By Nathan Akin
Southern Baptists were given a great gift in the Conservative Resurgence (CR) as we reaffirmed our commitment to Sola Scriptura. We were taught in the Resurgence an absolute commitment to the inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency of the Scriptures. We are indebted to men like Patterson, Pressler, Criswell, Rogers, Vines, and many more for this work. This work is a grace gift to us younger SBC’ers, one that we dare not miss. There are many observable benefits of the CR. One of the most apparent is that there are 6 SBC Seminaries that affirm the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Scriptures.
I believe the CR has directly led to trends and current debates in Baptist life that some may view as curses and others as blessings. However, I see these trends and debates as the outworking of treating the Word of God as inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative. I would like to bring up three of these, though I believe there are others. The architects of the CR may or may not necessarily love all of these trends, but I believe these are directly linked to these leaders passing on a confidence that the Scriptures are sufficient! I believe we should be thankful for these current trends and debates when viewed through the lens of the debates we might be having had the CR never taken place.
Shared expenses and Southern Baptist State Conventions
In our previous post (SBC Loyalty?) we focused mainly on our generation, but this post speaks more to the generation before us. It would seem that there is a lack of transparency when it comes to allocating the CP dollars that ma and pa Southern Baptist are sacrificially giving, specifically in terms of shared expenses between the state conventions and the SBC. Since the inception of the CP, “the SBC recognized its obligation to compensate the state conventions for their partnership in promoting the entire Cooperative Program.” There are questions that need to be asked: (1) Are we being transparent about where CP money is going and (2) What are legitimate shared expenses?
The recent impulse has been to see state conventions move to a 50/50 split for CP funds. Our fear is that this category of “shared expenses” is being used to mask the fact that some state conventions are not moving towards more for the SBC and less for the state convention. This fear in many ways is being confirmed by the numbers. State conventions designated 9.2 million dollars as shared expenses in 2011, but that has risen 116% over the last two years to 19.9 million dollars being designated as shared expenses in 2013. Over the last two years we have seen an increase from only 4 state conventions that separated out shared expenses as a separate line item from the percent of funds kept in state to 17 state conventions. In many ways these budget categories of shared expenses make it look like conventions are moving closer to or have achieved a 50/50 split when it’s not actually happening.
Our grandfather was a deacon in a cooperating Southern Baptist Church. He was a blue collar worker who gave generously and sacrificially in cooperation with other likeminded churches so they could send more missionaries, plants more churches, and train more gospel ministers together than they could apart. This giving allowed the Foreign Mission Board (now IMB) to send missionaries to unreached and underserved peoples around the world. This giving allowed the Home Mission Board (now NAMB) to plant churches throughout the US, and this giving allowed for young men to get a great seminary education at a discounted price. All of this giving was to propagate the gospel locally, nationally, and internationally.
I was approached recently with the question of how one stays “Christian” in Seminary. Essentially, the issue centers on how one maintains a vibrant life as a developing disciple, maturing into the image of our King. One of the most difficult aspects of formal theological education is the tendency to view Christianity clinically. Like research students in a science lab, every verse, doctrine, practice, and person can become an object of cold observation. We can all see the dangers that come with this mentality, and it’s not far off from every seminarian, for as we know, knowledge puffs up. There is a tendency in us all to become arrogant and cold Gnostics (believing we have special knowledge that others need to get a piece of) as we learn deep truths about our God.
I am neither brilliant nor especially gifted, but I’m confident that the heart of my approach is thoroughly biblical. The key to staying “Christian” in seminary is found in the local church. The local church is God’s chosen vehicle by which disciples will be made of all nations, including maturing disciples in seminary. So, the key relationship for spiritual maturity and accountability during seminary is not the seminary, it is that ALL seminary students would be vital, accountable, and identifiable members of a local church.
I say this for 2 Reasons:
1) We all need Godly leaders who are accountable for our souls. Hebrews 13:17 comes to mind immediately. We all need godly Elders/Pastors who are giving an account for our souls (this is a mentality of pastoral leadership that must be primary, perhaps even more primary than preaching). For the most part, we recognize this need, but sin keeps us from embracing it. We all struggle with submission (even the word strikes fear) to leaders who can speak directly into our lives and if need be discipline us. But if we recognize that discipline is an act of love (any level of discipline, not just “excommunication” but discipline that takes place every day as we rebuke and encourage one another) that is intended to protect us from running head first into sin that will destroy us and as an act that will conform us to the image of His Son, then we welcome it. And if we are going to continue to grow and not see the Bible or our Christian life as a textbook or assignment we all need godly leaders that will one day stand before the throne and give an account for our growth in grace and truth.
2) We all need a place where we are accountable. We all need iron on iron relationships. Like the pointing out of the unknown piece of food on our face, CJ Mahaney so helpfully states, we need others to show us our blind, sinful patterns. We all have sin in our lives that needs to be addressed and it won’t be without someone pointing it out to us. If we are going to do this in seminary, we need a people with whom we are covenanted, who will encourage us with the evidences of grace they see in our lives and will rebuke us when they see sin. We need to be accountable to someone (both Elders and fellow brothers and sisters), and we must be identifiable. By identifiable, I mean we are a part of what is going on in the life of the church, not just a Sunday attender, for we only stay vibrant in our faith as we serve and exercise gifts in the local church. This doesn’t mean just preaching (almost all seminarians believe they have the gift of teaching). This means, as one professor recently shared with me, developing our “hands and knees” gifts. We should never think we are called to lead/teach in local church without also being those that can wash feet.
In addition, part of this accountability is that we all need a place where we are working out what we are learning in the classroom. Just as a doctor doesn’t go straight from books to surgery (nor would you want him to), a pastor doesn’t go from books to shepherding. He needs time to serve in a local context where the academic presses up against everyday life; where truth becomes flesh.
I really don’t think I have much to add to this conversation, and I don’t think anything I have said is earth shaking. I just know in my own life I experienced a significant time of rebellion, and that whole time of rebellion was a period where I was disconnected from the community of faith. I thought I could live the Christian life in isolation and I was wrong. We weren’t created that way. If we are going to be vibrant, maturing disciples during our seminary days, we will not let the seminary (and chapel) substitute for the local church. It would seem impossible that we could be growing as Christ’s disciples and at the same time be rejecting or minimizing the bride that He pursued and purchased.
[This article was written at the request of my friends at Desiring God, in connection with this series.]
I understand the impulse and reasoning behind David Mathis’ recent piece on open membership. Excluding gospel-believing brothers and sisters from church membership is a huge deal, so I am very sympathetic to what David says. Any division among brothers should break our hearts.
However, I do think some questions need to be raised in response to his article A Happy Baptist, Happy to Welcome Others: Strengthening Church Membership Without Watering Down Immersion
Mathis Quote: “Those of us on the council who are open to the open-membership concept find it to be significantly more grave to exclude a clear Christian brother or sister from church membership than to live with their errant view of baptism. This is based on a deep conviction that it is very serious to turn someone away from membership in the local church. “
Baptism is a clear command from Christ, not a first tier issue, but a second tier issue that points to a first tier issue (gospel and regeneration). Membership in the local church is more implied, though I fully embrace it (cf. Acts 2:47; 2 Cor. 2:6; Heb. 13:17). Why not choose to go with the commission over the implication?
It seems that there is a trend in evangelicalism to downplay the importance of baptism so as not to divide brothers and sisters, and at the same time to elevate other doctrines as dividers. For example, while I am a committed complimentarian, it is curious to me that some newer networks raise gender roles over baptism (Mathis is not making this case). Why? What are the justifications for downplaying one and elevating another? It appears somewhat arbitrary to say that a final command of Christ should not divide us but gender roles should.
Mathis says that they want membership in the local church to mirror “as closely as possible the size of the door to entrance into the universal body of Christ.” But, don’t many churches require things like a membership class, a covenant signing, or other processes for membership in the local church that aren’t required for entrance into the universal church? As one of my friends pointed out to me the other day, there is good reason for us requiring things to tighten the door to the local church. The universal church is shepherded by an all-knowing Chief Shepherd and the local church is shepherded by sinful, limited men.
Mathis Quote: “But don’t we have to draw the credo line somewhere? If we don’t fence the membership at the point of baptism, might the elders eventually include non-Baptists? Not if there are other good fences. Yes, the line should be drawn somewhere, but we’re convinced that, at least in our context, it should not be around the membership, but around the eldership. A further protection would be to include a more descript affirmation of faith (which includes believer baptism) for “voting members.”
Mathis says that the line must be drawn somewhere, so they draw it at voting and eldership. Why must the line be drawn somewhere? Why draw it here? This section seems to undo the impulse of the entire piece. In addition, Mathis writes, “We are as deeply persuaded as ever that infant baptism is illegitimate, misguided, and defective. Let that be clear.” If Mathis’ statement is true, and I believe it is, would you not also be including a person that you will need to immediately begin to enact church discipline on? This would seem particularly true if one of the clearest signs of being clearly converted is obedience and immersion of a believer is the legitimate mode.
In his conclusion he writes, “But especially in our increasingly post-Christian milieu, it is becoming more and more clear that there are so many other theological issues more central and important than the mode and timing of baptism.”
I appreciate Mathis’ heart and tone in this article. Indeed, we should ask very tough questions of ourselves before we ever divide from gospel-believing brothers and sisters. It would be helpful if Mathis would provide a criteria for what doctrines are worth drawing membership, eldership, or voting lines over and which are not (along the lines of Dr. Mohler’s theological triage).
Yet, one should also ask very tough questions before downplaying a clear command and commission of Jesus. Perhaps we are watering down immersion after all.
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