The Spiritual and the Structural Coincide: Some Thoughts on the GCR

“Our problems aren’t structural, they are spiritual.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have read or heard some variation of the above sentiment in the past eight or nine months. Sometimes it is voiced by stakeholders who are in the “structure,” people like state paper editors, seminary professors, and other denominational employees. It is perhaps understandable that these folks would want to divert attention away from whatever issues may or may not be present within our various denominational ministries. Of course other times the spiritual vs. structural dichotomy is put forth by Southern Baptists who have no vested interest in preserving the denominational status quo. No matter who is making this case, however, and regardless of what motives may or may not be guiding them, the argument entails a false dichotomy.

It is simply not true that our problems are either spiritual or structural. Make no mistake about it-both are issues. And it is foolish to think that we should only address one of these problems to the neglect of the other.

Some of our problems are indeed primarily spiritual in nature. Taking the gospel for granted and/or failing to clearly articulate it in our pulpits, programs, and personal evangelism is a spiritual problem. Lack of evangelistic zeal, wherever it is present and for whatever reason it is the case, is a spiritual problem. Church members not giving generously and churches hording their financial resources is a spiritual problem. Uncharitable interpersonal relations between brothers and sisters in Christ-and the sins that fuel this situation-is a spiritual problem. Pride, in all its forms, is a spiritual problem.

Other problems among us are primarily of a structural kind. Focusing the vast majority of our Cooperative Program dollars on the Deep South and the Southwest is a structural problem. State conventions in the heart of Southern Baptist country receiving over tens of millions of dollars back from the NAMB is a structural problem. The duplication of some ministry efforts, particularly church planting, is a structural problem. And, at the risk of being provocative, any bloated bureaucracies that may exist in any of our ministries at any layer of our polity is a structural problem.

Still other problems are a combination of the spiritual and the structural. For the sake of space, I’ll limit this to one example. Making the amount a church gives to a denominational budget the chief standard by which that church’s faithfulness is measured (in function, if not in theory) is both a spiritual and a structural problem.

Southern Baptists have lots of problems, both spiritual and structural. But here’s the important thing to remember, and it’s very relevant to the GCR: the Convention (and its Great Commission partners like state conventions and associations) can only fix structural problems. The SBC or the Mississippi Baptist Convention or the Long Run Baptist Association can call attention to spiritual problems-and they should. They can debate the best way to handle spiritual problems-and they should. They can pass resolutions that suggest ways to biblically rectify spiritual problems-and they should. But these entities cannot actually fix those problems. Even if a denominational meeting was invaded by the Holy Spirit and resulted in mass repentance, it would only directly affect those at that meeting. Our spiritual problems can only be fully addressed at the level of individual local churches, which are the only biblically mandated layer of our polity and the only one that matters in any ultimate sense.

What our denominational ministries can address is our structural problems. To be sure local churches have a crucial role in this as all of our denominational ministries represent the churches. But the influence of churches is through democratic processes; problems are actually fixed by the trustees, administrators, and employees of our denominational ministries, though certainly in accordance with the will of the churches. For example, a task force can make specific recommendations about some of our structural problems. Assuming the convention adopts those recommendations, individual denominational ministries will then work to align their work with those recommendations. A similar thing could happen in state conventions and even some larger associations with multiple staff. Before you know it, structural changes have been addressed.

The structural and the spiritual coincide. To argue otherwise is to perpetuate a false dichotomy. Structure to varying degrees reflects spiritual concerns, and at times spiritual issues are exacerbated by structural shortcomings. The SBC needs a renewal in both areas.

I’m committed to praying for authentic spiritual awakening among our people and our churches. I’m also committed to advocating and, Lord willing, eventually implementing structural changes that will aid an awakened people in embracing all the gospel-driven, Great Commission priorities God has for us. The GCR is studying the structural problems, and the churches will decide how to respond. Similar task forces or blue ribbon committees are at work in several state conventions. Let’s pray that the Spirit will move the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to address our spiritual problems. And let’s hope that addressing all of our problems will mean that our best years of gospel faithfulness and Great Commission fruitfulness are still to come.

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  1. Scotty Karber   •  

    Nathan I agree with you about this reality. However,I also think that the structural problems are spiritual problems if they remain problems because of the lack of willingness to change. In many churches and institutions I think this is a primary problem because it is related to a rejection of the authority of Christ. I don’t think it is generally meant as that, but conversation often shows that defending the structure is defending “me” and “mine.”

  2. Wesley Handy   •  

    Well said!

  3. Alan Cross   •  

    Great analysis, Nathan. I agree with what you have said here. Our great need is to see renewal at a local level and then have state and national entities that are responsive to what God is doing in the local church. I look forward to that day.

  4. Dave Miller   •  

    I appreciated that Ronnie Floyd called for repentance and spiritual renewal. I think we are kidding ourselves if we think all we have to do is make a few structural changes and all will be well. It is going to take both structural and spiritual changes to become what we should be.

  5. Brett Beasley   •  

    Brother Nathan,

    Very well stated. If God is showing Southern Baptists anything, it is surely that without Spiritual Awakening we press on in our sometimes dry, formal, structured religion. May we pray that through the structure we have in place, or the one God would lead us to have, God would move us to full dependance on the Holy Spirit, and not the structure itself. May our structure be driven by local churches with a passion for His glory and a heart for souls!

  6. Bill Nettles   •  

    Considering how some view structural and spiritual consider the quote that Baptist Press has from Ted Traylor: “At our next search committee meeting in March, we’ll start looking high and low for God’s man for NAMB,” Traylor said. “It’s a key time … with a new CEO coming in Nashville [at the Executive Committee], a new IMB president, a new NAMB president and a new president of the convention. If we can get the right four men lined up, we hope to catch a fresh wind of God.”

    WHAT!? This just strikes me as getting the structural cart before the spiritual horse. Maybe we should NOT depend on getting the right four men. Maybe Dr. Traylor would “clarify” (or spin?) what he meant, but sometimes preachers just say ridiculous things trying to sound spiritual.

    If our churches don’t regain an understanding of the Gospel (which is pretty well outlined in Romans 3 and I Peter 1), that it is by grace, from God, not by a prayer written by man, that it changes people but it takes time and discipleship, no amount of structural change will make a spiritual difference.

  7. Daniel   •  

    Nathan, excellent article. I think your argument could be extended in one minor way. As we make some, at times, painful decisions to address structural issues, this move may actually prove to be a catalyst in the churches for addressing spiritual issues. We have not ended up with the current structure overnight. We have, at times, valued local programs over reaching the nations. To the extent that making structural changes helps local churches reconsider the heart of God for the nations, I believe structural change can help to ignite spiritual change. The rationale for structural changes being proposed is not change for the sake of change, but it is undergirded by a desire to be maximally on mission with God. As churches see the theological/biblical reasons for addressing structure, they just might be encouraged to think/act more missionally in their local context. Just a thought.

  8. heath lloyd   •  

    Nathan: Thank you for a well-reasoned post. You are correct (as you usually are) in many ways. I just tend to think that the problems are more spiritual than structural. If our relationship with the Lord Jesus is out of whack, then will the structural changes ever really work?

  9. Bill Nettles   •  

    Clarification: “that it changes people but some changes often take time and discipleship”

  10. Marty Duren   •  

    So let it be written. So let it be done.

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  12. Alvin Reid   •  

    Great word, Nathan. It is hard to find a SPIRITUAL awakening in history that led to changes that failed to include STRUCTURE. Otherwise we may never have had the remarkable missionary enterprises birthed under Carey, Mills, etc; the YMCA; the Student Volunteer Movement; the Methodist Church (which has not always been a liberal movement); or for that matter, the current praise and worship music, most of which owes its rise to the Jesus Movement.
    Same is true for Scripture. Spiritual leads to structural change. Ignoring either hinders the impact on the other.

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