety of styles reflecting diversity of human culture? Or will the consummation of Christ being formed in us mean that we find a musical center that is accessible and meaningful to all his Church, and worthy of his Name? I don't profess to know. Despite what some say, I'm not persuaded that Revelation 21 is decisive. But I'd like to think we could learn to speak to our brothers and sisters with respect and affection, this side of heaven, even if we aren't yet sanctified enough to sing together.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Very Special Black Friday Offer

If I can buy this spatula that will "pop open a bottle of beer" while I flip my burgers, why can't I buy Randy Jaeggli's The Christian and Drinking? I feel like we need a panel discussion to address this burning question.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Just Lookin' Out for Ya

If you're a leader in a very conservative, separatistic slice of American evangelicalism, and you spin a narrative of Al Mohler, Southern Seminary, and the Southern Baptist Convention that omits or distorts the content of this reflective essay, these talks (part 1 part 2), this article, or this documentary (video embedded below), then you really need to know that you're simply destroying your own credibility. You know what they say about half truths, right?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Stranger Fire

For more comprehensive reflections on John MacArthur's "Strange Fire" conference and book, I would direct you to Doug Wilson and Tom Schreiner. I'd just like to hammer home one particular point.

Some of you are members of cessationist churches. Some of you are cessationist pastors. I'll wager that most of you have used or heard used in your churches or camps or Christian colleges the language of "God told/spoke to/led me."(As in, "I was going to preach X sermon, but a few minutes ago God told me I needed to preach Y instead.")

So if you call yourself a cessationist and you've used that language or you welcome into your church those who use it, just know that you're affirming an even stranger fire than what's found in charismatic circles. Charismatics believe God continues to offer new revelation. You deny that he does, but you practice it anyway. I think that's pretty creepy.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Is It Time to Join the SBC?": A Rather Friendly Rejoinder (Part 2)

See part 1 for background to this post. What you read below interacts with this article.

1. Research into the history of the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) provoked Bauder's piece, at least in part. I very much look forward to reading whatever publications emerge from that research. One of the most interesting tidbits he shares is his observation that "Initially, the convention operated purely as a coordinating body, but with the creation of the General Board of Promotion in 1919, it became a controlling body," "engineered by theological liberals" . . . "an opportunity to seize the whole denominational machinery, including the churches."

Just six years later, the SBC Cooperative Program (CP) launched. Now, as to whether the SBC CP was likewise engineered by liberals to seize denominational machinery and churches, I must confess both some ignorance and some skepticism. Bauder seems to imply strong parallels when he says, regarding those who left the NBC and considered the SBC model, "[T]he risks inherent in the system were just too great." So while I'm not familiar enough with the dynamics in the SBC in the 1920s to comment confidently whether it was a liberal strategy, I can say that I've never encountered anyone who's attempted to make that case. I'd be interested to read it. What I can say is that if the CP actually was such a strategy, it failed miserably. Independent separatists might say that liberals succeeded for a few decades in the mid-20th century. I'd argue that they obviously didn't. Though liberals and indifferentists controlled most agencies for a time, the success of the Conservative Resurgence has clearly proven that loopholes in the system prevented denominational machinery from being seized. There's not much we Southern Baptists like more than a pitchfork rebellion, and now we know we can make one happen.

One more historical note before I move on: There were some battles over church property when churches attempted to leave the SBC. For several years, I was a member of a church that existed because people who voted to separate from the SBC lost their property in a courtroom fight. A strong majority had voted to disassociate from the SBC, but the minority sued, and some Southern Baptists testified on behalf of the minority. Unfortunately for that majority, the process of disassociation didn't conform to the governing documents of the church. I suspect the outcome might have been different had the disassociation been handled properly. Regardless, this was not a matter of convention ownership of local church property, as in recent Episcopalian/Anglican disputes, but of which faction of members held control.

All that to say this: The SBC cooperative structure may be a terrible idea for one reason or another, but I'm not at all convinced that it was a liberal idea. I'd suggest that the history of the NBC is far less relevant evidence to the issue than the history of the SBC. That, of course, remains a story in progress, but the present plot line of that story is surely not less encouraging to me than the plot line of the descendants of the separatist refugees from the NBC.

2. I appreciate Bauder's analogy between the CP and the Patriot Act: "In the hands of principled people, it can be both comforting and productive. In the hands of the unprincipled, or, worse yet, the wrongly-principled, it is bound to be devastating." Of course he's right. Unfortunately, I think that's the nature of institutional partnerships. The same could be said of an independent Baptist mission board, a Baptist Bible College, or Central Seminary. If I'm pastoring a church that's considering contributing $5,000 per year to any one of those agencies, I have to ask myself, "Am I comfortable making this investment, 1) realizing that this institution may not use the money precisely as I would, and 2) realizing this institution may change direction in the future as its board determines, but 3) expecting that the investment will bear fruit at least in the near term that justifies the investment, and 4) knowing our church can terminate the investment whenever we choose? Churches that partner with the SBC and/or Central Seminary answer that question, "Yes." We just have to be prepared and committed to walk away from our dollars that turned into bricks and mortar when and if we need to.

3. I am moderately skeptical of the SBC mantra, "We can do more together than we can do separately." Time will tell. (Interestingly enough, I heard GARBC National Representative John Greening embrace that language at their recent annual meeting.) But I do think we want to ask how—whether cooperatively or independently—we're going to get the gospel to places like Central Asia. (I'm assuming we want to.) These are Muslim countries. Highly inaccessible, unstable countries. Given the growing number of my friends and family members who serve as church planters in that part of the world and how they're getting there, I do wonder whether the mantra might prove true.

4. I'm unfamiliar with the mechanism that Bauder's classmate referred to when he told Bauder, "[The SBC] can get me a church if I need one. They have a good retirement program. And their insurance program is really great.” It is true that Guidestone offers retirement savings and insurance products, but to my knowledge the SBC does not subsidize those products. (Though I did make a note to put in a call to find out if I'm missing some windfall.) I do receive $17/month in a retirement savings match, but that's from our state convention, and I doubt that's what Bauder's friend had in mind. By the way, anything I save via Guidestone is my property, whether I eventually separate from the SBC or not. I'm also happy to report that we voted last month to permit Guidestone to expand its ministry assigment in order to provide insurance and investment products to like-minded individuals. So friends, what's ours is about to be yours.

So is it time to join the SBC? I don't know. Your call. Just count the cost.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Is It Time to Join the SBC?": A Rather Friendly Rejoinder (Part 1)

Perhaps you've seen Kevin Bauder's recent article, "Is It Time to Join the SBC?" from his In the Nick of Time series. If you don't already subscribe, I'd strongly encourage you to do so via the link on the right-hand side of the page. Even when you disagree with his conclusions, you'll benefit from his command of history, his interaction with Scripture, and his relentless logic.

I've shared some of my perspective on affiliation with the SBC not too long ago. If you're interested in that, you'll find it there, not here. Frankly, I have no desire, let alone expectation, to convince anyone who's content and fruitful within their present partnerships to affiliate with the SBC. But from time to time I do encounter people at a crossroads who perceive opportunities and threats in their future, regardless of which route they choose. In my previous post I primarily addressed heart issues in that decision. My objective now is to help that sort of person make an informed decision.

Before I do that, one of my friends commented to me online about my previous post that I was speaking at a macro level and ignored micro-level choices. In other words, the points I was making about the sort of partnership the SBC is leaves out the local decision: "Which local church is going to be more spiritually beneficial for my family and me to covenant with?" That's an important question, just not the one I was addressing.

That's enough background. In the next post we'll dive directly into the matters at hand.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Off My Meds

Last weekend I had the opportunity to listen to David Murray of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary talk about his book, Christians Get Depressed Too. I haven't read the book, and I don't intend to summarize his talks. I do want to call attention to one particular point he made:

The brain's chemistry & electricity have been damaged by the Fall, just like our other bodily organs and everything else.

Some streams in the counseling profession want to medicate just about every problem. Others insist that mental illnesses and psychological disorders are fabrications, perhaps smokescreens for spiritual problems. Now, I assume it's true that we understand less about brain chemistry, the nervous system, and psychiatric medications than we do about the relationship between upper respiratory infections and amoxicillin. Nevertheless, I think we actually do know something about the extent of the curse, and we naïvely deny the complexity of the human condition if we exclude the physical processes of the brain from its effects.

Perhaps we could say that every self-respecting Calvinist ought to acknowledge that not every problem that has spiritual implications can be resolved exclusively by spiritual means.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Dallas, 1985: "Turn Around and Go Back!"

One of the pivotal moments in the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention was the annual meeting in 1985 in Dallas, where 45,519 Southern Baptist messengers descended on the city.

This year in Houston at a "9Marks at 9" event, Danny Akin and Al Mohler discussed that annual meeting briefly, and Mohler told an extraordinary story of what happened on the interstates outside the city.

Audio available here. Context starts at 22:53.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Seven Bad Reasons to Leave the IFB World for the SBC, and One Good Reason

As another Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting is about to begin, and you're about to read news stories about our democratic process and our crazy uncles who relish it, I thought I might share a few thoughts that reverberate in my mind from time to time. I'm a Southern Baptist pastor who spent the first 33 years of my life in independent Baptist/Bible fundamental churches. The last five of that were in an SBC seminary. Had God moved differently a few years ago or at some point in the future, I'd very happily pastor in an "independent" context again. In fact, one of the harder things I ever had to do was encourage the chairman of a pulpit committee not to bring my name up because I believed he'd harm his own credibility if he did so.

All that to say, I have some appreciation for both worlds and some sense of their respective strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. As I hear of more and more in the generations younger than mine leaving IFB circles for the SBC, I wanted to reflect on some good and bad reasons to do so.

1: Better theology
Don't naïvely fall for the "grass is always greener" lie. Depending on how where you draw the lines of "independent Baptist fundamentalism," the theological diversity in the SBC at least as broad as it is in the SBC world—everything from Ed Young, Jr. to Scott Aniol, and that's just the beginning. IFBs tend to be much more compartmentalized in their relationships, so the streams of relationships in that world are usually more homogeneous. You just think the SBC is better because the people you've heard of are more sound than lots of the influential IFBs you heard preach in chapel.

2: Influence
If you're a faithful, articulate young pastor, you're actually much more likely to find a position of influence in the IFB network. For one thing, it's a smaller pond. There might even be a smaller percentage of young pastors in, say, the FBFI, than at an SBC annual meeting. And every year we decry how old we are! By the way, is it really influence you want, in the sense of "making a difference for the sake of the name of Jesus"? Or is it personal prominence? Because that's just carnal.

3: Better preaching
Again, you're just judging by what you've heard. Average SBC preachers sound a lot like average IFB preachers. I suspect that more SBC preachers get the necessity of Christ-centered preaching (because the Bible is Christ-centered), while many IFBs are suspicious if not hostile to the notion, possibly because they see it as a threat to their Dispensationalism. The SBC's Christ-centered preaching is generally a good thing, of course, but you'll also find some who do it badly. Whether that's worse than not doing it at all, well, that's a different conversation.

4: Missions funding
I think it's a bit disingenuous to convert to the SBC world just so you can qualify for IMB funding that'll help you avoid three years of deputation. If you've really investigated the system and you think it's a good idea and you'll happily contribute to it even if the IMB turns you down for funding, maybe that's a different story. (I also think the SBC is headed for a massive financial restructuring not too far out in the future. Whether that restructuring actually becomes a full-blown crisis remains to be seen.)

5: Healthier churches
Again, I think there are plenty of unhealthy churches in both camps. Go pastor one, whatever camp it's in, and help it rediscover the full message and implications of the gospel.

6: Less politics
Different politics, maybe, but not less. Both circles leverage fear of man. Maybe IFBs use it more to disincentivize undesirable decisions (i.e. crossing lines on separation), while SBCs use it to incentivize desirable behavior (i.e. sending more money). I've seen friends steamrolled and wounded in both groups.

7: Relationships
I think the landscape in the IFB world is changing enough that you can cultivate local relationships with sound SBC pastors and churches (not to mention other sorts of churches), perhaps even constructive partnerships. As long as you don't get out too far ahead of your own church and you're mortifying your fear of man, you probably won't pay the price of ostracism like you might've ten years ago.

One Good Reason
Having said all that, here's one good reason you might consider cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention: You want to partner with other believers who share gospel essentials and Baptist distinctives as much as you possibly can, for the sake of the spread of the gospel to all the nations. When all the underbrush is cleared away, I suspect this might be where IFBs and SBCs fundamentally differ. Among IFBs, you're viewed with suspicion (unless you possess the right pedigree) until you prove that you share the same theology and affiliations. In the SBC, if you're happy to cooperate by sharing financial and human resources that will be employed within the doctrinal parameters of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, SBCs will assume you're a gospel partner until you prove otherwise.

Just in case those sentences are a bit confusing, what I mean is that IFBs will scrutinize your personal beliefs and associations. SBCs will scrutinize your willingness to cooperate in gospel work that is rooted in a set of doctrinal affirmations. Most SBCs will want that work to say more than that those affirmations in one way or another, but will insist on them as a minimum. You actually don't have to affirm the BF&M2000 to be Southern Baptist, but you need to know how your money is going to be used when you start writing checks.

If that sort of partnership that sounds attractive to you, and you can hold your nose on some less foundational issues while you work for reform in whatever way you can, then maybe . . . maybe . . . you should consider friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Did the NT Authors Interpret the OT Right, and Should We Interpret It the Way They Did?

I'm not at all inclined to find a person credible who argues that the answers to those questions are simple. I'm even less inclined to find a person credible who argues that the answers to those questions are unimportant.

Greg Beale's Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation surely is one of the most helpful books on the subject. It's a survey, so it doesn't address a number of the key issues in great detail, but it does offer a robust bibliography.

Justin Taylor posted a helpful overview of the book with links to related lectures and interviews. But Beale makes a crucial point that Taylor's overview doesn't deal with explicitly: The NT authors appear to have modeled their hermeneutical approach to the OT on the hermeneutical approach later OT authors applied to earlier OT writings. In other words, Beale argues that a careful analysis of how, say, the prophets quote the Pentateuch would reveal a similar hermeneutic to what the NT authors use when they quote the prophets.

If that proposition is true, then it would have profound implications for all sorts of contemporary debates, not the least of which is the tension among Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and their alternatives. And I suspect what might prove helpful is a partner volume to Carson & Beale's Commentary on the NT Use of the OT—a Commentary on the OLD TESTAMENT Use of the OLD TESTAMENT.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Institutions and Controversies About What Happens in Chapel

Awhile back, I spent several years in institutions that professed allegiance to expository preaching and a literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic. Those were great years. I benefited immensely. But looking back, I sure do wish someone had granted me permission to walk out of chapel every time I was offended because those commitments were abandoned and preachers <i>said</i> God said something that God <i>never actually said</i>.

I do wonder what we reveal about what we love most when folks will bicker to no end over an institution's change (yes, change, I do believe!) in musical styles, though infidelity to the Word was tolerated for years.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Only a Bigot Would Discard Principles for Sentimentalism & Politics

When a Senator changes his stance on same-sex marriage because his son told him he's gay, it makes me wonder if he'd change his stance on balanced budgets if his son told him he was neck-deep in credit card debt. I realize same-sex marriage is a sensitive issue when it's intertwined with close personal relationships, but what does this sort of flip-flop say about a person whose sentimentalism trumps his principles?

But it helped me realize something: The people who ought to be most despicable on this issue aren't the people who hold fast to their convictions—rooted in foundational moral principles—even in the face of rising opposition, marginalization, and scorn. No, the real scoundrels are those who U-turn on same-sex marriage for sentimental & political reasons. They expose the ugly truth that the issue never really was a matter of serious principle to them. They were just going with the flow . . . until it became inconvenient. As it turns out, they were the real bigots all along.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Dear Gary Bauer, What's Really Uncharitable Is Dismissing People's Convictions As If They Don't Matter.

This article by Gary Bauer is dead wrong when it argues that Roman Catholics and evangelicals agree on the most essential issues. Here's the very center of where his error:
Doctrinal differences remain, of course, but the Catholic-evangelical alliance has reshaped American politics. In many cases, Catholics have provided the intellectual framework and vocabulary to discuss Christianity's vital role in our democracy, while Protestants have contributed fervor and youth. 
We do not agree on every issue. But on the essential ones -- those both faiths consider "non-negotiables" -- Catholics and evangelicals are allied. 
We both champion the idea -- the truth -- that there are reliable standards of right and wrong to which all institutions, including government, must adhere. We stand together in proclaiming that all human life has equal dignity and worth. And we stand together in defending the traditional and time-honored conception of marriage as a union of one man and one woman.
Of course he's right that objective truth and moral issues matter a great deal in the public square, and he's right to be grateful for the contribution of both groups in those issues. But he could not be more profoundly mistaken when he suggests that they're more important than doctrinal issues—unresolved disagreement (at least at the level of official RCC teaching) over the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ *alone*.

Level-headed disagreement simply isn't disrespectful or uncharitable, as Bauer argues that it is. Serious evangelicals and Roman Catholics perceive that ideas and convictions matter. I actually respect and appreciate my Roman Catholics friends who recognize that fact far more than I respect Gary Bauer. And I respect them by taking their views seriously, not by dismissing them flippantly.

Not surprisingly, Carl Trueman addresses the same issues much more helpfully.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What Sort of Fruit Do Churches Reap When They Concentrate Authority?

Every now and then I read or listen to someone who's attempting to make the case that sole pastoral leadership and/or a qualitatively unique sort of authority invested in one man are perfectly acceptable options. By that I mean, despite the consistent NT pattern of plural eldership in local churches (reinforced by apostolic command), some commentators deny that plural elder-led congregationalism is an ideal we ought to pursue deliberately. They think it's merely a viable option; I understand it to be a biblical model. I believe the exegetical case is formidable, but let's assume for the moment that it's ambiguous.

Now, does this disgraceful affair emerge from a vacuum, or is it possible that the leadership culture and hero worship so endemic to churches in this stream facilitated the pastor's [and I use that term with clenched teeth] opportunity to abuse his authority? Is it possible that the church's Pastor-centered polity enabled his exploits?

Perhaps some might respond that this is an extreme example. I'd concede that it's an extreme example of power and influence concentrated in one man in a local church context. (I'm not so sure it's an such extreme example at all of the misuse of that power and influence.) I'd also concede that plural eldership has a distinct set of pitfalls. But if we believe anything about depravity, and if we understand anything about the storyline of the Bible, will we then be more or less inclined to centralize authority in one person? And will those understandings lead us toward a stronger or weaker commitment to identify and train faithful men who be able to teach others also?

Friday, March 01, 2013

Three Ways to Preach Biblical Truth in a Way that Makes It Seem Less Attractive

  1. Use a consistently angry tone, not only at false doctrine, but also at your listeners.
  2. Make yourself the hero of most of your stories (not Jesus).
  3. Misrepresent the people that you agree with on the most important issues, but disagree with on secondary or peripheral issues.

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.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Deadly Dangers of Subtle Media Messages

In a panel discussion with Greg Beale, Carl Trueman offers a provocative analogy at the end of a longer conversation on media and materialism. The entire panel is worth a listen. The concluding minutes are particularly pastoral. This particular quote begins at the 1:21:19 mark:
Pornography and violence—it's like the guy running down your street wielding a chainsaw wearing a ski mask. You see him coming. You get into your house. You lock the door. You phone the police. Commercials, things like that—it's like sitting in your house and the chimney's blocked, and the house is slowly filling up with carbon monoxide. And by the time you realize the deadly dangers there, it's too late. You're already dead.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Two Carl Henrys?

So far as I know, I never met Carl Henry, but posthumously he had substantial impact on the last ten years of my life—not so much because of what he wrote or believed, but because of whom he influenced. I've lived those past ten years between two worlds. In one, Henry is lionized, and in the other—something more like demonized. Perceptive leaders in both worlds understand that few people shaped the present landscape of evangelicalism more than Henry.

Those who published their reflections on his influence earlier this week recognized that fact. Two of the most notable reflections were from Albert Mohler and Russell Moore, President and Dean at Southern Seminary. What struck me about these two is that both accurately captured essential elements of Henry's ideas and influence—but at the same time it seemed to me as though they could have been writing about two different men with drastically different primary concerns.

Moore focused on the young Carl Henry and one of his early books, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Moore called Uneasy Conscience his best work, in direct contrast to Henry's six-volume magnum opus, God, Revelation, and Authority. Uneasy Conscience painted a picture of a Church that preaches a gospel of the kingdom by speaking "to the whole person, to spiritual lostness, to physical sickness, to material poverty, to the need for community." Moore takes the opportunity to criticize "the ongoing efforts to divide concern for evangelism from a concern for justice, the mission of the church in caring for people’s souls from caring for their bodies." If you're keeping up with that discussion, that reference might seem thinly veiled.

Mohler writes more broadly, acknowledging the influence of Uneasy Conscience among other pivotal aspects of Henry's life and ministry. But nearly half of his essay bears down on the need for and effects of Henry's God, Revelation, and Authority, completed in Henry's 70th year. In those volumes, Henry had attempted to present "a magisterial defense of Christian truth against the challenges of liberal theology, modern secularism, and contemporary philosophy."

I've read and heard enough from Moore and Mohler to sense that these distinct aspects of Henry's theology are the very aspects that have most gripped and shaped Moore and Mohler, respectively. But Henry expressed concerns late in life about the state and trajectory of the evangelicalism that he had helped create. I wish we could ask him today for deeper reflections on a number of points, Uneasy Conscience among them. But then I stumbled across a provocative and perhaps enlightening little snippet from Henry in the "Part 4" video at this link, quoted at the bottom:
“The important thing right now is for Evangelicals to learn what the church truly is. Because if we are unsure of the nature and purpose of the church, we can get involved in all sorts of tasks trying to save the world or the culture that can miscarry us into a distortion of what Evangelical Christianity ought to be.”
That's all he said. Discussion turned to another topic. I don't know how to read that comment as anything less than a qualification of Uneasy Conscience, and perhaps something more. At the very least, it sounds like something these guys might have said.